Friday, December 7, 2018

The Price of Christmas

     The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. 
     Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. 
-Matthew 13:44-46)

You could probably have guessed that Christmas was going to cost you more this year than last. You just didn’t know how much more. PNC Wealth Management can help you with that.
     The financial organization has released, for the 35th year in a row, their Christmas Price Index. The index is a tongue-in-cheek (but accurate) look at the escalating price of Christmas, as seen through the classic Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
     According to PNC, this year it will cost you $170,609.46 to surprise your true love with the items in the song if you repeat the gifts each day as the song suggests (a total of 364 gifts). That’s up only one half of a percentage point from last year. On a budget? Then just buy each item in the song once for the low, low price of $25,969.43 – an increase of 1.7%. 
     Prefer to shop online? Shipping is going to add a considerable amount. Ever try to ship seven swans a-swimming? (I’m pretty sure they aren't available on Amazon Prime.)
     Higher food costs pushed the cost of six geese a-laying (laying eggs, as opposed to geese a-laying in the freezer of your grocery store) to $390, better than an 8% jump over last year - by far the largest increase in the index. The going rate for musicians has apparently increased as well: it’ll cost you $2,804.40 to hire eleven pipers piping and $3,038.10 for drummers drumming. (No word on whether you get a break if the pipers drum and the drummers pipe.)
     Strangely, while lords a-leaping will cost you $1,000 each (up $300 from last year), ladies dancing are a bargain at $7,552.89 for nine ($839.21 each for the sixth year in a row). Someone should take note of inequities in the salaries of men and women in the entertainment industry.  
     There is good news in the index: the prices of a partridge (just over $20), two turtle doves ($375), three French hens ($60.50 each), and calling birds (about $150 a piece) remained flat. Seven swans, a-swimming or not, are the most expensive items on the list ($13,125 for the set), but they haven’t gone up in the last couple of years.
     But for the biggest bargain in the index, look right in the middle of the song. For $750, you can get your true love a fist full of gold rings. That’s down over 9% from last year.
     I’m imagining one of those MasterCard commercials: “Five gold rings: $750. Seven swans a-swimming: $$13,125. A Christmas she’ll never forget: priceless.”
     Priceless. Lest we forget, that word describes what Christmas is really about better than it describes anything else. In all our rushing around, internet browsing, and catalog-perusing (“Does Harry and David even carry partridges or pear trees?”) for the perfect gifts, we can easily overlook the reason for the gifts we give. What we should be recalling as we make final preparations for another Christmas is that we give Christmas gifts because God gave a gift first. Our gifts seem to get more and more expensive every year, as our credit-card bills will attest in January. But maybe “pricey” and “priceless” are more different than the words themselves suggest. And maybe, if you’re like me, before you spend another dime on the one kind of gift, you need to take a minute or two to reflect on the other.
     A treasure hidden in a field. A pearl of great value. When Jesus wanted to talk about what it’s like to live in God’s world and pursue his agenda, he described it as a treasure so priceless that when you get a glimpse of it, you wouldn’t hesitate to give up everything you have to possess it. There isn’t much you could say that about, probably – something so valuable to you that you’d consider it a bargain to live on the street if only you could have that one thing. But that’s the very definition of “priceless,” isn’t it: so beyond our standard methods of measuring value that we can’t even place a price tag that would make sense on it? Something is really only priceless when it has value far beyond what human beings can attribute to it.
     Christmas, of course, is about the event and ultimately the person who was the focal point for this new reality God created for us. When Jesus talked about God’s kingdom as a pearl or a hidden treasure, he was also talking about himself as the one through whom that kingdom has come, and through whom it will come in its culmination. Let’s not forget that the gifts we give to one another should call our attention to the Gift he gives to us in Jesus. Let’s not forget that the gifts we receive from one another should remind us to receive graciously the Gift God gave to us graciously.
     Jesus comes to us first, even before we know enough to look for him or recognize him. Like the hidden treasure in the field, we uncover the gift unexpectedly, often while we’re all about other things. It has nothing to do with our goodness, or ingenuity, or perseverance. Jesus is God’s gift to give, and he offers it to us on his own initiative, out of his own goodness and grace, and in his own way and time. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….” How and why the treasure got into the field, we can’t say. How and why we were blessed to find it is not necessarily for us to know. “Saving is all his idea, and all his work…It’s God’s gift from start to finish!” (Ephesians 2:8, The Message) It’s left for us only to celebrate.
     And then again, the gift God gives us in Christ is like that valuable pearl; he fulfills our wildest dreams more completely than we could ever hope. By his grace, we find one day that he is everything we’re looking for, and more than we could ever expect. By his grace, we recognize that the greatest catastrophe to ever befall us would be to lose what we’ve been given, to have it in our grasp and let it slip away. By his grace, we come to know that all of the other trinkets we’ve spent our lives pursuing together don’t come close to matching the value of God’s single perfect gift.
     So that’s why the only response that makes sense is the response of the fortunate people in the parables: you let everything else go. The Lord who put aside equality with God and took on the limits and pains of humanity and our fallen world asks that we live his life after him. He asks that we rise above our preoccupation with self, loosen our grip on the false treasures that leave us unable to receive his gift, and be alert for the ways in which God will offer the gift of Christ to others through our lives. He asks us to follow him in giving to others: our time, our resources, our energy, and our lives
     There’s no Christmas Price Index to help us put a number on the gift God gave to us. There’s no way to value it. It costs much more than we could ever repay. It’s offered in grace, love, and compassion. But when you receive it – well, there’s no room for anything else, and no reason to want anything more. 
     As we give this Christmas, let’s think about how we have received God’s gift of Jesus Christ.

     There’s a limit on your credit cards. But God’s gift to you? Priceless. 

Friday, November 23, 2018

Old Testament

       Each of us should please our neighbors for their good,  to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself  but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. 
-Romans 15:3-4 (NIV)

“The Old Testament.”
     It just sounds bad, doesn’t it? I mean, in most any other context calling something old is a way of differentiating it from what’s new, and therefore preferable. For instance:
Why do I have to drive the OLD car?
Are you going to wear that OLD shirt again?
Isn’t it time to replace that OLD carpet?
My phone is getting OLD and slow.
My husband is getting OLD and slow.
     The Old Testament has a branding problem. Some people call it The Jewish Scriptures, but that doesn’t really help to make it sound more relevant, especially for non-Jews. Some people prefer The First Testament, but I’m not sure that helps a lot (and it sounds a little pretentious). Maybe you could call it The Story of Israel?  The Account of God’s People? I don’t know — neither of those seems to help.
     It’s more than just a branding problem, though. The Old Testament can be an obstacle to belief. It’s long and confusing, and there’s lots of war and killing and mayhem and sex, so it can seem a little like trying to base a faith system on Game of Thrones. What’s the difference between an Amorite and an Ammonite? Somebody point out En Gedi or Goshen on a map. 
     Most of what gives people doubts about the Bible is in the Old Testament. The age of the earth, the origin of human beings, the structure of the universe: the Old Testament makes claims about all of these things that seem incompatible with science. 
     And then there are the commands. Sure, nine of the Big Ten make sense. But what does building a parapet around my roof have to do with living a good life? Why shouldn’t I boil a young goat in its mother’s milk — oh, and why would I? Should I really not shave my sideburns? Is it really a big problem to wear a nice cotton/poly blend? And, if I can discard those commands, which others might also be disposable?
     You get what I’m saying, right? It’s no wonder that at least one high-profile preacher thinks we should “unhitch” Christianity from the Old Testament. Few Christians are willing to say stuff like that, but most of us read the Old Testament selectively, at best. The parts that are really confusing, or seem insensitive, or defy our best efforts to explain — well, we sort of leave those alone, don’t we?
     Good thing we have a New Testament. 
     Here’s the thing: the New Testament writers had another name for the Old Testament. They just called it The Scriptures, and, for them, it was pretty authoritative. All but two or three New Testament books quote from or allude to the Old Testament. While the New Testament writers made it clear that Christianity wasn’t contained by strict adherence to the old ways, they also made it clear that it wasn’t completely disconnected, either.
     When Paul wants to encourage the Christians in Rome to bear with each other instead of insisting on their own way, he pointed them to Jesus’ example. But to nail it down, he quoted from Psalm 69: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” He used the quote — from a different time and place, about a different person — to remind his readers that when they followed Christ in serving others over themselves, he would identify with them and take on himself whatever abuse they might receive.  
     Right after that, Paul tells his readers what he hopes that quotation accomplished: he wants the ancient examples of faithful people enduring suffering for God, and the encouragement that they received in their faithfulness, to give faithful people of his day hope that their trust in the same God would not go unrewarded. “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us,” he assures them. The first Christians didn’t think that the Old Testament was a puzzle that needed to be unraveled or irrelevant history to be ignored. They didn’t see those books as dead documents, but as the living Word of God to be received as a source of hope that the same God who was active and faithful to his people back in those days centuries in the past could be trusted in their own day and time. 
     That’s not to say that they believed everything in it could or should be obeyed to the letter in their day. Jesus himself was willing to walk back some of the commands of the Old Testament*, and the early church made the decision to welcome non-Jews who had faith in Jesus whether they obeyed any of the Old Testament commands or not. Salvation was definitively determined to rest in God’s work through Jesus, and not on obedience to the Old Testament.
     Strikingly, though, they didn’t see that as license to throw out the Old Testament — even as their own Scriptures were coming into existence. Even as their new identity in Christ replaced their old identities and loyalties, those Scriptures took on added meaning. They began to see in those Scriptures foreshadowing and anticipation of God’s final work of salvation, and began to see how Jesus’ work and death and resurrection were the last acts in the working out of God’s purposes in his world and in their lives.
     To be sure, working out what the Old Testament has to do with us today is, if anything, more complicated now than it was then. The story of the fall of Jericho doesn’t teach us that if we walk around the walls of a city -- provided we can find a city with walls to walk around — that God will knock those walls down. The story of David and Goliath doesn’t teach us to fling stones at our enemies, and Amos’ judgment against Damascus shouldn’t dictate policy in the Middle East. But seen as sources of endurance and encouragement, they can and should lead us to hope in the faithfulness of our God to his promises and to his people.   
     We don’t need to adopt the worldview of the Old Testament to see the hope it offers to God’s people and adopt it as our own. We don’t have to see every command as meant for us, every reference as a secret code to be deciphered. We read it, in short, to see God. We echo its psalms in our hearts as we lift our own voices to God. We see its commands not as a moral code to be obeyed to the letter, but as a revelation of God’s character. In its stories we look for, not obscure history, but the account of events in which God’s people back then found out just who this unchanging God is.
     You’ll find, I think, that reading it like that will never get old.

*He said, for instance, that the kosher food laws no longer applied, and that the location in which his followers worshipped was not important — both of which were central to Jewish identity in the Old Testament. He refused to allow divorce (except for sexual immorality), even though the Old Testament did. In the Sermon on the Mount, he “fulfills” the Law of Moses by redefining it as an expression of the perfect love of God.   

Friday, November 16, 2018

Words Made Flesh

      In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind…. 
     The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 
-John 1:1-4, 14 (NIV)

Unless you’ve been trying to avoid it, I imagine you’ve heard about the group of refugees known as the “Migrant Caravan.” The group of several thousand moving north from Honduras and other Central American countries toward, they hope, asylum in the U.S. has been a media talking point and political football for several weeks now. 
     Chances are, someone has told you what you ought to think about it. Someone at work, at school, on social media, or maybe a stranger at an airport — it seems like everyone has an opinion about this group. Some call them an “invasion.” Some hysterically claim, with little to no evidence, that they’ve been infiltrated by terrorists. Others, with maybe more sober views, recognize that many or most of them are people fleeing with their families from violence and danger in their homelands, hoping to make a new life in America. Maybe you’re having a hard time knowing what to believe.
     If so, I suggest you believe Gavin Rogers.
     Gavin is a San Antonio pastor who wasn’t exactly sure what to believe either. But he didn’t settle for Googling it, or for trying to make something coherent out of the competing views of the talking heads on TV. Neither did he wrap himself in the security and certainty of his own prejudices. Instead, he went to see for himself.
     He joined the migrant caravan.
     I mean, for four days Gavin traveled with them, ate with them, slept with them as they walked, hitchhiked, and rode trucks toward Tijuana, Mexico. Gavin has posted extensively on Facebook during his travels, so I won’t say too much about that here. Suffice to say that you should check out his page if you want some information about these refugees. He shares many stories of the people he’s met and lived with, including the teenager who held on to him to keep him from falling out of a truck, and the strangers who rushed up to him as they walked to return his wallet, which he’d unknowingly dropped. 
     Gavin says that many of the migrants he met have family members in the United States. Many want to get legal help in applying for refugee status. (I hope that, instead of more soldiers, our government will send some immigration lawyers!) He says some of the travelers he’s met have taken offers from Mexico, but that many are wary of seeking asylum there because they doubt that the country’s unstable political situation and threats of violence will be an improvement over the lives they’ve walked away from.
     Refugees who were willing to share their stories with Gavin told him of having their children kidnapped and other relatives killed in Central America. Their journey, he says, is “not about a better life in American terms, it’s just about living.” They want their kids to be educated. They want to “be free from violence and rape and murder.”
     Is everyone in the “caravan” a saint? No. Are there people there who might take advantage of the situation? Almost assuredly. I don’t know exactly what the U.S. should do, nor does Gavin. But what you take away from looking at his photos and reading his posts is what we should already know: that from a distance you can’t know people. That arguing about policy seems inappropriate after you put faces on the faceless horde that some in our country would like to use to scare us. That when you walk with people, learn their names, and hear their stories, things come into much clearer focus. 
     In other words, don’t knock the inner city until you’ve spent a few nights there. Don’t demean those on welfare until you’ve tried to put dinner on the table for minimum wage (or spent some time with someone who has). Don’t waste a moment trying to solve other peoples’ problems from a distance; if you really care about them, you’ll have to do it close up. And if you won’t get close, then all you’ve got is an uninformed opinion. 
     Gavin Rogers reminded me of this. But I didn’t learn it from him, originally. 
     When God acted to save us, he didn’t do it with words. Not really. Oh, I mean, I know we have Scripture, and I believe its words are from God. I know people have preached the gospel through the centuries using words. I’m writing words right now. I believe God has given us words, and I know that he’s used the words of his servants to do his work in the world. The last thing I want to do is devalue words.
     But that’s actually sort of my point: as useful and as powerful as words can be, the only One who can literally create worlds with his word didn’t act to save us with words. At least, not spoken or written ones.
     John goes to great lengths to describe God’s word. “If you know the Genesis creation story,” he says, “then you know how powerful God’s word is.” God’s word can’t be separated from him. It’s always been, just as God has always been, been there from the beginning. It’s the creative force behind everything that exists, even human life. When God speaks, what he speaks just is. 
     Even so, God didn’t save us with words. He didn’t speak our salvation into existence from a distance.
     Instead, John says, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
     Everyone in our world has words to share. Words to speak, write, post. Words to shout and growl through clenched teeth. Words used as projectiles to hurl at one another, words like knives in the back, whispered about one another. Words that carry lies, empty promises, fake news. We use words to proclaim our wisdom, our power, our superiority. We employ them to get other people to do what we want them to, or what we think they should, or what we believe is best. 
     There is no shortage of words about the “migrant caravan,” or whatever other issues you might think of. No shortage of words in our world, about anything.
     There is, however, a shortage of words made flesh. That’s what Gavin’s example reminds us of.
     May those of us, especially, who praise God for his word made flesh in Jesus, not hesitate to make our dwelling with those we would save. Let us be known for fostering children, feeding those who are hungry around our tables, visiting those in prison, spending time with people forgotten in nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals. Let us be known more for walking with the refugees of this world’s sin and death than giving our opinions about them. May we do it for no other reason than that our Savior did.
     And may we do it knowing that through our words made flesh, they might very well come to know the Word made flesh. They might see his glory.
     Next time we feel like speaking about something, let’s be sure we put flesh on our words first.

     Who can you walk with today?         

Friday, November 2, 2018

Jesus Is Political

“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,
to set the oppressed free 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
     Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled  in your hearing.” 
-Luke 4:16-21 (NIV)

“Jesus isn’t political.”
     I’ve heard that declaration all my life. It’s come from my own mouth often enough. In a Christian fellowship that doesn’t particularly encourage organized political engagement, it’s a phrase that allows us to keep our politics personal.
     There are good things about the “Jesus isn’t political” stance.
     For one thing, it might keep one political ideology from being conflated with the gospel. Not that any church or any Christian would do that intentionally, but sometimes it’s best if we guard ourselves against our unintentional mistakes, and it’s hard to deny that large sections of the church in our world have been co-opted and compromised by extreme adherence to a party line. (Sadly, much like the state churches in some formerly Communist countries, which were only legal if they had a member of the Party on the church board. Only, in our case, we’ve chosen this for ourselves.)
     Based on what we think “politics” means, “Jesus isn’t political” might even be correct. Jesus was neither Republican or Democrat, nor Libertarian, nor Green. You can’t sum him up — or dismiss him — by calling him Conservative or Liberal. (It’s interesting how political persuasions across the Conservative/Liberal spectrum all find something about Jesus to love — and something about him to ignore!) You have to do some twisting and editing of Jesus to get him to fit completely onto any party platform.
     There were political parties in Jesus’ day, and he didn’t fit well into any of those, either. The Pharisees thought he was too liberal. The Sadducees thought he went too far. The Zealots and Essenes wouldn’t have thought he went far enough. (Yes, those were political parties as well.)
     Sometimes, though, what we mean when we say “Jesus isn’t political” is more like this: “I don’t want to think about what my faith has to do with my politics.”
     Or, “I’m too invested in my political philosophy to seriously consider what Jesus might have to say.”
     Or, “I prefer huddling with those who are like me politically over engaging with people whose experience  might force me to rethink my positions.”
     Or, perhaps, even something like this: “My political positions mean more to me than does following Jesus.”
         We sometimes argue that the church should be about preaching the Gospel. Hear, hear. The gospel — the “good news” — that Jesus came preaching was regime change: God’s kingdom is near, and it will supplant the schemes by which the rulers of this world attain and hold power. It’s only because we’ve twisted “kingdom of God” into something other than the obvious meaning of those words that we can think he wasn’t being political. He told his hearers they should “believe the good news,” not in a “Huh, isn’t that interesting” sort of way, but by repenting of all the stuff in our lives that doesn’t line up with God’s rule of the world.
     Look at the text Jesus used to declare his mission in the world, from the book of Isaiah. He found in that text a light that illumined his own priorities: to, by the Spirit of God, bring good news to the poor, release for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and freedom for those who are oppressed. He came to announce “the year of the Lord’s favor” to those who need a year like that most. He wasn’t shy about it all: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
     In any other context, we’d say Jesus was being political. He’s talking about dealing with poverty, imprisonment, health care, and human rights. But because we hear those words in church we sometimes say Jesus was talking about the spiritually poor, imprisoned, blind, and oppressed. We gather to thank him that he saved us when we were spiritually in that condition — and somehow manage to think that he’s a “no comment” on political questions that most impact those who are literally poor, imprisoned, blind, and oppressed! (Even though he did, literally, spend his life ministering to exactly those people!) 
     I’m not talking about whether the Republicans or Democrats have the right answers as to how we should deal with these problems: I’m saying that Jesus cares about them and expects his people to do something. I’m not making a statement about how much government should be involved: if the church was doing its job, maybe the government’s role wouldn’t be such a big issue one way or the other. 
     Jesus is political. The things he taught and did should push those of us who follow him out into the world to teach and do the same things. Following him will, inevitably, have political ramifications. It should make us consider our votes carefully, and for the right reasons. It should make us care about those who haven’t managed to get the kinds of breaks in this world that we have. It should make us inclined to take the side of the powerless over the powerful, and it should make us instantly suspicious when anyone demands loyalty to a country or a system or a party or a platform over human beings created in God’s image.
     We haven’t always done well with everything on that list.
     Jesus is political. If you still doubt it, then look at how his life ended. He wasn’t crucified because most people felt his message was comfortable and non-threatening. “We have no king but Caesar,” they cried out as they demanded his blood. They didn’t say that because they missed the point. They said that because they got the point. Better, perhaps, than those of us who wear his name sometimes do. 
     So, let us do what he says: let us “repent and believe the good news.” Not the good news that Jesus died to save me — I mean, that’s good for me, but what about everyone else? No, the gospel Jesus preached is the gospel that God’s kingdom is kicking down the door and renewing and restoring all the damage that Satan has done to the world and the people he created and loves so much. It’s the gospel that, through his death and resurrection, we are set free to live new lives as instruments of God’s righteousness in our world. That, dear reader, is most definitely political; it was in Jesus’ day, and it will be in our day too, for as long as those on top in our world would enrich themselves at the expense of those on the bottom.
     The church’s answer to the political division in our world shouldn’t be that Jesus isn’t political; it should be that he is, and it should be to invite others to come to know him.

     It should be to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, with our words and with our lives.     

Friday, October 19, 2018

Jesus and Women: Feeling Like An Impostor

     May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 
     Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. 
-Romans 15:5-6 (NIV)

     I'd I was reading an article at Sojourners Blog this week. Julie Clawson wrote about women and “Impostor Syndrome” – the secret fear that women have that they’re not as intelligent, capable, and professional than their peers. Clawson suggests anecdotally that this fear is even subconscious – she relates a dream in which she’s talking with Michelle Obama and is worried that she sounds like “a complete idiot” to the First Lady.
     I found myself pretty interested in what Clawson calls “Impostor Syndrome” – especially when she suggested that the church actually encourages this feeling in women. Actually, she didn’t suggest it as much as stated it explicitly as fact. “Impostor syndrome,” she writes, “causes women to dismiss praise, add disclaimers to their statements, and constantly feel less intelligent or mature than their peers. In short, to mirror the qualities and virtues of a nice and humble Christian girl.”
     A couple of things struck me as I read. The first was that, if we’ve somehow managed to equate the biblical virtue of humility with a lack of confidence and self-esteem, we’ve missed the boat. Humility, as I understand it, is about seeking God and others above our own interests. It isn’t feeling inadequate; it’s knowing you’re more than adequate, giving praise to God, and not taking inordinate pride in it. Humility is recognizing that God is God and I’m not, and that because I’m not I’m of no more – or less – intrinsic worth than anyone else. 
     But a humble surgeon doesn’t, because he’s humble, think that an accountant is as qualified to remove a gallbladder as he is.
     The second thing to strike me was to consider the ways the church has contributed to this thinking among women. Among churches that distinguish between “ordained” and “non-ordained,” and that generally don’t include women as potentially among the ordained – or that ordain men and women for different functions – has there perhaps been more value placed on the ordained? Have women been taught in that way – unintentionally, surely, but no less genuinely – that they are somehow second-class citizens in God’s kingdom? That they should sit and be quiet and mind the children and kitchen while those who are more capable than they are lead the church?
     Then it struck me that in churches that don’t explicitly “ordain” – like mine – this could be even more of a problem. 
     In churches like mine, the people who seem important, the decision-makers, are the people who are in front of the church on Sunday mornings. The people who are on the “ministry staff.” The people who are elders and deacons and ministry leaders. In churches like mine, these people are, almost without exception, male. It’s no wonder that women might struggle with feelings of inferiority when they have no personal stake in what is a very important part of their lives. And for the women who know they have more to offer and say so, churches like mine might sometimes tell them, in effect, that good Christian girls know to sit quietly and demurely while the men make the important decisions.
     Not that we intend to do that. Oh, sometimes we might, but I think by and large it’s an unintended consequence of the way we read the Bible and the way our churches are built to resist change. 
     But the fact that it might be unintended doesn’t make it any less destructive.
     I know that churches that get their identity from Scripture have real struggles with some of the biblical passages that are regarded as limiting the roles available to women. But earlier generations of believers came to decisions about slavery, for instance, that at the time were regarded by some as running counter to biblical teaching. Those believers came to their conclusions because the gospel taught them that all people were equally loved and valued by God. Their convictions motivated them to stand against slavery, and in time the church vindicated their stand.
     In any case, any application of Scripture that causes the church to give any of their members the impression that they’re second-class citizens is wrong. Period. It may be well-intentioned, but it’s just wrong.
     So churches like mine need to take a long look at whether we’re reading the Bible well, and behaving toward one another in ways that take the gospel seriously. To take texts that may limit what women are asked to do in public worship and use them to shut them out of decision-making and direction-setting, or make it difficult for them to find ways to use the gifts God has given them, is mistaken.
     We need to listen to each other. I’m glad Clawson wrote about this, because it made me realize that sometimes in the church we don’t hear each other very well. We focus on defending territory and accurately interpreting Scripture, without noting the irony that when we devalue people in any way we violate some of the most central and consistent truths of Scripture. I’m glad to have had the chance to hear what Clawson said.
     But I also want to say something that might surprise her. I have Impostor Syndrome too. 
     There are times when I’m not sure I’m capable or intelligent or talented enough to carry the responsibilities I have. I’ve sat through conversations where I’ve tried to say as little as possible so the other person wouldn’t know what a moron I felt like I was. I’ve felt like my critics are more accurate than my supporters, and I’ve sometimes chosen not to try something because I didn’t think I was up to it. (I'm already worrying about how people will respond to what I've written here.)
     If I had a conversation with Michelle Obama, Julie – even in a dream – I would probably feel idiotic too.
     I don’t mean to take anything away from Julie, there, or to suggest that her concerns aren’t valid. I’m saying I understand them. I understand them first-hand, and that should help me be aware that others in my church might be feeling that way too. It should help us to realize that we're not as different as we might think we are. It should help us find ways together to glorify God “with one mind and one voice” – and yet make sure that all our voices can be heard. It should help us learn to accept one another as we learn more and more about the totality of acceptance that Jesus has shown us. And God will be praised. 

     And maybe no one among us will have to feel like an impostor anymore.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Jesus and Women: Faces in the Crowd

     A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, "If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed." Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
     At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who touched my clothes?”
     "You see the people crowding against you," his disciples answered, "and yet you can ask, 'Who touched me?’
     But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering." 
-Mark 5:24-34 (NIV)

     I'd love to know more about this women, wouldn't you – this woman who was so desperate to be healthy that she was willing to ignore social conventions and religious laws? For twelve years, she had lived with the bleeding. If it's the kind of bleeding it seems to be, then she had lived as well with the pronouncement of the Law that she was “unclean.” After so long, surely she had resigned herself to never being well, never joining in the joyful processions to the Temple for the festivals, never being a fully-participating part of the community. And, depending on how scrupulous her husband, family, and friends might have been, she might have resigned herself to missing much more than that. For at least some of the people around her, I imagine, any physical contact would have been out of the question.
     So it's a true indicator of her desperation – and I think of her alienation from people around her – that she slips through the crowd to try and touch Jesus unnoticed. There's no raising of the voice from her, like the leper or the blind man who cried out to Jesus for healing. She doesn't even come and kneel respectfully, like the synagogue leader who got to Jesus just before she did. “If I can just touch his cloak, I'll be healed,” she reasons. 
     She's quiet. Easy to overlook. She's OK with that, because that's just the way she wants it. If she can just “accidentally” brush against him in the crowd, then no one's the wiser. There will be no embarrassing confrontation, where she has to say publicly what's wrong with her and receive the censure and self-righteousness of her peers. If she can just brush against him in the press of the mob, she can go away well and no one will ever have to know why.
     I wonder how many women in our world are like her. 
     Thankfully, some women have found their voices. They’ve had opportunity, and people have supported them, and they’ve spoken out about the terrible things they’ve suffered. The victims of Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby are some. Others whose victimizers are sufficiently well-known have been deemed newsworthy enough to gain a hearing for their stories. It’s good that their stories are being heard, especially when they are believed and some degree of justice is done. 
     But even those stories are not always heard, or believed.
     And, for every one that is heard, I have to wonder how many women are lost in the crowd.
     Valli Forrister was. In 1989, when she was a student at Lipscomb University in Nashville, she agreed to help a man who said his car needed to be jump-started. She let him get in her car so he could direct her to where his car was supposedly parked. In an alley, he pulled a knife on her and raped her repeatedly.
     She refused to talk about what had been done to her. She worked at her job, lived her life, and told very few people. She suffered nightmares and panic attacks in silence. She was afraid of being judged, of people at school or church telling her what she had done wrong to bring what was done to her on herself. 
     Every year, on the anniversary of the rape, she would drive to that alley, all alone, just to prove that she could.
     Finally, on the tenth anniversary of the rape, she asked her pastor to go with her. They prayed, and sang songs and walked through the alley together. Eventually, Valli was able to tell her story to other people, and the nightmares and panic attacks stopped. 
     Two women, lost in the crowd. Unwilling — unable — to raise their voices and tell their stories.
     And it was Jesus and his people who finally gave them both the opportunity to speak.
     “Who touched my clothes?” It almost seems like Jesus puts this woman on the spot. Some well-meaning person might counsel him today to be a little more sensitive. But what actually happens is that he gives this woman a voice. She wasn’t going to speak out and tell what had happened to her and what had been done to her. She had every intention of slipping away after surreptitiously touching the hem of his clothing. Instead, she was able to stand in that crowd and tell her story. And she got to hear Jesus commend her faith and send her in peace to live a new life.
     And so I believe that his church should be the champions of women like her, like Valli Forrister, women who don’t know how to begin to tell their stories but who reach out their hands in desperation and hope and faith, believing that God will take notice and heal them. Valli wasn’t sure that she could find healing in the church. Maybe that uncertainty came from previous experience, maybe it didn’t. But I pray that churches will unfailingly be places where women can tell their stories and find listening people who will share their grief and offer love, support, and hope. I pray that among us, women who have been hurt and wronged can hear us commend their faith and offer them peace. We can’t heal them — only Jesus heals. But his people can help to make sure that reaching hands can come in contact with the hem of his garment.
     There are women in our churches, in our schools, at our offices, and in our neighborhoods whose stories are lost in the crowd. They’ve stopped even trying to tell them. The world as it is has not given them many reasons to believe that they’ll be heard. May we be people who, through loving and listening, give them back the voice that’s been taken from them.
     May we introduce them to the one who can offer them peace.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Jesus and Women: Better

     As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 
-Luke 10:38-40 (NIV)

     When my son was a kid, one morning he spilled something at the table. With orange juice or whatever it was running everywhere, Laura felt that this was a teachable moment. He was still little, but old enough to start taking some responsibility for his own messes, so instead of just cleaning it up for him she told him that he needed to help her. Less than excited about the possibility, Josh resisted a little. “When you grow up, your wife isn’t going to want to clean up your messes,” Laura told him.
     To which Josh shot back, in all seriousness, “Well, I’ll just get a wife who’s agreeable.”
     Josh cleaned up the mess. I tried my best not to laugh, and mostly failed.
     When I was a kid, the “traditional” roles for men and women still mostly proliferated. My sister and I were teenagers, or almost, when Mom took a part-time job as a church secretary. She still got home about the time we got home from school. I was in high school, or maybe even past high school, when she really restarted her career at a large hospital. Until then, Mom was the traditional mother and housewife. She’d drive us to things, cook meals, take care of the house, and, yes, clean up our messes. 
     Thinking back on it now, most of my friends grew up the same way. Their moms were home during the day, like my mom. Those who weren’t, as I remember it, were the ones whose husbands were no longer in the picture. They “had to work,” you see. It doesn’t seem that long ago, but in some ways it was light-years from the world we live in today. In a lot of families now, both parents have jobs outside the home. When a parent does choose to stay home, it isn’t always the mother anymore. Women can take maternity leave knowing their jobs will be there when they return. Traditional roles have changed. Expectations are different.
     To borrow Josh’s expression, “agreeable” wives don’t look the same as they used to.
     In the world Jesus lived in, the expectations for women revolved around the home to an even greater extent than the prevalent expectations of America 40 or 50 years ago. For women, care of the home and family was their sphere. Why would they be at public gatherings? What business did they have interacting with men who weren’t their husbands? Why would they need to learn a trade or get an education? None of that had to do with the raising of children and the handling of the business of the home. 
     In the case of Mary and Martha, you see those expectations made explicit. Martha is furious, and — from the point of view of the world in which she lived — justifiably so. To her way of thinking, Mary has no business sitting out there listening to Jesus teach like…like she thinks she’s one of his disciples. There’s work to be done. Food to be prepared. All these guys are going to want to eat soon. Dinner won’t make itself. 
     To our ears, her complaints sound unenlightened and sexist. “If those guys are hungry enough, they’ll find something to eat,” we’d say. But this is her world, not ours, and in her world her complaints are absolutely understandable. If there were 13 guys in that room with Mary, I guarantee you that 12 of them were thinking some version of the same thing.
     The one who isn’t thinking that, though, is the One whose opinion matters. 
     “Mary has chosen what’s better,” Jesus tells Martha. He gently chides her for being concerned about so many things, being so caught up in all that society expects women to be, that she’s lost sight of the one thing that does matter — the kingdom of God. Trying to be the woman her world says she should be has made it impossible for her acknowledge that her sister has made the right choice in sitting and listening to Jesus. 
     Jesus isn’t telling Martha, as we sometimes assume, that it’s wrong for her to do the things women traditionally did in her world. The problem is that her preoccupation with what women are supposed to be and do — not to mention her own stress and anxiety — doesn’t leave a lot of room for Mary’s desire to be a disciple. 
     It’s tempting for us to import our own assumptions about gender roles to any and all situations. Since I grew up with my mother at home with me, I might assume that mothers should be home with their kids. I might consider that better than the alternatives of two-career households and working mothers. But, of course, that’s insensitive to the many mothers who are forced by circumstances to work. It’s insulting to the mothers who choose to raise children and also find great satisfaction in their careers, and believe that having both makes them better mothers. It disregards all those women who have managed to do both. (And also the fact that no one ever asks fathers to choose between a career and fatherhood!)
     Jesus didn’t share the assumptions about women that ran unquestioned throughout the place and time he lived. If you want to talk about how Jesus treated women, you really have to start there. Luke — who mentions women pretty often in his gospel — tells us that several women traveled with him and helped to support him. They’re mentioned in the same breath as “the Twelve” — they’re disciples, just like those men whose names are better-known. If you wonder how common that was in his day, look again at how frustrated Martha gets at her sister sitting and learning from Jesus in her own house!
     Don’t let your assumptions about what women should be go unexamined — even if you’re a woman too. Those assumptions come from all kinds of places, from what we had or didn’t have growing up, from what we are or wish we could be, and streams from a thousand other sources. They come together in confluence and lead us to make pronouncements about what is “better” for women to do, to be, to aspire to, to value. Often, those assumptions have a lot to do with how women are treated in our world: whether they’re listened to, respected, seen as credible, and accepted, or whether they’re dismissed, ignored, overlooked, and patronized. Women are abused in our world for not being “better” wives. Women are told how it would be better for them to dress, to whom they should speak and how, where it’s safe for them to go. They feel tolerated, not welcomed, in many companies and organizations where they have to navigate a labyrinth of expectations in order to carve out some kind of a place for themselves. Let’s face it: even in churches women aren’t always welcomed as equals.
     If we follow Jesus, we’ll say with him that what’s “better” for women is the same thing that’s “better” for men. Instead of being concerned with the “many things” that society tells women they should be, we’ll all together, women and men, choose the better thing of sitting at his feet and learning from him.
     Surely we can all be agreeable about that.


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