The Story

One of the most sure-fire ways to get under my skin is to cop a grandiose (and often far-reaching) “Well, the Bible clearly says…” in the middle of a conversation about the intersection of faith and policy and our shared life together as humans flying through space on a living rock. There’s not much about that scenario that is abundantly clear. We exist in tensions and grey areas, always learning from one another and from our mistakes.

And yet…

And yet…

And yet…

There are some things, written time and time again, forming a consistent arc throughout Scripture. These things we seem all too ready to overlook or cast aside.

That God is with us.
That God is for us.
That God, for some reason, chose and continues to choose to work with and through us.
That God moves to draw more and more people to Godself.
That the revelation of God’s grace gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

From a chosen family, to a chosen nation, to a priesthood of believers.
From a tent, to a temple, to an ascension leaving us staring into the clouds with wonder.

The table gets bigger time and time and time again until John has a vision of a giant feast with people from every tribe, and every nation, and every tongue gathered at around the table.

Within this arc there is no space for building walls and closing doors, that’s the wrong direction.

The table never gets smaller, only bigger.
Groups of people are not kicked out, only welcomed in.

First the Jew, then the gentile.
First a call to love your neighbor, then a call to love your enemy.

So for those of us who claim this tradition, that’s the arc of our story, too. It’s not just that we read about this expansion of the God’s grace and love in a morning quiet time, it’s the pattern our lives should reflect.

First your people, who sing the songs you like…and then the people who sing the songs you cannot even begin to sing along with.

First your people, who preach the messages that feed you…and then the people who preach the messages that make you angry.

First your people with whom you know which jokes will be funny and which values may be assumed…and then to the people who could not be more unlike you.

The table always gets bigger.
That’s how the story goes, the story we signed up not just to believe but to be a part of when we decided to follow Christ.

We decided that it was more advantageous to build bigger buildings than bigger tables though. The fastest way to build a bigger building is to gather a whole bunch of similar people. We blessed this idea and called it “church growth.” I’m not sure which hermeneutic we used to get there, because when I look at the growth of the Church in Scripture it hardly seems like a bunch of similar people who gathered. The Church seemed to grow when there were a lot of people with differences who gathered in defiance of the social constructs which pushed them away from one another. The Church seemed to grow when this rag-tag group of Jews and Greeks, free people and slaves, rich and poor gathered and shared and dared want and hunger to exist in their midst.

The Bible clearly says that.

Which is inconvenient, so we ignore it.

It is inconvenient for the table to get bigger. This is not a happy-clappy, Instagrammable feast with flower crowns and microbrews.

It’s hard to come to the table with someone who sees the world differently than you do.
It’s hard to break bread and pour wine with someone who may abandon you after dinner.
It’s hard to wash the feet of one who would betray you.
But this is the way we have chosen.

It is fine if you are compelled to work for walls and new policies to keep people out in order to “keep your family safe,” just realize that is a different story you will be living in when you make that choice.

It is fine if you chose to hold on to your anger because a person or a group has hurt you, just realize you are choosing a different story when anger become the center and the animating force.

The table always, only gets bigger in this story, and it is most inconvenient to continue to choose to live in it.

 

 

(Image: mrhayata)

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Brother Thomas

“Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.”
                                                                                                                       – John 20:24

I don’t know where Thomas was when Jesus first appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, but he wasn’t with the others. The disciples had all assembled, doors locked in fear of the religious leaders…and probably of Rome, too. Crucifixions were common, and often it wasn’t just the leader of a movement who went down. Rome would crucify thousands of people at a time to put down revolts. It’s no wonder they were hiding. It’s no wonder Thomas wasn’t around. We aren’t told where he was, but I can imagine.

Maybe Thomas went home. Head hung low in shame for abandoning the family and their livelihood a few years back to follow the young, upstart Rabbi from Nazareth. Others had dropped fishing nets and left tax booths, broken open priceless bottles of ointment just to sit at Jesus’ feet.

What had Thomas left behind?

Did he try going back to that place, to those people when it all fell apart with Jesus?

Maybe Thomas was hiding. We’re told that when Jesus was arrested that the disciples scattered. Maybe Thomas wandered out into the wilderness somewhere, ducking the Roman soldiers and the temple elites. Devastated. Alone. Terrified.

What now?

We aren’t told where Thomas was, but we know he wasn’t there when Mary brought the news of the unthinkable and unimaginable. We know he wasn’t there when Peter rushed to the tomb to see for himself. We know he wasn’t there on the first day of the week when Jesus appeared to the disciples assembled in the house.

He wasn’t there.

I’ve always looked down on Thomas a little bit. Why wouldn’t you be there? Why wouldn’t you trust your closest friends when they told you that the thing you couldn’t even hope for had happened?  He was painted as some sort of bumbling idiot in Sunday school, “that doubting Thomas, don’t be like him. Trust the words of Jesus, He is risen! Risen indeed!”

I’m starting to understand Thomas.

I understand declining the invitation to sit in the dark house, doors locked, praying that they don’t come and arrest you too.

No, thanks. I’ll pass.

Where was Thomas?
I don’t know, but I probably would have been with him.

I’m the type of person who has contingency plans for my contingency plans. The crucifixion didn’t catch the disciples totally off-guard. You couldn’t say the things Jesus said, do the things Jesus did, bring together the people Jesus brought together and survive the empire.  As the writing on the wall started to become clear, I probably would have made some sort of exit strategy. When Jesus gets arrested, where do I hide? Who do is safe to turn to for help? Who can I trust not to turn me over to the empire, too?

We all want to believe we would have stayed by Jesus’ side till the end, but I’m fairly certain I would have been right there with the rest of his followers fleeing the scene.

I paint myself as an idealist, but I’m really more of a cynic with an affinity for sunshine.
I understand why Thomas wasn’t there.

But then, Thomas also came back.

Maybe those who had stayed sent word to him.
Maybe Mary found him somewhere and talked to him.
Maybe there were murmurs spreading and he caught wind somehow.
Maybe they all knew where he was the whole time, and it just took him awhile to make his way back to the house.

He found his way back somehow.

And the news was unbelievable. Literally.

“Unless I see the wounds, unless I touch them myself, I won’t believe it.”

It’s not like resurrection was such an improbable reality for Thomas. He had been there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. He had seen resurrection with his own eyes, embraced new life with his very arms. But this was closer to home. This loss was more costly. Lazarus was a friend, but he died from illness. Jesus was his teacher, his leader, and he was executed by the state.

Thomas had seen life spring up from death.

Was it worth the risk this time?

Hope is birthed from a vulnerable place, it costs us something.  Thomas had already lost a lot. He had given up home, family and livelihood. He had already done the work of reimagining his life, of letting old dreams die, of dreaming something new. And now even the new dreams were dashed.

Are you seriously asking me to hope again?

I wasn’t ready for Easter this year.
For new life, new hope, resurrection.

I’m still sitting in the unknown of Holy Saturday. The tense, aching place between the shadow of a cross and the weight of the tomb.

We don’t talk about it often, but there’s grace for this space, too. For those of us who are stuck on Saturday. Our brother, Thomas, is familiar with the place in which we find ourselves.

We like to say “You’ve just got to have faith – even the size of a mustard seed!” 
But what we neglect to say is that even mustard seeds must be covered in earth before they spring to life. Even mustard seeds must wonder as they come undone in the dark if anything good will come from their burial.

 

Deeper than Words

There are many things I bemoan in this life, in our U.S. culture.

The divisiveness.  The unrelenting messages we’re fed that we don’t have enough, don’t make enough, and just plain aren’t enough.  The fact that our children are growing up faster and faster, forgetting how to play younger and younger, captivated by screens, tainted by over-sexualization, ingrained with violence.

I mostly lament these things. I pray over them.  I  take whatever small steps I can in my own life and in my family to stand against them.

But every now and again I catch a glimpse that rescue is coming.

That redemption is, indeed, always at work beneath the surface of the day to day.

Last week, that glimpse was in a Zumba class, of all places.

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Ben and I work with a wide variety of kids.  All kinds of backgrounds and passions, talents and abilities, heartaches and shame.

But when the music started, none of these differences mattered.

The pretenses, pride, shame and fear were all left in a collective heap by the door.

All as one, feet shuffled, hands clapped, bodies moved.

One, two, three and four. Five, six, sev-en, eight.

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We relish the moments when the proving and fighting ceases, when the kids get to step out of the grown-up boxes they’ve been shoved into, or stepped into willingly.

It’s amazing to watch a young person become a child, even if for a moment.

We all got to believe, even if only for an afternoon, that we are free.  That we are in this together.  That we are loved and accepted and okay, even if we miss a step or clap off beat.  Because there is something bigger we are all engaged in.

A divine dance that weaves and works its way in and out and up and down.  Shuffling and slow at times; pumping fists and shouting loud others, but always, rhythmically moving us further along this road of redemption.

And sometimes, maybe, I see that more clearly in a Zumba class with 30 kids than I do in the text of my Bible.

Sometimes there are things that reach beyond words, that are too weighty to be contained on a page.

Sometimes you need the words to put on skin and bones and be set to a different tune to be able to finally see what was staring you in the face all along.

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“The creative life invites us to envision and discern what God is trying to accomplish in the world.  It employs the intellect but also takes us beyond it, down into the deeper levels, to the realms of intuition and imagination.  The creative process, in its many forms, involves bringing back the treasures of those realms and offering them to the world.”
(Jan Richardson)

Dangerous Presence: Risk Management

This is the third post in a series discussing the book Dangerous Presence by Jason Butler. You can read more or purchase the book here.

“Americans typically don’t like risk.  We see risk as bad, dangerous.  Risk can get us into trouble, ruin our finances, and mess up our future.  Most of the time, we play it safe – in our finances, careers and businesses…We’re OK with some risk, but not much.”

Butler begins chapter three with a brief examination of American culture, in which “risk management” isn’t just a job description – it’s a lifestyle.  He makes the distinction between “risk” and “greed” in this assessment, saying that “‘risk’ is the danger of losing something” and “‘Greed’ is the desire to gain more.”

American culture is a mess of dichotomies surrounding risk and greed.

On one hand, we’re told that the pot is only so big, that we should work hard, save what we earn, store up for a rainy day, make sure that if we do give any of our money/time/resource away that it is going to something truly worth it.

Scarcity is embedded in the America as inextricably as our fingerprints.

On the other hand though, we are also bombarded dawn to dusk with the message that we need more.  That what we have is not enough, and therefore we are not enough.  We must have the latest, greatest, shiniest, fastest.  Our current home is too small, too old, or in the wrong neighborhood and so we need a new home.  Our current car is not safe enough, consumes too much gas, and is lacking in the latest, life-changing features that will warm our hearts and seats simultaneously.

Protect what you have, but constantly be reaching for more.  No wonder we feel like our hands are so full.

“Because of this matrix of fear, greed, and scarcity, American culture values safety above almost any value.  We want to keep our kids, houses, future, and retirements safe.  We have become so obsessed with safety that we have produced a culture of fear…
…The Bible calls it ‘the way of the world.’ Don’t conform to it.  Repent of it.  Renew your mind out of it.  Sin is dangerous, but fear is like nuclear fallout.”

It’s interesting to think about fear being the way of the world, and not something of God.

I grew up, like I’m sure many of you did, praying for safety over trips our church would take.

Assessing whether or not we should be ministering to certain populations based on how much it may be a detriment to our personal safety, our public image as a church or organization, what people might say or think.

Being instructed not to feed or spend time with the homeless, because it was too risky and just not worth it.

And even now, so many people, people who love Jesus a lot, are floored when they find out where Ben, Cadence and I live.

“Is it safe there?”

No.  Not always.

But someone once told me that the safest place you can be is in the middle of God’s will.

I clung to this for years, through good times and bad, but I’m starting to move away from that idea, because you see

God doesn’t promise us safety.

 

There was a song back in the 90’s that went something like “You created nothing that brings me more pleasure than You, and You won’t give me something that gives me more pleasure than You” (“You Created” – Caedmon’s Call).

I think for most of us in the U.S. we derive more pleasure from our own safety and self-preservation than we do from the Lord Most High. 

Even in saying that the “safest place we could be is in God’s will” is a bending of our knee to the idols of safety and self-preservation.

“Okay God, I will follow you anywhere because the safest place I can be is where you want me to be.”

What if we went wherever God wanted us to be, did whatever God called us to do, loved whoever God wanted us to love even if it wasn’t safe?

And before you protest, may I remind you that our history as followers of Jesus is rife with the death and destruction of our brothers and sisters for the sake of Christ.

The twelve were beaten, exiled, crucified and otherwise killed like the Rabbi they walked so closely with.

You don’t have to look very hard to find countless stories of missionaries who were endangered or killed for their presence.

Lottie Moon marching through a battlefield in China.

Nate Saint, Jim Elliot and others killed for going to reach the unreached, and moreover, their wives and families staying faithful to the tribe that murdered them and bringing a whole group of people to Christ.

When I think about my spiritual heritage, I’m really not doing anything that crazy or dangerous.  Everyone in my neighborhood speaks English.  I have running water and heat and air conditioning.  I have a car.  I eat what I like, whenever I want and drink coffee every morning.

I’m not suffering, but according to so many I’m really living on the edge.

“We come from a long line of risk takers, of great lovers, of those willing to put others in front of themselves, of those willing to pour themselves out for the benefit of others.”

“Where is that risk today?”  Butler asks at the end of this challenging chapter.

“We settle for selfish, individualistic, small lives when God is calling us to live into a bigger story.”

What about you?  Is your walk with Christ more centered on risk management and the pursuit of safety, or the pursuit of Christ wherever God may take you?
Are you worshiping your own self preservation or the God who calls us to love in extraordinary ways, in dangerous places, to broken people whom God Godself is aching and yearning to redeem?

How big is your story?

“You come from a long line of risk takers.  Please don’t settle for safety – take a risk for the kingdom of God.  You were told that the world will know you by your love, not your pursuit of self-satisfaction.  Let go.  Embrace the life God has for you – the life centered around others and not yourself.  Do that and you will have a story to tell, a story of redemption, a story of grace, a story of restoration.

You will lose much, but you just might gain everything.”

Did You Forget?

He’s exactly what you would expect of a 6th grade boy.

High energy, an alternately charming and maddening blend of extreme silliness and budding sarcasm, an affinity for jokes involving rude body noises and a distaste for homework.

He can be tough, he puts effort in to his “devil may care” demeanor.

Tried to cover up his tears when the class watched a documentary on poetry.

He’s an older brother, people look up to him – and he knows it.  He tries to be cool and put together, in his own 6th grade way.

“Did you forget about me?”

He asks with an edge of sarcasm on his voice, but I hear the truth underneath.

We keep a running list of students we work with in our after school and Sunday morning programs who would like to be mentored by an adult in our church.

This boy has been on the list for over a year now.

“Did you forget about me? Kevin told me he would find me a mentor a year ago!”

My heart broke a little.

The excuses are easy when they’re just between you and your calendar, exchanged through phone calls and emails.

“I’m way too busy right now.”

“I just don’t have the time.”

“I don’t really ‘do’ kids.”

“I’m just not interested.”

But now I am staring this boy in the face with nothing but excuses in my hands.

“I’m sorry, but the people who could be your mentor are just too busy, they don’t like kids and they’re not interested in you.”

It won’t work.

So instead I try to explain the process.  I make excuses for my peers who have all survived middle school, figured out the secret to long division and are no longer (as) mystified by the opposite sex.  My peers who have so much to offer this boy, even as they make excuses with plates that are too full and hands that are too empty.

“Well, you see, there are lots of kids who want mentors and not always enough adults who are able to mentor.”

The words sound hollow even as they roll off of my tongue.

He smiles but his eyes are sad, proof that he understands more than what I just said.

This post has also been published on the Transformation City Church blog.

Spiritual Selective Hearing

It's Too Loud

When I was a child, I was plagued with this disorder that my mother liked to call “selective hearing.”

Perhaps you’ve experienced this as well: whenever mom would call that dinner was ready or say something like, “Hey Megan, I’m going to run some errands at the mall, do you want to come?” I would always hear her.  But when she would ask things like “could you take out the trash?”  or “hey, could you clean up your room please?”  my ears were a little less attuned.  I almost never heard those requests the first time.   And interestingly enough, my dad and my brothers seemed to have the same issue.

I think we all experience the phenomenon of selective hearing sometimes.  We experience it with our friends, our spouses, our children, co-workers. And we’re guilty of it as well.

It’s easy for us to hear things that benefit us, that are comfortable and familiar, but when we are confronted with things and ideas that maybe cost us something, are out of the ordinary or uncomfortable for us, it’s easier to block it out – even if we do so subconsciously. 

It’s not just in our work and family lives that selective hearing exists.  I think there is such a thing as spiritual selective hearing as well.   And the Church has developed a serious case of it over the years, especially with respect to hearing both a male and female voice from God.

Our story starts like this:  God bends down, scoops up some dust and forms humanity in God’s own image.  The breath and Spirit of God filling them, giving them life.  God’s image bearers.  Male and female.  Created in the image of God.

But somewhere along the line, the image became distorted.  The image-bearers fell away from the God who created them and loved them and in doing so they fell away from the ideal of representing God as a unit – male and female.  The image-bearers fought each other, they dominated each other, they constructed systems that held one another into set roles and rankings.  Like a broken mirror, the image of God became distorted and broken and our ears began to fall deaf to certain rhythms of the divine. And the world lost sight of the true image of God.

The Image has become so distorted and our ears so selectively tuned that it is now common for evangelicals to affirm certain roles for genders.  It is common to believe that there is a certain hierarchy within humanity, that women should submit, they should help and support – not lead.  And a woman certainly should not be exercising spiritual authority over a man.  Here is the problem with these ideologies though:  when we create hierarchies within humanity we fail to represent the God whose image we bear. 

As we look back to where we come from, the creation narrative, God speaks and declares “let us make humanity in our image” God is, in very essence, three distinct persons – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – yet one God.   Within this Trinitarian image there is community, there is relationship – things we see fleshed out in humanity as image bearers.  There is not, however, hierarchy. 

Phillip Carey writes:

“The difference of roles in the Trinity cannot mean anything like a relationship of command and obedience, where one persons’ will is subjected to anothers’.  Father, Son and Holy Spirit are always, necessarily of one will, because there is only one God and therefore only one divine will.   And where there is but one will there cannot be the authority of command and obedience, for that requires one persons’ will to be subordinate to a will other than his or her own.”

Within the very being of God we are given a picture of complete alliance, three persons working within one and the same will to accomplish God’s own purposes – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This is the image which we were designed to bear.  This is the glimpse of God we were intended to put forth to the world God so desperately loves and desires to redeem.  But we cannot portray this image on our own. No single gender can advance or clarify the image of God to this broken and hurting world without the partnership of the other.

It is all too easy though, for male-female relationships to become the wedge which separates rather than the tie that binds.  Denominations the theological circles split over what to do about women in leadership.  Both genders become frustrated and angry and wound each other as the battle of the sexes wages on in every sector of life.  But we were not made for this.

Carolyn Curtis James writes this:

“God’s original vision—a vision He has never abandoned but revives in the work of His Son—was for relationships between men and women to be dazzling points of light on this spinning globe. Dynamics between men and women were never intended to be a battle of the sexes or a heated debate within Christian circles. Male/female relationships in Christ are to be a glowing testament to the fact that we are followers of Jesus. This is where God means to put on display a gospel-powered love. This is where the world is supposed to see men and women laying down their lives for others, offering strength and wisdom to each other, and investing ourselves fully for God’s kingdom.”

We were made for more.

More than patriarchy and dominance-based structures have to offer for men.

More than lone feminist philosophy and empowerment have to offer for women.

We were made to live in what Carolyn describes as “blessed alliance” portraying an illuminated image of our God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – as we live, work and lead in partnership with one another.

In a world where little girls – some as young as seven years old – are bought and sold daily for sex, is the Church really to silence the voice of women? 

In a world where one out of every three women will be raped or abused, is the Church really to call for female submission?

In a world in which more young women will die from gender-based violence than from car accidents, cancer, malaria and war combined is the church really going to stand up and declare that abuse that doesn’t cause her to sin and “only” hurts her must be “endured for a season”?

If this is the image we are portraying then the image is horrifically broken.  Our hearing has become selective at best, if we have not fallen completely deaf.

I believe it is time for the church to rise up, broken and mangled as she might be, and return to the design set forth in Eden: the image of God – male and female – on display for all to see.  We must begin to define both genders not by the roles or stereotypes laid out by culture, but primarily, predominantly as Image Bearers of the Most High God.  We must reject hierarchies and chains of command within cross-gender relationships – inside and outside the home and the Church – as these ideas undermine the Image of our God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  We must tune our ears once more to hear the voice of God – male and female – even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it costs us something.

We have turned a blind eye to half of God’s image. We have turned a deaf ear to half of God’s voice. We have crippled one hand and one foot of the Body of Christ. We have muted half of the messages God wishes to convey.

But there is hope. 

The prophet Isaiah wrote long ago

“Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees. Say to those who are panicking:  ‘Be strong! Don’t fear! Here’s your God, coming with vengeance; with divine retribution God will come to save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared.  Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing.” (Isaiah 35:3-6, CEB)

The Image is broken, but the Blessed Alliance is still God’s plan.

God has redeemed and is yet redeeming humanity one piece at a time, a little more every day.

Let us unite and hand in hand march boldly together, bringing God’s Kingdom a bit more fully with each of our paired steps.

 

 

 

 

 

photo credit: “It’s Too Loud” by Eric Spiegel