About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

The Church Ought to Be the Seat of the Resistance: A Manifesto

Tianamen Square

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By Derek Penwell

In the twenty-four hours following the recent presidential election, I received three messages—none of them from church people. I’m not talking about people who don’t go the church I serve, but people unassociated with any church.

One message came from a very recent Syrian refugee, whose family our congregation co-sponsored as they made America their new home. He wanted to know if the election meant he and his family would have to return to a refugee camp in another, more dangerous part of the world.

Another message came from a lesbian with whom I’d gone to grad school, wanting to know if I would perform her wedding before the inauguration. She and her partner had been planning a June wedding in England, but now they didn’t feel like they had the luxury of waiting.

The third message came from a Pakistani Muslim friend who’s a doctor here in town. He said, “What do I do Derek? Today at work the other doctors were high-fiving because of the election … right in front of me. These guys are my friends. I was devastated to think that they never stopped to consider how I might feel after last night. They know my two nine year-old sons, who today I’m very frightened for. I don’t know what to do. I’m not sure what’s going to happen to us.”

I’m a Christian pastor, for God’s sake. Why call me?

I’m nobody special, so I suspect that the reason they called has something to do with the assumption that the church (writ large) will not stand for the kinds of terrorizing acts my friends were certain was to follow from this administration. That’s a pretty powerful assumption about what the church at its best represents to people afraid that the powers and principalities are now arrayed agains them.

I spoke last week as a faith leader at a Pride rally. I began my remarks by noting that in a state like Kentucky a lot of violence has been done to LGBTQ people by Christians. But, I went on, LGBTQ people have historically been the very kinds of social outcasts Jesus had a habit of hanging out with. Consequently, those people who claim to follow Jesus ought to be the first to repent and be accountable for the harm that’s been done in our name. Furthermore, I argued that moving forward, people of faith ought to be among the loudest to advocate for justice on behalf of those who’ve too long seen injustice against them baptized in the service of some misguided doctrinal purity.

If we’re doing it right, the church, it occurs to me now—even more than it did at this time last year—should be the seat of resistance. We should be the folks people think of first when it comes to standing up for those most threatened by a politics that multiplies inequity and reifies greed.

Having said that, I imagine someone will be quick to object, “That sounds awfully political. The church needs to stay out of politics.”

I want to be careful to say what I’m about to say as pastorally as I can: “Where did you ever get a stupid idea like that?”

There is no truthful way to read the Bible—especially the Hebrew prophets and the Gospels—and come away from that reading and still say that following Jesus is somehow an apolitical endeavor. Laying out an argument about how the poor or the sick should be treated, or about how those in power should use that power to benefit the most vulnerable (instead of in some systematic attempt at self-aggrandizement) is absolutely a political argument.

What I think people generally mean they they reject the commingling of religion and politics is the belief that religion should refrain from partisan politics. It is probably more correct to say, however, that Christianity should never become the religious auxiliary for any political party, using its influence to justify partisan positions that have been arrived at prior to engaging with Jesus.

Fine, I have no quarrel with that. But I think it should be pointed out that both sides tend to argue that it is the other side that is guilty of such theological rationalization. What I think the question ought to be is whether this political position or that more nearly captures the heart of the good news announced in the unfolding reign of God. The story we tell ourselves about who God is as expressed in Jesus should always animate our politics.

Here’s the thing: Partisan political parties are imperfect tools to help us realize that story; they are by no means, I hope it goes without saying, the best tools or the only tools. We shouldn’t be married to them any more than we are to our favorite hammer. But if the job is pounding nails, only someone who knows nothing about carpentry would say that a screwdriver is just as good as a hammer. And only a fool would say that all tools have flaws, and therefore we shouldn’t use any of them—regardless of the job in front of us—because God doesn’t like tools, and doesn’t approve of us using them, or because we don’t see Jesus using those tools in his life and ministry. (Jesus didn’t use antibiotics either, but that doesn’t mean he’s opposed to them.)

Another objection will almost certainly be summed up something like this: “Okay, but half of my church voted for Donald Trump. I’m the pastor to everybody, and if I start taking political positions—even though I have some fundamental problems with the president—I’m going to alienate half of the congregation. It’s better for everyone if I stay out of politics and focus on things like teaching, preaching, and pastoral care.”

Such a reaction prompts a couple of thoughts. First, if you don’t say something about some of the racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, plutocratic, transphobic policies being championed, your preaching is lousy and you’re liable to alienate the other half of your congregation anyway. They’re looking to you to preach the truth. Your unwillingness to be “political” or “controversial” is seen by many of them as an abdication of your primary responsibility to interpret the world truthfully … in love, yes. But the truthfully, nevertheless.[1]

Second, teaching and preaching the truth of the Gospel is pastoral care. In Matthew 9:35–36 we have a 30,000 foot view of Jesus’ ministry: “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

This passage gives a rather traditional Matthean formula for the work of Jesus’ ministry: teaching, preaching, and healing. But then Matthew tells us that as Jesus was perambulating over the countryside doing his pastoral duty, he ran into crowds, for whom he had compassion. Now, compassion is literally the act of feeling another’s feelings, usually suffering of some sort—in this case the feeling of being “harassed and helpless”—and then being compelled to act to confront that suffering, and work to change it.

So, if Jesus is feeling compassion on the crowd because they are “harassed and helpless,” we have to ask ourselves what exactly this harassed helplessness refers to. Most likely, according to Warren Carter, this phrase “harassed and helpless” refers to the beleaguered masses who find themselves under the thumb of Roman state oppression, as well as their fellow Jews who are collaborating with the Romans at their expense.[2] Jewish peasants were especially vulnerable to the economic and political pressures Rome imposed on the countries it conquered and occupied. Jesus, therefore, feels compassion toward them because they’ve been on the receiving end of the violent caprice of their Roman overlords.

In response to this injustice Jesus describes the “harassed and helpless” as “like sheep without a shepherd,” which is a historical reference to the relationship between the sheep that make up the flock of God’s children, and the shepherds to whom God has entrusted the care of God’s sheep. These crappy shepherds, in short, are the priests and the religious bigwigs who’ve betrayed God’s flock, at least in part, by not protecting them—in an attempt to try not to appear threatening to the politics of Rome. Ezekiel, in another context, spells out nicely the failure of the shepherds:

Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fattens; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them (2–6).

What’s interesting is that Jesus lays responsibility for the continued abuse suffered by the flock at the feet of the shepherds, whose pastoral duties seem to extend to protecting the sheep from the abuse of political predators who endanger them. When the shepherds neglect this duty in an attempt to stay politically neutral, they betray their sacred vocation. Apparently, then, their responsibilities consist of more than just petting the sheep. Identifying dangers to the flock, it would seem, is more important than placating the sheep and convincing the wild animals that you pose them no threat.

Someone might interject here that even if the job of a pastor is to speak truthfully about the powers and principalities that imperil the harassed and helpless, to say that the church should be the “seat of the resistance” sounds merely like an oppositional strategy—one that’s focused on the negative.

I understand how it might sound that way to the average white parishioner in a mainline congregation, who doesn’t feel particularly threatened by those running the current political show. To those people resistance sounds like a radical call to arms, one that risks turning the world, as they know it, on its head. But when people react negatively to the use of the word resistance, they rarely say it’s because the stable world they take for granted is in jeopardy. They tend to say things like, “Such an extreme posture will cause division.” Or they say, “We want everyone to be treated fairly, but what you’re describing would drive people away. And aren’t we in the job of bringing people into the church?”

There are so many things I’d love to say in response to that sort of moral reticence, but that would be another article. What I most want to say, however, is that that kind of reluctance to speak against the things Jesus spoke against doesn’t take seriously the “harassed and the helpless” as subjects for whose cries of injustice we bear any responsibility. If you were to ask my refugee friend, or my lesbian friend, or my Muslim friend about whether they’d like the world that threatens them turned upside down so that they might live without fear, I know how they’d answer. If you asked them to choose between justice for them and their children or peace in a congregation afraid of division, I can tell you what choice they’d make.

Issues of congregational conflict and division aren’t small matters, it’s true. They require thoughtful time and attention. But the question for the church and for its pastors is, “Why are we more afraid of upsetting some parishioners than in offering a truthful word about the injustices that produce people who are harassed and helpless?”

How can we who call ourselves by Jesus’ name look at the imperiled sheep and say that our job as shepherds only permits us to speak in soothing tones that mollify those who are too easily put off by talk of politics?

The church should be the one place where those who face a potentially hostile world feel safe, where the harassed and helpless have confidence that our moral commitments prompt us to resist any politics that terrorizes the powerless.

The world should have confidence that—whenever families are put at risk, whenever young black men find themselves disproportionately and systematically penalized because they’re black, whenever dead refugee children on distant shores evoke grief, but refugee children in our own country evoke fear, whenever LGBTQ people are bullied and discriminated against, whenever poor people are belittled for needing help to eat or to take their children to the doctor, whenever women have to remain vigilant against the humiliations launched by insecure men, whenever creation is threatened by our rapacious plunder of it—the church will stand together with the embattled.

The church should always, without qualification, without mumbling about “congregational division,” without convenient theological fudging be a voice for the voiceless in the face of the threat of oppressive laws and executive orders.

“But it could cost us everything.”

True. But we follow Jesus, and look what having compassion on the harassed and the helpless cost him. Why do we think we’ll get by with anything less?

  1. If you think Donald Trump is God’s guy in the White House, then this piece is obviously not written for you.  ↩
  2. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), 230.  ↩

Enemies, Trust, and Dying for Congregational Transformation

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By Derek Penwell

From time to time someone will come to my office, anxiety etched across the brow, looking for a listening ear. When I open the door on these occasions, I don’t know what kind of pain lies on the other side. I summon my best active listening practices from Pastoral Care 101, and I say, “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Well, Gladys and I have been having problems. You may have noticed we haven’t been around much lately.”

Sometimes I have, and sometimes I haven’t. I try to remain noncommittal: “I”m glad you’re here now.”

“Let me cut to the chase.”

(That’s good. I’m pro cut-to-the-chase.)

“I think Gladys has been having an affair with a co-worker…”

And with that we embark on an all too familiar journey into betrayal, fear, and recrimination.

I listen to another sad story, which often ends with a question. It’s a big question, one I never feel comfortable answering. People who come to see me with problems like this ask it anyway:

“What should I do?”

I know the difference between directive and non-directive counseling, between offering a way to move forward and offering the person the opportunity to make those kinds of discoveries and decisions. I often have a hard time keeping my mouth shut about what people ought to do, but in these situations, it always seems better (easier?) to go with a non-directive approach:

“What do you want to do?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know what to do. I lover her, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust her again.”

There it is. Trust.

Trust. Relationships require it if they have any chance at being healthy. To say that “once lost, trust is difficult to recover” is, surely, to have said something everyone already knows instinctively. How long does it take to quit checking text messages and phone logs? How much time has to elapse before you believe that a trip to the store for milk and bread is really a trip to the store for milk and bread?

Unfortunately, there’s no calculus capable of offering a quantifiable answer about how much time it takes to rebuild trust. However, one thing is certain: If trust is to be rebuilt, it won’t happen just because of the elapse of time. Trust takes work, hard, often tedious, repetitive, mind-numbing work. Showing up when you say you’re going to show up. Being where you said you’d be. Doing what you said you’d do. Going out of your way to reassure the other person.

No matter how strongly a person feels about having recovered, no matter how eloquent the protestations about “turning over a new leaf,” no matter how many genuine tears are shed seeking forgiveness, there’s no short cut to the actual work of rebuilding trust.

Everyone knows that, right?

The other side of it, though, which also seems equally self-evident, but often gets overlooked in the face of the pain is that the wounded party has to want to heal, has to want to find trust again. This too requires work.

It’s possible to bang your head against a wall for someone who appears only to relish the sight of you concussing yourself. It is impossible to heal, however, when the infliction of pain becomes the glue that holds the relationship together.

Betrayal and the Congregation

It occurs to me that many churches have been wounded, whether by promiscuous pastors who took advantage, or by unprincipled lay leadership, or by denominational neglect–or just because the organizational system was set up to fail. Whatever the cause, the first casualty of betrayal is trust.

Unfortunately, the lack of trust in wounded congregations is a self-destructive feedback loop of bitterness and distrust that inhibits healthy growth and creativity. Distrust in a congregational system treats all change as equally menacing, treats everything new (people, programs, ideas) as presumably hostile–until proven otherwise.

A trip to the store for bread and milk is always assumed to be a pretext for something else, something surely more nefarious.

A new Sunday School class can never be just a new Sunday School class; it’s an indictment of the other Sunday School classes or a new avenue for some hostile party to consolidate power.

A change to the worship service or to the worship space is either an attack on tradition or a play to increase the power base of some suspicious constituency–or both.

What gets communicated in a wounded system where trust has been lost is: “We’re not quite sure yet how you’re trying to screw us over, but we’re pretty sure you are. Therefore, we’re withholding approval and/or permission.”

Has your church lost trust? Here’s an informal checklist:

  • Do you regularly have meetings that last longer than 2 hours?
  • Do people bring dog-eared copies of Robert’s Rules of Order to board meetings?
  • Do you hear at least one reference to the Constitution and By-laws at every meeting?
  • Do people bring their own calculators and red pens to the meeting where the budget is being proposed?
  • Do you have meetings where there are arguments about whether everybody on staff “really needs their own stapler?”
  • Does rearranging the furniture in the narthex or switching brands of air freshener require board approval? (Bonus: If really bad, does it require congregational approval?).
  • Do you have a lot of congregational meetings?
  • Does the announcement of a meeting elicit a particular kind of feeling in your stomach?
  • Do you keep an extra bottle of Rolaids in your car for use before meetings?
  • Does recruiting for congregational officers evoke anxiety not for a fear of who will say “no,” but for fear of who will say “yes?”
  • Do you require a doctor’s note from staff who call in sick?
  • Do you have people who regularly drive by the church to see if the pastor’s car is there?

How Can We Trust Again?

I wish it were easy. It’s not.

I wish I could point you toward “7 easy steps to recovering your trust.” I can’t.

It all comes down to this: a wounded congregation must make a decision to begin trying to trust again. You may get burned. But relationship is always a crap shoot.

How about this?

  • Be mindful that each positive step in which you don’t get hurt is a step in the right direction.
  • Call attention to and celebrate positive steps.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t enter every new situation convinced you’re going to get burned.
  • Assume people (even those who feel like the “enemy”) are telling the truth until you find out otherwise.
  • Don’t get into the habit of thinking of people with whom you share the body of Christ as the “enemy.” It’s too difficult to pull back from the precipice.

Even if trust hasn’t been restored, you’re going to have to live like it has. Until you can live together with a commitment to restoring trust, ministry, if possible at all, can only be tenuous and fragile.

And if all else fails, remember, it’s God’s church–not your’s (or your “enemy’s”).

Besides, trusting your enemy is just about impossible–although dying for your enemy has been done before.

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“I Love the Sinner” Is Often What Abusers Say

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By Derek Penwell

“I love her, but she’s got to learn right from wrong,” he said … after beating her half to death. And there she lies, one foot in this world and another in the next—but fully “loved.”

I imagine that’s what LGBTQ folks hear when yet another Christian says, “I love the sinner, but I hate the sin.”

Now, I can imagine that immediately upon reading the connection between those last two thoughts, cries of righteous indignation will rise as a chorus unto heaven. “We’re not abusers, simply because we hate what homosexuals do with their private parts. We’ve never actually, physically struck a gay person because of their gayness.”

Hmmm … Maybe not, I don’t know you. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to believe you’re not part of a roving band of homo/transphobes out trolling the streets for fresh bodies on which to work out your frustrations with the dismal state of America’s godless culture. Nevertheless, I don’t think that gets you off the hook for the violence that is done in the name of your religious commitments for two important reasons.

First, when you fight against anti-bullying laws written to keep LGBTQ kids safe from being abused, you are propping up a system of violence that steals the dignity, and often the lives of those children you say you love. If a gay or trans kid commits suicide because you want to retain the right to loudly and repeatedly announce to the world your moral disapprobation, giving energy to a system dedicated to never letting LGBTQ kids forget that they are sinful aberrations for which the fires of hell are regularly stoked hotter, you bear some responsibility for their death. When LGBTQ kids get beaten, when they’re kicked out of their homes and forced to live on the streets and struggle to do some of the despicable things they have to do to stay alive, you may not be raising a hand against them, but you’re certainly massaging the muscles that do the damage. When you support a vision of the world in which LGBTQ people daily have to live in fear for their livelihoods, their homes, their right to a peaceful and flourishing existence just so you can proudly announce your doctrinal purity and your commitment to a world where only your religious beliefs matter, you may not be drawing anyone’s actual blood—but don’t kid yourself that there’s not blood on your hands.

Second, physical violence isn’t the only kind of violence. The abuse that takes place in families, for instance, is often not physical abuse. You can lay claim to having never physically harmed a person, while at the same time being guilty of killing that person’s soul. As anyone who’s suffered abuse by an abuser who claims to love them can tell you, some of the worst things that can be done to you have to do with being humiliated, devalued, dehumanized, made to feel alone and crazy. For how many years, for instance, did we gaslight LGBTQ people, makinghomosexuality a mental disorder? [Answer: Even though homosexuality was removed from the DSM-II as a disease in 1973, it wasn’t until 1987 that it was completely removed as a disorder, “ego-dystonic sexual orientation,” from the DSM. In other words: “Gay people are crazy or, at least aberrant” gave shape to the world we now inhabit.]

Take a casual glance at a list of behaviors considered emotionally abusive in personal relationships; then, read that same list through the eyes of someone who is LGBTQ, and try to persuade them they’re not victims of “loving” abuse. As one of my favorite theologians, Fred Craddock, said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words … can kill me.”

Now, someone might object: “We really do love them. We just think what they’re doing is wrong.”

Fine. The problem is that if you talk to many abusers, they will say the same thing … and mean every word of it. Punching someone in the mouth because you “love” her and “want to correct” her, can’t help but be heard by the person being so punched as a blatant form of patriarchy (i.e., I know better than you do what’s appropriately “not sinful”; you’re just going to have to trust that I have your best interests at heart), or as a way of justifying the hatred and violence of the puncher, or simply as a cynical lie. Whatever the case, your attempts at “loving” the object of your disapproval always seem to come off as a self-righteous assertion of your moral superiority (at best), or downright antipathy (at worst).

Let me see if I can make this any clearer (and I know it doesn’t feel good): Participating in a system that belittles, punishes and commits violence against those who are often in the weakest position to defend themselves, frames you as an abuser in the eyes of those whom you claim only to be trying to love.

Here someone might wonder: “But how can they not know I love them? I said I love them, didn’t I?”

That’s the whole point. Saying you love someone as you punch them in the mouth, or standing by (while cheering or remaining silent) while somebody else punches them in the mouth or loudly fighting for laws that will continue making punching them in the mouth legal in the name of “religious freedom” isn’t love.

A cursory reading of the Gospels suggests that, for those of us who follow Jesus,love isn’t the perpetual need to make everyone else conform to our understanding of righteousness; it’s the merciful realization that Jesus has freed us from the responsibility of thinking that’s even our job.

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Jesus Is the Worst Thing to Happen to Christianity in a While

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By Derek Penwell

Jesus is the worst thing to happen to Christianity in a while.

Want to know how I know?

I got another anonymous letter sent to me today. Actually, it wasn’t a letter at all; it was a tract. Turns out, they still make those. (Which makes sense, because who hasn’t been confronted by a second rate black and white cartoon carrying the grim warning of impending damnation, then fallen down in a tangle of wayward limbs and humiliated repentance?)

The title of this magisterial work of theology? Reverend Wonderful.

In it our protagonist, the sardonically named, Rev. Wonderful (Haha!, Get it? ’Cause he’s really not “wonderful?”) enjoys the untempered adulation of the adoring masses. He’s introduced as the “most loved man in America.”

So what makes the “Reverend” so “Wonderful,” so nationally beloved and respected? He’s theologically liberal, of course. (Because, you know, all the famous preachers are liberals. They all have megachurches and television empires and political machines.)

Unfortunately, though, it’s precisely his theological liberalism that leads God to run Rev.’s sorry butt back through the pearly gates and cast him “into the lake of fire forever.”

So, you might be wondering just what is this liberal poltroon’s great sin against God and the Christianity on behalf of which this tract offers its voice? What has consigned the Reverend to eternal perdition? Why, it’s his preaching, of course. Just listen to the evil spewing from his mouth:

“Yes, God cares about souls, but He [sic] also cares about SOCIAL JUSTICE… the poor and needy! We must UNITE to fight ignorance and bigotry” [emphasis in the original].

That’s right. R.W. gets crosswise with God because he can’t, as Stephen Covey suggested, “keep the main thing the main thing.” Instead of spending his time out hawking Christian bumper stickers and waylaying the unsuspecting with the middle school aesthetic of evangelistic tracts in an effort to “get people saved,” he foolishly pays too much attention to “the poor and needy!” No wonder God has to ice the guy! I mean, come on. All that soft-hearted liberal Jesus-y stuff be damned.

The tract I received in the mail today represents, admittedly, a somewhat caricaturized version of Christianity. But let’s be honest, it is a popular version of Christianity—one in which following Jesus’ commandments about doing “unto the least of these” is seen as a distraction from the true thrust of Christianity, which has to do with making certain that people believe the right things and that they allow Jesus into their hearts. The inescapable irony in this dismissal of tending to the needs of those on the margins is that when Jesus talks about judging those who will “go away into eternal punishment,” he never mentions as a reason for their condemnation any failure to “ask Jesus into your heart.” Instead, when Jesus speaks most powerfully about sitting in judgment on the nations, he reserves his ire for precisely those who fail to care “about SOCIAL JUSTICE … the poor and needy” (see Matt. 25:41–46).

So, back to my original assertion: Jesus is the worst thing to happen to Christianity in awhile. He has a way of completely screwing with a popular view of Christianity in which what’s thought to be important is the finely calibrated modulation of the individual soul, rather than the “works righteousness” involved in actually living like Jesus said to live.

Jesus can’t help but be a disappointment to Christians who would rather not be bothered with the world God created — the one with traffic jams and dirty socks, with ballet and waterfalls, with love and generosity, with the poor and needy — than with the one to which they’ve been promised platinum membership passes at some future eschatological reckoning.

No, if you’re committed to a Christianity in which God is opposed—decidedly, angrily, cast-you-into-the-eternal-lake-of-fire-forever opposed—to any ecclesiastical effort to “UNITE to fight ignorance and bigotry,” the Jesus you find caring for the the poor and needy in the Gospels is going to pose an insuperable obstacle to your Christianity.

The Reverend Wonderful would never say it (because apparently, he’s too inoffensively nice), so I will: Jesus is the worst thing to happen to Christianity in a while. But I suspect the poor and needy are just fine with that.


1. Hey, he’s not my straw man.

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What If Christians Stopped Over-promising and Under-delivering?

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By Derek Penwell

The class seemed pretty normal. World Religions for three hours a night in June, however, challenges the patience and endurance of even the best students.

So, when I started grading the final essays, my expectations were, understandably, I think, fairly modest. But every once in a while, a student steps up to the challenge, and smacks you hard on the jaw.

This time it was a Sikh woman, who was here with her family from Punjab. According to her essay, she had never lived among so many people who identified as Christian before, let alone study Christianity in a formal way.

This young woman made an observation that continues to kick about the corners of my mind as I reflect on what it means to follow Jesus. Simple really, but elegantly put.

My young Sikh student from Punjab wrote: “After learning about Christianity, it occurs to me that most of the Christians I know in America practice less than they say they believe.”

In the words of business, Christians too often over-promise and under-deliver.

I think about her statement a lot. Popular Christianity — based as it is on a sometimes shallow reading of the Reformation emphasis on Grace vs. Law — often stresses the importance of believing the right stuff over doing the right stuff (since doing is fraught with resonances of Pelagianism and “works righteousness”).

However, when it comes to following Jesus, possessing correct beliefs is never enough. Unless those beliefs underwrite a life devoted to loving your neighbor, they’re useless. And while that might strike you as harsh, it’s no less harsh than the Bible. As the author of 1 John so eloquently points out, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen” (4:20).

In other words, the very way you demonstrate love for God is by loving your brother or sister. You reveal your beliefs are genuine not just by proclaiming them publicly, or by believing them really, really deeply in your own heart, but by pursuing a world in which your brother and sister, those whom God loves, can flourish in justice and peace.

And to put an even finer point on it, loving your brother or sister means more than feeling properly disposed toward them. Loving your neighbor means having your hands dirtied, your knees callused, and your back bent in trying to see that your brother and sister have enough to eat, a place to sleep, adequate healthcare, a world in which to be safe as they pursue their projects and goals with the ones whom they love.

Not hating your brother or sister means more than not lynching them; it means more than refraining from being angry when they cut you off in traffic or make you stand too long in line at the DMV; it means more than avoiding personal conflict or violence.

Not hating your brother or sister means not sending drones to kill their children in the night, it means not rendering them rhetorically insignificant — as nothing more than “takers” or threats to your traditions, and it means not breaking up their families through deportation.

Not hating your brother or sister also means not working to cripple or otherwise defund programs meant to help feed, house, educate, and heal them — even if the programs don’t solve every problem (and sometimes create a few of their own).

And here’s the thing I think many Christians fail to take into consideration: people are watching to see if we believe what we say enough to put it in practice. They’re not stupid. They’ve read our sacred texts enough to know what Jesus expected when it comes to our treatment of those who seem to live their lives at the back of the line. They hear those who proclaim their orthodoxy loudest, who say they’re most concerned about “saving souls,” walk right past those souls starving in the streets … and they are completely underwhelmed.

According to David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyon, one of the first things people outside the church think when they hear the word “Christian” is rather unflattering — “hypocrite.” It’s noteworthy that when outsiders observe Christians in America they see two things: 1) we claim to believe a lot, but 2) we actually live those beliefs at a conspicuously lower rate.

But what if our beliefs, though imperfect, were enough to get us started living the way Jesus told us to live?

What if when we said things like “love your enemies and turn the other cheek,” or “sell all you own and give it to the poor,” or “just as you did it to the least of one of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” people had confidence that we actually meant it?

What if we surprised my Sikh student and began living at least as much as we say we believe.

What if Christians started under-promising and over-delivering?

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Prayer for a Broken World

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Derek Penwell

O God of grace and peace,

You hear the cries of the distraught. You tend the hearts of the grieving. We offer up our prayers to you once again, after hearing of yet more violence and strife. Lahore, Baghdad, Aden, Maiduguri, Istanbul, Brussels, Baidoa, Paris, Ankara.

We do not possess words powerful enough to express the anguish we feel. The bodies of our sisters and brothers, cast upon the altar of death, form a mountain of sorrow that threatens to blot out the sun. The world feels unstable, its hospitality, which we are always tempted to take for granted, seems in times like these an illusion at best, and a cruel joke at worst.

The cries of widows and orphans stop up our ears, so that we cannot discern a word from you. We long to hear the calm assurance of your voice in times like these. But perhaps even more, we long to hear the thunder of your righteous anger, lifted as a battle cry against the night.

But we’ve just come through Holy Week, so we see how you do battle against the evil intentions of humanity. You confront the world’s violence not with armies, but with a broken man who wields nothing more deadly than his willingness to die rather than return that violence. You conquer death by transforming death into life.

But we confess that your commitment to reconciling enemies too often leaves us feeling unsatisfied. We yearn to see your justice meted out against those who would steal the lives of children. Our hearts burn within us as we desire to witness a holy vengeance that promises the same kind of pain to the wicked as they have visited upon the innocent. On Easter we speak of our commitment to love and forgiveness. But in the face of the most profound darkness, our hearts betray us, and we long for a justice that renders our pain intelligible as part of a greater narrative of retribution.

And yet, we also must acknowledge our own participation in a world that seems too eager to devour itself. We allow those who would lead us to befoul the public discourse with racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia, giving voice to our darkest impulses. Forgive us for the secret hatreds and fears they articulate. Grant us the courage to stand against the destructive nature of our lower selves, which we see embodied in the venality of our politicians.

Your way of embracing the world is seldom our own. You resist our pleas for a solution that rights all wrongs. You withstand our entreaties for a divine magic we can control.

Therefore, offer comfort to the afflicted. Bless the prayers of the stricken and despairing. Let those who weep feel the embracing arms of your consolation.

And give us strength to live with integrity in a broken world, to face the violent fears that are so easily stoked within us, to challenge the hatred and bigotry that beckons us to view our sisters and brothers as “other.” Give us grace to see our enemies through your eyes. Allow us to be agents of healing and peace, that a frightened world might see you in us, and that we might live faithfully, even in the absence of our own understanding.

This is our prayer, O lover of us all. Amen.

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Why Your Criticism of Politics on Facebook May Mean You’re Part of the Problem

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By Derek Penwell

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

How many times have you read on Facebook that politics should be something people keep to themselves? You know what I’m talking about, right?

Said in a smug voice:

“Erm, only idiots think that posting political nonsense on Facebook changes anybody’s mind.”

Distilled to its essence, the idea seems to be that politics are so volatile that people ought to just stick to cat videos and keep their opinions to themselves. In addition to its being unseemly as a tactic, partisan bickering in the virtual public square is pointless. Advocacy doesn’t change anything, and it’s really noisy.

“I get on Facebook to keep up with friends and family, and to share the occasional update about my totally jealousy-inducing vacation/job promotion/parenting triumph. Politics are messy and conflicted. I like my leisure time consumed with leisure, not your stupid convictions. So, do us all a favor and just shut up.”

But regardless of whether or not social media advocacy is effective in changing people’s minds, what I find interesting about the casual dismissal of online political activism is who’s most prone to doing the dismissing. Have you ever noticed what kinds of people are the most contemptuous of politics on Facebook?

Generally speaking, people who can sneer about political appeals on social media as never really changing anything are people who are comfortably certain that nothing will (or even needs to) change enough to affect them. That’s some privilege right there. Turns out, people annoyed by politics on Facebook are usually people who have a stake in things staying the way they are — without even being conscious that “the way things are” almost always leaves somebody on the outside looking in.

It’s easy to be disdainful of low-rent political musings on social media when you’re totally convinced that things are pretty great for you and for people like you. Unconsciously, you realize that if the rabble these political posters are rousing comes to pass, things could get uncomfortable faster than you can say, “new haircut selfie.” Consequently, if you can keep the hoi polloi quiet, things have a better chance of staying just the way they are.

But what if you happen to be among that group of folks for whom keeping things “just the way they are” is bad news?

  • What if it’s your son out playing with a toy gun when the police pull up?
  • What if it’s your dad on the losing end of a police choke hold?
  • What if it’s your daughter who wandered up to the wrong room during a frat party?
  • What if it’s your mom who works 60 hours a week and still can’t afford rent and electricity?
  • What if it’s your co-worker who has to sit quietly every day and hear how his religion is the biggest threat to our security, and how it ought to be grounds for another insanely intrusive and demeaning layer of scrutiny for him and his family?
  • What if it’s your daughter who — because she was born wrapped in a blue receiving blanket — gets beat up for going into the wrong bathroom?
  • What if it’s your grandmother who has to choose between her diabetes medication and groceries for the week?
  • What if it’s your neighborhood where mothers lay awake at night paralyzed by the fear of stray bullets and discarded crack vials?
  • What if it’s your babies who lie bullet-riddled in their first grade classroom because “the-Constitution-guarantees-the-right-for-any-psychopath-with-a-few-extra-bucks-in-his-pocket-to-own-an-assault-rifle?”
  • What if it’s your best friend who got fired for being legally married to another woman?
  • What if it’s your city dispensing poisoned water to its citizens?
  • What if it’s your grandfather, who fought in WWII and worked the same job for forty-five years, who can’t vote now because he doesn’t have a driver’s license anymore?

For people whose worlds aren’t safe or livable “just the way they are,” politics isn’t an annoying thing you get to scroll past when your uncle Ed’s posting too many “Take Back America” memes. For some people politics is the only hope that the world everybody else is so satisfied with has a possibility of getting better; and they feel like social media is only way they can get the word out.

I’m afraid most folks don’t realize the kind of privilege it takes to be able to say to someone for whom the status quo doesn’t work, “Don’t you understand how obnoxious it is when you shove your politics in my face all the time?”

Do you even know how that sounds? It’s like saying, “I know your kid’s drowning, but do you have to harp on it every. single. day? Some of us have vacation photos to share.”

If you’re a person of faith, how do you so casually dismiss people crying out for help?

If you believe in the divine, how do you look your virtual friends in their virtual faces and tell them that if they’d just hush for a bit they’d realize that the world is actually a great place — regardless of everyone else’s momentary trifles?

I mean, you can say it, but you should at least know how you sound when you do.

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What If We Told the Best Story of Our Lives, and Not the Most Negative?

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By Derek Penwell

If you took a long look at my life, you’d find enough material to justify a wide range of narratives. Sifting through the various episodes of my existence, you could edit a story to support any number of conclusions about who I am. Often, these various edits would tell completely opposite stories of my character and my interests.

For example, you could pull enough material from my life to support the thesis that I am basically a lazy person, who’s relied too much on talent and not enough on hard work. If you were going to tell the story of my life with that plot throughline, you might point out my fifth grade teacher’s comments about my not applying myself, about how I could be a really great student if I would work harder. You might look at my ninth grade geometry grades or my eleventh grade chemistry grades to see just how low I could go academically in classes I found pointless. It would further the case if you stumbled across my decision to drop out of Septuagint Greek my senior year of college because it just seemed like so much work. You could cut in a scene about my great ambition as a writer, which produced nothing much over the first twenty years of my professional life, except a few newspaper and journal articles. You could talk about my inadequacies as a handyman, my penchant for letting the oil go unchanged and the gutters uncleaned. And believe me, there’s plenty more material where that came from.

If you wanted, you could easily tell the story of my life with enough evidence to prove that I’m a disappointingly indolent underachiever, who’s never realized the great promise predicted for his life. (But you wouldn’t be especially original, since I’ve produced, directed, and screened that particular story thousands of times in the silent darkness as I stare at the ceiling.)

But, if you were so inclined, you might pore over the many experiences of my life and tell a completely different story, using a different narrative framework. You could also portray my life as a case of “the late bloomer,” who finally figured out how to work hard enough to begin to fulfill some of that promise. You could pull out incidents from my life that demonstrated a continuing commitment to overcoming procrastination to do the work some people always thought I had it in me to do. You could probably mine enough plot points from my academic, professional, and writing life to draw a picture of a person driven, despite the many flaws, to do interesting work.

So, if you were so inclined, you could tell the story of my life from the perspective of the underdog plot, in which an overmatched protagonist faces daunting odds and prevails. I’ve edited that story too … though, I must admit, with much less frequency.

Depending on how you edited my life I could be cast as the attentive husband and father or the self-absorbed careerist. You might be convinced to shape the narrative with me as a satirist seeking moral truth or as a sarcastic, self-righteous know-it-all . Committed liberal cheerleader or uncritical liberal shill. Good friend or selfish turd.

The point is, you could tell my life’s story from a number of different perspectives, and each of them would have some grain of truth.

But here’s the thing, the plot lines of our own lives we choose to rehearse for ourselves over and over again matter. In fact, the stories we tell ourselves determine, to a large extent, how we act, what we choose to give our attention to, how we envision our goals and projects, and what kinds of things we value. The more I tell myself the story of my life as an underachieving failure, for example, the more I come to identify myself that way. And when I identify myself that way, the more I will live my life so that it aligns with my life story.

None of this so far is particularly profound. That’s why we try to make certain that children have healthy self-esteems, instead of destructive ones.

But what I often find lacking in accounts relating to behavior/emotional health and self-image is the real agency each of us retain in telling our own stories to ourselves.

What do I mean?

In order to tell any coherent story, one needs to make strategic decisions about focus. Each of us have this huge inventory of life experiences from which to draw in support of the thesis we set out to prove about who we are. Generally speaking, the choosing of which experiences to focus on isn’t a conscious decision—which is a problem. Most of us are constantly rehearsing a play from a script that we didn’t choose, but that was chosen for us—either by our parents, or our siblings, or our friends, or that horrible boss we had at our first real job, or from the advertising folks who are constantly trying to convince us how incomplete we are, or from that mean kid in high school who called us fat, or ugly, or stupid.

Having absorbed the narrative contours, our internal editor goes to work finding images and experiences from which to draw, cutting and pasting them all together into a personal narrative. The resulting pastiche is true in that most all the episodes probably happened; but it’s false in that the story that gets told, which asserts itself as a comprehensive survey of our lives and personality, is skillfully edited so that it’s a self-reinforcing narrative that only partially depicts reality.

But the problem—without getting all “Dr. Phil”—is that we tend to believe the negative narratives are definitive, and that it’s somehow impossible to offer up counter-narratives. However, if we were to take a bit of time and expend the energy, I suspect that most of us could consciously compose an alternative narrative, which would tell the exact opposite story—one that would also be true, only more positive.

So, here’s the thing: we have a choice about what story we choose to tell ourselves about ourselves. The question isn’t, Will I rehearse the narrative of my life? But which narrative will I rehearse? Will I have a hand in shaping it? Or will I let it be shaped for me?

It makes a difference which story I tell myself.

Congregations also have stories they tell themselves. They too choose from a deep reservoir of experiences to edit a narrative. And guess what? Congregations, especially those in need of transformation, are just as prone to retelling the negative story, the one where the pews used to be full, where the membership once boasted important people in the community, where they used to be important players in the cultural game—all of which success gave way over the years to a panic-inducing fear of the future. Somewhere over the past fifty years the bottom fell out for many congregations, and the only story they have left to tell is one of decline, depression, and irrelevance.

But there are other stories these congregations could tell about themselves if they put their minds to it, aren’t there? What if these congregations edited their stories to include:

  • the community they’ve fostered among folks the rest of society doesn’t have much use for
  • the hands of the sick and the dying they’ve held
  • the unpopular stands they’ve taken in support of justice
  • the number of people who’ve been taught how to pray and sing
  • the ways people have learned how to love and forgive in a world that often understands neither very well
  • the hungry who’ve been fed, the homeless who’ve been sheltered, the outsiders who’ve been welcomed

What if dying congregations told those stories as the defining narratives of the life of a faith community?

What if struggling congregations made a conscious decision to quit telling the story of failure as though it were the “true” story?

What if congregations in distress chose to tell a new story?

A new story might not fix everything that’s wrong. But the primary purpose of telling our stories isn’t to repair ourselves. The reason we tell these stories to ourselves, at least in the finest sense, is to remind ourselves of who we have it in us at our best to be—to help us find the strength necessary to be our best selves when the pressure always seems to go in the opposite direction.

It’s your life. Give yourself a break, and tell the story of it in a way that makes the angels smile.

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Learning to Love the Red Pen

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By Derek Penwell

I remember those times when I would get an email from my dissertation advisor, telling me that she had finished marking up another chapter. It’s difficult to describe that feeling, that strange mixture of dread and hopeful anticipation.

Why did an email give me such anxiety, you may ask, dear reader?

It was all that blood on the page. And don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about either. Everybody (even little kids) fear the dreaded red pen—the one that announces to the world what an abject failure you are. You’ve harbored secret doubts about your abilities all along. Then you see a cataract of red ink washing over your work, and your incompetence is reified—a reminder that you had no business ever presuming to do something so clearly out of your league.

You know what I’m talking about, right? You look at the red marks, and all you can see is defeat. Writer’s instinctively fear the editor’s pen. Nobody likes to be judged; and editorial corrections feel like the incarnation of judgment. You produce something you care about, and along comes a critic to help remind you just how limited your gifts really are.

But, you see, that’s where I have to stop myself, slow my breathing, and take a step back. Generally speaking, a professional editor isn’t the same thing as a professional critic. An editor’s job is primarily constructive, an attempt to make your work better, whereas a critic’s job is help determine the value of a piece of work in relationship to a larger tradition of work.

Editors care about making something better; critics care about letting an audience know whether a piece is worth further attention, relative to other pieces of the same genre or medium.

That’s why I feel both dread and hopeful anticipation when I receive news that my work has come out the other side of the editing process. My first thought is that I’m being judged a failure. (My first attempt wasn’t good enough.) It’s difficult for even the most seasoned author not to feel defensive in the face of all that red ink. But after all this time, I know that the red ink is an attempt not to humiliate me, but to help me see how I might do my job as a writer more effectively. And it’s offered up by someone who cares about my work. (If not, I need to find a new editor.)

Every writer needs a good editor—if only because writers are, at best, too close to the work to look at it objectively, and at worst, writers are amazingly adept at lying to themselves. Good writers understand that good editors make their work better. Full stop.

Therefore, what looks initially like failure to a writer is actually an opportunity to do better work. If all you can see is judgment when you get an email from an editor, your work will never improve. In fact, many people who might have developed into fine writers quit trying altogether because they fear—what they wrongly assume is—judgment. But failure in writing usually has more to do with being too afraid to try than with trying and coming up short. Every writer comes up short; that’s why the editorial process is so important, and why it’s essential that the writer get comfortable with the fact that good writing almost always requires revision.

Art can’t be produced on an assembly line, because assembly lines require precision and replication. Art requires the freedom to regularly try something different—even if it may not work the first time.

Dying congregations are also afraid of failing, of trying something that doesn’t turn out quite right after the first draft. These congregations labor under the sad conviction that they don’t really have that much to offer anyway. So when they finally do try something and it’s not immediately successful, they seize up with fear—taking their failure as a commentary on themselves and not as a prompt that they need to revise their work.

Dying congregations take the need for course correction as further proof that they didn’t have any business getting wrapped up in something so obviously out of their league. Stick to what you know. Don’t get too far out on any particular limb. Otherwise, you just open yourself up to criticism. (And who needs any more of that?)

But congregations, like writers, need revision. They need to be able hold on more loosely, to see failure simply as information about what not to do next time. They need to face the fear of having someone point out that not everything went as planned, but that success is more a function of perseverance than perfection.

So, here are a few thoughts for writers and congregations:

  • Don’t give into the fear of failure by not trying new things. Lean into it.
  • Learn the difference between constructive correction and destructive criticism.
  • Actively seek out editors who can help you do better work.
  • Avoid expending energy on critics who believe their job consists only in telling you what you did wrong, without offering any insight into how to improve.
  • Learn how to embrace failure as an essential part of doing good work.
  • Laugh at the voices that seek to shame you, to keep you from daring to do something creative, different, interesting.

Ministry, like writing, is art—not industrial production. Editors are the friends of creative endeavor—not supervisors on an assembly line.

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The Metrics of Mattering

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Derek Penwell

Interviewer: What metrics do you think best measures [sic] the fact that you’re doing work that matters?

Seth Godin: I think the only one I care about is: Will people miss you if you are gone. Interview with Seth Godin

Measuring stuff, it seems, is our great cultural preoccupation. Click views. Polling data. Sales figures. Miles per gallon. Grams of fat or carbohydrates. Attendance figures. Financial performance. Twitter followers. Facebook likes. Klout score. The rate of global climate change.

Apparently, you cannot know how well you’re doing unless you have numbers that situate you in relationship to others doing the same thing. Companies pay a lot for this kind of quantification. It’s difficult to know how much to charge for a commercial without knowing the size of the audience it’s going out to. Nobody builds a new franchise until the potential customer base is surveyed. Pharmaceutical companies balk at investing in new medicines until they have an accurate numerical picture of how many people are likely to need the medications (read: buy them).

That’s how it works, right? How do I know how much something is worth until I can attach a number to it?

Congregations, formed as they are by the culture in which they find themselves, tend to worry about metrics the same as everybody else. I mean, how could they not?

The industrial revolution couldn’t have unfolded the way it did not only without inventors and engineers, but without accountants and economic forecasters. Somebody had to keep track of the numbers. And now, in the midst of the information age, we quantify everything.

So, it’s no wonder that congregations feel the need to measure their effectiveness by metrics that can be seen on a spreadsheet.

But the problem is, in our haste to measure everything to know its value, we are just as likely to measure the wrong thing—or perhaps, to measure the right thing but to learn the wrong lessons from those measurements.

Membership, attendance, budgets. These are numbers that are easily counted. It takes no particular skill to tally these figures. The temptation, absent any true metrics, is to believe that the bigger the number, the more success is present.

What we rarely stop to consider, however, is how success as followers of Jesus should be defined.

After all, it’s tough to imagine Jesus—who regularly ran in the opposite direction of the crowds, who died (largely) abandoned and alone—looking at the membership roster or the attendance figures as a way to gauge success.

It’s difficult to come up with a scenario in which Jesus—who talked about selling everything and giving the proceeds to those in need, who blessed the poor and the hungry—looks at an oversubscribed budget and says, “It’s clear by these numbers that you’re doing everything I could possible ask of you. Well done, my good and faithful servant . . . enter into the joy of your master.”

Now, dear reader, you might be ready to object that nobody thinks those numbers are the only thing that’s important in being a faithful Christian community.

Perhaps. But let me ask you two things:

  • First, if membership and attendance and budget aren’t the most important things in being a faithful Christian community, why do congregations expend so much energy keeping track of them, and then expend even more energy obsessing about the numbers they come up with?
  • Second, if membership and attendance and budget aren’t the most important things in being a faithful Christian community, then what is? And how do you measure it?

I think Seth Godin’s idea about the metrics of mattering is something the church ought to think long and hard about: “I think the only one I care about is: Will people miss you if you are gone.”

I say it’s “something the church ought to think long and hard about,” because if you’re going to measure how it is you matter, you’re going to have to do a great deal of thinking about those to whom you matter, and what exactly is the nature of that mattering. And then you’re going to have to figure out how it is you’d go about devising a metric to measure it. That kind of metric is a hell of a lot harder to devise than the one concerned only with counting bodies and dollars.

But if you do happen to figure out how to measure how much you matter, you’re going to be a lot closer to looking like Jesus.

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