2012
January 17

The Internet and Gentle Speech

John Haralson

You may be familiar with Jeff Bethke’s spoken word piece “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”. It went viral a week or two ago and got all kinds of attention. Predictably, some people thought the guy was brilliant while others thought he was way off base. Kevin DeYoung, one of the Gospel Coalition bloggers, wrote one of the more thoughtful critiques of the clip.

Here is where the story gets beautiful. Jeff and Kevin actually had a mutually respectful and productive dialogue about it. Kevin sums up the exchange here. I think their conversation could in many ways serve as a model of a humble yet mutually sharpening conversation. The two people have points of disagreement, so it’s not just all mutually affirming mush. At the same time, they are extending a lot of charity toward one another. It’s really encouraging to read their interactions. I read Kevin’s blog regularly, and he is generally very measured and fair in what he writes. What really blew me away, though, was Jeff’s humility. It’s like he was incapable of taking Kevin’s criticism personally.

Why are internet conversations like this relatively rare?

We live in an age of shrill, “in your face” discourse. The Internet is often the place where this problem is most acutely felt. From the comfort of our own computer screen, we can safely make use of the many weapons at our disposal—from the sharp-edged email to the snarky blog comment to the ever handy shame-inducing question "Really?"

What God calls Christians to in this context is to swim against the tide of needlessly polarizing and combative dialogue. In a small effort to help us do this, I wanted to give a couple of practical tips which will help shape both our hearts and our habits.

1)   Love Gentle Speech. We have to understand that  courageous and authentic aren’t the only biblical categories for healthy conversation habits. The Bible has a lot to say about speech that is gentle and kind. When Paul is teaching Timothy, the young and eager pastor, about how he should speak, here is what he says: And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. (2 Timothy 2:24-25, ESV)

Gentle speech doesn’t mean you are afraid of truth. Gentle speech does mean that you value the image of God in the person with whom you are talking. It also means you trust God enough to be patient with people and difficult situations.

2) Self-Critique First. Remember that stuff that Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about getting the “log out of your own eye” before you help the other person get the “speck” out of theirs? It still applies. This kind of self-analysis can be incredibly beneficial as it helps take a lot of egocentric steam out of our words.

3) Connect with the Good.  There is always a point of connection to be found when you are in disagreement with someone. There is something about the position they have taken or the way they have taken it that is worthy of praise. Start there. Also, don't just make this a perfunctory step you quickly get through before you begin your all-out assault. Genuinely honor the person where honor is due.

4) Have a Good Editor. Electronic communications (emails, blog posts, etc.) lack all of the non-verbals that can really smooth out controversial discussions. For those reasons, choose your words carefully. I have a group of pastors who edit my sensitive emails. They live in other cities and don't know the parties involved, so they can give me objective and helpful input. These people have helped me foster peace by keeping me from saying really unwise things.

5) Connect in Person Whenever Possible. As I mentioned above, on-line communication is very limited in its power to adequately communicate. For this reason, connect face-to-face if it's possible. If you can't meet in person, a phone call or a Skype meeting would be an improvement. In some situations, it may be helpful to have an email exchange before the meeting. I have a lot of friends who process the written word better than blunt face-to-face conversations for which they are not prepared. In those instances, I have learned to carefully write out what I need to tell them and send it to them before we meet in person. So, the online communication serves to set up the in-person meeting.

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2012
January 10

Tebow and Christian Unity

John Haralson

Tim Tebow is the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos. He is also an outspoken Christian. He is not a good NFL passer by a long shot. Statistically, he is one of the worst quarterbacks in the league this year. Most football pundits think that he will not succeed in the NFL.

But he keeps winning.  He knows how to lead a team and a locker room. Whatever the “X-factor” is for a winning quarterback, Tebow has it.

On Sunday, he led the Broncos to an overtime playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are the closest thing the NFL has to royalty. It was a huge upset and a big win for Tebow—the guy who isn’t supposed to succeed in the NFL.

What makes him something of a national spectacle, though, is the way he practices his Christian faith both on and off the field. He prays everywhere, verbally praises God in the middle of games, and begins every interview by acknowledging Jesus’ work in his life.

Off the field, his life is a model of Christian consistency. He preaches regularly, is involved in mission work in the Philippines, and spent at least one college spring break working at an orphanage. People who know him best all report that he is the genuine article. The world would be a better place with more people as genuine in their faith as Tim Tebow.

But here’s where it gets somewhat troubling for me. On Sunday, I found myself rooting for the Steelers. Deep down, I wanted Tebow to lose. You have to understand that I loathe the Steelers. I respect them a lot, but I generally can't stand them. I have never cheered for them to win a game until two days ago when they were playing against Tebow.

Why did I want Tebow to lose? I think it had to do with the way he expresses his faith. I just can’t imagine myself living out my faith the way he does. Don't get me wrong, I want my "walk" to match my "talk" like his does. But his overly forward Christian posture is problematic for me.

For example, he awkwardly inserts Jesus into conversations that don’t really have anything to do with Jesus. I try to avoid this behavior in my life. He also prays regularly in front of tens of thousands of people. He prays on the bench, on the field and in the end zone. I'm all for prayer and want to pray more in my own life. But didn’t Jesus say something about going into your closet to pray?

Anyway, you get the picture. For me, the bottom line for me is this: I just can’t imagine living out my faith in the way he does. And not only can I not imagine it—I don't really want to express my faith that way. I have no doubt Tebow is sincere and loves Jesus. But I am just of turned off by the way he expresses his faith. This is why I rooted against him.

Upon further reflection, I think this is a sin and I need to repent. Tebow is a fellow Christian, and this should  mean something to me with respect to how I think of him. I think I am supposed to be significantly more favorably disposed towards him. To put it a different way, I think I need to treat him like a brother.

Don't get me wrong, this doesn’t mean I have to agree with him or try to emulate the way he expresses his faith. It also doesn’t mean I have to want his team to win. But I do think it means I shouldn’t root against him because of the way he expresses his faith. I need to get over myself.

Here is why I think this is significant. Jesus says that unity in the church is of tremendous importance. In a very important prayer at the end of his life, Jesus prayed that the church would display unity (John 17). This means that even when we disagree about important things, we still act like family. Moreover, the church’s unity is supposed to be one of the ways that the world knows that Jesus is for real. If Christians can’t respect and love one another, why should the world want to hear about Jesus? In other words, living out our familial bond with other Christians is one of the most effective evangelistic strategies we Christians have.

As I think about practicing unity with other Christians, I realize that it is somewhat easier for me to extend grace to Christians who are a bit more “liberal” in their beliefs than I am. It is more of a challenge for me to extend the same kind of grace to Christians like Tebow who are more “conservative” or “mainstream evangelical” in their convictions. However, it doesn’t matter what kind of Christian it’s easier for me to extend grace to. I have to extend grace to them all. It is simply another outworking of the gospel that is supposed to be evident in my life.

So I have learned something from Tim Tebow. I've learned more about my ability to be judgmental of other Christians. I've also learned a little bit more about practicing unity with my brothers and sisters in Christ even when they don't see the world exactly the way I do. Lord have mercy on the church.

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2011
November 21

The Gospel and Modern Family

John Haralson

I like watching Modern Family. Last year, I was convinced it was one of the best shows on television. Although the writing has slipped a little this year, it is still worth seeing.

One of the things I like about the show is that it gives a pretty consistent picture of what grace in community can look like. Every week, there is generally a resolution that involves the extension of forgiveness and the embrace of others. What makes this embrace beautiful is that it is a movement towards those who are not only different—they are also far from perfect.

The show’s characters are all clichés. There is the goofy dad who tries too hard to be cool, the harried and under-appreciated mom, the gay couple complete with theater allusions, and the aging Baby Boomer with his trophy wife—a Colombian woman half his age.

The characters are also incredibly imperfect people. Through a combination of their idiosyncrasies, poor decisions and garden-variety narcissism, the characters create various crises and relational problems.

But by the end of each episode, there is a real embrace of one another.  And this embrace goes beyond mere tolerance. Genuine joy is found through relationships with each other. I know, not everyone is crazy about the standard voiceovers at the end. But you can still appreciate the redemptive movement toward one another that is being played out consistently.

This is a great glimpse of the gospel. We are people who need grace. We actually are, at times, defined by some of the clichés we so often resist: the angry dad, the sullen teenager or the rudderless 20-something. We need grace to be accepted by God. We also need grace to be accepted by others. And grace goes beyond mere tolerance.  It crosses over into the territory of delight and joy.

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2011
August 16

The Corrections

Michael Subracko

Yesterday I finished Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. It’s a story about power struggle, manipulation, depression, depravity and individual triumph – all within the context of family. Alfred and Enid Lambert and their three grown children – Gary, Chip, and Denise – struggle internally and externally to make sense of their lives and to understand, even correct, past mistakes. Because the story is filled with both beautiful and unbearably difficult moments, it is hard to press on through the emotional roller coaster. But if you’re able, the reward is rich.

As responsible as this family is for each other's dysfunction, they love one another. They express concern at times and even inconvenience themselves for the sake of the other.

What is tragic, however, is that love within the family is never really experienced. They simultaneously want deep relationship and distance. They long for each other but fight to stay apart. To me, the heart of the Lambert problem is that their love is conditional or, at least, perceived to be. Conditional love is not life enhancing love. In fact, it drains. Though the family works to correct such a relational dynamic, they never break the pattern. So, in many ways, the story of the Lamberts is one of love that always has an angle, which, in the end, is not life changing or enhancing love.

Tim Keller, in King’s Cross, talks about true and false love. False love is when our aim is to use the other person to fulfill our own happiness whereas true love is when our aim is to spend ourselves and use ourselves for the happiness of the other, “because (our) greatest joy is the person’s joy.”

How did I get from Franzen to Keller? Relationships flourish when pursuing true love and relationships deteriorate when they don’t.

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2011
August 12

Phil Collins and the Psalms

Michael Subracko

A few years ago on This American Life, writer Starlee Kine did a piece on break-up songs after experiencing her own relational heartache. The story is funny and thoughtful. She and her boyfriend created what resembled a nice, healthy junior high-like romance full of “passing entire evenings just complimenting each other” and taking hand holding to “new heights.” But after a New Year’s Eve break up she was heartbroken. Her boyfriend broke up with her. On New Year’s Eve. Ouch. Her unlikely source of comfort was Phil Collins.

If thought I was in a Phil Collins phase before, it was nothing compared to what came next. I was no longer listening to his songs for pleasure but for pain. They were break-up songs and hearing them was the only thing that made me feel better. And by better, I mean worse. There’s something so satisfying about listening to sad songs. They’re like how you’d actually be spending your day if you were allowed to break down and sob and grab hold of everyone you met. They make you feel less alone with your crazy thoughts. They don’t judge you; in fact, they understand you. A break-up song will never suggest you start online dating or that you’re better off without him. They tell you that you’re worse without him, which is exactly what you want to hear because it’s how you feel. I didn’t want to be cheered up. I didn’t want to bounce back. I didn’t want to meet someone new. I wanted to wallow. Big-time, deeply and with the least amount of perspective possible. And the only way to do that was by turning off my phone and turning up the sad music.

My initial thought after hearing Starlee Kine’s talk about the role of break-up songs was that it was one of the better explanations of the Psalms. Especially lament Psalms. Like break-up songs, lament Psalms don’t give trite advice or encourage wishful thinking. They simply, with raw and expressive language, articulate the difficulty, joy and confusion of living in our world. Reading the Psalms can help us feel better by making us feel worse as they help us admit how vulnerable and weak and exposed we truly are. The Psalms don’t ask you to cheer up but actually give words to your cries and encourage you to long, even to the point of pain. And, like a Phil Collins song, the Psalms sometimes only connect in that deep, profound way if we to are find ourselves in place similar to the author.

I wish I could just make you turn around,
turn around and see me cry
There's so much I need to say to you,
so many reasons why
You're the only one who really knew me at all

—"Against All Odds"

There is, however, one major difference between the Psalms and break-up songs. The Psalms, as a whole, give you a map to hope. Sure, some Psalms don’t, but again as a whole, they will take you to the depths and then like a hand from a good friend, guide you to God. That is a good thing, especially in the midst of difficulty.

To listen to the Starlee Kine’s whole piece, go to http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/339/break-up.

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2011
August 08

Prodigal Psalms

John Haralson
This summer, I have really enjoyed listening to Mumford & Sons’ debut album Sigh No More. Their live performance at the Grammys got me hooked. What particularly struck me was the earnestness and joy ...

2011
June 22

Bon Iver: Holocene

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2011
June 21

Thoughts on Inside Job

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2011
June 13

Distraction Free?

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2011
June 08

Thoughts on Lady Gaga's New Album

Michael Subracko