the happiest place on earth

I used to hate following the news. It was so depressing, so endlessly troubled and gloomy, that I would be filled with an ambiguous sadness at every new report; suicide, homicide, war, famine, rape, disaster, greed, ignorance… all of it overwhelming to my sheltered self – shadowy threats to my naive understanding of how things should be, at least for me.

So I adapted, developing a nearly manic imagination capable of wild flights of fantasy. I daydreamed my way through school, consumed so many fantasy novels and video games that the immersive worlds they depicted began to poison my perception of existence, and tried to distance myself from the pain and anxiety that comes with awareness. I wasn’t always successful, of course, and I didn’t really know what on earth I was doing, but nonetheless I had somehow become a self-described escapist. So much so, in fact, that a mentor once told me during freshman year that my connection to reality frequently seemed tenuous, at best. Please, don’t all line up to marry me at once.

I was recently reminded of this part of myself while running around Disney World on vacation with the family. You guys, I love Disney World. I could probably wander around Epcot’s World Showcase for, oh I don’t know, forever and ever.

But, was it just me or did the stone walls look a bit more like painted plaster this time around? Did the water always have such a garish blue tint? And were the security cameras always so obvious, and the costumes so lifeless? And I wondered, Is my increasing exposure to poverty and brokenness corroding my imagination…

…or are my experiences bringing it more to life?

While I was in Africa, one of the recovering drug addicts and I were walking by the beach talking about his newly emerging hopes and passions for a life of sobriety and Christian discipleship. As we walked, we passed an unassuming man wearing sunglasses, a loose jacket, and boring jeans. My friend (who has a fascinating history of gangsterism, murder, theft, and meth) leaned over and whispered, “He’s an undercover cop, I promise you.” I tried to remain as nonchalant as his tone of voice. “And that man over there, he’s a meth addict. So is that guy, most likely. There’s a drug den just around the corner; it’s a nice house. And make sure you never leave your keys or valuables unattended – syndicates have lookouts on that mountain right there and will send nearby runners to grab your stuff. Just, you know, don’t be stupid. So anyway….”

Welcome to reality, Jordan. Population: You and a bunch of scary people you probably didn’t want to know were absolutely everywhere. But that conversation got me thinking. How blind am I to the dark and unmentioned world that exists just beneath the surface of “normal”? You know how people talk about spiritual warfare, and say that we are constantly surrounded by angelic and demonic hosts? And how, if we could see that realm clearly, we’d likely explode from incomprehension? Well, my friend gave me a glimpse of something similar. How insular and near-sighted has my life been! How adeptly have I shielded myself from the grotesque underbelly of the communities in which I’ve lived! Why have I been so content to live with such a stunted understanding of reality?

I decided in that moment that, wherever I live, I want to be aware. I want to know where the drug deals go down, I want to know that crazy homeless man’s story, I want to know the names of the prostitutes that hang around Main St. for some tragic reason or another. And not just to know so that I appear socially conscious and “moral,” but so that my life, and maybe theirs, is challenged and changed and conformed more closely to Jesus’. I want my roots to go deeper than the anemic suburban strata.

My imagination used to be my escape from bitter reality. But I’ve learned, slowly, that we have been given the incredible gift of imagination not to transcend reality, but to inhabit it more profoundly. It is not for the abolition of reality, but so that we may see it in some small way as Christ does. Extricating myself, actively or passively, from reality, in all its ugliness, was actually denying myself the blessings of a Spirit-filled imagination. It was anti-incarnational.

I’ve realized that, without becoming aware of and rooting myself in that “hidden” world around me (which isn’t so hidden for countless others), with its abuse, addiction, violence, injustice, and insanity, I could never understand the true significance of redemption or hope, and my encounters with the brokenness within myself and others would continue to overwhelm me. This is why, I think, the book of Revelation is so powerful: John is calling his flock to see, not past, but more deeply into their circumstances, to the cosmic battle of good and evil and the insurmountable supremacy of the crucified lamb who reigns in love. (I read Revelation as poetic theological commentary on the nature of the way things are, a la Richard Hays and Greg Beale…and the original audience.) Such a vision empowers the Church to live boldly and with grace, embodying the Gospel with passion.

So maybe Disney World isn’t quite so captivating as it once was. But that’s ok, because life, in all its maddening complexity, has become so much more profound and engrossing. We who claim to follow the risen Christ have the unbelievable privilege of living, wherever that may be, amidst the darkness of the earth and proclaiming light, of encountering addict and dealer, pimp and prostitute, abused and abuser, poor and rich, and imagining them as the people they could become through the miracle of redemption and then walking with them on that difficult and trying road.

Is it simple? No. Is it easy? No. Is it painless? Not even close. Do I have any idea what I’m really getting myself into? Nope. But am I more excited about life and ministry than I ever have been? By the grace of God, yes. (Mostly) Gone are the days of wanting to cling to privilege and ease, to seek happiness in the absence of difficulty rather than in the midst of it. In their place is a renewed desire to be, as Barth repeatedly demanded, for the world, in it, living relentlessly and selflessly for the freedom of others in a way only Christians can. If the Church does not model such an existence it will find itself lost in an inward-turning labyrinth of isolation and comfortable folly – unaware and unconcerned with the brokenness across the ocean, around the corner, and in its sanctuaries. And, consequently, it will have ceased to fully be the Church, the body of Christ which has always embraced the downtrodden and marginalized.

But wherever the Church is living into this Spirit-filled imagination, wherever that consuming love of God is breaking into and transforming the desperate brokenness of the world, that is, really, the happiest place on earth.

Jordan

(Though The World Showcase is totally a close second.)

thankful

…for friends, family, and the easy laughter that nourishes my thirsty soul.

…for beauty, and the joy of finding daybreak and nightfall equally inspiring.

…for food, and the miracle of gluten-free, dairy-free, and egg-free snickerdoodle cupcakes.

…for books of poetry, inspired ink married to parchment, and the mysterious way words can simultaneously arrest and excite the imagination.

…for abundance and privilege, and the opportunity to sacrifice both for the sake of the outcast and suffering.

…for the Church in all its myriad forms, and the beacon of hope it can be to a weary and cynical world.

…for the endlessly humbling command to serve, and the million little examples others have shown me of how to be like Christ.

…for love, and the ability to give and receive it.

…for Calvin and Hobbes.

…for levity, and the presence of peace that, even two years ago, seemed unattainably distant.

…for sanctification, and the fact that I am not now who I once was, by the grace of God.

…and for my infinitely loving, gracious, forgiving, holy, just, life-giving Savior who didn’t leave me to my own hell-bent devices, but bore the full weight of sin so that I might come alive in him.

For all this and more I am deeply thankful today and always.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Jordan

what is love?

Let’s just get this out of the way.

Now, on to business.

A sentiment I often hear within the evangelical church is, “If we want to love people, we must be willing to speak the truth about their sins. To ignore or sugarcoat them would be the most unloving thing we could do, even if other people don’t see it that way.” The basic idea is that sin, separation from God, is the greatest tragedy, and if you really do care about someone then you will want them to be free from that blinding, oppressive weight even if they refuse to acknowledge it – you will want them to know God. So we must preach the Gospel.

This is all true. But I’m beginning to wonder if the way that sentiment is commonly played out misses the mark of true love, especially when it comes to the church’s interactions with the LGTBQ community.

When someone raises a concern like the one above, my first thought is usually, The LGBTQ community probably doesn’t need to be reminded, again, of what the evangelical church generally thinks about about homosexuality. I’m pretty sure, actually, that the first thing that comes into most LGBTQ people’s mind when they hear the word “evangelical” is the anti-gay rhetoric that seems definitive of conservative Christians’ public discourse.

What strikes me as odd, and dangerous, is that somehow the message of “We don’t think you should be having sex” is considered more essential to the Gospel than “God loves you and so do we.” How the heck did that happen?

Why is it that any message to an LGBTQ person is not considered to be true, or truly loving, unless it contains a litany of his/her/their sins, and yet a message that is only about sin, devoid of any mention of God’s grace or a commitment to fight injustice on their behalf, somehow passes as an acceptable proclamation of the Gospel? As if, from the start, we don’t think LGBTQ people deserve anything better than judgment.

It’s like the church is chasing after them, hurling spears of condemnation and prejudice, all while shouting, “We love you! God loves you! No, seriously! Come back!” And when they keep running we just shake our heads and attribute their retreat away from us as a sign of their gross sinfulness, a refusal to accept the “Gospel-centered” kind of love we’ve offered them.

What the hell is wrong with us?! We treat them like crap throughout history and expect a different outcome? Maybe they reject us because we’ve never really loved them in the first place. Maybe they reject us because we are continually rejecting them.

Where were we when they became victims of abuse, hate crimes, disease, stigma, and bullying? We were either perpetuating their pain or apathetic toward it. And for those brave few who dared to stand beside them and model a different kind of love? We yelled across the chasm of our fear, “While you’re over there, make sure you tell them they’re sinful, otherwise whatever you’re doing doesn’t count!” Then we patted ourselves on the back for being “missional.” It’s maddening!

Ok, wow, deep breaths. The whole thing is just very frustrating for me. I once asked a gay man I was sitting next to on a plane what it would take for him to know he was loved by the evangelical church even if it never became “affirming.” It’s a question I had been dying to ask someone, and after I had so intently listened to his impassioned monologue about his spiritual connection to Diana Ross (who he’d seen over two-hundred times in concert), I figured he owed me. His short answer has stuck with me for the past two years: “I might believe it,” he said, “if you would at least fight the stigma that claims so many lives. But you don’t.”

If the only examples we have of showing the LGBTQ community “love” are the sermons where we preach the “truth” about the sinfulness of that community, then I would humbly propose that we repent of our anemic understanding of love, our exceptional failure to be consistent with how we live out the Gospel, and then to actually do something – not because we need a new conversion tactic but because we are Christians, and it’s simply how we have been called to live.

Read this article. Please, please read it. I’ve posted it so many times on Facebook and Twitter because it stands as a soul-crushing indictment of the loveless rhetoric so common in conservative evangelicalism. We cannot pretend we are blameless anymore, we cannot go on as we always have.

This is not an “easy solution” to a complex problem; it’s a reminder of what we have forgotten, what we have forsaken. How this will manifest in individual lives and church communities will vary, but it must be made manifest. Otherwise, honestly, I don’t think we have anything more to say.

Jordan

input

Well, good news, everybody: I have definitively proven that my tolerance for espresso is greater than the average human’s (this must be what mom meant when she told me I would be special some day). I have got to figure out a way to have deep, meaningful conversations without clutching a latte. Despite the minor annoyance of having my retinal fluid become caffeinated, my time at Wheaton has been truly wonderful. The “regular” posting schedule will resume over the weekend, I hope.

So, I have a favor to ask. I’m going to assume that there are people who read the blog and seriously disagree with any number of things in it, and I’ve been wondering, for a while, what I could be doing to better communicate in a way that is gracious and understanding. If you are one of those people, would you be willing to help me out by sending me an email with your thoughts or suggestions on how to improve the blog? I’m not so much looking for a flood of side-A arguments, though I guess you can send those along. Rather, I’m more interested in exposing my blind spots. Maybe I’ve stated things in a harmful way, maybe I haven’t done justice to an alternative view (as is inevitable, really), maybe I’ve dealt in false stereotypes, maybe I’ve incited feelings of alienation for some people. I’m sure I’m guilty of all those, and more, to one degree or another and I’m sorry for that.

I have a lot to learn, a lot of growing up to do. I hope to continually become a safer, more loving contribution to the conversation as a whole, and I think this is an important step forward.

Thanks!

Jordan

synchroblog

Hey everyone,

So today (Tuesday the 13th for those who read this in the future, assuming the world hasn’t been vaporized by insectoid war-machines from beyond deep space) is the launch of the synchroblog. At 9am EST a variety of posts from a variety of people who believe a variety of things will be collected and displayed here! I encourage you to check them out and see how other people are pursuing the restoration of sanity in the midst of the tension. I imagine some of the entries will be quite beneficial.

I apologize that I won’t be able to publish the next post for a few days; I’m visiting Wheaton after finishing up my three months in South Africa and between all the conversations and hang-outs that need to happen there simply isn’t time. It’s been amazing, though. This was such an unbelievably formative and blessed place for me, and it is an incredible encouragement to reconnect with friends and mentors to marvel at what God is doing and enjoy each other’s company. Coffee dates, everyone, are the best ever.

I hope you are all well and that the opinions and stories expressed in the synchroblog are a catalyst for deep, loving reflection.

Peace,

Jordan

framed, pt. 4 (in sanity)

This is the fourth and final entry in this series. If you haven’t, I would highly recommend you read the first three before continuing. Would you watch Mulan 2 without first watching Mulan? Of course not! (Actually, would you even watch Mulan 2 at all? It looks…terrible.) Anyway, moving on.

The question I keep running up against whenever I think or talk about the “gay debate” (the best-dressed debate in town) is Can we find reconciliation in the midst of a seriously divisive disagreement? Or, in my more plaintive moments, Is there any hope?

If this conversation were simply about divergent tastes in worship music or crunchy vs. soft communion bread, then “agreeing to disagree” would be a possibility. However, I think such an easy answer is not only impossible in this case, but would do great violence to the integrity of everyone involved – it would be like shouting Peace, peace! when there is no peace.

We must start by being honest about what we believe and gracious in understanding those who do not share our views, especially when the contention is so great. How can any progress be made if everyone is simply talking past each other or dealing with straw-men? The past three posts in this series attempted to recenter the debate for those who claim to take the Bible as authoritative, moving past the tired, worthless arguments that seem to be all the rage these days.

But before honesty there must come a commitment to act in love and humility even at great personal cost. Honesty not grounded in love quickly becomes little more than a barbed whip, leaving open wounds and aching scars everywhere. It is impossible to speak Gospel truth in an unloving way, for once “honesty” becomes an occasion for abuse it ceases to be truth at all. There is an enormous distinction between debating someone because I want to be proven right and speaking what I believe to be true because I genuinely desire good for the other person. The former turns all who disagree with me into obstacles to be destroyed, whereas the latter sees them as the humans they are: complex, frustrating, loved, and not to be manipulated or treated with contempt.

But, still, is there hope? Well, I guess that depends on what we are hoping for. I have little hope that there will be an end to the disagreement any time soon, but I do have hope that the manner in which we disagree can still proclaim the Gospel and bring about intense healing in its own way.

To that end, this particular post was written in response to the GCN’s rather wonderful Justin Lee instigating a synchroblog (that’s trendy internet lingo for “a bunch of people writing about the same thing all at once”) on the topic of restoring sanity to the dialogue surrounding homosexuality and the church. (I’m going to give you a few minutes to let the now-apparent brilliance of this entry’s title sink in.) Acknowledging the increasingly manic nature of this conversation, Lee and others of vastly differing opinions hope the synchroblog (which goes live on Nov. 13, so stay tuned) will sound a clear call to return to Christian sanity.

Such a simple call, of course, does not magically eliminate the pain and struggle that will continue to define the experience of many men and women caught in the middle of it all; it does not give any answers to the most tortured of questions; it does not change the fact that, even at their most moderate, we are confronted by two mutually exclusive visions of community. But it does give me hope for future progress and reconciliation.

Christlike love, says William Placher in his ultra-phenomenal book Narratives of a Vulnerable God, is demonstrated when one is willing to make oneself vulnerable to pain and rejection so that the Gospel might be proclaimed. A return to sanity, for Christians, would be a return to that kind of love in relationship with one another. On a broad, ecclesial level, I’m not sure what that would look like; I wish I could offer something more concrete. But it probably isn’t a bad idea to start with person-to-person interactions. Here’s how it might play out in my own life:

As I hold to a more conservative sexual ethic, my convictions are inherently painful to my side-A brothers and sisters. I hate that. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish text and tradition would unilaterally bless same-sex unions, not just for my own sake as a gay man but so that this horrible tension would be dissolved. But, as Walter Brueggeman once wrote, “Wishful thinking is inadequate theology.” So I’m stuck with the reality that I personally have yet to be convinced that the Bible sanctions faithful, monogamous SSUs. I’m stuck with the reality that I represent something deeply traumatic to countless people.

And yet I have side-A, gay friends whose friendships I treasure dearly. I hope they know they are free to talk about their crushes and significant others without fear of condemnation and that I am genuinely happy for them. But I’ll admit, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows and celibate unicorns for me to hear/watch affirming gay Christians experience romance. I often find myself awash in intense desires and confusion, especially because, you know, I still think they’re Christians.

Being in community together will cause both of us pain. It is inevitable that there will be moments in which I simply cannot be the friend or support they need me to be. I can only hope that, in those moments, our friendship, our mutual pursuit of God and his glory, will be able to bear our tears and anger, that we would somehow have the clarity to see where the other is coming from, to feel the weight of their beliefs, and to receive the wound in love and move forward. If we are unwilling to be hurt by others even in friendship, then the only “safe” course of action is to continually manipulate or coerce them to do our will, which is antithetical to the vulnerable love of Christ.

Now, I’m a white, gay male, so the pain and tension I face is going to vary from those of straight Christians of a different gender and ethnicity, and thus I am hesitant to suggest what their struggles could be. Though for the majority of conservative Christians, I imagine the greatest challenge will arise from having to relinquish the power that comes with being a cultural majority and peel off that protective shell of privilege that effectively insulates them from the serrated arrows of others’ marginalized experiences and the whole range of complexity they introduce into previously “simple issues.” I’ve found that, for myself, even though I’ve been exposed to countless examples of poverty and alienation not my own, I am still constantly surprised by how much that tacit privilege blinds me to the suffering of others whose experiences I’ve never shared.

To be clear, I do think those within the conservative evangelical church should be the ones to take the first blows on behalf of affirming brothers and sisters. LGBTQ people have been on the receiving end of religious violence, stigma, and shame for so long… and even with four huge legislative victories this past election our societies, especially our churches, are far from safe.

I’m sorry, my words feel empty and there is so much more that I want to say. I struggle endlessly with this. I don’t blame anybody who reads this and sees nothing but a refusal to make the necessary compromises to really bring about reconciliation, who only hears vacuous calls for a mutual understanding that does little to remove the root of oppression. I can’t force anyone to believe that I love them.

But maybe that’s ok, for now. Maybe it’s time we stop requiring others to “understand” us before we show them grace. Maybe if we hope to display the exhilarating love of God through the unity expressed in John 17 we must become better at existing in the tumultuous, maddening tension so definitive of this broken world we call home. I don’t have any hope that things will be easy or clean, but the more I get to know men and women of various stances, the more I receive love and acceptance from those who disagree with me, the more I dig deep into the profound mystery of Christ and his body, the Church, I become more hopeful that this borderline obscene call to community amidst fractious pluralism will, by the power of God, be transformed into a clarion beacon shining forth with the furious radiance of the Gospel.

It seems like an insane hope, but, well, sometimes insanity is the sanest option we have.

Thanks for bearing with me in grace.

Jordan