Sunday, June 28, 2015

To Whom Much Has Been Given: Reflections on Race

I am a white woman, raised in South Carolina, talking about race. I
face a number of easy pitfalls when writing on this subject. I am more aware than not of the pitfalls. For I have fallen in them many times while trying to better understand racial struggles, particularly while working with our PTA on the issue at my boys' school. Even when trying to HELP, I have sometimes harmed. When trying to create access, I have at times put up unseen barriers. When trying to speak carefully to heal, I sometimes speak ignorantly in ways that harm. I have some gracious friends of color who have gently pointed such things out to me, and I am thankful for them. Pitfalls surround me as I talk about this, yet I feel burdened by two Bible principles that push me to speak, to act, to put off complacency and get engaged in the struggle. To put off the fear of saying something wrong and just say something rather than choosing the safety of quiet and its friend, complacency, that often follows in its wake.

There are many angles in our current news cycle from which we could approach a discussion of race. Issues around the Charleston massacre and the confederate flag have eclipsed discussion of police brutality the last few weeks. I will eventually talk about the dear souls in the Charleston massacre whose grace makes me weep each time I think about it. But this post, around police brutality, has been percolating for a while, and I finally feel I can put some thoughts into words.

Bible principle number 1 is that those in authority are always called in Scripture to restrain their authority for the good of those they serve and protect. Be it parents, elders, husbands, police --- authority was always given for the GOOD of those under the authority, and authority was given to SERVE those under their authority. At some point in conservatism, we reacted against those we counted as rebellious against authority with a dogmatic glorification of authority. But Jesus says that leaders must serve. The hallmark of authority in the Kingdom of God is self-sacrificing service. The hallmark of authority in the Kingdom of God is BENEFIT for those under them.
Eph. 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 
Eph. 6: 4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger … 
I Peter 3:7 Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. 
I Peter 5 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 
Matthew 20:25-28 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Consider also Bible principle number 2 – to whom much is given, much more is required. With privilege comes responsibility. With greater privilege comes greater responsibility.
Luke 12:48 … Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.
At this point I must, as a white woman, consider what benefits being white has afforded me. By the mere fact that I was born white in the United States, evidence shows I received an advantage over my peers of color born in the same circumstances, the same city of the same family income level. I actually know without a doubt that I was privileged to be born white in my circumstances in my particular home town. My circumstances are so crystal clear, particularly around the access to education I had in my home town that my black peers did not, no one had to work to convince me of my own white privilege. I don't care to deal in debth publicly with those circumstances, but I think about them privately a good bit.

Couple principle number 2, to whom much is given, much more is required, with principle number 1, that authorities given by God need to restrain their authority to serve those under their protection, and you start to see a Biblical philosophy form, particularly around the issue of police brutality. First, no one can brush such brutality aside by saying that the person under authority shouldn't have been doing whatever they were doing in the first place. Again and again, this view results in sifting through the background of victims of police brutality to expose whatever character flaws and moral issues one can find. When I see memes of this nature (“Just don't break the law”), I want to spit. Of course, we should all be obeying the law! But disobedience by one under authority never justifies disobedience by the one in authority over them. Never, ever, ever. It isn't just the restraints in our constitution that should keep us from such reasoning, for God Himself calls the one with greater authority to greater restraint. 

We understand such restraints in some relationships. When my child hits me in a tantrum, I am not justified in responding in kind. I am called to be measured in my response every last time, and if I feel that I am losing control, I need to step back until I regain self-control and can reengage in the conflict as the mature one of authority called to deescalate the conflict and discipline the child. The entire point of authority is to restrain sin and evil, not heap new sin and new evil on top of a conflict. And if you can't navigate that difference, you do not have the maturity needed to be in authority.  With authority comes responsibility.

I worked with our neighborhood crime council briefly a few years ago. I met several kind, thoughtful police officers that were very helpful in our community. I also met a very rude, unhelpful officer that seemed primed to escalate, not deescalate, a conflict. As each of us, black or white, engage our voices for the good of our communities, the second type of officer will be exposed and disciplined so that the first type of officer becomes the norm in our precincts. But as God's kingdom comes and His will is done, this type of restraint of authority should characterize each of us more and more in whatever roles we play in leading/serving/protecting another in an authority relationship. We all have a responsibility to use the gifts and access we've been given for the good of all in our communities.

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”    Cornel West  (HT: www.graceseattle.org)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Withering Wives

I am noticing a concerning trend among friends and acquaintances in Christian marriages far and near. It's what I call the Withering Wife.
Psalm 128 
1 Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways! 
2 You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you. 
3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. 
4 Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.
It's the opposite of the beautiful vision of Psalm 128. At first it was one friend, then two, then four, and now it seems daily my attention is drawn to yet another wife in this condition. Instead of being a fruitful, flourishing vine, I can see her withering under the hot sun. No water comes her way, and instead there is cracking dry ground at her roots. Her leaves start to furl into themselves, and her vibrant color fades. She goes through the motions. She starts to shut down. Why stay engaged when she receives no encouragement or emotional support?

There are two things that contribute to this withering – active scorn and passive neglect by a husband. Some husbands freely communicate to their wives that they despise them. One friend shared with me how in the middle of a conversation in which her husband talked to her with scorn, he picked up the phone and completely changed his tone of voice to one of kindness and respect with the other party on the phone, and even in conflict at work on the phone, she heard a patient tone that he never used with her. She longed to hear him engage with her that way, but he felt free instead to despise and dismiss her with his tone of voice as well as his words. He talked to her in a way he would never use with anyone else.

There is also passive neglect. This is when a wife's needs are simply ignored. The wife may share tearfully that she is struggling, and the husband shuts her down with his lack of response. Or he says they will talk later but never does. He communicates passively that her emotional struggles are not worth him engaging. He sees her struggling with the children, but he doesn't actively step in. I ache watching loved ones demoralized by being in partnership with someone who sees them struggling day after day, but the only way to get them to engage is to have a near melt down.

On the flip side, I also note strong marriages among loved ones. I note particularly in these marriages that husbands NOTICE. They are proactive. Notice what, you may ask. What are they proactive about? Well, that depends on the marriage. That depends on their wife. Peter exhorts husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way. In other words, understand your wife. Know her loves. Know her gifts. Know her needs. And your wife's needs aren't necessarily going to be the same as whatever illustration your pastor just gave in his sermon about his wife. The gospel is so needed here, because a wife's needs can quickly feel threatening to a husband. A husband can't find his identity in his wife any more than she can her husband. But if a husband is secure in Christ so that he does not feel threatened by his wife's concerns, there is great room to know his wife even when her needs and gifts don't at first fit a husband's desires or expectations.

If you are at this crossroads, husbands, I wrote before on praying with your wives. This is such an easy, hopeful, helpful first step. Even if it's just once a week on a Saturday or Sunday morning, ask your wife, “What's burdening you right now? What can I be praying for you?” Then right there with her, pray about it. That is an incredible ministry of grace to her in that moment. It's water for her withering vine. If it's something about you that's stressing her, well, pray honestly with her about it. If you as a couple have any kind of faith, you must believe that you access supernatural help in that moment.

I could give a second step (because there will very likely be some second step that needs to take place once you get up from prayer), but I think it's better if I leave the second step to the Spirit who works after the first step in a couple's heart according to their needs for their specific relationship.

This dynamic of course does not characterize all relationships. As I said, I know many great husbands of flourishing wives, and it is perhaps that I get to watch those healthy relationships that also helps me notice dysfunction in others. And there are wives who likely need to notice their husbands. But today, in case you haven't considered this lately, husbands, I encourage you to look over at your wife and notice her. If she is withering, take the steps you need to stir up your own love and concern for her and then be a conduit of God's grace to her that will revive her.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Learning for the Future from the Duggars

One of the most important things I've learned over the last few years (and am still learning) is to listen well to people directly affected by some topic or circumstance that I want to write on. I like to find people to read or talk to who share the big points of my faith in Christ and my confidence in the Bible as authoritative for today but who have first hand experience with something that I am thinking about in more general terms.

When talking about race relations, I have come to deeply value Thabiti Anyabwile's and Anthony Bradley's public writings. We share the same faith, but they have an experience of race as black men that I can't fully understand as a white woman. I need their perspective. I also have a number of African-American friends that aren't public personalities. They have helped me understand white privilege and the subtle slights many blacks still experience regularly in a way I could have never understood on my own.

On the issue of homosexuality, I see Wesley Hill as a gift to the Church. His writing has certainly been a gift to me. I have other friends I won't name who are closer to home. They teach me from first hand experience the deep struggle for identity when the natural attraction so many of us take for granted is not natural at all for them. We share core convictions around the sexual ethics that Scripture requires, but they open my eyes to a struggle I can't really understand without experiencing it first hand.

The issue in my news feed repeatedly right now is sexual molestation by Josh Duggar. There are a myriad of voices speaking into this subject. A few still defend the family, but the vast majority I read are quite critical. But within the criticism, there are a wide variety of voices as well. The voices that I most value are those from men and women with whom I agree on the core doctrines of Christianity. I struggle to read commentary from those with no understanding of grace or forgiveness. And I struggle to read commentary from those who do understand forgiveness through Christ but don't really understand the complicated issues around incest and molestation in the home.

Thankfully, there are good resources from those who have experienced sexual abuse and have a strong faith in God and confidence in His Word. Mary Demuth has become a respected voice on this topic to me. I also have a few unnamed women in my life who have experienced this first hand. I value their insight deeply and defer to their feedback when I write around this subject.

I have been thinking a lot on two particular facets of the Duggar's story. The first is the violation to the victims that the Freedom of Information Act allows. I have a friend closer to home who was raped as a young adult. The press were able to access her address through the Freedom of Information Act, and I wept to hear her description of them hounding her AT HER HOME to get information from her about her rape.

Media sought my friend out for a statement because there was a public scandal surrounding her rapist and his fraternity. Similar to the Duggars, the media felt entitled to harass her because it was a story with public interest. The law prohibits the media from publishing a victim's name, but it doesn't prohibit them from getting their hands on personal information and contacting or harassing the victim. The law also doesn't prohibit publishing information that hints at the victim's identity, which happened in the case of the Duggar daughters. There are just no words for this second violation of victims, and information that can identify victims should never, never, never be released to the media.

The second issue I've been thinking about is what I see as a very natural desire as a parent to protect your child from the label of sexual offender and how that led to choices that backfired and resulted in far more stigma and attention for Josh Duggar. In a similar situation as the Duggars, I likely would have also wanted to shield my son from the police and try to get help from people I thought would keep my privacy. I would want to do my best IN HOUSE for my child who did this thing and my children who were affected by it. I get that natural desire. But in the end, that effort (coupled with the unwise choice to expose your family to reality television) backfired.

There is a road to walk when a crime has been committed, even if it is a crime committed by a juvenile. And it is much wiser to walk with our children down that path than to try to find a different one for them to take. If you are white and privileged, there are often options for avoiding arrest and legal consequences that other juveniles regularly face. But the fact that you can avoid consequences does not make that the best choice. As embarassing as it might be to have a juvenile arrest and conviction for sexual molestation, it's powerful to be able to say as an adult that you faced it head on and dealt with the consequences at the time you committed the act, that you agreed with the court on the seriousness of the crime you committed and you took the steps you needed to make sure you never did it again.

The media (especially that around reality television) is atrocious. They are vile and exploitive. They set up a niave family for stardom because it would make them money and pounced upon them when they fell for the same reason, never with concern of the cost for the smallest in the household. Now, there are five young girls/women who have had their most vulnerable moment exposed to the world, and it makes me sick from every angle. Whatever value we might see from this exposure, no one had the right to do this to them, taking away the last bit of autonomy they had around this subject.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Talking Me Off the Ledge

I hesitate to use the title, Talking Me Off the Ledge, out of concern for those with suicidal loved ones or suicidal thoughts themselves. But I decided to keep it, because it is an accurate description of the emotional and spiritual role godly friends have played in my life over the last year in particular. I haven't stood physically on the ledge, ready to end my life. But I have felt many times of late that I was emotionally and spiritually on the ledge, that if I could have figured out a way to quit a life of faith, I would have. But the words of the disciples in John 6 have been true for me.
“Where else would we go? You have the words of life.” John 6:68
I haven't left the faith because God hasn't let me. I haven't quit because God won't accept my resignation. I have been kept in the faith by the God who promises He will not lose any of His own.

In those moments of despair, God has repeatedly sent me friends and family who have talked me off the emotional ledge. They have been God's hands and feet, the body to Jesus' head, that have held me and talked to me until I walked back into the safety of the room, feeling like I could face the overwhelming struggle around me. I have had enough of these conversations over the last year to notice some common elements.

1. Their faith is strong enough not to feel threatened by my fear and unbelief in the moment.

2. They are safe. They don't minimize my struggle, but listen and then talk me through it without shame or condemnation that I am in that place (or in that place yet again after talking to them about the exact same struggle last week).

3. Most have gone through their own crisis of belief in the midst of suffering and can truly empathize with me.

4. They understand the point of the angry psalms, God's gift of grace to us who struggle through pain that does not reconcile easily.

5. They believe and hope for me until I can do it again for myself. They pray for me in hope and confidence in God, and through their prayers, God ministers His grace to me.

Like the paralytic man lowered by his friends through the roof to meet Jesus, such friends point us to Christ when we feel too weak to seek Him out by ourselves.  They bear our burdens with us when we feel overwhelmed carrying them alone.  And they do it as Christ's hands and feet.

We all need friends who will talk us off the ledge, who aren't threatened or horrified by the depths of our deep emotions when we are in crisis. We all need people who will calmly respond to us and help us fact check when we are overcome with emotion. We need these people in our lives, and we need to BE these people in the life of our friends.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Role of Elder, the Gift of Shepherding

I note a common theme around discussions of limiting the role of pastor to males only. The concern is that we are limiting women using their giftedness in the Body of Christ. This is a legitimate concern to address. I think in many cases conservatives have not adequately used the giftings of women in their congregations, hence the popularity of parachurch women's organizations.

But we need to correctly frame the problem of our use of women's gifts in the Body of Christ, and we need to speak of it precisely from Scripture. And I want to say boldly that limiting the role of overseer/elder/pastor to males only is not the same as the very real problem of not giving opportunity for women to use their spiritual gifts in our local congregations.

First, what are the gifts of the Spirit as the Bible discusses them? There are three main passages on spiritual gifts:

I Corinthians 12
7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.  
Ephesians 4
7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. … 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,  
Romans 12
6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. 

Some may argue whether the list in Ephesians 4 is what we would consider spiritual gifts, but by the wording in verse 7, it seems so. Also, there is some confusion because we have conflated the gifts around the idea of pastoring (shepherding, teaching) with the office of overseer in a church. All overseers must pastor and should have the gift of shepherding, but there is also a type of pastoral care that should be found in the Body of Christ outside the authoritative role of elder/overseer. For instance, mentoring and parenting are both shepherding situations that those not in the role of elder do.

Note that NONE of these three passages on spiritual gifts use the Greek words for elder or overseer, episkope that Paul uses in I Timothy 3 or presbuteros that Peter uses in I Peter 5. These are the words we associate with the office of pastoral authority in the local church. The episkope (pronounced episcopay) in a church should likely have a number of these spiritual gifts, especially the gifts of teaching and shepherding, wisdom and exhortation. But note that these gifts are not synonymous with the role of episkope, which I am convicted by the language Scripture uses in I Timothy that God limits to men only.

The role of overseer/pastor/elder in our churches today is not a spiritual gift, and denying it to women does not keep them from exercising their spiritual gifts. I personally believe I have the gift of teaching and shepherding. Others have confirmed that for me, so I feel reasonably comfortable saying it. I have been in churches that did not give me much opportunity to exercise those gifts in the church. I primarily use the gift of shepherding while raising my children, but I am also now in a church (with male only elders) that has given me great opportunity to use my gifts among our congregation. If church leaders value those gifts in women, the opportunity to use those gifts as women abound without taking on the role of elder/overseer.

On the flip side, it is good for male leaders, particularly elders in complementarian churches, to recognize that the gifts of the Spirit don't seem to be limited by gender. The implication then is that women as well as men are gifted in such ways, and the Church needs to use those gifts for the maturity of the overall membership. Women are gifted with wisdom and exhortation. Men are gifted with wisdom and exhortation. Pastor, do you see the value of such gifting among the women in your church? If so, how do you develop those gifts? How do you use them for the overall health of your church? Because that is what such gifting among the women as well as the men in your congregation is for – to equip your congregation for maturity and unity in the faith. Steward those gifts!