Friday, May 13, 2016

our kids and our calendars

On a recent Thursday night I was invited to speak at Living Hope Memphis on the topic of how to keep the family calendar from becoming overwhelmed with activities. Our discussion was framed under the overarching question: 

"As a Christian parent, what is your greatest hope for your child?"

In the Wilkin home the answer was, "That they would grow to know, love and serve God with everything they have." Our family calendar needed to support this hope, not work against it. Because we had four kids in four years, we had to think hard about how many and which activities to commit to. Activity options abound for both kids and parents. How could we sift through our options so that we preserved time for talking of the things of God when we "sit in our house, walk along the way, lie down, and rise up"? 

In my time at Living Hope, I  walked through some diagnostic questions our family used to help discern what constituted an activity that was worth committing to. I discussed how to weigh one activity option against another and suggested the countercultural possibility of the activity-less child (we had one in our home). Jeff and I certainly don't have all the answers on this, but we did see a few consistent principles emerge as we navigated the "busy years" of parenting. I hope you find the talk helpful. As with all parenting advice, take what you can use and leave the rest behind.

You can watch the video here.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

my hope for readers of "none like him"

Today is the official release date for None Like Him! I wrote this book because of two convictions I hold regarding the importance of knowing what the Bible says about God's character. 

Meditating on God's character enriches our understanding of Scripture. When I write my Bible studies, I ask my students to look first for what the text says is true about God. I have found this can be a hard question for them to answer. I know it was for me for many years. The more I learned of God’s character, the clearer it became that the Bible was first and foremost a book about who God was before it had anything to say about who I was. Once I began reading to discover God’s character I was able to see my own in relation to His, rather than independent of His. We don't often take time to meditate on God’s attributes beyond just a passing acknowledgment, but when we do, our time in the Word is enriched. My prayer is that None Like Him would help us become more fluent in our vocabulary of those truths, and that we would see God and ourselves more clearly as a result.

Meditating on God’s character is intensely practical. Our daily lives would look very different if we took God’s character into consideration. God’s incommunicable attributes, in particular, should elicit a worshipful awe from us that causes us to see and embrace our limitedness in light of His limitlessness. Without that reference point, we can become convinced of our own awesomeness and work tirelessly to sustain it. We begin striving to take on the attributes that are not ours to possess, thus committing the idolatry the serpent offered Eve: “you will become like Him.” Once we recognize our desire for limitlessness as destructive, we are better able to submit willingly and joyfully to the God-ordained limits we have been given. And we are better able to worship Him.

If you’re looking for a book to use for a small group discussion time, or just for personal reflection or growth, I’ve structured the book with that in mind. Each of the ten short chapters explores one attribute, and then concludes with verses for meditation, four application questions, and a prayer. I hope you’ll keep a journal as you read, copying out the verses and writing your reflections and personal prayers in response to the questions. But however you use the book, I hope you’ll see God’s character emerge from the scriptures with greater clarity, and that you’ll be drawn to worship Him anew as you meditate on His perfections.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

are compatibility and complementarity at odds?

Owen Strachan has penned an interesting piece in which he states that perhaps nothing has been more damaging to male-female relationships than the notion of compatibility. He opens with this thought: “Compatibility. Has any concept done more to hinder the development of love?” Such a statement must surely have in mind a narrow working definition of compatibility, something along the lines of a profile and the self-serving search for the perfect soulmate. And I get how that's not healthy. But in complementarian marriage, is the desire for compatibility out of place? In the minds of most, the two terms Strachan juxtaposes would be defined briefly like this:

Compatibility: what is shared between a man and a woman
Complementarity: what is different between a man and a woman

So, do these two ideas live in opposition to one another? We find a carefully constructed story in Genesis 2 that I believe addresses this question directly. It is a story in which God creates man, notes he needs a suitable helper, then commands him to give names to every living creature. The animals parade by: ostrich, camel, alligator. Adam obediently names each one. It must have been a very long line of creatures great and small, as Adam “gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field”. Yet none of them is a suitable partner for him. Though half of them share his maleness, none of them share his humanness. They are beautifully formed, but they are not formed in the image of God.

Imagine Adam’s state of mind as the animals parade past him: “Ostrich: not like me. Camel: not like me. Alligator: not like me.” He becomes increasingly aware that, though surrounded by God’s good gifts, he is in a very fundamental sense, alone. You and I know what the solution to his aloneness will be, but the text takes its time establishing that his state is “not good” before pulling back the curtain. Before Eve can be prepared for Adam, Adam must be prepared for Eve.

And then, after a brief nap, Adam awakes. And there she is, at last.

Adam bursts into poetry:

“Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. She shall be called ishah (woman) because she came from ish (man).”

Don’t miss what Adam is saying. After the animal parade of one not-like-him after another, at last he sees Eve and rejoices that she is wonderfully, uniquely like-him.

Same of my same, same of my same. She shall be called like me because she came from me.”

The Bible’s first word on man and woman is not what separates them, but what unites them. It is a celebration of compatibility, of shared humanness. Ours is not a faith that teaches “men are from Mars and women are from Venus”. Rather, it teaches that both man and woman are from the same garden, created by and in the image of the same God, sharing a physical, mental and spiritual sameness that unites the two of them in a way they cannot be united to anything else in creation. Before the Bible celebrates the complementarity of the sexes, it celebrates their compatibility. And so should we.

To make how-we-are-different our starting point is to reinforce the tired idea that men and women are wholly “other”, an idea that lends itself neatly to devaluing and objectifying, rather than defending and treasuring. It is the very idea that fuels the cultural stereotypes of the incompetent husband and the nagging wife. I push away and discredit what is not-like-me. I cling to and elevate what is like-me. Compatibility is what binds us together, like two Cowboys fans finding each other in a sea of Eagles jerseys.

No one goes on a first date and remarks, “Wow, we had nothing in common. I can’t wait to go out again.” Same-of-my-same is what keeps man and woman in relationship when differences make them want to run for the exit. Same-of-my-same is what transforms gender differences from inexplicable oddities to indispensable gifts. Because my husband is fundamentally like-me in his humanness, the ways he is not-like-me in his maleness elicit my admiration or my forbearance, instead of my disdain or my frustration.

Compatibility. Has any concept done more to nurture the development of love?

So, no, complementarity and compatibility are not at odds. And it is precarious to pit them against one another. Compatibility is the medium in which complementarity takes root and grows to full blossom. Until we acknowledge our glorious, God-ordained sameness, we cannot begin to celebrate or even properly understand our God-given differences as men and women. This is the clear message of Genesis 2, so often rushed past in our desire to shore up our understanding of what it means to be created distinctly male and female. But we cannot rush past it, any more than Adam could rush past the parade of animals that were not-like-him. As Genesis 2 carefully reflects, a world which lacks the beauty of shared human sameness between the sexes is a world that is distinctly “not good”. But a world in which compatibility undergirds complementarity is very good indeed.

Friday, January 22, 2016

FAQ: how should i handle anger when disciplining?

Parenting small children can feel like Groundhog Day: correcting the same behaviors over and over again, often with no discernible improvement. When children disobey a clear expectation, parental anger can surge as a response. What should we do with that anger? Is it sinful? Or is there such a thing as righteous anger over the disobedience of a child? And most importantly, how can we keep anger from corrupting an act of discipline (training and correction) into one of retribution (getting even or vengeance)?

Many parents have a disconnect when thinking about anger and discipline: We suspect that disobedience should never touch our emotions – that good parents are able to correct their kids in an almost robotic, non-emotional way. It's important to acknowledge that we will get angry when our kids disobey, and that our anger is not sinful by definition. It turns sinful when we welcome it and use it to justify an unmeasured response. I do think it is extremely rare that we feel righteous anger of any kind, much less in moments of child disobedience. My anger in those moments was almost always related to the feeling that their disobedience was a personal offense against me or evidence that I was a failure at raising obedient children. That's a dumb kind of anger. And it's a dangerous kind, because it turns discipline into retribution lightning-fast.

Power-brokers and Peace-keepers

I believe the answer is not to be a robot, but rather to take time to calm down and gain control before administering discipline of any kind. We are allowed to get angry, but we are not allowed to sin in our anger. (Eph. 4:26) We are even allowed to express our anger on our faces or in our tone. However, because children are not as good at filtering those expressions as adults, I believe it's the better part of wisdom to control our outward reactions. Most children tend toward one of two categories: power-broker or peace-keeper. The power-broker recognizes emotional displays on our part as a sign that they are gaining leverage. If we show our anger over a disobedient act, we can actually reinforce the behavior. The peace-keeper, on the other hand, sees a display of anger as rejection. Seeing our anger may cause the peace-keeper to cease disobeying, but it may also breed fear and secrecy.

But if we completely hide our anger from our kids in those moments (particularly older kids), we can miss another training opportunity as important as the correction at hand: Modeling how to handle anger well. We can do so by taking time to calm down before disciplining, and by assuring our children (verbally and physically) that our love for them is untouched by their disobedience. We can also model repentance when our anger expresses itself rashly. We can confess it to our children and ask forgiveness, demonstrating to both the power-broker and the peacekeeper the power and peacefulness of humility.

Slow It Down

Proverbs 14:29 warns, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” If ever we need to exercise great understanding, it’s in moments of disciplining our kids. By thinking through what triggers our anger, we can begin to repent of its sinful aspects, working to slow it down to a safer speed. Once the moment of conflict has passed, we can do a personal debrief, asking ourselves what was really at the root of our anger. Did we have a wrong expectation? Did we allow an age-appropriate lack of self-control to get underneath our skin? Is anger our go-to response in general when things don't go as we had planned? How could things go better the next time?

Consider also how our own childhood influences our discipline patterns. For the parent who grew up in an angry home, the combination of disciplining and anger will feel either so normal that we forget to question it, or so inseparable that we avoid disciplining altogether. Neither of these is healthy. Sometimes, agreeing to “divide and conquer” with our spouse can help. If your spouse has better control than you do, consider deferring to them as the primary disciplinarian until you can trust your own responses better. Know your triggers. If neglected chores drive you crazy, hand off discipline to your spouse. If back-talk sets off your spouse, maybe you are the better parent to discipline for that.

In every discipline moment, keep in view that our children are our neighbors, to be loved as we love ourselves. By remembering that they are people, we are more likely to correct rather than avenge. If anger arises, we will temper it with compassion and forgiveness, expressing it appropriately and disciplining out of love.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

strategizing "time in the word" for a new year

With the start of the New Year, many Christians like to put in place some sort of structure to help hold them accountable to the personal habit of spending time in the Word. I’m a big fan of structure and accountability. I need them myself in any area of my life where the good behavior that ought to happen habitually does not. But just as not all diet and exercise plans are equally beneficial or interchangeable, neither are all accountability systems for spending time in the Word. As you lay out your strategy for interacting with your Bible in the coming year, here is a breakdown to help you weigh your options.

Reading Plans

What they are: Reading plans provide a structure for reading the entire Bible over a set period of time. They vary in length and strategy. Some take you from Genesis to Revelation, some go in chronological order, and some combine daily readings from both the Old and New Testaments.

What they do: Reading plans help us cover a lot of ground in a relatively short period of time. They give broad exposure to the Bible as a whole, helping us develop familiarity with it from beginning to end.

Who they help most: Reading plans help believers of any stage of maturity. Many mature believers have never read the Bible in its entirety, and for those who have, doing so repeatedly brings ever-increasing benefit.

What they don’t do: Reading plans don’t allow for in-depth exploration of themes or stories. Their aim is breadth over depth.

Which to choose: Which plan you choose is, to some degree, a matter of preference. If you are looking to grow in Bible literacy, choose a plan that moves through each book of the Bible from start to finish, versus one that combines OT and NT readings each day. I favor chronological plans that move at a slow enough pace to allow time to absorb what you are reading. If finishing in a year means you are reading faster than you are able to retain what you are reading, slow down your schedule. Here is a list of plans you can consider.

Bible Studies

What they are: Because we so often refer to any time we spend in the Word as Bible study, I want employ a distinct definition here for the sake of clarity. Bible studies teach us an entire book or major passage of the Bible from start to finish, taking time to instruct us in context, genre, themes, and theological implications. They do so according to time-honored rules of interpretation.

What they do: Bible studies help us slow down and “own the text”. A good Bible study teaches both method (how to study) and content (the text it covers), and that takes time. If reading plans are a sprint, Bible studies are a stroll.

Who they help most: Like reading plans, Bible studies help believers of all levels of maturity. For the new believer, they impart much-needed tools for ongoing study, as well as foundational comprehension and interpretation of the text. For the mature believer, they hone skills and deepen understanding, preparing them not just for further learning but for teaching others.

What they don’t do: Bible studies don’t move at a pace that allows for broad exposure to the Bible over a relatively short period of time. Their aim is depth over breadth.

How to choose one: Look for studies that ask you to do the work of comprehending and interpreting the text, providing you with the tools to do so. The less spoon-feeding of commentary they do, the more they will help you grow in Bible literacy. Look for studies that ask you to work at personal discovery before they offer you interpretation and application. I like the NavPress LifeChange series, studies by Kathleen Nielson, or you can try any of the studies I have written for FMWBS and LifeWay. For a faster pace with solid approach and content, Nancy Guthrie’s studies are also excellent.

Topical Studies

What they are: Again, clarity of terms matters. Topical studies differ from Bible studies in that they seek to integrate broad concepts by pulling verses from all over the Bible, versus moving systematically through one text. Covering topics ranging from doctrine to finding contentment to how to be a godly parent, they offer a Biblical framework for understanding a particular issue.

What they do: Topical studies help us explore, synthesize and apply broad concepts found in the Bible.

Who they help most: Topical studies offer the most help to those who have (or are working to have) a foundational understanding of the Bible. In other words, you gain the most benefit from them if you have given time to reading and studying your Bible.

What they don’t do: Used exclusively or excessively, topical studies offer limited help in building Bible literacy.

How to choose one: Because they rely so heavily on the footwork of the author/teacher, it’s wise to choose topical studies written by those with a track record of expository (line by line) preaching/teaching. An expository teacher is less likely to pull verses out of context to make a point. It is also vitally important to research the author’s theology. While you don’t have to align perfectly with their theology, knowing their vantage point will help you think critically about what is being taught. Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, John MacArthur, and R.C. Sproul are good authors to start with. If you’re interested specifically in female authors, Melissa Kruger, Jen Michel, Hannah Anderson, Megan Hill (forthcoming), Nancy Guthrie and Gloria Furman have written excellent topical offerings in study formats or with study guides.

A Matter of Allocation

Perhaps the most important question to ask at the start of the new year is not “Which should I choose?” but “Which should I emphasize?” All three of the options described above have a role to play in our spiritual growth, as do memorization, meditation, and even devotional reading. A new year often means evaluating where we have gotten stuck in a rut. Sometimes a rut isn’t necessarily a bad practice, but a good practice followed to the exclusion of other good (or better) practices. I suggest you assess where the bulk of your time has been spent when you sit down with your Bible. Then seek to allocate it going forward in a manner that builds both breadth and depth of understanding.

I pray the Holy Spirit brings about fruitfulness and maturity in you as you thoughtfully place yourself under the nurturing authority of the Scriptures, this year and every year. Feel free to fill the comments with additional resources you have found helpful!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

FAQ: should I curtail grandparent gift-giving?

I know, I know…several years back you read that blog post about getting your kids four things for Christmas, and your inner minimalist shouted “YES.”

Something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read.

Done and done. It was a formula that allowed you to simultaneously be a parent who was awesome and a parent who had more time for Elf and eggnog. You made your minimal shopping trips, wrapped your minimal gifts, and placed them under your minimalist tree, awaiting Christmas morning when your kids would gently unwrap their four treasures (“Remember, kids, Jesus only got three gifts.”) and thank you effusively for not over-indulging them like all the other parents on the block.

But then, the doorbell rang, with a tone less “Silver Bells”-ish and more like the death knell of your conservatively sugared sugarplum dreams. And Gigi and Pappaw exploded into your living room bearing half of Walmart, wrapped in packages that in no way coordinated with your brown-paper-and-twine aesthetic. Their eyes burned with the crazed expression young parents everywhere recognize as a sign of OGS - Over-indulgent Grandparent Syndrome.

The gift haul was mind-boggling. Packaging materials and crumpled paper blocked every exit. There was much squealing, but none of it seemed associated with something to read. Surveying the aftermath, you began mounting your resolve never to let this happen again. Gigi and Pappaw must be stopped.

But must they? Have they really torpedoed Christmas? Looking back on my own experience with dearly loved OGS-sufferers I can see how quick I was to point out the symptoms of their illness: extravagance, impracticality, frivolity. But I was much slower to acknowledge the symptoms of my own illness. It turns out I was actually infected with a pretty serious case of FPS – Fretful Parent Syndrome. It showed itself in three beliefs that, looking back, were absolutely off-base. I offer them for your consideration, with the benefit of a little hindsight, in case you’re thinking about dropping the hammer on the grandparents:

1.   My kids will be spoiled by this.
No, they really won’t. They may indeed look forward to Gigi and Pappaw’s visits for less than selfless reasons, but grandparents don’t typically spend enough time with grandkids to permanently impact their consumption patterns. Your children’s attitude toward material possessions will not be shaped by the way they spend one day in December. The vast majority of their formative days will be spent under your influence, not that of their grandparents or anyone else. If you teach and model delayed gratification, practicality, and others-focus twelve months out of the year, a few hours of extravagance at the hands of a grandparent will be a fun memory instead of a life-altering event.

2.   I have to control this.
No, you really don’t. Resist the urge to start placing restrictions on grandparent gift-giving. Yes, it’s true that a donation to the college fund would have been a more practical gift than a studio-quality Darth Vader costume, but grandparents see gift-giving as a way to connect with their grandkids. Because it is. Gigi and Pappaw want to give a tangible gift that will bring them to mind each time their grandchild uses it. Even if they lack a sense of moderation in the gift-giving department, they are entitled to give the gift of their choosing. If it is not dangerous, illegal, immoral, or an ongoing financial commitment on your part once it is given, you don’t need to step in. Controlling what or how much grandparents can give communicates a lack of graciousness on our part, one our children may pick up on. By placing requirements on grandparent gifts, we can inadvertently model a different, but equally ugly form of entitlement to our kids.

3.   I’ve been upstaged by this.
No, you really haven’t. This is a hard one to trust, especially when Gigi and Pappaw have outspent you by a magnitude of seven. But the grandparent relationship and the parent relationship are simply not in competition. When you refuse to let competition enter your thinking, you allow your child’s love for a grandparent to be what it should be: an extension of their love for you, not a threat to it. Your children will not compare their relationship with you to their relationship with Gigi and Pappaw any more than they would compare it to a relationship with a sibling, friend, or teacher. Don’t fall into the trap of believing you are competing for their love, on Christmas or any other day.

How can you know if you are free from the grip of Fretful Parent Syndrome this Christmas? I knew I was headed for recovery when I was able to welcome grandparent gifts without judging them, bemoaning them, or restricting them. I learned to express genuine gratitude, both in front of my kids and in thank-you notes. And I learned to relax in the knowledge that materialism is kept in check in the everyday moments that God has entrusted to parents.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned to keep in mind that grandparents themselves are a gift to our children, a vital part of the wider circle who will cheer for them through the sun and storms that lie before them. No insecurity of mine should jeopardize that relationship or dictate its terms. More than that, my willingness to defer to their gift-giving choices sets an example for my own kids that you’re never too old to look for ways to honor your parents.

Minimalist parents everywhere, I salute your desire to shepherd your kids toward simplicity. Do your best to pair it with forbearance toward silver-haired, soft-hearted spenders with whom you share a physical resemblance, a last name, or, at bare minimum, a deep love for your kids. Should you find this difficult, eggnog will help.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

let not the men keep silent

On Monday, October 5 an open letter went viral on the internet, which sets Monday, October 5 apart from other Mondays not at all. It was written by a young man named Jared Mauldin, a senior in mechanical engineering at Eastern Washington University, to inform the females in his engineering classes that they would never share equality with him. He insightfully outlined all of the obstacles these women would have faced simply because they are women, delineating a list of sexist behaviors that were remarkable for just how unremarkable they were. An unremarkable list on an unremarkable Monday in October.

So why did the letter go viral?

Mauldin himself speculated about the reason in an interview with Huffpost:
"Nothing I said was new, it has all been said a thousand times before. The difference is that I am a man," he said. "Maybe by standing up and breaking the silence from the male side, I can help some more men begin to see the issues, and begin to listen to the women who have been speaking about this all along."
Jared Mauldin, barely out of adolescence, dropping grown-man truth-bombs like a boss.

Jared understands what I wish more men in ministry understood. In the ongoing discussion about whether women in complementarian churches are actually treated with the equal value that Genesis 1 bestows on them, it is time for men to speak up on behalf of their sisters. We women can tell our shared stories to whomever may listen, but our concerns won’t likely draw notice until our brothers perceive their validity, take them to heart, and speak them as their own. As long as women are the ones speaking them, we are easy to dismiss as complainers or (gasp) feminists.

Jared Mauldin had eyes to see the stereotypes and gender bias that plague women who venture into fields where “they don’t belong”. What he observed plays out in its own ways in churches, as well. Church staffs, like most male-heavy environments, often unwittingly perpetuate boy’s club mentalities, harmful gender stereotypes and tokenism. I and other women have occasionally donned protective gear and written on it.

Frankly, we are a little weary of men encouraging us, “You should write more on that.” No doubt, we will. But we could use their help.

The U.S Department of Homeland Security, able wordsmiths that they are, crafted a phrase to help identify potential threats to domestic safety: “If you see something, say something.” Brothers in ministry, please consider adopting this posture with regard to how women are treated in your churches. I get it, maybe you haven’t seen anything. I would urge you to look more closely, to ask more questions, and to do so in a way that invites dialogue from the women in your church. Many women do not feel safe telling their weird and sad stories, even when asked gently. You may need to gather them in groups in which you are the only man present. You may need a mechanism for gathering anonymous feedback. You may need to let your guard down a bit – most women who carry church wounds acknowledge that no one set out to wound them intentionally. But their stories still instruct.

Brothers, seek out their stories. And then, with all the courage of a college senior, tell their stories.

Bestow them with validity, take them to heart, and speak them as your own. Stand up and break the silence. In staff meetings, in sermons, in blog posts, shout down the practices and thinking patterns that confine women in the church to less-than status. Your message may not break the interwebs on an unremarkable Monday in October, but it just might break the back of gender nonsense in your church. It might draw a much-needed line between complementarian gender distinctions and commonplace gender bias. And that would be plenty remarkable, indeed.

Monday, June 29, 2015

three days of headlines

Last week was a news-maker, to say the least. I didn’t envy those sitting at the anchor desk trying to sort out which stories to cover first, but it wasn’t particularly easy to sit in the audience, either. Not only is it hard to absorb the headlines, it is hard to know how to behave in light of them. Of the many stories we were deluged with, here are four from just the last three days, and what I pray to learn from them.

Practice True Religion
On Friday, June 26, the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney was held. Pinckney was one of nine African Americans shot at a prayer meeting in the basement of a Charleston church. James, the brother of Jesus tells us that true religion expresses itself by looking out for widows and orphans in their distress. It is significant that he makes this point to introduce his admonition not to show partiality. Reverend Clementa Pinckney leaves a wife and two daughters, a widow and orphans created by that familiar old-time false gospel of partiality we know as racism. How heavy a task for our President to deliver that eulogy, himself no stranger to racism and death threats. How could he possibly look into the eyes of Pinckney’s wife and daughters without seeing his own? Lord, may partiality not be found among the people of God. Grant me empathetic eyes to see and hands to serve the widows and orphans, the marginalized and voiceless in my own spheres of influence. Teach me to practice true religion. And should I see my deepest fears confirmed in someone else’s tragedy, may “Amazing Grace” be my anthem.

Embrace the Rainbow
On Friday, June 26, with the SCOTUS ruling to legalize gay marriage in all 50 states, my social media feed filled with rainbows and vitriol. Even among believers, fresh water springs spewed salt water. That ancient traitor, the tongue. “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” For the believer, the rainbow is God’s everlasting sign to remind us that mercy triumphs over judgment. Whatever else it may be used to represent, it will always be that. Lord, help me to bear that sign on my head and my hand. In thought, word and deed, may I be an instrument of mercy rather than judgment. May your rainbow color every line of my status updates and every syllable of my conversations.

Scale Your Flagpole
On Saturday, June 27, Bree Newsome taught us about civil disobedience when she climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina State House and removed the Confederate flag.  I had to smile that she wore a helmet and appropriate climbing gear. Even in its riskiness, hers was the picture of a rational act. Upon her descent, she announced matter-of factly, “I am coming down. I am prepared to be arrested.” When Henry David Thoreau was imprisoned in 1846 for refusing to pay a poll tax that violated his conscience, his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?” As I watched the coverage of Ms. Newsome I asked myself what matters of conscience I was willing to draw disapproval for. Lord, help me not to crave the approval of others or the safety of anonymity. You have given me proper gear and a message that needs to be heard. When truth needs a voice, may my lips not be found silent.

Don’t Aid Convicts
On Sunday, June 28, police apprehended the second of two convicts, dangerous murderers, who escaped a maximum security prison in Dannemora, New York, paralyzing the state with fear. My first reaction to hearing of their escape was to wonder how on earth they had pulled off such a miraculous exit. The unsurprising answer soon became clear: They had had inside help. Winning the confidence of prison employees, they wielded the tools of charm and bribery every bit as well as the actual tools they secured. The longer I thought about their story, the more I detected a spiritual parallel: How often have I been willingly cajoled by a dangerous sin pattern to set it free from the bonds of sound judgment? How often have I disregarded God’s law to aid and abet my past sinful inclinations in going on a spree? Lord, teach me not to flirt with sin. Help me to see it for the killer that it is. Let its conviction stand and its sentence be fulfilled. And should it escape its bonds, help me to give it no quarter for the good of my soul.

The headlines can leave us feeling overwhelmed and impotent at times. It’s true we don’t control the seasons and times. But we do control our response to them, by the grace of God. I want to remain mindful of that. The headlines of the past three days will wither and fade, replaced by a new crop tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. But the word of the Lord stands forever. Among the myriad hymns Charles Wesley wrote is one that reflects on the ever-changing nature of life. When the headlines shout that the earth has been shaken to her foundations, its closing lines remind me of an unshakable truth:

And all things, as they change, proclaim
The Lord eternally the same.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

for these, thy gifts

I didn’t want them.

It wasn’t just them, I didn’t want any pets. With a house full of small children, the thought of taking care of one more living thing was more than I could face. The hermit crabs had been bad enough.

It wasn’t a thousand nagging requests from the kids that did me in, it was their resigned acceptance. On a visit to their Grammie’s house to see her new litter of pug puppies, they were stalwart. They cradled them, they giggled delightedly, they stroked their little round tummies and twirled their little curly tails. But not one asked if we could take a puppy home. Not a single completely-transparent-kid-hint was offered. Not even a mildly pleading facial expression. Mom doesn’t like dogs. Case closed.

Covered in the downy fluff of puppies cute enough to break the Internet, not one child asked. It was official: I was a terrible mother. The kind of mother whose “yes” was as peculiar as a solar eclipse, but whose “no” was as predictable as sundown.

Tess and Tilly looking spiffy, Christmas 2014
We brought home two. Two! Based on our child-to-puppy ratio, it seemed like the only safe course. We had more love to give than one puppy could absorb. So Tilly and Tess came to live at our house, and I began the decade-long discovery of the absolute joy of saying “yes” to pet ownership. I doubt there are two more photographed dogs in all the world. They have been dressed in doll clothes, Halloween costumes, wigs and Christmas sweaters. Good grief, no – we didn’t buy them outfits – people kept giving them to us. It was like the whole world was conspiring to make me say and do things I had sworn I would never do.

For ten years, those two comical faces have brought more moments of sheer joy and laughter to our home than I can count. Bred to be lapdogs, their favorite activity has been to loll around on a cushion on the fireplace hearth, bedecked in rolls of fur-upholstered fat, eyes closed to drunken slits. We nicknamed them Gluttony and Sloth. Their constant snoring has formed the white noise underlying the sound track of our home. Their liberal and eager affection has been our welcome at every homecoming.

Last night, Tilly drew a last ragged breath and grew still. The fireplace hearth framed her as it had so often before. Twelve to sixteen years - that was what Google returned the day I checked life expectancy for the breed, the day before they came to live at my house, when I was still trying to talk myself into it. Not ten, twelve to sixteen.

“A dog is all the work of a child, but it doesn’t take care of you in your old age.” My mantra prior to the Day of the Incredible Double Yes. Me, always eager to preach a sermon no one needs to hear. Things I said that sounded good at the time.

Had she been work? I don’t remember that part. I won’t remember that part. But I will certainly remember the rest. I wonder – how many other gifts have I rejected as a burden and an inconvenience, the recipients of my hasty No? I thought she would be a threat to my comfort. In classic last-shall-be-first fashion, she became a source of it. I did not expect the joy of having her; I did not expect the grief of saying goodbye. The grief, or the gratitude. Thank you, Father, for these Thy gifts.

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.

In His hand is the life of every living thing.

Ten years of a good dog. The Creator numbers my days, and he numbered hers as well. His goodness takes so many forms. Sometimes, delightfully, that form has a wagging tail. Farewell, little friend – we feel your loss keenly.

O God, for all creatures great and small, for this small creature we have cherished, we give Thee thanks.

For the gifts you have granted at our childlike request, we give Thee thanks.

And for the gifts we did not want, for the veto of our No, this day we give Thee thanks, O God.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

more pressing than women preachers

Once again the internet has been abuzz with discussions of whether women should preach in the local church gathering. Whenever the issue is raised, those who oppose it are quick to explain that the role is not withheld from women because they are less valuable than men. And that “equal value” assertion always shifts my eyes from the pulpit to a more pressing concern. As some continue to debate the presence of women in the pulpit, we must not miss this immediate problem: the marked absence of women in areas of church leadership that are open to them.
The women e-mailing me regularly are not worried about winning the pulpit. They're still facing opposition over teaching the Bible to other women. They are fighting to be seen as necessary beyond children’s ministry and women’s ministry. They are fighting to contribute more than hospitality or a soft voice on the praise team. They are looking for leadership trajectories for women in the local church and finding virtually nothing. They watch their brothers receive advocacy and wonder who will invite them and equip them to lead well. If the contributions of women are equally valued in the church, shouldn’t we see some indication in the way we staff? In who we groom for leadership, both lay and vocational?
Because we don’t see that. Not even close. And we must not ignore this problem. 
This concern over women in the pulpit draws our attention because we regard the role of pastor highly, as we should (1 Tim. 3:1). But we must be careful that our high regard doesn’t morph into idolatry. The blogosphere overflows with articles addressed specifically to pastors: how to study more effectively, how to counsel, how to mentor, how to balance work and rest, how to lead. More often than not I wonder why the author limited his audience to pastors. Why not speak to the priesthood of all believers? Much of this counsel applies equally to the roles of teacher, counselor, minister, lay leader—roles that can be filled by both men and women. Roles that, if we focused on equipping, could make lighter work for the role of pastor in a way that is, well, biblical (Eph. 4:12). It’s no wonder serious, thoughtful Christians—men as well as women—think they need to be pastors when we represent that role as “the one for people with spiritual gifts” and devote comparatively little attention to other places of service. If we're worried about women in the pulpit, maybe the best thing we could do is to equip the entire congregation to do the work of ministry, to speak of everyone’s contributions as indispensible. Better yet, we could just do that out of obedience to God’s Word (1 Cor. 12).

I have no desire to minimize the role of pastor. It’s vitally important. But I don’t think it’s good for Christians to fixate on it at the expense of other roles. We need some hands and feet to go with all these heads, and many of them are female. The sisters among us are wondering when we’ll be able to tangibly demonstrate equal value in the local church, not just affirm this value with our words. Think of the problem this way: If a young man of obvious ministry ability and gifting showed up on the doorstep of your church, who would you put him in contact with? How would you help him find his place in ministry? What opportunities would you seek out for him to cultivate his gifts and gain ministry experience? What hopes would you have for him as a leader? Now, ask yourself the same questions for a woman. If the fact that she will never fill the pulpit means you cannot imagine a ministry trajectory for her, something is wrong. What ministry might she build and run? What place on your executive staff might she fill? What committee needs her leadership? What role in the Sunday gathering needs her voice and example? Where can her teaching gift be leveraged? What blind spot or planning dilemma can she speak into? What mission effort can she spearhead?
I am not interested in the pulpit. But I cherish the hope it will one day yield up a sermon on the priesthood of all believers: “Brothers, We Are Not All Brothers.” Treasure the brotherhood of the pastorate, but for the love of the church, invite your sisters to take a seat at the ministry table, a seat you may reflexively want to fill with a man. Debate the question of women preaching until Jesus returns if you must. But when he does, may he be greeted by a church whose practice affirms its belief that the equal value of men and women was never open to debate.