Recovering Passion, but it Might Hurt

We are a passionate people. We care deeply about matters we find important, whether it is wanting to see human trafficking end to wanting to see the Oakland Athletics win the world series (Go A’s!). What we mean when we say we are passionate is that we have strong feelings about a subject. We are not a generally apathetic people in that we are unconcerned or uninformed. Whether our concern translates to action is another issue, however.

We have largely lost an older definition of the word passion and I think it would be wise for us to recover it. Passion used to mean suffering and to be passionate about an issue signified one was willing to suffer for it. Too often we see people who are passionate about an issue in that they care deeply about that issue, but they are not passionate in that they do not suffer for that issue. We need people to clearly articulate their strong opinions. At the same time, these opinions cannot take the place of actual sacrifice. This is not to say I think we should develop martyr complexes. In fact, I hope we can avoid seeking martyrdom for the sake of martyrdom.

I am guilty of this problem. I can read lots of articles about a matter I find important and have lengthy and heated debates about said topic. I can even let my concern about that topic dominate my thoughts throughout the day and keep me up at night.

But it stops there. My life doesn’t really change so I actually do something to make a difference in these issues I say I am so passionate about. I may give money to a cause, but not so much that I have to radically rearrange my budget. If it’s a matter that can be affected politically, I might sign a petition, attend a rally, or let my opinion on the matter shape how I vote. I don’t really adjust how I spend my time because though I may volunteer a bit, it is usually when I have an opening in my schedule. I may even write a blog post about the matter. But I haven’t put even my comfort at risk. Some of the only negative costs may be a few awkward dinner conversations or a few Facebook friends block me because they disagree with my opinions.

We need more people to be passionate in the old sense of the term. We need people to move beyond merely being moved emotionally. We need to be moved toward acting for the common good, even at great cost. It is important to be well-educated about these matters. Action without first trying to consider all the consequences can lead to unintended dangers, such as the case of the American evangelical push for transnational adoption leading to a “boom-and-bust market” for adoptable children in developing nations. But let’s not confuse — as I often can — educating ourselves with effecting change. We cannot stop just at education.

I’m trying to change my language and reserve the word passionate to describe things for which I am willing to sacrifice to the point of suffering. If I say I am passionate about a matter but I can’t point to examples of how I have rearranged my life or the costs I was willing to incur so that I work to bring some improvement to that matter, then I doubt that I am truly passionate about it. I simply have strong opinions on that subject.

What would happen if we considered the issues that evoke strong opinions from us and then asked, “How much have I suffered to effect positive change for this?”

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Our First and Last Word: “On the Glorious Splendor” Excerpt

The following is the first essay from my new devotional, On the Glorious Splendor: Devotional Readings on Psalm 145, available both in the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.com.

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Our First and Last Word

Praise is the beginning and end of our prayer life, framing all of our speech directed toward God. When we first meet the powerful creator God of the universe, we naturally respond with awe and worship. We realize we are not God, nature is not divine, and our nations, economies, militaries, material goods, and families are not supernatural. In praise we meet Yahweh, the God of Israel, who is in control, loyally loving all of creation, establishing justice and peace. Coming before Yahweh and exclaiming praise is the intended state for humanity. Therefore in the Book of Psalms we find numerous examples of and calls to worship Yahweh. A right relationship with this God requires exuberant, abundant praise.

This short guide will help you prayerfully read through Psalm 145, a prayer-poem that enthusiastically expresses “glad astonishment”[1] at God’s greatness and goodness. The psalmist marvels at the great power of God seen through works of creation, sustenance, and salvation. The psalmist also proclaims Yahweh’s goodness is evident through God’s graciousness, mercy, patience, and deep commitment to people.

Psalm 145 is a model of praise. The psalmist focuses all the attention on Yahweh, not on himself, or even on what God has done for the psalmist. Though the psalmist mentions God’s works, he does so only in the most general terms. The emphasis lies on what those works reveal about Yahweh’s character. The psalmist shows praise is incomplete until we declare God’s greatness and goodness to others.

The God-focused nature of biblical praise may come as a surprise to Christians in the West since so much of the church music we call, “Praise and Worship,” seems to be more about the singer and his or her psychological wellbeing than about God’s greatness and goodness. The psalms of praise correct our self-absorption, or as the Hebrew Bible scholar Claus Westermann explains: “In praise I am directed entirely toward the one whom I praise, and this means, of necessity, in that moment a looking away from myself.”[2]

The people of Israel and the Church have used the Book of Psalms as their prayer guide and hymnal throughout history. The Psalms have much to teach us about prayer and praise if we simply slow down and allow their poetry to usher us into a world that deals directly with the joys and sorrows of life as well as the God who is immediately available.

Praise, however, is not just an appropriate response to encountering Yahweh’s greatness. It also sets norms and expectations for our relationship with God. The praise psalms describe the world as it should be. In them we see God is gracious and patient and we humans are to respond with worship and obedience. The content of our praise allows us to move to the other forms of prayer found in the Psalms. The claims we make in worship become the basis of our lamentation when we encounter injustice and suffering. God should be in control, life should be characterized by peace and justice. The psalms of lament (e.g., Psalm 88) acknowledge we have moved away from the ordered peace of the praise psalms and they call out to God to again assert control and deliver us. The writers of the lament psalms often hope and promise to return to praise once God rescues them from the calamity. The psalms of thanksgiving (e.g., Psalm 34) are that return to praise, recalling both the trouble the writer experienced, as well as the salvation Yahweh brought about. In their own way, lament and thanksgiving assert a life dedicated to worshiping Yahweh is the best life possible.

As you read and pray, bring your whole life forward. If you are in a season of peace and justice, gladly follow Psalm 145’s worshipful design. Let the psalm usher you into a reality in which God is active and gracious, showing deep loyalty to all of creation. If you face trouble and question where God is, it may be more appropriate to spend time with a psalm of lament, or perhaps you can let the words of Psalm 145 shape your prayers by saying, “God, aren’t you supposed to be great and good, like the descriptions I read in this psalm?” The author of Psalm 145 calls us to meditate on God’s powerful works and what these acts reveal about Yahweh’s abundant goodness. Receive the invitation to drink deeply from these words. Do not rush. Allow the wonder of Yahweh to overwhelm you.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, “The Psalms as Prayer,” in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 60.

[2] Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, translated by Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 27.

New Book Release: “On the Glorious Splendor”

I have just published a new devotional, On the Glorious Splendor: Devotional Readings on Psalm 145. The book helps readers meditate one verse at a time through Psalm 145, a beautiful prayer-poem of worship that praises God for being powerful and generous. The psalmist stands in awe of God’s works of creation as well as Yahweh’s loyal commitment to people. By meditating on the evocative imagery in the psalm, we are encouraged to find new ways to express our wonder.

While praise may at times spontaneously burst forth from our mouths, the people of Israel and the Christian Church have also learned worship is a discipline. It requires practice. Too often we believe the voices around us who tell us God is not real and we have to control our own destinies. Praise brings about a correct orientation in which Yahweh is acknowledged as the God who is in control. By giving our allegiance to this God, all the other gods in our lives — nations, economies, etc. — are put in their right place.

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Along with the daily readings and reflections, On the Glorious Splendor also contains brief essays that explore power of praise to create a new world as well as explain the method of devotional reading I propose and how it differs from other important ways of reading the Bible. An appendix at the end of the guide describes some of the textual, cultural, and historical details of the psalm, while maintaining a devotional posture toward the Scripture.

On the Glorious Splendor is available at Amazon.com for $1.99 on the Kindle format, or $5.99 in paperback. A free preview is available on the Amazon product page. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can still purchase and read the guide electronically by downloading the free reader app that works on smart phones, tablets, PC’s, and Macs.

My first self-published devotionals, Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34 and My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88 are also available for purchase in Kindle or paperback at Amazon.com. Feel free to also visit and “Like” my author page at Amazon.

Making Room for the Unborn, for the Other

I recently attended a fundraising banquet for a pregnancy care center. I found the banquet’s presentations to be in parts inspiring, challenging, and off-putting. It highlighted for me my attraction to and difficulties with the pro-life movement. Ultimately, this is an issue I continue to struggle to find a home in, for reasons I’ll detail below. I won’t name the organization or the speaker, but I will share what they discussed as well as my reaction to it. Some of my objections to the presentations has to do with the pro-life movement in general and this organization in particular. I sat at a table with a couple of pro-life ob/gyns, one being my wife. We had a lengthy conversation about the evening afterward.

It was encouraging to see a room full of a couple hundred people gathered to support a pregnancy center focused on giving pregnant women options so they might receive good healthcare and carry the life of the child growing inside them to term. People spoke with conviction. The organization clearly wore their Christian faith on their sleeve and I do find it inspiring to watch people live out their moral and spiritual beliefs. They challenged me to do the same. The tone during the dinner and first few speakers was very inviting. Maybe the speakers used a bit too much insider language, but they expressed sincerity. I shouldn’t be surprised the talks came across as preaching to the choir, since this was a fundraising banquet. These sorts of events aren’t meant to convert outsiders, but to rally insiders and mobilize folks who already agree with the group.

A member of  the center gave a presentation for the night’s main fundraising goal: a mobile services vehicle the organization can drive to specific locations to offer pregnancy screening, ultrasounds, and general counseling. Currently the center has only a stationary bricks and mortar facility. By bringing a facility to where women who have unintended pregnancies are likely to congregate, the organization hopes to increase their client load.

Both the main speaker and the organization quoted many statistics about the numbers and effects of abortion, but offered no statistics of the center’s own work. The speaker said there had been 50 million abortions in the forty years since Roe v. Wade and then said pregnancy care centers had saved “countless” lives. I think of giving donations to organizations like an investment and just as I research a fund or company I invest in, I also research organizations I support financially. I want to see statistics. There are plenty of pro-life organizations and I want to know my money is making a difference. They need to answer questions like: How many women do they currently see every week? How many ultrasounds do they perform? How many adoption referrals were placed last year? What is the average age of women they see? What are the ethnic and socio-economic breakdowns of women seeking their services? How many more women do they anticipate they will be able to see by going mobile?

The night’s main speaker was an activist within the pro-life movement who used to work for an organization that performs abortions. This speaker has written articles and a book and she has told her story on television shows. It was her speech in particular that gave me the most discomfort. She told her story of how she became involved with the abortion provider and why she eventually left. This is a strong, moving story. Throughout her talk, however, she fell into the trap I see so often in the pro-life side. Namely, she emphasized protecting the unborn without ever really showing compassion toward the pregnant women and their partners who consider abortion an option. With so many abortions in the US, I believe she was right to emphasize saving the lives of the unborn. We must care for the parents in these situations as well.

The speaker argued that apathy on the side people who consider themselves pro-life, especially in the Church, is the main reason abortion continues in our country. She said if the Church unified and said, “Stop,” abortion would end in the US. In this argument, she only addressed the supply side of abortion. She made no mention of the demand side — why do women feel compelled to seek out an abortion? How can the Church help these women and their partners either parent or support them to place for adoption? For the whole evening, there was little mention of adoption at all. The only actions this speaker could persuade us toward were praying at abortion clinics, voting for pro-life candidates, donating money to the pregnancy care center, and pastors speaking about abortion from the pulpit. If the Church is not ready to welcome unwed pregnant women, if the Church is not ready to adopt these children, if the Church is not ready to financially assist these families through and after pregnancy, we have no witness.

The speaker stated in order to participate in abortions as she did, one must dehumanize the unborn. This is an important point and we should not diminish it. The problem came, however, as the speaker then dehumanized those who work in abortion clinics. Granted, she was including her former self as she described what happens in an abortion and asked with disdain, “What kind of person would participate in that?” She made it sound, however, as if the pro-choice side was corrupt, only chasing money. One of the ob/gyns I was with said in his training at a very liberal medical center, the family planning doctors were some of the most compassionate people he knew. He said they were excellent doctors who could make twice as much in private practice, but they chose to work among low-income families. I think it is fair to question the content of these doctors’ compassion, but their motivation was to help women in crisis. We do not win over people on the other side of the argument by treating them as less than human. How we speak to our opponents shows our character. How we speak about our opponents when they are not with us also shows our character. I sadly hear a demeaning, self-righteous tone in the pro-life side. This tone is present in the pro-choice side too, but if we are calling out the human worth of all people, including the unborn, we must commit ourselves to see the human worth of our opponents as well.

I also have difficulty finding a home in the pro-life movement because so much of it is anti-contraception. I understand the Roman Catholic arguments against contraception, but I don’t ascribe to them. There is also a large anti-contraception push within pro-life folks who are not Catholic. The center holding the event only offers abstinence counseling and education as its forms of pregnancy prevention. While from a virtue and character standpoint, I applaud a chastity education (abstinence and monogamy), I also acknowledge room for harm-reduction methods in the medical field. People have pre-marital sex. Some who have been given abstinence-only instruction have pre-marital sex. Physicians and nurses have to take human behavior into account. The main speaker scoffed at birth control, quoting misleading statistics about pregnancy rates with contraception. She failed to mention the majority of pregnancies while someone is on contraception come from user error (e.g., not taking the pills as prescribed) and forms of birth control that reduce the possibility of user variability (e.g., intrauterine devices) are far more successful. The speaker mentioned she grew up in a “good Christian home” and still had an unplanned pregnancy. A pastor who spoke from the podium mentioned his daughter had an unplanned pregnancy out of wedlock. Presumably both these women were taught abstinence and yet they still became pregnant. The evening’s speakers were ready to dismiss contraceptives as ineffective because some women who use them still get pregnant, but they were unwilling to dismiss abstinence-only education even though some women who were given the education still get pregnant. It is frustratingly inconsistent. I believe we need a robust mix of both if we want to prevent unplanned pregnancies.

The self-righteous tone, the dehumanizing of the pro-choice side, and the misleading information, particularly about contraception, all left a bad taste in my mouth. Some of these problems are unique to this specific center, yet I also find some of these problems in the larger pro-life movement.  If the truth is on the pro-life side, we should present it without spin. If we are committed to the dignity of all human beings, we must treat our opponents with love and dignity. If we are serious about valuing all lives, we must emphasize care for mothers and fathers and advocate for adoption.

For a helpful alternative to the preaching to the choir I heard on Friday night, I recommend listening to this episode of On Being in which Christian ethicist and pro-life advocate David Gushee has a dialogue with former Catholics for Choice president Frances Kissling. In it they answer thoughtful questions, such as: What is it in your own position that gives you trouble? What is it in the position of the other that you’re attracted to?