I’m Tired of Moral Gymnastics in the Church

When I was in fourth grade, I started attending a public elementary school, leaving behind the Montessori school that I had known since Preschool. For a shy kid like me, entering the public school system felt like I had stepped into the wild unknown. I didn’t know anyone in my class. I was alone and afraid.

I remember an identity project we did as a class early in the year, a get-to-know-your-classmates exercise. We were asked to create a poster with a brief personal history and a few things we liked. When it was my turn to present, I stood up in front of the class and introduced myself as “Jacob Michael Mailhot” and continued with my presentation. No one batted an eye and nor should they have. To their knowledge, nothing was amiss. My full name is Jacob Michael Ngan Mailhot.

Today, I’m very proud of my second middle name. It’s my mother’s maiden name, and therefore my Chinese family name.  It represents an aspect of my identity that, as a nine year old, I desperately wanted to hide. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to fit in. So I tried to hide my heritage from my new friends, as ridiculous as that might seem. I was denying a public-facing piece of my identity because of its social implications.

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In light of the results of this election, I’m afraid to claim part of my identity again. I’m not afraid to call myself Chinese-American today. I’m ashamed to call myself a Christian. Not because of the values Jesus stands for but because those values are being twisted by the church that represents Him on earth. I don’t claim to have a perfect understanding of everyone’s position, I’m just a imperfect man trying to makes sense out of a broken world. But when four out of five white evangelical voters chose to elect a man who has shown himself to be morally reprehensible, I’m dumbfounded. Those evangelical voters chose to look past his racist, misogynistic, and homophobic rhetoric and instead looked to the promises he made while on the campaign trail. The amount of moral gymnastics some evangelicals went through to justify their support of Trump was astonishing. It breaks my heart to know there are people out there who believe a Trump presidency is a victory for Christianity.

I feel a dissonance in my heart. There is an identity crisis in the church. The second greatest commandment Jesus gave to the church was “to love your neighbor.” But the politicization of the church has led to widespread support of a candidate who has legitimized and normalized expressions of fear and hate. The amount of arrogance, pride, and hypocrisy in the church is sickening. We traded one kind of evil for another and the response has driven people farther and farther away from the church. It often feels like the church is more interested in righteousness than compassion. What happened to the church’s moral authority?

Whether we like it or not, the church is a political entity because its members are part of the polity. We assume that voting for particular candidates or a particular political party will eventually lead to the ratification of Christian morality. This is simply not how the American political system works. Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist and author. He recently wrote a book titled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics where he chronicles the politicization of the American church. (Here’s a talk he gave at Regent College a few years ago based on the book. You should definitely listen to it.) Douthat argues that as the church has grasped for more and more political authority, it has lost all of its moral authority. In the American political system, there will never be a candidate who will align perfectly with Christian values. To engage in the political process, a Christian must make certain moral compromises to rationalize voting for any particular candidate. “This candidate is pro-life, and even though I don’t agree with everything they stand for, they represent the issues I value most.” These types of compromises are a hallmark of democracy—no one candidate can represent every position perfectly. But when the church tries to speak into society from a place of moral authority, these compromises undermine that message.

This crisis in the church isn’t immune to the vast racial, socio-economic, and geographic divisions that are tearing our country apart. The church’s support of Trump is just the latest public outworking of these divisions that have festered beneath the surface for generations. But let’s be clear, a Clinton presidency would not have magically erased these divides either. The cultural and institutional privilege that white evangelicals enjoy is a barrier to showing true empathy and love towards anyone on the outside. But turning inward and separating from society to reconcile these divides isn’t the answer either. Spouting off platitudes like “Jesus is in control” is dangerous and dismissive of the real fears some in the church are feeling.

So where do we go from here?

First, I’d like to apologize on behalf of the church to those who feel marginalized, to those who feel targeted by hate. I’m sorry that the church has misrepresented Jesus to you. I have not forgotten you. I love you. I desperately want to listen to your fears and hopes. I need help to reconcile these divides that have driven us apart.

Second, there are good people in the church doing good things in the name of Jesus, and I’m proud to call them brothers and sisters. Do not stop striving after what is good and right and just in this world. Be encouraged that standing up for those on the margins is exactly what Jesus did and commands us to do.

Third, the church is a broken and beautiful institution. I’m angry and disillusioned with it but I’m not running away from it either. Church, we can do better. We must do better. Reach out to those on the margins. Listen to them. Be compassionate. Show empathy. Do not act out of fear but act out of love for your neighbors, especially when they look, think, or speak differently.

I’m not going to hide from these divides. More than ever, I want to step into the mess to begin this process of reconciliation. I don’t know what that looks like yet. I think it starts with listening and praying.

On the Road with the Mailhots: Day 5

Starting Point: Anaheim, CA
Destination: Disneyland
Miles: 0
Drive time: 0
Hours listened to The Lord of the Rings audiobook: 0
Hours spent at Disneyland: 11
Rides rode: 17

Main Street, USA

Megan’s first ride: Indiana Jones

Halloween Time at Disneyland

Gotta get Dole Whip when you’re at Disneyland

After four long days of driving and a full day at the park, we’re going to take a break for a day and relax.

On the Road with the Mailhots: Day 4

img_2370Starting Point: Sunset State Beach, Santa Cruz, CA
Destination: Anaheim, CA
Miles: 383
Drive Time: 8.5 hours
Hours listened to The Lord of the Rings audiobook: 3 hours, 50 minutes (Finished The Fellowship of the Ring!)

A morning treasure hunt on the beach

 

First stop: Monterey Bay Aquarium.

We spent all of the morning exploring the aquarium. We saw three feedings, penguins, open sea, and kelp forest, and met a very curious octopus.

Big Sur

 

Second Stop: Bixby Canyon Bridge.

This part of the drive was incredible, and if we stopped at every lookout or vista point, we would have never made it to Los Angeles.

Third Stop: Elephant Seal brooding grounds

These guys were so loud and funny, Megan couldn’t stop laughing

Final Stop: Anaheim, CA

We got into our hotel very late but it was worth the excellent drive. Tomorrow: Disneyland.

 

On the Road with the Mailhots: Day 3

Starting Point: img_2325Humboldt Redwood State Park, CA
Destination: Sunset State Beach, Santa Cruz, CA
Miles: 333
Driving Time: 7.5 hours
Hours listened to The Lord of the Rings audiobook: 3 hours, 55 minutes

Waking up on Endor

Highway 1 wound its way inland to the coast. Megan got very car sick because of all the ups and downs and turns. Once we got to the coast it got a little better but we spent most of the morning focused on getting to our first destination rather than taking pictures.

First Stop: Ft. Bragg, CA

Treasures on Glass Beach

Second Stop: Marin Headlands, Marin, CA

Third Stop: Lucasfilm, San Francisco, CA


Final Stop: Sunset State Beach, Santa Cruz, CA

On the Road with the Mailhots: Day 2

img_2290-1Starting Point: Newport, OR
Destination: Humboldt Redwood State Park, CA
Miles: 345
Drive time: 7 hours
Hours listened to The Lord of the Rings audiobook: 5 hours, 4 minutes

South beach, Newport, OR

A morning stroll on the beach

Cape Perpetua

First Stop: The Sea Lion Caves

The largest sea cave in the world

We made it to California

Megan’s first California beach

Final stop: Humboldt Redwood State Park

Driving through Endor on my speeder bike


On the Road with the Mailhots, Day 1

img_2250Starting Point: Bellingham, WA
Destination: Newport, OR
Miles: 401
Drive time: 8.5 hours
Hours listened to The Lord of the Rings audiobook: 6 hours, 26 minutes

 

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Road trip selfie!

First stop: Astoria, OR

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The Astoria waterfront

Second Stop: Cannon Beach, OR

Megan’s good friend from Alaska (who moved to Tennessee) happened to be at Cannon Beach at the very same time we were driving through. We couldn’t pass up a chance to reconnect and walk on the beach.

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Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, OR


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Manzanita coast line

Third stop: Tillamook, OR

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Yummm! Carmel Butter Pecan on top, Pumpkin Cookie Batter on bottom

Final stop: Newport, OR

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Ultimate Breakfast for dinner

We arrived at our first campground–we’re staying in a yurt!–and cooked dinner by headlamp and lantern. A quick game of Settlers of Catan rounded out the night.

 

Picturing Scripture: From Inspiration to Reality

A few months ago, I was asked to contribute to a new project at work called Picturing Scripture. The idea was to create a coffee table book out of the incredible Bible Verse of the Day art pieces our design group had been creating. To accompany each image, a short devotional would be written. The art was inspired by the Word, and in turn, inspired new words.

I was asked to contribute five pieces of writing to the project. We had a list of one hundred verses and their accompanying images to choose from. Because this project was all about inspiration—word to art, art to word—I wanted to give some behind-the-scenes insight into each of my pieces.

Psalm 8:1

When at our most vulnerable, we might look at the stars and think about how small the Earth really is. We’re just a tiny speck of dust amid billions of stars. Unrelenting, powerful forces of nature speed us along in a chaotic dance through the cosmos…


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I wrote these pieces right after seeing Interstellar and writing this blog post. The imagery evoked in this piece of art struck the same emotional chords that the film had stirred up. The complex systems that govern the physical world are unfathomable and their creation can only be attributed to a higher power. In the grand scheme of things, we’re but a tiny speck amid a sea of black. I wanted to evoke those same feelings of smallness while still ending on an encouraging note. What is more encouraging than knowing the creator of this vast and chaotic sea desired a personal relationship with his creation.

John 21:12

There’s something deeply intimate about sharing a meal together, but coming together around a table to eat is so common that we often overlook its significance…

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With Thanksgiving right around the corner, this devotional seems very apt. This is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. I love that Jesus simply wants to share a meal with his friends upon seeing them for the first time after his resurrection. Breakfast no less. One of the things I miss most about college is the shared meals I enjoyed. No matter what time of day, I could count on finding at least two or three people to eat with. I think that’s one of the reasons why those friendships are strongest, and will last the longest.

James 3:7–8

…Yes, sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can break our hearts…

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The imagery in this piece was very striking—a razor edge to a speech bubble. I loved playing off that familiar school yard rhyme. My wife was actually the one who inspired this image of the heart, mind, and mouth all connected. I remembered a sermon she gave a few years ago and that circular connection between these three parts stuck with me ever since. I wasn’t very happy with the end of this one. After some fun wordplay and an image that drew you deeper into the idea, I felt like it ended with a whimper. If only I had a few hundred more words.

1 Peter 5:8

Every day we’re bombarded by things vying for our attention. Even our best attempts to focus on the things that matter are drowned out by the cacophony surrounding us, a roar as loud as a lion…

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Entirely by coincidence, I happened to choose the only two verses with references to lions in them. As a symbol, lions have a wealth of concepts associated with them. For this verse, the lion was a hunter, dangerous and relentless. There are no natural predators we have to worry about today so I chose to focus on the man-made dangers that prowl our society. In the end, I allude to the encouragement Peter gives just a few verses later to combat these ills.

Revelation 5:5

…The kingdom is here and the kingdom is coming! Aslan is on the move.

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The second of my two lion verses, this one takes the opposite approach to the lion as a symbol—the regal, majestic creature at the head of the animal kingdom. Too often, Revelation is portrayed as a wild, prophetic end to the biblical story. Yes, it can be weird at times, but it’s also an incredible vision of victory and celebration. I wanted to shout those feelings of victory to drown out everything else. And I couldn’t help but slip in a reference to the most famous messianic lion in literature.

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The first print run of Picturing Scripture is currently being funded on Kickstarter. See how art and word paired together can inspire your devotional life.