Sunday, August 28, 2011

Gospel Centered Manhood

I have a vested interest in understanding what a gospel centered man looks like. I'm married to a man and raising two others. But even more than that, I am COMPLEMENTARIAN (a woefully inadequate term for the fullness of how the Bible speaks of gender). Despite the inadequacies of the term, when you boil it all down, my convictions from Scripture are that the husband is the head of the wife, the wife should submit to her husband, and that women can be deacons but not elders in the church. If you share those convictions, then you know how important it is for the men in your life to be truly gospel centered men. The caricature of a “real man” that masquerades as Biblical manhood in conservative evangelicalism just doesn't cut it when the rubber meets the road--when your child gets cancer, when your husband abandons you, when your own discouragement turns into clinical depression, or when you need elders to lead in gospel grace in the midst of church conflict. Those are not the moments for the manly shepherd. Those are the moments for the godly shepherd. Being manly isn't the issue. Being like Christ is.

What I say next may seem slightly offensive or controversial. But the truth needs to be stated, and as bad as it sounds, the gospel meets us in this truth and can transform us all. But not until we admit the reality of our sin. The sin I want to address is that some men with identity issues are defining Biblical masculinity for the evangelical church, and sadly we, the Church, are listening to them. These men have paved the road for emerging egalitarians. If I know one, I know 50 former complementarians who have embraced egalitarian thinking because they were spiritually, verbally, or physically abused by a man with identity issues who perverted his spiritual role in their lives.

Now, WHO AM I TO TALK ABOUT THIS?! I'm nobody. I have no authority, and no one needs to listen to me. But I am someone who at several points in my life was under the leadership of pastors with identity issues who had warped views of what it meant to be a masculine leader. Also, I have dealt long and hard with my own identity issues, especially those related to my perceptions of myself based on my physical appearance. Dealing with my personal identity issues and insecurities in the light of the gospel was the crux of my Ephesians Bible study. But I thought my insecurity based on my physical appearance was a distinctly female struggle. Then I heard a sermon on the gospel applied to our bodies given by one of our pastors a few months ago. He made this profound statement, which I transcribed and thought about.

“I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys, and the way you gained respect in my neighborhood was through physical prowess. You had to be the strongest, the most athletic, and because I was smaller, not only because I was younger but because of genetics, I was often ostracized. I was made fun of, and I remember those moments. … I at an early age decided the way I would deal with the pain is by becoming someone who is more athletic than you, smarter than you, who is better than you. That has defined my life and brought all kinds of chaos and trouble.”

He said this in a sermon on how the gospel transforms our views of our bodies. My respect for him grew as he gave testimony how the gospel changed his view of himself. His statement resonated with me and several things clicked in my head as he honestly assessed his identity issues based on his height. I had the immediate thought, “THAT EXPLAINS IT!” For both my youth and adult experience in the church have been heavily influenced by short pastors with identity issues. Unlike my pastor now, they apparently had never wrestled through how the gospel transforms their perceptions of themselves based on their genetic makeup. They adopted gospel-less coping mechanisms for dealing with it. Just as my pastor noted, they are going to be more athletic than you, smarter than you, and better than you. In my experience, they can be reasonably nice—until challenged. Then their bullying coping mechanisms rise up in irrational anger. When Napoleon runs the church, get out of the way.

That sounds harsh, doesn't it?! Yet, the gospel meets men in this reality as surely as it meets women. The first step is to acknowledge the problem. Yes, you are short (or whatever the identity issue is), and no, that doesn't define you Biblically. It makes you neither less a man or more a man. But your attempts to compensate for the way you perceive yourself are ruining you and your ministry. Perhaps your childhood made you feel humiliated. Were neighbor kids brutal? Did your father abuse you? Examine yourself. What coping mechanisms have you adopted to mask that pain and convince yourself that your physical limitations don't define you?

In my experience, verbal tirades are the big coping mechanism, closely tied to an obsessive need to protect one's authoritarian position at all cost. I remember so well the youth pastor who Let. Me. Have. It. when I had a bad attitude on a missions trip. I had rolled my eyes at something he said. Boy howdy, don't roll your eyes at Napoleon, I learned the hard way. I was reduced to tears in the back of the church van after his verbal tirade against me in front of the entire youth group. Anyone who knew me would know it only took a look of disappointment from my father to get my attention, and I NEVER got in trouble in school. But I had rolled my eyes at a man with identity issues. When a pastor is insecure with his leadership around 15 year old girls, he's got a problem.

Fast forward to today. I am a well loved wife in a church pastored by gospel centered elders. I recognize better than ever gospel centered manhood because it is lived out before me day by day. Both my husband and my father have 4 wheel drive pickup trucks, but that is irrelevant to them as Biblical men. Pick up trucks are a cultural perception of masculinity that has bled into (some segments of) the church. Biblical love, humility, and the laying down of your life in gospel grace for those who spurn you is transcendent. That's the Biblical manhood God instituted when He created man in His image, and that's the Gospel centered manhood to which, through the death of the Son of Man, He calls us back.

Women who love God, love His Word, and love complementarian values, don't be fooled by the caricature of Biblical masculinity that hides deeper heart issues among many Christian men. Practically speaking, beware men who are easily threatened by perceived challenges to their authority. Especially beware men who speak with contempt to others. If ever there was evidence of masculine identity issues, that is it. Love is not rude, Paul says in I Corinthians. And men who treat you or others with contempt in their words show a heart that is far from God. Contempt and verbal abuse are their gospel-less coping mechanisms. The fact that someone can use the terms gospel, grace, and Jesus in context does not mean they understand either the gospel, grace, or Jesus. If you wonder what Biblical manhood really is, read the gospels at face value.

May we all adopt Christ as the essence of Biblical manhood, and may our Christian evangelical leaders lovingly confront those who twist Christ to their own purposes with their identity issues. Most of all, I pray for leaders who will stand up and point these men back to the gospel of grace that meets them in their struggles with their identities. God in heaven, not height or physical prowess, defines masculine identity. And it is right and good that women note that.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Never sowing because the clouds aren't right

I first wrote about this passage almost exactly 3 years ago today. It still resonates with me as deeply today as it did then.

Ecclesiastes 11
1 Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. 2 Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. 3 If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth,and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. 4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.

5 As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.

6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.

Cast your bread on the water. You won’t see the results for a while, but after many days, it will return to you. Give all your portions away, and then give one more portion you didn’t even know you had. The rain will come when it's going to come. The tree is going to fall where it falls. And if you stand around trying to figure out when and where, you’ll never sow your seed or reap the harvest. You cannot figure out My ways no matter how hard you try, so stop over analyzing life. Put your hand to the plow. Sow. I WILL bring harvest—in My time and My ways.

This is a poignant word from God to me. I often feel that I have given all my portions away only to find that I still need to give one more. Many days I catch myself sitting around analyzing the storm clouds in my life to the point that I never sow. And many times I despair because I haven’t yet seen the bread I cast on the water return to me.

Right now, I particularly struggle with mustering up the energy to engage at all. I don't want to sow, but I'm done watching the storm clouds too. It's just easier to ignore them altogether. Vacation was good for me, but putting my hand back to the plow has not come easily since my return. The house is too messy, the kids too undisciplined, and the laundry basket too high to talk myself into even beginning. It's easier to finish the fiction book I was reading on vacation than to step back into the chaos that is my life and actually engage.

It doesn't matter how deep the water or foreboding the clouds, says God. Stay engaged. Cast your bread and sow your seed. Sow some in the morning. Sow some in the evening. You don’t know what will prosper. Maybe one. Maybe another. Or maybe all of it will bear fruit for the kingdom. Regardless, don't get discouraged by what you don't see happening or all that you need to do. Sow your seeds one by one. Give away your portions. The bread cast away will find you again after many days.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Worshiping My Way Out of Disillusion

Psalms 10:1 Why do you stand so far away, O Lord, hiding yourself in troubling times?

This is the question that has haunted me for a while. Not all day every day, for there are certainly times when love, joy, and peace shine through, as I noted in a recent post. But those moments only make the next wave of conflict, sin, and error all the more painful. Why, O Lord?! Why, among the glimpses of the beauty of what life will be like when Your reign bursts forth in its fullness, is there so much barren wasteland of sorrow and sin, oppression and injustice? God, why don't You right more wrongs? Why don't You correct more error? Why do You allow oppression? And most of all, why do You allow oppression in Your name?

These are demoralizing questions. But these are real questions. It comforts me to know the Psalmist asked the same questions all those years ago. And it comforts me even more to know that God Himself preserved those questions in His sacred Word for our instruction and encouragement today. When I am demoralized by these questions in my heart, I engage in the kind of frank conversation with God that the Psalmist models in Psalms 10. I am thankful again that God preserved the totality of that conversation and never rebukes the Psalmist for engaging God so bluntly. My conversation with God usually boils down to the defeated question – how do I keep going on when YOU seem so silent? How do I move forward in faith when You, the one who is the source of that faith, seems in hiding? How do I endure when You seem to have left the game altogether? I don't want to live lukewarmly in a sea of disillusionment. But why should I do anything else when You seem to have walked away? Really, God, why do You expect anything else from me?


That's the answer the Spirit whispers in my heart over and over again. Why do I endure when I can't find God? Because He is worthy. Why do I put one foot in front of the other when I feel like sitting down in defiance and giving it all up? Because He is worthy. I can't muster up the naïve enthusiasm that used to characterize my ministry efforts when I was younger, but neither can I give myself to the disillusionment and cynicism that threatens me. Because He is worthy.

I talked about this when I was thinking through God's counterintuitive words of comfort to Job. God is God, and He is worthy. At first, that answer may sound trite. Yet it is the least trite answer of all. It sounds simplistic, yet it's the only answer with the kind of deep profound resonance that I desperately need in those moments.

Yes, You are worthy. You are worthy of more than cynicism and disillusionment. You are worthy of more than lukewarm attempts at the bare minimum of the Christian faith. Even if You hide for the rest of my life, never allowing me again in this life to see Your dramatic movement, You are worthy.

I long for more in this life, yet God is worthy of my endurance through much less. It's the grandeur and glory of His face that gives me perspective when His hands seem silent in my life. I worship His head, not His hands, His essence, not His gifts. He is good not because He does good things to me, but because in the core essence of who He is when He is completely still and silent, He is so very good. The good gifts He gives us when He moves don't begin to compare to how incredible He is just standing still.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Bible I Never Knew

I am enjoying a few days in the mountains at the same family home I stayed last year. There is a Christian bookstore nearby, and last year I stopped in and received a free copy of the book of Luke. It was promoting a new translation of the Bible. I took the copy and read it the rest of my trip. It was moving to me, and I have thought long and hard about why.

First, I won't tell you what new translation it was or what denominational bookstore from which I bought it. The debates on Bible translations are ones I used to vigorously follow, especially as a fundamentalist Christian who thought the King James Version was the only Biblically faithful version. I bought into that argument big time, and remember well arguing with a polite youth leader in a friend's church I only visited one time. Poor guy. I knew my arguments well, and he had little experience on the topic. Now looking back, I realize how irresponsible, illogical, and inaccurate my arguments were Biblically. I eventually discovered the New American Standard Bible and realized with my Strong's Concordance in hand that the arguments I had grown up with about other translations were weak and often sinfully wrong. In my experience, the Word of God was maligned, not preserved, by such debates. I'm not naïve about the issues in current translation debates, and I am not against robust discussion on the topic, but I have grown to have a strong conviction from Scripture about one very important thing – I am much more confident in God's promises and ability to preserve His Word than I am in man's ability to pervert it.

Matthew 5:18 ESV
For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Isaiah 40:8 ESV
The grass withers, the flower fades,
   but the word of our God will stand forever.

This year, I returned to the same Christian bookstore and noticed that the entire Bible in that new version is now on sale. For $9.99, I got a decent looking New Testament with Psalms. I decided this will be my next devotional plan – read through the entire NT and Psalms in this new version with highlighter (and magnifying bookmark) in hand. I'll mark it up as I read and then put it up with my other journals and Bible studies when I'm done. I've already noted that reading the Bible for a while in another translation sharpens my understanding of the Scripture. I knew that it was often hard for a single English word or phrase to perfectly embody a Greek concept, and I regularly read a verse in this new version that adds clarity to the Scripture versions with which I am more familiar. Things pop out, and it gets my attention.

Just today, I read of John's baptism of Christ. The dove descends and the Father says from heaven that Jesus is His Son with whom He is well pleased. The slightly different wording in this new version made me stop and think exactly what God meant when He said that. He was well pleased with Jesus. I have always thought that indicated simply God's approval of Jesus. Jesus always obeyed God the Father and was the model of what God approves. But I also realized today it indicates God's joy and happiness in His Son. And that second aspect of this phrase was a blessing on which to meditate today. God found joy in His Son, and because of the great exchange of the gospel, He finds great joy in me. He was well pleased with His Son, and now, joy of joy, He is well pleased with me. And it's not by my own works of righteousness but because of Christ's righteousness credited to my account. (2 Cor. 5:21).

My personal favorite version of the Bible is the New American Standard. I mostly use the English Standard Version right now. But I'm not afraid of other versions and have found them helpful in my study of the Word. Most of all, I have great confidence in God's ability to preserve His Word. With His promises, He has taken the responsibility to protect the integrity of His revelation of Himself to us, and it is not naïve of us to trust Him to do just that.