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.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

FAQ: should i pay an allowance for chores?

Teaching children responsibility is a primary task for parents. The question of whether or not an allowance should be paid for completing chores requires parents to consider training in two areas simultaneously: responsibility for work and responsibility for money. I don’t think that there’s necessarily one right answer to the question of whether completion of chores should be tied to monetary reward or not, but I can tell you how we handled the issue and why.

We decided not to tie allowance to chores. We set clear expectations for what the kids were responsible for (unloading the dishwasher, doing their laundry, etc) and then we held them to the list. If a chore was not completed in a timely or thorough manner, we gave another deadline along with an additional chore. The longer noncompliance occurred, the more unsavory the additional chores became. It was a pretty effective strategy that almost never went beyond about two rounds. Let’s just say no one wanted to clean the baseboards. Ever. (I just asked my youngest what his least favorite chore was, and he fired off “baseboards” before I even finished the question.)
Allowance was something we just gave. It was given in an amount appropriate to their age, increasing as they got older, and going away once they were old enough to earn money by working outside our home (babysitting, lawn-mowing). Allowance, and any other savings, was used at their discretion to purchase wants. We committed to cover their needs. If a child needed a new pair of shoes, I would spend enough to cover the need – store brand sneaks. The child could contribute the difference in price if they wanted a nicer pair. We saw allowance as an opportunity for them to learn self-control and the difference between needs and wants. But we didn’t treat it as compensation.
We did offer to pay for certain jobs that wouldn’t be categorized as everyday chores. If a child needed extra money, if the job was something we would hire someone to do, or something we didn’t have time to do ourselves, we would offer the chance to earn. Each time we had house guests, my oldest daughter cleaned the guest room to earn money for a trip she was taking. I was so sad when she met her goal because the job fell back to me again, and I have a bad attitude. I keep leaving travel brochures on her pillow.
Why We Work
At an event this week I had the privilege of meeting Pastor Tom Nelson, a man who has devoted quite a bit of time to examining the relationship between faith and work. He articulated a principle that I hadn’t been able to put words around, a framework for how the believer should think about the work he or she does. He said that work ought not to be primarily about compensation but about contribution. As those whose work is ultimately done for the glory of God, we ask, “How much can I contribute?” before we concern ourselves with “How much will I receive?” Think how differently the world would function if everyone regarded work through this lens.
This is why in our home we didn’t tie allowance (compensation) to chores (work). Instead, we explained to the kids that their contributions to the upkeep of domestic order were absolutely essential. We were not merely trying to train them to obey or to be responsible, we actually needed them to share the burden of work for our family to flourish. It was not an overstatement. The Bible study I lead requires me to be gone twenty six weeknights of the year. I also travel occasionally for speaking. Jeff and I explained to the kids that they were acting as ministry partners by keeping the house in order when I couldn’t be there. It materially lightens my load (and Jeff’s) when everyone does their part. Rather than resent their responsibilities, the kids came to see them as a source of the best kind of self-esteem: They knew their contributions were both needful and deeply valued.
And we lived happily ever after in a spotless house where no one ever complained about chores or spent money frivolously.
Okay, not exactly. But we did manage to keep the focus on contribution rather than compensation. We’re in the thick of writing college essays these days. It’s been encouraging to read my almost-adult children put into words their hopes for their future careers: “I want to make a difference teaching science.” “I want to help make green energy a viable option.” I certainly hope my kids will end up with jobs that pay a fair wage, but more than that, I hope they will end up with jobs that allow them to contribute joyfully, working as unto the Lord. To that end, we have tried to make our home a place of joyful contribution, perhaps not joyful in the moment – when the cloth is on the baseboard and the knees are bent – but joyful in the final analysis, knowing that every good effort matters. And every worker is a treasured child.
related post:

Friday, March 27, 2015

fight like a girl

Women's History Month is drawing to a close. Each year I think about posting about it, but March always seems to be such a busy time that I never get one written. If you've followed my writing, you know that I care a great deal about the messages the church sends to our daughters, so I didn't want this month to pass without taking the opportunity to help my readers think along those lines. Since I haven't had time to write, I thought I'd point you toward a teaching I gave recently in which we spent some time looking at women's history as recorded in the book of Exodus.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to address a group of college women on the topic of how they should view their importance to the church. My main point was this: 

Women, you are not an afterthought. What you contribute to the mission of the church is not of secondary importance.

I talked about the female empowerment message of the "Like a Girl" ad that ran during the Super Bowl, noting that female empowerment messages transcend Super Bowl ad campaigns. The Bible, in fact, paints a compelling picture of what it means to fight like a girl.

This is a message given by a female to a female audience, so it covers some ground you might never hear preached from a pulpit. But that's exactly why women teaching women is such a needed layer of discipleship. If you're a guy, don't let that scare you from listening along. If the church is to embrace a strong vision of womanhood, both men and women will need to value it.

You can watch or listen to the 35-minute message here:

Fight Like a Girl }

Monday, March 9, 2015

advice to writers: get a “freditorial” team

Prov 11:14 …in an abundance of counselors there is safety.

Blogging is not for the faint of heart -- anyone who has ever read blog comments is aware of this. As a writer, my hope is always to be read and understood. This doesn’t mean that I expect my readers to always agree with me, but that their agreement or disagreement would be formed based on an accurate reading of my message. Because of this, I never post without the help of my “freditors” – my friend editors who offer feedback as co-laborers in my writing ministry. The more trusted eyes I can get on a post before it goes up, the more assured I can be that it communicates what I intend with as few errors as possible.

So, when other writers ask me for writing advice, I don’t offer style tips or opinions on the Oxford comma (clearly, it’s awesome),I start with this: Get a freditorial team and use it consistently. What kinds of freditors have proven the most useful? Here’s who I have on my team:

The Casual Reader
I need this person to read the post like the average person will read it. I’m not looking for much other than how it hit them – what were their overall impressions and take-aways from the piece? Did they understand what they read? It helps if the Casual Reader is familiar with what other bloggers are writing about.

The Writer
This person critiques me on mechanics, style and word choice. She helps me reorganize my arguments when they don’t flow. She is a gorgeous writer herself, and she will call me out if I forget to pair clarity with artistry. She says things like “There’s a rhythm problem in this sentence.” I love that.

The Theology Police
This person checks to make sure I’m not a heretic. Sometimes the smallest word choice makes the difference between truth and error, and one set of eyes won’t always catch the nuance. I don’t have formal theological training, so I don’t need to be convinced of my need for the Theology Police. I tend to think that even if I did have formal training I’d still want this layer of help. I never want to place beautiful words around faulty thinking.

The Devil’s Advocate
This is the person I can rely on to nitpick. She drives me crazy, but it’s the good kind of crazy. She reads looking for controversy or holes in my logic. She’s basically like a rational blog commenter who gets to see an early draft. She says things like, “You can’t possibly do justice to this topic in 750 words.”  She also says things like, “Did you write this mad? I don’t think you should write mad.” Which usually makes me mad. But she’s right.

The Man
If I need a perspective from the other gender, The Man helps me out. And even though we’ve been married for over 20 years, he never complains. But sometimes The Man needs to be a man I’m not married to. Since Jeff helps me process my thoughts so much before they turn into writing, I may need a fresh set of male ears to hear them once they turn into a post. The Man helps me avoid unintentionally communicating gender stereotypes. He also helps me write in a voice both men and women can hear.

The  Doppelganger
This person thinks like me. She cares about the same topics I do and thinks about them extensively. (She's actually much smarter than me. She's like me, smarter.) I send her my drafts to make sure I’ve represented my thoughts and positions accurately. Sometimes I can get so close to a topic that I get sucked into the small points without clearly articulating the big ones. The Doppelganger makes sure I have not assumed anything as general knowledge and helps me keep the main point the main point.

The Specialist
The Specialist provides help on an as-needed basis. If I am writing about worship music, I send the post to a worship leader. If I’m writing to pastors, I ask a couple of pastors to read. I once sent a post to a person of another religion to make sure I hadn’t misrepresented his beliefs in a point I had made. I recognize I’m a prisoner of my own experience to a certain extent. The Specialist helps me write balanced content.

I know, that’s a big team. But I don’t use every freditor on every post - a few posts go to the whole team, most go to some combination, all go to at least one. One freditor may fill more than one role, depending on the piece. But nothing goes up on my blog with zero frediting.

When you read a post on a major platform, it has probably been critiqued by a team of editors before it posts. When you read a personal blog, this may not be the case. The larger a person’s platform, the less likely it is that they are just typing out their thoughts and hitting “post” when they’re done. But I don’t think writers should wait for a big platform to begin seeking more eyes on their drafts. The last thing a blogger wants is to write a post with a gaping error or miscommunication in it, only to find out too late that her words have brought down a hailstorm of justified criticism.

All bloggers learn to expect critique – that’s part of the double-edged privilege of having a platform. Critique doesn’t bother me, but my own poor editing or unintended lack of clarity do. Personally, I’d rather avoid having my post’s limitations exposed by anonymous commenters after it goes live. I’d much rather do due diligence by consulting the input of people I respect and trust before I post anything in the first place. Then, when critique comes, I’m able to remind myself that my words were weighed. There’s peace in knowing that the people who know me best have my back.

So, my best writing advice is this: Let iron sharpen iron. If you blog, build a freditorial team. Through both affirmation and correction, they will hone your writing, helping you communicate with precision and integrity. A writer can ask for no truer friends than those.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

three female ghosts that haunt the church

I will never forget the first time I met my pastor. Our family had been at the church for two years before a meeting with another staff member threw me into his path. The first words out of his mouth were, “Jen Wilkin. You’ve been hiding from me!” A giant grin on his face, he draped me in a friendly hug, and then proceeded to ask me about the people and things I cared about. He kept eye contact. He reflected back what I was saying. I was completely thrown off. I don’t remember what books were on his desk or what artwork hung on the walls, but I left his office that day with a critical piece of insight: this room is not haunted.

He was right—I had been hiding. Coming off several years of “part-time” ministry at our previous church, my husband, Jeff, and I were weary and in no hurry to know and be known by the staff at our new church. But as a woman with leadership background, I had other hesitations as well. Any woman in ministry can tell you that you never know when you’re walking into a haunted house.

If you’re a male staff member at a church, I ask you to consider a ghost story of sorts. I don’t think for a minute that you hate women. I know there are valid reasons to take a measured approach to how you interact with us in ministry settings. I absolutely want you to be wise, but I don’t want you to be haunted. Three female ghosts haunt most churches, and I want you to recognize them so you can banish them from yours.

These three ghosts glide into staff meetings where key decisions are made. They hover in classrooms where theology is taught. They linger in prayer rooms where the weakest among us give voice to hurt. They strike fear into the hearts of both men and women, and worse, they breathe fear into the interactions between them. Their every intent is to cripple the ability of men and women to minister to and with one another.

Though you may not always be aware these ghosts are hovering, the women you interact with in ministry frequently are. I hear ghost stories almost on a weekly basis in the e-mails I receive from blog readers.

The three female ghosts that haunt us are the Usurper, the Temptress, and the Child.

1. The Usurper

This ghost gains permission to haunt when women are seen as authority thieves. Men who have been taught that women are looking for a way to take what has been given to them are particularly susceptible to the fear this ghost can instill. If this is your ghost, you may behave in the following ways when you interact with a woman, particularly a strong one:
  • You find her thoughts or opinions vaguely threatening, even when she chooses soft words to express them.
  • You speculate that her husband is probably a weak man (or that her singleness is due to her strong personality).
  • You feel low-level concern that if you give an inch she will take a mile.
  • You avoid including her in meetings where you think a strong female perspective might rock the boat or ruin the masculine vibe.
  • You perceive her education level, hair length, or career path as potential red flags that she might want to control you in some way.
  • Your conversations with her feel like sparring matches rather than mutually respectful dialogue. You hesitate to ask questions, and you tend to hear her questions as veiled challenges rather than honest inquiry.
  • You silently question if her comfort in conversing with men may be a sign of disregard for gender roles.

2. The Temptress

This ghost gains permission to haunt when a concern for avoiding temptation or being above reproach morphs into a fear of women as sexual predators. Sometimes this ghost takes up residence because of a public leader’s moral failure, either within the church or within the broader Christian subculture. If this is your ghost, you may behave in the following ways when you interact with a woman, particularly an attractive one:
  • You go out of your way to ensure your behavior communicates nothing too emotionally approachable or empathetic for fear you’ll be misunderstood to be flirting.
  • You avoid prolonged eye contact.
  • You silently question whether her outfit was chosen to draw your attention to her figure.
  • You listen with heightened attention for innuendo in her words or gestures.
  • You bring your colleague or assistant to every meeting with her, even if the meeting setting leaves no room to be misconstrued.
  • You hesitate to offer physical contact of any kind, even (especially?) if she is in crisis.
  • You consciously limit the length of your interactions with her for fear she might think you overly familiar.
  • You feel compelled to include “safe” or formal phrasing in all your written and verbal interactions with her (“Tell your husband I said hello!” or “Many blessings on your ministry and family”).
  • You Cc a colleague (or her spouse) on all correspondence.
  • You silently question if her comfort in conversing with men may be a sign of sexual availability.

3. The Child

This ghost gains permission to haunt when women are seen as emotionally or intellectually weaker than men. If this is your ghost, you may behave in the following ways when you interact with a woman, particularly a younger one:
  • You speak to her in simpler terms than you might use with a man of the same age.
  • Your vocal tone modulates into “pastor voice” when you address her.
  • In your responses to her, you tend to address her emotions rather than her thoughts.
  • You view meetings with her as times where you have much insight to offer her but little insight to gain from her. You take few notes, or none at all.
  • You dismiss her when she disagrees, because she “probably doesn’t see the big picture.”
  • You feel constrained to smile beatifically and wear a “listening face” during your interactions with her.
  • You direct her to resources less scholarly than those you might recommend to a man.

These three ghosts don’t just haunt men; they haunt women as well, shaping our choice of words, tone, dress, and demeanor. When fear governs our interactions, both genders drift into role-playing that subverts our ability to interact as equals. In the un-haunted church where love trumps fear, women are viewed (and view themselves) as allies rather than antagonists, sisters rather than seductresses, co-laborers rather than children.

Surely Jesus models this church for us in how he relates to the role-challenging boldness of Mary of Bethany, the fragrant alabaster offering of a repentant seductress, the childlike faith of a woman with an issue of blood. We might have advised him to err on the side of caution with these women. Yet even when women appeared to fit a clear stereotype, he responded without fear. If we consistently err on the side of caution, it’s worth noting that we consistently err.

Do some women usurp authority? Yes. Do some seduce? Yes. Do some lack emotional or intellectual maturity? Yes. And so do some men. But we must move from a paradigm of wariness to one of trust, trading the labels of usurper, temptress, child for those of ally, sister, co-laborer. Only then will men and women share the burden and privilege of ministry as they were intended.

My most recent meeting with my pastor stands out in my memory as well. He’s often taken the time to speak affirming words about my ministry or gifting. On this occasion, he spoke words I needed to hear more than I realized: “Jen, I’m not afraid of you.” Offered not as a challenge or a reprimand, but as a firm and empathetic assurance. Those are the words that invite women in the church to flourish. Those are the words that put ghosts to flight. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

are you an isolationist or a curator?

As a Bible study teacher I encounter two extremes when the question of studying the Bible is raised. First is the “isolationist”, the person who believes all she needs is personal Bible study to grow in Godly wisdom. She doesn’t need hand-holding from a teacher or theologian – she just needs a journal, a pen, her Bible and the Holy Spirit. She sees any effort to systematize her reading of Scripture as an attempt to conform the wisdom of God to the wisdom of man, thereby distorting what was already pure and sufficient. In her zeal to elevate the importance of God’s Word, she misinterprets the idea of Sola Scriptura to mean that no teaching outside of Scripture is necessary for her understanding.

At the other extreme is the “curator”, the person who, for all intents and purposes, believes she can’t navigate Scripture on her own at all. She finds the Bible largely incomprehensible or boring, preferring the study of doctrine (through teaching, books, podcast or topical studies) to the study of Scripture itself, substituting learning what others say about the Bible for actually learning the Bible. While she may never have consciously intended to devalue personal study of Scripture, over time she grows increasingly content to be a curator of opinions about a Book she does not read, effectively operating under her own credo of Sola Doctrina.

Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes, but it is important to ask ourselves honestly which of them we lean toward: are we more of an isolationist or a curator? Isolationist Bible study holds as much potential danger to our spiritual health as a curator approach. The isolationist must humbly acknowledge her own intellectual limits, confessing her need for the help of those with the grace-granted gift of teaching. The curator must humbly acknowledge her overdependence on the intellect and gifting of others, confessing her tendency to use study of doctrine as a substitute for study of Scripture. Both extremes must acknowledge the very real presence and danger of false doctrine. Lacking an outside perspective, the isolationist can unwittingly invent her own false doctrine. Lacking first-hand knowledge of Scripture, the curator can fail to discern the difference between true and false teaching, choosing whatever position appeals to her the most.

If you gravitate toward Bible-only study you may need to remind yourself to allocate some time for doctrine. God gifts the church with teachers for the purpose of pointing us to truth in the context of community. Isolationism discounts the Bible’s assertion that we are members of one body, each part needing the other.

If you gravitate toward doctrine-only study, you may need to reclaim time for personal study of the Bible. God commands you to love Him with all of your mind, not just with someone else’s mind. Curatorship chooses the fallible words of man over the eternal, unchanging, inerrant Word of the Lord.

So, work to find parity between these two extremes. Make an honest appraisal of your current tendency toward either isolationism or curatorship. Acknowledge how pride might be influencing whichever end of the spectrum you are drawn to. And seek to strike a balance between the treasure of personal study and the gift of sound instruction. We need to know how to study the Bible on our own, and we need to put that knowledge into practice. But we also need the insights of those God has gifted to teach us. Personal study sharpens our awareness of the strengths and limitations of our teachers. Sound teaching sharpens our awareness of our own strengths and limitations as students. Both are needed for a Christ-follower to grow in wisdom. Both in balance are worthy of our time.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

the longing of angels

I wanted to be the angel.

The Christmas Eve living nativity was populated with my classmates – cotton-ball beards for the shivering pint-sized shepherds, a blue tablecloth draped over Mary’s head, a plastic doll nestled in her arms that looked suspiciously female. Joseph in a bathrobe repurposed for the occasion. And presiding above the hallowed scene, swathed in the gossamer of a nylon curtain her mother had edged with gold ric-rac, a tinsel halo trembling above her brow, the angel. Amy Snow, she of the blonde curls and blue eyes, the ivory skin, petite and angelic in every sphere from spelling class to Sunday school. It had to be cold in that costume, perched at the top of a ladder, but she looked positively serene.

Not picked. Gangly, tomboyish, brown-haired, brown-eyed, un-angelic. I shuffled past the scene, hardly noticing the live donkey brought in to heighten the realism. I wanted to be the angel. Any elementary school girl can tell you that the angel is living nativity gold.

As I grew older, I took some satisfaction in learning that angels in the Bible were not actually female. Not petite, and often fearsome. Messengers who delivered the words of the Lord, but who never played the starring role (take that, Amy Snow). But I found that I still wanted to be an angel, and not just on Christmas Eve. When sorrow or difficulty visited my life I sometimes considered how much better it would be to enjoy the sinlessness known by the angels, to get to dwell in the very presence of God where my whole purpose was to give Him the worship he deserved. Uncomplicated. Pure. It’s no wonder so many people believe they will become angels when they die.

But I wonder if being an angel would truly be that simple. Watching humanity labor under the burden of sin and sorrow across millennia. Warring against those they once called brothers, fallen angels for whom there is not a whisper of redemption possible. Blasting the trumpet of judgment as often as the trumpet of joy. Never knowing sin, yes, but also never knowing grace as those shepherds in a field on a dark night would know it.

I have stopped longing to be the angel. The older I grow the more I understand the treasure of the gospel, a message announced by angels but not within their experience to comprehend. The sinless creature cannot savor firsthand the sweetness of salvation. The message the angels heralded was not for them. The fullness of the gospel, displayed in the finished work of Christ, which prophets of old saw in part and labored diligently to understand, that message is for the sons of Earth – a thing into which angels long to look.

As you worship the Lord this Christmas Eve, as you sing of angels in glorious array, ponder this thought: the gospel announced in the form of an infant is for you. It is the hope of ages, the light in the darkness of our sin, the mystery of redemption that only fallen man can fully know. It is the longing of angels.

On this night of remembrance, do not envy the angels. For gazing on the mystery of the incarnation, the angels envy us.

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.    -- Luke 2:10-11

Thursday, December 4, 2014

how salvation brings freedom

I grew up in the Bible Belt where, by mid-elementary, most of the kids in my peer group could point proudly to a note written in the front of their Bibles announcing the exact date they Got Saved. At junior high youth rallies the Rededications began, along with a smattering of I-Thought-I-Was-Saved-But-I-Really-Wasn’t's (scribble over that first date and write in the new one). Through all seven verses of “Just As I Am”, and all four years of high school, we children of the Bible Belt battled our doubts and bustled our backslidden selves down aisles to altar rails. Maybe, we thought, this time just maybe the Saving will stick.

Where's the Freedom?

Our problem was this: our sinning had not ceased with our professions of faith. The salvation that had promised us new life in Christ had by all appearances failed to deliver. We still made all the same mistakes, and along the thorny path of adolescence we added fresh failures to the list. Damning evidence, or so we thought, that when we Prayed The Prayer we had somehow not done it right. Where was the freedom from sin we had been promised?

Looking back I wonder if, for many of us, our problem was not with salvation itself, but with our understanding of how the freedom of our salvation actually occurred. It was not until my early twenties that I gained any clarity on this issue. I knew I served a God who was and is and is to come, but I had yet to learn that I possessed from Him a salvation of which the same could be said. Salvation from sin can be broken down into three categories: justification, sanctification and glorification. For the believer, our justification was, our sanctification is, and our glorification is to come. We were saved, we are being saved, we will be saved. I've found the easiest way to understand these three forms of freedom is to remember the three P’s: penalty, power, and presence.

Justification: Freedom From Sin’s Penalty

When we came to saving faith in Christ, confessing our great need of him and asking for forgiveness from the punishment we deserved, we were met with God’s unequivocal “yes”. Christ bore the penalty for our sins, therefore we received freedom from that penalty for all sins past, present and future. We were justified before God our judge because our penalty had been paid. Those who have been justified never need re-justifying. We can look back to the time of our justification (perhaps written in the front of our Bible?) and know that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Our justification is behind us. It is a past occurrence. We were saved from sin's penalty.

Sanctification: Freedom From Sin’s Power

Now that the grace of God has been set upon us as a permanent seal, we are being made new. We are being set free from the power of sin by the power of the Spirit. God’s grace is restoring to us a will that wants what he wants. Before we were justified, our broken wills were utterly subject to the power of sin. We chose sin at every turn. Even when we made choices that appeared good from an external standpoint, because we had no higher internal purpose than to glorify self these choices were ultimately sinful as well. Now, the power of sin is broken in our lives. We have been given the deposit of the Holy Spirit. Though we once chose only to sin, now we have the power (and the growing desire) to choose righteousness. We who were once slaves to sin’s power are now free to serve God. We don’t always use our freedom. We still sin, but over time we learn increasingly to choose holiness. Our entire lives from that handwritten date in our Bibles onward are devoted to “working out our salvation” as we learn to choose righteousness instead of sin, to walk in obedience to God’s commands.

Our sanctification is ongoing. It is a slow-moving growth in holiness. We are being saved from sin's power.

Glorification: Freedom From Sin’s Presence

We will fight to grow in holiness our entire earthly lives. But when we have run the race and fought the good fight, we will enter into the presence of the Lord forever. We will be glorified. In His presence, our soul-rest will at last be complete, as sin and its devastation will cease to assail us. There can be no sin in His presence. Though now we are surrounded on all sides by sinfulness, though now sin continues to cling to our hearts, on a day not too distant we will go to a place where sin is no more. In our glorification we will at last be granted freedom from the very presence of sin.

Our glorification is future. It is the day we trade the persistent presence of sin for the perfect presence of the Lord. We will be saved from sin's presence.

Rest, Labor, Hope

If I and my childhood peers had understood these three aspects of salvation’s freedom better, we might have saved ourselves a great deal of anxiety and a few trips down the aisle. The knowledge that sin is gradually overcome across a lifetime would have been good news to the teenager who thought surely her ongoing sin invalidated her profession. The knowledge that sanctification is hard work would have helped her topple the myth of the effortless stock-photo Christian life. The knowledge that total freedom from sin was a future certainty would have helped her ask in faith for grace for her current failures.

Maybe you, too, have found salvation mystifying. Maybe you’ve wondered, “If I’m really saved, why don’t I feel fully free?” You’re not yet, but you will be. Our complete freedom from sin is certain, but it is not sudden.  So we rest confidently in our justification, we labor diligently in our sanctification, and we hope expectantly in our glorification.

Be assured of your justification. It was. One day, you were freed fully from the penalty of sin.

Be patient with your sanctification. It is. Each day, you are being freed increasingly from the power of sin.

Be eager for your glorification. It is to come. One day, you will be freed finally from the presence of sin.