Thursday, November 4, 2021

Spiritual Gift Wrap

There is something I have been pondering for a few months now. 

We take our interpretation of scripture and make it THE interpretation. Our emphasis and make it THE emphasis. Our angle and make it THE angle. 

And the same goes with life as a whole, and all the little parts of life that make up that whole. 

We take what we long for...we take our perspective of the day...and claim it is God's way. 

It is ok to have convictions. To have opinions. To have preferences. To tailor make things to our skills and experiences and circumstances. Our longings and our dreams. 

The problem comes when, instead of accepting those things for what they are, choices in a cafeteria of fine and acceptable options, we wrap them in biblical language and proclaim them as THE biblical path forward. And we gift them to everyone else. 

The problem is that, as with all legalism, is that we are placing a law where there may indeed be none. We are placing that law on ourselves and on others. and the consequences of the law are almost always arrogance and self-righteousness if we get it right (and judgment of others who don't) or despair if we fail at the so called "biblical" standards that we or somebody else has set up. 

The other problem is that as our opinions and preferences and convictions change, as they often do as we grow and develop and experience real life, we may be hesistant to move on, to live out life a different way, because we or someone else has labeled anything outside of the prescribed path as unbiblical, dangerous, heresy. 

For those of you who identify as Christians, worry not. I am not talking about basics here. I am not throwing out Jesus. I am talking about all the things we add. All the ways we shore up our fragile egos with declaring our ways are the only biblical ways. We take complex life decisions and boil them down to a template that will get God's stamp of approval...OR ELSE. 

I think I really first noticed this, and I will say, to my shame, engaged in it, as a young parent. It wasn't enough to long to stay at home with my babies, I needed not only God's stamp of approval but God's proclamation that I was doing THE biblical thing. I decided having more kids was more holy (thus my despair when we stopped after only four when so many more "godly" women had so many more). I remember one woman saying she thought not breastfeeding was a sin, her preference and scientific evidence rising to the level of moral law. The Ezzo parenting style brought division and showed me how damaging it was to be on the failing end of the "biblical" parenting mandate, I mean what kind of an apostate are you when you not only don't believe in Growing Kids God's Way, you couldn't get with the program if you tried. The schooling decision brought more guilt and pain. People's convictions and preferences were coopted by a culture of fear and the result was a fracturing of community into the "us vs them" of education. I could go on. 

A couple of weeks ago a young mother wrote a truly concerning article for Desiring God declaring, among other things, that Satan uses the internet to take down mothers. She included this zinger that, thankfully, lit a bonfire of backlash, 
Some of Satan’s best work is accomplished by women talking to women, in the floating world of disembodied souls on the Internet.

The article really deserves its own blog post response, perhaps, but I saw here what I am seeing everywhere: a young woman who has opinions and convictions and has decided that, rather than living out her convictions for herself (avoiding the community of women found on the internet and seeking out only the wisdom of older women in her church and scripture), she needs to wrap her convictions in a package of spiritual language and place that burden on other people. 

I once read an article about how letting your child quit the soccer team was violating some biblical principle and Elisabeth Elliot had a thing for tidy housekeeping and well made beds, proclaiming "A disordered life speaks loudly of disorder in the soul.”

Why can't we just have the freedom to like what we like and parent how we have been gifted to parent with our particular children who may be vastly different from our neighbor's? Why can't we vote how we have been convicted to vote and pray the way we pray without being told one is right and one is wrong? Why can't we trust that God his Kingdom is big enough for all of our convictions, opinions, personalities, gifts, and preferences? Minus the spiritual gift wrap?

Paul flipped a biscuit when circumcision was added to the gospel. We would do well to follow suit. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

On Abortion

Texas has just enacted the most restrictive abortion law in the country and I am dumbfounded. Don't get me wrong, I am not a full-on pro-abortion person, though I have been accused of such. It is a spectrum, people, and I have friends all across the spectrum from pro-life/anti-abortion, those who believe that abortion for any reason at all as well as certain forms of birth control is pure unadulterated evil to those who believe that a woman should be able to make any choice she jolly well pleases with her own body. I actually think that a lot of us are somewhere in the middle and that is because the issue of unintended pregnancy is not a black and white issue. There is a lot of gray. A lot of complexity. A lot of messiness. 

For decades I was in a camp that pretty much believed that your views on abortion were the litmus test of your beliefs about God. The more you opposed abortion the closer you were to Jesus. A step over the line into the nuance of the issue meant a step onto the slippery slope of liberalism. Abortion was viewed as the selfish choice made by women who were too slutty to choose abstinence, too foolish to use birth control, too self-centered to carry a baby to term, too selfish to give it up for adoption, and too lazy to raise it as her own. 

I don't know if I ever believed all that but I do know at one point in my life things seemed a lot more clearly marked than they do now. I was much more naive to the complexities and I didn't have a frame of reference to understand why the abortion issue was so much more complicated than I had ever understood.

All that changed about ten years ago and I got a front row seat to what happens when a young woman gets pregnant out of wedlock. I will say that, for the most part, my daughter's pregnancy was embraced and supported and for those who came alongside us I am forever grateful. And yet I also saw the flip side. When a friend wanted to throw a baby shower for our daughter that friend was told by a church leader that "this is not something to celebrate." Another person said that the concern among many was that a baby shower would be a sign that they were "endorsing her sin." All of the sudden the rhetoric no longer matched the reality. Sure let's trumpet our pro-life stance everywhere we can, let's picket abortion clinics, let's villify any public official who isn't on the pro-life ticket (and chide those who voted for them) but when the rubber meets the road, we just can't go there. We who say that we "love babies" and want you to "choose life" don't mean that when it comes in the form of an unwed mother with a large belly. 

I've written way too much about the needs of single mothers to recount it again here. All this to say that you can't be pro-life and then wave away any responsibility to come alongside women who are doing exactly what you wanted them to do: bearing a child.

The problem is that the pursuit of abortion isn't just the pasttime of women who are too selfish and irresponsible to use birth control or have the baby. There are just so many situations that are so complex. Situations that are hard enough on their own and then you throw a pregnancy in the mix. 

The reason I cannot applaud the Texas ban on abortion starting at 6 weeks of pregnancy is because I cannot fathom how so many scenarios will be handled. There are too many questions. 

-Should a 14 year-old who has been impregnated by her abusive older brother (or father or grandfather or uncle) be forced to carry a baby to term? Is her body ready for this? Can she emotionally handle it? What does this do to the family dynamic? Will the abuser get prosectuted? Will the abuser get parental rights? Who raises the baby? What does enduring a pregnancy, especially one that is the result of incest, do to her social world? Will she bear the stigma forever?

-What about victims of rape or coercion? Is a woman (or girl) forced to carry the child of a rapist or the cool guy who sweet talked her into making out, only to not stop when she begged him to? Who raises this baby? Who has custody? Who pays child support? 

-What about the woman who desperately wants to find an escape from her abusive boyfriend or husband, only to discover that she is pregnant (and most likely pregnant due to coercion or rape). Any physical abuse almost always escalates during pregnancy. Will he beat her because she is pregnant? Or will he use the baby as a tool to control her for the next 18 years, a pawn in a custody battle. 

-What about the women who don't have the medical insurance to cover prenatal care? Many Christian medical sharing programs will not cover any expenses related to pregnancy or childbirth if the woman is not married. 

-What about the woman who knows that revealing a pregnancy will mean that her parents will disown her forever? Or she'll be excommunicated from her church? Or miss out on her only chance to go to college and get herself out of a cycle of generational poverty? Are we prepared to be her family? Her church? Her village who will help her raise her child while she pursues an education? Will we offer her childcare so she can get her feet under her? 

-What about the woman whose life is now threatened by the pregnancy and the very life growing inside her? Can she make the decision to terminate the pregnancy (assuming it can be done) without bearing the stigma for making a decision that nobody would ever want to be forced to make? Why does the only pro-life stance have to be choosing the possible life of the baby over the probable death of the mother? 

Please understand me. I am not saying that abortion is the answer. I am saying that this is an incredibly complex issue. Women have abortions for so many different reasons. I'm sure some are what we have always been taught they: choices of convenience. But there are so many that aren't and that is what concerns me. 

I think Texas is putting the cart before the horse. BEFORE abortion gets banned in such a broad stroke sort of way, be it in Texas or some other state, we need to deal with some serious issues and, quite frankly, we need to make abortion less wanted. Less needed. I'm afraid an abortion ban cannot be put out there as a neat-and-tidy-one-size-fits-all solution because it isn't a solution at all and it will likely only create a bigger problem. 

I am not pro-abortion, I am pro-support. I am pro-let's-find-a-path-forward. I am pro-changing-the -andscape-so-that-abortions-aren't-needed-or-wanted. If we don't want abortion, then we need to roll up our sleeves, come alongside the women and children, and do the hard work of putting our heart and soul into what we have professed to believe about the sanctity of every life. 

Friday, August 13, 2021

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill

 There is a podcast taking portions of the Evangelical world by storm right now. It is The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. If you've never heard of Mars Hill, perhaps count yourself lucky. But if you are in Evangelical spaces or even in a church at all, it might be wise to give it a listen.

Mars Hill was a church started in 1996 by a young guy by the name of Mark Driscoll and a couple of other guys. But Mark catapulted himself to Evangelical stardom in the decades that followed by building a megachurch empire on the shoulders of rigid theology, macho masculinity, a win at all costs mindset, and the gross abuse of power.
While I don't know anyone who was involved in Mars Hill in Seattle, I know a lot...a LOT of people, including myself, who find aspects of the church and the culture that fed into and fed off of that church, eerily familiar.
The fear of them vs us. The arrogance. The certainty. The law hammered down with an iron fist.
The big question people ask is why didn't anybody speak up? Why didn't anybody put a stop to this before it ended up in such a train wreck. I'm sure people did speak up. I'm sure there are people who tried to stop it. And if you listen, you will find out what happened to the people who spoke up. And it wasn't pretty.
And I can tell you that this happens all the time. I can tell you what happens when people speak up about something that just isn't' right. Something that is hurting them. Something that is hurting others. Something that doesn't seem to be at all in line with who Jesus was.
What happens? Our concerns are minimized. Our needs are wrong. We are too critical. Too pessimitic. We aren't giving people the benefit of the doubt. We are expecting too much. We are projecting our bad experiences onto the church. We are wallowing in a victim mentality. We aren't respecting those in spiritual authority over us who apparently know better than we do. "Shut up and drive."
If we persist, we are called gossips. Divisive. We might even be accused of being wolves by the very wolves that are attacking the sheep.
If we give up and share our concerns and experiences farther afield we are "making the church look bad." Image management becomes the goal, not the protection of the wounded slumped over in the pews.
So what happens? The wounded give up. They see nobody who listens. Nobody who takes them seriously. Their lives don't matter. Only the teaching matters. Only the theology matters. Only the authority matter. And so the wounded crawl out the back door of the church and don't look back. And nobody comes after them. Becasue nobody wants to know. They have a good thing going.
It's a complex issue, it really is. Good things happened at Mars Hill. It is those good things that enable the toxic culture and abuse of power to grow and morph into a machine of destruction. It seems that great evil is often mixed with great good so that it goes down easier. A spoonful of sugar and all that.
Jesus said that you will know them by their fruit. I think the problem is that sometimes we have a skewed view of what is indeed good fruit at all. Is it numbers? Is it salvations? Baptisms? Theological knowledge? Children who can parrot the catechism or a biblical worldview? Is it saved marriages? Or large families? Is it money? Buildings? Ministries? Is it our political affiliation? What?
All of that can come crumbling down in a heartbeat.
I encourage you to listen. This is a cautionary tale. One we all need to learn from.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Proper Use of Power

So much of the mess we are seeing today in the Southern Baptist Church is because those in power have chosen to protect their own rather than those who have been harmed at their hands. Whether it is the victims of abuse within the church or of the systemic racism in the church, the focus has been on circling the wagons and decimating those who have tried to speak truth. 

And it isn't only the SBC that is having issues. I have certainly seen some nasty manifestations of this in the PCA as well as other denominations. Really, we see this in all varieties of faith. And anywhere there is a power structure, there is the risk for misuse and abuse. 

We see power lording itself over others. Power denying or minimizing the impact of trauma, suffering, oppression, and abuse. Power demanding allegiance. Power pushing its own flavor of belief and condemning those who differ. Power snatching for itself the role of the Holy Spirit in someone else's life. And most of all, we see power protecting its power at all costs. 

In Lacy Crawford's memoir Notes on a Silencing she says, "It is only when power is threatened that power responds." I have witnessed a fascinating phenomenon: Men with power will sit aside and do absolutely nothing while those around them are wounded and abused. They do nothing until their own authority is challenged.

I've watched the improper use of power wreck lives. I've felt that impact in my own life.

We must realize that any abuse or misuse of power does tremendous spiritual damage to those in it wake because it so horribly misrepresents the character of God. We must remember that any power we have has been given to us and is not ours to use however we fancy.

And yet power exists. It is a fact of life. And power is an attribute of God and we humans are created in the image of God. 

So what does the proper use of power look like, especially within the church?

Power must always be wielded with humility and acknowledged that is has been given. There should be no place for power grabbing within the Kingdom. 

Power must always be used for the protection of others. 

Power is to be used to bring about truth, shed light in the darkness, bring healing, hope and justice. 

Power must listen to the less powerful and seek to understand their lives, their circumstances. 

Power gives the voiceless a microphone and teaches them to speak. 

Power makes a way in the wilderness for those who see no path forward. 

A right use of power, one that reflects the very definition of power Himself, is that power is to be poured out for those who have none. 

After all, that is what Jesus did. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

On Street Preaching

We stood there. Four of us. In Downtown Asheville. On a Saturday evening. And watched.

Downtown Asheville is an eclectic place, full of buskers and tourists, the wealthy and the homeless. Some nights a drum circle forms in Prichard Park but on this particular night there was no drum circle. Instead, there was an evangelism service. A man held a microphone, preaching to the masses, proclaiming the Word of God. Modestly dressed young people stood on street corners, neat and tidy, handing out pamphlets and yelling to us, "Jesus loves you." 

Jesus loves you, they say. But where does it go from there? 

The young woman next to me spoke. "When I was 16 I became pregnant. My church sent a letter to everyone telling them to shun me. I don't go to church much any more." 

Jesus loves you, they say. But not if...

All of us standing there had encountered this message in one form or another. 

Jesus loves you, they say. But not if you get pregnant out of wedlock. 

Jesus loves you, they say. But not if you leave your abusive husband. 

Jesus loves you, they say. But not if your addiction proves too much to manage.

Jesus loves you, they say. But not if you step outside the box of the Evangelical Industrial Complex. 

We bristled at the sight, at the sounds, at the atmosphere. We know that talk is cheap but love is hard. We know it is easy to get somebody "saved" but considerably harder to come alongside them in their time of need. We cringed knowing that what mattered to these people was getting souls into heaven but caring for them on earth was another matter altogether. One that was above their pay grade.

In college I was told that I had to do evangelism. I avoided it. I hid from it. I hated it. I never, ever thought that walking up to somebody on the beach during spring break and sharing the Four Spiritual Laws with them was really the way to bring God to another person. Some churches still emphasize evangelism. And I just can't get with the program. Nobody wants to be somebody's agenda.

People aren't lectured into the Kingdom. They are loved into the Kingdom. And that is done through relationship. And that is done through relationship that reflects the character of God. The kind of character that comforts the afflicted, stands up for the oppressed, protects the abused, brings hope to the despairing, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, strengthens the weak, and pours out mercy on those who know they need it. 

If you can't show somebody that Jesus loves them, shouting it isn't going to do any good. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

On Bullies and Agency

"Watch it, especially if you've been bullied." Those were the words my pastor said when he shared Brandi Carlile's stunning song The Joke on Facebook a few days ago. Bullied. It wasn't until recently that I ever considered myself bullied. 

I was seven, eight, nine, ten. One of the oldest in my class but also one of the smallest. I lacked athletic skills, popularity, and force of personality. Your typical wallflower and last to be picked for the kickball team. Give me an encyclopedia and I'll be fine. And yet I wanted friends and a girl my age moved in across the street. She was loud and funny and strong and athletic. What could possibly go wrong?

As was the case back then, we spent most of our time outside. For whatever reason she found it enjoyable to beat me up. Whether it was punching me or throwing firecrackers at my head or tossing me into sticker bushes or doing the "possum stomp" (if memory serves, you shove someone to the ground and get their head between your ankles and jump up and down, with their head beating the ground), or shoving me into a closet while sitting on me and stuffing dirty socks in my mouth...this was just part and parcel of our friendship. It never, ever occurred to me to ask her to stop. To TELL her to stop. to DEMAND that she stop. 

Looking back fifty years, I find this fascinating and, in many ways, such a vivid example of what my current life task is. I need to develop a sense of agency. 

A sense of agency is the idea that your actions can make a difference in your life. You have the right and the ability to choose a path, be it a tiny footpath or a major fork in the road. You have the ability to have some say in the trajectory of your life. A lack of agency looks like having no say in your life. Letting everything just happen because what you need or what you want doesn't matter anyway. Or even if you make an attempt, it will fail. You will fail. It is powerlessness made manifest. 

Think about it this way. We have all heard about the fight or flight response to stress or danger. But the third response, and a common one, is freeze. It's what possums do when they play dead. There are times in life when there is no way to flea a situation. And fighting would only make matters worse. And so some of us freeze. 

I recently read (and posted on Facebook) a fascinating article about function of depression. That depression may be a survival technique, causing us to shut down when we have no way of being free from our circumstances, when we have no agency. Similarly, a lack of agency is the hypo-function aspect of stress. Some people under stress move into overdrive and hyper-function. Others shut down and hypo-function. 

Now, some people have no trouble with agency. I am recently read No More Faking Fine by Esther Fleece. Her response to her horrific childhood (and I mean really, really horrific) was to excel in everything and pour herself into every activity, every sport, every leadership position. Her response to her trauma was to become the ultimate overachiever. 

For whatever reason I did the opposite. I don't know what it is that makes one person's response to stress and trauma to try to over control their world and another's response is to assume that there is no control whatsoever. Maybe my wiring plays into it. Maybe my life experience. Maybe the messages I received both as a child (crazy, immature, incompetent, the cause of all the family problems) or as an adult (my needs, desires, thoughts, concerns are secondary to my husband's and he is to call all the shots. Those messages about the submissive wife did not come from Matt himself, but from the culture we were in.)

And once you have kids, you just kinda go with it. It is like getting swept into a set of rapids and using all your strength just to stay afloat and not drown. Perhaps a sense of agency would be learning how to paddle. I just barely kept my head above water (sometimes not even that), crashed into boulders, and let the chips fall where they may.

In his book Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch discusses what is needed for flourishing in life and he shares it on a nifty 2x2 chart. High authority and low vulnerability leads to exploiting. Low authority and low vulnerability leads to withdrawing. Low authority and high vulnerability leads to suffering. And high authority and high vulnerability leads to flourishing. 

I've always had the vulnerability stuff down pat. It's like I don't know any other way to be. But I have rarely had much in the way of personal authority, or agency, in my life. 

Getting that has been a challenge. First, I have to recognize all the times that I don't even consider that I can have agency. That I don't even feel like I have either the permission or the ability to speak or act. Then I have to practice having agency. It is a undeveloped muscle that needs practice, strength training. 

And perhaps the hardest part is sticking up for myself when using my agency gets me push back from those who might prefer that I not use it. After all, there are still bullies out there. Minus the firecrackers and the smelly socks, perhaps. But bullies nonetheless. 

So be patient with me as I get my legs under me in the agency department. I might be pretty clumsy at it. I might say too much or the wrong thing at the wrong time. I might make a stupid decision. But I'm gonna have to give it a shot. 

At the foundation of having a sense of agency is the belief that I have something valuable to offer the world. And the belief that I matter. And that it is OK to have wants and needs and take action to see those fulfilled. 

I think I have some work to do. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

To Fathers of Daughters

We parents are all aware of, or at least should be aware of, the impact that our lives have on our children. Not just our words, though those matter more than you know, but our actions. Because even if our words are good and right, our actions can tell a different story. 

One of the most convicting things for me has been the idea that my acceptance of my own body will impact how my daughters perceive their bodies. As someone who has spent a lifetime wrestling with body image, it is terrifying to think that my own pathology could be passed down to my daughters. That my inability to love my body might somehow communicate to my daughters that theirs aren't good enough. When they are. They are beautiful. 

But this isn't about that. I'm not going to speak to mothers right now. I want to speak to fathers. I understand that hardly a man out there might read this, but but I'm going to say this anyway. In the words of Jackson Grimm, "I'm throwing all my words into the wind." 

I'll start with a story. It was almost 20 years ago when we lived in town. I was in the front yard raking leaves when a neighbor walked past and struck up a conversation. He was a single man, several years older than I was, and also a father of some older teen/young adult age children. He began telling me about his excitement to finally reconnect with a female friend from high school and how they met for dinner and how disappointed he was to see that she had gained a considerable amount of weight since he had last seen her. He then sheepishly admitted that he was just no longer interested in her, explaining, as he gestured my direction, "I mean, I want somebody that looks like you." 

I won't lie. For a few seconds...well...maybe a few minutes I was flattered that somebody out there saw me as attractive. What woman in her late 30s whose body has created, carried, and shoved out 4 kids and is worn to a frazzle doesn't want to know that there is still something about her that is pleasing to the eye (especially in a culture that emphasizes physical beauty above all else)? But it was all quite momentary and whatever warm fuzzy emotions I had morphed into two very different emotions: anger and terror. 

Anger. I was angry. I was angry on behalf of this woman. I was angry that her weight gain was seen as an obstacle to companionship. I was angry that women have to deal with this. That any of us have to deal with this.

And then terror. Did this mean that if I couldn't keep a handle on my own body I would one day be viewed as unworthy of relationship? And where is that line? 10 pounds? 20 pounds? Or is it years? Or both? What happens if I can't maintain myself? What happens if...or when...I slide down that slippery slope of middle age with its slowing metabolism and saggy skin. Will that mean that I am no longer worthy of affection and love? 

For those who know us know that I have an incredible husband who loves me completely and without condition and yet I still struggled with this. I understand that my personal experience may have made me oversensitive to this message. After all, my own father left my 56 year-old mother for a 39 year-old woman with blonde hair, perky boobs, and stylish clothes. 

It is a tale as old as time, these older men going for younger women. I'm sure evolution biology has the explanation that a man looks for women to carry his seed and populate the earth. But I still think it sucks. 

We've all seen it. Husbands trading Wife #1 for a younger, prettier Wife #2. And sometimes moving on to yet an even younger, prettier Wife #3. And so on. 

 Dads, have you ever thought about what are you telling your daughters? 

You are telling them that at some point it is totally OK to trade in last year's (or the last 30 years') model for an upgrade. You are telling them that at some point THEY might be traded in. You are telling them that at some point youth and beauty and fitness will trump history and  life experience and wisdom. You are telling them that one day they, like their mothers, may no longer be enough. You are telling them that at some point they won't matter any more. 

Is this a message you want to send to your daughters?

I understand it may be more complex than that. It may have less to do with the attractiveness of the old model and more to do with your own withering self-esteem. It may boost your ego to know that a hot young thing wants to be with you. It may make you feel less "old," less powerless in a world that exalts youth and puts even the middle-aged out to pasture as irrelevant and has-beens. It may feel oh, so good to be back in the saddle, so to speak, to be looked up to and admired by someone younger and less experienced.

But if you are struggling with those issues, please, please PLEASE, before you trade in someone closer to your age for a young hottie who will worship you and grace your right arm as your trophy wife, get some therapy. Get some therapy, if not for you, for your wife, for your children. Especially for your daughters. So that they do not grow up believing that one day they will no longer be of value because time has washed away the shine.