Embracing Awkward

  • What The National Can Teach Us About Vulnerability

    Among questions that immediately make me begin to nervously sweat, “What are your hobbies?” is still number one (mainly because I don’t think food or Twitter are hobbies in the classical sense). But a close second is “Who’s your favorite band?” 

    Don’t get me wrong, I love music. I got that honestly from my dad. I can remember scores of records filling the built-in cabinets of my parent’s den, music filling the air as they had friends over for dinner most Friday nights. Tom Waits. Van Morrison. Paul Simon. The Grateful Dead. Your taste in music said something about you, your warmth, your depth. It not only stirred your soul, it reflected it. That moves the criteria beyond “good,” “bad,” and “ok.” Do you connect with it?

    These days I’m not sure there’s a band I connect more with than The National. They’ve become my answer to the second most dreaded question anyone asks. I actually saw them open for Arcade Fire 6 years ago, which makes me sad because I didn’t appreciate them then like I do now. So last night when I couldn’t sleep, I rented Mistaken for Strangers instead (if anything could help me get to sleep it’s a documentary on The National). 

    It’s hard to describe the film. It feels like an accidental Spinal Tap, shot by lead singer Matt Berninger’s struggling little brother, Tom. As themes begin to emerge from the random (often goofy) footage, the biggest is Tom’s fears of being a failure in the context of his brother becoming a huge success. At one point, through tears, he tells the camera that all he wants is to make something good, something that will make his brother proud. He hopes it will be this film. 

    The turning point is a conversation between Matt and Tom. Tom’s at a low point with the film, feels like it will be one more notch on the belt of his failures. Then Matt, trying to encourage him, opens up about his early struggles with The National. Playing the Mercury Lounge to a completely empty room. Coming home after shows, locking the bedroom door, and quietly sobbing (which ironically is my favorite way to listen to The National). 

    And Matt shares something profound. He says we took all those anxieties, fears and insecurities, and starting working them into the music itself. That’s when people started noticing The National. Here’s a band that isn’t afraid of talking about being afraid. Here’s a band that’s vulnerable in the best sense of the word. 

    Songs like “Mr. November” hit on our tendency to live off of past accomplishments, feeling the pressure to be perfect. Then there’s “Afraid of Everyone,” a song about anxiety, and our fear of intimacy, with that chilling line, “With my kid on my shoulders I try, not to hurt anybody I like.” Or Matt Berninger confessing his insecurity in “Demons” as he sings, with Dylan-esque voice, “When I walk into a room, I do not light it up.” And introversts everywhere said, "Amen." 

    This is what The National have to teach us about vulnerability. That it's not something to fear, but something to share. Because underneath the surface we’re all afraid. Afraid of rejection. Afraid of failure. Afraid of not being enough. We all crave to be deeply known and deeply loved, but are afraid to take the risk. 

    This is why speaker and author, Brené Brown, must be a huge fan of The National. She writes about vulnerability, Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” 

    The National get this. So they write songs about it. And a funny thing happens when they do. Through the sharing of weakness, insecurity and fear, they connect with people. And they invite them into the friendship, courage, healing, and even joy that happens when we share the parts of ourselves we don't particularly like. 

    Vulnerability in the name of intimacy is worth the risk. Running away from it only seems to make things worse (see “Fake Empire”). Embracing it, however terrifying, is the key. 

    In the words of Berninger himself, All the very best of us string ourselves up for love. Vanderlyle Crybaby, cry...Man, it's all been forgiven, the swans are a-swimmin’. I'll explain everything to the geeks.” 

  • Road Trippin'

    Wednesday morning our family will all climb into our 2007 Honda Odyssey where we will spend the next 28 days driving across 23 states as we make our way out west to Los Angeles. Well, first we will accuse each other of being the reason we're leaving an hour later than we said we would, then we'll climb into our minivan (it's always more painful when you put "our" in front of "minivan"). This minivan will practically be our home for the next month, a sad burrito on wheels, stuffed with passive aggressive adults and restless children. 

    We've never done a trip like this. Lots of things had to be purchased. Auto BINGO books for the kids (nothing keeps the kids nice and calm like a raging sibling competition), a car top carrier (the minivan version of carrying a backpack with wheels), snacks on snacks on snacks (healthy versions of the good kind so basically the not good kind), and we could go on. 

    The word we've chosen for our trip is "memorable," a purposely broad word to capture both the good times, as well as the times where we wish we could pray each other out of existence. Memorable in the same way meeting your favorite football team at their hotel in Orlando, fresh from practice, just before the Citrus Bowl is memorable. But also memorable in the same way almost drowing in the Rocky Broad River at Chimney Rock on your first (and only) family camping trip is memorable. Think I'll watch Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's Family Vacation one more time tonight to prepare. 

    To help keep my sanity, I plan on writing a little something every day (if possible) to vent, share, connect, keep myself from becoming a casual alcoholic. I would love to share those thoughts with you, not because I think they will be great thoughts, but because I hope they'll be fun to read. You can find them right here, but if you want to make sure you don't miss that stirring post about the best donut I've ever had in Cool Town, USA, etc., you can sign up below and they'll come straight to your mailbox. Not the literal one. The interwebs one. Wish us luck...

    stay connected with sammy 

    enter your email address:

  • Thoughts on Being an Imperfect Father

    "You never would get through to the end of being a father, no matter where you stored your mind or how many steps in the series you followed. Not even if you died. Alive or dead or a thousand miles distant, you were always going to be on the hook for work that was neither a procedure nor a series of steps but, rather, something that demanded your full, constant attention without necessarily calling on you to do, perform, or say anything at all...an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars." - Michael Chabon

    On April 29th 2005 something happened in my life that had never happened before. I became a dad. Jayne McBride Rhodes (“Jayne Mac”) was born, sweet, calm and bald. Very bald. We had to use a sticky substance just to get little bows to stick on her head. 

    I almost missed her grand entrance into the world. My wife sent me to Walmart to pick up some DVDs to watch, Newlyweds with Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey to be exact. There was a McDonald’s inside that seduced me into a late morning sausage biscuit, the new walk of shame. By the time I got back things were moving quickly and before I knew it I was staring into her struggling eyes, kissing the matted mess of hair on the top of her head, pretty sure I wasn’t holding her the right way. The perfect metaphor of how it feels to be a father. Never quite sure you’re doing it right. Almost positive you’re not. 

    Michael Chabon once wrote that “to be a father is to be a man who fails every day.” That’s what it feels like to be a dad. To be keenly aware that you’re not doing it right, not doing or being enough. My daughter is 9 now, and it’s harder to look her in the eyes, because those eyes saw her mom and I fighting just the other day. Her ears heard me saying things I later had to apologize for, first to her mom, then to her. To be a dad is to be someone who needs to be forgiven. 

    This is why the greatest gift a dad could ever give his children is to never tire of saying, “I’m sorry,” and “I was wrong,” and “I love you.” And to mean it. An imperfect father resting in the forgiveness of his perfect heavenly Father is free to be wrong, to apologize, to love from the heart with deep joy. In the words of Jamie Smith, to be a dad is to be someone “who promises to love prodigals.” Because they themselves are one. Prodigal sons who’ve been welcomed home by the Father with kisses make the best dads. 

    A few years ago we were at a wedding in Augusta, GA. My daughter was 6 at the time, old enough to figure out that she loved to dance. So as we walked through the doors of the reception, she made a bee line to the dance floor, and was by far the first one out there. It’s funny how different your children are from you. My happy place at a wedding is in the corner with a plate full of food and a beverage in my hand. Her's is the dance floor. 

    As she was dancing these older girls show up and they really know how to dance. And as they start breaking it down, I watch my daughter crumple on the dance floor, eyes like lasers burning through these girls. I can tell she’s angry, jealous, insecure. As we climbed into the car to head home, she was still upset. So I asked her what was wrong, doing that thing parents do where you try not to laugh and cry at the same time. 

    Through gritted teeth she said, “Those girls. I hate those girls. They’re better dancers than me.” And my heart broke. Not because those girls could dance, but because I saw the same perfectionism I’ve lived with for almost 34 years worming it’s way into the heart of my 6 year old daughter. That perfectionism that robs all joy because it fixates you so desperately upon your own performance, with the promise if you can just be perfect everything will be ok. What it doesn’t tell you is that nothing will ever be perfect, you most of all. 

    Anne Lamott once wrote,“Perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping- stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”  To be a dad is to be someone resigned, not to being perfect, but to being there. No matter how much you stumble, to keep going, keep running, keep trying. Not someone who has it all together, but someone who walks together with you through it, mountains and valleys alike.

    It’s Father’s Day and I’m thinking about the first time I ever held my daughter 9 years ago, and I realize now more than ever it isn’t how you hold her. It’s that you hold her. 

  • What My Dad, the Spurs and The Wire Taught Me About Work

    My dad was a farmer who probably should never have been a farmer. I don’t mean that he wasn’t good at it. He was. Really good. I mean how he got into it. His dad was a farmer, and his dad’s dad was a farmer. So when he came back home, with a masters degree in History in hand, he farmed. 

    Sometimes he would take me with him. He’d sneak into my bedroom early, before the sun was up, and with hushed voice tell me to put on some old clothes. We’d climb into his GMC pick up, khaki colored, front window slightly cracked from that time a sudden bump on a dirt road sent my head crashing into it, and we'd head to the farm. 

    Mom would sometimes protest, but this was men’s work. Men’s work that thankfully involved stopping at a convenience store along the way to pick up a honey bun and coffee. We didn’t drink it black. People who drink their coffee black feel like they’re trying to prove something. We took it with copious amounts of cream and sugar. This was playing hooky from school at its finest. 

    I can remember him asking me several times on those sacred trips, “What do you think you want to do when you grow up?” My only category was a farmer, so that’s what I said. And he would always say back, “It doesn’t matter to me if you’re a farmer, or a doctor, or a ditch digger, as long as you love what you do.” Those words still ring in my ears. Looking back I’m not sure if they were a promise offered from contentment, or a warning offered from frustration. My dad was the best farmer who probably should never have been a farmer that I ever knew. Because whether he loved it or not, he put himself into the work. 

    Which brings me to the Spurs, who, now that I think about it, are kind of like the farmers of basketball. Slow. Old. Boring. Plodding. Unselfish. All of these are words that are regularly used about them. Flashy. Impatient. Selfish. Young. These are words that are almost never used about them. They are a throwback team, but not even to the NBA of Jordan, Magic and Bird. More to the NBA of Havlicek, Cousy and Russell. A precious basketball relic playing in our midst. 

    The thing about the Spurs that feels so strange is that they are men who put their work before their personalities. In an age where “Which [Insert TV Show] Character Are You?’ quizzes clog up our Facebook feeds, it’s almost impossible to imagine a “Which Spur Are You?” quiz. Mainly because we know so little about them, their private lives, their personalities. 

    It’s not that they don’t have personalities. It’s that it seems they genuinely believe that the work comes first. You show up and do your job. Day in and day out, night in and night out. Discipline. Self-control. Work ethic. Selflessness. Humility. These things matter. Because the best way not to be a flash in the pan is to be a slow cooker instead. To know yourself deeply without feeling like you have to share yourself widely. I bet the Spurs’ Twitter feeds are incredibly boring, if they even have them at all. 

    Which brings me to one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite shows, The Wire. It comes from a conversation between Lt. Daniels and a young officer, Carver. Daniels is warning him about the pitfalls of trying to climb to the top. And in a moment of prophetic wisdom, Daniels says to him, “Comes a day you’re going to have to decide whether it’s about you, or about the work.” 

    If it’s about you, then the work ultimately becomes life or death, make or break, sink or swim, home run or strike out, and I just ran out of extremes, but you get the point. It becomes a way of telling myself, my family, the world, that I am somebody. Work becomes something I need to justify my existence instead of a joyful, if at times frustrating, part of my existence. 

    If it’s about the work, then you become a small part of something much bigger. You put the time in, you work hard, you spend yourself. But it’s not for yourself. It’s for others. It’s for the work itself, because you love it, and you hate it, but you’re committed to it. Not in order to stop time for everyone to notice you, but to keep time, to stay in rhythm with it, joining countless others in this line of work that has a past and a future, both happily without you. 

    When the work is about you, it makes rest impossible. You NEED the work, need to prove yourself through it, find yourself in it. 

    When it’s about the work, you can rest. It’s an integral part of your life, but it’s not your life. You can take it up and put it down. You can be yourself in it because you have a self, a life, apart from it. 

    This is the most freeing thing I could ever tell a twenty something who sits down to coffee with me and wants advice about which direction they should go. 

    First, that their work, whether it’s farming, doctoring or ditch digging, deeply matters to God and therefore to the world. It’s work we need. It's work that’s good. It’s work that matters. 

    But the second is the harder one. It’s not about you, it’s about the work. It’s not an accessory to show off at parties, a desperate attempt to justify your own blood and bones. 

    It’s a calling, a holy invitation to put your head down and plug away in obscurity for the love of the work itself, in all it’s glory and frustration. 

    Do something you love, that you’re good at. Absolutely. 

    But don’t make it about you. Make it about the work. 

  • Parent Wounds

    Thinking back on your life is a strange thing. Most days seem to blur together, a canvas smeared with all kinds of colors. Other days you can see so clearly, remember so vividly. Like that spring day back in 1993 when my mom and our pastor sat me down on our living room sofa to break the news that my dad was addicted to crack and wouldn’t be coming home for a long time. That one felt more like a Jackson Pollock: hard to understand yet hard to forget. 

    Crack cocaine is a hell of a drug, as anyone who’s ever been laid bare in its addictive aftermath will tell you. You don’t just do crack. It does you. And, if you’re unlucky, everyone related to you too. We were unlucky. And suddenly my 12yr old brain was trying to process that this man I’d known all my life as my YMCA basketball coach, my Clemson football game companion, my catcher, my reason for wanting to be a farmer when I grew up, my best friend and my hero was also a crack addict. And he had just been checked into a rehab center in the upsate of SC. 

    To hear my dad tell the story, it was a gradual process. There had always been a wound, equal parts rejection and longing for affection. This is a wound known to most of us simply as life. The ones we long to be loved by also themselves long to be loved. The ones we’re afraid of being rejecting by also themselves have been rejected. This is the secret vicious cycle of life: we wound because we're wounded. If we could only see the wound of loneliness that binds us all together. 

    My dad had a wound. His father was a good man, a faithful man, a hard working man. But like many in his generation expressing his love for his children was more deeds than words. To the day he died my grandfather never told my father that he loved him. My dad worked his whole life for a drop of fatherly affirmation. What he got instead was anger and distance. Some may even want to call it abuse. After all there is a way of hitting someone so hard they never heal without ever raising your hand. 

    Passing down what you would never want to pass down. This is the irony of family. Tragedy might be the better word. Wounded people wound people. Often in ways completely unintentional and entirely different from the ways they themselves were wounded. My grandfather wounded my father. My father wounded me. How will I wound my children? 

    They say that hope is borrowing from the past and the future to invest and infuse the present with redemptive meaning. That our stories can have happy endings no matter the broken beginnings. That our lives can know incredible change from the inside out. That generational sin can be broken. Lord I believe. Help my unbelief. 

    From 1993-1998, all my visits with my dad were supervised. It was the courts way of saying we want you to see your kids, but still don't trust you. This actual feels like most of the parent relationships I know. Seeing you and trusting you are sometimes light years apart. How can you trust someone who has broken your heart? 

    Not until I had kids of my own did I realize that’s part of the deal. I’m going to break my kids’ hearts, in one way or another. They’re going to need counseling, not because of life, or their genes, or their dating history, but because of me. In the words of Michael Chabon, "To be a father is to be a man who fails every day." 

    I once asked a wise older friend what being a godly parent looked like. His answer surprised me. He simply said, “Can you tell your kids that you were wrong and ask them to forgive you? If you can, then you’re a great parent.” Part of me hates this. Where is the effective discipline, the stirring family devotionals, the beatific family vacations? 

    Another part of me loves this. What my kids need most from me isn’t my strategy but my sorry. I’m sorry for what I said. I’m sorry for what I did. I’m sorry for what they said. I’m sorry for what they did. I’m sorry that this life isn’t what you thought it would be. I’m sorry that your mom and I couldn’t give you what you needed. Or that we could but were too blind or selfish to see. 

    There is a story from the early church that a woman went to be baptized and took her children with her with the simple prayer, “Be a God unto me and my children.” Be what we need. Be what we know we should want. Be there for us when we want almost anything other than you. Be the only parent who can ever love us perfectly, faithfully, selflessly. Be the refuge of every parent struggling to make way with their little band in the wilderness. Be a God unto us.

    Marilynne Robinson's Gilead says it best: “That is how life goes–we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s. I need to bear this in mind.”

    I spent a week this past summer with my dad. We talked a lot about books, and music, and addiction, and our wounds. It's to this day one of the favorite weeks of my life. Jesus is making all things new, and I'm thankful to say that includes broken relationships between children and their parents. 

  • The Silver Lining of Awkwardness

    Awkward is a word that's been thrown around a lot over the last few years, and has become something of a cultural obsession. As a word we may take it or leave it. But as an idea, we are drawn to it like Taylor Swift to a break-up. It’s hard to imagine our grandparents generation laughing their way through a season of Arrested Development, but for some reason we do. We love awkwardness. 

    Author Adam Kotsko puts it this way: “Awkwardness is everywhere, inescapable. Awkwardness dominates entertainment to such an extent that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember laughing at anything other than cringe-inducing scenes of social discomfort.” It’s what makes shows like The Office and Parks & Rec work. It’s what makes Judd Apatow films and pretty much every Ricky Gervais show work. It's the new horror film: laughing at the awkward experiences of others in hopes of avoiding our own. 

    Awkwardness may make us laugh when it comes to other people, but when it comes to ouselves it makes us paranoid and extremely self-conscious. We’re haunted by visions of friends locking eyes after a party and whispering “He's so awkward" about US. That’s why some have said that there's a new scarlet letter: “A” for “Awkward.” Socially speaking it’s actually much worse than adultery these days.

    So why this love/hate relationship with awkwardness? Why does it, on the one hand, make us laugh and draw us in, yet, on the other hand, scare us to death to ever be associated with it? Because awkwardness is an invitation to vulnerability. It’s an open door to share our weakness, and to let others see our shame. In other words, it’s an invitation to be human.

    There's this incredibly awkward scene in Season 6 of Mad Men where Don Draper is (literally) caught with his pants down. As if that weren’t bad enough, it’s by his own pre-teen daughter (Sally), who happens to unexpectedly walk in on him having sex with their downstairs neighbor (Mrs. Rosen). Needless to say, it is painful to watch. 

    But what is even more painful to watch is the way Don talks to Sally about it afterward. Far from admitting the truth (that Sally had caught him having an affair) he tells her instead that he had been “comforting” Mrs. Rosen in a way that she had misunderstood. He lies. The awkward moment that was an invitation for Don to be vulnerable, to admit the truth about himself and expose his shame, instead turns into him doing what we all do: covering himself up with half-truths as fragile as fig leaves.  

    Don’s reaction is actually eerily similar to the first awkward moment in the history of mankind, when Adam and Eve sinned against God, became ashamed of their nakedness (read weakness and vulnerability), and tried to hide themselves from the only One who fully knows them and truly loves them. Instead of walking with God in the cool of the day, they began to feel incredibly awkward around him because of their shame. 

    But then the Lord finds them. And instead of shaming them, he covers their shame. He takes animal skins and gets them dressed. He doesn’t reject them, but embraces them. Because by His standards, all of us are awkward. And the Lord loves awkward people, because there will never be any other kind.  

    Again, Adam Kotsko puts it well: “Social orders arise and perhaps evolve and eventually fall, but awkwardness will endure as long as we remain human because it is what makes us human. What Ricky Gervais and Judd Apatow point toward…is an awkwardness so awkward it becomes its own kind of grace - it is the peculiar kind of grace that allows us to break down and admit that we are finally nothing more or less than human beings who will always be stuck with each other, and, more importantly, to admit that we are glad of it.”

    This is the silver lining of awkwardness. It's an invitation to admit you’re nothing more and nothing less than a human being in need of grace. It's an invitation to be vulnerable, which strangely enough is the only way to begin to be rid of shame. It's an invitation to stop pretending you have it all together, and joyfully admit that your hope isn't in your smoothness but rather in the Lord who, judging by his time on earth, loves people who know they're awkward thus keenly feel their need for Him.

  • Our Faith Is Not in Our Faith

    The greatest trick the devil ever played wasn't to convince the world he didn't exist. It was to convince us to have faith in our faith instead of in Christ. To fill us with pride because our faith felt big and bold, at least more so than the next guy's. Or to fill us with despair because our faith felt fragile and frail, like the lone autumn leaf on a tree made bare by winter. All the while keeping our heart from the humble joy that comes from believing, in the words of Spurgeon, the weakest faith still has the strongest Christ. 

    That's why I've always loved this paragraph from Horatius Bonar. He's thinking about an anxious Israelite who isn't sure he performed his sacrifice just right, much like the anxious Christian who's never quite sure she's done enough, or felt enough, or believed enough. Here's what he writes:

    "What should we have said to the Israelite, who, on bringing his lamb to the tabernacle, should puzzle himself with questions as to the right mode of laying his hands on the head of the victim, and who should refuse to take any comfort from the sacrifice, because he was not sure whether he had laid them aright;-on the proper place, in the right direction, with adequate pressure, or in the best attitude? Should we not have told him that his own actings concerning the lamb were not the lamb, and yet that he was speaking as if they were? Should we not have told him that the lamb was everything, his touch nothing, as to virtue or merit or recommendation? Should we not have told him to be of good cheer; not because he had laid his hands on the victim in the most approved fashion, but because they had touched that victim, however lightly and imperfectly, and thereby said, Let this lamb stand for me, answer for me, die for me? The touching had no virtue in itself, and therefore the excellency of the act was no question to come up at all: it simply intimated the man’s desire that this sacrifice should be taken instead of himself, as God’s appointed way of pardon; it was simply the indication of his consent to God’s way of saving him, by the substitution of another. The point for him to settle was not, Was my touch right or wrong, light or heavy? but, Was it the touch of the right lamb,- the lamb appointed by God for the taking away of sin? The quality or quantity of faith is not the main question for the sinner. That which he needs to know is that Jesus died and was buried, and rose again, according to the Scriptures. This knowledge is life everlasting.”

    So remind your condemning heart today that your faith isn't in your hands but in the Lamb. That though your love to Him ebbs and flows like the waves of the sea, His love to you is as constant as the sun by day and the moon by night. Our faith is not in our faith. It's in the One who is ever faithful.

  • The Porn in Our Side

    I’ve never been dumpster diving for groceries, or even furniture for that matter; but I have been dumpster diving for porn. I was 16 at the time. Some friends and I had been playing around at an abandoned high school when we noticed a guy pitching a pile of dirty magazines into the nearby dumpster. We left. But I came back, crawled into the dumpster, fished out 3 or 4 magazines, and hid them safely underneath the front seat of my car. Another man’s trash literally became my treasure. At least for a few weeks, before the shame of it all led me to toss them into another dumpster. 

    You may have noticed the articles floating around Facebook (like this one) over the last several months, talking about the rampant dangers of pornography. They’ve been batted back and forth like a beach ball of shame, at least on my Facebook wall they have. While we can and should keep our eyes open to what porn is doing to us, I want to ask a different question: why do we get addicted to porn in the first place?

    This is where it would be easy to rehearse all the standard answers. Like, “It’s never been more accessible.” True. It’s like being able to get Walter White quality meth straight from your iPhone, then erasing it from ever happening at the touch of a button. Or, “It’s become normalized by our culture.” Fair point. This past semester on our campus a student organization hosted a welcome party where they ate cupcakes and watched porn on the big screen. Let me gently remind you that I don’t live in Los Angeles; I live in the Bible belt, where (sadly) looking at porn is typically a secret you never admit to lest you ruin the family name. 

    What if the answer is simpler without being simplistic? What if it’s as simple as porn feels good because intimacy doesn’t? Woody Allen once famously said, “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.” We could say the same about porn: “Don’t knock porn. It’s sex with someone I don’t have to love.” Porn is synthesized intimacy, which turns out may be even more addictive than crack. We look at porn because we’re afraid of the hard, heartbreaking work of knowing and being known, loving and being loved. 

    As much as I wish I could say that my struggles with porn were confined to high school, sadly I cannot. Like many of us, I genuinely believed that porn was a struggle marriage would fix. The problem with this theory is that if you’re used to meeting your sexual needs yourself, you’re not magically going to start trusting someone else to meet them. Sex, according to the Bible, is a deepening of intimacy, of. In the words of Tim Keller, it’s about making promises with your body that you’ve made with your life. That’s why older translations beautifully say, “Adam knew his wife.” Good sex is fundamentally other-centered. Porn, on the other hand, is fundamentally self-centered. Far from deepening intimacy, it cheapens it, because you don’t really want to know (much less love) the other person at all. 

    Pascal once wrote, “What a vast distance there is between knowing God and loving him.” We could say the same about porn. The problem isn’t that we don’t know what we should do, but that we lack the power to do it. It’s kind of like McDonald’s fries. The guilt you feel after eating them usually outweighs the pleasure you feel while eating them. Yet it’s hard not to eat them, regardless of how many articles your wife sends you about how bad they are for you, or how many names of chemicals you can't pronounce are in them. In the words of Jim Gaffigan, “Your mom has never made anything as delicious as McDonald’s french fries.” Similarly, you’ve probably never had sex as good as porn. Porn is the the McDonald’s fries of sex. You know it’s not real, and you know it's bad for you, but that’s actually part of its attraction. It’s strangely similar to Ian Bogost argument about the McRib: it’s “perversity is not a defect, but a feature.” We're addicted to the unreal because reality is the worst, or at least so we think. 

    19th century English pastor Thomas Chalmers once preached a sermon called “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” (catchy I know). But in his sermon he says something profound:

    “It is seldom that any of our tastes are made to disappear by a mere process of natural extinction. At least, it is very seldom, that this is done through the instrumentality of reasoning. It may be done by excessive pampering - but it is almost never done by the mere force of mental determination. But what cannot be destroyed, may be dispossessed and one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind...Such is the grasping tendency of the human heart, that it must have a something to lay hold of - and which, if wrested away without the substitution of another something in its place, would leave a void and a vacancy as painful to the mind, as hunger is to the natural system.”

    No amount of statistics or studies, or even exhortations will ever be enough to make us stop looking at porn. That’s not how it works. In the words of Brené Brown, “no one can be shamed or belittled into change.” The human heart must have something more satisfying to hold on to. That something is real intimacy; relationships in which we know and are known, love and are loved.

    Sadly most of us don’t believe those two can go together, being fully known and truly loved. But the gospel says not only that they can go together, but that they do. Because the gospel is that Jesus knows you, the real you, with all of your destructive habits and addictions, and that’s the you He really loves. Not the Facebook you, or Twitter you, or dinner party you. The real you. That’s intimacy. And it’s possible in human form too. To have spouses and friends who know you at your worst, yet love you at their best. In a way, marriage does carry the cure for porn. But it’s not sex. It’s real intimacy.

    There’s a scene in the movie 500 Days of Summer that I’ve always loved. Paul, one of Tom’s roommates, is being interviewed about his “dream girl” and he says, “The girl of my dreams would probably have a really bodacious rack. Maybe different hair. She’d probably be more into sports. But truthfully Robin (his girlfriend) is better than the girl of my dreams. She’s real.”

    Porn will always make us feel good for a fleeting moment. But truthfully intimacy is better. It’s real.

  • Awkward Postcard

    As most of you know I work with a campus ministry called RUF at the University of South Carolina and I absolutely love it. Working with college students is literally the best. What other job lets you drink coffee with college students three times a day and talk about their favorite show on Netflix, family baggage, and Jesus (yes, often in that order)? 

    In order to do this we "have to" (my counselor would tell me to say "get to") raise our entire salary and ministry budget however, which is no small task. So to make it a little more fun this Holiday season I'm going to be personally sending an awkard postcard to anyone who makes a donation of any amount. 

    All you have to do is:

    1. Go to www.givetoruf.org and type in "Sammy Rhodes" in the search bar, and with a few more clicks your donation is done.

    2. Forward the confirmation email you receive from RUF to awkwardpostcard@gmail.com

    3. Receive your wonderfully awkward postcard in the mail & feel good about your tax deductible gift to a great organization! 

    Hope you have a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year! I've already had two donuts this morning so I'm off to a good start. Thank your being a blessing to me and my family. 

  • A Social Media Manifesto

    Look up the definition of a manifesto online and you'll find something along the lines of the following: “a written statement that describes the policies, goals, and opinions of a person or group.” This is an attempt at a personal (short) manifesto speaking to our lives online. 

    In the words of Justin Timberlake in The Social Network: “First we lived on farms, then we lived in cities and now we live online.” If this is true (and I think in light of the ever increasing amount of digital interactions, and the ever decreasing amount of face to face ones, it is), then how does one live online well? 

    Here are a few thoughts growing into boundaries and guiding principles in my own online life, shared in no particular order:

    1. Don’t share more online than you share in your real life. We all know someone who's a chronic oversharer online. Many of us have been that person. Why? In her book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown gives us a warning about real vs. false vulnerability. She says, “Boundaryless disclosure is one way we protect ourselves from real vulnerability...vulnerability is bankrupt on its own terms when people move from being vulnerable to using vulnerability to deal with unmet needs, get attention, or engage in shock-and-awe behaviors that are so commonplace in today’s culture.” Don’t be more vulnerable online than you are in real life with real friends.

    2. Real life friends always have priority over online friends. Not every conversation needs to be mined for tweetable nuggets. Not every party needs to be Instagrammed. Not every facial expression needs to be Snapchatted. Most of the time we need to simply put away our phones and BE with our friends. If our online habits are a distraction or a destruction to real life friendships, we need to rethink them. 

    3. Practice empathy in all of your online interactions. This is what made Louis CK’s latest appearance on Conan so genius. He gave the analogy of calling someone fat online vs. to their face, making the point that when you do it online you get all the good parts of how it made you feel minus the hard parts of how it made them feel. If the words of a whisperer are like delicious bites of food going down (Proverbs 18:8), then online comments are like an all you can eat buffet. Never say anything online you don’t first imagine yourself saying to their face. Otherwise you’re just doing pornography but with words. 

    4. Work hard at using social media to enhance your real life, not escape it. Seth Godin provocatively likes to say “Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.” The same applies for the way we do life online. How can we use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. to connect instead of becoming increasingly disconnected? 

    5. Carefully watch your “people I wish I knew” to “people I already know” interaction ratio. This one especially applies to Twitter when your favorite famous person is just an @ away. The danger here is beginning to lose yourself in an attempt to be-“friend” a person (or group of people) you don’t really know. In the words of Jonathan Franzen, “One of the worst things about the internet is that it tempts everyone to be a sophisticate – to take positions on what is hip and to consider, under pain of being considered unhip, the positions that everyone else is taking.” 

    6. Talk about your online life with real life friends. Only your real friends can help you from pulling a Sad Batman. It’s when you have an online alter ego, but instead of fighting criminals you’re fighting for likes and retweets. You need real friends who can loving rebuke and speak into your online presence. You need to have a couple of friends you’re regularly talking to about the temptations and interactions happening in your online life. 

    7. You’re worth far more than your follower count. All the love in the world means almost nothing when it comes from people who know who you are but don’t actually know you. Trust me. If you measure your worth in retweets and likes, favorites and followers, you will never measure up because you’re only as good as your last post. You’ll never be enough. But if you measure your worth by your preciousness to God and a growing nearness to the people who love you, you can rest easy in the knowledge that you are enough for them. They love you for who you are not who you’re trying to be. I’ve always loved the way CS Lewis says it in Prince Caspian: “You come from the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve”, said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth; Be content.”