Jesus Calls Us to Die. Literally.

Not long ago, a friend of mine challenged me theologically on how the Christian church is to interpret the teachings and example of Jesus, particularly in terms of nonviolence.

Here is my response.

The text in question, primarily, is the Sermon on the Mount, spoken in 1st century Palestine to Jesus’s closest followers, plus an apparent crowd of Jewish folks from nearby villages may have been listening in. Looming large is the question of how Jesus’s teachings relate to Christians living in the 21st century, whether American-or not-and how to receive the radical challenge Jesus gives his Jewish-turned [over just a few years]-multinational audience.

Jesus begins his sweeping homiletic discourse with the Beatitudes [verses 2-12]. Essentially, Jesus insists that we are blessed or happy or in a really good spot when our present conditions are, seemingly, not so blessed.

Already, Jesus is painting a picture of a very different world

Next, salt and light [verses 13-16]: Jesus calls out a special community, a people set apart to flavor the world with a new way of existing [i.e. the Beatitudes!]. They are called also to be a model, an example, a “city on a hill,” a light set on its stand to brighten planet earth with new ways of coexisting, governed by a new law of love.

Interestingly, Jesus goes on to connect his teachings to the Jewish law that came into practice centuries earlier, the ancient code that set the people of Israel apart from the nations as a people who knew the one true God, Yahweh.

What is happening here? Is Jesus insisting all the details of the law must continue? Shall the new converts following Jesus continue wearing clothing consisting of just one fabric, or can they mix it up [Lev. 19:19]? Can they plant two kinds of seeds in their fields now? How about that bacon they have always wanted to try?

Without a doubt, Jesus is underscoring certain aspects of the law while reappropriating other portions of the ancient Jewish code, for as his earth-shaking sermon continues, he casts new light on six categories of human interaction. Each teaching assumes knowledge of the exterior guardrails of the law, the rule-keeping; but Jesus’s words get at the inner motivation contained in the human soul: 

  1. Anger
  2. Lust
  3. Marriage/Divorce
  4. Language
  5. Self-Defense/Retaliation
  6. Loving One’s Enemy

How can Jesus on one hand insist he’s fulfilling the law, and holding followers to do the same, while also re-working it?

I turned to one of my commentaries, searching for quality language and scholarship to help give meaning to how exactly this fulfillment/completion paradoxically radicalizes-and changes-Old Testament law:

It is inadequate to say either that none of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly reaffirmed in the New or that all of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly revoked in the New. Rather, all of the Old Testament remains normative and relevant for Jesus’ followers (2 Tim 3:16), but none of it can rightly be interpreted until one understands how it has been fulfilled in Christ. Every Old Testament text must be viewed in light of Jesus’ person and ministry and the changes introduced by the new covenant he inaugurated.*

I bolded that last section because it’s important. We don’t see many Christians holding tight to the ancient laws, and this is one of the theological reasons why. Jesus changed everything, so much so that we now observe all of Scripture using the new lens of His teachings and atoning work on a Roman cross.

It’s not that the law disappears; instead, it is seen in new light.

Possibly the strongest example of Jesus radicalizing the expectations of the law follows in 5:38-42. Here, He actually overrules the Torah! Referring to the lex talionis or “an eye for an eye” presented in Deuteronomy 19:15-21. Exodus chapters 21 and 22 codify self-protection norms; for example, a nighttime intruder can be killed, but if they break in during the day, the defender is guilty if they kill.

Not so for Jesus.

Here, he insists even self-defense is prohibited:


38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.** 

Emphasizing various cultural factors, a number of theologians have attempted to soften the theological force of this passage. And it makes sense why this happens: how could we possibly live like that?

It seemed appropriate to turn to a respected scholar for insight. No matter how we look at it, Richard B. Hays is pretty hard to keep off a top-5 list of theologians of our era. What might he have to say about the Sermon on the Mount? After a thorough defense of how the teachings of Jesus square not only with the Matthean witness but with the whole canon, he offers his perspective on the how the strange pacifist teachings found in the Matthew 5:38-42 work in reality:

“The posture of the community is not to be one of supine passivity, however. The actions positively prescribed here are parabolic gestures of renunciation and service. By doing more than what the oppressor requires, the disciples bear witness to another reality (the kingdom of God), a reality in which peacefulness, service, and generosity are valued above self-defense and personal rights. Thus, the prophetic nonresistance of the community may not only confound the enemy but also pose an opportunity for the enemy to be converted to the truth of God’s kingdom.”*** 

My last blog post was on my own convictions regarding gun violence, and it contained some political questions native to this important discourse. But I didn’t touch on examples that may help some of us rethink our assumptions. By assumptions, I mean the characteristic attitude that I have anecdotally found to be almost universal among a great percentage of Americans: “if someone comes into my house, they’d better be ready to deal with ME and MY GUN.” 

That attitude is as deeply felt as it is widespread. For so many Americans, it is part and parcel of our national framework for seeing all of life.

What might be another approach? Like, an actual example?

How about the 2006 West Nickel Mines Shooting? On an early October day 11 years ago, Charles Carl Roberts entered an Amish school and, after a hostage situation, shot 8 out of 10 female hostages aged 6-13 years old. He killed 6, including himself, and there were 5 non-fatal injuries.


It wasn’t long before the Amish responded. But it wasn’t with calls for justice; instead, the response was the embodiment of forgiving love. They decisively forgave the shooter, and took it upon themselves to visit his surviving family. They also set up a charitable fund for Marie Roberts, the shooter’s wife.


One Amish man held Roberts’ grieving father in his arms for nearly an hour, allowing him to simply let go of his tears and lean, literally, on someone who apparently cared. 

I also think of certain movements, revolutions in the history of the world that feature nonviolent actions. Imagine the work of Martin Luther King Jr. suddenly infused with violence and self-protection? Is not the power removed?

Yes, we know that there were small pockets of violence that erupted among protesters, but this was not characteristic of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. I must imagine that if it had been, America would not have made the same progress.

Going back a bit farther in history, it’s hard not to mention Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist who was imprisoned for his beliefs. After forging a simple knotted rope, he escaped from a window, then fled his captors over the surface of a frozen castle moat. He was thin from prison rations, but his heavier pursuer fell into the ice.


Gripped with compassion, Willems turned to pull the man out, and was able to save his life. Unfortunately, the man was less than grateful; Willems was imprisoned again, this time in a far more secure facility where the possibility of escape was nought.


He was then burned alive.

Such a radical act smacks greatly of the kind of enemy-love Jesus enjoins us to practice. If this isn’t “do not resist the one who is evil” I’m not sure what is.

Unfortunately, we too often attempt to soften the strong words of Jesus in his great Sermon. Instead of recognizing them for what they are and attempting, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to respond with our lives, we theologize about how the commands of Christ are impossible ideals [Reinhold Niebuhr].

We revert the Old Testament lex talionis eye-for-an-eye paradigm that Jesus modified. We talk about how we’re just looking out for our families, a noble cause indeed.

We as Christians have the hope of New Creation, of heaven being reunited with earth, of rejoicing forever with the family of believers; yet so many of us cling to our guns, our 2nd Amendment *rights*, and our middle-class worries about the safety of our families.

So many Christians are positionally convinced on a great many other ethical and soteriological questions, such as what constitutes a marriage, what salvation means precisely, what loving one’s neighbor means, creation care, and a host of other important questions.

We have verses to back it all up of course.

As an American, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who feel compelled to arm and defend themselves out of fear of attack. I am uncomfortable with passivity when it comes to the safety of one’s family. And I recently wrote about this, in some detail.

I write my position as an invitation and good-hearted challenge, not as the sole way of reading Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. There are many who see it differently.

I understand that we receive grace and how God’s forgiveness is boundless. At the same time, I am reminded that the same Jesus who insisted we turn our cheek; that we are not to resist an evil doer; that we are to give away our cloak and tunic; yes, that same Jesus [in the same Gospel account!] invites us to take up our cross and follow Him [Matthew 16:24].

He also says, in the next verse, that those who lose their lives for Him will find it. Much of the time, this is certainly metaphorical.

But what if it were literal? 

It was for Stephen, who was stoned to death for insisting Jesus was Lord [Acts 6].

It was for Philip, whose head was bound to a pillar before he was stoned to death.

It was for James, who was thrown down from a great height before being beaten to death with a club.

It was for Simon Cleophas, crucified under Roman emperor Trajan.

It was for Ignatius, torn apart by wild beasts at a Roman circus.


I want to spark new thoughts on this topic of nonviolence, not get into the weeds on American politics [though I do have some thoughts on that!]. My goal, really, is to encourage a new look at old words.

Friends, Jesus is calling us to great things. He’s calling us to rise with Him in baptism, to walk with Him in new life, to become-with the community of believers-a light on its stand.

And he’s calling us to die to our old self.

Or maybe, every once in a while and in a tragic story that makes no sense this side of eternity…

…to literally die. 









*Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, pp. 103–104). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

**The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 5:38–42). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

***Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to Christian Ethics [San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996], 326.

From My Cold Dead Hands: God / Guns / America.

I recently tweeted this:

Since my Twitter link to my Facebook page, the conversation continued there. Head to my page in the event that you’re curious, but suffice it to say a *conversation* ensued that has everything to do with what Jesus has to say about violence, self-defense, and killing in general.

Then, today at church we prayed for victims of gun violence:

We cry out to you [God], heal our land from the scourge of gun violence. In the coming days and weeks as our leaders debate solutions, Lord we ask that you grant us the voice to speak truth to power and demonstrate sacrificial compassion to the hurting.

That’s a good summary of the prayer I have mirrored in my soul as I write, so please forgive any sentiment you read that may come across the wrong way.

Now, some biblical background, since I’m a person of faith and since I call Jesus my Savior and my God.

Jesus / Swords

In our discussion, the point was made that Jesus tells his followers to purchase a sword in Luke 22:36. Here’s the ESV version of that verse:

36 He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.

Now we are reminded this is is Jesus talking. When it came up, I was reminded of the more intense moments Jesus has, namely his clearing out of the temple. There are couple Gospel passages that feature this event, so here’s one from John 2:13-22, which includes his use of some kind of whip:

In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Do we have the makings of a religious zealot?

Does Jesus actually belong to the radical Jewish group seeking to overthrow Rome through the use of force? Is he a sicarii, a dagger person, who wants to quietly knife centurions and government officials that cause so much taxation and injustice toward the Jewish people?

Reza Aslan thinks so. He makes his case in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth [New York: Random House, 2013]. He bases his case in large part on Luke 22:38, where the disciples apparently possess two swords, and Jesus responds by saying, in the ESV translation, “it is enough.”

Ok, two swords is enough? To overthrow an empire? To defend a group of Jewish men against a large armed force that would come to take Jesus?

I think not. 

You can disagree with me, but it seems two swords isn’t quite enough to take on the Jewish temple guards in addition to the Roman legions who really held the regional power.

Jesus confronts Peter just verses later, telling him to put away his sword. Here’s Luke 22:50-53 [ESV]:

…one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.

So why does Jesus say “it is enough” in Luke 22:38?

It’s a good thing we can study language, since this is all about how words are being used. In the Bible, the phrase Jesus uses is written in Koine Greek, as is the rest of the New Testament. It looks a bit like this:

Ἱκανόν ἐστιν

Literally, at face value, it means, “it is enough.”

Maybe you’ve said to your kids, or to your partner, or to a friend, “hey, that’s enough!” “That’s enough of that!”

“That’s enough!” is a far better rendering of Jesus’s words, for he clearly insists they put away their swords only a few verses later as the authorities close in to take him to his death. He even goes so far as to heal the gentleman affected by his disciple’s act of defense [the dude lops off an ear].

“That’s enough!” is precisely what the NIV and NLT translations contain, so I guess I’m not the only one who has come to this conclusion.

Various grammatical configurations of that same phrase, Ἱκανόν ἐστιν, can be found in the Septuagint, an early Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it most often means “that’s enough of that!”

Ok, but what about Jesus instructing his followers to purchase swords in Luke 22:36?

For starts, I thought I’d look into a commentary. This is from the New American Commentary, and the citation is at the end of this post:

And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. Even if the exact interpretation of this verse is uncertain, it is clear that a new situation is envisioned. The disciples would soon encounter greater opposition and even persecution (cf. Acts 8:1–3; 9:1–2; 12:1–5). The reference to the purchase of a sword is strange. Attempts to interpret this literally as a Zealot-like call to arms, however, are misguided and come to grief over the saying’s very “strangeness.” Understood as a call to arms, this saying not only does not fit Jesus’ other teachings but radically conflicts with them. Also if two swords are “enough” (22:38), war with the legions of Rome was certainly not envisioned. See 20:20–26, “Context.” The “sword” is best understood in some metaphorical sense as indicating being spiritually armed and prepared for battle against the spiritual foes. The desperate need to be “armed” for these future events is evident by the command to sell one’s mantle, for this garment was essential to keep warm at night (see comments on 6:29).*

This author, with his biblical scholarship background, renders the idea of “buying a sword” as a metaphorical preparedness for future suffering and spiritual conflict. Early church history reveals a great deal of death among early Christians; volumes have been written on the subject, and the blood of martyrs has indeed been a source of faith for many.

Other readers, such as my friend and former teacher, Peter Simmonds, take this passage as literal. He thinks Jesus is simply telling his followers to buy swords and defend themselves out on the road. That’s certainly possible.

So, I thought I’d check another commentary, an older tome translated from its original German. The original publishing date was 1872. Here’s the English translation of the commentary on verse 36:

Vs. 36. Therefore He said.—Οῦ̓ν subjoins the opposite of their acknowledgment, that at that time they did not lack the least thing. He that hath a purse, let him take it, ἀράτω: Let him not leave it at home, but take it with him on the journey, in order by so careful a preparation to assure himself against any possibility of a lack. Even so let him who possesses a wallet, hasten to avail himself of it. And he that hath not, neither purse nor wallet, let him sell his garment, which he otherwise would at last expose to robbery, and buy—not a purse or a wallet, but what is now more indispensable than clothing and food—a sword. Self-defence is now not only an urgent necessity, but the first necessity of all. This last word we have to understand, not in an allegorical, but in a parabolical sense. If one understands (Olshausen) the spiritual sword (Eph. 6:17), he is then also obliged to give to the garment, the wallet, and the shoes a spiritual signification. Our Lord will simply, in a concrete pictorial form, represent to His disciples the right and the duty of necessary defence, in order that they may, by the very opposition to the former command (vs. 35), finally come to the consciousness that an entirely peculiar danger shall break in upon them.**

Oosterzee insists we read Jesus’s command in a parabolic sense. He likens the sword to the spiritual sword referenced in Ephesians 6:17, a passage that uses military language to refer to our spiritual defense against the power of spiritual forces within a dark world.

If I were to go back even further, to early church manuscripts on the subject, they would reveal similar things. To be sure, one could probably dig up scholars who have come to a different conclusion on the topic, but the point stands Jesus is concerned here about spiritual self-defense, not about promoting sword ownership in the 1st century or gun ownership in the 21st century.

It’s noteworthy that Jesus’s disciples were almost all killed for their allegiance to Him.

Indeed, every time we read Scripture, we take it into context; a text without a context is a pretext! In this context, I agree with the commentary in reading the command to purchase swords as metaphorical, for Jesus commands his disciples to put away their swords so immediately. Jesus so radically condemns violence elsewhere in the Gospels that this command to buy swords sticks out like a sore thumb. When taken literally, doesn’t square theologically with Jesus’s central teachings.

One more thought on that matter. Most American Christians would not read Jesus’s strong moral injunctions as literal. For example, the whole bit about a camel going through the eye of a needle and how that’s about how challenging it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God [Mt. 19:24/Mk. 10:25/Lk. 18:25]. That subject hits a bit close to home, so we tidy it up as metaphorical. Point made?

Even a cursory glance through the Sermon on the Mount forces one to reconsider how we are to approach violence and even self-defense. Don’t murder, and don’t even call someone a fool! Forget an eye for an eye; turn your cheek! Love your enemy and pray for those who seek to harm you!

If Jesus’s encouragement to buy swords in Luke 22:36 is to be taken literally, it’s a theologically frail case, and it doesn’t hold water when taken alongside the rest of Jesus’s words-or with early church history. There have been volumes written on Christian non-violence, and this post only alludes briefly to some of the highlights. There exists a lively debate on the subject, of course, and I would enjoin you to be a part of it.

But I do join a host of others who are on similar biblical and theological footing, so if you want to read more, here is a great list to get started.

Now, about the land of the free.

Our American Context / Politics / 2nd Amendment

All of that said, I am a 21st century American. It’s no longer a sword debate; it’s a gun debate. Now let me put my cards on the table. I’m a white guy from the American Midwest-Northwest Michigan in particular; I grew up reading the NRA magazine which featured [I’m guessing it still features this, though I no longer read the magazine] personal stories of how guns helped people defend themselves in their homes and businesses; I also went to a primarily white, evangelical church, which contained plenty of NRA supporters as well as many who held to an opposing viewpoint on guns.

I even owned a gun for about a decade, a Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun.

I grew up hunting with my dad, and given the chance, I’d hunt tonight [opening day in Michigan for rifles was four days ago!]. I wholeheartedly support gun hunting, and I especially appreciate how hunting is local, and how the meat is organic, grass-fed-and typically really cheap when you put together all the factors.

I digress.

My Personal Journey

Anyway, hunting aside, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty that everyone loves to philosophize about: that hypothetical moment your house is suddenly invaded by a hostile enemy seeking to kill you and do terrible things to your kids and wife.

It’s a very unusual scenario for most NRA members and law-abiding gun owners, but it’s an important ethical question nonetheless. As I reflect on this question, I consider my own experiences, which can be excellent teachers.

The first of which comes from sometime in my college years, when I learned in-person that one of my uncles had received his concealed-carry license, which allowed him to carry a small weapon in most public places. I remember asking him, “would you really shoot someone if they broke into your house?”

He replied, “yes Ben, I’d shoot them, and I’d shoot to kill. I have it from good sources that it’s a legally bad idea to simply maim someone; they could sue the shirt off your back. I’d shoot to kill and not ask questions.”

I was taken aback. I cannot imagine the moral weight of killing someone, especially with no questions asked. I’m sure there is another home-defense ethic that departs from my uncle’s view, but hey, a lot of people agree with him.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m living in sub/urban Grand Rapids. It was urban yet suburban, you see? Anyway, I walk home from work one day and there’s caution tape across my sidewalk. I asked the cops if I could return to my house, and they let me through. I soon discovered, through my roommate, that he had heard gunshots just minutes prior.

The story was ghastly.

My next-door neighbor, Gary, and his estranged adult son became involved in a dispute. Four shots later, he killed him in his own living room.


The gravity of the act set in for me a couple weeks later when I noticed Gary moving new couches in. Maybe it was coincidence and Gary needed new couches, but it certainly seemed as if they had been soaked in his own son’s blood. Did Gary have to kill his son? Was there another option? Maybe so, maybe not. I don’t think I’ll ever know the answer.

Fast forward again. I’m married now, living in true urban Grand Rapids. One night we notice some things out of place, and Kaile is freaking out about whether someone had come into our house. We locked the doors, called the police, and nothing came of it.

That is, until a few weeks later. As we returned from church, I saw my young neighbor climbing down a ladder. He was in a real hurry, and I confronted him. “Hey, where are you going with that?” “Oh, the other neighbor said they needed the ladder!” I didn’t buy it, so I asked a few more questions and promptly went inside to call the police.

Sure enough, our home had been entered, at least once and probably several times. And it was almost certainly the same group of kids both times.

A few months later, I finally decided since my hunting career appeared to be going nowhere and my convictions about shooting someone-even in self defense-had slowly changed, I decided I’d sell my gun [responsibly]. I simply cannot read Christian Scripture and square the act of shooting someone, even in one’s home, even in self-defense.

That’s just me, mind you.

Now, let’s reverse to when I was finishing up 8th grade. There’s an NRA catchphrase and bumpersticker that originates in the mid-seventies:

“I Will Give Up My Gun When They Peel My Cold Dead Fingers From Around It.”

Charlton Heston later re-popularized it during a pro-gun speech in May 2000 [8th grade for me]:

“So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!‘” 


Unsurprisingly, it showed up on the NRA I read in my home not long after the speech.

There’s a real connection in our country to the 2nd Amendment, and not without some compelling arguments. It’s treated almost as a sacred text in some circles. Among the primary examples is this: if fair gun control laws are extended, criminals won’t obey anyway!

Well if that’s our logic, let’s not have speed limits either, since criminals [and many of us!] routinely disobey those too!

I grew up around a community that embraced this cold-dead-hands attitude. And though I challenge aspects of this mentality, I have respect for those who done the ethical work and searched their conscience to conclude that they would indeed use a gun, in an extreme circumstance. Though I disagree and have lots of reasons for my own beliefs, I respect their conclusions.

They have the right, after all.

Gun Control / Research / My Conclusion

That said, I posit the politics related to taking a closer look at how guns are sold and the 2nd Amendment is carried out [remember, its’ phrasing begins with “A well regulated militia…”!] is a different thing entirely.

There is research that correlates the total number of firearms with total deaths. Go do the search, please don’t take my word for it; but it’s real. Where there are more guns, there are more deaths. I recently got some pushback for making this observation, and the line of thinking was this:

“That is undeniable, but it is little different than saying there is a correlation of drowning in countries with higher proportions of pools, lakes or ponds. I think it’s a red herring. …The real question would be: is there a correlation between the total number of guns in a city/state/country and the violent crime rate? Or the total suicide rate? If guns kill people, it should follow that there would be more killing where there are guns, and less killing where there aren’t guns. Similarly, there should be less violent crime where there are less guns. I posit that talk about gun deaths and gun suicides doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we’ve been told to believe.”

These are some great points. To take it piecemeal, at least we are in agreement about the essential facts of the matter. More guns=more gun deaths. But is there higher homicide? Well.. yes, there is, at least according to a study conducted between 1980 and 2010. Read it for yourself.

There’s more pushback, to be sure. There are plenty of stories, as I mentioned earlier, about responsible citizens defending their homes and businesses. It is true that guns can be used responsibly, and this does happen regularly. But that does not outweigh the deaths. This gets interesting, because it is politically charged, and there are agendas at stake. Here’s an article to get some conversation going.

But that’s, you know, “liberal media.” 

Let’s try putting on our thinking caps and seeing this from another angle. Let’s say, hypothetically, we all get our concealed permit licenses and .38s or 9mms or .45s. Pick your style, revolver or modern semi-auto, whatever floats your boat. Would crime decrease? Or would criminals simply arms themselves more heavily and plan a bit better? Would communities come together and begin to trust one another more? Or would society begin to splinter more, even, than what we see presently?

According to the research to which I have alluded, this hypothetical society with at least one sidearm per person would actually have more crime than our current setup. And I dare to say there would be a lot less trust of one’s neighbor.

And I’ll add this: do we really want to live like that? Do we want do distrust our neighbor with such vehemence that we all carry weapons? I get that there are particular situations where this kind of distrust follows logically. Some of us live in unsafe areas. However, of the many responsible gun-owners I know, every single one lives in a safe area. This whole vigilante-justice/defend-my-family scenario rarely happens.

I’ll take that a step further. I often hear suicide-related conversations going this way: “if someone wants to kill themselves, they’ll find away; even if they don’t have access to a gun, they’ll use pills or jump off a bridge.” Yeah, there is some truth to that; the human will is a powerful force indeed. Guns make it easier, but if the will is there, it’s insuppressible.

But let’s use that same they’ll-find-a-way logic in the case of someone like Adam Lanza, the perpetrator at the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. He killed his mom, then proceeded to use her gun, a Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, to kill 20 kids between 6 and 7 years old, plus 6 adults, not including his mother.

Hopefully that point is sinking in: the people-kill-people/they’ll-find-a-way-if-they-want-to logic works both ways. Adam wanted to kill, so he found guns to do it. If we ignore the link between the total number of guns and the total number of deaths, we miss an important point: access to guns makes a difference, even if we’re the good guys. For those of us with kids, the Sandy Hook shooting was terrifying. I didn’t have kids at the time, but I do now, and I cannot imagine the horror involved.

All of this said, I continue to respect the gun owner who keeps their arsenal under lock and key, and who is careful about gun-related security. And as I have also said, I do agree that guns can be a perfectly useful tool. Some part ways with me on this point, but while I don’t particularly enjoy the phrasing of the Second Amendment as a “right,” I have no problem with responsible gun ownership.

It’s just a bit jarring when so much of our world has no access to food or water and we Americans are quibbling about owning guns as a “right.” So many have not the “right” to even drink water while we insist on the “right” to have guns. Maybe we could think of it more like a privilege.

And I do question the necessity of such powerful guns as were possessed by Adam Lanza’s mom. Semi-automatic assault rifles? Is that a real need for the typical hunter? Well, no, it’s not. And I understand they will not be peeled from anyone’s cold, dead hands anytime soon. Shooting guns can be can be lots of fun, I have enjoyed trap shooting and target practice as much as the next person. But that does not mean they are not a liability.

Consider the story of a friend I went to high school with years ago.

He is a veteran, gun enthusiast, and fierce supporter of the 2nd Amendment. That said, his service in the military has for him, as for many, come at a cost. He wrote courageously in a social media thread about his responsible use of firearms during dark seasons in his life:

“…I will say this, personally the times when I’ve felt on edge, when I’ve felt the severe urge to end myself, I’ve given my firearms to a friend until I get back to a better place. And that just goes with good training and knowing oneself. Did getting rid of my firearms for a couple nights make the problem go away? Fuck no. Because I knew there were any number of ways I could still take my life.”

I really appreciate the honesty. And I’ve expressed my sincere gratitude for the sacrifices of veterans in this very blog; my concerns are not about that.

Yet, though I am thankful my friend gave his guns to a friend during a trying time, I fear there are many who share not the same restraint. For example, Devin Kelley, the shooter in the Sutherland Springs church massacre who took the lives of 26 people ranging in age from a mother and her unborn child, a toddler, teens, adults, and elderly.

Yes, many of us know that a gentlemen shot at and wounded Kelley then pursued him on the freeway before he crashed his SUV a few miles later. Yes, maybe if people in the congregation were carrying, they could have stopped him.

So let’s all beat our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears and kill that next attacker..? That is the response of so many, and I see why. There is a potential to save some. But my concern is that what we may gain hypothetically will be lost in reality. 

Despite our concealed carry laws and the staggering 310 million guns owned in our country, not a single mass shooting in the past 33 years has been stopped by a responsible gun owner. Not even Sutherland Springs-they were close, but still too late.

Continuing the vigilante/defend-my-family conversation, here’s something I recently saw on Twitter:

Now this, at least in my experience, is the typical mentality that so often goes into a typical philosophy of self-defense. Rarely is it, “oh goodness, I hope never to have to make the decision to kill, even if it’s in self-preservation.” So often it’s what you see here. So often the American philosophy is, “oh, just wait until I get my chance to show ’em who’s boss.” 

Just like driving a car [especially a powerful one] gives us a sense of control and aggression [consider our problem with road rage], carrying a gun also gives us a feeling of power. And according to a 2014 FBI study, it also makes one 8 times more likely to be shot and killed in an argument than be killed trying to stop a crime.

I guess real life isn’t quite like the movies.

Even Christians have this smug I’ll-stop-the-bad-guy mentality, and as you read above, even pastors. “They better know God because they would be meeting Him that day.” Thanks for capitalizing Him, pastor, that’s grammatically respectful of God. But what’s with the egotistical attitude?

Would that it were not so common.

And I’m not saying he is outside his rights whatsoever. As I said, I respect those who have come to the conclusion that they would, under extreme circumstances, shoot to defend themselves. But I am saying this kind of smug self-confidence fueled by a firearm has absolutely no place among the people of God. 

My hope for the average non-Christian American is to consider the research and go about the conversation thoughtfully. So many are already doing this. My hope for my fellow Christians is to do the same, but to go further by considering the example of our teacher, mentor, and Savior, Jesus, who laid down his life for ours. Keep your guns, if that’s your honest conclusion, but please put away the smug attitudes and remember the false sense of power guns can grant their owner.

Picture Jesus carrying a Smith and Wesson .45 and you have to admit it’s a strange image.   I admit that I wonder what the world might be like if we were as devoted to Jesus’s teachings in the same way we’re devoted to 18th century constitutional literature.

Now let’s go back to personal experience. Maybe you’re reading this thinking, “wow, this guy doesn’t even care about his family, he wouldn’t defend them.” That would be a logical thing to wonder. Well it’s not something I have glossed over. True, I have done pretty well over the years. We have only been broken into twice, and it was just kids. I was pushed off my bike a while back, but verbal deescalation did the trick. But I guess I honestly haven’t been in a life-threatening situation.

I’ll gladly answer the age-old hypothetical question by telling you the conclusion I’ve come to based on my convictions and life experience. I’d first do my best to help my family escape a life-threatening situation. I’d try to deescalate verbally. I’d phone law enforcement if possible. I do not keep much cash around or valuables. I’m no Schwarzenegger, but I can grapple and I am trained to physically restrain another person, and in the unlikely event of an attack I have no problem using the physical agency I have been given.

Though all of this is helpful, it wouldn’t help me if I was cornered with my family in my apartment without a phone. If that were to be how I would meet my end, I guess I’d pray in my soul while shielding my wife and our two toddler boys, and do my best to absorb the bullets with my physical body.

And if I didn’t make it, emergency services would have to peel my family members, alive or otherwise, from my cold, dead hands. 





*Stein, R. H. (1992). Luke (Vol. 24, p. 555). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

**Lange, J. P., & van Oosterzee, J. J. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Luke. (P. Schaff & C. C. Starbuck, Trans.) (pp. 342–343). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

The World Is Upside Down.

Internally, everyone wants things to be a certain way. Whether in the world, in one’s community, or in one’s own life or even one’s soul, we all have a sense of how life is fundamentally supposed to be like.

As a kid, I remember so vividly the pain my mom experienced after her mom died of cancer. It crept up on her so quickly, and seemingly without any warning. She would be grading papers [she taught Spanish, English, and French] and suddenly she’d be in tears after some small trigger memory of Virginia Kester.

Even when I was little I knew death was a terrible thing. Things weren’t the way they are supposed to be then-and decades later, it’s no different.

And I think we all relate to this in some way or another.

We desire peace when things feel chaotic or violent; we long for harmony in relationships when connections with others feel fragmented; we search for health and well-being when we or a loved one is sick.

There is something within every single human being that desires something different and better. We can tamp that feeling down, suppress it with various means, we can distract ourselves; but when we look into our souls, we desire something different and better. 

Jesus taps into this feeling in his famous Sermon on the Mount. And this world-shaking sermon [I don’t think that’s an overstatement in the least] begins with an sermonic upending of the systems and powers that seem to govern our world.

The term *blessed* means something along the lines of God-favored, happy, and at peace. Jesus is telling us that either right now or in the coming age, we are blessed when these things happen [or we act in these ways].

Take a look [remember, it’s Jesus talking!] ::

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

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

5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


Now if this isn’t the exact opposite of what’s normal, I’m not sure what is. Jesus’s way of seeing things is akin to turning every single cultural value precisely on its head. As an obvious example: when is it blessed to mourn? Or, out of the average 100 people, how many do you think are truly pure in heart [as I write this, I’m doubting whether I would fit the category!]?

A few years back, I saw a map like the one below and thought to myself, gosh, that would be so strange to flip north and south. Then I awkwardly realized that flipping north and south also flips east and west. California would be the east coast, and Maine would be super far west! And Canada looks a bit like Africa with lots of water and ice gaps.

Just as my perception of the world was radically jarred by seeing from a different vantage point, I recently thought through how Jesus’s words stand so starkly against the way we typically see things in American culture. Here’s my annotated version of the sermon on the mount from my American cultural vantage point [and remember, I live and work in Silicon Valley!] ::

Blessed are the rich in spirit since they’ve obviously got real motivation to press forward with their fitness, career, relationships, and… everything else. #goals

4 Blessed are those who don’t need mourn, because the gods have obviously smiled upon those people so much that they don’t experience any real setbacks in life. #brightside

5 Blessed are the driven, for they will inherit the earth [or at least a good position in the company with some sweet benefits and stock options]. #getitdone 

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for being outwardly seen as a good person, for they will be honored among their peers and in magazines-and probably seen as wonderful, philanthropic people. #humanitarian 

7 Blessed are those who know when and when not to show mercy, for they will be seen as kind and giving people. #love

8 Blessed are those with a pure criminal record, for God will see that and be totally impressed. He’s not worried about the affair that stayed quiet after decades. #sopure

9 Blessed are the peace-desirers, for they stir the pot on Twitter and have just the right thing to say about every news headline; and their sayings make people talk more about justice. #dumptrump

10 Blessed are those who are not persecuted because of anything, for they’re obviously toeing the line and getting along with everyone pretty well. #getalong

11 Blessed are you when people don’t insult you, persecute you, or falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of the things that you stand for. #staycool 

12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward on earth, for in the same way the empire prospered in ages past, it prospers now when you follow these key tenets for successful living. #motivation

Not sure if these alternative beatitudes are much of an exaggeration, honestly. If I look in my own soul, I oscillate between terror and frustration when I see my own inclination to my list of *revised* beatitudes. There are some that strike closer to home than others [like verse 10!].

Anyway, I think there’s something within each of us that longs for Jesus’s version to be true, whether or not we even care at all about the guy. We want purity of heart, I think. If God personally offered to offer any one of us the gift of a pure heart, would we not accept it? 

And wouldn’t we all love to inhabit a world where meek people were honored and given a special place? I’ll bet we’d all appreciate working for a meek boss.

That bit about hungering after righteousness, too, makes me imagine what the world would look like if everyone actually lived out lives of deep integrity. Marriages would flourish! Political and business corruption would disappear! Prisons would empty! Racism would be quelled, and marginalized people would be honored.

Imagine if we so elevated peace as a virtue that we finally decided national interest are less important than human lives. Our wars would cease, and bullying would end.

If we imagine deep within our God-breathed consciousness, we can relate to desiring to see God’s kingdom being made real and tangible in our world. We can picture the end results of living as Jesus is inviting us to live: how things are supposed to be.

But, for some reason, it’s so hard to create the kind of seemingly upside-down world that looks like what Jesus is identifying. Thankfully, we also learn in Scripture that God is ultimately making all things new, that heaven and earth will eventually be made one, that the church is the bride of Christ and is set apart to play a key role in bringing about this upside-down kingdom.

We who are Christians believe insist that God is offering to impart the teachings of Jesus to us, through the power of the Holy Spirit. We actually think God’s kingdom is made visible through such spiritual transformation.

Have you met someone who sees God deeply present in their life even as they experienced a divorce, powerful addiction, or disease?

I’m telling you, this stuff is real.

If we don’t even believe this stuff, we still relate to the desire for Jesus’s way of seeing things to be the status quo. We all have the commonality of imagining how things are supposed to be.

And what if this isn’t all just some strange religious fantasy? What if the beatitudes actually became the norm through the power of God working to make all things new? What if we all just lived as if his teachings were true?

What if the map we’re all reading is upside down?


God is Within You.

When I was maybe ten, I learned how my body was [and is, I suppose] a temple for the Holy Spirit [1 Corinthians 6:19]. At some point in my early years I was taught that this is one of the reasons not to smoke cigarettes. How that arose as a priority I am not sure, but I guess I could see how the logic works: introducing carcinogens and tar into sensitive human lungs is really bad for us, and since we’re temples for God it’s not a good idea to pollute our physical bodies.

Great point. But I’m not sure if anti-smoking is what the passionate Saint Paul was after. I think there is more to the story!

What’s Paul trying to get at with this whole idea of bodies as temples?

I’m going to take a crack at it. So, at Easter we listen in to a story about a Jesus who dies, then comes back. If you’re part of a liturgical church, you may have followed the church year, journeying with Jesus through his birth, life, ministry, death, then finally-at Easter-resurrection from death.

Well, great!

But aren’t we left with the question of why Jesus ditched us? I mean, wouldn’t it be so nice if we could just go ahead and meet up with Jesus sometime? Might that be an encouragement for those of who sometimes wonder if this great, sweeping Christian narrative might be make-believe?

I thought about this at Easter. Why did Jesus do things this way? Apparently he and God the Father were working together on the whole plan, so couldn’t they have done something to assist with our nagging doubts?

Evidently Jesus trusted the folks who had taken him seriously during his several years of ministry in Galilee and Judea. Clearly he put his faith in a small group of wavering followers [think Thomas] who had to actually confirm that he was, in fact, alive after the gruesome crucifixion.

Those doubting, bumbling, distracted followers went on communicate the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. Two millennia later, this message has lasted, and though it has been twisted in nearly every way imaginable, we can still discover a rich, vibrant, faith in the lives of so many individuals across the planet.

Here’s the account we learn of within Scripture regarding why Jesus left. First, at an ultra rational perspective, Jesus would run into trouble at some point connecting with the many people who would love to meet him. Over 2 billion followers of Jesus inhabit planet earth, and that’s a lot of pastoral work for one guy, even if he’s the son of God.

Rationality aside, Jesus tells us he’s going to send the “comforter,” the Holy Spirit [cf. John 14:16]. I suppose he understands our doubts and wants to let us in on why it is that he leaves after doing such amazing things on earth.

Soon, Jesus leaves. Luke’s Gospel does a sufficient job at explaining how this happens, but it’s startling how brief the details turn out to be: Raising his hands he blessed them, and while blessing them, took his leave, being carried up to heaven [Luke 24:51].

That’s it. Bye, Jesus!

Enjoy the view!

Say hi to God for us!

And he’s gone. Finally-and apparently at the right moment-the Spirit arrives in force [Acts 2:1-13]. Who knows how long the disciples were hanging around waiting for the Spirit to show up? They were worshiping God in the temple [Luke 24:52], so they were certainly convinced that he was legit, but they were still waiting.

Thankfully, the Spirit showed.

Now consider our own context. We’re caught within the matrices of contemporary life, stuck with tax forms, school obligations, vocational discernment, and the host of questions that center on how to be the person we are supposed to be, whatever that means.

Looking deeper, it seems most of us have a sense of how things are supposed to be. Yes, sometimes we see things a little differently than others, but we’d all agree it’s wrong that folks are killing one another; that famines ravage countries and children go hungry; that bullies run not only playgrounds but businesses, militias, and countries.

We all have a sense that things are not quite right, and we all long to be part of changing this.

Some of us are tired of religion, burned out on church, annoyed at fellow church-goers and overwhelmed by the unanswered questions within the life of faith.

And yet, the feelings of desiring a better world persist, so we move to our various ways of accomplishing this. Or, we never had faith in the first place, no religious convictions or faith tradition imparted to us from our family or our community. Yet, we still have a vision for what life is meant to look like. We still have a conscience. We still have this God-given breath, our hopes, our very existence.

We still have humor.

A while back I was at our local park for a few moments with our two tiny boys, Maelin and Silas, and my wife, Kaile. I found a lonely, empty Easter egg and gave it to Silas so he could play with it. Soon, I found a few more eggs. I was stoked-someone didn’t find these eggs. And they were everywhere.

What could be better? Eggs! And all for us!

After a few brief minutes of egg-collecting joy, I realized the eggs were coming from a young couple just around the corner from where we were. A young woman with a large egg basket saw me at immediately took mercy on me for my egg theft. I replaced the eggs I had gathered as rapidly as I could, feeling as ridiculous as ever for failing to realize they had just been hidden.

“I was about to steal all your eggs!” I confessed to the couple, who were still laughing at my mistake.

All of this reminds me that when we learn that we are temples of the Holy Spirit, it has some vast implications:

Can we be temples of God without acknowledging it? 

If we say we don’t believe God, are we still a living account of the God we have disowned? By breathing and existing and living, does not our very existence testify to the beauty of God? 

Could every second of every life throughout all of history become a witness to God, once we see it the right way? 

For Christians, can we listen in to how God has already been at work within us? How do we do that? 

My identity as a Christian-a person who seeks to follow the way of Jesus-consists, at least in part, of a new way of seeing everything. It’s shedding the many corrupting ideas and habits that have entered into my daily life over these thirty years. It’s losing the life I thought I wanted and taking up a new and better way of being the same me. I become more fully human and more alive as I grow slowly into the stature of the biblical picture of new humanity: Jesus.


“People of Color” as a Phrase :: Helpful or Not?

I first mulled over the phrase, “people of color” in 2005 when I was beginning undergraduate college.

This phrase is a current politically correct attempt at succinctly encapsulating the breadth of non-white groups. While some whites have come to find the term problematic because it appears to tacitly suggest whites do not have culture or skin tone [wait-I have a color too!], I do not think this is much of an issue.

The issue is deeper; it’s about the complexity of human culture. I have pulled together five reasons we can find new ways to speak more articulately and-dare I say-freely on these complexities. 

My goal is not to erase the phrase, but to give some nuanced thought on the subject and offer some alternatives that may be helpful. Oh-and it should be noted that I speak from the American context, and this will be evident throughout.

thanks, Shutterstock [art cred]
1. People of color encapsulates far too many unique human experiences to be a useful phrase. 

Not long ago I attended a conference, and during one of the breakout sessions a woman I know stood up at a conference and begin saying something with the disclaimer, “as a woman of color, I notice that…” She went on to make a great observation on something or other. Now, a word about the woman and her various intersectionalities. She is married, very educated, and quite stable in every external category. And yet, with the phrase people of color, she categorically rolls herself in with African Americans and Latinos.

Did I mention she’s Chinese?

I cannot speak with too much precision on how someone from a background that is significantly more disadvantaged than this particular woman might respond. But it is categorically odd to roll together people groups as diverse as Chinese, Latino, and African American.

In no way was the woman politically incorrect to speak as she did. And I am quite sure she has experienced various forms of exclusion and marginalization, both as a woman and as someone of Chinese descent. But I question how helpful it is to continue using this phrase that is currently in vogue-and so terribly convenient [like on Twitter, where POC is the abbreviation]. People of color is a current attempt to remain politically correct as a society, and respectful of people groups. I grasp the overarching goal, but if deep unity is our agreed [albeit challenging] goal, I am convinced we need something different.

People of color is marginally helpful in its attempt at drawing together people who are marginalized. The goal of being honest about marginalization is excellent! However, I conclude there are better ways to achieve that goal. Assessing intersectionality along with one’s felt position within culture are the more precise and helpful tools for assessing marginalization.

How does a white muslim’s experience the world? Where does a wealthy self-made Korean woman experience exclusion? How does an poorly educated white man from a poor family experience life in 2017? These questions take us on a journey that moves us closer to the root of why and how we feel separated from one another, for they integrate factors that include yet go deeper than one’s phenotype.

Race, class, and gender are the classic sociological lenses, but there are so many more.

2. People of color sounds eerily similar of its etymological predecessor: colored people.

It is incredibly disrespectful to refer to someone as “colored.” We have, as a society, rightly judged this language to be not only arcane but offensive. But our replacement term is, in my view, a stopgap measure on the journey toward greater progress. 

One big pushback to questioning the term is how embedded it is within our language and within culture. Yes, the phrase is popular. It’s quite useful a lot of the time. But that does not mean it’s the best or most uniting phrase for speaking on race.

Interestingly, institutions like the NAACP have preserved the phrase in their title, certainly not because they embrace an attitude of exclusion [this is what they fight against!] but simply because the en-double-a-cee-pee has a familiarity within the American consciousness.

I am not the first to notice the strangeness of the progression from colored people to minorities to people of color. Other observers have seen the same pattern and support people of color as a helpful phrase. And while some seem to resonate deeply with my viewpoint, others are ambivalent. The biggest pushback tends to come not from whites who find the term easy or helpful, but from blacks and Latinos.

And I suppose that’s why I’ve taken time to reflect on the subject and make my case from the white cultural standpoint.

3. People of color places an unnecessary dividing wall between whites and non-whites while propagating a subtle myth of whiteness as superior.

This is where my white perspective and experience speaks directly into the narrative. To insist on using people of color essentially draws a massive line down the center of human relationships, and separates anyone who appears to have primarily European ancestry from every other ethnic group.

I have observed the phrase people of color essentially split a room of people. I have felt it myself! It falsely rolls together disparate ethnic groups and separates them from the general amalgam of white folks. While making white people into one large, monolithic entity, it forces together various ethnicities with essentially no commonalities apart from non-whiteness.

This leads to a subtle Euro-centrism that has unfortunately permeated everything from international politics to colorism, especially within communities of African descent [essentially, the lighter the better]. If white features are seen as preferable, our system is flawed-and people suffer on account of it.

And this leads to the next point.

4. Just like any other ethnic group, not all whites share a similar cultural experience. 

People of color could theoretically be helpful in a context where the population consists of a large white majority and a few pockets of Latinos, Asians, and folks from African descent, but I would suggest that it is becoming increasingly unhelpful if our goal is an integrated society where culture is treasured and differences are appreciated.

Consider a case example.

There is a significant Russian and Eastern European presence in my little corner of Silicon Valley. Plenty of times I have shown up to a playground where I am the only native English speaker, but I share a common skin tone with a pretty decent percentage of fellow tired toddler-chasing parents. There are Asians, Latinos, then… Russians. Or Latvians. Or Belarusians.

This is another situation where people of color, as a phrase, falls flat.

I have very little cultural commonality with a Russian or Latvian, apart from one paternal grandparent who emigrated from Slovenia. Because of a great uncle, I know a couple Slovenian words.

Oh-and I have a similar skin tone.

But that’s it.

Whites tend not to enjoy being rolled together with every other person who looks similar any more than minority groups that are rolled together with other people groups who don’t even look similar.

So think about this: we wouldn’t call a Russian a person of color. And yet, they are indeed linguistically and culturally a minority.

There is a great deal of diversity within the world that lacks melanin. In my own American context, there are WASPs with a massive cultural and economic inheritance from generations; there are poor, under-educated whites who trace their heritage to less-privileged forbears; there are the white persons who are entirely new to the United States, who have strong accents from places as diverse as Paraguay, Russia, France, Argentina, Georgia.

5. There are more accurate and honest ways to communicate one’s identity 

Might it be easier to just get specific?


African descent/West African/African American/black…

Italian/Southern European…

Anglo/European descent/white…


Indian/East Asian/Pakistani…

I do not believe it is so difficult to simply get specific. As a culture, our world is primed to embrace differences; in no way should we make it a goal to somehow become colorblind or indifferent to our differences. It is quite the opposite, really-why gloss over the very differences that make our world so fascinating to inhabit? 

Rolling together the experiences of such diverse groups as Asian, African/African American, Latino [and others!] into one simple catch phrase is just…


6. [Bonus!] As a Christian…

I am reminded of a soaring portion of Christian Scripture [Revelation 7:9-10] that speaks on the eternality of cultural differences. Christians anticipate an eternal future that celebrates and includes all peoples:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 


Christians have no excuse for glossing over cultural differences, for in this text we discover that the new creation God is ushering us into includes all the differences we experience right now! Nor do we who are white and following Jesus have an excuse to secretly prefer sameness to the intricacies of diversity. Instead, we have the great joy of coming together, from every nation/tribe/people/language to extend the kingdom of God.

Whatever our cultural background or color, our eternal future as God’s people includes it.   

New Job, New City / Same Calling.

On May 22nd I wrote a post on how I had lost my job, but not my calling.

On June 22nd I accepted a new position at Palo Alto Vineyard Church, doing almost the same stuff I had been doing at City Church. I’ll be doing ministry with young people, plus some design/visual storytelling/social media/communications/outreach/fill-in-the-blank.

Below are a few of the folks I’ll be working with [though I’m replacing Matt-red shirt].


My calling continues.

A lot has happened over the past 7 weeks, needless to say! On May 8th, I was laid off, and over the weeks since, there has been a lot of wondering going on in our home-and some stress for sure.

The peace I had been experiencing as I discovered my job was expiring was held right alongside the tensions stemming from the myriad concerns about possible transition. We had plans to consider the possibility of a move back to Michigan slated for July 15th, meaning we intentionally did not talk about this at all even though we planned to begin that conversation mid-summer.

But we are staying here, and it seems things are simply rearranged. We believe God is working through the din and confusion and change, bringing us through to something good and right, to a place where we will learn, contribute and lead.

That place is Palo Alto.

Palo Alto is rather unique in a number of ways. Similar to San Francisco, it has a fascinating history. But instead of the Summer of Love, cable cars, and sourdough [ok, I know there’s a lot more!], Palo Alto has a different edge. Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale [where we will likely be living], and their surrounding towns are part of what is referred to locally as “the peninsula.”

Tesla is headquartered here.

The Googleplex, Google’s headquarters and largest campus, is in neighboring Mountain View, where our church office is located.

In Menlo Park, which is adjacent to Palo Alto to the northwest, sits a little [big] campus to a little company called Facebook.

Oh-and just slightly south of Sunnyvale in Cupertino you’ll find Apple’s headquarters. You know how iPhones have a default weather setting for Cupertino? Here’s why!

There are plenty more world-shaking companies around, lots of economic activity, and some strange things I’ll take plenty of time to get used to.

But within all the craziness, within the bubble that is Silicon Valley, people are still interested in Jesus. No matter how advanced the cars and phones and apps, there are still many who are drawn to this ancient Jewish peasant we believe to be God’s son.

It’s fascinating to find ourselves part of a new tradition of Jesus followers. So it’s a Vineyard church, which means they take the Holy Spirit pretty seriously. If you aren’t familiar with Christianity, it’s essentially a greater expectation for God to be at work, a great interest in finding God’s leading.

Coming down to brass tacks, my job will be a bit different than my role at City Church. With more volunteers and a history of lots of volunteer leadership, I’ll be doing far more collaborating and much less spearheading. At the same time, there is a bigger group of students, so I’ll be doing more guiding than building. Finally, the roles I’ll be taking on apart from student ministry will feel new and I think I’ll be challenged in good ways.

We are excited to be staying in the Bay Area; this is what we wanted, and I am pleased to see things unfolding as they are. There are plenty of new challenges, of course. The median income in Palo Alto is $127K [keeping all things in perspective, nearby Atherton’s median income is several times that]. We will be farther from Kaile’s graduate school. Though we found a good deal on a place to live [again, if it works out!], it’s still about 11% more per month.

And yet, we choose to trust that God is at work, bringing us forward in the right paths, walking with us through the ups and downs. Funny, I received this study book on the New Testament book of James right after I was laid off, and it emphasized the key text of the book, verses 2-4 of chapter 1, encouraging readers to commit these words to memory:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

Weird, right? So was God the one who laid me off, testing me to see if I was faithful enough? If you read on, you’ll learn that the text emphasizes how trials teach us lessons; yet God isn’t some kind of weird cosmic puppet-master, tugging the strings of human existence and testing us. Instead, God walks with us through trials, challenges, temptations. God’s plan is not around pain, and God’s goal isn’t avoiding loss or grief.

James emphasizes in verse 17 how God gives good gifts:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

Simply, when good things happen, we credit God.

When bad things happen, we search for God’s leading and healing.

And in all things, we give thanks. This is really hard for me-I’m the first to admit it. Yes, we have total permission to be frustrated about things, to be mad, to doubt, to get upset with God even [a great place to go for this is the Psalms!]. And yet, we are invited to trust, enjoined to search for the Spirit of God which is at work in us.

Today I’m on the other side of the crazy, floating feeling I had after being laid off; I’ve got a job to do and connections to make. Tomorrow holds, well, who knows what. I can’t be in control of that or worry about it, for I am alive right now.

And today, I say thank you to the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.



An Open Letter to an Unknown Soldier

I came across a WWII helmet at a local shop here in San Francisco, and I bought it.

Then I gave it to someone I love. 

And today it’s July 4th, 2017, the United States’ 241st birthday. It seemed like a good time to write you.

Was this helmet yours?

[I know that would be wild, right? What are the chances?].

If not, does it at least bring back memories?  

Where did you fight? 

Did you live a post-war life filled with the painful memories that went unprocessed?

Did you struggle to reconnect with the civilian world when you go home from war?

Are you hispanic?

Are you descended from one of the people groups already living in this patch of land when Europeans showed up out east?

Are you descend from African parentage?

Are you white like me?


Now I need to be honest for a minute.

I’m not the most patriotic American. For a long time I have been pretty critical of the United States. In fact, I have gone so far as to write, at length, on how I actually disapprove of a huge portion of our this nation-state’s decisions. I agree with some, sure, but I’m outraged by others. I have boldly critiqued the president, and spoken out using the rights and privileges that became my own when I was born into a American family in South Bend, Indiana.

And, getting honest, I’m a situational pacifist.

[There. I said it].

I grew up with guns, then sold my 12 gauge hunting piece a few years ago to buy baby gear.

[We have two tiny boys in our house whom we love dearly].

Actually, WWII is the only war I have found to be historically necessary amidst the many wars America has fought over the centuries. With the history I have studied, I can’t figure out another way around it.

If I had been forced to serve, I would have hoped to have served as a chaplain or medic. My training is within the world of Christianity; I went to a Christian college and completed a Master of Divinity program at an Evangelical seminary. During those years, I learned that my allegiance is not primarily to a nation, but to Jesus. And the call of Jesus is all-inclusive! It goes beyond the internal life of a person.

But that doesn’t mean at all that I don’t appreciate you, and I hope you understand that. You gave up so much. And it might not have been your idea at all to serve! You may have been just like me-a pacifist forced to do something they would never have wanted to do.

So… are you a pacifist?

Were you drafted?

Or did you sign up willingly?

And what did you do, sir, if I might ask?

Were you in the Pacific theatre, or Europe?

I guess if you’re still around you were probably in the Pacific.

Did you drive an amphibious tank?

Did you storm a beach and duck bullets?

Are you one of my two grandfathers?

I have so many mixed feelings about our country, I do; we have a deep history of oppression and segregation, of displacement and exclusion. Goodness, African Americans couldn’t even vote until my parents’ lifetimes, in the mid-20th century! And women only gained the right at the beginning of your lifetime.

Progress is slow!

And yes, other countries have plenty of maladies, and every nation-state has evils to renounce and genocides of their own to confess. The world is full of evil. Comparing the sins of the United States to other nations may have its place, but for now I guess we can conclude that we can critique our own because of the kind of democracy we set up in the beginning.

We can speak freely because we set up our system that way.

We can critique and protest because this is how our Constitution was designed.

A couple more questions for you, if I might.

Did you have to pull a trigger?

If so, did you regret it?

Are the memories painful?

[I’m so sorry if I’m digging too deep, I just want to know what you went through].

Did you wonder if God would forgive?

[My answer is a big *yes* to this one, even though I would never want to kill].

Did your kids suffer from post-war difficulties?

If so, was it hard to see that?

I’m sorry, I’m done. I know this is tough stuff to talk about.

You gave up a lot, and you may not have even signed up to be in the military. That’s wild. You sacrificed your time, energy, family [did you have a wife at home? kids? I do, and I’d never want to leave them].

Even more so, you sacrificed your God-given instinct that told you it isn’t right to kill. You set aside that intrinsic sense to preserve life because the world is a messed up place to be. Forces much bigger than you or I had joined hands, and you were part of an enormous resistance to the united Axis powers.

Was there another way? Maybe. Maybe not. It can’t be changed now, I guess.

Regardless, you still sacrificed-or were forced to sacrifice-a LOT.

I hate that the 20th century was soaked in blood, genocide, exclusion.

I hate that this new century contains the same.

I pray for a world that is different.

I am trying to be a part of that.

It’s often difficult.

Ok, anyway, I just wanted to say thanks. I know it’s a round-about way to say it, and I felt like I had to get honest about where I’m coming from. Again, please know that I’m not thankful that people died. I lament all of the loss. But from me to you, for all that happened that was or wasn’t right or good, you objectively gave up a lot.

I pray you find rest and contentment in your old age, that you find hope in the resurrection of Jesus and how God’s making all things new.

Jesus said there’s no great love than when someone lays down their life for a friend. Did another solider do that for you? Did they take a bullet for you-or shrapnel? I’m sorry, I’m doing it again-it’s a lot of questions. Forgive me. War is so absolutely hellish, yet you endured it, not knowing what would come in the years that would follow.

I’m done with my questions, and I’ve tried to make sure you know how it is that I’m saying this [as a pacifist Christian who isn’t super supportive of US policy and who is fairly critical of our history].

But all of that aside. Please hear me.

From me to you,



Don’t Ever Say These Three Words.

You. Just. Wait.

There you have it. If you stop reading now, you will have done yourself and the world an enormous favor.

Maybe you, like me, can quickly recall the last time someone said those words to you. I have heard that phrase so many times in my thirty years of life.

I still remember telling a guy who has no kids that it’s incredibly challenging to raise our son [now sons, and it hasn’t gotten easier!]. He was like, “you just wait until they’re in high school! It’s easy right now!” I was like…











Now I’ve written on ageism in the past, a really important topic for me; feel free to check out this post from a few months ago.

But today I’d like to zero in on general condescension, a close cousin to ageism, maybe more like an uncle or something. When we condescend, we project a smooth disdain for others, making ourselves appear superior, often stemming from a harsh criticism of their failures or mistakes.

Years ago my mother taught me that I had to laugh at ourselves, we can make others laugh. That said, when I freely admit my own foibles, I free myself from the fear of condescension. Conversely, when we condescend, we create needless enemies and mindlessly look past our own faults.

The account we have in Christian Scripture is suffuse with examples of people making foolish mistakes. A cursory peek reveals Abraham lying about his wife to Egyptians, telling them she is his sister; Moses disobeying God by striking a rock instead of speaking to it; David committing adultery then murder after desiring Bathsheba; Peter disowning the Jesus he had come to know so well-and right after promising to always follow, no matter the cost.

Indeed, if the measure of faithful Christian living is never making mistakes, then apart from Jesus himself, no biblical character holds up.

When we say, “you just wait,” what we really mean is, “it might be going well right now, but in my experience things will not always be like they are now.” And when is that not true? This is a throwaway three-word phrase that helps no one while also making others feel like they were born yesterday.

It’s spoken to kids after they come to a joyous though childlike conclusion [I’m always going to do my best!].

It’s spoken to young married couples [you just wait until your partner does x/y/z!].

It’s spoken to new parents when they celebrate how their child is cooperating [you just wait until they’re rebelling in high school!].

It’s spoken to kids as their parents get scared they will make mistakes [you just wait-life will throw you around, and won’t always be there to pick up the pieces!].

It’s spoken to middle-aged people as they enjoy physical health [you just wait until you age catches up with you!].

It’s spoken to every demographic and at every life stage.

This phrase is toxic!

Consider this. A 70 year old man in average health says to a 5 year old girl, “you’re complaining about some aches and pains now? You just wait, your age will catch up with you!” Now let’s say the the next day the girl goes with her parents to the doctor and discovers she has an advanced stage cancer, and her pain has a cause far beyond the scope of the 70 year old’s experience.

Hopefully you see in this unusual example the vastness of room that exists for the condescending person to find themselves not only wrong for condescending, but also wrong outright in their perception. In this case, the 70 year old man was wrong both for telling her to “just wait,” but also wrong about his perception of her pain. It was greater than any pain he had experienced.

We all fail in our various ways, we all fail to see what is ahead, and we all at times fail to realize that when we celebrate a daily victory, something troubling may be looming in the future. And so often, we project our experiences on others, presuming they will live into exactly the same experiences we have had, encountering the same difficulties.

And one of the central problems here is that by saying, “you just wait,” what we are really saying is this:

“I want to bring you down to my level.” 

Consider how, when the devil tempted Jesus, he so deeply desired to access his humanity-but did so by trying to subvert his divinity? He tries to access Jesus’s divinity first by asking him to turn stones into bread. He’s thinking, “you just wait Jesus, you think it’s rough now-just wait until you’re really struggling!”

Next, the devil tests Jesus’s ability to overcome nature by asking him to throw himself off a tall cliff. It’s like he’s thinking, “you just wait until people don’t believe you’re really God’s Son!

Finally, he offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus worships him only. Maybe he’s thinking, “you just wait, Jesus, I’ll bet your plan to lead people falls apart; I’ll bet they turn on you! Why not just take this little offer? it’s so easy!” Turns out people did, in fact, turn on Jesus-and we don’t know whether or not he knew that was going to happen. It’s complicated being God and a man, depending on the Spirit for communion with the Father.

The devil is clearly looking to bring Jesus, who the Father, through the Holy Spirit, was still shaping Jesus into the divine yet human Son he was always meant to be, down to his level. He’s saying, “You just wait. Things will get nasty, Jesus, so why not listen to me and wise up a little?”

Friends, I contend that condescending to our fellow person by telling them that they should “just wait” places us in a place of pride. It’s a pride that tries to mask itself as humility [I’m just trying to help this young person see what’s ahead! I’m just speaking as someone who has seen a lot, and I’m trying to warn them!].

Now, an alternative. 

Writing as a 30 year old, I get that this little post can easily be cast off as the nonsense of someone who has no life experience. Yeah, I guess I’ve only seen what I’ve seen, and I can’t fast forward the years. But I can humbly submit another way to see things.

I wonder if, as opposed to saying “you just wait,” we could get more creative. What if we tried something along the lines of, “so I know it might just be my experience, but sometimes [insert your wisdom here] happens. Who knows if it’ll work this way for you, but that was what I experienced.”

I wonder if we could trade condescension in for humility, actually admitting our failures and mistakes as we gently offer a new insight to a fellow person. To a college student stoked about her new freedom though possibly unaware of the financial challenges: “yeah, I can tell you’re excited about college. It’s a pretty awesome experience! And yet, for me, it also had its share of difficulty, especially when it came to money! I felt like I never had any! What’s your thought on the job scenario for your time at university?”

Ok, my examples are probably not winning literary prizes anytime soon. And sure, I’ll bet we could probably find a case where “you just wait” might somehow be helpful to someone out there.

But we shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about that.

It’s a lot of needless work, and it may be more helpful to invest our time into the creativity that leads us to helpfully speak into the lives of others instead of alienating them with those three unhelpful words.

Or, keep doing it. See what happens.

You. Just. Wait.



I Lost My Job [But Not My Calling]

A number of months ago, I reflected on the intricate steps that led to my family’s first cross-country move. At that time, I was incredibly thankful, encouraged that while I had connected with a strong, mission-oriented church in San Francisco, Kaile was accepted at a very selective master’s program in clinical counseling. She would study and learn, I would lead and shepherd students, and we would together collaborate in raising our two tiny boys, Silas and Maelin. For a year, this is exactly what we did. We slowly learned about our new child, our new church, our new community, our new city; and having just passed our one-year anniversary of living in San Francisco [April 23rd], we both celebrate God’s goodness and God’s presence with us at every step of the journey. 

On Monday, May 8th, I learned that my job will not continue into the Fall. I am laid off. It was hard news, overwhelming news, news that I will surely still be processing for months to come. City Church is restructuring its staff roles, and after some serious discernment, my former pastoral role is becoming a part-time position. With the expenses of a family living in a major urban center, a part-time position simply doesn’t provide enough income to exist-or subsist.    

As I sat face-to-face hearing the bad news from Fred Harrell, the pastor who planted City Church in 1997 and who presently guides the community as its senior leader, I was shocked. But it wasn’t the news about my role as a youth pastor that shocked me, as difficult as this was to hear. Instead, I was shocked-surprised and taken in with a deep sense of peace that permeated my soul, my mind, even my body. The conversation was tangibly gracious; my heart rate was no quicker; my palms were dry; my words were slow and measured-and equally gracious as Fred’s, I hope. 

During our conversation, this moment that neither of us discovered to be easy or natural, I was pervaded by the same sense of peace that I sensed God giving me on October 15th, 2015 [read that story here if you haven’t]. Then, it was a 3am divine intervention, a wakeup call from God that quelled my burning anxieties that stemmed from facing an unknown future. This past Monday, it was a morning conversation with a trusted leader and coworker which featured some very tough news. But the same peace pervaded me, a peace that comes from God’s Spirit. I even mentioned this peace to Fred. I told him I was surprised by it, perplexed but thankful for the sense of centeredness that I was experiencing. 

Going forward, the same realities exist: when severance pay ends, I need new employment, and I don’t want to just do the next thing in front of me, to simply find something that works. Instead, I want to serve God using the very best of my abilities. During the challenge of transition, we need stability and support, and as we look forward, we require equal parts wisdom, courage, and perseverance. I’ve never been let go from a job before, and it’s a new feeling. Though my situation stemmed from budget changes and restructuring, it’s still difficult for me to sit with the reality of the leadership’s conclusion. 


Sunday night I drove with my family to the home where our community group meets. After only a few minutes, the conversation turned to our situation. One of our church’s leaders was there, and she was closely involved with the difficult decisions that City Church has been forced to make over the past few months. Listening happened that night, and some really honest sharing of our burden. Hard as it is, I was reminded that evening how everyone in our group has challenges. One family is looking for more stable employment; another has a child with very pressing medical needs; yet another is recognizing the nuances of parenting are more difficult than they had imagined.

During our time with our community group, reflected on Psalm 31, especially the first five verses:

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
    come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
    a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God. 

After reflecting on this Scripture, our group prayed for us. Hands were laid on; the scene reminded me of what I picture of the early church’s meetings in Asia minor. These people know us, at least as much as they are able to know us, and they are praying for us still.

All of this reminds me of how God has always been faithful to us, and we trust that this will continue to be the case as we plunge into whatever is next for our family and our livelihood. I say this to be true not as one who has found a new and meaningful job, as one a weary traveler wading through the muddy waters of unknowing.

During our transition, the same challenges that existed for us before the loss of my job continue in the present. Our two tiny boys are as energetic as ever, with just as many needs. They are sensing our stress, and we can see how it is affecting them. It hurts Kaile and me to know that the stresses that we are doing our best to hide from Maelin and Silas are having their effects on our infant and toddler.

Through these challenges, we are leaning into God’s direction for our life journey together. My days have turned to searching for employment, awaiting answers to email inquiries, and grooming my LinkedIn profile. Instead of commuting on my bike to an office, I work from my home office, investing the time I used to spend fostering direction for a ministry into something new: seeking a new place to serve. Since we have grown so deeply attached to our church community, this is especially difficult; it is not only my place of employment, it’s our people

As we walk on, our prayers are just as much with City Church as we perceive their prayers are with us. I lost my job, not my long-term call to pastoral ministry. And now, the elders and pastors are doing their very best to continue in the mission they sense God has directed them into, and I respect them immensely, even though things didn’t go my way. If I could resume my former work, I’d do it in a heartbeat. And yet, this is not how the story is unfolding, and it is time to allow space for the community to proceed in the next chapter.

When it’s hard and when it’s easy, we are resolved to take refuge in God, just like the Psalm says.

After all, we’ve been here all along. 


American Christians vs. Christian Americans

A number of years ago, I was chatting with a friend about the military. Even then, I was a pacifist, but I still admitted that if I were forced to enlist via a hypothetical draft, I’d comply. I’ve become even more of a pacifist since then, but I’ve been mulling over what it means to be an American Christian.

There’s a wide chasm, I think, between American Christians and Christian Americans. Recently someone I follow on Twitter compared the “America First” brand of American Nationalism to an alternative kind of worship, an alternative to the worship of Yahweh, the God who we know best through the Son, Jesus.

There are Americans who baptize their unwavering nationalism with Christianity, seeing at as a means to support American ideals. Conversely, there are Christians like me who try to somehow make sense of their nation-state in regards to their faith. I realize this is a gross oversimplification of the matter, but it’s a starting place nonetheless.

With the premise that every nation-state is merely a construct, an invention, and that the red/white/blue flag represents a narrative that means very different things to different people groups-allow me to attempt to navigate the intricate link between Christian faith and identity and one’s sense of place within the world as it is currently divided into continents, countries, and districts.

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I remember one Thanksgiving when we went around the table, naming one thing for which we’re thankful. Various siblings, aunts, and uncles, named things like freedom, enough food, a solid job, education.

When it got around to my  grandmother, her answer came without pause: “I’m thankful to be an American.”

I was not yet twenty at the time. Now I’m 30. And yet, as I relive the moment, her words strike me in a very similar way. How many people sacrificed for her to be able to be thankful to be an American?

Native Americans immediately think about a long history of displacement.

African Americans may think about slavery and the civil rights era, and maybe about police violence toward young black men, or about the centuries of marginalization that underlines their American experience.

Japanese Americans might think about the not-so-distant American internment camps where Japanese families were sent during WWII.

Mexican Americans may think about the 8 US states that were formerly territories of Mexico, then again about the irony of “crossing the border” to get “into” the United States. I’m typing this article in formerly Mexican land.

European Americans‘ thoughts might drift naturally and ethnocentrically toward Washington, Jefferson, JFK, Lincoln, or other celebrated American leaders who happen to be white.

Any one of these people groups could recall family members who served in the military at any stage of American history. This applies to my own family, and I’m thankful for the sacrifices both my grandfathers made to serve during WWII-an important war even from the vantage point of my pacifist sensibilities. But that is only one dimension of the multitudinous sacrifices made by numerous ethnic groups.

If we’re really honest, we might all be just a teensy bit ethnocentric-and that can be just fine or it can really fog our vision. But my point in bringing up the various ways various ethnic subgroups might understand American history is simply to note how much has happened in this swath of land over the millennia.

So many people have lost their rights, their dignity, their lives in the long journey toward America becoming the nation it is today. So many have gained unfathomable riches from the systems that exist in our nation-state. And yes, of course, the United States has participated in some very good things too-of this there is no doubt at all.

In full disclosure, I benefit greatly at a personal level from the personal and systemic losses of many other people groups. I benefit from the gains too. But at this point, I’m trying to figure out how to be thankful for what I have inherited while rejecting oversimplification and glamorization of the American story.

It’s in only seeing one side of the American story that we become complacent, self-righteous, and unhelpfully angry.

Now, I want to attempt to make a connection. How does allegiance not to country but to Jesus calls us out of this slough of ethnocentrism and national identity? How do we quell the tandem voices of racism and xenophobia? How can live and participate in the world’s unfolding narrative as Americans even as we’re confronted with the bloodshed that laces our history?

I believe transformation comes when we hear our deepest identity: we are sons and daughters of God [Galatians 3:26], made in God’s image [Genesis 1:26-28], sisters and brothers with Jesus himself [Hebrews 2:11]. More than Americans, more than members of a particular demographic, more than members of a particular orientation, we are united in Jesus. 

Whether or not we believe this matters, I think. It’s too easy to get swept up into the push and pull of nationalist political rhetoric if we lack a deeper spiritual foundation. We Christians believe God has extended us a massive amount of grace and that Jesus has paid an extremely high cost-his life-to conquer death, create reconciliation between God and humanity, and atone for sin.

If we genuinely believe God is at work in the world, and that God invites us to partner with him in renewing the earth, matters of American identity quickly fade in terms of importance.

This isn’t to say our national stories are unimportant or trivial. There are very meaningful narratives that can give Americans a sense of togetherness and build bridges of solidarity.

Just a couple weeks ago I was at the DeYoung museum here in San Francisco. On the second floor, there is a room filled with American art. One piece is especially moving to me. It features John Brown, a radical abolitionist who was on his way to execution for leading a slave rebellion, kissing a child, presumably his own.

That day a couple, presumably from another country [they were not speaking English], were observing the piece. I certainly could be wrong in my language-based assessment. Ostensibly, they misunderstood the gravity of the painting, for they proceeded to take smiling pictures in front of it. As they continued taking smiling pictures, the woman backed right into the painting, her hair and shoulders brushing up against it, moving its frame against the museum wall.

Soon, the museum security was on the scene, firmly admonishing her to maintain at least 24 inches between herself and the art.

Of course they gently complied.

The feeling within me as I observed was a mixture of incredulity and frustration. It seems that a middle-aged couple would know typical rules for an art museum. Much more, taking these kinds of pictures in front of a painting that features an execution is simply disrespectful. And the content of the painting made the picture-taking even more unnecessary.

All of that aside, the narrative of John Brown reminds us Americans of the suffering endured by generations of African American slaves. Yes, John Brown was violent, and we can sit comfortably and have a conversation about how he could have responded, but history is history and this is the desperation Brown felt. Some vilify him as an unthinking terrorist; some consider him a hero and martyr. But regardless, he is an important character in the drama of our nation-state.

In that moment, I felt very American. But I didn’t sense that American sentiment because I’m adoring the image of a country that stands as a shining beacon of hope for the rest of the world to see. I felt American because I have a unique personal connection to the people, places, and experiences of this country; I have lived here, loved here, and am raising my family here. And I don’t think I should be faulted for appreciated the country that has shaped me so deeply.

It’s romantic, this grouping of mountains, rivers, plains, fields, and deserts! The contours of my childhood included the vast forests, fields, and rivers of Northwest Michigan. I remember family trips to Colorado, Washington, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas. I dated an African American for a couple years and felt the tangible difficulty of the American story as our relationship eventually faltered. I live in an area now where one can procure food from just about any remote corner of the world including Eritrea [and there are numerous Eritrean restaurants, not just one!]. This reminds all of us that America can indeed support and include people groups that differ from the earliest European settlers that have culturally and governmentally stayed in power.

As the current political season wanes on, as we do our best to shape our country into the kind of place we think it should be, I pray we remember our long and violent history. And there is no need to compare America’s violent history to other nations, this is unhelpful. Looking past our nation’s many sins can quickly lead us to an unchecked and one-dimensional nationalism that turns us into automatons who worship at the feet of the leader with the most braggadocio. Focusing too much on America’s many problems, on the other hand, can overwhelm us and turn us into self-righteous sidewalk prophets with no sense of gratitude for the good that is, by default, mixed with the bad.

It’s better to know the American stories of heartache and loss, of overcoming and transforming, commending them to honest, realistic memory while searching for true and lasting hope from our Lord, Savior, Brother, and Teacher: Jesus.