Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Christmas Message We Often Ignore

This is my husband’s first Christmas without his father. This is my family’s second Christmas divided by unresolved conflict. In my house, at least, some of the “magic” of Christmas has been usurped by another not-so-sparkly reality: The season of celebration often serves to magnify our suffering. Perhaps on this day more than any other, we notice the painful absence of loved ones, long for the way things used to be, or wish for things, often intangible, that we don’t have.

Likewise, the birth of Christ is inseparable from his crucifixion—Jesus’ joyous beginning, the day that we call Christmas, is eternally and inextricably tied to his agonizing ending.  Our Savior was born to suffer. In fact, even before he was born, Jesus knew that his Father’s will for him was rejection and death (Luke 24:26)—and although Jesus was God in the flesh, he still experienced the very human struggle with suffering, asking his Father if he might spare him, just hours before his crucifixion.

Coupling the beauty of Christmas with the anguish of the crucifixion is not a message that our culture of holiday excess encourages. But it’s a reminder I think we all need: When we were reborn—transformed into children of God through salvation in Christ Jesus—we also were promised suffering. That’s not the gospel most of us want to preach or personally embrace—it’s much more attractive to promise a life of prosperity. But let me say it again: As followers of Christ, we are called to suffering. (“For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps.” – 1 Peter 3:21)

The world is supposed to hate us, because we’re professing a perfect God in an imperfect world—and imperfection cannot stand to be in the presence of perfection, just as darkness cannot coexist with light. As children of the almighty, we are not of this world, so why should it embrace us?

But this isn’t suffering for the sake of suffering. It’s part of the process of sanctification—our purpose here on earth—leading to eventual glorification in heaven.

Here’s the part where some of us particularly struggle: We are called to not only endure our suffering, but to delight in it—to see our suffering as a symbol of our communion with Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, “Three different times I begged the Lord to take [the thorn in my side] away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, he is strong.”

Did you catch that? Our struggles are an opportunity to let Christ carry us—to bring us humbly before him, relying not on our own strength, but instead his inexhaustible supply. It’s also a chance to share in Christ’s death, and eventually, to witness his glory on the throne. So, yes, Christmas is a reminder of Christ’s birth and his death, but it’s also a reminder of the redemption we’re offered because of both—and that is the ultimate Christmas gift.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

What I Think Phil Robertson Was Trying to Say
I’ve been writing professionally for 7 years, the last several of which I spent as a sex editor at a national magazine. I’m also a Christian, which puts me in the minority in the liberal media world (especially among sex editors).

Writing about sex, while still being deeply devoted to my faith, has been difficult to reconcile (although God did create sex, and he did design it to be pleasurable. But that’s another article). Many editors have told me I’m too traditional or conservative over the years (and I’ve even lost out on work opportunities because of this, although no one would ever admit it). At the same time, I’ve been the subject of Sunday school chagrin because my beat doesn’t sync with what a Christian writer is supposed to cover.

I’ve also been in the position I imagine Phil Robertson believed he was in: being offered a rare opportunity to spread the message of my faith, through an outlet built on an entirely different (if not opposing) set of beliefs.

In my case, it didn’t work. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that trying to use liberal media as a platform for a conservative message rarely works. 

I’ve had an editor remove an unobtrusive reference to God (that was, by the way, totally appropriate to the story). I’ve also had views counter to my own injected into articles with my name attached to them. I’ve seen editors emphasize atheism, while watering down Christianity to vague, but widely palatable, “spirituality.”

As long as there is someone editing my work, my beliefs will be diluted, skewed, or just disregarded. That’s the way it goes.

Journalists have a story to tell. And a story is ultimately an argument: The language isn’t always incendiary, accusatory, or divisive, but the journalist’s job is to persuade you to believe (or least consider) what he’s saying as truth. This requires carefully selecting quotes—bits and pieces of often-lengthy conversations—to support the story being told. Quotes that further the argument, whether through content, tone, or just through an unfortunate lack of context, will be used; quotes that don’t convey the message will be ignored.

Which makes a liberal publication a dangerous place for an outspoken Christian like Phil Robertson. In his interview with GQ, I’m guessing—although I have no way to prove this—that Robertson made statements about his faith that the masses would have easily swallowed. But, then, what kind of story would that be? Would have gotten as many clicks? I doubt it.

Let me clarify: I don’t fault GQ for cherry-picking quotes. That’s journalism. But I do think this is a cautionary tale for Christians: A secular journalist is NOT going to be sympathetic to your message. Which means he’s not going to say, “Well, I know what he meant” and opt to leave out an easy-to-misconstrue quote that would undoubtedly raise a ruckus. (Not commenting specifically on Phil here, by the way.)

He doesn’t care if you meant “We’re all equal in the eyes of God” but it didn’t quite come out that way. He’s going to publish exactly what you said, regardless of the intention behind it, especially if it adds to the argument he’s making. Which I believe, in the case of GQ, was that Robertson is a backwoods Bible thumper, whose views are so off-color that readers should perhaps be amused even more than they should be offended. The Bible thumper part is by Phil’s own admission; the second part is the writer’s addition.

There’s an oft-repeated phrase in journalism school: Know your audience. In other words, balance what you want to say with what your audience wants to hear. In the case of GQ, much of the audience is, in fact, gay. A few years back, reported that GQ was “the gayest magazine” on newsstands (of course, excluding magazines like Out that are written specifically for a homosexual audience), with 10.35 percent of male readers identifying as gay or bisexual.

Now let’s rewind to the argument I believe the writer was trying to make—that Robertson is everything a GQ reader is not—which means the Duck Dynasty patriarch’s opinions about homosexuality would, of course, be emphasized. (I also think the writer consciously tried to distance himself from Robertson’s beliefs—lest the readers mistakenly assume he, a husband and father, was siding with his subject—by inserting curse words, like G-D, into the story. His only concession to Phil was that living on a farm really does seem nice.)

I think that what Robertson said was jarringly blunt, if not crude. But I don’t think he intended to spread a message of hate.

The Internet has been ablaze with stories claiming that Robertson equated homosexuality with bestiality. Let’s review what he said about his definition of sin: “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards the slanders, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God.”

Nowhere does Robertson say that bestiality and homosexuality are one in the same. Yes, he mentioned them within a breath of each other, but he wasn’t equating the two. What he was saying: According to Christian beliefs, both are sinful acts. And while we, as humans, may categorize sin by varying degrees of wrong, God does not.

Why? Because Christian teachings say that any sin makes us unholy—it doesn’t matter how “wrong” or “acceptable” the world tells us it is. And Christians don’t decide what falls under the umbrella of sin. God does. (He also decided to send his son to redeem us.)

Here’s the part of the message that people miss: Just as God doesn’t have a hierarchy  of  sins (barring blasphemy), he also doesn’t categorize humans. He loves us all equally, no matter our sexual preference, our color, our gender, our line of work. That doesn’t mean he’s not grieved by our sins. Our sins just don’t make him love us any less.

And tolerance is not to be confused with love. You can refuse to tolerate, say, your teenager’s habit of getting drunk, but that doesn’t mean you love your child any less. Likewise, the Christian faith doesn’t condone homosexuality, but it also doesn’t condemn the people who practice it. I think that’s what Phil meant.