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We Need to Stop Loving Rights More than People

There’s a beautiful and jarring memorial set up a few blocks from my house, in honor of Philadelphians who have lost their lives to gun violence this year. T-shirts with their names and ages line a fence outside of a church. Those shirts hang are empty because the people who once filled them – many of whom were shockingly young – are no longer with us. They were humans, friends, neighbors, parents, and children who have left a tangible void in their households and in this city. Going past it this week has been particularly moving.  

This week has been a challenging time of reflection, repentance, and lament for me and presumably many others. I’ve thought a lot about the things that I and our society hate, the things that make us angry, and what we need to do with that hate and anger. But I’ve also thought a lot about what I love, and what that love compels. I recently started reading Jamie Smith’s latest book, where he (as the title suggests) makes the argument that “you are what you love.” That is, our identity isn’t affixed to what we think, or pray, or believe, but what we love. It’s our loves that drive our thoughts, and, perhaps more importantly, our actions. So this has actually been a time of existential reflection – after Orlando, who am I? Who is the church? Who is America? What do we love, and what does that mean for us now?

And honestly, I’ve come at this from so many different angles – because what happened on Sunday is complicated and nuanced – but in my mind it keeps coming back to guns and rights.

Last night, I tuned into C-Span for probably the first time in my life, and ended up watching for far longer than I intended. It was hard to log off, because over and over, senators from all over the country joined Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy in his filibuster, sharing stories of constituents whose lives have been upended or cut short by gun violence. These stories were punctuated with argument after argument in favor of gun control. This is America, so many of those arguments were centered around rights – within our borders, who has rights? What are those rights? Whose rights are more important than others? What rights are protected (without question) by the Constitution?

I’ve written before about how strange rights-logic is. And I believe that now, more than ever. How is it that in America, in 2016, someone doesn’t have the right to simply say that he’s going to shoot an AR-15 in a crowded theater (or club, or school, or place of worship), but he does have the right to actually purchase that weapon, no questions asked.

The simplest takeaway that I have here is that we, as a society, love our rights more than we love each other. And for some people, that might be okay. But we need to acknowledge that openly. We need to start and finish any conversation about gun control with that. Because that’s what it comes down to.

The rest of this post is directed towards those of us who call ourselves Christians. In the greater political context, it’s fine for people to love their rights more than they love people. That’s their choice and we can’t do anything about that (other than preach the gospel and tell stories of those lost, in the hope that maybe it will help them to redirect their loves). But if you are someone who bears our family name – a baptized member of the church and an active follower of Jesus – then you actually don’t have a choice here. Our scriptures tell us over and over again that in our day to day lives, allegiance to God’s Kingdom takes precedent over whatever other citizenships we may happen to have. For Christian Americans, that means that we can appreciate the Constitution, and even work to uphold it, but we cannot love it more than we love people. Period.

I’ve also been thinking a lot this week about Christian formation and discipleship within the context of a country that has a (thus far) hardly restricted right to bear arms and a culture that has a strange fascination with violence. Because I think sometimes that this clouds our identities and interferes with our loves. When all is said and done, followers of Jesus must center their lives and loves around the empty tomb, the coming Kingdom, and the life of the world to come. We must actively work toward life and shalom, at all times in all places. We don’t get to add qualifiers here as to which people deserve to live, and which places deserve shalom. Other people can do that, but not us. Jesus made that clear on the cross when he begged for forgiveness for his enemies. Grace had no boundaries.

In practice, I know that this can get murky. The deep beauty and great challenge of the gospel is that it calls us beyond ourselves and our desires in every realm of life. But today, I genuinely believe this means that Christians need to metaphorically (and for some of us, maybe literally) drop our weapons and start turning them into tools for growth and peace. For some of us, that might mean changing our minds about the Second Amendment. For others of us, it might mean calling our political leaders and demanding that they work to enact gun control. For all of us, it means valuing other people’s lives over our own, all the time.

Our thoughts need to be centered on the Kingdom. Our prayers must move us to act for peace. And we must love grace above all else.

Photo: the aforementioned memorial, taken by Brian Thomas of Philadelphia Magazine. After writing this, I learned that the memorial was put on display by a group called Heeding God’s Call, which seems exceptionally appropriate.  Continue reading →

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Ordinary

So, Pentecost happened – weird, right?

If you’re unfamiliar with the occasion, here’s what you need to know: there was wind. There was fire. There was spontaneous multilingualism. There may or may not have been day drinking. At the very least, Pentecost was the church’s birthday, when early leaders began publicly preaching the good news of Jesus, baptizing people, and breaking bread in community. It was arguably one of the most climactic moments in the New Testament. Yesterday, churches around the world remembered this bizarre, momentous milestone.  
Continue reading →

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Beyoncé & Great Art

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of watching Lemonade, Beyoncé’s latest visual album. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Since its release on April 23rd, it’s stirred up plenty of gossip, memes, articles, and mild controversy. What fun! I’ll try not to be more of the same here. By the way, if you haven’t already, definitely try to find the time to watch the album and read some of the media’s commentary.

Maybe a few minutes into Lemonade, I got that feeling that you have when you know that you’re about to witness something particularly profound. On one hand, this is an extremely well-executed work: the cinematography, lighting, settings, costumes, hair!, poetry, allusions to myth and folklore, tradition and politics. And of course, Beyoncé’s stellar voice and startling lyrics. It’s all very thoughtful and captivating. Art that entertains us, and that looks nice, and is technically impressive is good. There’s a place for that in our society and our lives. That’s the role that Beyoncé’s previous albums have filled, and that’s totally fine. But Lemonade is great. I suspect that this is a piece that could last, that our grandkids could hear about, see, and be moved by. Continue reading →

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Bathrooms & Baptism

The other day, someone asked me if I’d be uncomfortable sharing a public restroom with a trans person.

This was asked sincerely, by a man, who simply has not had the experience of being a woman, especially a woman in a public and vulnerable space, so they genuinely wanted to know. I gave the simple, off-the-cuff response of, “no, of course not.”

But I spoke too soon, so let me revise:

Would I be uncomfortable sharing a public restroom with a trans person? Maybe a little. Continue reading →

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Forsaken

This morning I woke up to the sound of my neighbor screaming at his son. This happens kind of a lot. Happy Good Friday.

This Lent, my church did a sermon series entitled “What Lies Beneath: Recovering the Lost Language of Sin,” which was really great and which you should all binge-listen-to right now. The idea behind the title was that many of us work really hard to look like we have it all together. When something goes wrong, we ignore it, or write it off, or pass the blame. But beneath our metaphorical floorboards, we are a fallen, broken, frail people.

However, something I’ve learned about living in a dense neighborhood of a big city is that not everyone is as interested in keeping up appearances as suburban transplants like me are. A lot of people just put it all out there for the rest of us to see or overhear. Addiction, poverty, failed relationships, and violence happen everywhere, but I’m constantly surprised  – maybe even impressed – by how many people around here don’t work too hard to hide it. Continue reading →

Lent 2016

Is Trump America’s Lent?

Like many Americans, I’ve reached the point in the election cycle where I’m having to actually consider what a Trump presidency would look like for the country – a notion that most of us laughed off just a few months ago. It’s a disturbing prospect.

Something that I’ve found fascinating in all of this is the general public response to Trump’s candidacy thus far. I try to follow a wide range of news sources and thought leaders – some are pretty liberal, some are pretty conservative, and a few fall in between. In the past week or so, there’s been this funny little trend, where commentators are struggling to determine how Trump’s gotten so far, and why he’s doing so well. It’s funny to me because people from all over the spectrum seem to agree that a Trump presidency would be terrible – it’s almost always treated as some looming potential disaster – and now they’re trying to figure out why this bad thing is happening and how we can stop it. The theories are varied, conflicting, and definitely interesting. But I come away from all of these articles (but especially the ones written by and for conservatives) with the same question: if a Donald Trump presidency is so obviously bad for America, then who on earth is voting for him? Continue reading →

Lent 2016

A Hog & Me Both

Somehow, in a weird way, Lent has become my favorite time of year. It’s the refreshing stability of rules and rituals. It’s the way that winter’s thawing into spring mirrors our hearts as we move toward Easter. It’s the challenge of tangible fasting and existential honesty. There’s a lot at play here – I love it all. And each Lent, I find myself revisiting one of my favorite short stories, Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation.

In this story, we meet Mrs. Turpin, a woman understood to be ugly both inside and out. Brutally bigoted, condescending, and self-righteous, Mrs. Turpin takes cruel joy in the belief that she is fundamentally better than the people surrounding her. We meet her before and during a life-changing encounter that shakes her to her wicked core, leaving her rethinking everything she thinks she knows about herself. After a stranger sees her for who she really is and calls her to “go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” Mrs. Turpin finds herself questioning God:

“What do you send me a message like that for?” she said in a low fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force of a shout in its concentrated fury. “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?”

Head to my church’s website to read the rest, or, download their Lent Prayerbook.

Lent 2016

Returning

You know that feeling of returning to a place that you’ve been away from for a while? Much about it is familiar – even nostalgic – the way it looks, smells, and feels. And this initial familiarity is comforting, until you take it all in and realize that something is different.

A friend of mine has a farm in Tennessee, which has become one of those places for me. I’ve been there a handful of times over the course of several years, and each trip has been spaced apart enough that major life stuff has happened in between. Since I’ve known it, very little about the farm has changed. The house, the lay of the land, even some of the rituals we’ve developed in going there are all intimately familiar. I can pinpoint spots that remind me of specific people or jokes or meals – things I haven’t otherwise thought of in years. And despite all of this, each time I go there, it feels a bit different, not because the farm has changed, but because I have. Who I am and the things I carry affect how I perceive the world, even the places I know best. Continue reading →

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This Is (Epiphany)

It’s January, and in case you hadn’t heard, it recently snowed a lot in the American northeast, where I live. By this point the snow has lost its charm and is becoming an ugly inconvenience. That’s often how January goes around here: it’s cold, dark, gross, and boring. It’s also Epiphany, a tricky little season that’s sandwiched between and probably often overshadowed by Christmas and Lent. But that name – Epiphany – is dazzling. In our common vernacular, epiphany means a realization. It’s ideas, thoughts, and observations coming together in a meaningful way. It’s a sigh of relief as something is resolved. It’s a convergence. Continue reading →

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This City & My Soul

About three years ago, I set out to research and write my undergraduate thesis, a lengthy piece that I called, “The City and the Soul: American Architecture and the Good Life.” In it, I wanted to discern how good architecture and urban planning make us better people. It was cute, what I was trying to do, in the way that a college student talking about the very real world is always a little adorable. That’s not to suggest that I find this prior writing misguided – actually, I continue to stand behind much of what I said back then. But I had no idea what I was talking about. Or, maybe that’s all I had – ideas – and a decent set of books and theories to back them. Continue reading →