Friday, March 28, 2014

Biblical Truth and Political Correctness

"We all win when people and organizations stand up for Biblical truth. Political correctness doesn't change lives, truth does."
-comment on a colleague's Facebook Post

The internet seems to be very concerned with World Vision's recent actions regarding their hiring policy. If you're not sure what's going on, it's worth a google.

The main thing for me is that somehow Biblical Truth has gotten tied up into hiring practices at a child-centered charity. The Bible is a big book/small library written over hundreds of years by dozens of hands. Some Christians call it infallible, other Christians call it inerrant, other Christians are hesitant to ascribe it with any absolute. Some Christians doubt the Christianity of Christians who disagree with their views on the Bible (have fun with that syntax!).

The idea of Biblical Truth, however, is a pretty fuzzy concept to pin down. People have been debating what exactly is "truth" for as long as we've been able to ask abstract questions. Luckily for us, scripture identifies its truth for us:
"Jesus answered, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."
John 14:6a
Common English Bible (2011-06-15). CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha (Kindle Location 50570). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition. 

The person and work of Jesus Christ is the Biblical Truth, and most Christians will spend most of their faith journey trying to figure out what exactly that means. For me, right now, it means that even though we were enemies of God, God still loved us enough to become flesh and walk among us, going even to his death so that we would no longer be separated from the God who loves us.

In the face of that kind of Biblical Truth, how can one turn away anyone? God certainly does not. When people and organizations stand up for Biblical Truth, I do believe we all win. I do believe that God's love is relentlessly transformative, and that our lives are changed by it; Reformed and always being reformed, as it were.

As for political correctness, that term is nearly meaningless anymore. It's too easy to vilify to carry much weight. I think, however, that what many folks characterize as political correctness is an expression of hospitality, which certainly fits within Biblical Truth.

So maybe liberal/progressive Christians can find ways to be a little more hospitable to their "closed-minded" conservative/evangelical brothers and sisters. Maybe, also, conservative/evangelical Christians can make the effort to extend hospitality to their liberal/progressive brethren who "aren't living right."

Because truly, none of us are living right. The Biblical Truth, though, tells us that God loves us anyway, and doesn't wait for us to save ourselves, and redeems us anyway. With that truth uniting us, why in the world would we let a hiring policy get in the way of how we treat those whom God loves? 

We can do better, even if we never see eye-to-eye on the theological or practical issues, we can do a better job of loving one another, and proclaiming Biblical Truth that way. We can extend hospitality to those who we see as sinners, or unrighteous, or hypocrites, or any other label. Because God's grace empowers us to do justice, they will know that we are Christians by the way we love kindness, and all of us are could stand to walk a little more humbly with our God.
13So stop judging each other. Instead, this is what you should decide: never put a stumbling block or obstacle in the way of your brother or sister. 14I know and I'm convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is wrong to eat in itself. But if someone thinks something is wrong to eat, it becomes wrong for that person. 15If your brother or sister is upset by your food, you are no longer walking in love. Don't let your food destroy someone for whom Christ died. 16And don't let something you consider to be good be criticized as wrong. 17God's kingdom isn't about eating food and drinking but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18Whoever serves Christ this way pleases God and gets human approval.
Romans 14:13-17
Common English Bible (2011-06-15). CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 52541-52546). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sticks and Stones

Sticks and Stones
from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

I've heard it said that though it took the ten plagues to get the Israelites out of Egypt, it took the ten commandments to get Egypt out of the Israelites. Seems like God doesn't mind a little delay between when a promise is made and when the results are tangible. Living in that tension, that in-between, is really uncomfortable.

The law that the Israelites are about to receive will set them apart as God's covenant people, through whom God's promises will be enacted for all the world. The ten commandments are only a few short chapters away, promising to shape that identity. But we haven't established that covenant yet.

So far, we’ve made it out of Egypt.

But on this third Sunday in Lent, we’re still in the wilderness. For the Israelites, the promised land is barely creeping onto the horizon, a wispy image that is not yet strong enough to replace the memory of being slaves in Egypt.

And eighteen days after Ash Wednesday commissioned us on our Lenten journey, we have come to a place called Rephidim: an in-between place. Rephidim is a place in-between slavery and promise, in-between exile and home, in-between ashes and resurrection. We are still waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises.

But we’re a post-resurrection people, we know how this ends. We've seen our ancestor's promises kept. We know that the Israelites eventually make it to the promised land. We know that eventually the people of Judah return from their exile in Babylon. We know that eventually the women will find the empty tomb. We know that the early church grows and spreads.

But where are our promises? As memberships and giving continue to decline across mainline protestant churches, as pews are emptied at the end of each worship service and are a little less full the next week, as we are confronted with a culture where the church is less dominant than we remember it being, we are held to a wispy image of the promised land, not yet strong enough to replace the memory of when we were a powerhouse in American culture. It's a promise that church will speak the language of our faith through both action and testimony, and lay claim to our identity as the body of Christ.

The sticks and stones of our own decline stand in the way of the growth that God is already working in us. We have heard the promise of a new beginning for the church, where we will take our decline and launch into our communities with renewed vigor, living differently because we know we are a post-resurrection people and we know how to enact that narrative.

But for now, there is no water to drink, and our throats are parched. So we turn to Moses and say “Give us water to drink.” Because the people Israel cannot quite make out the land of milk and honey, just as we cannot quite make out our wispy image.

They are thirsty, and there was no water for the people to drink.

To Moses: “Give us water to drink.”

Moses decides this is a good time for a theology lesson, a mistake many young pastors are bound to make. “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try the LORD?” Remember who your God is! says Moses. Remember the wonders you saw in Egypt, plagues that broke the power of the greatest empire on this earth, miracles carried out by the one whose name is I AM! Great Theology Moses!

But the people thirsted there for water. They were perhaps less thirsty for a lecture on providence. And they grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” Yes, we are no longer in Egypt, where the Nile would flood predictably, safely, and slowly, and would recede leaving good black soil where we could comfortably grow crops for ourselves and our children and our livestock. You say our God’s name is I am, but where is God when we are thirsty and there is no water?

Yes, we are no longer in Egypt, where we had to slave for our Egyptian rulers, but we had water there. You have told us of milk and honey but in this wilderness there are neither wells not springs, only dust and sticks…and stones.

So Moses, why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?

Moses is quite understandably thrown off by the people's grumbling, to his credit, instead of fighting with them, he turns to God. "What shall I do with these people?"

Because all of God's people, including Moses, need a lesson about who God is. So God is going to show them in this in-between place. Because, so far we've made it out of Egypt, and God is moving us toward the promise, but we're still living like we belong to the place we came from, instead of the place we're going. "The whole Israelite community continued by stages as the LORD would command." The LORD issues commands that, perhaps, a travel guide might caution us against.

Such as encamping at Rephidim, where there is no water for the people to drink. Moses has a better idea than most of where they're going, he knows that God is one who maintains promises. After all, so far we've made it out of Egypt.

But in-between liberation from Egypt and consecration at Sinai, Moses doesn't have any water to give them. "What shall I do with these people? Before long they will be stoning me!" God responds to Moses playfully, turning his anxiety on its head. You're afraid of these people? "Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders." You're worried they're going to throw rocks at you? Cool. Let's go find ourselves a rock.

Isn't that just like God, to take our greatest fears and anxieties and use them to reveal something about who God is. God takes Moses's fear of being stoned to death and re-forms it into a testimony that the LORD can bring nourishing water from a lifeless stone.

The people who were would have been stoning Moses before long were afraid that they had left their predictable, consistent, safe, lives in Egypt to follow a God who was not actually with them in this wilderness. They were afraid that their lives would dry up in a wasteland without experiencing the promise of God. So God takes them to a wilderness where nothing is consistent except God’s unfailing presence in their midst.

I wonder what we're afraid of?

Maybe it's that we don't have what it takes to proclaim the gospel in a culture that is more secular and less enmeshed with our brand of Christianity. Maybe it's that our identity will die with us, and the world will just ignore where we used to be. Maybe we're afraid that we bought into the wrong promise, and have wasted our time and energy pursuing something that will never be. The promise is still there, but it's hard to see through the fear.

Maybe we're afraid of an unexpected bill. For one living on a fixed income, something as simple as car repair can be a huge burden to have to carry. These burdens are made heavier by the fact that often, those on the tightest budgets need the most expensive medical care. The promise is still there, but it's hard to see through our anxiety.

Maybe we're afraid that we'll lose our source of income. When so much of our identity is tied up in our employment, it can be traumatic to lose one's job. With the decline of industry over the last decades, the possibility of a mill or factory closing is a real concern. Not even the jobs we were told were safe are wholly reliable, as tech industries find cheaper ways to provide their goods and services, often at their workers’ expense. The promise is still there, but it's hard to see through our worry.

Maybe we're afraid that we mortgaged our future with student loans, reaching for a promise of a good job and a comfortable life. After all, my generation was told, a college graduate earns, on average, a million dollars more than a high school graduate over the course of their careers. But instead of seeing budding opportunity, we see inexhaustible debt and a job market where McDonalds receives a hundred applications for every one opening. The promise is still there, but it's hard to see how we'll ever reach it.

Maybe we're afraid that we've wandered out into the wilderness and there's no water for the people to drink. Maybe we're afraid that we should have stayed where we were, a place where we lived comfortably, even if we were still bound to other masters. It certainly would have been less worrisome to pick our own path, finding the most convenient route, regardless of where it took us. But that's not who we are, that’s not how we continue by stages as the LORD would command, and that's not how God is present among us.

God doesn't just bounce us from oasis to oasis, places where it is easy to rest, acting solely as a guide. Sometimes God leads us out into the wilderness where we will be surrounded only by sticks and stones, with none of the comforts of the home we have left behind in order to follow our God. In those places, God provides out of nothing, because sometimes we need to be reminded that God is in the barren places too.

So God sends Moses, afraid of being stoned by a thirsty people, in search of a rock. God sends the church, attached to our memories of how-it-used-to-be, into a place where our old solutions cannot answer new questions. God sends each of us, with our anxiety over the future, into a world that is beyond our ability to control. God sends us into the barren places to show us how the water to which we are accustomed is nothing next to our thirst to be in relationship with God.

Because when the water from a rock is not sufficient for our thirst, God sends a lamb, who gives us living water.

We're an in-between people, and we spend a great deal of energy each Lent to remind ourselves of that. We are already redeemed, but are not yet living in the fullness of the kingdom of God. As we wander through our own wilderness we are going to find places where there is no water for the people to drink, and we are going to ask "Is the LORD present among us or not?"

Is the LORD present in the wilderness of unpaid bills, dead end jobs, and withered relationships? Is the LORD present in a declining church with aging memberships, reduced giving, and facilities falling into disrepair? Is the LORD present in the barren places where we feel disconnected from each other and from God?

In a place like Rephidim, surrounded only by the sticks and stones which will not quench your thirst, I think it's an understandable question. But the answer is always going to be yes.

Sometimes the assurance that God is present among us sighs with relief as Moses strikes the rock and water issues from it. Sometimes the assurance that God is present among us shouts for joy at the empty tomb, where God showed us that not even death on a cross could stop God from being present among us. Sometimes the assurance that God is present among us echoes in the once-full sanctuary that is rediscovering faithfulness as a smaller, missional congregation. The LORD is present among us.

So as we pass through the barren places where the promise is only a wispy image set against the sticks and stones of our reality, barren places where God’s sense of humor plays tricks on our fears and frees us to be faithful, we know that the LORD is present among us in the barren places too.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Hashtag Feminism: A man's experience of women in ministry

Some context: I call the Presbyterian Church (USA) home, we've been ordaining women for longer than we've existed in our current form. I am firmly in favor of women in ministry, and have several female family members who are ordained. I am also (spoilers?) male.

Not too long ago, I was leading worship regularly with a community near where I attended seminary. During my time with that community, I had a number of people come up and express how grateful they were for my leadership. Every worship leader gets this kind of feedback. Here in the South, it's a politeness even if it's not offered in earnest.

What has stuck out to me in the time since is the comments that some people were particularly glad that I was a man. These well-meaning folks expressed that they still struggled with Women in Ministry.

These people were not evil, or stupid, or any of the other ways we can rationalize those who disagree with us. They had lived most of their lives under a narrative that had very strict ideas of what it meant to be a woman or a man. It was a different and difficult thing for them. They were trying to support it, and were supportive of other female leaders, but they fact that I was male meant they didn't have to work as hard to accept me.

But there are people in this world who do vehemently oppose women in ministry. They tell their sisters and daughters that church leadership is no place for a woman because she is somehow less than the men who will occupy that position.

I have a very serious issue with that line. I think it denies the sovereignty of God to call anyone God wants to whatever ministry God chooses. I also have a problem with people who judge one variety of human as being somehow "less" than another. Seems to me like I read somewhere that all fall short of the glory of God, and grace is a free gift bestowed on the undeserving.

Moreover, I've seen women be brilliant, and filled with the Holy Spirit, in their ministry. Too often, though, their vocation is filled with needless struggle.

There's the woman who sought the only form of ministry her faith tradition would recognize, only to be consistently stonewalled and ostracized. She tried to blend her calling with her tradition, and held the two in tension for as long as she could, until she felt called to find a new denominational home.

There's the woman who was the first female minister in each of the communities she has served. Each community has had someone tell her that they didn't believe in women ministers at the beginning of her mission. She is so off-the-charts talented and faithful that she flourished in each place, changing the minds of those who were distrustful of her gender.

There's the woman who avoided her call for much of her life because she had always been taught that only a man could stand in a pulpit. When she finally answered the call God has for her, she fought to have a women's bathroom installed at her seminary that wasn't adjacent to a secretary's office. She now has a doctorate, the seminary has women's bathrooms.

I've heard arguments that men are naturally better preachers; that our deeper voices carry more authority, and our larger lung capacity gives us greater volume. But I've heard women preach so powerfully it can blow the doors off a church, and send the people streaming into the world to do God's will.

I've heard people say that only men were called Apostles by Christ, that for some reason Jesus only chose men to be minister in his name. But the first people to preach the resurrection were the women who went to Christ's tomb and found it empty. They ran back saying "I have seen the LORD!"

I've heard folks cite scripture passages about women being saved through childbirth; that having lots of Christian children is the only valid expression of a woman's faith. But I've also read stories in scripture about childless women who are beloved by God, and who intervene on behalf of God's people in ways that shake empires change nations.

I could not possibly share all the stories I've heard and seen of women being faithful ministers. I've never questioned their validity. But for those who have decades of teachings, and centuries of tradition, holding them to old views, for those who still struggle with Women in Ministry: Keep struggling, because God may be speaking to you through a woman in ministry. I know God has spoken to me in that way.