Our Immortal Ten moments

When two institution which mean so very much to me are embroiled in future-defining, crises, checking Twitter always comes with the nagging anxiety of, “Oh no, what now?” I’m grateful for the ability to learn critical information at a speed unimaginable to previous generations and react accordingly, but I also understand and identify with a certain Captain Picard meme far too well.

It’s no secret that this has been a troubling time to be an alumnus of Baylor University. My soul aches for anyone subjected to the kind of violence faced by God’s image bearers here at Baylor, even more so when they then face rampant and indefensible institutional failure. And for it to be Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist institution of higher learning and whose Latin motto includes “For the church,” assures that this is a tragic abomination which threatens the very witness and thus future of Baylor. A long shadow by extension is also cast across the church itself.

Speaking of, I believe the church residing in America is in the midst of a crisis and sifting not seen in generations. The eyes of the world are on us to see how we will handle unprecedented upheaval in the marble halls of politics and the forsaken streets of human suffering. In an age of social media and 24-hour news cycles, we cannot hide from scrutiny. Our actions here and now will echo across the physical and spiritual realms for a long time to come.

It’s going to take a lot of work and discernment to choose the right actions for Baylor and for the church, but I know what kind of decision should guide our actions. Jack Castellaw, Sam Dillow, Merle Dudley, Ivey Foster, Robert Hannah, Robert Hailey, Willis Murray, James L. Walker, William Winchester, and Clyde “Abe” Kelley lost their lives on January 22, 1927 img_4128when a bus carrying the Baylor basketball team, yell leaders, and managers was hit by a train in Round Rock, Texas. Ninety years later, we at Baylor still take time to remember the Immortal Ten. I’ve long known about this tragedy, but I missed some of the details by not attending BU for undergraduate studies. In the final moments before the train struck, Abe Kelley saw the train through the storm and pushed his roommate, Weir Washman, out the window. Washman was saved, but Kelley lost his life.

I believe both Baylor and the church in America are each facing an Immortal Ten moment, a time in which we can choose self-preservation or self-sacrifice, idolatry of safety or Christlike giving. We will all face that decision in our lives, privately and corporately, over and over. There is nothing greater to be done than sacrifice for others. If we lose our lives, we’ll gain what our lives are meant to be. But if we cling desperately, we’ll lose everything. We aren’t all administrators or coaches for Baylor, but every employee, alumnus, student, and fan has a role to play through sacrificial love. We aren’t all professional ministers, but every single believer has a role to play as God’s people, a royal priesthood, portraying to the world a God who emptied Himself on behalf of us. Perhaps the hardest part of self-sacrifice is that the things we have to give up often are good things. Power, wealth, and renown are enticing and can be leveraged for others. Longevity is desirable. We all like to be comfortable, enjoying a happy life rather than working through painful topics and conversations. But the storm is here, and the train is coming. We can cling to such things, or follow after Christ and those who portray Him like Abe Kelley. Whatever we decide, the world is watching.

Our Immortal Ten moments

“But at least…”: Christians after an election

jesus-is-king-300x285It’s been an action-packed weekend for me. In the last 24 hours or so, Baylor (where I got my MDiv) got blasted off their own football field, Alabama (where I got my BA) stayed undefeated, and I preached my last sermon before the 2016 election. As we’ve gotten closer and closer, I’ve seen an increase in social media posts reminding us that no matter what happens, Jesus is still King. Amen!

But I feel like I’ve seen a pattern emerge over the last few elections, and it deeply troubles me. It’s no secret that many evangelicals found themselves at odds with Barack Obama. It’s also no secret that Donald Trump pulls a significant albeit noticeably decreased share of evangelical support, nor that most outlets have predicted an impending Trump loss. As recent election losses have piled up and more possibly loom just over the horizon, I’ve seen a growing trend of “Jesus is still King” posts implicitly (through outspoken candidate support) or even explicitly tied to consolation. “But at least…” It’s not dissimilar to how I’ve handled Baylor’s two-week losing skid. “But at least Bama…”

Using my alma mater as an emotional fallback, however, cheapens their accomplishments, diminishes the importance of my personal ties to UA, and undersells that I’m genuinely excited to see where this team goes. If it’s true of something as ultimately inconsequential as sports, how much more is it true of how we talk about the Kingdom! Is Christ a reassurance in troubled times? Of course! One of the most famous commands of Christ is tied to His promise to be with us always. But if that’s all He is to us, that’s a real problem. Even if that isn’t how you feel, before you speak or post consider how patterns might look to the world. You may know Jesus is more than a fallback, but a string of full-throated posts for a candidate suddenly slammed up against the sureness of Jesus’ eternal throne doesn’t communicate that well. That’s “opiate of the masses” stuff. Meanwhile, the percentage of white evangelicals who disconnect personal and public morality in elected officials has more than doubled in just five years. With these trends combined, can we really be mad if the world accuses Christians, white evangelicals in particular, of being more concerned with secular wins and losses?

Last week I wrote about how the Sermon on the Mount functions as Jesus’ party platform announcement to be the Messiah of an unending Kingdom.  If this is true, assurances of Jesus’ reign aren’t a consolation prize for the also-ran in a political scrum; instead this should be the source of our joy and a cause for unrestrained celebration! Every political cause in history has had its ups and downs. Let’s be a people who celebrate our King clearly during wins, losses, presidential cycles, midterms, and even those rare moments when political ads fade away. Only then do we have something to offer that the world can’t match.

“But at least…”: Christians after an election

Zero-turn mowers, Scripture, and sex

I’ve been in Waco since the fall of 2009, and I’ve never seen it this green. The rains have come down in historic amounts, the lake is 22 feet above level, and every green thing is exploding. Every pay-per-visit landscaping company must be seeing green as well, as the lush grass seems to spring back up before the mower is even done with it. Waco is alive with the hum of zero-turn mowers, racing across rebellious patches of centipede and St. Augustine.

zeroturnZero-turn mowers are fascinating to watch, as they defy many of our driving instincts. From early childhood, we play with wheels, imagining ourselves to be explorers, or race car drivers, or even just our parents driving home. We know long before we can legally drive that turning right takes us to the right; turning left takes us to the left. Zero-turn mowers, however, offer a much more direct control over trajectory, one that I imagine has crossed up many a first-time home user. On many such mowers, the right lever increases the speed of the right wheel relative to the left wheel…taking the mower to the left. The right wheel covers territory faster than the now slower left wheel. But as the left wheel anchors the mower, the right wheel is pulled in a circle and turns the mower to the left. The left lever similarly turns the mower to the right.

I’m afraid not enough of the church (including the conservative branch of the church universal in which I find myself and my focus) remembers this basic lesson of physics. We see the following of the Jesus Way as a binary. We look for the harsh line down the middle; the further from that line, the more holy or more profane we are, depending on which side of the line is in play. But Scripture is filled with language that describes the Jesus Way as precisely that: a way, as in a path or road. The author of Proverbs instructs us, Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.” This wisdom builds on a long tradition woven throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, including God’s commission and charge to Joshua after Moses’ death. Following Jesus is not avoiding a line and pain beyond it (or flirting with one we want but fear to cross) but instead holding to a line, a path on both sides of which waits ruin for those who go astray.

There is perhaps no arena of the human experience more affected by this error than sex and sexuality. In my own experience, conservative Christians can become so blatant as to use “crossing the line” language to describe our views on Scripture and sex. Instead, honoring God here as with all things means following a path. On the one hand we find a falling away from God’s Law; on the other we risk being crushed under the weight of the Law. We fear falling off the first side, or even sounding like we might have a less conservative view of of sex, so greatly that we put the lever of the Law through the floor. Power races to one wheel. Fear holds back the other. And we go careening off the Way.

What pain is created by these failures to ponder the path? We don’t stand up when women our constantly bombarded by sexist and lewd jokes that aren’t “a big deal”, both behind their backs and to their faces. We don’t want to sound feminist, so the dignity of an entire gender made in God’s image is crushed beneath rampaging wheels. We trot out the same old rhetoric every summer about women covering up to stop male lust, telling women they are to blame for others’ failings and telling boys they are nothing more than untrainable animals. It’s much simpler to talk in such “strong” rules than to balance both levers with nuance, so off we go. Do not ever discount the effect such things have on the female psyche, and do not ever discount the effect such things have on the formation and maturation of young men.

I’ve seen this failure far too close to home. My beloved Baylor is in the midst of a future-defining struggle over how sexual assault is handled. According to the summary of the investigation recently released, “investigations [into assaults involving students] were conducted in the context of a broader culture and belief by many administrators that sexual violence ‘doesn’t happen here.’ Administrators engaged in conduct that could be perceived as victim-blaming, focusing on the complainant’s choices and actions, rather than robustly investigating the allegations, including the actions of the respondent.” Baylor is not the first nor probably the last to make such errors. Talking about sex sparingly and only in terms of hushed taboos is far easier than holding to a path, so we hold down our lever until a rut is carved, hoping that will hold back evil. But our little ruts only give error a chance to grow, as young men and women are left without the tools and language to talk  at all about love, sex, or violence, let alone in ways which honor God and affirm humans. We fear any failure to immediately confront the admission of things we’ve made stands against in the past will make us “soft” on those subjects, but a rapist goes without confrontation while we wring our hands about alcohol or modern dating. We struggle to find balance so again the lever of the Law is punched, and the whirl of the blade grinds down a beautiful life already damaged. Meanwhile, the weed of evil continues to choke out all life around it while we spin in circles.

Folks, nuance is hard. I use “we” language above not simply for rhetorical ownership or because I claim membership within the conservative church and wider church universal but because I’ve struggled with it. But that’s how we must follow the Way. This is not a call to abandon traditional readings of God’s Law but a call to hold them in a way that fully and properly honors God and loves humans. When we let our fear and frustration pull us to either side, we fail both humanity and God. We allow, or even directly create, horrific damage to those we should love as God loves them. We short-circuit God’s good plan for human thriving. May we instead be strong and very courageous, not turning to the right hand or to the left, that we may have good success wherever we go.

Zero-turn mowers, Scripture, and sex