Let’s talk about Simone.

Or rather, let’s talk about how we talk about Simone.

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Within the last 12 hours, Team USA gymnast Simone Biles, a 24-year-old woman who has already earned herself a near-mythic reputation in the sports world, announced that she was sitting out the team gymnastics final in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. She described feeling like she wasn’t in the right mental place, and she struggled in her early-round event. In later comments, she said she needed to take a mental health day because she didn’t want to “do something silly out there and get injured.” Her team, with back-up Jordan Chiles in place, won the silver medal in the team event, barely losing out to Russia.

Look, I’m not a gymnast. (File this under “Obvious statements are obvious.”) But what I can gather from simple observation is that gymnastics requires not only an incredible level of physical stamina and control, but also a great deal of mental control, as you are trying to complete complicated multi-stage move sets that require split-second reactions and coordination. Beyond that, you have to make sure your body is positioned properly at all times in order not only to complete certain moves but to do so without causing what could be major or even life-threatening injury. I think we sometimes take this for granted as passive observers of the sport, every-4-year gadflies who (many of us) won’t give gymnastics another thought until we see athletes wearing our country’s name and colors again at the next Olympics.

So if a professional gymnast–a medal winner, a record holder, someone who has devoted her life to her events–says that she needs to take a short break in order to collect herself and continue to perform at top level, I’m inclined to trust her judgment and that of her coaches and trainers, even if she decides to do so at what seems like the worst possible time. I would think that, as a competitor, it was a hard decision for her, because, especially as an Olympic athlete in her mid-20’s, it’s not like she’ll get many more of these opportunities in her career.

But what do I know. I’m just a guy on the internet.

And as an admitted “guy on the internet,” I’d like to take a moment to talk about what I’m seeing in response.

Opinions: Everybody’s got one.

It seems like much of the online response is dividing up along two camps. There are those who are quick to pour adoration on Biles for this decision; she has “already won,” she is heroic, she is stunning and brave. Others seem just as quick to pour derision; she is selfish, she is failing to keep her commitments, she should never have agreed to participate if this were an option to her.

Some have drawn unfavorable comparisons to other young men and women in history who have faced undoubtedly more serious challenges to health and heart, literal life-and-death moments that demanded their moral courage and mental toughness. Others have pointed to previous generations of Olympic athletes who have overcome much more and are lauded for their tenacity.

If you’re in either of these camps, can I ask you to do me a favor? Come over here, just for a second. C’mon. Lean on in. Make room, give everybody a chance to hear this. Okay, ready?

Just…stop for a minute.

Y’all, Simone Biles is a twentysomething young woman who has lived her entire life under a microscope–yes, for a sport she chooses to play, but that doesn’t mean the level of scrutiny that she and all other athletes face is normal, sensible, or appropriate. What’s more, she’s part of an organization that has been involved in pretty heinous scandals recently regarding athletes being sexually abused. I don’t know if Simone Biles was ever victimized, but at the very least she could have been friends with many who were, so that possibly adds a layer of internal struggle and conflict when it comes to this sport she loves.

No, she’s not as courageous as the sixteenth-century Christian martyrs, or the young men who stormed Omaha Beach, or the first-responders on 9/11. Fine. Granted. Those are exceptional and praiseworthy acts of heroism.

She isn’t even facing the type of animus that Jesse Owens overcame or the personal risk and emotional toll of recent Olympic athletes competing under the “refugee” flag because they are seeking asylum from oppressive regimes. Biles is much loved by her teammates and her nation, and she’s respected by her opponents.

I don’t think she deserves the heaping of adulation that she is starting to get and will continue to get by people in the press. But I also think she doesn’t deserve the level of hostility that she will get from her critics and a host of random strangers on the internet.

Let me propose this: Can we, as we see stories like this pop up in the world of sport, try to hold a more moderate position of “well, if she needs the help, I hope she gets it, but that really stinks for her teammates” and pretty much leave it there? Don’t flex on Twitter. Don’t fawn on Facebook. Comment if you want (it’s your social media feed, after all), but don’t be ridiculous about it (in either extreme). Just a suggestion from a random guy on the internet. Take it for what it’s worth.

Why I Care About This.

If it’s not that big of a deal, why do you care enough about this to write a blog post?” you may rightly ask me.

Here’s why: I personally know people who will see posts and tweets and videos criticizing Biles’ decision as selfish and weak and infantile, and they will internalize those critiques and recall them every time they need to step back from a situation because they recognize the black-dog days that are creeping in around the edges of their mind. These folks will wonder if others in their own lives will see them as selfish and weak for saying “no” and “I can’t do that” rather than running themselves ragged trying to please everyone around them.

And I also know that the rampant adulation of simple self-care that has become popular in the media also creates an environment in which everything is syndromized (if that’s a word). Moments of difficulty and frustration are labelled “bad for my mental health,” so that some folks will run away from anything challenging or necessary or exhausting because they see it as a threat to their wellbeing. There’s a real danger on that end of the conversation, too.

It’s not “heroic” or “sinful” to be self-aware and do what you need to do to stay healthy. It should be normal, even if it’s typically not that common in our culture. Let’s be careful not to overcorrect by throwing a parade when someone admits with regret that they can’t complete a commitment. But let’s not throw stones, either.

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I’m glad Team USA won a silver medal, but I don’t see it as a national triumph, just like I don’t see losing the gold to Russia as a national shame. It’s a game, y’all. These aren’t our avatars. They don’t represent all that we are or will be. They’re teenagers and twentysomethings who get the opportunity to compete in the rarified air of a worldwide stage, and it is a shining and thrilling time in their young lives that will end more quickly than they realize. And then in ten years or twenty years, most of them will be forgotten by the fickle masses watching their every move. All of this is transient.

I hope Simone Biles gets the rest she needs (mental and physical) so that she’s able to enjoy this moment. That’s all.

Sunday Sermon: “Contend for the Faith” (Jude 1-4)

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[Background/Disclaimer: The following sermon was delivered at Cornerstone Community Church in Montgomery, TX, on 07/11/2021. I adapted the section covering verses 3-4 from an earlier sermon I preached on 6/20/2021 at my home church, University Park Baptist Church, in Houston, TX.

In preparing for that first sermon, I relied mainly on the ESV Exegetical Commentary covering the epistle of Jude, Matthew Henry’s commentary on Jude, and various available study Bible notes. While I try to cite any direct quotations, I also want to acknowledge the background assistance of these study helps, in case there are any turns of phrase or linguistic connections that I may have appropriated without realizing and acknowledging it.

I’m sharing this sermon manuscript solely as a blessing to my readers in their personal spiritual walk, and I hope it is edifying in that regard.]

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I’d like to open this morning with a lengthy, but I think beneficial, quote:

“The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in the columns of church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.”

J. Greshem Machen, Christianity and Liberalism

Machen wrote this opening paragraph to Christianity and Liberalism in 1923. It seems that not much has changed in the last 100 years. At this moment in the life of the Evangelical church, we are hard pressed on all sides to be very broad-minded and tolerant when it comes to doctrine and practice, urged from both without and within to focus on what we agree about instead of what we disagree about, when it comes to the world around us. Machen disagrees, suggesting that what matters most is what we’re willing to fight for.

Over the next few weeks, we will be looking at the epistle of Jude and thinking about why we as Christians are called to “contend for the faith.” This morning, we’ll look at the first four verses, which encompass the introduction and main thesis statement of this powerful letter.

For those taking notes, the outline has 3 points: 1) A Chosen People (v.1-2); 2) A Change of Plans (v.3); and 4) A Church in Peril (v.4).

Let’s take a look at the full text:

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,

To those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ:

May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

Jude 1-4 ESV

A Chosen People (v.1-2)

This letter begins the way many of the other epistles do, typical of first-century correspondence: we have a statement of whom the letter is from and to whom the letter is written. In verse 1, we see “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.” Well, who’s Jude? For that matter, who’s James? What we know from the writings of the early church is that this James is James the half-brother of Jesus, the writer of the epistle of James in the New Testament and the apostle who eventually became one of the elders of the Jerusalem church, taking over for the more famous disciple and apostle James (Son of Thunder, brother of John) after that James was martyred in Acts 12.

So what do we know about this James? He was the son of Mary and Joseph, and at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he didn’t seem to believe Jesus was the Messiah. In Matthew 13, we see that Jesus goes back home to Nazareth to teach, and the response of the crowd is, “Don’t we know this guy? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son, Mary’s boy?” In verse 55, it continues, “And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” So James (and by extension, Judas or “Jude”) are half-brothers of Jesus, sons of Mary and Joseph.

Jude identifies himself as the brother of James, so that the readers know who is speaking—but notice that he didn’t call himself the brother of Jesus. Instead, he calls himself Jesus’s servant (or, in the Greek, bondservant or slave), just as James does in James 1:1. And notice also that Jude calls Jesus “Christ”—Messiah, Anointed One. What would have caused such a change in Jude, and in James?

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

I Corinthians 15:3-7 ESV (emphasis mine)

Seeing your older brother working miracles, teaching with wisdom and authority, and then coming back to life after being brutally crucified would probably do the trick! Now, Jude isn’t just the brother of “Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son”; he’s the bondservant and slave of Jesus the Risen Messiah!

Who is Jude writing to? He doesn’t indicate a specific church or region. Some commentators point to context clues to suggest it may be specific churches in Israel or nearby regions—churches with lots of Jewish believers who would recognize the references to the Old Testament and other Jewish works throughout the letter. However, I would suggest that while Jude certainly had a specific audience in mind, his greeting and message to all of us who are in Christ, because they are universally applicable to the church in every age: “To those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for [or by] Jesus Christ.” We could spend all day on this one verse, because there is such richness in it. But I want to take just a few moments to help you see why it’s so important that we know who we are when we make our stand. If you are a born-again disciple of Jesus Christ, this is who you are:

  • You are called. The God of the Universe chose to reveal Himself to you and to draw you to Himself through the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says in John 10 that His sheep hear His voice. Because you have been called by God, you are now His, you are in His hand, and nothing and no one can take you out of it. You have been adopted by God and have all the rights and privileges that come with that adoption.
  • You are beloved of the Father. You are loved by God—all 3 persons of God, the Father, the Son, the Spirit. Our position in Christ gives us security and confidence that we can approach the throne of grace boldly, not only because we are cleansed from our unrighteousness and given the righteousness of Jesus, but because we are truly and completely loved by God.
  • You are kept for Jesus Christ. Those whom God calls, God keeps. Those who are born again to new life are secure in their salvation. We’ll spend some more time at the end of the series talking about this, but let’s just revel in this reality for a moment.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

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

Romans 8:28-39 ESV

What beautiful promises we have in just this one verse—a verse that, let’s admit it, we’re tempted to gloss over.

Then Jude gives an initial blessing in his greeting in Verse 2: “May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” As if his previous comment weren’t enough, Jude prays that God would not just grant his readers mercy, peace, and love, but that they would have these graces in abundance—that they’d be multiplied to them! Throughout the New Testament, we see prayers and promises to this effect: the gracious generosity of God toward His people, granting them mercy, peace, and love in Himself, which they then extend and display to the world!

After this beautiful introduction, we move on to the main message of Jude’s letter in verse 3.

A Change of Plans (v.3)

In the first phrase of verse 3, we see a change in plans. “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation…” Jude tells us that his original intent for writing was pastoral and didactic—his desire was to write about theology. He tells his brothers and sisters, beloved of the Father, that he was very eager to expound on “our common salvation.” He wished to establish the faith of the believers by reminding them of the truths of the Gospel taught by the apostles—the very faith he describes as being “once for all delivered to the saints.” We don’t know what that epistle would have looked like. Perhaps, like Paul, he would have talked about how there is no distinction or favoritism when it comes to who has access to God in Christ Jesus, or how all believers have the same Father and the same Lord and the same Spirit and the same baptism. Maybe Jude would have reminded the churches what his brother Jesus taught about the narrow way of salvation and the call to all who were willing to come and drink from Him the water of life. Perhaps Jude might have commented on Peter’s letters that reminded the church of the rich blessings of salvation and the calling to live as holy exiles.

We have no indication what his specific focus might have been, because as he considered taking up the pen (or, possibly, dictating to his personal scribe) to write to the scattered churches, he was moved by the Holy Spirit to address a different matter. He says that he “found it necessary to write, appealing to you to contend for the faith…” Rather than focusing on the more uplifting topic of our salvation, Jude is compelled to sound a warning bell for the churches. This was his duty as a servant of the Lord, a responsibility that Paul writes in Titus 1:9 is laid upon every minister of the Gospel:  “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Don’t miss that two-part requirement: a faithful elder/pastor must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught—the “faith once delivered to all the saints”—AND be able to rebuke those who try to subvert it. In this passage, Jude is calling out not just to church leaders but to all believers to contend for the faith.

Commentators indicate that the word contend here has a grammatical root from which we derive the English word “agonize.” This is a word from the athletic arena, as wrestlers and combatants grapple and strain and struggle and fight for ground. This word “contend” is not a word with a clean and wrinkle-free jersey; “contend” here is a sweat-soaked and blood-stained word. It’s similar to the phrasing in Paul’s instructions in I Corinthians 9 to run the race to win, and his declaration in II Timothy 4 that he has fought the good fight and finished the race, in keeping the faith. Jude is pleading with the believers to fight, to wrestle, to struggle for the sake of the unadulterated and undiluted faith, the true word that was handed down to them from Jesus and His apostles.

What is this precious word? It’s the word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that begins with bad news: All people are sinners by nature and choice, and all of us deserve the just wrath of a holy God for our rebellion and sin. But Jesus, the son of God, came to us, born of a virgin, born under the law, lived a perfect life of holy obedience and complete righteousness before God, and then died in the place of sinners as a sacrifice for sin, taking on the guilt of our sin and the wrath of God against it, satisfying justice, dying and then rising again 3 days later, in victory over death and as a sign that the penalty for our sin has been paid. Now, we who turn away from our sins and believe on Jesus as Savior AND Lord, trusting in His death and resurrection in our place, are credited with Jesus’ perfect righteousness and have peace with God in Him. When we are born again from death to life, we receive the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our future inheritance, we are sanctified bit by bit, remade day by day into the image of Jesus, and looking forward to the last day, when we will be raised up with Him, freed of all trace and effect of sin, to live forever in perfect communion with God and His people!

That’s the message that Jude urges his hearers to fight for. Not a social program, not a political strategy, not an ideological agenda: a declaration that Jesus is Lord of all and an invitation to all who have ears to hear to repent and believe this good news.

My friend, if you don’t know this Jesus or believe this message, I’m thrilled to get to tell you: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Are you a sinner? Turn from your sin and rebellion and run to Jesus! There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. He is your only hope. Don’t put this off another day, even another hour, because you truly don’t know for sure how much life you have ahead of you. I’m begging you—come talk to me after the service, for the sake of your very soul.

So, why was Jude compelled by the Holy Spirit to sound the alarm and call the churches to stand firm and fight for the faith? Because Jude recognized they were in danger. That’s our third point.

A Church in Peril (v.4)

Look at the beginning of Verse 4: “For certain people have crept in unnoticed…” Jude knows that there are false teachers who have worked their way into the churches. These spiritual saboteurs didn’t kick open the front door, announcing their apostasy openly. As John MacArthur puts it, the phrasing here describes someone who slides in through the side door, making his way among the flock, before his works become plain.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to believers; throughout the New Testament, we have been warned about it by Jesus and the apostles. Four examples:

  • Jesus warns of wolves in sheep’s clothing and false teachers (Matthew 7:15-23)
  • Paul warned the Ephesian elders as he was leaving that they would eventually be infiltrated (Acts 20:25-31)
  • Paul tells Timothy in II Timothy 3 and 4 that apostates will arise even within the church, and that in the last days, false converts will be drawn to false teachers that please their appetites (II Tim. 4:1-4)
  • In Peter’s second letter (which covers many of the same themes as Jude), he warns of false teachers who infiltrate the church in much the same way (II Peter 2:1-10).

Are we surprised that the sons of the Serpent have the same methods as their slithering father, who smoothly approached Adam and Eve and hissed, “Has God really said…?”

I was reading recently some of Charles Spurgeon’s articles in which he described the Downgrade of evangelicalism in his day. In one piece describing the slide of certain churches into error (often by name!), he noted how it usually wasn’t the lead pastor who would fall into theological error directly; instead, these men erred by not being vigilant in whom they welcomed as guest speakers or whom they hired as assistant ministers. They welcomed false brothers to come alongside them in ministry, excusing or ignoring the occasional red flag in that person’s teaching, until finally the older minister would retire and be succeeded by these younger men who were steeped in theological liberalism and humanism. The lack of watchfulness on the part of the shepherd and the flock allowed the wolves to enter the sheep pen.

This is a danger we should be on guard against, even among “conservative” denominations and associations, as some people, even some influential voices, decry calls for doctrinal clarity and accountability as “the leaven of the Pharisees” and a rising tide of “fundamentalism.” But we must not let fear of being called “legalists” cause us to run into the opposite ditch of becoming complacent about what we affirm together as believers. By all means, let us strive to be kind, winsome, and humble in what we proclaim and how we communicate, but our efforts to be gentle or welcoming must NEVER come at the expense of compromising or downplaying what the Scriptures clearly state.

In our text, Jude is sounding the alarm that the churches should be on the alert against these false teachers, and it would benefit us, as it has every generation before us, to mark these characteristics in our minds. In verse 4, Jude describes the false teachers in 4 ways:

  1. They were long ago designated for destruction:
  2. They are ungodly people;
  3. They pervert the grace of God into sensuality
  4. They deny their Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

First, these false teachers were designated for destruction; the wording here is that their doom was written out beforehand, warned about in the past. Jude is pointing to the various Scriptural warnings (including the ones we’ve looked at already) about the destiny of all those who corrupt the truth of God’s word for selfish gain. Beyond that, these false teachers were designated for destruction in that their fruits showed they were themselves “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” as Paul describes in Romans 9—doomed by their rebellion against the truth to face the wrath of God for their wickedness.

Second, the false teachers are ungodly people: Their lives and lifestyles were oriented away from God and toward selfish gain. They are irreverent, impious, disregarding or even mocking what is holy. Later, in verse 18, Jude describes them as “scoffers, following their ungodly passions.” It should always put us on alert when a professing teacher of the Gospel is happy to make light of the things of God or mock what is holy.  

Next, Jude writes that they pervert (or twist/replace) the grace of our God into sensuality: Even while they pretend to be spiritual leaders and faithful teachers, their actions reveal their true desires. These false teachers abuse the very concept of grace by using it as an excuse to indulge in sensuality—a shameless flaunting of immoral behavior, usually in regards to sexual sin. These people push the boundaries of what is appropriate or acceptable, under the guise of “spiritual freedom.” They are driven by their passions and lusts and often struggle (and fail) to hide their sinful hungers—all the while claiming “grace” as a cover for sin. Consider how Paul rebukes this thinking in Romans 6. Throughout the Scriptures, the people of God are called to live holy lives—and the standard of holiness is set by God, not by the culture around them. Yet these false teachers abuse the grace of God for their own selfish ends and teach their followers to do the same.

Finally, they deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ: The rebellious nature of their false doctrine ultimately leads to a denial of the lordship of Jesus (either directly or indirectly) over the life of the believer. Jesus said in Luke 6:46, “Why do you call me ‘lord, lord’ and not do what I tell you?” False teachers pay lip-service to the lordship of Jesus but deny it by their lives because they refuse to obey the commands of Jesus. In some cases, they may even deny their Lord and Master by creating a false version of Jesus to worship and serve in His place: a counterfeit Jesus who excuses sin and perversion, who feeds their ego and looks the other way when it comes to their greed and selfish desires. Like the Israelites bowing before the Golden Calf and calling it “Yahweh,” false teachers present a false Jesus that promises everything and demands nothing, a pseudo-Christ who just so happens to look like HE was made in OUR image.

Jude goes on in his letter to describe these false teachers in greater detail, before closing out the letter with exhortations to the churches to stand firm and build themselves up in the faith, but for now, we will stop here and spend the rest of our time considering how these warnings apply to the church in our day. Because we should make no mistake: this is a warning bell that should be ringing in the ears of every generation of Christians until Jesus returns. Our enemy hasn’t taken a vacation; he is still seeking to steal, kill, and destroy. He is still sowing weeds among the wheat field. And he’s still sending out false teachers to try to ensnare true and false converts in a web of deception.

So I want to close with some applications and exhortations for you, brothers and sisters:

Hold fast to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

You may have heard it said before, but the way that federal agents learn how to recognize counterfeit money isn’t by spending their time looking at fake bills but by extensively studying the authentic ones. Beloved, we have been graciously given the very words of God, in a book preserved through the ages. We have no reason not to study it, to fill our minds and hearts with it, to know the truth and be able to distinguish truth from the “almost-but-not-quite-truth” or the “truth-plus-a-little-something-else.” And we don’t study the Scriptures merely to increase our knowledge (this was the error of the Pharisees in John 5, who studied the Scriptures thinking that this is what would give them eternal life); we study the Scriptures because we want to know the God who wrote them. When my wife writes me a little card or encouraging note, I don’t put it away without opening it and say, “Thank you so much. I appreciate your thinking of me.” Of course not! I read it and take in its meaning; why? Because I adore my wife, and her words reveal her heart and mind to me. How much infinitely more does the perfect, inerrant, sufficient, authoritative Word of God reveal to us who He is and what He expects of us! Christian, we are to be people of the Book. That is our first and greatest defense against the schemes of false teachers. We need to be diligent to learn these precious truths, so that they shape our thinking and speech.

Be careful whose voices you welcome as your teachers.

We live in a world that is jam-packed with messaging. All day long, we are being bombarded with ideas and suggestions from marketers, influencers, and would-be teachers. Every single piece of media we consume, from books to music to visual entertainment to social media feeds, has a specific worldview behind it. We cannot be naïve about this. We must—MUST—be on guard about which voices we are giving our attention to. Everything we take in and engage with needs to be run through the filter of “Is this true? Is this consistent with what God says in His Word?”

I want to speak a word here specifically to the men in the church, to the husbands and fathers. As a husband and father myself, I want to urge and exhort you my brothers to stand guard over the eyes and ears, the hearts and minds of your household. You are responsible as the spiritual leader of your home to guard your wife and children against those who would try to lead them astray. And I’m not saying that wives or even children are helpless or unable to discern truth from error—not at all; in fact, that should be one of our goals, to teach, train, and help them do just that. And there is a great blessing in having a godly wife who is equally vigilant over herself and her children. My wife recently encouraged me when she watched a movie before showing it to our daughters, and later told me she decided against it because she recognized the subtle worldview implications that were hidden inside the otherwise sweet and innocent-looking cartoon. She understands how media can catechize our children in ways we don’t expect.

Men, we must not follow the pattern of our first ancestor Adam, who passively stood by as his wife was lied to by a false teacher telling sweet little lies about who God is and what He has commanded. We need to be paying attention to what voices come into our homes, into our car radios, into our children’s electronic devices. I’m not calling for a locked-down, 1950’s hyper-fundamentalist “keep out the world” approach either. I spent part of my childhood in that kind of church. That well-intentioned approach doesn’t work. What I’m talking about is active participation in advising and exhorting and supporting your wife, in taking the lead with her help to train your children to engage the world as Christians, to think Christianly, to be good Bereans and measure everything against the Scriptures. We dare not check out and back off, because we’re too busy or we want to avoid conflict in our homes over certain media. Men, your family is being hunted. Our enemy is a predator who wants to ensnare and drag away the hearts and minds of you, your wife, and your children. I’m not being overdramatic. I’m telling you the truth. Let’s get serious about this.

And that even means having a discerning ear when it comes to voices that claim to be Christian. Did you pick up on this from the text? These aren’t teachers from the outside, trying to lure the believers into worshiping an obvious idol. These are false converts, using the language of Christian faith as a cover for worldly philosophy and practice. In other words, we can’t let our guard down when we turn on Pureflix or tune the car radio to the local Christian station. Some of the most damnable heresies are smuggled into our homes through the “safe for the whole family” programming we are fed under the banner of “Christian.” No matter how many times a song says the name Jesus, we need to listen carefully to make sure they’re talking about the right one!

Again, please don’t mishear me: I’m not trying to create an extrabiblical code of conduct or confuse the commands of God with the traditions or cultural preferences of men. But, brothers and sisters, we who have been called, redeemed, and kept by God, who live in this world as strangers and pilgrims, need to remind ourselves what the Scriptures say: anyone who loves this world and its system and its wicked ways does not have the love of the Father in them.

Speak up when it comes time to take your stand.

Finally, we should heed Jude’s exhortation in verse 3: our brother urges the Church then and the Church now not just to hold onto the faith, but to contend, to struggle, to wrestle for it. This means there comes a point where we must engage the people and ideas around us with what we know is true.

This contending isn’t a physical struggle; we’re not called to wage a holy war and physically destroy those who oppose us—that’s not the way of Christ. Rather, as Paul writes in II Corinthians 10:

“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.”

This means that, in the arena of ideas, Christians are called to contend for the truth of God with the weapons God gives us in the way that God commands us to do so. In our generation, as in past generations, the plain truths of the Scriptures are called into question. Today, the Bible’s teaching of God’s design for human sexuality and holy marriage is denied or contradicted as being hateful and harmful. The truth about how the blood of Jesus tears down the dividing wall of racial hostility and gives us new identities in Christ is called insufficient, simplistic, or even oppressive. The insistence that Jesus is Lord of His Church and that we must in all things obey God rather than men is considered by some to be subversive and dangerous. In the marketplace of ideas, we should be ready for these doctrinal truths that we hold to be mocked, opposed, or even shouted down. This should not surprise us. Yet here we stand; we can do no other.

But in the midst of our contending, let’s not forget what we’re fighting for. We are not merely culture warriors; that’s not our true calling. We have not been given a divine mandate to save western civilization or American culture; that’s not our true kingdom. Our king has given us marching orders, based on His having all authority in heaven and on earth, to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that King Jesus has commanded us. That’s our mandate. That’s our mission.

Saints, contend for the faith: in your hearts, in your homes, in the world. To God be the glory.

Zen and the Art of Lawn Maintenance.

Photo by FOX on Pexels.com

Keeping the Stable Clean

An idea I keep coming back to in my thought process (and something I’m pretty sure I’ve discussed here to some degree) is the fact that for many people in the “knowledge work” fields (a.k.a. cubicle cowboys and work-from-home warriors like me), we spend our days trying to empty an inbox or work queue that keeps being refilled constantly.

This means that we a) never really reach a finish line so much as we just run until time runs out at the end of the day (and often beyond); and b) unless we intentionally build a system to do so, we never really see a finished product or evidence of our efforts, the way someone with a physical/mechanical/creative vocation may get to do so.

Our work is more along the lines of Proverbs 14:4 – “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” In other words, if you want to bring in a harvest, you’re gonna have to shovel an endless supply of “ox-pies.”

That’s how it feels sometimes when I look at my work queues and inbox: an endless supply of ox-pies.

And this is a good thing: I am abundantly aware that I have a great job, I make a good living to take care of my family and other obligations, and I don’t begrudge any of that. I’m thankful for how God has given me the strength and the skill to be able to support my family with my mind instead of my muscles.

But the downside of this is that I spend what seem like endless hours–as much as half of my waking life–staring at a screen and typing on a keyboard, responding, editing, filing, uploading. And at the end of the day, the screen seems just as full, or if it’s not, it will be by the time I sit down the next day.

I suspect my wife feels the same way, because even in the physical work of managing our home and caring for our daughters, she faces the same prospect endless “ox-pies”–sometimes in the form of actual dirty diapers (or puddles on the floor), as well as dirty dishes, cast-about toys and books, piles of laundry, and any number of other messes that get cleaned up in order to get dirty again almost instantly.

But while the endless loop of clean-up and reset is the same, there’s a subtle difference: when I wash a sink of dishes and wipe down the counters at the end of the day, I actually see progress, even if the progress is short-lived. I enjoy seeing that difference.

That’s why I both hate and love mowing my yard.

Welcome to the Jungle

We’re renting our current house–the second house I’ve rented as an adult after a decade of apartments as a single. At our previous house, I was only responsible for maintaining the backyard, which had the square-footage of a back bedroom. I could cut the grass with a weed-eater.

Our current yard has a huge (or, normal-sized for a suburban home) front yard and a much bigger back yard. My kids love it–plenty of room to run around and play and set up all kinds of toys and climbing structures. But now, halfway through our first summer at this location, I’m exhausted by how quickly the grass grows.

I really have two choices: mow it every 4-5 days (which is a bit tricky because where we are, we have gotten summer showers almost daily for the last month), or let it grow until a day when it’s convenient to me to mow it, which means our house looks like *that* house on the block and I can only mow a few feet at a time before having to clear the blades of the mulched grass. Also, it’s nearly 100 degrees. It takes a lot.

Yet with all that–the mowing, the edging, the heatstroke–the adage that is so often applied to writing fits here: I hate mowing. I love having mown.

When you push a lawnmower, it feels tedious; around and around and around the perimeter of the grass you go (unless you’re insane and use some sort of back-and-forth approach…weirdo). But even as it seems tedious, you’re making progress that can be seen. The rectangle of uncut grass gets smaller. The ground you just crossed shows an instant change. Once you go over the edges of the sidewalks with the edger, the soft lines of green become crisp around the concrete paths. Clippings are swept (at least back onto the yard where they somewhat blend in; I’m not THAT committed to perfection). The home looks more cared for. It feels a bit like the mandate that God gave Adam in the Garden of Eden: to keep it and cultivate it. Make it fruitful. Bring order to chaos.

I’m not a “lawn” guy; I don’t obsess on such things. If I didn’t absolutely have to do it, I wouldn’t usually give my lawn a single thought. But after cutting the grass, cleaning up the edges of the sidewalks, and sweeping the clippings away, I pass by the front windows a little more often for the first few days, just to admire my handiwork. It never looks perfect; I’m not going to win any Yard of the Month awards from the HOA. But it’s satisfying to be able to look at it and think, “I did that. That’s the difference I made.” If my wife doesn’t comment on the lawn enough (and really, why should she?), I’ll fish for compliments by saying, unprompted, “Yep, the lawn looks a lot better.” She’ll usually humor me and agree.

Maybe it comes down to this: I like being able to see that my strain and sweat and toil has produced something and made a difference in the world around me. And I like it when those closest to me can see it and appreciate it too. In my current job, it feels like I just go into my office, tap on a computer for 9 or 10 hours, and walk out (sometimes later), and nothing much seems to change, and then I get money deposited into my bank account twice a month. I’m a cog in a very important machine that helps sick people get well, but this cog only gets to see the gears on either side of him turn; he doesn’t get to see what happens down the line.

I dunno. Maybe I just need to stop overthinking things.

But I also need to mow my yard today, so I guess it’s just on my mind.

(No, I’m not using this post to procrastinate until it rains, shut up.)

Saturday Videodrome Redux! (7/17/2021)

Photo by Pietro Jeng on Pexels.com

Happy…uh, SATURDAY, friends!

Hope your weekend is starting off great. My week has been a wild one (including one of my kids needing an emergency visit at the pediatric dentist–YIKES), but I’m excited for the weekend.

Here to help you get the fun started is another round of video recommendations from yours truly–the weird, wild, and goofy things I’ve collected from Youtube over the last couple of weeks. Hope you enjoy!

Analyzing a lesser-known Twilight Zone episode set at Christmastime:

The story behind Radiohead’s original version of the theme song for the James Bond film Spectre, and why it’s better than Sam Smith’s song.

Here’s the full track by Radiohead:

Another “Inside A Mind” video–this time about a wild ARG connected to a TV show (and Jason Segel).

I shared a video last time about Meow Wolf’s latest art experience, “Omega Mart.” Here’s a full walk-through, for those of us who will never make it out to Las Vegas to see it for ourselves.

If you haven’t seen In the Heights yet, this is spoilery, but it’s a neat examination of how the movie and stage show differ. I haven’t see the movie yet, but couldn’t help myself and had to dig in, and I think this is pretty cool, if true.

Okay, guilty pleasure admission: I *love* all the international versions of the music competition show The Voice. You can find the coolest performances and covers on these other versions. Here’s a neat cover of “Seven Nation Army” on The Voice of Ukraine that I was not expecting AT ALL. (You can click this link here if you don’t want to watch the 2-minute pre-roll package that’s entirely in Ukrainian.)

(Yes, the guy is a total goob. But the arrangement is dope–and sounds like it could be a stadium anthem for a World Cup match.)

And finally, one more tune: Let me leave you with the Power of Love. Have a good weekend, everybody!

“Let Me Go, I’m Only Letting You Down…”

Photo by Mizzu Cho on Pexels.com

If you follow me on social media, I’m probably going to disappoint you at some point, if I haven’t done so already.

I’m not going to do it on purpose, mind you. I try to keep things pretty light and avoid unnecessary squabbles. I may retweet more “controversial” things, but only if they’re things I truly believe, and even then I’ll admit that I weigh the importance of the issue to the potential negative feedback I might receive. I’d never go out of my way to act like a proverbial internet troll. There have been a few times where I’ve gotten pretty heated about a subject and that comes out in a quick thread that may or may not stay up for more than a few minutes, but usually when I tweet from the spleen, I’ll refrain from hitting “send” or will delete the posts pretty quickly once the moment of anger passes.

All in all, as much as I can, I keep it pretty low-key. It’s more fun for me that way. But even with that approach, I will still disappoint you. (Depending on how up-to-date you are with “cancel culture,” I may have even disappointed you with my post title.)

About 6 months ago, I discovered that over the course of just a few days, I had deeply disappointed folks in two opposite ideological directions. What can I say, I’m just that talented.

You say you want a revolution…

If you’re an American citizen and/or a news junkie, the date “January 6th” holds a new level of meaning after this year. No matter where you land on the political spectrum, the date might inspire some sort of visceral response, even now. In the heat of the moment, it certainly did so for me.

I was in the middle of a particularly plodding Zoom meeting and decided to check the news; it was the day that the presidential election results were scheduled to be certified, and the buzz was that there may be some rhetorical fireworks in the People’s Chamber. (Little did they know.)

As I started to see the raw footage being shared over social media and network news feeds, I was shocked. The Capitol, surrounded by a crowd pressing in at the doors, smashing windows, crossing barriers and security gates, celebrating like they just captured the enemy’s castle. From my virtual vantage point, the mood was a swirl of elation, outrage, and undefined hunger looking for an outlet.

When I saw footage of mobs smashing buildings and burning businesses and cars last summer, I viewed it with a mix of resignation and bewilderment; the logic of looting is something I’ll never fully comprehend. But when I saw this raucous crowd push their way into the Capitol, I felt something else: indignation. It felt like a civic transgression had taken place. I was incensed.

So, like so many watching news they can’t do anything about from a distance they can’t cross, I did the only thing I could think of: I tweeted about it. (Spoiler: This was a mistake.)

My comments were basically that anyone who had been trafficking in weeks of reckless rhetoric about election fraud and Deep State coup owned a little piece of the chaos unfolding, because my position in that moment (and to be honest, even now to some degree) is that there seems to be a pretty clear line from one to the other. If you tell people enough times and in enough ways that their country was being stolen by corporate and political powers who were defrauding them of their ability to vote and that they need to show up at a certain place and time to “fight for their country,” I don’t think you can then see a mob busting into the building chanting “Stop the Steal!” and throw your hands up like Captain Renault, shocked that there’s gambling going on in Casablanca. My tweets were essentially, “Here are your winnings, sir.”

In my head, I had in mind certain political talking heads and commentators–the tastemakers of the right. But hoo boy, did that not communicate well, and members of our church family reached out to my fellow elder and our lead pastor to let him know about it. (Fewer of them reached out to me directly, but that’s neither here nor there.) Thankfully, one of them did follow the Matthew 18 directive, confronted me about the tweets (which he felt were reckless and directed against some members of our church family), and exhorted me to take them down, saying they did not reflect well on the Gospel or our church. I realized I’d really stepped in it this time, so I screenshotted the offending posts, sent everything to my fellow elders for review, and took them all down. It took a while, and multiple conversations, to try to heal the offense I’d made against certain members of my church family. I’ve been able to have coffee with the offended brother and work out some of the misunderstanding, but it would have been better for me to take a minute and breathe and try to communicate things in a wiser manner.

Guilt by Association…

A few days later, I mentioned on Twitter (why am I still on there?) that I had an account on the social media platform Parler, in case people wanted to follow me there. As you may recall, this was one of the several times in the last year that conservatives on Jack Dorsey’s platform were threatening to pull up stakes and move elsewhere (which is about as convincing as when progressives threaten to move to Canada if Republicans win elections).

Now, in the interest of clarity: I originally set up that account because I was thinking it might be a nice, encouraging, apolitical alternative to Jack’s platform. (Silly me.) I used it a little bit, didn’t really like the interface, and saw that the folks I followed from Twitter onto Parler (mostly pastors and writers and podcasters) were actually MORE abrasively political there than they were elsewhere, so I just stopped using it. I kept the account as a placeholder with a link back to this blog, but otherwise haven’t really touched it since late 2020 (as far as I can recall).

I mentioned to my Twitter followers that I had an account over there they could follow, on the off-chance Jack became too inhospitable toward overtly Christian content or content that was too far to the right. (Which, I recognize, seems silly given my stated philosophy of “keeping it chill,” but as it turns out, some of my mutuals are starting to take heat from the tech overlords, so hey, better safe than sorry. Besides, I have a “brand” to maintain.)

I soon got a rather disapproving comment from a mutual follower on the left side of the political aisle who was shocked that I would even have an account on that platform. I’m not “real-life” friends with this person, but we’ve interacted positively several times online, so I was a bit surprised by her comment. She indicated that Parler was a place for those who wanted “people like her” dead. She posted a few screenshots from random Parler users saying particularly crazy things and said she would never want to be associated with a site that engaged in that sort of hate speech. I tried to respond that a) I’m sorry there are posts like that; b) that’s not why I’m using it or who I interact with; and c) I’m really not using it that much anyway (for the reasons outlined above). By that point, the conversation had pretty much ended, and I’ve gotten radio silence ever since.

It’s funny how much a little bit of push-back like that can catch you off-guard when you’re not used to getting it.

“You’re not as brave as you were at the start…”

Thinking back over these interactions, I realize that I could have acted differently in two opposite ways, but somehow with the same end result.

Rather than taking the path of conciliation and explanation, I could have just said “No.” I could have argued my case, cited examples to back it up, poked holes in the accusations. I could have even turned the arguments against these people–arguing that if you’re so offended, perhaps it’s you who are the problem. Doing that would have perhaps gotten me the argument “win,” but at the cost of potential continued friendship or loss of having a voice in that person’s life. That’s a bad bargain for such a fleeting prize.

I instead could have avoided the issue altogether. Said nothing. Kept my head down. Stayed off social media. (There’s always a good case to be made for that.) But I don’t think that would have been any better. Sure, I could have avoided the drama that week, but sometimes living an honest and open life means you are going to rub up against people who just don’t like what you have to say. I’ve spent too much of my life trying to avoid that kind of conflict by being pleasant and agreeable. That’s part of my peacemaking people-pleasing nature. And in the end, am I really maintaining the relationship with someone to whom I’m unwilling to tell the truth? (The irony of this is, we’re slowly reaching the point in which “keeping it chill” stops working and you’re no longer allowed by your peers to avoid taking a position on certain issues.)

I think I need to be braver about saying what’s true and good and right on social media, even if it’s unpopular. I should be willing to get pushback if it can open up dialogue and provoke thought from others. I also need to be wiser and more prudent with my words. I think I’m growing in that, but I know I’ve got far to go.

I probably should get off Twitter eventually, because the balance of usefulness and connection to distraction and frustration is shifting too far to the latter. Until that day comes, if you choose to follow me on Twitter, just know that I’m probably going to let you down. I’ll say something you don’t agree with or are even offended by. And if you decide to push back, to argue, to call me out, I hope that I answer you well. I’m going to try to do so with grace and wisdom, for your good and for God’s glory rather than for a rhetorical win.

But I am going to answer you.

Friday Feed Videodrome! (6/25/2021)

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

Hi friends! Wow, it’s been a crazy month–but crazy in a rather mundane way, to be honest. The busyness of life is the business of living, yeah? (I think I just made that up; feel free to quote me.)

I actually have a handful of half-written posts that I just haven’t been able to get back to and finish (and frankly, some of them may now be too irrelevant to follow to completion). But starting next week, I’m hoping to put up at least 1 non-#FridayFeed post per week, for at least the rest of the summer. Hold me to that.

In the meantime, how about a slew of entertaining and/or informative videos? I’ve collected a bunch that I think you might enjoy. (And because it’s late at night as I’m typing this, my headings are all a bit goofy. Oh, well.)

Have a great weekend!

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Dip it in the ranch!

Mostly peaceful!

Laid-back tunes from Tyler of TOP!

Space-rock, Melodicka style!

LMM’s Theatrical Genius!

More of Lin’s Genius on Display!

Wait for it…

Trippy Art Experience!

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Your turn: Found anything unique or cool on the internet? Consider the com-box your opportunity for show and tell!

“They’re all Cylons.”

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A parable, generally applicable:

My wife and I watched through the 2000’s version of Battlestar Galactica several years ago (her first watch, my second). For those unfamiliar, this iteration of the sci-fi classic involves a resumption of hostilities between the human race and a race of extraterrestrial cyborgs called Cylons that, in the interim since the last war, have discovered how to create versions of themselves that pass for human. Part of the ongoing mystery of the show revolved around the identities of the “final five” Cylon models, who likely were seeded among the main cast like sleeper agents, unaware of their true nature until they are activated.

This meant that anytime anyone in the main ensemble did anything remotely suspicious (or sus, for you younger readers), my wife immediately said with conviction, “Oh, that one’s definitely a Cylon.” When I pressed her on this, she eventually joked, “That’s because they’re all Cylons!” [Ironic spoiler redacted]

When a few of her assertions eventually proved true, she proudly pointed at the TV and said, “See? I totally called that.” When I questioned how many of her othere guesses were actually wrong, she waved my comment away and just repeated with a smile, “I called it.”

The way she saw it, if you make enough accusations of nefarious plotting and hidden agendas, being proven right a few times more than makes up for being proven wrong a great many more times.

Let the reader understand.

Current Thoughts on the Forever Plague.

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To be honest, as I’m writing it, this post seems ill-advised.

After all, putting your opinions out there into the ether on social flash-points like the current worldwide plague is just asking for trouble–at least, if you don’t toe the party line of those holding the levers of power. It’s double-trouble if you don’t fall squarely into one faction or another, because then partisans from both sides are incensed, for opposing reasons.

My best bet is that I’m enough of an internet nobody that this will be just another little bubble blipping through the raging ocean of online content, unremarkable and unworthy of much attention.

Why do it, then?, you may ask. Fair question. To be honest, this is a generally-available post that is written with a few specific people in mind who may be curious/concerned about what this internet nobody thinks on the matter. Rather than simply send an email or make a phone call, I figured this would be a good way to get my thoughts out in a cohesive manner; plus, it might be an interesting bit of reading for someone outside of that small circle. Or perhaps I sub-consciously crave the sturm und drang of rage-comments from angry internet trolls, because my prideful little heart loves those sweet, sweet traffic spikes.

Whatever the motivation, here we are and here we go. (And, as my favorite former blogger and Calvinist gadfly would sometimes say, “pack a lunch.”)

“Before the dark times… before the Empire…”

When the coronavirus pandemic broke bad last February/March, I took it seriously and was rather concerned. After all, so little was known about how the virus spread, but the numbers spiked pretty quickly, it seemed. I checked the Johns Hopkins C19 dashboard at least daily, if not a few times a day, ruefully noting where the increases popped up (and side-eyeing China’s numbers that magically seemed to level off to zero for no explainable reason…). It reached a point where I realized I was checking it multiple times a day and letting those increases in the totals weigh more and more heavily on my heart.

I was also anxious for my own family. As infections began to grow in the US, and we learned that comorbidities like high blood pressure (check) and morbid obesity (double-check) contributed to higher rates of hospitalization and death, I knew that I had unwittingly set myself to be in the danger zone if I ever caught the disease. Add to that the knowledge that several of my loved ones faced the same dangers.

Even though the infection rates and death rates were not as sweeping as past epidemics and pandemics had been, we also didn’t really know where the ceiling was or what if anything could be done. The messaging coming from the medical establishment and national and local governments were inconsistent at best in those early months and downright insane on some days (two words: disinfectant infusions). The common thread (eventually) became pretty clear: keep your distance, wash your hands, wear a mask, limit outside contact.

This seemed sensible to me. While some people immediately started decrying governmental over-reach and questioned the reality of the virus (often with statements like “Do you actually KNOW anyone who has gotten really sick?”), as best as I could tell, these instructions made logical sense. (In fact, I appreciated finding a Martin Luther quote from the Black Plague (?) era in which he advised a friend to do pretty much the same things.) Even if the ultimate usefulness of masking may have been in question, my thought was that even a 10% “buff” on protection from spreading or inhaling viral particles was worth the relatively minor inconvenience and discomfort of masking up.

I heard more and more stories of people who refused to wear masks when they were in public. I didn’t think it made sense to refuse the mask when going into a private business that requested it; after all, as a conservative, I think businesses should have the right to mandate or not mandate such things. If we don’t think bakers should be strong-armed into “baking the cake,” then other businesses shouldn’t be strong-armed into enforcing the mask or not. Thats seemed to me to be the most consistent conservative position on the issue. (Spoiler alert: It still does, I think.)

Thing is, I wasn’t just making these decisions for me or my family.

Shepherding a Divided Flock

I’m an elder at my church, so my understanding of the virus and its implications had ripple effects that extended beyond my household and into my church family.

A big part of our discussions in the “elder room” (okay, it’s just a conference room in the church building but “elder room” sounds cooler, doesn’t it?) was weighing the conflicts between honoring the consciences and concerns of those who were opposed to mask-wearing and those who were in high-risk groups and had serious anxieties about being around unmasked people. We knew there were a lot of conflicting voices outside of our church (from various pastors, bloggers, and parachurch ministries) who were speaking into the lives of our congregants in very dogmatic ways. Even pastors and theologians whom I’ve admired for years were coming out with what I consider to be some really reckless statements over the course of the last year. In other words, we weren’t the only people discipling our flock, so we had to be able to address the questions that other teachers were raising in the minds of our folks.

In the end, we felt we didn’t have the luxury of being so dogmatic about this issue as those outside voices were (and are). Early on, we only had a few folks who got sick, but by God’s grace, we were able to open up after just a month or two of online-only “services,” with distancing and masking protocols in place. (Add this to the fact that we had literally just merged two churches into one, with our first week “together” having to be cancelled at the start of the pandemic lockdowns.) We recommended masks but tried to make allowances for medical or conscience issues contravening mask usage. We had frequent meetings and phone calls and emails from each side of the debate, informing us how we should act and how we could better serve their needs. There were misunderstandings and mis-statements that caused confusion and hurt feelings. It was a very hard season. (Point of fact, it still is a very hard season.) Through it all, we tried to meet the disparate needs of many folks, not perfectly, but as best as we could. We tried to keep a level head, look at the data available, and make the best decision we could.

Of course, things took an interesting turn when a good portion of our church family got Covid (including me).

Sidebar #1: No, it’s not just the flu.

I got sick just before Christmas. In God’s undeserved mercy, I was not so sick that I needed to be hospitalized, though the risk factors were certainly there. But getting Covid definitely proved the assertion that “it’s just the flu” is a complete lie.

How is Covid-19 different than the flu? 1) It’s slower to reveal itself, which means it’s easier to infect other people before your symptoms become apparent; 2) It hits harder than the flu does; I had both in 2020, and while the flu is nasty, Covid is worse; and 3) It lingers longer than the flu does. My flu experience was a rough 1-2 weeks, all told. My Covid experience? A week-plus of primary symptoms and then a solid 4-6 weeks of greatly diminished lung capacity. That stinker just HUNG ON for weeks. I was starting to get nervous that I was one of those cases where the disease doesn’t get better for months, before finally I started to get my wind back. And who knows, there may still be some long-term health issues that can be traced back to it. My lungs are always sensitive, so this certainly doesn’t help.

Look, if you had a different experience, and Covid was easy for you, I’m very happy for you. Sincerely. Because getting Covid stinks. But I need to emphasize that your mild experience was your. mild. experience. It’s unwise to extrapolate that everyone else is making too much of it because it was no big deal for you (just as it would be unwise for someone with a really bad experience to assume it’s always that way).

Returning to Normal?

Our church suffered a minor outbreak at the end of 2020, and we didn’t freak out. We didn’t roll everything back to how it was at the beginning. We didn’t change our masking policy. We just made the decision to shut down for 2 weeks to give the infections a chance to burn out a bit. We reopened after that, and have been open ever since.

As we have watched the local infection rates go down and vaccine injection rates go up, we’ve gradually made the decision to return our services to more normal settings–not as fast as some would have liked (and faster than others would have preferred). Rather than having the “mask-only” and “mask-recommended” folks meet in different buildings on campus, we now have “masked” sections in our main hall, so that we’re all under one roof. We’ve also changed our stance from mask-recommended to mask-optional (oh, how I have learned the importance of semantics this past year!). We don’t disparage or discourage people from wearing masks if they feel they need to for medical safety, but we don’t require or encourage it anymore. We are also actively pursuing members who are still staying away from the corporate gathering and encouraging them more and more to return to gather with us again. Our hope in the coming year is that we will soon be back to normal, with everyone who is physically able to attend joining with us each Sunday in worship.

It hasn’t always been easy. There are still some difficult conversations to have and some relationships that were bruised by these debates that need to be restored. We’re hopeful that God will heal what’s been wounded in our church family, as he is doing in so many other churches all over the world.

Jab, Jab, Uppercut.

One pain point that still gets discussed has to do with vaccines. So let’s go ahead and go there.

I got the jab. I looked at the available data, tried to filter out the hysteria, and made the best decision I could for myself and my family. A vaccine is not a silver bullet or a promise that I will never get infected (as evidenced by the fact that I still got the flu after getting last year’s flu vaccine). But based on the available data, this was the sensible thing for me to do, and I expect it will be a positive for me from this point forward. And, like masking, I used my best judgment to decide that there was sufficient information about vaccine safety, and I was okay with the level of risk versus level of benefit.

(And if you’ve got a meme or graphic to send me proving that I’m wrong, hang on, because I’m coming to you in a minute.)

I know that vaccines aren’t for everyone. I get that. There are people I know and care about who have made a different decision. That’s fine, as long as it’s being made with clear eyes and isn’t driven by misinformation and half-baked conspiracy theories. I don’t think it should be compulsory for any reason (especially for church participation). I think it’s paramount to uphold individual autonomy in the subject of invasive preventative medical interventions. And I completely reject the notion of “vaccine passports” or some sort of social pressure to force people to violate their consciences on this issue.

I’ve been asked recently how my opinion on vaccine mandates is consistent with my previous adherence to enforced/encouraged masking (with the person asking the question suggesting that masks are themselves a medical intervention)? My response was/is that masks and vaccines are both medical interventions in the same way that EKGs and arterial stents are both medical interventions; one is quite a bit more invasive than the other. You can put on and take off a mask if necessary. You can’t unvaccinate yourself (no matter how much the heavy-handed rhetoric of certain pols almost makes me wish I could). So, I think it’s consistent to say, in certain contexts, it’s reasonable that a private business or an assembly (such as a church) can recommend wearing a mask, but it’s unreasonable that a permanent action like vaccination should be required for the same access.

Again, you may disagree (and you’re free to do so respectfully in the comments). That’s fine. But that’s where I’m at.

Sidebar #2: Live Not By Memes.

I’ve seen a LOT of Covid-related memes online. A LOT of them. And I’m gonna be honest, y’all: most of them are flat-out ignorant, but are still passed around by some very smart, very thoughtful people as if they were gospel truth.

Can I ask you, exhort you, plead with you to do just this one thing, whenever you see a crazy infographic revealing the TRUTH about COVID or VACCINES or whatever else? Here’s the one thing: Do more research than a single Google search result. Look at multiple sites. Look at the arguments for and against. Seek out primary sources. Do something more than just simply hitting “share.” If you see an infographic on Facebook that delivers a DEVASTATING blow to the other side of the argument, stop and dig into who made the graphic and who they represent. Yes, that would make it a lot slower and more time-consuming for you to share the thing you want to share; that’s the point and it’s a good thing.

Over this last year, I’ve seen a lot of folks suddenly turn into full-fledged epidemiologists and geneticists practically overnight. (It’s amazing how efficient med schools are these days at turning out medical experts.) At least, you’d think that, the way folks sling around their “insider” information.

Maybe, just maybe, it would be good to season your argumentation and meme-sharing with some caution and humility. Otherwise, you not only make yourself look foolish, but you run the risk of lying to your neighbor by sharing a half-truth you haven’t verified.

It’s well past time to start being an honest witness about this issue.

Oh, one more thing: If you use the derogatory slur “face diaper” in reference to masks, you’re being a jerk. Stop it. The implication is gross and demeaning. You’re not being clever; you’re being base. Cut it out. (By the way, any comments on my post using that phrase intentionally will be deleted, with no apologies. Fair warning.)

Breaking The Old Law.

As the “two weeks to flatten the curve” became an ongoing succession of months, with the infection charts showing a run of peaks and valleys, I wondered if we’d ever turn the corner. I began listening to more of the opposing voices, questioning some of the statements and decisions of those in power. I started to wonder if maybe there was more going on than an imperfect but well-intended response to a challenging public health crisis. (If you’re hoping or dreading that I’m about to go full conspiracy theorist at this point, you will be slightly disappointed.)

While I firmly believe that Covid-19 is a real virus, different than a typical flu, that has killed hundreds of thousands in the US and millions abroad, I find myself agreeing with the critics that some of the responses from governmental authorities have been heavy-handed, opportunistic, and based in fear or psychology instead of epidemiology. Early on, we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and caution was warranted. As more information and experience was gained, it became clear that the decision-making of many state and national (and international) leaders was too heavily influenced by political pressures and the desire for greater social control than by consistent, evidence-based reasoning. (No, I’m not even going to engage in the Gr**t R*s*t discussion. Stop that.) As is often the case, the more power a government has, the more it wants to retain that power. It’s just human nature.

So, as the pandemic approached its first anniversary, I was becoming more and more restless about the restrictions in place. Thankfully, we live in a state that is more predisposed to freedom and personal responsibility, with a state government that stays out of the way of church functions and encourages businesses to flourish. (Some call this “neanderthal thinking”; all we have to say to that is, “Scoreboard.”)

Once the vaccine data started being released this spring and certain medical “experts” and politicians were still saying that, despite the actual data on protection, masking should still be encouraged, it became clearer that a certain degree of this cultural push was, if not theatrical, at least more symbolic than interventional. Finally, the CDC announced what the data had already clearly established: vaccination gives you virtual (not perfect, but pretty close) immunity, so masking is now unnecessary. (Crazy–that almost sounds like a certain governor from Florida…weird!)

What’s funny is how that doesn’t seem to make much difference to some folks. I was struck by this last Sunday. I had to run some errands after church, including going to 2 different grocery stores. I had my mask in my pocket, but wasn’t going to put it on unless completely necessary. I checked the front doors of each business, looking for a corporate mask policy, but saw only that masking was recommended, not required, per the recent CDC update.

I walked in, beard-faced (as God intended), and I noticed something that shouldn’t have been shocking but was: almost everyone was still wearing a mask. It was a bit unnerving, to be honest. I mean, statistically, almost half of the folks in the stores have been vaccinated. Why are they still doing this? I was half-tempted to start asking people why they were still masking. Instead, I just tried to smile in a friendly way at every single person I made eye contact with, as if to say, “C’mon, it’s okay, you can take the mask off.” I even made sure to have a few brief conversations with the masked employees there, thanking them for their assistance.

At this point, I suspect some of you reading are smiling and nodding, because this is what you’ve been saying all along: the masking was all about Controlling the Population!!! This was all a SCAM! Etc. Etc. Etc.

I’m not going to go there with you. I still think masking and distancing provide some limited benefits (this is one reason why I think it’s totally understandable that the influenza rates have plummetted this year–not because they’re being miscategorized as Covid, but because we’ve added a certain set of behaviors that drastically minimizes the spread of droplet-borne illnesses!). But I think this kind of anecdotal evidence does point to something true about human behavior: We hang onto what’s familiar, even if it doesn’t make sense, because breaking a habit is hard.

When I walked into a store without a mask, for the first time in over a year, my heart was racing a little bit, because I had internalized the idea that doing so was somehow wrong, that it was some kind of social sin. It makes me wonder if this is a little bit like how Jewish converts to Christianity in the first century felt when they realized that the things formerly “unclean” for them were now acceptable. (It’s probably a terrible analogy, but just go with me.) There was that little bit of trepidation and uncertainty there, along with that unspoken expectation and hesitancy as if you’re waiting for someone to swoop down and smite you for breaking the rules. It makes me appreciate Paul’s sensitivity in encouraging the church to bear with those with weak consciences who were still processing their exit from the old system of rule-keeping.

All this to say, I think it’s going to be a little while before we as a society actually do get back to normal behavior, if it’s ever going to happen. Part of that process is going to require gentle encouragement of the fearful that it’s okay to step out into the sun and breathe a little freer. I think we can get there. I hope we can.

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There’s more to say, I’m sure, but I feel like I’ve said enough for now.

Okay, maybe one more thing: One big takeaway from all of this is that I’ve frustrated a lot of people this past year, and I feel okay about that. I’ve tried to avoid mere tribalism when it came to all of these issues. I’ve tried to learn what I could, listen carefully and critically to people on both sides, and lead my family and my church in a way that was consistent, careful, and wise. I didn’t always do it perfectly, but I sought to do my best in that regard, and that made more than a few people frustrated.

I joke with my wife that I feel like I’m a bit too liberal for my really conservative friends and much too conservative for my really liberal friends. This pandemic year has been no different. (I wonder if one or two of you reading have thought this very thing–what can I say, I like to keep you on your toes.)

If anything, this experience is helping me learn not to be afraid of other people’s opinions. It would do me good to grow a thicker skin. Still more work to do on that front, but, hey, that’s what blog comments are for.

See you in the com box.

Friday Feed (05/21/2021)

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Hey gang! It’s been a while! How is everyone, good? Good.

Here’s a round-up of interesting links and insightful videos I’ve enjoyed over the last several weeks. Take a look and, if you could, let me know in the comments which (if any?) of these links you found interesting or helpful. I would appreciate the feedback so I can tailor these posts to be more beneficial to you!

Here we go:

Let’s close out with an extra-large slate of videos for your lunchtime viewing:

1. I read House of Leaves more than 15 years ago, and I can still remember the very real paranoia and unsettledness that the story and its writing style gave me. It’s not for everyone–there was definitely some “adult”/inappropriate content in there, so I don’t recommend it for everyone. But I agree with this video that it’s one of the most unique reading experiences I’ve ever had.

2. Is this a pretty accurate jab at Doctor Who? Yes. Yes it is.

3. The FEE folks make another good point about how much questionable behavior we gloss over in fictional entertainment because “it’s the good guy doing it.” This time, they focus on Batman’s rampant violations of Gothamites’ privacy:

4. Gen-X anthem? Let’s GOOOOOOOO!!!

5. Another great FEE video on how Avengers: Age of Ultron is a lot more important than most MCU fans realized, and how it has quite a bit to say about our current culture:

6. And finally, what may be my new favorite music video on YT–turning the soundtrack of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time into a 30-minute prog-rock experience. OUT. STANDING.

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That’s all I’ve got, folks. Have a great weekend, and I’ll be back next week. (No really, I mean it this time.)

Embrace the cheug.

Photo by Thunyarat Klaiklang on Pexels.com

This week, I learned the term “cheugy” and immediately hated myself for it.

Apparently, I’m even now hopelessly behind the curve, but, to wit: my understanding of “cheugy” is that it’s a term used by Gen-Z to describe their predecessors as trying and failing to keep up with current style/trends. This term, usually applied to Millenials but equally effective at describing earlier generational tiers, is in the same descriptive wheelhouse as “basic” but describing someone who’s juuuust out of step with the trend, in a cringe-inducing sort of way.

[No, I’m not going to get into the internet conversation about whether or not the term is misogynistic and/or classist, because a) all of this is stupid, and b) I don’t care.]

The reason I bring this up is just to make one brief point: It’s really okay to be considered uncool, because it’s going to happen to all of us eventually.

Yes, yes, I know it doesn’t mean much coming from the south side of the coolness Mendoza line. I just find it funny when I see people online (often Millenials) who suddenly become dismayed at the realization that the wave of haute internet couture has passed them by, leaving them dabbing and yeeting along like so much pop culture flotsam and jetsam.

And before you “OK Boomer” me, my Millenial friend, I hasten to add (somewhat painfully) that by some definitions, I’m considered one of you. (I prefer to identify squarely as an Xennial, because I think that classification best describes me, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Here’s the bitter truth: Time comes for all of us, and there is an ephemeral window in which we each may be in step with the “cool crowd.” Most of the time, we barely realize we’re even in that window before it closes to us forever. Gather ye dank memes while ye may, children.

It’s exhausting and pointless to try to keep up with online trends. Ben Folds was right–there’s always someone cooler than you. Even if you claw your way up to “influencer” or “tastemaker” status, you’re standing on the most unsteady of perches, and all it takes is a tiny change in the cultural winds for you to come tumbling down. Frankly, your precious, limited time on this planet is better spent pursuing something of lasting (or better, eternal) value, rather than chasing the fickle feedback of your peers.

My suggestion, based on personal experience: Stop chasing the cutting edge of cool. Embrace the cheug. Enjoy what you enjoy, even if it hasn’t been popular in months (or, gasp, decades!).

Or better yet, if you’re in my particular age group, go for that “big dad energy” or something like it. It’s inevitable; might as well roll with it. Have some fun even if “fun” isn’t cool. At the end of the day, the delighted laughter of my daughters is worth infinitely more than all the likes and shares that social media can offer me.

I mean, what’s your alternative–being this guy? Don’t be this guy.

How do you do, fellow kids' has become the 'how do you do, fellow kids' of  memes - The Verge