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.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

which promises are for me?

Not many things are more comforting than a promise made and kept. And not many things are more hurtful than a promise broken. Knowing we worship a God who keeps his promises is a source of deep joy. But misapplied, this knowledge can also lead us to treasure-hunt Scripture for promises in problematic ways. How can we know which promises are for us? How can we lay claim to the promises of the Bible without overstepping their application? Here are some common pitfalls to keep in mind as you study:

  • Confusing a promise with a principle. Promises are always fulfilled 100% of the time. Principles state general truths. The book of Proverbs is often mistaken for a book of promises, when in fact it is a book of principles. The principle of “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it” is generally true and is wise to heed. But it is not a guarantee that every child who is raised with godly instruction will become a believer.
  • Ignoring the context. We often apply a promise to ourselves before considering its original audience or its historical, cultural or textual context. In some cases, a promise was made to a specific person for a specific reason and has no further application beyond its immediate context. In other cases, the application can only be properly made after the promise is understood in its original context.  God’s promise to Abram of land and offspring cannot be taken to mean God will give me a house or children. It can, however, be applied to mean he will give me a spiritual inheritance through Christ.
  • Overlooking the “if”. Promises that contain an “If” require some form of obedience before we can expect them to come to pass in our lives. They are conditional. If we want to claim them, we had better be ready to act in obedience to what they require. God grants us wisdom if we ask (James 1:4). But we have to ask. Often “if” promises of blessing are accompanied by corresponding “if” warnings about disobedience. We tend to celebrate God’s promises of blessing and sideline his promises of chastisement, though both point to a faithful God. It’s tough to find a coffee mug that sports Hebrews 12:6. Which leads us to... 
  • Choosing a promise selectively. We tend to favor those promises that appeal to our own best case scenario. We quote Exodus 14:14 in a crisis: “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” But we neglect to note that three chapters later in Exodus Israel was commanded not to stand still, but to fight her enemies. In spiritual battles, sometimes we should stand still and sometimes we should fight. Better to ask God for wisdom as to which response is called for than to claim a promise that is not universally applicable.
  • Using a promise manipulatively. Sometimes we employ a verse as a promise because we want God to act a certain way. Probably the most abused passage in this category is “Where two or three are gathered in my name” (Mat 18:19-20). Not only do we use it out of context, we use it to try to coerce God into doing what we ask simply because we have gathered the requisite number of people to ask it. God’s promises to us should help us submit to His will, not bend Him to ours.
  • Limiting a promise to your own understanding. Even when we rightly recognize a promise as intended for us, we often impose our own understanding of exactly how it will be fulfilled. Or we are tempted to impose our own timeline on its fulfillment. Yes, God does have a plan to prosper you and not to harm you (Jer 29:11), but as in the case of the people to whom those words were originally written, that “you” is more likely a collective reference to the body of believers, and that  plan may play out across centuries in ways we can’t possibly predict. To recognize this does not diminish the beauty of the promise at all. It actually enhances it.

How can we avoid these promise-claiming pitfalls? Our long-term strategy must be to move from spot knowledge of the Bible to comprehensive knowledge. In the short-term, try these helps:
  • Do your homework. Before you write it on a note card for your fridge, before you post it on Instagram or shop for it on a coffee mug or declare it your life verse, make a thorough study of where your promise lives in Scripture and in biblical history.  Make sure it’s a general promise, not a specific promise to someone else or a general principle to observe. Check for any “ifs” that might change its application.
  • Check your motive. If a promise in Scripture appeals to you, ask yourself why. What fear or need underlies your desire to claim that promise for yourself? What security are you looking for beyond the soul security you are guaranteed in Christ? Does claiming that promise help you submit to God’s rule? Are you defining its fulfillment in terms of your own limited understanding? Would its fulfillment help you grow in godliness and humility?

And remember, the Bible is full of unambiguous promises from our triune God that we can celebrate with certainty. Here is a smattering of my favorites:

He promises to give us wisdom if we ask (James 1:5).
He promises to provide a way out of temptation (1 Cor 10:13).
He promises that our salvation is secure, no matter what (John 10:28-29).
He promises to never leave us nor forsake us (Heb 13:5).
He promises to finish the good work he has begun in us (Phil 1:6).
He promises to come back (Luke 12:40)

These promises are sure and steadfast. Do you notice that they have much more to say about who God is or how He is sanctifying us than about a specific circumstance or outcome? We are not promised certainty in our circumstances, but we are promised certainty in the God of our circumstances. And that, brothers and sisters, is an anchor for the soul. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

when dad doesn’t disciple the kids

Three kinds of “single moms” exist in the church: the literal single mom who is raising children on her own, the mom whose husband is an unbeliever, and the mom whose husband professes belief but does not partner in the spiritual nurture of the family. For the true single mom and the mom married to an unbeliever, the task is clear: train your children in the Lord because no one else will. For the wife of the believing father guilty of spiritual absenteeism, the lines are blurry. She lives in the tension between wanting to honor her spouse and wanting to spiritually equip her children. All three “single moms” desperately need the support of the church, but in this post I want to focus specifically on the third mom, a woman trapped in a dilemma.

To Wait or to Act?

This mom walks in a great deal of anxiety, particularly in more conservative environments where emphasis is placed on fathers leading spiritually in the home. She sees her children going to bed each night with no family time spent in the scriptures or in prayer, with no conversations broached on the critical subjects that help kids transition to adulthood with the wisdom they need.  She has gently raised the suggestion that dad initiate these teaching moments, to be met with apathy or with short-lived token attempts. And because she has been taught that God wants men to be the ones to lead such conversations in the home, she begins to believe that the only course of action open to her is to sit silently, not wanting to usurp authority, confused about what her role should be as mother and wife, praying that the Lord would change her husband’s heart.

Not that prayer is a give-up position. It is a far better use of mom’s words than berating or begging dad to be more involved. Prayer for dad’s heart and for the hearts of the children should always be the first action mom pursues, both in homes where dad is spiritually present and in homes where he is not. But in homes where dad is spiritually absent, I believe mom is called both to pray and to act.

Step into the Street

When my children were in early elementary school I would walk them to the corner where the crossing guard would help them across a busy intersection to the school. She wore an orange vest and carried a stop sign. She had a whistle. She knew the traffic patterns. It was her job to make sure the cars stopped and the children crossed safely. As a parent, I did not have authority to tell my kids to cross the street when the intersection looked clear to me. That was the crossing guard’s job.

But let’s say for a minute that the crossing guard doesn’t do her job one morning. Let’s say she sees me coming with my little ones but decides to stay in her lawn chair scrolling through Instagram.  Let’s say that I ask her to help them across the intersection, but she ignores my valid request. What should I do? I don’t have an orange vest or a stop sign. I don’t know the traffic patterns like she does. Should I turn to my children and say, “Well, good luck – I’ll pray you make it safely to the other side!” 

Of course not. I should do what she has chosen not to do. I should watch for an opening in the traffic and walk my children safely across the street. I should submit to a higher authority than the crossing guard in the interest of doing what is safe and right.

Moms dealing with spiritually absent dads rightly feel anxiety for their children. In the busy intersection of life, it is neither safe nor right to leave children untrained in spiritual matters. In fact, it would be reprehensible to do so. But don’t worry - it’s possible to honor your sacred responsibility to your children and their Heavenly Father while still showing honor to their earthly father.

Make Disciples

The Great Commission calls followers of Christ to make disciples, teaching them to obey all He has commanded. Parents are charged with this very call within the home. A mom who can’t count on her husband to partner in fulfilling it will need courage and humility to move ahead in obedience to Christ. As His disciple, she can and must spend her efforts to make disciples of her children, teaching them to obey His commands. Moms, not only do you have permission to take this on, you have a mandate.

In the absence of dad’s help, move forward to fill the gap. Without vilifying dad, simply begin having the conversations necessary to guide your children safely to adulthood. Continue to pray for dad. Continue to invite him periodically to join the conversation. Continue to honor him by committing to speak well of him to your children. As you ask the Lord to help you in your efforts and to soften your husband’s heart, keep confessing any resentment or self-righteousness you might harbor. Lean on your Christian community for support. But don’t let fear of usurping an authority dad does not exercise keep you from equipping your kids with the fear of the Lord. The Lord delights in those who do His will. Train those kids. Remind yourself that God is their perfect Heavenly Father, and trust Him to care for them and shape them to be like His Son.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

when your child's personality annoys you

God gifts our children with unique personalities. Sometimes we love the way emerging personality traits shape our child’s behavior, but other times they can drive us crazy. The overly talkative child, the bossy child, the child with endless energy, the child who collapses in tears at the smallest upset, the child whose imagination means homework never gets turned in - these are a few of the personalities that plant themselves in our orderly homes, posing a threat to our expectations and our patience.Our first temptation may be to bring those behaviors to an immediate end. But I want to suggest a better way.

choosing to cultivate

There is a purple variety of morning glory that grows wild in Texas.  By early summer we find it overtaking our shrubs, scaling our fences, covering every surface it can grasp. Through the hottest months it spreads and climbs while the rest of the garden withers and perishes, its glossy green leaves impervious to the harsh sun, its tendrils pushing between rocks and under gates and into the smallest spaces between the fence slats.  And just about the time the last of our nursery-purchased flowers has succumbed to defeat, this wild vine does the most surprising thing: it blooms in spectacular profusion.

For years we pulled it up as soon as the first helicopter leaves broke the topsoil. On spring Saturday mornings we would walk the yard scanning for the seedlings, uprooting them before they could attack en masse. Left alone, the vine kills the foliage on other plants by blocking out the sunlight. We considered it a nuisance and an undesirable.

But this year we took a different route. Instead of eradication, we opted for cultivation. We decided to tame that wildflower, selectively thinning out the seedlings so that they grew where we wanted them: on a trellis in the herb garden, on a spot of fence outside a window, on a post in the far corner of the yard where nothing seems to grow. This week the blooms began in earnest, and at a time of year when our garden should be bare, it is draped luxuriously and strategically in purple flowers.

weakness or strength?

Children are like wild morning glories: They require training up. Lacking adult self-control, their personality traits can seem annoying and nuisance-like, undesirable. Sometimes our first response to an annoying personality trait is a desire to pull it out by the roots.

But every bloom cultivated in an orderly garden grows as a wildflower somewhere. Children’s untamed and sometimes frustrating personality traits are no different. Before you work to uproot them, consider whether behind that annoying trait is a strength waiting to be trained up. So often, the quality that manifests as a child’s greatest weakness holds the potential to be his greatest strength.

So the next time your child’s personality trait annoys you and you’re tempted to shut it down, remember this principle: Don’t eradicate, cultivate.
  • By all means, gently help your talkative child learn when to stop speaking, but also cultivate his or her love of dialogue by inviting conversation on topics they love. You might have a future teacher or salesperson in your home.
  • By all means, gently help your bossy child learn to let everyone manage their own business, but also cultivate his or her love of leadership by giving appropriate responsibilities. You might have a future CEO or ministry leader in your home.
  • By all means, gently help your energetic child learn to be still when being still counts, but also cultivate his or her love of movement by suggesting activities that channel that energy in productive ways. You might have a future entrepreneur in your home.
  • By all means, gently help your sensitive child learn that not everything merits a meltdown, but also cultivate his or her sensitivity into appropriate expressions, particularly on behalf of others who hurt or lack. You might have a future counselor or missionary in your home.
  • By all means, gently help your imaginative child learn to focus when focus is necessary, but also cultivate his or her imagination by feeding it experiences and books and activities and time to dream. You might have a future inventor, writer or painter in your home.
As parents, we must help our children take a personality trait that tends toward sin and train it toward righteousness. And we must do so with patience and kindness. So rather than strive to uproot that annoying trait, give it some good boundaries and a trellis. Train it up and watch it bloom to the glory of God. He gifts our children with the seedlings of communication, leadership, drive, sensitivity and imagination. May we be diligent to tenderly train them up in the way that they should go.

Monday, September 29, 2014

my 10 minutes at the dg national conference

When I saw the first video introducing the "Look at the Book" campaign, I was beside myself with excitement that the topic of Bible literacy was about to get a broader audience. When I was given the priceless gift of ten minutes to address the attendees of the Desiring God National Conference on my favorite topic, I was speechless.

Thankfully, the Lord provided ten minutes worth of speech when I took the platform. You can watch it via the link below.

And for those of you who thought or suggested that it was humanly impossible for me to speak for only ten minutes, I'm accepting your written apologies via email at your convenience...:)

LINK: What Women Need Most for Better Bible Study

Thursday, September 18, 2014

the church needs men and women to be friends

Recently a friend started a discussion thread by asking the question, “Can men and women be friends?” She was asking, essentially, if sexual attraction is a deal-breaker when it comes to male-female friendships. Immediately the thread filled with horror stories about male-female relationships that started as friendships and ended as train wrecks.

I know these stories as well. I’ve had a front row seat to several of them - in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in churches - so I’m not insensitive to the cautionary tale they have to tell. They remind me, though, of the labor-and-delivery stories I heard when I was pregnant with my first child. As soon as the bump became visible, women began freely volunteering their uterovaginal horror stories, everyone from friends to total strangers in the grocery store. I’m sure these stories were true, but do you know what stories I never heard? The positive ones. My perception of the risk became skewed by my fear. Four positive delivery experiences later I viewed those stories differently.

red flags and risk

Part of the problem with asking the question, “Can men and women be friends?” is nailing down which men and which women (married? single?) and what kind of friendship is in view. The question often leads us to assume intimate friendship is what is being suggested – hanging out alone together, sharing your deepest hopes and fears. And no, that’s not a good idea. If you’re single it leads to a lot of weirdness about where the relationship is headed, and if you’re married, you should reserve intimate friendship for your spouse. But we need not rule out male-female friendship built on mutual respect and affinity, cultivated within appropriate boundaries. If we do, we set a course charted by fear rather than by trust.

Sexual attraction is a valid red flag to raise when we consider male-female friendships, and it should never be dismissed lightly. But it does not justify declaring all such friendships impossible. All relationships involve risk of hurt, loss or sin, but we still enter into them because we believe what will be gained is greater than what we might risk. 

Marriage is risky – your spouse might prove unfaithful or cruel.
Parenthood is risky – your child might grow up to hate you or harm others.
Same-gender friendship is risky – your friend might betray you or let you down.
Work relationships are risky – your subordinate might embezzle from the company.
Business relationships are risky – your auto mechanic might overcharge you.
Church relationships are risky – your pastor might turn out to be an abuser, or just a jerk.

Yet we still enter into these relationships. We do not remove them wholesale from the list of possibilities because they involve risk. We enter in because we believe the rewards of the relationship outweigh the risk. We decide to go with trust instead of fear.

serving side by side

Like labor and delivery stories, the lust and infidelity stories of men and women who crossed a friendship boundary play and replay in our consciousness. But we seldom hear repeated the stories of male-female friendships that worked. I don’t think that’s because they don’t exist. In the church, even telling someone that you have a friend of the other gender can raise eyebrows. We have grown positively phobic about friendship between men and women, and this is bad for the church. It implies that we can only see each other as potential sex partners rather than as people. But the consequences of this phobic thinking are the most tragic part: When we fear each other we will avoid interacting with one another. Discussions that desperately need the perspectives of both men and women cease to occur. (Hint: most discussions desperately need the perspectives of both men and women, particularly in the church.)

Yet almost no one in the church is bold enough to say these friendships matter. We fear the age-old problem of "If I say X, will I unintentionally encourage Y?" So in the church we rarely tell divorced parents that they can still be good parents because we're afraid we'll encourage divorce. We rarely tell young people that loss of sexual purity is something that can be overcome because we're afraid we'll encourage promiscuity. We rarely tell moms who work outside the home we value them because we're afraid we’ll communicate we don’t value the home. And so on. We are so concerned that people will misunderstand what we mean by “appropriate male-female friendships” that we do not speak of them at all.  Just as divorced parents and young people and working moms pay a price for our fearful silence, there is a price for our fearful silence on male-female friendships as well: The church is robbed of the beauty of men and women serving side by side as they were intended.

not can but must

What bothers me most about the question, “Can men and women be friends?” is that even if I answer it in the affirmative I have not done justice to the issue. Yes, they can be friends, but more than that, they must be friends. Appropriate forms of friendship – those in which we see each other as people rather than potential sex partners – must exist between men and women, especially in the church. How else can we truly refer to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ? Jesus extended deep, personal friendship to both men and women. We are not him, so following his example requires wisdom and discernment about our own propensity to sin as well as that of others. But his example is worth following, brothers and sisters, even if it involves risk.

"For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother." - Mark 3:35

Saturday, August 23, 2014

tomorrow, ready or not

They’re asking the question again: “Are you ready?” Sweet smiles of encouragement span their faces, the question mark floating in the air. I am warmed by their kind inquiry. I weigh my answer.

I remember the first time I heard that question posed in that way, with just that inflection. Nine months pregnant, March of 1996. By co-workers, by friends, by my mother. I measured my response then as well. Clothes selected and laundered, new linens, new towels, a lamp, a few books. Months of preparation, reading about potentialities, researching, dreaming. A first child. A first arrival. Nothing left but the waiting, and the waiting would not be long.

“Yes, I’m ready!”

Wrong! Comically wrong. Hilariously wrong.  As if any degree of preparation could ready you for being a new mother. As if the shopping and the reading and the dreaming, even the praying could transition you seamlessly to what comes next. And if it could, wouldn’t the wondrous gravity of the event somehow be diminished?

I was not ready, but the Lord was gracious. Gracious beyond description.

They’re asking the question again, but this time I know the right answer. The clothes are readied. New linens, new towels, a lamp, a few books. Years of preparation. Years of prayer. A first child. A first departure. Nothing left but the waiting, and the waiting will not be long. Tomorrow we will leave him in a dorm room and drive away.

No, I’m not ready. Not even remotely. I’ve had months to ready my heart, but I’m no more ready now than I was in September. Comically unready. Hilariously unready. I am no more ready for his departure tomorrow than I was for his arrival eighteen years ago. But this time, at least, I know it. I understand better than I did back then that days like tomorrow are not about being ready. They are about taking the next step and trusting the Father. To be ready would most certainly diminish the wondrous gravity of the event.

 And just as he was eighteen years ago, he is ready whether I am or not. Thanks be to God.

Many blessings on your head, my first-born. We await with expectation the Lord’s graciousness on your life outside the walls of our home. We declare to Him our deepest gratitude for the years you have spent within them.

Friday, August 15, 2014

on suicide, gratitude and compassion

The past few weeks have brought headlines that ask us to grapple with our deepest hurts and fears. Among them was news of the death of Robin Williams.

Christians can be clumsy when it comes to deciphering mental health issues. A thousand voices rushed to weigh in on the selfishness of suicide. Some mused on how a death like Williams’ illustrated the emptiness of life apart from a relationship with God. Those who expressed sorrow over his death were scolded for their blind adoration of celebrity, and even called racist or provincial for grieving a headline less grievous than others that vied for our emotional capacity last week.

But I openly admit that it hit me hard.

Maybe that’s because my former pastor (the one whose message led my son to Christ) put a gun to his head.
Maybe that’s because I helped my dear friend clean out the apartment where his father answered hopelessness with finality.
Maybe it’s because depression and mental illness know my family.

The sentiment that best captured the way I felt about Williams’ death (and the response of others to it) was expressed by my cousin Amy on Facebook. She said simply:

“For those of you who judge suicide, feel grateful.”

Yes, grateful. Because if you are able to sit comfortably in judgment on it you cannot have sat next to its casket and recognized its face as that of someone you loved. Only someone able to hold suicide at arm’s length could write and post some of the things that were written this past week. We are so quick to process tragedy out loud and online. I wonder if a few decades from now we will have learned a more measured approach to broadcasting our thoughts.

Those who know suicide also feel grateful, though for different reasons. We feel grateful for the time we had and for the memories we hold. We feel grateful for the irreplaceable contributions those we have lost made to our lives and to the world. And we feel grateful for the solace of shared understanding among the community of those who know that suicide is not simple, that it invalidates neither the gift of a person’s life nor the love we felt for them.

We buried Amy’s brother, my cousin, in the frozen ground of February. He was not a coward. He was not selfish. He was brave and giving, brash, bright and beloved. He was a gift.

At the very least, anyone who has ever known the lightness of heart a Robin Williams monologue could infuse ought to find room to grieve his loss. If laughter is the best medicine, Robin Williams was an exceptional doctor. As with all the best medicines, we learned to our sorrow that the cost was dear. If you choose to judge him, please have the courage of your convictions never to laugh again at another of his brilliant contributions. We have all laughed at his expense, whether we knew it or not.

So forgive me if I mourn him. I cannot keep his story at arm’s length, and my guess is that many people you know cannot either. They have been fighting for their breath this week, avoiding the evening news, quietly coaching themselves to do the next thing and to cling to whatever healing they have found. So if you don’t know suicide as they do, be grateful. And let your gratitude prompt you to pray for the comfort of those who mourn. Those are words which we can never speak too hastily, and which we will never have cause to regret.