The Parable of the Candy-Striped Unicorn

By Pastor Brent McDougal

My friend Scott and I sat down at a midway game during the Texas State Fair, the kind where the bell rings and you shoot water at a target as a balloon goes up. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I always have a sense that something important is on the line when I play a game like that. As the bell rang, I quickly established an optimal stream of water on the target and the balloon ascended. There was no way I could lose. 

When the game was over, Scott had won. The prize was a small, candy-striped unicorn, which he quickly gave to his wife, Kristi. 

Even my wife wondered aloud how I had lost. For a moment, I felt less-than. How could I not succeed at such a simple game? For that brief moment, I felt measured and had come up short.

Sometimes I think about what Jesus must have felt like when he came to earth. He left a place of intense communion with God, enjoying perfect love, unending emotional embrace, and the privileges of heaven. I imagine that when he arrived as a baby (what theologians call the incarnation, meaning “to take on flesh”) and started growing up and interacting with humans, even though he got thirsty and hungry and needed rest, his experience was very different from everyone else. He may have looked at the midway game and thought it was just fun, or he may have wondered, “Why do you do this?” He had no regard for the trivial pursuits and worthless prizes that momentarily bring us happiness, or cause us to feel shame when we don’t get them.

He believed in ideas that would have been considered ridiculous at the time, such as turn the other cheek when someone hits you. Love your enemies. If someone wants to take your shirt, give them your coat as well. Do all you can to be at peace with those around you. Love your neighbor as yourself.

He totally disregarded the comparative games of status and wealth, because the prizes that people pursued weren’t worth winning. In every way, he seemed to fail at the kind of life we think matters most.

I recently heard a man say that while he entered the world with nothing and would leave with nothing, he didn’t come into the world alone, and he wouldn’t leave alone. His mom was there are the beginning, along with many relatives. When he died, he anticipated being surrounded by family and friends. He was conveying the idea that life is relational, not consumeristic. 

The incarnation, the heart of Christmas, is about relationship. It’s God’s move toward us with love. 

I believe deep down that if I could learn to fully live in God’s love, allowing God to establish my worth and fill my emotional needs for acceptance and affirmation, I wouldn’t be anxious, chasing cheap prizes. I believe that if all of us knew that love, our world could be reborn.

Scaling the Wall

By Pastor Brent McDougal

A man walked into a sanctuary, among a people who have worshipped a certain way and called on God by the same names for millennia. They entered seeking peace. They closed their eyes and prayed.

But this stranger to the community, someone who would have been welcomed at any other time, felt no peace and was not seeking peace. He only felt hatred — not because these worshippers had done something to him, like wronged his family, or stolen from him — but just because of who they were. They were Jewish, and he blamed the Jews. He hated the Jews. 

I’m really struggling with this question: how could someone have that kind of hatred in their heart and unleash it so violently?

It’s a soul question. I know there’s hatred and selfishness, just as there is love and sacrifice. I know that the tiniest of bitter seeds can grow into something poisonous. So much of hatred stems from disappointment, loss, hopelessness and fear.

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder.” (James 4:1-2a)

So I understand that why hatred exists. But what conditions allow someone to do what he did?

I don’t know much about him, but there are three things of note.

First, he was isolated. “He lived in his own little world,” said one acquaintance. “Pretty much a ghost.” 21 guns were registered in his name, including an AR-15-style assault rifle and three handguns, which he used in the attack. But no one really knew him enough to see that clear warning sign.

“It’s very unsettling knowing all that stuff that was used to hurt those people was on the other side of the wall,” said one neighbor who lived in the next-door apartment. “I didn’t see any signs. I can’t even comprehend that he had that much hate and seemed so normal.”

The second thing to note is that he was filled with anger.

Online, he spewed murderous words. The social media network Gab allowed him to release a storm of anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. He blamed these groups for his misery.

Finally, others encouraged his hatred. Gab participants fanned the flame.

Compared to 2016, the Anti-Defamation League measured a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States last year — incidents that include anti-Semitic literature and graffiti, bomb threats, and actual assaults. Hatred thrives in community, condoned and encouraged.

I don’t know what would have ultimately stopped this man from doing what he did. But I’m struck by the way that he lived: isolated, angry, and encouraged in his malice. His neighbors didn’t think there was a problem, but even if they had, would they have tried to get to know him?

Somehow, we have to get on the other side of the wall to short-circuit a failing, pained life that leads to unbelievable devastation.

What can we do?

First, we need to overcome our social fears and excuses. It’s hard to talk to a neighbor, co-worker or classmate that works hard to keep others out. But we need to pray and try to push through, especially if we have a sense that someone is on the verge of a crisis.

Don’t hear me saying that I am blaming the neighbor. All I am suggesting is that we need reclaim a culture of responsibility for one another. 

Second, we can reject anger, bigotry, and name-calling in print or social media. Disagreement is fine, but most of us have seen how quickly comments in a thread can devolve. At the first sign of vitriol, disengage. I wouldn’t suggest unfriending unless you just have to, because that can lead to further isolation. Stay calm, deescalate, or take a break.

Third, we can positively use our voices. Free speech means that people are entitled to speak their opinions, but not in such a way that incites violence. For Christians, the standard is higher. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29) 

Protest non-violently if that’s how God leads you. Speak life and peace with every opportunity you have. Blessed are the peacemakers — those are the children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

Words matter. They can either tear down the walls that separate or build new ones. They can help us get over walls that seem unscalable.

Somehow we have to get to the stuff — and the person — on the other side of the wall. We have to act — for the sake of the person, your life, and mine.

Blessed Be The Ties That Bind

By Brent McDougal

A patchwork tapestry hangs in our home, a cherished gift to my wife, Jen, that was first created by her great-grandmother. Jen’s grandmother repaired and added to it, as did her mother. Now Jen stitches it back together from time to time and even adds a piece or two, as 100-year-old fabric tends to deteriorate. 

It serves as a generational symbol of diversity and commonality. Its beauty derives from various colors and shapes, but its form depends on the common threads.

Many say in these days of bitter partisanship that we have lost something important. Having grown up in a divided Montgomery, Alabama, I can say that much of what we believe we lost was an illusion. If you think it was so much better 50 years ago or even 25 years ago, ask your black or Hispanic neighbors. 

Even so, there’s a strong sense that America is fraying at the seams. It may be that it all needs to fall apart before it can be stitched back together in a stronger, more beautiful way. But for now, it feels like the fabric is unraveling.

What’s missing? 

The common thread of neighborliness. 

Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s the command second only to loving God with all of one’s being. 

What if Jesus meant our actual neighbors — the people who live on the right and left of us? 

There’s power in this simple teaching, one that can help to mend what’s tearing apart. It can create the social cohesion that we are lacking.

Social cohesion may be defined as “the willingness of members of a society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper.” Societal cohesion deals with the interconnectedness of social relationships to achieve social outcomes. Such factors as inclusion, identity, cultural factors, individual well-being, income equality and social justice all contribute to the success or failure of a society to remain united and flourishing.

United means knit together, and true flourishing is about more than money.  

Researchers in Canada have identified key components necessary to any useful concept of social cohesion. One ingredient is the willingness to get along. Are people willing to cooperate in the array of collective activities that allow a society to survive and prosper? This may include the willingness to help a neighbor with their yard or coach a little league team. Obeying traffic rules, paying taxes — these indicate one’s willingness to cooperate.

There’s a little hope there, at least where I live. I often see soccer coaches loading up the car on a Saturday morning. I see neighbors lending a hand. 

A second essential component is that socially cohesive societies value and celebrate diversity rather than resisting it. A society can have social order but not social cohesiveness. Authoritarian regimes that rail against diversity and promote the values of only a portion of society may appear orderly, but the lack of true cohesiveness will eventually erode order.

Now we’re in trouble. Most people value diversity in principle, but not practice. We’ve given up on school desegregation, opting for neighborhood segregation. We hang out mostly wth people who share our skin color, education, and interests. Plus, some people disproportionately make the rules that others must follow. Like a cast over a broken bone, order can mask a fracture.

Collectively, we have to want to be cohesive. Ironically, cohesion isn’t possible unless we value diversity. Diversity necessitates common threads. 

But what if some people only make room for certain pieces to be included in the American tapestry? What if some people actually desire that we would disintegrate?

One of the most potent responses we can have to the unraveling of America is our recommitment to being good neighbors to one another. 

Followers of Jesus can act counter-culturally by demonstrating love, care and active involvement in the lives of their neighbors, no matter their party, skin color or creed.

Furthermore, we need a revitalization of the neighborhood church. These churches take responsibility for the field has God has called them to work. They don’t try to be the biggest or most popular. Their focus is outward. Their outcomes are harder to measure, because they're focused on messy, beautiful, broken people through long-term relationships. They love God and seek to be good neighbors. 

We’re in the mending business. Our thread is neighborliness. 

So invite a neighbor over to pass out candy for Halloween. Open your Thanksgiving table for the person on your block who seems isolated and alone. Knock on a door and start a conversation. 

You’ll be making something beautiful to pass down for generations. 

Cheers for the Daughters of the King

By Pastor Brent McDougal

Along the Sea of Galilee, the fishing village of Magdala has been excavated in recent years. It was the hometown of Mary Magdalene, the woman out of whom Jesus drove seven demons. She was also a witness to the crucifixion (when most men had run away) and the first one to see Jesus after His resurrection (see Mark 16).

Last year I was with a group that spent some time in the church built at Magdala to commemorate how Jesus called fishermen as His first followers, but also women like Mary Magdalene in the beginnings of His movement.

I spent a few quiet moments by the shore throwing stones into the sea. I imagined what it would have been like to see the bustling fishing town, but also to see Jesus striding in, followed by a group that would have been unimaginable before Him — men and women learning, serving, and experiencing healing together.

We can’t underestimate just how revolutionary Jesus was in His posture toward women. He didn’t treat women as if they second-class citizens or sexual objects. Instead, He called them daughters of the King. He taught women as His followers and called men and women to work side-by-side in the Kingdom of God. His approach toward women was one of equality, dignity and empowerment.

Dorothy Sayers characterized the effect of Jesus' orientation to women in this way:

"Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious.”

Today, I’m feeling thankful for the women who have made a difference in my walk with Jesus.

I’m thankful for my mom and grandmother, who taught me about Jesus and modeled His life.

I give praise for Sarah Shelton, whom I worked with early in my career, for her courage and steady voice even when she was challenged, questioned, and dismissed for her calling to preach.

I’m full of gratitude for the women in my church — the leaders, teachers, servants, organizers, prophets and poets. I’m consistently moved by the women of prayer.

But there is still a long road ahead toward the fullness of Christ’s community.


My friend, Bob Rognlien, was with me at Magdala. He wrote this week, “Unfortunately this revolutionary affirmation of the equality and worth of women got lost as the church became increasingly shaped by society rather than by Jesus' teaching and example…Even in our own era of equal rights for women, the church continues to lag far behind society as a whole in affirming the equal value and importance of women. In countless ways that most male church leaders are woefully unaware of (myself included), the gifts and leadership of women are overlooked or unconsciously devalued, to the detriment of us all.”

How can we be different? What can we do to not overlook, to not devalue, the importance of women? How can we experience more of the rich fellowship Jesus came to create?

First, we cherish. We cherish all children and youth, but in this era, we need to make sure we pay attention to the callings and voices of females. We show value by serving all with dignity, by giving equal leadership opportunities. We show reverence and honor to widows. We treat women as Christ would.

Second, we listen. We ask people to share their experiences. What has been your experience as a female in our society, in our church? What has been painful? How is God calling you? What can we do to help?

Third, we protect. We say clearly that in the life of our fellowship, and inasmuch as we can influence our community, this is the standard: no abuse, no harassment, no patronizing, no objectification, no diminishment.

What Jesus started on those shores of Galilee was like a stone thrown into the waters, with ripples widening out.

He’s still disrupting the waters. He won’t be content until it’s all changed— above and below the surface. He won't rest until every woman and man has an equal place, beloved sons and daughters of the King.

Pick a Card (Not Any Card)

By Pastor Brent McDougal

One of the earliest names for God is really no name at all. When Moses was called to go to Pharaoh to say “Let my people go” (what would become the Exodus), Moses asked, “Who should I say sent me?” God responded, “Tell them I AM sent you.” What kind of name is that?

It speaks to the nature of God beyond description, defying one name. Being. Without beginning or end.

Which leads me to ask: who are you, really? You have a name. People could describe you in various ways. But what is your core identity? How would you complete the phrase, “I AM____”?

A few weeks ago I heard on NPR about a performance in New York called In and Of Itself by an illusionist named Derek Delgaudio. My wife thought I was crazy, but I was so captivated by the show’s concept that I bought a ticket for the next week and caught an early morning flight. 

The performance centered on the idea of identity. How do you see yourself? How do others perceive you?

I entered the theater lobby to see a large board with hundreds of pegs that each held a card that said “I AM” with a distinct phrase below. Each audience member was asked to choose one, but how? The cards stated things like “I AM a leader,” “I AM a freak,” “I AM a heartthrob,” “I AM a dream” and so on. It wasn’t easy to pick just one. My identity (and yours) is so much more than one thing, or what people see. I finally picked a card and took my seat. 

The show was fascinating, but it was the finale that I’ll never forget. Delgaudio said something like, “Each of you chose a card that represents something about who you are. For some of you, it was kind of fun and your choice didn’t mean much. But for others, the choice was really meaningful. If that describes you, stand up right now.” 

About 100 stood up out of 150. One by one, Delgaudio looked people in the eye and stated what they had chosen. “You are a maverick.” “You are an intellectual.” “You are an artist.” I have no idea how he did it. If he was correct, the audience member nodded and sat down. For all 100 people, he named exactly how they saw themselves. Some people were crying. All of us were amazed.

For a long time, he stood before one woman before saying in choked words, “You are a nobody.” That was the card she had chosen, how she saw herself. 

No matter which one word you might choose, know this: no one sees the fullness of you. You’re not God, but you are more than anyone knows. You are a mystery. You are a gift. You are somebody.

Psalm 139:13 says, “God, you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” 

Who are you, really? How you answer that question is crucial, because when you know deep down who you really are, you have a solid foundation to build a life of peace and joy and impact to the glory of God.

Do you know who you are in Christ? Let me remind you who you are today. You are alive with Christ (Ephesians 2:5). You are free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2) You are holy and without blame before him in love (Ephesians 1:4) You have been chosen by God out of the darkness of sin and into the light and life of Christ so that you can proclaim the excellence of who he is. (1 Peter 2:9) You are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, to do good works that he has prepared you to do. (Ephesians 2:10) You are a new creation. (2 Corinthians 5:17) You are an ambassador for Christ. You are the light of the world. You are healed and whole in Jesus. You are a branch and He is a vine through which you receive life.

Know who you are, and then be who you are. Your identity is received, not achieved. It’s something God does, something God speaks over you. It’s not what you earn; it’s what God gives to you. The world is waiting for you to be who you are made to be.