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. 



Sunday, March 28, 2021

On Ramona Quimby and Parenthood

Every so often something transpires that gets you thinking yet again about an issue that you thought you had wrestled to the ground. 

Beverly Cleary died. Now, if you don't know who Beverly Cleary was, she was an amazing and prolific writer of children's literature and, most notably, the author of the Ramona Quimby series. While I didn't read the Ramona books as a child, I certainly read them as a parent to my own children.

Ramona was a spunky kid. My mother would have called her a "rascal." She was full of mischief and fun and so very outside the box. She was perhaps the kid who, in my timid compliance, I was afraid to be. She was so much like the kid I had living in my own home. She was a relief. Here was a lovable kid in literature who was, well,  just a kid. She made being a spunky kid OK and not a sin. 

I was reading Ramona to my kids at a time when the Christian culture and its views of child raising were a very dominant force. And it was all, all, ALL about obedience (first time and joyfully, by the way). It was all about training (I had one mom call me and ask me how I trained my kids to make up their beds because her 2 and 3 year-olds weren't making up their beds completely and neatly). It was all about making sure the kids' needs came second to any parental needs. It was all about seeing the sin in every action and weeding it out via strong discipline and the intentions of the heart. It was all about doing so much more. So very much more. It was exhausting and I just couldn't get on board. 

And yet I felt the judgment. And I suppose I still feel it. I know that I can't say much to parents with children younger than my own because I have little credibility. After all, none of my kids have followed the desired path that most Christian parents have for their children: homeschool or Christian school followed by Christian college followed by marriage to a Christian spouse followed by adorable Christian grandchildren. 

After all, I have a daughter who had a baby out of wedlock at age 20. What can I possibly know about parenting? I obviously did it wrong. In fact, all of my adult children have gone through rough periods in their teen and adult years. Life hasn't been a pleasure cruise on the highway of life for any of them. 

I am sure that there are plenty of people who look at our family and think, "If they had done X and Y and Z, then these things would have turned out differently. If they had been more structured, more disciplined, had family devotions, had higher expectations, required more, weeded out the idols of the heart...then adulthood would have been a pious piece of cake." 

But you know what? Any regrets I have are actually very different. I don't wish I had been more rigid, I wish I had been less so. I don't wish I had been more strict about how some of my daughters wanted to dress, I wish I had made less of a deal about it. I don't wish I had been more insistent on obedience, I wish I had been less focused on conformity and more on what was going on on the inside, not in an inborn sin nature sort of way, but in a "What is happening developmentally inside my child right now and what does he/she need?" sort of way. 

And you know what else? I LOVE my adult children. I LOVE that they have had so many different life experiences that are informing and enriching their perspectives and their ability to relate to others. Every one of them has a compassion and acceptance for people that is amazing and humbling and beautiful.

And I love that having children who have made mistakes and bad decisions and also good decisions and decisions different from what I would have chosen...I love that having kids who have their own minds and their own needs and their own lives apart from my management has made me more understanding of all sorts of families. 

I can cry with the mother whose child has walked away from the family and God. I can encourage the shocked parents that this unexpected grandchild will desperately need their love and care. I can sit with frustrated singles who desperately want to but can't find a spouse because I have seen up close and personal the challenge it is to find a mate. I can go to bat for single mothers because I know the oppressive burden they carry. I can see the red flags in abusive relationships and come alongside those who need encouragement and support. I have realized that God has a different path for everybody and some of those paths are considerably messier than others. And I have realized that messy can be insanely beautiful. 

Perhaps that is what made Ramona so very special. She was messy. She had her own way of doing things. And in all of it she was so very lovable. Ramona, in many ways, gave me permission to raise regular, real kids and love them for it.

Thank you, Ramona Quimby. 

And thank you, Beverly Cleary. Rest in peace. 




Tuesday, March 16, 2021

My Pastor

Just over a year ago the world caved in for me once again. Something good had turned horribly wrong. Tremendous loss was bearing down on me. I needed to talk about what had happened and what I was facing. I picked up my phone and texted Chad Smith, asking him to meet for coffee, with the explanation,  "You are the only pastor in town that I trust." 

I first met Chad 4.5 years ago. I sat in his office on a Sunday morning with a dear friend as she poured out her heart. He listened. He didn't dismiss, minimize, correct, or prescribe. He believed her. He took her seriously. And he promised to walk with her through her difficult situation. 

I watched from a distance over the years. Watching how he handled sensitive issues that churches normally bumble at best. I watched him take seriously issues that are often cast aside. I watched him step outside the box of cultural expectations and take heat for it. I watched him open up about his own struggles. 

And over time, because that is how it happens, he gained...he EARNED...my trust. That is why, when I had nowhere else to turn, I turned to Chad. And he sat and he listened...LISTENED...to my story. Again, he didn't dismiss, minimize, correct, or prescribe. He believed me. He took me seriously. And I knew that he was a rare man, indeed. 

Some people are bothered that I spend an awful lot of time and spill an awful lot of words criticizing the church. Yeah, I guess I do. I don't believe that we can change what we do not acknowledge and we can't acknowledge it if we don't talk about it and we can't talk about it if we only paper over it with goodness and light. 

And yet within the church there is so much good as well. A friend said she wanted to hear me tell her something good about the church. Something I love about the church. And so I will. I will tell her, I will tell you, about my pastor. Because Chad Smith is now MY pastor. 

These are the things I love about my pastor. 

I love that he is honest. He is honest and up front and public about his struggles with anxiety and scrupulosity (a form of OCD) and very open about seeing a therapist. This level of honesty and vulnerability takes a tremendous amount of courage in a culture where such struggles are seen as a defect, a weakness, a lack of faith, or evidence of bad theology. But his honesty told me that he gets it. And he gets me. And he isn't going to cover up and paper over who he is with all his struggles. His honesty tells me, tells all of us who wrestle with such demons, that he is one of us. That...THAT makes him safe. 

I love that he lacks a veneer of piety. I don't feel like I have to clean myself up to come to him...or to God.

I love his comfort with and heart for those who do not share his faith. He sees unbelievers...nonchristians..."the lost," if you will...not as potential converts, not as projects, not as the enemy, but as people to be loved. He sees the good in people even if they do not share his beliefs, his faith. 

I love his heart for the Black community. I love how he seeks to learn from his fellow Black pastors and allow them to pour into his life instead of assuming that he is the only one who has something to offer. I love his desire to understand the impact of past and present racism rather than rush to push past it and move on. 

I love how he sees the great worth in women. Not as baby machines, childcare workers, cooks, homemakers, appendages to their husbands, but as people made in the image of God. I love that he values women with their ideas and thoughts, their skills and gifts, their experiences, their wisdom, their words, their hearts. 

I love his heart for the marginalized. Those society, and often the church, sometimes especially the church, hold at arm's length. Those in prison. Those struggling with addiction. Those who wrestle with gender and sexuality. 

I love that he loves...well...people. In his (and my) faith tradition, loving people really isn't the focus. It's about loving theology. Loving a belief system. A worldview. The Westminster Confession of Faith. The Word. But you just don't hear much, if anything, about loving people. And to be totally honest, I haven't met many pastors in this sphere who are great at loving people. They might be great preachers or teachers or academics. They might specialize in the letter of the law and doing everything "decently and in order," but they aren't good at loving people. Chad is. He loves people. 

I love that he has both feet firmly planted in the real world. I love that his sermons use references to popular songs or television shows or movies or podcasts, things that give him a broad range of experience and frame of reference. I love that he sees truth in the strangest places. I love that he isn't holed up in an ivory tower of theological thought but gets his hands messy with real life. 

I love that he embraces mystery. That he doesn't feel compelled to have all the questions of life sorted out on a flow chart. I love that he feels free to say, "I don't know." 

And this is going to sound crazy, but I love that he knows suffering. Because I honestly don't trust anybody who doesn't know suffering. He gets it. He gets confusion, disappointment, anxiety, loss, betrayal, despair. He doesn't just look at it from afar. He KNOWS it. And it has flattened him. Humbled him. And that makes him safe.  

And finally, I love that he is willing to be "outside the camp," so to speak, with those of us who don't feel like we fit any more into a more conventional, conservative, Evangelical church. With those of us who don't feel holy enough or clean enough or strong enough to make the grade. He knows Jesus went outside the camp (Hebrews 13:12, 13) and he is willing to go there himself to be with us. To care for us. To shepherd us. 

I love that, while Chad is the pastor of House of Mercy, he is not driven by his own agenda. He is letting God lead. He is listening to and giving space to those of us in the congregation to use our gifts to care for those within and outside of our community. This is not Chad's church. This is our church. This is God's church. 

Don't get me wrong. Chad is human. Incredibly human. He has not always responded well to hardship. He has strong emotions like the rest of us. I'm sure he has his selfish moments, though I personally haven't seen them yet. But he knows this. He knows that he is no better than anybody else and he is totally dependent on the grace of God to carry him and transform him and use him.

While Chad cannot be all things to all people, he can be some really good things to a whole lot of us. I am telling you this because a lot of us have been hurt by the church and some of us need to know that there are kind and compassionate people...kind and compassionate men...kind and compassionate pastors in the church. 

Chad Smith is one them. 


Monday, March 15, 2021

Missing Fruit

David French posted an incredible article about Beth Moore leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. But it wasn't just about Beth Moore leaving the SBC, it was about the cruelty directed at her as she gradually rose to challenge some of the deep-seated ideology and tipped a handful of their sacred cows. His article was about what was missing in response to her. The Fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. 

I see this all the time. I see this everywhere. Ideological war means that there is no weapon off limits. It's your job to defend your system of belief, no matter what means you use to do it. And the most preferred weapon, it seems, is cruelty.

Names are called. Charges are trumped up. Insults are lobbed. Accusations fly. The road to reasonable discourse is blocked by intricate policies, procedures and the assault on one's character. A minor difference in cultural preference or a distance, debatable theological stance comes front and center as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and if you are on the wrong side of that truth, you are on a slippery slope. You are a heretic. You deserve to be burned at the stake.

There is only one word for such vitriol. Evil. This is pure, unadulterated evil. 

And yet it can be evil cloaked in the most pious of garments. 

Make no mistake. This is about power. 

In her memoir Notes on a Silencing, Lacy Crawford makes the astute observation: 

It is only when power is threatened that power responds. 

Jesus encountered it. Beth Moore encountered it. You may have encountered it. 

People. Listen to me. Let go of that power. It is not your ideology that makes you significant. It is not your piety that makes you holy. It is not your purest of pure theology that makes you acceptable to God. That is all a lie from the pit of hell. 

We bring nothing to the table. NOTHING. That is the whole point. So if we bring nothing to the table, then someone whose views diverge from ours, that person can take nothing away. They are not a threat. 

Let go. Let it go. Let go of your "precious" (yes, think Gollum here) that you feel so rallied to defend. Let go and embrace a God of love and compassion. A God who can himself defend truth. 

You can embrace those who are different than you. You can make room for other ideas. Other perspectives. It is possible to disagree and still treat the "other" as of value and created in the image of God. 

Last I checked there were two commandments: to love God with all we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Last I checked, loving our neighbors as ourselves didn't involve name calling, slander, insults, and threats. 

Don't worry. I know. I need to remember this, too. After all, what good does it do for me to defend God my ideas of God if I am not reflecting the character of God? The next time I post something I need to check and see if there is a spirit of cruelty in my words or if they reflect the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.