This week, Christianity Today published an article entitled “Barbie and Taylor Swift Are Bringing Us Together.” The author described how the epic trifecta of Barbie, Beyonce, and Taylor Swift have thematically marked the summer of 2023 as a “Tween Girl Summer.” They note it as a cultural moment in which women are allowed to have fun all while “helping women reclaim girlhood without rescinding power.”

Many may remember this summer as a party of pink, but to draw such singular conclusions is to miss how many other Americans will likely remember it instead. For all the thirty-something moms carpooling in diamonds to sing their hearts out on another night with Taylor, many other stadiums worth of people will be remembering the much different words of Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Many will remember the summer of 2023 for the Bud Lights they didn’t drink, the government finally admitting there are UFOs, and that now famous line about politicians and minors. Some may call it the summer of pink, but it’s time we talked about blue-collar men.

In addition to their celebration of the way in which Barbie has brought us together and reinforced the “spending power of women,” Christianity Today also released a story on the current Apple Music number one hit—it isn’t by Taylor. The CT article charges in its headline, “Oliver Anthony’s Viral Hit Doesn’t Love Its Neighbor.”

Before wading into this debate, I’m supposed to demonstrate my own blue-collar resume. Should I mention I was born in a small Ozarks town? How about being pretty good with clays and a shotgun? Or I could mention that my dad was a cop. How about my brother being in the marine corps? I have a cousin that’s a professional rodeo announcer.

Fine. To be honest, I don’t qualify for blue-collar status, though many nights you will find me with a guitar trying to convince my daughter to sing along to George Strait. Still, I’m a pastor; strike one. I’m finishing up a doctoral degree; strike two. I don’t even drink; I’ve never had a Bud Light.; strike three—or, actually, that might be a vote in my favor this summer. I have, however, spent much time talking to men over the last few years. Since writing The 5 Masculine Instincts, it’s a topic I’m often asked about and have spent much time discussing. I’d like to offer some thoughts for Christianity Today and the rest of us trying to better understand this moment:

The Point of Oliver Anthony’s Song

The CT author was primarily concerned with Anthony’s joke about those who are obese and on welfare. Point taken. Certainly not a joke I would make, nor am I here for its defense, but to call out that one line is really to miss the song’s point, its (for those paying attention not so) surprising cultural resonance, and the joke itself.

What Anthony is seeking to articulate is the current feeling of many working-class men in this nation—the whole system is stacked against them. Inflation, shifting job markets, and rapidly changing cultural/political correctness has left many overwhelmed, discouraged, and feeling left behind. There are plenty of stats to back up the complaints. Men are dropping out of the workforce, education, marriage, fatherhood, and church participation. Men are more addicted to substances, more prone to isolation and depression, and leading in suicide.

But really, what I think is resonating with Anthony’s song is his willingness to say what many feel they are no longer allowed to. Just search for Anthony’s song, and most articles describe it as “controversial,” “dangerous,” “extreme.” To be fair, I’d suggest you work through the lyrics of the other current top ten songs on Apple. I’ll let you judge our current definition of extreme and controversial. The screenshot is below, so I don’t have to type some of those titles…

As a culture, we have long afforded a large degree of generosity to those voices which seek to articulate the pain and frustration of the oppressed. It’s the explanation every time a protest turns destructive. We’re told this happens when people feel they have no other voice. You might hate everything Oliver Anthony believes and says, but haven’t we said it is our Christian conviction to listen to those who feel like their voices are being drowned out by those in power? Do they have to share your political perspectives to earn your hearing? How much grace are we willing to extend to hear what they have to say?

Suppose you extend Anthony even the smallest benefit of the doubt, even if just momentarily, to try and understand his perspective and why the song has resonated with so many. In that case, I think it’s evident that his intention isn’t to mock the poor on welfare. He is attempting to describe how broken our American systems have become. We have built a society that cripples the working class with the debts of our bureaucracy. We do trap people in systems of welfare. And it’s long been noted that those on Government assistance do face an increased risk of obesity and other increased health risks, partly because inflation has made whole foods out of reach for even many not on welfare. The point of the song is that everything is broken, and no one is allowed to say it. Many working-class men feel like they can no longer provide for their own families, and yet those in power continue to not only gain wealth but dole it out as a political tool for power. Anthony didn’t write a song to mock people on welfare. He wrote a song to try and point out how broken everything feels. He wrote a song to suggest that this new world isn’t working. That is what resonated.

Let me extend CT the same benefit of the doubt. They’re right, the joke about obesity is not Christlike nor loving of a neighbor, but I might also argue that Anthony’s articulation of the pain many working-class men are facing could be a way of showing love for his neighbors. I think he wrote the song to try and give voice to what few were willing to acknowledge. We’ve long been told that giving voice to pain is a form of loving ones neightbor. It’s that ability to hear and understand what men are saying I worry the church has abandoned.

Why Are the Lost Always on the Left

I was trained for pastoral ministry in a cultural moment where we worked tirelessly to make the Christian witness winsome and relevant to the shifting culture. I understood the logic. Culture flows from the urban centers, which produce the arts and education. If we wanted to impact the culture, we needed to influence tomorrow’s cultural influencers, producers, and thinkers. These cultural influencers were increasingly liberal, so we assumed that the great theological questions of our day would be those raised by the East and West Coast elites. We were wrong, and it is having a lasting effect.

First, the church misunderstood the fragmenting effect of the internet. There is no one American culture. There is not even one left and one right American culture. The internet has produced far more “cultures” than can be counted. The traditional cultural centers of New York and L.A. have fragmented into new centers of influence located in online forums, YouTube channels, and social streams. No longer is there a cultural elite that functions as the gatekeeper for access to the American mainstream. Today, any blogger in a basement can publish and gather a devoted following.  How else could a Virginia Farmer overnight rise to the top of every music chart with a self-produced acoustic song?

By imagining that we can reach our nation with the gospel by cultivating a winsome witness to Hollywood only demonstrates that we’re living two decades in the past. That world no longer exists. If we want to share the gospel with neighbors, it’s going to take reaching into some subcultures no one would call elite. We’re going to have to take the gospel to where people are, and increasingly that’s not evening primetime on the major networks.

But there is a second mistake we’ve made. Not only have we continued to over-value the significance of the past generation’s cultural institutions, but we’ve mistakenly assumed that all the lost are over with them on the left. The church is constantly asked by writers and publications like Christianity Today to think more winsomely about our witness to the left. (I hate using the language of left and right for reasons I just made, but bear with me.) We are asked to consider how our words and actions, our rhetoric and affiliations might be a barrier to someone of differing political opinion, by which is always meant the left.

I’m not suggesting such considerations are wrong. I’m simply asking are we willing to offer the same considerations to the lost on the right. Do we recognize such people exist? Is it possible that in our hunger for cultural acceptance and approval, we’ve neglected to care for those on our right? Many of our Christian leaders recoil at anything that smells Trumpian or Maga or too right-wing. I’m not asking you to adopt their politics, but do they not deserve the same Christian charity, generosity, hospitality, and “winsomeness” we offer the elites on the left? Who gets the benefit of the doubt, Taylor Swift or Oliver Anthony? Who gets celebrated? Who gets the time and attention of our most nuanced witness?

Micro Aggressions

The last decade has taught us to read into the most subtle suggestions of bias. We have been well warned of any micro-aggression, which might lead to inequality, even if in the most subtle forms. We’ve been told that Christians should be the first to embrace the dispossessed: bind the wounds of the hurting and lift the heads of those downcast. Can we recognize it when it’s a blue-collar white man who feels like the world is staked against him? I worry Christianity Today no longer recognizes its lost neighbor on the right. I’d like to see them devote as much time and attention to respecting and presenting the gospel to those lost blue-collar men as they do the brokers of cultural interest on the left. Can we recognize this bias as well?

I want to cultivate a heart that listens and loves all people. A heart that is willing to take pain seriously, both when I agree and when I disagree. Men are not doing well today. The church needs to listen to the way those men are trying to articulate the problem and recognize we stand little chance of offering them the hope of Christ if we’re unwill to hear their need.

I’ve ended more than one blog post with this prayer from G.K. Chesterton. I think I return to it so often because it continues to describe not only our challenges but our need to all be humbled for us all to be saved. It echoes much of Anthony’s song, but recognized the hope we do have in God.

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.
Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.
– G. K. Chesterton

After publishing this article, someone sent me a video Oliver Anthony filmed just before the release of “Rich Men North of Richmond.” If you’re looking to try and better understand what a lot of men are feeling (addiction, disillusionment, exhaustion) it’s a good listen. He also describes himself not as right or left, but right in the middle. Perhaps what Anthony is really saying is that politics is the wrong language to talk about what we’re facing. We need the language of faith. Listen to the end, and it’s obvious that’s the language for which Anthony is searching.

Over the past few days, many have been sharing their personal stories of time with Tim Keller. The photos are all over the internet: backstage together at events, behind-the-scenes conversations at conferences, personal stories of notes, and encouraging words. It’s partly a reminder that no matter how great a person’s public reputation, what we most remember are the personal moments together.

I do not have a personal story to contribute. I never had the chance to meet Tim or interview him. But we once shared a sidewalk. I came very close to introducing myself, but I’m grateful I kept my distance and observed. After reading his books and listening to countless sermons, I will most remember him walking that Chicago street with his wife, Kathy. Let me explain.

I was first introduced to Keller by a friend in Bible College who passed me a burnt CD of his sermon, “Lord of the Wine (John 2:1-11).” That’s how things go down in Bible College, indie preachers you can claim to have known before the masses. I was in Springfield, Missouri, a long way from Manhattan, but as Keller’s preaching did for many, it changed how I thought about my own task as a preacher. At some point, I also came across Keller’s lecture series with Dr. Edmund Clowney on preaching Christ from all of scripture. I listened to those lectures on repeat. I still have them burnt on a series of my own CDs.

While many will remember Tim for his “winsome” apologetics, for me, it was the way he read scripture. He opened my eyes to a depth within the text that I hadn’t recognized. He helped me see patterns and trends, and themes building across the story.

Tim on Tour

I was also in Bible College when Reasons for God was published. My roommate was from Chicago, and I was thrilled to discover Tim would speak at Northwestern and The University of Chicago during our spring break week. We made the trip and attended both lectures. The auditorium was packed with college students. They were standing along the walls and seated in the aisles. I watched with growing admiration as Tim carefully responded to each question navigating the nuances, avoiding the traps, and managing to sound both intellectual and compassionate. That, too, was a new model for me.

As the lecture ended, we managed to find a side door that avoided the crowd exiting through the front doors. As we stepped out onto the busy college campus sidewalk, we were surprised to find Tim Keller walking in front of us. He was with his wife, Kathy. He was a presence, tall and bald in his blazer. Fine, I’ll admit, I was a little star-struck. I wanted to say something, but the two were in a very serious conversation. Instead of interrupting, we eavesdropped.

His wife was going question by question through the event, offering him feedback on how he could have been more clear, more succinct, more nuanced. He was quietly nodding and agreeing with each of her points. “You’re right. I see that. Good point,” he kept saying.

She was not being at all unkind, but she had plenty of her own points to make. The sense I got was of their deep mutual respect and trust for one another.

Eventually, they turned left, and we turned right to catch the train. That was the closest we ever came to meeting.

The Things We Remember

That was fifteen years ago. I still think about it. I think about it when, after church, my wife now offers suggestions on my sermons. I think about it as I take up my own writing. I think about it as I have my own successes and failures. Why do I find that little scene so compelling? Something about it made him normal in the best of ways.

Keller’s legacy will be long. He had a massive impact on pastors, as the stream of social posts continues to prove. I think his writing will continue to resonate. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned from him. But that scene still moves me because it’s what I want far more than the writing, preaching, and influence.

I want to be humble. I want to keep learning as an act of faithfulness. I want a great relationship with my wife. I want my moments on the sidewalk to be as impactful as any moment on the stage. I’ve heard Mark Batterson say he wants to be respected most by those who know him best.

I know that is very small considering all Keller accomplished but isn’t that how life actually works? Isn’t it always the moments alone with your wife, the moments around the table with your kids, the encouraging note, the coffee with a congregant, the forgotten words of a prayer prayed in a moment of need? I want to contend that those are the real legacy.

Eugene Peterson once wrote privately to a friend, “I want to become the person whose writing is true. Become true so you can write true. Writing is an expression of living, not knowing.”

As the world’s top diplomats, military strategists, and political leaders continue to construct a punitive global response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the internet is offering another diplomatic possibility: charm Putin and just ask him to stop. The past week has sparked an online trend of young social media users posting on Russian profiles simply asking Putin to call off the war.

The trend has been reported by outlets from Reuters to Task & Purpose. The posts are a strange mix of flattery, flirtation, and sarcastic jest, referring to Putin as “Vladdy Daddy.” Comments include: “Vladdy Daddy please no war…” “Vladdy Daddy, you don’t have to do this.” “Vladdydaddy look at me this isnt you.”

For some, it is mostly a joke, but there seem to be more series in their petitions. For example, one online activist posted a 3-minute spoken-word poem explaining to Putin that he would have felt true love and not felt the need to lead such a war if she had been his mother. She writes,

“Dear President Vladimir Putin. I’m so sorry I was not your mother… If I was your mother… This night, instead of Mother Russia you would call me and I would set your mind quite free… Whatever your story Mr. President Putin… I would have loved you so.”

Of course, these appeals missed the widely repeated fact that Putin does not use social media or have a cell phone. Perhaps youth have long trivialized the significance of world events (though many Ukrainian teenage boys are now taking up arms in the midst of it). Still, I think this trend reveals a hole in our culture’s narratives, and so by it, our preparing them for a broken and dangerous world. We don’t recognize sin; how can we recognize evil?

Lewis once wrote, “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded against a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.”

Writing in The Abolition of Man, Lewis warned that youth were no longer being educated in moral truth but instead a kind of relativism that wakened their ability to engage the moral questions of the day. When we teach kids there is no natural law of morality or that all truth—right and wrong—is individually determined, we rob them of the knowledge needed to recognize evil. We weaken their resolve to stand up against it.

Most kids have not been taught that evil exists. A recent American study found that 1 in 10 members of Generation Z had never heard the word “holocaust.” Sixty-three percent had no clue how many Jews had died. Instead, we have spent our educational time and energy on self-expression, self-esteem, the courage to articulate your truth.

A few years ago, I wrote an article about the lack of real villains in many of the stories being produced for our kids. I used the example of Moana, but you can observe the same trend in movies like Frozen and Encanto.

Moana’s task was to return the stolen heart of Te Fiti, the goddess of creation. She faced many obstacles but the greatest was Ta Ka, the fire-hurling monster which guarded the island. But Moana realized what everyone else had failed to recognize. The fire-spewing Ta Ka was Te Fiti. Ta Ka was not evil; with her heart stolen, she was misunderstood and afraid. Without a sense of who she really was, she had transformed from a nurturer to a destroyer. From a god to a monster.

What Moana recognized was that the villain was no villain at all, just misunderstood like Moana herself. There are no villains, only individuals who have lost their way. This is increasingly one of Disney’s favorite themes. There are no “bad guys,” only individuals who have been robbed of their identity and misunderstood by the world that has wounded them.

In one of the film’s most moving moments, Moana sings a song fittingly titled, “Know Who You Are.”

I have crossed the horizon to find you
I know your name
They have stolen the heart from inside you
But this does not define you
This is not who you are
You know who you are

That sounds a whole lot like the viral trend, “Vladdy Daddy, look at me, this isn’t you.”

The Myth of Human Progress

Facing the most significant military conflicts since WWII and facing the growing reports of catastrophic civilian casualties, the only framework our youth have for understanding this madness are the stories we’ve previously given them. The stories we tell frame the way they see the world. And so, many in the West are finding it hard to understand Putin’s motives.

The kids appeal to how Putin must have been misunderstood and mistreated, but it’s not just the kids struggling for an explanation. Leaders throughout the West have repeated the idea that Putin’s actions are from the past. This wasn’t supposed to be possible. Not any more. Many assumed we had grown beyond such barbaric actions, particularly at this scale. The West has long trusted the logic of mutual destruction and believed that society had progressed beyond such displays of naked aggression. Perhaps it’s why the full scale of Putin’s actions came as a shock to so many or why some find insanity to be the only rational explanation. As the Secretary General of NATO explained, “Peace in our continent has been shattered. We now have war in Europe, on a scale and of a type we thought belong to history.”

If our youth struggle to understand the possibility of evil, our politicians too often assume we’ve progressed past it.

Philosopher John Gray put it this way, “If there is anything unique about the human animal it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience.” Our accumulation of information has not changed the human condition. We can colonize mars, learn to customize the human genome, innovate new clean technologies, and carry a universe of information in our pockets, but there is no human progress that cures a man’s heart.

Gray ultimately concluded, “in the most vital areas of human life, there can be no progress, only an unending struggle with our own nature.”

Jesus long ago reminded us that there would be wars, that nation would rise against nation. That the rulers of this world would flaunt their power and rage in madness, so, let us not be overcome with fear or confusion. This world is broken. Let us pray for His kingdom to come. Let us stand for what is right. Let us sacrifice for those who are in need. And let us remind our kids and ourselves that there is no real progress. Our hearts are sinful. This age is evil. Now is a moment for Christian sobriety. This is a world of sin, of depravity, a world deeply in need of salvation, salvation we can not construct for ourselves.

“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” ― Malcolm Muggeridge

Okay, fine, I’m vaccinated. I’ll admit it. As a writer, there is always a temptation to open with caveats, to carefully identify your location on the contours of the controversy you are about to wade into. You’ve probably done the same in countless conversations. And let me remind you, it’s the holiday season, so there will be many more of these delicate, or perhaps emotionally charged and exasperated, conversations to come.

I recently filled out a questionnaire for a religious conference I was attending. You know, things like, “Have you been vaccinated?” “When was your last vaccination?” “Have you had a booster?” “Would you be willing to provide proof of vaccination?” And of course, “Have you recently had a fever, cough, headache, body chills, or lost sense of taste or smell?” I told my wife, “they now know more about my COVID opinions than they do my theological ones.” At the moment, one is surprisingly far more controversial.

To be fair, I have a lot of sympathy for them and the complexity they are trying to navigate. I’ve led a congregation through two years of it. I’ve heard every opinion possible, been asked to sign statements, protest mandates, and participate in drives. COVID and vaccinations have proved controversial worldwide, but my seat for the show has been ring-side for the church fight, and, it turns out, professing faith in Jesus hasn’t made any of the decisions simpler. To put it simply, when it comes to the decision to be vaccinated, Christians disagree.

They disagree from church to church, from pastor to congregant, from husband to wife. Kids trying to convince their elderly parents to get the shot, and other elderly parents trying to convince their thirty-something kids to do the same. Some see mandatory vaccination as a massive governmental overreach that threatens religious freedom and the foundations of individual liberty. Others argue that Christians who refuse a vaccine deny science, wading into a murky cesspool of nationalism and conspiracy that risks the clarity of our witness to a lost world.

Both caricatures do exist; I’ve seen them for myself. And while the church is certainly capable of both capitulation and conspiracy, there are two other dangers we’ve failed to acknowledge. These two fallacies are quickly exposing the Christian vulnerability of conforming to the world’s ways of framing just about every conflict. We’re being backed into corners and prodded into controversy like dumb sheep constantly afraid and on the defensive.

The Twosideism Fallacy

There is an old fallacy called bothsideism, in which we are tempted to give credibility to both extremes in the name of sensationalism and interest. This fallacy suggests that both sides are not always equal, and by presenting them as equal, you distort the truth. Certainly, there is plenty of evidence of this at work in our media.

But I want to add another more broad fallacy which I’ll call twosideism. We tend to be driven by the same sensational news cycle and to frame every discussion as a debate between two possible views. You are either for the vaccine or against it. That’s the question we’re each trying to delicately sniff out with family and coworkers to avoid offense. But the whole question is absurd.

Does being pro-vax mean you’ve had at least one shot? Or does it require two? Or does it require two, plus a booster? Does it require your children to be vaccinated? At what age? Does it require a mask and vaccination? Does it require a Facebook post showing your vaccine card? Does it require vaccination upon emergency approval, official FDA approval, or if you just waited a few months, are you still on the pro-vax side?

And are you an anti-vaxer if you had COVID and want to count on antibodies? Are you anti if you had COVID and such mild symptoms you’ve decided, much like you have previous flu shots, to skip it? What if you are concerned about the novelty of mRNA technology? What if your concern is the use of fetal stem cells in research? What if you legitimately believe mandatory vaccination is a governmental overreach and though you may not be worried about the actual shot, decide to abstain in protest? What if you’re convinced it’s a deep state conspiracy, or a Chinese weapon, or a divine judgment?

Do you belong to one or the other? We are growing increasingly used to seeing the world in two sides. Republican/Democrat. Left-wing/Right-wing. Pro/Con. For/Against. Vaxer/Anti-Vaxer. To be fair, there are some on both sides who feel like the stakes are so high that there is nothing left but two sides to pick. They see Fort Sumter already under fire and imagine people like myself late to the news.

But I want to suggest that even such extreme positions are on a spectrum. There are not two sides; there is a spectrum of decisions and evaluations. With its split-screen sound-bite debaters, the news will never cover it this way, but the vast majority of Americans, and Christians too, do not fit neatly into either extreme.

I’m not convinced the church is as polarized as news agencies, including some of our own evangelical ones, are wanting us to believe. Even when we do disagree adamantly, and we feel irreconcilably opposed, I still see us on a spectrum, a spectrum with room to move in both directions.

All Christians agree that there are times in which our faith compels us to comply and pay honor to the state. We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But we also agree that there are moments in which Christians must stand opposed to the state, in which our faith compels us to disobedience. It is helpful when the question before us is so explicitly clear that we understand where we are and what is at stake. When asked to renounce Christ or face the wild animals, we understand where we are on the spectrum pretty clearly.

But historically, the church has often wrestled with recognizing when that moment is only theoretical, when it is approaching and when it is here. Let me give you a current example. Consider the complex decisions of Chinese Christians who have been forced to navigate their nation’s limited child policies. For several decades, the state has limited families to only one, and more recently two children. Does the Bible allow the state to dictate the number of children you bear? Should you violate it and pay a fine? Violate it and cover it up? Is this an issue worth Christians speaking out against and risking greater persecution or the closing of their churches? China has recently increased its policy to allow for three children. Does that change the Chinese Christian’s decisions? There is a fascinating Christianity Today article from June of this year that explores how complicated these issues have been for believers and churches in China.

Certainly, Christians should all agree that the state’s forced abortions violate a fundamental line and demand opposition, but there is a complicated spectrum of decisions and interests that must be weighed out even before such definitive lines are crossed. Could we not recognize that a Christian couple who abides by the one-child policy with careful planning and another who knowingly violates it in protest might both be faithful to their religious convictions?

Was this not the same tension churches in Germany faced during the rise of Nazism? There were definitive lines crossed that should have triggered Christian resistance, but we look back from our position and also fault those churches for not recognizing earlier signs that might have avoided the whole thing.

Let me tip my hand, a thing I have been reluctant to do as a pastor. I do not hold any conspiracy views about the vaccine. I do think regulations in some places have unjustly targeted churches. I never felt such unjust motivations in our community, and our church was happy to abide by local health codes, but I can understand other churches deciding to protest them. They see a trajectory leading to a clear line. I hope they are wrong, but perhaps they are right, and I’m one of the Christians missing critical signs of our time. There are signs I do see.

We are not opposites; we are on different points of the same spectrum. Some saw in the meat sacrificed to idols a demonic system and a potential violation of the Christian’s stand within society. Others saw just meat. Paul was willing to give his opinion on the controversy, but he wasn’t willing to split the church or to subject the fellowship into endless rounds of guilting and shaming and arguing.

But What About Our Christian Witness?

Some will respond that the arbiter of our decisions should be how our opinions impact the church’s witness. This might be the single argument I have heard more than any other during the church’s vaccine discussions. Christians should be vaccinated in order to preserve their witness to neighbors and communities. The obligation to love our neighbor through vaccination supersedes even personal liberties or concerns. Christ’s love compels us.

Such arguments are not a surprise. For several decades the church has been working to maintain an effective witness in a world less interested in or deferential to the Christian message. There is much talk about the church’s need for a winsome witness, but what has surprised me about this push is that the church’s winsomeness always assumes the lost neighbor is on our left.

(I don’t like describing this second fallacy in terms of right and left. I’m falling into the same twosideism I just described above. But given the two fallacies are congruent with each other, you’ll have to momentarily indulge me in making the point.)

Many worry that Christians are sacrificing their witness by opposing mandatory vaccinations. They fear that a portion of the church’s response to COVID has jeopardized our lost neighbor’s willingness to listen to our message. How can we speak a message of love if we cannot demonstrate love in the ways our neighbor understands it? But is it only Democrats who are lost and in need of a winsome gospel witness? I don’t think so.

I was recently visiting a family member who does not claim to be a Christian believer or attend any church. He is a devout Trump supporter; put him in whatever box you think necessary. He was explaining to me that during the COVID lockdowns, all of the churches in his area simply shut down. That probably isn’t true. They were probably meeting online, as our church was doing. “How can churches just shut down?” he asked. “COVID is more important than church? You think Jesus would have just stayed home if they told him to?”

Disagree all you want. Certainly, he didn’t have all of his information straight, but I can’t point to any winsome attempt to contextualize the gospel to his political or ideological views. The same shutdown that was meant to improve the church’s witness to one neighbor offended the other neighbor and appeared like capitulation to the thing he most opposed.

If you get a vaccination to protect the health of your neighbor, both of you may take that as a sign of Christian love and hospitality. But if another Christian refuses the vaccine in solidarity with a different neighbor’s valued right to limit governmental intervention, a right he holds higher than even his own health and safety, has the Christian not offered a sign of Christian love and hospitality as well? The ways in which we rank values—health and liberty included—are not opposites but on a spectrum.

Should some church have attempted to match the rhetoric of the right for the sake of preserving our witness to this second neighbor? Be sure it would be quickly identified as nationalistic, Trumpism, and a perversion of the gospel. To be fair, many who make the same move to the left are just as quickly identified as woke, Marxist, and also a perverter of the gospel.

You may protest, “But one is correct, and one is wrong.” Or, one is more fundamentally important than the other, but that would put us back at the spectrum in which we all have a range of measurements and disagreements. There are more than two sides and more than one winsome witness needed to reach the lost.

If people of good faith understand this moment in very different ways, we should be slow to accuse one another of poor Christian witness. How the world will receive our witness is a poor arbiter of how Christians should behave. There are lost people in need of the gospel across the entire political spectrum. The neighbor on your left and the neighbor on your right both need Jesus. Guilting one another into certain behaviors of conscience for the sake of acceptance from one neighbor, and by doing so, offending the other, is no way for Christians to make decisions about how to live in the world.

The Winsome Witness of Complexity

My favorite way of defining humility is self-suspicion. The longer I follow Christ, the more I am suspicious of my first thought. I’ve waited two years to write this after all. I have been wrong about so many things before. I’m probably wrong about plenty now. Maybe you’re shaking your head thinking I got this whole article wrong too. But maybe that is the point. I want to understand. I want to get it right. I want to recognize better the way of Jesus and how I faithfully follow him in this world.

People I deeply respect have deeply different answers. Time will tell. Eternity will tell.

We will shuffle around on this spectrum. Things change. After all, the vaccine itself changes. Why shouldn’t our views on it? Some will be proven more right than others, but perhaps our greatest witness right now is a willingness to listen. Perhaps the refusal to reject brothers and sisters of different conclusions is far more winsome than parroting culture’s expected refrains.

For many, this article will not be decisive enough. Do you even have something worth saying if it doesn’t condemn or confirm a particular side of the existing debate? And honestly, I do have stronger personal opinions than I’ve articulated in this article. But I’m not sure they are the same thing as my Christian faith. To say that another way, I respect the genuineness of faith in those who may disagree. That is the very thing too often missing in the church. Jesus said the world would know we were his disciples by the love we have for one another. He didn’t say we couldn’t disagree, even his first disciples did, but he anticipated our disagreements would include a humble love distinct from the world’s ways of conflict.

Maybe the way we embrace being peculiar in our time is acknowledging the complexity of our challenges, the humility of our solutions, and our desperate need for Christ to lead us. Imagine how radical it would be for a people with enough courage to say, “I disagree with you but I genuinely hear your point.”

Throughout the pandemic and on days when I’ve felt confused and disoriented, I’ve turned to this prayer by G. K. Chesterton and found each time only more profound. I have been particularly struck by the line, smite us and save us all. All is not a spectrum. The one thing universally true is our propensity toward pride and conflict.

God, humble us all and save us all.

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.
Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.
– G. K. Chesterton

While we were preoccupied with petty disputes and celebrity headlines, Twitter threads and Facebook drama, we became naive. From C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, we are reminded of how a world of comfort lulls us into a loss of moral clarity and how real danger calls us back to conviction and charcter. The world is dangerous. We need courage.

Now that it is certain the German humans will bombard your patient’s town and that his duties will keep him in the thick of the danger, we must consider our policy. Are we to aim at cowardice – or at courage, with consequent pride – or at hatred of the Germans?

We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame. The danger of inducing cowardice in our patients, therefore, is lest we produce real self-knowledge and self-loathing with consequent repentance and humility. And in fact, in the last war, thousands of humans, by discovering their own cowardice, discovered the whole moral world for the first time. In peace we can make many of them ignore good and evil entirely; in danger, the issue is forced upon them in a guise to which even we cannot blind them. There is here a cruel dilemma before us. If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy’s hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor .

This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world – a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.

If you had forgotten it, this week, you were reminded that the world is dangerous. Let us remember, there is real evil at work in this world. Let us see again that there is such a thing as right and wrong. Let us recognize that character and honesty matter. For when we are lulled into ignorance of it, real suffering ensues. These things are not campaign slogans. They are not abstractions. They must exist in action more than mere words. When they are absent there are consequences. We are reaping the fruit of imagining we can play around with such important truths as morality and character. 

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Our comfort and decadence have atrophied our moral clarity and strength. We need a move of God that produces a people of conviction and character. As Lewis understood, we need humility that leads to courage.

“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14

Our land and that land too, oh Lord. Give us courage that we might have the strength of character again.

According to ancient historians, most of the Jewish families sitting on that Galilean hillside listening to Jesus teach would spend every day of their lives on the edge of hunger and starvation. Some days were better than others, but they never escaped hunger for long. By some estimations, as much as 85% of a Galilean’s wages/time went toward acquiring food. By comparison, the average US family spends 9.5% of their annual budget on food.

The gospel writer, John, records that there were 5,000 men seated there. With wives and children, the crowd would have been well over 10,000. As the day drew on, the disciples recognized they were facing a logistical dilemma. Where would these people find food? They didn’t have the money to feed them. They suggested to Jesus that he call it quits and let the crowd disperse to nearby towns to find food for themselves.

But Jesus instead found a boy with just five loaves and two fish. He blessed it and began breaking it and passing it out to the people. John records that every person there ate until they were filled.  They all sat reclined on the hill with full bellies, satisfied. Nowhere else in the New Testament is that language used for another meal. Jesus had fed them to their fill. Many had probably never experienced enough food to have to stop eating.

It’s no surprise that the crowd responded by attempting to seize Jesus and make him king.

Bread and Games

Food and political power have long been linked. There is an old Latin phrase commonly translated as “bread and circus.” It refers to the equally old realization that the masses could be easily controlled with food and games. Many Roman emperors secured their political power by passing out bread in the streets and funding festivals of spectacle, week-long displays of entertainment in theaters and colosseum.

The roman poet, Juvenal, wrote around the year 100 AD:

“Long ago we sold our vote to no man, but the people have abdicated our duties; for the people once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions—everyone now obeys for and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

Jesus’s miraculous bread passed out on that Galilean mountainside echoed with symbolic images of Moses’s provision of manna in the wilderness. The crowd must have imagined what it would be like to have Jesus as their leader. Daily bread to their fill. Think of all the time they would save. Think of the money they could save. Think of the future it meant. They wouldn’t take no for an answer. Jesus the new Moses. Jesus king of the Jews.

Jesus had what all the Roman Emperors reached deep into their own storehouses to manufacture, the support of the crowd. How did he respond to this political opportunity? He slipped away. He disappeared. He wandered off.

Jesus was familiar with this bread and games business; after all, he had turned down these same impulses in his own time of hunger and temptation. Satan had urged him to turn those stones into bread and to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple so that all of Israel could witness the angels deliver him in a spectacular display of his power. Jesus saw through that temptation as he did the temptation of the crowd.

Bread and games may make for a compelling political campaign, but they were not the means of his kingdom.

Bread and games have long been a human temptation—as recent as Georgia’s newly passed election law which now forbids the incentive of free food for those waiting to vote, or as old as Esau who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. The Corinthians gorged themselves before others could get to the communion table. The Israelites grumbled and complained about even the manna. And as those Roman emperors recognized, times of starvation and social anxiety are just the opportunity to exploit such human tendanceis.

The COVID Excuse

Everywhere I go, people keep talking about how challenging the past year was. They aren’t wrong. I know several families who lost loved ones, I’ve seen the toll on my own family members, and as a pastor, it was one of the most challenging times to try and serve a congregation. But I’m more worried about the months ahead than those now behind us.

In Neil Postman’s famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he compared two dystopian views of the future, arguing that the one we worry least about is probably the more insidious. Postman compared two novels, George Orwell’s 1984 in which an authoritarian government oppresses and controls society through power, and Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World in which citizens are instead controlled by pleasure and appetite—bread and games. Postman wrote:

”What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture… In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”

This past year has had plenty of bread and games. Like most Americans, we baked more loaves of Sourdough in the last 12 months than we had in the 12 years previous. And like most Americans, I had the extra COVID pounds to prove it. Or consider that in the past twelve months, online streaming has increased by 50%, with 30% of Americans adding new streaming subscriptions to what they already owned.

For most Americans, this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic looked a lot more like food and games than it did the end of the world as we know it.

But something has changed. COVID offered us an easy excuse for everything. Secretly it felt pretty good to have an out for absolutely anything you didn’t want to do—an excuse with a thin veneer of morality. COVID made us deeply self-focused. We got to decide—what we did, what we would risk, what we thought, who we believed, on and on.

Plus, we’ve long known that objects at rest stay there. As Emma Brockes wrote in The Guardian, “the less you do, the less you want to do.” She concluded:

“It’s a free pass that will, in the next 12 months, presumably come somewhat to an end. We will have to shape up. It will no longer be permissible to do all the things we were, on the sly, kind of doing anyway but before the pandemic were inclined to feel bad about. I guess this is a good thing; if the sense of a return to business as usual shames me into tidying up, showering more often and making slightly more effort to get my children off their iPads, it’s probably all for the better. But I needn’t kid myself: neither that these behaviours were new, nor that, when it suits me, I won’t be looking back and guiltily using the pandemic to excuse some echo of them for years to come.”

I’m not so convinced we can do it. I’m not so convinced we can go back. That kind of self-interest is hard to turn off.

Church has Changed

Most pastors are now accepting that church attendance will never be the same. According to one recent study, “Among those holding in-person worship in January, 31% said attendance remained less than half of what it was a year before, while 37% reported attendance between 50% and 70%.”

Churches have responded by making church services available where people are—at home on their couches. All of the church experts are telling us that online streaming is the future of the church. We must rethink church in light of this new world we find ourselves in.

Give the people what they want.

For A Fully Belly

When the crowd finally managed to track Jesus down in Capernaum, they wanted an explanation. “Why did you leave?” “How did you get here?”

Jesus didn’t answer their questions but instead explained, “you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” To paraphrase Jesus’s response, “You’re not here for me, you’re here to get more food. You’re here for the bread and the games.”

Jesus went on to explain that he wasn’t just the source of heavenly bread; he was the bread. It wasn’t just about what Jesus could do for them; it was about Jesus being with them. He pushed them to the point of being offended. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

Their obsession with food and spectacle caused them to see the world, and God, through a consumeristic expectation. They were so self-interested in their pursuit that many left Jesus that day, convinced he wasn’t what they were looking for.

They tasted his miracles, filled their bellies with his divine bread, and yet walked away when he offered his own life as well. Talk of flesh and blood made them squeamish. Sounded strange and somehow risky. Let’s get back to the fish and bread. When he didn’t, they left. They had their own bread to find for the next day.

The risk of your spiritual pursuit slipping into a kind of consumerism that seeks to fill your belly and catch a good show can not be overstated. It cost many in that crowd Jesus.

This Spiritual Complacency

My concerns are not just church attendance or holding on to some nostalgic idea of what the church once was. I’m concerned about your soul. I’m concerned that you are filling yourself with a cheap imitation of Christ. When Christ becomes a means before an end, you will soon leave him too.

I’m concerned the gospel is becoming just more online content. That faith is now a brand witnessed to only in your Instagram bio. I’m concerned that if we allow our faith to become a show, we watch online whenever it fits best into our schedule, that the next generation may choose a different show altogether. If faith is about finding what works best for you, what will you say when your kids explain they’ve found something that works better for them.

Huxley was right. The greater risk we face is not our religious rights being taken away but our squandering them in triviality and self-indulgence. The real test we face is our own spiritual complacency.

“For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

John Piper writes in A Hunger for God:

”The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night… And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.”

Fasting for Hunger

We are one month away from Pentecost Sunday. It’s the day the church remembers the Holy Spirit being poured out on those first followers. It’s also that ancient feast that celebrated the first harvest of grain—that first possibility of bread.

I’ve committed myself and asked my congregation to join me in fasting between now and Pentecost. Perhaps a day a week or a particular meal. I wonder if you might do the same.

We fast so that our experience of physical hunger might create in us a spiritual hunger. We deny ourselves bread and games so that we might receive the Spirit and that better bread from heaven.

I do believe the pandemic was a risk to have been taken seriously, but the spiritual complacency we now face is one much greater. Let us not lose Jesus for the sake of a full belly and a funny show.

“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

The Sadducees brought Jesus the most complicated question they could craft against him and his talk of resurrection. They imagined a family of seven sons in which each died passing along their wife to the next brother. They asked Jesus, “In this coming resurrection, whose wife will she be?”

Jesus’s answer was simple, “You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.”

Micah warned likewise, “they do not know the thoughts of the Lord; they do not understand his plan.”

Let me be very clear, I will not untangle our nation’s problems in a thousand-word blog post, and neither will anyone else. I don’t intend to try. Who understands all that God is doing?

All Things Exposed

One of my favorite stories from the Bible is Saul’s attempts to capture David at Ramah. Saul got word that David was hiding with Samuel and his community of prophets. Saul sent subsequent rounds of men to capture David and each failed to return. So, Saul went himself. We’re told that when Saul reached Samuel and his prophets, Saul was filled with the Spirit, stripped off all his clothes, and lay naked prophesying.

Clothing is a critical part of the Saul and David stories. Jonathan gave David his cloak, Saul offered his armor to David before he faced Goliath, Saul tore Samuel’s robe and in return, Samuel predicted that God would tear the kingdom from his rule. Michal rebuked David for his choice of a common linen ephod to lead the ark. And Saul took off all his royal robes when the Spirit came upon him.

Do you remember when Saul went to inquire of the witch at Endor? He went in disguise but as soon as the spirit of Samuel appeared, the witch immediately saw through Saul’s facade and recognized exactly who it was seeking her service.

Things always end up exposed. Neither the garments of power nor the cloak of deceit can ultimately cover what is true. Before God, all men lay naked. All power melts away. All pretense is dissolved. All schemes are laid bare. No one gets away with anything. Neither Saul nor, God’s own man, David.

How dumb David was to not recognize the Prophet Nathan’s story. Nathan came needing a judicial opinion about a rich man who stole a poor neighbor’s single lamb. Having just murdered Uriah and swiped Bathsheba, a child could have recognized Nathan’s setup. But in his pride of having supposedly “gotten away with it,” David couldn’t recognize his own life laid out in the story. David called for the rich man’s punishment. And with just two Hebrew words, Nathan declared, “you’re him.” David too was exposed.

We the People

If I have learned anything from the past few weeks of our nation’s intensifying political conflicts, it’s that we truly are a government of people—we the people. Our government is not eternal nor sacred. It is not made of marble or bronze. It is not monuments or rotundas. It is not guaranteed nor inevitable. It is people. Complicated, compromised, flawed, frustrating, and sinfully rotten people. Men and women like Saul. Men and women like David. Men and women—as much as I wish it weren’t the case—like me. Like you.

Franklin wasn’t joking when he explained we possessed, “a republic, if you can keep it.” Count on people and you’re sure to taste some disappointment.

There has been much recent talk about what the constitution does and doesn’t allow, everyone is now a constitutional scholar. But we should remember that its opening words are not about rights, checks, or powers. Its opening words are an assumption that what follows is based on us being people—“We the people of the United States.” It assumes we know how to be people. That may be the real challenge we are facing. Do we know how to be a person, a people?

We have become ideologies, crowds in support of slogans, likes, and retweets, polls, and projections. Better defined by which podcasts we subscribe to then by our families, careers, faith, or place. According to several recent studies, fewer American’s know the names of their neighbors than ever before. But I bet you have suspicions about their politics. Maybe those yard signs already gave it away. We are increasingly more ignorant about and isolated from people, yet we assume more than ever.

When Did We Stop Being People?

In the late 1880s, Neitzche wrote a story about a madman who lit a lamp in the morning and went searching for God. “Where is he,” he cried. The gathering crowd laughed and mocked him. “Is God a child that you must go find him?” “Has God gotten lost somewhere?” They were enlightened people, no longer lost in superstition or fairytale.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

The crowd went silent and stared at him in confusion and astonishment. Probably the same response you had. Seems a little mellow dramatic but pretty good writing for a crazy man.

At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

He finally concluded; they hadn’t felt enough of the consequences to have recognized what they had done. The madman had come too soon. But one day, they would feel the consequences of their death to God.

Do we not feel it? “Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down?” “Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?”

Neitzche was convinced that the only way to deal with the death of the divine was to become gods ourselves. Where else would we turn for morality, for meaning? We would take up the work of good vs. evil. We would become judges of our brothers and sisters. We would expose and we would condemn.

The world of God’s rule shattered into a pantheon of men climbing Olympus to claim his spot. It is a zero-sum game in which he who holds power declares right and wrong.

Man was created for things greater than what we now possess. We feel it. We know there must be more. But having laughed away any narrative of the divine, having rolled our eyes at talk of the eternal, having relegated religious narratives to the realm of medieval history, we are left to find our own story, our own meaning. We must find our own good vs evil in which to take sides. We mock such ideas and yet our rhetoric is increasingly full of it. Our culture laughs at those who speak of evil and yet accuses nearly everyone else of it.

The novelist Walker Percy captured it in the despair of his Moviegoer:

“and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.”

The Truth

What was the prophet Samuel doing during all that turmoil of Saul’s unraveling? Apparently, he was with a group of prophets worshiping. What exposed Saul was a group of people, filled with the Spirit in worship. It is always that way. What exposes the world, what exposes you and me, is worship. It is the most subversive act in the world. To simply say, Jesus, is Lord. To worship him.

The truth is not exposed through ballots or speeches, not through power or revolution. The truth is exposed to the world through people who gather to worship God and to have the truth humbly expose them. You can not legislate the truth, you can’t advertise it, or force it down people’s throats. Because the truth is a person.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus explained.

We know the truth by knowing a person. By humbling ourselves and reaching out beyond ourselves. Odds are, His Spirit will expose you and leave you naked, but you need that. You must love him with all your heart, soul, and mind. He is not a political ideology. He is not a position to defend. He is not an argument to be won. The Christian religion is not a philosophy or a culture, it is a person. A person who will challenge your ideas and your conclusions.

And learning to follow him teaches us to be a person as well. It teaches us how to recognize other persons. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. He teaches us to be human. To be a named individual, a soul. And so we are instructed in how to recognize others as souls too.

He took fishermen and tax collectors, zealots and Pharisees, men and women, and reworked their identities into named disciples.

Smite us all; Save us all

Some will say, this is naïve and too moderate for the importance of the moment. You’re probably right. You are going to have to make decisions.

The truth is, I have plenty of opinions as well. I cast a particular ballot for a certain candidate. I have thoughts about economics and social justice and election integrity. I have thoughts about big tech, about foreign policy, and black lives matter, and about our police officers. I have thoughts about global warming, and China, and North Korea, and Iran. I bet you have thoughts too. And I bet there are plenty of places we disagree.

But I am convinced that my first decision must be to know Christ more. He has exposed me enough for me to know I am often right and wrong.

The political story is not the only story. We are people. We have to learn to see one another as people. To hear one another as people.

I’m under no illusion. We will continue to disagree, even as believers. But God help us if we reduce one another to less than a person. God help us if we reduce Christ to less than a person.

And I’m of the “Samuel” opinion that the best place to do all of this “re-personing” is in worship with other persons and with Christ.

I have been praying the line from a G. K. Chesterton prayer all week. Smite us all; Save us all. Let us know you as the truth and expose us in any depersonalizing pretense. Expose what is true. Strip us of our royal garments. Strip us of our disguises. Strip our nation of falsehood and propaganda. Pour out your Holy Spirit and drive us all to the ground before you. Give us courage and give us meekness. Give us Jesus.

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.
Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.
– G. K. Chesterton


I’m grateful to the team at The Gospel Coalition for publishing some of my thoughts on leadership and the identity of the pastor.

I never liked the title “pastor.” My plan was to practice law and pursue politics. I was fascinated with leadership, and all those career tests told me I had a knack for it. But unexpectedly, at a youth summer camp my junior year of high school, I felt a distinct call to become a pastor.

When I informed my high school debate coaches that I wouldn’t be pursuing my college debate scholarships and would instead be attending a small midwestern Bible college, one pleaded with me: “Why would you throw away the gifts God has given you?” Like her, I imagined pastoral work would be pedestrian and marginal—a sacrifice of my potential and plans.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Read the Article

As a pastor responsible for a congregation of believers, it’s been a tough week. There are hard decisions to be made and challenges to serving those who are most in need.

It has been shared widely, but these words from C. S. Lewis have been a wise reminder of how Christians live not just in these complex days, but every day. Lewis was writing about a spreading fear from nuclear proliferation, but you need only replace his context with our own pandemic to recognize his broader point.

C. S. Lewis writes:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. — “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

A Word from the Psalms:

Also, as many pastors have, I’ve been turning to the psalms this week. Much attention is being given to Psalm 91.

1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say[a] to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.
9 Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge[b]—
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
15 When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”

What’s so interesting about that psalm is the way it was distorted by Satan during Jesus’s temptation. In his second attempt, Satan encouraged Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple and allow the angels to rescue him, a display of power and importance that was sure to catch the attention of the world.

Satan quoted from verse 12 of Psalm 91: “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”

Too many people read Psalm 91 in the same way that Satan distorted it—reading it as a promise that nothing bad will come upon those who follow God. Given our current situation, we too can clutch verse ten’s promise that disease will not touch us.

But what are Christians to think when they do become sick or when sickness does invade their bodies and congregations? Jesus understood something more profound about this psalm’s intention.

Like the psalms so often do, they lead us by our most honest prayers and desperations to the higher truths of God. That truth comes through clearest in verse 15. “When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble.” God’s promise is not that trouble will never come. His promise is that He will be with us in the midst of it. The promise is His presence. Or, as the final verse reminds us, God will show us His salvation.

I’m reminded of Christ’s beatitudes. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who are persecuted. For they shall see God. They shall be comforted. They shall be satisfied.

This satisfaction and vision and comfort come in the midst of suffering and poverty and hunger.

Dionysius and Joy

What Christians have is not a secret antidote against pain or death. Faith hasn’t yet reworked the believer’s genetics. We are as susceptible to sickness as any of our neighbors. But we do possess an inoculation against fear, anxiety, and dread, though too often we forget we have received it. For it is often in these places of sickness and suffering that God’s presence is most powerfully known. Our sickness is transformed into something strangely different.

We are capable of every effort to protect our communities and comply with all their recommendations and to do it without fear. For the spread of hopelessness and the distrust of God are a far greater risk than any virus. It is this sickness and this trouble which the psalm promises to rescue us from. The sting of death as scripture refers to it and the hope of a new and whole creation.

In 252 AD, the ancient city of Alexandria faced a massive plague. Christians, like Dionysius, were at the center of both its costs and Christian responses of support. Writing about their situation in an Easter letter to his churches, Dionysius explained, “other people would not think this a time for festival [but] far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy.”

Dionysius was surely thinking of James’s words: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

God, make us steadfast people who see every moment of struggle as another moment to taste more deeply of your salvation and to sense more tangibly your presence. Pour your Spirit out upon your church even as we are separated from one another. And fill us with joy, not that we might escape this suffering, but that it might be transformed into hope, faith, and steadfastness of service.

The Bible warns of man’s tendency to over-identify with his impulses of aggression and passivity, a topic I’ve explored at length in a previous article. But the Bible is also careful not to present these traits as mere personality types. We make a profoundly naive mistake in imagining that some men are aggressive while others are passive. As if the difference can be located in a gene or predetermined by some developmental event.

The Biblical image—and in my opinion, the fairly obvious observation of life and one’s self—reflects that we are more likely to swing repeatedly from one to the other. Aggression gives way to apathy, which eventually explodes again into aggression.

It may be that each man is more naturally inclined to one position, but our frustrated attempts at control often leave us searching for means of coping—means which can appear unlike ourselves. The man who finds his most ardent attempts at power and aggressive control to have failed often resigns to withdraw. The man who actively disengages eventually finds that his passivity has really been aggression, and he too lashes out when he can’t have his peace the way he wants it.

These oscillating attempts at control can be found in almost any number of Biblical characters, but Moses is a helpful place to observe it.

Moses’ Action and Inaction

At some point, Moses, the prince of Egyptian power, upon seeing the suffering of his own people, began to identify with their cause. The passive and powerless image of a baby carried by the currents of the Nile and raised by royal servants gave way to an impulse for action, an impulse driven by conviction. It is the defining act of Moses. Seeing an Egyptian master beating a Hebrew, Moses acts. Moses struck the Egyptian. He killed him and hid the body in the sand.

It’s hard to know just how premeditated Moses’ sudden involvement may have actually been. Was this the momentary impulse of passion or were there impulses building for something more, for a revolution, for a new way, for freedom, for a new identity? Whether it was first degree or second, Exodus suggests that it was violent and it was spoken of as murder. It is the Biblical image of aggression: Cain with is raised rock, Joab’s hidden dagger, and Pharaoh’s call to drown the infants. It is Moses’s first independent act, his coming of age—Moses, the man.

He becomes one by taking the life of another. And it backfired horribly. Far from sparking revolution or seeding defiance in his native tribe, his people mocked him. The next day, a fellow Hebrew, fighting with another Hebrew, snickered back at Moses, “Are you going to kill me too.” With neither the people nor Pharaoh on his side, Moses’ attempt at control had produced only isolation. He ran. Far from Egypt, he fled to the wilderness. Tucked into the rocky crags of Middean, the sound of bleating sheep around him, the cries of Egyptian cruelty finally resolved into silence.

It’s hard to criticize Moses for wanting the solitude of that place. It changed him. Moses of the wilderness now seemed so far from the Moses of Egypt. Take Moses’ hesitancy when God called him back to Egypt. “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue… Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.”

It’s hard to imagine Moses as a man afraid to speak. It’s hard to imagine the aggressive and impulsive Moses begging to keep his seclusion, wanting someone else to go in his place. His defining first characteristic had been action and Moses would go on to speak boldly before Pharaoh and passionately before his people. We have an entire book of his sermons. Or remember his frustration at the people’s lack of faith. Just before he raised his staff and struck the rock? He berated them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” He hardly seems “slow” of speech. Is not his striking of the rock an image of the same aggression which he showed that first day in Egypt? So who is this timid man in the desert?

Like most men I know—myself included—Moses can not be easily dismissed as either aggressive or passive. His life is a complicated twisting of these traits. Intertwined in his story are these two ways of acting, two ways of carving out a way of being in the face of a world which so rarely gives way to his control. Moses strikes, and Moses retreats. Moses acts, and Moses begs not to be involved. Any man who is honest with himself—shy and timid or are aggressive and resolved—knows that these two ways of being exist in all of us.

No One Is Talking About Meekness

Twisted with these two threads is an uncommon virtue which Moses is credited with possessing more than any other man on earth. “The man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.”

I have come to believe that meekness is the defining quality of Biblical manhood. Probably not something you’ve heard before. Without a proper understanding of what it means to be meek, we are ill-prepared for understanding masculinity, maturity, and in the end, ourselves. I think I can show you why it is so important.

I chose not to use the word meekness in the title of this article for a good reason. I’m not naive. Talking about meekness is not a topic most men are interested in. It gets some vague sense of approval for Jesus’ having included it in his Beatitudes, but no one is talking or thinking about meekness—not in this world. How would you take it if someone said, “When I think of you, I always think of meekness. You’re just such a meek person.” Could you even conclude that it was meant as a compliment? Whatever Jesus meant by “the meek shall inherit the earth,” it’s hard to see much evidence of it. Who of our heroes would we call meek? Who of our great leaders? Who of our great masculine role-models?

But Moses earned the distinction, “meekest man on earth.” He earned it through a specific situation recounted in Numbers 12. Israel was trudging through its wilderness years and beginning to show wear. As seems to happen anytime a group of people attempt a common goal, complaining set in and suspicion soon followed. Worst, the most destructive resistance was forming within his own family. Miriam and Aaron were whispering and critical behind Moses’ back. “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” Word was getting around, and even Moses must have realized things were coming to a head.

How did Moses respond—the man who had received his audible calling from a burning bush, the man who had faced off with Pharaoh and his sorcerers, the man who had received the law on the mountain of God and had led Israel through war and water? How did he respond? Moses did nothing. He didn’t respond. Moses chose not to act. But it wasn’t passivity. He would eventually pray and beg God to spare the very people who cut him down. For this inner strength, navigating when to act and when to refrain, Moses is called meek. Maybe that seems weak to you. If so, you’ve probably never tried it.

A Pollutant of Progress?

The aggression and passivity that are typical of our responses are really both symptoms of insecurity. The man who strikes in anger and the man who shuts his eyes share this similarity, they are both insecure. They are both searching for a way to control their situation, one by dominating it the other by ignoring it.

Moses’ meekness is not his natural disposition. He, too, was prone to strike and run. But the faithfulness of God had formed in him a perspective which, even when his control was tested, mitigated that insecurity and allowed him to overcome the impulse to revert to his base inclinations. The inner strength which Moses possessed was a faith that control is not ultimately his anyway.

The German philosopher Nietzche saw meekness as a Christian pollutant, hindering the progress of man. Nietzche saw modern man’s rejection of God as an opportunity to form a new stronger humanity. From Nietzche’s perspective, the constraint meekness imposed on man’s ambition only held him back. Virtues like meekness kept man from claiming the full potential of his control. Derek Rishmawy explains that Nietzche “thought meekness was exactly the sort of false virtue that the weak would applaud because, well, it’s about the only virtue they could actually pull off. Since the weak can’t win by the standard rules, they change the rules.”

I think Nietzche’s evaluation of meekness feels very modern. It is a virtue weak men claim to justify their weakness. It is the virtue of a man who has no success to call his virtue. It is the kind of virtue we only claim when we have failed or are too passive to try. But Nietzche was wrong. He, like so many men, are blinded by their own ambition and unwilling to call virtuous anything which might force their control into submission.

What Nietzche, and we, often get wrong about meekness, is that it is not an absence of power. Neither is it the warmed-up leftovers of our failed ambition. Meekness is a virtue precisely because it must be earned, it must be practiced, and it takes both maturity and strength to keep it.

A Better Image of Meekness

The greeks are known for their debating the value of various virtues, and meekness is one which often made their lists, although, as we will see, the Bible offers a unique source for obtaining it.

Plato uses the word to describe a general who, victorious in battle, was put in a position of ultimate power. He was justified in annihilating his enemy completely. But Plato called a general who instead spared the conquered people, meek in his treatment. Plato saw that not as appeasement but strength.

Similarly, the Greek philosopher and soldier Xenophenon used the word meek often in his description of war horses. The best horses would be tamed but not broken of their spirit. A horse prepared for battle would need to maintain its power, energy, and wild nature but be brought under the control of its rider. It’s nature needed to be disciplined but not forfeited. A prized warhorse still possessed all of the traits that made it wild: strength, determination, and fearlessness. It would face cannons and muskets, fire and smoke, cries, and chaos. But it must also recognize and respond to the most sublet shift of its rider, the kick of a heel, the whispered command, and at its best, anticipate even before commanded.

My wife grew up showing horses. She spent plenty of summer afternoons correcting my form and telling me to keep my heels down. Our horse could hardly be described as one ready for battle, but the willingness of an animal his size to cut in a new direction by only the slightest pressure of a knee is remarkable. Even after years of riding, he has not lost his disposition. He is still mischievous and prone to test the limits of each new rider, but once established, his obedience is remarkable. He is meek, not a statement of weakness but disciplined strength.

I marvel at the same strength in my bird dog, Millie. We have spent years hunting together, and watching her work a field of pheasants is one of my favorite ways to spend a day. A great bird dog does not need to be trained to be interested in birds. You don’t teach a dog to hunt. That comes naturally. A dog with good genetics knows what to do and will often display beautiful points even as a puppy. The real question is, will the dog hunt with you. Will the dog hold point for you to get into a proper shooting position? Will the dog retrieve a downed bird to hand? Will a dog hold when it can smell a field of prey before it?

Meekness doesn’t breed out the horse’s power or the dog’s impulse to chase; meekness matures these drives into something useful, something controllable, something disciplined. A meek person feels the same burning passion for acting, but they have discovered their real strength lies in the discipline to be led by God, not their emotions.

This meekness is strength without the insecurity to prove it. It is self-control that doesn’t need to be in control of others. So much of what appears to be power is desperation, and so much of what appears to be strength is insecurity. Similarly, so much of what appears to be indifference is an obsession. Meekness knows what is true, without the need to prove it to oneself or others.

The Value of Authority

You could characterize the Greek virtue of meekness as a kind of disciplined self-control, but the Bible is more realistic about the difficulty of ruling ourselves. The Bible suggests we are the horse, not the rider.

The virtue of meekness can not be drummed up by determination. Such strength can not be manufactured by strength. Any attempt at self-control which is attempted by controlling one’s self is constantly prone to crack under the pressure of insecurity. The wild horse can not be tamed by himself. He needs a higher authority.

Peter captured an image of Jesus’ meekness in writing, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.” Where did such restraint and strength come from? Peter continued, “Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Jesus’ meekness is not his passivity before man, nor is it self-determination to demonstrate virtue and show himself to be a superior man. Jesus’ meekness is a submission to a greater authority. He entrusted himself. His meekness is a sign of his submission.

Spurgeon picks up on this mystery in writing, “‘The Lord is slow to anger,’ because He is GREAT IN POWER. He is truly great in power who hath power over himself. When God’s power doth restrain Himself, then it is power indeed: the power that binds omnipotence is omnipotence surpassed.”

The real question of meekness is not what you recognize in yourself but the authority you recognize beyond yourself. It is this yielding to surpassing omnipotence that produces meekness. Your strength is directly related to the strength of that authority to which you are willing to commit. Meekness requires a rider, a commander, an authority. We so easily identify and long to be that lone rider, seated upon his horse, determined and confident as he rides westward into the setting sun. But that is not our calling. We are the horse. Confident and strong, only when we are ruled by guiding authority. Without his direction, we are an undisciplined horse, spooked, and restless.

Consider how Andrew Murray linked this idea of meekness with a proper understanding of what it means to be a man. He wrote, “Men sometimes speak as if humility and meekness would rob us of what is noble and bold and manlike. O that all would believe that this is the nobility of the kingdom of heaven, that this is the royal spirit that the King of heaven displayed, that this is Godlike, to humble oneself, to become the servant of all!”

The Pull Potential of Man

Our modern masculine ideal is individualistic, ambitious, independent, and self-determined. Submission is its antithesis. Submission is seen as weakness and the forfeiting of the masculine ideal. Submission is domestic and womanish. To submit is to be broken and robbed of your masculinity. It’s no wonder submission becomes a perverted word in our demands of submission from others. But submission is rightfully a masculine ideal. It is man’s most wise move by which the strength of meekness is given room to form. It is our submission that builds strength. We must be broken, not to lose our masculine spirit but to have it matured into something stronger—something of use in this world, something of use to God.

The man, who can not be led, who submits to nothing but himself, is far weaker than the man who submits to God.

We need a new image of meekness and its priority in the lives of men. Meekness is the bridle of our aggression and apathy. It is the tugged reins by which God calls for our halt and by the same loosened, which he calls for our courageous action. Only the man who has submitted to his lead can discern the difference. He is a horse well prepared for battle, his undisciplined brother, only for pasture.

Nietzche was wrong. Meekness is not a sign of subjugation but submission. It is the power by which the kingdom of God reclaims the earth. For the proud men of Troy who boast only in victory, meekness is a trojan horse. As they beat their shields and fight to take the hill, they only lose it and themselves in the brutality of the process, a stream of men dejected and disengaged in their defeat. Our power is not in our elevation; our power is in the one we elevate above ourselves.

The full potential of man is not ultimately in his self-achievement but in his self-submission. Maybe this seems impractical and unrealistic. Perhaps it seems so idealistic as to be completely irrelevant. Nothing in this world seems to actually work that way. But it may be as Chesterton put it, “It is because we are standing on our heads that Christ’s philosophy seems upside down.”

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