Blessed are the peacemakers (or how to spot God’s kids)

In the fall I began leading our church community through the Sermon on the Mount, the longest recorded teaching of Jesus. We have been moving deliberately through the introduction to the sermon, a collection of blessings known as the beatitudes. What follows is an adapted transcript of my sermon on Jesus’s words about peacemakers. Since it originated as a sermon, I’ve retained some repetition and methods of emphasis that are more natural to speaking than writing. Imagine you’re hearing me preach it…or be thankful that you’re not.


peacemakers

Jesus begins the most famous sermon of his life by declaring that an assorted band of misfits and weaklings are the ones who are truly blessed: the poor and empty, the sad and broken, the quiet and unimpressive, the desperate for God’s help, the merciful, the ones who are unattached to power or money. It’s a strong start for a new preacher soon to claim to be King of the world, don’t you think?

Next he adds this:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Before exploring what he means by peacemakers, I want to give some attention to the substance of this particular blessing – being known as God’s children – because I think its attachment here is crucial.

Being a child of God is the very core of our identity, which John addresses clearly in a couple of places:

But to all who received him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.   -John 1:12-13

John says that the primary transformation in the identity of those who believe in Jesus is they become children of God.

Later he writes:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.   -1 John 3:1

Here he highlights that God’s love results in us being called children of God, using the same language Jesus uses in Matthew 5.

So both being a child of God and being called a child of God are of primary importance to people who believe we are God’s and that Jesus reveals to us both how to live and why we are living.

When we believe in Jesus, he gives us the power to become children of God, which is about both a change in our identity and a capacity for living into that identity. That gift is God’s great show of love for us.

This blessing from Jesus for peacemakers (they will be called children of God) is tied to our core identity as people of faith.

We’ve been through a similar discussion a lot over the years, so I’m not going to belabor this point, but let’s again be clear that Jesus is not saying “you earn becoming a child of God by being a peacemaker.”

The Gospel is about God’s extravagant love for us such that Jesus died for us while we were still sinning. We are made in God’s image, that image in us is cracked and broken, and God repairs the brokenness through Jesus. That and that alone makes us God’s children. As John says, it’s a gift he gives us because he loves us.

However, Jesus clearly makes a statement here that the peacemakers will be called children of God. So what does he mean?

As we discussed in the previous beatitudes, we don’t receive God’s mercy because we’ve been merciful; we embrace a life of mercy because we understand that we were given mercy when we most needed it. We don’t see God because we make our hearts pure enough; the gift of faith enables us to take our eyes off of everything else we tend to look to for security and peace and life and fix them on Jesus, and in him we see God.

Jesus is making a similar kind of statement here. You don’t become God’s child because you make enough peace to earn your way into the family. This isn’t a mantra for some sort of bizarro mafia. In the mob, you have to make enough of the right kind of havoc to become part of the family. This isn’t the peaceful version of that.

No, because God has loved us so much – because he has given us the power to become children of God – we receive that gift. And as always with Jesus, the gift of being God’s child isn’t meant for selfish gain, but for becoming part of God’s family and participating in the work of the family.

And the work of God’s family is – not as an afterthought or secondary goal, but as a primary purpose – the work of God’s family is peacemaking.

Colossians 1:15-20:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Take note that this is primary doctrine about Jesus, not secondary teaching.

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

And now we, the Church, are brought into it. We are caught up in what’s true about Jesus here.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

“In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” – pay attention, Paul says, because here is what happens when ALL the fullness of God comes into humanity:

God reconciles all things to himself.

How? By making peace.

And how does he make peace? Through the laying down of his own life.

So let’s take note of three truths:

  • This is God’s nature and his work among us – the making of peace by way of self-sacrifice.
  • Jesus is the head of the Church, the Church exists to follow and be like him in the world, so we are all bound to his way of self-denying peacemaking.
  • Not only is this our model – we’re going to follow this way which will turn us into peacemakers – but this is the fuel for all peace we will make. In other words, our efforts toward peacemaking won’t merely be mimicry; they will be supernaturally empowered by the work of Jesus on the cross.

Paul again, this time in Philippians 2:1-11:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

If you have any contact with or benefit from Jesus at all, embrace and perpetuate the way of peace. Moreover:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

If you follow Jesus, peace and power come not through conquering or winning – not through any of the means the world and its systems tell you are necessary for peace and power – but through service and sacrifice.

Listen, for us to believe that Jesus overcame and is overcoming all the darkness and disorder in the world by way of the cross … to know that “He completely humbled himself, therefore God exalted him and gave him the name above every name” [exaltation and empowerment were born out of humility and sacrifice] … to hear Jesus and the Scriptures call us into that way as the purpose of our lives, the road to true peace, and only means by which God’s goodness and order will enter the world…

For us to hear and believe all of that and still accept and even cling to the ways of the world in which power, money, and violence are assumed to be necessary for creating order and establishing peace is an absurdity of the highest order.

For us to hear and believe all of that and to then reject or resist making peace in the world and in our own immediate spaces, relationships, and community by laying down our lives – believing we have the weight and supernatural peace-making power of the cross behind us – is to miss the point of being a child of God.

You are not God’s child, John says, because you’re his biological descendant or through your will – not because you decided you really wanted to be a child of God. You’re a child of God because God loved you enough that he gave himself away for you, and instead of waiting for you to be behave or be peaceful, he became the way of peace for you.

And no one and no structure in this world will be reconciled any differently.

You cannot acquire enough power for yourself and we cannot acquire enough power for – and I think this message is crucial –

We cannot acquire enough power for the Church or Christianity to impose peace – real peace, God’s peace – on the world.

We cannot accumulate enough of the world’s goods or ascend high enough in the world’s power systems to bring people into proper order or make them good.

That will only happen through the peacemaking of the cross, and now that you’ve become part of the family, you are alive to participate in the family business – making peace by giving your life away where and when peace is needed.

John again:

Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.   -1 John 2:4-6

We don’t get to opt out. We’re his kids. We’re alive because he made us alive, and we exist to embrace him and his way.

So what does that look like in action?

I think when we bump up against these reminders, we tend to shift into peace-keeping mode. We assume this means we’re supposed to avoid disagreement or arguments, bottle up our questions and frustrations, resist change, talk people down, and generally try maintain a status quo that is, if we’re honest, most peaceful to me or to us.

But there’s both a human problem and a Jesus problem with that notion. The human problem is that we can’t maintain a kept peace. As I try to keep the peace, eventually my frustrations or someone else’s will boil over, the illusion of peace will disappear, weariness will set in, and we’ll give up on the idea that peace is even possible.

The Jesus problem is that he didn’t come to keep the peace. He made peace, and His peacemaking was disruptive – both to the religious system that tried to keep peace by way of power for their own good and to the hearts of men and women who insisted real human peace was their freedom to do whatever made them happy, whether or not their lives were reconciled with God’s purposes for human flourishing.

Peacemaking is not peace-keeping. In fact, peacemaking is often disruptive, especially as we enter into the way of Jesus, which is to make peace by giving ourselves away. That sometimes will lead us into a moment or movement whose purpose is to create peace for a person or a people who are being deprived of peace, not by God’s ways, but by the world’s ways.

Case in point: Last Monday was Martin Luther King day. Dr. King and his movement were disruptive, but he was a peacemaker. The argument that his kind of disruption wasn’t creating peace was made by people who already had the peace they wanted in way the world was ordered that time.

But me having the peace I want does not mean that the need for peacemaking has come to an end.

See, as those comfortable with their own peace accused Dr. King and the movement of being unreasonable and impatient and disruptive, black men, women, and children were being treated like animals. And there was nothing peaceful about that.

Jesus didn’t die on the cross to keep the peace of those conditions. He didn’t shed his blood to create a peaceable society where humans made in his image are treated as subhuman.

Jesus’s peace is a reconciling peace, and the work of the civil rights movement was bringing that reconciliation to earth as it is in Heaven.

And Dr. King and so many women and men around him aimed to make peace the way Jesus made it – by prophetically speaking into this world God’s ways and God’s truth while being willing to suffer alongside those who were suffering, believing that the power in that suffering was the very power of the cross, which is always at work to fuel God’s peace through sacrifice.

That is one of the enduring gifts of the civil rights movement to the Church and the world, I believe: it showed us that laying down our lives does not mean losing God’s truth or Way and taking on the way of the world.

I could go on for weeks about what this peacemaking looks like in the day-to-day, but for time and simplicity’s sake, I want to offer a couple of overarching biblical guides with a question or two (or three) for you to consider for each.

My request is that you hear these scriptures and questions as for you and not as challenges for the people you disagree with or about whom you think “I’ll be at peace with them when they…” This is for you.

James 1:19-20, 22:

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

Questions: What is my guiding instinct with people I don’t understand: critical words? Anger? Or listening?

How and with whom can I actively become a disciple in the way of Jesus to be slow to speak (including my inner monologue) and quick to listen?

Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Questions: If it’s true that I don’t have to respond to people and powers I disagree with or fear with with self-protection or by overpowering them, who do I need to learn to see differently and what will it look like for me to be Christ’s ambassador of reconciliation to or for them?

Please don’t duck the difficult answers.

For some of you answering these questions will turn your attention toward people who are very conservative and voted for Donald Trump.

For some of you answering these questions will turn your attention toward people who are really liberal who insist Trump is #notmypresident.

And without getting into a whole ‘nother sermon about what the Bible says about race and refugees and poverty, for most if not all of us, some part of answering these questions ought to turn our attention toward people who have different color skin than us or who have a lot less money than us or who came to our country fleeing oppression or poverty in some other part of the world.

Perhaps we can simplify the questions a bit and ask:

Who is not at peace in my community and my world?

What do I believe heaven looks like for those people?

How can I spend my life joining God in bringing that reality of His kingdom in heaven to earth for them?

I think understanding these two things – in Christ everything old has become new and now God is making his cross-shaped appeal through us – is the crux of living the Christian life, probably always, but certainly in our moment.

Paul says “he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”

You aren’t alive – not at any moment – for yourself or for any cause other than the cause of Christ.

And the cause of Christ is the reconciling of the world to God, which is now happening through his children, the peacemakers.

You can choose to have it said about you at the end of your life that you were a good Democrat or a good Republican – a good liberal or good conservative or libertarian – and you can offer all kinds of legal and economic and social reasons why you stood on that side with integrity.

But Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians aren’t the ones who are called the children of God; peacemakers are. And woe to us if we are known as the best, most consistent and well-intentioned [insert cause label here] and not as peacemaking children of God.

The point isn’t that being any of those things is wrong.

The point is this: no cause but the cause of Christ – anchored in the work of Jesus on the cross and the Kingdom that cross creates – is worth your identity.

When Jesus said the peacemakers “will be called” the children of God, none of us know for sure how much he meant “called by God” and how much he meant “called by the onlooking world God intends to reconcile.”

But I am certain that in our day and age, the world is not going to look at a group of policy-makers or power-acquirers or wealth-protectors and say, “Oh look, God’s children! Yeah, I see it. I see Jesus in their way.”

The world is going to see the nature of God in the peacemakers. Not the peace-keepers who just try to get everyone to get along without bugging each other. But the peacemakers – the ones who shrug off all our other labels and concerns that aren’t deeply rooted in enabling God to make his appeal of “Look at Jesus!” through us.

If that group of people can rise up and be known for speaking into this world God’s ways and God’s truth…

If that group of people can be known for suffering alongside those who are suffering and demonstrating that the power in that suffering is the reconciling, redeeming, life- and identity-changing power of the cross, which is always at work to fuel and empower the creating of God’s peace…

Then I think they – we, with God’s help – will be known as God’s children, both by the onlooking world and by God himself.

Isaiah said it this way:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
-Isaiah 58:6-8

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…to dust you shall return: an Ash Wednesday confession

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 crosswas 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.

My Life as a Sellout: An open confession to those who think I should be ashamed of Johnny Manziel for not being Tim Tebow about why I love Johnny Manziel even though I’m supposed to be ashamed of him for not being Tim Tebow

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

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.

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...

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.

Only this:

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.]

Why don’t we want to be called God’s children? // Part 1: What I don’t know about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman

Blessed are the peacemakers—they will be called children of God.

That’s what Jesus said. I’ve lived among Christians for 38 years and a month or so, and I’ve picked up on a couple of things that seem to be sort of a big deal. Believing what Jesus said is one of them. So I’m wondering: why don’t we want to be called God’s children?

I’ll come back to that.

I don’t know what happened the night George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. I’m not sure anyone does. I’ve read, “Only Zimmerman and Martin know what happened that night,” but I’m not sure even that is true. I’ve waded through the aftermath of many situations far less traumatic than this one and often found that the participants and witnesses tell strikingly different stories. Without exception, we are subjective creatures, and all of our experiences inform and shape how we interpret every moment of our lives. That does not mean, of course, that we should not pursue truth and justice; it simply highlights the need for a system designed to sort out the complicated convergence of subjective humans when laws are broken and people are hurt. And if we are honest, it reminds us that even our best ideas and efforts for justice are limited by our humanness. We are not robots programmed to spit out emotionless narrations of fact. We are complex beings bursting with feelings and opinions, some that we choose and some that choose us. That’s just the way it is, and it is wonderful and awful.

My sense of the nuance and complexity of these moments — including both the events of Trayvon’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal 504 days later — makes it extremely difficult for me to comprehend the certainty of so many of the words I’ve read and heard since Saturday night. I’ve watched people with no connection to either person celebrate the verdict as absolutely right or decry it as a mockery of justice, and either reaction seems fundamentally illogical unless those folks watched the entire trial. Please do not react to something I did not write. I did not write that deep emotion about this situation is illogical. I’m talking about that emotion being directed at a verdict rather than at the deeper, longer struggles we are tying to a jury’s legal conclusion.

A trial verdict is a very specific response to very specific questions asked of jurors about not what transpired between Zimmerman and Martin, but what transpired in the trial. I wonder how many people understand that it is not an opportunity for jurors to express their opinions about what Zimmerman or Martin did on February 26, 2012. The jury was bound by excruciatingly detailed instructions and by the laws of the state of Florida to ultimately discern whether or not the state proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Ask anyone who has served on a criminal jury whether or not their verdict was perfectly in line with their opinion of what really happened, and most will answer negatively.

The system is designed, however imperfectly, to protect against the whims of our emotions and opinions and set a high standard for convictions. That system does fail, and it is not free of the prejudices and inequities that still permeate our society. But in the trial of George Zimmerman, the jurors were not asked and should not have been expected to remedy systemic injustice over and above the facts they were presented with respect to Florida law which, for better or worse, makes it legal to shoot and kill someone for various reasons, even away from your home. They were asked and should have been expected only to determine whether or not the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin according to laws the jury did not write. This is not me criticizing those who didn’t like the verdict. I think this truth is just as relevant to those who were celebrating the acquittal. If you did not watch the trial (and I didn’t), you simply don’t know (and I don’t) whether or not the jury’s verdict was reasonable or whether it represented justice in this case based on what transpired in the trial. (If you did watch every minute, certainly your opinions of the verdict have deeper roots.)

Again, none of that is intended to suggest that people should not have reactions to the death of Trayvon Martin or to the man who killed him. I would be troubled if we did not have strong feelings about this dreadful situation. I just think we’d be wise to understand that most of those reactions have less to do with the legal nuances of a trial and more to do with the crippling fractures in the way we relate to one another as humans.

Even at our best, we are reacting to the frustration of being black and having to wearily explain again and again that Dr. King’s dream hasn’t been fulfilled just because the laws have changed. We are reacting to the confusion of being white and feeling like we are expected to apologize for our skin color, even if we don’t believe we are racist. We are reacting to the insanity of laws that encourage gun ownership in an effort to curb violence. We are reacting to the reductionist politics of gun control that blame an object for human behavior. We are reacting to our inability to shake the feeling that Trayvon’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal reinforce what most black men intuitively know: that forty-nine years and two weeks after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time still makes you a suspect, not just for the cops, but for any self-appointed neighborhood protector carrying a gun, so you better watch your back. We are reacting to our exhaustion from trying hard to learn how to speak and act appropriately with folks of other heritages and races, only to discover that we’re still offending people.

And at our worst, we’re just belligerent and unwilling to consider any viewpoint but our own, secretly rejoicing in these opportunities to crank out bombastic rants on the internet or at parties. We simultaneously feed and consume the verbal and visual anger-porn that is the lifeblood of a media whose primary bias is neither liberal nor conservative, but greed. And pissed off people sell.

This dysfunction is not limited to issues of race, violence, and justice, but that is a cocktail that offers our collective compulsion to tear one another apart a direct route the surface. The result is what we’ve all experienced over the last few days — people talking over and at one another in ways that deepen divides and move us further away from anything resembling peace and human decency.

You don’t have to believe what Jesus said or even believe Jesus is real to look at all of that and wish for something better. That instinct transcends race, creed, and all of our other differences. Unless your soul has been completely seared by so much heat and so little light, some elemental pulse of humanity in you has to know we weren’t made for this.

(Tomorrow — Why don’t we want to be called God’s children? Part 2: Making peace in a culture of verbal violence)

Gay Marriage and the Posture of the Gospel

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.