All posts by raincitypastor

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.

Awakening the Feminine Voice in the Church – What it means and Why it Matters

More girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars in the 20th century.

The equivalent of 5 jumbo jets worth of women die in labor each day… life time risk of maternal death is 1,000x higher in a poor country than in the west. That should be an international scandal.

In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world – all quotes by Nicholas D. Kristof from “Half the Sky”

Indeed.

One of the challenges that the church faces is that it has often been, rightly, accused of being part of the problem rather than part of the solution when it comes to elevating the identity, calling, authority, strength, and leadership of women in the world.   Women have been censored, marginalized, shut out from positions of spiritual leadership, treated as property, burned as witches, tortured and killed as heretics , and abused.

I, for one, would like the church I lead to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  This is why we’re presently in a series on “Called by God: Women of the Bible”.   In this series my intent is to show how God has called women to frontline visible ministries as prophetesses, Apostles, judges, leaders in civil disobedience, teachers, and more.  I’ll also be offering, both on this blog and on our church website, some further discussion about critical questions related to the subject of women in the Bible.  I hope you’ll subscribe and join us for the discussion.

I’ve been in church settings where men have walked out when a woman opened the Bible and began to teach or preach.  I grew up in a church where women had very confined roles, none of which had to do with teaching or decision making authority.  I’m part of a generation that, for the most part, embraced the culturally defined gender roles of “Fiddler on the Roof”.  None of this strident patriarchy was fabricated out of thin air.  The views come from a certain way of reading the Bible.  The reading creates the culture.  The culture reinforces the prevailing reading, which deepens the culture still further.  And so it goes.

Here’s what can change that:

1. Consider a fresh reading of the Bible.  It’s vital to recognize the danger of “cherry picking” certain passages and building entire ethical constructs out of them.  My own movement away from strong patriarchy began with the realization that not everything in the Bible that God proscribes applies for all time. We don’t continue executing disobedient children, for example.  Women are no longer viewed as property as they so clearly were under Old Testament Law.

Ethics change because God’s revelation is ripening, ultimately to find its fullest blossoming in the person of Christ.  In Jesus’ narrative, a woman becomes the first evangelist.  Another becomes exemplary of what it means to love God.  Two more are the first eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ.  Paul the apostle doesn’t miss a beat in his continuing liberation of women as he speaks of a female Apostle, and of “when” women prophesy in the gathered faith community.  I know there are questions about particular texts that seem to indicate confinement to certain roles, and I’ll deal with these in forthcoming material. For now know this:  Christ’s example liberates women from previously constrained roles.  Paul, if somewhat covertly, continues to develop that same trajectory.  So should we.

2. Recognize the difference between Biblical mandate and culture norms.  Many women have grown up in a culture of unequal pay, in churches that silenced them, and in homes where the word ‘submission’ was unilaterally imposed on women by men, but never applied to men (as the Bible declares it should be).  These women have a weight of cultural baggage to overcome.  When Paul says that believers are to be transformed by the “renewing of their minds” this is a classic example of what he’s talking about.  Transformation comes from recognizing cultural mores and swimming upstream against them.  Men can help women do that by recognizing that they have unique callings

My wife’s perspective is that it’s difficult for a woman to find her true voice because there’s been a historical cultural weight of expectations that have kept women on a clearly defined and constricting path.  She says, “Men have often thought of women as fish in a channel.  Men have tried to help women get from point A to point B by ‘helping them’, which is tantamount to straightening the stream or building fish ladders.  The intention is good, but still too confining.  The problem is that women are actually birds, and we can get to God’s appointed destiny of our calling by making our own prayerful decisions, finding our own path with our own unique giftedness as women.”

3. Find your gifts and use them.  In the end, one of the reasons I believe women are called to any position in the church is because the last thing I’d ever want to do is censor someone from using gifts that God has given them.  In Romans 12, we read that some are called to, variously, give, serve, teach, and lead.  Far be it from me to prevent someone from using a certain gift because of their gender!  All of us must work at understanding our strengths and how God has created us, and as we do this we’ll find those endeavors which a) bring us great joy b) we’re naturally good at and c) are affirmed by others because others are blessed by our doing them.  Those endeavors are where we must focus our time.

How many women, though, have been unable to do that because of the cultural and spiritual forces of patriarchy which shut them out?

It can be otherwise, and it often begins with deconstructing the notion that women have confined roles.  They’re not fish in a stream.  They’re birds, with a world of heights available to them.  It’s time to fly.

 

A Pilgrimage to find Courage

a few of the thousands save by courage, hospitality, and generosity.  

Every time I travel in Europe I try to read some European history, especially as it relates to the intersection of faith and culture.  In the past I’ve shared stories of Sophie Scholl (regarding her martyrdom for the distribution of resistance literature against the Nazis in Bavaria), and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (regarding his denouncement of Hitler from the pulpit and his underground seminary).  Knowing that I’d be in France this spring, I recently read “Village of Secrets”, which is the account of the people living Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during WWII.  These remarkable people sheltered thousands of Jewish children, hiding them throughout farms in this high mountain plateau. 

Theirs is a story of courageously resisting the powers and offering radical hospitality, qualities which, for them, weren’t seen as exceptional, but rather “to be expected – it’s what God’s people do.” As I read the book, I knew I needed to go there and see it for myself.  I wasn’t disappointed. 

The church where a pastor mobilized people to risk their lives rather than cower in fear

Donna and I made a three hour pilgrimage up to Le Chambon yesterday through pouring rain, wet snow, and periodic bursts of sunshine.  We arrived mid-day, and soon found the Protestant “Temple” where Andre Trocme taught non-violent resistance of state powers and was instrumental in mobilizing people to hide condemned Jews. 

There are far too many details in the story to explain it all here, but I must say, while it is still fresh in my heart, that this story matters as much today as it did then, for never in my lifetime has the need for spiritual and moral courage among God’s people been both so evident, and so lacking.  Trocme and others warned against “the slow asphyxiation of our consciences” and called God’s people to absolute obedience to God alone, warning against the idolatrous seductions of power and personal safety.  I see three qualities as vital in enabling the people of the plateau to do what they did.

1. Intellectual Leadership:  Courageous convictions only germinate in the right soil though, and as it turns out, there were some French pastors in 1941 who were thoughtfully engaging with the questions of how to respond to the Reich.  A fictional book had been written at the time called “The Village on the Hill” about a pastor who refused to proclaim that Hitler was the creator of an eternal and indestructible Reich.  Eventually a Nazi mayor had him removed and he took his meetings into the forest.  This work of fiction was digested by pastors wrestling with their responses to the times.  In the end, these pastors declared it to be a spiritual necessity that they resist all idolatrous and totalitarian influences. 

Pastor Trocme taught that “violence was never the way of Christ”

2. Thoughtful Ethics: The end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in France had produced a movement called “Social Christianity” which fundamentally declared that the value of our faith is determined by the extent to which God’s people care for the weakest and most vulnerable in a community.  That would include the unborn, young single mothers, immigrants, the elderly, the disabled, and of course in 1941 France, all Jews.  Pastor Trocme added a deep conviction that non-violence is the way of Christ, and that it was therefore the antithesis of the word “Christian” (which means “little Christ”), to use weapons as a means of bringing about God’s will. 

3. Brokenness:  The people of the plateau were, themselves, offspring of families persecuted for their Protestant faith since the seventeenth century.  They’d had their church buildings burnt to the ground, family members executed, properties lost.  And what fruit did this suffering create generations later?  A solidarity with “the least of these” and a willingness to risk everything to shelter them from harm. 

Trocme ran a school, and the museum commemorating this rich history is adjacent to the school.  As we finished our tour, I was looking at a certificate given to Le-Chambon which honors them as righteous Gentiles.  At that moment, children poured into the adjacent play-yard for recess, with the sounds of laughter and play, and jumping on an old pile of snow. 

I was filled with gratitude for that time, for this place, for those people, for the tens of thousands living today because of their courage. 

I left, though, with an ache in my heart because intellectual leadership, thoughtful ethics, and brokenness are, to put it mildly, in short supply today.  As a result we’re collectively rudderless, ready prey for any leader willing to make vain promises of power and greatness while silencing all detractors and thoughtful discourse through petty name calling.  I for one, can only pray that I’ll find the blend of courage and prudence, grace and truth, and commitment to non-violence and caring for the weak, that I’ll be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. 

O Lord Christ – 

We who have been given the privilege of voices must speak for those who cannot.  We must give voice to your heart for peace, and courage, and love of the other.  We must embrace your cross.  Forgive us for being seduced by trinkets, honors, and all the glitter that passes for spirit.  Grant that we might know your power to love, to serve, to shoot the moon in obedience to your calling.  Give us eyes to see your light, ears to hear your voice, and grace to follow both.    Amen