Current Events

A Better Rule for Christian Men

A Better Rule for Christian Men

With barrage of men-behaving-badly stories hitting the press, a lot of attention is being paid to the Mike Pence rule—the vow for a married man to avoid being alone with a woman other than his wife. When I was in seminary, it was better known as the Billy Graham rule (and that’s how it’s listed on Wikipedia). The origins of this rule can be traced back to one of the oldest stories in human history. 

How I Manage My Digital Life

With all the opinions flying around the internets right now, I know you're not looking for another one. Oh, I have them. Trust me, I have plenty of them. 

Yet in this volatile political climate, I can't even find the benefit of posting an opinion. It's just not worth it. I keep diverse networks—from conservatives to progressives, from moderates to the apathetic. Chances are I'll offend someone regardless of how innocent my comments are. A few weeks ago, I made a joke post about Fiona the hippo (a.k.a. Cincinnati's Li'l Sebastian). Somehow that social media conversation turned into an abortion debate. 

So in this time of great tension, is it possible to be prophetic and speak boldly? I still say it is, but it's not as simple as most of us want it to be. More than ever, we're living out Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame concept and people want their voices to be heard (and a quick tweet or post scratches that itch). But in order to gain the right to be heard, it's important to first focus on three key practices.

1. Invest in relationships. The older I get, I've discovered that my list of discernible skills pales in comparison to the company I keep. If I want my opinions to be respected, it's important that people understand the heart behind them. My digital persona is defined by my real-world relationships. So if I commit to being a person of character in my day-to-day life, I'll earn some respect that will hedge the benefit of doubt if I offer an opinion that might be controversial. 

2. Listen more intently. At the beginning of our marriage, when my wife was wrapping up her college work, she took a listening course. It was painful as a newlywed (and a male) to be constantly reminded of how poor I listen; I tend to be more excited about crafting my response than truly hearing what other's say. I'm not fully reformed, but I'm a better listener today than I've ever been, and this permits more opportunities to observe the lay of the land. The better I listen, the less I offend. But perhaps most importantly . . .

3. Be positive. I hit on this in a recent vlog, but it bears repeating: it's not worth it to be known for what you're against. This doesn't mean that I shouldn't stand against atrocities, but the way I present these should motivate rather than decry. Before I hit "post" on a critique of an individual or organization, I ask myself if I'll be viewed as building up rather than tearing down. 

So I simply think twice before I post. While our country's diversity is finally being recognized, it's also exposing the fact that we've never fully dealt with our checkered past. We're still grappling with the sin of Babel—trying to share this world while speaking different languages. Applying a little patience to the process can do nothing but help. 

How are you managing?

Something Far Greater

Fear is a persuasive emotion. It can derail our journey, spawning a search for safety It can paralyze our positivity, distorting our view of the world. It can lead loving people to say hurtful things. It can even compel us to put our faith in powerless gods.

Yet it is possible for fear to inspire something far greater.

Fear can lead to hope.

Hope that the path ahead leads to lands more prosperous. Hope that our world is far better than we give it credit for. Hope that our compassion will yield harvests of promise Hope in One that holds close not only the needs of our present, but our eternity as well.

Don’t let fear own you.

Hold tightly to hope.

Christians and Trayvon Martin

I haven't been nearly as faithful in posting on the blog this last year. I'm in the midst of working on my thesis and the last thing I want to do is write for fun. Still, I felt compelled to pause from research and writing this afternoon to post this. In my role as pastor, I tend to steer away from divisive, political and current event issues. Doing so will usually attract the label of being weak or wishy-washy or a wuss.

I'd argue that it makes me something all-together different: it makes me pastoral.

You see, even though we don't like to admit it, many of the views about which we are most passionate are opinions. And our reactions to those issues are generated from our worldview. Often, this transcends our religious views and are derived from other ideologies, but we confuse them and view them as essential parts of our faith. For example, within my faith tradition, there's a natural assumption that you align yourself with a conservative Republican worldview. I have other friends from a mainline denomational affiliation whose Christianity is connected to a liberal Democrat persepective. Even though I follow politics and am amused by it, for the most part I really don't care what you believe unless you mesh it indiscernably with your faith and force others to submit to it.

In our church fellowship we have people across the political spectrum: conservatives, progressives, libertarians, vegans, Browns fans, etc.. So my pastoral role is to cut through these worldviews so that it's perfectly clear which ones are biblical and which are not. If those issues infringe upon the political realm, then, and only then, am I obligated to speak out.

I think about this a lot in my preaching and teaching because I recognize that I too own opinions on how the world should work. But despite my studies and thoughtful engagement on these subjects, I have blind-spots. And since I believe I'll be judged as a result of how I pastor (James 3:1), I still try to hold to an old adage within my faith tradition: "where the Scriptures speak, I speak, and where the Scriptures are silent, I am silent." My job, as best as possible, is to keep my opinions to myself.

So, what brought you in: about the George Zimmerman trial concerning the death of Trayvon Martin.

A young man is dead and another young man will never escape this deed as long as he lives. I, like many of you, spent the past weeks watching the trial and the media buzz surrounding it; I actually started tracking the case immediately after Trayvon died. There has likely not been a current event like this in the past decade that has left so much open to opinion. And I say that because of the perfect storm surrounding the tragic issue of this event: only two people know for sure what happened and one of them is no longer alive. As a result, we have relied heavily on our worldviews to interpret what happened on a rainy night when only two people knew for sure.

But you likely immediately knew who you sided with—Zimmerman or Martin—once you heard about it. And you probably haven't waivered from that position since.

The main issue that continues to divide us concerning this tragedy is that these two participants weren't polarizing enough to make our interpretations easy. If either of the two had exemplified pure evil or unquestioned good, we may never have even heard about this case. The trial exposed that Zimmerman had done things that showed he could have been either a racist vigiliante or an average Joe. We also saw that Trayvon was a kid who did just enough wrong to leave people questioning his youthful innocence. So, in reality, the two ideally represented how all of us actually are: beings capable of both grace and sin.

But when there is nothing left to go on, we will default to our preferred narrative. And then, we're not even arguing about this tragedy.

We're arguing about our worldviews.

So what now?

First, a story.

This past week, our church hosted our first ever Vacation Bible School—a mini summer camp for children. Even though I'm the minister, I had very little to do with it. Other people developed the concept, organized volunteers, did the set up and tear down. All I had to do is show up and do as I was told. I've been involved with numerous VBS's over the years but it was different than any other I had ever participated in.

Our Walnut Hills neighborhood claims diversity and it models it. Developed as a rich, white suburb, it became a landing place for poor black families whose neighborhoods were eradicated in the 1950's, 60's, and 70's to build the interstate system through the city. The neighborhood has "leveled-off" if you will, with black/white and rich/poor living side by side. Within a mile radius of the church building we rent, some of the richest and poorest residents of the city of Cincinnati area reside.

Any week of VBS is exhausting but the thought of this mix of kids made me anticipate greater challenges. But you know what? It worked perfectly. Those children had no problem being together, learning together, seeing together, playing together. During one snack time, kids had to make the snack for the child next to them and any racial or socio-economic boundaries were non-existent. I'm not sure we've we really acheived the post-racial society we were promised, but these kids made me believe that it could be coming. But for those older people like ourselves, we still grapple with the present reality.

These next sentences will offend some, but the more I labored over them, the more I realized that their accuracy is what makes them painful: if you grew up being profiled, it will never leave you. And you probably relate with Trayvon and his family. And if you grew up suspicious of those different than you, it's incredibly difficult to escape it. And you likely feel for Zimmerman. And that's why, as a white priviliged male, I am saddened today. These opinions are derrived from experiences and there's nothing that can be done today to heal them immediately.

So I now will give my opinion based from my current worldview. See, I have many friends who are minorities who have spent their lives in fear from authority as a result of history and experience. They are frightened by this verdict because they feel that the same thing that happened to Trayvon could happen to their children as well. You may not understand that fear personally, but it truly exists. And for them, rejoicing in Zimmerman's aquittal is akin to celebrating the idea that their kids lives are insignificant. And to witness that perpetuated from other Christians is devastating.

If your humanity will not permit you to grasp that concept, you need a new worldview.

So as I simplistically opined last night, this isn't the occassion to be witty or wise. This isn't the time to talk jurisprudance or discuss proper legal outcomes. This isn't the opportunity to speak in anger and prophecy the forthcoming vengence of God.

It is a time for sorrow and to reevaluate how we view those created in the image of God. No one won here.

Jesus wept, and so must we.

Is Kony2012 A Social Justice Issue?

I'm not that guy. I just tend to ask questions. Everyone and their neighbor is all over the Kony 2012 initiative sponsored by the Invisible Children organization. A Vimeo video explaining the movement now has more than 10 million views. In 2007, Echo Church hosted an Invisible Children presentation. The organization made a film highlighting the abhorrent actions of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. The LRA would kidnap children in order to train them to be soldiers. It spawned a social active movement, primarily with the funding of safe schools, that contributed to positive change in the country.

The Kony 2012 movement is an effort to attack the issue at the head. Joseph Kony is a warlord of the LRA. The movement is designed to further expose these atrocities with the hope of bringing him to justice. Currently, the U.S. deployed a small group of soldiers to provide training and support for Ugandan military personnel to combat the LRA. With this support possibly expiring, the Invisible Children group wants to keep Kony in the forefront of people's minds to encourage his arrest.

Upon watching the video, I was puzzled at how quickly people have embraced this movement. Two observations that I'd ask you to consider.

First, a basic understanding of the political climate of many nations on the African continent reveals that an operation to stop Kony will not end in arrest; it will consist of a militaristic pursuit that will ultimately end in his killing. Even though the movement organizers claim they seek justice got Kony, the only justice true justice to emerge will be his bloodshed. He will not be taken alive.

From a political perspective, this is not problematic. But when invoking this as a justice issue, it numerous questions. The foremost: is it truly social justice to seek the death of an oppressor? In fact, it illustrates the delicate line between justice and political action. Even though the movement's organizers are aiming for political correctness when pleading for his arrest, it is a misguided goal. There is no other end game but his death. It is not necessarily wrong (from a biblical, retributive perspective) for his life to be take for his evil actions, but should this be the role that a non-profit takes?

Second, and this is a pragmatic argument, organizations like the LRA are rarely led by just one individual. When Kony is dead, his lieutenants will rise to take his place, perhaps even hardened to act even more ruthlessly. Violence begets violence. I'm not staking a pacifist position here but am stating a fact that has continued to ravage the African continent for decades: imperialism helped create this violent culture. By no means should we affirm the LRA's actions, but there is similar tragedy occurring around the globe even at this moment. Why, then, should we stop with Uganda? What about issues in Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea? Should we mobilize to bring attention to those atrocities as well?

In short, even though people are suffering, the solvent is political, not social justice. Innocents in the crossfire are suffering, but this is a horrible fact not limited to any certain geographic region. It is fine to raise awareness, but to outline a course of action is to assume a political, nationalistic agenda that transcends mere justice.

I apologize that I haven't fully teased this out, but I felt like I needed to get this out. You might even be offended that I dare to question this movement. But in our era of social media, we tend to make immediate judgements on issues without truly contemplating the facts. I believe that the Invisible Children organization is well-intentioned here but naive in what they're truly imploring people to do.

If you do support the movement, that's fine. But I'd ask that you consider the end game. And then decide whom to attack next.

The Speed of Web: Lessons from Ocean Marketing

The week between Christmas and New Year's has become one of my favorite times of the year. I'm off work with nothing really to do but eat and read. I guess the only downside is that no one creates new content during this week, so I'm either watching movies on the T.V. (I think we've watched like ten in the past few days) or scouring the interwebs for interesting things to read. One of my go-to sources over the past couple of years has been the social news website reddit. I daily view the site to discover what's popular on the internet. While some of the content is inappropriate, it still provides the easiest means to gauge public perception (I used to frequent reddit's rival, but the owners sold out to advertisers and their readership summarily plummeted). Users on reddit submit articles, and then people post their comments. The articles range plain silly to political, but there's always something there I can use at a later date. Yesterday on reddit, however, I witnessed what I view to be a perfect summation on how technology has transformed our world.

I'll attempt to retell the story sans geekiness: A small company manufactures a special kind of video game controller that disabled kids can use. As few inventors have the business savvy to distribute their product, the guy who made this controller outsourced his marketing to a third party. They took preorders on the controllers before Christmas, but were having problems getting the manufactured product shipped in from China. One of the guys who ordered the controller emailed the marketing company about the shipping delay and the guy who responded was thoroughly unprofessional in his responses. The marketing guy tried bullying the customer, name-dropped some people and, when an actual gaming website became involved, escalated the insults which were eventually all published online (click here to track through the exchange).

Within hours, an internet witch hunt had commenced. And within 24 hours, the guy had become a pariah. He's sought out other major gaming websites to tell his side of the story but in all likely-hood, when a potential client or company Googles him, this incident will define him as long as he lives.

I find all of this fascinating. On Monday morning, this guy woke up without a care in the world. By Tuesday night, he was known by millions around the world for being a first-class jerk. And there's likely little he can do to change things. At the very least, we can learn something from this tale.

1. We leave a digital trail. I recently read the following remark online: "[On] Facebook I feel as if I have to reserve myself, I hate to think twice before I post something. But on tumblr I feel as if I can post whatever without thinking twice." I'm not sure if this person thinks there's multiple internets where some things are more private than others, but the reality is whatever you post is there forever. Since I've had this blog for seven years now, I've always been mindful of this. Even an email could come back to haunt you.

As a result, we need to be incredibly judicial about what we say digitally. Another of the things I accomplished on vacation was switching over to Facebook's new timeline feature. It makes it easier than ever to look at what I've posted online over the past five years. I can fully understand why some people find this scary; you might be embarrassed now by things posted in the days of your youth. But it's there regardless. So think before you hit "send" or "post." It could save your future.

By the way, one of this marketer's typos has now become an internet meme. So when you read, "I wwebsite as on the internet," it's in reference to this story. I guess another lesson is that proofreading never hurts.

2. How you treat the least of these is important. The marketer's rudness towards the customer In the email exchange is what started this avalanche. And he maintained this posture when talking to a major video game webmaster, treating him like crap. This marketer had internally designated people into two camps: those that matter and those that don't. Here he severely miscalculated because, in the era of the world wide web, the powerless can easily muster an army. Even bullies hate to see someone getting bullied (well, at least by someone else), so people rally to the cause of justice. Again, the way this blew up on the web has the potential to frighten people but I'm actually encouraged. You should always treat people with the dignity and respect, as if the world is watching; in today's culture, they very well could be.

3. Culture is moving faster than ever. This isn't directly related to this story but needs to be stated. I wrote this post after explaining this story to my wife. How hilarious is it that I spent a couple of minutes talking about an email argument between two men over a video game controller? This episode won't shape world events, but it's relevant now. And such is the quick pace of culture in today's world.

Attention spans will continue to shrink as we move on to the next big news item or band or trend. It will be impossible to have the universal relevance that helped shape popular culture in the 20th century. So if you're attempting to reach out to people with your idea or product, you have to continually reapproach what you're doing; what you tried fifteen minutes ago is already dated. This will make it even more difficult for those concretely linked to certain methodologies. The future belongs to the fluid.

In short, be nice to people. Your future may depend on it.

Another One Bites The Dust

If you don't track Cincinnati news, you might have overlooked the story that Kroger is closing yet another store, this time in Westwood. This isn't surprising in the least, as I noted this trend in a post about a year ago. Since then, I've discussed the issue of urban health in many different venues, but allow me to add a few fresh comments in light of this development. Don't believe the data. With this closing, Kroger increased the data apologetics in order to justify the closing; they brought up not only lost revenue but also stat from customer loyalty cards. Without an objective analysis, I just can't buy it. Anytime this corporation claims to be losing "millions," it's according to its own mysterious rubric. And Kroger wouldn't tolerate any of its stores losing that money at that pace. This is merely a masking agent to deflect public criticism. As I noted last year, suburban locations is where this company wants to be. Urban Krogers will soon go the way of the albatross. Remember that this is a health care issue. I was talking to my friend Jade Kendell, who lives in lower Price Hill, about this topic at his house a few months ago. One block away from his home is a convenience store which have the only viable groceries within walking distance. Unfortunately, the store only sells junk food and cheap booze. All the kids in the neighborhood by food their because 1) it's available and 2) it's cheap. Understand that all of us eventually pay for this as the obesity and diabetes rates skyrocket in these communities and we subsidize their health care through taxes and increased medical expenses. A recent NY Times article featured this issue within the city of Philadelphia. Read it here.

It's not about race. It's about socio-economics. But read the comments about the Enquirer article and you'll soon realize that it is about race with the general public. This is yet another reason I'm obsessed with Cincinnati history; it explains how these neighborhoods became neglected. When you study the outright class segregation the our city father's created, you begin to realize that these situations were manufactured.

We'll all feel the pinch soon. Kroger's business plan is based on consumers who have access to automobile transportation, hence the added impact of this closing stores in urban, bus-going communities. As gasoline prices this summer seem destined to escalate towards $4 a gallon, those precious driving customers will likely begin to reevaluate their shopping habits.

You might not care, but you should.

Love Wins and Me (Part Two)

For part one of this series, click here. It's not been a month since Rob Bell's new book started a firestorm and publishing a review of it now seems almost dated. The interwebs are scattered with thoughtful reviews (I'm too lazy to hyperlink), so this one might not even merit a second glance. But having finally read Love Wins, I feel that I have a better understanding of what he is trying to accomplish with it. That said, I'm still not sure I still understand exactly what he is trying to say.

And I think that is precisely his point.

WHY DID HE WRITE? First, allow me to speculate concerning Bell's motivation.

I don't believe that Rob wrote this text in order to start a controversy. He's no dummy; he obviously knew that his thoughts would be the subject of debate. But I suggest that rather than seeking out the heretic label, Bell honestly believed he was doing something noble. He believes that Christianity has been hijacked by believers who do not practice love of Christ. These people may have beliefs, but they cling to these thoughts more religiously than they do the practices that ought to spring out as a result of it. Basically, they believe in Jesus, but they don't look any different as a result.

And he has a point, doesn't he? How many times have you read/seen a news report citing the words of some Christian leader and become irate? There are many people who cling to a Christianity that emphasizes the negative approach of salvation, a.k.a. acquiring fire insurance. "Believe in Jesus or you'll go to hell," some Christians proclaim. Even those of us who believe this to be true are squeamish of such a gospel presentation. It doesn't project the fullness of what God accomplished through the cross and we're embarrassed. We too want a more complete view of what it means to follow Jesus.

This is the world in which Bell dwells—with people from diverse, non-Christian backgrounds. Hence, we begin to understand his use of the driving anecdote behind Love Wins. In the opening chapter, Bell describes an art show at his church where one of the paintings was of Mahatma Gandhi. Someone decided to leave a note concerning the painting which alluded to the fact that Gandhi, as a Hindu, was in hell. Bell was repulsed by this commentary, asking, "Really? Gandhi's in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?" Bell's contempt is flamed by the thought that a Christian would simply dismiss a person's entire life in in the name of Jesus. If that's how we treat those who are dead, how does it speak to the living who still have a chance to embrace Christ? Bell is driven by compassion and empathy as he pens this book.

HOW DID HE WRITE? Bell uses various techniques in order to establish his position (whatever position that is). The most dominant one is the personal story. Littered throughout Love Wins are narratives that force introspection. This is a powerful approach because nearly all Christians who read this book will be able to relate to the tales Bell tells. For example, he speaks of a trip he took to Rwanda (a "hell on earth") in order to affirm his belief in a literal hell. This story empowers the readers to formulate a belief system based on how they feel. This experiential track is a popular one because this is how many people form their theology—"if it feels right, it must be true."

Bell goes to the Bible to deconstruct popular Christian theology concerning hell. He cites selected Scriptures in order to prove that the way mainstream Christianity views hell isn't biblical. Honestly, this approach bothered me the most because Bell was incredibly lax in the presentation of his systematic theology. He selects Scriptures at random, does a Greek word study of one word (and a poor word study at that), and rarely engages the many texts that present a counter position. Still, by merely dabbling in the Bible, he's able to convey a feeling that the Scriptures aren't very clear about hell.

Finally, Bell's go-to methodology in writing this book is to merely ask questions. As the father of a five-year-old, I can appreciate human inquisitiveness. I too am curious about the universe that God created, and continually ask questions of myself and others as I work out meaning. But Bell's questions are constant and are presented to create division concerning long-held Christian beliefs. While it is true that many questions have no definitive answers, the Scriptures do provide guidance for many an inquiry. For the lion's share of questions that Bell poses, he provides very few answers.

WHAT DID HE GET RIGHT? There are some powerful statements in this book, many things that, if said by another person in another context, would elicit "Amen's" from a congregation. Bell rightly observes that many Christians are so focused on our eternal destination that we're ignoring the power of the gospel to make life better in the here and now. He appeals for an attitude of graciousness from those who tell the good news. And Bell really understands people. Even in the written word, you can sense that magnetic pull of his personality.

WHAT DID HE CITE (POORLY)? Among the things that irked me about this book, Bell's lack of understanding the historical position of the church concerning hell is utterly perplexing; perhaps I judge him too harshly here, as many believers neglect to acknowledge the role of church history in our faith. Bell makes multiple citations to history, including a poor interpretation of Martin Luther. To me, the church's position on hell throughout the centuries is impossible to ignore when wrestling with this issue. In order to get a better grip on this issue, I'd invite you to read what's been written over the past 2,000 years by clicking here.

Also (and apologies if this seems minor, but I don't believe it is), Bell's selectivity is revealed even in his recommended resources. In Love Wins, he spends a good portion of the seventh chapter retelling the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15; he uses it as yet another prooftext to show that God will ultimately redeem all people. In his list of resources at the conclusion of the book, he proclaims that the book The Prodigal God by Presbyterian minister Tim Keller was inspirational in his understanding of the parable. But in Keller's book, The Reason for God, he devotes an entire chapter on how to help intellectuals grasp the concept of a literal hell. By citing Keller's The Prodigal God, it seems as if Bell is trying to imply a relationship between the two men's thoughts, but they couldn't be farther apart. To read Keller's thoughts on hell, click here.

WHAT DID HE REALLY WRITE? So what IS Bell trying to say? It depends . . . on how you read it. Even in his interviews promoting the book, Bell is ambiguous concerning exactly what he believes about hell.

I don't believe that Bell is a true universalist, or one who believes that all people will go to heaven. He allows a framework for the punishment of evil that doesn't jibe with universalism. He most likely holds a position of inclusivism, that the grace of Christ saves people who have some kind of pseudo-faith.

What Bell espouses in Love Wins (and he freely admits this) is nothing new. But while he would claim that it falls within the parameters of mainstream orthodox Christianity, it is actually a mere recycling of 19th century liberal European theology. This belief system incited a war in the American church during the early 20th century (a conflict that eventually led to the establishment of my alma mater, Cincinnati Christian University). Bell attempts to sell inclusivism as orthodox Christianity, but it is not. And it never has been.

Still, I have no idea exactly what he believes. So why didn't he clearly define his position? Because there's too much a stake.

Bell's primary audience/readership is young, hip, mainstream evangelical Christians. My opinion is that, while Bell is definitely an inclusivist, he fully recognizes that staking such a position would alienate him from a more conservative Christians. So he chose to publish a book that merely alludes to his beliefs in hopes that he could have his cake and eat it too. But you can't have it both ways. I'm not sure he anticipated this kind of controversy, but he held to ambiguity in those public interviews in hopes of weathering the storm. For years, Bell was able straddle the line between orthodoxy and liberalism successfully but Love Wins, even if it is a literary success, will signal a loss to the Rob Bell brand.

With this book, and the position that Rob Bell (kinda) takes here, his influence will begin to diminish. He will never again publish with one of the big Christian publishing houses. His invitations to speak at conferences will begin to die down. People will most likely throw away their vast library of Nooma videos in protest. The rising star of Rob Bell will begin to fall. I'm not convinced that Love Wins will have any significant historical influence beyond today.

WRAPPING UP Beyond the theological implications, is there a lesson here? I think so.

This current culture is one that values pluralism. We want to be free to believe whatever we choose, and change those beliefs from day to day. So we embrace fuzziness in all it's glory, with a multiplicity of escape routes to maintain our widespread appeal. But we neglect to realize that in taking no position at all, we make a statement with our silence. No matter how you frame it, Jesus' message is divisive. We might not like it, but it is not ours to choose. The broader community of believers, especially in this age of digital connectivity, will always police those who try to induct fringe beliefs into the mainstream.

If Rob Bell can't get away with it, can anyone?

Love Wins And Me (Part One)

Regardless of how many tasks I'm juggling, I will always take time out of my schedule to address contemporary Christian issues that demand attention. In the past two weeks a firestorm has erupted concerning a popular Christian preacher and writer named Rob Bell. He has just released a new book entitled, "Love Wins," that minimizes the role of hell in Christian theology. Much has been written on the interwebs about the hubbub, so my two cents might seem irrelevant. While I don't intend to pave new ground in the conversation, I believe I have a unique perspective on Bell himself as I've been tracking his career for more than a decade now. This is a lengthy post, but I figure if you're still reading, then you're interested.


One of my wife's childhood friends settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan after attending college there. In one of her visits to Cincinnati after our wedding, she told us about the church she was attending.  It was a newer congregation which, at that time, was meeting in something that resembled an airplane hanger. "Steve, you'd really like our minister. He's pretty good," her friend told me. I didn't think much of it until that winter when I heard her minister speak at a conference I attended.

Yes, Rob Bell was pretty good. He's a phenomenal orator. He has incredible command of his diction (especially when rehearsed) and usually has sufficient content to keep his teaching compelling. There are few Christian speakers like him today, who can leave the audience hanging on his every word.

Later that year, we took a trip to visit Kelly's friend in Grand Rapids and attended Mars Hill Bible Church for the first time. They had recently purchased an old mall and were converting it for their ministry purposes. Back then, they had a sermon cassette tape booth (cutting edge, eh?) and I bought the entire first year of his preaching; he taught through the Old Testament book of Leviticus. This is precisely why I appreciated Bell at the time: he was a younger evangelical minister fully embracing biblical preaching. A decade ago, this was novel.


In January 2003, Bell (who was growing in popularity but still wasn't mainstream) and his church hosted a preaching study conference centering around the Ten Commandments. I convinced my friend Aaron Burgess that it would be worth the drive to Grand Rapids to hear this, so we braved a Michigan winter for some knowledge. There were only about fifty people at this gathering—many Michigander clergy folk and a few people like us sprinkled in—consisting of three days of Rob Bell talking with us. He went through his thought process on preaching, developing theology, and anything else that we cared to ask him. Some reflections from this experience are worth noting to understand the current controversy:

1. It was here where I found out where Rob harvested much of his best material. Ray Vanderlaan is an author and Bible teacher who specializes in the Holy Land and Jewish rabbinic culture. Himself a compelling speaker, Vanderlaan said many things that I had heard in Rob's sermon tapes. Vanderlaan is a sharp man, but not really a biblical scholar, so some of his assertions have been refuted by those with more letters after their names.

2. Rob also revealed his library. At the time, he had many books that were Jewish in nature. One, for example, was Abraham Heschel's God in Search of Man. I made an effort to read many of these texts. The majority of them stood in opposition to orthodox Christianity. Obviously, there's nothing with that; when teaching in the Old Testament, I make sure to utilize Jewish scholarship fully understanding the different perspectives. But some of the concepts he articulated in this forum, derived from these and similar texts, were likely the path of development towards his current theological positions. I even have notes on Redemptive Theology (also known as trajectory theology), which helps solidify his position.

3. While in Grand Rapids, I believe I determined the rise of Mars Hill. Rob was an associate minister on staff of a megachurch in the city. Obviously, his oration skills were phenomenal, so when he stepped out to start a new church it was an event. I've read before in articles, where Rob decried church marketing, even having the church sign removed from the front of their building (it was true back in 2003). I always found this interesting because they were able to start their church with almost 1,000 people. I'm not discounting the Lord moving to grow that congregation, but they didn't really need a church sign because Mars Hills was the coolest church in town.

4. The concept that "Love Wins" was created in the first year of their church. In response to a powerful gospel sermon (not sure if it mentioned hell or not), he concluded by throwing open boxes of bumper stickers with the two word sentence printed on them. As we drove around town, we could see many of them affixed to car bumpers. I am uncertain as to whether or not he had fully conceptualized what he meant by that phrase when he promoted it to his church a decade ago.

5. This was soon after the Nooma series had been created. It was interesting to see it on the bottom floor in light of what it became. We met the guy who came up with the concept, who apparently knew exactly how to match Rob's talent with this medium.

6. Kind of a sidebar here, but Aaron was hilarious at this conference. In one of the early sessions, Rob said something about philosophy (Aaron's wheelhouse) and proceeded to correct him publicly on a couple of concepts. At the time it was awkward, but now it seems extremely funny to me. Later that week, Aaron asked one of the Mars Hill staff members about sheep stealing and the dude blew up at him. Besides wearing cool glasses, Aaron wasn't buying into the hype.

7. Since it was a small gathering, I did have a chance to talk with Rob for about five minutes. Although he seemed really gracious, he was somewhat socially awkward. I remember dropping a couple of jokes in front of him and he just stared at me. And since he's really tall (and I'm not), and since he had really cool glasses (and I did not) I do not have warm fuzzies about our interaction. I don't think he's rude, he's a thinker. I've met many a pastor who are outgoing and personable on stage yet more reserved during one-on-one interactions. I could be way off on this, however, but that's how I pegged him.

I must admit that it was a memorable experience. It took me a few months to digest all that I took in there. And it was, after this fact, that my intruigue with Bell began to wane. See, when he started the church, he was preaching through books of the Bible (Leviticus and Ephesians). After the Ten Commandments, he started to depart from this and engaged in more topical preaching. Honestly, I'm just not convinced that his content was as good as it once was, leaning towards opinion and conjecture. I honestly never watched a whole Nooma after the second one. And though I own three of his books, I only read one all the way through. And, since those early days, more and more of his theology has emerged, leading me to question where he really stands.


One more anecdote: a year or so later, my wife's friend got married and we made yet another trip to Grand Rapids. Many of the attendees at the wedding attended Rob's church, so we had some good conversations with them at the reception. But I remember one conversation very clearly: it was with a twenty-something woman who was clearly excited about Mars Hill. As I asked her some questions about the church, she responded in utter admiration of Rob. I wish I could remember the exact phrase the woman uttered, but it was something to the effect that he was prophetic. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with respecting you pastor, but these opinions transcended mere appreciation. Unfortunately, some of the woman's terminology seemed borderline cult-like. She believed that Bell was one of the holiest, most profound people in the world. While this isn't an indictment on Bell (I'm certain he didn't demand this adoration), I wonder if he truly realized such a culture existed where someone could make those statements.


I always assumed the Bell would parlay his talent into a larger situation; Grand Rapids, while nice, is a small midwestern town lacking in influence. But Mars Hill provided Rob the perfect safe haven to develop his thoughts without fear of theological repercussion. While there was a leadership team over the church (at least this was the case in 2003), Bell was a part of this governing group. I am pretty sure that he won't have to fear the wrath of the church leadership in espousing these controversial thoughts in book form because the leadership team shares them. So why has he stayed in Grand Rapids? It offers him a shield of protection it would be difficult to find elsewhere. He's continuing to claim association with orthodox Christianity while moving further away. But as long as he has that church, he'll have stability.

So yeah, there's a little bit of a background for ya. I've mentioned nothing of the book here, but I think for many people it will reveal more about what's behind it.

I'm working my way through the book now.  I'll have a critique about its content out soon.

Click here for part two.

The Deluded Decision

I was out of town when LeBron James made known his intention to "take my talents to South Beach." I had planned on writing up my view on the situation but discovered this week that Bill Simmons took the words right out of my mouth. He opines:

In pickup basketball, there's an unwritten rule to keep teams relatively equal to maximize the competitiveness of the games. That's the law. If two players are noticeably better than everyone else, they don't play together, nor would they want to play together. If the two guys have any pride at all -- especially if they play similar positions -- then getting the better of each other trumps any other scenario. They want that test. Joining forces and destroying everyone else would ruin the whole point of having the game. It's like a dad kicking his young son's a** in a driveway one-on-one game. What's the point? When LeBron and Wade effectively said, "Instead of trying to whup each other, let's just crush everyone else" and "If these teams end up being uneven, we're not switching up," everyone who ever played basketball had the same reaction: "I hate guys like that."

Link: The Sports Guy

When Jesus Burns

The interwebs and local media were abuzz today concerning the Jesus statue in front of the Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio (while the official name of the statue is "King of Kings," most locals refer to it as either "Touchdown Jesus" or "Butter Jesus"). A violent storm ripped through the area last night and lightening struck the statue. Apparently the material of the statue wasn't fireproof and the lightening strike ignited it. It burned to the ground. Whenever discussing anything Jesus related, there's bound to be controversy. The statue itself, considered by most to be an eyesore since its construction in 2004, has been the subject of scorn, so its burning was greeted with gladness by many.

Personally (shocker), the statue was not my taste. But I can understand why a church like Solid Rock wanted a large Jesus monument along the highway: they're the kind of congregation that believes such bold statements define faithfulness to God; locals will remember that, long before the Jesus statue, Solid Rock was best known for their extremely bright digital highway sign. There are numerous churches that subscribe to what I call a "flaunt-your-faith" attitude (if you've ever seen some churches in the south that erect huge crosses, you understand what I mean). What I'm saying is this: while I could never comprehend being part of a church who would construct such a statue, I understand the thinking that leads them to building it.

This brings me to has really been bothering me today. My Facebook monitoring has revealed a ton of cynicism by Christian folk who believe this lightning strike was just desserts: essentially, lightening striking the statue, while not necessarily being the judgement of God, was saving us from having to observe this visual vomit. More than this gratification its demise has brought us, we justify this disgust is as follows: Solid Rock Church wasted thousands of dollars on this statue, money that could have been better used by feeding the poor or ministering to the neglected.* While I do agree with this view, we must make sure that there aren't any two-by-four's obscuring our vision.

Ask yourself this: what is your church spending large amounts of money on that could be better spent either on the poor or ministry? Does your congregation own thousands of dollars of technical equipment (intelligent lights, high-defintion projectors/cameras)? Does your church offer free coffee to thousands of people every week? Does you fellowship finance huge children's programs that come with a huge price tag? If so, your church really isn't different than what Solid Rock is doing.

Ouch, eh? But it's the truth.

The Scriptures offer churches latitude in how we should accomplish our mission and, over thousands of years, people continue to view this differently. We spend our funds in ways that help us to fulfill the Great Commission Jesus issued in Matthew 28. Some churches invest in property and buildings, others invest in staff, still others invest in outreach. Churches tend to justify these lavish expenses with the idea that there is no cost too great to win a lost soul for Jesus. But if we are willing to adopt this posture for our own church, then we ought not be too judgmental on how others seek to accomplish this goal.

Even though I thought the Jesus statue was ugly, I have actually met people who decided to attend Solid Rock because of it. Like it or not, it accomplished its purpose, as does top-notch technology, rocking kids' programs, or free coffee.

This is the burden of church leadership, especially in a small church like Echo. I'm continually concerned that we're being good stewards with the tithes of our congregation. It makes me paranoid. I believe that one of the reasons that our congregation has been effective is that we continue to be frugal with our resources (example: we continue to rent our facility which enables us to give almost 20% of our offering to missions). All church leaders need to struggle with this: are we investing kingdom funds into areas that truly need it, or are we using them to perform services that expand our own kingdoms.

So when you decide to look down your nose and scoff at the bizarre burning Jesus on Interstate 75, ask yourself whether or not there's a similar statue in your church parking lot.

And since I've already gone there, why not get really introspective: are there any Butter Jesus' in your personal life?


*Does that mentality remind you of something biblical, say this?

Food Inc.

The majority of people who read my blog have no need to worry about food. If you're hungry, and there's nothing in the refrigerator, then you hop in the car and go to the store. Usually, the only concern we have is value and nutrition. And, because of our mobility, we can always find another store the suits our needs. One of the issues in urban communities is the vast amount of people who do not have automobile access but rely on public transportation. When they need food, it's an entirely different endeavor. If they're fortunate, there's a grocery store within walking distance. Otherwise, they're forced to get on a bus and haul groceries in a most uncomfortable way. Because of that hassel, many impoverished urbanites are less inclined to make regular trips to the grocery store and, instead, rely on local neighborhood convenience stores for their food needs. These corner stores tend to 1) charge more for food and 2) predominantly offer junk food. As a result, the people in these communities eat less nutritiously, which negatively affects their quality of life. In order to assist these urban residents they need access to healthy foods, access that could come in the form of a local farmers market or (for an option not affected by the seasons) a local grocery store.

If you live in Cincinnati, perhaps you heard the fervor concerning the Roselawn Kroger Store closing. The announcement caught the communities of Roselawn and Bond Hill by surprise. The corporation cited a significant loss in income last year as the reason for the closing. The communities were given no advance notice that profits must increase or the store would close. They're organizing to try to combat this, but it's too late. The community will lose their grocery store and, most likely, will never get it back.

I find all of this very disappointing. As a city resident, I ask, "What is Kroger's obligation to service these communities?" Your response might be that Kroger is a company beholden only to their shareholders; they are in business to turn a profit and do not need to care for the interests of the community. While this seems to be a logical answer, it ignores the relationship between the Kroger Company and the city of Cincinnati. Our city, through generations of loyal consumership, made the Kroger company what it is today. Yet as the company has grown to become a national business, it has continued to reap the tax breaks and benefits from this storied relationship while ignoring it's responsibility to our municipality. These communities that are losing Kroger stores have shown immense loyalty to the company for decades. But now, as the bottom line becomes the most important thing, they are turning their backs on these customers. But Kroger is OK. Because they can replace that customer base exponentially by opening up suburban megastores. In short, they piss on urban communities.

You might object to my harsh statement, but hear me out on this point. How does Kroger justify these closings? Base economics. "The stores are losing money," they cry. I contend that they want these stores to lose money. These urban grocers were established before the company went national. No longer do they fit the mission of the corporation. To avoid charges of racism (as most of these stores are located in predominantly African American communities) they cite falling numbers, making it an economic decision. But do not be deceived, friends: data can be manipulated. If they can ensure that they break even, the can make the store a hell-hole and keep operating. They difference of overall presentation between a suburban store and an urban store is stark. The product on the shelves at the urban stores are inferior. The selection is sparse. Again, naysayers will suggest that it's because the community won't support it, but it isn't the tail that wags the dog. Kroger is giving up on the inner-city. I fully anticipate a location on the Banks downtown, but this will cater to a higher-income urban-dweller and not the people that need it the most.

Even worse than this is the way that my community, Walnut Hills, will soon be treated. Our local Kroger was recently revamped because the Corryville (UC campus location) will soon be torn down and remodeled; when I say "revamped" I mean they basically repainted. The company will need the Walnut Hills location when Corryville closes, so they can retain some local business. But make no mistake: once the Corryville location is completed, they will close our local Kroger. They will say, as they have cried for years, that the store was not profitable—that people choose to shop in other locations. The truth is, they want this store to fail. And when they do, they'll hold the community hostage.

You see, Kroger has a unique rental agreement in their Walnut Hills facility. When they close up, they'll retain rights to the property and no other grocer will be able to open up shop there for years. Yes, they're preparing to hijack a community's access to food. You see, Kroger knows that our community is rebounding economically, and that new, higher-earning customers are moving into the area. Rather than investing in the community, they're going to try to eliminate it's grocery options, so that people will drive to Corryville and Hyde Park to do their shopping.

And who loses: our neighborhood's elderly and impoverished who do not have automobile transportation. Kroger doesn't give a rip about them, only about maximizing profits.

I spent time tonight writing this because I want you to seriously think about these issues. The next time you're watching the local news and seeing citizens complaining that their grocery is closing, at least try to empathize. For many in our population, this is practically a life or death issue. Where will they get healthy food with which to feed their family? Instead of treating massive profits as the goal, Kroger would do better to invest in these communities and in the lives of the people who remained loyal to their company throughout generations.

America: Where A Kid Can Be A Kid

I don't know everything there is to know about this health care bill Congress is trying to pass in the next week (of course, many of these congressmen/congresswomen have no idea what's in this bill either). But one thing I was reading this morning reinforced my irritation towards this bill, suggesting that we're cutting corners in a process that will affect our entire country's population. Part of the proposed health care bill is a requirement that dependent children will be allowed to stay on their parent's health care plan until the age of 26. Even though there are already similar laws on the books of some states (Illinois, I believe, allows this) this is not a good idea.

Think about it: we already recognize that delayed adulthood is an issue in our country but this federal law would practically endorse it. I'm not out of touch: I fully understand that these are harsh economic times and many recent college grads are struggling to find employment opportunities, but why do we have to legislate a quick fix that will not solve the issue? Merely looking at language of the law— basically, calling a 26 year-old a child— highlights the ridiculousness of our society. There are psychological effects to this that I'm not convinced our Congress has explored.

Our problem is that we don't know how to deal with twenty-somethings. We will give them all the rights of adulthood (tobacco, alcohol, gambling, sex) and expect little to nothing in return; this, friends, is how we arrive at The Jersey Shore and every VH1 reality show. Allowing a person in the mid-twenties to be classified as a child/dependent will have repercussions throughout our society, causing us to marginalize these young adults as almost grown-up. Instead of expecting less of them, we should demand more. When we treat them like grown-children, we do them (and us) a great disservice. Ultimately, America suffers when we don't let people become adults.

At age twenty-two, I was out of my parents house, employed, married, living in an apartment, and already saving for retirement. I'm not saying this is the best plan for everyone but I knew that, when college was over, it was my time to step up and be a man.

I know this is just one facet of the health care bill, but the lack of attention to detail here demonstrates that Congress should call a do-over; we do need reform, but not this. They can still improve the lives of millions of Americans without demeaning the lives of millions of others.

Giving To Haiti

Whenever a disaster strikes, especially one from which we're geographically separated, we're usually suspended in a state of helplessness concerning what to do. Since many of you might be looking for a legitimate place where you can send donations, I want to offer up an established organization that you can trust. I.D.E.S. harbors partnerships with missions throughout the world, so when times of calamity occur, they can immediately divert resources to the region. I.D.E.S. has numerous partnerships in Haiti and is already coordinating efforts with local agencies. And the most reassuring part is this: while some organizations shave donations for administrative costs, 100% of your contribution will go directly to Haiti.

So if you're looking for a place to send funds, I'd recommend visiting the I.D.E.S. website.

Wager on Work

"It's about jobs."

This phrase will be the "Remember the Alamo" of the 2009 campaign season.

Backers of Ohio's Issue 3, a statewide referendum to construct four casinos across the state, have contextualized their issue in light of our county's economic downturn. This is calculated position because Ohioians have repeatedly defeated legalized gambling over the years and supporters needed a new angle. If voters could be convinced that Issue 3 could pull us out of the recession, the could finally be victorious.

It's the old bait and switch, and it seems like this bet is paying off.

Supporters for casinos tout an economic study which claimed that 34,000 new jobs would be created if the issue is passed. This statistic, created by the University of Cincinnati's Economics Center for Education and Research, ought to be rather persuasive. But when you realize that this study was commissioned by The Ohio Jobs & Growth Committee, a PAC in favor of Issue 3, you should resist trusting this figure. As the Cincinnati Enquirer reported in September, the study did not account for the potential job losses that could accompany casino gambling throughout the state; for example, casinos would likely mean the end of the horse industry in this state, which employs over 12,000 people.

There's another aspect that the study didn't take into account. You see, the creation of casinos in Ohio will mean an increase in gambling by our state's residents; this would likely mean them gambling away their discretionary income. While we'd like to believe that this money was formerly being directed towards savings, it was probably being spent in stores throughout the state. These stores employ people, but if funds are diverted from these establishments to blackjack tables and slot machines, people will lose their jobs.

In short, jobs are not being created, but merely being transitioned. Voting for Issue 3 and job creation have nothing in common. In actuality, Issue 3 is a battle over monopolies. The opposing parties both want control over gambling in the state— a position that would yield billions of dollars. Why do you think they're spending so much money campaigning?

Issue 3 is about creating one very lucrative job.

Gambling and Jesus

In examining the virtues surrounding Ohio’s Issue 3, we first have to examine the subject of gambling from a spiritual perspective.

There are those denominations, the Methodist Church being the most passionate, who decry gambling as sin. I would suggest that this view is most influenced by that movement’s founder, John Wesley, who held gambling as a vice akin to alcohol; Wesley viewed gambling as a corruptive practice that preyed on the poor. There are others today who claim that the Bible declares gambling to be a sin. This view is problematic as there is no specific verse that condemns the action; true, there are verses that decry the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10) but there are those who never gamble who have violated this provision. There are also verses that speak against attempting to “get rich quick” (Proverbs 10:4) but this could also be applied to playing the stock market. Using these kinds of verses to construct a biblical command like, "gambling is sin," is poor hermeneutic (biblical application). These biblical texts, and others like them, ultimately instruct the believer to avoid the idolatry of money worship— again, something that people who have never gambled can be guilty of.

In short, there is no biblical provision prohibiting government-instituted gambling. There is also no biblical provision that prevents a Christian from gambling. And while it should be acknowledged that Christians should practice moderation in all things (addiction to anything is sinful) this is not a sufficient reason by which to oppose gambling on biblical grounds. Our country’s history has taught us that simply enacting prohibition does not eliminate the problem*

And while I’m on this point, we Christians must be careful of criticizing those who gamble because there are people who can both enjoy it and refrain from becoming addicted to it; it can be a perfectly fine hobby.

I’ll admit, as an ordained minister, that I have gambled before. I don’t do it often or in large amounts because I do not find it enjoyable to flush my money down the toilet. On the other hand, there was a time in my life where I passionate about golfing. I bought golf clubs, magazines, lessons, and played frequently, all of which were not inexpensive. No one would criticize devotion to golf, or boating, or traveling or animal ownership as sinful. Yet all of these activities, like gambling, could be considered to be a waste of money.

So gambling is not necessarily anti-Christian.

I believe it important to distinguish this idea because too often opponents of gambling are dismissed for being prudish or attempting to impose their personal morality on others. As a result, their objections are ignored and the true issues behind them are never explored. I can be a Christian and be opposed to Issue 3 without having to state that, “God says it’s bad.” And you, as a Christian, have every right to disagree with me.

But what I hope to do as I continue this thread is to convince you that Issue 3 is not the best thing for our community— and to do so without having to pull spiritual rank.


*There are Christians who will counter this objection to prohibition by taking it to the extreme, suggesting then that we shouldn’t prohibit anything at all. That position is ridiculous, and I’m not going to go into that in this post.

Show Me The Money

I caught a glimpse of the movie Jerry Maguire this weekend. I must publicly admit that I bought a reduced price copy of that flick [the VHS version] a few years back. Not sure why I did that; I think it cost the same amount to rent it as it did to buy it, so I just went for it. Beyond Cuba Gooding Junior's catch phrase, the rest of the movie was mediocre, bordering on unbearable.

In our current economic downturn, it seems that many people have assimilated the Rod Tidwell's philosophy: right now, it's all about gettin' paid. It's the motivation behind the economic stimuli. It's driving marketing campaigns. And it's re-enabling a vice that needs no help in dominating our society: greed.

You see, now that people are unemployed, racked with debts, and uncertain how future financial foundations will sit, we're allowing fear to drive us towards greed. This is why politicians and the business community have adopted a similar apologetic: "Because of the present economy, we need to [insert applicable scheme here]." This teleological ethical approach [a.k.a. "the ends justifies the means"] empowers us to do whatever is necessary to ensure that we end up on the right side of this recession.

An example of this [and, quite honestly, the motivation for this post], examine my home state of Ohio. This fall, voters will be asked to, yet again, vote for legalized gambling; more specifically, Issue 3 would permit casinos to be established in four of our state's urban centers, including Cincinnati. Four times in the past twenty years, voters have rejected similar initiatives. "But this time it's different," the masses are informed, "because we'll create over 30,000 jobs in our state." This is the primary rallying cries for the Issue. So if we were to break it down into an equation:

Economic downturn + Need for new jobs = We need casinos in Ohio.

Additionally, the argument is presented that since Ohioans are already gambling out of state, we might as well keep those funds here in state. So again:

Economic downturn + Ohioans already gambling = We need casinos in Ohio.

Or, in layman's terms, "show me the money." It's that easy, right?

But lost in the simplicity of the math are some of the overlooked variables— the actual cost of permitting gambling in our state.

I go on very few crusades, but this is one of them. As a minister, and as a resident of the state of Ohio, I object to Issue 3. And since I know that readers of my blog have varying views on the issue, I'm going to devote a series of posts outlining my position. You might not like me getting political, but I fear for my city and for my neighborhood.

Just because the money is out there for the taking doesn't mean it comes without a price.

The Never-ending Nightmare

Was I shocked this weekend when it was revealed that Alex Rodriguez, arguably the best baseball player of his generation, [allegedly] tested positive for steroids in 2003?*


One of the things I've discovered in my relatively short life is that anyone is capable of anything. I think it's my job as a minister that gives me a better vantage point from which to declare this, as I see people not only at their best but at their worst. We pedestal people far too often, placing them above the fray, so that when we discover they're actually human— we're crushed. I've been guilty of this numerous times in the past and am finally getting to the point that where I find no hidden vice shocking.

I've never been an A-Rod fan, but I've never been a hater either. I admired his immense skill, especially in the midst of cheaters. And I constantly felt sorry for him because he seemed uncomfortable in his own skin.** He is the coolest kid in class, but doesn't know it.

Look at his off-the-field actions over the year and you see a guy that is desperately trying to solidify his social standing. Why date a past-her-prime Madonna? Because someone might be impressed. Why tear down other teammates through the media? Because the worst they look, the better you appear. From what I heard on the radio earlier [I have no link to this], the steroid A-Rod took was actually a cosmetic one; apparently, it wouldn't bulk him up to hit the ball harder, but would improve the way his body looked. If this is true, it proves my assertion that he has a low-self image. Yes, friends, the man that supposedly every man wanted to be and every woman wanted to be with, is terribly insecure.

And for all of us, even for those non-baseball fans still reading, there are a couple of valuable lesson here to learn here. First, just because a person seems to have it all-together doesn't mean they really do. Just watching the Grammys last night reinforced this. Even the coolest people in the world continually try to maintain/create their own relevancy. What did Paul McCartney need to prove last night that he needed to perform an old Beatles song? No matter what McCartney does now could increase his standing as a part of his band. But he, too, wants to still be noticed. Like A-Rod, he just wants to be loved. This is why I believe that the most healthy self-image is one grounded in Jesus. If I really believe the teachings of Scriptures, my self-worth is centered in Christ, so I should know that I truly AM LOVED. Leave it to me to go from steroids to the Beatles to Jesus, but I sincerely believe this to be true.

The second lesson I observe is in relationship to the broader issue of steroids in baseball. Among the steroid-users that we've discovered in baseball, it's dominated by names who were already star athletes, poised for baseball immortality. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens didn't need steroids to make it to the Hall of Fame. They were the best of the best, and yet they could not control their competitive drive when it came time to decide if they should cheat. No matter who you are, nor how much talent or resources you have, the temptation to take a shortcut is always enticing. If anything, in my view, this cements Ken Griffey Jr as the greatest player of the past two decades. Sure, I was frustrated at his performance here in Cincinnati, but a cheater he wasn't.***

All this right as pitchers and catchers report next week. It's too sad. I'm just hoping baseball will survive so that my kids when be at least somewhat interested in it.


* While this is still only allegation, my belief in its truthfulness is bolstered by the fact that A-Rod has remained silent. If a rumor like this were false, he would've been on ESPN within the hour to refute it.

** Someone might suggest the feeling sympathy for a person who will make over half-a-billion dollars in his career is ridiculous. I would counter that holding this perspective is just as classist as looking down on the impoverished. People are people, no matter what they have or don't.

*** The Reds have stayed relatively clean throughout this steroid witch-hunt. Even though there was one obscure Cincinnati Red in the Mitchell Report who used, he had previously spent some time in New York and that's how they nailed him. I tend to think that the Pete Rose/gambling/personal trainer relationship which caused his banishment from baseball led local people who would deal 'roids to back away from the ballclub all-together fearing authorities getting into their business. Then there's the tale of Brett Boone who was a twig when he was here in Cincy, left town, bulked up, then hit almost 40 home runs in a season. While Boone denies it, he'd better hope he's not another one of the names on this 2003 steroid list.

Nobody Wins

The court of public opinion was a lot of sway, and right now Israel is taking it on the chin.

Our global connectedness is allowing the world to witness the Israel-Hamas conflict in real-time and the scene of children dying will always grip the conscience. I saw the results today when I read the blog of a [rather orthodox] theologian who urged people to email the UN [or something like that] to tell Israel to halt their assault.

The Israeli government is not perfect. We saw it first-hand when we were in the country. Their day-to-day actions against the Palestinians would not be tolerated here in America. But ours is a problem of perspective: living in Israel is indeed nothing like America. The Jews, within the last sixty years, have seen multiple attempts at their annihilation and are n a region where they are surrounded by countries who hate them. True, our country has provided them with the firepower to be the strongest nation in the Middle East but, if not for that weaponry, they would certainly have been destroyed by now.

It is that might that gets thrust in our faces in the media. They are viewed as the tyrants as children die and people starve. But before you pass judgement, look behind the scenes. I am not an Alan Dershowtiz fan, but his statements concerning the conflict need to be observed. He notes that even though this is being displayed as a one-sided affair, it is actually Hamas who is not playing fair. For instance,

In a recent incident related to me by the former head of the Israeli air force, Israeli intelligence learned that a family's house in Gaza was being used to manufacture rockets. The Israeli military gave the residents 30 minutes to leave. Instead, the owner called Hamas, which sent mothers carrying babies to the house.

Hamas knew that Israel would never fire at a home with civilians in it. They also knew that if Israeli authorities did not learn there were civilians in the house and fired on it, Hamas would win a public relations victory by displaying the dead. Israel held its fire. The Hamas rockets that were protected by the human shields were then used against Israeli civilians.

Not so cut and dry, eh? Especially when Hamas does something that Israel would never do: intentionally target schools. Another must-read article from yesterday's London Times adds perspective to this position: Israel loses no matter how it reacts. Add that to the fact that even the media is being duped into believing that they're committing atrocities that they didn't even commit and you can see why this conflict has no simple answers.

That's the sad part: innocent people die and there is no solution in sight. There will never truly be peace in the Middle East, which is yet another reason why I choose to embrace the Prince of Peace.