Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Stop saying "It's not a religion."

"Are you religious?"

I've always found this to be a tough question to answer- my background is evangelical Christianity, which very much emphasizes that no, this is not a religion. "Religion" is about following rules to earn God's approval, and that's not what we believe. We believe God loved us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8), and there is no way we could have ever earned that.

"It's not a religion, it's a relationship." I don't believe this anymore. Image source.

So, how should I answer when asked "Are you religious?"

Because, you know, I wouldn't want to be confused with those "religious people" who just try to follow rules and don't actually care about God. I wouldn't want to be confused with those "Christians" who only go to church on Christmas and don't even own a bible. I wouldn't want to be confused with those people who say God just loves everyone and wants them to be happy- and never count the cost of following Jesus.

I can say I'm Christian, but hey, a lot of people say they're Christian- what does it even mean? I can add some adjectives on the front of it- evangelical, bible-believing, born-again- to show I'm serious about it... but then again, those are just labels for particular subcultures within organized religion. I can throw on my own descriptor- "I'm a Christian and I love Jesus more than anything", "I'm a Christian and Jesus changed my life", etc. Maybe I'll even stop using the word "Christian" and just say I'm a "disciple of Jesus"- see, that'll show everyone that my faith is my own and I'm not just blindly following what some organized religion says.

No. STOP! This whole thing comes from a desire to separate myself from my brothers and sisters who follow the same God I do. Why do I need to judge? Why do I need to say, "I'm a Christian, but not THAT kind of Christian"?

It's not my job to figure out who is and who is not a "real" Christian. If someone says they're a Christian, I'll take their word for it, and they can take it up with Jesus later if needed.

Agape Church, in Chongqing.
Why? Because I went to China.

Because a friend of a friend, whom I had never met before, let me stay with her in her tiny apartment. Because she took me out to restaurants and never let me pay for food or even the bus fare. Because we prayed together- in both English and Chinese- and cried together.

Because a member of her church invited us to his apartment- with cement floors and no heat- and we all made dumplings together. Because he GAVE ME a bible- a Chinese/English bible, which I had tried so hard to buy but they were out of stock at the church bookstore.

Because they tolerated my bad Chinese and my annoyance at being spoken to in English. Because they were so hospitable, and made sure I knew what to say to the taxi driver to get home.

And I asked my new best friend, why was she doing all this? Why was she buying me dinner? Why was she taking the time to show me around the city? Why did she never let me pay for anything?

"你是我的妹妹." You are my sister. She didn't know me, but she knew I was a Christian. And somehow, two people from different cultures, on opposite sides of the world, had something in common. Everything is different about us, but we follow the same God.

And that is why I no longer want to separate myself from the body of Christ. I no longer want to create little categories to prove I'm a "real" Christian. No. Because this label, "Christian", connects me to millions of brothers and sisters around the world- they speak different languages, they come from completely different cultures- we have nothing in common except the most important thing.

"You are my sister." I'll never forget her.

You can say "it's not a religion" if you want, but I don't believe that any more. You can say "it's a relationship" if you want, but it's not just a "personal relationship with God"- it's a relationship with every human being on the planet who calls on the name of Jesus.

Now I'm happy to say "I'm a Christian" with no modifiers or disclaimers. Because God is so much greater than anything I could experience in my own little "personal walk with Christ". If he really is a global God, who unites people from every race, every language, every culture- why would I throw that away by distancing myself from the name of "Christian"?

"Are you religious?" Yes, I am a Christian.

Monday, October 29, 2012


1. In which it's not much fun being The Project (posted October 22) "They didn’t see the ways that God was already at work among us. God didn’t arrive in our community when they showed up; He was here all along. (He still is.)"

2. Starving Orphans with Flies (Tropes Christians Use to Talk about the Poor) (posted October 9) "I didn’t wonder whether using this trope damaged both sides, 'the poor' and the Christians representing them, by shifting the issue from how we empower people to how we 'save' babies."

3. The Candy Crowley Effect: Little Things Can Lead to Big Changes (posted October 22) "One of the top barriers that women name to reaching the top is a lack of role models."

4. The S word that ruins most of us (posted October 24) "If the first thing God does to me is the worst thing I can imagine, I have the worst god."

5. How To Be Friends With People Radically Different From You (posted October 24) "What if you believed that every person had a valid reason for his or her view?"

6. What "health of the mother" means (posted October 24) "When cancer was suspected during my pregnancy, I faced a decision no woman wants -- and few politicians understand."

7. Equal Pay For Equal Work: Not Even College Helps Women (posted October 24) "The American Association of University Women is releasing a new study that shows when men and women attend the same kind of college, pick the same major and accept the same kind of job, on average, the woman will still earn 82 cents to every dollar that a man earns."

8. What I Learned from Joshua Harris (posted October 25) OH DEAR GOODNESS, this post summarizes EXACTLY what I was taught about dating and purity and how it made me TERRIFIED of dating. Wow. Like, wow. "I knew that if I broke up with him I would be damaged goods, but also that I should break up with him immediately if I felt our relationship was not leading to marriage."

9. 10 Questions a Pro-Choice Candidate Is Never Asked by the Media (posted October 24)

10. The meaning of human suffering is not The Meaning of Human Suffering (posted October 25) "Why do the hungry suffer? For lack of food. Why do the oppressed and enslaved suffer? For want of liberation. ... Human suffering is cause for action — for individual and institutional and structural steps to relieve it and to prevent it."

Saturday, October 27, 2012

How they feel about the cold in China

Here's a cultural difference that completely surprised me. The last time I was in China was January, and it was cold. So of course, when going outside, we put on a coat and lots of clothes. Just like in the US.

But here's the difference: In China, cold is not seen as a reason to not spend time outside. In the US, if it's freezing out there, you put on your big coat and you go where you need to go but you definitely try to spend as little time as possible outside, because IT'S COLD. In China, if it's freezing, you put on your big coat and apparently you then feel perfectly fine about doing anything and everything outside.

I was kind of baffled. I remember in Beijing, shopping for Spring Festival decorations from sidewalk vendors when it was 30-40 degrees F. I remember in Chongqing, eating at a tiny restaurant with no door, so cold I couldn't even hold my chopsticks.

Culture is such an interesting thing. People have vastly different ideas about what's "normal", and it continues to surprise me. And that's why I'm moving to China.

Temple of Heaven. 天坛。
And now I rewrite this blog post, but in Chinese:






Friday, October 26, 2012

Salt and High Standards

Previously, we saw how Jesus starts out the Sermon on the Mount with a message of encouragement to those most vulnerable. In the next section, he talks about Christians' role in the world and his own purpose.

Read it here: Matthew 5:13-20

"You are the salt of the earth."

Image source.

Salt- what does this symbolize? Well, you need it, and if you don't have it, food tastes bland. But to Jesus' original audience, salt meant a lot more than just flavor.

Wikipedia's History of salt page says that salt was INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT in ancient times because it was used to preserve food. Also it was very valuable- there are accounts of Roman soldiers being paid in salt. (This is where we get the terms "salary" and "he's worth his salt".)

So when Jesus says Christians are "the salt of the earth", we can understand it in 3 ways:
  1. Flavor- Christians add something good and interesting to the world/culture.
  2. Preservative- We need to preserve what is good in the world.
  3. Value- Our influence on culture is super-important.
I pray that I can be like that. That I can contribute something good to the world, that I can be a good friend and somehow make a positive influence on the world in general.

Because that's kind of totally not what Christians are stereotyped as. Supposedly, Christians try to live in a bubble, in our own little world with our own art and music that's not terribly high-quality. No- instead Jesus says we're adding something of value to the world- something that can be appreciated by everyone, regardless of whether they're Christian.

For the "preservative" part- You could interpret it as "preserving the morals of our culture". Definitely. But I feel like "morals" often means "defining who is not allowed to have sex with whom". It should mean much more than that. How about things like love, and helping people, and being a peacemaker? Let's preserve those morals too.

Not sure what Jesus means in this bit about "if the salt loses its saltiness" and how "it is thrown out and trampled by men." Perhaps Jesus is the one who came up with the concept of throwing salt all over the roads when it snows.

He had a bad experience with snow. Image source.

"You are the light of the world."

Same idea here, about being a positive influence on the world, and something that is NEEDED.

Also, light is associated with being able to see clearly. Jesus says "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." Being a "light" means that you are helping people "see" God.

I remember growing up in the church, always hearing this line "people are going to ask what's so different about you, and then you can tell them about God." I wondered what, indeed, was so different- what exactly would I be doing, as a Christian, that would impress other people so much that they'd need to ask about it?

All that I could come up with is ... I don't swear.

Okay, seriously? LOL, I was so silly back then, I thought being a Christian was about NOT doing certain things- not swearing, not drinking, not having sex. Now I think being a Christian is about love. We are supposed to love others- love others even if it's not convenient, love others by sacrificing our own desires in order to help them.

Oh man. That's easy to say but how in the world am I going to do it? God, I pray that I will indeed be salt and light in the world.

"But wait," you may ask, "why is Jesus saying 'you are the light of the world'? I thought Jesus is the light of the world!"

Yes. He said that too. You're allowed to use the same metaphor to mean 2 different things. Try to keep up.

Image source.
Jesus and the Law

Okay now we come to the confusing part. I'll go through it one line at a time:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them."

All right, so far so good. Jesus is clearing up a misconception here: He's not here to say "The law was dumb. Screw it."

No, instead, he says all the law and prophets were leading up to this point, preparing the way for Jesus, and he is here to bring a conclusion, a fulfillment.

"I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished."

Uhh... okay, everything in the law is super-important, down to individual letters...? I'm not sure about this- I've been reading a lot of the Old Testament lately, and it's full of lists of names, lists of who brought what as a gift for the temple, lists of whose land was where... I would argue that there's at least one letter or stroke of a pen in there that no one would ever miss if it was gone. (Plus you have different manuscripts that differ slightly because of copying errors...)

Okay, but maybe Jesus is saying everything that's in the bible is in there for a reason. No idea what the reason is, but okay, I can believe that.

"Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

Wait, what? You lost me. So Jesus says we have to take EVERY SINGLE COMMAND in the Old Testament LITERALLY or else we're a terrible person?

So if I eat pork, or think that stoning disobedient children is wrong, or that women can continue functioning as members of society even when they're having their period... if I argue that the culture back then was horribly sexist and the laws in the bible reflect that, but now we're not like that so we're not going to follow them literally, but instead look at the intent behind them... Jesus thinks that's not right?

Dude, JESUS broke the commands and led others to do the same. Remember when the Pharisees gave him a hard time about healing on the Sabbath? And how he ordered a guy to get up and carry his mat, even though that's not lawful on the Sabbath? And how he defended his disciples' habit of eating without washing their hands- rather than following all the laws about cleanliness?

And wait a minute, if you break the commands and teach others to break them too, you're "least in the kingdom of heaven"? You're not kicked out of the kingdom of heaven? That seems odd.

We'll get to all these questions in a minute, but let's read the final sentence:

"For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

Okay, what? Throughout most of the gospels, Jesus is totally not a fan of the Pharisees and teachers of the law.

I am as confused as this dog. Image source.
What's going on here? What is Jesus talking about? He says we have to take literally every single command in the Old Testament? No way. He says we have to be the epitome of legalism, like the Pharisees?

First of all, this section serves as an introduction to the next part of the Sermon of the Mount. Jesus goes on to lay out commands about not just murder, but anger, not just adultery, but lust. He says we need to love our enemies. He says prayer, giving, and fasting are meaningless if you're just doing it to show off. He commands us not to judge.

In all of it, he sets an incredibly high standard. He goes beyond what was written in the law- but not by making it all about literally obeying all the tiny, arbitrary details. Instead, he emphasizes the intent behind the laws- his raising of standards is based in the greatest 2 commandments: love God and love people.

So perhaps the point of this next part of the Sermon on the Mount is to show us what God expects from us- and that his standard is incredibly high. Kind of a contrast with all the encouragement that we saw in the Beatitudes.

Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it- not to tell us to quit following the law because it's stupid, but to show the true intent behind the law. It's really about having a heart that loves God and loves people, as we'll see in the following weeks.

But I still don't get it!

Yes, this is all well and good, this "high standard" that's about the meaning behind the law, etc- but what about "not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law" and "whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven"? Dude, Jesus IS saying that you have to literally obey all the arbitrary little details. What's with that?

Anyone have any ideas on this? My best guess is he's using hyperbole to emphasize the important role that the law has.

But still...

Summary/ take-home message:

First of all, if you are a Christian, I challenge you to pray that you would be salt and light in the world. I challenge you to pray for it every day for the next week. I'll be praying too.

Also, in this passage Jesus introduces his very high standard. The rest of his sermon gives the specifics. He fulfills the law in that he gets to the core of it- God cares most about one's heart and motives, and the real intent behind the law is to love God and love people.

Stay tuned next week, as we look at what Jesus thinks about anger and lust.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Switchin' It Up With The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

Next post: In which Jesus tells you to cut off your hand (Matthew 5:21-30)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Are other things awesome besides God?

I tend to describe a lot of things as "awesome."  The law of cosines is awesome.  My family is awesome.  This Charizard made of pipe cleaners I found on the internet is awesome:

To clarify, I found the image on the internet. Not the pipe cleaners. Image source.

I've heard people say that "awesome" is a word originally used to describe God (don't know if that's true or not, but whatever) or it should be specifically reserved for God.  Don't say other things are awesome because that takes away from the meaning of "God is awesome."

Totally disagree.  Because if "God is awesome" is the only context in which we heard the word "awesome", we wouldn't have any idea what it even meant.

We already HAVE a word like that.  Holy.  What is the definition of "holy"?  The standard Christian answer for this is "set apart."  Well what does that mean?  I guess "set apart" as in "special."  Not "set apart" as in "the bags of dog poop have been set apart from the other trash so they don't stink up the trash can."

God is "set apart"?  What does that mean?  Err wait, does the "set apart" definition only apply to a context like "God wants his people to be holy", and not "God is holy"?

Okay Perfectnumber, you don't like the "set apart" definition, so how do you define "holy"?

Well, it's like... God is bigger than anything else, orders of magnitude more powerful... something like that...?

Or, it's like, God is perfect, he never does anything wrong, although, how do you really define right and wrong when you're talking about God... er... he's pure (what does that mean?  homogeneous?), he can't tolerate sin, he can't look at sin... he's going to someday bring justice for everyone... is that what "holy" means?

Or maybe, for me it kind of has this majestic feel to it, like God is the king of everything, sovereign over everything, complete authority, no worries- is that what "holy" means?

I really don't know what "holy" means.

But I know what "awesome" means!  I know how excited I get when I find some really cool computer game, or when I learn some interesting fact about an obscure animal, or write code to do some silly math thing, or how much I appreciate my awesome friends when they help me out with something- and God is like that!  God is the inventor of all things awesome.  He made science!  So cool!  I wish I could make science!

So I fully support the use of the term "awesome" to describe things traditionally thought of as unrelated to God (though, they're not really- as I just said, God invented everything awesome).

Agree/disagree?  Anyone out there have a better definition of "holy"?  Are there other words like that, that we only use to talk about God, so no one really gets what they mean?  (I'm looking at you, "hallowed"...)

Monday, October 22, 2012


1. With Friends Like These... (posted October 15) "My feminism – the feminism of today – is Christlike."

2. Is Buying Nothing New Bad for the Economy? (posted October 15) I have wondered about this too- specifically when I hear statistics about "if Americans all spent $x less on Christmas presents they don't need, we could provide clean water to n million people!" What effect would that have on the US economy? Are we at a certain standard of living that is only possible because we are ignoring others' needs?

3. When our interpretations differ... (posted October 15) "For constructive dialog to happen, Christians must stop conflating differences in interpretation of Scripture with differences in commitment to Scripture."

4. Can you feel the sex tonight? (posted October 16) "In my 16-year-old mind, calling Timon and Pumbaa gay was sexualizing them."

5. "You're not like most women" is not a compliment! (posted October 15) Amen to this.

6. Obama Falsely Says Planned Parenthood Performs Mammograms (posted October 16)

7. George Zimmerman trial set for June 10, defense attorney says (posted October 17)

8. Where are you on the Dawkins Scale? (posted October 18) A useful way of looking at things. You could make variations on it for other beliefs too.

9. For evangelicals, racism isn't a dealbreaker, but feminism is (posted October 18)

10. 3.2% of Americans Identify as LGBT, According to New Gallup Poll (posted October 18)

11. The Best Of #FirstWorldProblems Delivered By People Who Wished They Had Them (posted October 15) This video is worth watching... but I have a lot of conflicting thoughts about its message...

12. Bicultural Living (posted October 9) "When we say Jesus is fully God and fully man, we declare that He is ever and always bicultural."

13. Why I am a Christian Democrat (posted October 17)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Having it all... on my own terms

"I'll show them," I thought. "They'll regret this."

In a moment of anger and befuddlement over the fact that I was getting rejected, over and over, at every job I applied to, I vowed that someday those recruiters would realize their mistake.

I'll become a famous engineer. I'll move high up in a huge company. I'll build an awesome robot that all the geeks will drool over. I'll be the mastermind behind the Google self-driving car or the Mars rover. I know I'm smart. I know I can succeed. They'll be sorry.

The only problem is, that's not really what I want.

I will always love robots. Image source.

As an undergrad, I majored in both math and electrical engineering. All my math-major friends went on to PhD programs. Not me. Does it prove that they're smarter than me, if they have PhDs?

I will most likely never have a PhD. Yes, I'm confident that I'm "smart enough" and I could do the work, but it's not what I want.

Okay, what do I want? First of all, I'm moving to China. I know I need to be in China, for so many reasons. I have met so many international students at my university, and I'm always impressed at how they take classes in English, make friends in English, rent an apartment in English, buy a car in English, set up a bank account in English- and the language barrier isn't the only problem; there is a cultural barrier too. But they learn to live and thrive in this foreign culture.

I want to know if I could do it too. Could I really live in China?

And that challenge is far more important to me than having a prestigious job or a PhD. The world is out there, and I want to know what it's like- because 96% of it is nothing like the American culture I am used to. (I say 96% because 96% of people are not Americans.)

And when I go there, my job will most likely be teaching English. I'll become more and more fluent in Mandarin, more and more confident about my ability to go places and do things in China. Is that anyone's definition of "having it all"? Does it matter? It's my definition.

I will not give anyone the power to dictate what I do with my life. I will not be driven by revenge for employers who reject me, comparisons with my peers who have more education than me, or advice about what would and would not be good for my career.

Maybe I won't "have it all" by anyone else's standard, but I'll have exactly what I want.


This post is part of the Having It All blog carnival, hosted by The Mamafesto. Submissions are due October 28. If you want to submit a post from your blog, go for it!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Switchin' It Up With The Beatitudes

"Blessed are ______, for they will ____________." Jesus starts out the Sermon on the Mount with 9 of these statements. (Also known as The Beatitudes.) Let's take a look at them.

Read the passage here: Matthew 5:1-12.

Jesus appears to be mimicking an Italian stereotype here. Image source.

All of Jesus' statements in this passage are one-liners about abstract concepts, some with unusual wording- and keep in mind this is a translation; the original was written in Greek.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

What does "poor in spirit" mean? Seriously, no one talks like this. Except Jesus, apparently. I looked up the original Greek words, and it said they mean poor/beggar and spirit/spiritual/wind. In other words, Jesus is talking about some kind of spiritual poverty.

Now to speculate about what "spiritual poverty" is, and why on earth might the "poor in spirit" be blessed.

Spiritual poverty must mean that one's spiritual needs are not being met. What are spiritual needs? Perhaps people have a need for hope, for a sense of purpose in life, and for a connection with God. But why does Jesus think you're blessed if you don't have those things?

Wait. Being poor doesn't necessarily mean your needs aren't being met- it means they aren't being met reliably and often enough. It means you're very aware of those needs, desperate, restricted, and dependent on others' help. So Jesus is saying that to be desperate for God, dependent on him to meet one's spiritual needs, is a good thing.

But what about those who are not poor in spirit? What would that mean? Rich in spirit? Their spiritual needs are totally satisfied, no worries. Satisfied in God, or something else? If it's in God, how can that be a bad thing? If it's in something else, well, Christians believe that nothing else CAN satisfy those needs, except God- so that doesn't make sense.

So I would argue that the poverty analogy breaks down at this point. Jesus is just saying that it's good to be dependent on God and very aware of one's spiritual needs. Don't think too hard about what the opposite of "poor in spirit" is.

And he says they are blessed "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." So, those who are most desperate for God would be most motivated to follow him and serve him, and therefore they have the largest role to play in God's kingdom.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

Image source.
You mourn when something really bad happens- like, someone dies. How does being "comforted" make this a positive? Wouldn't it be better if the bad thing didn't happen at all, and then you don't mourn, and then you don't get comforted?

Let's just stop for a second and appreciate how COMPLETELY WEIRD Jesus' statement is here. He is saying that mourning is a good situation to be in. Because someday things will get better.

One thing to keep in mind: people in that culture often interpreted tragedy as a sign of God's judgment. If something bad happens to you, it must be because you're a sinner. Jesus completely reverses that- he says those who mourn are blessed, and God will comfort them. (At least, that's how I interpret the "for they will be comforted" part.)

Perhaps this should be understood not as a comparison between those who mourn and those who don't, but as encouragement to people who are facing tragedies in life. God is with you; God understands and feels your pain. And there is hope that things will get better.

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."

Image source.
Really, Jesus? Meek? As in, humble, timid, don't speak up for yourself, shy... How are they going to "inherit the earth"? Just look at all the political campaigning going on right now- all the candidates running around trying to convince everyone "I'm awesome, vote for me!" You can't win if you don't do that. You can't get anywhere in politics if you're meek.

And it's not just politics. To get hired for any job, you need to do your best to convince the hiring manager that you're TOTALLY AWESOME. You'll never get anywhere if you're meek.

And if you make the argument "Jesus doesn't care about political power and a successful career- his kingdom is based on different things"- okay, which things? Things like justice, perhaps? How are you going to fight for justice by being meek? Do you think lawyers who go after perpetrators of human trafficking are meek?

And the "inherit the earth" part- the word "inherit" makes me think of leaving something behind for someone else. So, someday everyone will be gone, except the meek people, and then finally they'll be in charge of the earth. Is that what Jesus is saying? Even if it's true, would that be a good thing? How are meek people going to be good leaders?

It seems to me that one should be meek and humble in certain situations, and brave, confident, even aggressive in other situations. Maybe Jesus isn't saying it's good to be meek all the time, but that when you know the right times to be meek instead of fighting for yourself, God sees it and God will reward you. As for the "inherit the earth" part, maybe Jesus is saying that those who understand when to be meek- those who don't have to win every fight- actually have the most power in the world.

But Jesus did not say "blessed are those who aren't so focused on standing up for themselves all the time"- no, he said "blessed are the meek". So either he's using hyperbole, or he said something that just totally makes no sense. Thoughts?

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."

Whose "righteousness"? Does this refer to people who hold themselves to a very high standard, or people who long to see more righteousness in the world in general? I think it's both.

These are people who see the way the world is, including their own faults, and know that it's not supposed to be this way. People are not supposed to mistreat each other. They hope for a better world, they promote justice, and they strive to be genuinely good people.

One might ask, what's the point? That's way too idealistic- you can never solve all the world's problems, you can never get rid of hate and injustice and corruption. Apparently Jesus thinks you can. "For they will be filled"- what a ridiculous promise!

Jesus is saying it's NOT "too idealistic" to long for a better world. That those who are dissatisfied with the way things are are actually blessed. And I can only assume "they will be filled" refers to heaven.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy."

Mercy is being nicer than you "should" to someone. It's responding politely and graciously when someone insults or accuses you. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

In my experience, the problem with mercy is the other person might get away with hurting me without realizing how much they've hurt me. Without getting what they deserve. Without justice. But Jesus was merciful, and calls his followers to be merciful too.

As for the "for they will be shown mercy" part- that could mean God gives them mercy, or it could even mean other people show them mercy. If you're the kind of person who is nice to people who don't deserve it, maybe they'll also be nice to you when you do something wrong.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."

Image source.

What is "pure in heart"? I can only speculate, with no real confidence that I'm getting it right, because this is just not a term that anyone ever uses, and Jesus gives us no context.

Perhaps it means pure motives? Being driven by a genuine desire to do good, love God, love people- rather than being driven by pride and selfishness. Perhaps it means innocence, assuming the best of people. Perhaps it means honesty.

What does it mean to "see God", and why do the "pure in heart" get to? The best answer I have is that people who are genuinely kind and seeking to help others will more easily see God's work in the world and good in humanity.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God."

Image source.
Being a peacemaker is hard. It means talking to two groups who disagree, and trying to get them to listen and understand each other. It can even be dangerous, discouraging, and lonely, as each side accuses you of being a traitor, and tries to force you to pick a side.

I'm thinking about controversies in the church, and wishing more of us could be peacemakers.

Why will they "be called sons of God"? Who is calling them that? Other people? God? Maybe this means that people will recognize the peacemakers really are doing God's work.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

These are people who do the right thing, and then everyone gives them a hard time about it. These are people who refuse to lie and cheat, and they lose their job because of it. These are people who stand up for someone who is being bullied.

What about when you're trying to do something good, but you don't understand the situation well enough, and you face opposition because your brilliant plan is actually not helpful at all? For example, you try to start some sort of program to "help the poor" but you don't actually understand their needs. I don't doubt that you're genuinely trying your best to do the right thing. But if you're unsuccessful, is it really "persecution because of righteousness"?

Anyway, Jesus says "theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This seems to be kind of a poetic thing- he starts off with "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" and right here he ends with "theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Also, those who are not afraid to do what's right, even when facing opposition, are those who really understand what it means to be part of God's kingdom. They don't fear anything the world can throw at them- they believe God's kingdom is more real than any persecution.

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

This one is different because it says "blessed are you". What does it mean to say "you" instead of "those who [fill in the blank]"? Jesus is talking to his disciples here- he fully expects that they will be insulted, persecuted, and falsely accused because of their commitment to him. The previous ones were more general.

In other words, this is the only one of the beatitudes which is specifically for Christians. The other ones can apply to everyone.

Jesus tells his disciples to "rejoice and be glad"- the previous beatitudes do not have any sort of command attached to them. "Rejoice and be glad" because the prophets were also persecuted.

But my advice is: don't be so quick to look for persecution. If people are opposing you, is it because of your commitment to Jesus, or is it because you're being a jerk? "Jesus said we would face persecution!" is too often used as an excuse to not care about whether you're being nice to people.

When there is backlash against Christians, when people are hurt or angry by things we say or do, we have to take that seriously. We have to look at the reasons why- are they angry about Jesus himself, or are they angry because we're using Jesus as an excuse to judge them?

What is the purpose of the Beatitudes? Is Jesus saying these are things we SHOULD try to be?

Or is he just telling us facts?

For some of the beatitudes (meek, merciful, peacemakers) it's clear how you could choose to be like that. For some (poor in spirit, hunger/thirst for righteousness, pure in heart) it's about being a certain type of person, and to become like that would be a slow process, but it can be done if you work toward it and pray for God to change you. For some (mourn, persecuted for righteousness, persecuted for Jesus), these are caused by circumstances beyond your control.

So should we understand this as "You should be poor in spirit. You should be meek. You should be merciful. [etc etc]"? No- this passage is about encouraging those who are weak or going through bad situations, and showing that in God's kingdom, they are the ones who are truly blessed. God is with them, and God understands. If we think of this as a list of commands, it puts pressure on us- "oh no, what do I need to do to be 'poor in spirit'???" - rather than the encouragement that Jesus intended.

(Though if you have opportunity to be merciful or a peacemaker, please do so.)

Summary/ take-home message:

Almost every one of these statements is incredibly backwards. "Blessed are the poor in spirit", "blessed are those who mourn", etc... They are meant to seem backwards and ridiculous. Jesus is reversing the way things normally work.

This passage is meant to be shocking. How can it be good to be in need, dependent, weak, dissatisfied, persecuted?

And what shocks me is I have to conclude Jesus is not just talking about Christians. What part of mourning, being meek, being merciful, hungering for righteousness, or being persecuted for righteousness requires being a Christian? Even the more spiritual-sounding beatitudes can quite easily apply to people of other religions besides Christianity.

In the coming weeks, we'll see how the rest of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount reverses/challenges things people had been taught. He starts here, with a shocking list of which groups in society are truly blessed.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: In which Jesus actually starts doing stuff (Matthew 4:12-25)

Next post: Salt and High Standards (Matthew 5:13-20)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Isn't dating the opposite of avoiding lust?

A question from past perfectnumber628:

Right now I'm single and I know my own weaknesses and how to deal with lust. When I encounter some really hot guy, or I'm in a situation with a lot of temptation, I know I need to get out of there. But I don't get how this strategy is compatible with dating. If I'm dating someone, I have a responsibility to spend time with him. And it would be someone that I considered physically attractive. So isn't dating about being CLOSER to lust, rather than fleeing from it, like I'm supposed to do? It just seems like dating is a highly dangerous thing, in terms of temptation, and I don't get how God can be okay with me putting myself into that situation. But this doesn't make sense because dating is necessary in order to get married. How is this supposed to work?

And now, an answer from present perfectnumber628:

Yo wat up, past perfectnumber628? I love you and I TOTALLY get where you're coming from.

Here's your error in logic- you believe "the more time I spend with a hot guy, the more likely that I will lust." This may be true in some cases, but if it's the kind of guy you should be dating, it won't be like that. Why? Because you'll get to know him, and you'll like him for other reasons too.

I remember when I first met my boyfriend, I thought he was really hot. While this is obviously an undeniable fact (and REALLY IMPORTANT- I wouldn't date someone I didn't think was attractive), I don't think about it much anymore, now that we've been dating for a few months. Why? Because there are so many other awesome things about him, so many other reasons that I like him.

Lust is about objectifying someone, reducing them down to one dimension, desiring to use them for sex and for my own pleasure. The more I get to know someone, the less likely I am to think of him in that way.

Ironically enough, this means that to address the problem of lust, we should have men and women spend MORE time together, not less. If you completely avoid the opposite gender, for fear that you will be tempted, then you will see them only as strange mystical sexual beings- you see them as one-dimensional, where their most important characteristic is their (highly dangerous) sexuality.

But if you have healthy friendships with members of the opposite gender, then you treat them as real people. As friends. And why would I objectify my friends? Why would I want to use them for sex?

And I know that temptation isn't so straightforward and logical- it's not like my advice here is going to get rid of all lust forever. Every person is different, and you have to know your own weaknesses and limitations.

But my point is that it's NOT true that the more time I spend with a hot guy, the more likely I am to lust. In fact, given the existence of Absurdly-Hot-Guy, in which of the following situations would I lust more?
  1. I am dating Absurdly-Hot-Guy
  2. Absurdly-Hot-Guy is just an acquaintance that I see occasionally.
I think #2 would have more potential for lust. Why? Because then I don't really know this guy- I just know some superficial things about him, and I can imagine whatever fantasy I want, without even realizing how far it is from reality.

But if I was dating him, I wouldn't call him Absurdly-Hot-Guy anymore. My relationship with him would be based on so much more than physical attractiveness. He'd mean so much more to me than just his appearance... the label Absurdly-Hot-Guy just wouldn't seem fitting. Hotness is a prerequisite for dating, but a healthy relationship is about so much more than that.

So do not fear, past-version-of-me. You can date, and it won't make you automatically more vulnerable to lust.

Also, because I know you need to hear this too: Don't be so afraid. God gives us freedom. ^_^

Monday, October 15, 2012


1. Banned Books Change Lives. (posted September 30) "If To Kill a Mockingbird (or other books that contain 'the n-word') were banned, this conversation never would have happened. If we had never brought the 'n-word' into our classroom, all those students would still not understand why their hackles raise when they hear it, or why it is taboo to say it."

2. Sensitive Scientists Report 5 in 5 Women Don't Know How Beautiful They Are (posted October 4) It's The Onion, but still, this is adorable.

3. The A La Carte Bible (posted October 3)

4. Curiosity Finds... SOMETHING... on Martian Surface (posted October 9) Looks like a little piece of metal. On one hand, I think this is so cool, on the other hand, it's a bit bizarre that a robot finding a tiny bit of metal is front-page news.

5. 'Sesame Street' Asks Obama Campaign To Take Down Big Bird Ad (posted October 9)

6. What happens when Jesus is not the answer? (posted October 9) "When William Wilberforce set out to end the slave trade, no one asked ‘how many got saved?’ Wilberforce worked for justice, to right a terrible wrong and to see people set free in this world."

7. Sex, women, and "giving" (posted October 10) A critique of the assumptions behind "why wives need to give their husbands more sex" and the statistics that supposedly support it.

8. Best Marriage Advice We Received (posted October 10)

9. Sign you might listen to a lot of Christian music (posted October 11). LOL!

10. "Boys Will Be Boys" Is No Excuse For Bad Behavior (posted October 7) "I know it's a lurid metaphor, but I taught my daughter the preschool block precursor of 'don't get raped' and Boy #1 did not learn the preschool equivalent of 'don't rape.'"

11. Treadmill Kittens (posted in 2007) Youtube video of 2 cats on a treadmill. I lolled.

12. Skydiver lands safely after historic jump from edge of space (posted October 14) Well, that's just awesome.

13. In Defense of the 4-Letter Word (posted October 3) "And upon hearing of a friend’s cancer diagnosis, I might go so far as to suggest that it’s more profane to say God never gives you more than you can handle than it is reach across the table, grab her hands, whisper the word fuck."

Saturday, October 13, 2012

In which Jesus actually starts doing stuff

This week we're reading Matthew 4:12-25, in which Jesus actually starts doing stuff.

Jesus fulfills a prophecy.

Matthew mentions that Jesus lived near Zebulun and Naphtali. Here is a handy map:

Zebulun and Naphtali are up at the north end. Image source.
Matthew connects this to a prophecy written by Isaiah, which specifically mentions that region and says "the people walking in darkness have seen a great light." It's from Isaiah 9, and I really recommend reading verses 1-7, even though Matthew only quotes verses 1-2.

I suspect that Matthew's first audience would have been familiar with this passage, so Matthew is actually communicating the idea that Jesus fulfilled more than just the 2 verses he copies down. Isaiah 9 is the "to us a child is born" passage, which I hear in a lot of Christmas songs, you know, and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, etc etc. It's basically the lyrics to Handel's Messiah.

So, Jesus is the light that comes to those living in darkness. And he is the Messiah, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, who will reign forever. That's what Matthew is saying here.

The first message that Jesus preaches: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."

When I wrote about John the Baptist, I mentioned that I was uncomfortable with telling people to "repent"- people don't like to be judged. But that's how Jesus starts out- that's the first thing he preaches.

Perfectnumber, if you're uncomfortable with this because feminism has taught you to be loving and accepting toward people who are different from you, instead of assuming they're doing something wrong, then think about this: Feminism is also about identifying sexism, racism, etc, and challenging it when you see it. If that's not "calling people to repentance", I don't know what is.

For now, the question of when and how one should tell people to "repent" is still unclear to me. But it's definitely not inherently bad. Jesus does it, and I trust Jesus. (Feminism does it too.)

What is "the kingdom of heaven"?

Jesus says, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." Is "the kingdom of heaven" a good thing or a bad thing? Is he saying "get ready for something awesome" or "better get your act together before God comes to judge you all"?

Image source.
I think it's safe to say the "kingdom of heaven" is a good thing. Actually, some of the other gospels refer to it as the "kingdom of God", but Matthew uses the term "heaven" instead, out of respect for the Jewish custom of not directly using God's name.

As far as I can tell, the kingdom of heaven is what Jesus started when he lived on earth. It is God's work in the world. And it's something that Jesus totally wants people to be part of.

Why did Jesus pick these 4 guys?

Jesus proceeds to call Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John to be his disciples. Why them? The text makes it sound like Jesus was just walking along, and happened to see them and then call them for no particular reason. Just because they happened to be there, and he happened to be in a let's-call-some-disciples mood.

Seriously though, why them?

I remember when I was a little kid in Sunday School, the point was often made that Jesus called ordinary people to follow him- see, you don't have to be super-smart or know everything about the bible- in fact, the Pharisees weren't the ones following Jesus. It made me wonder whether God really wanted me or not- because I was super-smart and did know everything about the bible (at least compared to the other kids at church). Perhaps other Christian nerds can relate to this?

Surely Jesus had to have some criteria- even if it wasn't the criteria one might expect. It seems the most important requirement was a person's willingness to follow him. Also, perhaps he wanted his group of closest followers to be somewhat diverse, and to have a decent set of skills that would enable them to work well as a team.

"Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."

Haha, get it? Because they're fishermen, but Jesus wants them to fish for PEOPLE instead?

Image source.

So what does this mean? It means they're going to be doing something that really matters, that actually affects people- instead of just fishing. Jesus calls them to help spread his message- about the kingdom of heaven, about Christianity, and everything that goes along with it- and this message would make a difference and change people's lives for the better.

And I want to do that too. I want to be part of Jesus' mission, help other people believe in him too, see God change people's lives.

They left everything and followed him.

Why? Well they must have already known who he was. Perhaps they had even met him before. (Some of the other gospels tell this story slightly differently, so I really think they had met him before.)

Because seriously, if Christians hold this up as an example of faith and obedience, saying we should all be like them... well, you shouldn't just follow any random guy who makes a pun about fishing. Seriously.

"Get in my van, there's free candy. And I will make you fishers of men." Image source.
They knew who Jesus was, but how well did they really know him? Well enough to leave behind their job and family and follow him? The bible doesn't give us an answer on this. Does it matter?

If they had enough reason to leave everything and follow Jesus, then so do I. Dude, at this point Jesus hadn't really done anything- they had no idea what they were in for. That whole "Son of God" bit hadn't been mentioned yet. I know way more about Jesus than these guys did when they started following him. Because I've decided that I'm a Christian, I have no excuse for not obeying him- regardless of the cost. The disciples did it. I can too.

Jesus starts healing everybody.

And we finish this chapter with Jesus healing tons of people, and becoming incredibly popular. Jesus came to bring physical healing and spiritual healing- he preaches a need for repentance, and he heals diseases. He's the best.

In the same way, Christians should help with people's physical needs and spiritual needs. I might even argue that it's inaccurate to say that one is more important than the other.

Summary/ take-home message:

In Matthew 4:12-25, Jesus begins his ministry. He preaches about repentance and the kingdom of heaven, he calls disciples to follow him, and he heals diseases. It's exciting stuff, and in the following chapters we'll get some more details about Jesus' teaching, interactions with his disciples, and miracles.

From the actions of the disciples in this passage, we see that Jesus is worth everything you have. How this actually plays out in the lives of Christians today is complex; we're not leaving fishing equipment on the ground and literally following around some homeless guy. In fact, obedience to Jesus usually looks like being a good friend, treating your family well, etc, rather than "leaving behind" people and jobs.

Stay tuned for next week's post, where we'll see what exactly Jesus was teaching.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: I Would Only Follow a God Who Was Tempted (Matthew 4:1-12)

Next post: Switchin' It Up With The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Gospel: More Than the Bridge Diagram

In The Atonement: Did God Just Really Need to Punish Someone? (posted October 6), the writer, Kristen, questions the idea that the gospel should only be understood as "God needed to punish someone for sin, so he punished Jesus." She argues that this concept of Christ taking the punishment in our place is an analogy that can be very helpful (and is supported by the bible) but also should not be taken too literally (the analogy breaks down when it starts implying that God is a divine child-abuser, obsessed with punishment).

Furthermore, she points to several other analogies found in the bible which explain the meaning of Christ's death, and weaves them together into a gospel presentation which I think is very insightful and meaningful.

In other words, there are many different ways to explain and understand Jesus' death- Why did he have to die? What was he saving us from?- and these different explanations are all valid (though none of them can fully explain it) and different ones may be meaningful to different people.

Which leads me to this question: What makes a valid gospel presentation? What components does it need to have?

A "gospel presentation" is a short explanation of the main message of Christianity. Generally Christians learn how to do a gospel presentation so that when they get a chance to talk with a non-Christian who wants to hear what Christianity is about, they'll know what to say.

In my experience, the gospel presentation is something written by someone else, which I then memorize and teach to other Christians too. And it goes along with a picture I'm supposed to draw as I talk through the explanation. But let me emphasize that it's not a clever gimmick or used-car-salesman tactic- it's a way to help Christians effectively explain what we believe.

I really believe this stuff. There's nothing dishonest about trying to find an effective way to articulate it to others.

At the same time, it shouldn't just be me reciting what I've been taught- it should be something that really means a lot to me.

So anyway, the most common gospel presentation I've seen is "the bridge diagram":

Image source.
In the bridge diagram, first you draw 2 cliffs- one for people, one for God, with a big gap between them. The gap represents sin that separates us from God. BUT then you draw the cross in the middle- Jesus' death allows us to cross over and be with God! Awesome!

(That was the quick and dirty explanation- if I were actually explaining this to someone who asked me about Christianity, I would definitely go into more detail.)

I really think I'll always love the bridge diagram, if only for nostalgic reasons. It's the first gospel presentation I ever saw/learned/used. It's very easy to remember and easy to draw.

But here's the problem: It doesn't really resonate with me. Yeah, I believe it, but this isn't what saved me, this isn't what convinced me to dedicate my entire life to Jesus, this isn't what inspires me to love God and love people every day of my life.

Like, sin is a gap that separates us from God- why? Just because you drew it there doesn't mean it's true. Overall, the bridge diagram just seems very abstract and it's hard to connect the different parts to practical things in my life.

But I thought "the gospel" WAS the bridge diagram. And while you didn't have to literally draw the picture, you had to at least talk through the explanation that goes along with it, or else you weren't really "sharing the gospel."

I've always heard warnings about how evil it is to "water down the gospel", to change it so it's "more palatable", and how Jesus offended a lot of people... so we should be suspicious of any interpretation of his life/death that's meant to really resonate with and attract people.

But I don't believe that anymore.

I am a Christian because something about the gospel and Christianity IS very attractive and meaningful to me. Why would I be required to use a one-size-fits-all gospel explanation that doesn't really speak to the reasons that led me personally to follow Christ?

And I have to thank InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for introducing me to other gospel presentation diagrams. At first, I was very suspicious- If it's not the bridge diagram, then is it really the gospel? Is that even allowed? You're trying to change the gospel so it sounds better???

But I went along with it, and learned the four worlds diagram and the broken family diagram.

Four worlds diagram. Image source.

My FAVORITE gospel diagram is the broken family diagram. (I guess that makes me a very high-level Christian nerd, having a favorite gospel diagram...) Both the four worlds diagram and the broken family diagram emphasize what sin is and why it's a problem- the destructive effect that each person's tendency towards selfishness has on relationships between people.

Also, both of these gospel presentations are very clear about living a whole new life after believing in Jesus- he saves us from our own sins/weaknesses, which we could not overcome on our own, and he calls us to love others and make the world a better place- to fight against the very real effects of sin that were mentioned earlier in the gospel explanation.

And that really makes sense to me and means a lot to me.

(However, neither of these diagrams necessarily includes the concept of hell. My opinion on this is: that doesn't matter. I believe hell is real, but the idea of Jesus saving me from hell after I die is kind of meh. Instead, I need him RIGHT NOW- I know from experience what kind of hell-on-earth he has already saved me from.)

None of these simple diagrams can fully explain what Christianity is about. But that's okay- they each give a slightly different perspective on it. The significance of who Jesus is and what he did may vary from one Christian to another, from one culture to another.

On the other hand, you can't just say whatever you want and call it the gospel. "Jesus just wants everyone to be nice to people" is NOT the gospel. 

So, I leave you with these questions: What parts are required for a gospel presentation to be faithful to the bible? What is required to have a gospel presentation which is effective in convincing people? (And is it even okay to have a goal of "convincing people"?)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

I am a feminist, and I pray.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot about God's power. Because of feminism.

Because feminism fights against the unjust structures that exist within society- including within the church. We don't buy the "husbands are supposed to lead, wives are supposed to submit" thing because it's sexist and it can so easily be used to control or abuse women. We see no reason women should not be pastors- in fact, why is it such a big deal? Why does a woman need to fight to use the abilities and ambitions God has given her?

Also, feminists want to give a voice to the voiceless. To tell the victim's story, when a pastor rapes a teenage girl, and the attitude of the majority of the church is "it's her fault, she seduced him" and "don't talk about it."

But where is God? Where is God, when we have to speak out, when we have to fight? Doesn't the bible say authorities were set up by God? But we can't trust the authorities to keep us safe. We can't let the husband be the automatic leader because he might abuse his power over his wife. We can't trust the church to value women, to keep its most vulnerable members safe, to not blame the victim.

No, instead we have to be alert. We have to speak out against injustice and sexism, wherever we see it. We're on our own.

We're on our own.

Because if the church won't protect us, who will?

We're on our own.

I think this is one of feminism's weaknesses- the tendency to feel like "we're on our own", and that everybody else is blind to the realities of racism and sexism in our culture, and the thousand little things that continually perpetuate that injustice. To get discouraged because we see so much that's not the way it should be.

But I can't accept this. I have experienced the very real power of God, alive and active in the world. I know from experience that God hears and answers prayers. We are not on our own.

But how can I reconcile this with feminism's message that "you can't trust those with power to do the right thing- you need to fight for your own rights"? Where is God? I just want to trust and feel safe. I don't want this.

I don't have an answer for that right now, but here's one thing I want to say: Feminism understands the concept of a "broken world" much better than a lot of Christians do. Feminism notices inequality and speaks out against it, rather than assuming that's just the way it is. Feminism understands that oppression and injustice aren't just caused by faceless, corrupt politicians in third-world countries- no, they exist right here, in the US. Right here, in the racist and sexist attitudes I have subconsciously believed, right here in my own sin.

So I'm not saying it's bad that my eyes have been opened to the fact that abuse is real, rape is real, sexism is real. These are things Christianity predicted when it talked about "living in a broken world."

But still, where is God?

He's here. He's alive. I don't know exactly how- I don't know the answer to why God allows bad things to happen. But I have experienced his power, changing my life over and over, and I know this is what I believe.

I believe in the power of prayer. I believe God hears and God works, and when I ask "where is God?" maybe the first step is to try talking to him. Here are my feminist prayer requests:
  • That God would bring healing for those who are victims of rape and abuse. That God would show them his unconditional love and destroy the lies that say "you're worthless" and "it's your fault".
  • That Christians would be known for their love.
  • That Christian girls would grow up with a strong sense of their identity in Christ. To know that God made them and God loves them unconditionally, and their worth is not at all related to their modesty or purity. To know that they are not any less valuable than men. That their greatest purpose in life is not marriage and motherhood, but to follow Jesus. And that God does not see their femininity and sexuality as something evil that attacks and seduces men. 
  • An end to sexism in the church. An end to the unquestioned assumption that women aren't supposed to be pastors. Or that "yes, we can have a woman pastor, but wouldn't it be BETTER if it was a man?"
  • For Christian organizations that have programs aimed at helping the poor: I pray that their work would be effective and make a real difference in people's lives. I pray that they would see "the poor" not as less-than-human, too dumb to take care of themselves, but as real people, as our brothers and sisters. I pray that those in charge of the programs would first seek to understand the needs of the people they are serving. First listen, without telling them what you think they need.
  • That God would give strength to those caught in abusive relationships. That God would provide a way to get help, without being paralyzed by shame, without blaming themselves, without fear of not being believed.
  • I pray for greater love and understanding within the church, between Christians who interpret parts of the bible differently.
  • That I would be part of God's plan. That God would give me opportunities to listen to people and care about them and love them like Jesus would.
For some of these things, I'm praying for huge change in the way society works. For some, I'm praying for individual people who have been hurt- maybe even people I know. For some, I'm praying for myself.

I am a feminist, and I pray.


Question: What would you add to my list of "feminist prayer requests"?

Monday, October 8, 2012


1. What About Divorce? (posted September 29) A thorough analysis on what Jesus/ the bible has to say about divorce. "Divorce, in and of itself, is not inherently evil"- for one thing, the bible often uses the metaphor of God divorcing Israel because of their rebellion. This post is totally worth reading- it brought up a lot of ideas I'd never thought about.

2. Niger's hunger brides- in pictures (posted September 28) Girls as young as 11 getting married because their family can't support them and needs the dowry money.

3. Ask a stay-at-home dad... (response) (posted October 2) "We could not have picked a 'better' church to visit on our first Sunday, as the pastor was speaking that week – scratch that; he was shouting – about 'biblical' gender roles, referencing stay-at-home dads as 'abnormal' and it being against God’s will for a wife to have a larger income than her husband. Needless to say, we failed to fill out a visitor’s card." To be honest, I'm SHOCKED to hear this.

4. Ikea's Saudi Arabia catalog erases women; company expresses regret (posted October 1) Some examples here. Not cool.

5. Is ambition a sin? (posted October 3) In which Rachel Held Evans challenges the thinking that says it's wrong for Christians (particularly women) to promote their own work (blogs, writing, etc) because it's selfish ambition. AMEN TO THIS!

6. First World Problems Are Real Problems (posted September 28) This is a really interesting perspective.

7. The hardest day, or, Your life matters (posted October 2) "From the time we walked up to the nutrition area to the time we walked away, no one had come to help him. I didn’t help him. I couldn’t. I walked away with weak knees and a weaker promise. I will remember you. Your life matters."

8. Most Citizens of the Star Wars Galaxy are Probably Totally Illiterate (posted October 3)

9. Why the Church needs to stop reaching out (posted October 5)

10. Idolatry of the Family (posted September 11) "When I read the Bible, I get the distinct sense that Jesus wasn’t interested in saving the nuclear family from a windy onslaught of liberal opinions. I rather get the impression that he was concerned with diving headfirst into the unvarnished messiness of the human condition and saving us— as individuals, as families, as communities, as people— from our own unhinged self-absorption and festering lovelessness."

11. Five Ways Christains Must Stop Failing the Poor (posted October 1)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Fair Trade: My Unanswered Questions

October is Fair Trade Month! I will celebrate by explaining what fair trade is, and then asking a few questions I do not yet have answers for.

Image source.

What does "fair trade" mean?

If a product is fair trade certified, it means that it was produced by farmers/workers who received a decent fair wage. Not slaves.

Fair Trade USA certifies the following products: "coffee, tea and herbs, cocoa, fresh fruit and vegetables, sugar, beans and grains, flowers, nuts, oils and butters, honey and spices, wine and apparel". In general, fair trade is mostly for coffee and chocolate. In this blog post, I'm focusing on chocolate, because that's the area where fair trade most affects my life.

Wait a minute- if "fair trade" means the farmers got paid decently for their work, then does "not fair trade" mean it was produced through slavery?

Yeah, that's the big question, isn't it?

First of all, slavery is real. It is estimated that there are 2.5 million victims of human trafficking around the world. Some are sex slaves, and some are doing forced labor.

In particular, there is concern over using children as slaves in the production of chocolate in West Africa. (Note: There is a difference between child labor and child slavery, but I would argue that both should not exist.) 69% of the world's cocoa comes from West Africa, with 35% from Cote d'Ivoire- and child exploitation is a huge concern for cocoa farms in these areas.

Image source.
It's real. Google it.

Okay so you've convinced me that slavery exists in the production of chocolate. But you haven't answered my question: Does chocolate that is NOT labeled as "fair trade" come from slavery?

Well how can we possibly know? They're not going to write that on the packaging. But I get the impression, based on what I've read online, that any cocoa from the Ivory Coast is a little suspicious.

One reason for chocolate slavery is a drop in cocoa prices. Cocoa is an "unstable crop", and a drop in price forces farmers to cut costs, sometimes by resorting to slavery.

So... does that mean normally they treat the workers nice, and then in bad years they beat them up and don't pay them? What is "normally"?

Like, can we get some idea on the percentage of slave-produced cocoa in a Hershey's bar? 10%? 30%? 80%? 100%? And at what percent do I decide it's immoral for me to buy it? At what percent would it be immoral for Hershey to sell it?

If I boycott non-fair-trade chocolate, is that actually helpful?

Yeah, I don't know. To understand how to address the problem of slavery in West Africa, we first have to understand the culture and the causes of slavery. There's not going to be some magical easy solution.

Some in the chocolate industry (maybe they're a little biased) argue that "A ‘slave free’ label would hurt the people it is intended to help because it would lead to a boycott of all Ivory Coast cocoa." If you just don't buy it because you don't know where it came from, what if it mostly came from honest people who paid their workers fairly? Is it right to boycott anything not marked as "fair trade" just because some of it is suspicious? (Again, percentages could be helpful here.)

Of course, one could also argue that when you buy fair trade chocolate, you know for sure that the money goes to paying workers a good wage; you know for sure it's not supporting slavery. Isn't that superior to buying chocolate of suspicious origin?

Not necessarily...

Hey, isn't fair trade a lot more expensive though?

Well, a Green & Black chocolate bar costs about $4, while a Hershey bar of comparable size (ish) costs about $1.

BUT the fair trade chocolate is much higher quality. It's rich, dark chocolate. Is that worth the price difference? The customer can decide that.

So do I have a responsibility to only buy fair trade chocolate?

Yeah, that's the question I'm trying to answer for myself.

The economy of chocolate is incredibly complex- how can I know what effect fair trade products have on workers on the other side of the world? It's much more complicated then "Hey let's fight slavery- everyone buy fair trade! Yay!"

How can I say I know better than Hershey about the ethical way to buy and sell chocolate? I don't know anything. I'm just over here googling stuff.

Even if ordinary chocolate does partially come from slavery, does that mean it's immoral for me to buy it? I don't have an answer.

In conclusion, the effect of me buying a fair trade chocolate bar rather than regular, cheap chocolate is unclear- I honestly can't make an argument that it's immoral to buy regular chocolate. BUT don't use that as an excuse to not take any action against slavery. Yes, I've raised some valid questions and criticism, but in the end, whoever is going around certifying fair trade products is doing A LOT MORE to fight slavery than I am. 

It's easy to sit here at my computer and criticize people who are trying to make a difference in the world- as if implementing an imperfect solution is worse than ignoring the problem entirely.

Fair trade- it's not the magical answer to save the world. It's not something you're REQUIRED to buy in order to not be a terrible person. No, we need a lot more insight into the culture and economy of West Africa in order to combat slavery.

But it's a good start.