Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On Empathy and Sexuality

“You don’t understand! You don’t know what it’s like!”

I looked across the table and saw the frustration in her eyes. I didn’t want to lose this friendship. I took a deep breath.

“You know, you’re right. I don’t know what it’s like. So tell me. Help me understand.”

And she did. She told me all about how she had never fit in, how vicious pre-teen girls had teased her, calling her a lesbian among other things, how she’d never felt the passion for boys that the other girls did. She explained how coming out a few weeks before had given her an accepting community and reassured her that she wasn’t a freak.

“I’m sorry those girls treated you like that,” I said. “I was bullied in middle school, too. And I’m sorry you have to worry about whether your family and friends will still like you. I still like you, and I want to keep being your friend. I wish I could say I agree with your coming out, but …”

“But you can’t.” She finished the sentence for me.

“But I can’t,” I said, nodding.

We left with our friendship intact, agreeing to disagree. There’s room for improvement in how I handled that conversation, but one thing I think I did right was listening and showing empathy.

My generation has been encouraged to make decisions based on emotion, not on reason. I distinctly remember believing in middle school that “I feel…” meant more or less the same as “I think,” only “I feel” was stronger. Since feelings hold the place of honor, the best way to treat others with kindness is to understand and appreciate their emotions. In other words, empathy is a significant virtue in the minds of my peers. This is why so many millennials support LGBTQ rights. They see people in pain and seek to legitimize them, legally and socially, so that pain will go away.

To communicate with anyone, but especially those whose worldview differs from our own, we must seek to understand where they’re coming from. And if we want them to understand us, we need to show that we care about them. For Christians talking to non-Christians in America, that means listening to where they’re coming from, asking questions and even apologizing for ways Christians have sinned against them.

But empathy doesn’t require us to agree with all their positions. Feelings are real and powerful, but they also can be misleading. It’s always loving to try to understand what someone is feeling, but it’s not always loving to encourage people to act on how they feel. All of us go against our feelings on a regular basis. We get up when we don’t feel like it, we eat healthy foods rather than just junk food, and we try to be kind to people even when we’re angry. Now, these feelings are usually less strong and less permanent than sexual attraction to your own sex or than feeling like your gender is wrong. But the principle is the same: acting on your feelings isn’t always wise or right.

God doesn’t give commands arbitrarily. When He gives a moral law, it’s because the act in question damages us or other people. In the case of homosexuality, it’s a bit of both. Same-sex relationships can’t provide society with the stability of families with two biological parents But even more harm is done to the people involved, who objectify and misuse their bodies, looking for happiness in relationships that can’t ultimately provide it. These are often people who have suffered greatly and are looking to ease the pain but are going about it all wrong.

So please, Christians, let’s treat the LGBTQ people in our lives with respect as image-bearers of God. (Many of us do this already, so let’s continue.) Let’s ask them questions about their lives and really listen to them, genuinely trying to understand how they feel. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt when we’re not sure what their motives are. And let’s call them to a life of faith in and obedience to Christ, the only place where they can find perfect love, hope and healing. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Lynn Family

Edit: The Both Hands fundraiser was completed on June 11, 2016. You can watch a video of it here. But the Lynns are still working to raise funds, so you can still contribute as described below.

One of the best things about living in the South Bend area over the last two years has been getting to know the families at Michiana Covenant Presbyterian Church. They are some of the friendliest, kindest and most interesting people I’ve met. While I have a tendency to feel overwhelmed by the problems in the world, they remind me that there is hope and that in many cases the most important thing we can do is love the people around us, family neighbors and friends.

One family I’ve grown particularly attached to is the Lynn family. Hugh and Rachael Lynn are very kind, hospitable people and have four lovely children. Three of them are Hugh and Rachael’s biological children. The fourth, Ava, was adopted from China. The Lynns brought Ava home shortly after I arrived in South Bend, in November of 2014. They had her baptized the first Sunday she was in the U.S., and I sat by her and explained what was happening, since I spoke some Chinese. Since then, it has been a joy to watch Ava blossom, making friends and learning English. Ava has cerebral palsy, and I’ve enjoyed watching her slowly begin to use her left hand more and more.

Now the Lynns are looking to adopt again, another girl from China with cerebral palsy named Audrey. (All their children have names that start with A.) They hope to go to China to get her in December, but in the meantime, they have to raise a lot of money for the international adoption. To do this, they’re working with an organization called Both Hands.

Both Hands sets up workdays where people go to a widow’s home to do various home improvement jobs. Others sponsor them, and all the money goes to a family that is looking to adopt an orphan. The Lynns are setting up a day to do home repairs for a widow in our church named Kandy. The organization’s name comes from its mission of helping two groups, widows and orphans. Throughout the Bible people are urged to care for these groups, as their lack of certain key family members makes them vulnerable.

I’m at a stage in life when I’m very concerned with making a difference in the world. As a Christian, I believe that love for God and love for others are the most important parts of life. That means that people are more important than technology, money, pleasure or even knowledge. And no earthly thing has a greater effect on a person than the family they grow up in. The Lynns are bringing Audrey into a loving family and therefore doing one of the most significant things anyone can do. And I’d like to ask you, my readers, to help them. Please consider donating to Both Hands to help finance the Lynns’ adoption. Go to to learn more about the Lynns, Audrey and Kandy and to donate to their cause. If you donate online, there will be a 3% credit card processing fee, but you can avoid that by instead mailing a check to:

Both Hands
Attn: Lynn #282
P.O. Box 2713
Brentwood, TN 37024

If you send a check, make sure you write “Lynn #282” in the memo line so the organization knows which family it’s for. Donations are tax deductible, and the full amount goes to the Lynns.

Please consider helping out this family bring their daughter home. And next time you’re with your family remember that loving them is one of your highest callings.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Eternal Love: A Poem for my Grandmother

A little over a week ago, my beloved grandmother Kathleen Elsner passed away. I wrote this poem in memory of her. It is a hymn, but it is infused with her influence. It reflects my memories of watching the cardinals in her backyard and her love of tea and my assurance that in Christ, she is now in glory, and I remain connected to her.

Eternal Love

O Father God, You are Eternal Love.
Your love is manifest in all we see:
A flash of scarlet wings against white snow,
A flower bed, a smile, a cup of tea
Sweet daily blessings printed with Your name
But sweeter still the love that makes them shine,
Infusing every memory we share
With precious glimmers of Your love divine.

O Son of God to human parents born
You shared our joys and felt our pain and grief.
You bled and died for sins of those You love.
By death, from death You brought us our relief
And rising, You have conquered every wrong.
Relationships we broke You have restored,
Temporal image of Eternal Love,
We thank and praise you, Savior and our Lord.

O Holy Spirit, Comforter and Strength,
You breathe, and sin-crushed spirits come alive
You make our lives reflect the risen Christ,
You lift us to the goal toward which we strive.
You bind in unity all those You touch,
Through space and time and into heav’n above,
Where those who’ve gone before wait till we join
Their perfect union with Eternal Love.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Why Theology?

Last Friday I stood in front of a classroom leading a discussion section for an undergraduate intro to theology class. I was well aware that many of them had signed up for the course because it is a university requirement, not because they have any interest in theology whatsoever. As such, my goal for the first section was to persuade them that theology is actually worth studying, certainly for those who believe it but also for those who don’t. So, why should one study theology?

First, theology helps us know God. It teaches us both what God is like and what God has done throughout history. But these ideas are more than abstract ideas or historical facts. I didn’t say only that theology helps us know about God. Information can be the gateway into a relationship. To develop a real friendship with another person, you must know things about them: where they’re from, who their family is, what they like and dislike. The same goes for God. Knowing about God is a necessary step on the way to knowing God, and those who already have faith can deepen their knowledge of God through academic study.

Second, theology helps us know ourselves. It addresses all the big questions everyone must face. What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of life? Why is there suffering? What happens after death? While many of these central questions are also addressed by philosophy, sometimes we simply can’t reason our way to answers. It is then that we must turn to revelation, a resource that can only be accessed through theology, to guide us as we reason toward answers.

So theology is deeply important for those who believe it. But what about those who don’t? Can my non-Christian students gain anything from a required theology course? I would love my students to believe Christianity’s answers to the deep questions of life because I think those answers are true. But even if they don’t, they can still profit from studying another’s viewpoint in depth.

In our culture, it’s easy to think of religion as merely culturally engrained habits at best or superstition at worst. But when we think this way, we often fail to grasp the ways that religious beliefs affect other people’s actions and thoughts. How can an atheist and a Christian have a productive discussion without understanding what the other person actually believes? Studying theology can help even unbelieving students understand the depth and intellectual rigor that comes from religious beliefs, the content of some of those beliefs and the way that affects believers’ thoughts and behavior. This will be very valuable as students go out into the world and meet people from different backgrounds.

On a related note, much of Western art, literature and film draws on the Bible, directly or indirectly. Developing a familiarity with the basics of Christian theology can help my students understand European and American culture more deeply.

Last, studying theology helps us develop skills we use in understanding other areas. It helps us think carefully about large questions, listen to and assess various viewpoints, discuss ideas clearly and respectfully and write about these issues. Each of these takes practice, and the course I’m teaching will help my students develop skills that they will use throughout college and for the rest of their lives.

Did I convince my students that this course isn’t a waste of time? I have no idea. I suppose the more important questions are: Did I convince you that learning about and discussing theology is important? And did I convince myself not to shy away from talking about it?

Monday, January 11, 2016

Learning From Stories

Last Saturday I was invited to speak at my church’s women’s tea on the theme of “books.” I asked my dad for suggestions, and he pointed me to Ecclesiastes 12:12. “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” As a grad student, I can confirm that the verse is very true. In fact, I’d consider putting it on t-shirts for my classmates. But I didn’t think that’s what the event’s organizers had in mind, so instead I focused on the ways books in general and fiction in particular have influenced my life. I chose this because the value of reading non-fiction for spiritual growth can be relatively obvious. The influence of stories is more subtle but no less real.

We get a hint of the importance of stories in the structure of the Bible. Though we think of it as one book, the Bible is actually many books in many different genres. It contains theological treatises (such as Romans), law codes, also poetry, prophecy (in both prose and poetry) and lots of narratives. Stories take up a large percentage the Bible, and while many of them are history, Jesus’ parables are a kind of fiction. God uses this huge variety of forms to communicate to us because different types of writing speak to our experiences in different ways and affect us differently. And if God considers stories a helpful way of communicating truth, so should we.

One of the first things the Bible tells us about human beings is that we’re made in the image of God. We find this out in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. At that point, all we’ve been told about God is that He created everything and did it by speaking. Authors, like their Creator create using words. So every time we pick up a book we should recognize that God’s image is being expressed. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything in every book is good. Authors are also fallen, so we need to read any book with discernment. But we should give thanks to God for the amazing privilege of being made in His image and for the joy we gain from seeing the ways authors intentionally or unintentionally reveal His image in them.

Stories can aid our spiritual growth by helping us develop empathy. They let us get inside the head of someone different from us and understand the world as they experience it. This in turn can help us understand the real people who have had similar experiences. When you meet someone on the street, you don’t know what they’re thinking or their backstory. But when you read a book, the author often tells you that, which makes it easier to understand and relate to the characters.

Fiction is also a huge source of encouragement for me, something my parents taught me at a young age. When I was 10, my parents took my family to Europe for several months, and we traveled to Hungary. We took a night train into Budapest and transferred to another train that would eventually take us to the town where we would be staying. The schedule said the train would have a snack car, so my parents planned on eating breakfast on the train. As the train left the station, a blizzard hit our area. It was then that we discovered the train had little to no heat. My brother and my father walked along the train looking for the snack car. Snow blew upward between holes in the floor of the passages connecting different cars. One bicycle car was covered with ice because the door was opened. My dad tried to close it, but it was jammed. To quote my father, “the bathrooms looked like they hadn’t been cleaned since the fall of Communism” (this was 1999). My father and brother reached the end of the train, but there was no snack car. So my brother and I sat in the compartment bundled up in our coats while my mom fed us gummy bears that she had found in her purse. We had been reading The Hobbit as a family, so my dad said, “Bilbo Baggins describes adventures as ‘nasty, unpleasant things that make you late for breakfast.’ That means we’re having an adventure.” Suddenly, I was excited because I was on an adventure. I was still cold and hungry, but I wasn’t miserable because I saw my predicament differently.

I still draw on Tolkien for encouragement and inspiration, especially when life seems overwhelming. Tolkien does a great job depicting both genuine good and genuine evil and helping us recognize the difference. He also shows us ordinary people, like the Hobbits, standing up against this evil and making a difference. Good stories aren’t just a way to escape from the evil in the world. They’re a picture of what we can do, and they can provide motivation to take risks and do things that may be frightening. G.K. Chesterton once said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” The problems that face the heroes in fairy tales are symbols of the evil in the world. And when we see characters in stories slaying their dragons, it can encourage us to stand up and face our dragons.

We’re all busy, so I’m sure many of you don’t have much time for reading. But when you do encounter stories, either in books or in movies, I think it’s helpful to think about them and draw lessons or encouragement from them. I’d also like to encourage you to give thanks to God for the gift of books and the way He can use books of all kinds to make us more like Christ.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Continuing Christmas in the New Year

Christmas isn’t over yet.

Most people think of the Christmas season as stretching from the end of November until December 25, possibly followed by some time celebrating New Year’s Eve. Then on January 1 (or maybe 2), we all go back to our ordinary lives, staggering from the quantity of food we’ve consumed and resolving to lose weight of save money or do something else we know we should do but haven’t actually done.

But traditionally, Christmas didn’t even start until December 25. The weeks leading up to Christmas are actually Advent, a time of waiting and preparation for Christmas, like Lent is for Easter. Then came Christmas day, followed by 12 days of celebration stretching to January 6, which is Epiphany, the day that celebrates the arrival of the Magi. Hence, the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

What this means is that even as we go back to work or school, Christmas is still going on. Although my inner Hobbit would love to use that as an excuse to continue stuffing my face with cheese, returning to work and/or taking steps to improve our lives is actually a perfectly appropriate way to celebrate the last few days of Christmas. Christmas is about the Incarnation, the moment when God became human and began to experience all the pleasures and frustrations of a normal human life. No area of life is outside His concern, whether it be health or finances or anything else. And therefore, whatever area of life we choose to focus on has a touch of holiness, and whatever actions we take can be done for God’s glory.

Lately, I’ve realized that I have a dangerous tendency to focus on my mind while neglecting my body. I’m trying to fight that by remembering that my body is a good (although not perfect) creation of God; it is part of what Christ came to redeem, and I will have it in some form for all eternity. My body has a part to play in my ultimate purpose of serving and glorifying God. I expect this will be a far more powerful motivator to live a healthy lifestyle than disgust or shame over how I look. In other words, the concern for all of life demonstrated in the Incarnation means that my health matters and is worth attending to. And whether you’re making a resolution or just continuing life as you have been, your daily concerns matter for the same reason.

I write this post mostly for myself, but I hope it will also help you to see the glory in whatever you are doing this week, whether you’re starting a new resolution or just going back to normal life. Everything has value because of the Incarnation. Christmas isn’t over yet.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Why We Rejoice: a reflection on "O Come O Come Immanuel"

“O come, O come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.”

Praise be to Christ, who stepped into our lonely exile and mourned alongside us, so that he could bring us out of it and back to the Promised Land. This is no escapist fantasy that denies the reality of evil. We have a God who looked evil full in the face, allowed it to do its worst and STILL overcame it. He has come. This is why we rejoice.

“O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer out spirits by thine advent here. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death's dark shadows put to flight.”

Advent isn't just a season; the word means the arrival of something important or long-awaited. Another translation of this hymn phrases it, “cheer us by thy drawing nigh.” The presence of Christ should mean the presence of joy.

But I'd be lying if I claimed that I always experience that. Sometimes the gloomy clouds of night refuse to disperse. And however much we may try to ignore it, death's dark shadows will come for all of us. This is why we still pray for Christ to come; we don't experience the fullness of His presence yet. But even while we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we can have confidence because Immanuel – God with us – has come. One day He will come again and disperse the gloomy clouds of night once and for all. But until then, we are cheered by the hope given by His promise and the profound demonstration of His love for us in His first coming. This is why we rejoice.

“O come, O come, thou Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height, in ancient times didst give the law in cloud and majesty and awe.”

It’s easy for Christians to forget that the giving of the Law was a great moment. It was the clearest demonstration of God’s character to date, a vivid picture of the majesty of the One who had just saved His people from the most powerful nation in the world by having them march through a large body of water. It showed people exactly how they were to live in light of being chosen by a holy God.

In a world that seems to be sliding back into chaos, we too long to be saved, for God to come in a show of glory and set up a just society free of exploitation, oppression and violence. And that will happen. But first God needs to make us capable of living in a just society. So He sent Christ to atone for sin and the Holy Spirit to transform us so that we can do what’s right. God has provided all we need to be ready for His glorious return. This is why we rejoice.

“O Come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny. From depths of Hell thy people save, and give them victory o’er the grave.”

Just as the ancient son of Jesse led his people into battle and struck down enemies they could not defeat for themselves, Christ has defeated our true enemies. He defeated sin by making atonement and empowering us to fight it, freeing us from its guilt and power. He defeated death by making a way for us to escape the depths of Hell and by assuring us that our bodies will be resurrected. He defeated the devil by disarming him so nothing he does can destroy us. He can tempt, but with every temptation God provides a way out. He can accuse, but his accusations have no weight, for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. He can attack us, but God will protect or restore all that we lose, and Satan’s ultimate destruction is assured. The battle still rages, but the victory is won. This is why we rejoice.

“O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home. Make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery.”

In moments when troubles seem overwhelming and we long to escape or when we should be perfectly happy yet our joy feels empty, we realize that every home we have known has been just a shadow of a greater home that we long for. We are homesick for a place we have never seen, where we cannot go on our own. And He has come to open the way to bring us to the place our hearts have always yearned to go. This is why we rejoice.

“O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh. To us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go.”

If modern science has taught us anything, it is that the universe is ordered by wisdom. Think about the vastness and complexity of our universe and the fact that everything from clusters of galaxies to the tiny particles within atoms operate according to laws that we can know and study. Wisdom has shaped our universe, and for us to live appropriately within that universe we also need wisdom – understanding of relationships and ethics and how to make good choices. And now the wisdom that ordered the universe, the Word by whom all things were made has stepped into a human form, to live a life of perfect wisdom and has shown us exactly what a human life well lived looks like. This is why we rejoice.

“O come Desire of Nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind. Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease. Fill all the world with Heaven’s peace.”

The promise to Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through him is now fulfilled. People from all nations come and find their deepest desire, their thirst for God, satisfied. And now we wait for the time when all our lesser desires will be met in Him or else will fade into insignificance before the light of His glory. We wait for the time when conflict between nations and individuals will cease, for evil will be restrained and we will be transformed into the image of the Prince of Peace. This is why we rejoice.

“Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” He is peace and wisdom. He is the Way. He is our mighty savior and our just Lord. He is the light who brings true joy. He is God with us. Today, let us remember his coming and celebrate the fulfillment of our hope knowing that His victory is a certain as though it were already complete. Today, let us rejoice.