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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
[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:
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.
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.
Last weekend I stood with Lisa and Jacob, two friends who are also sort of like my kids, and did something I’ve done about a dozen times: I spoke weighty words about marriage and, ultimately, affirmed their vows and declared them husband and wife, once and for all time.
Each time I perform a wedding, I am sobered by the gravity of what I will speak into being. My role in a wedding and the resulting marriage is relatively small, of course, but like many small things, I consider what I do sacred. What is happening is not about me at all, but I get to participate in the renewal and replanting of something eternal — to be a midwife of sorts as a new life emerges and to welcome that new life to the world that was made for it. If I am any use, it is in giving voice to transcendence and joining not only two lives, but also heaven and earth. The joy and meaning of that experience is deeply rooted in the life we have shared with these women and men and the life we share with them in their married years. And, of course, the older I get, the more aware I become that the fruit of these marriages will outlast me.
I’ve never really found words that describe how I feel about my (and, as a community our) role in all of that, but recently in Wendell Berry’s collection of poems The Country of Marriage, I found some that come close.
In the mating of trees,
the pollen grain entering the invisible
the domed room of the winds, survives
the ghost of the old forest
that was here when we came. The ground
invites it, and it will not be gone.
I become the familiar of that ghost
and its ally, carrying in a bucket
twenty trees smaller than weeds,
and I plant them along the way
of the departure of the of ancient host.
I return to the ground its original music.
It will rise out of the horizon
of the grass, and over the heads
of the weeds, and it will rise over
the horizon of men’s heads. As I age
in the world it will rise and spread,
and be for this place horizon
and orison, the voice of its winds.
I have made myself a dream to dream
of its rising, that has gentled my nights.
Let me desire and wish well the life
these trees may live when I
no longer rise in the mornings
to be pleased by the green of them
shining, and their shadows on the ground,
and the sound of the wind in them.
A man said the terrible thing; that is the news today.
It was months ago, it seems — dim words mumbled in secret,
Only there is no secret, not for him, not for anyone.
So we disguise our delight with outrage, again.
We abhor him for his sin, except we don’t.
We love him, secretly thank him for being the ugly we aren’t —
Only there is no secret, not for us, not for anyone.
Our disgust is our song of gratitude: praise the fool that I’m not him!
And his words are indeed a fool’s — cockeyed, clanging.
The absurdity of his transgressions, sensational.
Which is quite how we like our offenders —
What good are they if not for giving sensation?
We’ll take fear now and then, a disruption of our boredom,
But we prefer inflated indignation, the gateway to our secret world
Where we dabble in the profane under the cover of shock;
Only there is no secret, not for us, not for our senses.
And yet we try, exhausting the vocabulary of offense,
Feebly disguising our relief that there is one more half-wit
With half our wit and twice our exposure
Or at least one whose missing half was exposed before ours.
And that is the secret where there is no secret,
That his shame is our sigh of relief.
More eyes on someone else’s secrets,
A stay of my execution, my own uncovering.
But someone does die now, and not just the fool.
True moral instinct is gasping its last,
Bled dry by the repeating refrain: We’ve never seen worse; who could be worse?
Worse than an old man, afraid of dark skin?
Afraid of his own wife — or of fidelity, at least?
Worse than nonsensical rambling about
How his world is still flat, the universe revolving about it?
But we know; we know this sad coot is the relic, not the root.
We know this is the knucklehead stuff, but convenient,
Pitiful enough to demand the damning and
To distract the bleating herd from the other.
So the other stays secret until it finds that there is no secret,
There is only the drunken illusion, fueled by our binging
On the sensation of the fool: I am not worse.
But there is no secret, not for me, not for you.
Epilogue: As I endeavor to grow as a writer and a human, I’m pushing into some new territory like this – verse, poetry, song(lyric)writing, and so forth. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been collaborating with someone else on something that actually culminated in something finished and something pretty good. Perhaps one day you’ll even get to hear it. For now the point is that something in that process helped me finally unlock a door I’d been trying to find a way around for a long time. I’m not sure how much is on the other side of that door or what it will be good for, but for the time being, I’m not too worried about that. It’s just nice to have a new room to explore.
And because I’ve always operated in prose, one of the tricks of getting into this space for me is, at least some of the time, trying to write what it is I’m trying to communicate in as clear a “how I would say it” way as possible. Ross has tried to push me in that way for a long time, and Andy Gullahorn, who is a ninja of a songwriter, offers that counsel to others constantly: Just write it like you would say it. That’s often not the final form, and it’s almost always woefully inadequate, but it sort of melts the ice enough for the water to start flowing. And, by the way, that inadequacy is, I think, is one of the cases for verse and poetry. There are things that can’t be said in prose that poetry, while it also cannot exhaustively express them, can offer a window through which we can see what can’t be said.
Anyway, for those interested in the process and/or for those who find poetry too nebulous and prefer someone to just say what they mean at all times, below is the very rough, more straightforward bit I wrote that helped me find my way into this. It is purposefully unedited, first-thought sort of stuff.
When someone does something really awful, especially in an area that culturally we have labeled as particularly shameful, we suddenly become indulgently moral creatures. Never mind that minutes before we learned of that person’s offense, we dabbled in “smaller” immoralities: spending money we should give away, tweaking the truth just so to preserve the .2% of our reputation that the truth might cost us, wishing we had what she had, wishing we had her to gratify our own desires. We didn’t do what this guy did. We didn’t speak the unspeakable. (We just did the unspeakable in a small, secret way.) This is the convenience of a world in which famous indiscretions are available to us in never ending supply and excruciating detail, though decidedly inconvenient for our souls. We get drunk on the brokenness of others so as to numb ourselves to our own accommodations of brokenness in our hearts. And the more we drink, the more we lose of both our own truth and of our collective sense of authentic moral indignation.
I’m a 38-year old pastor, and I attended my first Ash Wednesday service a few hours ago.
I did not become a Christian (or a pastor) within the last 364 days. I’ve simply spent my entire lifetime of Christianing in tribes whose liturgy has not made space for this ritual. I was well into adulthood before I realized it wasn’t an exclusively Catholic practice, and while I was not raised to be particularly suspicious of Catholicism (I recall my dad taking grief from a few deacons and other grumblers in our small town West Texas baptist church when he and a few other pastors included the local Catholic priest in the community-wide Easter sunrise service), I admit that I made no real connections between my own faith and the sight of ashes on the foreheads of my Catholic friends. I suppose I just thought it was something weird they did at their church; God knows (and so did I, even as a kid) we did lots of weird things at our church.
[Topic-relevant case-in-point: One year my brother, Will, and I split the role of Jesus in the church Easter cantata — me the mostly-naked (in front of all of my classmates), dying and then dead Jesus with a bad wig and fake beard on the cross, and Will the resurrected, glittered (yes!) Jesus with a bad wig and fake beard. See, weird. And let’s be honest: I could have stopped at the word cantata and we would’ve had all the weird we need.]
In more recent years, I’ve lived among and helped lead a community of Jesus-types that resides somewhere in the sparsely populated terrain between the evangelical mainstream, the institution-defecting home churchers, and various spiritual traditions steeped in more ancient Church liturgy (and between lots of other things, too). Though we continue to recover some of the beautiful rhythms of communal worship and formation that we lost along the way (most of them well preserved by that latter group), including the observance of Advent and Lent, we are still finding our way through our inexperience and ignorance and simple discomfort, discerning what is and what is not meant for us, for now. And, at least for now, we haven’t started burning palm branches and rubbing the ashes on one another’s heads.
So I don’t know which you’ll find stranger – that I have spent nearly forty years in the Church and never have experienced this sacred start to the forty days of immersion in the suffering and death of Jesus or that as the pastor of a 15-year old church that doesn’t really observe Ash Wednesday, I wandered into a 100-year old building housing a 150-year old Episcopal congregation and had a priest I’ve never met cross my forehead with ashes.
I find both a little strange, so take your pick.
But today I needed to hear someone say to me: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
It occurs to me that perhaps you’ll find that the strangest confession of all.
I needed that for a thousand jumbled reasons, but mostly I needed it because it is true.
I have spent days—no, weeks…months immersed in the truth that I have very little to do with my existing; my being what I am, being anything at all, is completely beyond my control. Sure, I can poke and prod at the life I’ve been given and change its shape and its trajectory a bit. But my simply being is not up to me. I didn’t bring me about, and I cannot fend off my ceasing to be as I am. I am living, yes, and in some sense living as I choose to live, but just as surely I am dying.
Today I needed my body and soul to enter the ritual of that truth: the words, the smear of ashes, the cross, the bread, the wine. I needed the sound of death. I needed its feel, its shape, and its taste. I needed it not because I want it, but because it is true, and a life detached from the truth is over long before any physical death.
I am dying — and I am dying a thousand little deaths on my way to the one that ultimately will return me to dust.
“This,” you say, “is why we don’t do Ash Wednesday. We’ve been saved from all this darkness and death.”
Except we haven’t just been saved from it. We’ve been saved by it. We’ve been saved through it. Our hope is not that God will keep us from death, but that Jesus, acquainted with the way, will walk with us in our dying. That he will not just show up at the end and declare us exempt, but that he will carry us through death. That he will not simply give us a fantasy of never dying, but that he will give us the imagination to see the life we gain in our death — and in our many deaths along the way. That he will remind us that we are alive because he raised us from dust, and that we can only be fully alive if we trust him to raise us from dust again.
So I died a little more today, starting with my illusion, long fed by busyness and distraction and fear and denial, that I am more than dust – that I am not dying. What remains in the ashes of that death is the truth spoken by the God who crafts life from dust by way of death, the God who invites us to find life by losing it:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
In which I bring back to the nest some of the shiny things I have collected throughout the week…
(In October, I traveled to Nashville for a weirdly fantastic gathering of folks called Hutchmoot. I have tinkered around with some words of reflection on that experience, but they have yet to find any resolution. Perhaps someday soon. Though the entire time was graced in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, one of my primary purposes for going was to hear Leif Enger, whose writing, starting with his magically earthy, transcendent novel Peace Like a River, has been a gift to me for many years. He did not disappoint, even in my few moments of casual conversation with him and his lovely wife, Robin. As he shared his affection for stories with us [“stories are the only theology that makes sense to me”], he offered this exhortation as a way of not only writing, but living, better stories: Look for the shiny things in life – even in the ordinary -and pick them up and collect them in the nest. And so this is but one way I aim to do just that.)
British Bible translator, scholar, and clergyman J.B. Phillips on the astonishing humility and humanity of the Incarnation that has altered all of history (1963)…
Amid the sparkle and the color and music of the day’s celebration we do well to remember that God’s insertion of himself into human history was achieved with an almost frightening quietness and humility. … In sober fact there is little romance or beauty in the thought of a young woman looking desperately for a place where should could give first to her first baby. I do not think for a moment that Mary complained, but it is a bitter commentary upon the world that no one would give up a bed for the pregnant woman — and that the Son of God must be born in a stable.
This almost beggarly beginning has been romanticized by artists and poets throughout the centuries. Yet I believe that at least once a year we should look steadily at the historic fact, and not at any pretty picture. At the time of this astonishing event only a handful of people knew what had happened. And as far as we know, no one spoke openly about it for thirty years. Even when the baby was grown to be a man, only a few recognized him for who he really was. Two or three years of teaching and preaching and healing people, and his work was finished. He was betrayed and judicially murdered, deserted at the end by all his friends. By normal human standards, this is a tragic little tale of failure, the rather squalid story of a promising young man from a humble home, put to death by the envy and malice of the professional men of religion. All this happened in an obscure, occupied province of the vast Roman Empire.
It is fifteen hundred years ago that this apparently invincible Empire utterly collapsed, and all that is left of it is ruins. Yet the little baby, born in such pitiful humility and cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become the friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astounding phenomenon in human history.
Madeleine L’Engle with a pristinely poetic imagination of how creation itself experienced that humble moment of God becoming man…
Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy?
Henri Nouwen on waiting, presence, trust, and hope rooted in and fueled by community…
Many of our destructive acts come from the fear that something harmful will be done to us. And if we take a broader perspective — that not only individuals but whole communities and nations might be afraid of being harmed — we can understand how hard it is to wait and how tempting it is to act. Here are the roots of a “first strike” approach to others.
It impresses me, therefore, that all the figures who appear on the first pages of Luke’s Gospel are waiting. … The whole opening scene of the good news is filled with waiting people.
…waiting is active. Most of us think of waiting as something very passive, a hopeless state determined by events totally out of our hands.
But there is none of this passivity in scripture. Those who are waiting are waiting very actively. They know that what they are waiting for is growing from the ground on which they are standing. That’s the secret. … Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it. A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.
To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So is the trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. So, too, is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.
The whole meaning of Christian community lies in offering a space in which we wait for that which we have already seen. Christian community is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us. In this way we can live with courage, trusting that there is a spiritual power in us that allows us to live in this world without being seduced constantly by despair, lostness, and darkness. That is how we dare to say that God is a God of love even when we see hatred all around us. That is why we can claim that God is a God of life even when we see death and destruction and agony all around us. We say it together. We affirm it in one another. Waiting together, nurturing what has already begun, expecting its fulfillment — that is the meaning of marriage, friendship, community, and the Christian life.
Walt Wangerin Jr., reflecting on Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayer for a child, seemingly unanswered for two lifetimes, finding its fulfillment at just the right moment and for the sake of all time and all humanity…
…God does not forget our prayers.
The particular and seeming-private prayer becomes, in God’s omnipotent answer, a universal benefaction. Universal: something for all flesh, something that binds all time together.
And you, my friend–you thought your older prayers had gone unanswered (because we live always in the particular present, forgetting the past, unknowing the future).
And you thought your personal praying had nothing to do with anyone besides yourself and a handful of intimate folk (because your own vision is confined to a particular space, place, community).
But your prayer is never yours alone. It is also God’s, you know.
German Jesuit priest and resistance philosopher Alfred Delp, from his prison cell just days before he was hanged by the Nazis in 1945…
But we have stood on this earth in false pathos, in false security; in our spiritual insanity…we believed that with our own forces we could avert the dangers and banish night, switch off and halt the internal quaking of the universe. We believed we could harness everything and fit it into a final order that would stand.
Here is the message of Advent: faced with him who is Last, the world will begin to shake.
If we want to transform life again, if Advent is truly to come again — the Advent of home and of hearts, the Advent of the people and the nations, a coming of the Lord in all this — then the great Advent question for us is whether we come out of these convulsions with this determination: yes, arise! It is time to awaken from sleep.
The world today needs people who have been shaken by ultimate calamities and emerged from them with the knowledge and awareness that those who look to the Lord will still be preserved by him, even if they are hounded from the earth.
Space is filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But just beyond the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on us the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come.
Encouraged by the surprising popularity of my lengthy profession of love for a superstar Aggie quarterback, I became emboldened to press more deeply into writing about controversial celebrities. And there was no question which pop culture icon and Aggie I would take on next: Ross King.
[That, my friends, is a master class in smooth transitions between seemingly unrelated topics.]
So perhaps I should get my disclaimer out of the way before I insist that you purchase Ross King’s new album, This Hope Will Guide Me.
For starters, Ross is sort of my boss. Wait, no. I’m sort of his boss. Well, we’ve been known to boss each other around anyway. We’re not very good at organizational charts or hierarchies in our little world. So maybe the best way for me to disclose my personal bias is to say that I’ve been given permission to spank his kids. The point is, we aren’t strangers. No doubt, it’s a bit of a strange and surprising road that has led us to deep friendship, both personally and among our wives and kids. When we met nearly twenty years ago, neither of us envisioned this life as co-laborers among a quirky, amazing group of people who are willing to be a church without a church building. But it’s our life, and it is very good.
So of course I want you to buy my friend’s record, right? Well, yes, but let me attempt to melt a layer off your cynicism by reminding you of something: it used to matter when those who knew us best spoke well of us. Back before we assumed everyone was just trying to make a buck or help someone who could make them a buck make a buck, we paid attention when people who would know would say, “This person is reliable to do what he’s doing; you should pay attention to him.” And it still should.
And that’s my angle here. I know Ross, and you should pay attention to the songs he is writing for the Church (by which I mean people). In fact, those of us who are a part of this peculiar little band of Jesus people called Community Church have something most church folks don’t: many of the songs we sing when we’re together actually grow out of the life of our community. I don’t mean to suggest that those who don’t have that experience are getting something less at church. Not at all. But we are getting something different, and that something is the life behind many of the songs on this new record. The songs Ross writes for the Church don’t exist because he has decided he can make money writing songs for the Church. They exist because he lives life with the Church, and then he locks himself in a room and turns that experience into art that can be poured back into the Church. I would love to tell you that all music that we label “Christian” (or even all worship music) was born in a similar way, but, well, maybe someday. Until then, these songs are, indeed, a gift, and not just to our local church community. They are for the Church in ways that few albums like this are.
I’m neither a musician nor a music critic, so my capacity for describing the quality of the music on This Hope Will Guide Me is limited. I can tell you that I am picky. I can tell you that I’ve heard more Christian albums and worship albums that I listen to once and never again than albums that I like, much less love. I can tell you that most of the music I own is not so-called Christian music. And I can tell you that this record sounds absolutely fantastic, and it has been in heavy rotation on my iDevices since he started sending me early versions of the songs. From a production, sound, and style standpoint, it’s the best collection of worship songs Ross has ever turned out. It just sounds terrific.
So I want it to be clear that when I write, “But what sets this album apart is the songs themselves” that I don’t mean that these are great songs that sound okay on the record. These are great songs that sound great.
But what sets this album apart is the songs themselves. As Ross is prone to do, he and his co-writers have found a way beyond the clichés and lyrical reruns and given voice to the things we want to say to and about God — and in this case, especially about where He stands relative to all the ways death seems to press in on our lives — but that often remain wordless. This is no small gift to the Church. As a teacher, preacher, or writer, one of the most meaningful and encouraging responses I get is, “You put words to what I think and feel but don’t know how to express.” Why does that feedback affect me so much? Because I know the value of having someone pull those scattered inner pieces of me together, making of them something whole that I couldn’t assemble myself. That moment is not just summary and synthesis of what we already knew; it is actually discovery. We find and are finally able to express that something that has been eluding us, opening life and the world up to us in a new way.
That is what these songs are doing for people in the Church. It is what they have done for me, but I’m glad I have waited several weeks to write about this album because I’ve been able to watch our community and many beyond it respond as they hear and sing the songs on this record. They’re saying many things, but they are all saying this: I am discovering something familiar, but brand new, about myself and God as I hear and sing these songs. I am finding that the Life that I hoped was real seems truer and closer when I hear and sing these songs.
The album is full of songs that do that, but rather than pretending to be a music critic and walking through them one at a time, I’ll just give you the simplest, most consistent example of it for me. The chorus of the song My One Response goes like this:
Unbroken, relentless, your love for me is endless
I have but one response
Hands open, defenseless, unguarded in your presence
This is where I belong
And it wrecks me every time I hear or sing it. It strips away all the layers of other Christiany stuff that I’ve taken on in my effort to be the right kind of person or make myself impressive or important to my Maker, and it renders me what and who I really am. And it reminds me that I don’t let myself be what and who I really am very often. And it reassures me that I am free to become what and who I really am anyway.
That kind of vulnerability does not come naturally to me, but I am better for having it exposed. I know some aren’t particularly keen on worship music for various reasons, in part because it often seems so oddly lofty and disconnected from real life. I easily could be (and can be) that person. And maybe I trust these songs and want you to trust these songs because they are not disconnected from real life. The same guy writing these songs about God for the Church wrote a fantastically out-of-place among religious loftiness song called The Non-Religious Me several years ago. Among other fantastically out-of-place among religious loftiness things, it says this:
I couldn’t find You in the sermons
I couldn’t find You in the songs
I couldn’t find You Sunday morning
And that’s when I knew something had gone wrong
I couldn’t see You in the reading
I couldn’t hear You in my prayers
I couldn’t feel You in my feelings
And I began to fear that You weren’t there
Then I thought I heard a sound
Somewhere in me
You said to stoop way down
And that’s where You’d be
I never thought I’d find You here
Way down in my shame and fear
I never thought that You’d draw near to this, my
I never thought to look for You
In this ditch that I’ve been crawling thru
I never thought You’d listen to the plea
Of the non-religious me (You can buy that one here.)
Listen up, I’m a pastor, and that’s a worship song for me sometimes. No, always. Even when I can find God in all those places, I’m always in touch with the moments when I couldn’t…and with the next moment when I won’t be able to find him there.
That’s what I mean when I say I trust these songs. They have been crafted among the Church — not the organization, the people — and are fully rooted in the ache and angst of our real lives. And yet from those roots have grown up these tremendous declarations of hope and Life and the world-altering reality that Jesus is all that we are not.
Last week I started and did not finish a piece about the eruption of insanity that accompanied the Miley Cyrus whatever-that-was at the MTV Video Music Awards. I admit I spent part of the week not really knowing what happened because, well, I haven’t watched MTV since they kicked Puck off The Real World or they quit playing music videos, whichever one of those was more recent. By the time I passively absorbed the many layers of ridicule, indignation, and mass hysteria triggered by her performance, I had a jumbled mess of thoughts in my head about our twisted relationship with famous people and what that reveals about our twisted relationships with ourselves. But honestly, my thoughts were too twisted to ask anyone to try to sift through them.
My kids partying in the U.S.A. as they are prone to do from time to time
And then Johnny Football made everyone crazy. Again. And I found myself having many of the same thoughts. And while I couldn’t name more than one song from Miley’s catalog of work (heyyyy-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey…), I’ve witnessed every jaw-dropping second of Johnny’s, almost half of them in person. Let there be no confusion about my opinion that neither pop music nor football score very high on the scale of matters of eternal consequence. But people fall somewhere on the northern end of that scale, and lots and lots of people are obsessed with these two particular 20-year old people.
And lots and lots of people have decided that I am supposed to be shocked and flabbergasted and offended and indignant and angry at these two people as I scuttle my kids to the bomb shelter to shield them from the fallout of Miley and Johnny going nuclear. Particularly when it comes to Johnny, those telling me I should be shocked and flabbergasted and offended and indignant and angry like to appeal to two of my (suddenly) more virtuous qualities: I am a Christian, and I am an Aggie with an honor code, for pete’s sake. Never mind that prior to now, many of these same people telling me I should be shocked and flabbergasted and offended and indignant and angry because I’m a Christian and an Aggie with an honor code (for pete’s sake) have scorned and scoffed at me and my fellow Christians for our Christiany views on things and/or at me and my fellow Aggies (with an honor code for pete’s sake) for our peculiar Aggie ways. Suddenly these same pieces of my identity are why I should join the choir singing Johnny’s shame in unison.
Only I love Johnny Manziel. (I like to call him by his actual name rather than “Johnny Football” because – and this is the kind of offensive, perplexing drivel you’re about to encounter here – he’s a real person, not a cartoon character.) He’s not my hero, and he shouldn’t be your hero either. But it’s true. I love him.
That confession is immediately met by many with the assumption that I have sold my (suddenly) virtuous Christian and Aggie values to bow at the feet of a celebrity quarterback and the wins that come along with him. But that’s not true. I was at the game Saturday. We won, but I didn’t love everything that happened. I don’t love everything Johnny has done, on the field or elsewhere. But I love Johnny, and that’s the result of a lot more than his play on the field, the color of my t-shirt, and the ring on my finger. My unwillingness to make Johnny the symbol of all that is wrong with ______ (sport, kids these days, twitter, culture, etc.) is actually rooted in my faith and the values I’ve learned in my years as an Aggie. I certainly understand why some will feel differently, and I don’t by default consider those who feel differently to be fools. I’d just appreciate it if those who disagree would think a little better of me and my people, and so I’m writing this little primer to explain why I think I can love Johnny and still go to heaven when I die. And, if I wander into a sidebar about the absurdity of the collective manic episode sponsored by ESPN and a few others in response to various things Johnny has done (or is assumed to have done), it’s only because I think that our frenzied response says as much about us as it does about Johnny.
Johnny Manziel poisoning my son by being personable and friendly as he signs roughly his 490th autograph in 90 minutes.
I feel no need to duck or minimize this: I love to watch Johnny Manziel play football. Despite being an absolutely useless football player myself in middle school and high school, I love the game. I don’t know why, but I do. And in my many years of loving the game, I’ve never seen a player like Johnny. I have watched hundreds of college football games, many of them in person at Kyle Field, and no one has ever generated the kind of palpable energy Johnny does when he’s on the field. My 8- and 5-year old daughters, who don’t know a first down from a hoedown, feel that energy and respond to it. It’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever witnessed.
I was about fifty yards from Johnny both when he took his first college snap last year and again Saturday when he marched onto the field early in the second half to the Aggie Band blaring, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (which, I don’t care who you are or how much you hate him, was an undeniably epic sports moment) and answered with a salute to the 30,000 or so A&M students roaring for his return from suspension. And I loved it. I’m sorry. I did.
Did I also have that weird feeling down in the pit of my stomach that told me what was happening was a bizarre mix of the best and worst of who we are as people? Well, yes. But the longer I follow Jesus in this world and try to walk alongside others doing the same, the more thrilled I am when I come across these intersections of good and bad and sin and grace. Our goal isn’t to avoid those moments; it is to see in them the now and coming victory of the good over the bad. Maybe someday I’ll decide that this is foolishness, but in that moment of Johnny’s return, I saw both people teetering on the edge of idolatry and also spilling out Imago Dei – the image of God inextricably embedded in them. How so?
We were made for life and joy and the vibrancy, and those moments were overflowing with all three. But more specifically, we were created to love broken, reckless people the way we love ourselves and to rejoice with them when they have something to rejoice about even if they’re still a mess. And we were created to be loved in our brokenness and recklessness and to have people around us rejoicing with us when we have something to rejoice about. I expect almost no one to see Johnny Manziel as a victim at this point, but everyone should have a people – a tribe who is with them come hell or high water (as one of my tribes likes to say). On Saturday, there was no doubt who Johnny’s people were, and we were with him.
Now this is the point at which people around us start to get twitchy. The reaction runs the spectrum from being incredulous that otherwise moral people would stand with this guy to total cynicism that we are anything but blinded by our delight in Johnny winning games. And I get that. I have felt the same way about other crowds supporting their guys when I thought their guys were bums.
But I was wrong. Even if I sometimes was right, I was wrong. What I mean is, even if sometimes it was true that people were supporting their guy because they just liked that he brought them success, I was wrong to assume that was true of everyone. And I was wrong to believe or suggest that guys I didn’t know didn’t deserve a people to call their own who were fully in their corner.
When Johnny took the field Saturday, I wasn’t smiling ear-to-ear and cheering for him because I think he is an angel, and neither was anyone else. We know he’s a hot mess in many ways (and I don’t even know what “hot mess” means; I just know it fits). In fact, many of us were more amped up because we relate better to the return of the guy who hasn’t been able to keep it all together than to the guy who seems almost flawless. When someone around me gets beaten and battered – even if they were absolutely begging for a beating – I am compelled to come closer, not head to the other side of the road. And when they stand up and make another run at their life, whether that’s trying to get through the day without a drink or returning to the spouse they deserted or walking back onto a football field, I want to be right there saying, “Yes!” And when they blow it and embarrass themselves and those around them while trying to climb back into life, I want to be the guy who is ready to say “Yes!” again the next time. And the next time. And the next time.
If I’m honest, I’m not always very good at that, either with people actually in my life or with famous folks who behave badly. Cynicism comes naturally to me, and believing the best or hoping for much from athletes and other celebrities does not. At all. So as much as I love Aggie football, it’s actually a little nuts that I’m writing this – that I’m defending a hot shot quarterback. Aggie or not, I wouldn’t have felt this way in the past.
But here is one of the secrets of my weakness: my kids have wrecked my cynicism with their innocent hope. I have done very little to inspire in them any particular affection for Johnny, but they absolutely love him – not just the 11-year old boy, but the girls as well.
Johnny Manziel flirting with our youngest when she was too shy to shake his hand. Either that or he was taunting her for not being able to stop him. He did point to the scoreboard after this…
They know he’s gotten into some trouble (we’ve had great conversations about it), but they just perpetually believe his next move, on and off the field, will be the right one. They may be wrong, and they may have their little hearts broken, but here’s the thing: In some small way, this means the way we are raising them works. We are telling them redemption stories over and over, emphasizing that no one is ever too far gone for redemption to come for them, and they believe. They are, so far, uncorrupted by the dark, ugly “realism” most of us have accepted. They don’t believe Johnny is perfect (well, the 5-year old might). They just believe God made that guy too, so they naturally extend to him the same grace they want me to extend to them when they goof up for the 33rd time. They see in him not only what he is, but what they believe he will be because of God’s love for him. And so they don’t pause to analyze whether God’s love for him might be poured out some way other than (perhaps even opposite to) him being great on the football field. They leave that to God and just scream, “Johnny! Johnny!” every time he touches the ball. I can either dissect the moral or theological precision of their outlook on this or I can sit and learn from them that God can handle that dissection. I should just yell.
So as silly as it may sound to some, that potentially idolatrous moment of Johnny’s return was an exaggerated reminder to me of the way I’m supposed to see every such moment in the lives of broken people battling back from their mistakes. In that moment, we all saw hope for redemption. Whether or not it ultimately came or came in the way we all we would’ve liked, we were free to imagine and believe. It was terribly imperfect and laced with all sorts of other misplaced priorities, but it was one of many incomplete tastes of bigger, more abiding realities.
The imperfection of it all doesn’t cause me to push this into some category of life that is either irrelevant to or unaffected by the bigger, more important parts of who I am and what I believe. See, I also love Johnny because he is terrible at hiding what is broken in him. If they gave a Heisman Trophy for keeping it together and convincing people you’re doing just fine, I would own Johnny Manziel in that vote. I’m a level-headed, measured, middle-brained introvert who knows how to fly under the radar. The 20-year old version of me was more or less that way too. But let me be clear about this: if I had Johnny’s life at 20, I would have been racked with pride and fear and paranoia and insecurity. I might have never let you see it. I might have kept it together publicly, acted like the smart, stable, humble kid from a small West Texas town, and talked about Jesus as often as I could. But inside I would have been fighting all the same battles Johnny is fighting.
And that’s where I differ with so many who are openly expressing offense at and disappointment in who Johnny is. If he just kept all his mess inside and didn’t let it show, what would we think and say about him? If he were impatient, selfish, and self-destructive, but he was good at keeping it off social media and ESPN and knew how to put on his best face for the public, would we be applauding him or deriding him? I’m not sure the answer to those questions reveals something particularly virtuous about us. What I mean to say is this — the 20-year old version of me that I described is not a better guy than the 20-year old version of Johnny that we see. He’s just better at appearances.
Despite all of the moralizing and spiritualizing of Johnny’s bad behavior, there simply is no way around this: no one who has decided to run Johnny down by contrasting him with Tim Tebow or Robert Griffin III (two other recent Heisman winners who talked about God a lot and seemed to stay out of trouble) can do so with sound logic or Christian theology in their corner unless you know those guys intimately. Why? Because in every case you are judging the character of men you don’t know based on what you have perceived through the media. Do I need to make a list of famous folks we once thought were boy scouts who turned out to be anything but? Or a list of people we were told to hate who we later found out were quietly doing all kinds of benevolent things that upended our People-Magazine-cover-shaped judgements of them?
As often as not, we are lionizing or demonizing people based less on character than on polish. What I mean is we simply do not know whether people we’ll never have a real conversation with are as dreamy as they seem, and we’ll never know whether guys like Johnny are as petulant and selfish as we’ve concluded based on the 0.00004 percent of their lives that we witness through the lenses of social media, teevee cameras, and the media narrative crafted to turn our eyeballs and ears into ad revenue. We only know what we see, and what we see is often very carefully put together for very particular purposes. And frankly, I can’t think of much that we do that is less like Jesus than judging people based on how well they have or have not polished over their flaws.
I’m not trying to make everything gray or say there is no right or wrong. I’m not trying to appeal to your inner cynic and cause you to doubt that Tebow or RG3 are actually good guys. I’m trying to say that they probably are good guys with flaws and sins that would disappoint you if you knew about them. I’m trying to say that everyone I know personally who has spent time with Johnny and every member of the media who isn’t just firing from a distance but has actually been with him, says this: He’s a really good guy. (Wright Thompson, who wrote the complex piece for ESPN about a month ago actually said “really good dude.” He also felt enough affection for Johnny to publicly apologize to him and his family for the way quotes from the story were being pulled out of context and sensationalized.) So I’m asking: why do we consider our distant perceptions of other athletes we call role models to be valid while discounting the opinions of the folks who actually know Johnny Manziel?
Ultimately I am making what should be the very obvious point that our perceptions of famous people are almost always wildly incomplete, so we ought to be more measured in how we speak and write about folks we don’t know. We ought to be slower both to make people heroes and to make them villains. We ought to ride the brakes on our self-righteous evaluations of how people we don’t know are handling life circumstances we’ve never experienced.
I understand the objection here: My opinion of Johnny is based solely on what I’ve seen from him directly. I’ve seen him be an idiot on social media and a selfish punk on the field. That’s all I need to know. And listen, self-control is not a bad thing, so if your beef is that Johnny needs more of it, that’s fine. I don’t disagree. The 20-year old version of me living Johnny’s life probably would have exhibited more self control, at least publicly. The 20-year old version of me who did live also never spent a day with sick kids. Johnny does it regularly. Again, fair is fair. You can’t pick the parts of people you do or don’t like and define them to suit your angle.
We’re just not hard-wired to look for nuance or balance, so we focus on the most outrageous thing we see. With Johnny, it’s not hard to find because he doesn’t try to hide his stuff. It’s out there for all of us to see. So throw in a story that he spent the offseason filling his Mercedes with bags of money for signing his name — a story that didn’t have a single named source and that now is being rehashed in the media as though it as fact and with all kinds of stuff thrown in that wasn’t even in the original stories (stuff that many detractors are now repeating as fact) — and suddenly we have the TMZ-styled hysteria that we crave. He’s out of control and disrespecting his coach and alienating his teammates. Only his coach has made it clear that what the media spun as disrespect was Johnny doing exactly what he should have done — hearing that he’d done something stupid, not saying a word in reply, and moving his backside to the bench. His teammates vouch for him repeatedly, even laughing at the silliness of everyone’s obsession with hand gestures and fiery play. The opponent he made the “autograph” motion to is a guy he’s known for years – a guy who made the gesture to him first, and who says Johnny said to him, “What’s up Nick? Nice hit.” The humanity! (Yes, the gesture was dumb from a PR standpoint, but it wasn’t some sort of national statement – it was two guys who have been on a first name basis since they were truly kids having fun with each other on a football field. This is not international diplomacy, folks).
When the steam runs out on those charges, the real kicker the last few days has been the 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty he got for jawing with Rice defenders and pointing at the scoreboard. Sumlin was obviously furious, so we have the magic bullet — a crime no one can use the word “alleged” to describe or suggest didn’t hurt anyone else. It cost his team 15 yards and the pleasure of having Johnny take the field for another series to hang another six points on the board. This, no doubt, is proof that Johnny Football is an unstable self-centered jerk making a mockery of the game.
Did you see what I just saw? That was Tim Tebow ACTING LIKE AN ALLIGATOR and pretending he was going to EAT that poor kid from Oklahoma with his pretend alligator jaws. But at least it didn’t cost his team, right? Oh, 15 yards, same as Johnny? Hm. Well, at least it wasn’t an important game, right? Oh, it was the National Championship game in which he pinned a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on his team. Wow. Well, but it wasn’t like he was the reigning Heisman Trophy win–. Oh, right.
Kids, our sports halls of fame are filled with guys whose athletic ability was exceeded only by their capacity for trash talk, and we consider many of them American heroes. Michael Jordan may have been the best (and worst) talker ever. Larry Bird once approached an opponent before a Christmas Day game, told him he had a present for him, then later canned a three pointer in front of him and said, “Merry Effing Christmas.” Peyton Manning has never backed down from a conversation on the field. Satchel Paige used to not only tell opponents about his dominating stuff, he was known to make his defense go to the bench at times while he pitched to make the point that the hitter couldn’t hit him. Muhammad Ali…I don’t even have to go there.
I’m just wondering if anyone can contact Mark May, the clear point man of this broad campaign to convince us that Johnny really is that bad, so he can rebuke these folks, some of whom are pioneers of their sports and of culture, for shaming their respective games. Fair warning: he may be hard to reach on his elevated perch in Connecticut from which he is pouring onto Johnny Manziel gallons of the kind of sanctimony that only can come from a guy who, as a collegian, was arrested for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, criminal mischief, terroristic threats, and inciting to riot (Inciting a riot! Come on, that is legendary stuff!) and then twice in the NFL for driving his vehicle while in a drunken state of drunken drunkenness. And Mark May is probably a good guy too, to be fair. But the 0.00004 percent of his life we know sure makes it seem like he might not be the right middle-aged cat who has never met Johnny (among all of the other possible middle-aged to elderly cats available at ESPN who have never met Johnny) to be leading the charge to cast 20-year old Johnny Manziel as a soulless beast sent to earth to devour personal character, sportsmanship, and world peace. Truly, my point isn’t to disparage May (all of this information about him is quite public), but this is a brazen illustration of the backwardness of a culture which enables the media to feed on young people for profit with no regard to this kind of obvious and absurd hypocrisy.
I know that to those who couldn’t care less about football or to whom Johnny Manziel is just a distant character, this may all seem silly. Sure, some of this is insignificant back-and-forth that matters only to those of us to whom college football matters a little too much. I’ll own that charge. And believe me, I know Johnny didn’t need me in row 13 of section 125 on Saturday, yelling my approval for his return. And no, not all of my jubilation in that moment was the result of some deep spiritual principle. But I believe our completely dysfunctional relationship with celebrity in our culture has so distorted our sense of personhood that we not only see people like Johnny Manziel and Miley Cyrus more as symbols of something we hate rather than as people, but we also scoff at the suggestion that intelligent, honest people could stand by them when they act the fool for any legitimate reasons. And at the end of the day, if you think I’m silly for loving Johnny Manziel and even sillier for writing about it, I can live with that.
But here’s the thing, and I just can’t shake it. I’m not writing this because Johnny Manziel needs my approval. I’m not writing because I need some sort of personal vindication as an Aggie. I’m writing because I’ve been implicitly and explicitly asked by bewildered and disappointed people to just admit that Johnny is an embarrassment and call him what he is — a spoiled brat who reflects poorly on A&M, his family, and any other group with whom he claims association.
Sorry. No thanks. And I won’t do it to your guys either. I’ve been the fool too many times, and I am surrounded by people who, when I act stupidly, just love me instead of taking to the internet to vent their disapproval of my behavior. Why do they treat me that way? Because the people around me know that I am a real person, just like them. And when we see people as people just like us, we don’t have the luxury of making them into cartoonish heroes or villains who will handily prop up our bogus notions of who the good guys and bad guys are. We remember that people are complex, seldom as one-dimensional as they might seem, and that we’re supposed to treat them as we want to be treated.
It’s easy to say, “Bring on the golden rule. If I were in Johnny’s shoes, I would want someone to tell me I was being a selfish idiot.” Sure you would, but let’s just remove the hypothetical. You’re going to be an idiot again sometime soon, probably by next week. So when you’re an idiot next week, would you like for me and thousands of other people who have never met you, some of whom have the freedom to do so for an audience of millions, to publicly call you out for your obvious idiocy and draw conclusions about the whole of who you are based on select moments of your idiocy, or would you like all of those people to not manifest their own ignorance about who you are, insult your character from a distance, and instead let those around you deal with your stupidity?
I fear we’ve been suckered into the media’s version of handling sin. When a real person behaves badly, I believe in confrontation and correction. As a Christian and as an Aggie, I believe that confrontation and correction is meant to help the person you’re confronting and correcting. Here is a saying that is trustworthy and true: When the national media engages in its version of pixelated, long-distance confrontation and correction, it has nothing to do with helping anyone except the person who is running his mouth and the shareholders who employ him. To those challenging Aggies and/or Christians for still being in Johnny’s corner, all I can tell you is that I’m not interested in either fueling or imitating that bastardized way of dealing with people’s sin. Do you want me to say Johnny is a sinner? Johnny is a sinner. Do you want me to say Johnny has done some really dumb things? Johnny has done some really dumb things. But if you want me to say that he’s a terrible person or that he’s not an Aggie or that he’s shaming all those who support him, you can flip back to ESPN for that.
Look, if we eventually find out that he has those bags of money he got for signing autographs hiding in his closet, that will be disappointing, and I’ll say so. But it won’t change my feeling that the whole pile of Johnny’s personal sins is less of a threat to sports, to culture, and to our kids (including the three in my house) than the reckless, toxic way we speak about real people who stir up our righteous indignation. It won’t lessen my conviction that I have spent too much of my life ridiculing and thinking poorly of people and too little of it wanting them to experience the life they were made for in all of its fullness, whether that life happens in the offices of a high rise, the family room of a home, the hard streets of the hood, or on a patch of grass at Kyle Field.
I’ve learned that from my people, who walk with me through my cycles of stupidity and always want good for me because, though I’m not Tim Tebow, I am a real person. So is Johnny Manziel.
[The next in my series of posts on controversial Aggies is here.]
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