4 Reasons Why Sin is Good News

David Letterman recently did an interview with Kanye West. The conversation was a thoughtful and insightful. I have never really listened to Kanye, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. I enjoyed hearing his perspective on life, mental health and culture.

At one point, Mr. West perfectly captured much of Western culture today. In talking about the goal of life he said, “I believe the best thing is to be yourself to the max. Be who you are completely”

Not many people argue with this sentiment today. It has become the aim of life in Western culture. 

“You be you.”
“Speak your truth”
“The world is waiting for your full self”
“Be your best self”
“Everything I need is within me”
“Never apologize for who you are.”

All these sentiments capture a foundational view within modern secular culture; that mankind is basically good and that the more we look inward, the more good we will find. The goal of life is to free ourselves from the oppression of other’s opinions or our own insecurity and self-doubt. We are to never apologize for who we are. To do so is akin to self-abuse and self-destruction. Expression of self is always a good to be pursued because we all, are good.

In the midst of this, I’ve talked to a lot of people recently about the Biblical concept of sin. For many people, declaring sin within us seems contrary to the modern religion of “you be you”. And it kind of is.

I know the doctrine of sin and repentance can be seen as a belief that contributes to mankind’s oppression. I once had someone tell me, “Christians ranting on about sin is a form of spiritual abuse”

I believe the opposite. I dare to say, the denial of sin is one of the most oppressive beliefs today.

Here is four reasons we desperately need a revival of the doctrine of sin.

People are valuable but broken.

The story of scripture screams a clear message, people are valuable, people are broken.

First, people are made in God’s image and therefore of incomparable worth and value. Nothing can decrease the value. Nothing can increase it. But, secondly, people are broken. We have hearts that sin. We are sinned against. This world is full of valuable and precious people but we hurt one another in small ways and ways so big we strain under the magnitude of it.

For many these concepts are muddled. We need a revival of a doctrine of sin because the value and worth of human beings does not capture the human reality. Just telling ourselves we are wonderful and precious, although true isn’t the whole story.

The modern religion of self-love falls short. There is no space to reckon with our own brokenness. That which we have done to others and that which has been done to us. A belief in sin is a requirement to truly believe in the worth of people. People have value… therefore we cannot be treated in just any way. We must be treated in accordance with our value. And when we are not, it is sin. We must call it what it is. Whether we do it or it is done to us. (And God must be treated in accordance with His value).

We can never be whole if we refuse to believe we are broken.

According to pop culture, our problem is not truly believing in our self-worth, truly loving ourselves. If I tell someone “I am a sinner” I might get a reaction of, “Don’t belittle yourself, you are amazing and don’t let anyone tell you different. You’ve got to love yourself!”

So, our core problem becomes bad self-esteem and not a sinful heart. 

Thus we are all on, what I call, the hamster wheel of self-love. We aren’t broken, we just don’t love ourselves enough. And the hamster wheel goes on and on, never arriving at any destination. I’ve met hundreds of people striving to arrive at this elusive place of self-love, yet they never truly arrive. It looks exhausting.

Don’t get me wrong, loving what God has made is important. But it is not the whole picture. Accepting our own sinful hearts and actions is actually freeing. We don’t need to just love ourselves more. We also need the grace and forgiveness of God and others. We can’t fix ourselves, we need help from God and others. 

What. A. Relief. 

Denying sin is the luxury of the privileged.

As I have travelled the world, I’ve noticed a very clear pattern. The only cultures that deny a belief in sin are prosperous and privileged ones. Read that sentence again. People who live in poor or unjust societies know with intimacy that mankind is broken and sinful.

It is only people who are prosperous or in power that have the luxury of saying, “people are basically good and basically do the right thing. You be you!”

Tell that to women who live in nations where it is legal for their husbands to beat them. Tell that to children who work in sweatshops. Tell that to refugees who have been driven from their nation in fear of their very lives. Tell that to the millions die for their faith each year. 

People are basically good! You be you! Speak your truth! This belief system is like throwing an anchor to drowning people.

Oppressed and poor people know intimately that mankind has something deeply broken within them that needs healing. They suffer at the hands of this every single day.

To deny sin is to tell these people there is no hope. Imagine saying to a human trafficking victim or abused wife, “People are basically good, the solution to man’s problems is to just for them to speak their truth” I can’t imagine something more hopeless.

The doctrine of sin gives hope to millions of oppressed people. It declares the truth to desperate people.

Accepting our sinfulness gives hope and health to our relationships.

In contrast to condemnation, accepting our sinfulness brings freedom. It scares me to be in a relationship with someone who believes people are basically good and all our problems lie in just loving ourselves more (Again, loving ourself is not bad at all!). 

The healthiest relationships are two sinners repenting to one another daily. Accepting responsibility for ourselves instead of blame or denial. Saying sorry for harsh words, lies, greed or selfishness. Offering forgiveness. 

I’m pretty sure that 90% of the health of my marriage is my husbands acceptance of his own sinfulness. He doesn’t deny it. He quickly apologizes for any sinful action towards me. I’m embarrassed to say he is quicker to apologize than me. I have incredible safety in knowing that if he hurts me, whether intentional or not, he will apologize. I will never hear, “Hey, I’m just being me! You’ve got to accept me as I am!” He knows he’s broken and valuable. So he can confidently own his sin without decreasing his self-worth. When he owns his sin, he declares my worth. To say, “I’m sorry I said those hurtful words” is built on a foundation of, “You are more valuable than that.”

How about you? How could an acceptance of sin bring more health and freedom to your life? If that seems like a contradiction, maybe you are seeing it wrong.

Reflections from an Unknown Woman Preacher

Twenty years ago I preached for the first time to 350 Indian school children in the foothills of the Himalayas. From what I can remember, the message was dripping with American self-help slogans and “you can do anything you set your mind to” mantras. It was warmly received. Mostly because I included a very captivating illustration that the kids loved. That was the first time I had an inkling that preaching and teaching was something I might enjoy (mostly due to the aforementioned warm reception).

I have spent hundreds of hours preaching and teaching the Bible. I’m known or remembered by a very small amount of people. I have no platform or brand. My Twitter following is abysmal. I think this uniquely qualifies me to give some reflections on twenty years of persevering in this calling. These are my reflections on my personal journey and where I hope women preachers and teachers will go.

“Big changes happen in small rooms” -Jenn Wilkin

I’ve heard a lot of very well known women, preaching some version of, “I started teaching in Sunday School, a nobody! But if you are faithful in the small then God will entrust you with much” (the much being large crowds). Or perhaps you’ve heard this sentiment, “Be faithful in the small, your promotion is just around the corner”

All this makes me want to barf. Implicit in a lot of American Christianity is this: the goal is large crowds, big stages, and thousands of Facebook likes. Such self-promotion should embarrass us and make us break out into hot sweats.

Being well known or having influence to more people is not inherently bad! Some woman become known by many. This is God’s calling for them (and burden for them to bear). But it should never be our goal. It is not Christ like. It is not what Paul modeled.

Jenn Wilkin says, “Big changes happen in small rooms.” I long for more woman preachers and teachers who love to see big changes in small rooms.

Someone once said to me, “Don’t worry, you may be teaching small groups of people but you never know who is in the room. You may change be teaching the next president of a country!” Again, shaping a future president is wonderful. But, implicit in their words was a belief that small crowds are a failure… unless a future famous person might be in the room!

This is not the way of the Kingdom. 

While large rooms full of a lot of people are not inherently wrong in any way, to set our hearts on this as the goal should be something we zealously guard against, not put on our dream board or idealize as success. May God save us from ever seeing small rooms as mere stepping stones to big stages.

Jesus taught the crowds and the one woman who would sit at his feet in rapt attention. I can only imagine someone coming along to reassure Jesus, “Don’t worry, you are preaching to nobodies today but your promotion is just around the corner!”

I recently flew across the country to spend a week teaching to a group of… wait for it… 8 people! Someone actually asked me, “You flew across the country to teach eight people?” Yep! Big changes happen in small rooms. And time spent with God’s precious people is always amazing. Teaching to anybody is always an honor. We must prepare for the 2 like we would for the 2,000.

Success is not large crowds, big stages or developing my own brand. This is not the way of Jesus and His kingdom.

If you live by praise you will die by criticism.

I’ve learned this the painful way. Praise and compliments are great. But the more I love the praise, the more I get flattened when the criticism comes. 

Human opinion is a two-sided coin. Both praise and criticism can be extremely helpful as a public speaker. But there is this place in our hearts that can crave the praise… and it makes us so vulnerable to devastation when the inevitable criticism comes. 

I’ve had my fair share of devastating moments. Public speaking is unique. When you fail or do a sub-par job, it is in front of a whole room of people. There is no hiding. People often felt freedom to come and tell me exactly how I could have done it better. Ouch.

Sometimes my speaking disasters took me months and months to recover from. I still have a few moments that can make me cringe… years later!

I know for sure, if I live by the praise, I will die by the criticism. 

Be faithful to the end.

What is it like to be a “woman” preacher? A real joy and a challenge at times. I’ve never written about this. But, why not now?

This is the reality.

I’ve spoken to large crowds of thousands and small rooms with just three people who faithfully showed up (thank you to those three!)

I’ve heard compliments that made me blush. I’ve also had men stand up and walk out on me in protest of a woman preaching (multiple times). 

I once had a man sit in silent protest during an entire week of my teaching, refusing to take one note, lest he learn from a woman. I’ve had several men decide they would listen to my teaching but make it a miserable experience by challenging me at every turn. I once had to remove a student from a class because he was harassing me so badly. I literally stopped the class and told him in front of everyone, “I will not continue teaching until you leave this room.” He did not go quietly.

I’ve also had many, many men thank me for my exposition of scriptures and how I’ve impacted them. So many have stayed late after class to ask questions and wrestle through the scriptures with me.

I’ve had many male and female leaders open multiple doors for my gifting to be present in new places. I’ve also listened to many, many men tell me they would invite a woman to preach if they just knew of any women preachers! “They just don’t exist! Woman need to really start stepping up!” I just smile kindly and listen.

I’ve sat in the front row cheering on my husband as he spoke in a church that didn’t allow woman preachers. I am a member of a church that ordains and celebrates women.

There have been challenges and also so much to celebrate.

Where have all these stories left me?

Be faithful to God’s calling. That is the win.

“Well done my good and faithful servant” is only music to my ears if a life lived in faithfulness to Jesus is my win.

If a win is convincing everyone of my perspective or gaining greater influence, hearing these words of Jesus might be a disappointment.

I love to see women preaching and teaching… in small rooms or wherever God might lead them. I pray and hope for an army of woman who simply seek to be faithful to the calling of Jesus, speak truth boldly and leave the rest up to Him.

Jesus is the goal. Faithfulness is the win.

Digital Minimalism

The day was coming to an end and I wanted to check if it was my turn on a game of Scrabble with my mother (who lives in Seattle). I looked in the usual spots for my phone but couldn’t find it. I searched high and low. I recruited my family, “do you have any idea where my phone is!?”. It suddenly occurred to me where it might be. I looked into my purse and there it was! 

This is significant. 

I realised, I had not taken my phone out of my purse since arriving home four hours ago. In four hours it did not occur to me once to check something on my phone or escape a moment of boredom through mindless scrolling.

Victory. 

Reducing the distraction and noise is often called “digital minimalism”. I like this term, coined by Cal Newport in his excellent book, Digital Minimalism. How can we reduce the amount of engagement with our phones, the interwebs, streaming services, podcasts, and social media to the absolute minimum.

All these things create, what I call, “digital noise”. A constant stream of interruptions and distractions that play as a soundtrack to our lives.

What would it look like to reduce the digital noise down to a minimum?

Honestly, there are no tips are tricks that will magically transform this area of your life (although I’m about to give some to you.)

There is internal work that needs to be done. We need to be brutally honest about this area of our lives. The internet is designed to build compulsive behavior in us. We will not stumble in to digital minimalism. Ruthlessness is required.

Social media apps, after all, are designed after slot machines. They are specifically designed to build compulsive behavior in us. Refreshing our feed one more time or checking the comments compulsively is not an accident. 

The first step to digital minimalism is ruthless honesty about your personal state of affairs and the cold hard truth as to how difficult this might be. 

Once you’ve done an assessment. Pick one or two and slowly start on the path towards untethering. The goal is for their to be one Master in your relationship with the digital world… and it is you. When someone asks you how this area of your life is doing, the goal is to say, “Really well, I engage with it only as much as I’ve set.”

Here are some ideas of how to get started. 

  1. Take social and media apps off your phone. This includes Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, YouTube… you name it. This is my #1 suggestion. I took all of these apps off and more. Best decision ever. After time, I have only added back Instagram. The majority of my social and media consumption is only on my laptop. This one move has reduced my mindless browsing by 95%. I cannot imagine having them back on my phone. The mental calmness and clarity I gained surprised me.
  2. Put a babysitter on your computer browser. You can actually install a add-on to your browser that will lock you out of Social Media or any other specific website (like YouTube) after a certain amount of time. It is lovely having a screen go blank after 15 minutes of scanning Facebook. Ask a computer nerd to help you if you don’t know how.
  3. Get an old fashioned alarm clock. Charge your phone either across your bedroom or in another room. The science is powerful… your brain does so much better when you don’t wake up and stare at your screen first thing in the morning. 
  4. Put your phone in detention at certain times of the day. When my family is all together at the end of the day, I often will put my phone upstairs on my dresser. I am not allowed to remove it from that spot. If I want to check on my messages, I can do that. I just have to walk upstairs, stand there at my dresser and awkwardly read the messages. It cuts down on my mindless scanning. My kids and husband also don’t see me staring at my phone while we are together for the first time all day.
  5. Make a personal rule that when you are in social gatherings, the phone goes away. Put your phone on silent (including no vibrating). Enjoy a dinner with eye contact, long conversations. Untether eating and digital noise on altogether.
  6. Set a day each weekend where you commit to not look at your phone for the first 2-3 hours of the day. 
  7. Set tasks in your life that have a “no noise” policy. I take my dog for 1-2 walks each day. I have a strict no phone rule on these walks. There is restorative power in a walk, listening to the birds, just looking around without a podcast in my ears. Other ideas for times to banish all digital noise: While cooking meals, when you are with family or friends at the end of each day or set a certain time period each day (such as 6-8 pm every day.) Commit to building your capacity to doing these tasks in digital silence!Choose one or two of these and begin! What other ideas do you have that help you pursue digital minimalism?

You Should Read More Fiction

I know that some people only read fiction. But, overall, I am convinced people should read more fiction. Over the years I have had many people I respect tell me that fiction is a waste of time. I get what they were saying. Why read a bunch of trashy romance novels when you could read an inspiring biographies or a captivating account of history?

There are many great reasons to read fiction. In these times, I wish more people would read fiction to gain greater empathy. Most of us live very compartmentalized lives. We often hang out with people of the same race, economic status, religious belief or political persuasion. This has not produced a more caring society. We are a society that has become a stranger to ourselves.

Let me give one example. In the NFL protests, many players were “taking a knee” during the national anthem to protest the injustices that African-Americans were experiencing. I heard many, many opinions about these acts of protest. One thing that stunned me was this… not one person that disagreed with them showed much curiosity. I never heard something along these lines: “I am really shocked by this act, it feels so wrong to me. I really need to ask an African-American why they feel this is the right thing to do.” There was such a glaring lack of curiosity to truly understand one another.

We need less of, “What is wrong with those people?!” and more of, “What don’t I understand about their perspective?” It is not so much about having to agree with someone.  I wish we had more curiosity which leads to empathy. Empathy is better than outrage when it comes to our disagreements.

Enter, fiction!

May I just put it forward that reading more fiction books that tell of stories, lives and worlds that are different to our own can be one small way we can bridge this divide.

If you feel mystified or shocked at the viewpoints of another, fiction could be a great way to gain empathy and understanding. Even if you don’t agree, a good story might at least help you say, “I don’t agree but I do understand how they got there and I get it”

Here’s some recommendations from my reading in 2017:

Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah:
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I loved Half of a Yellow Sun, the tale of a family experiencing the struggle for independence in Nigeria in the 1960’s. If you’ve heard of the many wars in Africa, this book will place you on the inside to taste, feel and experience what it is like with all it’s complexities. Great characters, great story. If you haven’t already, though, you could start with the author’s other book, Americanah. This is an absolute must read, I couldn’t put it down. It is the tale of a Nigerian couple immigrating to America. One makes it, the other doesn’t. Their journeys are captivating.

The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead

This is the tale of an escaped slave girl in pre-abolition America. I loved this book because it was creative and you become very invested in the characters. The book has won multiple and well-deserved awards. Gripping, emotional and can’t put down.

The Round House
by Louise Edrich

I found this one by looking up National Book Award Winners. The setting is a Native American Reservation in North Dakota. A crime on the Ojibwe Reservation forever changes a family. This is the story of a young boys journey for justice and understanding. You will be immersed in a culture not your own. It is well worth your time.

 

Bonus:
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
by Mildred D. Taylor

My 12-year-old son was assigned this book in English class. I could tell it impacted him because he brought it up day after day. I decided to join him in reading it. It is fiction but based on true accounts of the authors family life. It is not an easy read at times. You see the reality of life for African-Americans during the Great Depression. It is well written, lovely characters and can really open up some interesting conversations if you happen to read it with your child. A good book read without your child too!

 

Books I Read in 2017

I’m so thankful I found a love of reading as a young girl and it has carried through my life. I do love reading but I also discipline myself to do it because I value how it shapes me.  Early in my marriage I read a fair amount, averaging 30-40 books a year. The arrival of babies decimated that and, honestly, the internet happened. I found myself reading a lot more short articles, blogs, etc.

The last 4-5 years my kids have gotten older so I can now stay awake longer to read. I also have found that internet reading is not as helpful or enjoyable as reading books. I’ve had a goal for about 4 years to get back up to previous reading habits. I read 30 books in 2017 and enjoyed so many of them. A friend recently encouraged me to post them. Perhaps it will give you some ideas of books you might want to read. So, here is the list.

Just briefly, I have put in parenthesis the type of literature of each book. You will see that I read a pretty wide variety of styles. I have also put an asterisk by any book that I loved and would highly recommend. I plan to release a few more posts in the coming week on some highlights.

2017 Book List:
  1. Freakonomics by Levitt & Dubner (Finance)
  2. How to Rob a Bank by Levitt & Dubner (Finance)
  3. Shoe Dog by Phil Knight (Biography)*
  4. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (Memoir)*
  5. Brave Companions by David McCullough (American History)
  6. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson (Spiritual Theology)*
  7. Half of a Yellow Sun by  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (African/Historical Fiction)*
  8. You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith (Christian-Teaching)
  9. Born A Crime by Trevor Noah (Memoir- South Africa)*
  10. The Bertie Project (44 Scotland Street Series) by Alexander McCall Smith (English Fiction)
  11. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry (American Fiction)
  12. Ruthless by Ron Miscavige (Memoir, American)
  13. News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles (American Fiction)
  14. Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist (Christian Living)
  15. The Round House by Louise Edrich (American Fiction)*
  16. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
  17. The Amish by Steven M. Nolt (History/Current)
  18. The Way of the Dragon or The Way of the Lamb by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel (Christian Teaching)*
  19. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (African-American Fiction)*
  20. Growing Young by Powell, Mulder & Griffin (Christian Teaching)*
  21. What’s Wrong with Religion, by Skye Jethani (Christian Teaching)
  22. My Italian Bulldozer, by Alexander McCall Smith (English Fiction)
  23. Evicted, Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (Non-Fiction/Current Events)
  24. Immeasurable by Skye Jethani (Christian Leadership)*
  25. Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple (American Fiction)
  26. Crossing Over by Ruth Irene Garrett (Amish Memoir)
  27. My Amish Childhood by Jerry s. Eicher (Amish Memoir)
  28. The Perils of “Privilege”, Why Injustice Can’t be Solved by Accusing Others of Privilege by Phoebe Maltz Bovy (Non-Fiction/Current Events)
  29. White Working Class by Joan C. Williams (Current Events)*
  30. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (African-American Fiction)*

 

Living for the 50

When I was a young girl, we had a lot of dogs around. A lot. My dad was breeding hunting dogs for a while so the whole puppy thing was fun (well, my mother might disagree). Eventually, though, puppies started growing and what was cute before was annoying now. A two month old labrador, what is cuter? Attempting to jump on you when their legs are only a few inches long, licking your face and biting your nose as you wrestle in the grass. All of that is decidedly un-adorable when they are two years old.

So, my Dad would begin the whole training program. Daily teaching them to sit, stay, retrieve, not pee on your couch… the whole deal. At the beginning a little doggy treat and abundant affection rewarded every behaviour. But, this constant reward system subsides as time goes on.

Let’s be honest, in marriage, we can all be growing puppies sometimes. We know what to do to make marriage successful. Give affection, listen patiently, forgive and be forgiven, serve sacrificially, communicate needs. In the beginning of the marriage we want puppy treats and abundant celebration with each completed task and chosen moment of love.

Noticing and appreciating our spouse is so important. The reality is, though, that not every act is noticed. Not every moment of love receives a thank you note and flower. There are reasons for this.

For one, it is unrealistic. Not every act of love can be noticed and celebrated.

But what do we do when we realise marriage involves a lot of unnoticed acts of sacrifice? When the reality of the work it takes comes into clear view? What do we do when there is not immediate pay-check for making the right choices? When there is no immediate reward for choosing to love and serve our spouse?

How do we make choices to invest in our marriage day in and day out when we don’t get the immediate reward?

Here’s what we say in our marriage. We are living for the 50.

My husband and I have this framed in our home:
50-new

For most marriages, the most important date is their anniversary. Celebrating the day they got married. We have another date the we look at every single day, September 14, 2052.

On this day, by God’s grace, we will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary.

This is the day we have before us day in and day out.

We don’t want to live because we once got married, when we looked so perfect and saw barely a flaw in each other. We have chosen to also live towards a day in the future. We want to live our marriage in a way so that we will still be married on September 14 2052. And not just still married. But having a marriage full of the life and love that we long for.

I want to love my husband not for today’s reward but rather towards the vision I have of our 50th.

Some days I serve my husband and there is an immediate reward… an affectionate hug, a thankful word. But many days there is no immediate gratification. Many days we annoy each other to no end. Many days our communication feels like we are literally speaking different languages.

In those moments, that framed date reminds me to not just love Chris for today’s reward. Whether he notices or not, I’m living and loving for the 50. I make daily decisions in our marriage that will get us to that 50th in the way we want.

Today’s culture tells us to “live in the moment” and “do what’s good for you”. Some moments what is good for me is a sarcastic comment and silent treatment towards my husband. That’s what would feel good in the moment.

Don’t forget to live for the 50. When you live your marriage for the 50 you don’t always do what feels good in the moment, you make daily little decisions that invest in a future reality.

Some days I think, “Why should I be generous towards him, he won’t even notice?!” In that moment, I think of September 14, 2052 and remind myself… live for the 50.

We don’t arrive happy, in love and best friends at our 50th because of one grand event or one big romantic gesture. You arrive there little by little. Day by day. Living each day for the 50.