Tag Archives: relationships

God’s Kind of Woman

img_1998Reading Peter’s description of the model Christian woman used to send me onto yet another personality diet. Desperately wanting to be the sort of woman who was beautiful in God’s sight, I would attempt to reduce the number of opinionated words I spoke, subdue my boisterous spirit, and lower the level of leadership I naturally took. But try as I might to fit my rotund personality into the tiny box that this passage seemed to construct for me, it was only a matter of time until I would come bursting back out.

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
1 Peter 3:1-4

Discouraged and defeated, I prayed that God would re-create me as a more passive, demure version of myself. My picture of His ideal was a soft-voiced woman, listening intently to the men around her and unobtrusively serving their physical needs so they could go on doing the significant spiritual work God had called them to. Next to women who were naturally endowed with quiet natures and gifts of service, I felt less godly. If God wanted me to be a mild, behind-the-scenes woman, then why did He curse me with a sharp mind, pastoral heart, and assertive nature?

Obviously many of my jagged edges were in dire need of sanding down, as God saw fit do through painful but purifying life experiences. As any young leader has to learn, my tongue did need some reigning in, my Tiggerish traits did need more self-restraint to prevent me from bouncing all over others, and my will needed to be trained in submission before it could be qualified for leadership.

For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
1 Peter 3:5-6

But coming out the other side of all that, the question still remained: what kind of woman does God like best? I wish I would have read that 1 Peter passage more carefully years ago, because through more recent study I finally noticed the hearty clue it drops at the end. Who were these holy women of old who were being held up as examples for first-century Christian women to imitate? What was it that God commended these Old Testament women for in their own lifetimes? By examining their life stories, especially the way they used their voices, did or did not assert leadership, and related to the men in their lives, I hoped to better interpret what Peter had in mind when he what he wrote what he did.

And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.
Hebrews 11:11

Starting with Sarah, the matriarch of our faith, I see a woman who heroically spoke up before kings to protect her husband by offering her own body in place of his. Far from being a passive pushover, she proactively embraced the promise God had made to her husband, travelling homelessly with him at her own peril and (albeit abusively) seeking to produce a descendent for him through her own servant. In honor of her faith, God insisted on establishing His holy nation through her, not just her husband. He also named her in the Hebrews hall of faith.

By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
Hebrews 11:31
Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse…
Matthew 1:5

The Hebrew midwives stood up to the King of Egypt, using their voices to protect the unborn. Likewise Rahab stood up to her male authorities, covering for the foreign men who had come to her brothel for shelter. These women were expressly commended by God for the proactive leadership they took, not giving in to fear but by faith entrusting themselves to God. And, as He did for Sarah, God established their lines in reward for their faithful service, even naming Rahab in His own Son’s genealogy.

God’s kind of women are those who do what is right and don’t give in to fear.

Deborah completely turns my docile picture on its head. Though appropriately reticent to take leadership of the army, she had no qualms about judging the Israelites who voluntarily came to her for wisdom, justice, and a word from God. Her voice was one that God expected these men to heed, not to silence. General Barak got seriously shamed for ignoring her words. And contrary to how we often hear her story interpreted, the author of Judges presents her position as prophetess and judge as perfectly normal, even for a married woman. It wasn’t through her husband that God chose to speak to His people—it was through her. The victorious outcome of her story stands as testimony to God’s delight in this godly woman’s bold leadership and outspoken faith.

“The LORD bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. …you are a woman of noble character.
Ruth 3:10-11
David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day…
1 Samuel 25:32-33

Abigail overrode her foolish husband, going behind his back to save it. Ruth no longer had a husband to save but instead dedicated her initiative-taking, competent self to saving her dead husband’s mother. Both of these women took leadership through their bold words and their heroic deeds, gently shaming great men into doing what was right (or in David’s case, stopping him in his tracks from doing something horribly wrong). And both the landed-gentry Boaz and his warlord great-grandson David thanked these unexpected leaders for their kindness and considered themselves blessed beyond rubies to get such noble women as lifelong-allies.

My goal as a woman is to blossom within the full range of beautiful role models God has given me to imitate.

This will have to suffice for now as a representative sampling of the holy women of old. But what stands out to me is that these women were a far cry from the silent, second-string players that I had assumed God likes His women to be. They raised their voices, engaged their minds, and asserted their strength for the good of those around them, even when that meant functioning outside of cultural norms and established authority.

The point is to rightly divide God’s word so that we don’t squeeze it into our own culturally preconceived box.

If these are the sorts of examples that Peter was holding up for us in his call to a feminine, unflappable faith, then there is room for my personality in God’s definition of beauty, too. The point isn’t to change God’s Word to adapt to all shapes and sizes, but it is to rightly divide God’s word so that we don’t squeeze it into our own culturally preconceived box. My goal as a woman is no longer to conform to the objectified ideal of the Sunday school magazines, but rather to blossom within the full range of beautiful models God has given me to imitate.

After all, as the passage in 1 Peter concludes, God’s kind of women are those who do what is right and don’t give in to fear.

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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.

Asset or Ally?

married-handsIn our early years of marriage, my husband and I faced a mish-mash of assumptions and theories about what our relationship was supposed to look like, especially in regard to my role as his wife. Before marriage we had been classmates, peers, and debate partners, enjoying the freedom of a relationship built on mutual admiration for each other’s opinions, abilities, and unique contributions to the world. But having said “I do,” I suddenly felt a nagging theological pressure to change the way I related to the same man.

Intruding into our easy friendship came the idea that I should drop a step back and start following him, that I should lay aside my goals and dreams and replace them with his, and that I should suppress my natural tendency towards critical thought and assertive action in order to make sure that he always came out on top. While introducing the element of hierarchy into our heretofore cooperative partnership seemed unnatural, I felt that it was the right thing for me to embrace as a Christian wife. Despite my husband’s protests that this is not why he had married me, I felt that I should live out my created purpose as a woman to be his “helper.”

Much of my confusion came from the way I had always heard the story told of why God made Eve. Looking back on the story from this side of the fall, I assumed that a “helper” is someone of inferior social status who exists for the purposes of someone higher up a chain of command. In a world of hierarchical pecking-orders, it was hard to imagine a working relationship without clearly delineated and regularly exerted indicators of who is in charge. But leaving behind these social assumptions and looking with fresh eyes at how Genesis 2 tells the story of husband and wife, I now see a refreshingly different sort of relationship from the one I had pictured.

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. 5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Long before the lack of a helper suitable for the man comes up in our story, the Bible points out that there was no helper suitable for the ground. God had created the earth and the heavens, but without someone capable of taking care of the ground, there wasn’t much point in planting a garden. So out of the substance that was in need of help, God created a man. From within this telling of the story (which obviously does not encompass the whole range of God’s purposes for humanity), the man’s primary created purpose in being made was to meet the earth’s need for a “helper,” someone who would enable it to fulfill its created purpose and to maximize its full creative potential.

18 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” 19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh.

Similarly, within this telling of the story, the woman’s created purpose was to meet the man’s need for a “helper.” Though the nature of the man’s need was quite different from that of the earth’s, God’s manner of meeting it was surprisingly similar. First He took the man through an interactive learning task to help him discover his need for himself. The man exercised his authority over the animals by determining what they would be called, in a sense assigning them an identity. But as he set about his work, a realization about himself began to dawn. All these other creatures formed from the earth had two versions of themselves. In fact, it was through this diversity that they were each able to fulfill their calling to be fruitful and multiply. Where was his “other?”

So just as God had done for the earth, He completed what was lacking in the man by creating a helper from the very substance that needed help. From the man’s wounded side emerged a version of him more beautifully capable than anything he could have imagined. The word used to describe what she would be to her husband (ezer) is the same word used throughout the Old Testament to describe what God is to His people: a helper or ally (for more on this see Carolyn Custis James’ insightful book Half the Church). She would come to his aid in shouldering along with him the enormous task of governing the rest of creation and of filling the earth with more little images of themselves (and of God).

23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” 24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Genesis 2:4-25

And waking from his death-like sleep, Adam recognized just what a gift he had been given. This wasn’t another animal to rule or govern—her being was of the same substance and nature as his. He acknowledged her equality with himself in what he called her, embracing her as a treasure worth letting go of everything else (including parents) to gain.

Far from the picture of subservience and inferiority that I had assumed, Genesis 2 paints a picture of loving partnership and empowering mutuality between husband and wife. My role as helper to my husband doesn’t lower my status any more than God’s role as our Helper or man’s role as the earth’s helper lowers their positions. If anything, it emphasizes my God-given power, capacity, and responsibility in working alongside my husband to lead and to serve our shared corner of the earth. Yes, it will involve laying aside my “rights” and my independence just as much as God’s service to us required His sacrificial death-to-self, but it does not make me the second-class citizen or the passive follower that I had assumed. Rather, being the kind of wife God made me to be calls me forward to throw the full weight of my gifts, aspirations, and man-power into our shared calling as servant-leaders of God’s creation, whether in our home or out in the world.

And it’s about time I sorted that out–my poor husband has been waiting long enough!

Caught Between Mercy and Need

photo-on-9-7-16-at-12-20-pm-3-1“I’ve already blown it with you, and yet I need your help. How can I ask for another favor?”

For those of us with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, one of the hardest situations to be put in is that of needing help that we don’t feel we have the right to ask for. In a human economy, we intuitively know that relationships work on a system of give and take. And most of us prefer to remain primarily on the giving side, maintaining a healthy balance in our relational bank account so that we don’t have to worry about someday running in the red.

Call it pride, call it pragmatism, but deep down we know that there is a limit to how many times we can come back with the same empty cup asking for more, especially if our track record has little to show for improvement.

And though we know that things are different with God, somehow it’s hard to escape the same nagging sense that we have used up all our wishes. If we’d just won some spiritual victory we might feel more confident to ask for His help, but what about those long dry seasons when all we can look back and see is one failure after another? On what basis can we approach His throne and boldly make another request?

Once again, the Psalms show us the way forward. Compiled in exile by a nation of people who had blown it more times than they could recount, they give us prayers to pray in our moments of triumph and our moments of despair, our moments of life “as it should be” and our moments of “oh my goodness how can I even pray to you?”

Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD or fully declare his praise? Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right.

Remember me, LORD, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them…
Psalm 106:2-5

Psalm 106 falls firmly in the last category. After its initial statements of thanks and praise, it jumps right into the dilemma the psalmist is facing. Who is worthy to pray before God, whether in accolades of thanks and praise or (more relevantly to the psalmist’s current exilic condition) in indebting petitions for help and deliverance?

We have sinned, even as our ancestors did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly….
Psalm 106:6

At least the Psalmist is honest enough to go back and tell the story as bad as it really was. Most of his prayer involves detailing just how horribly he and his people have responded to God’s repeated gracious interventions in past. Listing forgetfulness, ingratitude, uncontrolled urges, envy, arrogance, breach of contract, rebellion, and downright laziness on the application form hardly seems the way to win favor from a loan officer, but this is precisely the approach the psalmist takes with God. In fact, it seems to be his strategy in convincing himself that he can again ask for help and in encouraging God to give it.

Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. Yet he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented. He caused all who held them captive to show them mercy.
Psalm 106:43-46

After all, the record showed that no matter how many times (or how badly) they had blown it, God always listened to their cry for mercy. Though their performance was consistently lousy, His response was consistently gracious. That didn’t mean He hadn’t taken them through some pretty tough consequences, but it did mean that He had always relented and restored them in the end. Why would this time be any different?

Where human love runs dry from repeatedly being imposed on, God’s love endures forever.

But in addition to bolstering the psalmist’s confidence in God’s track record, praying through the history of their relationship enabled the Psalmist to remind God of what it had always been based on: God’s unfailing love, not His people’s unfailing performance. This was the leg he could stand on when all others crumbled away. This was the firm foundation on which he could base his plea for yet another miraculous intervention.

Praise the LORD.Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.
Psalm 106:1

Where human love would have long before run dry from repeatedly being imposed on, God’s love endures forever. If anything, the more we draw on it, the more it replenishes. I don’t know how long it will take for this simple reality to finally permeate the way I approach Him in prayer. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to my fully believing it is my own pride, insisting that our relationship include my merit as at least part of its basis.

Save us, LORD our God, and gather us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.
Psalm 106:47

But when merit fails and need overwhelms me, I am driven back to my knees as the Psalmist was. Going silent or going shallow in my prayers won’t cut it. Only a full-disclosure of my failings will clear the accounts, making space for God’s amazing grace to once again give me something to sing about.

And it never fails.

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?

Advent: Kissing the Peace Child

kiss the sonDespite how consumerist Christmas has become, there is one thing about it that the world gets surprisingly right. Hallmark specials and feel-good commercials repeat the story of reconciliation, of estranged friends and far-off family members being brought near through unexpected twists of fate. Cliché references to the true meaning of Christmas inevitably point to restored relationships and random acts of kindness.

What used to strike me as distracting perversions of the gospel message I have now come see as beautiful retellings. Meditating on the final Old Testament prophets through this advent season, I have felt the angst of post-exilic Israel. Finally restored to their land but still estranged from their God, they had to be wondering if they really wanted to Him to show up or not.

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
Exodus 20:18-19

From their first real encounter with Him as a nation, God had been a terrifying enigma. He had thundered at them from the top of Sinai, causing them to quite literally quake in their boots. His commands had seemed rigid, His demands overwhelming. Out of fear they drew back, wanting relationship with the God who took care of them but feeling the distance between His holiness and their all-too-human selves.

Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2:11-12Exodus 20:18-19

Throughout their history as a nation, they had consistently failed to live up to His standards. And though He proved His long-suffering temperament and His merciful nature, He had also followed through with His promises to punish their persistent disobedience. Who knew the extent of His wrath better than these survivors of famine, war, deportation, and lengthy exile?

“…Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…
Malachi 3:1-3

Perhaps a cold, distant relationship with their God was safer than an up-close, fiery-hot one. But the souls of the faithful longed for more. In response to their cries for His intervention, God promised the day of His return. But would it be a good day or a bad one? Would they survive His purifying fire or be consumed by it? The Old Testament closes with a mixed-bag of prophecy, anticipating the coming King with equal portions of hope and fear.

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9

Who could have known that the King they both desired and dreaded would come so gently? The clenched jaw they expected would come instead with soft, kissable cheeks. The unapproachable Judge would arrive wrapped in a blanket, irresistibly lovable and anything but intimidating. The lamb-like bleat of His newborn cry would beckon those both nearby and far away to come adore Him.

This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…
Luke 2:12-14, 22

When God finally returned to His temple, He came as a peace offering. His flesh-and-blood presence brought laughter and rejoicing, not fear and trembling. Yes, His broken body and spilled-out blood would purify the sons of Levi, enabling a priestly nation of believers to offer up acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. But His tiny, cuddly presence was in itself an invitation to restored intimacy. Prophetess and priest held Him in their arms. Lowly locals and pagan kings made the trip to gaze on their God.

Though the world may not know why, the core message of its advertising campaign is dead accurate. Christmas is about receiving an unexpected gift, about estranged people being drawn into the warmth of long-lost relationship. Some of us may more keenly feel our estrangement than others.

Sing to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name. For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
Psalm 30:4-5

Whether like the wise men you have never known this King or like the shepherds you have fearfully co-existed with Him, Jesus is God’s gift to you. His tiny form alleviates your fears, beckoning you closer to the God you have wanted but dreaded.

Come home to your Father, whose love outlasts His anger.

Kiss the Son. Embrace peace.

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.