A Rose is a Rose is a Rose. Abuse is Abuse is Abuse.

(An Autobiography)

To begin, this blog post has been a project of many months. For years in a previous relationship, I was abused. It took me years to understand what that meant, much less admit I was allowing it to happen to me and that I had no self-esteem because of it. But, here, after being free of abuse for over two years, I have put into words much of what I struggled with over the seven years (four married) in that previous relationship. Following this autobiographical post, I will be posting some topics about how we as Christians must address the issue of marital abuse as a topic of major importance in the church. Giving love and life is our job, and women (mostly women – though note: a good number of men will experience this too) need to know they are worthy, loved children of God who matter – and do not deserve anything doled out by their hurtful spouses. I firmly believe ending the cycle of abuse (which almost always means fully severing abusive relationships) is the only way to redemption – for both the abused and the abusers.

What does “marriage” mean for the woman who has no control?

She cannot fathom the abiding and trusting love other women have for their husbands (though she tries her very best to mimic it socially).

She keeps silent as her girlfriends recount their husbands’ good deeds, deep love, and generous gifts – even in their imperfections, they are praised.

She holds her head low when others are celebrating – because no one in her home will celebrate her successes (or support her in her failings).

She is alone, even as she is forcibly encouraged to stay home with her husband. She paints a fine picture of the perfect household – she’s got a little house, some pets, and a lot of lies to tell others about how good life is.

She tries to forget what he says to her – that she is a slut if she wears clothing he deems inappropriate, she is cheating on him if she sees a friend away from home, she is a terrible homemaker if she comes home late and asks for help, that her family is horrible/ridiculous/unbearable, that her faith community is backward and boring, that he knows her inmost secrets and could tell anyone if she dared utter bad things about him, that she is ugly (and also by his silence never speaks of her beauty).

She wants nothing more than this man she married to appreciate her, be proud of her, love her unconditionally. Those vows are ignored.

She makes excuses for his absence at major functions or bad attitude or poor spending habits.

She hides behind a thin veil of happiness and lives on the love and joy others give her and experience around her, even as her own joy light diminishes.

She grasps for reasons to love him – she cares about him, she wants him to be well. To be kind. To stop yelling.

She tries to bargain with him – pleads with him to be reasonable and offers alternatives to constant conflict.

She begs him to stop screaming.

She gives in to his demands to avoid the fighting.

She cries herself to sleep.

When they are out together, she longs for real companionship, but he keeps his distance – he will not hug her, hold her hand, or kiss her. She is ashamed and embarrassed that she is not publically loved like her friends. She pretends to be fine with it. She acts like it’s totally normal to be so different. She hides her hurt.

She tries to keep life going – busying herself with other tasks. If her tasks keep her away too long, the phone rings, a jealous husband on the line screaming at her, blaming her for his problems at home, and accusing her of adultery – as she sits, alone, after a long day of hard work, and remains completely faithful to the screaming man she cannot seem to please.

She cries herself to sleep.

He insists on spending money on himself, making poor investments. She is chastised if she even considers spending money on herself: “You don’t need any more clothes.” “Your relaxation doesn’t matter” (even as his tools, equipment, and other items do matter). So she quits asking and chooses to never buy anything for herself, hardly. Her first priority must be keeping money available to prevent the financial arguments.

She no longer matters – only keeping the peace does.

She continues to withdraw into herself, pretending to the rest of the world that nothing is happening – lying to herself and to everyone else. She cannot face the truth.

She cannot admit to anyone else what is really happening, how helpless she feels.

He makes her feel useless – in the home, in bed, as a minister, a student, a friend.

He sighs and complains at her actions, from her decision to attend school to her lack of desire for the hateful man she’s married to.

She holds her dogs tightly – the only unconditional love in the home.

She cries herself to sleep.

She keeps hoping this is normal marriage stuff, but her gut tells her differently.

He blames others when he doesn’t succeed: “It’s their fault it’s not done – they are just horrible people ruining my work.” “You are the one who had me start this stupid project.” But he was too prideful to ask for help, and instead spent his time angry at his own failures, using that anger to verbally punish his wife – the one thing he felt like he could control.

She stayed afraid of him. Afraid of a man who promised to love and cherish her.

Every day was walking on eggshells – she never knew what would set him off. And some days, she was just plain scared of him.

He would get so angry, yell so loudly – he would be in her face, demanding and accusing and putting her down.

He’d bully her, belittle her, blame her, and shame her. He’d leave her alone to hurt. He’d never apologize (except for when it was for his own gain).

He’d be so abusive with his words and actions, it felt like the only thing left to do was assault her physically. He always held his hands back from doing physical harm – but only just barely, sometimes.

And without “valid” abuse (i.e., physical harm), she decided it wasn’t “real abuse” and would stay silently, enduring it all, without telling anyone what was happening – after all, “he didn’t hit me.”

And therein lay his control.

By NOT hitting her, he controlled her. He continually abused her yet she had no “valid” reason to leave. She had no escape, or so she thought.

As a devout Christian, “divorce was not an option.” And on she stayed, even when his words tore her down – she stayed, afraid to so much as change the radio station in the car or come home a few minutes late – not because he would physically beat her, but because she wouldn’t ever hear the end of it. Maybe a few minutes of screaming. Maybe a few hours. Maybe days or weeks or months or years.

She was never safe to be honest about her feelings. When she tried, she was shot down. When she threatened, she was scared into submission. When she insisted on counseling, he scoffed.

And she hid. She hid all her pain. She carried the weight of the world on her shoulders. She could not genuinely smile or enjoy herself. She just pretended it was all not happening…

Until she could pretend no more.

Little by little, she was encouraged. By books. By thoughtful professors. By Christian leaders. By friends who likely had little understanding of what she was going through (she had quite a guise).

But she began to see not simply how awful he was – but how beloved she is. She began to understand that a child of God is a creature of great worth who deserves the very best from those around her – and who should settle for no less in her closest relationships.

She began to see herself as beautiful.

As these changes occurred in her, her marriage did not change –even with forced counseling and ongoing begging her spouse for relief.

But change is not easy. It might take weeks. Or months. Or even a year and a half.

And when the dust settles, the light becomes visible. Through personal counseling, she girded herself with strength.

In a few weeks of deep, contemplative thought, she found herself, bags packed, headed to her parents’ house. She had never felt so free.

She finally stood up for herself.

She finally was treating herself the way God meant her to be treated.

A Note About Political Hate Speech

You know, I don’t buy into it – the language on both sides of the political debates that serve only to demean the other side’s position to the point of labeling “them” as “destroyers of America,” or “God’s judgment on our country,” or labeling whole groups as “backward” or “bigoted” without ever attempting conversation that truly hears their opinions, fears, and beliefs.

By labeling each other in such ways, our conversations (politically, and often in many other spheres of conversation, including everything from dinner conversations about bills & travel arrangements to friendly chatting online) – all suddenly move from interesting conversations, where all involved learn something new about the people to whom they speak, into idealist rants that no longer conform to reality.

When Christians buy into the one-sided hype of a news group, Facebook meme, or conspiracy theory, we become unable to love our neighbor.

Folks, that’s the second greatest commandment. Words from the lips of our Savior. Kind of a big deal.

When we believe the other side to be nothing but hostile to our own, first, we’re letting a “side” identify us rather than our Kingdom identity as citizens of Heaven. Second, we’re reducing people who are our friends, family, and colleagues to faceless drones promoting our anti-ideal.

When we do this, we create an image of these people that is not the image God gave them – God gave them God’s image – not conservative/liberal, not pro-life/pro-choice/anti-choice, not gay/straight, not left/right.

I am extremely distressed when my dearest friends, of any persuasion, reduce the people they claim to love to being inherently wrong, godless, merciless people because of a political leaning or personal opinion.

Our words are indeed powerful. They build up and they can tear down. What we choose to do with them matters greatly.

I implore you, as a fellow traveler on this faith journey, my brothers & sisters, do not let your words tear others down. Yes, be involved in national politics. Speak up when you see injustice or bad decisions/speech (on EITHER side!). But never, ever buy into any group that labels whole groups wantonly.

We are so often deceived by our own prejudices. We must fight to reclaim the inclusive love of Christ that sees all people equally – that says “he who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

That means stopping hateful speech, first from your own lips (keyboard), then from the lips (keyboards) of those you love.

When you hear/read the phrase “all those [______]” (e.g., conservatives, liberals, bigots, illegals, gays, Muslims, etc.), immediately understand/accept that the author could no more know all of the [______] any more than you do. No one is an expert on all persons in any group, and only God knows the human heart anyway.

When you are tempted, because of your own fervent political (or even theological) belief to speak or post a snide, rude, unthoughtful, or generalizing comment, use the spiritual practice of self-discipline to withhold your initial feelings. Sleep on it. Ponder both sides. Maybe even go take a few minutes to meet with someone of the opposing position and just listen. Perhaps “those people” are not as general a group as you first believed.

And lastly, remember that just as your neighbor might not be perfect (might even be wrong!), so too are we all often wrong, horrible, and unkind. But we are a forgiven people, begotten of God, beloved of the Eternal, and we have been given grace beyond measure – grace that should always be extended, whether or not our family/friends/colleagues/enemies choose to extend it to us.

As it was written to the Christians in Ephesus (Eph 4):

“I…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

Those who love the body of Christ will strive to maintain unity in the Spirit. They will avoid believing everything they hear about whole groups of people. They will speak up when a group is marginalized, even a group they may not always agree with. They will make wise decisions about what should be re-posted, shared, or commented on.

Prov. 14:15 “The simple believe everything, but the clever consider their steps.”

Prov. 18:2 “A fool takes no pleasure in understand, but only in expressing personal opinion.”

They will take great pains to do the hard thing Christ commanded us to do: Love your neighbor as yourself. And who is my neighbor? Let’s ask Jesus:

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus, ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii,* gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

 The Samaritans were a hated, marginalized group that was often generalized in Jewish circles as being inherently wrong about matters of faith, practice, and politics. They were called horrible names and chastised by their Jewish neighbors. They were theologically and politically considered absolutely wrong in most every way.

And Jesus, a faithful Jew, tells us: Such as these are our neighbors – we are called to care for them, and they for us.

You may disagree with them. But you are called to speak up for them.

You may not care for the way they live their lives. But you are to love them.

You may not want to support their causes. But you are called to avoid gossip & hate speech, all while standing up for them in their time of distress.

You’re even called to spend your time and money caring for their needs.

This is the way of the Kingdom.

An Advent Devotion

A devotion I wrote for FBC Chattanooga’s Advent Devotion book. Many thanks to Jeanie & David Gushee for their compliation of Christian prayers  (Yours Is the Day, Lord, Yours Is the Night), which added so much to this devotion.

Advent Devotion: Worship

John 1:1-5

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 4 What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There is much talk about light and hope during Advent season. We all try desperately to focus not on ourselves, but on the light that Jesus, the Word made Flesh, brought to earth when he was born. But in the midst of millions of tiny colored, sparkling lights, the days get shorter and colder…and darker. This time of year sees the most suicides and depression. This time of year can consume us with loneliness – whether through the loss of a loved one or simply a sense of loneliness when we feel alienated by bustle of the season.

What is so beautiful, I think, about the promise of the Light of the World is when it falls in our calendar – at the darkest time of year (and perhaps the darkest time of life). Holidays may bring loneliness or remind us of a bygone year of pain. We might have gotten divorced, lost a child, parent, or friend. We might have made poor decisions and be filled with regret. We might be spending our first Christmas alone. We might sob during the long, dark nights of December. Light and hope are the last things on our mind.

But this, I think, is when we can most find comfort in Advent worship. We don’t need to start out joyful – we come to the manger as we are: sad, lonely, hurting, depressed. And we find comfort, community, love, and acceptance. Jesus is the Prince of Peace because of the offering of love and community at his table. Christmas worship is as much about being joyful as it is offering the love of Christ to others to create joy in community and love during the darkest days of the year.

May this be our meditation and prayer during Advent’s dark days:

Come, true light. Come, life eternal.
Come, hidden mystery…Come, reality beyond all words.
Come, person beyond all understanding. Come, rejoicing without end.
Come, light that knows no evening.
Come, unfailing expectation of the saved.
Come, raising of the fallen. Come, resurrection of the dead.
Come, all-powerful, for unceasingly You create…
Come, for Your name fills our hearts with longing
and is ever on our lips…
Come, for You are Yourself the desire that is within me.
Come, the consolation of my humble soul.
Come, my joy, my endless delight.

– Symeon The New Theologian (949-1022)

Advice to my 15 year-old self

Today, a friend on Facebook posted a link to a simple, interesting article that encouraged an exercise I found helpful – writing a list of things you’d want your 15 year-old self to know – in celebration of the first annual International Day of the Girl (which was yesterday, October 11, 2012). Wisdom is something we gain through experience, and as we learn, we want to share that wisdom.

The article’s probably right, though – I would have ignored most of this advice and continued on my path, but I still found the exercise enlightening. This was a way for me to reflect on the kinds of things I would teach a daughter, a niece, a young girl friend.

Here’s my list:

  1. Being single is a gift, not a curse. Take a break. (Also, if you do date, choose that guy in math class your senior year). Also, don’t fret that you need to marry by a certain age. Be absolutely sure before you take the plunge (and don’t do it before age 25).
  2. Exercise is a good thing – keep doing it, and build strong muscles. Also, band is not exercise.
  3. Read more, write more, and if given the opportunity, go to college early – it’s SO much more fun than high school.
  4. Eat more vegetables. Learn to like new foods. You don’t want to learn how to eat at age 23 and 55 lbs overweight.
  5. Go to counseling regularly. Head off these dark feelings now – you’ll be much more centered and content with your life if you do. It doesn’t mean you’re crazy – it means you are passionate. You can channel that passion into positive things with the right tools. It’s worth the effort and money. Do it.
  6. Women can be strong leaders and ministers. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And yes, you have the capacity to be pastoral.
  7. Not everyone in the church is like THEM. There are wonderful communities of believers to be a part of. Don’t be afraid to go to different kinds of churches. And don’t be afraid to doubt and ask hard questions about faith and church and moral issues.
  8. You’re adorable and a catch. Don’t let any guy into your heart that tells you otherwise. If he tells you what to do, or ever scares you (even once), get out immediately. Long before marriage. Abuse is not just physical, and it is always damaging.
  9. You aren’t supermodel material – sorry, you’re short, and you’re skin is too preciously white and sensitive to tan regularly. You’ll also probably never be a famous singer. But you’re amazingly strong, beautiful, intelligent, and capable of much more than you think right now.
  10. Have fun. Not everything in life is worth worrying about. Dance and play and never forget how to be vibrant and silly.

So, how about you? What would you tell your 15 year-old self? What would you tell your daughter/niece/young girl friend (or son/nephew/young guy friend if you’re male)?

St. Benedict, Faith, & Ordinary Folks

Epiphanies 7/18/2012

Calm amidst the storm(s). Looking at some ways we can practice faith when everything else in life runs counter to it.

Tonight we are going to look at the life of St. Benedict of Nursia, a monk who lived many centuries ago, and take a few minutes to think about how his Rule can help guide our faith in profound ways today. We’re no monks, but we are Jesus-followers, and tonight we’re going to explore some tools that might just make our spiritual lives a little more vibrant – in spite of the obstacles in our lives.

*First, let’s think about what we know about Benedict. (Examples: monk, popular Rule of St. Benedict, early Christianity, humility, obedience, silence)

St. Benedict lived from about 480-550CE. His teaching “upholds the highest ideals of Christian love and asceticism in an uncompromising yet humane spirit…his Rule for Monasteries has become the most popular and commonly used rule in the West. In this remarkable little document, Benedict describes the monastery as a ‘school for the Lord’s service’ and proceeds to outline the contours of life in a monastic community characterized by balance and simplicity…he teaches the three foundational virtues of the monk: obedience, silence, and humility…[His rule] was acclaimed for its moderation,” [but also was] “unbending in its expectation that each monk would be present at all community gatherings; and his emphasis on the exercises of prayer …illustrates Benedict’s conviction that the thoughts of the monk must at all times be occupied with God.” (Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, 65).

“Rather than extreme asceticism, what the Rule seeks is a wise ordering of the monastic life, with strict discipline, but without undue harshness.” Additionally, Benedict’s rule required stability – monks did not move or leave without being told to, and that commitment has made the institution greatly relevant in times of chaos. The Rule also had specific ways to deal with the errant monks, allowing for forgiveness and reconciliation. For, as Justo Gonzalez says, “the Rule is not written for venerable saints, such as the heroes of the desert, but for fallible human beings. This may have been the secret to its success.” (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I, 279).

Now, we all know that most Christians are not called to be monastics. But, that’s not to say we can’t learn from, and even use, the practices of our monastic brothers and sisters (forefathers and foremothers). Benedict called for both spiritual and physical discipline. Discipline – not a word we often react well to.

*What does discipline mean to you? Are there disciplines (mental, physical, spiritual) you already practice?

Many of us do actually practice disciplines – whether it exercise in the form of gardening or walking dogs; whether it’s night time prayers or early morning Bible studies; whether it’s keeping a weekly Sabbath (rest day). The happiest and most well-adjusted people have disciplines in their lives. And our disciplines need not be unduly harsh (you don’t have to forever give up ice cream or wine – just do it in moderation. You don’t have to run marathons – just walk and jog enough to stay healthy. You don’t have to pray every Daily Office – just make time for God every day). And who knows, once you start a discipline, you might just like it enough to expand it. As our disciplines become part of our lives, they become higher priorities – maybe higher than, say, our favorite TV drama or that extra hour of sleep.

Now, to be fair to you all – I am coming to you as a fairly undisciplined learner myself. Tonight let’s learn together. I’ve brought you a few thoughts on Benedict from a mother and blogger who loves all things Benedict. Let’s make this guy modern and outside the monastery walls. What can “the rest of us” do when we don’t cloister? This mom has some thoughts.

First, let me read you a letter she wrote to Benedict just last week, on his feast day: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/michaboyett/2012/07/a-letter-to-st-benedict-on-his-feast-day/

Now, I want you to break into 3-4 groups. Each group will get an article about Practicing Benedict. I want you to read through it, and when you’re done reading, I want you to list 5 ways you can incorporate this Benedictine idea into your daily lives. When we come back together, we will discuss some of what we all came up with.

What did you find most intriguing about this part of the Rule and Micha’s thoughts on it? How can you apply it in your daily life?

We’ll begin with Group 1, Nothing Harsh, There’s Enough Time. 2, Silence. 3, Prayer and Rising Immediately. 4, Hospitality.

Perhaps there is enough time – when our lives are centered properly. Perhaps we can not only fit in prayer, but make prayer central to our daily lives. Too often, I hear of Christians trying to do a 5AM Bible study every day when their job keeps them up until midnight. Or I hear of people struggling to find silence in their lives while scheduling themselves to death. But I think Benedict’s right: there is enough time. There always has been. We just have to find and use discipline to realize it.

Benedict was reasonable (okay, well, at least for a monk!). We need to also be reasonable. We need to know our limits, prioritize sleep, not overdo the scheduling, and make God and relationships the priorities in our life. We are not defined by what or how much we do. We are who we are because God loves us so much and puts such priority on God’s children.

There’s no need for undue harshness, but there is a need for discipline. I pray we take tools, like those Benedict provides for us, and begin to re-order our lives around what should already be central: God’s love for us and our response to it.

One of the reasons I’m Baptist…and happy about it

In a recent post about the competing op-ed pieces about Liberal Christianity and Conservative Christianity and whether either can be saved, Rachel Held Evans once again spoke my mind for me in so many ways. Her articulate piece outlines the good and the bad of both Christian “camps” in this nation, and outlines pretty well where I sit – right in between the two. Her truths about what both sides have and lacks were spot on. I  applaud her for seeing good on both sides.

I was raised in some very conservative churches, where I learned a heaping knowledge of scripture, studied my faith diligently, and became a Christian whose faith genuinely mattered to her whole life. But, I was also told women couldn’t be preachers or leaders or even deacons. I was confused about what I might do with my life when I felt called to ministry. I faced a LOT of guilt over the most normal of life’s happenings. I loved science and marveled at how much, and yet how little, we know about the magnificent creation we see – and I knew that the earth had to be more than 6,000 years old. Then, after much turmoil and leaving church for a spell (like, most of college), I found the progressive movement in the Baptist world – the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (and the American Baptists, who I knew existed, but wasn’t familiar enough with; and the Alliance of Baptists, which even in the middle of seminary struck me as very far from my Southern Baptist upbringing). I learned that women were welcome in many pulpits, my calling was fully embraced, and I was allowed to doubt and not be judged. I also learned that progressive Christianity lost much in Bible study to gain in social ministry, and lost much in personal piety to be replaced with philosophical debates and a lot of intellect. I believe in the movement of the Spirit, and sometimes (though luckily not often), this was quashed by the amount of thinking my classmates and I did. And I believe the Bible needs to be taken seriously – all the time. I believe in miracles, the bodily resurrection, the movement of God in personal lives through scripture study…things that are often challenged in the more intellectual “liberal” extreme. (Because, as Evans points out, we are describing the extremes, not the middle ground).

Neither extreme has a good mesh of the holy and the intelligent, of the ritual and the free Spirit. And both have lots to learn from each other and must meet those of us in the middle to do it. Evans’ exact words were “Missing from the whole dialog” [between the and conservative and the angry liberal Christians] “was any sense that we’re in this together, that, as followers of Jesus, we may need to put our heads together to re-imagine what it means to be the Church in a postmodern, American culture where confidence in organized religion is at an all-tie low.” She gets it, too, as she has left the church and been unable to consistently attend a church since. While I hope for nothing more than her resolution to the issues she faces in finding a church, I suddenly became aware that I already have that church…and have had that church for some time.

Now, to be fair, no church has it all figured out. The two churches where I have actively attended in the last five years (first church 2007-2011 & second 2011-now) have messed up, done horrible things, and been absolutely wrong on some things (both in the leadership and the lay persons). But, on the whole, at least while I have been a member of these churches, I have seen two groups of faithful Christians who differ widely on topics of theology to politics to the color of the sanctuary carpet, come together in fantastic ways to love and lead in their communities. And also to be clear, one church leans slightly right, the other slightly left. But I feel at home in both – because they hold in utmost importance the message of Jesus and the promise of God’s present and coming kingdom. They think through things, ask questions, and try their best not to assume. They forgive those who’ve really messed up. Neither church actively turns away or shuns the pregnant teenager, the divorced, the cohabitating partners, or the poor. There are a majority of members who would drop everything to come to the aid of anyone in the community. My “home” church is famous for their actions after major storms – they are first-responders who make a mission of helping others when all seems lost. They do the back-breaking labor of love to saw trees and pick up the pieces. My current and new “home” church gives up their space regularly to minister to the downtown homeless. They wrap their arms around the outcast and welcome them with open arms into the service and work of the church.

And in both churches, I see the face of the Living God at work in the middle of humanity’s local affairs. Yes, both churches support overseas missions through their respective denominations. Both churches send missionaries to foreign lands. (And those works are deeply important to both denominations and their members). But most importantly, as Baptists, they plant themselves in the middle of a local area and get to work with both feet on the ground. They brush off differences in order to work among those in need in their immediate midst. They give their all to active love and put theology to the side while they work – this is something to be commended for. Not all Baptists make this work so well.

Baptists are, by nature, a bunch of staunch individualists. We each read and interpret the Bible in our own way. We are holy priests and mediate our own relationship with God. And as churches, we are autonomous units designed to function in a specific locale. And the only way for a Baptist church to stay whole (yes, some do manage to stay whole…at least for a period of time!), we must hold together the dissenting opinions. We must give and take on all decisions. We must be willing to be wrong and humble even when we feel sure we’re right. We talk theology and politics in a way that helps us all to grow and not in ways that divide the house of God. And when we do that, and do it well, the Kingdom grows. God’s people learn, and we all become better disciples.

I pray more of our churches and those caught in between these ongoing left-right debates would find ways to work together to reach that many more people with the message of hope, promise, inclusion, and love that Jesus so freely offered us. My friends to my right and to my left, in my denomination and not, I pray we do this as a team – with humble hearts and forgiving spirits. The church at its best is a humble group of people seeking to live as Christ, continually uplifting one another, and finding ways to make our differences teach one another about the good and bad of our own theology and traditions. The Kingdom of God is so much bigger than our biggest differences, and it deserves our best effort at working together.

Loving God With Our Whole Selves

Epiphanies 6/20/2012

It’s summertime. People are wearing fewer clothes and feeling more and more aware of their bodies (and probably more aware than they want to be of others’ bodies!). In this place of awareness, we will take a moment to think about our bodies and how they relate to our faith and relationship with God and others.

In a recent discussion with Melissa Browning at the Sexuality & Covenant Conference in Atlanta, we were faced with what she called a “Theology of the Body.” Now, to be clear, this is no new theology. John Paul II had pages and pages of papal encyclical to discuss a theology of the body for the Catholic tradition. But hers was a bit more nuanced and definitely differed from JPII.

Here’s a question for you: What role does the body play in theology/faith for you? (Possible Answers: it causes us to sin, it is a mode of worshiping – using body parts like mouths and feet, it is imperfect and diseased and thus holds us back or teaches us new things about ourselves, etc.)

Relevant magazine recently discussed a similar topic this week in an opinion article. Let’s take a quick look at this author’s take on “How spiritual are our bodies?”: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/deeper-walk/features/29481-loving-god-with-all-your-strength

How do we feel about our bodies being more a part of our faith and less a hindrance to it? This author seems to imply that scripture shows how reliant we are on our bodies to even practice worship…

What do you think about our bodies as intertwined with our souls, rather than apart from them? What did the Hebrews think about souls? The Greeks? What do we do with all of this? What about Jesus’ incarnation – his human body? Being full divine and fully human all at once – did that say something about God’s valuing the human body/condition?

Paul, who was famous for struggling against unnecessary desires, just like his Greek contemporaries, still saw the body as integral to the worship and love of God, just as his ancestors before him. For Paul, the body was a temple we should care for.

Melissa Browning says “We experience life from our bodies – it is a lived experience through senses. We are not just minds.” She emphasized what Margaret Farley described as “Getting past the dualism of inspirited bodies and becoming embodied spirits.” She says that really, our bodies and our spirits limit each other – in good ways. We must begin to trust our bodies…

And I might add: love & cherish our bodies, as we are made in the image of God.

But what does this mean – the image of God? I mean, weren’t we always taught that the image of God really was not an image at all – that is was some sort of spiritual likeness? Do we actually LOOK like God, FEEL like God to the touch – do we RESEMBLE God??

Some theologians say that maybe we do – they discuss a striking anthropomorphic depiction of God. There’s not a lot to that scripturally, but it has been thrown out there as humanity has tried to figure out what our bodies have to do with our faith.

Maybe we do look like God…but not exactly that God looks like a human being. Perhaps it’s bigger than that. One theologian who has actively studied centuries of theology and come to his own conclusions, says that “the image of God is not like an image permanently stamped on a coin; it is more like an image reflected in a mirror. That is, human beings are created for life in relationships that mirror or correspond to God’s own life in relationship.”

Hmm. So, we are to live in relationship like God does. I mean, God is Triune – God is in relationship with God the father, son, and spirit, along with humanity & creation, all in self-giving love all the time. Wow. That’s a lot to ask.

But ask is exactly what Jesus did when he commanded us to “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.” That’s a bold statement. It assumes we love ourselves – because we know our bodies are made in God’s image. It assumes we recognize that we have neighbors who are also created in God’s image. And it means we use our bodies to actively pursue relationships with these neighbors (friends and enemies alike) in order to become more like God-in-relationship.

No, I’m not going to give you a long list of things we should/shouldn’t do to our bodies. We have lots of scripture and modern science to help us sort through that, and it would simply take too long for a single lesson to go over it all. But based on what you know about our bodies and how they should be cared for and used, what are some ideas you have about what you can do this summer to better use and protect your body in service to the Kingdom?

Can you better love your neighbor by going to see them physically? Can you better serve your community by being the “hands & feet” of Christ doing hands-on ministry? (There’s that metaphor again!). What about caring for your body in such a way so that you physically CAN do things for/with Christ? (I’ve quit preaching and gone to meddling…sorry, guys).

Take your time this summer. Care for yourself and others. Yes, vacation weeks and summer camp weeks might be hectic. But most of us have a tad more down time during the summer. The days are long, and we have choices about how to spend our time. Make choices that honor God with your body. Try to integrate your faith and your body more mindfully – you might just be surprised at the grace it can offer both you and those you are called to serve.

Hope for the Faithless and the Doubtful

Notes from Epiphanies, 5-9-12

We worked in small groups to talk about faith, doubt, and how we integrate these in our Christian communities.

Question 1: When you think about faith, what does it look like? Is it a steady flow of understanding/feeling? Or is it an ever-changing and evolving process?

Describe faith. Is it Belief? Knowledge?

Dictionary Definition of Belief: “Mental acceptance of a proposition, statement, or fact, as true, on the ground of authority or evidence; assent of the mind to a statement, or to the truth of a fact beyond observation, on the testimony of another, or to a fact or truth on the evidence of consciousness; the mental condition involved in this assent.”

Is it more than that?

Lauren Winner, in her book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis says this: “Faith…meant more than intellectual assent to a set of doctrines. It was a commitment of the whole self, a hope and trust that, if genuine, ought to be the foundation of an entire way of life and vision of the world.”

“On any given morning, I might not be able to list for you the facts I know about God. But I can tell you what I wish to commit myself to, what I want for the foundation of my life, how I want to see.”

Question 2: What do we do when we are personally confronted with unbelief?

Lord, I believe; help me with my unbelief!

Read this article and think about how faith and doubt are interwoven in our lives:


Perhaps faith is more like a promise (a quote, also from Still): “What you promise when you are confirmed is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.”

In small groups, we discussed a time in our own life when doubts overcame faith (much like the story above, we all had moments of severe doubt). We concluded that our doubts are as much a part of our faith journeys as our moments of strength and unwavering dedication.

Question 3: If, as we have seen and read and heard, doubt is simply a part of the faith journey, how can we help those in our midst who are “in the middle of things”?

Lauren Winner Calls this our “Mid-Faith Crisis” as Christians – she means there is a point at which we are no longer giddy about our new faith and eager to learn more. But neither are we at a point of peace and wisdom.

“The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone. And yet in those same moments of strained belief, of not knowing where or if God is, it has also seemed that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know. On the days when I think I have a fighting chance at redemption, at change, I understand it to be these words and these rituals and these people who will change me. Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.”

Questions to ponder:

  1. What brought you to mid-faith? Was it a crisis? Was it multiple crises? Was it just a “whole life of straight-forward churchgoing” or a life of wandering?
  2. What has church done to help you through the middle?
  3. How can you help others in the middle?

Perhaps the simple answer is that by realizing we all have doubts in the midst of faith and we also have faith in the midst of doubt, we move closer to understanding and supporting our fellow humanity in their wrestle with the Divine and what it means to be faithful, even when it seems impossible. We then know we have to take the time to understand that faith has steps, and one cannot move from step to step without moments of deep turmoil and struggle. [Nerd check: A good (yet a bit tedious) book on this is James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, which incorporates both psychology and theology to discuss the “stages” we go through in our faith].

Many thinkers before us have helped us better understand the intricacies of faith and doubt and how they both nurture and deliver us. God can and does meet and love all of us whether we are new, eager Christians, in the middle of a Mid-Faith Crisis, or we have moved to a deeper, more profound faith – and that is a promise worth celebrating!

I hope we all can avoid the pitfalls of describing the doubtful as weak or faithless and instead celebrate their struggle to understand and walk alongside them as we seek to understand the nature of God and how we should live as Jesus did – together.

Commitment, Covenant, & Community

Notes from our Epiphanies lesson: Wednesday, 5-2-12

What does it mean to be committed – to faith, to relationships, to community? How we are committed in our own faith community today? Or are we?

During a packed 3 days at the [Baptist] Sexuality & Covenant conference a couple of weeks ago, the idea of commitment and covenant formed a basis for thinking about Christianity, Community, and Relationships in ways I hadn’t even imagined before. We are continuing the conversation together in Epiphanies.

If you’re interested in viewing the conference sessions (and I wholeheartedly recommend them), you may find them here: http://www.thefellowship.info/conference

Question 1: What is covenant in scripture? Name a few.

Answers: Biblical covenants: agreements, contracts – or more/deeper, Hebrew berith, mostly God-contracts with God’s people – God kept the covenant, people didn’t always. A vow. A self-giving promise.

Examples: God’s covenant with Noah – rainbow. God’s covenant with Abraham – descendants: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph. God’s covenant with Moses – Ten Commandments. The priestly covenants – Aaron. Israel’s covenant to return to Mosaic law. God’s covenant with David – his family will be rightful kings. New covenant in Jesus – between God and all people – Jew and Gentile.

Question 2: How to commitment and covenant relate? Are we commited in our society? How/Why/Why not?

Read: Malachai 2:

13 Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.

15 Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring.[d] So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

16 “The man who hates and divorces his wife, ” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”[e] says the Lord Almighty.

So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.

At the conference, Dr. David Gushee gave us some ideas about what covenant is, and should be, as God designed it. We looked at his thoughts:

Covenant should be a moral norm, a standard – not just an ideal.

Here are some thoughts about what interpersonal covenant in the Christian tradition should look like:

  • A voluntarily entered sacred pact between two persons and between those persons and the God to whom both are committed. Freely entered between two persons equal in power and who are under no coercion.
  • Once entered, the freedom of its participants is henceforth constrained. It is a FREE DECISION TO MAKE ONESELF NO LONGER FREE.
  • It is an exchange of promises. These are fully binding.
  • It is a transition in status and responsibility.
  • Promising a certain quality of interpersonal relating to each other: love, cherish, comfort, honor, and care.
  • Promising to offer this even when they don’t feel like it (richer or poorer).
  • Offer such relating only to each other and not to anyone else (forsaking all others). For a lifetime as well.
  • No conditions or time limits (unlike regular contracts).
  • Each person is making a covenant as an individual moral agent.

Coventalism corresponds with our nature and highest potential, as well as taking care of our sinful nature. We need sacred promises or we might not stay together when times are hard. This is a divine provision for sin. It is the best possible arrangement for binding human lives together. Our vows keep us; we don’t keep our vows. Covenants are better for both adults and children.

The main issue is not who is eligible for covenant. The main issue is whether the church is committed to rescuing the concept and practice of covenant in accountable community before it disappears all together – not just in society, but within our own congregations and homes.

THE PROBLEM: We live in a consumer society – no commitments are permanent. We are always trading what we have for something better. We do it in every context of life, including religion. Do we remember church covenants? People stayed in churches for life – “this is my church, I’m committed.”

How do we teach younger generations to make covenants when we’re not committed to much of anything? Churches should be better covenant communities. Not casual, drive-by consumer products. Covenant communities of brothers and sisters in Christ, there in good times and bad. Only such communities are in any position to talk to emerging adults about lifetime covenants.

How do we understand and live this, then? (i.e., How now shall we live?)

“The Lost Art of Commitment: Why we’re Afraid of it, and why we shouldn’t be” (Article in Christianity Today) Notes:

  • “A Christian without commitment is an oxymoron.”
  • “In 1979…a study using extensive interviews was conducted to understand what ‘habits of the heart’ defined average Americans. Many had no sense of community or social obligation. They saw the world as a fragmented place of choice and freedom that yielded little meaning or comfort. They even seemed to have lost the language to express commitment to anything besides themselves…Since then, we’ve seen an almost uninterrupted march toward self-focus, affecting all of our institutions but especially crippling work, marriage, and family” (and church!).
  • “How can you begin as a Christian without death to self and total commitment to Jesus Christ?”
  • “When we obsess over ourselves, we lose the meaning of life, which is to know and serve God and love and serve our neighbors.”
  • “By abandoning commitment, our narcissistic culture has lost the one thing it desperately seeks: happiness. Without commitment, our individual lives will be barren and sterile. Without commitment, our lives will lack meaning and purpose. After all, if nothing is worth dying for, then nothing is worth living for.”
  • “With commitment comes the flourishing of society – of calling, of marriage, of the church-and of our hearts. It’s the paradox Jesus so often shared when he bid us to come and die that we might truly live.”

From “Preaching the Life of Covenant and Commitment in a Time of Transition” by Rodney J. hunter, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA:

“Commitment understood broadly may be viewed as a social and psychological praxis that gives human life depth, definition, and stability of purpose over time, for both communities and individuals. It is commitment that gives us identity, creates and defines patterns of continuity and connectedness in the flux and conflict of events, and gives our lives whatever trust, security, meaning, and purpose they enjoy. So to whatever extend committing falters or fails, our lives and communities become disordered, insecure, and deprived of meaning and purpose. Theologically, commitment and covenant go to the core of our existence and reflect the very character of God and of God’s covenantal involvement with us and with the entire cosmos.”

Questions to leave you with:

  1. What is an expectation between a church member and a church? Is there a covenant community vow there?
  2. What is the expectation personally in interpersonal covenants?
  3. How does God covenant with us? Who is doing the work?
  4. How do commitment an covenant differ?

On Faith, Doubt, and Ministry

Maybe this is a way of inhabiting faith that is, indeed, faithful; that is generative. Maybe God has given some people belief like a pier, to stand on (and God has given those people’s steadiness to the church, to me, as a reminder, as an aid), and maybe God has given other something else: maybe God has given to some this humming sense that we know nothing, this belief and disbelief a hundred times an hour, this training in nimbleness (and maybe that is a gift to the church, too).” – Lauren F. Winner, Still

“On subjects of which we know nothing, or should I say Beings…we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble.” –Emily Dickinson

I have recently been reflecting on my particular brand of faith. This is not some treatise on denominational or theological boundaries, but rather, a reflection on who I am becoming each day I attempt to walk this journey with Christ.

Some days I wonder if I’m cut out for Christianity, much less clergy. But then I realize yet again that we are all works in progress. People of the cloth are nothing more than continuously forgiven sinners called to serve others. We are generally given little status in the public arena (except of course where it benefits those in power – when it ceases to be a calling and can stray into arrogance – see http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/7234/9/). But we are to be considered in church to be the teachers, the leaders, the bridge between the faithful and God. That is more than a high calling – that is a scary feat.

Most often, when I “wear my minister hat,” I feel under-qualified. That is to say, Yes: I finished 3 years of seminary and finished them well. Yes, I passed an ordination council and was ordained by my local congregation. Yes, I have debated the intricacies of the Trinity, Atonement, Ethics, Hebrew, Greek, Old & New Testament. And yet – once the robe is on or the crowd suddenly realizes I have a title, I feel like a small child wearing Mom’s dress, with shoes too big to fill.

But these lingering doubts about my own abilities have never outweighed the drive in my soul to bear witness to the goodness Christ has for others. Even when I am ready to toss the collar and hide on the back pew (if I come to the church at all), I feel lost when I am not helping others find their way in this maze of faith. My own doubt drives me to seek to find more in my faith. It does not serve to destroy anything – on the contrary, it is my doubt (my fears, my insecurities, my humility) that is my salvation.

1 Corinthians 2:1-7, 11

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory…For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.

I figure I’ll never be that “pier to stand on” Lauren Winner describes in the quote above. But the wax and wane of my belief is what pushes my boundaries, reminds me of who I am called to be, and forces me into a better place where I can more faithfully serve God’s people with me entire being – doubts and all.