In the last two weeks I put put together three videos telling stories. The first is about the first week of vacation bible school at Aim Right. The second is a highlight video shot at Circle K Camp in Colorado where Aim Right takes a group of teens each summer. And the third is a narrative briefly telling the history of Aim Right from 1991 to 2021. These videos were made to be shown at Aim Right’s 30 year anniversary reunion in Ohio. This post is about shooting and producing these videos and our trip to Ohio this past weekend.
I’m new enough to videography that it seems like I learn a new skill or tool each time I make a video. In this video I learned how to do a flicker scene change. It makes for a more interesting transition and helps to move from one portion of the narrative to another.
This was an interesting project because it’s built around a piece of music. Before the week of VBS started, I’d been trying to figure out a way to capture the feel and look of the empty church sanctuary and juxtapose that with scenes of excited kids. I was thrilled when I came across this music track that matched that idea perfectly. And I’m really pleased with how it turned out. As I was going through the footage I noticed I had almost perfectly captured the same shot twice on two different days. This meant I had the panning shot of the light bulbs in the sanctuary both with and without kids in the room. And this is what the transition from the first to second part is built around.
Aleisha and Mike Dienner shot all the footage for this project. I had just started my new job at Grand Canyon University a few weeks before they left for camp, and taking off for a whole week to go to Colorado wasn’t really an option.
During editing this project I learned a bit about how to make elements from different scenes interact with one another. You see this in the intro when the Aim Right logo appears and the rest of the shot turns to black and white. I needed the background washed out in order for the logo to be clear, so making it seem like the logo’s appearance moved the scene to black and white was a natural choice. The intro is definitely my favorite part of the project. Mike flew my drone up the river and also high above the kids playing soccer. By reversing the direction of the river clip and speeding it (and the soccer clip) up to about 1250%, I got the effect of pushing in and then rushing out that I wanted.
The ending scene is similar. They got a cool shot of Nicole blowing out candles, but I couldn’t figure out where to put that in the video. I decided to try to make the candles flickering out and the logo flickering in coincide, and it worked! By slowing down the footage of the candles, I was able to make the logo part of that interaction as well.
This project was created to highlight some of Aim Right’s history as well as the partnerships the ministry is currently involved in. I filmed Caleb and Stephanie talking about the partnerships at different locations and then had Stephanie read an overview I wrote.
In this video I learned how to make dots on a timeline appear. This was surprisingly hard, and it undoubtedly could’ve been done more efficiently. I literally found a shape and made it appear 30 separate times by using 30 separate video tracks, each entering slightly after the one before. In video editing there are tons of ways to make what you want to see happen. I’m still learning how to be efficient. See photo below showing 7 of the 30 tracks.
The most challenging part of this project was in pacing and narrative structure. How do you let the audience know they’ll be hearing a narration read by a voice off screen and still keep them interested in what’s happening on screen? How do you weave a story spanning 30 years together with information about current events? By slowing the videos down during the narration parts and then playing the interview-on-site scenes in real time with no b-roll, I was able to signal what was happening in a (hopefully) coherent way.
Aleisha and I got on a plane to Cleveland on Friday at 8:30 a.m. Unfortunately, that plane’s main engine overheated during takeoff and we had to make a landing in Denver. [Side note: the Denver airstrip looks like the middle of a cow pasture] A few hours later, we boarded a new flight and then got to reunion in Holmes County, Ohio at about 10:30 p.m., just as everyone was walking out. We took the pizza they saved for us back to the house where we were staying and devoured it. I for one was famished and dehydrated – Frontier Airlines kept apologizing for our inconvenience, but still wanted three bucks for a bottle of water and didn’t serve any refreshments. Lesson learned on buying the cheapest flights.
The main event was Saturday. We got to see and hear from interns and staff members of Aim Right spanning all the way back to the early 70s. Aleisha was part of a panel of interns who talked about their experience serving at Aim Right. Everyone got these cool mugs and t-shirts. There was even one of those banners to take a picture beside. Below, Mike is interviewing Jose about his experience as a teen who has been a key part of Aim Right for several years.
One of the first things I noticed as we flew into Cleveland was the grass. It was so green, everywhere. That’s something I took for granted before moving to the desert. There are also hills and all the roads are curvy – it was fun driving winding roads again. As we walked into the house we were staying at, I just kind of stopped and looked around – the place seemed huge. Rooms and rooms and two levels and closets everywhere. In the context of the country living, it wasn’t a very large house. But after moving into an apartment, houses with four or five bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, living room, ect. just seem massive, and kind of excessive. There’s so much empty space.
Our flight back to Phoenix left at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, so we had time to eat lunch with Ruby’s family and the other Aim Right interns. About 45 minutes into our trip to the airport, we realized we were indeed headed to the wrong airport. Thankfully we only felt foolish and didn’t miss our flight. It’s long been a dream of mine to fly at night on July 4th. And it was magical. As we descended into Nashville for our layover, the ground below us was alight with red, blue, green, white, and gold. You could see fireworks going up out of subdivisions and big commercial displays and kids holding Roman candles in driveways.
On the flight back to Phoenix, we read our books and crooked our necks trying to sleep while the plane bumped along through storms and winds and whatever is up thirty thousand feet between Nashville and Phoenix. Aleisha is reading The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World – John Mark Comer, and I’m readingThe Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma – Bessel Van Der Kolk. She’s learning practices to help up live more restful and less frantic lives – something that Protestant Americans are just simply programmed against from birth. And I’m learning about the way a traumatic experience can alter our bodies, rewire our brains, and keep us unable to distinguish past from present. It’s also a fascinating look into the different ways we know and remember. As modern people, we tend to assume all knowledge is housed in the brain, and we neglect the ways our bodies learn, know, and remember at a much deeper level. I’m planning to do a master’s degree in clinical mental health, and this book is making me consider focusing on trauma. I’d highly recommend it – it’s easy to read and loaded with stories.
Last summer, Aleisha and I were in Arizona sitting around a dinner table when someone threw out a job offer and said we should move out. At the time, I was doing an internship for my degree while Aleisha was leading a group of interns at Aim Right Ministries. After those six weeks in Phoenix , we flew back home to South Carolina; Aleisha went back to her new job, and I started my senior year of college. Still the dinner table conversation and the offer stayed in the back of our minds.
During my senior year, I got to take the best classes of my degree programs. Communication and theology courses at the 300 and 400 level – to me that’s exciting, some folks not so much, I get that. I really loved those courses and the papers I got to write, and I started thinking about a master’s degree – but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it in communication. Over the summer I’d listened to a lot of podcasts and lectures from (and about) psychologists, and I was toying with the idea of a master’s degree in counseling psychology. By the time graduation came, I decided therapy was the career path I wanted to start pursuing. And unlike many positions, that ain’t one you can just learn on the job – you have to do a masters degree. As Aleisha and I talked about our options, Phoenix started making more and more sense.
The job offer from our dinner conversation was at Grand Canyon University as an admissions counselor – included was the benefit of free tuition to the university as an employee. Aleisha was also offered a job as the youth pastor of Aim Right Ministries where she’d served as an intern for several summers. After a few phone calls to make sure the job offers were serious and not just off-the-cuff remarks to make conversation, we decided to move from the green hills of east to the desert of the west. Our timeline for moving changed more times than I can remember. The end of June, the end of May…and we ended up moving the end of April, right after my graduation party.
And here we are!
It was not easy in many respects. Finding an apartment in your own town in crazy hard right now, much less the other side of the country. Getting all your belongings across Texas and every other state standing between is hard as well. Somehow we did both in a very short amount of time. But several times I’ve remarked to Aleisha how nearly impossible it would’ve been if we didn’t have a support system around us. We had friends in Phoenix who scoped out a place for us to rent – our families to help us figure out transferring legal documents, selling vehicles, and loading all our earthly possessions in a one way U-Haul – and we had grandparents who so graciously drove our things all the way across the country so we didn’t have to worry about taking a car we didn’t trust or renting a truck that would be way too big. And there were so many friends who slid us a gift card or some cash or a blessing for leaving.
Currently, we’re living on the upper level of the beautiful old church building where Aim Right is located. Our lease didn’t start for more than a month after I had to start my job training, so we wake up every morning in an old Sunday school classroom and walk through the sanctuary to go the bathroom. Aleisha is transitioning into directing the youth programming at Aim Right. I’m working for Grand Canyon University on the third floor of building 18. I plan to take about a year to enjoy being graduated and get settled before starting the masters in mental health counseling program.
We’re loving life in the city. The other night we walked with Mike into downtown to get some drinks. And on Saturday morning, we went for a hike up a local mountain. If you search for a restaurant, the question isn’t whether there’s one around but which one is closest. If you can live without seeing much grass, Phoenix pretty much has everything. Except of course for emptiness and wide open spaces. Having everything does come at the cost of not having empty places – sounds obvious when you say it, but part of the charm of the rural southeast is the fact that there isn’t everything. The campus where I work has two Chic-fil-a locations within a square mile. I remember seeing Los Angeles for the first time, then sitting down on a couch and writing these words about that city – they seem true of this one too.
It’s something like Cinderella / Something like a machine,
Something like my hometown / Just got more of everything,
At the time of moving we didn’t trust either of our cars to make it across the country. So we flew out and bought this 2009 Toyota Venza. It’s been great so far, and you could probably sleep in the trunk space. I take it to work four days a week. The apartment we’re getting is within biking distance of Aim Right, so that’s how Aleisha will be getting to work for the time being.
Sunday starts the first week of Aim Right’s summer VBS. We’ve been coming out to help with it for the past three summers, and I love it so much. We also get to help with “mobile pantry,” one Thursday morning a month a local food bank brings a semi-truck with pallets of food which we set up on tables in the parking lot and distribute for free to anyone who comes by (usually between 30 and 60 families). We also got to be a part of the last serve event Unite PHX put on. (see the video I made below).
My favorite T.V. show of all time is The Newsroom. And there’s a scene where Charlie asks this kid musician, Bo, “What’s a kid from New Rochelle doing singing about Memphis?” And he says, “Memphis is a stand-in for wherever you are right now. That it really means that’s how I got here.”
I always think it’s fun to think back through the thread of events that lead up to the present, to see if you can pull the strand all the way to its end. Of course, it’s never really possible since no thing exists outside of relation to the things around it. I’m sitting on a couch in a church in Phoenix right now because we got a job offer last summer – but we were only there because when she was 20 Aleisha decided to move to Aim Right to volunteer for a year – and I really decided to take my new job because of the tuition benefit for the masters program – I only knew I wanted to be a therapist after getting a communication degree – it was in Oregon as an intern that I decided to go to college at all. Each moment is in some way brought into existence as the one before it passes away. One thing dies so another can live – we have been becoming who we are all along. Or as a philosopher said, “The self is only that which it is in the process of becoming.”
We’re always in process, and it has been such a gift for Aleisha and I to figure out what will come next for us in the presence of such good folks. Our families have helped us – our friends have supported us – other friends have taken us in – and the Lord has led us. And I suppose you might say, that is how we got to Memphis.
The workweek is often viewed as a prerequisite to the weekend. This is to say the workweek is a necessary, but somewhat contemptible, element of surviving 21st century American life. For many, the hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. represent a sort of paid servitude in which they submit themselves to the whims of corporations so they can live the good life on weekends and holidays. The work done from Monday through Friday is often a kind of ritual we participate in as a tradeoff: daily labor in exchange for daily sustenance and the freedom and means to enjoy the weekend. Implicit in this paradigm is the conclusion that if we could bypass the ritual of the workweek and live in a constant state of “weekend,” we would experience a much more fulfilling existence. However, in order to understand the nine to five workweek and subsequent weekend from a biblical perspective, we must understand humanity’s purpose in culture and the true meaning of our work.
What Is Culture?
The essentialist notion suggests culture is merely the sum total of individuals melded together – that our identity is formed and then imposed upon culture in an impactful way. I don’t think this is a good way to understand the situation. Rather, culture is the space where our identity is worked out, where choices are made, and where meaning is constructed. Apart from culture we cannot know our identity. We cannot make sense of our existence apart from culture, for it is in the space of society that we negotiate, construct, and share meaning.
We cannot know or experience God apart from culture. In culture, we realize our purpose, become holy, and fulfill the task of being God’s image bearers. Culture is where humanity glorifies God by creating and ruling, and no attempt should be made to escape from the context of culture. Not only is this impossible, but to do so is to flee from the invitation to meet God.
[Christology] How Does Christ Demonstrate True Humanity?
Christ comes to earth as the “seed” spoken of prophetically all the way back in Genesis 3. He fulfills the tasks given to humanity, and he does so as a man. Christ is the first human to truly and completely bear God’s image, thus he is the first true human since Adam. Throughout his life, Christ demonstrates the love of God, always yielding to the Father’s will and never committing a single act of sin. If it is true that Christ’s triumph was located in the space of culture and cultural activities (brushing his teeth, going to market, learning a trade etc.), then it must be true that these are activities inside the realm of the sacred work God intends for humanity to do.
[Ecclesiology] How Does the Church Function as True Humanity?
When Christ came to earth, he did not integrate with the flesh nor did he integrate into culture; he became flesh – he was born into culture. As the complete and perfect vision of what humanity ought to be, the divine Word took on flesh and lived the life of a human being familiar with he struggles and experience of humankind (Heb 4:15). Christ is not human in some abstract way, nor is his humanness limited to the pain he felt on the cross. For thirty-three years, Christ experienced an embodied life on earth and participated in the activities of culture. He learned to speak, learned to walk, learned what kinds of foods his particular set of tastebuds liked, developed a unique personality, made friends, went through puberty, etc. It was not in spite of these elements that Christ was able to demonstrate what true humanity looks like; rather, it was through them. And though he lived as true humanity, his own brother failed to recognize him as such, a testament to the regularity and normalcy which served as the context for his perfect life.
Tish Harrison Warren writes,
“The crucible of our formation is in the anonymous monotony of our daily routines.”
Like Christ, we inhabit cultural space, and this is the position in which we meet God. Like Jesus, the saints find themselves in the crucible of the everyday, situated inside familiar worlds with familiar routines and tasked with working out what it means to represent God faithfully. It is in the minute-by-minute actions and choices of the everyday that we construct our identity, that we lay claim to a status quo, that what will be normal is brought into existence. Whether this reality will be one of kindness or exploitation is decided in the space of the everyday, because it is in the everyday that the self works out what and who it will be.
A sign hangs on the wall in a New Monastic Christian community house: “Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes.”… I often want to skip the boring, daily stuff to get to the thrill of an edgy faith. But it’s in the dailiness of the Christian faith – the making the bed, doing the dishes, the praying for our enemies, the reading the Bible, the quiet, the small – that God’s transformation takes root and grows.
Warren’s point is that we can glorify God in the space of culture not in spite of, rather because of, our embodiment. However, it is only when we understand our bodies as instruments of worship that we are able to give the whole of our lives in service to God. Too often, we fear the worship we are called to can only take place in what we’ve deemed to be special or spiritualized contexts. There is a messiness and uncertainty about parts of our lives which often leads us to understand only certain pieces of our existence as potential contexts for worship.
[Streams of Meaning] How Do We Make Sense of Our Lives?
Within Evangelical Christianity, there is a prevalent, and often implicit, principle by which all of life is organized. This principle organized life into two streams: one sacred and the other secular. From this perspective, every action, artifact, event, and person can be understood as existing in either the one stream or the other. A clear line of delineation separates the holy from the profane, the Christian from the worldly, the sacred from the secular. This creates a dichotomy and envisions effective believers as those who build bridges between the sacred and the secular in hopes of impacting culture. Implicit in the framing of the Christian’s place in the world is the understanding that to be sacred is to be apart from culture – that to be kingdom minded is to move actions, artifacts, events, and persons from one stream to the other, secular into sacred.
“Secular” spaces are viewed as places to be won over into (or influenced by) the “sacred” sphere. This framework often leads us to be suspicious of creative, artistic endeavors which aren’t done for the express purpose of evangelism and perhaps why films like God’s Not Dead, though a bit cheesy, are so appealing. It’s easy to see understand owning Atheist professors as God-honoring, perhaps it takes a bit more faith to see weeding a garden, painting a portrait, or going to a concert as such. So Christians have often sought to create outside the context of “the world.” The word Christian is a moniker for supposedly non-cultural creative endeavors. Movies, music, conferences, consumer items, businesses, etc. are created in hopes of being a bridge between us and them, church and world, sacred and secular. Perhaps a better, and more biblical, model is to understand all of creation, that is every inch of culture, as a potential dwelling place for God. This would mean the Christian’s task is to institute the order of God wherever she finds herself. The two-stream model gives way to the understanding that God did not give humankind only a small piece of the world to inhabit and rule.
The command to exercise creativity and authority is not limited to “Christian” spaces if all of creation is a potential dwelling place, a temple, for God. Our obedience to God makes present the kingdom of heaven and moves towards the restoration of relationships between God, humanity, and creation. Yet the potential for this work is severely stunted when we try to impact culture from an understanding in which the church exists outside of and then moves into culture.
[The Workweek] How Can Vocation Be Understood as Temple and Work as Worship?
The 40-hour work week must be understood as a space in which we worship God and in which we become holy. All the tasks which await the worker are opportunities to glorify the God who made humankind with the ability to create, to arrange the chaotic cosmos into an ordered world, to take an acre and make it a garden, to take raw data and draw a conclusion. Warren writes, “We grow in holiness in the honing of our specific vocation. We can’t be holy in the abstract. Instead, we become a holy blacksmith or a holy mother or a holy physician or a holy systems analyst. We seek God in and through our particular vocation and place in life” (Warren, 94). Whether we find ourselves as mothers, architects, teachers, ditch diggers, or mathematicians, the workweek must be understood, in faith, as a cultural ritual in which we joyfully participate for the purpose of meeting God and offering him our work as worship.
Martin Luther said, “God himself will milk cows through him whose vocation it is.”
I remember listening to Mike Donehey say with an air of profundity between songs at a Tenth Avenue North concert that he was not a musician who happened to be a Christian, but rather a Christian who happened to be a musician. Warren is suggesting that we cannot become properly “Christian”, which is to say like Christ, outside of embodied experience. We cannot become rightly Christian before we become musicians – it is only in working out what it means to be a Christ-like musician, or a carpenter like Christ, or a metalworker in the image of God that we can become Christian, that God will make us holy. We are intended to live lives of worship grounded in cultural space. Quips like Donehey’s, while perhaps helpful in some way, suggest implicitly that one can develop an essential identity in Christ and then impose it upon the outside world. However, Warren’s approach is preferred as it is able to give a much fuller, more holistic account of the everyday. Whereas Donehey’s Christianity comes before his cultural vocation, Warren’s doesn’t exist without it.
In Exodus 31, there is a connection between being filled with God’s Spirit and being able to do vocational work well.
See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. (Exod 31:2-5)
In this passage it seems being spiritual and being vocational are intertwined. It was precisely in these acts of crafting that Bezalel demonstrated wisdom, understanding, and communion with the Spirit of God. Yet many Christians are only able to draw a connection between vocation and communion with God, or worship, if the work is explicitly church related. In this way, we default to the two-stream paradigm of some work being sacred and some being secular, and we miss out on understanding all the labor of our vocation as an offering of worship.
When we lack the faith to believe God might receive the worship we offer him through our ordinary work, we resort to other conceptions of the workweek. Tim Keller notes some popular options we tend to choose:
“a place to get rich so we can be generous, a place to wear a cheerful face, a place to evangelize coworkers, or a place to find satisfaction in enjoyable tasks.”
These conceptions of vocational worship may have their place, but in them the potential for understanding work as worship and culture as temple is diminished. The faithful Christian teaching holds that all work which is not immoral or unethical is part of God’s kingdom mission, his plan to redeem all things. If the Lord is serious about redeeming all things, then there is no task which cannot be understood as kingdom work. Warren writes,
When we use our bodies for their intended purpose – in gathered worship, raising our hands or singing or kneeling, or, in our average day, sleeping or savoring a meal or jumping or hiking or running or having sex with our spouse or kneeling in prayer or nursing a baby or digging a garden – it is glorious, as glorious as a great cathedral being used just as its architect had dreamt it would be.
We must not be content with any eschatological conception of work which relegates activities into realms of sacred and secular based simply on spiritualization. If Christ really became a man born of woman, and if he really did rise from the dead, then believers can take to the world and joyfully bring their God-given creativity and authority to bear in the cultural context of the everyday. We can be confident the ordinary tasks of everyday existence are acts of worship if we will only offer them.
[Sabbath] How Can the Weekend Be Understood as True Rest?
Life in the 21st century west is governed by cyclical rhythms. Most of these rhythms are drawn from the natural order: the four changing seasons signaled by the weather, 365-day years signaled by the earth’s revolution around the sun, 30 day months signaled by the moon’s orbit of the earth, etc. However, there is no clear indication from the natural world which would signal a seven-day week (or a two day weekend). This rhythm is an arbitrary social construction which, in Judeo-Christian thought, originates from the creation account in which God works six days and rests on the seventh. In 1926, Henry Ford decided to give employees Saturday and Sunday off, and he instituted the forty-hour work week. “An altruistic move in part, it also gave his workers the opportunity to spend their down time buying consumer products, keeping cash circulating through the economy” (BBC, 2019). It wasn’t long before the weekend caught on nationally and became a defining element of American life.
A prevailing conception of the contemporary workweek/weekend paradigm understands the forty hours of work from Monday to Friday as a barrier to the good life. The weekend is the ideal – it is where we revel in enjoyment, freedom, and leisure while the stress of the next workweek looms. From this perspective the workweek is a barrier, and the weekend is a destination. This desire to escape the workweek ritual is evidenced by the willingness of the working class to play the lottery. Millions of dollars are spent each year in hopes of hitting the jackpot – this incredible sum of money is sought as a guarantee that the workweek will no longer be a necessary part of the American experience.
In their study, Bankrate found “Americans earning less than $30,000 admit to spending about 13% of their income on lottery tickets”
For the believer who understands the workweek as a site of worship, exhausting though it may be, the weekend can be understood as a time of rest, reflection, and anticipation. Rather than an escape from the meaningless and mundane, the weekend can be viewed as Sabbath rest. Here, there is space for reflecting on the work of the previous week, regaining strength for tasks to come, and looking forward to the sacred tasks which are in view. In this way the weekend and the workweek are not disjointed, opposed realities but elements of a sacred rhythm. The weekend from this perspective is no longer the ideal, rather it is a celebration of what God has allowed us to do as well as preparation for the work he has planned for us. Congregants can gather together on Sunday as brothers and sisters in the process of being made holy through their vocations and celebrate the presence of the kingdom manifested in their workweek. They can also understand their Sunday (or Monday or Tuesday…) afternoon at the lake or in the woods as worship.
If any action cannot be understood as a sacred, kingdom oriented, God-glorifying task, then either it is sinful or the framework for understanding that action is insufficient.
Our theology of culture must be able to account for every act performed by the Christian in freedom as a fulfillment of the task given to humanity, provided that act is not unethical or immoral. As such, every interaction with a coworker, every email, every purchase, every step, every breath is an opportunity to be the image of God – not by spiritualizing every interaction – but by choosing the way of Jesus moment by moment. The vast majority of Christ’s life is not recorded in Scripture. Yet we know he was faithful in every regard; in every cultural activity he embodied faithfulness. With this in view, we can say with confidence: if God has tasked humanity with bearing his image through creativity and authority, and if the Spirit of God has set free from bondage those who are in Christ, and if Jesus himself exemplified true humanity by living within the context of embodied experience on earth, then every moment may be sacred. Every floor tile may be holy ground. Every action may be one which expands the order of the kingdom. Every inch of creation may be a temple for the Lord God.
In episode 7 on The Abstract Podcast, we wrestled with the idea and implications of the death penalty and looked at what Paul has to say in Romans 13. Below are some of my own thoughts (compiled for a class assignment) and posted here to accompany our discussion on the podcast. There are certainly varying opinions on this matter, but I think it’s an one important to think about.
You can listen to Ep. 7 “Dr. Suess, Firing Squads, and Big Checks for Everyone” using this link – or by finding us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, ect.
The death penalty is a hard issue for me to grapple with. My position comes is that the government does indeed have the right to exercise capital punishment. The pros for this argument seem pretty straightforward. The state is responsible for the protection and well-being of its people. It is tasked with opposing forces which endanger the well being of its people. Often, these enemies are outside the territory, or country as the case may be. The state may deem violence necessary as an act of protecting its people, and it may kill those whom it deems an imminent threat. Similarly, the state may declare a person/force inside the territory to be an immanent threat and decide violence against them is the best move forward.
Paul writes in Romans 13:4, “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” From this scripture, as well as rather simple logic, it seems the state must possess the authority to do violence against threats to the common good for the purpose of protecting its people. Paul assumes in this chapter that the state is set up and operating for the purpose of punishing evil, not good. “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong” (Romans 13:3).
However, the situation is muddied for a few reasons. Paul writes, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established…For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.” (Romans 13:1, 4). Paul assumes the “one in authority” has the good of the public in mind. This is obviously not always the case. In most instances of abuse, the abuser is able to perpetrate violence against the victim because of the power situation – the authority was theirs, but they wielded it for harm. Surely, victims in every scenario cannot be expected to submit themselves to violence and abuse simply because they are not in charge. Paul here assumes the general interest of the state/one in authority is the good of the people. Throughout the New Testament, we also witness Paul himself getting thrown into prison time and time again for defying governing authority.
I am not in favor of the death penalty being sentenced in the United States for a few reasons. Firstly, we have the resources to mitigate the threat of persons who are too violent to live freely. They can be put in prison. Their death is not necessary to keep the public safe. Some have argued the death penalty functions as a deterrent to crimes, but this doesn’t seem to be the case when the statistic are examined. Executing terrorists who are an active threat to order and peace is not the same thing as strapping incarcerated people to a chair and electrocuting them (or shooting them at the hands of a firing squad as Utah, and perhaps South Carolina, propose). Executing prisoners with electric, poison, or assault rifles is not only practically unnecessary and barbaric, it negates any possibility of redemption and restoration. This is the Christian’s first and last hope.
In Romans 13:10 Paul writes, “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” The death penalty is the declaration stating a person is not and can never again be a neighbor in any capacity. Perhaps the most striking element of Romans 13, for the contemporary American, is Paul’s tacit assumption that the state will not act in a Christian manner. The state is not capable of the enemy love commanded by Jesus in Matthew 5. The state, which is God’s ordained institution, is not capable of the mercy characteristic of the kingdom of heaven.
Christ tells his followers to expect to be taken advantage of. However, he commands them not to retaliate and to pray for their enemies. This is a higher calling than that of the state – thus the notion of a “Christian state” is untenable. Fundamentally, the state cannot serve its purpose if it institutes the kingdom ethics required of believers. The purposes of the state and followers of Jesus are not one. As a follower of Jesus, I recognize the state’s right to exercise capital punishment, but I am not in favor of it. I recognize the protection afforded citizens comes at the expense of the blood of those who threaten, but I do not want that blood on my hands. I belong to a kingdom of loving enemies and walking the extra mile, of turning the other cheek, and doing good to those who curse. My allegiance is to that kingdom even while I walk the soil of another.
I’m kind of a hoarder, but really only when it comes to things I write (so it’s ok, right?). I’ve got journals from the last 10 years, all the notebooks, songs, poetry, and class notes I’ve ever penned. Or at least I thought I did. Tonight, I was preparing for a comprehensive Bible & Theology exam covering all the Bible classes I’ve ever taken, and I couldn’t find any notes on THE-393 (Old Testament Theology)! As a meticulous keeper of everything, this is pretty upsetting. In the midst of searching, I did come across an angsty poem I penned at the start of 2020. It made me laugh tonight – looking back on it and the year that was to come.
In the final stanza I declared the new year laughed first, but I would laugh last. I’m still not sure how all that panned out. Overall, it was a good year for me. But not without its ups and downs and a particularly rocky start on January 2.
My words to our current new year are much softer and more concise. What a strange trip around the sun we’ve had.
There are two phrases that keep coming back to me.
“It is what it is.” & “It’s not what it could be.”
The new year is a new slate, symbolically anyways. The spike and then steep dive in gym memberships around this time of year tells us flipping the page on the calendar doesn’t intrinsically change us. Or as some like to say, It is what it is. Yet thousands of people who found themselves too busy or lazy to exercise last fall have found the courage to step into the gym. And this tells us something we all want to believe, even if we’ve grown too jaded to really internalize, It’s not yet what it could be. There is a potential we have not yet realized – there are places we could go – “reality” could be better than it is.
A couple weeks ago, I reached out to three local pastors (and one who was quite far away) and asked them what they’re praying for their people in 2021. The past year was a emotionally taxing time to be alive, but our pastors experience that tension in a unique way. While we’re all disagreeing and bashing each other over the head in the comment sections, they’re trying to figure out how to tell us the gospel when we wander in on Sunday. While we soak in about 57 sermons worth of advertising, entertainment, and talking heads during the week, they’re trying to figure out what we need to hear from the Word. They had some good insights, and I’d like to share them with you.
“I’m praying that our people will choose this year to be more like Jesus. I know it sounds cliché, but I think we have missed that being a Christian means that we choose to walk like him. Being a Christian and being an apprentice of Jesus are not separate things. They are the same.”
“I am praying for an increase of what I am seeing in many sincere Jesus-followers. Many are experiencing a deep revealing of how futile it is to hope in this world. There is a hunger for prayer and the Word. I prayed for years that there would be a shake up in our church, and it has come in 2020. As hard as it is, I pray that God continues his work he is doing even if we continue to struggle through this.”
“My prayers center around the posture of our hearts towards people, how we view them, and how we view ourselves. I suppose that has been birthed as of late out of the many behind the scenes conversations centered around the good Samaritan passage and realizing we’re not so much the good Samaritan but the person in the ditch. We’re not so much the voice of reason to any argument (though I think the local church can be) or the “good person” coming to the rescue but the person in need of rescue. Which ultimately goes after the posture of our hearts, that we are just vessels of the rescuer. A Vessel with whom the Spirit dwells and works through. It’s through being a vessel of His Spirit that we invite people to come and see what Jesus has done for us and ultimately change culture toward His Kingdom.”
“I find myself praying more than I ever have in life, and I guess that’s because I find myself in a position of need. I pray Proverbs 30:7-9 for me personally and for the people in my care.
7 “Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: 8 Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. 9 Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.
I believe that both requests have great relevance for current engagement. Falsehood and lies being far from me is much bigger than mere truth-telling. [See Psalm 52 for further reference. It depicts someone who actually told factual truth but was designated by the writer as loving falsehood. Interesting.] The second request is a hard one because consumerism, personal comfort, and the right to it is more than a whim. It’s a belief system that has wrapped its hold on us tightly. Give me neither poverty nor wealth…I pray this for me and for the people I love, but I wonder how to engage that fully. I am trusting Him to provide that answer as I keep praying and walking.”
Our pastors are hoping for us: hoping we’ll be more like Jesus; that we’ll hunger for prayer and the Word; that our posture will be one shaped by the Spirit; and that we’ll be kept from lies, resting in a state of reliance on him who is faithful. I think we’d do well to listen to them and their prayers for our new year.
My favorite poet, Jon Foreman, says we exist in the tension between, “who we are and who we could be, how the world spins and how it should be.”
It is what it is – yes I suppose so.
It’s not what it could be – because anything could be.
I’ve decided to write haikus this year to help me process things (like Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople). A haiku is a form of poetry which originated in Japan. Haikus typically contain three lines of poetry; the first line holding 5 syllables, the second 7, and the third 5 again.
In my piece below, the first stanza holds 5 haikus, the second 7, and the third 5.
*A contributor who wishes to remain anonymous helped with this article. *There is a video version of this article at the bottom of the post.
Three lies we have believed as Evangelicals. God have mercy.
1. We Believed Actions Were More Important Than Communication and Character.
We believed you could untangle these three elements of life.
The gospel of Matthew records, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” What we produce both reveals who we are and produces who we are becoming. We believed Donald Trump could act justly out of a corrupt character and while communicating with vileness. We were wrong.
Similarly, we believed we could engage each another in hostile arguments online without damaging “real life.” And many of us have realized the “real world” and the “virtual world” of social media are not easily separated. There are folks in church we don’t like so much anymore, people we take a wide path around in the parking lot because that social media confrontation has us wary of face-to-face interaction. Social media emboldens us to say things we would not in person. We are disembodied and fooled into thinking communication in virtual space gives us license to berate one another. Communication, action, and character are knotted up together.
Throughout the last four years, we have told ourselves time and time again that actions were more important than character and communication. Evangelicals accepted Donald Trump on the grounds that he would do our bidding, even if he did it in a vulgar manner, even if his past was tainted with vileness, even if he openly said vile things. We hung our hats on the argument that character and communication can be separated from action. As long as President Trump appoints conservative judges, stands up to China, and doesn’t raise our taxes, we don’t really care what he says or how he does it.
Every act is communication, to be is to communicate. As I sit in this coffee shop typing silently, I am communicating to those around me. My values, my tastes, my choice of clothing, my flavor of latte – we communicate through our presence in the world. In this way my communication is at once revealing who I am and creating who I will become. It is utterly foolish to believe communication can be untethered from identity. Joshua Gibbs said, “Every act of imitation is an act of becoming.” Yet somehow as the white evangelical church we were fooled into believing Trump’s positive actions could somehow outweigh his questionable character and reckless communication. It is not a matter of one “outweighing” any other – these elements of being are not separable. We act out what we are moving towards. You cannot act justly and communicate unjustly, nor act justly and maintain vile character.
The past week of mayhem serves as a culmination of the last few years and a final revelation of the absurdity of this notion. Donald Trump’s communication, character, and action cannot be untangled or essentialized. Who we are is fundamentally composed and expressed in each of these elements. A virtuous leader must display the integration of wisdom in communication, character, and action. Going one for three will get you into the baseball hall of fame – it makes for a really lousy leader.
2. We Believed Donald Trump Was a Christ Figure.
The church is a bride, and the white evangelical church wed itself to a man who was not Christ.
The language and symbolism of Trumpism casts Donald Trump as a Christ figure. He is said to have “come down the escalator to drain the swamp.” From his high position, Trump is said to have descended to lead the people. He enters into a realm said to be corrupted and dirty (a swamp) to do the work of making the land “great again.” This is clear language of a Christ figure. Jesus himself descended from heaven into a dark land to inaugurate a new kingdom.
In the Christian account, the hero is abandoned by all those closest to him in his final hours. This is significant because Christ is not simply on the side of truth, he is the truth incarnated. As Christ prays in the garden, his disciples fall asleep. At the last supper, the traitor leaves to do his work. After his arrest, Christ is denied by Peter, abandoned by his followers, and convicted by the court system. He goes to the cross alone.
We have been telling this story and replacing Christ with Trump, sometimes without realizing it, and sometimes intentionally. We have become so convinced of his righteousness that his words alone are truth. He has become the symbol of truth. He has been rejected by those near him, by the religious leaders, and by the court system. Yet many Evangelicals remain confident in his words. Trump has even coined a term for anyone who would deny him, “RINOs” Republicans in Name Only. Christ said “Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven. (Matthew 10:33)” Trump has said to be Republican is to stand with him to the bitter end. He has positioned himself as a Christ figure, and we have largely accepted him. Anyone who denies the “Christ” is anti-Christian.
In the days after the insurrection in which Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, scores of folks once loyal to Donald Trump have jumped ship. As of the writing of this article, more than nine members of the Trump administration have resigned from their posts including: Elaine Chao (transportation secretary). Betsy DeVos (education secretary). Mick Mulvaney (former chief of staff, current special envoy to northern Ireland). Mulvaney said, “You can’t look at that yesterday and say I want to be a part of that in any way shape or form.” Stephanie Grisham (First lady’s chief of staff). Sarah Matthews (deputy press secretary). Matt Pottinger (deputy national security advisor). Rickie Niceta (White house social secretary). Ryan Tully (National Security Council’s senior director for European and Russian affairs). Tyler Goodspeed (Chairmen of the white house council of economic advisors). Republican Senator Ben Sasse said, “Lies have consequences. This violence was the inevitable and ugly outcome of the President’s addiction to constantly stoking division.” Trump is being abandoned by those once loyal to him who realize how insanely he’s behaving, how dangerous his claims are, and how he’s “disregarded his oath of office.” These include Lindsey Graham and his own Vice President – and this is certainly for good reason.
The Court System
For months Donald Trump and lawyers have claimed the election was decided unfairly. They brought allegations in more than 50 lawsuits. However, as Russell Moore writes,
“It is not true – and it never was true – that this election was stolen. That’s why such a charge was never even made in any court of law, where perjury penalties would hold but only in social media streams and demagogic rallies.”
On every occasion (save possibly two) they either lost, had their case thrown out for lack of evidence, or withdrew. “At least 86 judges from across the political spectrum, including some appointed by Trump, have rejected at least one post-election lawsuit filed by Trump or supporters” writes the Washington Post. Donald Trump has lost time and time again even in courts where he appointed the judges. The Supreme Court, three members of which Trump appointed, has refused to hear his case for lack of evidence. In a personal call on which Trump groveled hoping to “find” more votes, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State refused to be bullied and told him flatly he was wrong. Georgia had already undertaken multiple recounts.
The MAGA Faithful
Yet when we view Donald Trump as a Christ figure, it doesn’t matter how many staff resign, how many courts throw him out, how many leaders speak up to denounce him. Because he is not merely telling the truth; like Christ, he is the truth. Those at the Capitol were not there on behalf of the Republican party or conservatives. No. They were there on behalf of one man only; they flew his flag and marched in his name. They were whipped into a frenzy by his words. They went so shamefully far as to erect a gallows on which to execute the Vice President because he did not side with their Christ.
David French writes, “There was a giant wooden cross outside the Capitol. “Jesus saves” signs and other Christian signs were sprinkled through the crowd. I watched a man carry a Christian flag into an evacuated legislative chamber.” We Evangelicals were present there, like Peter in the garden, whipping out swords for our Christ. To our great shame, we have believed Donald Trump was our Christ figure, and some of us are adamant we will never deny him. No matter the cost: we would drive to D.C. – we would plunder the Capitol – we would die for Donald Trump, our Christ. God forgive us.
3. We Believed the End Was Nigh.
“If you argue that the very existence of the country is at stake, don’t be surprised if people start to act as if the very existence of the country is at stake.” – David French
Every four years Evangelicals are told the current election is all that stands between order and chaos, the 1st world and 3rd world, capitalism and socialism. Once again, for the umpteenth time, we bought the lie that if the Republican candidate didn’t defeat the more liberal challenger, the USA would delve into a socialist state. We think gas prices will soar, they’ll take our guns, our churches will be stormed, and we’ll be pumped full of vaccines. Yet somehow, each and every time, life just sort of goes on. And it will again this time. In four years from now, we’ll hear these same tired warnings, and they’ll be false again. Perhaps even more absurd than the claim that handing power to the opposing party will inaugurate the end times is the remedies we’ve concocted.
Folks on the ground at the Capitol riot say there was Christian music blasting and “Jesus Saves” flags flying. If all the Evangelicals storming the Capitol had been Muslims playing chants over speakers, we’d all be crying “terrorist attack!” MAGA supporters (Evangelical Christians among them) quite literally stormed the castle in a crazed last grab at power. And no, we cannot pin these acts on Anitfa. As helpful as that may be, it’s pretty clear that’s not what happened. When we raise the stakes of which party will lead us for the next four years to the level of apocalyptic existential crisis, we get an insurrection. We get confederate flags marched into our country’s most sacred building. We get those elected to represent the people of the 50 states ushered into bunkers while crazed rioters break through the doors. We get police trampled, beaten with American flags, and killed.
“The crowd showed him no mercy…immediately trampling him, bludgeoning him with objects and projectiles, dragging him down the steps they were storming — pretty much having their way with his limp body as his colleagues tried pulling him away.” (TMZ)
We need to stop reading the end-times prophecy manuals. We need to stop believing the bitter end is nigh every election cycle. It is not only faithless, it’s stupid and wrong and damaging.
We have believed these three lies. That communication was less important than character and action; that Donald Trump was our Christ figure; and that the end was nigh. My fellow Evangelicals, my neighbors, my friends, let us be people of Christ. Let us put this foolishness of Trumpism behind us. With every word and every act we are transformed into who we are becoming; let us speak and act in love that we might become love. May Jesus, through whom all things were made, be our only Christ. May we do the work of believing and put to rest these recurring fears of apocalypse.
“There have been many voices combating the lies of Donald Trump since he descended his golden escalator five years ago, but most have been easily dismissed by his supporters because the truth was coming from those outside the GOP/Conservative/MAGA community. If the country is to emerge from this dark season, it won’t happen simply because Mr. Trump leaves the White House. It will happen because virtuous leaders find the courage to tell the truth to their own followers.” – Skye Jethani
May these three lies, and the Trumpism which brought them, be left behind.