Monday, November 18, 2013

Rooted: Beyond Pentecostal Missions [Guest Post at The Antioch Session]

I'm over at Zach Hoag's place, The Antioch Session, participating in his month long series on rethinking the missional conversation called: Rooted. I'm coming at it from the perspective of my tradition of Pentecostalism, and how I think sometimes we miss the boat on mission, which is sad, because I'd argue that Pentecost is really at the root of mission in the first place.

Here's an excerpt:

I come from the Pentecostal tradition of American Evangelicalism, where unfortunately, we don't talk a lot about being missional. In fact, I would venture to say that there is almost no participation in the missional conversation from within Pentecostalism. There are a lot of reasons, I think, but for the most part, I think Pentecostals assume they've got it all figured out already, and instead of talking about being missional, we talk about:


Now, at first blush, it sounds like a great thing (colonial implications aside), and from raw numbers, you might think that Pentecostals have it all figured out too, considering we're the fastest growing Christian sect in the world. (Take that, YRR crowd!)

What makes missions attractive to Pentecostals, I think, is that it suits our particular view of how and when "the end" might happen (most Pentecostals are sooner-rather-than-laterists). "We're saving the world before Jesus comes back, yeah!!"

What's more important though, is that it meshes well with the economic and cultural assumptions that in no small way have become a primary driver of the way we do church. To put it simply, I think that when we mix American consumerism with cultural colonialism in the crucible of an escapist eschatology (the end is near!) and a "born-again" soteriology (just say this prayer and get saved!), the resulting concept of "missions" is inevitable. We become as detached from the mission of the Gospel as we are from the Bangledeshi factory workers who risk their lives to make our designer clothes. Those of us who aren't "called" do our part and support the "crusaders" being sent out to the "heathens" all over the world and it absolves us of the responsibility of actually doing anything here at home.

It's sort of the church version of "I gave at the office."

Click over to Zach's place to read the rest.  


Monday, November 4, 2013

From Clenched Fists to Open Arms, A Review of Sarah Bessey's Jesus Feminist

A quick preface: if you aren't familiar with my somewhat rocky history in the American masculinity machine, I've written in depth about it a few times (like here, here, here), but that's not really important. Basically, it goes a little something like this: society (including the church) told me what it was to be a "man" and acting that way A) almost destroyed every relationship I had in my life and B) nearly killed me (literally). For most of my life, my default reaction to injustice was anger, to clench my fists in white-knuckled fury at the unfairness of it all. Ultimately though, I think that was a selfish response. Feeling angry gave me a chance to showcase my own moral superiority without actually doing anything about it. Anger didn't cost me anything, which meant that it wasn't really worth anything, but Sarah Bessey's life and her work, encapsulated so well here in Jesus Feminist, consistently reminds me of another way.

But enough about me, let's talk about Jesus Feminist.

Right out of the gate, let me say that I think what Sarah is doing here is really important. By putting the word "Jesus" in lights right next to "feminist," she's forcing a certain conversation that some folks would rather not have right now (or ever). Feminism has been recast in the past few decades as anathema to Christianity in many ways. Simply suggesting that one can hold to both concepts and implying that being a "Jesus Feminist" is possible in a way that will not, in fact, result in a sort of universe-destroying cataclysm, is a radical statement in itself, it would seem.

Starting with the introduction and all the way through to her hopeful commission in the final chapter, Sarah's primary mode of interaction with the reader is one of disarming. She sets the tone early on saying,
"We have often treated our communities like a minefield, acted like theology is a war, and we are the wounded and we are the wounding."
She's acknowledging up front the firepower we often bring to discussions like these, and suggests that, instead of trying to kill each other, maybe we could just try to hear each other instead. As you read on, you start to understand that this is no empty gesture. Sarah is consistently disarming in her grace, her candor, and her willingness to let us into the most intimate, most painful experiences of her life. Some people bring knives to gunfights. All Sarah brought was her story, and the result is that we cannot help but lower our weapons and listen to her tell it. So as you settle in past the introduction and into the meat of the book itself, the feeling is far more coffee (or tea!) on a Saturday afternoon than it is a sermon on Sunday or a lecture on Monday.

There are two primary arcs that Sarah weaves artfully through the book, and I'll try to do them justice here. The first is the refusal to meet the old arguments for patriarchy on their own terms. She kindly-yet-thoroughly dismantles much of the traditional case for the marginalization of women and girls in and by the church, and presents a positive, Jesus-centric ideal for the radical inclusion of women in the ongoing redemptive work of God in the world. She says,
"Instead, in Christ and because of Christ, we are invited to participate in the Kingdom of God through redemptive movement-for both men and women-toward equality and freedom. We can choose to move with God, further into justice and wholeness, or we can choose to prop up the world's dead systems, baptizing injustice and power in sacred language."
She's essentially refusing to allow patriarchy exclusive claim to the language of the divine, and it works quite well. The line about "baptizing injustice and power in sacred language" is still ringing in my ears.

In speaking of Jesus healing the woman with the crippled hand in the synagogue, she highlights the phrase Jesus used, "daughter of Abraham." This has always struck me as a really pivotal, even if often overlooked, piece of the story. With a single word, Jesus upsets generations of religions dogma and sociocultural programming. Some might ask, "to what end?" But that's the thing, we know the end, and we start to see where Sarah is taking us. The trajectory of Christ's life was always singular in its focus of reconciling creation back into shalom with its creator. Every word that he spoke was a waypoint one that journey, and this one was no different. In deconstructing the rigid gender hierarchies of His day, He was giving us a model (and I'd argue a directive) to do the same thing in ours.

In dealing with the household codes, she says they "are not universal standards without context or purpose." And I might add, "no matter how much we would like them to be." In contextualizing, she says,
"It's helpful for me, in discerning the meaning of these passages, to turn to the rest of the writer's work. In a letter to the church in Galatia, Paul wrote, 'There is no longer Jew or gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.'"
Again, she gracefully refuses to allow patriarchal voices to violate the text in order to continue to oppress women and girls. She brings the point squarely home with this:
"When women are restricted from the service of God in any capacity, the church is mistakenly allowing an imperfect, male-dominated ancient culture to drive our understanding and practice of Christ's redeeming work..."

Indeed. Here we catch a glimpse again of where she's taking us in that she's showing the utter irrelevance irrelevance of this mode of thinking. She's leading us by the hand toward something bigger, gently and lovingly telling us to just leave all of that behind for good and step into something greater.

Where Sarah really starts to sing is when she starts talking about the Kingdom of God. This second arc is the real telos underlying much of her work, and it shows. Now, it's not that the rest of the book isn't wonderful, but she really hits her stride here, especially in the latter half of the book, and you can tell it's where she's most at home.  She's part preacher, part prophet, and part political revolutionary as she says of the work women (and men) are doing all over to advance the Kingdom of God,
"Can't you see? It's all an act of protest, a snatching back from the darkness, a proclamation of freedom, a revolution of love.  And isn't it a miracle!"

She paints a picture with her words of the Kingdom of God that's so beautiful, so radically inclusive and so affirming of its constituents that it's hard to not want to be a part of it. She leaves no question about whether or not patriarchy is something that could be a part of this new Kingdom. She doesn't beg readers to take her word for any of this, but rather she invites them to walk in the fullness of what she already knows to be the truth. It is a testament to both her grace and her authenticity, I think,  that she can so plainly lay out a critique of the social system that awards me privilege at her expense, and instead of feeling rebuffed, I feel encouraged that there's something better out there for me to step into as well. "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand," Jesus said. I think what that means is finally starting to sink in. She writes,
"If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that Kingdom of God is what all of us hunger for above all other things, even when we don't know its name or realize that it's what we're starving to death for."

By the end of the book, when her song about the Kingdom of God reaches its crescendo in an exhortation and an invitation to stand up and take part in this new Kingdom, you can't help but want to get on board. And through it all, she reminds us that there is another way, that clenched fists aren't necessarily the only way we can react to the sort of systemic injustice she's combatting here. Instead, she shows us an alternative paradigm of open arms. Clenched fists are worthless but for striking out, but open arms grieve with those who grieve and comfort those who need comforting. You can slide one of those open arms around the waist of a brother or sister who's falling down and hold them up or you can lock arms in solidarity with your sisters (and brothers) across the world or right there in your hometown. Clenched fists connote  condemnation, but open arms on the other hand, that's the stuff of redemption.

"You and me," she says near the end, "we are Kingdom people, an outpost of redemption, engaged in God's mission of reconciliation.

May it be so.

There is so much more I could say about this book, but this is already dreadfully long, so I'll just say this: if what Jesus says matters to you and if you care about the future of women and girls (and men and boys, for that matter) in the church and the world, you need to read this book.

Jesus Feminist releases tomorrow, November 5th and you can order it here:

Check out what others are saying around the web and join the conversation by using the hashtag #jesusfeminist!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Imperfect and Unprepared: The Story of Every Parent Ever

I'm over at A Deeper Family today, having a little fun and giving everyone, parents and kids alike, permission to not be perfect.

We came home from the hospital with an 8 pound rage factory who hated the world unless he was nursing or in the bath. No book or class or conversation can prepare you for the sleep-deprived madness of a colicky baby. Similarly, nothing can really prepare you for the first time they fall out of a chair, or burn their hand, or drink the rotten milk from the bottle you accidentally left in their crib in your sleep-deprived stupor.
And if you tell me you were prepared the first time your son asked you a question about vaginas in a public place with his trademark disregard for the rules governing volume levels and inside voices, I’m calling you a liar right to your lying face.
Perhaps what we’re least ready for as parents though, is being confronted with how imperfect we really are.
Head over to A Deeper Family to read the rest.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

When Moving the Conversation Forward Means Shutting Your Mouth

Image Source

I've been gone from the Internets for a while. There was a house and a vacation with an unhealthy amount of time spent in cars. But I'm still alive, so here goes:

There comes a point in any conversation that is being dominated by one side or the other when the only way to move the conversation forward is for the dominant party to shut the hole in their face for a minute and listen. This is especially true when hurtful words have been used or when the arguments that have been presented have been twisted and distorted to justify all sorts of abuse.

There happens to be a conversation happening right now in my little corner of the Internet where I think this point has long since been reached. It's the conversation about modesty, and honestly, to all the bros, the dudes, the fellas, then men, and the boys it might be time to take a step back and shut the mouth for just a minute.

You may remember that I wrote about this once before here. And while there has been a lot of positive dialogue surrounding that post and posts that followed, I'm noticing a ugly theme starting to emerge from the male side of the conversation. It goes a little something like this.

"I'm sorry that we [insert example of archaic, oppressive theology of bodies and sexuality that dis-empowers and objectifies women], I really am,

BUT  <-------

And here is where you lose me, guys.
And here is where you lose credibility.
And most importantly, here is where your apology gets invalidated by everything that follows the "but."

When we say, "I'm sorry, but..." it's just another way of saying "I'm sorry you feel that way" which we all know isn't really an apology at all, but really, it's just another way of saying,

"You're still wrong."

We're called to be peacemakers, and that means in our homes and relationships as well, but we can't do that if we're so busy proving how right we are that we can't take a moment to see the incredible damage that being so wrong for so long has done. If we want to make peace, the kind of shalom that we're called to in this Kingdom of God that we pay lip service to, then we have to start in our own homes and our own relationships, with our mothers and our daughters and our wives and sisters and friends whose hearts and minds bear the scars of being told their whole lives:

"It's your fault that I am a sinner."

It's not her fault that you can not control yourself, it's yours. It's not her fault that you cheated, emotionally or physically, it's yours. It's not her fault that you can't separate a healthy biological response to physical attraction from a desire to control and possess. It is yours.

It's not her fault that you are weak, and blaming her doesn't make you strong.

It makes you a coward.

That may seem harsh, and I would say, "I'm sorry, but..." but that would kind of invalidate everything I've written so far, so I'll just say this:

There is great courage in admitting our mistakes, but our horribly distorted notions of masculinity don't really leave any room for such humility, but if we're ever going to move this conversation forward, our side needs to look something like this:

I am sorry. <---Note the period. It denotes the end of the sentence, the point at which we stop talking.

There are many ways we can say this, but they're all variations on the same theme.

I'm sorry that I've reduced you to the various parts of your body.
I'm sorry that I've used distortions of scripture as an excuse to subjugate and control you.
I'm sorry that I've taken part in trying to load the entirety of human frailty onto your shoulders.
I'm sorry that I've treated use as less than a person.
I'm sorry that I haven't tried harder to listen and understand your point of view.
I'm sorry that I've dominated the conversation for so long that you may have given up trying to speak.
I'm sorry that you've been hurt, and I'm sorry that I haven't done anything to bring healing.
I'm sorry that I've been more concerned with making a point than making peace.

I'm sorry. The end.

And then, we listen.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Tale of Two Meals

Hello friends.

I know, it has been a while. I hope you'll forgive me. I've been immersed in buying a house/moving/renovating for the last couple of months, and it hasn't left me with much time to write.

However, when Preston Yancey announced his series about the intersections of faith and food, I knew I had to participate. Hospitality is a big part of our family's history, and I wanted to share a little bit about how the table affected us, so I'm over at his place today sharing "A Tale of Two Meals":
It was ten years, 2 kids, and a lifetime later, and it was a meal of considerably less fanfare than that first one. It was a simple breakfast of pancakes smothered in fruit compote and homemade whipped cream with some bacon on the side. It was their Saturday tradition.
But it was more like a sacrament.  
Absurdly, he found meaning in the flour, peace in the whir of the mixer, and hope in the eyes of the two little ones as they licked fresh whipped cream off of the beaters. And every time he sat down at that table, he rediscovered another piece of the humanity he’d lost and found the presence of the God he’d cursed in that bitter darkness.
I hope you'll click through to read the rest, and I hope you read some of the other wonderful stories in this series.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Let's Talk About (The Way We Talk About) SEX.

Jill and I are teaming up again, this time over at a Deeper Family, and this time we're talking about sex. Should Come on over and join the conversation!

We recently came to a conclusion: there was something very wrong with the way we were talking (or more appropriately, not talking) about sex with our kids. 
I (Luke) was 12 (strike one) when my mom (strike two) first told me about sex using a cartoon book (strike three). I had learned more about sex from discarded magazines and those analog cable channels that we watched between the squiggly lines than I learned in that conversation, but God bless her, she soldiered through the awkwardness and marched on. But that embarrassment we both felt said something in itself: that sex was shameful, dirty, and not something we really talk about. 
I (Jill) was 6 when a neighbor girl told me that sex was when someone “kisses you all over every part of your body and you make a baby.” As we walked down the street pulling the wagon with our dolls in it, trying to imagine how the baby gets from the inside to the outside of the mommy, I couldn’t wait to get home to ask my mom if it was true. My mom, however, was not nearly as interested as I was in having the conversation. “You’re not old enough to know about that,” she said. So from that moment, sex was a secret, something to be hidden, maybe even something to be feared. 
And our experiences, we’ve found, are not unique. I mean, let’s be honest, positivity and openness about sex aren’t exactly common in the US period, and in the church
Forget about it.  
A lot (and I mean a lot) of us grew up with some pretty distorted and destructive views of sexuality, and like most parents, we’re just hoping that we can provide our kids something better than what we had. 
So, now we have two boys (granted, they’re only not quite 4 and not quite 2) and we’re already wondering how and when we’re going to have to start talking about these sorts of things. 
Are we jumping the gun here?
Click through to A Deeper Family to read the rest!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Old Voices and the Power of Newness (Reflections on Brueggemann's Prophetic Imagination, Part Deux)

This is the second half of a post that started over at Kelly Nikondeha's place on Wednesday. It is a personal reflection on Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination. This piece (and especially some of the language and terminology I use in it) might make more sense if you read that one first. Also, there are four other absolutely brilliant posts on her site (here, here, here, and here) that you should definitely check out as well.

Photo Credit
Those old voices don't always scream. Most of the time, they don’t have to. They whisper empty assurances and counterfeit hope into ears that are burning for songs of justice.

We hear what we want to hear, what we need to hear, what we think we hope to hear.

This is what makes the royal consciousness so insidious. It teaches us that meeting our own needs is paramount, and then teaches us what our needs are and meets them.

It is a closed system.

There is simply no room for external inputs. It is nothing if not beautifully and terribly efficient.

So we move throughout our lives oblivious to the privileges we enjoy being on the “right” side of Empire. The murmur of a thousand old voices drowns out the lonely cries for justice and lulls us into numbness saying,

“This is just the way it is.”

“Be grateful for what you have.”

“Everything is alright, as it should be.”

This is the Great Lie.

As Brueggemann puts it, “as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.” We don’t engage in serious criticism when we don’t see serious problems. We don’t grieve where there is no suffering. As long as the empire can keep us convinced that things are just fine, then the persistence of the imperial system – in the economic, political and religious spheres – is all but assured its survival.

And those old voices just keep whispering.

But once in a while, something happens. The closed system is disrupted and an external input finds its way in. Something or someone breaks in and forces us to confront the reality we’ve been shielded from our entire lives by the din of those old voices:

Things are very much not OK.

For me, this wasn’t just an intellectual or emotional realization. It wasn’t even a particularly religious experience. It was an existential one. My entire concept of reality was shaken to the core. I lost my grounding. My entire identity had been shaped by the whispers of the old voices. My truth had been dictated by the static wisdom of the royal consciousness. It’s main components – the politics of oppression, the economics of affluence, and the religion of immanence – were the three legs of the stool that I stood on to see the world around me. Suddenly they were all ripped out from underneath me, and I was in freefall.

The old voices taught me that feeling anything was wrong, but suddenly feeling nothing was replaced by feeling everything. When I dared to voice it, it was amazing how the timbre of those old voices changed. The hushed whispers became raised voices. The previously soothing tones suddenly became shrill and unforgiving. Nowhere is the terrifying efficiency of the royal consciousness as evident as when there is a hole in the façade of certainty, exposing the sheer emptiness that lay behind it.

Brueggemann highlights the impetus for such this response: “…this regime could not tolerate promises, for they question the present oppressive ordering and threaten the very foundations of current self-serving.” Even the possibility of something other than what we have, here and now, is a threat to those old voices, and they know it instinctively. Questions of inequality and promises of justice and freedom are dangerous, and hope is a kind of weapon.

But questions aren’t enough. Grief isn't enough. Promises aren’t enough. Hope isn’t even enough.

When defining the critical task of the prophet, Brueggmann highlights what he sees as the crux of the prophetic imagination, “The royal consciousness leads people to despair about the power to move toward new life. It is the task of prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God.”

Newness. Redemption. Resurrection. The Beauty of the Kingdom of God from the ashes of empire.

This is where our hope ultimately lies, in the promise and power of newness and regeneration. If we don’t believe that there really can, here and now, be an alternative to what is and what always has been, then we’re still buying into the Great Lie. But if we truly believe, as Brueggeman says, that “It is the marvel of prophetic faith that both imperial religion and imperial politics could be broken,” then we become powerful symbols of that newness as we rest in the hope of a free and loving God. Our own dynamism becomes an affront to the static lethargy of the old way. This promise of newness, of something better, erodes the ability of the old voices to lie to us and tell us, “This is the best there is.”

“The royal consciousness means to overcome history and therefore by design the future loses its vitality and authority. The present ordering, and by derivation the present regime, claims to be the full and final ordering. That claim means there can be no future that either calls the present into question or promises a way out of it.”

But those old voices cannot contain a future bursting with the promise of redemption, so we sing boldly our songs of the hope of newness.

We let grief and passion motivate and energize us and we speak truth to the power of those old voices, but tearing down the old is not enough. “More than dismantling, the purpose of the alternative community is to enable a new human beginning to be made.” So we speak up and speak out, but we “speak neither in rage nor with cheap grace, but with the candor born of anguish and passion.”

I’m terrible at this. I like to think I’m learning, but I still get angry. I’m still constantly overwhelmed with grief. I feel helpless most days, and on the days I don’t feel helpless I feel at best ineffectual. But even when I’m at my darkest, I can still find the hope of newness. The pain of grief, while never pleasant, is a constant reminder that I’m not numb anymore, that transformation has happened and is happening in me, that this person that I am today is different because of that power of newness that comes from a God of extravagant love and utter freedom. I have done terrible things at the behest of the old voices, and those things will always inform who I am, but those things are not the end of the story.

The redemption of God could no more be bound by my past than the love of God could be held by the cross or the grave.

The transformation that comes from the violent in-breaking of this radical love and the dismantling of our identities and priorities that comes along with it is perhaps the most powerful symbol we could present to a culture that has forgotten how to hope.

That’s the power of newness. That’s our hope. But we have to walk in it.
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