Friday, October 10, 2014

Hill Country

      “Now then, just as the LORD promised, he has kept me alive for forty-five years since the time he said this to Moses, while Israel moved about in the wilderness. So here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong  today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous  to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the LORD promised me that day.  You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified,  but, the LORD helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.”
-Joshua 14:10-12 (NIV)

Age is relative. It’s all in how you feel, and most of the time I don’t feel very old.
    Really, most of the time I feel like I’m still too young to be running around unsupervised. I’m not old, not really, in fact I don’t even mind telling you my age. I’m 46. Not old at all, by most realistic measures. Still fairly young, by some. My health is good. I can still do everything I want to do.
    And yet, sometimes I do feel old.
    I catch sight of a gray hair in the mirror. I’m reminded of the bit of extra weight I carry. I do a couple of flights of stairs — I can still do them fast, but I’m breathing hard when I do. I play tennis with a younger guy and realize I used to move around like he does. I have to get out my glasses to read something — or worse, I ask my son what it says. Little things. Nothing debilitating. Just signs, really, like the first leaves starting to change color in the autumn. Reminders that old age is coming. Fifty is really close. Which means 60 isn’t as far away as it used to seem. Fact is now that over half my life is probably behind me.
    That’s a cheery thing to consider, no?
    The teenagers at church now call me “Mr. Odum.” (I always want to look over my shoulder for my dad when they say that.) I’m taking my son on a college visit this weekend, and I’m reminded that he’s growing up, that sooner rather than later now Laura and I will be empty nesters. No rush, but it will happen, and it will happen relatively soon now.
    So sometimes, yeah, I start to feel a little old.
    Here’s the thing, though: I wouldn’t do 25 again if I could. Oh, there are things I’d probably go back and fix if I could, and some things I’d like to be able to re-experience from time to time. There are things about the past I miss, and things about my current life that in ten years I’ll no doubt look back on with nostalgia. I don’t think this is the classic mid-life crisis, and I don’t anticipate buying a Corvette anytime soon. Feeling that life is going by quickly doesn’t necessarily mean feeling like it’s passing you by. Youth isn’t an ideal state, and isn’t to be worshipped or venerated.  That’s something our society, with its quirky and ultimately destructive emphasis on youth and beauty, needs to learn.
    See, I’m a lot smarter now, in a lot of ways, than I was 20 years ago. I’m a lot more competent at the things that matter than I was then. I realize that isn’t always the case — but it usually is. In our societal desperation to arrest the aging process, we short-change ourselves and those around us. We trade experience and wisdom gained through a few years of living for a preoccupation with staying young, and that’s a devil’s bargain. Age will always catch up.
    Caleb used to seem to me to be some cantankerous old fool who didn’t know that his day had passed. I mean, really: he’s grabbing his sword to run the Anakites out of their walled cities in the hill country at the age of 85? You want somebody to say, “Come on, grandpa, there’s a great assisted-living building in Jericho.” I wonder if the younger generation of Israelites started avoiding him during that 40 years of wandering. By the end of those four decades, it was only him and Joshua left from that generation of Israelites that left Egypt together. I bet he had some killer “back in my day” stories: “Back in my day, we got water from a rock. From a rock!”  I used to think he was kind of the Brett Favre of the Hebrews — amazing that he can still play, but doesn’t he know when to quit?
    Now, though, it seems to me that Caleb learned a couple of things over his long life. The easy one is that God could be trusted, that when he gives his word you can take it to the bank. That hill country was his. God had told him so. That’s the one we like to learn, the truth we love to come to believe. Our God is faithful to his promises. Most of us who are people of faith come to that one sooner or later. It’s comforting to us.
    But Caleb learned the truth that a lot of us never do, even though it goes hand-in-glove with the promise of God’s faithfulness. It’s simply this: when God gives a promise, he also gives a mission. That’s not as easy or comfortable. Most of us are tempted to think that old age is the time when we retire and enjoy the fruits of our labor, so to speak. And so we wonder why Caleb doesn’t just settle down in the countryside, plant a garden, play with the grandkids, and let the younger folks take the fortified cities. “You’ve earned it,” we’d tell him, and in doing so we’d be sentencing him to death.
    Because that’s when you get old: not when you start to lose your hair, or your teeth, or your hearing, but when you lose your mission.
    Losing your mission is what makes you miserable, makes you sit and wait for age to catch up to you. When you lose your mission, you lose your sense of purpose, your connection to the work that God is doing in the world now. You start making pronouncements that start with, “In my day…” instead of asking questions about the work God is about today. When you lose your mission, it starts to dawn on you that fulfillment of many of God’s promises are only recognized in the carrying out of the work he gives us to do. Like Caleb. That was his hill country, but he had to go take it.  
    So, instead of focusing on my age, I’m thinking about the hill country. I want to share life and love and joy with my wife as I get older. I want to do some things for the kingdom of God that I’ve excused myself from while my son was growing up. I want to be present for my parents and in-laws as they get older. I want to move gracefully and graciously into a new, and even better, relationship with my son. I want to pass on to the next generation what God has taught me through his faithfulness and love. I want to be bolder about sharing my faith with the people in my life, and at the same time better about hearing their stories and helping them see how God has always been the main character.  I want to keep learning, and I want to write, and I want to work hard to make my preaching deeper and better and more compelling.

    From where you’re standing, the hill country probably looks a little different. You know where it is, though, and you know that it’s worth spending the rest of your life fighting for, because it’s part of God’s work in your world. So don’t waste a moment worrying about your age. Think Caleb cared that his hair was thinning? God has plenty for you to do, enough to fill the rest of your life. Praise him for his promises, and get to work on his mission. That’s how you keep from getting old!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Women, Reconciliation, and the New Creation

     So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
-2 Corinthians 5:16-20 (NIV)

Historically speaking, the NFL probably has a better record on the treatment of women than the church.
    In fairness, the church has a much longer history than the NFL. Our record isn’t good, though. The church has blamed women for the Fall. Targeted women in (literal) witch hunts. Counseled them to go back and be “better wives” to the men who abused them. Told women who couldn’t or didn’t have children that they were missing out on their highest purpose. Excluded them from having a voice in the work of God’s kingdom and the life of the church. Argued that they should not be allowed to get an education, vote, work outside the home, or receive equal pay. Women have been considered by the church temptresses who lead men astray, fragile china dolls to protect, emotionally childlike, or strident and aggressive. Pretty consistently, when you look at the battles women have fought in the public sphere in America, you find the church on the wrong side. Oh, we’ve come around in most cases, but usually only after the force of law and public opinion has pushed us to the side of right.
    To be sure, there are biblical texts that have seemed sufficient to support our positions: man as the “head” of women in 1 Corinthians 11, the commands for women to be “silent” and be “in submission” in 1 Corinthians 14 , and to learn in “quietness” and “submission” in 1 Timothy 2, in particular. Those passages are there, and they say something, and those who find authority in the Bible are right to try to figure out what they say and how to go about obeying them. It’s true that if public opinion and Scripture conflict, the church should come down on the side of Scripture. I do think that, in most cases, wrongs done to women by the church have been done out of a desire to obey the Bible, protect women, or both.
    And yet you know where roads paved with good intentions often end up.
    I think maybe we’ve been wrong in our treatment of women so often because we’ve let a couple of passages of rather limited scope color the way we read other passages — or obscure them entirely. So, without dismissing those texts I mentioned above, let me remind you of a few others that should be taken just as seriously, and maybe be seen as more primary, in teaching the church how to treat women.
    For instance, Genesis reminds us of God’s creative intent. Both men and women are created in God’s image .  That’s in the first narrative of the creation of human beings, which says nothing about woman being created out of man. It’s just very straightforward — God created people, male and female, and created them in his image. There’s no evidence of hierarchy, of women being subordinate or secondary or of less importance, and in fact they are absolutely necessary for human beings to follow God’s command that they “increase in number, and fill the earth, and subdue it.
    Genesis 2 tells the story from a different point of view, but don’t try to make it say more than it does. In this version of the story, woman is created out of man. Still, there is no hint of subordination. It’s still God who does the creating, not man. Creating her out of him is an acted parable, an answer to the problem of man’s being alone.  God solves the problem by making him a “suitable helper,” literally out of the same stuff from which he is made.
    Let me reiterate: there is no hint of subordination. Though Paul later makes a couple of points about man’s being created first, there is no emphasis on that in this text. That the woman is created as a “helper” doesn’t necessarily imply subordination either; it’s probably just as accurate, given the context, to translate the word as “companion,” because that’s what God has determined that man needs. Not someone to clean up after him or cook for him  or serve him, but someone to be with him. A partner.
    And, in fact, that’s how the man takes this new presence in the Garden. He calls her “bone of my bone” and “flesh of my flesh,” and the writer makes the obvious connection there: this is why a man leaves his family and unites with his wife — he recognizes a partner when he sees one. There is no order to be upheld, no God-ordained roles to preserve. Just partners, companions, living together in God’s world as equals.
    That’s why, by the way, we struggle so much with Jesus’ answer to the question about divorce. The problem is that Jesus isn't answering our question — not really. What he’s responding to is an assumption that a woman can be put aside like an old shoe when she no longer meets with her husbands’ approval. Jesus’ answer is intended to protect women (who in his day had no rights in a divorce) by forcing a man to consider God’s intention in creation, and to see how negating the commitment he’s made to his wife — for any reason — cuts against God’s creative work.
     Paul, for all the accusations of misogyny leveled against him, is in truth nothing of the kind. Paul believed that, in Jesus, a new creation had come, and that anyone who was in Christ was a part of it. In that new creation, he wrote, God was restoring his good world by reconciliation. In Jesus, God was reconciling the world to himself, and then giving believers in Jesus “the ministry of reconciliation.” It’s our job, in short, to announce that God is reconciling his fragmented creation, and also to act on God’s authority to create reconciliation. And so it’s a part of the church’s mandate that we be careful to speak and act in ways that affirm God’s creative intent in making man and woman companions and partners who bear equally the image of God. It’s a part of our responsibility to affirm, as Paul says elsewhere, that in Christ there is no male and female, but that the two are one because of Jesus. Injustice toward women, even in the name of God, is a relic of the old creation, the “worldly point of view” with which human beings regarded each other before Christ came. In the new creation initiated by the death and resurrection of Jesus, reconciliation and a return to God’s creative intent are in order.
    Like all the rest of our life with Jesus, reconciliation between men and women will have to be lived out relationally, in our marriages, in our workplaces and schools, and in our churches. It may mean letting go of attitudes passed down to us from respected forebears in our families and churches. It will surely require listening to the women in our lives tell their stories, even when what they have to say is difficult to hear. It will surely demand prayer and faith and submission to the work of the Holy Spirit in us.

    How else, though, can we adequately witness to the new creation, the kingdom of God that has come in Jesus. Why will the world believe us if we can’t get this basic thing right?