Longing for the Scent of Hope

It’s a Thursday morning in the San Bernardino mountains of California.  After a time of meditation, I go outside to sit and write a bit before a day filled with people, meetings, emails, and study to complete a study I’ll be leading this Sunday. 

After quieting my mind and being reminded of the presence of Christ, above, beneath, around, and within me, my move outdoors hits me like a ton of bricks.  Maybe it was the breathing and calming effects of meditation on the presence of Christ.  Maybe it was the fact that the air was cooler this morning than previous mornings here.  Whatever the cause, the scent of the air, a blend of Manzanita and Pine,  hits me fully, catching my be surprise, and I’m instantly transported back to my childhood:  

I’m 12, heading to camp for the first time, not as a camper but as a companion to my dad, who’s providing transport to my sister.  She’s 16 and it’s 1968, so her guitar goes with her, along with Peter, Paul, Mary, Janis Joplin, and the whole clan of social protest songs.  She plays her guitar in the backseat, and I’m the rhythm section, striking my thighs like they’re bongos.

We get out of the car and… that scent! It hits me for the first time ever, along with the visuals of the high Sierra, the trees, mountains, water, and deep blue sky.  And speaking of the water, the first thing dad does when he gets out of the car is make his way to the water fountain, built of stone with a simple pipe sticking up out of the middle, more like a spring than anything I’ve seen back in the valley.  He gulps vast amounts, stopping once to breathe, and a second time to say “best water anywhere” before continuing to drink more.  He’s alive, rested, happy – a contrast to the often stressful world he inhabits as the superintendent of a small rural school district on the outskirts of Fresno, California.  I’m watching, and the whole while the scent of these mountains in being imprinted deep in my soul.  It was, I believe, my first whiff of shalom.

A few years later I’ll come back here.  By the time it’s my turn for camp, my dad will have grown ill, unable to handle the thinner air of the mountains.  I’m entering 10th grade, with a crush on Linda, a plying of my basketball skills to woo her, and utter intimidation as she executes perfect dives, all week, into the pond.  She’ll go on to be on my high school’s diving team, a few levels above me in the social cast system that is high school.  But my soul will awaken to God’s wooing that same week, and that wooing will become the piece of a larger mosaic of God’s activity in those mountains, always with that same scent as the backdrop. 

I’ll go back two years out of high school, to that same camp.  I’m not in a good space as I drive up the mountain in my Ford Mustang.  I’m there because a blonde invited me, not because I’m seeking God.  But God is seeking me, and the encounter with the divine that happens that brief weekend in February will eventuate in my changing majors, schools, and states – moves that will determine the course of my life.  I prayed there, that weekend, and made knowing God a goal, and even more than a goal – declared that I wanted it to be the main thing, the north start to which I’d return over and over again when life becomes too much, as it often did, and does. 

Later, married without children, my wife and I will take a youth group I’m leading back to that same camp, and I’ll inhale that same scent, which has now come to represent so much that is holy to me.  That youth group experience will seal my call to ministry, and I’ll stay in touch with some of those students to this very day, our hearts knit together in ways I didn’t know could happen. 

After that camp experience as a youth pastor, I won’t return to that particular plot of the Sierras until the day of my mom’s funeral a few years ago.  But on that day, I drive up and stand in the very spot where I declared a desire to know God 39 years earlier, and I’ll marvel at God’s relentless pursuit of me, God’s abundance poured out, and I’ll offer tears of gratitude.  “Look what God has done” I’ll say, as once again, the scent of hope fills me. 

Maybe this back story will help you understand why II Corinthians 2:14,15 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible.  This is where Paul sees both his identity and calling as being “the aroma of Christ”.  Truth be told, there are, for all of us, some scents that evoke hope, joy, rightness, beauty.  The scent of the Sierras awakens something in me, something good.  Jesus’ desire is that tho who follow him and claim to know him would also awaken something in others.  That Jesus scent is powerful when Mother Teresa was loving the untouchables in India, or when MLK was renouncing violence while at the same time working for justice.  But make no mistake, the most important scents aren’t discovered in biographies and history, any more than you can smell the blood and gun powder of WWII by reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. 

Scent requires, not reading, not preaching, not winning theological debates, but embodiment, actually displaying in our lives the character of Jesus.  The good news is that our small acts of embodiment are like aromatherapy for the spirit.  Faithful parenting, faithful love of a spouse through illness, serving in ways the bless those living on the margins, crossing social divides, creating beauty (whether in a meal, a table, a painting, a song, or even a conversation), loving one’s neighbors in tangible ways, these are the scent of hope. 

It’s no good proving the age of earth (young or old), or the politics of Jesus (ostensibly left, or right – though in reality he was neither), or the meaning of communion or inerrancy or atonement theory, when the real need in our world is to smell the scent of hope, mercy, joy, hospitality, peace, and so much more, pouring out of us.   Being religious while emitting the stench of arrogance, pride, and judgement rather than omitting the scent of Christ is a lot like wearing a shirt that advertises some certain soap, while you haven’t showered for five days: bad advertising!  Something tells me that our culture’s perception of Christianity these days is that it stinks.  Pedophilia.  Financial corruption.  Sexual abuse scandals among Evangelical leaders of power, and much much more.  The world has inhaled and is largely saying, “no thank you” as they continue searching.  

It’s sad because our culture is rootless, aimless, addicted, lonely, and afraid.  In other words, we’re living in a dumpster.  Say we must ask ourselves:  Where is the scent of Christ?  The answer belongs to each of us, and our faith communities.  There’s no need shooting others, when I have plenty to work on myself in order to let the pure beauty of Christ’s scent be revealed through me.  I pray the same for you!

Seattle is Dying…for a third way view of justice

If you care about poverty, homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, or the morale of law enforcement, I hope you find some time to watch this excellent documentary, regardless of where you live.  If you live in Seattle, this is required viewing in my opinion.  KOMO News in Seattle does an outstanding job exposing the depth of our homeless problem in Seattle, and it’s inextricable link to addiction.  It’s raw, difficult viewing, exposing visually and viscerally, the rise in homelessness and its attendant trash, human waste, and crime.  The affects of our city’s laissez faire approach to petty crime and drug use is exposed, and an anonymous survey of Seattle Police reveals frustrations to the extreme over new policies of tolerance regarding drug use, illegal parking of RV’s, property destruction, and so much more.  The lack of consequences and accountability for offenses have created a culture of anarchy and disregard for the law, resulting in Seattle being among the national leaders in property crimes last year.

The weight of these revelations should feel like a gut punch to anyone loving Seattle, and Christ followers, who are encouraged by Jeremiah to “work and pray for the blessing of the city in which they live”, must allow themselves to feel the pain of that punch in the gut.  The crime, the trash, the human lives imprisoned by poverty, addiction, and despair — this is our city!

I can tell you, as one who travels for work, that it doesn’t need to be this way.  Large urban cities across the globe are dealing with the same growth pains, the same income inequities, but they’re dealing with it better than we are, because our way of dealing with it seems to be driven by a thoughtless “tolerance” that, while emotionally appealing to many in our city, is neither loving nor just.

After the revelation of problems like these, the conversation often denigrates as people move to their respective corners and either advocate for continued tolerance or “crack down” with retributive justice.  Put another way, we’re arguing about whether to spend more money on tiny houses or just sweep everything clean, locking up violators and throwing away the key.  Thankfully, the documentary points us to a third way, by showing a Rhode Island program that’s essentially an expression of  restorative justice.  Violators of the law are cited, as violators should be if law is to have any meaning.  They’re arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated.  But the goal of their time in prison isn’t retributive; simply a punishment to ‘get them off our streets.  It’s restorative.  It includes a program to treat the addiction.  There are mentors who stay in contact with the person once they’ve served their time and are free.  There are check-in centers on the outside where they can continue to receive the meds that are freeing them from addiction.  And of course, woven through all this is the investment of healthy relational capital, the very thing that nearly 100% of the homeless people living on our streets and battling addiction demons are missing.

We are reaping the fruit of what our hyper-individualistic culture has sown, as the number of people who’ve no “tribe” to walk with them through life’s painful valleys continues to rise.  Our entire culture needs to look in the mirror and ask whether the rising relational poverty all around us is worth it because, though its beyond the scope of this post, the reality is that our current cultural values fracture and isolate us.  In the meantime, though, Rhode Island has decided to intervene and provide the relational capital offenders so desperately need.  They offer a model:

Arrest offenders.  Provide addiction treatment and counseling.  Provide follow-up after care upon release.  If Seattle began to think this way, act this way, the landscape of our city would change, literally – the landscape itself would change.

“Leave them alone” isn’t love.  It’s cowardly enabling, made all the worse by a city council that sometimes won’t even look up from their phones during council meetings to listen to offer common respect to law abiding citizens seeking to engage democracy.  Talk about relational poverty!!

“Lock them up and forget about them” isn’t love either.  It’s self-righteous anger that fails to see what people ultimately need isn’t just punishment, but intervention.  I counted at least five people in the Rhode Island story who said, in various ways, “the day I got arrested was the best day of my life… a turning point… it saved me life… I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t been arrested.”  Those testimonies don’t happen when people are locked and forgotten.  They happen when they’re locked, treated, and equipped to return to culture and live whole lives.

“Actions have consequences” and “We’re committed to making this moment of your failure a catalyst for your transformation” IS what love does, and what people in crisis need.  What’s more, this documentary shows Seattle that it’s doable — but it requires third way thinking, and that’s a rare commodity these days in a world where the political right and left both seem to see their ways as the “only way”.

“Don’t Love the World” “Love the World” Which is it? … a third way

I skied today during my work break, because I’m fortunate to live just a few minutes from lifts, groomed trails, and snow.  Our hill is, by global standards, small.  I don’t care.  I don’t ski to win anything.  I ski for the beauty, for the way the light reflects off the snow, and the clouds pour over the ridge, for the sun turning icicles into prisms, and for the reminder that I’m healthy, alive, and live in a beautiful world.  Each day, each breath, is a privilege.  Later I’ll drink a glass of wine, eat some shrimp bathed in a crispy crust, along with salad and beets, and enjoy conversation, and lovely music with family.

I LOVE this world, in the kind of way that I believe the Bible tells us to love the world.  I love the intricate biosystems of the human body, and the remarkable ecosystems and varied lifeforms that all contribute to our planet.  This ordered life is the thing the Bible calls COSMOS, for that is exactly the Greek word for “world”.  Sunsets.  Laughter.  Human touch.  Sleep.  Food and drink.  The glory and mystery of each human face.  Snow.  The arrival of birds in the spring.  Summers thick with life and ripening.  Fall colors.  Snow again.  So it goes.

I LOVE the world and the God who made it, and lets us enjoy it.

So I was a bit taken aback yesterday when, at the end of teaching a delightful group of college students for about six hours, one student asked me this:  “James 4:4 says, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”  He then asked me how we could be involved in culture, or enjoy the world God has made in light of this severe observation.  “Adultery!!”  That’s God’s assessment of those who are ‘friends with the world’  I didn’t tell him that another verse came to my mind as well, which is I John 2:15, which reads, ”Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in them”.  Wow!

He waited for my answer, and though class was already dismissed, nobody had left because I think it was a good, thoughtful, question.  Everyone was gathered around, standing, eagerly waiting for some kind of answer to this question which, apparently was quite important to them.  It was a good question because of its honesty, but also because the wrong answer to this question has led Christians to everything ranging from disdain for culture, to fear of, and withdrawal from, culture – and creation, all in the name of following the Bible’s teaching to “love not the world”

The answer to question begins with understanding the meaning of the word “world” in the Greek language.

The word Cosmos essentially means an arrangement, order, or constitution.  The universe, called the cosmos in Greek and English both, is ordered brilliantly, providing the precise conditions so that life on earth can flourish.  God loves the cosmos, the ordered system(s) created by God, because they are the way the universe ought to be.  It’s broken of course, because of a rebellion, and as a result, God intervened.  “God so loved the world that God gave God’s son…”, not just to get people a destiny of heaven, but in order to bring the cosmos back into alignment with its intended design.

If this is true, then we ought to love God’s perfect design too, which would mean marveling at sunrises, the unique intricacy of snowflakes, the atomic and chemical anomaly that is water (without it’s exact nature, life on earth wouldn’t exist). When we love the world God has made, we open the door to loving God.  When science and faith, ecology and faith, beauty and faith, become antagonists, we miss our calling, as those made in God’s image, to love the world.

The antagonism comes from a misunderstanding of the “world” word as used by Greeks, because Christ followers too often apply the word to the very “cosmos” God created and loves deeply (John 3:16)  Sadly, Christians taught to “not love the world” are often taught that the physical properties and pleasures of this world are off limits to believers.  It’s an insidious form of gnosticism that creates antagonism between Christianity and science, sexuality, ecology, art, and much more.  Those taught this way often become afraid of deep joy, good food, healthy intimacy, and things like the wellspring of emotion that comes when a herd of elk are rushing a meadow at sunrise on frosty morning in Colorado.  Don’t even get them started on movies, art, or photography.

Still, the question remains.  Why does James tell us that “friendship with the world is ‘enmity with God’”?  Why does John say “Love not the world…”  Simply put, it’s because cosmos, the word for world, which simply means, ‘an ordered system’, isn’t just used for our ecosystem and all God made.  It’s used for systems this world has made, like human-trafficking, slavery, racial constructs that inflame hatred and fear, economies based on greed and corruption, and systems of systemic violence and oppression that allow us to casually watch deaths by gun violence, starvation, gang wars, and so much more and sort of surrender to it all as “just the way it is…”   These world systems are also “worlds”, but their origin isn’t in the goodness of God, it’s in the sickness of humans and the power of evil.

The tragedy when Christ followers fail to understand the various meanings of “world” is twofold . First, we’ve seen they can become suspicious of the very gifts God desires to give us as signs of kindness and love.  Instead, they should learn to enjoy and give thanks, like this: Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 9:7-9

The second tragedy though, is that we fail to do war with the truly evil worlds that destroying life, stealing joy, and threatening the planet.  Unrestricted violence, ecological catastrophes that come from overconsumption and greed, human trafficking, the degradation of women, racism, the hyer individualism that leads to loneliness and commensurate addictions, and all the other maladies of our day — these are “the world” John has in mind when he says “love not the world”.  So when I endorse violence, when I’m silent about sexual abuse or racism, when I don’t think about stewarding creation by my consumer choices, I become passively complicit with “the world” – exactly what James and John said we shouldn’t do!

That’s why we love the sunrise and curse cancer.  Love the wine and curse alcoholism.  Love sexuality intimacy in the boundaries of marriage and curse sex trafficking and the oppression of women.  We love God’s world.  We hate the destructive world made by us as fallen humans, and as Christ followers, I pray we’ll spend our lives doing battle with that world, because of the better world that’s all around us because of Christ.

Yes.  Love the world God made.  No.  Don’t love the mess we’ve made of it.  Rather, stand against those worlds in Jesus name, just like Jesus did.

 

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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

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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 

Vicarious vs. Experience: Not Even Close

There’s a line at the end of Song of Solomon in the 6th chapter that speaks of an old problem.  “Come back!  Come back, O beautiful woman, that we may admire you!”  It appears that some onlookers are enchanted by the beauty of the woman in this love story.  She strong, lovely, confident.  And she’s courageously in a relationship of real love with her man, a shepherd.  Note that in this particular scene, when she’s heading away with her lover, they call her back.  Why?  “So that we may admire you!”

They would, in other words, rather look on a relationship from the outside, experiencing the hollow thrill of being an observer, rather than jumping into the deep end of real intimacy in their own lives.  This is a sort of primitive pornography, not in the sense that they’re viewing explicit love making but in the more critical sense that they’re voyouristic and vicarious rather than involved and intimate.  Apparently the escapist fantasy route has always been an option.  Today it’s more than just “an option” – it’s become so ubiquitous as to be considered normal.  The popularity of video games, fantasy sports league, and pornography have created a destructive trifecta.  There’s an entire virtual world now available to emerging generations and both genders, but especially men, are living there in increasing numbers, with increasing regularity.  The pathologies arising from this sort of behavior present as everything from academic failure and arrested social skill development (especially with the opposite sex), to erectile dysfunction.  Much of this is cataloged here.

Yourbrainonporn.com provides the compelling science behind why the prevalence of porn is so destructive for cultures, for those who value science.  The short summary is that you can now encounter more lovers in an hour of the dungeon that is pornography than you would have encountered in one, two, maybe even ten lifetimes, one hundred years ago.  You are not physiologically designed for the continual stimulation and variety offered in this fantasy world.  What’s worse though, is that it can quickly become an “arousal addiction”, meaning that the addict doesn’t just want more of the same.  He/she wants “different”.  If this isn’t a recipe for marital disaster, I don’t know what is.

What’s more, porn is only one alternate reality inviting the investment of our time and attention.  Why play sports when you can join fantasy leagues and watch sports, no exercise or risk of injury to body or ego required?  You could play games demanding social interaction, eye contact, laughter, risk, courage, and wisdom, all of which combine to aid in the both the building of friendships and the development of social skills.  But why not play a video game instead?  Alone.  With no risk of rejection or failure.

In a word: safety.  Is this alternate world real? No.  Life giving? No. Contributing to a person’s sense of mission? No.  Capable of filling the intimacy void we all feel?  No.  But its safe, and in a world where there’s fear at every turn, safety is appealing.

What’s the way forward?

1. A strong core.  If a person sees themselves as capable, having gifts to share with the world, forgiven, called, and empowered, its much more difficult to enjoy disengagement from reality.  When people with a strong sense of self retreat into a tiny fantasy world for comfort, the dissonance is often just too much, and they refuse to stay there, in spite of the short term pleasures gained from escaping.  You build a strong core by beginning to believe that what God says about you is true – that you’re loved, forgiven, blessed, gifted, and invited, even called, to be a blessing in this world.  Keep learning what God says about you and believing it!

2. A sense of call.  When it became clear that I wasn’t ever going to win the Alpine Skiing World Cup, or write a symphony, skiing and music took back seats to other things, like preaching, parenting, marriage, church leadership, teaching university students, writing, and helping create outdoor environments and experiences where people can encounter Christ.  When I’m at my best, the use of my time, whether exercising, reading, or praying, feeds my sense of call and core identity and, to be blunt, there’s little time left for virtual escapes.

3. A high view of marriage and sexuality.  The erectile dysfunction that’s hijacking healthy sexuality among increasingly younger men is happening precisely because the safer fantasy world, which over-promises and under-delivers, is so appealing. In contrast, Song of Solomon shows us that radical monogamy is better.  It requires all kinds of things that are wildly beyond the scope of this post, but perhaps the main thing is a foundational belief that the best sexual expressions are mutual rather than one party giving in to the other out of a sense of obligation.  They both respect the boundaries of the other, and at times this creates an intensifying of the longings because there’s a confidence in the underlying love, and an obvious playfulness sexually, whether or not it ends in the land of O.  All this, of course, requires self-control and the belief that an unfulfilled sexual appetite won’t damage your body or soul, a message rare in our culture.

4. An internal bias toward reality rather than fantasy escapes.  Whether porn, Netflix, Facebook, or Ben & Jerry – a chronic preference for these easily accessible and easily stimulating options creates an increasing bias towards the safety, predictability, and risk free nature of the virtual world (or in the case of ben & jerry – the high glycemic world).  Such worlds feel good in the moment, but the ensuing crash leaves an emptiness and ache.

The good news is that movement away from all of that can happen!  Here are a few resources for your consideration.

Celebrate Recovery

Homecoming

Pure Desire

There’s a class at Bethany Community Church beginning at the end of summer that helps people move out of destructive behavior patterns and into God’s better story.   Contact us for details.  Here’s a testimony from someone who took the “spiritual journey” class.

The best resource, however, and the most important, is your life with God.  You have a calling, a journey yet ahead.  Don’t miss it by getting stuck in some fake world, when a real world of adventure awaits you.  Yesterday’s gone, and there’s no point wallowing in guilt or shame over failures that are common, when God’s inviting you to move on, into freedom and real intimacy.

The Cultural Faith Crises of Burnt/Raw pancakes

What does the pornography problem in the Bible belt, and the appalling lack of generosity among democrats have to do with a burnt/raw pancake?  Plenty….

“Ephraim is a cake not turned…”. Hosea 7:8.   That’s Hosea’s description of a nation gone wrong, and it’s terribly applicable today.

a cake not turned:  Burnt to a coal at the bottom, raw dough at the top: an apt emblem of a character full of inconsistencies (Bishop Horsley).

The prophets were good at painting word pictures, and word pictures are good because, rather than listing specific problems unique to a time and place, they portray a principle.  The principle then becomes widely applicable to other cultures, eras, and situations.  This is part of what makes the Bible so incredibly relevant, if only we’d take the time to read and ponder. 

Today I’m pondering the “cake not turned”.  You’ve no doubt eaten a pancake that was burnt on the bottom but raw on the top.  It’s wrong; imbalanced; filled with overemphasis and a commensurate underemphasis.  God’s complaint with Israel was that they’d lost their devotion to God as their source and their lover, choosing loyalty to surrounding pagan ideals instead.  

Israel was, in other words, selective in her loyalty to God, alternately embracing and denying the values of Jehovah based on what they wanted, what they considered to be best for them moment to moment.  The result of this was a mixture of bribery, white-collar robbery, neglect of the Sabbath, woven together with lip service given to God, and outward forms of worship often continuing in spite of glaring disobedience to God’s revelation.  Light and dark.  Burnt and raw.  Idolatry wrapped in religion.  

Sound familiar?  It should!  The mixture of political loyalties with faith has long been an example of this burnt pancake phenomenon.  Consider mainline churches, which are often largely aligned with left leaning politics and more socialist policies.  Their views are, rightly, intent on seeing to it that the poor aren’t left hungry, cold, or naked.  It’s hard to argue with those priorities if you take the Bible seriously.  

But two complaints arise immediately regarding this seemingly holy affiliation.  First, if the left is so intent on caring for the poor, why are they themselves so greedy?  The problem of meager charitable giving among liberals is well-known, as seen in this article, which posits that conservatives give 30% more to charity than democrats.  

My second complaint is that liberals are selective in their adherence to the Bible, being quick to appeal to verses on caring for the poor, but silent on Jesus’ sexual ethics, including his stringent view of divorce.  And by the way, nobody on this planet is more vulnerable than the unborn, who the left seem to regard as nothing more than tissue until they’re born.  

Conservative (and many evangelical) churches, provide an opposite, though equally alarming snapshot.  They’re all about the sexual ethics, with vocal views on premarital sex, same-sex behavior, masturbation, abortion, and in some places, divorce and remarriage too.  Most of these values are derived from the same Bible the left uses to address systemic economic sin.  

My complaint is that in the same manner the left is stingy while preaching generosity, the right is sexually dysfunctional while preaching family values.  They crucify Bill Clinton for his sexual sins, and then elect a president who is in his third marriage and whose language and behavior would get him fired in most work environments, including FOX NEWS.  They even go to some lengths to call him a Christian in spite of the appalling lack of any compelling life evidence.  

Further, the right suffers from the same hypocrisy problem as the left.  Regarding our nation’s porn addiction, the 4 out of the top 5 states are in the Bible belt (Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia), the very places where God’s sexual ethic thunders from the pulpit weekly.   Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas, are three of top four states in per capita abortion rates.  Pro Life indeed.  Similarly, these same states, so pro-life, seem intent on protecting life in the womb, but once you’re born, you’re on your own.  Policies regarding family leave and access to health care and social services for those in poverty are weak. 

Let’s summarize.  You have a party that preaches generosity, but is stingy, and they elect a man with an exemplary marriage.  You have a party that preaches sexual ethics, but elects a womanizer, and whose states are most stridently red also happen to be national leaders in porn use and abortion.  

This is the cake not turned problem, and until we see the problem and acknowledge it, we’ll continue talking past each other, advocating that “my partial view of reality is better than your partial view of reality” We can do better. 

Why am writing this?   

1. So that we can stop wedding political parties with our faith, and begin to recognize that no party has the faith 

2. So that we can recognize, all of us, that preaching values does not equal living them.  

3. So that we can recognize that it’s in the human heart to view God’s values and directives as a buffet line, where we pick what we want, and leave the rest.  

4. So that we can repent of the buffet line mentality, our divisions into self referential and self-righteous little communities, and our arrogance – instead asking God to give us ears to hear what the spirit is saying, especially through those with whom we disagree, and so move toward the unity of the faith that will better represent God’s heart.  

In a world filled with burnt/raw pancakes, it would be refreshing to find a few that are properly cooked.  Perhaps you can help cook one!  

The Gifts of Christmas #4: Jesus breaks dividing walls

We live in an increasingly tribal world, where white supremacists feel empowered in new ways, European nations are finding xenophobic voices on the rise, and whole people groups, like the Kurds, find themselves at risk wherever they turn.  In spite of all the good work God has done in Rwanda, tensions still brew just under the surface there, and the developed world is dealing with an exponential increase in refugees, precisely because of tribalism.

With fears of “the other” on the rise, a look at Jesus life, from beginning to end, is like a drink of fresh cold water in the midst of the desert.  This is because Jesus loved all, breaking the normal social and tribal walls that so often isolate and divide. Consider:

1. The wise men were from the east, not Jewish, and among the first worshippers, along with shepherds who, by virtue of their work, were considered ceremonially unclean by the religious elite.

2. Early in his ministry, he goes out of his way “pass through Samaria” and engage with a woman who, by any standard of Jewish religious propriety, would have been an outsider.  She was a) a Samaritan, and Jews have no dealing with Samaritans b) a woman, and men have no dealings with women and c) living with a man ‘not her husband’, which would have rendered her unclean.  And yet here he is, talking theology with her, and eventually revealing his identity as Messiah.  She becomes an evangelist, telling others what she’d seen and heard, just like the shepherds before her.

3. Jesus heals a Greek woman’s daughter, commending her for her faith, and later, heals the child of a Roman soldier.

4. He calls a despised “tax collector” to become one of his disciples.

5. The complaint leveled against him by the religious establishment is that he spends time with “tax collectors and sinners”.

6. He advocates for a woman caught in “the very act of adultery” saving her life, forgiving her, and telling her to “sin no more”.

7. He tells a thief dying on the cross that he’ll be joining Jesus in paradise.

7. He even has a heartfelt and compassionate conversation with “a ruler of the Jews” who is part of the religious establishment

All these things offend the sensibilities of basically everyone, because Jesus refused to be confined to a single people group or party.  Rich or poor.  Jew or Gentile.  Slave or free.  Man or woman.  Married or those with failed marriages.  Undeniable sinner, or sinner covered in a veneer of religion – Jesus loved them all.

This is a great gift this Christmas season, because the reality is that those who love this way receive a much needed gift as a result of crossing social divides and loving those different than them – they receive the gift of joy!

I know lots of Christians, lots of religious people.  One thing I’ve learned is that its the people who “cross over” who find an element of joy in their lives unavailable to those who remain confined within the walls of “their own kind”.  This isn’t because crossing over is  easy.  It’s not.  It’s because crossing over is “the life for which we’ve been created” and when we cross over, we become aligned with the deepest part of our soul.

The gift of crossing over began early, as shepherds, judged as unclean, received a message from an angel and “crossed over” into the presence of a holiness that the religious establishment would have forbidden to them.  God, far from forbidding, initiated the invitation!  Jesus, we are told in Ephesians 2, has broken down the dividing wall.  This is a gift.

Have you unwrapped this gift, and begun enjoying relationships with those across the way – racially, economically, socially, politically? There’s joy “over there” friends, for those willing to follow Jesus and cross the divides.

Here’s the deal, as announced in Luke 2:10:

Good news 

Great joy 

For all people! 

There’ll be a banquet in the end, and most folks at the table won’t look like you; they maybe didn’t even vote like you.   But though the banquet’s still to come, the party’s started, so enter in – by crossing over!