21-25: Some Things Matter More than You Think

21. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

See the difference? The guy in the front has been using it.  The other guy CLEARLY lost it.In number 20, I suggested that practice makes perfect.  I’ve also learned that even after you’ve gotten pretty good at something, you have to keep practicing it, or it’s gone.  By the time I went to college, I was nearly fluent in German (5 years of secondary schooling and a 3-week trip to Germany ensured that).  Today? I could get by in Germany (meaning, I don’t think I’d die or starve to death), but I’ve forgotten most everything I knew.

Most things in life, unfortunately, are not ‘just like riding a bike’.  If I work hard to be come a loving, kind person, if I cultivate the fruits of the Spirit in my life, I will never reach a point where I’ve ‘made it’, and I can just stop practicing those virtues.  I will be slowly dragged back towards my base, default tendencies.  So use it!  Practice kindness, joy, peacemaking.  Practice giving honor and respect to everyone around you.  Practice seeking the good in other people.  Not only will you get better and better at it, but you’ll be formed as a person for whom these attitudes and behaviors become second nature.

22. Tattoos are really awesome.

TattooI got my first tattoo almost exactly 10 years ago today.  As of last Friday, I now have nine separate pieces that cover a lot of my upper body.  Given that I worked first for a Southern Baptist church and now for a Nazarene church, I’ve encountered plenty of people who think tattoos are evil.  For a long time I couldn’t articulate clearly why I like tattoos, and why I kept covering more and more of my body with them.

But a few years ago, I realized the explanation was much simpler than I was trying to make it.  My tattoos are simply an expression of my faith.  The pieces I get are shaped by foundational convictions I have about the nature of Christianity and a life lived following Jesus and participating in his gospel.

I’m not an evangelist for tattoos – I don’t recommend other people get tattoos unless they want to, and unless they’re confident in what they want.  But that said, tattoos really are awesome.

23. Unity is as important as Truth.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor most of my life, I’ve been a Truth Crusader.  Take a look at that picture: that was me.  Ready to slay the infidel if you didn’t agree with my point of view.  My arsenal was fierce – I had marshaled an army of words so that I could cut you down with the sword that came out of my mouth, and I was very good at it.  Few foes could stand against me (and clearly I hadn’t learned lesson 16 yet: God is not on my side).

But I realized that  – while God certainly cares about Truth, God also commands unity among us followers of Jesus.  In fact, according to Jesus, the singular mark of his disciples is not our commitment to Truth.  It’s how we love each other – how unified we are.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
– John 13:35

As I pointed out in #17, Love isn’t always mushy, but it is our highest virtue, the most foundational aspect of who God is.  We ought to pursue the one who is the Truth, confessing that none of us has a perfect picture of Jesus.  That’s why we need each other.

I dare you to include some people who rub you the wrong way in your inner circle.  Learn to love them and watch what happens to your soul.

24. The words “liberal” and “conservative” have become pretty much worthless.

When I graduated from high school, I considered myself very conservative politically, theologically – really in most any way I thought mattered.  I attended a private Christian school that would also be considered very conservative on nearly any scale you choose to use to measure such things.  And yet as I studied there, I developed a reputation as a ‘liberal’.

I wasn’t sure why – I held the same foundational beliefs as my schoolmates, but because I pushed the envelope, questioned (and yes, wrote a few intentionally controversial papers), I was tarred with the most feared of all epitaphs.

Then I went to grad school at the University of Missouri, to study Religious Studies.  My schoolmates and professors at Mizzou seemed to be a little bit shocked by my beliefs at first – I believed the Bible was inspired by God and that Jesus literally came back from the dead.  In the four month gap between undergrad and grad school, I went from being known as the crazy liberal to a crazy conservative.

What this taught me was that these words are empty.  They’ve become weapons that we hurl at our opponents to label them, to mark their ideas as dangerous (or stupid or unworthy of our attention).  We use these words to block other people and their ideas out of our lives.  To protect ourselves from Others who are not like us.  If you tell me someone’s a ‘liberal’, all that tells me (given the larger context of your statement), is whether that person agrees with you or not.  As words that help move a discussion forward, they’ve lost all utility.  I move that we abandon them starting yesterday!

25. The Earth really is important.

I was always taught that we don’t have to care about the physical world because eventually God is going to come back and destroy it.  For me, this translated into an apathy towards the Earth.  I didn’t recycle, littered freely and didn’t try to conserve anything.  I didn’t take care of my body – after all, it’s just a prison of flesh that we’ll eventually escape from!

But as I learned more and more of who God is, I learned that the physical world is not a pile of resources we can consume at our leisure.  Everything physical, all matter, is a gift from God to us, and we are called to be good stewards of it.  Our bodies matter to God, and how we treat our bodies (and the Earth!) says something about the state of our souls.

So what about you?  Got any tattoos?  Are you liberal or conservative?  And do you take care of your body or the Earth?

Bringing Sexy Back?

I want to wrap up this series by reflecting on the conversation PETA has started with these ads, and what we might learn from them.

PETA’s work is important, and worth our attention.

While I don’t agree with all of PETA’s values or methods, I believe their message and voice are important.  Our culture has made the exploitation of creation for our own convenience and pleasure the rule of the day.  We seldom give second thought to what we eat, wear or drive and how it affects the world around us.

Christians do have a responsibility to Creation, and we would get a lot further by partnering with organizations like PETA.  We don’t have to agree with everything they do, but instead of condemning them, we can offer a helpful voice of critique.  And if we listened a little bit more closely to what they’re saying we can learn something as well.

PETA’s ads raise several important questions we must take seriously.

1. When did you last give thought to where the products you use originated?

If you’re like me, the answer is: a long time ago.  I use animal products – I eat meat, I wear leather, etc.  And I’m not against killing animals as a rule.

But take a look at this horrifying video of a fur farm (if you have the stomach for it).  I don’t wear fur, but this video gave me pause because in watching it, I realized that I need to be more conscious of what I consume.  The way we treat creation says a lot about our picture of the creator, and I believe we can treat animals more humanely than they’re usually treated in our mass-production mills.  (Another great resource to get you thinking is the film Food, Inc.  You can get it on Netflix OnDemand if you’re a subscriber!)

2. What are we doing to live out our convictions?

A lot of the power of PETAs ads comes from the status of the persons they feature.  Each of these persons (allegedly) has some sort of influence over a number of other persons and they choose to leverage that influence to support a cause in which they believe.

PETA works very hard to change your mind.  They work so hard because they’re passionate about their message.  They’ll stop at nothing to save animals from unethical treatment.

I have an important message to communicate.  I’m passionate about it as well.  I bet you are too.  I want to go to the next-next level.  I want you to walk away from an encounter with my message unable to get it out of your head.  I want you to find it compelling.  I want you to mull it over for the next week (or more!).  PETA has encouraged me to step up my game.

3. Why are PETA’s ads so effective?

These ads are brilliant.  They’re smart and sexy (and for the record, I don’t think sexy has to be bad).  They communicate the same message on multiple levels and they have generated an enormous amount of attention.  I haven’t seen anyone in the Church do this effectively in a long time.

Which brings me to…

We would do well to learn from PETA’s communication techniques.

PETA is not the devil; they’re doing some good, and they’re working harder and more creatively than most faith-based organizations I’ve encountered.  They’re using the resources they have at their disposal and they’re using them well.  For me, they call to mind Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-12).

Listen to what PETA had to say in defense of their ad campaigns: “As for the sexy women in our ads, the silly costumes, the street tableaux and the tofu sandwich give-aways, in a world where people want to smile, can’t resist looking at an attractive image and are up for a free meal, if such harmless antics will allow one individual to reconsider their own role in exploiting animals, how can it be faulted? Yes, Peta could restrict its activities to scientific work, but how often do you read of that in the papers? It could just hand out lengthy tracts about ethics, but how many people would stop and take one, let alone read it? Any peaceful action that opens eyes, hearts and minds should be commended, not condemned.

I would debate whether the ads truly are peaceful – there’s a violence in pornography and in misappropriation – but that (important) debate aside, notice what PETA is doing: they recognize that just talking at people doesn’t effect change, that facts and figures (and, I would add, casually quoted Bible verses) don’t move us to alter our lifestyles.  So they appeal beyond our reason, to our emotions and to our identities.

HERO-JESUS-T-Shirt-Front-Design-M I wish that within the Church our communication was more creative and intention in the ways we communicate.  I don’t think that everything PETA did in these campaigns was right, but they are effective, original and creative – three words we can seldom apply to anything coming out of the Church.

PETA’s ads make me ask, “Am I using all my creativity to generate compelling and original incarnations of the Gospel?  Am I working at what I’m communicating, or am I stuck in a rut, talking at instead of talking with?”

What we need is a better picture of healthy sexuality.

The short takeaway from this for me is: Until we as Christians develop a healthy picture of sexuality that is indebted more to thoughtful exegesis of Scripture than it is to traditional (read: Western, post-industrial revolution) gender roles and unreasonable, culturally-formed sexual expectations, we’ll never be able to do anything more than stomp our feet and throw a temper-tantrum when we discover cultural texts such as the PETA ads.  To borrow a line from Andy Crouch, our posture will always be one of condemnation, never one of critique and certainly not one of creativity.

And we desperately need creative and clever pictures of healthy sexuality in our culture right now.  If this study has taught me nothing else, it’s how broken we all are, how fully our culture screws up our picture of what it means to be sexually healthy.  I don’t have much of an idea of what this looks like yet, but it’s something I’m exploring pretty heavily for an upcoming series of posts.

For now, though, I’d really like to hear your thoughts about what constitutes a healthy sexuality.  Pretty please?

Coda: Better Late than Never?

One last note – one of PETA’s more recent campaigns is “Ink not Mink”, which features various tattoo-bearing celeb in an anti-fur message.  And best of all, most of them are male – from R&B artist Mario and rocker Tommy Lee to “Miami Ink”’s Ami James and “Jackass” star Steve-O.  And, of course, Dennis Rodman.  The ads are no less pornographic (with the possible exception of Steve-O, who is just absurd), but at least including men in the ads is more… balanced?

And in case any of you are unsure, these pictures are great examples are what NOT to do.