Elbow-and-Mouth Disease

I was a lowly medical student in Memphis, TN, just trying to get from one day to the next without revealing my ignorance. He was a distinguished, respected physician with a reputation for both wisdom and compassion. And so I was completely taken aback by his offhand question as we walked down the hallway:

Do you know what that woman has? She has elbow-and-mouth disease. It’s a very serious disorder; every time her elbow bends, her mouth flies open!

It’s been nearly 30 years ago, and I still remember the moment, as it slowly dawned on me that this wise, compassionate mentor was making fun of an obese woman. He was a wonderful teacher… an observer of human behavior… always willing to fight for the underdog. He would have laid down his life for a child in need. He was the kind of person I wanted to be when I grew up. And yet… he was perfectly comfortable passing judgment on a woman he did not know, based on absolutely nothing other than passing her in the hallway.

In retrospect, it is entirely possible that the white-hot anger I experienced in that moment was foreshadowing of my future. I managed – to the utter shock of those who know me now – to somehow bite my tongue and not end my medical career before it ever began. But the wrongness and unjustness of that experience never left me. And now, decades later, as the medical director of a childhood obesity center, I experience a similar degree of mean-spirited ignorance on a nearly daily basis.

“You really need to stop feeding her junk food and think about her long-term health…” says the young teacher to the father of a 7-year old girl who eats fruits and vegetables with every meal, is allowed candy twice a month, and hasn’t eaten pizza in more than 6 months.

“Don’t you think if she just buckled down and took it seriously that she could make it happen without surgery?” says an acquaintance to the husband of a woman about to embark on a bariatric surgical procedure, after decades of following every reputable diet and exercise plan to the letter, without success.

“Can you believe how he’s let himself go?” whispers a woman enjoying her double-fudge mocha drink, in reference to a former classmate at the next table eating a salad.

In general, I don’t think people intend to be mean. I think they are, in their own minds, “calling a spade a spade.” Perhaps they feel they are speaking the truth in love, or are trying to intervene out of a sense of protection. Some of you may hear your own similar words, in similar situations, and you may be asking, “Isn’t it reasonable, to see an obese child or adult and say the words that need to be said? Isn’t it rather obvious that their lifestyle is dangerous to their health?”

No.

Here’s why:

First, calling people out and saying words that we believe need to be said is not helpful, nor is it even slightly effective. It may make you feel as though you’ve done your part, but the reality is that you have caused very real harm. It isn’t as though an overweight person is unaware of the issue; they see it on themselves each time they look in a mirror… and they see it reflected in the expressions of others every minute. The issue is NOT a lack of knowledge, and careless and ignorant words only compound the problem.

Second, these comments are inaccurate and ignorant. They reveal a profound lack of understanding of what causes obesity, the discouraging lack of options, and the approaches to helping with prevention and treatment.

In the absence of disease, our bodies are really, really good at maintaining balance. Whether it’s the amount of fluids in our bodies, our temperature, or the amount of blood flowing through our veins… each of these are maintained in precise balance, despite wide variation in our daily activities and circumstances.

The balance of energy and fat is no different. Every day, we are driven by our brains to take in 1.5 to 2 times more calories than we actually need, in case we are involved in a car accident or a natural disaster or a life-threatening illness that requires extra reserves. And then, when such a disaster doesn’t occur, our bodies efficiently shed the excess 40-50% of calories taken in, through our metabolism and our brains directing our activity level and food intake. This happens completely without our recognition.

Every. Single. Day.

I recently attended a conference in which the speaker eloquently illustrated the remarkable nature of this precise balance. Dr. Lee Kaplan, Associate Professor of Harvard Medical School, described, “For a person between the ages of 21-65 to maintain their body weight within 20 pounds, the body must precisely match the daily intake and expenditure of calories within 0.2%. That is a difference of 4-5 calories per day — less than one-half of a potato chip!” (Blackburn Course in Obesity Medicine, Treating Obesity 2017, Boston, MA).

Think about the last time you had the flu, or an operation, or anything that really knocked you down. Did you think to yourself, “Well, I’d really like to go hiking today, but I suppose that because I’m on day 3 of the flu I should really rest instead because that would be better for my health.”

Heck, no! You didn’t think ANY of that! You were laid out in bed and could barely drag yourself to the bathroom. Why? Because YOUR BODY DEMANDED REST, by completely shutting down the release of endorphins and other hormones that give us the energy to be active.

How about that time your car broke down in the middle of the summer, and you had to walk 2 miles in your work clothes to get back home? Did you say to yourself, “It’s warm outside and I’m likely losing moisture… so I should seek water in order to restore my fluid balance.”

Nope. Your body DEMANDED WATER, and so your degree of thirst led you to gulp down three straight glasses of water.

When it comes to the daily balance of our bodies, we don’t tell them what to do; rather, they tell US what to do. By and large, we obey. We have a bit of control, so that if we need to go to the bathroom we can wait until the end of class or the end of church. But, we couldn’t wait until the next day!

Obesity is NOT the result of a chosen lifestyle of bad behaviors; it is the behaviors that result from a faulty set-point in the body’s internal balance of fat and energy.

A faulty set-point in our blood pressure causes hypertension.

A faulty set-point in our temperature causes a fever.

And a faulty set-point in our fat balance causes our brains to direct our calorie intake and expenditure to reach that set point… resulting in obesity.

In each of these diseases, as well as thousands of others, there are ways we can help the process and ways we can hurt it. Countless diseases recommend “first line” treatment of appropriate diet and exercise. And time and time again, humans from all walks of life find themselves unable to manage their high blood pressure with diet alone, and seek medicine to help. Because they are too lazy to exercise and too stubborn to eliminate salt? Perhaps that plays some role. But for the most part, it’s simply that the set-point of their blood pressure is messed up and needs correction.

Back to weight balance.

Our natural reaction when weight gain has occurred is to try to lose it. Eat less; be more active. And, when the set-point is correct and healthy, this works perfectly. That’s why many people can return from vacation, shed the extra five pounds, and move on. Or healthy women can gain 30 pounds, deliver a 7 pound baby, and within a month or two return to their previous weight. It’s the precise balance of fat and energy, doing its job. The person feels internally driven to “get back into shape”, and in the process feels better, healthier, and more normal.

But when the fat set-point is NOT healthy, and a person tries to cut down their calories and increase their activity level, all hell breaks loose. The body sends out a 5-bell alarm that something is REALLY WRONG, and needs all hands on deck to recapture the weight that is being lost. Instead of feeling internally, naturally driven to shed extra pounds, these folks instead feel as though their bodies are fighting them at every turn – because they are.

One study showed that if a person reduces their caloric intake and loses 15 pounds, there is a surge of EIGHT DIFFERENT HORMONES to reclaim that weight (Sumithran, et. al., NEJM 2011; 365:1597-1604). These hormones control hunger, satisfaction, sleep, activity level and more. They literally work in tandem to hold us prisoner until the fat balance is restored. Remember, our bodies know how to get rid of 40-50% extra calories on any given day… so holding on to a few extra is no big deal.

We have lots of work to do in the medical community, to translate our rather recent understanding of the physiology into effective solutions. We must treat obesity as the disease that it clearly is. Some behavioral changes have a positive impact on metabolism, and regular exercise certainly improves our overall health although the impact on weight loss in adults is disappointingly small. Some medicines have a small but positive effect on the set-point of fat. Surgical options have the greatest success in both weight loss as well as correcting associated abnormalities like diabetes and hypertension, but are currently (perhaps incorrectly) reserved as a “last resort.” Children represent a golden opportunity to instill healthy habits from birth, attempting to prevent coexisting illnesses before they happen.  I also have much personal work to do, in organizing the facts so that I can communicate them in a way that’s clear and understandable. Stay tuned, because there’s more to come.

But in the meantime………

Think about the part of yourself that is most embarrassing. The thing that makes you feel vulnerable, insecure, less-than. The thing that would be horrifying to be made public. The thing that you bury deeply inside, and share only (if at all) with the people you trust the most in the world.

How would it feel, if you had to wear that part of yourself on the outside of your body and announce it to everyone the moment you walk into a room? How would it feel for everyone to not only see your greatest area of weakness, but also blame you for it? And how would it feel for the entire room to make that collective judgment without you having any ability to explain or defend yourself?

THAT is how it feels to be morbidly obese. It invites judgment and criticism and unhelpful advice and unfair blame and profound ignorance. It is indefensible, because the judge and jury are in from the first glance.

My friends who face this particular challenge aren’t lazy or gluttonous; they are incredibly courageous. They are willing to keep walking through doorways, despite the ignorant assumptions awaiting them on the other side. They are truly happy (most of the time) for the thin people who believe themselves to have created their health rather than being the fortunate recipient of it. They bravely walk each step throughout their day literally carrying heavy physical burdens with very little complaint. They are the victims of biological cruelty. And they bear their burdens with toughness and persistence and beauty and grace.

I don’t remember anything about the woman that spurred my mentor to make his unfortunate joke all those years ago. But when I see her all around me, in all ages and genders and occupations and circumstances, I do not see elbow-and-mouth disease. Instead, I see courageous beauty.

Will you join me in looking beyond the surface? Will you trade judgment and criticism for empathy and humility? Will you try to listen and learn and understand and be a part of the solution? And when you see my courageous friends, will you look for their beauty and toughness and grace?

Parenting, Fender Benders and Racial Bias

At the tail-end of a Sunday-afternoon nap, I was awakened by the sound of sleet. My first thoughts were of the yuckiness of snow and sleet in March… followed very quickly by the panicked realization that our 16-year old was out somewhere driving.

Gracie has a good head on her shoulders, but she’s only had her driver’s license for a few months. And sleet in East Tennessee is unpredictable. I called her, told her to come straight home. Then quickly wondered why I was letting her drive at all. Called her back and her friend answered; they were already on the road. My brain was stuck in that frozen place between an afternoon nap and a sort-of emergency, so I was babbling, thinking out loud about where they should pull over so we could come get them.

Then, I hear Gracie yell in the background, “Mom! I hit somebody! I have to go!” Click.

Click here to read the rest of the article on my friend Cindy Brandt’s blog, where she graciously allowed me to be a guest author. ❤️

Sandwich Boss

“This is complete nonsense.”

The comment was made in response to a social media post, in which I shared words from an anonymous author. The words had resonated deeply within me and had pierced my soul. It was a post about the complexity of people and the contradictions found within each of our lives. It spoke of how we can be for Black Lives Matter and still support the police… about how a person can be both gay and Christian… about how Muslims can be the victims of terrorism… about how a person can be anti-abortion and pro-choice… about being a feminist who respects men. It spoke to my heart because I so often read opposing arguments and think, “Why must it be one or the other? Why must I choose a side? Why can’t it be some of both?”

I scanned the list of “likes” to my post and read each comment, and was gratified to find a very diverse group of political and religious perspectives, social classes, and ethnicities. That’s always a win, to me – when people from opposite ends of the spectrum see the wisdom in a viewpoint. That’s when I feel like there’s hope for us yet… that perhaps there IS some common ground that we can build upon.

And then, in the middle of basking in the glow of like-mindedness, came the jarring full-stop:

This is complete nonsense.

Disagreement I can live with – another person had commented that everything in the post wasn’t biblical, and while I disagreed with that assessment, I simply accepted the heartfelt opinion and hit the like button. It wasn’t the time or place for a debate on interpretation of scripture. In fact, I actually love thoughtful disagreement because it feels like progress is being made, whereas lack of dissent feels like those who disagree are just staying silent.

But… nonsense? Complete nonsense? Really? What an arrogant, dismissive response.

First it made me angry, and I shot back a reply. Others piled on, and it turned into long arguments and Bible passages being used as weapons. One of those social media exercises that is a complete and utter waste of time and energy… and must surely contribute to the blood pressure medication industry.

But underlying my anger was hurt. Deep hurt. While this person is an acquaintance rather than a close friend, she represents, to me, the establishment. The mainstream. The Church, with a capital C. When someone confidently represents themselves as the authority, it’s so easy to subconsciously accept that premise and retreat into defensiveness. And if we aren’t careful, we can even confuse the opinion of such a person as God’s opinion.

I should stop for a moment and give some insight into my own personality. I’m the youngest of five, and one of the favorite family stories to repeat occurred when I was around 4 years old. One of my older brothers, a teenager at the time, was making me a sandwich. When I requested something that sounded weird to him, he told me I couldn’t have that because the ingredients didn’t go together. According to family lore, I angrily put my hands on my hips and yelled, as only a bossy 4-year old can, “Well who made YOU the big sandwich boss?!?!?”

It’s the type of question I’ve found myself asking repeatedly in the nearly 50 years since then… although as I’ve aged I do usually (but not always) keep it to myself. And so after 2-3 days of fuming, and grumbling, and having arguments within my head (surely I’m not the only one who does that??) I finally pinpointed the question I wanted to pose to my facebook friend:

Who made you the thought police? Who gave you the role of sorting out sense from nonsense? Who appointed you the judge of who’s a “real” Christian and who isn’t? Who made you the queen of biblical interpretation?

Who made you the big spirituality boss??

Now I should make something clear. I do believe in accountability… and I have people in my life who I trust to listen and filter my thoughts and ideas. My husband, my kids, my close friends, my small group, my mentors, my pastors… those who know me and walk with me and understand when I’m thinking out loud, when I’m searching, when I’m debating, when I’m deciding, and when I’m asking. People who have earned the right to provide thoughtful input.

But being a facebook friend doesn’t provide that right. Not for you, or for me, or for anyone else.

You see, when I argue over social media — even over issues near and dear to my heart — the people I’m arguing with aren’t the point. Perhaps they may one day meet one of the millions of gay Christians in the world and recognize God’s heart beating inside of them… or run across a pregnant 12-year old caught in sex trafficking and fully realize her dilemma… or meet a Muslim who’s been victimized by terrorism.

Or, maybe not. Our “opponents” may never, ever change their minds or rethink their positions. And if that’s the case, so be it. Only God can change minds that have doubled down so hard or for so long. Changing minds and hearts is way above my pay-grade, and yours.

Our REAL job is, I think, very different but far more important: to breathe life into those who have been victimized by the self-proclaimed spirituality bosses.

If you have had the courage to voice your genuine, heartfelt, Spirit-borne ideas and have had them thrown back in your face…

If you are a walking contradiction…

If you feel like a misfit…

If you have been told your beliefs are nonsense…

If you feel as though you are never validated… never given the benefit of the doubt… never even fully seen…

Then I have a message for you: You are valid. You matter. You matter to God, you matter to me, you matter to the world.

Sometimes you are dead wrong, and sometimes you are totally right, and most often you’re somewhere in between. So am I. So are our parents… friends… teachers… doctors… pastors… writers… accountants… politicians. Okay, so maybe some of these are right more often while others are wrong more often… but you get my point.

But here’s a little tip: the more certain someone is of their rightness, the more likely they are to be wrong. And when someone expresses genuine uncertainty, they are almost always presenting us with a golden nugget of truth.

Jesus taught us, long ago: “Blessed are the humble… blessed are the meek… blessed are the poor in spirit…”

Why is humility so important in seeking God? Because the opposite of faith isn’t doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty. The quickest way to find ourselves opposing God is to be certain that we represent him.

So to all the self-appointed bosses out there… your opinion of me, my theology, my biblical interpretation, my musical tastes, my friendships, my words or anything else holds absolutely no power over me. There is one, and only One, who is my judge… and he chose grace.

And to all the outcasts, the misfits, the unnoticed, the dismissed, the rejected, the beaten down… to those who can’t seem to articulate your thoughts… to those who spout “complete nonsense” because you get so angry… if you are breathing, then you matter. Your beliefs matter. Your perspective matters. Your ideas matter. If you are the only person in the entire universe who shares a particular viewpoint… it still matters. We need you in our lives and in our world and in our heads and in our hearts.

So stand up… speak out… and own your sandwich!

 

 

 

In Terror: Stronger Together

There are two important aspects to the recent mass shootings in Orlando. By far, the most important aspect is that of lives lost, families destroyed, and an already-vulnerable LGBTQ community reeling from being targeted by such senseless violence. I will address that aspect separately; but, to be honest, I need to reel my emotions in just a bit before I can speak coherently. So for now, I will focus on a different aspect.

In the aftermath of the Orlando massacre, with 50 precious lives lost, we touched oh-so-briefly on the victims, and then just as quickly divided into our groups and roles. Did you ever have those arguments with your Mom as a kid, when it felt like deja vu all over again? Like someone just hit replay on a well-worn recording and you had the same argument over and over again? That’s how I feel in the wake of each and every mass shooting.

Those who advocate for gun control are angry about the weapon used and how it was obtained. Those who want tighter immigration laws are angry about the name and ethnicity and travel history of the assailant. Half the country applauds the statements of our President, while the other half ridicules him. The victims, all too often a vulnerable group,  feel a fresh sense of isolation, fear and oppression. Meanwhile, the cruelest people on the planet write messages of glee over the death of those who they deem “deserved” it. And in this particular case, perhaps the largest group of all is the silent one — those who have pitted themselves in one way or another against the LGBTQ community, and now have no idea how or if to speak words of compassion. And so, while some of us are grieving, most of us are fighting. Separated, angry and afraid.

I’ve always felt that acts of terror are senseless. But this time around, I’m beginning to understand its power. Terror causes fear and anger. Fear and anger leads to division and finger-pointing. Division and finger-pointing leads to weakness and vulnerability. Weakness and vulnerability exposes us to additional harm. All of it jacks up and energizes those who have been indoctrinated to believe that causing us harm is a divine calling.

Earlier today, I read two different facebook posts, both by thoughtful, intelligent people who I respect.

One post said, “If you think this is about guns, you’re an idiot.”

The other post said, “If you think this is not about guns, you’re crazy.”

Those posts made me sad. Because these two people are both smart and passionate, and each of them is EXACTLY who the other person needs to be listening to. Each of them is EXACTLY who the leaders of our country should be listening to. Nothing in our world — whether science or technology or medicine or religion or art or anything of value — has ever moved forward with a single group of like-minded people. When like-minded people all get together, they stagnate and eventually die out. But when a group or a church or a discipline involves differing opinions and perspectives, that group thrives.

People — WE NEED EACH OTHER. We need differing perspectives and epiphanies and passion. We need disagreement and misunderstanding. We need hard heads banging against each other until the edges are smoothed out into something that makes sense. We need each other’s forgiveness when we err, rather than gloating. We need praise when we do well, rather than a childish refusal to acknowledge any success. Not just forgiveness from those who are like us, but from those who are very different. Not just praise from those who agree with us, but praise from those with whom we usually disagree.

We. Need. Each. Other.

At the risk of dragging us back into the weeds, I want to try to make a point. It seems that in this particular shooting, we finally have the opportunity for a small common ground. We have a shooter born in the United States, of Afghan descent, who travelled to Saudi Arabia on two different occasions for a Muslim religious holiday, and who was for some period of time on the FBI list of people to watch due to statements of identification with extremist groups. This person legally obtained an assault weapon, and used it to kill 50 innocent people.

Some believe that the key to preventing terrorism is to identify the potential terrorists based on a profile of ethnicity, religion and travel patterns. This viewpoint says, “Gun don’t kill people; people kill people.” So you identify potentially dangerous people and get rid of them.

Others believe that the key to preventing terrorism is in getting rid of guns. They theorize that if there are no guns, then there can be no shooters.

Each of these, of course, represents the extreme viewpoint, and most of us fall somewhere along the spectrum of views. But what if, when one of these tragedies occurred, we looked not for the differences but for the areas of common ground? And then, as we capitalize on areas of agreement, perhaps those areas may expand around the edges and give us larger areas of agreement. What if, rather than trying to poke larger holes in each other’s strategies (and thereby making each other weaker) we instead tried to find from another’s perspective something that could actually work?

What if those who are against any type of restriction based on race, ethnicity or religion, were to concede that if a person fit a particular profile of threatening behavior (such as whatever landed this person on an FBI “watch list”) then restrictions on freedom such as travel is at times permissible and reasonable?

What if those against any type of gun control were to concede that if a person fit a certain pattern of concern, whether due to behavior, ethnicity, religion or mental instability, then those persons should be restricted (to a greater degree than they currently are) from owning a gun?

I’m sure there are plenty of people who will disagree with me and that’s fine; my point isn’t really even in the specifics and I have no power whatsoever to carry out my views anyway. My point is to say, can we actually LOOK for common ground, recognizing that to utilize the perspective of those who disagree with us makes us stronger rather than weaker? Could we perhaps say to one another, what would 9 parts of my viewpoint plus 1 part of your viewpoint look like?

We are a nation of smart, passionate, compassionate, hard-working, discerning, ethical people. It is time for us to benefit from our diversity rather than using differences to beat each other up.

We are called the UNITED States of America. If terrorists divide us, then they have ripped apart the very fabric of our identity, and they emerge the victor. But if we are truly united, refusing to allow difficult circumstances to tear us apart, then we cannot be defeated.

Will you join me, in praying for and modeling and seeking unity? Will you join me in an intentional effort to build bridges with each other? Will you have the courage to step out of your like-minded groups and listen to another perspective? Will you denounce the weakness and foolishness that ridicules others? Will you give your neighbor the benefit of the doubt? Will you listen more and speak less? Will you affirm more and criticize less?

During these desperate times when we find ourselves at war with a despicable, evil enemy, we need each other. I need you, and you need me.

We are stronger together.

Resurrection Night

For the past decade or so, Holy Week has been the highlight of my year… a time of worship, prayer and self-examination that culminates in the joy of Easter Morning.

This year, though, has been very different.. and as I reflect on the events of Easter Morning, I realize that my heart was grieving more than celebrating. Grief, on Easter, feels discordant. Nevertheless, it’s where I am. And… I venture to guess that I’m not alone.

Last evening, I finished reading Night by Elie Wiesel, the deeply moving story of a young teen who survived the Holocaust. He witnessed babies being thrown into the furnace; stood just inches from a young boy who was hanged; and watched soldiers play games by tossing bread crumbs into the middle of starving prisoners to watch them fight over them. He nearly suffocated underneath a pile of frozen bodies, somehow managing to claw his way through the naked and dead to a pocket of air. He watched his father die, he lost every member of his family, and he experienced the death of his own faith, in this haunting description:

Behind me, I heard a voice crying out, “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is? This is where — hanging here from this gallows…”

And so, on Easter Morning, I found myself grieving injustice and evil.

A few weeks ago, my mentor and dear friend lost his son… and although I never met him, his life and death have impacted me deeply. He led a remarkable life of complexity, of flawed greatness, of laser-sharp focus lived at breakneck speed, of persevering through chronic, debilitating illness while still being marked by it. He left a legacy of contributions to the medical world that would be astounding for a full lifetime but are absolutely  incomprehensible for a life lasting only 38 years. But what has impacted me most deeply is the visibility of loss in his father… eyes that shine a little less brightly, because an integral part of his heart and soul has left.

And so, on Easter morning, I found myself grieving death and loss.

A couple of years ago, I was advised not to teach a Bible class that I’d prepared for two years to teach, because my scriptural interpretation and scientific understanding didn’t match up with our church’s policy statement on homosexuality. In the whole scheme of things, that’s a pretty puny bit of personal hardship… but it hurt me deeply. I was an officer, a respected 18-year member, a veteran teacher, and a physician… and I thought I’d earned the right to be heard. To allow students in my classes to make a prayerful decision based on their own biblical understanding, rather than “telling them what to believe.” Mostly, I thought I was family… with heart ties too strong to be broken by differences of opinion. But it didn’t work out that way.

And so, on Easter morning, in a different church and among different believers, I found myself grieving isolation and division.

It was early in today’s service that I realized something within me was different. As we sang the triumphant words, “Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?” — the words lodged in my throat.

Where is death’s sting? In the memory branded into a young teenager of an infant burning alive. In the heart of a father, whose son learned to manage the pain of his chronic illness before he learned to speak. In the soul of thousands of followers of Christ, whose childhood faith has died and who are slowly putting the pieces back together disenfranchised and alone.

And so, as darkness falls and Easter Morning transitions into Resurrection Night… I find myself asking a different question. Instead of a jubilant cry of “Death, where is your sting?” I instead find my heart asking, “Where is the Resurrection?”

And like the tiniest spark of light… like new shoots of growth emerging from barren land… I find some answers sprouting within my heart.

Resurrection is found in these timeless words of Elie Wiesel, in his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech:

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe… I have faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and even in His creation.

Resurrection is found in the life of a grieving father, the depth of whose grief demonstrates the depth of his love.  Who finds within himself the strength to continue to care for countless sick and vulnerable children whose lives have been entrusted to him… as well as the wisdom to leave work early when necessary, to weep and to rest. Who continues to laugh, to love, to teach, to learn, to grow… and in doing so, to allow his beloved son to live through him.

And resurrection is found within my own heart. The loss of comfort and security and familiarity has been replaced with a new understanding of beauty and grace and compassion and love. I see life and resurrection in the vulnerable and the outcast. I’ve experienced the death of the god of my own making… and find within me glimpses of a God too big to wrap my mind around. And within these tender shoots of rebirth is a resolve to live the words of Elie Wiesel… words that are eerily similar to the life of Christ:

I will not be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. I will align myself with the oppressed rather than the powerful. I will speak for those who are voiceless and stand for those who cannot. I will seek to give rather than to take; to lose in order to win; to die in order to live.

And so, in the darkness of Resurrection Night, I pray the timeless words that have surely been prayed by countless feeble humans like myself, all over the world and throughout the ages,

Lord, I believe… help my unbelief…

A blessed Easter to every person loved by God… which is every person.

 

 

 

Unfolding Miracles: Human Sexuality

“Imagine that you woke up in a world where everyone looked pretty much like you do, and you thought it was a normal world… until you realized it wasn’t. People around you said yellow was blue, and down was up. They were talking about murder and rape and stealing as though they were the right moral choices… while self-sacrifice and giving and loving were the wrong choices. You begin to realize that EVERYONE except you seems to agree, and you start to wonder if you’re crazy. You think surely someone, somewhere will say words that make sense… but it never happens. You’re able to blend in because you look similar to everyone else, but you know that every fiber of your being is an alien in this world. You know that very soon something will happen that will reveal to the world that you are not like them. You live every moment terrified of a mistake… while at the same time feeling like such a piece of crap because you are pretending to be something you don’t even WANT to be. If you can truly put yourself in that place, and feel the terror and confusion and guilt, then you can maybe understand 1% of what I live every single moment of every single day.”

This is the description of an articulate, sweet, young transgender teenager. It haunts me. And it’s been echoed, in one form or another, by thousands of young LGBTQ kids that I’ve met and listened to and cried with. It’s the reason that I can’t keep my mouth shut about this topic, even if it alienates some friends or colleagues or fellow Christians. Ignorance, even if it is covered in or excused by “faith”, is still ignorance. And it gives birth to a form of “love” that is actually much closer to hate.

So here goes. My attempt to take a scientific grand rounds presentation, and turn it into a blog post! It will be much longer than blog posts are “supposed to be,” but it can’t be helped.

ChromosomesIt all starts with the chromosomes.

We have 23 pairs of chromosomes, of which one pair are the sex chromosomes. Two X chromosomes (XX) and you’re genetically a female. One of each (XY) and you’re a male (shown in the picture). Our DNA is the “building block” of our bodies, determining everything from our eye color to our risk of developing specific diseases. The sex chromosomes, then, are the “building blocks” of our human sexuality. While some of the other chromosomes also impact our sexuality, this chromosome pair is the biggie. Rarely, there may be an extra sex chromosome, extra parts on one or both chromosomes, or something missing from one or both chromosomes. But in general, the sex chromosomes determine whether we are a boy or girl and get the ball rolling in lots of ways.

The first thing that the sex chromosomes direct, in an unborn human baby, is the internal sexual organs. This is called the gonadal sex, meaning the boy/girl parts on the INSIDE. Boys have testes; girls have ovaries.Gonadal sex

These inside sex organs aren’t visible to us… but my GOODNESS are they important. They produce hormones, and direct the formation of the outside boy or girl parts. The testes of boys produces mainly testosterone, while the ovaries of girls produces mainly estrogen. But the pathways of how these sex factories make hormones is complicated… and sometimes in a long pathway (kind of like a recipe with lots of steps) something gets off-kilter, and the actual hormones produced may be quite different. Even when everything goes according to plan, small amounts of the opposite hormone are released.

Phenotype and Brain SexualityNext up: the internal sex organs, by producing testosterone or estrogen, then direct the formation of the outside sex parts and the brain sexuality. (If you don’t think these hormones are incredibly powerful, then you haven’t experienced one of my hot flashes!!)

The outside parts are formed by the end of the first trimester, and are fairly simple… usually. If a baby has a penis and testicles, they are assigned the male gender at birth. If the baby has a vagina, they are assigned the female gender. This assignment usually happens by the medical team within moments after birth, and is finalized within the hour in the medical chart. Surprisingly to some, though, it isn’t always obvious… and a baby may rarely be born with what is called “ambiguous genitalia”, meaning we can’t tell from the outside parts whether the baby is a boy or girl. In the old days, the baby was assigned a gender based on what was the easiest to make “look good” on the outside through surgery. Nowadays, with our ongoing knowledge of what’s happening INSIDE, it isn’t nearly that simple. But that’s another topic for another day.

The other really important part of the sex hormones is to develop the brain sexuality. Now, most of us don’t really think about the sex of our brain… but there’s all sorts of things, from the way our brain is structured to how it works that bear witness to our brain sexuality. Whether we think out loud or quietly… whether or not we can multitask… even the physical size of certain structures within our brain is heavily impacted by the sex hormones. These things have been discovered through highly precise imaging, as well as functional MRI’s… and the subject could make up 10 more blog posts all on its own! But for now, just think about the age-old saying,“Men are from Mars; women are from Venus.” While some of the behaviors we assign to women or men are stereotypes, and while many of us feel that we don’t fit the prototype, the truth remains that there are important, irreversible differences in brain structure based on the sex chromosomes, internal sex organs, and the hormones that they direct.

But here’s the seriously tricky part. The outside parts are formed in the first trimester, but brain sexuality finalized in the second and early-third trimester. And in between, a lot can happen… meaning they may not “match” in the way we think they should. (That’s a teaser – more about that in a minute.)

Gender identity

So. Once the sex chromosomes, the inside parts, the outside parts, and the brain sexuality are in place, then the next thing to be formed is gender identity.

Gender identity is our internal sense of whether we are a girl or a boy. It’s a complex interaction between our sex chromosomes, internal sex organs, outside parts, hormones, and brain sexuality. It is probably set in place by the end of the second trimester or mid-third trimester (whenever the brain sexuality is fully completed)… but it isn’t actually expressed until a child is around 18 months or 2 years old. Expression is usually complete by age 3 – and if you don’t believe me, just TRY calling a 3-year-old boy a girl, and see what kind of response you get! Most often (but not always) it lines up with the sex chromosomes and internal/external sex organs. Gender identity is an involuntary biological response (more on that later) that is formed in utero and expressed in early childhood, and there’s no evidence that anything that happens after birth can change our gender identity. It is entirely separate from sexual orientation — apples and oranges.

Sexual orientationThe last step is sexual orientation, defined as consistent sexual attraction to either the opposite sex, the same sex, or both sexes. Like gender identity, it’s probably formed by around the end of the second trimester or mid-third trimester of pregnancy, but it isn’t actually expressed until after the sex cycle springs to life and a child goes through puberty. During early adolescence, sexual attraction may flip back and forth… but by the end of adolescence sexual orientation is generally fixed and unchangeable. Bisexual individuals aren’t changing back and forth; their sexuality is “fixed” as attraction to both sexes, with a spectrum of which sex is most attractive. (I know, I know, that’s really confusing, but I can’t help it.) Sexual orientation is also an involuntary biological response, and there is no evidence that anything that happens AFTER a baby is born can impact sexual orientation. It is separate from gender identity – again, apples and oranges.

So here’s the whole thing. Chromosomes direct the internal sex organs, which direct the outside sex parts and the brain sexuality. All those things together direct gender identity (expressed by about age 3) and sexual orientation (expressed around the end of adolescence.)

Human Sexuality

The diagram looks pretty straightforward, right? But it isn’t. There are a lot of things that are confusing… especially if we haven’t taken the time to think them through. And for the most part as a society, as parents, as teachers, as churches, we haven’t taken the time to think them through. So let’s touch on some of the puzzlers.

Involuntary Responses

I’ve used this term a couple of times now, and some of you may be getting mad at me because you think I’m saying that we are sexually programmed robots. You may be thinking, “I’m married, and when I see a pretty woman I have the CHOICE of whether to respond to her or be faithful to my wife!” And that’s absolutely true. And yet, you did NOT have control over whether to be attracted to your wife (or the pretty girl) to begin with. You just… were. So the attraction itself is involuntary, but you have control over what to do with it.

Involuntary biological responses are the things our bodies do without us “telling” them to. Our brain breathes for us while we’re asleep… triggers a cough if something gets stuck in our throat… regulates our temperature… and sends us to the bathroom (and MILLIONS more things), all without our conscious thought. We have NO control over the involuntary response getting started, but have at least a little bit of control over what to do with it. So… if I’m in church, and drink too much coffee and need to go to the bathroom, I can probably wait until the end of the sermon. But I couldn’t wait until next Sunday!

That’s what is so hard about telling LGBTQ people that they can choose whether or not to act on their sexuality. It’s a hard enough sell to get young straight kids to wait until marriage for sex… and we know that church kids fare the same in this area as everyone else. But telling a gay teenager to NEVER have sex with who they are actually attracted to is like telling yourself to never again go to the bathroom. Eventually, something has to give, and all the faith in the world isn’t gonna prevent a serious mess!

Delayed Expression

Things that are put into place at one time, but expressed later are also confusing. It seems for all the world like they are HAPPENING at the time that we first SEE them; but in truth the “happening” is long gone, and all that is left is for the trait to show up. There are many examples of this – simple things like eyes that start out blue and then end up brown, or hair color that is blonde in the toddler years and turns dark by adulthood. We say, without hesitation, “Just like his Mom’s hair did!” without another thought. It can also happen with much more serious things – like Huntington’s Chorea, a progressive, fatal disease which is genetically determined before birth, but shows absolutely no symptoms until adulthood. Another example, more pertinent to sexuality, is the size of the outside sex parts. These things are determined before a baby is born, and there isn’t anything after birth (barring injury or disease) that alters them. But they aren’t EXPRESSED until puberty… because before that it just isn’t yet time.

That’s how it works with gender identity and sexual orientation. Our bodies are miraculous packages, designed to provide what we need at just the right time… and so we express our gender identity and our sexual orientation at the right time, even though they were set in place while we were being formed in our mother’s womb.

In my opinion, this is the heart of the arguments about sexual orientation and gender identity being a “choice.” The age that we SEE a young person declare themselves to be gay or transgender is usually in the teen or young adult years… an age when kids make choices that are often rebellious ones. But the reality is that the only choice occurring is when and how to REVEAL their identity or orientation to others. The actual event happened long before, and has been internally “known” by the person for a very long time. But like my friend in the opening paragraph, they’ve been blending in, trying to figure out if they are the crazy ones or if everyone else is! Imagine, just for a moment, how lonely that must be. And imagine, just for a moment, whether you might finally get fed up, and just bare yourself to the world in whatever way you feel like… not particularly caring at the time if it makes others uncomfortable.

Timing is Everything

Another puzzler – and a big one. In between the formation of the baby’s outside parts in the first trimester of pregnancy, and the formation of the brain sexuality in the second/third trimester, there are hormone surges. These hormone surges can and do impact brain sexuality… but the outside parts have already been formed and are irreversible. This means that the chromosomes, internal sex organs, outside sex parts and brain sexuality may not “match” in the way that we humans (who have somewhat arbitrarily defined “normal” as what we see happening most often) expect them to. A baby might have boy sex parts on the outside, but the part of the brain that controls sexual orientation may be attracted to boys rather than girls. Or a baby might have girl parts on the outside, but a hormone surge impacts the brain at the precise time that gender identity is put into place, and that young child knows without a shadow of a doubt that he is a boy, regardless of what parts are on the outside. Why? Because his brain says so.

Imagine, just for a moment, that the very core of your brain was telling you that you were a boy, while the parts of your body you can see look like girl parts. And then, imagine that everyone you know kept saying you were a girl. Even though your brain KNOWS that you aren’t. Imagine that your parents correct you, over and over again, reminding you that you’re a girl. And they are the people who feed you and take care of you, and love you, and you have absolutely no concept for how to reconcile what they are saying with what you know inside. And then, imagine that a famous preacher that millions of people listen to – like, say, Dr. Franklin Graham – referred to transgender people as “sexual predators and perverts.” Try as I might, I cannot put myself fully in that place… but even the attempt leaves me in a cold sweat. Is it ANY wonder that transgender teens and adults face an astronomically-high rate of depression and suicide?

Ancient History

We’re almost done. Hang with me for a final, hugely important concept: what humans USED to know about sexuality. Here’s the diagram of what was known about sexuality when the Bible was written:

Ancient Culture

That’s it. That’s all they had, all they knew. See a penis? It’s a boy. Yay! Our family name will continue! He will grow up strong and tall, have children and grandchildren! Praise God!

No penis? It’s a girl. Bummer. Well, maybe next time. Meanwhile, let’s teach her to cook and maybe she will bear children for someone else..

End of story.

Over time, we learned more about sexuality, and we began to add in things… but the ancient history understanding was so deeply ingrained that we just sort of stuck the other things in around our old way of thinking. So now, our understanding all too often looks kind of like this:

Ancient Culture Amended

It’s like a house with a whole bunch of additions and extra rooms, but the proportions are out of whack. It reminds me of when Jesus chastised his followers, saying, “You can’t put new wine in old wineskins.” Sometimes – most especially for followers of Christ – you have to be willing to blow up your old way of thinking and let him make something totally new out of the rubble.

Now, don’t brand me a heretic just yet. Not unless you know me well enough to know my deep love for Scripture. Not until you understand that I have memorized and kept current over 350 verses. Not unless you know that God’s word gets into me, changes me, transforms me. Before you brand me a heretic, just think for a moment about this beautiful passage:

He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. (Psalm 103:12)

When the psalmist penned this, he thought the world was flat. So for our sins to be removed as far as the east to the west, he probably imagined as, I don’t know… maybe 2000 miles. That’s a long way. And when scientists started to realize the world was round, they caught LOTS of flack from people defending the Bible. But over time, we’ve learned to reconcile the two. We’ve realized that if the psalmist thought the world was flat, that didn’t mean that GOD thought it was flat! It just means that God (for whatever reason) decided to use simple human beings to speak through. He could’ve just floated the Bible down to us, but he didn’t. So the human perspective is, apparently, worth the risk.

And now that we understand a round world, what has happened to this passage? Is it rendered useless? NO — It is even better! Because now we understand that in our round world, you can NEVER get from east to west! Now we realize that our sins aren’t just cast 2000 miles away from us; no, the distance is infinite. Immeasurable. Further than we have the capacity to understand. We could walk around and around and around the earth… and never, ever catch up to them. How cool is that?

So, friends, that’s what I think is happening with human sexuality. You think it’s an abomination? Not me. I think it’s an unfolding miracle. I think God allowed our simple understanding of male and female for long enough… and now, he is ready to blow our minds with the width and length and height and depth of human sexuality.

In closing, let’s return to Franklin Graham. He is quoted as saying, “Gender identity is what an individual ‘feels’ their identity is regardless of the biological reality.”  (www.thenewcivilrightsmovement.com, Feb. 6, 2016)

If you follow an ancient historical understanding of sexuality – if we are fully defined by the parts on the outside, and nothing else – then that is a true statement. If you take a pre-scientific understanding of sexuality, add on a few rooms, and call it done, then that’s a true statement.

But, if you choose to follow that thought process, know this:

It is medically unsupported and biblically unaddressed. The Bible never, ever says, “God created them male (which means a penis) and female (which means a vagina.)” No, we humans added our ideas of what was meant by male and female. Not God.

If a world-renowned leader and evangelist chooses to use the term “biological reality”, then it’s reasonable to expect him to have a sound understanding of what biological reality is. To fail to do so is misleading, inaccurate and irresponsible. It isn’t faith; it’s cowardice.

Fear keeps us enslaved in Egypt, while faith urges us toward the promised land. Fear worries that a human scientist will discover something that will knock God off his throne, while faith looks deeply into the telescope AND the microscope. Perfect love casts out fear… and gives us the courage to look at people and things we don’t understand with eyes wide open, ready and eager to see what God will blow our minds with next.

Remember our young transgender teenager from the opening lines of this post? I don’t believe she’s an abomination, or a mistake, or a sexual deviant. I don’t believe she’s a pervert. I don’t even believe she’s abnormal. I believe that she’s a creation of God. I believe that she is an important part of his revelation.

I believe that she is an unfolding miracle. Open your eyes and your heart, if you dare, and see her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lost Sheep, Take Heart

Over the past couple of years, I find myself increasingly drawn to the outsider, the oppressed, the hurting, the abused, the marginalized, the overlooked, the misfit, the discounted.

The lost sheep.

But here’s the thing. It isn’t really pity or sympathy that attracts me. It’s a sense that their lostness says something important about them that matters. And that their lostness says something about those of us in the flock that needs to be heard.

I think many lost sheep have found our flock lacking in important areas. Many lost sheep have found our flock suffocating,  untrustworthy, or even dangerous. They’ve felt abandoned, misled, neglected or mistreated. In order to save themselves, they’ve had to get lost.

And guess what? If you are a lost sheep, feeling lonely and disillusioned and hurt and cast aside and overlooked… lost sheep of the world, GUESS WHAT??!?

God sees you and loves you. He gets you. He is looking for you and looking out for you. He seems to have a special place in his heart for lost sheep. And He – not the pack, not the alpha sheep, not the earthly shepherds, not the fat sheep, not the aggressive sheep, not the sheep council, but THE Shepherd – will always have the last word.

Lost, hurting, treasured, precious sheep… hear now the word of the Lord, who loves you and hurts with you and is desperately searching for you.

And those in the flock… elder sheep, and young sheep, and leader sheep, and earthly shepherds…  if we dare… hear now the word of the Lord, from the prophet Ezekiel, who has climbed up on his soap box and has some things to say to us.

Then this message came to me from the Lord:

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign LORD:

What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve.

Lost sheep 8You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost.

Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them.

“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord:

As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, you abandoned my flock and left them to be attacked by every wild animal. And though you were my shepherds, you didn’t search for my sheep when they were lost. You took care of yourselves and left the sheep to starve.

“”Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

I now consider these shepherds my enemies, and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock. I will take away their right to feed the flock, and I will stop them from feeding themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths; the sheep will no longer be their prey.

“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says:

I myself will search and find my sheep. I will be like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock. I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day. I will bring them back home to their own land… from among the peoples and nations. Lost sheep 2 I will feed them on the mountains and by the rivers and in all the places where people live. Yes, I will give them good pastureland… There they will lie down in pleasant places and feed in the lush pastures of the hills.

I myself will tend my sheep and give them a place to lie down in peace, says the Sovereign Lord. I will search for my lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. I will bandage the injured and strengthen the weak.

But I will destroy those who are fat and powerful. I will feed them, yes—feed them justice!

“And as for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says to his people:

I will judge between one animal of the flock and another, separating the sheep from the goats. Isn’t it enough for you to keep the best of the pastures for yourselves? Must you also trample down the rest? Isn’t it enough for you to drink clear water for yourselves? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Why must my flock eat what you have trampled down and drink water you have fouled?

“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will surely judge between the fat sheep and the scrawny sheep. For you fat sheep pushed and butted and crowded my sick and hungry flock until you scattered them to distant lands. So I will rescue my flock, and they will no longer be abused. I will judge between one animal of the flock and another.

“I will make a covenant of peace with my people and drive away the dangerous animals from the land. Then they will be able to camp safely in the wildest places and sleep in the woods without fear.

I will bless my people and their homes around my holy hill. And in the proper season I will send the showers they need. There will be showers of blessing. The orchards and fields of my people will yield bumper crops, and everyone will live in safety. When I have broken their chains of slavery and rescued them from those who enslaved them, then they will know that I am the Lord. They will no longer be prey for other nations, and wild animals will no longer devour them. They will live in safety, and no one will frighten them. 

“You are my flock, the sheep of my pasture. You are my people, and I am your God. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!”  (Ezekiel 34:1-22;25-28;31)

Lost sheep 7

Lost sheep, don’t give up.

Shepherds and flock… go find them.

 

People and Parts and Chromosomes

[This post originated several months ago when I got up on my soapbox on Facebook. It seemed to resonate with people, led to a radio talk-show appearance, a local newspaper article, and eventually to this blog. It keeps reappearing, so I decided to repost it here.]

June 2, 2015

For the beloved Mama Bears, raising your LGBTQ children with tenderness and ferocity, this is for you.

For Tomm Zorn who committed suicide last week, and all the courageous transgender folks out there trying to find your path, this is for you.

For my many Christian friends who are struggling to understand while remaining true to your faith, this is for you.

For those angry and inconvenienced by the media attention, who prefer posts of what you had for dinner over the plight of children killing themselves, this is not for you.

When faced with the choice between passionate speech and wise silence, I’ve never had the sense to keep my mouth shut. Which explains why I’m dumb enough to make a “Caitlyn Jenner Post.” Here are a few points I would like to share from a recent Grand Rounds presentation that I gave at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, followed by some general opinions.

Our sexuality is a lot more than the “parts” that show on the outside. It is made up of our chromosomes, our brain sexuality, our internal parts, and our outside parts. The chromosomes direct the formation of our inside parts (ovaries and testes) and sexual differentiation of the brain. The brain and internal sex organs make neurotransmitters and hormones that impact each other as well as forming the outside parts. Most of the time those things match — outside parts, inside parts, brain sexuality and chromosomes. Those four things combined together establish, likely before birth, our sexual orientation (who we are attracted to) and our gender identity (whether we believe we are a girl or boy).

Here’s the rub. The external parts form very early in fetal development (the first trimester) but sexual differentiation of the brain much later (second and third trimester). Hormone surges can and do occur throughout the pregnancy… so a fetus can TOTALLY be born with a female brain but male outside parts. Or with a male gender identity but female attractions and mannerisms. There’s a tremendous amount of science available, and over the next weeks and months I will begin sharing what I know.

In ancient history, all that mattered were the outside parts. But now that we know all that we know about what’s going on inside our brains… now that we know about chromosomes and hormones… now that we know that people can honest-to-God be born with parts and brains and genders and attractions that don’t match… could we maybe just stop long enough to think about that?

If I woke up tomorrow with guy parts, that would seriously mess me up. Or if someone told me I had to figure out how to be attracted to women in order to be “normal”… well, it just wouldn’t happen.

And you guys out there… what if you woke up tomorrow with big old boobs and no dude parts? Or what if you straight guys had to figure out how to be attracted to one of your “bros” and how to not be attracted to women in order to be considered normal?

I’m not trying to be offensive, I’m just saying… THINK ABOUT IT. That would be really difficult. And lonely. And scary. We might hide from the world… or act out… or do crazy things to try to draw attention away from that part of us. Or we might get depressed, or start drinking, or doing drugs. Or kill ourselves.

We know that men who are paralyzed, women who have mastectomies, or people who suffer a mutilating injury are still a man or woman — even if their “sex parts” are absent or dysfunctional. Why? Because the sexuality of our brain and the chemicals it produces and the hormones raging through our bodies (given that I’m a menopausal woman, the term “raging” is quite appropriate) are more important than the outside parts. That’s just the truth.

And as a Christian, that doesn’t threaten my God OR my Bible. He absolutely created us male and female… but what that means is a heck of a lot more complicated than checking the parts below the waist. What makes us male and female is infinitely, gloriously, divinely, beautifully complicated. It’s the reason that after 24 years of marriage, Mike and I sometimes communicate like we are the same person, and other times like we come from different planets. We aren’t “typical” — not by a long shot. I love pro football, took a charge from him on the blacktop basketball court on our first date, cry at least twice a week and think out loud. He loves to cook, is a librarian, thinks about things for, like, 2 months before he speaks them out loud, and loves his alone time.

Sexuality is complicated. Human beings are complicated. That’s because we were created by a God that is way bigger than we can ever begin to imagine. If He had required the perfect design and the perfect people, Genesis would’ve been a very short story. But guess what? Us humans screwing up His design of the garden, of our humanity, of our relationships, and of the whole world was NOT a deal-breaker for Him. Instead, He continued to love us and pursue us and demonstrate compassion. He even made CLOTHES for Adam and Eve to help them with their embarrassment in the garden!! Who does that??

The point is, we don’t always know nearly as much as we think we do. We can misinterpret science, and we can misinterpret the Bible, and we can misinterpret each other’s intentions. And we can really mess each other up in screaming about how messed up everyone else is. But really, we are all pretty messed up… and we are also all pretty cool. Every one of us are walking around bearing the fingerprints of God.

So I think it’s up to you and to me how we respond to things we don’t understand. We can respond with anger and fear and ridicule, or we can respond with compassion and respect and a genuine desire to learn and understand. Our choice of response reveals our character and faith, and history will judge how well we did…

Guns and Kids and Jesus

Early this morning I opened Facebook, just as a way to ease into the day. Instead, I was confronted with a picture that won’t leave my mind: An adorable, chubby-cheeked, 8-year old little girl smiling into the camera. She lived just a stone’s throw from where I attended college. And she died at the hands of the 11-year old boy next door with a shot gun.

I know there’s many perspectives on this issue. I know there are legitimate reasons to own and carry guns. I know many trustworthy people who do so.

I know that the basic problem is a conundrum. While I feel safer with less guns, others feel safer with more. We aren’t both entirely wrong… or entirely right. What makes one person safer (like a Dad who sleeps with a gun under his pillow) puts another in danger (like the little kid next door who accidentally comes across it.) Pass a law to prevent the mentally ill from owning a gun, and the young woman being treated for depression following a rape is an unintended casualty, now unable to protect herself.

It’s complicated. I get it. But tonight I’m grieving a little girl. So I have some things to say.

First, about kids.

Guns harm kids far more often than they protect them. A gun in the home will accidentally kill a child, or be used by a teen to commit suicide, many-fold more times than it will be used to ward off an intruder. So please accept that a gun simultaneously protects AND endangers your family.

Children can be taught to shoot, load, unload, clean and store a gun. But they cannot truly comprehend the meaning of “forever dead.” Time and again, kids involved in shooting incidents say over and over and over again that they thought their Mom or Dad or sister or friend would get back up after they said they were sorry. They do not.

Kids can’t drive or work or volunteer at the puppy shelter till they are 16. Can’t buy cigarettes or a lighter or vote till they are 18. Can’t buy alcohol till they are 21. Can’t rent a hotel room without an adult till they’re 25. Why? Because while an 11-year old may possess all the physical dexterity and intelligence needed to drive a car, his brain isn’t ready for the responsibility.

So don’t tell me that parents just need to teach their kids about guns, anymore than parents should just teach their toddlers about the poisonous chemicals under the kitchen sink. While most kids will stay away from guns when told to, some won’t. And if they don’t, they might die. Or maybe the 8-year old girl down the street will die, instead.

Second, about Jesus.

There are lots of legitimate arguments for owning and carrying a gun including (but not limited to) self-protection, sport, and constitutional rights.

Jesus, however, isn’t one of them. He never gave us instruction or permission to kill someone else before they have a chance to kill us. Instead, he told us to turn the other cheek, give the coat off our back, walk two miles instead of one, love our enemies, and go out into the world as lambs among wolves.  When his disciple used his sword in an attempt to protect Jesus, he reprimanded him, healed the injured soldier, and spoke words that should echo loudly in our hearts and minds today:

“If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.”

Jesus taught that we die in order to live… not that we kill in order to not die.

The teachings of Jesus are often hard to swallow… and so many folks might simply conclude that this is one they don’t buy. They might simply choose to disagree with him on this point. Every human being is completely free to choose what they believe is right and true and good. So if you want to own a gun as an American… or a Southerner… or a hunter… or because of your fears… or because of your rights… then you absolutely have grounds to do so.

What you should NOT do is lump gun ownership and usage in with Christianity. Keep your gun, but leave Jesus out of it.

Tomorrow I will have writer’s remorse, and I will feel bad for the obvious points I’ve overlooked, the unchecked passion, and the people I’ve offended.

But for tonight, all that really matters is a blonde-haired, brown-eyed little girl.

God’s peace…..