In 2013, an online “Yale Alumni Magazine” posted an article describing the online alcohol education course for incoming freshmen.  The question addressed:  How much alcohol is appropriate for an underage freshman to drink?  The course’s answer – of course it’s illegal according to law, but in reality a “couple drinks during the ‘pregame’ (a small gathering before a larger party) followed by one beer an hour for the rest of the night”.  This course is required for incoming freshmen, and according to the article includes such information as fake ID’s, relationship and romance when drinking, blood alcohol content awareness, and more.

This is the school from where Brett Kavanaugh graduated.

In 2014, The Atlantic published an article tracing the history of fraternities on college campuses and calling out the dangers inherent in these organizations in the 21st century.  One statement stands out from this piece:

“Many more thousands of American men count their fraternal experience—and the friendships made within it—as among the most valuable in their lives. The organizations raise millions of dollars for worthy causes, contribute millions of hours in community service, and seek to steer young men toward lives of service and honorable action. They also have a long, dark history of violence against their own members and visitors to their houses, which makes them in many respects at odds with the core mission of college itself.”

The heart of fraternity life, states this author, originated in the secret societies that believed higher education could be rigorous but also full of pleasure.

Brett Kavanaugh was a part of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Yale.

Perhaps the pursuit of pleasure on college campuses has been filled above the brim and is finally spilling over.  Or, perhaps today this over-pursuit of pleasure that has been around for years is simply more public.  Either way, the reality is that the pleasure-seeking life seen as part of the inherent experience of college student life is, in my opinion, an origin story for the rampant and destructive behaviors of sexual assault, relational breakdowns, substance addictions, and life-shattering behaviors that seem to permeate every page of our news outlets today.

The most recent case of questions and accusations directed at Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh are worthy of deep investigation.  Over time, I am hopeful that full truth outside of political partisanship will emerge.  As Michael Gerson said in the Washington Post:

“…An accusation of attempted rape can’t be allowed to hang in the air without a more serious investigation. In matters of such cruelty and lasting damage, there is no exemption for youth and inexperience. I would no more want a Supreme Court justice who had attempted rape than I would want a president who committed sexual assault. That is not too high a standard.”

But from Kavanaugh’s case, to the celebrity moguls being taken down one by one for (mostly male-driven) sexual assault and abuse, to the pastors of America’s largest churches losing their livelihood for the same things, I am not writing here to defend or accuse.  I am instead writing to ask a simple question:

Where have the increasing behaviors of sexual assault and victimizing of vulnerable people come from?

Let me state at the outset here, as a Christ-follower I have a core theology that informs my proposed answer to this question.  Each of us, as humans, has a nature toward behaviors that cause brokenness; brokenness in our relationships to each other, brokenness in our relationship with self, brokenness in our relationship with God, and brokenness with our relationship to the larger world.  Most churches identify this as sin; and I happen to believe it’s still a good word that depicts this brokenness.  I will often teach that sin is however, more than the ten commandments we were told to obey in Sunday school.  In stark reality, every single one of us carries the weight of sin (this pervasive brokenness) whether we are guilty of all that we carry or not.  I carry the sins (brokenness) committed against me.  I am not guilty of these, but I carry them nonetheless.

But enough of the theology.

My proposition here is simple:

What we celebrate at one point in our lives can decimate us later.

A couple days ago I tweeted a random thought I had regarding the accusations against Kavanaugh (and others):

“Just curious… how much influence has the rampant party culture of elite college life aged into the rampant sexual assault culture being confronted every single day?”

It was a passing thought that grew into a consuming thought.  And so I went looking for some answers.  What I found was that since 1910, 85% of men appointed as U.S. Supreme Court justices belonged to fraternities.  Since 1900, 63% of U.S. presidential cabinet members belonged to fraternities.  76% of U.S. senators and 85% of Fortune 500 executives historically belonged to fraternities.  Even a striking 18 presidents belonged to fraternities.  The reality, as one author says, is that “Fraternities… breed leaders – a cohort of young men dedicated to being loyal, being knowledgeable, and embracing the skills of leadership success.”

While this is absolutely true, and I have no intention of picking on fraternity or sorority life as the root cause of this conversation, it is also evident that the origins of these organizations seeking connection with others for the sake of pleasure cannot be seen only as a positive incubator of virtue and leadership.  The reality is too stark to believe that.

The Atlantic piece makes clear that, from the very beginning, fraternities (and I will add here the pleasure-seeking of campus life at the general level) held tremendously non-virtuous pursuits.  A letter as far back as 1857, written by a Sigma Phi brother, informs his fraternity brothers that he, “did get one of the nicest pieces of ass some day or two ago”.  It is perhaps no surprise then, that in an analysis performed by a major fraternity insurance company in 2010 found that 38% of insurance claims – more than 1/3 – filed against fraternities involved assault and battery or sexual assault claims.

It doesn’t take much scouring to find a pervasive culture that celebrates the partying of youthfulness seen in the idyllic setting of college life.  Consistently, major outlets rank the “best party schools” in the nation.  Films, television, and books all build comedy on the loose culture of young adulthood.  Perhaps it comes as a result of the negative effects of the sexual revolution (there are positives and negatives, as with any movement), but one cannot argue that in the midst of the #MeToo movement being so publicly championed by celebrities and political leaders, there is still great money to be made amidst the raunchy comedies and party marketing that celebrate the very contexts where the victims of #MeToo have suffered.

It is, at best, hypocritical.

So this brings me back to my initial proposition:

What we celebrate at one point in life can decimate us later.

If the ongoing dissecting of Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment… if the confrontation of sexual assault by victims who have suffered greatly… if the pervasive destruction caused by power being exerted over others should show us anything… it should at least show us that what is often celebrated in the frat parties or the pregame tailgates or the Instagram worthy gatherings of friends cannot be filtered.  In the hedonism that tells us (and has now told us for generations) to fill our lives with as much pleasure as possible, we have in many ways lost sight of the virtues of humility and compassion that seek the good of the Other.

Frankly, we live in a #MeFirst world facing a #MeToo crisis.

This is where the Gospel speaks to us so clearly.  Regardless of what one might feel about Christianity as a whole or the Church as an organization (for we are among the most broken these days), the life and the words of Jesus still pave the best way forward in the midst of a culture that wants to condemn sexual assault and still remain sexually “free”.

It is the Gospel that has the best answer, because it is Jesus who was pursued by a mob of men set on destroying an adulterous woman; and it is Jesus who, two thousand years ago, chose liberation for the victim while calling out the hypocrisy of the masses.  It is Jesus who calls out the sin of the mob and forgives the sin of the contrite.  It is Jesus who looks around that circle of judgment and suggests that possibly not long before this moment these men were celebrating the same woman’s very vocation, for how else would they have known of her sin?

We are desperately in need of subversive humility and virtuous relationships these days.  Our world is being broken by the after effects of so much that is, at a different phase of life, celebrated among us.  The great tension of the Good News about Jesus is that there is always forgiveness and there is always healing.  Healing for the broken, and forgiveness for the guilty.  This is the shaping of things to come, and it is the vacuum where we find ourselves in the midst of the Brett Kavanaugh’s, the Bill Cosby’s, the Harvey Weinstein’s, and yes, even in the midst of our own lives.

 

I don’t know if you saw the image in this post a few months ago, but it captured me.  And it captured me because the story behind it is so powerful.

On April 23, 2018, between 1:00 and 3:00 am, a line of thirteen semi-trailer trucks lined up under a bridge close to Detroit to form a blockade that would prohibit a suicidal man on the bridge above from jumping to his death.

And it worked.

There’s this song my kids have been listening to.  I don’t know many of the words except for the hook in the chorus that repeats, “I do whatever it takes…”

I saw this picture and read this story and that song was all I could think about.

You see, I love this image and I love the story of the drivers lining up and I really love the end result of a man’s life being saved, but I want to know more.

Because somewhere behind this story there’s another story.  Somewhere behind these trucks is an individual who saw a suicidal man and spread the word to another individual who had the idea that a line of really big trucks simply stopping what they normally do (driving at high speeds) and parking under a bridge could form something that would save a life.  And somehow, those individuals communicated to people who communicated to truck drivers and organized an event that literally saved a man’s life.

They did whatever it takes.

Every single day in the organizations we lead, there are problems.  There are issues.  There are crises.  There are things staring us in the face that need dealt with by those who can do something about it.

But every single day in our organizations the vast majority of us ignore the problems, stay in our lane, pretend the problems are not ours, keep doing our jobs, don’t look up from our desks, or bypass the urgency of the situation.

And we miss the opportunities for real, lasting, substantial impact.

So what are you going to see today and who are you going to talk to about it that will make a lasting difference?

It’s been about five months since I’ve written here.  About five months ago I was three chapters into a dissertation journey that started back in 2013.  About five months ago I was overwhelmed and wondering how I’d ever complete that journey.  (The final product is only five chapters, but man were those last two painful!)

About five months ago I did something that I’ve never been very good at.

I started to learn to say no.

Today, I’m writing again here.  I’m putting some new projects on my radar that I put on hold for a while.  I’m saying yes to some things that I’ve wanted to say yes to for a while because last Friday I turned in my completed dissertation.

And you know what I learned in this process?

The no paved the way for the yes.

Actually, the “no’s” paved the way for the “yes’s”.

I know this is like Leadership 101 and we’ve all heard this, agreed with this, and maybe even taught this; but the reality is not many of us practice this.  Not many of us have the willingness or the discipline to say the “no’s” we need to say in order to get to the “yes’s” we need to get to.

And in the words of the Apostle Paul, “I am the chief of sinners.”

I’m not writing this to say I figured it all out.  I’m writing this to say I’m writing here today because I finally said no to the right things and yes to the right things and my dissertation is finished and my daughter stored my name in her phone as “Dr. Daddy” and that felt pretty stinking cool and had I never said the “no’s” it took to finish the paper the stinking cool thing wouldn’t have happened.

So no’s are worth it.

Period.

What should/could you say no to this week?
What “YES” have you been putting off because you haven’t said the right “NO”?

Live at the McNemar House from Buckhannon WV!

So, when something hits me hard emotionally, I tend to turn inward to process and write to get it out.  Many of those writings never get shared.  Some do.  That’s what this post is… me getting some things out.  (Just a preface.)

The danger of this post is that I’m going to tell a couple stories about my experiences, and in doing that it may seem like I’m setting myself up as some well-rounded cultural superior.  I’m not, and that’s not the intent.  It’s simply to tell a couple stories and share where my thoughts are right now.

Yesterday, the report was made that the President of the United States, in another meeting about our national immigration policies, asked bipartisan politicians, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”  Specifically, this was in regard to immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and “African countries”.

So I want to share with you a word about s***holes.

Several years ago I led a team of students to Kenya for the first time.  We traveled to the heart of Nairobi and spent a week serving in the Mathare slum.

Mathare is about a 5km area holding anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million residents at any time.  In our week there we worked side by side with the pastors and leaders of AIC Zion church.  This was a building made of corrugated metal walls and carried forward by God-sized dreams.

The first time you travel anywhere like this (on these “mission trips”) it’s an experience.  Everything is new.  Everything is cross-cultural.  Everything is overwhelming.  But the second and third and fourth times you go (I’ve been to Kenya about 4 times, Ethiopia twice, and Jamaica twice), while it’s still overwhelming it’s different.  Because it’s not about an experience.  It’s about relationships.  It’s about going to visit friends and family and brothers and sisters and encouraging the work God is doing in their lives.

In Mathare, the slum is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been.  The density of population and the conditions of living are indescribable.  While we’ve been there, we always do visits with families throughout the slum and it is one of the most heart-breaking experiences possible.

I remember one day as we walked my wife was beside me holding the hand of a little boy of about 3 years old who knew no English other than the word for white person and “mama”, so he continually called her his white mama.  At one point, as my wife was talking with someone, the boy dropped behind her, dropped his pants and proceeded to use the bathroom in the middle of this trail where his excrement could fall into the open water used for drinking, bathing, laundry, and sewage.  He popped up, grabbed her hand and kept walking.

So when I think of s***holes, I think of Mathare.

But I also think of West Virginia.

In college, I spent a couple summers working for a state-funded program with elementary students who were struggling in school.  We would serve them each day with a fun environment to encourage reading, writing, and creative art.  At the start of the program we would do a home visit with every family who would be in our program.

On one of these visits I entered a trailer that was barely lit.  The family there had about 5 children, satellite TV, and dirt floors.  The smell was as bad, if not worse, than anything in Mathare.

And that summer, I loved my time with that child.

The statement the President of the United States made yesterday is disheartening, anger-inducing, and frustrates me even further as to the current state of politics, celebrity culture, and mass media.  But I’ll get over that.

What kills me is the leadership failure of Evangelical Christians to stand up and denounce these statements because they’re afraid to counter a politician who won the majority vote of most conservative Evangelicals.

What kills me is that the non-Christians I’m building a relationship with in our local community with the hope of seeing Jesus impact their lives are now pushed farther from him because of this arrogance.

What kills me is that if you call yourself a Christ-follower you serve and submit your life to a Messiah who was born a refugee under the threat of death in a place many would have labeled a s***hole.

What kills me is that we are so quick to defend our assumed “side” when the world is literally dying of treatable diseases, generational poverty, and broken systems that can only be fixed when the bride of Christ actually stands up and acts.

What kills me is that this becomes one more political debate, social media hashtag, or media fanfare simply built for ratings and in a week it will be forgotten.

So for what it’s worth, just a word about s***holes.

If you are here in the US from Haiti, El Salvador, the African countries, or anywhere else in the world, I believe we’re better with you here.

If you are here where I am in West Virginia, I hope you understand our own history–that we have been considered an Appalachian s***hole for well over a century and it has done nothing but hurt us and perhaps the ones in the supposed muck should be standing up for the others who can’t rather than defending false hopes in politicians who will continue to fail us.

If you are reading this and you really can’t stand church people today, or Christianity as a whole, I hope you begin to see the real story.  I hope you truly understand the very first message Jesus himself preached in the book of Luke 4:18 – what theologians call “The Gospel”…

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

You see, I believe in a God who is a lover of PEOPLE.
A God who sees dignity, value, and worth to every person no matter who they are.
A God who willingly stepped into the holes of our world to redeem all of humanity and, one day, all of creation.

And I believe that is the mission of God for the people of God today as well.

May we be so disturbed by hate that we do more than post and argue, but actually act, on behalf of love.

A great interview with a good friend from Chicago, Shaun Marshall.

More info available at www.shaunmarshall.net

Dave and Erica Baker are professionally creative.  Filmmakers, photographers, global travelers and idealistic storytellers, they are out there on the front lines making the world a better place.  They are also brand new parents.  Enjoy this conversation!

www.bakerstories.com
www.bittersweetmonthly.com
www.bittersweetcreative.com

A special interview with my good friend and the Founder of the Center for Play and Exploration – Dave Bindewald

www.playandexploration.com

When I was a teenager I remember having this shirt with a Bible verse from the book of Romans emblazoned on it.  It showed a picture of a school of fish swimming in forward movement to one side of the shirt and then one, red fish swimming against this school in the opposite direction.  Surrounding that fish were these words of the Apostle Paul:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2)

It was a clear and simple message.  If you’re following Jesus, you’re going to swim against the way the rest of the fish are going.  So get comfortable being uncomfortable and learn the way to be counter cultural.

It wouldn’t take much to convince a group of Christians that the Gospel is a counter-cultural message.  The call of Christ has always taken a “swim upstream.”  If we understand the stories of Jesus we understand that the mission of God in the world often stands against the values of the world.

And yet, there’s a problem with this t-shirt that I didn’t realize when I wore it proudly to school to declare my faith.

The problem is today I’m not sure who the other fish are or what values they represent?

What culture am I supposed to be countering?

To explore this question, I’m starting a series here called  Counter the Culture.  This is a discussion of the values that seem to counter the Kingdom values of Jesus.  This is a conversation about the values that drive our communities, our country, and our world systems today that don’t align with the way of Jesus.  I recognize these are rooted in my opinions, so they are little more than my own estimations about cultural values and Kingdom values.  I also recognize this is a conversation that won’t be exhaustive and could continue to evolve as our culture moves forward.  But for now, it’s a start.  It’s a move into the tension of the waters with eyes open that might possibly identify some of the fish and the currents we’re swimming against.

So let’s jump in.

What Right(s) Do You Have?

For the first conversation in this series I want to talk about our rights.  My rights, and your rights.

In the aftermath of so many recent news stories where the concluding option is to stand on a left side or a right side (read any article in the last three days and see if I’m wrong), the common thread of so many arguments centers around someone’s rights.

One person takes a stance that calls someone else out and that someone responds by saying, “Who are you to tell me what to do?  I have my rights!”

We could apply this to entire groups of people and the conversation would be the same.  The assumption of warring sides comes down to a single mantra… “I have a right to do/say/think/act/believe this and you can’t infringe on that right.”

So why is this something that needs countered by a Gospel-focused people?  Doesn’t the very Declaration of Independence commission the unalienable rights of a people?  Doesn’t this Declaration declare that we have–without question–certain privileges that form our very humanity?  Life?  Liberty?  The pursuit of happiness?

Let’s unpack this.

We need to consider first of all what it means–as Christ-followers–to have rights.  We could consider several places in the Scriptures to explore this, but let’s start with Philippians 2 and a few conclusions that can be drawn from these verses:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!”

Point #1:  These verses were written for those identifying as Christ-followers, and that identity took precedence over any sense of nationalism.

Paul begins this famous passage with a series of “if’s” identifying his audience.  If you have encouragement from being with Christ… if there is comfort from Christ’s love… if any common sharing… All of these statements emerge from a connection of this audience rooted in Christ.

For the early church, the great tension of their times often came from their division of Jew and Gentile.  For Paul and the other church leaders, the call of Christ superseded any sense of nationalism.  At the core of a Christ-identity for the Church was an understanding that citizenship and allegiance had been transferred from earthly kingdoms to a heavenly Kingdom.

Point #2:  The Christ-follower’s identity is rooted in posture and actions that elevate the value of others above value of the self.

Paul’s commission in Philippians continues with a call for those united in Christ to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” to “value others above yourselves,” and “to look to the interests of others”.  For Paul, these heart postures are an overflow of the identity one found in Christ.  For those united under Jesus, the natural reaction is to move toward a way of living that lays down our own rights and increases the value and dignity of others.

Point #3:  At the core of a Christ-follower’s relationship should be a mentality of emptying that cares for others as Christ cares for us.

This passage in Philippians is known by theologians as the kenosis.  The word kenosis connects with a sense of “emptying”.  It is, at the most basic level, the choice that Jesus made to step out of the heavenly realms and all the privileges therein to become human for the sake of humanity.

Put most simply:  Jesus gave up his own rights for the sake of giving worth, redemption, and salvation to those who were alienated, isolated, and separated from the love of God the Father.

So allow me to draw some conclusions by returning to that school of fish on my high school t-shirt.  What culture are we trying to counter by living in the way of Jesus?

In perhaps every news cycle and social media stream we see these days, there are at least two sides to the conversation.  One side says, “We have experienced a great wrong at the hands of others.”  The other side says, “Get over it.  It was their right and you need to understand that.”

Frame it with whatever example you want, these general feelings are what the conversations come down to.  We have rights to act, say, speak, live, do, think, behave, etc. in whatever way we want.  And another side says no you don’t, it’s inherently wrong, and you have to stop because of the suffering it’s causing.

For the Christ-follower, I believe we have the gospel opportunity (truly good news) to counter this culture.  We stand in a divided land in U.S. where political opinions and obsession over “rights” opens the doors for a people who truly understand kenosis as a way of life to change the conversation.

The citizen of Heaven, whose allegiance is to God the Father even above country, has a duty and an obligation as Paul points out, to regularly, passionately, and humbly empty themselves of their own rights for the sake of giving value, worth, dignity, honor, and redemption to “the other” (whoever the other may be).

Can you imagine how this might change our climate and conversations on social media?  At work?  In the news?  In our neighborhoods?

Take, for instance, the latest perpetual news cycle coming out of Charlottesville.  In the wake of the horrors of racism at the hands of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in which a president comes as closely as possible to offering statements of a blatant racist nature without endorsing these groups outright, the conversations of those who want to see another side immediately shift to seeing the removal of monuments as heritage and history rather than hurt and lament.

How might this change the conversation if Philippians 2 offered new approaches?  In this way, my passion is to value others above myself, give up my own rights, and look to the interests of others.  At this point it doesn’t matter what history and heritage mean.  Superseding any of those conversations is the fact that my brothers and sisters of color are grieving.  They are wounded.  They are hurting and fearful, and my duty as a Christ-follower is to seek their good, their healing, and their unity.

Immediately, the climate and the culture have changed because of the posture of my heart.

Friends, this is only the beginning.  There are values that drive our world and our nation today.  And as the people of God rooted in Jesus Christ, there are answers it is time for us to start living rather than denying because of our comfort level.  May you find yourself rooted in a perpetual emptying of your rights for the sake of others.