Jesus picks the music: why love trumps “safety” on the Christian soundtrack

Jesus picks the music: why love trumps “safety” on the Christian soundtrack

When I was just a poor college student, I did things I’m not proud of.

Things – for money.

In a local apartment complex (dubbed “smurf village” for the bright blue paint), there was one particular residence that looked like all the others. Yet on the inside it was filled with recording equipment.

And there, on numerous occasions, I sang radio jingles for money.

Out of shame, I told no one. Thus my friends (if they noticed) probably thought that I had come into a very small inheritance – perhaps the life insurance policy for a departed hamster.

But eventually the truth came out.

One evening, as the college basketball team drove through a lonely stretch of rural Kansas, across the radio airwaves, came my voice – singing the praises of a “Christian lifestyle store” in a tiny town called McPherson.

Somewhere a rooster crowed.

All kidding aside, the jingles were easy to produce because whatever the merchant—a Bible bookstore in Kansas, a tanning salon in Illinois—the music and the melody remained exactly the same. Only the lyrics were different. This allowed the jingle producer (“Chuck”) to save both time and money when it came to composing and recording.

And most importantly, it ensured that I never had to learn new music.


And that’s the trouble for Christians too.

All of us have a set of cultural assumptions that seem right and reasonable to us. These assumptions form the “soundtrack” of our lives, and they color everything from our politics to our parenting. Depending where you were born, your soundtrack may be different.

So while Scripture gives WORDS that are meant to tell us how to view the world, those words are easily lost amid the MUSIC of our tribe and our tradition.

It’s like trying to discern the lyrics to a “screamo” song when you’re used to Kenny Rogers.

The result, as one scholar observed, is that we look down the long well of history in search of Jesus, and in the water at the bottom we see a reflection of our own face. “That’s him!” we shout; “He looks and thinks a lot like me!”

Hence, we assume that Christ’s view on something is pretty much the same as whatever seems most “practical” or “reasonable” to us. Thank God. Or rather, thank us.


But a quick read through the Gospels (with our music turned down even slightly) shows that Jesus is far from “practical” and “prudent” as we usually define those terms.

In fact, he says many things that don’t seem reasonable or “safe” at all.

A few examples, just from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”
  • “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
  • If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
  • “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”

Elsewhere, in an even more radical passage (Mt. 25), Jesus claims that hellfire—yes, hellfire (see verse 41)—hinges upon whether or not one welcomes “him” in the form of poor and marginalized:

  • “I was a stranger and you invited me in,I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least, you did for me (vss. 35–36).”

Despite interpretive nuances, all this demands an ethic of radical love that seems impractical in many cases. And to be honest, I don’t always like it.


I thought about this recently as I read a predictable comment thread on Facebook.

A pastor friend (and former student) had written a heartfelt post lamenting the recent Presidential edict summarily banning refugees and Green Card holders from certain countries, even when they pass the current vetting process.

My friend’s post was not partisan or angry, but the first comment was invariably a rebuke from a fellow churchgoer.

The respondent appreciated the compassion, but just wanted to share that it really isn’t “safe” or “responsible” to allow in Muslim refugees. After all, they’re Muslims.

So just as we “lock our doors at night,” so too we should lock our borders to such refugees—it’s just safer that way.

In response to this “locked door” analogy, the Scriptures tend to tell stories of people opening them (even late at night) to help the vulnerable (Gen. 19; Luke 11). And on the two occasions that a door remains locked, we discover that the church has shut out Jesus himself (Rev. 3.20; Mt. 25.43). The analogy is flawless, except for the Bible.


To be fair, I’m all for safety and secure borders. And I’m all for improving the vetting process (when possible) for the folks that we allow to immigrate. A concern for safety isn’t bad, and it can even be a way of “loving thy neighbor.”

But what many fail to see is how radical the WORDS of Scripture actually are on such matters. And I suspect the reason is that while we’re happy to let Jesus say some things, we’ve never let him change our MUSIC.

Hence, the background noise (whether liberal or conservative; Fox News or MSNBC), drowns out the gospel call to a different set of values.

To disagree with the radio station that aired one of my jingles, Jesus has never been “safe and fun for the whole family.” He got tortured to death. And so did his followers.

Radical love, not safety, has always been the mark of Christian character.

This may sound risky, and that’s because it is.

But to sign on to the Jesus movement means that Jesus picks the music.

And in this soundtrack, sacrificial love trumps “safety” as the highest virtue.

For one organization helping refugees, see here.

For one book that has shaped my thinking on this issue, see here.

The trouble with millennial bashing (A response to Simon Sinek)

The trouble with millennial bashing (A response to Simon Sinek)

Recently, my social media feed was practically glutted with recommendations to watch the latest viral rant about “millennials”—that amorphous population blob between age fourteen and thirty-four.

This group is supposedly recognized by their armloads of participation trophies, their entitlement, and their helicopter parents.

This particular installment comes from Simon Sinek, and it has received around four million views.

Because I am eager to encounter insights that have been described as “Yes!” and “Boom!” I watched the video.

It’s easy to see why it caught fire.

Sinek is witty, well-spoken, and has smart-guy glasses.

But while he makes a couple of fairly obvious points (like: social media can be addicting <Now share this in-no-way ironic insight from a viral video>), I had a different reaction than did “Yes!” and “Boom!”

Apparently, I was not the only one (see here; NSFC).


For Sinek (pun intended?), the problem with people born between 1982 and 2002 is that they were given lots of participation medals, and as a result, this self-esteem parenting has given them an insatiable desire for—in Sinek’s words—“beanbags” and “free food.”

In short, millennials are lazy and entitled.

And when the world doesn’t match their “Lo-Fi” Instagram filter, they become impatient and depressed–which makes them difficult to manage.

But don’t worry, Sinek sells books and courses that can teach you how to get more out of such lazy, narcissistic, and developmentally “Lo-Fi” people.


To be fair, not all of Sinek’s claims are baseless.

So it would be wrong to follow the “crowd-pounding” of millennials with the crowd-pounding of Simon Sinek.

Some millennials are lazy, entitled, and surgically attached to smartphones.

I know: I’m a college professor.

In the words of a colleague:

“You are entitled to your opinion, but your opinion is a C minus.”

Some are even so surrounded by viral videos that they think success comes by becoming a YouTube sensation who plays fast and loose with data. It’s weird; I don’t know where they get it.

In sum, the trouble is not that the allegations against millennials are totally wrong, it’s that they are exaggerated and oversimplified.

In Sinek’s case, the flaws are masked by wit and supported by completely unsubstantiated appeals to things like “science” and “research.” And the glasses.

In my view, the problems are threefold:

  1. Wild generalizations,
  2. A bogus boogieman in the form of “participation trophies,”
  3. And a not-so-subtle marketing approach that succeeds by validating attitudes of superiority that are (ironically) similar to the faults discerned within millennials.

I’ll tackle these in order.


            “All generalizations are false; including this one” (~Mark Twain).

Imagine if someone started a sentence with “You know what’s wrong with black people… [or Asians, or Jews, or the elderly].”

Then imagine that they proceeded to give a ridiculously reductionist answer like “they all want X.”

The trouble with such sweeping stereotypes is not just that they’re offensive, it’s that they’re wrong in many cases. You need actual data to make claims like this.

One cannot speak of millions of people, born in different regions, in different decades, under different economic conditions, to different parents with the tagline that “they want beanbags and free food.”

When dealing with runaway generalizations, one useful exercise is to look at what is being assumed. What face is Sinek putting on millennials?

Based on the description, his portrait is a child of privilege, showered with parental compliments (i.e. continually told that she was special), and ferried about to numerous after-school activities in which medals were awarded for participation.

Picture a Chevy Tahoe, orange slices, and a nice house in the suburbs.

And while this certainly describes some millennials, I’ve known just as many who struggled for nearly OPPOSITE reasons (And some who don’t struggle at all).

Some millennials were born poor, rarely heard words of affirmation, never knew a loving dad, and were rarely able to participate in activities that didn’t involve a television or the struggling schools tasked with fixing all manner of parental and societal shortcomings.

In fact, Sinek’s “millennial” looks strangely like himself: a reasonably affluent white kid with cool glasses and a bizarre beanbag fixation.

It is as if he looks into the deep well of culture, sees a distorted reflection of his own face, and calls it “millennials.”

I’d say look again; and this time leave the suburbs.

Now for the bogus boogieman:


Participation medals are silly.

Lots of people think so.

So decrying them takes about as much courage as yelling “Yankees suck!” at a Red Sox home game. “That’s right Hahvey; Derak Jetah’s a bum!!!” 

It’s red meat.

But while the golden knick-knacks may be silly, they are not the major reason why some millennials are struggling to find jobs and pay off student loan debt.

The millennials I know (myself included) don’t even recall receiving the dreaded trophies. And if we did, they were likely lost beneath the minivan seats before we got home.

To explode the absurdity, Mark Hill recalls his reaction to one of these shiny little WMDs:

My response was not “Well, clearly I’m going to be handed a six-figure job as an adult.” It was “Neat, a trophy! Now I’m going to go back to thinking about Pokemon or farts, because I am a child.” [As] I got older, eventually only the teams that won were rewarded. This did not shock and sadden us — it was what we expected, and wanted, because we were actually capable of observing adult society, and we noticed that pro sports teams weren’t handed many trophies for constantly losing.

To blame a plastic trinket for the loss of a generation is like blaming the 2008 financial collapse on an ill-chosen Happy Meal toy (probably the Hamburgler; he totally normalized greed).

Participation medals are like Vin Diesel movies, Jar-Jar Binks, and men with bangs: they’re absurd, but they are not among our biggest evils.

The trouble is that we crave simplistic answers to complex problems. So along comes a pitchman, or a demagogue, to say:

  • “It’s the Jews!”
  • “It’s the rich people!”
  • “It’s the ab-roller for five minutes!”

It’s not. It’s really not.

And while Sinek bases his case on vague appeals to “science” and “clear research” Hill refutes this also:

It took me five seconds to find science that says the exact opposite. [So] maybe, just maybe, giving a kid a plastic knickknack when they’re eight doesn’t forever shape their psyche.

Now for the biggest problem:


The most insidious issue with millennial-bashing has to do with a not-so-subtle marketing technique: the validation of self-righteous attitudes in the land of “Yes!” and “Boom!”

“God thank you that I am not like those people” (Lk. 18.11), I don’t even like beanbags.

Ironically, this sense of “special-ness” is quite similar to the fault decried within millennials. Funny how that works.

It is as if we all have a satisfied smirk while failing to notice that there’s a trophy sticking out of our own eye.

This happens in two ways:

First, there is the reaction of an older generation that sees the rant as validation: “I walked to school uphill both ways, and these spoiled brats get trophies.” This is nothing new. Every generation sees the next as upending everything. But the accusation is especially rich when coming from the children of the 1960s.

Second, it’s worth noting that many people laughing with Sinek are millennials themselves (see video). And for us (since, again, I technically am one), the pride comes from knowing that we are not like our peers. We’re better. “I sit on a real chair; I pay for my food; I drive a Dodge Stratus!”

Either way, such rants inculcate a sense of self-righteous superiority over a population that is not exactly what Sinek makes it out to be.


So yes, entitlement does need to be quashed.

And we can thank Sinek for reminding us.

But it doesn’t happen best by caricature and mockery devoid of data.

Believe me; I’ve tried.

When Billy met Richard: A cautionary tale

When Billy met Richard: A cautionary tale

It was the only whiff of scandal in the remarkable ministry of Billy Graham.

The year was 1972, and the evangelist was talking candidly with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. Unbeknownst to Graham, the now-infamous White House taping system was recording every word.

After an innocuous comment from Billy, the President launched into an anti-Semitic tirade. Such racist rants were not altogether unusual for Nixon.

But this one gained notoriety for the way Billy Graham joined in.

“They’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff,”

Graham said of Jews.

“Their stranglehold [on the media] has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.”

While saying such things, Graham also acknowledged that the Jewish community didn’t know his true feelings about them:

A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I’m friendly with Israel. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country.

After denying the rumored remarks about “satanic Jews” in the diary of H.L. Haldeman (Nixon’s aid), Graham issued a heartfelt apology when the audio came out in 2002.

It was a great embarrassment.


In the aftermath, both friends and biographers tried to make sense of statements that seemed so out of character.

After all, Graham had been a longtime foe of anti-Semitism and racism of all stripes. During the civil rights movement, he had invited Martin Luther King Jr. to share the stage with him. And he had even gone publicly to bail the civil rights icon out of jail as a show of solidarity.

“There is not an anti-Semitic bone in his body,”

said Graham’s longtime friend Lewis Drummond.

Perhaps, some said, he was just speaking of a few unscrupulous Jews in the media.

Yet another view came forth from Charles Colson. As he suggested, such lapses in character were not uncommon in Nixon’s Oval Office. The President was a commanding personality–especially in that room–and it didn’t take long for his “advisors” to be conformed to his conspiratorial image.

Colson knew this all too well.

He was imprisoned for his own involvement in Watergate; he became a Christian in incarceration; and he would remain close to Graham for the rest of his life.

Colson knew how the audio haunted him.


But why dredge up this story?

Contrary to what some might think, the reason is NOT to tarnish the reputation of Billy Graham. While the comments were ugly, Nixon’s were worse, and we might ask how many of us would want our most confidential conversations broadcast for the world to hear?

Not I said the cow. Not I said this blogger.

On the whole, Graham’s marathon ministry remains a paragon of humility, integrity, and grace. He’s not Jesus, but along with names like J.I. Packer and John Stott, he gave credibility to the label “evangelical.”

We could only wish to have him as the custodian of that label today.


So, again, why bring this up?  The reason is that it provides a much-needed lesson for all Christian leaders, and now more than ever.

All of us have a tendency to become chameleons in the presence of the powerful—not just overlooking their vices (which may sometimes be required) but sanctifying them in the name of “access” and “the greater good.”

In such cases, we play the flattering court chaplain rather than the truth-telling prophet. And in so doing, we become agents of propaganda rather than ambassadors of the gospel.

For his own part, Graham came to recognize this danger.

In 1991, he told an interviewer that he regretted “the politics part” of his relationship with Nixon—and this was long before the infamous audio came out. After Watergate especially, he vowed never again to be a pawn for partisanship.

In these days—and regardless of who occupies the Oval Office—many would do well to remember this advice.


This doesn’t mean, however, that Christians must always adopt the posture of indignant prophets. Somehow, there must be a middle ground between the sycophantic sellout and the “clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13).

And most cases, Graham found it.

Imperfect leaders need spiritual support as well. And even after the embarrassment of Watergate, Graham showed grace to Nixon.

When Nixon died, in 1994, I remember watching Graham deliver the funeral sermon.

He began with a gentle reference to another gifted though unscrupulous leader: (ironically) a Jew, named Saul.

The great king of ancient Israel, David, said on the death of Saul, who had been a bitter enemy: “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel.”

Somehow this managed (simultaneously) to pay respect and to acknowledge that there were things that needed forgiving.

As with Saul, there were faults that ought not be glossed over in the name of “access,” much less be baptized through emulation.

Thankfully, however, within the landscape of the gospel, such faults don’t get the final say. As Anne Lamott remarked recently, “Grace bats last,” and “Love is sovereign here.”

So Graham’s funeral sermon ended as it always did, with grace.

Nevertheless, as we now near the centennial of Graham’s birth, and the inauguration of yet another (by all accounts, conspiratorial) President, such cautionary tales seem worth remembering.

For a biography that situates Graham’s ministry in its socio-political context, see here.

For Graham’s own–more spiritually enriching–autobiography, see here.

My favorite bio of the Nixon presidency is that of Reeves, see here.

For the burning / Unto Us

For the burning / Unto Us

For many, 2016 was a year for the burning.

There were lots of reasons really (see this fantastic post by Steve Holmes), but it was with some of those in mind that I chose to speak this year from Isaiah 9 for our church’s Christmas Eve service.

It is a text that emerges (quite literally) from “utter darkness” (8.22)

Yet it begins with a note of tenacious hope: “Nevertheless” (9.1).

In some ways the gospel is contained in this word. “Nevertheless.” It is a denial of denial and a refusal to paper over the ugly side of life.  Still it also displays a ruthless trust that, in spite of everything, as Sam Cooke sang: “a change is gonna come”

Thus the text goes on:

Every warrior’s boot used in battle

and every garment rolled in blood

will be destined for burning,

will be fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

While I’m not much of a poet, I wanted to translate this promise into the imagery of the 21st century. So here goes:

Unto Us:

Every missile silo, armed and ready

Every bloody sword, oncology ward;

Every shantytown and hospital gown will be fuel for the fire.


Every divorce attorney and hospice gurney;

Every crutch, every cane, every bit of pain will be destined for the burning.

Every condolence letter and prisoner’s fetter;

Every funeral home and graveyard stone will be fuel for the fire.


Every addict’s craving and politician’s raving

Every surprise pink slip, every medicated IV drip will be destined for the burning

Every lonely dark and bullying remark will be fuel for the fire.


Every bombed-out playground in Aleppo

every body-bag, outpost Restrepo

…Boston, Baghdad, Berlin—every percussive echo, will be heard no more.

“For unto us a child is born, and unto us a Son is given

And the Government will be upon his shoulders.”


My good friend Josh Wright asked me if he could adapt this for a song and you can hear it here.