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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Hope: Reflections for Advent, Week 1

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” –Francis of Assisi

Hope creeps in through the darkness, often as just a flicker of light.  That’s the thing about light, though.  You only need a little of it to dispel the darkness, and as it burns longer it grows hotter and brighter.

Hope often comes in ways we do not expect.

Matthew 24:44, “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (NIV).

I remember being somewhat frightened of this passage of Scripture, as a child.  I’m not a huge fan of surprises (good or bad), and it seemed terrifying that Jesus might enter the scene and find me unprepared.  But much like the Jewish people who waited expectantly for a warrior savior king, I missed the point.

Certainly Jesus came in the most unexpected of ways—the vulnerable, illegitimate baby of a teenage traveler; born into the world to the songs of angels fraternizing with the dregs of society and the stench of animals sharing their shelter because there was no place for him.  Are you kidding me?  Where is the hope in that?

But it’s just like God to do things this way.  God calls to God’s people, “Who will participate in the redemption of the world?  Who will join me in bringing the fulfillment of the covenant?”

II Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (NIV).

I think we sometimes question God’s timing, God’s purpose, God’s people.  We accuse God of creating covenants that God does not seem to unilaterally satisfy.  We stand back and watch and wait, wondering how redemption will ever come, wondering if redemption will ever come.  Should we speculate about how many others God may have lovingly asked to take part in this plan?  The advent story?  The birth of the Christ child?  There is no way to know, but it’s clear that it took a willing participant (well, at least one) to bring Jesus into the world.  Ironic that it was someone so young, so common, so unlikely…

And yet, one whose hope was already in the Lord.

I probably can’t get Webster’s to back me up on this, but I would venture to say that the antonym for hope is fear.  And oh… there are so many things in this world of which to be afraid.  Undoubtedly, it would be easier to run and hide.  Unconventionally birthing salvation for a people who do not recognize your effort cannot possibly be painless.  Saying yes often hurts, and… well… it’s not too difficult to envision the dread that accompanies that kind of agony.

But, and catch this, because it’s important:   

Romans 13:11-12, 14, “Do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light… clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (NIV).

Do this.  Say yes.  Let Jesus fill your body and clothe your body and be your body.  Bring redemption to the world that God wants to save.  You know the one—the terrifying, filled with people just like you and filled with people with whom you have nothing in common, assumption laden, suffering, fear filled, hope deprived world.

Psalm 111:4, “The Lord is gracious and compassionate” (NIV).

Be gracious and compassionate.

Jesus is the hope.

Be the hope.

Psalm 112:4-9, “Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.  Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice.  Surely the righteous will never be shaken; they will be remembered forever.  They will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord.  Their hearts are secure, they will have no fear; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.  They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor, their righteousness endures forever; their horn will be lifted high in honor” (NIV).

As God’s people, we can figure this one out.  It’s not hard to find people who need hope.  Just light one candle and open your eyes.


Friday, November 18, 2016

Rules of Engagement

I haven’t always been a raging feminist.  OK, let’s be real.  I’m probably still not exactly a raging feminist, although I do talk pretty big.  I spent a large part of my early adulthood proclaiming that I would be completely happy if I was barefoot and pregnant for the rest of my life, and then I actually brought five people into the world to prove it.  And I stayed home with them.  And I homeschooled them.  And I bake awesome desserts and make 21 cheese mac & cheese and homemade pizza and fried chicken from scratch.  I like to scrapbook.  Crafts are fun.  Go ahead left leaning friends, shame me if you have to.  But you might want to read the rest of this, first.

When God called me to the traditionally male dominated vocational field of theology, I was actually a little bit blown away.  In addition to my earlier tendency to fit neatly into conventionally female roles, this is probably the part where I should admit that I had to drop out of my high school speech class, because it literally made me sick, and I took my general ed. speech requirement for my undergraduate degree online. 

So let me get this straight, God… you want me to preach… and speak… and teach?  You want me to spend the rest of my life standing up in front of groups of people and making words come out of my mouth?  OK, whatever.  Who am I to say no?  Bring it on…

Oh, friends… never say that.  The whole, “bring it on,” thing…  It sounds so cool and tough and strong, but it’s overrated.   You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into!  I promise.

Some time back, I wrote a post about some of the unique challenges with which I think female theologians come into contact.  It can be found here.  At the time, I thought I had solved the awkward problem surrounding the Billy Graham Rule.  You’re going to have male colleagues and friends, I said.  You’re going to have lots of male colleagues and friends, I said.  Be cautious, but don’t worry about it too much, I said, because surely everybody ‘gets’ this.  We’re all adults.  In the world of theology, I would hope that at least most of us are adults who are trying our very best to serve Jesus and live holy lives.  We can be friends.  It will be OK.

I recently ran across a couple of articles that I thought were excellent examples supporting this line of thinking.  They can be found here:

I also recently attended a conference that was specifically geared toward women in ministry leadership.  While it was incredibly refreshing to sit around a table with other female pastors, it was also something of a relief to hear them talk about the male colleagues, friends, and mentors in their lives.  No fear was expressed.  Not one person said something like, “I am so afraid of meeting alone with a male colleague, because I might be tempted.”  Not… one…

I started to think to myself, “Maybe we have finally turned the corner,” but I wasn’t certain.  Not yet.  I like research, so I thought to myself, “Maybe I should just take an informal survey.”  In hindsight, perhaps I should have left well enough alone and gone on living in my happy little bubble where men and women both recognize the value of friendship and do not worry about the drastic consequences a cup of coffee might bring.

When asked about the Billy Graham Rule, and interactions with male colleagues, these are some things I heard from women (whose names are being kept confidential):

“It would make it nearly impossible for me to do my job if I had to follow this rule.”

“I believe my voice in the workplace was limited by not being involved in these ‘unofficial’ meetings.”

“If I couldn't have those interactions there is no way I could be anywhere near as successful in my job/workforce.”

“The wife of one of my male colleagues made a comment after a few weeks that (my colleague) and I were a very asexual sort of team.”

“It's almost like they don't see me as a woman and it makes it easier to be successful.”

“What does it say about my character, my Christian witness, that I can't be trusted to have an appropriate conversation/interaction with a man whether I am alone or in public? I have found myself in conversations alone with women that are more uncomfortable than 95% of those I've had with men.”

“I was the victim of abuse in ministry settings and blamed myself… I felt that the rule protected men from me.”

Holy… Cow… 

I almost threw in the towel on this piece after all of that, and maybe I should have.  But I didn’t.

Interestingly, not one single woman I spoke to took someone with her when meeting with a man, because she felt unsafe.  I might come back to that.

When asked about the Billy Graham Rule, and interactions with female colleagues, these are some things I heard from men (whose names are also being kept confidential):

“I saw the rules largely as a way of being ‘above reproach.’"

“Men fall into that trap much more often than women.” 

“It kept us from being in situations where people could speculate about what might be happening behind closed doors.”

“It’s OK to break the rule in a crisis.”

“I don’t want to be emotionally intimate with anyone other than my wife.”

“I'm not sure this is a hill I want to die on these days, but I don't necessarily disagree with this approach.”

In everyone’s defense, I’m pretty sure we have a serious communication problem.

My assessment here is that we see men sharing concern over temptation, general public perception, and the potential for immoral behavior.  Even though some of the conversations were frustrating (admittedly, I had to step away on a couple of occasions, because it was making me pretty hot—and not in a tempting kind of way), I can see why they don’t want to die on that hill.

Unfortunately, women are dying on the hill, because we’re looking at this from a completely different perspective.  We’re not even considering temptation and moral failure (although I am going to say something more about that in a second, here)!  The vast majority of us are just considering how we can best do our jobs and maybe… maybe… crack the glass ceiling!  Realistically, I think most women who work in male dominated fields want to be able to have the same conversations with their male colleagues that they would have with female colleagues, and they want their male colleagues to have the same level of friendship/attachment with them that male colleagues have with one another (not to be confused with the same level of intimacy they have with their wives or girlfriends or whatever).  That sounds fine to me, completely appropriate, but the problem comes in when people don't seem to understand the principles of mixed gender, platonic relationships.  And that’s a real thing, friends.  True story.

Now, let’s touch on temptation for a moment.

I was actually really disturbed by the one quote, “Men fall into that trap much more often than women.”

I feel very certain of a couple of things.  First, men do not fall into that trap much more often than women, because most of the time there must be a woman involved for a man to fall into that trap (and vice versa)!  Infidelity is not generally happening without the involvement of (at least) two people.  This brings me to the second thing of which I am sure.  I did not interview any rapists for this piece.  What naturally follows is that in order to have a problem, at all, we have to have two willing parties.  The chances of this are infinitesimally low.

There are a lot of reasons for this, and without aiming to destroy anyone’s self esteem here, I think if everyone took just a moment to be slightly self-deprecating, we would realize that most of us are not attractive enough to be home wreckers!

I’ll go first.  I am in my mid-thirties (OK, pushing late thirties, but humor me), the mother of five children (totally takes a toll on the body and mind), overweight, Type A, suffering from adult onset acne, avid reader of YA fiction, and an introvert.  The majority of you are not going to be able to come up with a description that is that great, because I am, quite possibly, the safest woman in the world with whom someone else’s husband could have coffee… or even lunch…  but I’ll bet some of you can get close.

A friend of mine recently made a correlation between temptation and chocolate saying, I don't keep bags of chocolate in the house because I know I'll be too tempted to eat the whole thing. I like to pretend I have that kind of self-control, but I don't. So I just don't put myself in a situation where I'll eat a whole bag.”

The sentiment is honorable, but friends… we’re not chocolate.  I was going to insert something in here about also not being potato chips and the “Betcha can’t eat just one,” slogan, because I thought that was for Ruffles, but it wasn’t, so never mind…  The point is, at this stage we’re more like carrot sticks or maybe even boxes of raisins.  I’m not saying we should throw caution to the wind.  I’m not saying we should meet behind closed doors with complete strangers.  I understand the reality in which we live where an accusation can be just as devastating as a conviction.  Believe me.  I get it. 

But coffee?  In a public place?  With a colleague?  Talking about church policy or sacraments or even your family vacation, complete with pictures of the kids?  Nothing about that screams, “Let’s have sex!”  And thinking it does simply does not give anyone the credit they deserve. 


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

This Nasty, White, Educated Woman Stands with the Oppressed

This morning, I arrived home just after midnight.  My children and I had watched the election returns on my laptop, while driving, over the previous four hours.  After getting the youngest two off to bed, we all continued to wait for the final blow.

As I sat there with my kind, respectful sons who know that the things they whisper in the locker room had better also be things they can shout in the sanctuary, I uttered something between a wish and a prayer, “Please don’t let Michigan turn red.  Please don’t let it project next.  Please, not our state.”  As I sat there with my strong, intelligent teenage daughter who spent part of this election process learning new slang terms for the parts of her body that men should never touch without permission, “Please, do not allow her to see the state in which her mother voted green project as the one that lands this man in the White House.  Please.”  I wanted my ballot back.  It was sickening.

Well, as anyone who was still awake at that hour knows, there was still some time before the results were final.  Snuggled up next to these incredible people, I fell asleep.  It had been a long day.  I woke to the sound of incredulity.  I didn’t even realize that Michigan had, indeed, turned blue until later in the morning.  It is the first time I can ever remember breathing a sigh of relief over the fact that my vote made no difference, after all.  (As an edit… already…  I see that it may have turned back to “undecided” as of tonight, but it still doesn’t matter.)

I stayed largely unplugged, today.  That’s saying something, because it is no easy task (but this is a post for another time).  I simply decided my day would be far more productive if I prayed for people whose lives I could legitimately impact and spent some time offering empathy and comfort to those who were miserable.  I did send as many heart stickers as possible to my dear, sweet, hurting friends who have specific reasons for increased anxiety over this election outcome.  And this, of course, got me thinking about the horrific media coverage last night, regarding demographics.

I don’t ever recall hearing so much about the black male vote… and the white suburban female vote… and the Muslim millennial vote… and the college graduate Hispanic vote… and the Asian evangelical with more than two tattoos but less that fourteen piercings vote…  OK, I made the last one up, but my point is the newscasters seemed to feel as if it was necessary to divide people down into every possible category, and the truth is I think we have enough division and discrimination without pointing it out in this way.  Please don’t misunderstand.  I’m not saying we should ignore diversity.  I think we should celebrate it wildly!  But this was not celebratory, and the telling words were terms like “them” as opposed to “us.”  

As I thought this through, the following phrase came to mind: This nasty, white, educated woman stands with the oppressed. 

And friends, don’t worry.  There are many of us, and we are strong.  This is love.  Love will never be dictated, eliminated, or regulated.  They will know us by our love.  It can’t be stopped.  Love on…


Monday, November 7, 2016

This Started Out as a Post about My Vacuum Cleaner

When people find themselves in crisis; everyday, ordinary things become meaningful.  A friend who worked for FEMA told me this.  In the midst of disaster, it is invaluable when someone hands you a blanket… a bottle of water… a cell phone…  It’s important to be able to do something ‘normal.’

Maybe that’s why I am finding it impossible to function without my vacuum cleaner, tonight.

Please do not misunderstand.  I am no lover of vacuuming.  I remember one Black Friday when there was some amazing deal on vacuum cleaners, and my husband asked if I wanted one.  My answer was yes, but not as a gift.  He could buy me a new vacuum cleaner because we needed one, and because the price was right, but I sure didn’t want to find it wrapped up under a tree somewhere.  Gifts should be special, but there’s nothing special about a vacuum cleaner.  Nobody wants a vacuum cleaner.  Unfortunately, anyone who has carpet in their house does, indeed, need one…

I’m thinking a lot about the difference between wants and needs, lately.  Most children can name the list of basic needs by the time they’re in preschool.  Food, water, shelter, clothing… check!   Interestingly, and especially in an election year in the United States, we add sanitation, education, and healthcare to the list.  I’m cool with that.  Does my vacuum cleaner count as sanitation?  But I think the list still falls short when it does not include community. 

There was a study conducted in the 1940s during which a group of healthy babies had all of their physiological needs provided but were given no affection.  Over half of them eventually gave up trying to communicate with caregivers and died.  Clearly, we need each other.  I wonder what kinds of implications this might have for adults who have given up on communication.  Even when it doesn’t result in a lack of communication with all people, I think we die a little bit every time we lose someone who has impacted our lives in any meaningful way.  That’s crisis and disaster, if ever there was one. 

I can’t claim to be 100% sure how to fix this, but I think it might begin by engaging in the foundational, basic, respectful meeting of needs.  I think it might begin by recognizing that our failures are huge, and we actually can’t fix any of it, at all, but we do have water to offer… and wine… and bread…  I think it might begin by being present.

And it’ hard, friends.  But maybe giving up is worse.