How to vote

how-to-vote

A few words before you vote tomorrow…or, if you’ve already voted, before you plant yourself in front of the teevee and pray to the God you do or don’t believe in…or, if you don’t plan to vote, before you climb into your storm shelter until sometime next week:

Do only what your spirit – your conscience – tells you is right.

Dozens of people have come to me in lament or confusion or anger or bewilderment or excitement (yes, a few) about what they’ll do tomorrow. And I do have opinions about the candidates and the situation, some of which I’ve shared rather openly.

But my only advice now is this: go to bed Tuesday night with a clear conscience.

Whatever you do, whatever you don’t do, resist the pressure to do what they tell you you must do. And they are those who you trust least and those who you trust most who hasten to tell you that what they will do is what you must do.

I don’t mean don’t listen to others. One of my clearest conclusions in the wake of this season is that we are terrible, terrible listeners.

So listen. Listen to be challenged, to be changed, and to be a more gracious and empathetic human.

And then do what you believe is right, no matter how obvious or unfamiliar it seems … no matter what you fear anyone else might think about what you do. Don’t do it defiantly. Do it humbly. Do it eager to continue learning about what you’ve done, about who we are, and about where we’re headed. Do it hoping for a better way for all of us.

I understand many aren’t sure what is right. That’s ok. Do your best, and DON’T do something that sits sideways in your soul. You owe no duty to any man or government that would compel you to say “yes” to anyone or anything you can’t in good conscience say “yes” to – and I include in that statement the possibility that some will be unable in good conscience to say “yes” to anyone.

In a conversation with a government official, Saint Paul the apostle said these words: “For that reason I make it my settled aim to always have a clear conscience before God and all people.”

You might get it wrong tomorrow. Lots of people will. It’s ok to get it wrong. Just don’t get it wrong because you’re afraid or because anyone’s opinion – mine included – cajoled, shamed, or bullied you toward doing anything that does not seem right to you.

Shut off the noise. Defy the fear. And make it your settled aim to go to bed tomorrow with a clear conscience before God and all people.


I still have a pile of thoughts about what I’ve seen and learned – and what I still haven’t figured out – during this strange act of the American story. At one time I thought I would complete a final passage before everyone votes, but it no longer seems helpful to add more noise to the crescendo of election-eve opinion. Someday soon, I’ll share some of that as a post-script of sorts.

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A pre-election Sabbath meditation – for the believer and the skeptic

In just under three days’ time, the citizens of the United States will finish electing a new president. If my capacity to read public sentiment is even average, then most Americans are less excited than we have ever been about what was once the pinnacle expression of our collective identity. I recall being seventeen-and-a-half and wishing with all my little patriotic heart that I could cast a vote on November 3, 1992.

Today I join many in my generation – and in generations above and below mine – who grew up believing in America but who are struggling to muster even the slightest positive feeling or thought about exercising this treasured freedom. We once used the term “civic duty” with reverence; now it describes an obligation that seems stripped of the sacred.

So as an American and a man and a pastor, I offer to believers and skeptics alike this pre-election Sabbath mediation – not from above the fray, but from the midst of it:

This is not the end.

Whether you believe with all your heart in the USA or you’ve had your heart and faith so broken by chaos and corrupt character that you haven’t an ounce of faith left in your body, a better day than 8 November 2016 is coming.

Whether it’s still a grand ol’ flag to you or you’ve ceased to see the valor in the stars and stripes, the final chapter is not to be written this week.

Whether you place your hand proudly over your beating heart to emphatically answer “Yes!” to the question, “Oh say can you see…?” or you solemnly sympathize with those who drop to a knee to spill the secret that, “no, some of us cannot see…,” the innate human hunger for freedom that inspires both will not be extinguished by Hillary Clinton, by Donald Trump, by the anthem-singers, or by the kneeling protestors.

Whether you are convinced that voting for an R- or D- is an objective good even if the name next to it ain’t so good this time around or you find absolutely no comfort in party platforms if the name after the hyphen is so tarnished that you can no longer make any sense of the letter before it, good parties will not save us and bad names will not damn us.

Whether you are a fervent believer – a patriot to the core – or a bewildered skeptic – unsure that nationalistic faith can ever deliver – take heart!

This is not the end.

I offer such hope as a professing skeptic, unpersuaded of the virtue of a vote for either candidate this week, and all but void of belief that either party can make America great again. But I am not afraid. I hope because our ability to live a rich and meaningful life does not rest on the greatness of America.

No matter how much you believe in America – past, present, or future – she will let you down. She will break your heart. She will do bad things and elect bad leaders and empower bad judges. She will try to ensure freedom and fail; she will decide to restrict freedom and succeed. America also will do all kinds of incomparable good, yes, but she will never prove a reliable anchor for anyone’s soul.

So rest. On this Sabbath before the 2016 election, rest, and do not be afraid.

This week we will work – work to offer what we can to make America better…or to keep it from getting as bad as we think it could…or to to shield ourselves from the whole blasted mess.

But today we rest. We rest, assured that imperfect America can’t give us liberty and lasting joy, but she can’t take it either. Whether led by the noblest or most deplorable among us, America is our geography and our history and our collective labor, but America is not our source or our end. We are created with care, made for wholeness, and freely offered a grace of redemption and life that no man, woman, or nation can take.

 
Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
  our God is merciful.
The Lord protects the simple;
  when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest,
  for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

sunset

“Character counts,” they said

I really, really wish the people who for my entire life have insisted character matters, even and especially among our leaders, would stop sharing their rationalizations for the utterly repugnant behavior of the candidate they’re supporting or planning to support. I sincerely don’t begrudge or look down on anyone voting for whomever they choose, but this is not about my opinion on who people are voting for. It’s about the minimization and defense of the kind of stuff you’d discipline your kids for or fire an employee for or oust a teacher or principal for. There’s a difference between soberly voting as you decide you should vote and joining a public apologetic for unrepentant ugliness. Be released – you don’t have to defend that garbage. Just vote.

But please stop telling us we aren’t electing a preacher in chief. I’m aware. (I’m a preacher, and I’d be less likely than most to vote for one.) But we weren’t electing a preacher in any of the previous elections or administrations when you (and sometimes I) lamented and lambasted the immoral attitudes and activities of candidates you (and I) opposed. We said then that integrity mattered, politics be damned, remember?

Please stop telling us that no one is perfect, as if that applies to your candidate but not the other. As if none of us have the intelligence or discernment to know the difference between imperfection and belligerent contempt for decency.

If you’re done with all of that – if power and money and whatever else are the measures that actually count now instead of character and respectability – just say so. Cash it in. But be clear about it. Don’t play the game and minimize the childish nonsense, irresponsibility, and disregard for “lesser” people, and then circle back to preaching about character when it seems convenient again. It will be a resounding gong, a clanging cymbal. And our ears are already bleeding.

On Trump reportedly getting saved

Last week, James Dobson let us know that Donald Trump recently professed a newfound faith in Jesus. I’m not sure what Dobson’s intention was in making this public, but I’d like to suggest something to Christians who are inclined to immediately react in one direction or the other – to either scoff at this as a certain political ploy or to see it as some sort of new evidence that a vote for Trump might be a good idea for Christians after all. My suggestion: whatever you think of Trump or Dobson, it is ok to be measured, compassionate, nuanced, and discerning in your response.

At a personal level, we can set aside cynicism, assume the best, and embrace the man who professes faith. Really. We can. I’ve seen many people come to faith who I was prone to suspect as insincere, and that suspicion was at least as much about me as about them. This is no different. I mean, this is the goal, right? To see women and men have their lives changed by the good news – even and especially the ones who we think least likely? Time will demonstrate whether or not someone has truly given his life away; our cynicism and sarcasm simply aren’t necessary to speed that process along (a truth I forget or ignore far too often).

At a political level, I think it is wise to ask what meaning we are supposed to attach to Dobson’s announcement. First, this reveals that Trump’s prior claim to being “a great Christian” was either insincere or mistaken; it seems reasonable for Mr. Trump to clarify now by telling us which. (I know…it was kind of funny either way, but it apparently wasn’t true.) Second, this means he is a brand new believer, and Christians almost unanimously agree that a new faith would not qualify one for leadership in a context where credibility or authority is somehow derived from or enhanced by that faith. So we will be suspicious if professing Christians who long have held that position begin offering some sort of enhanced political endorsement of Trump based on this newfound faith, and I think that suspicion is based on discernment, not cynicism. And finally, we are 7.5 years into the tenure of a president whose long-standing and clear profession of faith in Jesus has meant nothing to most folks on the right in terms of his qualification to lead. It isn’t necessary to get into one’s opinion about Obama or his faith; it is sufficient to note that we have from certain quarters an established precedent that a professed faith alone is not a reason for Christians to rally behind a candidate. If we now get a different message from those quarters, something is amiss. And it’s ok to say so.

Wise as serpents. Innocent as doves. A man’s declaration of faith is no time to ridicule him personally. A candidate whose life and words are dramatically and defiantly askew of the model of Jesus suddenly claiming the faith of much of his desired constituency (and a scurry of surrogates suggesting this is a game-changer for that constituency) is certainly a time for questions and discernment.

Both are possible.

Best thing I saw today: June 1, 2016

From the unreasonably talented and kind Cindy Morgan: Beloved Nashville songwriter, producer & co-writer of the Broadway Hit Musical “Something Rotten” joins me on the porch to perform his Grammy Award Winning Song of the Year (performed by Eric Clapton) Change the World. Enjoy this episode of On the Porch with Wayne Kirkpatrick! (Something Rotten on Broadway / Wayne Kirkpatrick – The Junk Bunk)

In praise of Wendell Berry’s world


I have a confession: after years of publicly describing my affection for the writing of Wendell Berry, yesterday I finished Jayber Crow for the first time. I cried as discreetly as possible over the heartbreakingly beautiful final pages as I sat alongside this serene creek that feeds into the Cumberland River and among the less serene noises of my family and our friends playing in the creek. 

I’m convinced that Jayber may be Berry’s most important work, and I started reading it quite a long time ago. At times I couldn’t quit reading it; other times I was so afraid of coming to the end of it that I read very slowly or put it down for weeks. And then sometime last year, I found myself two chapters from the end, and I set it aside for many months. It never left my mind for more than a day or two, but I left the book unopened until yesterday. I’m not quite sure why yesterday. 

While I own dozens of half-read books, those remain unfinished because the author bored me or because I’m too easily bored. This was something else. This was an actual fear of leaving Jayber Crow’s world – or, more precisely, leaving the world as Jayber Crow experienced it.

Jayber’s world is Berry’s partly fictional community of Port William, Kentucky, and Berry has written enough novels and stories about that world to allow me to stay there for some years yet. If given that oft-fantasized choice to live in any real or imagined time and place I’ve known in my almost 41 years, I’m almost certain I would choose to live in Port William, Kentucky in the first half or so of the 20th century. 

That impulse isn’t escapism, exactly. Berry’s fiction is so powerful because it is so real. Port William is no utopia, but I see the world more clearly as it was meant to be in the simplicity, beauty, and brokenness of this tiny farming community along the river. I think I want to return there again and again (and would go there given the choice) not because it is free of darkness or hardship, but because I see a way back to innocence and forward to redemption in the light of Port William’s sun, in the shadows of its trees, and in the drifts of its snows. 

But Berry’s real gift to me (and to you if you know what’s good for you) is not that he creates a fantasy into which I can escape, but that he allows me to believe that the world once envisioned and created with care and beauty can be reimagined and recreated to its intended purpose. Today I might choose Port William, but the more time I spend in that world, the more hope I have for its beauty in my own. And that hope gives me the courage to choose and to love the world I’ve been given. 

Frederick Buechner on loving God

I can’t read this enough.

Nobody ever claimed the journey was going to be an easy one. It is not easy to love God with all your heart and soul and mind when much of the time you have all but forgotten his name. But to love God is not a goal we have to struggle toward on our own, because what at its heart the gospel is all about is that God himself moves us toward it even when we believe he has forsaken us.

The final secret, I think, is this: that the words “You shall love the Lord your God” become in the end less a command than a promise. And the promise is that, yes, on the weary feet of faith and the fragile wings of hope, we will come to love him at last as from the first he has loved us — loved us even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, because he has been in the wilderness with us. He has been in the wilderness for us. He has been acquainted with our grief. And, loving him, we will come at last to love each other too so that, in the end, the name taped on every door will be the name of the one we love.

“And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you rise.”

And rise we shall, out of the wilderness, every last one of us, even as out of the wilderness Christ rose before us. That is the promise, and the greatest of all promises.

A Christian Defense of my Retraction of A Christian Defense of Matt Walsh (which wasn’t actually a defense)

Tonight I shared and then deleted a link to a blog post (someone else’s, not mine) entitled “A Christian Defense of Matt Walsh.” When you click on the link, it takes you to a blank page. I thought it was funny. Honestly, I still do. I justified sharing it by noting that the edge in the post was fair given Walsh’s regular schtick: abrasive criticism of anyone who doesn’t see the world as he does. I ultimately took it down for three reasons: 

  1. Most importantly, I think it has become too easy and too common to fire generalized shots at people we don’t like, and though I kind of liked this one, it was still that.
  2. I don’t have time or energy or headspace to rent to Matt Walsh and any scrum that might pop up about him (there was no scrum yet, but scrums tend to follow that guy around). Just being honest.
  3. I realized the post is kind of a trap. If someone defending Walsh balked at its harshness, they would kind of have to pick whether they wanted to defend Walsh or oppose harshness, because it’s tough to do both. Even though that may be a fair point to make, I’m not interested in trapping my friends, even the ones who like Matt Walsh’s stuff. 

I do think humor and criticism can be good and fair, even in the church. And maybe this kind of thing is fine. But I’m more sensitive about these things than I used to be because they are happening in a broader culture that is rapidly losing the capacity for grace and is often just too darn lazy to really listen and enter into productive dialogue in disagreement. So the little barbs like this one don’t seem so little to me anymore, even if I think they are true…or true with appropriate context. 

But that context matters. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make a case that there is no truly Christian defense for much of what Walsh writes and how he writes it. I just think we’re all better off when that case is made with a little care and nuance. I’m not terribly familiar with the guy who authored the title of this blank post, but I suspect he has done some of that in other posts. Regular readers of his blog may have lots of context. But we are now all publishers in a viral/meme culture, so our provocative words are often and easily divorced from the context. 

Is this one a big deal? Probably not, and I don’t mean to attach artificial drama to it. It’s more fun to call someone a troll or be clever about their sin or silliness. It was more fun to just share the post and giggle each time someone liked it, imagining the look on each of their faces as they clicked on the link wondering whether they were going to have to defriend me, then waited for the text of the post to load, then got it. That was more fun. But then I was reminded that for all of my strong feelings about us learning to communicate with charity and grace, it’s still easy for my own bias to blind me to sins in myself that I immediately call BS on in others. And there is no Christian defense for that. 

A repost: Gay Marriage and the Posture of the Gospel

[I originally wrote and published this in 2013. I reposted it on social media two weeks ago, and in response to a couple of requests, I’m simply copying it to the top of my site for easier access. There is nothing new here if you’ve already read it, though I’m working on a follow-up post that will go up either this week or, you know, by 2017. For now I will only add this: this post isn’t really about gay marriage. Or gay anything. Well, it is about those things, but it’s about lots of other things too. I confess that while I’ve been grateful so many people have read and shared this, I feel a bit conflicted because I am weary of so many of the artificial categories we (the Church especially) have created, and I don’t want to contribute to that. while i believe this particular conversation is an appropriate entry point to the conversation about posture, My appeal is meant to be broader with respect to any number of differences, real or perceived. More to come.]

 

Perhaps because of what I do for a living, I have been asked about gay marriage many times over the last couple of years. With very few exceptions, each of the questions I’ve been asked is some variation of the same question: What is your position on gay marriage? Some ask to make sure I’m on the right side of the issue; some ask because they are conflicted about which side is right, but they feel pressure to choose a side (and to choose the right side, obviously).

I understand the desire to be right. I understand the pressure to choose. I understand that right and wrong still matter. The question that all of the questions seem to be asking still makes sense to me.

And yet the more I am asked the question, the more I am convinced that we are so collectively obsessed with position we have forgotten that Jesus has at least as much to say about posture. My observation of the Church is that we usually give our first and best energies to formulating, asserting, and defending our positions, and on our most charitable days we footnote those positions with a small-print reminder to “speak the truth in love” or some such. And conveniently, we have so convinced ourselves that our positions are right that we believe the very act of articulating them is love. Posture is mostly an afterthought.

This is a problem, and it’s not a small one.

Orthodox Christian belief insists the Gospel is necessary because of God’s position on our broken ways of living (sin). But the heart of the good news is God’s posture toward us as we continue to break things, including ourselves.

My position on gay marriage is that we ought to respond to the world around us the way God responded to us when we didn’t do what He thought we should do. Even if we believe gay marriage is at odds with the way God intends us to live, and even when we feel compelled to say so, we ought to assume the same posture toward the world that God assumed toward us (and that He assumes toward the world). That posture looks something like this:

Diego-Velazquez-The-Crucifixion-Christ-on-the-Cross-Oil-Painting

If Christians have been convinced of anything, it is that…

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

But here’s the sucker-punch of a next sentence that we tend to ignore in our myopic rush to leverage our salvation to assume and assert correct positions in the world:

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Paul describes God’s posture toward us this way:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

And boy do we love that verse when it’s talking about Jesus dying for me.

But if it’s true that “whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did,” and “in this world we are like Jesus,” then the punch-line is unavoidable.

No matter how correct your position, if your posture toward a world you believe to be “still sinners” is anything other than a love that stubbornly refuses to condemn, but instead gives itself away to point to Jesus giving himself away, you are on your own. You are not standing on the truth of the scriptures or the shoulders of Jesus. Right position without the posture of God revealed in Jesus is not the Gospel.

Carry on with the discussions of gay marriage, morality, and culture. We need those conversations. Just remember that if we claim the name of Jesus, we are not ambassadors of moral positions or good behavior; we are ambassadors of a transcendent reconciliation possible only in Jesus, who made God’s love for sinners known not by a posture of condemnation, but of cross-shaped love.

A post-script word to those outside of the Church looking in: If you have been on the blunt end of a professing Christian’s position on this or another issue and were not shown the sacrificial posture of Jesus demonstrating God’s love for you, that person was not representing Jesus. They probably thought they were doing the right thing, but just as I have done dozens of times, they were confusing position, posture, and probably a few other things. They need Jesus as much as you do, and so do I. Forgive them and forgive me, please.

That ol’ boy Buzz, Ferguson, and me

This morning I climbed in a little white car with my youngest brother, his wife, and their three year-old daughter to begin the trek back from Nashville to Texas for Thanksgiving. We stopped for gas on the way out of town, and I wandered into the convenience store to browse the organic locally sourced peanut butter cracker section for breakfast. As I stood trying to decide which brand was likely to have the fewest number of carcinogens, I noticed a 50-something man (we’ll call him Buzz, because he looked like the kind of good-time Tennessee redneck who you ought to call Buzz) start to walk into the “beer cave” – the refrigerated room full of the various domestic pseudo-beers that keep a store like this in business. With one foot in the cave, a wave of self-consciousness seemed to stagger him and push him back out the door. He looked around, I’m almost certain, to see who was watching him go into the beer cave at ten in the morning. I tried hard to not be one of those people. Buzz then noticed there was a small section of beer outside the cave alongside the other cold drinks. He walked the drink aisle as though contemplating Dr. Pepper or organic locally sourced super water as an alternative to his original plan. He gradually drifted back to the beer corner, pulled out a six pack, and walked the long way around the store back to the register. Beer for breakfast it was.

Five years ago this scene would have tapped into a well of condescension and judgment in my heart. Even 18 months ago some of that same spirit of bewildered head-shaking likely would have emerged. I had heard about alcoholism and addiction. I had seen movies, read articles, and sympathized with those battling such demons. Sympathized in theory. When I came upon someone in the throes of drunkenness or poor decision making, my first thought was seldom sympathetic. I might get there eventually, but my reflex was rarely to think about that person’s story – wonder what led them to this moment of apparent foolishness or disregard for other people. But that was where my mind went today. I didn’t feel disdain or condescension for Buzz as he started into a six pack two hours before lunch. Mostly I wished I had the time and guts to introduce myself, go drink a beer with the guy, and listen to his story.

Why the change in my response?

For several months last year, someone we love very much who was battling alcoholism spent a lot of time with us. We lived and listened and just endured alongside her. We attended many AA and rehab meetings where we sat and listened to the stories of dozens and dozens of people who found themselves in the same fight. We saw some come and go – some gone for good, some gone and then back, pulling themselves off the mat to try again. And it changed me. It was a season of deep, rich, and sometimes difficult discovery – about other people, about life, about God, and about me. Perhaps the most staggering truth (and ultimately the most obvious one) that found me in that time was this: these people are me. I am them. Give me different parents, different trauma, different opportunity, different obstacles, one tiny sliver of different DNA, and I’m on the other side of this table telling my story while someone listens to me from the comfort of a privilege afforded them by none of their own doing – by a life free of the family or trauma or challenges or DNA that conspired to trap me in a system of broken physiology and thinking that, no matter how hard I try to navigate the system the way everyone says I should be able to, I cannot escape.

Which is to say I listened to people whose experiences and perspectives were different from mine, and I found myself in them. I discovered we were far more alike than the one obvious factor that placed us on opposite sides of an AA meeting would suggest. I learned to see something deeper than difference in a moment when difference is the easiest thing to see. I learned to ask questions. I learned to long to hear people’s stories in a new way. I learned that sometimes the people whose lives and behaviors seem the most absurd – most damanable – have lived so long in an avalanche of lies, abuse, disrespect, and broken relationships that they literally cannot conceive of a next step other than the one utter desperation demands. I learned that often the folks who I’m most prone to dismiss or discount are just me with a different wrinkle or two in their story, almost always wrinkles they didn’t choose.

As I watched through the dirty convenience store window, Buzz climbed into his truck, cracked the first beer free from the plastic ring, and drove away. I glanced down from the window and my eyes stopped on a newspaper. A camera had captured several black faces in a moment of visceral disgust and bewilderment as they heard the news in Ferguson last night. I looked at the anger and weariness in their eyes, surprised that instead of seeing people I ought to shake my head about, I saw that ol’ boy Buzz.

And I saw me.