Thursday, July 2, 2020

Helpmeet

It can be difficult as a woman in theology to know exactly how to use my voice, whatever the context. It's tempting in women's ministry to want to embody that gentle, optimistic, graceful beauty that I despise so much about women's ministry because I have been so conditioned to believe that is what is at the heart of it. If I do not embrace this sort of approach, I often hear that my theology is too harsh; that I do theology "like a man."

But if I do theology the way that I want to, even the men are prone to not listen because they think that I, as a woman, have nothing to offer to their theology. Either I'm a poser, trying to copy their voice in theology by adding my own to it, or I am still but a woman, and men are resistant to the idea of adding a 'gentleness' to their theology of power and decisiveness.

What if my theology offered them both simply a strength?

When I was working as a chaplain for the first time, I was blessed to have an amazing group of mentors and advisers around me. And as I presented one of my case studies, a wonderful woman of God simply asked me why I was letting my female voice be pushed aside simply because the patient was male. Was I talking to him differently, not out of my own authentic voice?

She said that women have a unique perspective in the world, and that's the way that God made them. It is necessary for us, then, to draw on our perspective and our voice to help broaden what men are able to see on their own. We don't have to simply slide in beside them and try to see the world through their eyes; we are designed to help them to see more.

So I went back to Genesis, and she was right. God created the world, and it was good, but it wasn't very good until man was not alone; until man had a helpmeet in woman. It wasn't very good until the man had someone alongside him who saw things differently and invited him to move beyond his own understanding into something that he couldn't relate to quite as well.

That means that from the very beginning, men and women were created to make each other better, and we do that by being the male or female that God created us to be. We do that by listening to one another and learning those things about God and the world that our own creation keeps us from seeing with our own eyes.

We have for too long accepted and perpetuated the myth that men lead and women follow, particularly in light of the fact that Paul talks about a mutuality in our relationships with and love for one another and Genesis clearly presents a 'walking beside' between men and women. We have too long pushed women's voices into the recesses of theology called 'women's ministry' because men don't think the woman's voice is what they are looking for in their theology.

Maybe it's not what they're looking for, but what if it is what they need? Would you really be willing to miss out on some beautiful truth about God that you could never see on your own just because a woman happened to say it?

Women were designed as helpmeets, and we have something in our unique voice to offer to the men in our world if they're listening.

You might even say it would be 'very good.'

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

A Female Theologian

One of the challenges that women's ministry has created for women in the church is that it's painted this very narrow picture not just of what it means to be a woman of God, but of what it means to be a woman in theology. Women's ministries are filled with high-energy, intractably positive and upbeat, "you have to get excited about your life" speakers who flourish a little curtsy at the end of even what should be their most heartbreaking stories. It's like the whole thing has been whitewashed with optimism because for some reason, we think that being a woman of God means life just isn't hard - or shouldn't be - and that our beauty (which is, you know by now, so important) is somehow diminished if we are dynamic individuals with a whole range of emotions and understanding.

And this is why we don't see female theologians breaking into the mainstream. It's why whenever a woman speaks up at all, no matter her voice, she is immediately boxed into a women's ministry. It's why when a woman has a theological thought, she's directed toward other women who might need to hear it, but never toward men.

Recently, I was interacting with a major publisher of Bibles after they announced yet another project featuring a prominent male theologian who already has, I don't know, a few dozen Bible projects published. I mentioned how lovely it would be to see a Bible project centered on a female theologian, and although some men in Christian leadership showed support for the idea, there were not a lot of names readily available to recommend. Just a few. And then, within a day or so, a new project was announced featuring a Bible "by women for women."

Because when I suggested a female theologian, it was assumed that I was suggesting a women's project. When, actually, the Bible company fully expects women to pick up their new project featuring the male theologian. It will most likely, as all of the other projects before it, be marketed as a "Bible for everyone," everyone who is looking for the specific type of theology or inspiration that they are emphasizing in the project. They just don't expect men to pick up a "women's" Bible.

You can't really blame them. Men in this world have long not known the broad array of women's interests and understandings. There's still this pervasive myth that when women get together, we just sit around talking about periods and afterbirths and drinking wine while we pretend to have a book club. The media has not helped in dismantling this stereotype. Now, add into that the overall culture of women's ministry and the few clips of such that most men in the church have probably seen from time to time, and you can't blame them for not wanting to be a part of 'women's ministry' culture. It just doesn't appeal to them.

But you want to know a secret, men? It just doesn't appeal to a lot of us, either.

If you look at a women's ministry speaker and think the whole thing is just a little too upbeat, too detached from the complex reality of actually being human in this world, more than a little shallow as to the real needs of the human heart, and far too "cheerleader-y"...we agree with you. If you don't like your Bibles with little hearts under the exclamation points, it may surprise you to know....we don't, either. If something inside you cringes when you turn the page and find a full-size graphic with flowers all around and hand-lettering that has pulled some nice-sounding verse completely out of context...we're cringing, too.

We would love to get into the messier side of faith. There are some of us who are invested in the real work of theology, of understanding God's word as He's given it to us instead of trying to put it in a beautiful little box full of dainty things. We have a lot to say about who God is, how we discover Him in the world, what it means to our broken, wounded hearts ...

...and that's another thing. When you do hear about brokenness from women's ministry speakers, you often hear about the sins of others that have broken us. All the things we've had to endure at the hands of others. Abuse, abandonment, adultery, whatever. That's women's ministry. We're not responsible for our ugly things.

But a female theologian? A female theologian has a deep understanding of human brokenness that includes the things we do to ourselves. It embraces the narrative that we all, including women, have fallen short of the glory of God and desperately need Jesus. It doesn't pass the buck and blame everyone else for our fallenness. We are, after all, the ones who plucked the fig to begin with. A real female theologian isn't afraid of our story and doesn't spend her ministry trying to pretty it up or pass it off. We are ready to dive deep into God's grace and let it wash over our wanderlust, getting real about who we are so that we can be real about who He is.

A female theologian has a lot to say, not just to women of God, but to men of God, too. And it's not all flowers and frills and rah-rah optimism; it's real, raw, gritty, and messy with a humble heart and a powerful vision and a solid understanding of both the written Word and the Word as Flesh. A female theologian discussing the love and grace of God or the brokenness and sin of humanity is not a theologian for women; she's a theologian for the church.

And it's time we let her out of her box to share her wisdom, insight, and understanding with all of us.

(More tomorrow on why we should all be listening.) 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Jael

If you want a glimpse into the general angle that women's ministry has taken, you need look no further than its usual suspects. That is, which biblical women does women's ministry choose to emphasize and who are the women you almost never hear about?

The first question is pretty easy. Women's ministry certainly has a 'type' of biblical woman it chooses to prioritize. These women include Ruth, Esther, Mary (but not Martha), and the 'Proverbs 31' woman. Ruth is a woman who was taught to play the damsel and found her family's kinsman-redeemer. She served meekly, quietly, and faithfully and did as she was instructed to do, and because of this, she has permanent place in the lineage of Jesus. Esther spent months beautifying herself and became queen of the whole empire because of her beauty, which allowed her to eventually curtsy before the king and save her people. Mary listened at the feet of Jesus instead of busying herself with a bunch of chores; she chose quiet listening over busy noise. And of course, the Proverbs 31 woman is both beautiful, taking care of herself well, and a masterful manager over her household.

In other words, if you want to be a woman of God, be quiet, meek, service-oriented, and, well, beautiful. Be that 1950s housewife that God always designed you to be, take good care of yourself, take good care of your family, and above all else, be quiet and obedient and unassuming.

How many women's ministry weekends have been spent studying the likes of...Lydia, a woman who made her own name in her community and established a business for herself? Or what about Deborah, a fierce judge of Israel at a time when they were looking for leadership? How many flowery Bible journals do you have for Jael?

Oh, who is Jael? Jael is the quiet, unassuming, nearly-anonymous woman of Israel who invited the enemy general into her tent for a drink, poured him a glass of warm milk, and then drove a tent peg through his temple while he slept on her floor. How many women's ministry studies have encouraged us to be fierce and decisive like Jael?

I imagine if a study on such a woman was written in today's women's ministry environment, it would focus on being hospitable. "This woman invited an enemy into her home. Not only did she invite him into her home when he needed a bit of shelter, but she gave him something to drink! And not only something to drink, but warm milk! You could all use to be a little more of a gracious hostess like Jael."

But didn't she...she was a gracious hostess. Be more like Jael. Get warm milk for tired soldiers. That's your God-given duty.

Or here's one: when was the last time a women's ministry invited you to dive into the story of the woman at the well? Has anyone ever handed you a journal that simply instructs, "Write down everything you've ever done"? That was her story, right? Jesus told her everything she'd ever done and then redeemed her. How many retreat weekends give you the space to write down and even confess your sin and be set free from it?

Nah, we're too busy designing dresses to clothe ourselves for the big ol' wedding we're about to have. Never mind those five husbands and some sixth man we're living with. (Not necessarily literal men, of course, but those things that court our lives for the love and attention that we ought to be giving to Jesus.)

Women's ministry just doesn't encourage us to be dynamic, complete women. It doesn't inspire us to be self-sufficient, but always to be bonded. It doesn't teach us to find our own way, but to follow those who lead us. It doesn't invite us to engage our own story, but only to plan the ending (or new beginning) of it. It doesn't honor our ugliness; it just tries to hone our beauty. It doesn't want us to be fierce; it wants us to be quiet. Not strong, but dainty. Like Ruth's story, so much of women's ministry is set up to make us play the damsel.

And I don't know about you, but sometimes, I need to be able to drive a tent peg through someone's temple and claim a real victory. Sometimes, I need to run into town unashamed and tell a whole people who think they already know my story everything I've ever done so that I can tell them about a Jesus who came to redeem me. Sometimes, I need to stop designing dresses and stand naked in the public square, honest about who I am and my failures and my brokenness the way the woman caught in adultery stood among the Pharisees.

Sometimes - okay, all the time - I need my story to be something more than beautiful. I need it to be real.

Only then will it ever truly be holy. 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Women's Ministry

This week (yes, all week), I want to talk about women. And ministry. And women's ministry. And let me say right up front that this is not an invitation or an excuse for male readers of this blog to tune out. There are some things coming up that you need to hear...maybe all of them.

But let's start with women's ministry as a touchpoint for this greater discussion.

Women's ministry has become its own thing in the past several decades, formalized into programs and events centered around making sure that the women in the church are having a true Christian experience in community and so forth. Some of this came as a reaction to understanding how women have been marginalized in the Western church. Some of it is a reaction to understanding how male preachers tend to masculinize everything (not intentionally, of course, but just as a product of being male themselves). Some of it as a concession to the outcry of women who have refused to be silent in their churches for very long. And listen, women's ministry is an important outreach.

But it is so very, very shallow most of the time.

Women's ministry is centered on a feminizing of the Christian experience, rather than on a theology that is specific to the needs of the feminine creation. Oh, for sure, many have attempted to wrap theology around it, but at its core, it's all about beauty and gentleness and flowers and frilly stuff. Women's Bibles are printed with pretty pink covers and swirly writing on the cover, even though the content inside is largely the same - maybe with a few inset 'inspirations' about beauty or motherhood or 'the Proverbs 31 woman.'

When I was coming of age as a woman, I was part of a number of Bible studies for women about being the bride of Christ, complete with planning our weddings and designing our dresses. Yes, really. At my undergraduate college, the girls in the dorm chose a semester-long study of what it means to be a lady in waiting, which was all about trusting in your own beauty even if there wasn't a man in your life yet to tell you how beautiful you are. I listened to a number of female preachers and read a number of female authors who wanted me to know that I am beautiful because God made me beautiful, and that that should be enough for me.

Following on the footsteps of books attempting to get at the heart of men's theology by declaring all the things that make men who they are and what they desire from God, more than one book came out about the creation of women and guess what? The main argument of every one of these books that I read is that God created women to want to be beautiful and to want to be desired. And then, of course, spent the entire book explaining why it's good if you want to be beautiful and desired and even have chapters on how to dress and how to apply your 'spiritual' make-up.

You know what women's ministry doesn't talk about? Women's ministry doesn't talk about our sin. Women's ministry doesn't talk about our need for Jesus. Women's ministry doesn't talk about that ache in our heart that remembers Eden and longs for Heaven. Women's ministry doesn't talk about single women - women in women's ministry are always in relationship, either with a husband or with Jesus. They are never on their own. Women's ministry...is never actually about women. Take that in for a second. It's never about women. It's about women in connection with something else, whatever that something else is, and it is very seldom, if ever, her own heart, her own sin, her own brokenness, her own need for redemption, her own longing for home, her own hurt, her own crying out from the side of the road for a chance to meet Jesus. It's very seldom, if ever, actually Jesus. What is sadly, sadly missing from most women's 'ministry' is the heart of the Gospel itself, the real Gospel.

Oh, silly Christian women. You don't need Jesus. Here, let me polish your nails while we talk about the church for a bit.

Yes, really. Women's ministry is designed to make you feel better about being a woman in the church, but it stops painfully short of helping you understand yourself at all as a woman of God. As a woman who wants to know more, learn more, understand more, live more, love more. As a woman who wants to bear God's name into the world and not just bear children to take to church with you.

And this is one of the reasons that many women's ministries go through cycles of engagement. Women come, hoping for something of substance, and then they leave, having not found it. We can only hear we're beautiful so many times before we realize that our hearts long for more, that there is an entire story of God woven through the very fabric of creation that is unfathomably deeper and more fulfilling than how beautiful we are. And yet, a few years later, we'll sign up for the women's ministry again, hoping it will be different this time, but finding that we're still just beautiful and well, isn't that most deeply what God wants for us?

Not once in all of Scripture does God say that His deepest desire for us - for any of us - is to know how beautiful we are. His deepest desire for us, for all of us, is to know how loved we are. By Him. And that requires us knowing Him. And God loves us for so many thousands of other reasons than that we are beautiful.

Perhaps we would know that if we studied more of Him and less of us.

So women's ministry has been a good start in recognizing that there are needs of women in the church that must be identified and addressed, but the execution is far from where it needs to be to actually meet and matter to the hearts of Christian women.

Stay tuned this week. We have much more to talk about. 

Friday, June 26, 2020

Questions from Jonah

The book of Jonah raises a lot of questions for most of us, and they are questions worth asking. After all, if we don't ask the questions, how will we ever know the answers? (Spoiler alert: sometimes, we don't get to know the answers anyway.) 

Here's a question this little book of the Bible raises for me: on what basis did Jonah so certainly believe that God was going to redeem and restore Nineveh? The Israelites have spent much of their history marching through the Promised Land and destroying the nations that lived in the land. They have been cautioned again and again against adopting the wicked ways of any of these peoples. And not once did God say to them, "You know what? Maybe we ought to give these Amalekites a second chance. I bet the Canaanites would repent if you told them about Me." The army of Israel doesn't stop outside of Jericho as God says, "Let's give them a chance to repent." No. The people march around the city and the walls fall and the people are defeated. 

Yet Jonah sits on the hill and grumbles that he knew this is exactly what would happen to Nineveh - they would hear the word of the Lord, turn from their wicked ways, and be redeemed. Whose story is this? How did Jonah think this was not only possible, but probable? Remember, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a kingdom that defeated and enslaved and ruled the Israelites. It's just plain weird to see Jonah so sure that God wants to save the enemy of His people. 

Here's another question Jonah raises for me: why did the prophet think he had to run away? When God tells him to go to Nineveh, he doesn't want to go. He probably said no. And he was already not in Nineveh. It's not as if he would magically find himself in the city he doesn't want to go to if he just stayed where he was, but for some reason, he thinks the best plan is to hop on a ship and sail somewhere in the other direction. I can just imagine him saying, "Gee, God, you know, I'd love to go to Nineveh for you, but I already have this ticket to Tarshish and well, golly, the boat is leaving right now. Gotta go. Bye!" I'm very busy, Lord. Very busy. 

But seriously - what is it that makes us unafraid to run when we are, it seems, very afraid to stay? Jonah no doubt thought that if he stayed where he was, God was going to keep hounding him about this Nineveh thing. He wouldn't be able to keep saying no. He wouldn't be able to stay in not Nineveh for long. But he thinks that somehow, if he's not home, God will just keep knocking on his door and not notice that he's gone? I have questions. 

Here's yet another question I have: does Jonah not know his own heart? Jonah is a man who cares deeply about others. He has a heart that recognizes trouble and does what it can to resolve the situation. Just look at him on the ship. The storms are raging and a bunch of innocent lives are in danger, and Jonah not only recognizes this, but he is willing to sacrifice his own life to save theirs. He is not a selfish man. He's not someone who thinks only of himself. He gave up himself to save them...how is he not the right guy to go to Nineveh? He doesn't know what will happen to him, but he knows what can happen to the sailors if he confesses or if he doesn't, and he chooses for their good. He doesn't know what will happen to him in Nineveh, but he knows what can happen to the people there. 

This is one of those very human things about Jonah that we can relate to all too well. He loves others; he truly does. But there are some he just doesn't love. There are some persons he doesn't want to touch. Some he thinks detestable. He has his out-group, just like we have ours. But still, does he not know why God has chosen him? Does he not see his own heart? Even on his way away from Nineveh, he's exactly the guy that Nineveh needs.

And finally (for today's list), how does Jonah not have any questions of his own? He doesn't ask God a single thing about this giant fish that has come up and swallowed him and spit him out on the shore. Not one. Sorry, but put me in the belly of a beast, and I'm going to have questions. Jonah never mentions it again. He's talking with God about a skinny little plant that grows and withers, talking to God about mercy, but not talking to God about a giant fish. Not even to say, "Thanks for that one, God." It looks to us like probably the biggest thing in Jonah's life, but for Jonah, it doesn't even seem to register. Perhaps he realized it was not, in fact, the biggest thing after all. Who knows? I'm just curious. 

There are all kinds of questions that come out of Jonah, some more pressing than others. Some about our human nature, some about our faith. Some about who God is and some about who we are and still some about other peoples or those we are tempted to not love as much. It's okay - in fact, it is good - to read the testimony of the Scripture and to think there must be more to the story. In the case of Jonah, we know for certain that there is. Remember, his story starts with, "And then...." But no written word can capture every little detail, and that's why we need our sanctified imaginations to help us wonder about the rest. What we don't know may just illuminate in a new light what God is trying to show us. 

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Left in Shame

But wait a minute...if God grew up a plant to shelter Jonah in his shame, to provide relief from the hot sun as it beat down on the exposed prophet, then isn't it cruel to wither the plant? Isn't it mean-spirited to take away the prophet's refuge? Isn't it just...awful...for God to leave him in his shame?

That depends on how you think Jonah's story is going to turn out. 

If you think that it's likely that the prophet is going to sit there for a season and stare at the redeemed people in the city that he despises and eventually work his way to a love for these people and a humility about his own calling from God, then maybe it's cruel. If you think that sitting on that hill long enough is going to change his heart, maybe it's awful. If you think that all it's going to take for Jonah to understand God's tremendous love is a little refuge from the heat and a good view of Nineveh, maybe it's mean.

On the other hand, if you think it's possible that Jonah finds the answers his heart is looking for, but that it takes an inordinately long period of time, then maybe removing his refuge from shame speeds things along. We all work a little faster when we're uncomfortable. It seems to put a burden on us to do what needs to be done in a place and move on. None of us wants to stay there any longer than we have to, even if we're committed to what we believe the place will give us. Maybe letting the sun beat down on Jonah is the kick in the pants he needs to work on his heart and not wallow in his shame. 

Yet, we also have to consider the very real possibility that Jonah's heart just is not going to change. That the prophet can sit on that hill for years and look at those people and never come to love them the way that God does. That the longer he sits there, the deeper into his heart his shame will burrow and it won't be long until it completely overtakes him. There's something about us that seems prone to this, that seems to somehow want to just sit and stare at our failures. Maybe we start out wanting to figure them out or correct them or grow from them, but it doesn't take long until we just stare at them blankly. Until they mock us. Until they define us instead of shaping us into something better. 

Maybe God knew that Jonah was going to sit on that hill forever and only ever see his shame. If that's the case, then withering the plant that provides refuge is just as much grace as growing it in the first place. It's God's way of saying, "I could cover your shame for you, but it won't set you free from it. So instead, I've decided to push you toward moving on." 

Because it doesn't matter how captivated you are by your failure; when it becomes too uncomfortable to keep sitting there looking at it, you'll move on. 

Maybe God withers the plant not to maximize Jonah's shame, but to keep him from staying in it. 

The thing about Jonah's story is this: it starts somewhere in the middle. The first word in Jonah's story is a Hebrew word that means "and then..." We don't know what happened before the part that we're told. We don't know how Jonah became a prophet or how God chose him for Nineveh or what his life experiences had shaped in him to this point. We only get this one little glimpse of his life. 

And we don't know what happens next. We are left with an angry, pouting prophet burdened with shame on a hillside just outside of Nineveh and a withered plant that could have been his refuge, but isn't. The only thing this tells us is that one of two things is going to happen to the prophet from here. Either he's going to dig in and stay there and contemplate his shame until he dies from the heat and the exposure...or he's going to get up, dust off, and move on to the next thing God has for him. We can't imagine that that next thing involves a ticket to Tarshish or a giant whale. Not again. 

So he's going to die or he's going to move. The one thing he's not going to do is get very comfortable there. And that is by God's grace. Because God withered the plant that makes getting comfortable there an option. 

Is it cruel? 

Nah. It's love. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

A Miserable Prophet

At the end of the book of Jonah, we see the prophet sitting on an overlook, watching Nineveh repent from her wicked ways and receive the mercy of the Lord who loved them enough to send them a prophet. Jonah is miserable; he doesn't have the same love for Nineveh that the Lord does, and he's miffed that God would send him to such a detestable place. As he sits and pouts under the hot sun, God grows for him a shade plant to offer some relief, and Jonah settles into the coolness of the shade. Then, the plant withers and dies, and the prophet is more miserable than he even began. 

God asks him if he's right to be angry, if his fuming is doing for him whatever it is he thinks it's supposed to be doing for him, and Jonah defends his misery. Of course it's right. Of course this is what his reaction should be. He has every right to be angry - about Nineveh, about the plant, about everything. 

But this...is not a story about a prophet's anger. 

It's a story about a prophet's shame. 

To understand what's going on here (and let's be honest - most of us have read the ending to the book of Jonah and been left with a great big "huh?"), we have to go back to another story where God provided a little greenery to cover shame: Adam and Eve. 

Adam and Eve had broken God's one rule in the Garden of Eden and eaten the forbidden fruit. Their act had opened their eyes to their own nakedness, and when they heard God walking around in the cool of the day, they dove into the bushes to hide their shame. For the first time, they realized how vulnerable they were - how weak. They realized the magnitude of what they had done, how much lesser they were in this moment than God had intended them to be. They had failed to live up to their creation and their calling. 

Then, God calls them out of the bushes and asks them about their shame. He creates this space that exposes fully their nakedness and, with tender mercy, knits for them coverings out of the fig leaves. They live the rest of their lives under the hot sun, exposed and naked except for the covering that God has given them for their shame. And that covering is enough to help them move past their shame and into something better. 

Fast forward to Jonah. Here is a prophet who has been exposed. He isn't as loving as the God who created him. He doesn't believe as much in redemption as the God of mercy who sent him. He desires nothing good for Nineveh, even though God desires the best for everyone. Jonah himself has been saved by the very hand of God, but he isn't interested in sharing that saving grace with anyone else. He has failed to live up to his creation and his calling. He went to Nineveh. He spoke to them. But he didn't love them. 

He looks angry on that hill; he does. But who among us doesn't know how combative we can become when we're exposed and vulnerable? Who among us doesn't understand how angry we get when we're ashamed? It's a defense mechanism. Jonah isn't really angry, not with anyone but himself. He's ashamed. He's ashamed that he just doesn't care about Nineveh the way that he's supposed to. 

How do we know? Because he's on a hill watching their redemption play out. He can't turn his eyes away. None of us completes a task we truly hate and then sticks around to see how it turns out. None of us does a begrudging duty and then cares a lick about what happens next. If Jonah were just putting in his time as a prophet, if the whole thing for him was about doing or not doing the action that God asked him to do, then Jonah goes to Nineveh, gives them a message, walks away, and doesn't look back. But there's something about the whole thing that just doesn't settle well for Jonah, and it has to be his own lack of love. So here he is, watching from the hillside. Trying to muster up love in his heart for these people that God loves. He pouts because he knew God was going to save them - that's what he says - but part of his pouting is that he just can't see with his own eyes why. Why are these people worth saving? 

Nestled in his own lack of love, even as the city below him repents of their sins, Jonah feels deeply his failure as a prophet. And the hot sun beats down on him.

That plant is just like the fig leaves that God knit together for Adam and Eve; it is a welcome respite in a glaring shame. It is a comfort. It takes away the heat of the sun. It takes away the accusing brightness of the day. It cools Jonah down when he's flush with shame and his face beats red hot. And then, just like it came, it's gone. And Jonah is left in the fullness of his shame once more. Exposed.

Imagine if God had stripped Adam and Eve naked before He pushed them east of Eden. That's what's happening here. Jonah's shelter from his shame is gone, and the sun seems even hotter now than it was before. Because he knows that God knows the shame that he feels...and he knows God has chosen to leave him in a little longer. 

Ouch. 

You have to give the prophet some credit; he doesn't run away. He doesn't give up on the whole thing and walk away. He doesn't turn from Nineveh and give up on this moment. He's still watching, still trying to figure it out. Still pushing himself to try and find the love that he's missing. Still wanting to be a better prophet, a better man. Still trying to take hold of the kind of mercy that he's experienced...and desire it for others. He doesn't run away, and that says a lot for a descendant of a sinner who was found hiding in a bush. This man knows he is less than he was intended to be, and he wants to be more. So he stays. In the hot sun, he stays. After the plant withers, he stays. He's angry, but he's not really angry, and that's the point I think God is trying to make when He questions the prophet. 

You're not really angry, Jonah. Is this anger thing you're doing giving you the satisfaction that your soul is seeking on this hillside? Of course it's not. Because your problem isn't really anger; it's shame. 

Recognizing that changes the way that we read the end of the story of Jonah. It changes the way we read our own stories. It has to. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Unpopular Bible Opinion: The Psalms

If you were to ask a sampling of Christians what their favorite book of the Bible is, the book most likely to come up more than once is the book of Psalms. Christians tend to just love the book of Psalms.

Time for a confession: it's not my favorite.

I say that not to throw the book under the bus or to cast judgment on those who just love it - I believe that if you fall in love with any part of Scripture, it will draw you deeper into all of it, and that is a good and beautiful thing. If the psalms draw you nearer to the heart of God, then hallelujah. That's what it's all about.

But I also think it's important to sometimes say the things that are less popular, to go ahead and take the risk and say something that runs against the current of mainstream Christianity. Because I think doing so reminds us all that we each take our own path to God and that it's okay to do so. You don't have to be exactly like the person in the pew next to you. You don't have to have the same opinions on things. You don't have to understand in exactly the same way that they do. It's okay to love God from another angle and in fact, I would say it's good to do so. I have learned much from those Christians who have a different view than I do of the Lord. I have learned much from those Christians who just love the psalms.

The thing, I guess, for me is that it's harder for me to see God in the psalms. I love the Old Testament, the way it reveals the story of God and His relationship with His people; you can trace Him all the way through it and develop this deeper understanding of who He is. I love the New Testament, the way it puts flesh on the love of God and shows us how to live in the world as persons of love. It gets us right onto the ground with Jesus, and that's amazing. I struggle with the psalms because they are so deeply rooted in the human experience, pouring out from the heart of man. Which is precisely why Christians seem to love them so much, ironically. They seem so relatable.

They seem so relatable because the psalms cover the gamut of human emotion. They are praise and sorrow, exhaustion and energy. They are fear and courage, hesitation and movement. They are humility and boldness, introspection and observation. They are much more even than this. They are the kind of eyes of faith that see the world the ways that we are prone to, with a depth of emotion that latches onto our hearts and pulls on the threads we are afraid to unravel. And by including them in the Scriptures, God tells us that it is okay. It really is okay to be deeply human.

I just...I don't know. I grow weary of being human all the time, and I want to draw on the depth of my being that is created in the image of God. I want to hold onto that scarlet thread that runs through creation's story and not just the tattered yarns of my own life. I'm not afraid of being human; I just know there is something better than this broken world, and the invitation to dive deeper into a brokenness that I didn't ask for and that I don't love...it's hard. I'd just rather pull into the love and grace and mercy of God. I have learned to love my little story, but I just can't stop aching for His bigger one.

And so when I come to the psalms and they are so...human...I wrestle with finding where God is in them. I wrestle with looking for the love that's so easy to miss. I keep my eyes out for the bigger things, and it's difficult sometimes. It's difficult because the psalms could so easily pull me into a smaller story if I let them, if I'm not paying attention, if I allow myself to be drawn into the humanness of them instead of the holiness of them. I mean, isn't that the point? The holiness of them? So many Christians read them like they reveal so much about who we are, but aren't the Scriptures supposed to reveal so much about who He is?

So my unpopular Bible opinion is...the psalms are not my favorite. They are not the place where I discover the most - about myself or about my God. They are not the words I am most prone to relate to in a way that meaningfully shapes my life and my faith journey. They are valuable. They are beautiful. They are not useless. I don't hate them. But if you ask me what part of the Scripture is most beautiful or meaningful or relatable to me, my answer won't be the Psalms.

Again, the point in sharing that is this: it's okay to have a different journey with God than the person next to you in the pew. It's okay to love something more or less than someone else does. There's no shame in not being a psalms person, just like there's no shame in not being a Hillsong Worship person or a words-on-a-giant-screen person or a King James Only person or a Sunday Best Dress person or a Pray For Hours on End person or whatever. It's okay to love God the way He's wired your heart to love Him and to find the path of faithfulness that He's marked out for you. There is not one way in the world that the Lord speaks; He speaks to each of us in our own language, and that means we will find His glory in different ways. And this is good, for it means that you can show me the glory that I am prone to miss, and I can do the same for you. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Prayer Gossip

As our churches wrestle with what it means to be online/digital communities and how to best stay connected to one another in a time of social distancing, we need to revisit what it means to pray for one another. Thankfully, many Christians are doing this well in this season; sadly, too many are still doing it poorly.

We have always been a people who pray for one another, who share our concerns with our brothers and sisters. But there comes with that a sacred responsibility to carry our friends' stories well. They are, after all, their stories and not ours. 

Take the following scenario, just to help us put some content together:

You have a member of your church or a close friend who is suddenly diagnosed with colon cancer. Let's just say colon cancer. That friend is ushered into a rapid-fire series of appointments and surgeries and phone calls that they never imagined themselves having to make, and in a time of social distancing, that friend is alone through all of it. They reach out to our community for prayer. 

The absolute poorest way to handle this situation is to blast your friend's details - all of them - all over social media. "Please pray for my friend Bob Jones. He just found out he has colon cancer, and the doctors are going in tomorrow to see what they can take out. He's going to have a colostomy bag afterward and probably some hemorrhoids for a while. He just really needs your prayers!" 

Even when done with the purest of intentions - to get the most specific prayer possible for Bob - this is a no-no. This is Bob's journey, not yours, and the details of his life are not yours to plaster to the world. Especially when your world is different than his. Maybe your reach goes into places his doesn't, and now, the whole world is talking about Bob's colon. Maybe Bob doesn't want the whole world talking about his colon. Maybe Bob didn't tell certain members of his family, or maybe he hasn't told his boss. It is not your place to disseminate Bob's information all over the place. He shared it with you. It is sacred between you and him. 

Without the purest of intentions, some of us do this because we want to be the storykeepers. We want to be the person who breaks the news, the one who seems 'in-the-know.' It's important to us, for some reason, to be the first place someone hears something, so we share as much as we know just to show that we know it. This, obviously, is also a no-no. If you hijack someone else's story and cloak it in religious language to satisfy your own ego or boost your own social standing, this is clearly a problem. Don't do it. You're not showing what a valuable asset you are to your community; you're demonstrating that you cannot be trusted.  

Sometimes, we'll say something like, "Please pray for a member of my church (or a friend) who has just been diagnosed with colon cancer." Whether we include more details than that or not (and see above why spilling all the details is a bad idea), this really isn't any better. Now, everyone connected to your church or in your circle of friends is running through their head trying to figure out who it is. This is how rumors get started.
For the same reason, it's a bad idea to post something like, "Please pray for Bob Jones." Now, everyone's trying to figure out what's going on with Bob Jones. Again, this is how rumors get started. Or worse, a man who's spending his whole life on his phone and can't seem to get away from his own news now has to share it a thousand more times as connections come out of the woodwork to check on him and see what's going on. He gets more connection, maybe, but he gets no space to breathe. 

By now, I'm hoping you're starting to see how sharing your private prayer list on social media - your prayer requests from a community that trusts you and is invested in you and in whom you are invested - is bad form. 

At the same time, we want to be a people who pray. We believe in the power of prayer, absolutely. We want to demonstrate to the world how we come together and pray for one another. We want to maintain those connections that we have. We want our community to be a real community. 

But the best way to do that is to hold sacred our communities and honor their stories when they share them with us. 

So is it possible to ask for prayer for someone you're praying for without profaning the trust? It is. And doing this gently and humbly actually makes our prayer circles even larger still. 

Imagine this: you make a post on your social media that says, "I am praying for a man navigating a new diagnosis of cancer. Please pray with me." 

You have not given up Bob Jones's name, so you've protected him from an onslaught of inquiry (and those who feign concern just to be a part of something). You have not indicated your connection to the man, so no one can figure out which of your communities he is a part of. They aren't narrowing down the pool to figure out who he is. Those who know Bob Jones know who you are talking about, but those who don't...don't. And you haven't given them a way to figure it out. You have revealed the specific nature of the problem, allowing for specific prayer, without giving all of the graphic details. You have solicited prayer without hijacking Bob's story to do it and without violating the sacred trust he's put in you. 

Now, here's where it gets cool. When you are praying for "a man navigating a new diagnosis of cancer," you are creating an invitation for others who are praying for men and women in the same situation...in their own communities. Your friend comments on your post and says, "I am praying for a woman in the same situation." Another friend comments and says, "I just heard about a neighbor who...." And all of a sudden, you are a community praying for Bob - which is what you wanted, if your intentions were pure - but you are also a community praying for many others.

And that's sacred. 

We're all trying to figure out how to be a digital community, now more than ever. Here, I think, is one simple rule to start with: don't be a prayer gossip. Honor the stories of your brothers and sisters that they've entrusted you with and respect the fact that these remain their stories, not yours. Let them be the ones deciding how they're told and when and to whom. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Learning to Limp

Could God have healed Jacob's limp? Could He have touched the man's hip and put it back into its socket just as easily as He took it out? 

Of course He could have, and that's what makes yearning for healing so frustrating. We know without a doubt that God is capable of it, and we know that God wants fullness for us, and we know that God wants wellness and wholeness in our lives. We know that God has promised to restore us. And so, when we continue to limp even after all these years, even after all these nights of crying out, even after all these thousands and millions of tears, even after all of this desperation, even after all of our trust and faith, we still limp, and it's hard. Given everything we know and trust and love about God, it's just hard to wake up one more day limping. It's hard to take one more step on an unsteady leg.

So, then, how does Jacob do it? It's not just Jacob that has something to teach us here, but other men from Scripture, as well. Paul, for example. And Hezekiah. 

For Jacob, I think it had to be the satisfaction of the fullness of his life to that point. He was a man who had had a rough go of it, but he had maintained his faithfulness. He was the kind of servant that he wanted to be - honest, diligent, true. He had promised to work in exchange for everything that he had, and he had worked. He had gone away from home to find the life that he wanted, and now he had it, and he was headed back to where he came from. He had a brother he was hoping to reconcile with, a father he was hoping to see one more time. He had already made his peace with these things, and when he looked at his cup, it truly overflowed. 

Yes, he limped, but he wasn't about to let his limp take his focus off of his life. He had truly lived well, he was living well, and the limp didn't change the abundant life in his hands. His story wasn't perfect, and now, his body wasn't perfect, but his life was good. There's satisfaction in that, and Jacob rested in knowing the fullness of his life, even if it was missing a piece. 

Paul, we know well, prayed about the thorn in his flesh. He even confessed his fervent prayer to those to whom he ministered. He wanted his affliction to be taken away, but it never was. And yet, despite all of the words that Paul wrote to all of the people and the churches across years of ministry, we only hear about it once. Contrast that with some of us who can't seem to talk about anything but our brokenness, can't go very long at all without mentioning that one thing that we wish was different. We become obsessed with it. 

Paul knew that if he became obsessed with his limp, it might keep him from going where God was sending him. It might keep him from having the impact for Christ that he was supposed to have. If all he could talk about was this one thing God had not healed him from, he would miss his opportunity to talk about everything God has done for His people from the beginning of time. Paul understood that his story was bigger than his thorn and that his testimony was greater than his brokenness. He wasn't about to let his ministry be hijacked by his discomfort or his pain. He wasn't about to give up God's call and promise for his own pouting.

Paul persisted, knowing that he had much to offer the world, and much to offer the Lord, and that even if God never did this one thing for him, He had done a thousand others worth talking about, worth preaching out, worth sojourning the earth to share with others. And when Paul tells his story, when he talks about how the Lord changed his heart and called him to greater things, he almost never mentions what God hasn't done for him - because He knows that what God has done is enough. 

Hezekiah is a little different; the Lord healed his limp. Hezekiah was lying on his death bed, just moments away from passing on, and he prayed a faithful prayer. The Lord had mercy on him and restored his life and gave him another fifteen years to live. Fifteen years! And I can't help but wonder how that went for him.

Did he wake up every morning wondering if he was sick again? Did he obsess over whether his symptoms were coming back? Was he marking the days off on a calendar, knowing that fifteen years is such a relatively short time? In other words, was Hezekiah able to live a healed life or did he go on living diseased in his well body? 

Some of us, I think, continue to limp long after our displacement is reset. Some of us just can't let go of the fear that something is failing within us. Some of us have trouble adjusting to wholeness when God is good enough to give it to us. We never see Hezekiah say another word about the affliction that almost took his life, but some of us live every day with those very words on the tips of our tongues. Even healed, we can't seem to live well. We limp on a leg that is stronger than we imagined it could ever be again. 

It's amazing how something so small, something so simple can become such a burden in our lives if we let it. But the testimony of these men shows us how to move past our limp and keep walking a faithful life - in light of what God has done in our lives and knowing full well what He has not yet done for us. 

Our limp doesn't have to limit us, not if we live in the fullness of our own story, the story God has given us. It may be a thing, but it doesn't have to be the thing; there is so much more to who we are. There is so much more to who He is. 

The trick is to live into that, even while we keep crying out for this. 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Yearning for Healing

When we think about what it means to do whatever it takes to get to Jesus, about crying out again and again and again and not giving up on it, I realize in my heart that my greatest challenge here is my own entitlement. As a person of faith, as someone who has read the Scriptures and knows the stories and has given her life to this healing God, I feel like I'm entitled to wholeness. I feel like all it should take is my simply asking (and sometimes, I can even convince myself that if God really loves me, I shouldn't even have to ask). I deserve to live a full life, just like Jesus promised. I deserve to not have to struggle and wrestle and fight with the things that plague me here.

I want my faith to be easy. I want it to be as simple as reading the stories can somehow make it seem. I want to catch just a moment of Jesus's attention and have Him speak just a simple word and make it all better. When I start out in this mindset, I start in a place of faith. I believe God is who He says He is. I believe He is a healer. I believe that He loves me. The one guy in the Gospels said, "Lord, if you are willing," and I believe Jesus is willing. Because of who He is, because I believe wholeheartedly in who He is, I believe it ought to be easy. I believe my wholeness ought to come just like that. 

And then, it's not. It doesn't happen just like I want it to. I don't feel that instant relief in just a moment's breath. The wholeness I seek does not just come washing over my life like a flood. 

How rude.

So then, I change my tactics, and it's no longer just about who He is. It quickly becomes about who I am, and here's where my entitlement really starts to show. I start to think about all the things I've already been through in my life. All the brokenness I've already had to put up with. All the battles I've already had to fight. I start to think about the wars I've been engaged in and how, if I put my story together just right, it is one fight after another after another up until whatever the current one is that I'm certain He's supposed to take away from me. That I'm certain He's supposed to heal me from. And then I convince myself, and I try to convince God, that I've already put in my time. I've already had a hard enough road. Whatever I'm crying out about today, I deserve at least this little win. Don't I? 

Like I said, I feel like I'm entitled to my wholeness. You see how this is going? Can you relate? 

It's just because I know in the depth of my heart that we were made for more than this. I was made for more than this. This broken world wasn't the plan. This sin-sick land wasn't the plan. This life of struggle wasn't the plan. God breathed life into the world and said it was 'very good' and I look around, and it's not very good any more. Not right now. But I want it to be. I want it to be everything God wanted it to be. I want it to be the kind of glorious creation He intended from the very beginning. I want a taste of heaven, and I want it now. 

I get in trouble for my idealism, but I hold onto Heaven like a kid with a bug. I giggle when it's crawling all over me. I get tickled when it moves across my heart. I ache for the way things were meant to be, and so when I'm wrestling with brokenness, I hurt to the core of my being, and I just want the fullness of the life that God designed me for. I want my wholeness. It starts, for me, in a pure place, I think? It's easy for it to become impure, but it's really not for me about my comfort or my own wealth; it's about satisfying this pain deep in my heart that knows this is not the way that it was meant to be. 

And then...

And then, I remember that Jacob walked with a limb. 

The righteous father of God's people, the faithful servant who worked for what he loved in this world, the namesake of an entire nation who bore the story of God's goodness and glory wrestled with God and walked away limping. For the rest of his life. His sojourn in a broken world knocked his hip permanently out of socket, and he remembered that night on the shores of the Jabbok with every step that he took until the day that he died. 

And I have the audacity to feel entitled to my wholeness. 

I don't think it's wrong to want God's healing in my life. I don't think it's wrong to stand on the side of the road and cry out. I don't think it's wrong to press my way through the crowds and do whatever I can to get close enough to touch Him. I don't think it's wrong to climb a tree to get a glimpse of His glory. I don't think it's wrong to plead for mercy. I don't think it's wrong to believe that God wants to heal me, to trust that He is willing. 

But I do think it's wrong to stomp my feet and say that's the only response I'll accept. I do think it's wrong to hold my faith hostage to God's action or worse, to hold God hostage to my faith. I do think it's wrong to wear blinders that only let me see one way out of my brokenness, one answer to my aching heart. I do think it's wrong to demand my wholeness when the hard truth is that God hasn't promised my wholeness in a broken world; He's only promised it in a new creation. 

And that means that maybe I cry out and press through the crowds and climb a tree and plead for mercy...and walk away with a limp. Maybe every step I take for the rest of my life is marked by this moment, by this time when I wrestled with God. Maybe all I get, for now, is the look of love that I see in His eyes when He looks at me. Maybe that has to be enough. Maybe it is. 

It's just hard because I want more. Sorry, but I do. I want the fullness of everything that God has for me, all of it. I want my wholeness. I want it to be easy. I know, more often than not, it is simply hard. 

So I keep crying out, pressing through, pressing on, and climbing trees, and I don't think I'll ever stop. But at the same time, I'm practicing my limp. I'm coming to terms with the idea that I might remember this night forever, with every step that I take for the rest of my life. Well, this life. And I'm starting to be okay with that. Because I still see the love in His eyes when He looks at me, no matter how broken I feel. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Crying Out

Sometimes, the Gospels are a little misleading. Not intentionally, of course, but our human nature causes us to read them in a certain way that suits our aching hearts, and it's not the entire truth of the situation. See, it's easy for us to read the story of Jesus and to get the idea that He just walked around healing everyone and doing miracles at the drop of a hat. We can easily get the impression that He always had His head on a swivel, looking for that person in the crowd who was most in need of His touch and then moving toward them deliberately and compassionately. We can come to believe that all we have to do is earnestly desire Jesus, and He will find us and heal us. We can think that all it takes is one well-timed moment when we cry out from the depth of our hearts, and if it's just the right moment, then He will hear us and turn toward us.

And then...and then, because our faith has taught us this, all that's left for us to do is to believe. If we've timed our cry just right and stood in just the right place and put ourselves in just the right scenario and we know that Jesus heard us, then that's all that we can do. Now, it's up to Him. And if we believe that He is who He says He is and that He wants to heal us, as He responded to the one man who came to Him (I am willing), then we must simply sit and wait and trust that He sees us, He hears us, and He is coming to heal us.

It's easy for us to come to a belief that our healing is quick and easy and then, when it's not, we must have gotten part of it wrong. We must have missed something or maybe our timing was off or maybe that wasn't Jesus walking down the street right there after all. Or maybe...maybe God doesn't want to heal us. Do you realize how quickly we resign ourselves to the idea that God doesn't love us enough to heal us, doesn't want us to be whole, just because we cried out and He didn't come running the way we think He should?

Well, I tried. God just doesn't care. Guess I'll go on living my broken life and try to circle back around with the next thing. Maybe He'll care about that one.

And I get it. Sometimes, it comes from a very honest place. Sometimes, we just don't want to feel like we're pestering God. We don't want to be whiny about our needs. We don't want to be too demanding. We want to be open to whatever grace He wants to offer. We want to be trusting, full of faith, and to us, that means asking and then waiting. Knowing that He loves us. Believing that He will answer.

What we don't get, what we miss or what's not as well-presented in the Gospels sometimes, is how persistent the people were in coming to Jesus. How insistent they were. The great lengths they went to to make sure that they had a real moment with Him, that He for sure heard them, that they got the chance to get all the way to Jesus. These parts of the stories are there, but they're the ones we read past too quickly to get to the 'good' stuff.

Zacchaeus climbed a tree. He was afraid he was going to miss it, and he knew he couldn't see well, so he kept walking along the side of the road until he found a tree he could scurry up just to see Jesus. It was because he got to this place that Jesus so naturally saw him. He put himself in a position not only to see, but to be seen.

The woman with the issue of bleeding slinked her way through the crowd. She wasn't even allowed in the crowd, and the whole group was going to become unclean because of her. That means she probably took diligent care to make sure she didn't touch anyone, even accidentally. She was measured about the steps that she took, but she took every one of them - knowing the risk it posed, knowing the trouble she would be in, knowing what it could cost her if things went sideways - to get to Jesus.

Several of the blind men stood on the side of the road and shouted, begging the passing Rabbi to heal them. They couldn't see exactly where He was; they had to go by the sounds of the crowd. So they just started crying out and didn't stop. They cried out from the time they first heard the crowd in the distance until the moment that Jesus stopped to engage with them. They cried out even after the others told them to shut up. They were hushed and shushed and silenced, and they refused to accept it; they just kept crying out. They weren't shouting once and hoping to hit the right moment; they kept shouting until they made the right moment. And it worked for them. Jesus heard them. Maybe not the first time, but that's why they couldn't give up.

It's hard for us to keep pressing in. It's hard for us to push our way to the front. It's hard for us to pray about something we've already desperately prayed about, to ask God again for a healing that didn't come the first time. It's hard for us to persist. Because we get this idea somewhere that it's supposed to be simple, that it all just happens in an instant, and that true faith just trusts.

But the real witness of the Gospels is that it's not so easy. The real testimony of the healed is that you have to keep crying out. You have to climb a tree. You have to push through the crowd. You have to take risks and have strength and keep going until you get to that place you want to be with Jesus. You have to fight for that moment. You have to want it with everything you've got, and you have to push back against a world - and sometimes, even against a faith - that tells you to shut up. You have to keep crying out because Jesus is there, He is right there, and you're so close. He's so close. Your moment isn't a split second; it's a whole scene, and this is it. Time to make it. Time to make a scene. Go for it. Cry out. Cry out again. Press through. Climb a tree. Whatever you have to do.

This is your moment. Throw yourself into it with everything you've got. It will take but a simple touch from the Savior, but you have to keep going until you get there. It's okay to keep going until you get there. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Idol Worship

They have mouths, but they cannot speak. They have eyes, but they cannot see. They have ears, but they cannot hear. They have noses, but they cannot smell. They have hands, but they cannot feel. They have feet, but they cannot walk. They cannot even make a sound with their throats. Those who make idols end up like them. So does everyone who trusts them. – Psalm 115:5-8

You become like the things that you worship. This is true when we talk about idols, which is what this psalm refers to. Although we shape our idols to look like us, they are but mere shadows and it doesn’t take long until we discover that our idols don’t work – that all the pieces and parts we’ve given them don’t function the way that we imagined that they would. Success doesn’t secure us any more than the mouth on a statue can speak on its own. Wealth doesn’t make us happy any more than riches pour out of a hand that doesn’t move.

It’s rare for us to have idols in our homes any more. At least, it’s rare for us to set up statues in the image of anything, physical representations that we choose to worship. It happens from time to time, but our greatest trouble is not our idols; it’s the image we have of our God.

For many of us, we have come to believe that the God that we worship is no fundamentally different than the idols of the nations in the Old Testament. He has a mouth, but He doesn’t speak. Not to us. Not any more. He has eyes, but He doesn’t see anything with them. The wickedness of this world seems to slip right past Him. He has ears, but He doesn’t hear our prayer; at least, He’s not answering the way we want Him to. He has a nose, but He no longer smells a pleasing aroma of our sacrifice. He has hands, but He doesn’t reach them out to us. He has feet, but He no longer walks among His people. He no longer even makes a sound.

We believe that God is who He says He is, but we’ve taken and put Him so far in the Heavens that for us, He’s nothing more than an image. He’s nothing more than an idea. We put His Cross around our necks, but rarely, if ever, do we think of Him on it. The God that we worship has become nothing more than a statue of His former self, a God created and shaped by our own hands. He has become an idol, unable to help us this side of eternity.

That’s bad enough, but the most haunting truth of this reality is that it’s proven for us the truth of this psalm – those who make idols end up like them.

We have become Christians who have mouths, but we don’t speak. We don’t speak up about the injustices in the world, thinking they aren’t our problem or that we can’t make a difference. We have eyes, but we close them to all the things we don’t want to see. We have ears, but we’re not listening. We refuse to hear the voices of those who disagree with us. We have noses, but we seem not to smell the sacrifices that ought to bring us joy. We have hands, but we keep them firmly in our pockets. We have feet, but we’ve propped them up on the coffee table. We are a people created to change the world, and we no longer make a sound in it.

We are beings created in the image of God, and we have remade ourselves into the image of our idol of Him. We have put Him so far in the heavens that He’s impotent on earth, and in doing so, we have made ourselves just as impotent. No longer are we changing the world. No. Now, we’re simply tolerating it until that glorious day when we get to leave it all behind and go to where our God is truly living, to where we will truly live.

That’s not the life we were meant to live. That’s not the life that God has called us to. He is no mere idol, and He’s not impotent here. Nor were we meant to be. Let us remember that God is living and active, even here, even now, and let us be a people living and active ourselves.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Growing Up

Praise the Lord, my soul, and never forget all the good he has done: He is the one who forgives all your sins, the one who heals all your diseases, the one who rescues your life from the pit, the one who crowns you with mercy and compassion, the one who fills your life with blessings so that you become young again like an eagle. – Psalm 103:2-5

There’s a progression in this psalm that begins where most of us end, with the forgiveness of our sins. It’s the one thing we expect, above all others, that God will do for us. It’s the one thing we trust when we aren’t really sure about anything else. When our prayer for the life we live here isn’t answered, somehow, we still hold on to the firm belief that we are forgiven – it’s our ticket to eternity. So it’s no wonder this has become our end-all-be-all in the Christian faith; if nothing else, God has forgiven our sins.

But this psalm shows us a flow in our relationship with God, specifically in how He’s growing us, and the forgiveness of our sins is just His first grace. There are many more to follow, if we’ll keep on pursuing them.

He forgives our sins because that’s the biggest obstacle to our love. If we think ourselves unworthy, we will live unworthy lives. If we question our cleanliness, we’ll be afraid to get our hands dirty touching anything else – or get other things dirty. If we don’t believe there is anything good about us, we’ll be too insecure to do anything good with our lives. So the first thing God does is to forgive us for our sins because they do not define who we are; we are much better than our worst moments.

After we are forgiven, we must be made strong again. We are riddled with weakness as a result of living in a broken world, exhaustion as a consequence of fighting so hard just to keep our heads above water. And as long as we feel weak and tired and run-down, we’re unlikely to actively move toward the world. As long as we’re treading water, we’re never going to swim. We simply can’t be who God desires us to be if we’re sick and tired all the time, so after He forgives us an affirms that we are much better than our worst moments, He heals us to give us the fullness of our strength.

And when we are certain and strong, He pulls us out of all of the muck and mire and sets our feet on solid ground. We have the confidence and the strength to stand on something better, and that’s where He wants us. It wouldn’t work before now – He couldn’t rescue us when we were weak and scared; we’d fall right back in. But now, now we are ready, so He puts our feet under us.

Certain and strong and steady on our feet, He crowns us with mercy and compassion. When we think of the notion of a crown, we think of royalty, and we should. But the king is never crowned for his own sake; he is anointed for the people. The mercy and compassion that He gives us is for others. Having been insecure and weak and tired and stuck – and having been forgiven, healed, and rescued – He now gives us eyes to see the struggles of others and a heart to act gracefully toward them because we understand where they are. It wasn’t too long ago that we were there ourselves.

Then, finally, when we are certain and strong and steady and, let’s call it ‘loving’ with mercy and compassion, He fills our lives with blessings until they overflow and gives us back that little bounce in our step that can only be called freedom and joy.

See, there’s a progression here. Each one builds upon the last until we become in fullness all that God has intended us to be from our very creation. And forgiveness of our sins, the central axis of so much of modern Christianity, isn’t where we end; it’s where we begin. He grows us from there, if we’re willing to keep pursuing Him. 

Friday, June 12, 2020

A Messy Table

Believe it or not, when you say something like, "If you want to have a real conversation about racism, you have to invite the racists," there's a lot of pushback. There's a lot of outcry. There are a lot of persons who don't want those who are "so backward, wrong, and hateful" at their table. And we could put any of yesterday's examples of the obstacles to real conversation here - we want to talk about racism, but we don't want to include those we call racist; we want to talk about policing, but we don't want to hear from the police; we want to talk about the Confederate flag, but we don't want to listen to the Southern Pride group; we want to have a discussion about masks, but only with other pro-mask individuals. 

In other words, most of us in the world want to speak, not dialogue. We want to lecture, not converse. We think the time for talking about it is over, and it's time to make some declarations. We can only make declarations if we are the only voice speaking. 

We don't want a table; we want a podium. 

Spoiler alert: the world has never been lectured into change. 

The thing about tables, real tables, is that they're messy. They're complicated. They aren't easy. They require us to be around individuals who are just as passionately wrong about something as we are passionately right about it (in our eyes). They require us to share a butter dish with those we wouldn't spit on if they were on fire. They require us to see more of someone than just an idea we disagree with, and that alone really muddies things. It's a whole lot easier if we can just think someone is a moron instead of realizing they are a dynamic human being who has ideas and experiences we can't even understand that have shaped the person we aren't interested in truly knowing. 

When we think about tables, we think naturally of Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper. And for the most part, when we think about what kind of table this was, we think it must have been mostly harmonious. These guys spent a lot of time together. They knew each other well. Judas Iscariot is, of course, the odd man out, but we get it. And this kind of idea makes us think that our tables should be harmonious places, too, and that we can just shame the one guy until he leaves and goes and hangs himself. He'll take care of his own wickedness if we just push him out far enough. That's the approach we take to those who disagree with us. We'll just shame them away from our table. We'll just out them, and they'll run away, tails tucked, and we'll never see them again. 

But even Jesus's table was more dynamic than this. 

James and John thought they were better than everyone else. They were even so bold as to suggest to Jesus that they should be sitting at His right and left hand when His kingdom comes. The other disciples knew about this bold statement, no doubt. They knew James and John thought they were better than everyone. They broke bread with them anyway. 

Thomas was a natural doubter. He was probably also obstinate. He wasn't going to change his mind unless he had a heavy weight of evidence right on his hands. Unless it made undeniable sense to him. He was going to stand there and argue with the others, tell them that their experience wasn't enough. He was probably one of those "Yes, but..." guys who was only willing to take into account his own experience, which was probably limited, but he, of course, didn't see it that way. His experience was authoritative for him, and it wasn't enough to think that someone else might have had a different experience. They broke bread with him anyway. 

Judas Iscariot was along for the ride. He wasn't a real friend, and he wasn't a real ally. He was against this whole Jesus thing, and he was about to show it. He was about to become a turncoat and team up with the enemy. They broke bread with him anyway. 

Peter was impetuous. He was always saying whatever popped into his head, without much of a filter. He was the disciple most likely to be interviewed on the news, saying something that would embarrass the rest of them or completely misrepresent who they were and what they were about. His fire far outpaced his understanding, and he had to be constantly reminded to slow down and focus and stop running away with things. When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter grabbed a sword and started slashing. They broke bread with him anyway. 

Andrew was someone who just kept bringing others to the Jesus events, usually without any kind of screening. He wanted everyone there. He wanted to share this message with anybody who wanted to hear it. They broke bread with him anyway. Nathanael was sitting under a tree when he was called to come see Jesus; he wasn't doing much of anything, but he had heard some things about the Jewish Messiah, so he came to check it out. He was basically a joiner. He was the kind of guy who was bored and looking for something to do and heard a few things that made sense to him and ended up joining something bigger than he even imagined. They broke bread with him anyway. 

Around Jesus's table, you can find anyone you should find around your own table. You can find anyone who we're talking about in these current discussions. These weren't eleven guys who loved each other and agreed about everything and were just happy to have the chance to talk. They didn't come together and settle on one message and start shouting it from their lecterns. They were conversationalists, not lecturers - and they were this way because they practiced with each other, not being fooled into believing that these other men were just like them but knowing the heart of these other men and who they truly were. 

And that's something else. For everything these men were, for their experiences and personalities and quirks and challenges, the one thing they could trust in one another was the heart that each brought to the table. And that's what we need to start looking for in others. Not what their position is, but what their heart is. Is someone passionate about this? Are they invested in it? Even if we think they are wrong, are they engaged? We need engaged persons around our table, persons willing and ready to have the hard conversations - to listen at least as much as they speak, even more is better. And we need all of them.

We need the ones who think they are better than us. We need the "yes, but..." guys who will only be convinced by their own experience. We need the impetuous, passionate individuals who are prone to run away with things. We need the turncoats and the ones who seem to betray our whole point. We need those who open their arms too wide and bring everybody. We need those who were sitting on the sidelines and decided to jump in anyway. If we want to have a real conversation about these real issues, we need to break bread with them all. Even the ones we think don't have anything valuable to add. Even the ones we think don't have anything meaningful to say. 

If we ever want to change the world, we have to understand others just as much as we want them to understand us. And that starts around a real table, and a real table is messy. It's hard. 

But it's worth it. 

Just look at how thirteen guys around a real table already changed the world once. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

A Place at the Table

We need to be having some important conversations in America right now. These conversations run the gamut on human realities, and they are dialogues we need to have with those who have historically not been given the right to speak. Thankfully, we are starting to recognize that the time for these conversations is long overdue. 

Sadly, however, we're going about it the wrong way. 

You see, we've recognize that we need to bring more voices to the table, but we haven't made a bigger table. All we're doing is swapping out who's allowed to sit at it. This is how language in a philosophically postmodern world works - it's a weapon, and we limit who is allowed to speak and shame those we don't want to listen to. We decide which voices are given air time and which we're allowed to shut down. And we call it good, but the truth is that it's getting us nowhere. It's not tearing down our walls; it's just painting murals on the other side of them. 

Here are a few examples of how our current approach isn't working: 

Pride organizers, at least in my local jurisdiction, have come out and said that they won't be contracting with the police for their security when they resume in-person festivals next year. They still welcome police officers and members of the military to attend, so long as they are not in uniform, because "we want everyone to feel welcome." Except, it seems, members of the military and police, who have to conceal who they are in order to be welcomed by a group founded to make sure everyone is included. 

NASCAR has banned the display of the Confederate flag at all of its events and facilities, saying that it's important to NASCAR to be a place where "everyone feels welcome." Except, of course, the 'Southern Pride' crowd for whom this flag has been detached from its historical roots and transformed into something that doesn't necessarily hold its strong ties to the ideology it once represented. (To be sure, some still use it as it was historically used, but many do not.) 

Harding University wants to rename a building on its campus because it currently bears the name of someone who once fought to keep Black students from attending. The building isn't named for him because of his ideology on race; it's named for him for the myriad of other good, valuable contributions he made to the community, but a friend connected to this issue said, "We just want to make sure everyone feels welcome on the Harding campus." Except, of course, men like the man who the building is currently named after - who make good, valuable contributions to their community but can be wiped away in a second if they have even one perspective that someone doesn't agree with. 

It's even this way when we talk about whether we should wear masks in public. There have been companies come out and say that they are mandating masks for all customers in their stores "because we want everyone to feel comfortable here." Except, of course, persons who aren't comfortable wearing masks. 

We're not making our tables bigger so that we can have the tough conversations that we need to have; we're just changing who we let sit at them. We're not giving air to more voices; we're giving different voices a chance to speak. It's still not a dialogue we're having; it's a shouting match. It's a shame fest. Clothed in words like 'tolerance,' it is anything but as we are just changing one out-group for another. 

Until and unless we change this, we're never going to do the hard work that we need to do. We're never going to have the real conversations that we need to have. We're taking marginalized groups in our society, and we're letting them do the marginalizing, all while they proclaim their openness and acceptance...all while living much less.

And maybe you're saying, but wait - those persons don't deserve a place at the table. They are so wrong, so backward, so stupid that we shouldn't have to listen to them. They don't deserve even a nanosecond of our attention. We don't condone their behavior. Okay, but remember this - there was a time when we said this about the very groups that we're now trying harder to listen to. There was a time in our history when we said that a man didn't deserve a place at the table because of his skin color or his sexual orientation, because he was so wrong, backward, and stupid, maybe even dangerous, just because of who he was, that we don't have to listen to him. He doesn't deserve our attention. If we were wrong then, though we were just as confident in our judgment of others, why would we repeat that mistake now by just directing those attitudes toward a different group?

I can't help but look at Jesus, at His table, and think how painfully wrong we're getting it. Think how far away from His version of love we are. I can't help but think about the conversations that had to happen around His table, and the truth is - I want that. I want that for us. I want that for our world. I want that for our children. 

I want us to not be afraid to talk with each other. Not to each other, but with each other. I want us to stop trying to figure out who deserves a place at the table and which voices we're supposed to listen to this week, and I want us to just build a bigger table and let everyone come to it. I want us to wrestle with the hard stuff, really wrestle with it, and figure out a way to truly make everyone welcome...without making anyone unwelcome. Because the minute that we say 'you're not welcome here because we want everyone to feel welcome here,' we've already failed. Hear me - we have already failed. If you have to push someone out to let someone in, even if you have to push one person out to let twenty in, you have failed.

We have a lot of conversations that we need to be having right now. A lot of them. And they are long overdue. But the way we're going about it right now is still wrong. We're not any closer to having those conversations today than we were two months ago, five years ago, three decades ago. Because we haven't built a bigger table. All we've done is change the guest list to accommodate what we have all known for far too long is too small a space. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Unrighteous Faith

Have you heard the phrase "virtue signaling"? It's a phrase that's been growing in popularity in the past few months, and it's set to explode, although the concept has been around for a very long time. And basically, virtue signaling is the idea of making a big, bold, public pronouncement of believing something in particular and making a display of it to show others the kind of moral, righteous, upstanding person you are.

It's not new. It's something we do all the time. And Christians, in particular, are extremely guilty of it.

The difference is that when Christians do it, we make every one of our proclaimed virtues a measure of our faith. We make it about our Christianity. We try to declare that everything good that we do is because we are Christians...and because we are Christians, everything we do is good. We attempt to put God's stamp of approval on our actions so that we can declare them not just righteous, but holy, and then we publicly proclaim them, issuing them as a sort of challenge to anyone who would dare push us.

I saw this again recently as connections on social media shared a new meme that's starting to make the rounds. The meme says something like this:

But as for me and my household, we will - salute the flag - stand for the anthem - kneel at the Cross - and serve the Lord.

And then, it asks for an amen, which too many Christians are far too willing to give it.

You may recognize the framing of this meme as being biblical - and it is. It is taken from Joshua 24:15, where Joshua is trying to set an example for a nation that is starting to wander. He takes a stand, puts a foot down, and says He will serve the Lord. And if you go back to the beginning of his statement, it starts with this: Choose for yourselves this day who you will serve.

Which means that a meme of this verse that chooses the state and the Lord is a gross misrepresentation of Scripture.

We are called to live in the world, but not of the world. We are told to be good citizens, but never to forget that our real citizenship is in Heaven. We are called to love in the world, but not to love the world. We are told to live in the nation, but not to worship the nation. Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, but give to God what is God's. And nowhere, nowhere, in Scripture does God equate our loving service to Him with saluting the flag or standing for the anthem.

It's a divided allegiance. I know it's hard to understand that in a country in which our faith is so closely tied to our politics, but hear me: it was never meant to be that way. Faith is not a political statement. Jesus is not a political figure. Our righteousness has nothing to do with the ballot box. We can love America for her goodness and her opportunities and whatever else, but we have to draw a line between our patriotism and our faith. If we fail to do this, we are splitting our allegiances and attempting to serve two gods. (Spoiler alert: our real God says that never works.)

But it's the kind of virtue signaling we do all the time. We want the world to see how serious we are about the things we believe, so we lump them all together and make them the same thing and dare anyone to defy us. Now, if you don't salute the flag or stand for the anthem, you're not just unpatriotic - you're anti-Christian. If you stand for the anthem or salute the flag, then you must also love God. We've tied them together so tightly and made this such a moral statement that we don't create space for either and end up sacrificing both.

And we've done it...with Scripture, of all things. (We're actually really good at this. We do it all the time.) We do it by taking a Scripture out of context, throwing in a few more things that sound good to us, and then presenting it with all of the moral authority of God Himself. And we call it faith, but it is something much, much less.

Beware of what you see, and be even more aware of what you share. God doesn't need your patriotism added on; He just wants your heart. And your patriotism pushes your God to the side when you try to worship the state and not just the Lord. There's a reason there's no flag flying from the top of the Cross - faith isn't politics. It never has been, and it never will be. And we were never meant to fly Scripture as a flag, either.

So just stop it, already. Just stop it.

Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve...but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. Period.


But as for me and my house, we will co-opt Scripture to make ourselves sound awesome. 

There's a difference between serving the Lord and saluting the flag. A BIG difference.