Saturday, December 29, 2007

I found church within "the Church"

The many changes I have gone through over the last few weeks have left me in a melancholy state. Although I'm not necessarily crying all the time or anything like that, I feel a sort of hollow, gnawing sense of loss within me, like someone having missed several meals. There are a number of reasons for my sadness--too many to detail at this time--but one of them occurred to me last night as I discussed my heartache with Ronnie: I miss my church.

This may not seem like an odd reality for some, but for me, it is a new state of affairs. I have been a member of a few Southern Baptist churches since I became a Christian as a teenager, but none of them was I particularly sad to leave. They had their share of major problems, including, in no particular order, unsanctified leadership, financial mismanagement, seeker-sensitive obsession, and hardened traditionalism. In all these churches, I served as best as I could, seeking in my own sin-soaked way to contribute to the body of Christ.

I made friends in every one of these churches, but still, I didn't shed a single tear over leaving any of them. When it was time to leave, I left. And, I have made little contact with any of the members of these churches since then. I don't say this because I'm proud of it. I'm just stating the facts.

My most recent congregation had it's share of problems, too, of course. Many of them. I won't air our dirty laundry here, but suffice it to say that there are plenty of reasons why I should be relieved to have found "greener pastures" in our move to Ohio. And, don't get me wrong, I'm very pleased to have made this move. But, the sadness remains. So, why is this most recent move different from the ones before? Why am I so very grieved this time?

As I've pondered this in my heart today, I've arrived at an answer: I found church within "the Church." What I mean by this is that in FBC Fairfield, I was able to discover a true, little-C, church, a community of the saints, a genuine experience of Jesus people, within the larger, big-C, church.

In my other experiences of "Church," I was constantly grappling with the problems and intricacies of the institution. Politics, power-plays, and all manner of unseemly and un-Christian activities crowded out what the real church was supposed to be. Now, FBC had all these things and more. Yet, somehow, some way, I made contact with the saints of God within the institution and, with them, found the community of Christ. Here are some examples of what I'm talking about:

When I determined in my heart that I was young in the faith and in experience doing "church work," I sought out a mentor with whom I could learn and grow. A pastor's wife of great faith and godliness befriended me and offered me love and acceptance and challenge.

When I was exploring my teaching gifts and seeking to be obedient to God's call to teach his people, I tried my hand at convening a class--first one and then several--to study aspects of God and God's Word. Those who came taught me as much as I taught them, encouraging me in my gifting and spurring me on in my own studies.

When I walked through a dark and desolate period, I told a dear woman of God that I needed prayer and confession to cleanse my wearied soul. She called on other sisters to meet with me and I--a wife of a staff person!--found the freedom to bare my soul to these women and come clean about the truly dark parts of my heart. From them I found forgiveness, healing, and power to begin again.

When I sought to experience deeper fellowship with other women, especially those on the "outside" of institutional church life, I found unlikely colleagues and dear friends in a hodge-podge of hurting women. They shared their hearts and souls with me, and I with them. More than any other relationships, they gave me proof that the Good News is true and powerful.

And, finally, when I was preparing to leave, key friends and fellow sojourners held a private gathering to congratulate me on my journey and bless me as I departed. Their laying-on of hands and fervent prayers on my behalf did more than any ordination council could. They confirmed my calling, offered me strength as I left, and gave me a "defining moment" in ministry.

God was so merciful to help me to discover the church within "the Church." There are plenty of problems with the institutional churches of America and I do not diminish them with this post. But, that does not change the fact that the Holy Spirit of Acts 2, who is poured out lavishly upon all of God's people, continues to work today, drawing together Christ-followers and fostering among them love, faith, and hope. I am deeply saddened by the loss of my community of faith. But, I am equally grateful to God that was I was able to find the church within "the Church" at FBC Fairfield.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Thank God for "Happy Holidays"

Around this time of year, there's lots of talk among Christians and non-Christians alike about two little words: "Merry Christmas." The controversy, of course, is over who says it, who doesn't say it, and why.

Headlines over the past few years have accused and defended a number of corporations because of their use or disuse of the phrase. Wal-Mart, Macy's, Target, Sear's and many more have suffered the wrath of self-appointed Christmas warriors, determined to put the "Christ" back in Christmas through boycotts, news coverage, angry phone calls, and innumerable petitions.

I know that it matters little what I think amidst the nationwide media frenzy, but I would like to state and explain my position for the record: I don't want them to say, "Merry Christmas."

I am aware that we live in a culture that is not only increasingly non-Christian, but also anti-Christian. Although many of our founding mothers and fathers ascribed to some form of Christian faith, America is no longer a Christian nation. The US is a pluralist society, a reality that is exceedingly uncomfortable for Christians who are used to being in the majority and in positions of civic authority and power.

The rising pluralism has led to a rising push to accomodate the various faiths represented among us. There are both good and bad points in this accommodation, too many to spell out here. But, the important fact is that most Christians don't like it. We don't like it at all.

And so, among other things, we have the "battle for Christmas." It seems that the many proponents of the "war" to bring back Christmas view themselves as grass-roots saviors of the season. With enough phone calls and boycotts, they can pressure American corporations into not accommodating the pluralism of our society, supposedly symbolized by instructing their employees to say, "Merry Christmas," rather than the undeniably mundane, "Happy Holidays," or, even worse, "Season's Greetings."

I won't deny that I prefer to wish my fellow Americans, "Merry Christmas." And, I prefer to hear the same from others. The phrases "Happy Holidays," and "Season's Greetings," are silly and meaningless--poor replacements for a greeting that reminds our neighbors of the reason for our happy merry-making. Even so, I find the whole controversy both tremendously ironic and sadly pitiful. Allow me to explain.

The Christmas celebration is a commemoration and thanksgiving to God for the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ. According to the accounts of Jesus' birth in Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born to an unwed, teenage girl in the backwoods of Palestine. He was birthed in a dirty hovel, with a feeding trough for a bassinet and strips of rags for a delivery blanket. His first visitors were shepherds, some of the filthiest workers of the ancient world, who carried along the stench of sheep feces, dampness, and dirt everywhere they went.

Our king, the Lord of lords, was brought into the world in the humblest of ways, to the commonest of people, for the sake of the lowly. Corporations like Wal-Mart, Target, and Sears are led by powerful men and women who profit from the greed and materialism of the masses. They pay millions, maybe even billions, in order to put commercials on TV, radio, and billboards seeking to convince you that your life is meaningless without their product. They associate happiness and fulfillment with buying, having, and hoarding. Moreover, these corporations work very hard to be sure they offer the least amount of insurance and protection to the least amount of their employees. When their stock dips too low, they fire hardworking Americans and ship jobs overseas where they can get cheaper labor.

These people are not necessarily malicious themselves, but they are a part of a system working great evil among us, a conspiracy of materialism deceiving millions and leading them away from the kingdom of God that belongs to the poor. And yet, in an irony of ironies, Christians of America are demanding that these same major corporations parrot the announcement of Jesus' birth.

To me, this is both ironic and pitiful. Are we really so desperate for the American culture to acknowledge us and make us comfortable that we want corporate America heralding the arrival of the Savior? Are we really so void of fervor for true Gospel living and authentic Gospel preaching that we need Target and Wal-Mart to pick up the slack? Are we really so ignorant of the revolutionary nature of the Good News that we want to employ Caesar and his minions to prop-up the Kingdom of God in America? I hope not.

So, in the "battle for Christmas," please count me out. I would be happy to celebrate Jesus' birth with the person himself or herself after their shift. But, I don't need or want a representative of powerful corporations wishing me a "Merry Christmas." I am seeking to figure out exactly what my Savior's birth has to say to me as his follower, but I definitely don't need the aid of Macy's in discerning such truths.

I am a Christian increasingly uncomfortable in our non-Christian/anti-Christian society and that's just fine with me. I should be uncomfortable. I should feel at odds with my culture. That's the way its supposed to be. So, the next time someone wishes me, "Happy Holidays," I'm not going to scowl. I'm going to thank God that the Kingdom is coming to turn everything upside down, and that it all started in a filthy stable in the backwoods of Bethlehem, and that God doesn't need corporate America to bring it all to pass.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Update: Saudi king pardons rape victim

My husband was perusing the Dallas Morning News on Tuesday and came across an article on page 13A announcing an important update regarding a story I mentioned in a previous post.

A few weeks ago, a Saudi woman known only as "the Girl of Qatif" was convicted of violating Islamic law because she was in a car with a man she wasn't related to when seven men attacked and raped them both in 2006. Despite being a victim of gang rape, the 19 year-old was sentenced to prison time and a public lashing for being alone with a man not her husband.

Despite the status of Saudi Arabia as a US ally, President Bush responded to the ruling with unusually strong criticism, saying if the same thing happened to one of his daughters he would be "angry at those who committed the crime. And I'd be angry at a state that didn't support the victim." Although Saudi officials bristled at the worldwide criticism, the pressure appeared too much and King Abdullah pardoned the young woman on Monday.

Interestingly, the announcement of the king's action was published on the front page of Al-Jazirah but it did not appear in any other local media or the state-run news agency. It seems that while the king of Saudi Arabia has some sense of what is right and just (even if he was shamed into it), he is not confident that the Wahhabi influenced Saudi legal system or its populist leaders are capable of the same. Perhaps rightly so.

I am grateful for this "righting of wrongs" in the case of "the Girl of Qatif." But, clearly much, much more remains to be done. Kings and princes cannot step in every time a misogynistic and unjust legal system goes awry. The government must change. The laws must change. And, for now, all I (we) can do is pray and speak the truth.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

My boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places...

If you had any trees uprooted or windows blown out of your home this weekend, I am sincerely sorry. It was only me as I exhaled a great sigh of relief after finishing up my Master's of Divinity program at Truett Theological Seminary. Graduation was yesterday evening and I now have possession of the piece of paper that says I have a Master's degree. It is a little scary.

I wish I had something profound and deep to say about the end of this phase of my education, but I'm at a loss for words. I am grateful to God and to Truett Seminary for funding my education. Ronnie and I would never have been able to put me through graduate school on our own. And, thanks to all of you who have been a source of great encouragement throughout this four year process.

Many have asked what I will do next. The honest answer is that I'm not really sure. There are only three certainties:

(1) I will move to Hamilton, OH with Ronnie next week and enjoy being simply "Ron's wife" for the next few months. Ronnie and I have never been married without me as a full-time student and I think he deserves some time without the competition of professors, papers, and books.

(2) I will serve the Lord at Liberty Heights Church in Liberty Township, OH, in whatever capacity God desires. At first, I know I will spend much of my time with Ronnie in the youth department, but I look forward to whatever else God (or Pastor Rick) may have in store for me. Also, I will be speaking at their upcoming women's conference, February 28-29.

(3) I will seek and pray for what God would have me do about further education. I believe I should pursue a Ph.D. somewhere in some aspect of theology or biblical studies, but I need wisdom as to what, where, and when. I know that as I seek wisdom, God will provide it.

Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;
you have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken...
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
- Psalm 16:5-8, 11

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Letter to Southern Baptist Preachers

To my beloved Southern Baptist preachers:

Although it has become somewhat en vogue among contemporary thinkers to champion the demise of preaching in future manifestations of church life, I am not among those who do so. The proclaimed message has been an important tool of God in the Kingdom of God for some 2,000 years of church history and I doubt very much that a short period of philosophical and cultural upheaval in the Western world is going to change that. For those of you set apart to devote your vocational life to the proclamation of the Word of God, even in times when it is undervalued and often denigrated, I salute you and thank you.

As a product of Southern Baptist schools, a member of several Southern Baptist churches, and a spouse of a Southern Baptist pastor, I have heard a lot of Southern Baptist preaching. I have been in attendance at many preachers’ conferences, state and national conventions, as well as innumerable Bible conferences and chapel services. I have always been edified by the preaching of the Word, but I confess that I never thought very deeply about the craft of preaching until my time in seminary. And, even more than that, I had never thought about the way in which preaching is heard by many different kinds of people until I began serving among and with marginalized women in a Southern Baptist church.

Out of my recent awakenings to such matters and my reflection upon the preaching I have been privy to in the past few years, I humbly offer the following exhortations to any Southern Baptist preacher who will listen. I share these things with the utmost respect and love for those who serve our churches week in and week out with the proclamation of the Word of God.

Please, stop pandering to the establishment. While I understand that references to abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools, and evolution garner you some hearty “Amen’s” from the congregation, you know as well as I do that they do little to spur on the members of your congregation to genuine growth in Christian living. I agree with the person who has said that preaching the Gospel is about "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable."

Instead of focusing on those things that allow your people a “pass” on conviction of sin, how about addressing some very real and very prevalent problems in American Christianity? Really, you could take your pick, but I'll name just a few: self-righteousness, anti-Christian loveless-ness, stagnant spirituality, and idolatrous materialism. Remember that harping on how very dark the darkness is does nothing to make the light any lighter.

Please, remember the afflicted. I encourage you to give attention to the way in which your sermon will communicate to those who are seriously downtrodden and desperate. I’m not talking about the businessman who’s stock market woes are forcing him to take a one-week skiing trip instead of a two-week cruise to Italy. Whether you know it or not, in your pews sit many who are truly downtrodden: battered women, survivors of childhood sexual abuse, men addicted to painkillers and pornography, and those struggling with physical and mental disabilities.

For people in these types of difficult situations, the truth is, some of the things you say are oversimplified, insensitive, and just plain misleading. Rather than drawing them closer to Jesus, some of your harsh, unmeasured words can drive them away. For example: “If you are depressed, it is because you are being disobedient to rise above your feelings and believe the Truth, no matter what,” or, “I don’t care how bad your husband is, submit to him as unto the Lord and leave the rest up to God.” Do I really have to explain how damaging these unqualified, insensitive statements can be to people in harsh and troubling circumstances?

As you prepare your sermon and thoughtfully consider what you will say, please imagine people like these I’ve described hearing your words. What will they hear? What can you do to include them? How can you address their despair in a meaningful way? No, not every sermon must be focused upon the marginalized. But, giving a thought to their plight is the least one can do as we serve in a Kingdom that proclaims the poor, blessed, the captive, liberated, and the oppressed, free.

Please, preach to and for women. This may seem like a needless plea, but I assure you it is not. I can count on one hand the number of preachers I have heard in the past few years who made a point to speak to women in their sermons. I remember them precisely because they are so rare. If your church is like most Southern Baptist churches, roughly 55-65% of your church is made up of women. Yet, if you think about it, most of your illustrations, applications, and even basic choices in language, are geared toward men and the male experience. If women are more than half the church and certainly an equal part of the humanity God is saving, then surely women deserve to be addressed and considered in our preachers’ sermons.

This can be done a number of ways. Make use of reasonable, gender inclusive language when it is possible. Is it really going to kill you to say “humanity” instead of “mankind,” or “people” instead of “man”? Really? If Paul said that he became “all things to all people” so that by "all means" he might “save some,” surely you can make an effort to be sensitive to changing views about the English language for the sake of reaching some women with the Gospel and including believing women in your church.

Also, choose to address issues that are unique or particularly important to women’s experience, like wife battering, childbirth, and aging. And, finally, make an effort to integrate illustrations and applications into your sermons that draw upon the experiences of women. When you choose not to do so, you are unwittingly communicating that the female experience is unimportant and does not adequately illustrate the things of God. I know that this is not your intention. Besides, cars, sports, and military illustrations can only carry your sermons so far.

Please, believe in your calling. Despite the griping you regularly receive from unhappy church folks, preaching is very important to the Kingdom of God. While I do not believe that the sermon will be replaced in American Christianity any time soon, it is at least possible that some changes await us. Therefore, as long as preaching is being heard in our culture and being used by God in our churches, I urge you with every cell in my body to preach well. Please, preach well.

The people of God need a word from God and they are looking to you to give it. You have a heavy responsibility, one worthy of all that your mental and emotional capacity can provide. With God to aid you, you cannot fail. So, don’t pander, don’t hem and haw, and don’t back off. Preach the Word. And, do so with thoughtfulness, conviction, intentionality, and, most of all, grace.

Thank you again for your service.

Grace and peace,


P.S. To my non-Southern Baptist sisters and brothers, please forgive my exclusiveness in this post. But, since God has situated me in a Southern Baptist context for now, I feel compelled to speak into the situation with which I am familiar instead of one I am not.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Recent reports from Australia

Australia: old friend of the "war on terror," but new foe of the war on terrorism of women. Read more about the chronic problem of child sex abuse among the historically maligned and abused Aboriginal peoples here.

Jesus - Still Too Radical?

This picture was posted by Greg Boyd on his blog. It is the work of an artist names Lars Justinen from the Justinen Creative Group. He created the image for use in advertising for a Christian ministry called Heavenly Sanctuary. Under the picture were captions such as "Follow the Leader," "God IS Great," and "Jesus - Still Too Radical?" As you can imagine, the posters created quite a stir, especially among Christians. (You can read more about it at Boyd's blog.) But, I post the picture here because I am curious about the reactions of my readers. What are your thoughts? Is Jesus still too radical?

P.S. In case some of you are wondering, the political leaders are, from left to right, German Chancellor Angela Merkel; former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair; former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan; Osama bin Laden; US President, George W. Bush; Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh; and former President of China, Jiang Zemin.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A blog worth reading

I don't do a lot of "plugging" for bloggers, but I think this one by Greg Boyd is definitely worth your time. My friend, Joel, turned me on to it in a comment about my recent posts on marriage. After navigating to the site and reading his post on marriage, I found myself drawn to read the others on sex. Boyd has some very interesting, thoughtful, and relevant things to say about marriage, sex, and American licentiousness. I would highly recommend you have a look.

P.S. Boyd is very eloquent and thoughtful with his language, but he is very frank about some things. Delicate sensibilities need not apply.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Part 2: Why Marriage in the Kingdom of God?

At the end of Part 1, I said, "I have come to the conclusion that, in light of the New Covenant and the Kingdom of God, there is a higher purpose for marriage that both Paul and Jesus understood and advocated."

To elaborate on this further, I should explain that my understanding of the Gospel is as follows: The Gospel of the reign of God is the power of God through which the exalted Christ, on the basis of his death and resurrection, restores all of life by his Spirit to be subject to his authority and word. I believe this was the content of Jesus’ preaching, Paul’s preaching, and the preaching of all the Apostles and the early church. Moreover, it was the lens through which they viewed and understood all matters of life: social structures, politics, economic concerns, ethics, etc. Everything, EVERYTHING, was about the proclamation and expansion of the Kingdom of God.

In the matter of marriage, I think this is best illustrated by Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 7. Far from a mystical or creative discussion of the merits of marriage, Paul presents what is really a very pragmatic approach to marriage, all based upon two major suppositions: (1) the End is near and (2) the Gospel of the Kingdom must not be hindered. It is with these two concerns that Paul dispenses Spirit-inspired instructions on marriage.

Paul’s basic conclusions are these: because of the threat of fornication, married persons should have sexual relations (1 Cor 7:2-5); persons married to unbelievers should remain married unless the union is broken by the unbelieving spouse (7:10-16); each person should remain in the situation they were in when called of God (7:17-24); virgins and unmarried men are better off remaining unmarried if their passions allow it, because the End is near (7:25-31); because unmarried people are able to focus solely on the things of God, they are better off remaining unmarried (7:32-35); in case of impropriety, people can be married if they must, though they are better off unmarried (7:36-38).

(I feel constrained to offer one parenthetical observation. How many sermons or lessons have you heard lately on the virtue of singleness for the cause of the Kingdom of God? I venture to guess, not many. This is curious indeed since Paul was so adamant that it is “better” for people to remain unmarried. The perspective of Paul is crystal clear: “each person should remain with God in whatever situation he was called” [7:24] and only be married in situations where fornication is a threat.

(How curious that we have made marriage and family the focus of most church efforts [Focus on the Family?], whereas Paul viewed even the institution of marriage in light of the End Times and the coming Kingdom of God. It is interesting to me that Paul’s preference that women not instruct men in Timothy’s congregation has been elevated to the level of dogma [1 Tim 2:12], but Paul’s preference for singleness among the people of God has not been given the same honor.)

Jesus viewed marriage through the lens of the Kingdom of God as well. He remained unmarried throughout his life. Also, he affirmed the calling of those who remain unmarried, even recommending the state of the “eunuch” as something to be “accepted” by anyone who can (Matt 19:11-12). Perhaps most alarming to many Christians today, Jesus affirmed a reward for those who “left houses, brothers or sisters, father or mother, children, or fields” because of the Gospel, especially having in mind the sacrifices of his twelve closest disciples (Matt 19:29; Luke 18:29-30). Moreover, he taught that in the fullness of the Kingdom of God, there will be no marriage (Matt 22:30).

Perhaps the most powerful statements of Jesus related to the institution of marriage are in his so-called “cost of discipleship” exhortations. Here, Jesus makes it very clear that his calling trumps every other position or responsibility of life: “If anyone comes to me as does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even his own life—he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26; cf. 9:57-62; 12:51-53; 18:24-30). In other instances, Jesus affirms that the preaching of Kingdom of God will put families at odds with one another (12:49-53; Mark 13:12-13).

Am I suggesting that Jesus was against marriage? No. What I am suggesting, however, is that Jesus understood marriage only in conjunction with his overarching mission to proclaim and embody the Kingdom of God. In light of Paul’s views on marriage, overviewed above, I suggest that Paul had a similar perspective. While neither Jesus nor Paul advocated divorce, or anything that could be seen as a denigration of the marriage institution, neither advocated marriage as such either. Instead, they taught that everything one does should be viewed in light of the Kingdom of God and what will forward God’s reign on the earth.

I propose that we use this line of thinking as the basis for the purpose of marriage in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. Rightly understood, therefore, marriage is a holy institution, inaugurated by God in the beginning of history as a means to populate the earth, but now to be seen primarily as a means for the propagation of the Gospel and the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Where the person in question is able to live without a spouse and fulfill these purposes (in their own personal discipleship and their outward service), the person should do so, for singleness provides ultimate freedom for missional living, particular in places of the world where danger is imminent for preachers of the Gospel.

So, what would I say to a friend regarding the purpose and perceived benefits of marriage? My response would be three-fold: (1) You should get married if you have become convinced that the Kingdom of God is best served by your union. That is to say, the reign of God is advanced more by your doing life together rather than apart. (2) You should get married if you have become convinced that the person you are marrying is the best person to be your partner in discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ and participation in the Kingdom of God. (3) You should get married if you have determined that God desires for you both to live missionally in a context wherein marriage and family is significant for the propagation of the Gospel and the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

Let me acknowledge a few things before I close. First, this initial foray into a “theology of marriage” is a first word on the matter and not a last word. I do not pretend to have researched and studied in enough depth to declare that the issue is closed. I have not even interacted with any other scholars on the matter and what I have written contains the fruit of my personal study only.

Second, if my explanation of the purpose of marriage seems “off the mark” to you (perhaps overly pragmatic), I assure you that it feels strange to me as well. Yet, my study of the Scripture has convinced me that I’m headed in the right direction toward the best understanding of marriage. I remind myself that the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is “not of this world” (John 18:36), so I should not be surprised when God’s ways look different from my own.

Finally, as we interact about this issue, please do not insinuate that I am against marriage or seeking to denigrate the institution of marriage. May it never be! From my perspective, viewing marriage in light of the reign of God serves instead to elevate the institution to a high calling, something to be entered into with “fear and trembling” only when convinced that it is the best course of action in order to better fulfill the purposes of God.

Part 1: Why Marriage in the Kingdom of God?

Jesus famously instructed the Sadducees that in the age to come we will be as the angels, who are neither married nor given in marriage (Matt 22:30). Marriage is one of the most difficult undertakings in the life of a human being. If we are now Kingdom citizens, anticipating the age to come with our way of life, why should someone go through the trouble? Why get married at all? The following is Part 1 of a two part study of this issue. I have posted this before under a different title, but with my own marriage on the brain so much recently, I wanted to share it again. Perhaps I will receive some new insights from my readers.

What is the purpose of marriage? What are we, the married persons, going to receive from it that makes the marriage covenant worth adopting and upholding for life? Or, perhaps even more pertinent, what is God, the author of marriage, receiving from the marriage relationship of two persons that makes it worth entering?

There are many ways one could answer this question, for the Bible offers significant wisdom about marriage and our Creator’s intention for it. Yet, I will argue that in the Kingdom of God, inaugurated and established by Jesus Christ, there is really only one primary purpose for marriage. Before getting into that, however, let’s consider the other options available to us.

One might suggest that we should derive the purpose for marriage from Gen 1-2. Certainly, it is wise to start at the beginning of the story. In Genesis 1, the order and rhythm of creation is displayed for the reader and the “crown jewel” of creation is saved for last. God creates human beings in his image, according to his likeness, for the purpose of “ruling” the fish, birds, animals, all the earth, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth (Gen 1:26). After creating human beings “male and female,” God blesses them and commands them to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it” (1:28). These commands are similar to those given to the birds and sea creatures in 1:22, where he tells them to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the waters of the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.” The major difference, of course, is that human beings alone are given the command to “subdue” the earth.

Those who use Genesis as the basis for the purpose of marriage usually suggest that 1:28, with the command to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it,” is the underlying reason for the marriage relationship. In this point of view, bearing children and ruling over the earth is the primary reason for marriage. (One can understand, therefore, why the matter of birth control can be so contentious when the primary purpose of the marriage relationship is seen as bearing and raising children. Yet, this is not the time or the place to get into this tertiary issue.)

Without denying the importance of these commands to the marriage relationship, I would like to point out that a close reading of Gen 1 reveals that the institution of marriage is not mentioned at all. Instead, the focus is upon the order of creation, with human beings coming last. There is continuity between animals and humans as created beings (both are to “be fruitful, multiply,” and “fill the earth”), but also discontinuity between them (humans are to “subdue” the earth). Moreover, God makes a point to instruct human beings in what things are given to them and every animal for food: “every green plant.”

Yet, one must admit, marriage as an institution is not considered in a recognizable way at all. Instead, the focus is upon the human race as a whole and the purpose of the human race upon the earth in God’s good created order. I would like to suggest that Gen 1:28, although not irrelevant or unimportant to the matter, is not an appropriate basis for the purpose of marriage. (And with something like 6.6 billion humans walking around on the planet today, I think we've probably fulfilled God's instruction to "multiply," don't you?)

What about Gen 2? Here we get a little closer to our topic, for the author provides details of God’s interactions with the first man and the woman God formed for him. We are told that God understood that it is not good for the man to be alone and that he needed a helper who corresponded to him in the way that all the other animals have corresponding mates. So, God formed a woman from the man’s body and presented her to the man. The poetic exclamation of the man at the sight of the woman is beautiful: “This one, at last, is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh; this one will be called woman, for she was taken from man” (Gen 2:23). This statement is modified by the narrator, who informs the reader, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh” (2:24).

From this description of woman’s creation for man, what would the purpose of marriage seem to be? Perhaps the intention is that the two would have intimate relationship, not simply in the sexual sense, but in the emotional closeness of two beings in perfect harmony. This coincides with our belief about the Godhead, which exists in perfect Triune relationship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The emphasis on intimate relationship is supported by the commentary of the narrator that begins, “This is why…” as if to say, “This is why men and women marry, for God created woman to be with man in intimate partnership.”

With this in mind, it is even more tragic that after sin enters God’s good world, the perfect couple is expelled from Eden following the reception of their respective judgments, and from that point forward marriages are a mess in the story of Israel. (Say what you want about the patriarchs, certainly they were not the models of loving relationship, fidelity, and loyalty to their spouses.)

Again, I do not deny the truths of Gen 2:23-24, for there is much here to recommend. I think it is clear that Gen 2 provides more insight for the purpose of marriage as an institution than Gen 1, where the purpose of human beings as a whole is in the spotlight. Even so, I am not satisfied with building our foundation for marriage chiefly on Gen 2:23-24. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important is that as Christians, we should read and interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Covenant and the teachings of Jesus.

Since we proclaim and live under a New Covenant, I think it is important to ask whether Jesus reaffirmed Gen 2 as the primary purpose of marriage or did he revolutionize this institution as he did so many other aspects of the Old Testament (“You have heard it said…but I tell you…”). As we consider marriage through the lens of the New Covenant and the coming Kingdom of God, what do we find?

A New Testament option for deriving the purpose of marriage is increasingly popular in American Christianity: Ephesians 5. Here, following his instructions on being “filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18), which concludes with the description of “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (5:21), Paul provides corollary exhortation to wives and husbands.

In the instructions for husbands, Paul uses the Christ’s love for the Church, as the illustration for the kind of love husbands should exercise for their wives. This kind of love is self-sacrificing, cleansing, honoring, and sanctifying, for that is how Christ loved his Church. Many teachers and preachers adopt this profound imagery as the main purpose of marriage: to model and reflect the love of Christ for the Church to the watching world.

This sounds very good and, indeed, I do not deny the significance of Paul’s illustration in Eph 5. Yet, I am wary of elevating a metaphor—one that Paul himself calls “a profound mystery” (5:32)—to the status of rule. That is to say, while it is legitimate to use Paul’s illustration to describe the marriage relationship, I’m not sure it is appropriate to conclude that it is also the purpose of the marriage relationship.

I know that I am stepping on toes with this line of reasoning, but please stay with me. Notice what Paul does NOT say in this passage: “You should get married because it is a mysterious picture of the love of Christ for the Church.” He doesn’t say anything like this. Instead, Paul is addressing those already married and instructing them on how they can live within their marriage bonds as ones “filled with the Spirit” and “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.” So, while the image of Christ and the Church is to be a source of inspiration and a model for married persons, it is not an appropriate foundation for the overall purpose of marriage.

Before I go any further, let me reiterate that I do not believe the above options to be completely off the mark. It is not my intention to disqualify the viewpoints discussed above, for they contain relevant instruction for Christians on the purpose and outworking of marriage. Instead, I have come to the conclusion that, in light of the New Covenant and the Kingdom of God, there is a higher purpose for marriage that both Paul and Jesus understood and advocated. Before you jump out of your seats and holler, “Heretic!” please follow my thinking very closely in Part 2 of this series.

Monday, December 3, 2007

I love my husband

I have a number of new posts in progress, but nothing that is ready for "printing" at this time. So, in lieu of something seriously thought-provoking or mildly irritating, I thought I'd share something very simple, but true: I love my husband.

Ronnie moved to Liberty Township, Ohio the first week of September and we have been living apart since then. Thankfully, our church provided a relocation package that included funds to allow for visits every three weeks. Nonetheless, Ronnie and I have found this semester very trying and, often, very lonely. Still, one of the benefits from this time apart is a reaffirmation of how much we love each other and truly enjoy doing life together.

Ronnie and I have been through a lot in the past four and a half years. Before our wedding, his disabled younger brother, London, died. In our third year of marriage, his 46 year-old mother, Susan, struggled through pancreatic cancer and passed away. Immediately following that loss, we took responsibility for Ronnie's 17 year-old brother, Roger, who had his share of problems, in addition to being a typical teenager. Then, last Christmas, my grandfather, who was a father to me, died. Throughout all this, we've opened our home to a variety of friends and loved ones, who were in various stages of need.

All this is to say that we have multiple reasons not to have a good marriage. But, by the grace of God, and lots of talking and praying, we are stronger than ever. I am so blessed.

How can I describe this one God has given to me as life partner, friend, lover, and co-laborer in the Gospel? I don't have all day to write, so I'll just share a few things.

Ronnie is the most generous person I know. He would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it, even if it was his favorite, ONE campaign T-shirt. In fact, when our church in Fairfield was helping survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, he did give away his favorite belt on the spot to a young man who needed one. Although ministry is not the most financially lucrative career, Ronnie gives to those who need it as though it were.

Ronnie is absolutely commited to loving me sacrificially and he puts aside his own wants on a regular basis. This weekend, during his precious few days off, he put together three bookshelves, so that when I relocate to our new home in two weeks, my office will be ready. Knowing how deeply I detest cleaning the bathroom, Ronnie does it for me, scrubbing the toilet with a smile on his face. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is nothing he wouldn't do for me, big or small. And, I constantly rest in the knowledge that being a Christ-like husband is his top priority on a daily basis.

Ronnie has learned how to listen to me. This doesn't come easily, of course, because communication never does. But, he offers me a compassionate ear on a regular basis, even remembering to ask if I want advice before he provides it. Ronnie listens to (almost) everything with genuine interest, whether I'm ranting about the latest political outrage, weeping for joy in the victories of my Sunday School class, or recounting the latest obscure story I heard on NPR. He may not care about the subject, but he cares about me, and that's enough.

Perhaps most important, though, Ronnie is a faithful and challenging spiritual partner. The growth I have seen in his life over the past four years is a constant encouragement to me. No, he's not perfect. But, he's more like Jesus today than he was last month, and the month before that, and the month before that. He shows grace and mercy to those who struggle and offers spiritual insight to those who need it--including me.

When I went through a very dark period that lasted about six months, he listened to my desperate rants against God and providence with love and grace. He provided me the freedom to be real with him and not have to hide my pain. He was able to walk me through these troubled times because his heart was (and is) consistently surrendered to Holy Spirit's rule. I couldn't ask for a better partner in the kingdom of God and I love being a disciple of Jesus alongside of him.

I could go on and on. And, someday, I may just do that. But, for now, I think I've embarrassed him enough. Ronald Glynn McGowin is a gift from God. I love my husband.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Everything is fine...

The following excerpt is from the pages of "Gooseberries," a short story by Anton Chekhov. In this narrative, a man reflects in disgust on the newly acquired affluence of his brother, now called "Your Honor" by his peasant servants, who adores gooseberries and rises in the middle of the night to gorge his fat body on their sour, tough flesh. His sorrowful words remind me of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and they make the warning of Jesus resound even more ominously: "Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your reward" (Luke 6:24).

"There are, in fact, so many contented, happy people! What an overwhelming force! Just look at this life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, impossible poverty all around us, overcrowding, degeneracy, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lies... Yet in all the houses and streets it's quiet, peaceful; of the fifty thousand people who live in town there is not one who would cry out or become loudly indignant. We see those who go to the market to buy food, eat during the day, sleep during the night, who talk their nonsense, get married, grow old, complacently drag their dead to the cemetary; but we don't see or hear those who suffer, and the horrors of life go on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and only mute statistics protest: so many gone mad, so many buckets drunk, so many children dead of malnutrition... And this order is obviously necessary; obviously the happy man feels good only because the unhappy bear their burden silently, and without that silence happiness would be impossible. It's a general hypnosis. At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him--illness, poverty, loss--and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn't hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of life stir him only slightly, as wind stirs an aspen--and everything is fine."

P.S. For all the interested preachers out there: the short stories of Anton Chekhov are a "must read" for honing your skills in the composition and communication of detailed, interesting, and meaningful lived experiences (a.k.a., illustrations) for use in preaching.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Provide your own caption...

My caption is: "Emily is still working on her paper at 11:41 PM and unsuccessfully fighting the feeling of hopelessness and despair, so she turns to an amusing photograph to distract her attention."

Monday, November 26, 2007

Kyrie Eleison

No, my friends, that's not an ostrich with its head in the sand. That's a symbolic depiction of my present state of mind. I am desperately trying to finish up my last semester in seminary. I have two major papers due this week, one for tomorrow and one for Thursday. I am swamped. And, all I want to do is hide. Repeat after me: Kyrie Eleison. Kyrie Eleison. Kyrie Eleison.

P.S. Kyrie Eleison is Greek for "Lord, have mercy." It is a very old expression, organic to the scripture and used constantly in most Christian liturgies, especially those of our sisters and brothers in the Orthodox tradition.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Claiming the F-Word


Its a scary word, isn't it?

For quite some time, I have been reluctant to accept the "feminist" label. The main reason is the problem of miscommunication and misunderstanding. For most, "feminist" conjures up images of angry, screaming women, bra-burning, abortion rights, Mary Daly, and goddess worship. Right or wrong, these images offend most people, especially the evangelical Christian community with whom I identify, serve, and fellowship.

But, according to the dictionary, the definition of feminist is: "Someone who supports the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, economic, and social equality to men." Although I am not an objective observer of my writing, I'm fairly certain that anyone who reads my blog knows that I fit this description. (At least, I hope I do.) For me, the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus Christ, means the liberation of women from oppression and their equal place in God's worldwide reign. If that makes me a be it.

I know my more conservative friends are frightened by this label. Right now, you're thinking, "Emily, what are you saying?! You can't call yourself a feminist!" I know and appreciate this concern. But, here's the problem: Any label you choose for yourself is open to miscommunication and misunderstanding. Let's try a few.

Conservative. In religious circles, most who claim this label see it as a badge of honor, meaning, someone who seeks to "conserve" the vital beliefs of Christianity: the scripture, the nature of Christ, the Trinity, etc. For those outside conservative circles, however, conservative means hard-nosed, rigidly fundamentalist, and intolerant. Most who claim this "badge" know that this is an issue, but they choose to wear it anyway.

Calvinist. Most who call themselves Calvinists understand themselves, at the very least, to be in line with the so-called "five points" of Calvinism. They emphasize the sovereignty of God and the glory of God in providence. For those who are not Calvinists, however, Calvinist means someone who believes God is an egotistical control-freak who delights in receiving glory from human suffering. Most who claim to be Calvinists do so with pride, despite the possibility of such gross misunderstanding.

Southern Baptist. Most who claim this designation are proud of their heritage and their denomination's historic commitment to biblical sufficiency and the exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone. They are eager to speak of Southern Baptist mission endeavors and generous relief efforts in times of disaster. And yet, for those who are not Southern Baptist, for those who watch Southern Baptist "representatives" on TV, Southern Baptist means narrow-minded, anti-intellectual, Republican, and caucasian. Still, those who claim to be Southern Baptist, do so despite such stereotypes.

Southern Baptist. Calvinist. Conservative. How many are willing to claim these badges because of their deeply felt convictions, misunderstanding be damned? Do you see my point? Like it or not, misunderstanding or not, miscommunication or not, I am a feminist. I am a feminist in the classic, historic, and, I think, biblical sense of the word.

Several years ago I never would have "owned" this designation. Never. So, what has changed my mind? Many will relish the thought that it was my "liberal" education at Truett Seminary. "Aha!" they will say, "She went off to that moderate seminary and became a feminist! We told her this would happen!" I hate to disappoint you, but its just not true. Being educated at Truett did not make me a feminist.

As I reflect on my journey, I recognize that two factors have pushed me in this direction: (1) Serving with marginalized women in a very conservative Southern Baptist church; (2) Living in a largely misogynistic and patriarchal world. As I grapple with these experiences in light of the trajectory of the Bible, the decision is clear: I am a feminist.

I will close this little post by referring you to a recent story from world news. For those of you skeptical as to whether there remains a place for women's liberation, for those of you who think that I am exaggerating the plight of women worldwide, for those of you who think I'm nuts for claiming the label "feminist," read this story and think again.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Triumph in the Midst of Trials: Remix

Several have asked me to post the following sermon, which I preached this week in Paul Powell Chapel at Truett Seminary. I was greatly honored by the opportunity to proclaim God's Word there, especially since it was the "prize" given to me as a Preaching Award recipient. This was my first experience to preach in a chapel or church setting and I found great joy and fulfillment in doing so. Some of you will recognize that have posted this sermon in the past, but you will notice, as well, many changes I made for my prospective "congregation." I hope this is an encouragement to some as they wade through the difficulties and troubles of life.
Triumph in the Midst of Trials: Romans 8:28-39

On the afternoon of January 26, 2006, I received a sobering phone call from a woman very dear to me, 46 year-old Susan Cunningham. I don’t remember much of the conversation now, but four of Susan’s words are seared into my brain forever: “stage four pancreatic cancer.”

Only two years prior to this conversation, I had held Susan’s hand as she made the decision to turn off life support for her 15 year-old, son. London had been born with Lissencephaly Syndrome, a rare brain condition that caused his brain to remain smooth, preventing normal development and ensuring a lifetime of seizures and surgeries. Susan persevered in all this with uncommon strength and grace. But, at fifteen, London contracted double pneumonia, followed by a blood infection, and his body could no longer go on. Susan sobbed uncontrollably when they turned off the machines, unable to watch while her beloved son slipped away.

Now, Susan herself was facing a fatal disease, one that would likely claim her life in 6-8 months, even with the proper chemotherapy. As I drove to Denton to be with her that afternoon, I remember thinking, “How is this happening? What is she going to do now? Hasn't Susan been through enough?”

As you know, Susan’s story is one of millions. Suffering is a universal experience even for those of us who call ourselves Christians. There are really only three kinds of people: some of you just emerged from hardship; some of you are in the midst of hardship right now; and some of you are going to get the phone call after chapel. Even as followers of Jesus, even as ministers of the Gospel, sometimes we are tempted to think that the Good News is impotent to speak to this, the most painful aspect of our lives. In the face of the bewildering experience of suffering, does the Word of God have something to say?

In the center part of his letter to the Romans, Paul explains in exalted language that, yes indeed, the Good News speaks to, in, and through tribulation in the Christian life. Paul says no matter how things look, God stands firmly on the side of his people. More than that, God is shaping our lives along the same lines as the life of his Son. With God on our side like this, we cannot lose, for nothing can get between us, and the love of Christ.

From this testimony, I declare with confidence: You can triumph in the midst of trials because God stands with you in Jesus Christ.

Move One
The first reason our triumph is assured is found in verses 28-29: God uses every trial to conform you to the image of Christ.

Verses 28-29 are among the more familiar verses of scripture in the church today. Because of the affirmation that “all things cooperate for the good,” verse 28, is pasted on church bulletin boards, embroidered on decorative couch pillows, and even printed on “Christian” candy wrappers. From these uses, one would think that verse 28 is some kind of Christian “power of positive thinking” slogan, just a nebulous, pedestrian assertion that everything will work out for the best.

Verse 29, on the other hand, has become a hotbed of rigorous, deep-thinking theological debate. What does it mean that “those God foreknew, he also predestined”? Was God’s foreknowledge causative and was God’s predestination unconditional? And, can the process of being foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified, ever be interrupted or cancelled? Such questions have the makings of a heated Calvinist-Arminian debate, or a great elective with Dr. Olson, but they do not lead to a meaningful answer to hurting people.

If we put aside all of the clich├ęs and controversy surrounding verses 28-29 and simply read them together, Paul’s focal point is revealed. “We know that all things cooperate for the good.” But, what is the “good”? What is the “good” to which all things work together? The answer is, conformity to the image of Jesus Christ. This is the end to which God is constantly working in your life and mine.

The word translated “image,” in verse 29 is literally “icon.” After Hagia Sophia, the Chora Church, or Church of the Holy Savior, located in Istanbul, is the most important Byzantine monument in Turkey. Although it is not as grand in stature as other Byzantine churches, what it lacks in size it makes up for in the exquisite beauty of its mosaic iconography, which dates to around AD 1320. Undoubtedly, the most spectacular site is the church’s massive dome. If you stand directly beneath the dome and gaze upward, once your eyes adjust to the bright light bouncing off of the brilliant gold leafing, you see the image of Christus Pantocrator at the center, surrounded by 24 icons of the saints, each emerging perpendicular from Christ’s image like the luminous rays of the sun.

Now, the icons of the Chora Church are an enigma for Protestants. But for the devout artist who painstakingly constructed the mosaics, they served a vital purpose for Byzantine worship. In his depiction of Christ, the iconographer’s goal was not a portrait, but a visual, symbolic, and expressive representation of Christ’s eternal glory. The artist utilized every last detail to create what the Orthodox Fathers called “a window into heaven.”

In the same way, God is fashioning you into an “icon” of Jesus Christ—but one even more glorious than the mosaic domes of Istanbul. And, the tools of God’s artistic endeavor are not simply the good parts of your life, but the trials and tribulations as well—he uses all things. Of course, this is not to say that God causes all things. It is repugnant to suggest that the tragedy of AIDS, or the rape of a teenager, or death of a child, is caused by God. No, Paul says that somehow, some way, God uses all things as the means of our formation into icons of Jesus Christ. As the perfectly skilled and infinitely patient Artist of souls, God’s work on you continues through every moment of every trial and tribulation today.

Move Two
Our assurance of God’s care does not end there, for in verses 31-32, Paul gives another reason that our triumph is certain: God delivered up Jesus Christ to death for you.

Those among us, who have walked through suffering and difficulty, know what it is to question, to doubt God. In the swirling tempest of struggle, when God’s face is hidden and his presence distant, we need to know that God is really for our “good.” We need to know that God is there. How do you know that God is for you and not against you? How do you know where God is in your struggle? Paul says that the answer to your question is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Prize-winning author and Holocaust survivor, Eli Wiesel, tells of a heart-wrenching episode during his time in a Nazi concentration camp. One winter morning, some among the prisoners stole chickens. The Nazi soldiers corralled the entire camp into the freezing cold in order to root out the culprits. Hard as they tried to intimidate a confession from someone, no one budged. And so, in a desire to make a point, they selected some representative prisoners at random.

Upon wooden gallows, in the center of the campsite, they hung their examples and forced the prisoners to stand and watch. All of the men died quickly, the rope snapping their necks instantly, but there was one, a little boy, who did not. He was so lightweight that he struggled in the noose, slowly choking to death for about half an hour. Wiesel says that as they stood in the freezing cold, beneath a gray, overcast sky, watching this child die, a desperate voice cried out from somewhere in front of him: “Where is God?! Where is God?!” Deep inside Wiesel’s soul, came the answer: “He’s there, hanging on the gallows.”

Now, you can understand Wiesel’s story in one of two ways. You can conclude that Wiesel is suggesting that in the presence of atrocity and suffering, in the face of the lowest forms of human evil, God must be dead. There must not be a God if such things can happen. I prefer to conclude that Wiesel is saying that in the depths of human suffering, at the place where evil seems to triumph in grotesque and soul-deforming ways, God is intimately present with those who suffer. Isn’t that part of the Good News? When our own voices scream out in terror, Where is God?! The answer from the Word of God is the same: He’s there, hanging on the gallows.

This truth is so commonplace for us, we often simply glance over what Paul says in verse 31: God “gave up” or “delivered up” the Son to his fate. Overcoming his cherishing, admiring, affectionate bond with the Son, the Father delivered him over to be betrayed, abandoned, mocked, flogged and beaten, spit upon, nailed to a cross, and pierced with a sword, like a butchered animal. All this—why? Because, as Paul says elsewhere, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”

In that moment of pain, agony, and defeat, the Father watched his Son take upon himself all of the violence, suffering, and sin of this world, absorb it into his broken body, and disarm it forever through his obedient death. If you are looking for proof that God is on your side, you need look no further than the crucifixion of the Son of God. Where is God when you suffer? He’s there, hanging on the gallows.

This means I can say with confidence that nothing you go through is a judgment of God. Nothing you go through is because God has abandoned you. Your loved one’s sickness is not an angry judge’s retribution. Your marital strife is not a visitation of God’s wrath. God delivered up Jesus to death for you. In Christ, the crucified one, God is for you, not against you, in and through all things. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” The crucible of suffering is not the place where God is absent, but the place where God is most miraculously present in divine love.

Move Three
In the last portion of the text, we find Paul’s final assurance of triumph: God’s love for you in Christ makes you a conqueror in every trial.

I’m sure that if I gave you time you could locate your present troubles, whatever they may be, in the two lists of verses 35-39. The first list appears to represent the spectrum of earthly tribulations, brought about by our life on this earth and our mission as disciples of Jesus: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword. The second list appears to represent cosmic tribulations, brought about by the evil forces of this world, which seek to destroy God’s work in us: death, angels, principalities, and powers. Whatever you are going through, you can find it here.

Jim Wallis tells a story from the life of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. During the fight against apartheid, the notorious Security Police broke into the Cathedral of St. George during one of Bishop Tutu’s sermons at an ecumenical service. The diminutive bishop stopped preaching and stared intently at the intruders as they filled the cathedral like scurrying ants, lining the walls from back to front. Some carried guns, some carried knives, and some carried writing pads and tape recorders to document whatever he said and threaten him with imprisonment, or worse, for any audacious utterances.

Although the people gathered in the cathedral squirmed in tension and fear of more violence, Bishop Tutu met the eyes of the soldiers with his own steely gaze. In a defiant tone, with narrow eyes and wrinkled forehead, he said, “Yes, you are powerful, very powerful…but I serve a God who cannot be mocked!” Then, Bishop Tutu’s countenance changed and he smiled with genuine warmth. Extending his arms to the gun-toting representatives of South African apartheid, the slight preacher offered this challenge to tyranny: “Since you have already lost, I invite you: come and join the winning side!”

Paul has chosen his words carefully in v. 37. Notice he does not say, “You can become a conqueror in every trial.” Nor does he say, “You must try to become a conqueror in every trial.” Nor does he say, “You must look yourself in the mirror and give yourself a pep talk until you become a conqueror in every trial.” No. God’s truth is clear: “In all these things we conquer completely through Christ, who loved us.” The question is not whether you will triumph in the midst of trials, because the work of God in Christ has made you a conqueror. The question is this: Will you choose to look upon your trials and say, in faith, “God’s love for me means that I triumph in every trial”?

No matter who or what you face today or tomorrow, you can stand in confidence and boldly challenge the universe, with all its malevolent inhabitants: “Who will bring a charge against me? Who will condemn me? Who will separate me from the love of Christ?” The answer you receive will be the same as the one from the South African soldiers: silence. Nothing—nothing and no one—can separate you from the love of Christ.

Ronnie and I spent the last three weeks of Susan’s life with her in Denton, traveling back and forth between hotel and hospital room. Even with aggressive chemotherapy, the cancer had advanced rapidly throughout her body in a matter of months, filling her pancreas, liver, and lungs with large, painful tumors. In our time with her, Susan was on so much morphine that she was rarely awake for visits and couldn’t carry on an extended conversation. Most of the time we just sat and watched her sleep, alternately reading, praying, and talking quietly.

Although this time was exhausting and heartbreaking, there are moments that I now recall as glimpses of triumph. In the rare times that Susan roused from her morphine slumber, she would look sleepily into her nurse’s face and, pointing to me, ask, “Have you met my daughter-in-love?” (That’s what she called me, her “daughter-in-love.” She said that “daughter-in-law” was too cold and formal.) Other times, she would gaze dreamily at her son, my husband, and whisper, “I love you so much.”

It is a miracle to me that in the midst of the excruciating pain and mind-numbing medication, what remained in Susan when her mind and body failed was the depth and power of her love for us. Although she could do nothing to slow the cancer that consumed her body, here is the truth: in every one of Susan’s mumbled words, in every lucid profession of love, she voiced proclamations of defiant, Christian triumph. The cancer killed Susan, but she conquered through it all.

Paul says in v. 39 that he is “persuaded.” Are you persuaded? If not, I want to give you permission to acknowledge the truth. Sometimes the pain of our tribulation is so great and our mental state so clouded with doubt that we cannot muster up the faith about which I speak. Will you admit it? Will you admit it to God? God has not left you to languish alone. What should you do when you are not persuaded of your victory in Christ? A few verses prior to our text, I think we are given the answer: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

You see, it is the Father who delivered up the Son to death for you, it is the love of Christ that has made you a conqueror, and it is the work of the Spirit that will persuade you of the truth. You do not need to summon up the willpower to make yourself triumphant. You need only to surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit, who desires to apply the truth to your heart. Let’s ask him to do that today.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Of panhandlers and personal transformation

"I used to think...that Christ might have been exaggerating when he warned about the dangers of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on one's eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people's hands, eyes, lips, and hearts." - Dom Helder Camara

I give to panhandlers. I give to anyone who asks. I have chosen to make it my personal practice.

Sometimes I give food, when and if I have brought my lunch with me, or I have just happened to purchase something, or I am near a restaurant or grocery store. Sometimes I give gift certificates, if I have them and if the restaurant from which the certificate comes is nearby. And, sometimes I give cash. Yes, cash: $3, $5, $10--whatever I happen to have on me at the time.

I know what you're thinking. Silly girl. Doesn't she know that its better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish? Yes, my friends, I do. But, I have recognized that this attitude is typically used as an excuse not to teach a man to fish, but to do nothing at all. We say, "It is better to teach a man to fish, but since I do not teach fishing, I will not give a fish either." But, I am getting ahead of myself. Allow me to explain.

For some time, I struggled with giving to those who asked for money or food or something of the sort. On the one hand, I wanted to help those in need and be a generous person. On the other hand, the specter of scam artists and professional panhandlers loomed large in my mind. The truth is, over time, the reality of a few liars and cheats crowded out my impetus to give to the many in genuine need. It dulled over time and went away.

Then, I began reading through the Gospels and I discovered that Jesus has quite a bit to say about giving and money in general. These are the ones that step all over your toes:

"Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." - Matt 5:42

"Jesus looked at him and loved him. 'One thing you lack,' he said. 'Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'" - Mark 10:21

"Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back...And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back." - Luke 6:30, 33-35

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Luke 12:32-33

"In the same way, any of you who does not give up all of his possessions cannot be my disciple." - Luke 14:33

I do not offer these verses as proof-texts for giving to panhandlers--by no means. I offer these verses so that we can look at some of the words of Jesus about giving. I find it very unsettling that in almost eight years of being a follower of Jesus, I have yet to hear these passages of scripture preached or taught as a way of life. As one country preacher has said, "We will worship the hind legs off of Jesus, we just won't do a thing he says."

But, my point is not to prove that giving to strangers who ask for money is good and right for everyone. Here's what I want to address: Why does Jesus instruct us to give to those who ask of us? What is the purpose? Surely Jesus, the all-wise teacher and preacher, knows that job training, drug treatment, counseling, and other forms of social help are more appropriate means of help for the beggar. Surely, he doesn't really mean that we are supposed to give to anyone who asks. Surely not!

The way that we normally get out doing what Jesus says is by making the excuses that I alluded to earlier. "I don't know what she will do with my money." "I don't know if he is an alcoholic or drug addict." "I don't want to waste my money on someone who doesn't need it." These are all reasonable concerns. These are all reasonable excuses for not giving. Yet, don't you think Jesus knows about these concerns? And yet, he still says to give.

Again, the question: Why does Jesus instruct us to give to those who ask, without holding back?

Here's what I think: We think that we are supposed to give in order to help the poor person. This is why we can justify not giving in most situations, because we can reason to ourselves that our money will not really help the person in need. It might just make the matter worse. But, I do not think that we are told to give primarily to help the poor person. We give to help ourselves. The poor person is not the one in need of help--you are.

"Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort." - Luke 6:24

"I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." - Matt 19:23-24

"Jesus looked at his disciples and said, 'How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!'" - Mark 10:23

Don't look around to find someone else richer than you. We are the rich man. We are the wealthy. Jesus instructs us to give to those who ask, without holding back, because we need to cultivate a life of giving in order to escape the trappings of wealth that will choke and kill our discipleship in the kingdom of God. If it is true that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, then we must be giving away our treasure in order not to be a slave to "Mammon" instead of God.

Do you believe Jesus when he says that it is "hard" for the rich to enter the kingdom of God? Do you believe Jesus when he implies that wealth is dangerous? If so, then we should quake in fear and trembling.

I have determined that, for me, I must give to anyone who asks, even panhandlers, in order to become the kind of person who is not attached to my things, my possessions. I must give in order to be spiritually formed as a disciple of Jesus.

And, as I do so, I am made and more aware of just how much I hoard what I have, carressing my "precious" things, like Golum with the "ring of power." This is a bondage that saps the energy out of me, makes me into a person obsessed with me, myself, and all that belongs to me. I need to be delivered from this trap. I need to be saved from materialism. And, for my liberation, I need the poor. I think Jesus understood this and taught his disciples accordingly.

Now, I know what your questions are. What if they are scamming you? What if they are using your money for drugs or alcohol or something else? What if they keep coming back because you've given them money once?

I haven't figured all this out yet, but here's what I'm thinking right now: If they are scamming me, it is not my concern. So what if I lose $5 to someone who doesn't need it? How much do I have that I don't need? My money is not really my money. If God wants to shuffle my $5 to someone else who doesn't need it, what concern is that to me? If God owns everything, then that includes my $5, whether it's in my pocket or the pocket of a scam artist.

I can't tell for sure if someone will use what I give for drugs or alcohol. They could do so. Or, they could not. The same is true of the mission agencies, or the high school graduates, or other worthy causes to which I give. Again, what the recipient of my gift does with what I give is not something over which I have control and it is not something that Jesus gives as a condition of giving. He does not say, "Give to those whom you are certain will use your money for wise and industrious ends." And, if my act of giving is less about the person and more about my spiritual formation, then this question isn't as important.

Yes, it is possible that a person I give money to will continue to come to me for money in the future. And, why is this bad again? If the poor are "blessed," because to them belongs the kingdom of God, then I should be ecstatic that they will return to me. But, that's now how we are trained, is it? The poor, the needy, the outcast, are to be avoided. We give our money to shelters and mission agencies so that we don't have to spend time with them or see them on a personal level. I am the chief of sinners in this regard.

The truth is, I am blessed if the one in need continues to come back to me. In fact, in so doing, we can cultivate a relationship and maybe, just maybe, I will be able to address the root causes of the person's poverty, not just the symptoms. That's where job training and social services and other things enter the picture. But, I can't do this without a relationship and I can't cultivate a relationship unless I have shown mercy and love to him or her.

So, there you have it. Panhandlers and the poor are a part of my personal transformation. I give to those who ask of me because I am a greedy, covetous, materialistic, rich pig of a sinner who needs to be transformed.

I share this with you not because I think all people should act as I have chosen to act, but because I believe the words of Frederick Huntington are true: "It is not scientific doubt, not atheism, not pantheism, not agnosticism, that in our day and in this land is likely to quench the light of the gospel. It is a proud, sensuous, selfish, luxurious, church-going, hollow-hearted prosperity."

God help us all.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Meditating on the Loving Father

The parable of the Loving Father, a.k.a. the Prodigal Son, has captured my attention this weekend. My favorite depiction of the parable is by Rembrandt. I post his work from the Web Gallery of Art for your reflection and meditation this Lord's Day.

The Return of the Prodigal Son
c. 1669
Oil on canvas, 262 x 206 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Artistic Commentary from the Web Gallery of Art
Rembrandt's final word is given in his monumental painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Here he interprets the Christian idea of mercy with an extraordinary solemnity, as though this were his spiritual testament to the world. It goes beyond the works of all other Baroque artists in the evocation of religious mood and human sympathy. The aged artist's power of realism is not diminished, but increased by psychological insight and spiritual awareness. Expressive lighting and colouring and the magic suggestiveness of his technique, together with a selective simplicity of setting, help us to feel the full impact of the event.

The main group of the father and the Prodigal Son stands out in light against an enormous dark surface. Particularly vivid are the ragged garment of the son, and the old man's sleeves, which are ochre tinged with golden olive; the ochre colour combined with an intense scarlet red in the father's cloak forms an unforgettable colouristic harmony. The observer is roused to a feeling of some extraordinary event. The son, ruined and repellent, with his bald head and the appearance of an outcast, returns to his father's house after long wanderings and many vicissitudes. He has wasted his heritage in foreign lands and has sunk to the condition of a swineherd. His old father, dressed in rich garments, as are the assistant figures, has hurried to meet him before the door and receives the long-lost son with the utmost fatherly love.

The occurrence is devoid of any momentary violent emotion, but is raised to a solemn calm that lends to the figures some of the qualities of statues and gives the emotions of a lasting character, no longer subject to the changes of time. Unforgettable is the image of the repentant sinner leaning against his father's breast and the old father bending over his son. The father's features tell of a goodness sublime and august; so do his outstretched hands, not free from the stiffness of old age. The whole represents a symbol of all homecoming, of the darkness of human existence illuminated by tenderness, of weary and sinful mankind taking refuge in the shelter of God's mercy.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Aspiring to a Deeper Life

For my Christian Ministry class at Truett, I am reading Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, edited by Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass (Eerdmans, 2002). For this week, I read, "Deepening Practices: Perspectives from Ascetical and Mystical Theology” by Sarah Coakley of Harvard University. I found her insights intriguing. I present a summary of her conclusions below and welcome your comments.

Christian Practices for a Deeper Knowledge of God

Four foundational truths undergird Coakley's discussion of Christian practices:
(1) Christian practices are the things Christian people do individually and together over time to address basic human needs in response to and in light of God’s active presence for the life of the world. Such practices include everything from prayer to hospitality to sabbath keeping to healing.

(2) God uses Christian practices, infused with God’s grace, to form us into Christ’s likeness after our baptism. They are the fundamental means of our growth in Christian life.

(3) The more we implement Christian practices and grow in Christ’s likeness, the more we rely upon God’s grace. We tend to think the opposite is true: that the more we become like Jesus, the less grace from God we will need. That is a lie. As we grow in Christian virtue, we will be leaning even more into the grace of God.

(4) Christian practices allow us to know God in ways that mere intellectual knowledge does not. That is to say, there are some truths of God that cannot be gained in books or confessions, but must be known through experience.

Coakley suggests that along with the three classical categories of Christian practices (with which Protestants will be relatively unfamiliar), there are corresponding levels of spiritual engagement, or spiritual knowledge. Neither the three categories of practices, nor the three levels of spiritual engagement, should be rigidly divided from one another. Instead, they will blend together in one's experience and the discoveries from each level are never thrown away, but incorporated and built upon in the next. Perhaps they can be visualized as a scroll unfurling. Each page is connected to the other, but they gradually reveal more of what is written inside.

Purgative practices are those practices in external virtue that arise following your initial commitment to belief at baptism. The emphasis is upon separation from the world and the development of a distinctively Christian way of life. The appearance of such practices may be oppositional or reactionary and somewhat legalistic (i.e., “I won’t listen to anything but ‘Christian’ music” or “I must not miss any activity of the church”).

An historical example is Clement of Alexandria’s (c. 150-215) Paedagogos (“The Teacher”), a manual of sorts for elite young men following their baptism. It offers opinion and regulation on all manner of things: bed coverings, plucking hairs, piercing, behavior in public baths, and even whether or not one should kiss his wife in front of the servants. Once again, the emphasis is upon rigid distinction between the Christian and pagan way of life through the regulation of most of one's daily life.

Illuminative practices are those practices that both facilitate and accompany the beginning of your internal identification with Christ. The emphasis is upon becoming acquainted with Christ and developing a Christian internal life. These practices will have an affect on beliefs, as experience with Christ shapes theology (i.e., “My meditation on God’s love has caused me to reject a theology of determinism” or “My time at the homeless shelter has convinced me that God loves the outcast”).

An historical example is the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, an unsystematic and non-theoretical approach to regulating life in a cenobitic house. Though called the Rule, there is not a focus on rules, but repeatable community practices meant for character formation over time. Some of Benedict's practices include psalm-singing, harvesting, and welcoming strangers. Here, there is no longer an emphasis on keeping the world at bay, but there is also not an implication that such practices will immediately elevate one's virtue. Instead, the Rule is to be followed so that, over a lifetime, there may be "a habituating of love, an imitation in a more than extrinsic way of the life of Christ."

Finally, unitive practices are those practices that lead to a deep union with the Godhead through prolonged and repeated observance. The emphasis is upon knowing God in ways that mere intellectual knowledge cannot provide. These practices are time-consuming, difficult, and painful, focused upon a cultivation of continuous active surrender to God (i.e., “I am making the ‘Jesus Prayer’ a constant refrain in my heart”).

Evagrius of Pontus is one historical example, who sought to be “incorporated into the life of the Trinity” through “pure prayer.” Still, his quest to have direct contemplation of the Logos through prolonged conemplative prayer has a mixed approach to the body and the material work, making his thoughts dicey from the perspective of orthodoxy.

Teresa of Avila experienced a very earthy union with God that transcended the ecstasy for which she is famous, drawing her back to the “pots and pans” of daily life. In the "Seventh Dwelling" of the Mansion she explains that this union with God brings a knowledge of the Trinity is deep within the body. She considers it a "higher state" to be able to withstand lasting union without physical ecstasy or collapse and that an incarnational engagement in the "ordinary," is required of all those who have the trinitarian reality revealed to them in this way.

St. John of the Cross has a similar account of union in The Spiritual Canticle, but he makes the seemingly more daring claim that the soul can actually breathe with the "very breath" of the Spirit that moves between the Father and the Son. The soul becomes knit into the life of God through the long practice of contemplation.

Coakley clarifies regarding unitive practices: "it is the sui generis responsiveness of the soul before God that is the hallmark of these states, in which contemplation is cleary now no human practice at all, but the direct infusion of divine grace." One might call this an "active surrender" to God's grace. Also, "the practices of prayer that have all along sustained this process may be purified and simplified...into silent responsiveness, into an empty waiting on God that precedes union in its fullest sense." In this state, the Trinity is no longer an authoritative ecclesial doctrine of God's nature, but a life into which we enter through union with Christ.

This spectrum of interactive forms of beliefs and practices--purgative, illuminative, and unitive--is such that over a lifetime of faithful observation of both public acts of worship and charity on the one hand, and private devotions on the other, one might hope ultimately to come to "know" God in God's intimate life.

What do you think?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

My Ordination

I was ordained today.

Fear not, my conservative friends. There are few Southern Baptist churches in Texas that will convene an ordination ceremony for a woman and mine is not one of them. No, I did not stand before an elder body, nor did I receive questions from an assembly of deacons, nor did I have the hands of ministers laid upon my shoulders. I would be honored to be a part of any such service but, for now, that is not to be. My ordination was something far more subtle, far more fragile, far more precious. Allow me to explain.

Every week I serve as a student chaplain in a hospital in Waco under the supervision of the pastoral care department. This service is a part of my clinical pastoral orientation class for Truett Seminary. Although my anxiety about this class exceeded my anxiety about any other class at Truett, I have found that the hour I spend listening, sharing, and praying with patients is among my most fulfilling every week. In this way, my experience appears to differ sharply from that of a number of my classmates, who, frankly, view their visits as burdensome interludes to be endured.

Deborah Gonzalez (not her real name) welcomed me into her room this afternoon with tentative eyes. When I introduced myself as the chaplain, her countenance changed and I could see a wave of relief pass across her face. As we spoke, I discovered that Deborah has been ill for many years. She lives with chronic pain from a number of internal problems, all of which are degenerating quickly.

When I knocked on her door, Deborah had just learned from her doctor that the end is very near. That is to say, a transplant appears to be out of the question and there is little more the doctors can do. Over the course of the next 30 minutes, Deborah opened up her heart and shared with me fears and pains that she has not had the courage to share with anyone else.

After a profoundly honest and meaningful visit, I read Romans 8:26-39 aloud. "The Spirit intercedes for us in our weakness...We know that in all things God is working for the good of those who love him...We are more than conquerors through him who loved us...Nothing can seperate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." I offered to pray with her and Deborah placed her hand in mine.

When we said "Amen," and looked back up into each other's eyes, Deborah had a strength in her face that had not been there before. Her eyes were steady and her countenance calm. She was still very ill, still in great pain. But, something had happened in her soul during our visit. The Spirit had met us there and applied healing to her and I could see it.

Then, without hesitation or contrivance, Deborah placed her hand on top of mine and offered me a benediction of sorts: "The Lord bless you and keep you and make his face shine upon you. The Lord use you to bring comfort and peace to others in the way you have brought comfort and peace to me." It was a beautiful, dreamlike moment: Deborah in her blue hospital gown, hair disheveled and make-up smeared from tears, laying her hands upon me and pronouncing a word of blessing, a prophecy of consecration, to a young, confused seminarian.

I went to Criswell College believing myself to be called to pastoral ministry. I know, its quite humorous to imagine me ignorantly choosing such a conservative Bible college with this aim. Indeed, I have to laugh at the confusion of the faculty advisor on my very first day as he tried vainly to conceal his shock at my stated goal. However, in my time at Criswell, it didn't take long to become convinced of the conservative reading of scripture that God prohibits women from serving as pastors or preachers. So, the issue was settled in my mind. I was not called to pastor. My attention turned to other things.

Under the mentorship of one kind and brilliant professor, and with the vocal support of many others, I was encouraged to pursue writing and teaching, both of which came quite naturally to me. I quickly realized that the world of academia was far less closed to women than that of church. So, although I was not aware of my motivation at the time, I see now that choosing the role of teacher was my "out," my way to minister to God's church without having the "baggage" associated with pastoral ministry.

Then I came to Truett. I will not detail the many years of toil and struggle I experienced as I finally arrived at the conclusion that my professors at Criswell, who I love and trust and respect to this very day, are wrong. Indeed, I flinch even now simply writing the words. But, it is what I have concluded from seeking truth and studying the Word: "Here I stand, I can do no other."

Even with my change of mind, though, I remained certain that God did not intend pastoral ministry of any kind for my future. I'm better with books, I thought. I will teach and write, but shepherding is dirty and difficult and not "my thing." Ronnie can pastor, I will teach.

Then, I began to shepherd a women's Sunday School class. Then, I began to know and love a few profoundly broken and fantastically gifted women who actually look to me--me!--for wisdom and guidance. Oh, I'm just teaching a class, I said. I'm just being a good friend. I'm just doing this for now.

Then, I enrolled in a semester of ministry courses: preaching, preaching the parables, Christian ministry, clinical pastoral orientation, and spiritual formation. I thought I would be bored to tears in these "practical" classes. I was certain I would ache for theology and theory. I was wrong.

For all my certainty that the scholarly realm is my "cup of tea," I have found that I find great joy and fulfillment in ministry--dirty, complicated, rough and tumble, pastoral ministry. I find joy in preaching. I find joy in visiting the sick. I find joy in praying for the troubled, confused, and hurting. I find joy in laboring over the formation of souls. And, not only is there joy and peace as I encounter and embrace these tasks, but I am overwhelmed with the incredible privilege it is to do so. I weep even now imagining that God would permit me, little ole me, to be used to care for the soul of another. What an astonishing thing.

As reflected with my supervisor at the hospital about my time with Deborah and my new discoveries about pastoral ministry, he was silent for a while and then made this statement: "Well, Emily, it seems as though you have received your ordination." Observing my confusion, he clarified: "I know in your context you cannot be ordained, but it seems as though God used this woman to affirm your calling to you. She laid hands on you and spoke the truth. Are you ready to receive it?"

Now, hear me, my friends. I am not saying that I think I am called to be a pastor. I am not saying that I am not called to be a teacher. What I am saying is that I don't know what I'm called to do anymore. And, for now, that's ok. I can rest in the unknowing. I can stand firm in my ignorance.

For today, what matters is that Deborah Gonzalez received a touch from God through me. What matters is that through her bruised, sickly hands, God quietly and inconspicuously consecrated me for ministry, something I didn't think would ever happen. May he now grant wisdom as I figure out what to do next.