Cheap Labels

We have it really lucky here in the US. Everything has a sign or a label. Have you ever noticed how many different signs or labels you see in a day? There are the labels you expect to see; street signs, exit signs, restaurant names and product branding. Then there are the not as obvious labels like price tags or the letter-number combinations on the top of police cars and school buses. And finally, the least obvious labels – the ones we throw around in our head and exposed by slang, jargon, and even everyday conversation.

I started to wonder why we do this – is it a specifically American cultural trait? No. Signage goes way, way back. You know – cave drawings? Symbols were used to represent concepts as a way to understand the world. Somehow when humanity could put a complex topic, such as why we exist, into a simplified form, say some exaggerated animals drawn on a rock, we felt better. Most of the time the symbols are specific to a culture and a time period.

How drawn symbols evolved into labeling things, I don’t precisely know. I imagine that the more of something similar that you have, the more you need to create labels to distinguish them. Have two children – you are John and you are Jane. STAMP. Have five tents in your huddle. You have the red border, you the white, you the green, you the nothing. PAINT. Have twelve Ryan’s in your phone contact list. You are Farmy, you are Lawrence, you get the idea. BEEP.

I am being a little facetious, but you get the idea. Picture your personal library of books without any titles, authors, or any sort of label on them at all. Yeah, that would be annoying. So labels are needed.

But some labels suck. Now you are probably thinking – really?

Really. I am talking about the sort of labels that take something complex and valuable and make it trivial. They over-simplify to the point of disembodiment. And in a complex, technology laden, busy-every-moment world we have to rely on all sorts of  labels to survive. But life becomes so…cheap.

It’s like when I bake something. I always get this response – “You made this?” Yes, of course I did, and I am serving it to you. “You made this from scratch?” Is it really that hard to believe someone could take raw ingredients, mix them together, bake them, and come up with something delicious? In our contemporary world, it is.

At church I am bombarded by cheap labels. How about “non-christian,” “pre-Christian,” “post-Christian,” or “soon-to-be Christian”? Sure they are people with different and complex backgrounds and different approaches to the world, but heck, they aren’t Christian (“not-yet-Christian”) and therefore easy enough to categorize, so SLAP, there is the label. I see why it is needed, sometimes. Kind of. In a generic sense. But if I were summed up by that term, I would feel somehow less whole. Cheapened.

Okay – I have another series of them. Single, married, married with kids, empty-nester, 20-something, 30-something, 40-something, high-schooler. They make sense, right? They are ways to understand something that is very complex in a tangible, relate-able way. But they make our church…cheaper. How? Somehow they perpetuate and promote segregation…and often they perpetuate identities. Once you have found your respective label, you slap it onto yourself and want to perform within its confines. And everyone that you want to talk to and be friends with is typically within your same label. Sounds like a stereotype of high school, right?

Now why am I ranting about this? Because I think we are cheap as Christians in the United States. One of the big reasons that the culture finds us irrelevant and hypocritical is because we live by an excess of labels. We can’t seem to bend ourselves beyond these pre-defined parameters. We are like old wineskins that can’t handle the new wine. The only way to genuinely love a world (and a Body of Christ) that is very different is to be able to walk beside them, be with them, have the flexibility to take off the cheap label and get to know the complex reality.

So what do you all think? Are labels like these hurting or helping us?


New Short Story: Like a Ghost

I have been devoting the last few months to developing my writing chops in the area of literary fiction. I am sure that this may be a little much for some of you, but I hope the rest of you enjoy this latest work.

This story was inspired by “walking in the shoes” of another guy on my way to the train. It deals with dissatisfaction in life in the context of marriage and work that seems un-fulfilling. Note that there are very adult themes in here…so probably not good for the young kiddos (not that I think any are reading this). Oh, and the only part of the whole thing that applies to my own marriage is the last two lines.

Enjoy and let me know what you think!


Guest Blog Post: How I Became a Christian Again, Part 2

Part 2 of my wife’s latest post – Enjoy!

Two months after returning to the US, and moving to a new city in a new state, I nervously attended the Young Adults group at a new church I had visited for the past few weeks. Memories of high school youth group and college worship services crowded my mind, jostling with current thoughts, “What am I doing here? Can I actually do this? What do I say to all these smiling, happy Christians who seem so at ease with each other while I fidget alone at a table?”
I remembered some of the songs being sung which only made me more uncomfortable – II had to confront the lingering doubts of my past. I anticipated the end of the meeting, the moment when I could leave unobtrusively. When the final prayer had been said, I gave all the regular attendees a maximum of thirty seconds to approach the new person with a welcoming hello, and,when no one did, I eagerly fled to the parking lot and locked myself in my Jeep where I let tears burst out.
Through my tears I stammered, “God, I don’t want to do this. Why is it so hard? I feel like I don’t belong here with these people, these other Christians in this church.” I knew the promise I had made with myself, to commit to God, but I wasn’t sure I could do it. I wasn’t sure I could have faith again, because that step was too big to take and my legs couldn’t move that quickly.
I write this, three years later, for my husband’s blog. I believe fully in God and I have faith today, although I am wary of sticking any adjective in front of the word faith. And I have taken the steps I have – some tiny shuffles, some giant leaps – because I know I will keep taking steps of faith, in faith, the rest of my life. I have accepted that some steps might be backward or down dead end roads, but steps can be retraced or retaken forward. While I don’t say this with any spiritual truth certainty, perhaps what I did “wrong” in my faith before was to stop taking steps.
I don’t think I’m alone in this faith struggle, nor do I think that Jesus is surprised when Christians grapple with their beliefs. In Luke 8:13-14, Jesus identifies the problems Christians will have in faith:
Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.
Jesus clearly explains this parable because God doesn’t keep secrets from Christians. Throughout the Bible, God tells Christians that faith isn’t easy, isn’t a walk in the park, isn’t a free pass to a lifetime of bliss. Instead, faith is the opposite. It’s difficult, a journey of endurance through jungle and desert, and it brings pain along with joy. I say all this to note that God also understands us; he sent Jesus to tell the beautiful parable of the Prodigal Son to remind us that we can always come back.
Now, with no intention of either setting forth a multi-step plan that will guarantee renewed faith, or being another mouth spouting misguided words, I would like to offer some encouragement and advice I have learned from my faith experience.

  • It feels easy to become a Christian again because you know what to do and to say. But remember that there will be tough times when things feel too difficult, too tricky, or too frustrating, and you will want to leave faith again. Take it slow, there is no need to rush steps of faith.
  • Learn how to be comfortable around and to trust God again, and not just God, but other Christians as well. However, do not let another person substitute for the true savior,  Jesus, or let another person’s faith substitute for your own true faith.
  • Don’t be ashamed of your past decisions and your time away from the church. It is your story to be used for God’s glory.
  • It is okay to admit your fears and doubts to God because He’s big enough for them and because I think He respects the difficulties we face in trying to stand firm to a life of faith on earth.
  • Finally, learn to receive grace from God. His grace is more than enough to forgive you again, just like it was the first time you accepted His gift.