Dying to Self in the Age of Self-love

I am going to be raw and honest in this post. And I hope I’ll be a little bit encouraging too. I am emerging from a brutally hard season in life. But even as I emerge with my feet on more solid ground than I’ve felt in a long time, I still face a life that was not the one I envisioned as an earnest Christian teenager in youth group and then Bible college. I don’t like to talk about the details of that season publicly, because despite my freedom to share myself, public writers must grapple with the effects of their story on the others in their lives who haven’t signed up for publicity and don’t benefit from the sharing. I feel free to share privately things that I won’t share publicly and have worked to be upfront and honest with those whose ministries intersect with mine. I am at peace with how I’ve been able to work that out so far.

The bottom line for my life is that I am looking toward a life of persevering in some very hard things for the long haul. And no amount of peeling off layers of myself to get to my core heart is going to rescue me from the twists and turns my story has taken. But don’t hear fatalism in that last sentence. Like the woman diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, there is a precious jewel hidden in the layers of suffering and self-sacrifice with what seems a permanent blight on one’s life.

I have several of these blights on my life physically, which I will use to talk about lessons learned from spiritual and emotional blights as well. I have been a type 1 diabetic for over twenty years. But this year, for the first time, I showed the first signs of damage to my eyes. In conjunction, my body showed symptoms again of ankylosing spondilitis that had previously gone into remission. So I started up the first line of medicine, the easy one with the fewest side effects, that had pushed it into remission the last time. But the doctor called me Wednesday. Blood work showed problems. I will likely have to discontinue and start another one that has even more side effects. (And, yes, I see a chiropractor, talk with a naturopath, and eat a mostly gluten-free diet.)

It’s becoming natural to think of dying to myself as I face more and more physical issues that evidence the fact that my physical self is truly dying (though not any time soon). It’s actually helpful that, unlike a hard marriage or family relationship or ministry commitment, I can’t escape these physical symptoms. I can’t run from them, so I have to face them head on and figure out how to live abundantly in light of them. And that learning has equipped me to persevere in the other issues in my life that I could run from if I did not feel constrained by God’s instructions through the Word.

My dad has been a great encouragement to me. He has chronic heart failure, and we almost lost him last March. But he recovered enough to get out of the hospital, and after a day at home, he drove back up to his farm to sit in the office and “tend to business.” He bought a Gator (a farm utility vehicle like a golf cart) to drive between the tractor shed and the Quonset hut, where he restores old tractors. His hip has been bothering him, and he moves slowly. But he moves, one slow step in front of the other. He gets 10% done in a day compared to his prime years, and I fully expect to find him slumped over a tractor one day. But I applaud him for his perseverance. He models for me how I want to face both my physical limitations and my emotional ones.

Sometimes, obeying God is hard. Many days, submitting to God’s laws feels restricting. It is one thing to honor our faithful God by faithfulness in relationships when the relationships are easy or affirming. But God is faithful to us when we are faithless (2 Tim. 2:13). He persevered with us when we turned away from Him. Jesus followed through on doing the right thing at great cost to Himself.

But that sounds … hard. And herein is the great paradox that Jesus Himself taught us.

Luke 9:23-25  Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?

This is a true statement from Jesus. God doesn’t need me to affirm it for it to be true. But it is true nonetheless, and I can attest to that from my own experience. And this truth encourages me to persevere, stumbling physically and emotionally at times.

There is great talk of self-love in Christian circles right now, the kind of self-love that promotes a perceived circumstantial happiness. When I hear of Christian bloggers or authors or even just professing Christians in my own private life diverging from orthodox Christian faith or values because it is “too hard,” I feel a depressing weight on my shoulders. Their quest for happiness outside of orthodoxy demoralizes me in a way that a combative atheist never could. They demoralize me in a way that even my own particular burdens of suffering do not.

I opened up the psalms Thanksgiving morning, in the calm after prepping before thirty-something family members descended on my grandmother’s newly remodeled home into which I had just moved. It was Psalm 19, and David’s words resonated deeply with me as I contemplated yet another “Christian” author/blogger finding themselves in a way that was markedly divergent from an orthodox understanding of Scripture.

David reflects –

7 The Lord’s Instruction is perfect,
reviving one’s very being.
The Lord’s laws are faithful,
making naive people wise.
8 The Lord’s regulations are right,
gladdening the heart.
The Lord’s commands are pure,
giving light to the eyes.
9 Honoring the Lord is correct,
lasting forever.
The Lord’s judgments are true.
All of these are righteous!
10 They are more desirable than gold—
than tons of pure gold!
They are sweeter than honey—
even dripping off the honeycomb!
11 No doubt about it:
your servant is enlightened by them;
there is great reward in keeping them.
12 But can anyone know
what they’ve accidentally done wrong?
Clear me of any unknown sin
13 and save your servant from willful sins.
Don’t let them rule me.
Then I’ll be completely blameless;
I’ll be innocent of great wrongdoing.
14 Let the words of my mouth
and the meditations of my heart
be pleasing to you,
Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Dear friend who is struggling with a weight on your shoulders, one that may seem lighter to bear if you walk away from God’s instructions – DON’T BUY THAT LIE. It was the first lie ever told, and it remains Satan’s great summary temptation. “God’s instructions are a limitation. They will keep you from all you are meant to be.”

No, it is not true. Embrace the path of suffering in obedience to God’s instructions. Lose your life. Let go of yourself and your expectations. And trust God to meet you in it, redeem your story, and give you a place of import in His larger story. As you lose your right to your story, you emerge in a much greater One, and what you will find is WORTH IT.

If you are wresting through such a losing and finding, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. It is subtitled, The True Path to Christian Joy. I loved those meditations, and I can give testimony of their truths.  Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting was also a great encouragement to me as I wrestled with these truths.

I have walked a hard path, and I continue to walk a hard path. But God gave me manna to sustain me at the hardest points and has blessed me abundantly even through the taking away of things I thought I couldn’t live without. He has proven Himself to me, and He has proven the goodness of His words. When others encouraged me that I was not constrained by God’s instructions, I found instead abundant grace and help when I felt convicted that I was. But it requires faith to stay in that process. I can not produce such faith in you. And you can’t produce it in yourself. Lean into the One who can, and may you look back in future years in praise of the One who turns stones into bread, water into wine, and loss into life abundant.

16

God’s Animal Kingdom Come

I took a break Saturday from wrestling with God over the election results. I did something that didn’t seem to serve any present need in the world. It didn’t minister to my kids or my church. It didn’t further my writing ministry or help any of my community college math students. Instead, my parents watched my boys for the day so I could go out on a boat and help with a NOAA survey of inland bottlenose dolphins in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Knowing my love for marine mammals, my dad in particular encouraged me to do it despite my feelings of guilt for bailing on my parents and kids.

So I drove to Hilton Head and joined a crew who spent the day cruising inland waters in cold and windy weather. We didn’t see many dolphins until the very end of our day, when we stumbled upon a group of 8 or 10, including a mom with several juveniles. Sea birds hovered close to the dolphins as they were feeding, and one of the juveniles rose out of the water for a bit with what seemed the intent of trying to interact with the birds. We saw several other types of dolphin behavior, and despite the weather, I had a great time.

Then today, as I was making dinner and my young, curious cat watched me from the opposite island countertop (I don’t let her get on the ones where I make dinner), meowing at me from time to time in her little communicative way, it dawned on me what these interactions with animals mean to me. When I communicate with an animal or watch them communicating with each other, it pulls at my longing for God’s kingdom come. The lion lay with the lamb in the Garden of Eden, and some animals apparently even communicated with humans if we can infer anything from the fact that Eve exhibits no surprise when the snake begins talking with her.

After the Fall, though, mankind killed animals for food and the lamb became prey for the lion.  Humanity didn’t just harm animals for survival, many humans have harmed animals out of spite, hardness of heart, or worst of all a perverse pleasure in inflicting pain.

Isaiah 11 speaks of the day when animals once again coexist peacefully with humans and each other.

6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the goat.
The calf, the young lion, and the fatling will be together,
and a child will lead them.
7 The cow and the bear will graze,
their young ones will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 An infant will play beside the cobra’s pit,
and a toddler will put his hand into a snake’s den.

This peace between mankind and animals and between predator and prey is just one facet of the peace of God’s kingdom when all is restored. Isaiah goes on to talk about others that hit me where I have most wrestled this election season.

4 He will judge the poor righteously
and execute justice for the oppressed of the land.
He will strike the land
with discipline from His mouth,
and He will kill the wicked
with a command from His lips.
5 Righteousness will be a belt around His loins;
faithfulness will be a belt around His waist.

9 None will harm or destroy another
on My entire holy mountain,
for the land will be as full
of the knowledge of the Lord
as the sea is filled with water.

When I see a young dolphin interacting with a seabird or my cat meows to me that she wants another snack, I hear echos of something far off and much bigger, though I can’t quite get to it from where I am right now. It reminds me of the day when no one harms another, when life is valued, the oppressed are uplifted, and dignity is restored. Righteousness reigns in that day, because the world is filled with the knowledge of God like the ocean is with water. That is an inspiring, hopeful image.

God’s kingdom is coming. And He doesn’t come back to a marginalized church fighting off attackers in a corner of the world. That’s Scofield and Darby’s 20th century invention, not the historic understanding of Christ’s return to the church. In fact, look just a bit past our own disillusionment with American evangelicalism and rising secularism, and you will see a vibrant growing church in Africa, South America, and Asia. The basic dignity of human life is respected in more and more areas of the world. Poverty rates worldwide are at an all-time low and life expectancy at an all-time high.

Isaiah ends his prophecy,

10 On that day the root of Jesse
will stand as a banner for the peoples.
The nations will seek Him,
and His resting place will be glorious.

And with Jesus’ repeated declaration during His earthly ministry that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, I am encouraged to enjoy my interactions with my communicative cat and young dolphins having fun with seabirds, because it breaks into my discouragement when I feel overwhelmed with the pain and rancor, abusive speech and contempt for the weak in the world. It reminds me of Eden and what was likely the daily experience of Adam and Eve before the Fall. It reminds me too of the promises of God that the end is coming and it will be glorious. I hope in that Day.

Matthew 10:7 And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’

 

 

1

The Election Battle over Imago Dei

Imago Dei, from the Latin for image of God, is the doctrine from Genesis 1 and 2 that God made humans in His image in a way that He did not make even the most intelligent animal. This foundational Judeo-Christian value is why we put away for life someone who murders a human with intent and forethought, while we likely only fine them for similarly harming an animal. This doctrine links the glory of God to the dignity of humans. And this is the doctrine that has been most at stake in this election cycle.

When the DNC refused to allow any pro-life language in their party platform and primary voters decided on Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, all choice for those who believed in Imago Dei was taken away. Understand that there were no options left, and all who voted in any way (and for that matter didn’t vote) somehow contributed to our current climate of disdaining fellow image bearers.

Some have attributed non-votes, third party votes, or votes for Trump as sin, because he has and will continue to set our country back on civil rights issues. Some attribute votes for Clinton as sin, because she would have actively sought to end the ban on partial-birth abortion, a horrible procedure that murders the most vulnerable image bearers of God, image bearers who are viable outside of the womb.  In contrast, I don’t believe votes are sin and deeply value the right to vote according to your own conscience.

If as a believer you voted for Clinton and she won, I hope you would have adamantly committed yourself to correcting the party platform to include protections for life. But she didn’t win, so now we need to channel our battle for the doctrine of Imago Dei and its practical implications to the reality of a Trump presidency before us.

Donald Trump’s language throughout the campaign has been anti-Imago Dei. Clinton’s “deplorable” comment was too, but she was at least embarrassed and apologetic afterwards. Trump instead embraced such comments as essential to his campaign. And now someone who despises the essence of Imago Dei in folks who disagree with him is president, communicating that such a stance is OK and will actually get you promoted in today’s America.

Folks, we must cry out against that. And I speak particularly to white readers. Many of us have loved ones who voted for Trump with distress, wrestling over what to do. But some of us have loved ones who voted for Trump with delight, adopting his anti-Imago Dei rhetoric and continuing to do so after the election. We must rebuke racist language and actions whenever we see them and stand in the gap for friends, family, and even strangers who are under attack. In the past, I have mostly looked away when I have heard racist comments from friends or family. I thought the fact that I didn’t say it or live it was enough. But I no longer think that. Often, a simple “that’s racist and offensive” will do when calling out friends, coworkers, or family. But sometimes, you need to put your body between an abusive person and someone they are attacking in a way that may get you harmed. But, you know what? You need to do it anyway.

Here’s the thing about the doctrine of man created in the image of God. It first humbles us. We are not God. And then it lifts our heads back up. We are not dogs. We are not pets. We are not expendable. Our lives matter, and not because of what we contribute to society. This is why Jesus came to die for us. He didn’t die because lions now eat lambs or winds destroy mountains. He came to die for HUMANS, to reclaim the image of God in their lives. They were the pinnacle of creation and STILL ARE.  For all the talk of Christ dying for “such a worm as I,” that’s actually not it at all. You are not a worm. And your dirty (or scary or poor or anything) neighbor of another color or religion most certainly is not either.

Is God working to restore creation? Yes. Will one day the lion lay down again with the lamb? Yes. But that is a secondary result of God’s primary purpose in Jesus’ death.  He first came to redeem mankind.

People are crying out after this election, and many of them are oblivious to or even down right reject God as their Creator. It matters not to the inherent dignity they bear as a flawed and marred image bearer of God. Hear their concerns, and if you believe Genesis 1 and 2 (or the first chapters of Isaiah or a myriad of other passages on God’s care of the poor and oppressed), then stand in the gap for them. Seek justice. End oppression. Rebuke malicious words. And in the truest sense of the phrase, do it all for the glory of God.

When you protect mankind made in the image of God, you reflect the worth of the God who made them.

11

On Laywomen as Theologians

I was privileged to be interviewed for Christianity Today’s Podcast The Calling about my burdens for women in the church.  We talked about my start as a lay theologian, the good and bad at Mars Hill Church, and a path forward for discipling women in the deep things of the Word.

ct-podcast-image

5

The Gospel and Traditional Marriage

Traditional marriage and evangelical celebrity culture have collided the last week. I often think that the evangelical church has missed some important needs and opportunities around the topic of marriage and its role in God’s kingdom. I hope to contribute something helpful here.

It probably goes without saying that not all government sanctioned marriages, traditional or non-traditional, reflect God’s good purposes for the institution. Note that I define traditional marriage more strictly than is often used in Christian circles, particularly in terms of politics. While true traditional Christian marriage is between a man and a woman, it is also a binding covenant. I write from the United States where no fault divorce was first introduced in California in 1970 and is available in most states with very short waiting periods. In that sense, I don’t think our nation has held to traditional Christian marriage for the majority of my life.

Consider the point of a contract. I could agree to pay a bank back for a home loan without entering a contract with them. They could give me the money, and I could start paying them back every month. But the point of the contract is two-fold. It provides security for the one loaning the money (and for the one paying it back). But how does it provide that security? Not by mere good will or affection but by binding the parties so that they can not default on their promise without severe consequences. When the going gets rough and I have a hard time making my house payment, the contract causes me to work hard to preserve the relationship. Get a second job. Receive financial counseling. Sell an extra vehicle. Eat ramen for a month. Whatever the sacrifice I have to make, the contractual obligations I have are incentive for doing the work necessary to keep the relationship.

This too is the point of the Christian marriage covenant. We gather witnesses before God as we make solemn vows of faithfulness until death do us part. We do so because this solemn commitment before God provides security to both parties, a security that is necessary for human flourishing in long term relationships. We all know someone who is insecure in a relationship. Most of us at some point have felt insecure in a relationship. It is very hard to live confidently in the world in a close but insecure relationship.

The point of marriage vows is to introduce security in the relationship through commitment in the image of God, who is eternally committed to His covenant with His people. Yet, many men and women in the church have experienced a harmful lack of commitment to covenant vows. This was a problem in Jesus’ day as well.

Matthew 19

3 Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” 4 And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” 7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

(Though in Scripture the issue was primarily men putting away the wife of their youth, women in many modern cultures have reached equality with man on this issue.)

The same men who would later throw the woman caught in adultery at Jesus’ feet to be stoned want to continue the practice of putting away a wife for any reason in this interaction with Jesus. Conservative Christians often mourn the acceptance of the label of marriage for civil unions between those of the same sex. But I wish we would spend equal or more energy discipling in the value of persevering in relationship when it is hard to honor covenants made before God. Our society has been harmed greatly by sexual promiscuity outside of marriage and the easy breaking of covenants in marriage. Because we haven’t understood or celebrated such traditional marriage, we have lost moral high ground to stand on other issues.

With a stricter definition of traditional marriage, a binding covenant that restrains a man and a woman in a family unit for life, there are two particular ways to approach the gospel and traditional marriage. First, the gospel is visible in traditional marriage. And second, the gospel is needed for traditional marriage.

The Gospel Visible in Traditional Marriage

Marriage was given by God to both accomplish His purposes and to give testimony of His relationship with His people. As to the first, I imagine that God could have set up His creation with only one gender, but He didn’t. He created two similar yet different genders, and He did so with a conversation within the Trinity of creating mankind, male and female, in His/Their image. There is something in the yin and yang, give and take, tug and pull of two different genders who think similarly about some things and very differently about others, who overlap in ways and are distinct in others, that was good and helpful for God’s purposes in creation. This yin and yang of two genders extends past marriage. Dads need daughters, moms need sons, sisters benefit from brothers, and grandsons from grandmothers. This extends to relationships in the church and work environment as well. There is benefit to two overlapping but different genders approaching a task together in God’s kingdom work.

Marriage between a man and a woman was also given as a visual testimony of the gospel. Paul says this explicitly in Ephesians 5. Husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church. Wives respect their husbands and align with their mission as the church aligns with Christ’s.

But these image-bearing purposes instituted before the Fall and the potential testimony of the gospel after the Fall show the utter need of the next point.

The Gospel Needed for It

Such image-bearing purposes and gospel testimony are impossible after the fall of man without a robust understanding and application of the gospel. After the fall of man, these differences between men and women which should have worked together for God’s holistic purposes instead cause chafing. They catch on each other instead of flowing smoothly in and out of each gender’s giftings. Frankly, apart from Christ it is much easier to be in close relationship with someone who thinks just like you.

Many who put away orthodox views of traditional marriage do so because it is hard. If, because of your personal inclinations you feel attracted physically or emotionally to the same sex, then enduring in such close relationship with someone of the opposite sex seems too hard to try. But for those who do feel attraction to the opposite sex, it remains hard, and the temptation to quit on the covenant commitment remains strong, whether you experience same sex attraction or not. We need more than idealistic notions of romance to sustain us in traditional marriage. We need hope from the good news of Jesus Christ. We need to know God’s good plans for man and woman in the garden and how Jesus equips us once more to be image-bearers of God. We need to understand the Creation Mandate of Genesis 2 and 3 and Jesus’ reclamation of it in the Great Commission of Matthew 28. We need inspiration through Jesus to persevere in something that gives testimony of Jesus’ love for His Bride not because it is easy but by the very fact that it is hard.

Of course there are circumstances that call for divorce, abuse and infidelity being the primary issues. Jesus allowed for divorce, but he limited it because He knew, when the going got tough and the bloom of the wife of their youth had worn off, those with power would try to get out of marriages because the grass seemed greener in someone else’s yard. Traditional marriage gives a testimony of the good news of Jesus and His love for us, His people. But it is also this very good news that is the singular hope we have to endure and even flourish in a relationship that by definition involves two different people coming together as one, with all the struggle and work involved.

Proverbs 5:18  Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth.

1

Umbrella or Safety Net of Protection?

I have a lot of friends who grew up under the concept of the “umbrella of protection” associated with Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles. In their lives, this resulted in an authoritarian family and church structure that was particularly limiting to women. In the last few years, it’s become known that, as often happens in strict religious groups, many young women were sexually abused in families and churches that implemented Gothard’s principles. In fact, Bill Gothard was forced to resign from his organization after allegations of sexual abuse and harassment were put forward in a lawsuit.

Gothard used the phrase umbrella of protection to put forward his version of the Biblical concepts of headship and authority. I actually like the phrase, but I have not wanted to use it because of the associations with his ministry of limiting women’s voices and usefulness in the church and then using women for his own perverted sexual purposes. I haven’t wanted to talk about headship at all the last few years as my concerns grew over the theological backflips complementarian leaders such as Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem took to try to prove a headship that pre-dates the Fall in order to preserve a type of universal female submission/subordination to men.

But then I studied I Corinthians 11, the classic confusing passage on headship, for my upcoming book, Is the Bible Good for Women?, and haven’t been able to get the concept out of my head since. Like most things in the Bible, if we can get past the way a concept or teaching has been misused for private gain or to support biases against a specific group, there is always something life giving in the actual Biblical concept that aids in human flourishing. Headship is no different.

[I wrote on Thomas Jefferson as a case study in what headship was supposed to protect against in I Corinthians 11, particularly the sexual subjugation of captives prevalent in Corinth that was associated with shaved heads of captives or covered heads for protected married women.]

I Corinthians 11 speaks of God as the head of Christ, Christ as the head of the man, and the man as the head of the woman. Whatever headship is supposed to mean between the man and the woman, we can learn from the headship of Christ to His church and from God to Christ. By the way, this is why Eternal Subordination of the Son became so important to the founders of complementarian thought. They couldn’t prove an eternal, functional, categorical subordination of women to men without first proving it between Christ and God. But that ship has sailed, and I am glad to see such teaching fall by the wayside even among strong complementarian proponents.

As I pondered writing this post, I wracked my brain trying to think of the best examples in Scripture of true headship. I read through Deborah’s story in Judges 4-5, but there wasn’t enough between the lines to figure out anything of the personal dynamics of her life. I thought about Phoebe in Romans 16:7. Paul seems to cover her and protect her with his words of introduction and affirmation of her so that she is welcomed and heard by the church at Rome. Could I learn anything about headship from Priscilla? Or maybe Ruth? But then it dawned on me, as I Corinthians 11 indicates, that I should first and foremost look to Jesus!

If you want to read an inspiring case study in headship, read the book of Luke and watch Jesus’ interactions with both the men and the women in its pages (remember that Jesus is the head of all believers, male or female). I could read and reread the account of Jesus and the sinful woman at the end of Luke 7. It is such a helpful look at Jesus’ headship. According to Ephesians 5, He is the example for husbands of love, care, and self-sacrifice for their own wives.

When I look at Luke 7’s story of the sinful woman or John 8’s story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus tweaks my idea of the umbrella of protection. An umbrella stands over you. It covers you from above. But the clear indication in Gothard’s teaching of the concept was that it also limited you. You had to stay UNDER the umbrella, and if you got out from under it, you were in rebellion to authority and likely to get stoned, figuratively or literally like the woman caught in adultery in John 8. The problem in Gothard’s system was how often the ones that would figuratively stone you were the same ones claiming to hold the umbrella of protection.

There is a sense in which Jesus did indeed protect the woman caught in adultery in John 8 from being stoned, acting as a barrier between her and her accusers like an umbrella of protection. But the analogy to an umbrella misses that Jesus then sent her off. “Go, and sin no more,” He said. Rather than an umbrella of protection, I see Jesus as this woman’s safety net that allowed her to get up and go forward after a disastrous fall.

Consider the difference in a net under acrobats at a circus and the netting around an eagle at a zoo. Both limit from danger, right? But one also restricts God-given potential. The netting around an eagle may keep it from being harmed, but it also keeps the eagle from soaring over its territory and finding its own food as it was designed to do. This difference is of utmost importance in how we discuss headship, authority, and protection in Christian circles. Jesus protects us from spiritual harm, but He also sends us out to fulfill our God-given calling.

Go.

Be.

Do.

But do not go in sin. Go, be, and do as God created you to be in perfection and is restoring you now through Jesus Christ. While Jesus’ headship protects, it is also very much a launching pad for great upward mobility, for true human flourishing, though not in the sense of the prosperity gospel.

This is the type of headship Jesus models for us and that husbands should aspire to in their homes. This is the type of headship that Jesus models for us and that women should receive as beneficial, life-giving, and LAUNCHING for God’s purposes in our lives.

I am thankful in my own life to have been in relationship with a number of men in authority over me, particularly my dad and four of my last five pastors, who modeled such Christlike sacrifice and launching for me. Men who instructed me. Men who listened to me. Men who supported me. Men who had my back. Men who saw my giftings and encouraged me to develop them and use them. The limitations I have felt with them were the ones that constrain all of us, those of God’s word to us. But the safety net they provided for me have allowed me to go further and higher than I could have on my own, living out God’s call on my life and using my gifts for His name.

This is a headship that is good for women and, in turn, good for the entire Body of Christ.

23

On Being Helpful (and Sometimes Unhelpful) Allies of Black Image Bearers

This blog has always been called a “lecture to myself.” In that sense, it is fairly me-oriented. However, for this post, which still begins with a me-oriented slant, I felt it important to have the clear voice of my sister in Christ, Dierdra Gray Clark, giving insight into racial tension rather than me attempting to talk about what black folks experience.

I’ve been thinking through the complicated dynamics for Christians of different races wading in on the current issues of social justice in light of recent police shootings. I am a willing ally, raised in the lowcountry of South Carolina and privy to more than enough first hand racism to have no doubt to the authenticity of every concern from black leaders and friends that I’ve heard. On the flip side, I was raised in the lowcountry of South Carolina in an area of multi-generational racism, attending a private school that didn’t allow blacks to attend until 1985, when I was a freshman in that high school. I felt dissonance and concern with racist statements and jokes I heard for as long as I can remember. And, yet, I was raised in it as the norm. Like learning a language without thinking of how you learned it as a child, racist constructs are built, often without any personal awareness of it happening.

I moved to the most diverse zip code in the United States (98118 in Seattle) in 2003. I loved my neighborhood. I loved my boys elementary school, which was the most diverse school in our zip code. We decided to label ourselves the most diverse elementary school, therefore, in the entire United States. With over 60 different languages spoken in the school, that may well have been the fact.

I also taught math to at-risk adults in a welding program at our local community college. I got to know a large number of different men of color, many coming out of drug rehab programs, some homeless, some in half way houses. I remember when I started seeing former students around Seattle, at a light rail stop or walking along the streets of downtown. It made me happy to greet them by name and give them a hug, but I was also simultaneously aware that had I not known them in person from teaching them, I would likely have been nervous in their presence.

Which leads to another aspect of my story. In 2008, my 68 year old aunt was murdered by a young black man who knocked on her door after church one Sunday. It was devastating to our family – the kind of horrible act that you can barely start to process because the pain and senselessness of it all is too hard to face.

A few weeks after I returned from her funeral, a black man got angry at me in a parking lot in Seattle, and I had a panic attack. It terrified me. But I also knew in that moment that it was equally devastating to me and others for me to have fears of murder every time a black man looked cross to me. I knew the reasons for my negative reaction, but it was still unjust to the next guy all the same. I did at least understand that the young man who murdered my aunt was just that, a single young man. It would be hurtful if African Americans shied away in fear from my white sons or nephews after white Dylan Root murdered nine folks at Emmanuel AME Church. How unfair, how blind to the various individual stories of each unique black man I came in contact with if I projected onto young black men in general the same. I had work to do, though I didn’t know exactly how to do it.

In the elementary school, despite the fact that it was only about 30% white, white moms dominated the PTA board. When I was elected president of the PTA, I knew that had to change and thankfully had another mom on the board who was both passionate and well-trained on the subject (an important combination). I set aside 10 minutes at the beginning of every PTA board meeting, despite some push back, to discuss systemic racial injustice as we tried to get our PTA board to better reflect the families of all of our students. We planned our first PTA meeting of the year with the goal of creating a welcoming environment for all races. I was earnest and trying. I went to Mr. Green, a wonderful staff social worker who was one of the only black male role models we had in our school, and asked him to please be at this first PTA meeting and help me have a diverse group of people there so that people of color felt welcome. Later, he gently pointed out to me, correctly, some language and presuppositions I had used in planning this event. I can’t remember exactly what I said or exactly how he corrected me, but it dawned on me then, and has been confirmed many times since, that my attempts to improve and correct where I have influence still often have trappings of language of bias that offends. The mere fact that you have to ask a black social worker to help make sure you have black representation at your PTA meeting is inherently offensive to the black social worker. But he was gracious to me and helped make sure the event felt welcoming to all races. By the time I left the PTA, we had a Somali mom on the board and input from African-American staff and parents at most meetings. We hadn’t reached the goal of accurate representation on the board of the diversity of families in the school, but we had made progress.

No one has ever had to convince me of the imago Dei in the person of color. I have always known of the value of my black brother or sister as I have known the glory and worth of God. But like my first book, Practical Theology for Women, this theology means nothing if not attached to practical reality. Just as looking at my practical responses in trial clarified what I truly believed about God, looking at our practical responses around racial issues clarifies what we really believe about humanity as image bearers of God.

Here, at this blog which was originally conceived as lectures to myself, I write on this from time to time. But early on when writing about it, I recognized as I did with Mr. Green at the elementary school that it is easy to offend through assumptions we don’t even know we are making.

10487385_10154303049035284_5774874183165680281_nI’ve asked Dierdra Gray Clark to interact with me on the blog today around this tension. After hearing how an officer referred to Terrence Crutcher as a big, scary dude before he was fatally shot, I wrote recently on my Facebook page of the need for whites to continue to work to rid themselves of such biases. Dierdra responded with a comment about the demoralization for her to hear of people still having to work to see a black man broken down on the side of the road as a human deserving of basic dignity. We dialogued some about this, and I wanted to bring some of her thoughts to the blog.

Dierdra, please tell us about yourself and then speak into the tension of how whites can harm when trying to understand or even help.

I am a northerner and to be more specific, a New Yorker. Educated in the suburbs of New York City and then the halls of New England’s elite colleges and universities, I mistakenly made my way through life thinking my education and associations would insulate me from the vestiges of discrimination and racism. This of course was the hope of my parents, as well as generations of African Americans who marched, protested and fought for the opportunities that I have been afforded. Our God was the one after all who brought our people out of slavery, through Jim Crow laws, to a black President in the White House today.

But despite all of this, I was also aware that the hope of my parents was not quite the reality. I knew that hiring practices were different for African Americans. As I looked for jobs, I was aware of how I dressed or how I wore my hair, always knowing that the color of my skin could impact my success in a job interview in a way very different from my white college classmates. I joked about not being able to get a cab in New York City, but really that is not a joke. I knew my brother and father were subjects of DWB (driving while black). I sometimes heard disparaging remarks about blacks, often waiting for my white friends to step in only to be left to endure it on my own. While no one called me a racial slur, slaps in my face and slight indignities are very familiar.

Despite everything I knew and had experienced about race, I had no idea how much more I would feel the impact of race in my life once I married my husband, who is white. While our love for each other has provided some protection against the sordid history of race in America, neither one of us was prepared for how the repeated viewing of police brutality on our smart phones and on the nightly news could shift the ground in our very own home.

Almost anyone who is black has a relative or friend who has experienced a negative encounter with the police. For blacks, the police and the criminal justice system are not places of safety or peace. My husband’s reality is quite different. For him the criminal justice system is a place he goes to find justice and fairness. Despite my best attempts, it is hard to not have flashes of anger and despair about this fact. To see this up close and personal is sometimes very hard to accept.

Speaking into the tensions

I remember some time ago my father-in-law told me that I sounded angry about race. I was somewhat befuddled, confused and annoyed. Of course I was angry. Hadn’t he been watching what was on the news? Didn’t he see the same videos that I did? But it was at that moment that I realized that we were experiencing two entirely different Americas. This is not to excuse him. To be honest, in past conversations I might write him off as ignorant, misinformed or even racist. But I could not do that this time. My in-laws, who live in Kentucky adore my children. Every summer my children spend summers with them in Kentucky. They visit museums, learn about the derby and get pampered from head to toe by their grandparents. The relationship between my in-laws and my children is so strong that I believe there is nothing they would not do for my children—and by extension for me. Yet there exists this tension, or divide between the world I experience, the world my nephews, brother and father experience, and the world my husband and his parents experience. Because whites do not experience the same indignities, the same injustices, the same brutality, the same systemic inequalities, they question what blacks are seeing and feeling. This is heartbreaking and maddening at the same time.

My father-in-law did not mean me any harm when he asked about my anger. I have no doubt that he loves me. But here I was once again explaining the injustices, explaining the indignities, and giving reasons for the righteous anger that is part of my very existence. Sadly, when I need to prove myself to even well meaning whites, the chances of reconciliation and understanding feel slim to none. I feel once again that my views and life experiences are not as valid as those of white America. And we are back at the beginning, a place where I feel lesser valued than my white counterpart. When this comes from a white Christian, I am left to wonder if they really believe the doctrine of the Imago Dei. This is a tough place to be.

I believe God when he says in the second commandment to love your neighbor. I believe Paul when he teaches that the Church has a ministry of reconciliation through Christ. I believe the biblical text points us towards the need to be in relationship with each other. In these times especially, we need relationship not just with those that look like us, but particularly with those that are a different color.

One thing Wendy asked me to speak on is practical dos and don’ts for people who want to be in a place of reconciliation and understanding. The work Wendy did to address the lack of representation on her school’s PTA board was a good example (of both what to do and not to do). The most important thing for me is what Wendy alluded to. For Christians to really believe the doctrine of imago Dei. For my white allies to listen to their fellow Christian sister and brother of color, and to truly know them personally.

Thank you, Dierdra, for opening yourself up to us. Your story of two different Americas depending on race is valuable for those of us who have not lived your story to understand. I know it is painful to regularly have to defend yourself to those who only point out the anger rather than lamenting the injustices that provoked it.

To friends and readers who need to do the work to recognize biases and disconnects between what you say you believe about imago Dei and the reality of your practice – if you have to do the work, do the work, but understand why it is offensive and wearisome to your black friends that you have to do the work. If you don’t like black anger, first and foremost lament with your black brothers and sisters the causes of such anger and then work to address the injustices they reveal.

To black brothers and sisters who find the need of white folks to do such work offensive – yes, I understand that completely. It is offensive. You bear inherent dignity that should be as easily recognized in the church as that of the unborn infants we often rally to protect, and no one should even have to say it. And, yet, the work needs to be done nonetheless. My encouragement is that the harvest is plenteous in this particular avenue of gospel work. The kingdom of God is coming and His will is being done as many denominations and individuals within them recognize past and present sins and repent. Please stay as a worker in this harvest, God’s harvest. You will be blessed with fruit even as you endure through the weeds and thorns.

And always know that our God sees.

Psalm 10

10 The helpless are crushed, sink down,
and fall by his might.
11 (The oppressor) says in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

12 Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
forget not the afflicted.
13 Why does the wicked renounce God
and say in his heart, “You will not call to account”?
14 But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation,
that you may take it into your hands;
to you the helpless commits himself;
you have been the helper of the fatherless.
15 Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer;
call his wickedness to account till you find none.

16 The Lord is king forever and ever;
the nations perish from his land.
17 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

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