We don’t pledge allegiance to a religion, but to a Savior.

Do we ever think about what it means to “pledge allegiance” to something?

I admit that when I say the Pledge of Allegiance at certain events, I don’t really think too much about the words I’m saying. I just go through the motions.

If we can step back and not take it too seriously for a moment, let’s examine the first phrase — “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States.” I know there’s more to it than that, and I don’t want you to take this as me being unpatriotic. 

Why are we pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth? Doesn’t that seem a bit silly? You don’t see me pledging allegiance to the towel that dries me off after a shower, or to the pants that cover my legs when I go to work.

I know the rest of the pledge says the allegiance is to the “Republic for which (the flag) stands,” so it’s not really that silly. It’s a representation of the nation and the group of people, and when we pledge allegiance to the flag, we’re really pledging allegiance to America. Fun fact: we didn’t have an official pledge of allegiance until 1942, so we spent 166 years as a nation without an official pledge. I kinda like that idea.

Did you know there’s also a pledge of allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Bible?

My point is not to write a treatise on whether or not we should even have those — I could get on a bad rabbit trail there — but to examine the very idea of allegiance. Did you know that there’s not an official Pledge of Allegiance to Jesus?

If we have a pledge of allegiance to our country, our faith and our book, why shouldn’t we promise fealty to our Savior?

Apollos, Paul or Peter? 

The idea of “allegiance,” to my knowledge, isn’t discussed much in the Bible. After all, the New Testament followers of Jesus were under the rule of the Roman Empire and didn’t have much choice in the matter. 

But we do see 1 Corinthians 1, where Paul discusses divisions in the church at Corinth. Now, this is a church where there’s TONS of divisions and difficulties and problems, but the first one he chooses to address is who people pledge their allegiance to. Verses 10-12 say:

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’”

Reportedly, the people in Corinth were associating themselves by what teacher or important leader they aligned themselves with. Paul, of course, was the writer of a ton of important letters. Apollos was a powerful preacher. Cephas/Peter was a disciple of Jesus. Christ was, well, Christ. Each had some claim to allegiance or listeners. But as Paul emphasizes in v. 13, only one is worth following: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” 

Paul wasn’t the one who died on the cross. Paul wasn’t the Son of God. He was simply, as he states in v. 17, sent “to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” 

Jesus was the One. He was the One they were to pledge allegiance to. The Greek of v. 12 literally says that they were saying they were “of Paul” and “of Apollos” and so on. Just like Paul being a man “of Tarsus.” It’s who you’re associated, who you belong to.

No, Paul says. We don’t belong to a man. We belong to Jesus.

Where Do You Go to Church?

I’ve heard in a couple Christian comedy routines or other places that, in the south, after someone asks you their name, they ask you where you go to church. While I must say I’ve never had that exact conversation, it seems to be possible.

We often take great pride in where we go to church. As a journalist that covers small-town politics and government in North Carolina, I will often hear or read elected officials proclaiming that they’ve been a member of such-and-such church for this many years. The same information shows up in obituaries and bios of speakers at big events.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Churches can be amazing things that point people to Jesus.

We can often be loud in proclaiming that we are a Christian. Politicians do it all the stinkin’ time, saying that they’re a “Christian first, conservative second and Republican third.” There’s even some Democrats running for the 2020 presidential nomination that have begun to spoke about their faith. I remember having some conversations in high school and college where I would say, with some internal pride, that I was a Christian.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing. We should not be ashamed of being saved by the Savior.

We’ll often list the preachers we listen to and the authors that we read. We have our favorite authors and favorite musicians, and whenever they release a new project, we’re buying it as soon as possible. 

And that is not necessarily a bad thing. We have learned from those men and women and can point others to them for learning, encouragement and help in growth.

Pride in our church or religion or favorite pastors and authors becomes a bad thing when that’s how we primarily identify ourselves. It becomes a bad thing when we’re not willing to admit or see flaws in those things. It becomes a bad thing when those things take precedent over our true allegiance: Jesus.

Defending the Hope

Apologetics and I have had an interesting relationship. I feel that I’m an intellectual guy, but far too often, apologetics can be an aggressive and hostile approach. 

I know plenty of people that enjoy apologetics and do it well and aren’t aggressive and hostile. They’re people that have a passion for Jesus and want others to know Him, and they’re awesome. We need more of them.

One of the primary base verses for apologetics comes in 1 Peter 3. Peter is writing about those who would think ill of Christians, who might even want to harm them. He writes, in verses 14-15:

“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

The Greek for “make a defense” is “apologian,” the root of which is “apologia.” The literal translation is “from intelligent reasoning” (“apó” + “lógos) (https://biblehub.com/greek/627.htm). Peter instructs his readers to use intelligent reasoning for the purpose of something. But what is that?

A reason for the hope in them. They were not called to defend their faith as an institution. They were not called to defend their particular church. They were not called to defend their favorite pastor. 

I think the same principle, the same wisdom, the same logic, applies to us.

If our institution, church or pastor are being misunderstood, then sure, we can and probably should defend them. But the outworking of this is that we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that those things — Christianity as a social institution, our church, our pastor — have been, are and will be wrong at times. Why? We’re not ultimately aligned with them. We’re ultimately aligned with Jesus. He is the reason we have hope, not our faith as a societal construct, our church or our pastor.

Jesus deserves our allegiance, more than our country, our pastor, our books, our church, our institutions, etc. Committing to those other things is not inherently bad, and those things can be and have been incredibly helpful in helping us see Jesus.

But if they takes precedence over our allegiance to Jesus, it becomes bad. Jesus is worthy of our allegiance. After all, He’s our Savior. What other reason do you need?

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We Need to Rethink How We Talk about LGBTQ

We journalists like studies. They help us put stories and topics in context.

So a study released in 2018 exploring the association between importance of religion and suicide ideation is obviously going to interest me.

If you’ve followed my writing for any length of time, or you’re a friend of mine, you know that religion and mental health are two of my favorite topics. So of course, I wanted to learn about this study. Unfortunately, it’s $4 to access, but thankfully there was a news article about it from Reuters titled “Religious faith linked to suicidal behavior in LGBQ adults.”

If you’ve followed news somewhat closely, you’ve got to be aware of the stories of LGBTQ individuals, teens in particular, that take their own lives with motivations strongly related to their sexuality. According to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides mental health support to LGBTQ youth, gay/lesbian teens “seriously contemplate suicide” nearly three times more than straight youth and are five times as likely to attempt suicide.

So this study, reported in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, can’t be that surprising. Analyzing data from the multiple surveys on mental health of college students, the numbers were startling. While 3.7 percent of heterosexual young adults reported recent thoughts of suicide, the numbers increased for those questioning their sexuality (16.4 percent), living bisexual (11.4 percent) or identifying as gay or lesbian (6.5 percent). 

The numbers jump when it comes to attempting suicide: 5 percent for heterosexual youth, 20 percent for bisexual, 17 percent for questioning and 14 percent for gay or lesbian. 

The heartbreaking statistic came here:

“For bisexual youth, the importance of religion was not associated with suicidal behavior, while religiosity was protective against thoughts of suicide and suicidal attempts in the heterosexual youth. But lesbians and gays who reported that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts. For lesbians only, religion was associated with a 52 percent increased likelihood of suicidal thinking.

Questioning individuals were almost three times as likely to have attempted suicide recently if they reported that religion was very important to them.”

One of the study’s authors, John R. Blosnich of West Virginia’s Injury Control Research Center, told the Huffington Post that studies for years have said considering religion important has limited the number of people considering suicide. But this study, as well as other surveys and data, indicates that things are different when it comes to sexual minorities.

So what do we do?

What Role Did the Church Play?

Before we get going: this is not an evaluation of whether or not homosexuality is a sin. That’s not the point of this piece. 

Anyway, most scientists of any stripe — social, physical, organic, chemistry, etc. — will tell you that correlation does not equal causation, and I agree. But this study begs a question:

Has the Christian church played a role in this?

The HuffPo article says, accurately, that “some of America’s largest religious denominations still hold non-affirming views of queer sexuality,” including the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church *(see note at the bottom of this article)*. HuffPo quotes Amelia Markham, described as a “queer Christian activist” with The Reformation Project, an LBTQ-affirming Christian group, saying more needs to be done in helping Christians have “a more nuanced view of queer sexuality.”

“There are some serious questions we have to begin asking ourselves if maintaining one interpretation of our sacred text is demonstrably linked to bodily harm and spiritual devastation for an entire group of people,” Markham said. “That is something I hope religious folks across the board would begin to think and pray more critically through.”

Markham’s call is serious, and based on the numbers, I think it would be dishonest if the Christian church, particularly the evangelical wing, didn’t ask itself if it played a role in these numbers, these realities. 

Again, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did in this case. I’ve lived my whole life in a church culture that severely stigmatizes LGBTQ people, intentionally or not. The Christian evangelical community for many years has said flat-out that homosexuality is a sin, with some churches creating little to no space for LGBTQ people in churches, sometimes to negative consequences.

Countless stories have been told of teens or youth that have come out to their families and been rejected, sometimes kicked out. I listened to a podcast recently featuring Trey Pearson, former lead singer of the Christian band Everyday Sunday, who said he experienced severe trauma and pain due to fighting his sexual feelings for years because of his church upbringing. Countless Christian authors and speakers, including Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker, were more or less banished from evangelical circles due to their belief that homosexuality is not a sin.

Very often, evangelical Christians defend their actions and beliefs with the statement that they’re just sticking to the Bible, defending God’s Word and loving people to tell them they’re sinners. “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” they say. And while I’m sure there are many that are properly loving their LGBTQ family and friends and reflecting Christ in doing it, there are many LGBTQ people who have left the church and left God at least in part due to how they were treated by so-called Christians.

What Did Jesus Do?

Again, this is not a conversation about the sinfulness or non-sinfulness of homosexuality. This is a conversation about the effect the church’s position and attitude and approach to same-sex attraction and homosexuality has had on real people and real lives.

The culture hasn’t always done well with it, first of all. In 1998, gay college student Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming, an event that became a lynchpin for hate crimes due to looming suspicion the attack was motivated by Shepard’s sexuality. In 2010, 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate recorded Clementi’s intimate encounter with another male. 

These events have caused a societal push for LGBTQ acceptance and understanding and further discussion about mental health and suicide. That’s all awesome, in my opinion. And while some Christian congregations are actively addressing these issues in the right way, it’s my opinion that the church at large is falling behind on both counts.

How often are Christian blog posts written about helping people that identify as LGBTQ that doesn’t involve telling them they’re sinful? How often are sermons given where we’re encouraged to learn from and understand our gay and lesbian neighbors, friends and family members? I’m sure those things happen, but not enough. We’re often more concerned with being “right” than being “a good neighbor.”

What did Paul do, and what did Jesus do, more importantly? The people that were considered outside the “religious crowd,” how did he handle them?

He loved them. And no, I’m not talking about loving people by “telling them the truth.” Yes, that is a form of love, but anything LGBTQ person that’s been around an evangelical Christian has more likely than not already received that kind of love. 

What Jesus did is eat. Matthew 9:10-13 —

“And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

Eating was a very intimate thing to do in those times. You’d sit at a table and take your shoes off, recline and spend time. There were no cell phones, no menus, no TVs nearby. Just the food and the people. 

Jesus ate with people labeled “sinners,” both in this passage and other times. In this particular passage, both Matthew and the Pharisees refer to Jesus’ dinner guests as “sinners.” Everyone at the time sinned, so the distinction made here is about identity. These people were identified by their sin — not their profession, not their father or family, but their sin. They were outcasts, pariahs, weirdos. But Jesus loved them the same.

In the current evangelical Christian culture, members of the LGBTQ community are among today’s “sinners.” They’re outcasts, pariahs, weirdos, different. Far too often, the church today is known for shunning those “sinners” instead of eating with them, loving them, appreciating them as people created in the image of God.

The Concept Falls Short

This is where “hate the sin, love the sinner” falls short on so many levels. I get the concept: love the people, hate what they do. But in practice, it fails far too often.

What happens when someone drinks too much alcohol? We may say, “Hey, he/she is drunk.” That person becomes defined by their actions. We do it with so many things: profession, interests, religion, etc. 

Members of the LGBTQ community often take pride in their sexuality and make that a primary identifier, something the evangelical church picks up on. Because the “sin” begins to identify the “sinner” in our minds, they become interchangeable, and we begin to hate the sinner. 

Most of this happens subconsciously and unintentionally, I believe, but we begin to treat people the way the biblical culture treated “sinners,” making them outsiders and pariahs. We spend more time trying to change them than love them. 

And then we go in on how bad the LGBTQ culture is. It’s all about how they need to change and how the “militant gay agenda” is ruining America and allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with is dangerous for our children. Again, not everyone is like that, but it’s said way too often.

First of all, imagine if Christians had been treated like members of the LGBTQ community have been treated over most of the last 40-50 years. Wouldn’t we be frustrated with the persecution? For a long time, sexual orientation and gender identity weren’t protected classes in discrimination laws. Imagine if religion was in the same place.

Second, to group the entire LGBTQ community, as some do, with the “militant gay agenda” is dishonest. Most, I believe, just want to live their lives and be treated fairly. To see extremists who call themselves “born again” compare LGBTQ people to the Ku Klux Klan would make anybody mad.

It’s insulting. It’s humiliating. It’s discriminatory. No wonder they don’t like us.

But some of them like Jesus. I wonder why. 

Maybe it was because He never spoke about the “militant pantheistic agenda” of the Roman Empire. Maybe it was because He hung out with the pariahs. He listened, loved and taught. He was condemning of the religious people, those who were gleeful in telling people why they were wrong. He encouraged all to repent while turning water to wine and five loaves and two fish into an overwhelming feast.

As Jesus said in Matthew 9, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” His ultimate desire was for people to love one another. Yes, His message was one of repentance and of turning from sin, but how did He go about His ministry? Where do we see His efforts? In the good news of salvation, in the dying on the cross for our sins to be forgiven. “Follow me,” he told the disciples, “and I will make you fishers of men.” He says to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” He started with mercy and love and following Him. 

Maybe we should try to look more like him. Be listeners. Ask questions. Learn. Sympathize. Be compassionate. Treat people the way you would wish to be treated. 

That’s the Golden Rule, right?

I’ll end with a quote from a guy named Jeff Johnston with Focus on the Family. He wrote an incredibly powerful and helpful piece on “9 Ways to Reach Out to a Gay-Identified Friend,” which you should really check out. Here’s a bit:

“Imagine attending a gay pride parade and hearing insults shouted by church people standing on the sidelines. Would you want to follow a God like the one they’re displaying? Or imagine attending church and hearing derogatory language from the pulpit. Would you want to develop relationships with those people?”

– – – – – – – – – 

*Side note: the UMC’s official Book of Doctrine states that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” but most, American Methodists affirm LGBTQ individuals in their theology. (https://www.prri.org/spotlight/slim-majority-of-methodists-support-same-sex-marriage/)

Social Media Drives Me Bonkers. But I’m Sticking with It. And I Think You Should Too.

As I perused Facebook and Twitter today, I got sick. I think I ate too much beef.

My feeds today were filled with all sorts of arguments, squabbles, disagreements, outrage and, as the kids say these days, “beef.”

Franklin Graham and Lady Gaga. Cardi B — I’m still not entirely sure who that is — and people who say her latest music video undermines the #MeToo movement. No female directors getting Oscar nominations. Taraji P. Henson making some comparison that got people all upset. 

There’s so much bad blood and people disagreeing over things and people mad at each other, politicians, musicians, actors, athletes. You name it, somebody’s mad at it. And all that madness and dispute and hatred festers on social media. 

I think it does that for a few reasons. There are millions of people on social media, so it’s where the world interacts with one another. Social media allows people to voice their opinions, however well thought out or flawed. There’s also little oversight or moderation, so we often get to see the worst in others. 

Today, I seriously considered quitting Facebook and Twitter. Honestly. I’ve thought about it hundreds of times, but it was fleeting thoughts. 

I don’t think I’m addicted to the outrage. I hope I’m not, at least. 

But I didn’t quit. For practical reasons, I have to use Facebook and Twitter for my employment as a reporter, but there’s one other major reason, and it goes back to why I got Facebook in the first place.

Becoming an Adult on Social

I almost completely missed MySpace — I had a page for about 90 days, then my parents made me delete it. I did get it kind of secretly, so maybe I deserved it.

I got on Facebook and Twitter during my freshman year of high school, 2007. So I spent the entirety of my high school and college years, save a few months, hooked into the machine. 

I used Facebook first. It became the platform for my day-to-day activities, random comments on Carolina Hurricanes games and eventually the venue for me to post links to my fledgling blog, which mostly featured movie reviews. I analyzed my classmates’ comments on what was obviously their romantic relationships and misjudged people’s statements to me. It was the Internet, after all. It’s the haven for misunderstandings.

Twitter became the place to follow bands and athletes to see what they were up to, to keep up with sports news and highlights and find out when the latest track was coming out. As I got further and further into my studies of journalism, I learned that Twitter was a tool for sharing news in real-time and live-tweeting from sports games, much to the annoyance of at least one college friend.

I graduated from college and, a couple years later, found myself utilizing social media in my most recent job, as a newspaper reporter in my hometown. On my professional account, I would tweet often the latest news and highlights from local government meetings while keeping up with the news of the day, local, state and national. On my personal account, I would keep up with my favorite sports teams, authors and musicians, just like before. I’d occasionally post comments about Arsenal Football Club, hoping against hope that one of them would go viral amongst the Gunners’ rabid social media-crazed fan base. None of them ever have, by the way.

I knew those crazies existed beyond Arsenal supporters. I’d see it in response to the latest political development or social event that captured eyes and ears. 

But over the last few months in particular — more or less revolving around the government shutdown, funny enough — I’ve gotten sick of it. It’s obnoxious. It’s hashtags and disses, beefs and slams. It’s trying to be first and trying to be funniest. In a lot of ways, social media shows the worst of us. We often take our gut reaction and make it public in the most public way: putting it on the Internet, unfiltered for all to see. 

I’m just as guilty, although it’s usually about something as petty as a professional sports team. And most of the time I feel like I display enough patience. (Judge for yourself: I’m at @zacharyhorner21.) I feel like I carry that to Facebook as well.

So while I know I’ve made good use of these platforms in the last 12 years, both personally and professionally, it’s so tempting to leave it all behind, to let the beefs be on buns only and not on my phone screen.

But, as stated previously, I can’t for practical reasons. But because it gives me a window into the world, I need it.

In It, Not of It, As It Were

One of the more popular phrases in Christendom is that we’re called to be “in the world, not of it.” I think it’s been over-used and misunderstood, personally, and we get to see what it really means by looking at Paul.

Paul’s ministry, as outlined in the book of Acts, is one of living, eating and speaking among the people, wherever they were. He went to the synagogues, to the temples and to the places where the intellectuals spent their time. It’s that latter one that’s my favorite.

In Acts 17, Paul is hanging out in Athens and while there, “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (v. 16). So he begins talking to people in the synagogue and the marketplace. Verses 17-18 record that he spoke with Jews, “devout persons,” everyday people in the marketplace and Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. It’s the stark difference of his philosophy and religion that catches the eye of the intellectuals of the city, and they take him to the Areopagus, where “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (v. 21). 

What Paul says at the Areopagus is worthy of reading itself. He speaks about Jesus, relating Him to the Athenians’ daily existence and their philosophy. 

But I want to key in on why Paul was there in the first place. He was out and about, listening to people, seeing people, learning from others about their lives and their existence. It’s because of that experience that he’s able to relate to those who spent their time at the Areopagus. 

In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, we get to see his philosophy and thinking behind his method:

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not myself being under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

I love this so much because Paul tells us the key to his evangelism, and thus gives us an important piece of advice at winning the world to Christ. And for me, a reason to stay on social media.

A Snapshot of Reality

“Fake news” is everywhere. It’s in the media, it’s in the halls of politics, it’s in the corporate board rooms, the church sanctuaries. Yes, the church sanctuaries.

I’ve spent years in church, and one thing I’ve noted is that we seem to struggle at understanding why non-Christians do what they do. We care about them and we want to see them changed and following Jesus. And that’s amazing! That’s exactly what we should want. But far too often, we stop there without trying to understand their realities. 

When we see someone who identifies as LGBTQ, we want them to be straight without trying to learn why they became LGBTQ in the first place. When we see someone who’s left their spouse, we want them to reunite without figuring out what caused them to leave. When we see a skeptic, we want them to believe without attempting to understand their rationale for not believing. 

I’m not saying this is a universal thing, that all Christians and all churches are like this, but I believe that if we as the body of Christ adopted this method, we’d be able to shed the “fake news” we assume about the world and try to understand where people are really coming from. 

We assume people LGBTQ rights because they don’t believe in Jesus. We assume people leave their spouse because they’re sinful and lazy. We assume people are skeptical because they hate Jesus and God. While there might be some truths in there, it’s often more complicated than that. The LGBTQ people I’ve known have given differing reasons for their lifestyle choice, and it’s often not simple. 

I think of the recent controversy over the kids from the Catholic school and the protestors at the recent March for Life. I’m not going to weigh in on that controversy here, but in that scenario, we learned that it’s much better to wait, to understand what actually happened, where people were actually coming from, before assessing the situation and rendering a judgment. So many people, myself included, grew judgmental and critical of those in the situation before hearing the full story.

In the same way, we need to listen to others and understand their lives, their realities before creating one for them and approaching them based on what we’ve imposed on them ourselves. That’s what Paul did. He spent time in Athens, talked to people and then rendered his perspective and brought it back to the Gospel. 

A word about “echo chambers”: Paul didn’t live in one. He spent a lot of time with Christians, yes, but he clearly took the time to understand viewpoints he didn’t share. We should, ideally, do the same.

Dipping the Toes in to Get Wet

In the same way, we should stay on our social media platforms and exist on them each day long enough just to get a snapshot of reality, to see what the culture is like, what it’s doing and what it cares about.

Of course, some of us should set boundaries about how long we spend, what we do on that social media, etc. That’s not what this post is about, but I wanted to re-affirm good boundaries and limits because social media, like most things, can become addicting. 

Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. Odds are, you found this because I posted a link to it on social media.

Social media can serve a great purpose. We can use it to share about what God is doing in our lives, interact with fans of our favorite sports teams for fun conversations, showcase photos of our meals and new pets and, in some cases, express our opinion on a difficult or controversial topic. 

It’s up to you, of course, how much you share. But if you’re on social media now, I encourage you to stick with it. You never know what you’ll learn, and you’ll never know what you learn will mean down the road.

The World Is Crying Out for Authenticity. Let’s Give It to Them.

I watched the first 40 minutes or so of the GOP debate last night and wasn’t surprised by anything. By the time you get to the fifth of these things, there’s not much new to be had.

But as I pondered the debate this morning, I was struck by the fact that I wasn’t surprised. Candidates took shots at each other, at Barack and Hillary, at ISIS, just about everything imaginable. It was like they were reading from a script every time they talked.

I understand that’s kind of what you want in a debate. You prep for weeks before, getting your answers straight and formulated so you don’t embarrass yourself on national television. I totally get it.

But what you’re left wondering with all those scripted answers is this: “What do they really think? Who are they really? What will they really do when they get in office?”

We perceive that they’re missing a certain amount of authenticity. We’re afraid we’re not seeing who they really are. That’s why Donald Trump is doing so well – he’s being himself, saying what he really thinks, not crafting an answer to fit some party line or politically-correct stance. As crazy as some of his thoughts may be, he’s the real deal.

And that authenticity – as his poll numbers show – is what people crave.

Let’s look at two of the most popular musicians of this era – Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber – as examples.

Swift is known for her very personal songwriting, with tracks that seem to match up perfectly with her many public relationships. These tracks hit people hard because they can relate. It’s not a stale retread of the typical break-up song. It’s a fresh perspective, and she never seems to fail. That’s why she has over 67.6 million Twitter followers and each of her five studio albums have sold at least four million copies in the United States. Many musicians have taken to that style of being personal and vulnerable on their records.

If you know me, you know I’m a huge Bieber fan. That fandom took a boost with the release of his most recent album, Purpose. His first few releases were typical, cheesy, stereotypical pop music standards. But with Purpose, he turned a corner, quickly striking platinum with first-week sales of 649,000. And it’s not shocking. Yes, the production is vastly improved, constantly playing on the EDM movement of the current music scene. But his lyricism has grown significantly. He comes across as the real thing instead of some pop puppet with a pretty face. He’s credited as a writer on each of the tracks, and songs like “Purpose” and “Life Is Worth Living” get down deep and dirty into life.

People in my generation especially are tired of the phonies and the fakes and the liars. We’re tired of people who don’t tell the whole truth, who just stick to the status quo, who don’t take any risks. That’s why we love musicians like Swift and Bieber, politicians like Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Authenticity is the character trait that my generation respects and values the most. It says that you’re OK with people knowing who you are, you’re OK with sharing yourself, the real you, with the world.

Oh Christians, we have an amazing opportunity.

We have an amazing opportunity to be ourselves and win hearts for the Gospel. Jesus was Himself. God was Himself. Paul was himself.

Paul is my favorite example. Romans 7:15-19.

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.

Paul shows us exactly how we pursue displaying authenticity. He doesn’t necessarily have to give specifics of everything he does, but he’s honest about the fact that he’s fallen short and does things he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t do things he wants to do.

This has always made Paul the most relatable of all the biblical figures to me. He doesn’t hide the fact that, well, he sucks at following God. “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh,” he says. Not only is that theologically-correct, it also takes a serious amount of authenticity to just be straightforward with it.

The ability to be authentic with God is something that attracts me to following Christ. Paul could write and say things like that and knew that it wouldn’t shut him out of being loved and used by God. The grace of God opens us up to be truly authentic with Him, with ourselves and with each other. If the worst response to our authenticity is people not liking us, we’ve still got the love of God.

So Christians, let’s be authentic. Let’s be ourselves. Let’s be honest. Let’s not hide things that don’t need hiding. What you share is up to you, but let’s think about how we can be more authentic and more honest with people.

Who knows how much further the Gospel can go when we’re honest about how much we need it, how much we are lost without it?

Sometimes I Feel Like I’m Not Doing Enough for God. Good Thing I Don’t Ever Have To.

In high school, I made a few short films. I got on a filmmaking kick after working on a few projects for my freshman year English class, and it carried on until even after I graduated from high school. My longest film, called Ransom My Soul, was completed during the summer before I went to college.

However, my favorite film I ever did was called Breaking Winter. Here it is:

It’s about 10 minutes of the most depressing yet joyful high school romance I could possibly muster on a script and on a screen. Every time I watch it, I get a little reminiscent of what all went into making the film. The conversations with my friends to be involved in it. The rewrites of the script. The long editing process. I actually made the entire movie in an 18-minute version and then, on suggestion of my film teacher, reworked the structure of the whole thing and cut it down.

But I also notice all the things I would change if I did it with what I know now. I would have asked the guy with the long hair to be more joyful in the video game scene. I would have done a couple different camera angles. Get the audio quality to be much better.

I think it’s part of my personality. I obsess over the little things. I want to get everything right all the time. And if there’s something I might feel could be wrong, I want to fix it right away, even if it’s not actually wrong; just feeling wrong can be a sign for me.

And this is something I think that’s a flaw. I don’t trust myself fully and, even worse, I don’t trust God fully. I anxiously overthink many things in my life. Most notably, my relationship with God. There have been moments when I doubt if I’m saved. There have been moments when my anxiety just overwhelms me.

One particular area of my life that this strikes is my concern that I’m not doing enough for God. Last night as I was going to bed, I felt like I didn’t get my “Bible fill” for the day. But looking back at the day, I read Scripture, I thought about it, prayed after it. So I was being faithful, but I felt like I didn’t do enough.

I may be the only person who feels this way often. And I think there’s some legitimacy to this feeling. We want to be giving God our best, doing the right things, being obedient. But there’s a sense where thinking we haven’t done enough can often be a self-condemning thought that actually denies the power of grace and the limitations of man.

We will never do “enough” for God, and thankfully we don’t have to do “enough” for God. I think of Philippians 3, one of my favorite chapters in Scripture, where Paul says that he counted doing all the “right things” as loss for the sake of knowing Christ. Simply knowing Christ was enough for his righteousness.

One thing I’ve heard recently was put forth by the guys of the Bad Christian Podcast: Is sin really as big a deal as we make it out to be? Joey Svendsen, one of the guys on the podcast, wrote a blog post about the topic and said this:

I see God concerned about Christians’ sin, but not how you would probably expect.  I don’t see Him pissed about our sin.  I see Him as one that hates our sin because it infringes on the relationship that He wants to have with us.  A Christian that gets tangled up in a continual sin-filled lifestyle can’t (in my opinion) relate and interact with God in the same manner as one that is constantly letting God help with our sin.

From experience, the remedy for living a sinful lifestyle has never been focusing on the do’s and don’ts.  This always led me to more sin.  The more I focus on God’s love and grace, the more I’m enabled to live according to His loving will.

I love this idea because it releases us from the pharisaical legalism that often threads itself throughout modern Christianity and helps us to really love God, not obsess over the little things we might think we need to do to be a Christian. Because here’s the truth: if I don’t read my Bible for a day, I’m still a Christian. If I don’t pray for more than five minutes in one day, I’m still a Christian.

Now, is there a point where we’re not doing things that are essential to growing in Christ that’s not good? Yes. I should seek to grow in the spiritual disciplines in order to grow as believers.

But as Svendsen writes, the more I focus on God’s love and grace, the more I grow to live for Jesus. When I focus on ways I’m falling short, I just get more discouraged.

The Christian life is all about making constant course corrections, little alterations here and there in order to drive straight. But don’t let the fact that you have to make those course corrections define you or discourage you.

Our Weaknesses Are Beautiful Road Signs

Sometimes my weaknesses make me question the goodness of God.

“Why would God let me sin? Why can I sin? Why do I even have the ability to sin? Why can’t I just be perfect? Why do I struggle with x, y and z?”

These are questions that, honestly, run through my head sometimes and make me question the goodness of God. But there are answers running throughout the pages of Scripture, and by God’s grace He reminded me of them this morning.

interview-weaknessIn 2 Corinthians 12, Paul is writing about his struggle with conceit, with pride that he has received revelation from God. Verses 7-10 read thus:

“So to keep me from being conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Paul is “content with weaknesses.” I admit that I am far from content with my weaknesses, and I think sometimes in the church we look upon our weaknesses as a terrible, troubled thing that have no benefit and forget the great lesson Paul’s trying to teach here.

We don’t know for sure what his thorn was, what made Paul weak. There are many guesses that have been made, but it brought to me a point that I think he’s trying to make here: whatever weakness we possess, it’s to make God look more glorious. As God tells Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Now, let me be clear here: I don’t want to say we should be content with our sinfulness. We should never be. But there are three ways that come to mind for me in which our weaknesses (sins, bad habits, flaws, etc.) make God look pretty awesome.

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1. God’s character is perfect, ours is not.

I’ve always wanted to be perfect. I’ve always wanted to not sin. I’ve always wanted to be without fault. I’ve always wanted to kill all the sin in my life. Maybe not for the right reasons all the time, but it’s what I’ve desired.

But I’ve had to learn to live with the truth that I am not and will never be perfect, but God is. That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. Because of the sinful flesh that still is a part of me because of the fall, I will sin. I will sin the rest of my life. I hope and I should pray more that I sin less and less as I grow in faith and understanding of God’s Word. But I need to accept that I will never be perfect.

And in light of that, God looks all the more glorious and is worthy of more and more praise because He was, is and will always be the picture of perfection. He will never ever sin. The angels around the throne in heaven sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). It’s a song that caused Isaiah to confess his sinfulness and his imperfections.

When we see the perfection of God in light of our weaknesses, our pride should take a serious blow and we should turn to praise the glorious God in heaven who is perfect in every possible way.

2. God’s plan is perfect, ours is not.

If I had my way, I’d set up everything like this: get married pretty soon, start the job of my dreams in a couple years, have a couple kids, live in a nice house, the whole American dream thing. God doesn’t work that way all the time. Some of us experience everything the way we want to, some of us don’t.

I’d actually be willing to bet that all of us don’t experience every single thing the way we want. I can point to a couple places in my life where things didn’t go my way in a big way and it was frustrating and disappointing. I can also think of times where things went my way and they turned out terribly because I rejected the good purposes of God and the truths in Scripture that He graciously gives all of us.

But God has worked great things of beauty in my life out of those situations. It wasn’t easy to see at the time, but in that 20/20 hindsight, it’s truly beautiful.

It reminds me of the great promise of Romans 8:28 – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” It’s for good. All of it, everything. Even our sins and our weaknesses and our imperfections. All of it works together for our good. And it’s not our plan, it’s God’s.

When we see the perfection of God’s plan in light of our idea of what’s “best for me,” our pride should take a serious blow and we should turn to praise the glorious God in heaven who has our true best in mind.

3. God’s love is perfect, ours is not.

We have a terrible time attempting to love others in their weakness. Usually, when we see a flaw in someone, we tend to love them less. I am among that group. I’ll notice something in someone I’m around that just frustrates me and I love that person less or not at all.

God doesn’t have to do that with me. He sees all the sin in my heart, in my mind and in my actions and He loves me anyway. He loves wholly, perfectly, unconditionally.

I’m reminded of the Sidewalk Prophets song “You Love Me Anyway.” At one part, the singer expresses this powerful truth:

“I am a thorn in Your crown, But You love me anyway/I am the sweat from Your brow, But You love me anyway/I am the nail in Your wrist, But You love me anyway/I am Judas’ kiss, But You love me anyway/See now, I am the man who yelled out from the crowd/For Your blood to be spilled on this earth shaking ground/Yes then I turned away with the smile on my face/With this sin in my heart tried to bury Your grace/And then alone in the night I still called out for You/So ashamed of my life, my life, my life.”

1 John 3:16 says that we know love by the fact that Christ “laid down his life for us.” That is the great example of love, and it’s the love that God shows to us even in the midst of our great weakness. Even in the midst of our great sin. Even in the midst of our failures and our rejection of God at times. If you’re truly in Christ, God loves you perfectly.

When we see the perfection of God’s love in light of our oftentimes pitiful love for Him and for others, our pride should take a serious blow and we should turn to praise the glorious God in heaven who loves us perfectly.

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There’s more than three ways, but this is just a brief look.

Don’t get discouraged in your weaknesses. Instead, use them as a reminder of how glorious God is in light of your imperfections. And then remind yourself of that third point.

It’s so easy for me sometimes to see my weaknesses and just get discouraged. That’s where God’s perfect love comes into play. If you’re a believer, God’s mercy to you is paramount. That’s where the Lord’s word to Paul is so crucial: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

In our weakness, God’s grace is sufficient for everything, most importantly our salvation. Praise Him for it. But He also gives us grace so that we can grow and get better. If we were constantly trying to do the right thing, we would have no room to grow and get better, we’d be too busy trying to atone for doing the wrong thing in the first place. It’s grace that we see our weaknesses.

Our weaknesses are simply the signs on the highway showing us the way to go: towards a loving, merciful, just and gracious God who is perfect in every way, has our best in mind and loves us unconditionally.

The One Time Trying Something Different Is a Horrible Idea

I’m a real stickler for not trying something new. I know that’s not always a good thing. I had a conversation with a friend the other night and I was explaining it to her this way: if something works the way I’ve always known it, then why try something new when that could go wrong? For instance, if I always love the Reese’s Cup milkshake at Cook Out, then why try something else? Something else might be good, but it might not be.

That basically boils down to the fact that I sometimes really hate taking risks. I like comfort way too much.

somethingnew1But there are some things where we need to stick to what we know is true and not try something new. So often in college I’ve seen people reject the way they lived at home and take on a whole new way of life. People who had some semblance of faith coming into college lose it by trying something new, like the party scene or investing themselves in something else.

Paul would have something to say about this. Check out Galatians 1:6-7 —

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are returning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.

For Starters

One of the main themes of Galatians is justification by faith alone and not by works. This is the central message of the Christian gospel, and that’s why it’s striking Paul so greatly that his audience is abandoning it, wanting to add works to that justification. But, as v. 6 says, they are “quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ,” God. Any abandonment of the gospel of God is ultimately an abandonment of God.

That’s how serious Paul takes the truth of the gospel. He states that there are “different” gospels being preached, ones that “distort the gospel of Christ.” Ultimately, preaching anything that does not reflect the true gospel is a distortion.

However, Paul boldly claims that those aren’t even a real gospel. He says, “Not that there is another one” (v. 7). People are preaching a different one, but it’s not even the real gospel, so Paul doesn’t even want to give it the title of “good news.” There is no good news other than the good news of the Christ-dying, sin debt-paying, eternal life-giving gospel that’s worth giving your life to.

Abandoning the Gospel = Abandoning God

Paul says that, in the case of the Galatians, deserting God results in turning to a different gospel (v. 6). I think it also works the other way around: when you desert the true gospel, you desert the true God. For what is accepting the true gospel if not running towards God in recognition of your need of a Savior? By abandoning the true gospel, you abandon God. It’s so crucial that we recognize that because it displays God’s connectedness to the true gospel and the imperative we have to stay true to it.

God is intricately the initiator of the true gospel. He calls sinners to Himself, made possible by the atoning death of Jesus Christ. He calls us “in the grace of Christ.” We would not be saved it not for God’s calling.

We must stay true to it. Our reliance on the true gospel is an indication of our trust in God and His Word. If we trust God and His Word, we’ll stay true to the gospel we are taught by Scripture.

False Gospels = Distortion

Those who are preaching “different” gospels are “distort(ing) the gospel of Christ” (v. 7). Ultimately, anything claiming to be “good news” is going to promise similar things. But here, the ones teaching falsely were distorting. The Greek for distort in this verse – “metastrophō” – is literally translated “to pervert.” The pervert something is to change the purpose, meaning or intent of something, usually for bad purposes. The false teachers were teaching a twisted version of the truth.

In his commentary on the verse, John MacArthur writes, “By adding law to the gospel of Christ, the false teachers were effectively destroying grace, turning the message of God’s undeserved favor toward sinners into a message of earned and merited favor.” This is a perverted version of the truth. God is still a part of this “gospel,” but it’s a horrible interpretation.

Just like any teaching that doesn’t reflect the true gospel that’s spelled out in Scripture, this is a corruption of truth and should not be trusted. Yet sometimes I believe it and trust it, that I need to do a bunch of good works to get on God’s good side. Praise Him for His grace in those times.

No Good News Other than Jesus

Paul says there is no other gospel but the one that preaches the grace of Christ (v. 7). At the heart of the Christian gospel is the truth that there is no other way to be saved. In Acts 4:12, speaking of Jesus, Peter says, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

There is no real good news other than the gospel of Christ. We’re sinners who, by our own choice, have rebelled against God and deserve death. But in His infinite grace, God provided a way for us to have restored relationship with Him and eternal life, forgiveness of our sins. Jesus, the image of the invisible God, came to earth, paid the debt that we could never pay, rose to life and defeated the grave. Romans 10:9-13 shows the way to find this relationship with God and eternal life and forgiveness of sins:

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

Have you believed in the real gospel? Have you trusted the real God? Following any other way that promises life and joy will ultimately let you down. Only by following Jesus can you find true life.

Boldness in God to Declare the Gospel

In the film God’s Not Dead, a young man named Will stands up for the existence of God in his philosophy class, giving three 20-minute presentations explaining evidence for the presence of the Creator. He faces some fear, but he’s unwavering in his commitment to preach the truth. Watch the trailer here if you haven’t seen it.megaphone

Will expresses a boldness that not many of us, I feel, would show easily. He faces obstacles: a stubborn teacher, a classroom full of students who don’t believe as he does, a girlfriend who doesn’t want him to go against the grain, overwhelming academic disapproval.

The Bible has an answer for how we should handle obstacles like that. Paul offers it to us in 1 Thessalonians 2:2,

But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.

Paul and his crew had boldness in God to “declare the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.” As any study Bible would tell you, Paul and the disciples faced constant persecution of their physical bodies, as well as mockery and spite from an unbelieving world. He writes that they “had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi,” and the Bible, Acts specifically, records that Philippi was not the only place they suffered this treatment.

I often get scared to speak the truth in the middle of “persecution.” But these guys suffered much greater than I ever have and probably ever will, and they still preached the truth. They went to work even when their friends were being killed. Why can’t we do the same? Fear, of course. But the Spirit can give us boldness to be a witness for our God, to declare the gospel, the good news.

We can speak the gospel in a number of ways: straight up gospel-sharing, bits of truth in conversation, in classroom discussion, anywhere. But often we lack boldness. We need to go to God for the boldness that we lack. I cannot sit here and say, “I can’t be bold.” That’s a lie. Paul and his crew faced death, yet they stayed bold.

I think part of that came from their perspective. Verse 4 of the same chapter says:

but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.

They had the perspective that they were speaking to please their Lord, the one who saved them, the one who will test their hearts. Man does not have the final say on our eternity like God does. Are we going to live to please Him? A lot easier said than done. We fear what people think about us. But our purpose to serve God. I encourage you, and tell myself, to keep that in mind.

I pray that all of you who might read this might grow to have the same kind of boldness that Paul and his crew had. I pray that I would have it. Let’s live to be bold, going to God every day for this boldness. We’re called to that life.