Archive for the ‘Vocation’ Category

Slavery Is Bad – Unless It’s Good

October 8, 2018

The basic idea of feminism as I understand it:

Is that women and men are equal, but women haven’t been treated as equal.  They won’t be fully equal until they are emancipated from the economic and social constraints that have bound them through the years.  One of these constraints is the fact that, unfortunately, they are the bearers of children and, unfortunately, children need their mothers.  We don’t have a solution for that yet, but  we’re working on it.  In the meantime, women should be encouraged to work just like men work, and should be freed from the penalties of being out of the workplace to take care of their children until the children are old enough to be shipped off to early childhood care or preschool.  Motherhood and the constraints of child-bearing are part of the slavery imposed on women (by men, no doubt), but should be fought against and equalized in every way possible until  we figure out how to make men have babies.

So to free women from the slavery we allege child-bearing and child-rearing to be, our solution is to impose that exact slavery, the very slavery we are trying to free women from, on men.  We will force men to do what women have traditionally done but don’t want to do any more.   

In the name of equality.

There are undoubtedly spectrums and nuances to this and varying degrees of agreement and support.  But this is what gets published.

Literally.

The Wall Street Journal ran an essay a couple of weeks ago advocating for mandatory maternity leave for men, and arguing that this would ultimately be a good thing for the family.  They literally quote an executive:  “Bias plays such a clear role, we decided we are going to say, ‘It’s not an option.  You [men] have to take time off.'”

So in the interest of freeing women from a perceived form of slavery, the answer is to impose that same slavery on men and call it a good thing rather than a bad thing.  I understand the goal – the goal is that men and women are equally employed across all sectors earning equal amounts of money.  That all sounds rather fascinating and good – in and of itself.

What this article does not address at all – similar to a recent Time article on this topic in Sweden, is what’s best for the baby/child, and even what may be most desirable by the woman/mother.   The baby/child/family is treated ultimately as a secondary concern to personal vocational advancement.  The assumption is made that neither mother or father are really all that crucial to raising a healthy child – physically or emotionally (and of course we won’t even acknowledge the spiritual component).  Family is a distant second (or maybe even third) consideration.  What matters most of all is work.  Earning money.  Nothing is said about why or towards what end.  Earning money is the Holy Grail of feminism.  If you earn the same amount as a man, you’re finally equal.  No other metric will do.

I don’t consider it accidental that since the institutionalization of dual-income families the mental and emotional health of children seems to have declined precipitously.  Depression rates are apparently skyrocketing, and while some might chalk that up to better diagnoses, perhaps we also  should think about other more fundamental reasons why kids might be more depressed these days.  Factor in bullying by peers that no longer is restricted to school hours but can go on non-stop, 24/7 through the use of technology, and children seem to face a far more  hostile landscape than in previous generations.

Of course we can make all of this sound selfless.  After all, mom and dad are spending all their time and effort at work to make life better for you, Junior.  To ensure that you get the toys you want, live in the right school district, can attend the best universities, and in turn get the best jobs that will continue this cycle.

But what if kids really don’t need all of that?  What if kids really need their moms and dads?  What if emotional security and health begins with this rather than with school counselors and therapists and psychiatrists?   What if we’re killing ourselves for the wrong things, and equality is found in something other than a paycheck?  What if we  prioritized the family as the most important thing, and acknowledged men and women’s equally important and necessary and even unique roles in the family instead of treating them as interchangeable parts on an assembly line?

Radical thinking by today’s standards.  Just the sort of backwards, chauvinistic and misogynistic thinking to be expected of a man, I’m sure some might say.  But I’m willing to stand with what the Bible says – which is that our equality and value doesn’t come from what we do, but simply from the fact that we are.  That an employer or a paycheck doesn’t determine our worth, but rather the fact that God created us in the first place.

Of course this has a lot of implications on topics like abortion, euthanasia, family life, gender roles, and all manner of different things that certain groups in our society have decided they can arbitrarily change.  Even by natural selection and evolutionary standards though, the idea that we can arbitrarily redefine all of these evolved traits and characteristics is illogical.  Some might even call it arrogant.  But I guess if you decide you’re smarter than hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, you can make that argument.  I’m just not so sure you should trust that conclusion.

What makes you valuable?  Who makes you equal?  Nobody in this world – including yourself.  We dicker and fight about external means of  making people equal but I don’t know anyone who feels internally like they measure up, like they’re as good as everyone else or sometimes anyone else.  Those doubts and fears won’t be addressed by laws and business practices or more money in a paycheck.  Those issues can only be solved by God.  The God who created us equal in the first place, and who is re-establishing that equality through the voluntary death and resurrection of his Son.  Who insists that switching one form of slavery for another is no solution, and that nothing less than truly being free in Him will substitute.

I pray to be man enough to value and esteem a woman not because of her job or whether she earns more or less or the same as I do.  Just as I shouldn’t value or esteem her based on her looks.  But rather only on the fact that she is.  That God the Father created her, God the Son died for her, and God the Holy Spirit seeks to lead her back into a proper relationship with him that will reorder every other relationship in her life, including the one with herself.

Of course, I pray to be man enough to value and esteem a man for just the very same reason.  That sounds a lot more like equality than mandatory paternity leave does.

 

 

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Book Review: The Daniel Dilemma

October 1, 2018

The Daniel Dilemma: How to Stand Firm and Love Well in a Culture of Compromise

by Chris Hodges

As a Lutheran, I’m a bit cursed.

That may have conjured a variety of thoughts for you, but I had a specific application in mind.  It comes to a basic difference in how to read Scripture.  Is it a story about us, an exhortation and encouragement and threat to constantly do better, live more faithfully, be more deserving of God’s grace and love, or is it a story about God and how good and faithful and persistent He is despite our constant rebelliousness, disinterest and apathy?

There are two caveats I need to acknowledge.  First off, I think most intelligent or mature Christians would be likely to say it’s the latter.  Lutherans aren’t unique in this.  Secondly, once everyone says this, many Christians (including a good number of Lutherans) proceed to gobble up books and instructions that place the emphasis squarely on what we should be doing, rather than emphasizing God’s grace.

To be fair, you aren’t going to sell many books by telling people to just focus on how loving and gracious and good God is to us and allow that to percolate through you and work itself out in a life of faith.  I just did it in one sentence.  Even by Twitter standards that’s pretty short.

On the other hand, you can write endless books interpreting Scripture as one long warning or encouragement to faithfulness, promising any number of fascinating rewards, from personal health and fitness to national renewal.  And since we all like good stuff, these books are constantly churned out.  Whereas the Bible – which tells us we’ve already gotten the good stuff in Jesus the Christ, the Son of God incarnate who lives and dies and rises again to convey his forgiveness and perfection to us – is, well, just one book.  And copyrighting it can be very complicated, I’m guessing.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t think about how to live our lives as Christians.  It isn’t, Lord knows, that we couldn’t be doing a better job of it.  But most books focus exclusively on this – what we call sanctification, the process of becoming more and more the holy and righteous person we will be on the day of Jesus’ return.  Most books pay lip service at best to the actual Gospel – that Jesus has done all of this for us already, and while this will certainly transform us in surprising ways, we are actually free.  Free to live out our lives in joyful response to God’s goodness.  Free to love others sacrificially.

Books that focus almost exclusively on our life of faith and almost not at all on God’s grace in Christ tend to enslave people though.  They give the impression – often well-intentioned or not intended at all – that if we don’t do better, God is probably going to love us less and we’ll miss out on all the cool stuff He wants to give us or do through us.

That’s a heavy load.

Lutherans balk at that load.  That’s not the Gospel, we say.  That’s transforming the grace and love of God into a work we have to earn, we say.  That’s not freedom, it’s just more chains and slavery, we complain.

The challenge is that there is a lot of room to talk about the life of Christian faith and our response to God’s love.  Lutherans may sometimes miss this or not talk about this out of fear that people will hear the Gospel being turned into Law, freedom into enslavement.  So it’s tricky.

Enter this book.

It’s a predictably engaging and affable book by a pastor of a huge church in the Southeastern US.  While I’m not personally familiar with him, I assume he’s earnest, kind, faithful and honest.  That these traits have enabled him to be very successful as a pastor and now also as an author and probably speaker.  So be it.  None of those things really matter to me, since I’m not his parishioner or in the same ministerial circles to be a brother pastor to/with him.  All I have is his book.

And his book is a lot of Law.

It’s not that, as the Law, it’s bad or wrong.  It’s just that it’s the Law.  And while he undoubtedly mentioned Jesus and love and grace and forgiveness a lot in the 250 or so pages, the much greater bulk of the book is aimed at trying to get Christians to actually live the way the Bible describes or prescribes.  He often uses italics at the end of chapters to drive his point home.

  • Have a good attitude.
  • Don’t wait until you have a breakdown.  Do it now.
  • The scales are waiting.
  • Don’t wait.  Don’t put it off.  Do it now.
  • The choice is yours.
  • Do what God wants, not what people want.

I get it.  You’re reading his book.  He has your attention for a few moments, and he wants to drive home the urgency of his message and he wants you to begin changing your life right now.  All well and good.  I’d argue it’s all well and good for a pastor to say to his congregation, whom he has a relationship with and a means of being in contact and follow-up with.  It’s a lot harder in a book.  In a book, it’s just a lot of pressure.  Failure to do these things, it is implied, is failing God.  And failing God either results in a less joyful life, or possibly eternal damnation.  Also true.  But again, a lot of pressure on the random reader who may have no other connection to Christian community or teaching.

The book allegedly utilizes the story of Daniel in the Biblical book of Daniel to provide insights into Christian living in a foreign culture.  Frankly, his use of Daniel is rather thin, and he goes long stretches without referencing him at all.  He utilizes a broad cross-section of Scripture otherwise along the way.  And his conclusions – none of which in and of themselves are bad – are appropriate in any context, not just in a culture that insists on compromise in belief and behavior.  Christians are to live out their lives of faith regardless of the particular cultural setting they find themselves in, just as they would live out their faith in essentially the same way regardless of whether they lived in Hawaii or Antarctica.

Throughout, he utilizes the Bible primarily to show us how we should be faithful.  Again, this is fine to a point.  But at other points it really seems to stretch this way of reading Scripture.

The most challenging, for me, came early on, in Part 1, starting around page 40.  Here Hodges relates Daniel 1:15-19, which describes how Daniel and a few other promising prisoners of war are put on the fast track to upward mobility in a foreign culture and government.  Part of the benefits of this are that they get the best of everything.  In fact, they eat the same stuff the king does.  Sounds like a great benefit, right?

Not if you have some very specific dietary restrictions.  Which the Israelites did (and faithful Jews today still do).  So Daniel’s response to this generosity is to ask – politely – permission to follow a diet more faithful to their faith, and if the results aren’t good enough in terms of their health and appearance, they’ll switch over to the king’s food.  At the end of the trial period, Daniel and his buddies who eat the alternate diet are stronger and better looking than any of the people eating from the king’s table.  So much so that the diets for all of the trainees are changed over to vegetables and water, just like Daniel and his buddies.

Hodges highlights this as an example of great faith on the part of Daniel and his buddies.  It’s an example of Daniel seizing an opportunity to test his faith, and being proved faithful in it.  It almost sounds as though Daniel’s faith was the cause of the turnout of the experiment.

First, I’d argue that rather than being an epic issue of faith, this is first and foremost an issue of training and therefore preference.  Having presumably been raised on a kosher diet and warnings against food prepared by outsiders who might not keep kosher or who might dedicate their foods to false gods, this would be the natural response for Daniel.  If you visited Vietnam (as I had the chance to a few years ago) and had the opportunity to eat dog, perhaps you would pass on this.  Our American culture finds that very inappropriate and disgusting.  Of course you’d ask for something else.

Secondly, if it is an act of heroic faith on Daniel’s part, it is God who gets the glory for both strengthening Daniel to stand firm in his faith and then blessing the outcome to vindicate Daniel’s faithfulness.  But these aspects are not mentioned at all.  The whole story becomes a moral model and encouragement for you and I to follow.  The emphasis is on Daniel, and therefore on you and I, rather than on God the Holy Spirit who is both the source of our faith and the promised presence of God with us in faith.

The rest of the book follows pretty much the same line.

Again, it isn’t that we all don’t need reminders and encouragements to deepen our faith.  But a book like this ultimately gives the impression that this is primarily our responsibility.  Biblically and anecdotally, I’d argue this is a false impression.  St. Paul sometimes has to clarify what behaviors are and aren’t appropriate for Christians, but he also clearly understands that whatever good there is in him to pursue those appropriate behaviors is not himself but rather Christ working in and through him.  This distinction is largely lost or ignored in this book.

Based on the title of his book, I think the best chapter in the whole book is the last one.  Ironically, it’s the chapter he begins with I hope you haven’t started with this chapter.  Yet this chapter reflects a more appropriate emphasis on the grace of God the Holy Spirit at work, and our chief tool in terms of prayer.  I wish more of this had permeated the rest of the book!

I read this because it sounded like an appropriate book for our times.  What I found was neither very deep exploration of Daniel and other of God’s people who lived in challenging times, nor anything very particular to challenging times.  If you proclaim Jesus as your Lord and Savior, live like it.  But remember even as you do this that it’s not really you doing it – once again it is God giving you the will and the strength and the power for you to put into use.  As such, you don’t get the glory when you succeed, or the right to look down on others who struggle more than you do.  And on the flip side, when you fail you rely on grace and forgiveness as an encouragement to get up and try again.

And in all of this, seek to live out the Reader’s Digest version of the Commandments – Love God, and Love Your Neighbor.  Whether they like you or not, whether they agree with you or not, and whether you really want to or not.

I think that last line was the sequel to my earlier book in this blog.  I’m on a roll.

 

 

 

 

Women’s Roles in the Church

September 27, 2018

The idea has been brought up in the last nine months that perhaps our congregation should have women Elders.  Our denomination traditionally has fought against this practice, although it is technically permissible through the careful wording of language in a congregation’s Constitution (which must be vetted and accepted by our polity in order for a congregation to be truly affiliated with the denomination.  So, as a pretty traditional and conservative Church body, we stand with the predominant Christian practice of the last nearly 2000 years and do not generally permit women Elders, and never women pastors.

There are exceptions, of course, to allowing women to be Elders and interestingly enough our two closest daughter congregations both allow it.  This is one of the reason some of my parishioners are asking about it.  Other reasons include some people growing up in other denominations that allow women pastors and Elders.  And of course our cultural climate for the last 50 years has really stressed that if women are to be considered equal to men, they must do identical things to men.  This is  not an option for strident feminists.  A woman should get a college education and join the workforce and stay in the workforce.  The maternal instinct should be shunted to the side as much as possible, and certainly a woman who truly upholds the equality of women should never opt to be a stay-at-home mom.  Equality requires that we be identical, our culture says, and our parishioners are hearing this message loud and clear and internalizing it.

So it was that I received a short note asking me why I didn’t think women were worthy to be Elders and bringing up two New Testament women who some think were not just Elders but perhaps even pastors – Priscilla  and Phoebe.  After clarifying that this is not an issue of worthiness or capability, but rather a matter of maintaining God’s Word to us that our value and worth is contingent not on what we do or don’t do but rather on the fact that God the Father created us, God the Son died for us, and God the Holy Spirit seeks after every last one of us, here is my quick treatment of Priscilla and Phoebe.

Priscilla – Our knowledge of Priscilla comes from four places:  Acts 18, Romans 16:3, 1 Corinthians 16:19, and 2 Timothy 4:19.  These passages tell us she was married to a man named Aquila who were Jews and tentmakers like St. Paul, had been expelled with other Jews in Rome likely in association with the Emperor Claudius sometime between 41 and 54 AD (probably 51-52 based on the reference to the proconsul Gallio).  These events are referenced as well by several Roman historians.  They are Paul’s travel companions from Corinth (where he meets them in their exile) to Syria.  They remain in Ephesus while Paul continues his travels, and it is in Ephesus where they meet Apollos and expounded or proclaimed to him the Christian faith more fully.  They are also in Rome and are referred to by Paul as co-laborers or co-workers in Christ.  They are said to host a church in their home in Corinth.
What do we learn from this?  Aquila and Priscilla are valued and trusted friends and co-workers with St. Paul.  Together they are credited with laboring on behalf of Christ, including the further education of Apollos.  Priscilla is not singled out in any of these things, but is treated as a partner with Aquila.  The reference to them as co-workers in Romans 16:3 is not a theological or church term, but a common expression of someone working together.  It doesn’t mean that they were necessarily doing the same things, but that they worked together.  Paul makes it very clear that there are many ways to serve Christ in the church (1 Corinthians 12), and not all of them are the role of Elder or Pastor.  The fact that Aquila and Priscilla serve Christ does not mean they are doing the same things Paul is doing.  And the fact that they host a church in their home does *not* necessitate that they were the leaders of that church.  Paul nowhere makes that assertion, and I most frequently hear that interpretation of the texts by people who already have made up their mind that women ought to be pastors or Elders/leaders in the Church and go off looking for texts to support their point of view.  An objective reading of the verses about Priscilla do not, I believe, lend themselves to this interpretation.  Particularly when we recognize that nowhere else in Scripture are women understood to serve in official capacities within the priesthood or Church, and that Paul specifically cautions against this elsewhere.
Phoebe – She has only one mention in Scripture – Romans 16:1-2, where Paul greets her as a deacon in the Church and a sister in Christ.  He instructs the Roman Christians to receive her and to be of whatever assistance to her they can.  Some scholars presume that she might be the person carrying Paul’s letter to the or perhaps even reading it to them.  Once again, he clearly has respect and appreciation for her and her work on his behalf and Christ’s.  But once again, there is nothing specific in what Paul says about her or  her work that would lead us to assume – again especially in light of Paul’s other words on the topic of women in leadership – that she is a pastor or an Elder.  Deacon is a Greek term typically interpreted as servant.  Because of Paul’s usage of the word, it has come to have a more specific, Church meaning as some sort of professional Church worker.  I assume this is why some translations don’t use the word deacon in Romans 16:1 – to avoid some of the confusion that has evolved regarding the word vs. the church function.  The question then hinges on how Paul uses the word deacon, and whether we can or should interpret this to be strictly or even primarily any sort of pastoral or spiritual oversight role.
Paul uses the word deacon in six places:
  • Romans 16:1 – in reference to Phoebe without further clarification
  • Philippians 1:1 – mentioned along with the overseers of the congregation, implying perhaps that deacons – while serving an important role – are not the leaders/overseers of the church –
  • 1 Timothy 3:1-12 – Paul lays out the qualifications for overseers as well as deacons, indicating fairly clearly that their duties were not the same.  The qualifications of a good deacon are considerably fewer in number and scope than the qualifications to be an overseer.
Once again, a straightforward reading of these verses would not lead us to think deacons were the same as overseers/pastors/Elders, but rather serve another function within the Church that bears mentioning along with overseers/pastors/elders.  Again, most arguments that Phoebe was essentially a pastor or elder are made by people who seem to have their minds made up on the subject already, and who are also blatantly ignoring Paul’s other teachings on this topic (most notably, 1 Timothy 3:12).  Towards that end, there are a few other references that are often brought up such as Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2-3.  They are also acknowledged and praised and thanked by Paul as co-workers working closely with him in his ministry, but not said to be doing the same things he is.  Also frequently mentioned is Galatians 3:28.  But it is clear contextually that Paul doesn’t mean that these differences don’t exist.  There clearly are still men and women, still Jews and non-Jews, still those who are enslaved and those who are free.  His argument has to do with the freedom we have in Christ as opposed to the constraints often endured culturally or societally.
The argument that women were leaders in the early Church requires a backwards reading of today’s ideas of equality and feminism into Scripture.  The argument today is that equality means doing the same things – and this is never the Scriptural definition of equality.  The argument today is that if women are not doing the same thing as men, it is tantamount to oppression by men and a betrayal of their gender by women, neither of which is Biblical (or frankly even logical!) in the least.
Biblically, our value and worth come from the fact that we are creations of God the Father and bear his  image, not what we do.
For 2000 years the Church has tried to give witness to this Biblical truth.  We are created equal but different.  Oftentimes that message has been confused or warped by sinfulness.  It has certainly been used inappropriately as a tool for oppression or suppression of women by men.  But the fact that we misuse it sinfully sometimes does not deny the essential truth behind it.  Frankly, our misuse of it only further heightens the validity of the situation.  In Genesis 3 God tells Eve that part of the effects of sin in her life and the life of her gender will be a constant struggle with men for control, and that more often than not, women will lose that struggle.
It has nothing to do with ability.  Men and women are equal before God, and have equal and intrinsic value and worth.  They have different giftings and abilities as well.  I  know women who would be far better pastors than some guys I know!  But that doesn’t mean we are free to arbitrarily define or redefine Biblical reality.  Even if we don’t understand the reason, we are to remain faithful to God’s Word to the best of our ability.  Women voluntarily recognize this authority and submit to it – it is not a means for men to exert control over women.
The LC-MS acknowledges that, despite 2000 years of church history, sometimes congregations feel compelled to make women Elders.  We tend to resist this as the Elders traditionally carry authority similar to the Pastor, and so confusion can be started.  If women can be Elders, why not Pastors?  So the LC-MS has discouraged the use of women Elders.  Yes, there are LC-MS congregations (locally!) who have women Elders, and loopholes exist Synodically that allow this.  Does that mean we should do it?  The fact that a loophole exists does not mean that it must or even should be taken.  The larger question is how does our congregation sees herself in 2000 years of Christian history and practice, and what are the overwhelming arguments put forth that women should be Elders here?  Is it simply a matter of convenience?  Is that an adequate argument against a pretty strong and consistent Scriptural argument against such a practice?  Should we go ahead and permit women Pastors as well?  The LC-MS draws a very firm line on this one!  But if women are up helping distribute Communion, isn’t that similar to being a pastor?  The questions continue and flow out from there.
So, it is not a matter of capability or  worth, but an attempt to hear what God’s Word says.  There are some who will abuse God’s Word to make women inferior to men.  They are sinful and wrong who do this.  Women are every bit equal to men, but that very equality requires that women be women and men be men, rather than attempting to take on one another’s roles.

 

Calculated Risks

August 30, 2018

Every Thursday night now, for the past month, we’ve started taking calculated risks.

We don’t think of it this way, but that’s certainly part of it.  What we think of is just inviting people into our home for time and dinner, and this in itself isn’t too unusual.  Practically every night of the week we have one or more people outside our immediate family breaking bread with us.

But our Thursday guests each week are a little different – we try not to think of them that way, though others might.  They come from a local rehabilitation program, clients of a one-year residential treatment program for women suffering from drug and alcohol addiction.  We’ve had a dozen of these women to our home in the last month, in groups of three.  These women span the cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic spectrum.  They come from all over the country, from backgrounds either urban or bucolic, nightmarish or right off the set of Leave It to Beaver.  Yet each one for various reasons has found herself in the grips of serious addiction.

That grip pervades all of a person’s life, eventually.  What becomes optional, then manageable, then functional, finally becomes out of control.  Jobs can’t be held.  Families can’t be held together.  Jail and even prison are not unusual locations either short or long-term for some of these ladies.  Working in the recovery community as  I have for roughly the last seven years, I know these things.

We opened our home to these ladies to give them a taste of something they aren’t able to access very easily or often – home.  A place where they aren’t defined by their addictions of  the past or their recovery at the present or the uncertainty of their futures, but where they’re just friends invited to join us around the dinner table, or to play video or card games with our kids.  Where they’re free to just laugh and be.  No expectations.  No duties (other than helping with dishes a little bit!).  Last night the kids  led us all in making homemade spaghetti noodles for dinner.  It was a lot of work and didn’t go entirely as planned – at least initially.  But everyone had fun and enjoyed themselves.

There are risks with being open with people.  A friend of my wife’s – a fellow home-school mom – pointed that out to her the other afternoon.  She was concerned that we might be allowing people with criminal records into our home.  She was concerned for us, of course, and I appreciate that.  Nobody wants anyone else to get hurt, after all.

But life is full of calculated risks.  The challenge is that everyone uses slightly different variables in their calculations.  We don’t find the risk unbearable to have these ladies in our home.  Someone else would.  My wife and I have discussed the need to talk with our kids about being careful with people (not these people, specifically, but people in general) as they more and more find themselves in the world and negotiating the world on their own.  Not everyone can or should be trusted.  Not everyone is safe.  There are people out there who will hurt you and take advantage of you.

But in addition to teaching them how to be safe, we have to demonstrate to them how to make sure that the quest for safety doesn’t replace the very necessary calculation of risks with the goal of being as open as possible.  The goal should be openness as much as we can.  I think Scripture calls us to this.  It’s a means by which we love our neighbors.  But if we let it, our fear of being hurt can overwhelm our calling to love and serve one another.  We can quit bothering to really calculate the risks and simply opt for a very insulated life.  Ultimately this not only isolates us, it fosters attitudes towards others that aren’t just uncharitable, they’re unChristian.

What’s your risk calculation?  At what point do you draw the line?  We all draw lines – we all have to as sinful people in a sinful world.  Lines aren’t in and of themselves wrong, and I don’t fault people if they draw a line closer in than I do, and I try not to feel guilty when someone else has a line much further out than mine.  But how do I pray and work to extend those lines out as far as possible?  How do you strive to share yourselves with others?  These are important questions for people of faith to ask themselves in a media climate the fosters only fear and distrust.

Our answers to these questions can make huge differences, both in our own lives and the lives of those around us.

The Miracle Whip Jar

July 16, 2018

In the cabinet in the sacristy where we keep the wine and wafers for Holy Communion locked up there is a Miracle Whip jar.  I am no expert on Miracle Whip jars, but I suspect that this is an old one.  At least 30 years old.  Probably more in the neighborhood of 40 years old.  Possibly 50 years old.

It does not have mayonnaise in it any longer, in case you’re worried.

When a package of Communion wafers is opened but not all of them are needed for that Sunday’s consecration, the remainder are put in this jar to keep them as fresh as possible.  Frankly, this to me is an oxymoron, as there are few things in this world as un-fresh as Communion wafers.  The  irony is more than tragic,  in my opinion.

So for 30, or 40, or 50 years, the people who set up Communion for my congregation have used this jar.  This jar pre-dates my pastorate considerably.  There is a possibility the jar is older than I am.  But I almost invariably smile when I unlock the cabinet and see it there.

It’s a reminder to me.  This is not my church.  As pastor, I don’t own this place, I don’t get to dictate what happens here.  In matters of theology and practice I of course have a distinct voice.  Not infallible, though.  Not necessarily.  But in other matters of the life of the church and the future of the congregation, I am not the one who should call the shots.  This congregation has been around since 1915.  They have had a variety of pastors, some better and some worse, depending on who you ask.  I pray to be one of the better ones but also realize that I am always a slipped word,  an angry outburst, a prideful disdain away from becoming one of the worst.

I came to serve and I continue to serve, as our Lord served his disciples, washing feet – even the feet of the one who would shortly betray him.  I have my ideas about things, my dreams and hopes and worries and visions  for this place and these people.  But my first job is to serve.  To serve as long as God keeps me here.  As long as the people will have me.  As long as I’m physically and mentally and spiritually able to.  Not in a glorious way, always, but in a necessary one.  Like an old empty mayonnaise jar.  Knowing that, barring some monumental mistake, there will be another man in my office someday, another man opening the sacristy cupboard.  Just as there were other men before me opening and closing the lid on that jar.

May whatever  the future holds be pleasing to God and a blessing to his people – past, present, and future.  And whether my ideas carry the day or someone else’s, may I keep perspective with the help of an old mayonnaise jar and continue to do my job as faithfully as I can.

Book Review – Confessions of a Pool Hustler

July 12, 2018

Confessions of a Pool Hustler by Robert LeBlanc

I like to play pool.  It’s my hobby, and one I’ve enjoyed for over 30 years.  I picked this book up on a lark, a signed hardback cover in the local billiards supply store.  I didn’t know Robert LeBlanc before I started reading it.  A third of the way through, I think I know all I need to.

Robert makes it clear that he insisted on telling his story in his own words, and that those who helped him, editorially, did so with this key goal in mind.  I suspect that they succeeded.  The book is a collection of stories and anecdotes from Robert’s life on the road playing pool.  He comes off as a stellar player who survived more in his life than dozens of the rest of us ever would.  Fights, robberies, death threats, wild women – if you felt like pool was a seedy business to be involved with, this book would certainly confirm all of your worst fears and stereotypes.

Unfortunately, while insisting on telling his own story his own way, LeBlanc just isn’t a very good storyteller.  After a while the anecdotes all start sounding the same.  There’s no real progression in the story beyond a loose chronological one.  He drops a lot of names.  I don’t know any of them.  I play the game, I don’t spend much time learning all of the big names in the sport.  If you have a good handle on the great players of the last 50 years or so, perhaps this book will be more entertaining to you.  It was lost on me.

I’ll keep playing the game, but I won’t be finishing the book.  I’ll also be grateful that it’s possible to play and love the game of pool without living the kind of life LeBlanc chose to.  Undoubtedly my pool life is a lot more boring than LeBlanc’s, but I can live with that!

Book Review: Just Open the Door

June 11, 2018

Just Open the Door: How One Invitation Can Change a Generation

by Jen Schmidt

This is another entry in my unofficial doctorate program.  Amazon suggested it to me when I bought three other books on the topic of Christian hospitality.  I should have looked a bit closer and perhaps I might not have purchased it.  It isn’t that the book isn’t helpful to some degree, but it’s very much written for women (the author says so!).  So I had to deal with a writing style that, while very good, was not always easy for me to listen to.

That being said, the book is helpful in and of itself.  She provides a lot of encouragement along the lines of you can do this sort of stuff.  And she provides lots of personal stories and experiences to highlight what she means.  At times, this can make it sound like bragging, though I am pretty sure that isn’t her intent.  The difficulty is that hospitality is going to look slightly different based on who is practicing it.  Sometimes stories are relevant and help me envision what I could be doing.  Other times they are not, and then have the capacity to take on a lecturing tone.  As with many things, you have to figure out how to discern what is practical given your personal gifts and situation, and let the other stuff go, at least for now.  She has some practical tips in the chapter Who Are My Neighbors on how to be intentional in getting to know your immediate neighbors.

At times her suggestions seem a bit naive or unhelpful, most noticeably in dealing with the cost that hospitality can rack up.  This chapter (The Elephant in the Room) could have been an excellent place to talk about the role of Christian church community in facilitating and extending hospitality through those in its midst who are so gifted.  But that wasn’t really talked about at all.  What resulted was basically a trust-God-to-get-you-through combined with a isn’t-this-more-important-than-money mantra.  Both these things are true, but in a book dealing with community and hospitality, it seems reasonable  to point out that you don’t have to do it on your own all the time, and that creating a network of others who help out – either with hands or donations – not only makes being hospitable easier, it involves the larger Christian community in the effort.

If you’re a fan of chick-oriented writing, this is probably a pleasant, light read for you to help stimulate some thinking in terms of how to be more intentionally hospitable to others.  Schmidt is a successful (or at least persistent?) blogger and undoubtedly has a notable following there as well.  She does a good job of introducing the topic, offering encouragement along with some practical tips, and shares a lot of personal stories along the way.

Book Review: The Simplest Way to Change the World

June 4, 2018

The Simplest Way to Change the World: Biblical Hospitality as a Way of Life

By Dustin Willis & Brandon Clements

I have to admit I’m rather surprised.  I had expected the last book I read to be the gem and figured this would be a pretty light and fluffy follow-up.  The previous book was much more theoretical and academic, but not nearly enough so – if that makes any sense.  It wasn’t a practical hands-on guide, but neither was it a very meaty academic or theological treatment of the issue of hospitality.  This book is very much a hands-on book.  Light on theory and theology and heavy on practicality, and for that reason it’s a very helpful book.

The light language style is not my favorite, and I find it confusing how they switch back and forth between themselves, both writing in the first person and identifying changes in voice with their names in parentheses.  But since I don’t know either of them, it was easy enough to just morph them into essentially a single voice.  While I’m sure  this is a disappointment to them, it really doesn’t alter the effectiveness of the book much.

Whereas the last book was practically devoid of personal accounts of hospitality, this one utilized them far more often which made it both more real to read and more helpful.  Clearly the intent of the authors is to not just encourage but actually help equip people (Christians) to be more hospitable.  Towards  this end they provide a plethora of practical tips from the mundane to the more creative.  Clearly the key is making connections with people intentionally and then allowing the Holy Spirit  to guide and lead those connections into relationships where the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be shared.

I only have two real criticisms.  The first is that they utilize early on the metaphor of a weapon.  The hospitable Christian household is a weapon for the Gospel.  This really seems like a counter-intuitive metaphor.  If we want people to feel safe and valued in their relationships with us and their time in our homes, the metaphor of a weapon seems out of place.  I know, I know – it’s likely picking up on themes of spiritual warfare and things like that.  All well and good (though fleshing out the theology of choosing such a metaphor would have at least been more helpful!).  The Holy Spirit is undoubtedly waging spiritual warfare as I host someone for dinner or invite them to live in our home with us for a few weeks.  But it isn’t helpful to me to have that metaphor in the back of my mind.  My job is to love this person to the best of my ability and trust the Holy Spirit will utilize my home and family, both in terms of our words and interactions, to lead that person to Christ.  (Update:  OK, so maybe I’m changing my mind about this and warming more to the idea of Christian hospitality and the Christian household as a weapon.  We just need to be careful that we understand this properly.  It is the Word of God that is the weapon, and as Christians  our homes ought to be places where the Word of God is alive and active and present – read, spoken and acted on and through.  If we think of the power of God’s Word as mainly to make people nicer or more agreeable to our ways of thinking and being, we are dangerously short-sighted.  The Word of God aims at killing and making alive again.  It settles for nothing less than the entire person, whether we gel with that person or not.  Don’t get this confused!)

My second criticism is that their chapter How Do You Get to the Gospel? takes a fairly typical evangelical approach towards sharing the Gospel.  And while there’s nothing wrong with that, and we pray that it will be something we have the chance to do, it’s good to remind hospitality beginners that the act of opening your home and lives is a powerful witness to the Holy Spirit within you.  In other words, in being counter-cultural in this respect, people are automatically going to be wondering and looking for why you are the way you are and why you do what you do.  This will provide inroads for sharing the Gospel later on more naturally.  Don’t be afraid to just be with people.  It may not be that you’re supposed to share the Gospel with them the first few weeks or months you know them, or the first few times they are in your home.  But the fact that they keep coming back is a reminder that in loving them you are laying groundwork for more specific and explicit sharing of the Gospel later on.  Or, you may be making that person more receptive to someone else the Holy Spirit intends to use to share the Gospel with them.  You are  not to take upon yourself the burden of assuming you are the only person God can and will use in this person’s life!  Don’t, on the flip side, assume that you aren’t going to be used that way!  Remain open to it and responsive when opportunities arise.  But don’t take on more of a burden than you were intended to.  Remember who is in charge (Hint: It isn’t you.).

This would make for a great small group study resource, and I may use it that way in the future.  Figuring out how to talk more about Christian hospitality is a good thing, and this is a good resource if you’re interested in that or already doing it and wanting to give others some ideas about how they could get involved also.

Book Review: Making Room

June 1, 2018

Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine D. Pohl.

I chose to start my unofficial doctoral research on Christian hospitality with this book thinking that it would provide a good theological base for further reading.  After all, it has a cool mosaic on the front cover.  How much more legit can a book get, right?  Doesn’t it just ooze geeky wonder?

hospitality.jpg

 

Unfortunately, the cover was one of the better parts of this book.  There are several issues that I found pervasively problematic.

First of all, the author writes in a very general way.  She doesn’t provide many specific examples for the things she’s talking about.  This leads to both repetition as well as vagueness.  For instance, she mentions in several places through the book (repetitive) that because hospitality is draining both in terms of material resources as well as emotional and physical energy, it is crucial to establish healthy and fixed patterns of personal renewal – opportunities to recharge the batteries, so to speak.

All well and good and true and duly noted.  What would have been helpful would have been some specific examples of how specific hospitality-oriented groups accomplish this.  What does it look like?  She was in contact with a variety of hospitality groups (another, future part of my unofficial doctorate program) but doesn’t cite any tangible examples of how they replenish themselves.

Secondly, while she wants to extol hospitality and encourage others to engage in it, the only two personal situations  she briefly mentions both demonstrate her unwillingness to do so herself.  In particular, she wants to extol the virtue of providing hospitality to marginalized individuals – the poor, the ill, the homeless, etc.  But she is quick to say this isn’t something that she’s personally comfortable with.  I can understand this, for certain, but it undermines her credibility even while it does offer a very brief breath of personality and authenticity into an otherwise flat book.

Thirdly, she treats hospitality in the academic terms of our day.  Hospitality for her seems mostly about dealing with marginalized groups and not just being kind to the people in our lives.  There is certainly a place for hospitality to marginalized people and there needs be more groups to do so.  But at  least from a Biblical standing, this is much different than simply being available to the people who happen to cross your path, a la Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18.  The author turns hospitality into an act with a political or social agenda which, while definitely part of the historic Christian practice of hospitality, is certainly not the exclusive focus of such hospitality.  If the author wants to encourage individuals to consider opening their homes to people, burdening them with a social and political agenda seems onerous and unnecessary.  Certain institutions that deal with these issues on a larger scale might consider the larger political and social implications, but the individual host may not need to.

Finally, the author thwarts her own purposes in encouraging hospitality by constantly stating the dangers and problems with it.  Certainly, they exist and need to be treated, but it seemed that on almost every page was a caveat every bit as powerful as the exhortation to hospitality preceding it.  Frankly, the caveats eclipsed the exhortations for me.  I can’t handle being hospitable if I’m constantly worried about whether I’m disempowering or otherwise marginalizing further the person that I’m hosting.  Hospitality is an openness of self to others.  There undoubtedly can be offense given in such an openness, but barring a devious or otherwise manipulative host, this is more an issue with the recipient than the host, and frankly a larger commentary on how our fractious insistence on personal rights turns even acts of kindness into opportunities for suspicion and inferring ill-intentions.

The book has a good bibliography that I  will use as a launch point for  further reading.  The author also includes a short list of hospitality oriented organizations or groups at the end of the book that will also be helpful for further research.

Perhaps this book is better suited to people considering a somewhat institutionalized for of hospitality.  I would have very much enjoyed hearing more of the author’s personal experiences in providing hospitality even in such a setting.  However most of the time the politicized language in this book was more off-putting than helpful.

 

Shepherds & Sheep

May 25, 2018

Jesus picks up on the Biblical metaphor of shepherds and sheep for the leaders of God’s people and God’s people.  It’s a rich metaphor for its time, but one that struggles I think to be understood clearly in a modern, non-agrarian context.  I think the struggle is there for both pastors/shepherds and parishioners/sheep.

But at the heart of this metaphor is the idea that shepherds and sheep are not the same in some important regards.  Like any metaphor it breaks down at one level or another, because shepherds are also sheep.  But they aren’t supposed to sheep alongside their parishioners.  Somehow, without ever forgetting their own sheep-ness, shepherds are called to remain separate and distinct.

Of course this is difficult and can be done badly.  Some shepherds interpret this as license to impose their will on the sheep, and that can lead to bad situations and lost or damaged sheep.  Modern sheep, who are far less likely to identify with this metaphor, may object to the idea of a shepherd who exercises real and actual authority that is different and distinct from all other forms of authority they encounter.  This is not the voice of the policeman or the judge or the supervisor at work.  This is the voice – hopefully – of Christ, guiding and leading and watching over the sheep.  I tend to think that sheep in Jesus’ day had just as much difficulty accepting that this is the shepherd’s job as modern sheep do.  I imagine just as much offense was taken back then as is apt to be today.  But perhaps not.

The fact that shepherds and their flock spend a lot of time together can lead a shepherd to forgetting that he’s a shepherd, and thus may begin to think of himself as just another one of the sheep.  The sheep that preaches, but no more than this.  And as a sheep the shepherd wants to get along and be liked by the other sheep, and so the concerns of the sheep gradually become the concerns of the shepherd, and it is easy to just go about the days and years nibbling on the grass with the other sheep, basking happily in the good graces of a loving Father who provides so richly for us.

Shepherds, unlike most sheep, should spend some of their time in the company of other shepherds.  Trading stories and information.  Sometimes the stories are humorous at the expense of the sheep, but in my experience sheep have a few favorite humorous stories they like to tell each other about their shepherds as well.  But mostly the shepherds should be talking about what they see.  A pack of wolves that has moved into a certain area and will require diligence for.  Rockslides that have rendered certain passes now inaccessible.  Predictions of harsh weather that could harm the sheep as well as the shepherds.  Hopefully shepherds are spending time with other shepherds – some older and wiser and some younger and less experienced – so that all benefit from the shared wisdom and perspective.

Because the concerns of the sheep and the shepherd are two different things.  The sheep are concerned with eating.  Mating.  Caring for their young.  The shepherd is there to lead and guide and protect.  To be scanning the horizon rather than grazing on the grass and seeing nothing more than the few inches in front of his face.  The shepherd should know that there are predators about, eager for an easy lunch.  He has to be on watch and on guard against these threats to the sheep, as the sheep may not see or recognize them.  The shepherd is to watch for the sheep that wanders off and risks getting themselves into trouble.  This can be exasperating work as some  sheep naturally prefer to be off on their own, left to their own devices, and are not terribly thrilled about the shepherd’s visit or staff that seeks to draw them back in to the flock.  And the shepherd also needs to watch the pasture, to ensure that the sheep are not grazing it too completely and thoroughly, so that the grass won’t grow back in a few weeks or next season.  His job is to move the flock along as necessary to ensure health and safety in the long term as well as the short term.

Again, this is sometimes difficult work.  Sheep by nature tend towards inertia, staying where they are and nibbling in a small area.  Why quit nibbling the grass here that has been so delicious and nutritious for so  long?  Why push us to stretch our muscles and walk and climb?  What if the next pasture isn’t as good as this one?  Why can’t we just stay here?

The shepherd can’t explain himself to the sheep.  He simply calls.  Seeks to prod as necessary.  And because shepherds (unless he is The Good Shepherd) are by nature of limited capacity, when sheep set their minds to bolt and stray, sometimes there’s nothing that can be done about it without endangering the entire flock.  If there is time and ability the shepherd  can and should pursue, but some sheep are going to get away, and the shepherd can only hope and pray that they will find their way safely back to the flock, or perhaps to another shepherd.

At times it is necessary for the shepherd to say and do things that the sheep don’t understand or appreciate.  There are of course times when this is a genuinely bad course of action by a misguided or even malicious shepherd.  But most of the time, it should be the necessary calling and prodding and reigning in of the sheep for their own good, as well as for the good of the pasture and the area as a whole.  That’s the job of the shepherd, to the best of his ability.  When the shepherd and sheep can work together, that’s the best possible situation, as the sheep need a shepherd and the shepherd needs sheep.