Thursday, July 18, 2019

THE CULTURAL CREED OF THE UNHOMED

If I’m honest, I’m not sure where I fit in anymore.

When I look around to see who is my political neighbor, I realize I’m in a land triangulated between the liberal Left, conservative Right, and those chaotic Libertarians. I didn’t feel like the 2016 presidential candidates from any of those three parties represented my moral universe adequately enough to get my vote. I cringe at CNN and Fox in equal measure. I increasingly feel that it is important for me not to be beholden to a “side” culturally or politically.

I’m just not the kind of guy who can say, “This party or person, do or die.” 

So I increasingly find myself wandering uneasily in the topography of a world that seems intent on filling in all the Valleys full of Gray Uncertainty and leveling all the Hills of Important Nuance.  

Don’t get me wrong - I like the Plains of Certainty and the Fields of Truth. I just want to acknowledge that those mountains and valleys of Uncertainty and Nuance exist. And I don’t want to climb them with cable news talking heads, youtube faux philosophers, conspiratorial bloggers, tweeting politicians or blindly partisan Christian leaders. 

I want fellow explorers who don’t mind the hard work, who know when and how to pick a philosophical fight full of grace and truth, and who will join me at The Brew afterwards at a table full of the laughter and tears of friends because, in the end, we are determined to love each other well in a world that is broken enough already.  

If we can do that with mutual thoughtfulness and respectfulness, that table might just feel a bit like home no matter what land I inhabit.

Here we go, in no particular order: The Cultural Creed Of The Unhomed.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Vaccines and Autism

I've been looking up vaccine rates and autism rates around the world since that topic just can't seem to leave my news feed. I enjoy doing research on issues like this if for no other reason than I am interested in the truth.

The stats can be tricky for several reasons.
  • There are a LOT of things for which people can be vaccinated, and the focus can vary around the world depending on what diseases are prevalent. Most charts focus on either DTP3 or something specific. I have not found a chart that captures everything going on in a particular place. 
  • I can't tell if the full spectrum of autism diagnosis is the same everywhere. In other words, some places could show more cases of autism or an accelerating/decreasing prevalence based on how they establish the range of the spectrum and how many personnel are available to diagnose. It's clear that in the United States, that method and ability to diagnosis are huge factors. The variance of ASD rates between states is crazy simply because of the difference in resources to diagnose and treat. 
  • It's absolutely true that autism have been rising significantly. However, keep in mind that autism wasn't even in the DSM until the early 80s, so there was not autism data before that. Since then, as the definition/understanding has expanded, obviously the diagnosis has grown. In addition, many people who have once been diagnosed with mental illnesses are now considered to be on the spectrum. (See "The Real Reason Autism Rates Are Up In The United States" for more information.) A number of years ago, a study was released showing that certain states in the US had much higher rates of child abuse. That wasn't actually true. Abuse rates are pretty consistent -  if we define abuse the same way in every state.  Poverty can appear to rise and fall in the US not because people's financial situations change, but because we change how we define poverty. In the same way, autism is rising - but that's obviously going to happen as we continue to broaden the diagnosis and focus on diagnosing.
I've always done research on this topic by reading the competing studies, but that usually just leads to my reading a lot of sound and fury. (I don't believe there is a connection, btw - see articles like this from the Annals of Internal Medicine, or "Safety of Vaccines Used for Routine Immunization of US Children: A Systematic Review" from the American Association of Pediatrics, this podcast from Science VS. (which also talks about some of the other possible side effects), or the tons of resources from the Immunization Action Coalition.)

So, I thought I would take a different approach this time and look for what is happening around the world. In spite of the caveats I mentioned earlier, there are trends we can observe. I will be using data from OurWorldInData.org. They compile data from other organizations and make it understandable; they also allow downloads of their charts for use in presentations :)

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

It's Not About The Zombies. It's About Us.

I was talking with a friend recently about monsters and the prevalence of zombies on our screens. For better or worse, this got me thinking. There are three types of fantasy monsters that keep recurring in our cultural storytelling: vampires, werewolves, and zombies. The history of these legends and the ways in which the stories change over time is a fascinating study on its own. I’m more interested about what is happening right now in American culture, and what our take on the stories - particularly the zombie genre - reveals about us.

* * * * *

I think it's worth making a general distinction between how these three monsters have been used as archetypes or stand-ins for the monsters with which we wrestle in the real world. I am painting with a broad brush that is dipped in the stories with which I am familiar. Indulge me. If you would like to broaden or brighten my pallet with your additional observations, feel free. I am exploring this topic, not closing it.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Three Years Later: The Heart Attack Chronicles

My wife just reminded me that on March 31, it will be three years since I had my heart attack. I have blogged before about what went down after that happened ("A Pastor's Reflection On An Unexpected Heart Attack," "Blogs And Heart Attacks," but it's been a while since I've posted any heart attack related thoughts. An anniversary seems appropriate. So... here come thoughts. 

* * * * *


Trauma is real. I'm still coming to grips with the emotional and physiological toll. While my heart is medically cleared to do whatever paces I put it through, my heart was not the only thing that took a hit. It was a systemic attack. The closest thing I've found to an explanation is something called epigenetic trauma. My body has been building a new kind of Anthony for the past three years. I will never be the same. Wrapping my mind around that - and adjusting my expectations for who I am and what I can do - has been a daunting and frustrating journey. My peer group is small, since not a high percentage of folks survive a 100% blockage Widowmaker.

I have had a really, really hard time finding anyone in person or online whose recovery resonates with me. By most accounts I should have bounced back relatively quickly and felt a lot better. Nope, and nope. I am learning to be comfortable with not knowing/understanding and not having people around me know/understand. It's okay, even as I wish it could be different.

Rest is beautiful. Before my heart attack, I was a guy who did a lot. A lot. I really struggled to enjoy rest and relaxation: "I should be doing more"; "I don't want to be lazy"; "successful people push themselves"; "my worth is reflected in my accomplishments". My heart attack forced me to rest, and even now it forces me - if I am wise - to rest proactively rather than reactively. I am still not entirely comfortable with how much less I do, but I am learning to embrace napping, lounging, and not accomplishing much on a given day. Turns our rest is a gift. Who knew? Also, naps are the best.

Health is pursued medically, naturally, and existentially. I got lost for a year reading all kinds of helpful/unhelpful stuff online. There came a point where I had to either throw up my hands and say, "Nobody agrees, so I'm just going to do what I want," or say, "Nobody agrees perfectly - but there are genuine experts, and there are some common threads I can tie together."  I had to make an authentic choice (*nods toward existentialism) that I can follow boldly. That kind of mindset and attitude matters, sometimes as much as the path that is chosen (barring genuine foolishness). 

I like and trust my doctor, which I why I take a statin among other medicines. When I asked her about all the conflicting studies, she smiled gently and said, "Well, I've read the hundreds of studies while in medical school, and you are a prime candidate to be on a statin." Hundreds, you say? But I read 10 online! See how that sounds out loud? I also takes supplements and changed my diet (still working on getting that consistent) because that matters too (and my doctor agreed). Which supplements? The ones I chose after researching and talking with my doctor and the nutritionists at the hospital. (I recommend a book called How Not To Die, by the way. It's very good and not as morbid as it sounds.)  

Time is shorter than I thought. There is a nagging sense of impending death, not one that haunts me but more like a soft nudge that reminds me I am moving toward the end of this life, and that the end may not be as far away as I had planned. This will prioritize some things, let me tell you. I don't want to put off vacations I had planned with my wife; I want to have conversations with my boys now instead of later; I want to help my congregation unpack the Bible more than ever; I spend more time with people vs projects. I still want to maximize my time, but it has to do more now with relationships and presence. My tiredness gets in the way of that more than I would like, but when I'm up and about, that drives me far, far more than it used to. 

I have replaced dreaming about the future with entering into the present. This, for me, is a good thing. I used to be restless and unsettled about unfulfilled dreams I had. My post-heart attack experience has refocused my attention on what I have - and I love it. My family, my church, my friends, my opportunities here in Traverse City, my teaching - this really is what I have wanted. I just didn't see what I had. So it's not that I've lost a vision for my life; my vision is now to appreciate more fully what I have been given.

Practical example: I've thought for a while about a new and better house. You know what? My house is fine. You know what I would do in a bigger house? The same thing I do in my house now, except I would have to spend more time cleaning and mowing. I'm good. If, however, you would like to give me property by some water somewhere, message me. 

Dear God, I love my family. My imperfect, wonderful, challenging, soothing, annoying, delightful, confusing, lovely family. Also, shout out to my lovely and gracious wife. My heart attack has impacted her. I am a different man than the one with whom she spent 23 years, and, as she told a friend, it's like learning a new and difficult dance just when you thought you had the dance figured out. She is patient, and kind, and in my corner - a corner in which I am often napping. 

Naps are the best.

I'm fed up with Empire. The values of the American Empire and the alluring siren call of political power, Wall Street wealth and Hollywood glitter bother me more than ever. What does God require of His people? To do justice and love mercy. Dear God, our nation is so bad at both. We, His people, ought to be the ones who don't follow people, personalities, and parties that live large lives of arrogance, greed and lust in an empire that is not our home. We don't have time to be distracted by this. We don't have time to have our witness compromised by this. It's boots-on-the-ground, love-thy-neighbor time in the most practical of ways with people whose faces are in front of us. I might not see the person I am having coffee with again. Dear God, let my distractions be few, my priorities right, my loves ordered in the service of the Kingdom. 

I love the community of God's people more than ever.  I long for a taste of heaven now, and I believe God intends His church to be the place where we experience what an old hymn called a 'foretaste of glory divine': love, repentance, forgiveness, grace, graciousness, patience, truth, justice, mercy, kindness, radial generosity, relationship, transparency, honesty, and a sense of family. 

It's hard, y'all. 

I need this kind of Kingdom community more than ever, and I'm trying to offer it more than ever. I don't have time to mess around on this. Not to be morbid, but I don't know how much time I have. I want my wife and my boys to be deeply implanted in a community that is all of those things listed above because I don't know what my future holds, and I don't know when God's people will need to be God's comfort and peace for them. If I can be a part of building that kind of community, I want to do that with my time not just for their good but for God's glory.  

* * * * *

I've been telling more and more people lately, "I really recommend a heart attack." I'm kind of joking, but only kind of (and granted, they don't laugh). I don't like the ongoing physical impact it had; what I mean was that it did indeed refocus my life in important ways. 

I don't want another heart attack so I can mature more - I'm not stupid. But if I have to walk that road again, I pray that it will do what the other one did: lead me out of where I am, as broken and blessed as it is, and into an even better place either here or in the world to come.  God gets to make that call - and He is good. #all the time

Sunday, March 10, 2019

If We Want To Be Taken Seriously

The list of people I know who are leaving the church or questioning their faith during the past several years is growing. The reason they give is consistent. It's not a growing doubt because of an intellectual struggle; they lose interest in Jesus because they have experienced the people of Jesus, and they begin to think, "If this is what Christian transformation into the image of Jesus looks like, I'm not interested."

Some of it is being around Christians who leave no room to wrestle with questions and doubts. Some of it is being publicly shamed by Christians on social media over standard disagreements that should never have escalated like they did. Some of it involves private confrontations characterized by harsh judgment rather than grace and truth. Some of it is the unequivocal  support by Christians of President Trump, who for them is a deeply confusing champion for evangelicals.

A lot of it is that, actually. President Trump seems to represent for virtually all of them the separation between what they thought Christians were supposed to support and applaud vs. what they apparently do. This is the new tension in the American evangelical church, particularly for those under the age of 30. This is not a mere reflection of my musings; this reflects what I have learned through numerous personal conversations and plenty of surveys.

If you argue that it's not there, you're wrong. If you argue that it's not fair, you may be right. The Trump-supporting evangelicals I know – at least the vast majority of them – are undeserving of most of the vitriol aimed at them. They are about as far from ‘deplorable’ as they can get. They constitute many people in my family, my church family, and my friends who love Jesus and love others, and I wouldn't trade them for the world.

Yet, fair or unfair, the reality is that the public witness of the church in general has suffered a huge blow, and this is a matter that must be considered. There is a confusion in a watching world brought on by the perception of an unflinching embrace of a man whose history and many of his ongoing actions stand in sharp contrast to both the ethics and the people whom Christians have historically supported.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Loving Well In An Unwell World

As a culture, we seem to be trending in the wrong direction in so many ways.

  • We shout when we should whisper and whisper when we should shout. 
  • We deride and antagonize those with whom we disagree rather than seeking first to understand and then thoughtfully engage. 
  • We try to win arguments by bullying people rather than compelling them
  • We vomit anger and hurl insults on total strangers before settling for those we know. 
  • We let partisan politics cloud our rationality and empathy. 
  • We worry far more about policies than the people impacted by those policies
  • We want to be first, right, and best without doing the moral or intellectual hard work that would justly place us into any of those positions. 
  • We want to be seen rather than see; be known rather than seek to know; live in comfort, security and ease rather than give sacrificially of ourselves for the sake of others. 

The world is not well. Neither are we. This is probably nothing new. Maybe I'm just noticing it and feeling it more than I have before.

Is there an answer? I think there is: love. This sounds trite; even as I say it, I've got pop songs that make me laugh or cringe running through my head.



There is a danger that saying "Love is the answer!" trivializes the situation. But love - real love - is not trivial, and neither are the situations into which it enters.

So let's talk about loving well in an unwell - and often unloving - world.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

One Pastor's Thoughts On Teaching The Bible In Public Schools

I’m an evangelical pastor. I taught in a Christian school for twenty years, and I have taught an introductory Bible class for a Christian college for the past several years. I love the Bible, and I love the literary aspects of the Bible. It may seem odd, then, that I am uncomfortable with the idea of a Bible class being taught as literature in public schools. I will give you my reasons; I welcome your feedback and discussion.

First, I think that presenting the Bible merely as literature reduces it to just another book. England has taught the Bible in public schools for years. Meanwhile, the percentage of people claiming to be Christian has plummeted, especially among those under thirty. Here's the dilemma: teaching the Bible as literature is entirely different than teaching that the Bible as revelation. There is a reason atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens advocated for the Bible being taught in schools. They weren’t concerned at all about it having a religious influence, because they knew who would control the context. Just to get  feel for where this would go in the United States, check out this article from The Telegraph: “WANTED: Atheist to teach religion. Knowledge of the Bible not necessary but experience of asylum seekers an advantage.” 

Second, whoever writes the curriculum is going to have a HUGE influence on how the students absorb what they are presented. I think we can all agree it’s not going to be a curriculum from David C. Cooke or Zondervan. It’s going to be from someone like Harcourt-Brace (they make great resources for teaching literature, btw. I used their stuff for years). If David C. Cooke were to make a curriculum about Islam, do you think their bias would creep in? Of course it would, and that's not an insult. It's inevitable. There will be a position taken about the subject matter by whoever makes the curriculum, and that position will influence how teachers and students process the information.

Third, asking someone who is ambivalent or even directly opposed to the messages of the Bible to teach the Bible would be like asking me to teach a class on Scientology. Yeah, it’s never going to get the benefit of the doubt. When I taught an Introduction To The Bible class for a Christian college, I used a Christian curriculum and still supplemented like crazy with resources like The Bible Project. I did this because I had the freedom to seek to make the Bible compelling; I could go into the highways and byways an compel people to come in. This is not what is being proposed in a public school Bible class, and rightly so. A Bible class now is a Quran class later.  In my opinion, this is not a can of worms we want to open.

Fourth, this is going to be difficult for Christian students. Envision a class that claims the book of Exodus chronicles God-ordained genocide. How many middle or high school students can offer John Walton’s or Paul Copan’s arguments against that reading? Old Testament Law? Oh boy. Apocalyptic literature? An understanding of covenants, and why animal sacrifice was important to the ANE? Any concept of cultural context that adds soooooo much explanation to so many confusing things? How the Household Codes of the Romans are echoed and improved in Paul’s writing? Would they be assigned Sarah Rudan’s Paul Among The People or Matthew Rueger’s Sexual Morality In A Christless World before engaging Paul's teachings on sex, slavery, and the role of women in the family and church?

* * * * *

My sense is that this kind of environment will do more to dissuade Christian students from their faith than it will to persuade non-Christian students toward the faith. Until churches all across the United States have a rigorous training program in place for children teaching them to understand and defend their faith, I fear that a class like this will do more harm than good to the enterprise of the gospel.

It is the job of the church and Christian educational institutions to make the gospel message of the Bible compelling. The government’s job is to protect our freedom to do that. If we are deeply unhappy with what our local school is teaching or not teaching to our kids, maybe it’s time to reconsider our educational choices.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Toxic Men, Toxic Women, And The Toxic Cultures That Nourish Them



Gillette, in an oddly incongruous act of virtue signaling [1] - or, more generously, cause marketing -  has recently released a controversial ad about what has been called "toxic masculinity."  You can watch the video above; here is an (imperfect) script based on my notes from watching the video:
"Bullying, the #metoo movement, violence, pornography, sexual harassment... Is this the best a man can get? Is it? We can't hide from it. It has been going on far too long. We can't laugh it off. Making the same old excuses (group of men: "Boys will be boys..."). But something finally changed (female news anchor: "Allegations involving sexual assault and sexual harassment..."). And there will be no going back. Because we ... We believe in the best in men (Terry Crews: "Men need to hold other men accountable." Two other clips show guys stopping other guys from harassing/catcalling a woman).  To say the right thing. To act the right way. Some already are, in ways big and small. (Clips of men playing with daughters, connecting across racial lines, and stopping bullying). But some is not enough. Because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow."
There are a number of things worth addressing in this cultural moment, so here we go.

WE ARE APPARENTLY AGREEING THAT THERE ARE SOME CHARACTERISTICS THAT ARE MASCULINE VS. FEMININE

I think we have to in order to even have this discussion.  The Atlantic quotes a bunch of studies that  think so:
“In a 2008 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a group of international researchers compared data on gender and personality across 55 nations. Throughout the world, women tend to be more nurturing, risk averse and emotionally expressive, while men are usually more competitive, risk taking, and emotionally flat. But the most fascinating finding is this: Personality differences between men and women are the largest and most robust in the more prosperous, egalitarian, and educated societies. According to the authors, ‘Higher levels of human development—including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth—were the main nation-level predictors of sex difference variation across cultures.’" 
In other words, men and women are different. [2] This does not mean all men or women fit neatly into a particular mold. My wife and I are exhibits A and B of this. It's simply an acknowledgment of generally correlative characteristics that emerge in men and women. I know this is a hotly debated topic, but we can't even talk about something that is uniquely, toxically masculine (or feminine) without at least have some kind of foundation that acknowledges gendered differences. As a friend and fellow pastor/blogger noted:
"In order for us to rail against toxic masculinity we have to admit there is such a thing as healthy masculinity. Any bad is dependent upon the good. Any evil is a deprivation of the good or a violation of a good purpose. You must have a good purpose before you can violate it. Yes, masculinity exists, or else it couldn’t turn toxic."

WHAT IS TOXIC MASCULINITY, REALLY?

There is no universally accepted definition, but the explanations I found follow a general theme.