Tag Archives: abuse

Reverse the Curse

debateRecently released footage of Donald Trump boastfully describing his sexual domination of women has prompted many Christians to revoke their support of his candidacy for president of the United States. But his remarks, as well as the public outrage they have provoked, beg the question: why is it so wrong for a man to speak of (or treat) women as objects to grab, use, and dominate at his leisure? Is this simply an embarrassing case of “boys being boys,” or is it indicative of a fundamentally flawed attitude towards women and towards power?

Amidst the shrill manipulative posturing of women and the boastful objectifying comments of men, God’s Word calls us back to an other-honoring submission.

But among Christians, the same people who would decry such sexual exploitation of women, a not-altogether-different attitude often comes to the surface. Men are often assumed to be right in exerting dominance over women, particularly husbands over their wives. Though the church would teach against abuse of this power, the necessary call for men to step up to leadership in their families is sometimes mistaken for an encouragement for men to treat women in controlling ways.

Laying the whole question of male headship aside for a later post, the problem I would like to highlight here is the competitive, controlling approach that has infected our relationships ever since the fall. Genesis 2 paints a beautifully cooperative and harmonious picture of the relationship between the first man and the first woman, in which the woman gloriously fulfilled the man and the man honored and gave himself to the woman. Just like the Trinity in whose image they were made, man and woman found their satisfaction in using their personal power and position to promote the cause of the other.

Then another sign appeared in heaven …The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.
Rev. 12:3-4
…But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Genesis 4:7

Into the garden slithered another creature who had already traded in service for competition. Satan’s goal was to break up everything good that God had created, pitting humans vs. God, women vs. men, and man vs. earth. Poised in ambush awaiting the birth of a new creation, the serpent played the babe-like humans off of each other and off of God, successfully injecting his poison into all their relationships.

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
Genesis 3:15-16

Worse than the scam pulled off against the man and woman, the serpent’s poison effectively turned his victims into perpetrators. He no longer had to strike at the woman’s glory—the man would subdue her under his thumb. And he no longer had to undermine the man’s strength—the woman would reallocate her power to compete with him rather than to complete him. She would start behaving towards her husband with all the mastering attempts that sin uses to control weakened human flesh. And her husband would start using his strength, properly directed against sin, to overpower and dominate her instead. (Note the identical language of desire and rule used both in Genesis 3:16 of husband and wife in Genesis 4:7 of Cain and sin.)

Far from being a prescriptive statement of God’s new intent for husband-wife relationships, Genesis 3:16 describes the painfully devastating effects of the fall. It stands in sharp contrast to the joyfully abandoned marital bliss of Genesis 2 (which is found again in the garden-songs of mutual delight and empowering love in the Song of Songs). What some Christians use to substantiate their claim that God has given husbands dominion over their wives should stand out to us as a clarion call to resist the curse, not to perpetrate it.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands…
Husbands, love your wives…
Ephesians 5:21-22, 25

As Christians, we don’t hesitate to fight back against weeds and drought or to overcome the dangers and pains of childbirth. If anything, we consider these efforts an extension of our faith in God’s resolute commitment to restore a broken world. And yet we fail to see the importance of resisting the human tendency to dominate and control each other. Is this not the very essence of Jesus’ teaching on servant leadership and of Paul’s teaching on mutual submission? God’s statement to Eve should jolt us into resisting the urge to exert our power over each other, not give in to it as our new normal.

Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.

Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”
Genesis 3:20; 4:1

And amazingly, this is exactly the effect God’s statement had on Adam and Eve. Adam took up his power and used it to bless his wife with a noble name. And Eve exerted her God-given power to give life to another man. Hand in hand they faced down the curse, taking the first steps in overcoming their common enemy by surrendering themselves to each other.

Amidst the shrill manipulative posturing of women and the boastful objectifying comments of men, God’s Word calls us back to an other-honoring submission. Each time we empower and promote each other, we deal one more blow to the serpent’s scheme. As counterintuitive as it may seem, women empowering men and husbands submitting to wives is a crucial part of our Christian task to reverse the curse.

Overcoming Evil

distressed fatherPolice brutality. Race riots. Brexit angst. Political upheaval. Refugee crises. ISIS bombs. Global terror.

Our land is shaken and torn open, O Lord! Mend its fractures, for it is quaking. (Psalm 60:2)

I begin my day with prayer, not knowing how to pray. My heart churns with the overwhelming tide of global unrest, seeking a stabilizing point on which I can plant my feet.

From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint: lead me to the rock that is higher than I. (Psalm 61:2)

And He offers just that, fixing my gaze on Himself as the one who is big enough to handle it. Because He governs men and nations, I don’t need to fret or despair.

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone: my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock… I will not be shaken. (Psalm 62:5)

Though I don’t see it in the headlines, though I don’t feel it in the heated discussions, He reminds me that He is still reigning, still in the process of putting all things under His pierced feet.

One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done. (Psalm 62:11-12)

In the end, He will make all things right, judging each of us for what we have or have not done.

Our confidence in Christ’s lordship calls us to an overcomer’s mentality of proactive love.

And that is where He turns my prayers around and puts the burden back on me. What have I done to bring peace in my time? What have I done to offer refuge to the refugee? What have I done to encourage those who govern or protect us, to speak up for those who are vulnerable to discrimination and unjust treatment, or to break down walls of hostility and mistrust? I too will be judged.

But what can I do? The overwhelming nature of the problems tempts me to a victim’s mentality of helplessness. But the all-powerful nature of God calls me to an overcomer’s mentality of proactive love.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

I can use my everyday actions to show acts of kindness to those who least expect it. Like the black doctor who worked to save the lives of white police officers, I can go out of my way to show love to those who fall into opposing political camps or racial groups from me. Look an immigrant in the eye and ask him how he is doing. Invite black acquaintances over for dinner and ask them how they are really feeling (and then listen empathetically). Buy a police officer a coffee and thank him for his service. Write a constructive letter to a politician from the “other side,” encouraging her to consider my cause.

As I meditated on Romans 12 this morning with our current global contexts in mind, it spoke deeply and practically to how we as Christians should live out our confidence that Jesus is Lord. Because we trust that He is actively reigning in our world, we don’t need to react in terror, erect boundaries in fear, re-enforce divisions in distrust, write scathing criticisms in alarm, or retreat in despair. Rather, with our feet firmly rooted on rock of His rule, we are free to love those we would otherwise hate, or fear.

This is what it means to be a Christian in our world. As you pray through the following verses, I would love to hear how God is speaking to you about what we can do to stop fretting over the problems and start being a part of the solution.

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12

 

 

 

 

 

Warts and All: On Why I Love the Church

853664e3b6e531ef7a9fc711013888ddI hear a growing chorus of frustration with Christianity and the “the church.” It pops up in blog posts, surfaces in individual conversations, and seeps through the cracks of our decaying religious moral. And for the most part, I would add my voice to the critiques.

Sadly, the church rarely lives up to its noble calling. In far too many cases truth has been wielded with all the tenderness of a baseball bat, authority structures have abused and suppressed the very sheep they were entrusted to nurture and empower, and programs, systems, and corporate culture have squeezed the very soul out of those who come seeking God.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

I have seen (and smelled) the underbelly of too many Christian organizations and churches to be naïve to the painful realities involved in any human community. There isn’t a group that I have been part of that doesn’t have its casualties. At this point I’m not sure any story of Christian abuse, neglect, insensitivity, or betrayal can shock me. My own experiences have trained me in just how damaging the church can be.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

An ecclesiology which sees the church primarily as a filling station for our individual spirituality will lead us to easily and quickly quit on it when it does not scratch where we itch. We have bought in to a consumerist paradigm which uses marketing strategies to grow churches and business models to run them. No wonder we are inclined to take our business elsewhere when their services no longer suit us!

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4:2-6

But despite all its toxic boils and cancerous perversions, the church is still the Church. It is the body of Christ, the family of our Heavenly Father. That’s not just a nice metaphor designed to give us all a warm fuzzy at the end of a special service. It’s the reality that the Trinity set in motion when the Father sacrificed His Firstborn to bring many more sons and daughters into the family. It’s the reality that we breathe in and out as we enjoy the benefits of the Spirit’s presence with each of us.

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
I Corinthians 12:13-14, 24-27

God doesn’t offer us individual package deals. As much as we like to think about how much He loves each of us as His special child, the implications of that relationship are that we are now stuck with each other as a family. More than that, we are actually one huge, living organism, bound together by the same life-giving Spirit and topped off with the same life-directing Head. No one of us can belong to God without belonging to the others. No one of us can quit on the rest without also quitting on God (and ourselves, while we are at it).

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to church.

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to the church.

Years ago a wise Indian pastor knocked the bluster out of me. In response to my self-important criticism of the theological limpness and evangelistic anemia of the mainline church, he quietly replied that he found it easier to stand outside of something and throw rocks at it rather than to remain doggedly within it and work for change. His comment made its mark, influencing me from then on to choose my church based not on its vitality but rather on its need.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away….
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:8, 11-12

The longer I have practiced being part of the solution rather than a harbinger of the problem, the more I have come to love the church. What started as a theological commitment to unity has become a part of my spiritual DNA. The more I love God, the more I can’t help but love His body. The more I invest in His family, the more I mature in sharing His own heart.

As frustrating as I still find certain people to be, as infuriating as lousy theology, damaging relationships, and distancing structures still are, I honestly cannot conceptualize of being a Christian apart from the church. It’s my family! Wherever I go in the world, I find my kin. Whether the songs are unfamiliar or the language incomprehensible, these are my people. I have no choice but to bear with them in love.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:15-16

So when we raise our voices in critique of the church, we had better recognize that we do it as insiders. Whatever each of us points out as a problem we then have the responsibility to proactively engage. This warty body’s only hope of eventually matching up to its glorious Head lies with each of us, its members, doing our bit.

This is the only Body we’ve got. We may not always like it, but how can we not love it?

Beyond Giving Tuesday: A Service that Can’t Be Bought

IMG_0834Am I my brother’s keeper?

In a Christian culture marked by boundaries and balance, we can start to sound like Cain in the way we ask the question. While we are quick to decry abuse, we feel minimal responsibility for those outside the scope of our immediate friends and family. Sometimes even that circle may be too broad. When the chips are down or our resources run dry, we look out for number one.

Of course, we aren’t completely heartless. We remember to include Giving Tuesday in our annual shopping binge. We donate to projects for feeding the hungry, raise awareness for victims of sex-trafficking, and pray for refugees. But somehow our care for our global neighbors manages to stay buffered enough to be safe.

Taking on projects protects us from loving people.

Taking on projects protects us from having to love people. Caring for media-mediated strangers buffers us from being impinged upon by those whose physical and emotional proximity might place unwanted demands on us. We want to manifest God’s love to a hurting world, but we want to do so without getting hurt ourselves.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
John 10:11-13

Though our intent may be to act like Jesus, we end up acting like the hirelings He defined Himself in contrast to. These are the ones who do a good job of caring for the sheep as long as it doesn’t cost them too much. But when the stakes are raised and the job encroaches on their personal time, safety, or sense of well-being, they make excuses and run. At the end of the day, they would rather sacrifice the sheep than be sacrificed for the sheep.

Perhaps the reason we behave like hirelings is that we still think like them.

It was in that sort of crisis situation that Jesus proved the veracity of His love. He didn’t retreat from danger and leave His sheep to fend for themselves. He didn’t save His own hide at the expense of theirs. He lay down His life for those under His care because He saw them as irrevocably connected to Him. His long-term well-being was bound up in theirs. After all, they were His inheritance, not someone else’s.

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
John 21:16

Perhaps the reason we behave like hirelings is that we still think like them. We see ourselves as servants of God, looking out for others on His behalf. And there is an element of truth to that. The people around us are His sheep, precious in His sight. Though we may struggle to value them the way He does, we still feel responsible to care for them out of a sense of obligation to our Master. We prove our loyalty to Him by the way we tend each other.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.You are my friends if you do what I command.

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. …This is my command: Love each other.
John 15:12-17

But the level of commitment God demands of us exceeds the limits of a mere servant. He calls us to love Him with all that we have and all that we are. And He calls us to love each other until it hurts, to take up each other’s financial, emotional, spiritual and physical burdens as if they were our own.

The point is that we are no longer hirelings. No amount of payment could make such personal sacrifice worth it. We are God’s friends, and what’s more, we are His kids. Our status as co-heirs with Jesus means that His sheep are our sheep, His inheritance our inheritance.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:1-4

According to our new identity, we have a vested interest in looking out for each other’s interests. We are no longer many individuals each scrambling for survival. We are a conglomerate, individually rooted in and communally bound by God’s Trinitarian love. Whatever hit one of us takes for another, we all benefit from. Whatever need remains unmet in one of us, we all suffer the lack of.

Paradoxically, Cain’s question reverberates through the relational ages and finds expression in our own excuses. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “Who is my neighbor?” may get rephrased as “That’s not my responsibility” and “We need to look to our own national security,” but God’s answer remains the same.

As true children of our Father, we are called to look out for those around us as proactively and sacrificially as He does. We are responsible to notice the silently suffering member of our church, to provide for the financially struggling member of our community, and to protect the politically vulnerable member of our race—no matter what it costs us.

This kind of service isn’t for hire. It can only be generated and bound by love.

A Prayer for the Persecuted

"Sanctuary" by Cadi Clark
“Sanctuary”
by Cadi Clark
What do rape victims and the persecuted church have in common?

Both have faced the invasion and desecration of God’s Temple. Both have survived atrocities that leave them scarred and damaged. And both are left with some serious questions about why God didn’t protect them from evil men.

Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross echoes through the voices of the Psalms, some in response to national disaster and other in response to personal abuse. This is the same question that I have encountered in counseling sexually abused women and in interacting with Nigerian Christian leaders. The inevitable conclusion their hearts struggle not to feel is that God has somehow forsaken them.

Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture? Remember the people you purchased of old, the tribe of your inheritance, whom you redeemed– Mount Zion, where you dwelt. Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins, all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.
Psalm 74:1-3

How can they not take it personally? God’s Word has set them up with certain expectations that they are valuable in His sight and therefore worth protecting. They could even tell stories from the past of how He did deliver and honor them, including their testimony of salvation. But if they are still so precious to Him, then how in the world could He stand by and watch their devastation?

Your foes roared in the place where you met with us; they set up their standards as signs. They behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees. They smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets. They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
74:4-7

What hurts deeper than the physical assaults they have endured is the sense of violation and desecration that remains. Their bodies are no longer their own; their sacred places have been contaminated. The very place where they communed with God has been damaged, hindering their ability to share that intimacy with Him again.

They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!” They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land. We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be.
74:8-9

How could God allow that level of destruction? Physical suffering is one thing, but that He would permit such an assault on their souls seems unthinkable. Doesn’t He want to have relationship with them? If so, then why didn’t He draw the line around how far the enemy could go in attacking them?

How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
74:10-11

The spiritual discouragement that settles in seems like it might be the new normal. It seems the enemy got what they wanted after all. Is God really going to let them get away with this? If so, that sends a pretty loud message to His devastated people. He must be angry with them. He must have rejected them. If God won’t act on their behalf, there’s not much point in going on.

But you, O God, are my king from of old; you bring salvation upon the earth. It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. …It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.
74:12-17

A brief survey of history reminds them that this isn’t the first time God’s people have faced opposition. And always before He has been the sort of leader who uses His power to rescue, defend, and make things right. If that’s how He’s done it in the past, then surely there is hope that He will do it again today.

Remember how the enemy has mocked you, O LORD, how foolish people have reviled your name. Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts; do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever.
74:18-19

With slightly renewed confidence in their relationship with God, devastated cries of abandonment can shift to bold pleas for help. Their world not longer feels like a safe place and they are still defined by the mockery and abuse that were heaped on them. But if God will acknowledge the depths of their ruin and address it, there is hope that they may yet be restored.

Have regard for your covenant, because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land. Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace; may the poor and needy praise your name. Rise up, O God, and defend your cause; remember how fools mock you all day long.
74:20-22

After all, they are His people! He is the one who reached out to them in love in the first place and established a relationship with them. They bear His image and His name. Any mistreatment of them is actually an assault on their God. His honor is on the line as much as theirs. Because they are His beloved people, they are His cause to defend and to promote.

May our response to their predicament never give them cause to doubt whether God still cares.

Some of us can relate with this prayer more personally than others, but all of us should join in praying it. Any attack on a part of His Temple is an attack on the whole. So we stand with the battered church around the world in praying for God to rise up and restore them. And we stand with our persecuted brothers and sisters here at home, unwilling to settle for the disgrace that has been heaped on them.

May our response to their predicament never give them cause to doubt whether God still cares.

The Legacy of a Leader

tombRunning the streets of Paris this week has gotten me thinking about great leaders and the legacy they leave behind. My different routes take me by towering structures and massive monuments, opulent palaces and magnificent cathedrals. And while sparkling golden domes and triumphant archways inspire me with their grandeur, I can’t help but see them in the context of les miserables at whose expense they were built. While I doubt that these great leaders had the suffering of the marginalized in mind as they drew up their strategic plans and executed their visionary agenda, I see that as precisely the problem.

To be frank, I notice a startling similarity between political visionaries who build their empires on the backs of their downtrodden subjects and spiritual leaders who build the church or its institutions at the expense of their downtrodden sheep. I sympathize with the heavy mantle of leadership, the constant pressure to do what is best for the whole group and to keep the flock moving forwards towards important goals. But too often leaders accomplish their goals at the sacrifice of the most vulnerable members of the flock. They reach their destination leaving behind a long trail of limping lambs and wounded stragglers, unintended but uncared for casualties of their leadership agenda.

Too often leaders accomplish their goals at the sacrifice of the most vulnerable members of their flock.

In the classroom-based leadership training and the pew-based leadership observing that I do around the world, I have encountered all sorts of worthy church-building agendas. For some the focus is on evangelism or numerical growth, for others it is on preaching of pure doctrine or promoting the holiness of the church body. Often I encounter more specific goals like making a church more relevant to a particular generation or social group, or the less-likely-to-be-stated agenda of preserving its status quo in doctrine, worship style, or values.

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off ? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.
Matthew 18:11-13

But whatever the agenda, when I see a pattern of marginalized members whose needs have been neglected or run over “for the good of the church as a whole,” alarm bells go off in my head. Jesus’ example of pastoral care means leaving behind the ninety-nine cooperative, contributing sheep to go after the one wounded straggler.

…who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.
Psalm 103:3-6

In fact, as I look a bit deeper at God’s leadership style, I see a strong pattern of focusing in on the downcast and specializing in the “pit-dwellers.” He makes their problems His problem, using His power to strengthen those who are feeling weak, His position to promote those who can’t put themselves forward.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12:22-26

Under God’s pastoral care, the people who get preferential treatment are those who don’t fit the perfect Christian mold, whose life circumstances, emotional state, or inability to contribute to the “agenda” of the church have put them at risk of being marginalized. Rather than allowing them to straggle at the edges and fall prey to the wolves, the Master Shepherd moves the rest of the flock to surround its weaker members. He invests them with additional attention and honor, calling the rest of His sheep to do the same.

I have seen (and experienced) Christian leaders who are willing to risk following in the shoes of their Shepherd. The Ugandan pastor who risked his standing in the community to protect an unwed mother from the customary punishment of being thrown over a cliff. The Indian Christian leader who hires disgraced ministers with a checkered past so he can offer them careful mentoring and a second chance. The Californian university professor who gathers demon-oppressed students under his sheltering wing for prayer and counsel. And the well-respected old Presbyterian pastor who wept with a traumatized, washed-up woman, willing to believe a story that pushed the limits of his theological paradigm and willing to put his reputation on the line to stand by her.

Jesus’ example of pastoral care means leaving behind the ninety-nine to go after the one wounded straggler.

Of course I’m not decrying the need for proactive nurture of the healthy members of the flock, but I am pointing out the importance of being willing to be inconvenienced by the ones who don’t fit the agenda, whose lives are messy and complicated, whose problems probably won’t go away with a few counseling sessions or a bring-them-a-meal rota. Whether they are the generation not-in-focus, the sub-culture we weren’t looking to attract, the unemployed or recently divorced man who doesn’t fit in our tidy picture of the “perfect Christian family,” or the emotionally messy woman who can never seem to pull herself together—the agenda has to adjust to make space for them, too.

As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him–you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
1 Peter 2:4-6

God’s ultimate agenda for His church is to build her up one living stone at a time, including in His magnificent structure people who fit our preconceived mold and people who don’t. A leader’s legacy is not based on numbers, buildings, programs, or even doctrine. It is found in the people he has loved and nurtured, the living stones that she has helped to find their place in the walls of God’s cosmic temple.

That’s the sort of monument I want a part in.

Lowering the Flags of our Fathers

attachment“This church, along with our whole city, was completely destroyed. The Allies’ bombs wiped it from the face of the earth.”

I shifted uncomfortably as our middle-aged German guide came to this point in our tour of historic Worms this weekend. She had proudly taken us around her beautiful city, pointing out the significant remains of its long, multi-layered history dating back to the Roman Empire and playing a significant role in the Protestant Reformation. But now photographic images of the mass devastation that this civilian population endured at the hands of our grandparents confronted me with a side to the story that I had never really considered before. How could this local citizen so calmly look our group of mostly British and American scholars in the eye and talk about it? Rather than use this opportunity to protest the “terror bombings” carried out against her people at the close of WWII, she shocked me with her humble confession.

“Well, we were the ones who provoked it, after all.”

Are we willing to tell our whole story, including the shameful bits?

This willingness to bear national shame over the Holocaust and the nationalist aggression of their ancestors has impressed me during my brief time here in Germany. This is a country with a long history to be proud of. But nestled among the soaring cathedrals and elegant castles are more recently erected monuments to their shame. A set of pillars in Worms (near the Jewish cemetery) with an inscription memorializing those who were made victims of German nationalist pride. A bombed-out church in Mainz with a series of plaques, describing its proud history but concluding with a humble reminder that any society built on violence and oppression will be judged with a similar end.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Listen! The LORD is calling to the city– and to fear your name is wisdom– “Heed the rod and the One who appointed it. Am I still to forget, O wicked house, your ill-gotten treasures… Her rich men are violent; her people are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully. Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins. You will eat but not be satisfied; your stomach will still be empty. You will store up but save nothing… Therefore I will give you over to ruin and your people to derision; you will bear the scorn of the nations. ”
Micah 6:8-16

As I listened to our tour guide’s personal acknowledgement of causes for both national pride and national shame, I couldn’t help but draw mental parallels to how a similar situation has been handled in the USA. We treated two entire races of people as if they were not equally created in the image of God, holding one set under our thumb as slaves and later as “liberated” but unequal citizens, and getting rid of the other set through massacres and round-ups into reservation camps. While these are arguably sins of the past, the question still remains of how we respond to their fallout today.

Are we willing to tell our whole story, including the shameful bits? Are we ready to accept the consequences of our forefathers’ actions?

In teaching my children about the American Civil Rights movement, I was shocked but actually not-so-shocked to discover that our Christian history book had simply skipped it, deigning the injustices suffered and the victories won for oppressed minorities within our country not worth mention. Such refusal to acknowledge and disclose the sins of our past can only lead to further hardheartedness and future recurrences.

And in more recent days, I have been deeply disappointed by the refusal of persecution watchdog organizations like International Christian Concern to report on the terrorist shooting of African-American Christians at worship in their Charleston church, not to mention the strong trend of Black-church burnings that continues across the South. Were such attacks on Christians or churches perpetrated in other lands, ICC would most certainly have reported them. And yet despite multiple emails pleading with this group to cover the persecution of Black Christians in their own country, they remain silent.

“Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job 42:6

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:3-4, 17

Among the many biblical virtues that patriotic Christians love to promote, somehow confession and contrition seem to get lost. And yet these are the hallmarks of true religion. Upright Job went back and set the record straight, lowering himself in repentance when he realized how wrongly he had spoken of God. And integrity-bound David recorded his confession for all posterity to read when he abused his power to take whom he wanted and get rid of whom he didn’t.

The king summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not a part of Israel but were survivors of the Amorites; the Israelites had sworn to [spare] them, but Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them.) David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make amends so that you will bless the LORD’s inheritance?”
2 Samuel 21:2-3

Even on a national scale, David recognized the need to accept responsibility for his predecessor’s racist sins. As Israel suffered the ongoing repercussions of Saul’s unethical treatment of the Gibeonites, David humbly took it on himself to do whatever it would take to make things right.

Are we ready to accept the consequences of our forefathers’ actions?

And this is the spirit of contrition and national humility that I see dawning in the American South. The shocking display of racism that left nine worshippers dead is jolting devout Southerners into a public acknowledgment of the stain on our heritage. The Confederate flag may represent much that we are proud of, but it also represents much that we should be deeply ashamed of. Perhaps in its place we would do well to take a lesson from the Germans and erect monuments to those our ancestors have wronged, lest we forget and repeat the mistakes of our past.

“In memory of the dead / as a reminder for the living.”

“In memory of the dead / as a reminder for the living.”
St. Christoph Church, Mainz, Germany

In A People Garden

IMG_9140Would the world be a better place if it weren’t full of people? People, not things, perpetrate violence and atrocities on the earth. People pollute the ground with their waste and the air with their emissions. People overfill certain parts of the planet, cementing over its other inhabitants and upsetting their life-sustaining cycles and webs.

The narrative that rises from focusing in on these harsh realities can often cast people in the role of barbaric imposters, of foreign invaders whose very existence on the earth brings nothing but harm. But is this the picture that God sees? What story does He tell about how we fit in His global garden?

Last Sunday I encountered one of those a-ha moments in which my experience suddenly fleshed out my theology. Literally. I had spent the afternoon meandering quietly through a private walled-in garden. Blooming roses crept up ancient stone walls, weeping willows swayed beside a meandering stream, and birds, wind, and water mingled their voices together in peaceful song. That evening, as the garden began to fill with people coming in for an open-air concert, my mind cynically assumed that the perfection of the garden would be marred with their fabricated fashions, noisy chatter, and energetic gestures.

But to my surprise, I discovered that, far from messing up the beauty of the garden, the people completed it. Their vibrant colors, sounds, and movements filled the garden with a new element of life that I hadn’t even noticed was missing. In fact, as I looked around the by-then familiar green-scape and listened to French horns sounding across the distance, it struck me that the people were the most beautiful flowers in this garden. They were the crowning touch. Their creative accessories complimented the decorative designs on the plants. Their effervescent spirits animated the terrain. And their artistic composition filled the space with melodies that the birds quickly picked up and played back.

As I reflected further on this unexpected discovery, I realized that I was experiencing a foretaste of the garden-city, the new creation for which we long and towards which we proactively work as we wait for God to bring His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. This garden resonated with echoes of Eden, bringing human “progress” in harmony with natural development.

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.”
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.”
So God created man in his own image… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
Genesis 1:11,20, 27-28

In the beginning the world was empty, the ground was bare. God planted grass and trees, animals and eventually people in His fertile garden, giving them all the same commission: Live. Grow. Blossom. Reproduce. Spread out. Fill the earth with your unique contribution to its vast array of textures and colors, functions and sounds. Testify in your own limited way to the presence and nature of your Creator. Echo back to Him the song of creation, imitating His innovative work in the world.

God … will uproot you from the land of the living. The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, “Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!”
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God…
Psalm 52:5-9

Of course the story goes on to show how we have abused our role in God’s garden, stealing the fruit that wasn’t ours to eat and oppressing our fellow inhabitants with our selfishness, greed, and outright contempt. And God has much to say about how He will come and tend His garden, uprooting the weed-like plants who defy their Gardener’s order and choke out His other plants.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted… to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes… They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
Isaiah 61:1-3

But God also intervenes in His garden to nourish and restore the plants that have been trodden underfoot or impeded from what they need to grow. Jesus came to walk among hillsides of tender shoots, watering weary souls, restoring withered limbs, and even raising dead branches. He cut off fruitless vines who were leeching life from those who needed it, and He grafted in foreign vines who longed to be included under His life-giving care.

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”
Psalm 92:12-15

God takes great delight in His people garden. He shines the light of His face on us in warming, life-giving relationship. He satisfies our parched hearts with streams of living love. He crowns us with beauty and fills our branches with fruit, the satisfaction of a project successfully accomplished or the fruition of a dream finally fulfilled.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. … No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face… They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.
Revelation 22:1-5

And best of all, God is in the process of planting us as near to Himself as it gets. He is gathering His vast array of plants into one garden-city, built out of organic stones and filled with the light of His presence. Even as we wait for the fulfillment of His story, we are already flourishing in His courtyard, rooted by His stream, and abiding in His Vine.

IMG_9033So who or what are we in the story of creation? Would the world be a better place without us? I am reminded that, according to God’s narrative, humans are the pinnacle of creation, the apple of His eye. Without us, His garden would be beautiful but incomplete. Our expansion is what He intended from the beginning; our advances are potential reflections of His image within. We are an integral part of His earth, planted here to thrive.

Does He Even Have a Name?

The story of the Gadarene Demoniac (whom I prefer to call the Gadarene Disciple) became deeply personal for me a number of years ago. This man, whose story had formerly seemed bizarre beyond relevance to me, became a beacon of hope for me and for others like me who have experienced severe demonic oppression. What I love about the way this author portrays him is that she has taken the time to humanize him, to restore the dignity that was so brutally stolen from him by the malice of evil spirits and the ignorance of fearful people. Just as Jesus looked beyond the grotesque form and bizarre behavior to connect with the image of God still alive in him, I pray that we as His representatives on earth will look at others with the same love.

Messy images.

Glorious hope.

Jesus My Healer

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As he (Jesus) stepped out onto land, a madman from town met him; he was a victim of demons. He hadn’t worn clothes for a long time, nor lived at home; he lived in the cemetery.

Luke 8:27

He was somebody before the demons victimized him. We aren’t told his name or what his life was like. But I would like to humanize him if possible. I suspect he was a man of significance; a significance he didn’t even recognize. Oh, it might not have been financial, though it could have been. Maybe it was influence; maybe he was a man that people respected, looked up to, enjoyed knowing. Maybe he had a wife and kids and a nice livelihood that enabled him to provide for them. We aren’t told these things.

Whatever his life was, it wasn’t anymore. Whatever his influence may have been, it was no more. The…

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Messy Cosmology

Photo credit to https://www.flickr.com/photos/pauls_picx/15713110422/
Photo credit to https://www.flickr.com/photos/pauls_picx/15713110422/
My teenaged daughter (an avid Marvel enthusiast) dragged me to the second Avengers film this past weekend. As she took in the clever comments and creative combat sequences, I pondered the cosmological implications of the story line. Apart from revealing my overactive analytical tendencies, the film raised my ongoing questions about my place in the broader range of cosmic beings.

In a tense argument with his fellow avengers, Tony Stark pithily pointed out that they were not merely fighting the evil within a closed system. They were up against powerful external forces that they could neither predict nor control. “We’re the Avengers, we can bust weapons dealers the whole doo-da-day, but how do we cope with something like that?”

How do we cope with living in a world where we can’t see or intelligently predict the activity of beings that are bigger and stronger than we are?

When I stop to consider the reality of the spirit beings that inhabit our cosmos, I can’t help but echo Tony Stark’s sentiment. How do we cope with living in a world where we can’t see or intelligently predict the activity of beings that are bigger and stronger than we are? Who are we in the pecking order of created beings, and what’s our role in the overall story of the world?

what is man …? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
Psalm 8:2-8

In the beginning God set us up in the garden, male and female, with orders to govern and tend everything (and everyone) in it. He put plants and animals, water and earth under our feet. And though His Spirit set us above the rest of the earthly creatures, He didn’t set us over the heavenly ones.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
Colossians 2:15-16

As much as our Enlightened assumptions and humanist culture may deny it, we are neither the center of the universe nor the top of the evolutionary chain. We were created lower than the angels, under the rule of spirit beings who were created by God for His good purpose. Call them angels, call them gods—whatever they are, they, like us, stand accountable to God for the way they govern and tend what He entrusted to them.

God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the “gods”:
“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed…
“I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler.”
Psalm 82:1-7

So far, they, like us, have done a pretty lousy job of performing their assigned role. Far from upholding justice and promoting peace on earth, many of these spirit rulers have used their position to pervert, oppress, and extort the peoples of the earth. And we thought the mess on earth was all our doing! But what goes on unseen by us has been keenly observed by God.

As adopted sons of God, we have been radically repositioned in the cosmos.

In response to the cries of His saints and in keeping with His own heroic justice, God came down to deliver humanity from bondage to these spiritual tyrants. No wonder the demons worried about what Jesus was going to do with them. They were the stewards who had been caught mistreating His servants, and He was the master who had come to judge them.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking.
Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death…
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil– and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants.
Hebrews 2:5, 8-10, 14-16

The puzzling bit of the story, though, was why God showed up wearing human flesh. He didn’t have to become one of us to rescue us. But what no one had anticipated was what God would do with His unruly world. He hadn’t come simply to reestablish the cosmological status quo. He had come to mess it up.

In the new order of things, humans would no longer be stuck beneath the heavenly beings, completely vulnerable to their oppressive whims and dependent on their arbitration between heaven and earth. Instead we are being made one with His Son, raised from death but also raised in status.

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…
…far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.
Ephesians 2:6; 1:21

As adopted sons of God, we have been radically repositioned in the cosmos. We are being given a seat along with our older Brother at the very top of the command chain, above all those powerful creatures that He had originally placed over us.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
Ephesians 6:12-13

Although our mortal bodies still dwell on earth, engaged in that age-old wrestling match with the powerful spirit forces that seek to enslave us, our heavenly status is sealed. We are the children Jesus came to raise up to glory. We are being groomed to become co-regents with Christ, reigning with Him over a new heaven and earth. This is the hope to which we raise our eyes, the ground on which we are called to stand.

Now that’s epic. Even Marvel couldn’t come up with a cosmic story ending this good.