39 thoughts on marriage after 39 years

Every year for the past few, Donna and I have taken a few moments around the time of our anniversary to reflect on why we’re still happy, still in love, still feeling blessed.  We’re happy to share our discoveries with you.  In a time when the very notion of lifelong commitment is viewed cynically, we believe more strongly than ever, that real and abiding love is possible.  Far from perfect, we nonetheless still enjoy our marriage a great deal, and so offer these 39 thoughts after 39 years.  (We both wrote this and in many cases you’ll know whose writing a particular thought, but not in every case)

 

  1. We’re both youngest, and I’ve read relationships between two youngest are very challenging.  From the world wide web:

    Worst match for a lastborn: Another lastborn

    Two lastborns in a relationship is chaos. Lastborns have a tendency to get into financial trouble in a marriage, and it takes a lot of extra effort in this kind of relationship to work through who pays bills, who cleans up, who takes care of the social calendar, etc. If no firm decisions are made, lastborn pairs can quickly get into a lot of trouble.

    According to Leman, lastborns have a built-in tendency to pass the buck. So if both partners are hellbent on blaming each other for everything, that’s not going to end well.

    Whatever.  Turns out these dire predictions were all rubbish in our case, so don’t believe everything you read on the internet – some things just incite fear and anxiety.  Love wins.

  2. She’s on at night.  I’m on in the morning. As a result, the best times for discussion are neither of those times.
  3. We don’t share any letters in the Meyers Briggs test.  Sometimes that’s annoying, but most of the time, we’ve come to see it as an asset.
  4. Our shared passion is the outdoors, and having a shared passion has been valuable.
  5. When we hike or ski, I go slower when we’re together than I would alone.  This too is a good thing.
  6. Donna pays attention to 10,000 details, and this frees me up to pay attention to big ideas, big projects, and long term vision.  It seems like a match made in heaven.
  7. If there’s going to be a difficult conversation and one of us doesn’t have the energy for it, we don’t just defer to “later”  – we set a time for the discussion.
  8. We know each other’s “Love Languages” and try to use them.
  9. We know each other’s sexual comfort zones and desires and try to honor both.
  10. We are profoundly independent in many ways, each of us having full lives apart from the other.  That’s served us well.
  11. In that same vein, my travels for work almost always intensify my appreciation of our marriage.
  12. I believe that marriage requires a commitment to help the other person become the best version of themselves they can be.  This requires not only affirmation and encouragement, but hard conversations.
  13. My wife is, without even a close second, my best friend.
  14. Knowing that she’s for me has made our marriage a place of grace where it’s easy to confess.
  15. I affirm her gifts as often as I can.
  16. Donna has her own chain saw.
  17. We encourage each other in our own unique areas of giftedness rather than competing with them.
  18. We’re quick to laugh at our own mistakes.
  19. Richard loves to cook and I love to clean up so we make a great team in the kitchen.
  20. Know the social limits of your spouse and respect them. Don’t force introverts beyond their limits.
  21. Celebrate positive habit changes with gratitude rather than an exasperated “Finally!”
  22. Desperately try to see issues from their perspective. This is crucial to empathy.
  23. Remember that you’re on the same team. True in parenting as well as marriage.
  24. “Please” and “Thank you” are always in order, no matter how long you’re married.
  25. Never ask the question “Do these jeans make me look fat?”
  26. Be willing to try new things, new foods, or new activities with an open mind. It’s ok to not like it but not until you’ve given it an honest effort.
  27. Remind yourself of the qualities that drew you to him/her back in the beginning and celebrate them.
  28. Share in the decision-making. No dictatorships in marriage.
  29. Let her purchase her own power tools. (Kitchen appliances don’t count.)
  30. Emailing product links for gift ideas is perfectly fine (preferred, actually.)
  31. Recognize that some days you’re not that easy to live with either.
  32. Snuggling is better than television, reading, sports, crafts, cleaning, computers, social media, work, eating, etc.
  33. Remember why you married.  In my case it was because she gave the freedom to fail, had a great sense of humor, and would live anywhere in the world.  Two out of three are still true, but I think we’ve both married the Pacific Northwest and called it home ’til the end.
  34. Don’t insist your devotional life be the same.  Find what works for each of you and share what you’re learning over tea, or coffee.
  35. Find a way to laugh together, if possible every day
  36. If at all possible, and it usually is, pay off your credit completely each month.
  37. Discuss major purchases over a set amount before buying
  38. Value simple timeless things over stuff:  conversation, candles, campfires, walks, starlight, and falling snow are cheaper and better than most movies, concerts, and sporting events.  Not all…. but most.
  39. Don’t buy into the lie that monogamy is over-rated.  There’s still something to be said for remaining faithful, forgiving, telling truth, and growing old together.

Your “Sphere of Influence” is calling and You must go

As happens every September, there’s a feeling of newness in the air.  It’s not just the crisp morning air and footballs flying, it’s a returning from the unusual syncopations of summer activities to the more rhythmic routine of autumn. I’ve returned from vacation this year particularly refreshed and focused, and for particular reasons.  I’ve watched with growing concern as America has become increasingly polarized politically, so much that our fragmentation is becoming, more than either party’s ideology, the biggest present threat to our future.

The church hasn’t been immune to this polarizing.  We’ve mirrored the culture’s political tribal hatred, enough so that it’s increasingly rare to find people of differing political parties willing to worship together, let alone dialogue about their differences.  We then add theological layers to the debate, elevating particular ethical issues to the status of litmus tests for fellowship, while knowing full well that there are good people who love Christ and hold to a high view of scripture who hold the opposite view.  But for too many, that fact is of no consequence as they withdraw from fellowship because of “those people”.

Toss in a healthy dose of #METOO, courtesy of a NY Times article regarding a well known evangelical church, and an ever expanding sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and I find myself, on my worst days, wanting to pull out completely.  John Muir said, “The mountains are calling and I must go…”.   I hear them calling too but there are two phrases, each different than Muir’s, that keep me coming to work, day after day, as I soon enter what will be my 24th year of ministry in the same place.

1. The mountains are calling and I want to go…  Of course I do.  My wife and I enjoyed our first dates on hikes and snowshoeing.  The mountains are reminders for us of so much that is true and life giving:  our smallness in the light of eternity – God’s grandiose generosity and immense creativity – glimpses, in the majesty of mountains, abundance of waters, beauty of wildlife, silence of a starry night, of life as it should be:  glorious, peaceful, interdependent, thriving.  Yes, I’ll keep getting out:  for morning runs, sabbath hikes, photography meditation walks, ski tours, and more.  I need to read God’s other book, the book of creation, as much as I need to read the Bible.  Maybe you do too.

But it’s also true that….

My sphere of influence: develop leaders and invite people to body/soul/spirit wholeness

2. My sphere of influence is calling, and I must go.  Sphere of influence is a little phrase I picked up decades ago in one of the best books I’ve ever read.  The author spoke of our sphere of concern, things about which we care, but are outside our control.  We care about politics, climate change, health care, increasing urban density in Seattle, the lazy employee on our team at work, the senior management that are incompetent, etc.  But many of these things, for most of us, are well outside our authority to fix.  Of course for some of them we can vote on, and perhaps if we’re motivated, we can and should organize as well, or do something more dramatic.  But what we shouldn’t do at all is spend time worrying, complaining, lamenting, gossiping, grumbling, whining, posting social media grenades, or being vexed, if it’s a matter outside our direct sphere of influence.  If we do we’ll be paralyzed, overcome with worry, and ultimately feel like disempowered victims.  Does that sound familiar to you?  Increasingly, the Victim card is the most popularly played card in the game of life.  But it’s often misguided and disempowering.

It’s far better for me to focus on my sphere of influence.  I’ve developed a personal mission statement, which I’ll share in the next blog post.  My goals come out of this statement, and my to do list, at my best, comes out of these goals.  That way, no matter what’s going on in Syria or Washington DC, I needn’t succumb to the anxiety, fear, anger, and hand wringing that is the soil out from which our current cultural crises are being born.  Instead, I can follow the advice of Paul when he prayed that his friends would “live a life worthy of God’s calling…”.

Be faithful on your path because nobody else can!

My commitment to you:

I have a goal this fall of using this blog  as a means of encouraging you to define, refine, and excel in your calling.  I’ll write about finding your gifts, writing your own mission statement, and developing a set of core values by which to live.  YOU CAN HELP in this process by engaging with the material, subscribing (see below), and sharing the posts you like with your friends.

I’m asking you to share the material because my hope and prayer is that more and more people will step away from the negative and cynical culture wars, disempowering victim mentalities, and disengaged cynicism, and instead live fully into their callings to be people of hope in this very difficult time.  Will you join me on the journey?

O Lord Christ…

With each headline we sense a vast machine at work, destroying some things we hold dear, no matter our party, even as those operating the machinery do so in the name of preservation.  Forgive our fears, our cynicism, our anger – all of which have blinded us to the seminal truth that each of us have a place in this world: gifts to use; neighbors and children and enemies to love; our own souls to nurture toward wholeness; joy to impart.  May we get on with it, each of us, in our spheres of influence, doing whatever our hands find to do, with all our might.  And we’ll thank you for the joy, and privilege, and adventure of it – in Jesus name.

Amen

Hungry for a Tribe – musings on isolation and consumerism

A recent New York Times article (you can find the link over on my twitter account @raincitypastor) describes the gnawing hunger our culture has for belonging to a tribe, and how those longings are fulfilled in a tribe.   This longing has led to an explosion in self-help podcasts on all manner of subjects ranging from the development of morning rituals, to cold showers, meditation, and coffee made of mushrooms.

What’s going on?  Why does Joe Rogan have 30 million podcasts downloads each month?  And, more cogent to this blog and my own musings: “What needs are being met in the plethora of self-help broadcasts that the church is failing to meet?  Should the church be meeting these needs?  How?”

My observation:  In contrast to our longings for community, our consumer culture isolates and leads to paralyzing confusion.

C.S. Lewis postulates in “The Great Divorce” that hell is that place where we get whatever we want, but the result of having our particular consumerist desires met is that we become isolated.  In our zeal to build a customized life, we find ourselves increasingly isolated.   Rituals that once bound people together, such as church attendance, prayer groups, or whatever have fallen on hard times (for reasons I’ll address next).  The result is isolation and confusion.  I’m alone, and I don’t know what to do in order to live better.

Along come podcasts which call people to what are offered as life giving rituals.  Whether it’s morning meditation, fasting until lunch, or a daily cold shower, purveyors of ‘primal wisdom’ are calling people to rituals.   The value of rituals are that I now “know what to do” because someone has offered a prescription of practices that lead to life.

Second, I now have a community, if only  virtual, who share my values.   These podcasters have, in other words, tapped into a need that the church, long ago, stopped meeting.

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

My Proposals

#1 – Elevate the Value Of Rituals – in past eras of the church, the pervasiveness of  consumerism, individualism, wealth disparity, and nationalism, gave rise to a counter response called “monasticism”.  They became “The Desert Father’s” or “The Benedictines” or “The Celtic Church” which thrived beyond the structures of the Roman Empire, or the “Confessing Church” in Germany during the rise of the Reich.  All these communities called people to various rituals of prayer, fasting, Bible Reading, service, and more.

I will continue to work at this in the church I lead.  I’ve written a book  in order to help people develope “Rule of Life” rituals.   I wrote this because the hyper-individualism and consumerism that is American Evangelical Christianity is horribly ineffective.   Perhaps, in our desire to make faith accessible, we’ve lowered the bar so close to the ground that self-denial, rituals, or challenges regarding the use of our time, money, or bodies never happen.  The result of this is that we end up with nothing to offer or nothing to say.   As a result, the church has been relegated to the dust bin of irrelevance for an increasing percent of the population.

Here’s how The NY Times article suggests that these podcasts are filling the gap:

Don’t dismiss the podcast bros merely as hucksters promoting self-help books and dubious mushroom coffee. In this secularized age of lonely seekers scrolling social media feeds, they have cultivated a spiritual community. They offer theologies and daily rituals of self-actualization, an appealing alternative to the rhetoric of victimhood and resentment that permeates both the right and the left. “They help the masses identify the hole in the soul,” Karli Smith, 38, a fan who lives in Tooele, Utah, told me. “I do feel the message is creating a community.”

To the extent that the church can once again elevate and create a culture where faith has particular practices, and to the exten that the practices offer a real path to wholeness and transformation, the church’s light might once again begin to shine.

#2 –  Stop behaving like Gnostics; Recover the Body – These podcasts, for all their flaws, are seeking to speak to the whole person.  Meditation.  Cold Showers.  Mushroom Coffee.  Finding your tribe.  Serving others.

Wow.  It’s clear to me that an appeal of podcasts is their capacity to address the whole person – spirit, soul, and body.  It’s not that I agree with everything offered (“Mushroom coffee?  Really?”).   The reality though, is that God cares about the whole person, and too often the church doesn’t.  The church’s failure to address the whole person is central to why so many are leaving the church.   Paul prayed that we’d be “set apart” and “made whole” in every way: spirit, soul, body.

I’m presently working on developing a discipleship pathway that addresses the whole person.  Such a pathway must include not only practices of prayer and generosity for the spirit, but doing soul work related to our brokenness so that our time use, money use and relationships all move toward wholeness.  Finally, we must also address the body work related to sleep, exercise, and making wise food choices.

What would it look like if God’s people were functionally tribes of people (called churches) committed to life transforming practices that will empower people to serve and bless the world out from a place of ongoing movement toward wholeness?  Such a church would shine as light in the midst of darkness, would become food in the midst of people hungry for meaning, belonging, wholeness, and ritual.  We hunger for these things because God has placed ‘eternity in the hearts’ of all people!  Thanks be to God that our world is hungry.  It’s high time we begin building cultures that become the food we’re meant to be.

I welcome your thoughts…

 

The Sacred Art of Unlearning

My granddaughter moved in a few weeks ago.  O yeah – my daughter and son-in-law moved in too, but I’m writing about my granddaughter because I was utterly surprised by her.  I knew she’d be here, but had no idea how much she’d teach me because I’d forgotten about being a child.  We bonded quickly and though I’m aware that I write shielded from the hard 24/7 work of discipline, care, and nurture that is parenting, I’m nonetheless seeing this small child, I believe, through a different lens now than the lens through which I saw my own children decades ago.  Maybe its because I’m at a stage of life where I’m less driven.  Maybe I’m a little softer now.  I don’t know.  I only know that my time with my granddaughter sweeps away some things in me that need sweeping away so that I can once again learn what it means to have ‘faith like a child’.

I hope that by sharing some things I’m learning, you too can enjoy a little refreshment.

Cultivate Curiosity – “What’s that?” is the phrase I’m hearing most these days.  Luci will point at any item in the house and ask.  She knows what she doesn’t know, and strangely, that’s a fundamental precondition for learning and knowing anything.  One of the problems with adulthood in general is that once we’ve developed a capacity to find our way through the maze that is daily living, we’re at risk of functionally becoming “zombies”; not literally of course, but in the sense that we’re falling far short of the kind of humans we’re created to be.  Instead of overflowing with delight, gratitude, and deep engagement in the moment, we’re stuck inside our heads with anxiety, fear, regret, shame, judgements, and obsession with our appetites.

We all need to re-cultivate curiosity, but none need it more than the political and religious fundamentalists of any denomination or party.  Matthew Perry, a journalist and atheist, wrote an article entitled “Africa Needs God” in which he declares that his travels in Africa revealed that, “Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.”

I wish this was true among Christ followers in America, but instead we’re predominantly listening for keywords so that we can put people in bins.  I just read that all democrats are “haters”, just as I read that all republicans are “blind,” (a charge also brought against democrats).  Don’t even get me started about the mudslinging generalizations tossed at churches by churches.  If someone doesn’t use the right word to describe the authority of the Bible or have the wrong view of who gets to be a church member, or a different view of baptism, or the meaning of what happened on the cross, or whatever, they get a label and presto!  You don’t need to learn anything from them anymore.

When did we become only turf defenders, judging those who view the world differently?  When we allowed curiosity to dry up?  Listen!  We have nothing to fear by asking questions, nothing to fear by holding our convictions with an open hand.  This is because Jesus is “the truth” and so if we’re seeking truth, then we’ll find it – eventually.  But seekers of truth operate under the presupposition that they don’t have all the answers, and that even some of the answers they hold might just need a bit of adjusting.

We’re in drought season when it comes to the matter of humble curiosity.  Children can help us unlearn our arrogance and start learning again.

Enjoy Helping –  As I was packing for my speaking trip this past week, Luci was with me so I handed her my tech cords and asked her to put them in my backpack.  She was finished in seconds and asked, “What else goes in your backpack?” And thus began a half hour of my granddaughter helping me pack, and talking about airplanes.

When did we grow up and begin viewing help as a burden, or a privilege we dole out while patting ourselves on the back?  It happened, ironically, to the extent that we became insecure in our identity, because the people who give generously to their last breath are people who know they are full.  They know they’ve received much, and so find it both a privilege and delight to give much.  What’s more, like Luci, people who serve do so as a means of bonding with people.  The task isn’t unimportant, but it’s very secondary to the relationship.  Luci wants (to my utter delight) to be with me!

There’s a delight in relationship that trumps task and this becomes the culture in which service can grow.

Laugh – while we were sitting together watching the World Cup final, Luci brought out a quartet of tiny stuffed animals, all from the Winnie the Pooh collection.  I tossed one at her and it hit her on the head.  She burst into laughter so I threw another, and another, and another, until all four were on the floor.  When she stopped laughing for two seconds she picked them up and tossed them at me.  I caught them and threw them back, not ‘to’ her, but ‘at’ her, and soon she was on the floor laughing more, and more and more.

I don’t think I’d laughed that hard in real life for a quite a while because, you know, adulthood.  Plans.  Goals.  Aches and pains.  Fears and regrets. Investments.  Properties.  Retirement.  Health Insurance.  Politics…and a host of other things that steal our capacity to find joy in the moment.   The serious business of living.

Really?  How about we become like children again and live out from a posture of trust? “Faith like a child” is what Jesus called it, and when we live like that, we’re less worried about the future, less shamed over our past, and as a result, more completely in the moment.

Addressing Poverty – one by one by one by one

In the wake of the recent head tax hysteria in Seattle, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mother Teresa’s famous quote about poverty. Answering the question “Which is the poorest nation on earth?” in a very Mother Teresa-like manner, she said, “Yes, yes, yes. I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering. Everywhere I go people tell me of their hardships and struggles, and ask for help, and I give what I can. But of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America.” Somewhat shocked, the reporter informed Mother Teresa that America was one of the richest countries and questioned how it could be the poorest. “Because,”,she replied, “America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.”

This relates to the head tax, and to the liberal dream that money and programs can eventually solve homelessness.  Money, the increasing divide between the rich and poor, the disappearing middle class, and cost of health care are all, as the left  points out, contributing factors to the present and increasing crisis. I, for one, agree.

But the left often seems blind the fact that a strong social network and strong family ties are even more foundational.  When these are in place, individuals in crisis are offered a web into which they might fall, giving their lives a resiliency, emotional strength, and confidence that they are loved. These things, believe me, go a long way in mitigating a myriad of social problems, including homelessness. To believe that addressing all the real problems in the above paragraph without naming the demise of family networks as a scourge is pure folly. The elephant in the room is that we suffer from a depth of relational poverty that isolates, leaving people without the safety net that first and foremost should is the purvue of healthy family systems.

Normalize divorce, encourage endless consumerism in the name of economic growth, steal childhood from young lives by hiring phones and iPads as babysitters, substitute “staying married” for “intimacy,” allow political divides to make family members enemies, toss in a good dose of hypermobility, stay too busy to visit family, raise your children with manipulation to fulfill your unmet ambitions, and presto – you have the recipe for isolation. Isolation is a factor in addictive behavior, which itself becomes an employment factor, and a factor in domestic violence. Can you see the storm arising? The results are people living on the streets who are cut off from family, victims of domestic violence, or opioids, or foreclosure.

You could buy a house for everyone on the streets, but until you address the all the factors that elevate hyper-individualism to the status of an idol, homelessness will continue to mature into an economic pandemic.

The good news is that there’s plenty each of us can do to shine as light in the midst of this dark problem.

1. Recognize the value of family ties. I just returned from speaking at a camp in the coastal redwoods where my grandma was a cook. Every time I’m there, I need to tell the guests to whom I’m speaking that this place is holy ground for me, because when I was a child it was literally the safest place on earth for my young soul. I still have memories of gramdma’s delight as she picked me up, hugged my little four-year-old body and delightedly cried, “Welcome!  We’re so glad you’re here.” The ensuing days as a child where filled with the scent of redwoods and cinnamon rolls, coastal air and bacon. There was laughter, storytelling, rock skipping at the creek, sand castle building in Santa Cruz, and a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Last week, I went and sat outside her still-standing house and could nearly see the ghosts of my whole family, laughing, reading, resting. Heaven on earth.

Her legacy is why I’m so delighted that my oldest daughter, her husband, and my granddaughter are living with us.  I hope and pray that when little Luci is 60, she’ll look back on her time in the fir forest east of Seattle as a safe place, a little heaven on earth. We’ll watch World Cup together, toss a ball, roast hot dogs on a campfire, wade in Coal Creek across the street, maybe even sleep under the stars a night or two.  Hopefully she’ll learn, not by preaching, that people who love God also love people, laugh a lot, are curious, and love the world God has made.

The notion that any program will ever be able to create that is rubbish. Yes, by all means we need to care for the current generation living on the streets and provide both food and compassion. But if we take the long view, we’d be wise to also elevate the value of healthy marriages, of enough time for hugs and freshly cooked food, of family systems where truth and grace and prevail. These, though, are moral issues, solvable only by saying there are things we can value that increase the odds of making families healthier.

2. Name values – and the greatest of these is love. I’ll forever declare that healthy marriages aren’t made by people “staying together” because “the Bible says so.”. Rather, healthy marriages require love, and love requires vulnerability and truth-telling, confession and forgiveness, mutual servanthood, and time, and energy.  I’ll forever declare that sexual intimacy belongs in covenant relationships, that sex isn’t just a form of recreation, that “serial monogamy” is destroying the possibilities of real intimacy, even as evangelical shaming does the same.

This brings me to the next important observation which is that, when our values differ among family members regarding sexuality, money, politics, or any other divisive thing, love needs to win.  You don’t disown your children because they don’t share your view. You don’t spend your meals together endlessly trying to convince the other party. You have the conversation once, or once in a while; never proportionally more than spice to the omellete. Life’s too short for that kind of hostility, and it’s not the way of Jesus.

3. Practice hospitality. The couple in this picture came up to me at the camp where I spoke and told me that they were the “young kids” on staff when my grandma was the cook in the early 60’s.  “We loved your grandma,” he said. “They were hospitable!”  Another old man at the conference told me he was single when he arrived at Mount Hermon and that my grandma had the only TV in the area in the early 60s.  “She invited all the single people over on New Year’s Day for pancakes, the Rose Parade, and the Rose Bowl.” Yes. Food. Sport. And a welcoming home.

We can and must address acute social problems. But we cannot, and must not, kid ourselves into thinking that money solves the most glaring poverty on the planet – the relational poverty that comes from thinking individualism and more stuff can solve all problems.  One of the best things you and I can do in the wake of our multiple national crises is embody the values that make for strong social networks and strong families.

Silence, Suicide and the folly of our “left vs right” polarization

The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy… but I have come that they might have life!  – Jesus the Christ

Some weeks feel darker than others, exposing the confusion, despair, and unanswered questions that are always there.  Usually we can distract ourselves with a good IPA, maybe a little recreation, or a cheer for our team.  But when Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade both commit suicide, our surface pursuits are stripped away, for a few moments at least, and we’re reminded that no amount of travel, wealth, fame, or physical comfort, can assure us of a sense that life’s worth living.

Each untimely loss is tragic, but the fame of these two not only creates a breadth of grief, it highlights the untidy reality that suicide rates are on the rise, dramatically.  45,000 take their own lives each year, twice the number as deaths by homicide.  It’s the 2nd leading cause of death among the 15-34 demographic.  As a pastor I know the devastation it leaves behind and can tell you its like no other.

We’re fools if we don’t pause, at least for a moment, to acknowledge that the world we’ve created isn’t working very well.  When you add gun violence, death as the byproduct of addiction, and untimely death as the byproduct of our inability to access medical treatments into the mix, the picture becomes even darker.

It’s at this point in my writing that I get frustrated these days.  I know that if I talk about the systemic problems of our culture’s obsession with personal freedom, some on the right will label me a liberal anti-Christian.  When I offer the truth that, no matter how unjust one’s circumstances, no matter how bleak one’s situation, there’s a hope and healing, in Christ, available to every person, without cost, I’ll be labelled a religious fanatic by some on the left.   The need for systemic change and the call to individual responsibility/opportunity have somehow become adversaries in this highly polarized world.   We’re polarized, shooting each other over either/or straw men erected by ministries and political parties desperately in need of the “other” to be vilified.

But meanwhile, a world class chef, whose travel and friendships seemed exemplary to most of us, commits suicide.  A couple stuck in poverty and wracked with health challenges poison themselves by lighting their BBQ in their bedroom letting their cats out while they choke on carbon monoxide.  Another young gay man commits suicideTo the theological left, who believe these problems are systemic, and to the right, who believe the problems are personal, I offer the same answer:  yes.  

In a world of death, Christ makes the audacious claim that he has come to give “life for the ages” to anyone who’ll turn to him.  This is the promise of a personal transformation, whereby our spirits are united with the resurrected Christ, so that we’re empowered with wisdom, grace, strength, joy, and peace that is beyond our capacity to realize on our own. “Jesus is the answer” has powerful truth in it.  There are people, around the world, whose faith in Christ fills them with a vibrancy and joy that can only be described as otherworldly.  I’ve seen this with my own eyes on every continent: Tibetan refugees filled with joy in spite of losing their homeland, survivors of the Rwandan genocide with broad smiles speaking of the power of Christ to reconcile, families trapped in systemic poverty finding strength in worship and generosity – in each case, people whose lives have been transformed by Christ radiated a joy that was beyond comprehension. Yes, the people on the theological right are on to something.  A personal relationship with Jesus makes a difference, which should come as no surprise, since Jesus spoke of it himself.

On the other hand, Rwandans do work for systemic change.  Victims of the #metoo movement who’ve found power in Christ also work to change the culture so that sexual predation doesn’t continue to steal childhoods, and livelihoods, and dignity.  Brian Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy,” powerfully articulates the reality that the fulness of God’s vision for humanity includes not only inward renewal, but systemic change – that lynching is not OK, nor restricting voting rights for certain classes, nor any of a host of other oppressive tactics that scar our national story.  It’s no good calling the oppressed “other” to simply be born again while closing our hearts to their needs for justice right here – right now.  Jesus didn’t say, “I was hungry and you gave me a sermon…”  Yes – the people on the theological left are also on to something:  Systems need changing, and they need changing in Jesus’ name.

So why, in God’s name, are we shooting each other, hating each other, arguing with each other, and defending our limited understanding of issues? Meanwhile, the world continues to reel as the systemic principalities and powers, and the personal sins of each human conspire to create a world that is so dark, so hopeless, so disturbing, that the number of people choosing to exit early is rising rapidly enough that suicide is now officially declared a public health crisis.

Would to God that this becomes a wake up call to churches everywhere.  There’s a meaning crisis behind the health crisis that is suicide – and the church would do well to demonstrate the power of Christ to fill human hearts with meaning, hope, and contentment – while at the same time prophetically investing its voice and strength in addressing systemic issues of poverty, lack of access to health care, school shootings, racism, and sexism that are choking our vitality.

We need the Jesus who says “come unto me all you who labor and are weighed down…and I will give you rest” as much as we need the Jesus who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind” all because God’s good reign has arrived through Jesus.  

Kierkegaard wrote “Either-Or” in 1843.  Maybe my next book should be “Both-And” because one thing I know for certain.  Shooting each other, and over-identifying our faith with particular political parties is simply not working.

 

 

The Collapse of Everything, and Why it’s a Source of Hope

I’m on holiday today, and went hiking, which can be an exciting activity during spring in the Cascades.  I begin my ascent at 1900’ and over the course of three miles climb to 3800’ before a slight descent down to my mountain lake destination.  There’s not a hint of snow until I get close the lake, but then the trail crosses several avalanche chutes still filled with snow debris from a wild winter.  Avalanche chutes are stripped bear of any trees so this means I’m crossing snow that has warm rock just beneath the surface, which means that I’m walking on snow bridges, often of unknown strength.  The snow’s been melting out from the bottom up so that the thickness of the snow can vary from a foot or more to less than an inch.  Add in the fact that the strength of said bridge varies not only by it’s depth, but by it’s temperature, and suddenly walking across these bridges can feel like you’re playing Russian roulette with every step.

Plunge your pole, hard, into the place you anticipate placing your foot.  Look carefully.  Step quickly.  Go! They’ve collapsed under my weight more than once during spring hiking, but thankfully I’ve never been seriously injured by it.  Not everyone is so lucky.  There are lots of ways to mitigate this risk, but I’m using snow bridges as a metaphor today to remind you that every bridge in your life will collapse someday.  If a bridge is what we depend on in our lives for security or meaning, the reality is that nothing lasts forever; vocation, health, marriage, children, are all destined for change along our journey.  Like snow bridges these blessings are dynamic.  One day everything appears solid and then, BOOM!  There’s a heart condition, or a financial trial and the risk of foreclosure.  Even the best of marriages usually end with one party dying first, leaving the other alone, grieving over the loss of that bridge which gave so much meaning to life.  Economic boom periods are cyclical, just like the building of a snow bridge through the winter and its eventual collapse later in the spring.  The same could be said of political parties, and even of nations.  Nothing lasts forever.  There’s a cycle of birth, vibrancy, decay, and death, that’s woven into the fabric of world.

Those who embrace this inevitable temporality of all things are standing on the threshold of freedom and peace!  This is because there’s a single exception, in all the universe, to this reality.  We who believe that Jesus rose from the dead see that resurrection as the shining light of hope, offering “the power of an indestructible life” as the prototype of where history’s headed.  IF this is true, then we have a bridge that will never weaken, melt, or be destroyed.  In fact, this is the langauge we find in the Bible…

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea – Psalm 46:2

At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.  The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. – Hebrews 12:26,27

(Jesus) has been constituted a Priest, not on the basis of a bodily legal requirement [an externally imposed command concerning His physical ancestry], but on the basis of the power of an endless and indestructible Life. – Hebrews 7:16

There’s an indestructible life which cannot be shaken, and this life is united with the lives of all who call upon him, so that we become partakers of eternity.  This means that we’re part of a better story, a story where God is making all things new, moving the cosmos away from the cycle of birth, death, and decay, to “life for the ages” which is the literal meaning of eternal life.

Where are you putting you weight these days?  What bridges are you trusting in to give you meaning and security.  I stood on a path today and at one point plunged by pole into the place where I intended to step and it broke through, collapsing the bridge and revealing huge rocks.  A fall could have been serious.  We need to put our weight where we know we’re safe, where we know that, come what may, our source will always be with us.

We need these truths, all of us, eventually in our lives.  My hope is we’ll learn to seek the eternal rock sooner rather than later.

 

A Case Study in Bible Questions – “I do not permit a woman to….?”

While teaching a series currently about women in the Bible, I’m mindful that the notion that women empowered by God to lead in settings where there are men isn’t a concept on which all good people of faith agree.  Someone recently wrote me who is clearly a student of the Bible, conversant in original languages and texts.  She draws a dramatically different conclusion from mine.  As I shared last week in my preaching about women in leadership, my views on the matter aren’t a matter of cultural convenience; they’re a matter of submission to my understanding of the Biblical witness.  To explain what I mean, I’d like to address my understanding of a highly controversial passage from I Timothy 2:12.  (It’s so controversial it has its own Wikipedia post) Here’s how it reads:  I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.  She must be quiet.

On the surface of things, it appears simple enough right?  Women can’t teach or have authority over men.  Done.

On the other hand.  The obvious interpretation isn’t always necessarily the most accurate interpretation, especially when:

1. We don’t apply the next section literally – ever.

2. The literal interpretation conflicts with Paul’s own teaching, since he assumes women are prophesying here.

So we need to dig deeper and ask some questions:

1. Why does Paul move from plural in earlier verses to singular in this passage?  He’s telling Timothy some things that apply to all women, using the plural pronoun in v9,10, and then he suddenly shifts to the singular when he writes (v11,12), “but I do not permit a woman to teach, or have authority over a man”.  This is a highly unusual shift in grammar, often made as a move from a universal principle to a specific situation.

2. Why does Paul use the word he does for what we translate “authority” – One scholar writes:   The most problematic issue is the rendering of the verb authentein as a simply “authority”, implying it has to do with normative relationships in the church or marriage. This unusual Greek verb is found only here in scripture and rarely in extrabiblical texts, where it is associated with aggression. Authentein is translated as “domineer” in the Latin Vulgate and New English Bible and as “usurp authority” in the Geneva and King James Bibles.

A study of Paul’s letters shows that he regularly used a different word (“exousia”) when referring to the use of authority in the church (see 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 9:4-6, 9:12, 11:10, 2 Cor 2:8, 10:8, 13:10, Col. 1:13, 2 Thess 3:12, Rom 6:15, 9:21). So it is strange that many versions translate “authentein” simply as “authority”.  Considering the context of I Timothy 2:12, it is likely that Paul was objecting to some sort of abusive authority.  One scholar notes, regarding the use of “authentein”:  “The verb authenteō refers to a range of actions that … involve an imposition of the subject’s will, ranging from dishonour to lethal force”, which is a very different conversation than “Who gets to preach this Sunday?” 

3. Why does Paul, in v15, say that a woman will be saved through childbirth?   Those who appeal to v12 as applicable today (I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man) never apply v13-15 literally, for it would mean that infertile women are not saved, a ludicrous and shameful notion.

4. Why, in spite of this word, do women have, authority over men in the Bible?  Why is Junia, a woman, named as notable among the Apostles if women can’t have authority over men?  Why is Huldah, the prophetess, the one who Josiah seeks out for interpretation from God regarding God’s word?  Why do Priscilla and Aquila, both women, correct Apollos, a man, in Acts 18?  All of these are clear instances of violating I Timothy 2:12 if it’s an absolute injunction against women having authority over men.

The answers to these questions lead to a seemingly more plausible conclusion:

1. I Timothy 2:12 is writing about a particular woman in a particular congregation.  Timothy was dealing with some specific heresies in the Ephesian church and Paul is writing in order to address them.

2. The region of Ephesus was party to a feminist movement which marginalized men and reduced them to slaves.   This is precisely the kind of authority Paul is referring to in this passage.  Historians Ferguson and Farnell write about the religious traditions of a female-dominated culture that worshiped “the mother of the gods,” whose oldest name was Cybele. When the Greeks immigrated to Ephesus in Asia Minor, they began to call her by the name of one of their own deities; Artemis. The hierarchy of her priesthood was dominated by women. Men could become priests, but only if they first renounced their masculinity, through the act of ritual castration.  These men also were required to abstain from certain foods and, of course, could not marry.  Interestingly, Paul addresses all these ascetic practices as heresy in his first letter to Timothy, because Timothy was a leader of the church in Ephesus. (1 Timothy 1:3-7, 4:1-5, 6:20-21).

3. Paul is writing to prevent the abusive “authority by force” because false women teachers requiring male castration as a precondition for leadership, as was happening in the Artemis cult, would qualify as “authentein” – abusive authority.

4. Paul, in the same text, is writing to remind people of the true nature of salvation.  As one scholar declares:  In the religious culture of Ephesus, life had its origin in Cybele, a woman, and sin originated with various male gods, including Cybele’s unfaithful consort, Attis. There is evidence that by the second century A.D. these beliefs had begun to distort the creation narrative in some faith communities. So Paul reminds the church that Adam–the first man–was also a source of life; and that Eve–the first woman–also played a role in humanity’s downfall.  What’s more, women who worshiped Artemis called upon her to “save them in childbirth.” For centuries, the church has wrestled with Paul’s reference to being “saved in child-bearing” in 1 Timothy 2:15. Understanding the language and context of Paul’s letter sheds light on this mystery. 

Conclusion:  These texts are interpreted in various ways and divide the church for a reason.  The most obvious literal reading of I Timothy 2:12 leads to a conclusion which has been reinforced in both the Roman Catholic church and most of Protestantism for nearly 2000 years: Women are not allowed to teach or lead.

The reason there’s division though, is because of the unanswered questions surrounding the literal reading, for it is clear that the Bible isn’t always to be taken at literal face value.  Literal application has led to the justification of slavery, genocide, and colonialism, all of which have become scars on church history.  There are times to challenge the literal meaning, and without questioning the faith of good people who disagree, I’d suggest that this text is one of those times.

Jesus’ treatment of women, the fact that the first evangelist was a woman, and that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women both point to the fact that Jesus has no problem allowing women to be voices of hope, instruction, correction, or authority. Neither should we.

 

 

 

Quotables: Immortal Diamond

I was privileged to speak to a group of university students on Monday night and in the Q&A I was asked, “What are the books that have had the greatest impact on your life?”  The truth of the matter is that I read so widely that nothing came to mind immediately, jumping out as the one or two life changing books.  However, the truth is that there have been hundreds, so I thought it would be fun to add a “quotables” section to this blog, highlighting various authors and books.

I don’t present them in order of importance.  Rather, I read this book last fall, saw it on my shelf, and thought, “Why not start with this one?” You need to know that when I recommend books, I’m not ever endorsing everything I read in the book.  Rather, I’m saying that, on the whole, a person with discernment can be well fed and shaped by the material this author shares.  The quotes, on the other hand, are truths I buy into!

Enjoy these as a starter, from Richard Rohr’s “Immortal Diamond”, one of many books I’ve read about the importance of being firmly established in our true identity “in Christ”.  Here are a few of my favorite thoughts from this book.

Church in any form should be a laboratory for resurrection.

All posturing and pretending are largely unnecessary….all accessorizing of any small fragile self henceforth shows itself to be a massive waste of time and energy.

Inside your true self you know that you are not alone, and you foundationally belong to God (I Cor. 3:23).  You no longer have to work to feel important.  You are intrinsically important, and it has all been ‘done unto you’ (Luke 1:38)

…if you do not learn the art of dying and letting go early, you will hold onto your false self for far too long, until it kills you anyway.

Satan tempts you to do proper, defensible, and often admired things, but for cold, malicious, or self-centered reasons.

…only the false self can and will sin

The anger and disrespect I find among both conservative and progressive Christians is disturbing.  It feels aligned much more with political ideologies of right and left than any immersion in the beautiful love of God.

The spiritual question is this:  Does one’s life give any evidence of an encounter with God? Does this encounter bring about any of the things that Paul describes as the ‘fruits of the spirit’, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, truthfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

What most of Christian history did was largely dress up and disguise the false self (in Christian clothing).

Remember that resurrection is not woundedness denied, forgotten, or even totally healed.  It is woundedness transformed.

The big and hidden secret is this: an infinite God seeks and desires intimacy with the human soul.

 

Facebook, Nazis, and Fake News – History shows our ongoing need for Discernment

I recently watched Come Before Winter, a short documentary about two foes of Hitler.  Sefton Delmer was a propagandist who broadcast fake news into Germany as a means of changing hearts and minds.  Pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer was the other protaganist in the film.  I’ve written extensively about Bonhoeffer in other places, so I’ll leave him alone for now, other than to note that this documentary is perhaps the best articulation of his last days before execution you’ll find, and for that reason alone, is worth watching.  I say that because dying well, especially as a martyr (he was hanged for his part in the resistance movement in the final weeks of the war), can only happen as the fruit of living well.  Now, on to Delmer and the subject at hand.

Born in Germany and educated both there and at Oxford, Delmer was uniquely qualified to have a foot in both German and British culture, a trait which, during the 30’s caused both nations to accuse him of being “in service of the enemy”.   By 1940, however, he was recruited by the British Government to organize ‘black propoganda.’  He created several fake German radio stations broadcast by short-wave from England into Germany.  They were a mixture of truth and lies – enough truth to make the lies credible.  The intent was to demoralize, confuse, and divide the German people.  So if you think fake news is something new, think again.

Cambridge Analytica is just the most recent version of what’s been happening since the Garden of Eden.  Two things, though, make todays environment  more challenging than the past:

Everything is called “Fake” by someone.  Trump calls CNN and (“the failing”) New York Times fake.  Fox News is considered fake by most who read the Times and watch CNN.   As a result, we who digest the news increasingly ‘consider the source’, but not in a healthy way.  Instead we’re pre-emptively dismissive of a report precisely because of the source.  As a result, thoughtful people speaking important truths aren’t heard.  We’re both tribal (gathering in groups that only think like us) and post-modern (skeptical that truth is knowable) at the same time.  These two conditions, taken together, are a deadly combo.  They’re the soil in which fear, cynicism, isolation, and skepticism grow.  Sound familiar?

Here’s the deal though.  Everyone spins their news, at least a little.  CNN fact checks their stories.  So does FOX.  The problem isn’t the facts (at least in major news sources).  It’s the spin on the facts – which facts are elevated, which are hidden, and how they’re interpreted.

Our response primarily blames the source.   Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was grilled this week by congress, and the goal of the grilling seemed to be this:  “We want you to prevent liars from selling lies on your website” (along with other privacy concerns).  The notion, however, that we’ll be able to prevent lies from proliferating on the internet is, to be polite, rubbish.   Just today I learned, on the internet, that the world is ending on April 23rd, in fulfillment of hidden Biblical prophecy.  That shark cartilage will prevent and heal all forms of cancer, and that James Comey, former head of the FBI is a “leaker”, a “liar”, and an “untruthful slimball”.   Why even bother eating the cartilage, or reading Comey’s new book, if the world’s ending on April 23rd anyway? 

The Real Need:  Discernment 

Jesus said that Satan is a liar, the father of lies.  Paul said that lies come wrapped in truth sometimes.  Jeremiah said that there’d always be false prophets around.  Paul said that its in us to listen only to voices that reinforce what we already believe, and that we need to fight this tendency.

It’s as if God has gone to great lengths to shout at us in all capital letters:  YOU NEED TO LISTEN CAREFULLY AND WISELY SO THAT YOU CAN DISCERN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRUTH AND LIES – BECAUSE LIES WILL ALWAYS BE RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU TO BELIEVE.

They’ll be on the sidebar of your Facebook feed.  They’re present as “slants” in the news.  Two examples: 1) The NY Times only offered criticism this morning for Trump’s role in a united allied response to Syria’s ‘crossing the line in the sand’ with chemical weapons, a response Obama promised to deliver, but never did.  2) FOX news remains remarkably silent about hush money paid to prostitutes, nepotism in the Oval Office, and the president’s inability to work with people who view the world differently than him.

These biases shouldn’t surprise us.  They should, however, remind us that there’s no cave into which we can crawl, where pure truth will be spoon fed to us.  In fact, Hebrews 6 says that maturity is defined precisely as our capacity to discern between good and evil, lies and truth, because both are coming at us 24/7 – not just in our newsfeed, but even the voices inside our heads.

Jesus taught us, outlandishly, that an obsession with him would enable us to know truth, and the truth would set us free.  Truth doesn’t mean easy, prepackaged answers that we learn when we’re children, and then spend the rest of our lives defending.  Truth means the answer to the question (as Bonhoeffer taught us when he wrestled with the question of whether to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler), “what is God asking of me in this exact moment?” – as a spouse, a parent, a co-worker, a voting citizen in a fearful and polarized society, a neighbor?

The right answer won’t be found in The NY Times or on Fox News.  But it also won’t be found in cultural withdrawal or disengagement.  It will be found by those living fully IN the world, enjoying its gifts, celebrating its beauty, mourning it’s ugliness, and fighting against its systems of oppression.  And who should be able to do that better than anyone else?

Disciples of Christ.  They don’t hide.  The engage.  They don’t call for censorship.  They call for discernment.

Here’s how Bonhoeffer said it: To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depths of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom

Such wisdom is needed; now more than ever.