I completely missed the Lenten train this year. I should have fasted from Facebook as I’ve been considering for months now. So that the Holy Week train doesn’t also leave the station without me, I’m taking some reflection time each day this week to consider the mystery and miracle of the sacrifice and triumph of Jesus. Part of that reflection for me involves music, and I wanted to pass on a couple of selections that have been meaningful.
Italian composer Gregorio Allegri composed Miserere in the early 1600s (Probably 1630s). It’s a setting of Psalm 51 meant for use during Holy Wednesday and Good Friday services in the Sistene Chapel. A portion of the text reads,
Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness
According to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offences.
Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin.
This is one of a handful of works I discovered as a teenager that sealed my love for classical music. I remember hearing it the first time, having no idea what the musicians were singing but thinking it was the most beautiful sound ever created by the human voice. I still think it may be. You can read along in English as the singers deliver the Latin, download a version sung in English, or simply close your eyes and listen (in any language) to the sounds of the soul in contrition before God. Get alone, shut out all other sound, and just listen.
At the other end of the historical spectrum of classical music is John Debney’s score to the 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ. Whatever you think about the film itself, or its director, the original score is a gem worth revisiting. Again, close your eyes, and just listen. You’ll feel as though you’ve been transported back to first century Israel to witness the beauty and horror of that Holy Week. And unlike Miserere, the Passion soundtrack ends with the resolution of resurrection.
Would love to hear your own suggestions. Feel free to comment below.
Have a happy and holy week.
It was an angry year, and good riddance to it. The only questions I have for 2012 are, should I try avoiding you in the future, and if so, how?
I began 2012 blogging about faith and homosexuality. Specifically, Christian faith and my homosexuality. I knew going in I was likely to regret the move, and it took about five minutes from the time I posted the first entry for that to prove true. I heard it all. A friend of some 15 years told me, “The Bible says I’m not supposed to have you in my home.” An old college acquaintance quipped, “When you’re done justifying your sin, maybe you can tell me how to justify my lust, because that’s easier than repenting.” A few accused me of “scriptural gymnastics,” a favorite phrase of some evangelicals when someone challenges their beliefs with a non-traditional interpretation of certain Bible passages. No one ever told me why what I was thinking wasn’t right or couldn’t be right; they only told me I was wrong, often in painfully pithy ways. I’d love to say I let the criticisms all roll off my back, but no. Some of those comments still smart.
Next, we had Amendment One, North Carolina’s measure to amend its constitution by banning legal sanction of any union other than that of one man and one woman. No civil unions, and certainly no gay marriage. The vote wasn’t even close. Sixty percent of voters approved the amendment after months of angry exchanges among politicians, civic groups, and churches. If the whole matter had not been so terribly serious, it would have been comical. “Who exactly,” many must have wondered, “is this Jesus? Are these people even talking about the same person? Why does no one seem to know who he is? He’s wildly variable from one church to the next.” Again, I’d love to say I laughed off all the angry attacks I heard, but it’s a little tough to absorb being told you’re shaking your fist at God just because you believe he understands that some people cannot be straight no matter how bad some of his disciples want them to, and so provision should be made for their relational needs, as well. As the vote count rolled in, I stood in a sea of amendment opponents. When the image of Billy Graham appeared on stage behind a handful of gloating politicians and church leaders, I heard the most unrepeatable obscenities hurled, not at God, per se, but at his church, and I realized just how many generations the church (as unfair as it may be to lump us all into one phrase like “the church”) will be paying for its use of politics as a weapon in a culture war. “If you have not love, you are nothing.” If you have hate, what does that make you?
As if to add insult to injury, we next had Chick-Fil-A Day. Again, spurred by a politician, the church took sides, often against each other more than anything else. Some said it was about equality. Others said it was about morality. Still others, that freedom of speech was on the line. Mostly what we all accomplished, I suspect, was spreading more bitterness and, depending on your camp, further padding the wallet of a millionaire maker of chicken sandwiches. But they really are good little boogers, what with that deep fried deliciousness and that lone little pickle on top. Dab of mayonnaise. Mmm mmm. Costly too. A lot of gays got further from anything that smacks of “church,” and even folks like me, who love and serve the church, were left with a rotten taste in their mouths of religion gone rancid.
And then, the biggie hit: Decision 2012. For months that seemed unending, we heard supporters of both candidates accuse each other of the most ghastly things, just because they see the world differently. Facebook was nearly unendurable for 10 out of 12 months this past year. That’s quite a sum of unpleasantness.
Finally, the election passed, only to see another wave of Facebook fighting roll in in the wake of the Connecticut elementary school massacre. “It’s about the second amendment!” “It’s about stemming gun violence!” “It’s about our children!” “Guns don’t kill people …” And we solved … ? Yep, nothing. Just spread around a little more anger and arrogant head-shaking: “Can you believe so-and-so believes THAT? I’m so glad I’m not like THEM.”
Am I alone in feeling like 2012 was a bitter progression from one argument to the next? I’ve dubbed 2012 “the year of the schism” because it did feel to me as though every month–sometimes every week–brought some fresh issue to scrap over. And scrap we did. I’m not sure what the solution is either, how we keep 2013 from following the same pattern, or if we even should try to. Maybe these fights are good, or necessary at least. We don’t live in a Pollyanna world. Sometimes we’re going to disagree, bitterly even, and the only thing to do is to have it out, and maybe this is a healthy and essential process. Surely, few people would say the 1960s were a harmonious time, but we needed to “have it out” over racial equality. It was a messy but necessary debate. Having it was good and ultimately healthy. Maybe our current arguments are the same. Doesn’t feel like it though. I ended 2012 edgy, irritable, and snarky, expecting at any moment to get completely blasted for some belief I hold. I look back on the year and think, “What did all that arguing accomplish? What did I accomplish?”
No tidy ending to this post. This is the early stage of my period of reflection as I make goals for the New Year. Maybe it isn’t right to want to stop the arguments our society is having. Maybe we need to have them. Conflict can be healthy. Maybe the debates are good, or at least necessary. If so, how do I endure them without turning out bitter in the end? I don’t want to say good riddance to another year in twelve months. I want to look back and say, “That was good. Messy, perhaps, but good.” How do I make this happen?
Today I’m participating in a synchroblog calling for sanity among Christians in the discussion of faith and homosexuality. This called-for sanity would cover all aspects of the topic: Is homosexuality sin? If so, why? If not, why? Should gay marriage be legal? Should churches ordain gay ministers?
And any other question you can think of. Click here to read some of the other entries in the synchroblog.
There must be a way for Christians of varying viewpoints to discuss this stuff without getting all cray-cray. Let me suggest one simple but often painful thing we could all do.
Begin with the humble acknowledgement, “I could be wrong.”
It’s hard to be too defensive, angry, nasty, and generally unloving when you’ve already said to yourself and others, “Hey, obviously I think my view is sound or I wouldn’t hold it, but I’m human, and therefore flawed, and therefore potentially wrong.” Several days ago, I got into a back-and-forth on Facebook (not a good place to discuss anything) with a guy who felt the redefinition of marriage was undermining the family. When it was clear neither of us were buying the other’s points on the matter, I suggested we agree to disagree and move on. The other fella agreed, but not before adding this little postscript:
“Last statement…to state my case. Homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says it is … Please don’t use the Bible as a reference allowing homosexuality…it doesn’t.”
Instantly, I wanted to throw rocks at the guy, and every other Christian who says stuff like that. (I know, I know: not a sane approach.) Statements like the one above are the death of any meaningful discussion. When you say something like that, all the other person hears is what I heard: “I’m right. You’re wrong. Period. Regardless of the fact that I’ve done little or no research on the historical context of the passages in question, and regardless of the fact that many Bible scholars who have done such research have come to a conclusion different than mine, I’m right, and you’re wrong. And all of those scholars are too. Just because. The Bible doesn’t say what you say it says. If you try to suggest that it does, you’re ‘using’ the Bible.”
What arrogance. There’s no way I’m wrong. There’s no way you’re right. So just stop talking. If we go at this issue that way, people will rightly tune us out. That’s not a sane approach to discussing one of the most contentious moral issues of our day. Sanity says, “Hey, I could be wrong, so let’s talk.” Cray-cray says, “I’m right, and you’re not, just because, so what is there to discuss?”
Speaking of sane approaches, I’d like to plead with you that you buy a copy of “Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate” by Justin Lee. It’s the most reasonable approach to the whole issue that I’ve ever read, and it’s in stores and available online today in hardcover and ebook formats. It won’t take you long to read it, and I think you’ll get something good from it, regardless where you fall on the issue of faith and homosexuality. Please, please, please: read it.
“What should I do if my candidate loses the presidential election?”
Well, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. Freak out. Have a meltdown. Cry, definitely cry. And go into work the next day sluggish and hungover from my attempts to assuage the pain.
No. I’m going to do none of that, and neither should you. Especially don’t cry. Unless you are a member of either candidate’s immediate family, DO NOT CRY. It’s not worth it. Instead, consider a few things.
1. The candidate who wins is not necessarily the better person or leader. There are many examples, but I think of the 1972 campaign. George McGovern got walloped! Lost 49 states. Folks, there are only 50. Yet, a couple weeks ago when McGovern died, people on both sides of the political aisle celebrated him as a patriot and happy warrior for the causes he held dear. As for the winner of the 1972 race? He’ll always be the first (and hopefully last) president to resign in disgrace. The guy who won failed; the guy who lost succeeded. Look, only one person can win a race. If your guy (or, someday, gal) loses, it’s not necessarily a repudiation of everything that candidate, or you by extension, believe. You just didn’t quite come up with enough votes. No shame in that. With tomorrow’s election especially, no one should gloat, and no one should despair. This thing is so close that whoever wins will know an almost equal number of Americans didn’t want him to.
2. An awful lot of change happens at the state and local levels, not just the federal level. We’re so conditioned to focus on the top guy, the “leader of the free world,” that few of us think about governors and state representatives and county commissioners and school board officials. But who sets salaries for the police officers who keep your towns safe? Not the president. Who initiated all those anti-gay ballot initiatives? Not the president. He can neither initiate nor stop them. Who determines what school boards will be able to pay their teachers who educate your children? Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney. Yes, the president matters, but all those candidates further down the ballot matter a lot too. Maybe more.
3. Culture and society progress regardless who leads. This isn’t always true, but often enough it is. Remember, it was just eight years ago that George W. Bush in his successful bid for reelection was calling for a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage forever. No candidate would consider that today. The public just isn’t for it. Attitudes have changed, and even though states are still managing to pass amendments to their constitutions banning same-sex unions, public polls now show that about half of all Americans approve of gay marriage. That’s up dramatically from eight years ago, even though for half that time the man at the top opposed it. Federal appeals courts have ruled “The Defense of Marriage Act” unconstitutional, and it’s only a matter of time before the Supreme Court hears the case. A decade ago, this would have been unimaginable. Civilization marches on, often in spite of its leaders. If your guy loses the election tomorrow, it doesn’t mean your favorite causes have died or even stalled. Sometimes, it even takes opposition to inspire people. Your guy losing may be the best thing to happen to your causes! It’s just not as simple as who wins and who loses.
4. An added word of perspective for Obama supporters, should he lose: second terms are notoriously bad. I don’t know why any president would want one. Lyndon Johnson had Vietnam. Richard Nixon had Watergate. Ronald Reagan had Iran-Contra. Bill Clinton had Monica Lewinsky (literally). And George W. Bush? Well, what didn’t he have? Social Security, Katrina, Iraq, financial meltdown. Guy couldn’t catch a break. At that rate, maybe you shouldn’t pull for Obama. No one wants to be a one termer, but many one termers are held in pretty high regard. Most historians think the first President Bush was more successful than the second, and yet the first was a one termer and the second, a two termer. Carter lost handily his bid for reelection but has faithfully served the causes of peace and equality ever since. It’s hard not to respect Carter, even if you disagree with him. President Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon doomed him in the only race he ever ran for the White House, yet he was well-regarded for the remainder of his life. Winning a second term doesn’t guarantee you success or popularity, and losing doesn’t automatically deprive you of them.
Bottom line, have perspective. Treat folks well tomorrow. You’ll wish you had on Wednesday. If your candidate wins, be gracious. If your candidate loses, be congratulatory. And don’t go about moping like the next four years are the end of America. They’re not. I’m watching the returns with my church small group tomorrow. We’re having a “Love Your Neighbor Election Party.” We’re committing to treat each other well, no matter what. Join us in spirit, if you will.
A few years ago, my friend Kiera Cass wrote a book for young adult girls called The Siren, featuring a mostly lavender cover with fanciful script font and a pic of a woman in soft focus wearing a flowing white dress standing by some gentle water. It was the very image of masculinity, so I bought a copy. No. I bought a copy because Kiera is my friend, and I wanted to support her. I even promised to read the book on an upcoming trip I was taking. Obviously, I could not be seen in public toting such a thing, so I manned it up with some camo duct tape.
And are those condescending thoughts I remember having?
Oh look, Kiera SELF-published a book. Not quite like getting a publisher (or two) to publish your book(s), but good for her!
That was 2009. Today, one of my books is already out of print, and Kiera Cass just became a New York Times Best-selling author. So there ya go. Her teen fiction novel, The Selection, published by Harper (yes, the one and only), debuted (!) in the top 10. Do you realize how few people ever accomplish that? It is an extraordinary achievement.
I wanted to know how Kiera did it and how she is dealing with it, so I exchanged messages with her the other night. She gave me permission to share her thoughts here.
MATT: First, how are you handling the madness around you?
KIERA: I guess I’m handling everything … ok? I don’t know! The funny thing is that even though it’s this huge deal and I’m super proud, nothing has changed. Tonight, I still had to run to my church small group, and my son Guyden is demanding milk and bananas, and there was laundry to fold. You know, same old same old. So it’s kind of funny.
MATT: Ok, so HOW did this madness happen? I mean, obviously, the book is good or people wouldn’t be buying it, but how did it get so big so fast? How did you get an agent, when almost no one does? How did you get a big publisher, when almost no one does? How did your book break through to the top of thousands, when almost no one’s does. I mean, this is incredible, and you did it without any major connections, right?
KIERA: I’m not 100% sure myself how it happened. My editor specifically warned me that the chances of this happening were SUPER slim. Not because the book is bad, but because there are a lot of other great young adult books out there that probably wouldn’t budge. And I know my sales were good for an unknown debut, but when I called my agent to tell her the news, her first reaction was, “I didn’t even think we had enough books printed to make the list!” So, you know, my reaction was, “Are you punking me?”
I got my agent the old fashioned way, sending out queries. For The Siren, I sent out 80+ queries, had 10 agents read it, and no one wanted it. For The Selection, I sent out 13 queries, 2 agents wanted it, and I got to pick. Until I got her, though, I didn’t know my editor already had a few bestsellers on her hands. And she’s been promoted twice since I’ve been with her.
Some of this has to do with timing, I think. The Selection has been compared to The Hunger Games a lot, which is huge right now. But when I queried, The Hunger Games wasn’t The Hunger Games, ya know? My book just happened to come out at a time when people want something that gives them that same buzz, I guess? My book isn’t that much like The Hunger Games to me, but I know that the comparision has interested a few people, so that might be part of it, too.
So, honestly, it just kind of happened. I don’t think I could have made it happen this way if I tried. Crazy, yes?
And I can’t even dance around because I have edits due Monday on the next book that I am WAY behind on. And I’m off to work on that now!
So, there ya have it folks, from Kiera herself. Oh, and did I mention CW is making a TV show out of her book? Yeah.
Congratulations, Kiera! You rock. Very, very excited for you. And when I write my teen girls fiction novel, I know who to go to for connections.
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we take time to reflect upon, and hopefully learn from, an evil so immense, words almost fail to describe or explain it. I chose the picture to the left because it was the only one I could find that was in color. Black and white dulls the reality, takes the slightest edge off the horror. This is a day to deny ourselves such a comfort. Today we should stare at the full outrage and ask ourselves all the appropriate questions: How could any people do this to another people? How could enough people be made to go along with this? How do we stop this from ever happening again?
As I wrote in my book, When Answers Aren’t Enough,
“Holocaust is formed by the mixing of two words, holos, meaning ‘completely,’ and kaustos, meaning ‘burnt.’ Completely burnt. And the Jews surely would have been, had the world not gone to war.”
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, let’s take time to reflect on the near-total destruction of the Jews, an almost completely burnt race and culture, saved by a world’s stepping in, albeit six million Jews too late. And let’s remember those who still suffer the after effects of so great an evil.
Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust surviver, writes in his book Night,
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
May we never forget either.
A few final thoughts on this resolution business. We’ve been through the four steps: 1) Reflect, 2) Write down a few specific, positive goals, 3) Write out a plan for achieving your goals, and 4) Ask a few positive, encouraging people to hold you accountable. Now all that’s left is to go for it. As you do, remember …
Any day can be New Year’s Day.
True, there’s only one January 1 each year, but you can start the year anew any day. Businesses have fiscal years that rarely follow our wall calendars. Why should your goals? If you get to February and discover, “Dang, I’ve not made any progress on my goals,” don’t be discouraged, cynical, and defeated. Celebrate New Year’s all over. Seriously, pull out the stale, half-drunk bottle of champagne from the fridge and toast the beginning of something new. Life is too precious to fall back into resolutions-don’t-work-for-me thinking.
Schedule a six-month check-up.
Not with your dentist–although you should do that, too. Schedule a six-month check-up with yourself to see how your goals are going. A year is a long time. About six months in is a good time to schedule an hour of reflection to look at the status of your life in relation to your goals. Then, make adjustments as needed. Life is fluid. We change as we grow. Our goals need to be flexible as well.
Big things are possible.
I like how Emily Dickinson put it: “I dwell in possibility.” Literally, I exist within the realm of “all things possible.” Be reasonable with your goals, sure. You aren’t likely to go from City Council Member to President of the United States in a year, but don’t underestimate what you can do, either. Writing a book seemed just on the edge of what was possible for me. I’d never written anything longer than an article before. I had no connections to the publishing industry. I wasn’t famous. And everyone seemed to be trying to write a book back then, so I had plenty of competition. Yet, I ended up with, not one, but two books coming out in the same year. Big things are possible.
The journey is the thing.
For years, I’d dreamed of the moment I’d hold my book in my hands for the first time. My very own book! In reality, however, that moment was entirely anti-climactic. Almost no emotion at all. Turns out, the process of getting to that moment was the real joy: the many walks through the woods asking God for his help, wrestling with writer’s block only to have a sudden burst of inspiration, and the gradual, day-by-day, sentence-by-sentence push toward the finish line–that was the real fun! So yes, aim for your goals, and celebrate your successes when you get there, but realize that you’re living–truly living!–all along the way, because you are living with purpose, shunning a life of aimless conduct.
Blessings for a wonderful 2012.
Step 4: Ask encouraging people to hold you accountable.
Okay, you’ve reflected, you’ve written down a few specific, positive goals, and you’ve written out a plan for achieving your goals. Now you need some accountability. Ask a few optimistic, encouraging people to periodically check in to see you how you’re doing with your goals. And stress on the words “optimistic” and “encouraging.” No Debbie Downers. The last thing you want is a bunch of glass-half-empty people asking about your goals.
Don’t skip this step! As Craig Groeschel says, “Accountability makes the difference between what you say you want to do and what you actually do.”
When I made the goal to write a book, I asked one of my then-co-pastors to offer some accountability for me. I knew Jim had a quite a gift of faith. He just seemed, more than the average person, to believe that big things were possible. And I knew he believed in me. Years before I made the goal to write my first book, Jim would tell me, “Matt, I can see your book on my shelf.” That is the kind of person you want checking up on you to see how you’re doing with your goals.
I also decided to tell my church that I was going to try writing a book. Nothing so lights a fire under one’s tail than enlisting the aid of 700 accountability partners! I figured the Debbie Downers in the crowd wouldn’t bother checking in since they weren’t likely to believe in me. And the ones who did believe, who were excited to see this thing happen, would offer some needed encouragement along the protracted path toward a published book. That’s just what happened.
Tomorrow: seeing the dream come true.
Step 3: Write down a plan for achieving your written goals.
Now that you have a few specific, positive goals on paper, you need a strategy for making them happen because a goal without a plan for achieving it is just wishful thinking. Missing this step, especially if you have a big goal, is why I think many, many people fail at their resolutions and become cynical about New Year’s. The problem isn’t a lack of motivation. It’s not that our goals are too big. And it’s not that we make bad resolutions. People have the best intentions but no plan for how to fulfill them. Your goal may be to reach your ideal weight by losing 30 pounds in 2012, but how are you going to lose those pounds? What is your strategy?
You’ll recall that my goal in 2006 was to write a book. That’s a pretty hefty project requiring months of work. Without a plan for accomplishing my goal, I could very easily have reached February with little or no progress, decided that writing a book was just a childish fantasy anyway, and given up on my goal. So I devised a plan for achieving my goal: I would write 500 words a day until the thing was done. Now, did I stick to that plan? Often, no. I discovered quickly that writing 500 words a day was easy; writing 500 words a day worth publishing was difficult. But, having a clear strategy for making progress kept me on target. A little a day would equal a whole in the end.
Now I had a goal, and I had a plan for making it happen. All done, right? Not quite. One more step to go. Come on back now, ya hear?
Step 2: Write down specific goals.
Write out a few specific resolutions based on your time of reflection. “Specific” is a key word. Don’t say, “I want to be healthier.” Say, “I want to lose _____ pounds and be able to run three miles without dying.” And really write out your goals. Put them down on paper so you can see them, so they’re not just swimming around in your head. And make positive goals! Don’t say, “I want to stop eating pizza, chocolate, and bacon fat.” Instead, “I want to eat vegetables at every lunch and dinner and save the pizza, sweets, and bacon fat for an occasional treat.”
Another example: For me, on that mountain in 2006, I made the goal to write a book. It’s specific. I did not say, “I want to write more.” I said what I wanted to write. My goal was positive. I did not say, “I want to stop wasting the gift of writing that God gave me.” That’s not the kind of goal you’ll keep. It’ll just make you feel bad. And anyway, it’s not specific, so you have no way of measuring your success, which will only lead to a feeling of failure. Specific. Positive. And written down. When I actually put pen to paper and wrote out my goal, I realized what had kept me from making that goal in the past: 1) I was scared. What if I fail? And 2) It seemed like such a big goal. Perhaps, too big?
Tomorrow, we’ll look at what to do with a goal that seems right on the edge of what is possible for you. Step 3 in the goal-making process is the most crucial of all, and failure to follow it is why I think so many people become cynical and discouraged and give up on their goals by February. So come back tomorrow!