Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

Every single person was made in God’s image.

The idea of “Imago Dei” is one of the core tenets of Christianity and is rooted in the creation narrative in Genesis 1. It’s something Christians cling to as assigning personal value and identity in tough times, something meant to both encourage and challenge us.

This is not controversial to Christians. However, I think we gloss over it way too easily. I think we discuss this premise of faith in the context of “all humankind was made in God’s image.” We look at it from a collective lens rather than from a personal lens. I think that needs to change. Because there is a subtle but significant difference between “all people were made in God’s image” and “each individual person was made in God’s image.”

Each person you and I meet or see out in the world was carefully and specifically created in God’s image. If we truly believe this, it should be the core foundation in our minds as we interact with anyone and everyone. And that is incredibly challenging.

We all adhere to stereotypes. In the hilarious but very R-rated satirical puppet musical “Avenue Q,” there’s a song all about how “everyone’s a little bit racist.” It takes a serious topic and a trigger word and cleverly points out how we all participate in judgments based on racial stereotypes, so we should all acknowledge our own faults and destigmatize the discussion around it. But it’s not just racism. Any time we see a homeless person on the street, a well-past-retirement-age checker moving in half speed at the store, a group of teenagers just looking like they’re up to no good, or any other of infinite examples, we make snap judgments. It is human nature.

As Christians, we’re called beyond our human nature. Our first thought when we see any of these people (or really any person at all) cannot be one of judgment. That is contrary to the life and heart to which we were called. It’s contrary to the actions and words of Jesus.

Instead, our first feeling should be of love as we acknowledge that this person was made in God’s image. This individual person in front of me is valuable to God, completely unique, and worthy of love and empathy.

Empathy. That’s the core of this. It’s what we as humans fundamentally lack, and it’s what absolutely separated Jesus from everyone around him.

Empathy sees the person in the street and immediately, without judgment or fear, desires to help in any way possible. That person is 100 percent human, as God designed, just as we are. They have value and are worthy of love.

When we love someone, we see them differently. Even when they stumble, we’re more merciful with them than we are with others. Discipline truly brings us pain to impart because we don’t want to hurt them even if we know it’s in their best interest. With those people we know and love, even if we know they’re lazy or have made stupid decisions to bring things upon themselves, we still yearn so desperately to give them whatever it takes to help them climb out of it. Our first reaction to their pain is never judgment. It’s a very different approach to how we evaluate strangers.

That’s when we see the love that is God, the love we are meant to have and share, the whole premise of relational love between our creator and us. The difference is that for Jesus, every single person prompts that response. Even just thinking about that fills me with both joy and terror, because it’s so beautiful and perfect and what I want to be, but I’m so far from it.

I think that’s key to Jesus’ acts of mercy and healing: those he helped were people who were outcasts either due to their illness or sin. Others didn’t view them with love and value, and they probably reached a point where they didn’t view themselves with love and value. Read through the Gospels and dwell on each of the individuals whom he stopped to help: tax collectors, Samaritans, “ritually unclean” people due to illness (the bleeding woman and lepers), and so many others. These were outcasts of society, despised by all around them.

Imagine being one of those people, shunned from society. People step over you or cross the street to get away from you. They speak about you as if you were a leech or disease plaguing society. It wouldn’t take long before you started believing it yourself. It wouldn’t take long for you to lose your humanity.

Jesus sought these people out. In some cases they came to him, in others they merely cried out to him, and in several he literally pursued them. The savior of the world, God incarnate, went out of his way to affirm the humanity of these people. His empathy for them reflected his knowledge that they bear the image of God. His actions were those of someone pursuing a lost loved one.

That’s one of the most radical things about Jesus. Where we see someone living in poverty and immediately assume laziness, Jesus sees a person he loves.

Like I said, just thinking about that fills me with both joy and terror. It’s so amazing to trust Jesus feels that way about me even when I mess up, but it’s also overwhelmingly convicting. Because he called me to go and do likewise.

Too often we stigmatize people based on a wide array of demographic groups: race, sex, sexual preference, wealth, age, political affiliation, religious affiliation, education, health status, background, etc. It is amazingly easy for us to stop seeing people as human when we do this. Every time we do that, we are living the exact opposite of the way Jesus lived and called us to follow.

Every single person was made in God’s image. So true and so incredible. That means every single person, regardless of everything, is worthy of dignity and empathy. There is not a single person, regardless of how “far from God” they might be, that Jesus would not seek out and choose to build up and heal while the world around them casts them out.

Let’s keep that in mind each day as we step out into the world and see every person around us. And let’s keep that in mind as we engage in politics as well, keeping it at the core of any thought about which policies to support and oppose. Empathy. Love. Go and do likewise.

Protester holding sign that reads "no intelligent species would destroy their only home & planet"

There’s a reason admitting you have a problem is the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous. Unless you recognize your own faults and issues, you cannot hope to get better.

That’s really hard. It’s not human nature. Unfortunately, it’s true, though, so it’s something we have to come to accept if we want anything to improve.

We’re really good at convincing ourselves that other people have problems. We’re really good at pointing them out and judging them. We’re also really good at deflecting blame as soon as the focus shifts to us.

I’ve written before about our issue of caring more about our surface-level image that others see than the substance of what we do. This is similar, as it also focuses on creating the best appearance for ourselves, but this side focuses more on bringing down others than falsifying our own façade.

I’m seeing this a lot right now with climate change. Sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg delivered a passionate speech to the United Nations yesterday, calling out the older generation that occupies the leadership positions in the UN for its callous lack of action on an issue that quite literally could lead to the end of humanity with continued inaction.

I wrote about climate change a couple months ago and the issue with Christians disregarding the health of the earth. Today my focus is on Thunberg and the response she’s received.

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Person holding sign with words: "what lessens one of us lessens all of us"

The 1987 classic film The Princess Bride features countless memorable quotes. One of my favorites comes when Vizzini repeatedly uses the word “inconceivable” to describe things happening around him. Finally, Inigo turns to him and says simply: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

That line pops into my head every time I hear republicans and/or President Donald Trump speak about “religious liberty.”

That phrase is supposedly the biggest concern prompting the republican party to abandon virtually all of its professed priorities in favor of Trump. And that transition has been powered by, rather than opposed by, white evangelical Christians.

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Trump Casino in Las Vegas

I’ve heard a lot of evangelical leaders in America compare Donald Trump to the Persian King Cyrus from Isaiah 45 who, as a non-Jewish ruler, played a key role in allowing the exiled Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the temple.

The argument has been termed “vessel theology,” suggesting that God ordained Trump as a non-Christian to carry out God’s will in America as God’s “vessel” despite his character or religious shortcomings. This approach has many flaws, including the fact that America is not God’s chosen people (a sort of new Israel as adherents to this approach like to think) and King Cyrus was not the king over Israel (so the analogy would really require Trump to be a leader of a foreign nation who brought about good for America).

Contrary to the focus on Cyrus, I think if we desperately want to compare Trump with biblical leaders, I think he more closely aligns with a different non-Jewish king: Nebuchadnezzar. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is heavily featured in the book of Daniel, and he was one of the key subjects in the talk at church this past Sunday.

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White rose at September 11 Memorial

Eighteen years ago today, our world changed forever. Scrolling social media today, you’ll see countless “Never forget” posts and tributes to all who died as a result of such a horrific act of terror.

That event led revealed to us a much more dangerous world than we’d previously realized. It prompted permanent changes to security processes and endless efforts to keep up with the latest threats. I don’t know if anyone who remembers life prior to Sept. 11, 2001, would say they feel safer now than they did before. Even if the changes we’ve implemented have made us safer on a daily basis, the loss of innocence means we can never go back to a time when that potential threat wasn’t always in the back of our minds.

It’s very easy on a day like today to fall into a trap of bitterness and rage. The attack was truly devastating both in terms of casualties and cultural impact. I had the opportunity to travel to New York earlier this year and visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and the experience prompted extreme reverence and greater awareness of the interconnected nature of our world. It’s only natural to see the names and hear the stories of the people who lost their lives and grow angry and desire vengeance.

But that’s not the feeling I want to remember today. That’s not beneficial to our world. Hate and anger only leads to more hate and anger. Instead, as I see all the “Never forget” posts, I’m choosing hope.

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Pastor speaking on a platform

I had a brief but engaging conversation the other day about the challenge of being a pastor and remaining apolitical. Essentially, the goal is to teach about Jesus and how to follow Him without encroaching on people’s political stances, since Christ followers line up across the political spectrum.

On its surface, I support this. Jesus did not spark a political uprising (although that threat was used to try to justify a need to kill Him), and I’ve written about the problem when Christians place their efforts into politics.

Unfortunately for that effort, it’s too late. We can’t try to live in a world where Christianity is apolitical because Christians have already made it political. To be honest, that’s been the case in America going back generations (e.g. using the Bible to support slavery), but it’s played an even greater role in recent decades with the “Moral Majority” and similar movements.

Christianity has become so politicized that messages from the pulpit are (whether intentionally or not) interpreted as triggers to support or denigrate one side or the other. This often happens with comparisons of how we “should stand out from the world.” That statement is absolutely true and aligns with the words of Jesus, and pastors usually include a few examples in that statement. The problem is that they often include the ones that pretty much every “Christian” will agree with while leaving out any that the audience might find controversial (regardless of Jesus’ words and actions on the subject).

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Selfie with man and woman in front of Notre Dame Cathedral

One year ago, Kelli and I were in the midst of a three-week, once-in-a-lifetime trip throughout much of western Europe. We crammed as much as we could into a nonstop adventure, and it was truly amazing.

One of the many highlights for me was visiting some of the most famous and beautiful churches in the world, some as many as 1,000 years old. I love old buildings, and especially old places of worship, so pretty much every time we passed an old church (which was constantly; they’re seemingly on every street corner), I made us wander inside.

Exactly one year ago today, we were in Paris. That meant the chance to see Notre Dame, and it was everything I could have dreamed it would be. We toured the cathedral itself but didn’t have time that day to climb the steps to the top of the bell towers. Luckily, we were able to do that on the final day of our trip after returning to Paris for our flight home.

As everyone knows, tragedy struck Notre Dame just a few months later. Heroic efforts by the Paris firefighters saved the structure from complete destruction, but it will be many years before it is restored and reopened. Immediately, people from across the world pledged donations to the restoration of the church, with figures topping $1 billion.

Closer to home, Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Tacoma has stood along I-5 since the freeway was built (the church has been there for nearly 100 years). While that history cannot compare with the churches of Europe, it is still a gorgeous landmark and part of the city’s history. But recently, it’s fallen into disrepair, and it’s currently closed to the public. Authorities estimate at least $2.5 million in repairs just to get it functional to reopen, and $18 million to provide the full renovation it needs. Church and community members are banding together to see if they can raise the funds and save it from destruction.

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