Thursday, June 26, 2008

This is OUR problem

In the United States, a democratic and free country, there are 2.3 million adults in prison and jail. That means one of every 99 adults is behind bars. In China, a communist and oppressive country, there are 1.5 million adults in prison and jail. That means one of every 708 adults is behind bars.*

Also, minorities continue to make up an enormously disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated. Approximately 41% of the adult prison/jail population is black, while 19% are Hispanic.

One in every nine black men between the ages of 25 and 29 are sitting in prison. Of the same age group, one in every 26 Hispanic men are sitting in prison and one in every 59 white men.

When the numbers are expanded to black men between the ages of 20 and 29, the figure rises dramatically. One in three black men between 20 and 29 are in prison or jail.

Finally, black men have a one in three chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives. Hispanic men have a 17 percent chance, while white men have a six percent chance.**

Its easy for "white folks," the majority and most privileged population in the US, to look at these figures and say, "Wow, what's their problem?" I've heard this response many times over. But, the truth is, this is not their problem. If African-Americans are Americans, if Hispanic-Americans are Americans, then this, my friends, is OUR problem.

These men are our citizens. These men are our brothers. These men are our family. We need to be concerned and working to make a change.
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*Pew Center on the States, February 2008 and the CIA World Factbook, 2008.
**Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Just plain funny...

Check out these pictures from the World’s Ugliest Dog competition at the Sonoma-Marin Fair, in California. The winner was Gus, a three-legged, one-eyed, Chinese Crested cancer sufferer. If God is making all things new, I have a feeling these pups are eagerly awaiting that great day. Enjoy!

Friday, June 20, 2008

My youngest "son"

Cooper, our youngest son, has taken a liking to garden snakes. He's uncovered six over the past few months. I caught his last encounter from our sun room. These aren't the best photos in the world, but Cooper's adorable. (OK, I'm biased, but I love my "kids.") And, just in case you're wondering, the snakes have yet to survive Cooper's play time. Luckily, I'm not a fan of reptiles.



Saturday, June 14, 2008

Women and Education: Some Bitter Truths

I am doing some in-depth study of the creation of women's history as an academic discipline and force for change in the Western world. One of the "giants" of women's history is Gerda Lerner, an Austrian-born historian, author and teacher. Presently, Lerner is a professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a visiting scholar at Duke University.

I understand that reading feminist literature is not at the top of the "To Do" list for most, so in this post I provide some intriguing and challenging excerpts from the first chapter of Lerner's The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. This volume remains a benchmark in the writing of women's history, documenting the twelve-hundred-year struggle of women to free their minds and achieve a feminist consciousness in Western civilization.

("Feminist consciousness" is defined by Lerner as "the awareness of women that they belong to a subordinate group; that they have suffered wrongs as a group; that their condition of subordination is unnatural; that they must join with otherr women to remedy these wrongs; and finally, that they must and can provide an alternate vision of societal organization in which women as well as men will enjoy autonomy and self-determination.")

As you will see, Lerner's focus is upon the educational disadvantaging of women, which has been a major force in determining women's individual and collective consciousness, as well as their political and social behavior. Her description of the predicament of women for the length of recorded history is both jarring to hear and bitter to swallow. I thought it would be beneficial to share these reflections and invite comment. Please read carefully and with a soft heart. (All words in bold are my emphases.)

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From the time of the establishment of patriarchy to the present, males of non-elite groups have struggled with increasing success for a share in the power of defining and naming. The history of the Western world can be viewed as the unfolding of that class-based struggle and the story of the process by which more and more non-elite males have gained access to economic and mental resources. But, during this entire period, well into the middle of the 20th century, women have been excluded from all or part of that process and have been unable to gain access to it.

Not only have women been excluded through educational deprivation from the process of making mental constructs, it has also been the case that the mental constructs explaining the world have been androcentric, partial and distorted. Women have been defined out and marginalized in every philosophical system and have therefore had to struggle not only against exclusion but against a content which defines them as subhuman and deviant...

The ultimate consequence of men's power to define--the power to define what is a political issue and what is not--has had a profound effect on women's struggle for their own emancipation. Essentially, it has forced thinking women to waste much time and energy on defensive arguments; it has channeled their thinking into narrow fields; it has retarded their coming into consciousness as a collective entity and has literally aborted and distorted the intellectual talents of women for thousands of years...

The systematic educational disadvantaging of women has affected women's self-perceptions, their ability to conceptualize their own situation and their ability to conceive of societal solutions to improve it... Women, for far longer than any other structured group in society, have lived in a condition of trained ignorance, alienated from their own collective experience through the denial of the existence of Women's History.

Even more important, women have for millennia been forced to prove to themselves and to others their capacity for abstract thought. This has skewed the intellectual development of women as a group, since their major intellectual endeavor had to be to counteract the pervasive patriarchal assumptions of their inferiority and incompleteness as human beings...

The next issue through which women's quest for equality found expression was the struggle for access to education. Here, again, women were forced for hundreds of years not only to argue for their right to equal education, but first to prove their capacity to be educated at all. This exhausted the energies of the most talented women and retarded their intellectual development.

Further, up until the end of the 19th century in Europe and the United States, women in order to be educated had to forego their sexual and reproductive lives--they had to choose between wifehood and motherhood on the one hand and education on the other. No group of men in history ever had to make such a choice or pay such a price for intellectual growth.

For many centuries the talents of women were directed not toward self-development but toward realizing themselves through the development of a man. Women, conditioned for millennia to accept the patriarchal definition of their role, have sexually and emotionally serviced men and nurtured them in a way that allowed men of talent a fuller development and a more intensive degree of specialization than women have ever had.

The sexual division of labor which has allotted to women the major responsibility for domestic services and the nurturance of children has freed men from the cumbersome details of daily survival activities, while it disproportionately has burdened women with them. Women have had less spare time and above all less uninterrupted time in which to reflect, to think and to write...

Why have there been no great women thinkers and system builders? Where are the female Newtons, Kants, Einsteins? Virginia Woolf's brilliant metaphor of Shakespeare's sister who, had she been as talented as her brother, would still not have been able to accomplish what he did due to the constraints of gender definitions, has actual historical precedents. These women existed, women of extraordinary talent, of genius, with the capacity and will to excel, create and define.

Isotta Nogarola, accused of incest with her brother to explain her literary achievements; Sor Juana de la Cruz selling her precious library at the Archbishop's command to show her humility; Elizabeth Estob serving as the governess of the Duke of Portland's children. And that otherwise unknown girl of sixteen, one Lucinda Foote, who was denied the admission she sought to Yale University in 1792 with the comment that she was qualified in all respects "except for her sex."

Lucinda Foote may have been only moderately talented or possibly she may have been gifted with genius. We will never know, for she was female, and that was all that mattered.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Not a "secondary issue"


Many of my gifted and well-meaning colleagues in the Southern Baptist world have devoted much time and energy toward calling a "truce" on the in-fighting regarding the contentious issue of women in ministry. The way my friends commonly arrive at a peaceful conclusion to this matter goes something like this:

Both the egalitarian and complementarian views of women in ministry can be argued reasonably from scripture, therefore it is unwise for us to be too dogmatic about one's conclusions. Instead, we must recognize women in ministry as a secondary (or even tertiary) issue and not use it as a theological "litmus test" for fellowship and cooperation.

While anyone who knows me can affirm that I am disinclined to contradict anything that brings peace, today I must respectfully disagree with my colleagues. The matter of women in ministry is not a "secondary issue." Indeed, it is my contention that the luxury of affirming women in ministry as a secondary issue is available only to those who are not of the "second sex." When you are a woman, the will of God for your place in the Kingdom of God is a primary issue--one that cannot be brushed aside simply to avoid conflict.

As I ponder deeply the matter of women in ministry, I am faced with the truth that my conclusions on the matter go straight to the heart of what I believe about God, God's world, and the good news of Jesus Christ. What was God's intention when he created the world and human beings within it? How did sin affect the relationships of the human beings whom God made? How does the good news of Jesus Christ affect male-female relations and what is God's intention as he "reconciles all things to himself"?

As much as we may wish not to fight about women in ministry any longer, I cannot see how one's answers to these basic questions can be viewed as matters of secondary concern.

In my opinion, the good news of the Kingdom of God testifies that human beings are the unique and beloved climax of God’s creative work. God formed human beings in the Triune image, as male and female, to reflect God’s relationality, love, creativity, spirituality, freedom, and intelligence. Spirit of God created in humans a capacity to know and respond to God’s loving initiative and to participate in the rule of God in the created order.

God's intention for humanity as male and female was for mutual, equal, and interdependent communion, but sin has marred God's original creation and perpetuated subordination and misogyny in human societies. Part of the renewal of all things in the Christ's new creation is that men and women are reconciled to one another in Christ. Through Holy Spirit's power, men and women are able to reclaim their loving, peaceful, and mutually submissive place together in the reign of God.

Do these sound like secondary issues for you? Are these affirmations unimportant to one's worldview and life ethic? I don't think so.

Before my graduation from Truett Theological Seminary, I was invited to attend an early meeting of the fledgling group, "Women of the Cloth." These ladies, young and old, black, brown, and white, were the aspiring women preachers and pastors of Truett, seeking out sorely needed fellowship and support within the seminary family. For these women, for me, and for all the other women set apart by God for service in the Kingdom, the freedom to function as the Spirit has gifted us is not a matter of secondary concern.

So, even though I don't like conflict, even though I'd prefer to hold hands and sing "Jesus Loves Me" with all my brothers and sisters in Christ, I am compelled now to "stir the pot" a bit. For the men in power--the pastors, administrators, and heads of associations--who are dancing around this matter, seeking to avoid angering either side by taking a "hard and fast" stance on women in ministry, I say to you: Pick a side. Either women are equal partners with you in God's Kingdom, equally equipped, and equally freed to serve, or they are not. You cannot have it both ways.

Although there is much more I could say, I must conclude with this. I have heard many a pastor say regarding women in ministry, "That's not a hill I am willing to die on." That's well and good, I'm sure. Certainly I understand that pastors must "pick their battles" in local church ministry. But, I must ask, if not this "hill," then which one? If not you, then who? If not now, when?

In every generation where liberation is needed, it is the responsibility of the elite and powerful to adopt the cause of the underprivileged and powerless. Today, in the Southern Baptist "Zion," women are not allowed on the hill. We can't even get close enough to smell it. So, in the end, if you won't die on this hill for us, then who will?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Good News for Graduates

This weekend, I had the privilege of speaking at the graduation ceremony of the Christian home school association of Fairfield, Texas. It was a joy to see such gifted, intelligent, and faithful young followers of Jesus begin their next phase of life in the Kingdom of God. The following was the message I delivered. I pray it blesses my readers.

Good News for Graduates

So, what are you going to do now? That’s the question. Isn’t it? That’s the one that is on everyone’s mind, now that you’re graduating from high school. I remember what that was like. The long discussions with mom, sitting on the kitchen counter, feet dangling and arms flailing as I struggled to put into words the anxiety I was feeling. Some of you are feeling the very same thing. Even if you have a plan, even if you’re working the plan, you don’t know for sure that your plan will go as planned. As many of us in this room can attest, more often than not, life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.

What are you going to do now? Although this is the question on your mind as you are formally graduated today, there are a few reasons that I can’t answer it for you. First, I only have 15 minutes. Also, I know that statistically it is highly unlikely that you’ll remember much of what I say today. And, while it is an important question, ultimately, I do not think it is the most important question. So, instead of telling you what you’re going to do now, I would like to address the question, “What is God doing now?”

To do this, first we need to go back to the beginning, where we learn this important truth: God created everything. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Of course, when the writer of Genesis says “heavens and earth,” what he means is everything—every, single thing in the universe is made by God. And, according to later verses in Genesis, God considered his world good—very good.

Now, we know that this includes the physical universe: the 100 billion galaxies, containing somewhere between 10 million and one trillion stars each. And, we know that this includes the 5,400 mammal species roaming around our planet, from the 30-40 mm Bumble-Bee Bat to the 33 m Blue Whale. Not to mention the 10 million different species of insects, which, by the way, represent about 90% of all life forms on planet Earth. Yikes!

Now, all this is to say that most of us understand that God’s creation includes all living things. But, there’s more. As human beings interact with the created world and one another, they produce language, culture, art, architecture, business, agriculture, technology, science, and many other human innovations. These products of human creativity and exploration are reflections of God’s creative nature and manifest infinitely valuable attempts to understand God’s world. This includes the 482 musical instruments around the world, from the Ajaeng of Korea to the Zufolo of Italy. This includes the 6,912 living human languages. God is the author of everything and everything is designed with excellence and purpose.

Unfortunately, as we all know, God’s good creation did not remain good for long. Sin broke everything. The testimony of the Bible reveals that sin and evil have marred God’s beautiful, orderly creation. Our first parents rejected God’s rule for their own and their choice has been and will be perpetuated in every human being to follow. As a result, rather than the harmonious, loving relationship that God intended, humanity chose a position of alienation and enmity with God and the rest of the created order became subject to the resulting chaos.

Personal sins are committed through willful choice by human beings to be and live contrary to the rule of God. These sins are perpetrated on God and one another: pride, idolatry, hatred, murder, envy, greed, theft, and many more. And then, arising out of this tendency for human beings to reject God and cruelly mistreat one another is systemic or structural evil, which is the active procreation and power of sin in corporate or social structures. Systemic evils include extreme poverty, misogyny, and racism, all of which infect society like viruses and work in tandem with the personal evils.

We see the evidence of this brokenness everywhere. Where God intended human government to provide order, justice, and security, the rulers of Burma deny their citizens vital relief following a deadly cyclone, causing the deaths of tens of thousands and prolonging the suffering of 2.4 million more. Where God intended marriage to be a reflection of God’s loving, interdependent relationality, today, in the US alone, every 15 seconds a woman is battered by her husband and every five years, more women are murdered by their husbands than the number of American lives lost in the Vietnam War. And, where God intended industry and business to enrich lives and create opportunity, this year Florida tomato pickers had to fight “tooth and nail” just to convince Burger King to pay them an additional one-cent per pound of tomatoes picked. In the words of Cornelius Plantinga, “Things are not the way they’re supposed to be.”

So now, in the midst of this broken, bleeding, and suffering world, Paul’s words ring out over all:

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

This verse leads us to the really good news. We know that God created everything and sin broke everything, but I am happy to report to you that Jesus restores everything. In the evangelical world, we tend to think of Jesus’ focus being upon the forgiveness of sins and salvation of souls only. This way of thinking sadly reduces God’s plan of redemption to helping humans escape from hell and enter heaven after death. While the Good News of Jesus is at least these things, it is not only these things. In fact, there is much, much more.

Colossians 1:19-20 says: “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” What this means is that Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension brings about the redemption and restoration of all the things that were broken by the Fall.

The point is not salvation from creation, but salvation of creation. Because the kingdom of darkness has been overcome in Christ, there is nothing over which Jesus doesn’t reign as rightful King. Every inch of this planet, every plant and animal, every art form and language, every academic discipline, every invention, every family, Jesus points to from his throne and says, “That’s mine.”

So, as we asked earlier, “What is God doing now?” Revelation 21:1-5 reads as follows:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…And, he who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

God is making all things new: new heavens and new earth, and everything in between. God has refused to abandon the work of his hands. Humanity, which has totally botched its original mandate and the whole creation along with it, is given another chance in Christ. We are reinstated as God’s managers on earth and the original good creation is to be restored. In the Good News of Jesus, you get to be a part of it.

Albert Wolters describes the implications of this truth in this way:

Emotions should not be repressed, but purified. Sexuality is not to be shunned, but redeemed. Politics should not be declared off-limits, but reformed. Art ought not to be pronounced worldly, but claimed for Christ. Business must no longer be relegated to the secular world, but must be made to conform again to God-honoring standards…Wherever there is disruption of the good creation…there Christ provides the possibility of restoration. If the whole creation is affected by the fall, then the whole creation is also reclaimed in Christ.

Rick Hunter attends our church in Cincinnati, OH. He works for L3 Communications, which is a US defense contractor. He may work on weapons of war, but his love is space. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Rick was a volunteer working for NASA when the Phoenix Mars probe touched down on an arctic plane on the red planet. The Phoenix is collecting icy, muddy samples of Martian soil for detailed chemical and geological analysis. Rick and many others hope to find out if the soil on Mars has the ability to harbor life. But, Rick doesn’t do this just because he can. Rick knows that all creation is God’s and Jesus rules over every inch. With Rick’s presence in NASA, one more region of space is being explored for God’s glory. Truly, he is preaching the good news to "all creation," as Mark 16:15 says to do.

If this is what God is doing now, then the only right conclusion is to ask you question: “Will you join him?” As you consider your future, as you step one foot at a time into the exciting and frightening unknown, will you join God in making all things new? Whether you’re a history buff, a drama queen, an art nut, a jock, a nerd, or a Bible student, God wants you, in cooperation with him, to be apart of his reconciliation of the whole world.

This work must begin with you, within your own heart, and work its way out into every area of your life. Holy Spirit wants to conform you to the image of Jesus and then empower you to renew your surroundings into the good creation God intended.

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!”

Will you join the winning side? Will you invite others to join the winning side? Will you invite all of creation to join the winning side? Wherever you go from here, may your arms be wide and your eyes sparkling with the confidence and hope of victory as we all join God in his endeavor to make all things new.