Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

One Lousy Prayer’s Thoughts on Prayer as Spiritual Formation

"God, I want a Barbie doll for Christmas. Can you add that to your list?"

It is hard to be honest as a minister about the fact that I am not very good at praying.

Sure, I do it.  Most mornings these days I sidle up next to Jesus with a cup of coffee and a passage from Scripture.  Some days there is a long laundry list of intercessions: “Please bless Kay and Dan and their upcoming marriage;” “please help the family with the child who has leukemia;” “please help Cam listen to his teacher today;” “please help me figure out what I’m going to do when I grow up.”

Other days, the inclination to sit in the silence of a centering prayer soon devolves into a long, painfully protracted reminder of my mind’s ability to focus on anything but Jesus.  There is the laundry waiting to be folded, the next chapter of the book to be written, and the parent-teacher meeting to attend, after all.  Jesus is somewhere in the midst of it all, albeit hard to find.

So I’m not a very good prayer.  Contrary to frequent misconceptions of pastors by parishioners, I am not a “professional” prayer, either. But these days I have been thinking about the nature of prayer as spiritual formation.

My daughter, Sam, was diagnosed last year with something called “low muscle tone,”  which our family soon discovered is a “catch-all” term for a condition that doctors don’t really understand.  Sam underwent a number of tests with the referral of a pediatric neurologist. The neurologist told me that if the tests came back “negative,” meaning no other underlying condition was present, she would diagnose Sam with “cerebral palsy.”

The tests came back negative.

If you’re still processing the “cerebral palsy” part, then you can imagine a bit of this mother’s reaction when she first heard the words, “cerebral palsy.”  The jaw dropped.  The eyes widened then blinked.  Time seemed to stand still for a few minutes before I responded.

The doctor then assured me that “cerebral palsy” can be as minor as a scar on the brain that heals over time with lots of therapeutic intervention at an early age.  That helped a bit.

On my darker days, when Sam’s condition causes me to wonder where she’ll be not one year but five or ten years from now, I am reminded of the story of the blind man in John’s Gospel (John 9).  “Who sinned, this man or his parents?,” the disciples ask Jesus.  Jesus answers that the man was born blind, “so that God might be glorified.”  (If truth be told, I sometimes secretly wish that God wouldn’t have to “glorify” God’s Self so much.)

But “low muscle tone,” in addition to giving God the glory, has meant frequent and regular trips to the physical therapist and now the speech therapist.

Which brings me back to the whole idea of prayer as spiritual formation.  Because these days helping Sam to speak involves refusing to speak for her and letting her do the hard work of pronouncing the words. This is challenging to do as a mother.  Often Sam becomes impatient.  She wants me to understand her without having to do the tough work of asking.  If she is having trouble forming the syllables, or pronouncing them in a way that is remotely comprehensible, Sam is quick to cry.

In some cases, I really do know exactly what Sam wants, but I have to keep encouraging her to say it for herself.  Because ultimately Sam needs to learn how to voice what she wants if she is going to grow into the person she was meant to become.  Depending on me to do it for her before she asks it of me will only keep her stuck in the same rut.

The dialogue might look like the following:

“I want!”

“You want what?”

“I want that!”

“You want that?”  What’s that?”  (“That” is the chocolate milk on the counter.)

“I want that!” (Sam is now getting impatient with herself and me and begins to cry.)

“Do you want the milk?” Can you say, ‘milk’ please?”

“I want the milk, please.”

I wonder if prayer is similar.  Sure, our requests might be a bit more complex than simply, “I want chocolate milk.”  But they are there all the same, and they are often uniquely ours and nobody else’s. “I want your peace, God.” “I need your courage, Jesus.”

And prayer can often seem like a struggle to articulate these needs and desires that our uniquely our own.  Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words for what we most fear or long for.  Our words can seem empty or fall flat or we may find ourselves speechless.  Yet the Spirit helps us in our weakness, Romans 8:26 instructs: “we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

C.S. Lewis said this of prayer:  “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.”

Prayer changes us.  Something happens when we choose to voice our deepest needs and desires to God for ourselves and let God shape and transform our words and thoughts.  God does some of God’s best work on us, making us into people formed and made for Love.

What does this process of spiritual formation require of us?  Patience, courage and a little self-discipline, I suspect.  Maybe, too, the recognition that we are all like little children with speech impediments.

 

 

 

“Serenity Now!”: Managing Anxiety

FRANK: Like an animal. Because of her, I have to sit here like an animal! Serenity now! Serenity now! GEORGE: What is that? FRANK: Doctor gave me a relaxation cassette. When my blood pressure gets too high, the man on the tape tells me to say, 'Serenity now!' GEORGE: Are you supposed to yell it? FRANK: The man on the tape wasn't specific.

My two-year-old has discovered how to crawl through the ladder rungs of the bunk bed she shares with her brother.  She likes to demonstrate her new-found talent after a drawn-out bedtime routine of bath, books, prayers and hugs.  Until recently we would leave the door to the kids’ room ajar, in the case of nightmares, wet beds and any other manner of nocturnal drama.

But lately Sam climbs down from bed, slinks out her bedroom door and then pushes open her mommy and daddy’s bedroom door.  And then, with a proud, mischievous grin she just stands there looking up at me from my comfortable perch reading in bed, as if to say, “Aren’t you impressed?,” or, by way of a challenge, “Just try putting me to bed!”  And meanwhile, at the end of a long day of mothering, I’m thinking, to quote the title of a must-have book for all first-time parents, “Go the f*#k to sleep!”

Needless to say, this new “normal” has proven inconvenient- so much so that the other night, after four consecutive repetitions of this same drill over the course of an hour, I decided to do the unthinkable and shut Sam’s door.

Sam wasn’t happy.  She must have screamed at a high decibel level for almost an hour before finally surrendering to the sandman.

Anxiety can be a bit like the kid you’ve tried to put to sleep but who keeps getting out of bed to torment you.  You can do your best to coax her to sleep, but some days she just won’t have any of it.  She is wide awake and wants to come out and play, often at the most inconvenient times.  When you try to shut the door on her, she can keep banging away loudly, screaming at the top of her lungs.  In such instances, it can be hard to know whether to open the door and let her come out, or keep the door shut and listen to her banging, yelling and throwing a temper tantrum.

My own anxiety tends to come in waves, usually in the form of little blips. Twice in my life, the anxiety was more like a tidal wave.  Life can be going along smoothly for long, uninterrupted periods of relative quiet until something abruptly life changing happens and the storm hits.  Then the “what if’s?” and “what then’s?” can start to slip out of their room where they have been quietly at rest.  Soon without my having even heard them creep up, they’re there, looking at me with a big grin as if to say, “I’m back!”

Ten years ago the first of the two tsunamis hit.  When the anxiety had become paralyzing, I went to a shrink.  I thought she might know what to do when the recurring “what if’s” kept coming back every few minutes to knock on my door.  She told me to wear a rubber band on my wrist and flick it every time I had an anxious thought.

That experiment- and that shrink- didn’t last very long.  My red wrist and the conviction that I was certifiably going crazy were the biggest indicators that this shrink and I would have a short shelf life.  With the help of a little rest and some doctor- prescribed Celexa for a time, I was soon back on track.

Since that time, life and ministry, including Tsunami #2,  have taught me the value of a shrink- a good shrink, that is.  Gone are the rubber hands.  When we get together, my therapist and I mainly just talk.  About my issues. About other people’s issues.  About what I need to own as my “stuff” and what I really don’t need to own.  I have learned that in a profession ranked at highest risk for suicide- next to pschiatry and dentistry (go figure?)- this kind of self-care is critical.

And in the mix I am learning to face my fears when every so often they threaten to party all night long.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that God throughout Scripture often says things like “Do not fear,” or “Do not worry.”  Anxiety is part and parcel of the human condition- and thankfully, “do not worry” did not get enshrined in the “Big Ten” as a commandment next to “don’t steal” and “don’t commit adultery.”

Still I have met many Christians over the years who have volunteered that they feel guilty that they have anxiety and/or have to medicate it.   (Apparently one in three women in this country now takes an antidepressant, for example.)  They find it hard not to view their anxieties as a sign of weak faith.  It doesn’t really help that the one passage in Scripture in which we see Jesus’ disciples getting really anxious- in a boat in the middle of a storm- Jesus rebukes them for having “little faith.”

Does this mean that those of us who have been helped by an antidepressant and/or a shrink need to beat ourselves up for somehow being less “faithful” or less of a believer? I would hope not.  Life is hard enough.  We don’t need to compound the pain with more neurotic, guilt-induced self-flagellation.  Christ’s sacrifice on a cross was enough- once for all, Scripture tells us.

And the consolation of the Good News is this: that when we are weak, God is strong.  We don’t have to prop up God’s strength by trying to be strong ourselves.  That is not how this grace thing works.  God doesn’t need us to help God that way.

So in the spirit of John Lennon, who once crooned, “whatever gets you through the night…is alright” don’t be embarrassed to take medication or see a shrink.  And most especially don’t be afraid to breathe just a bit easier in the knowledge that God loves you just the way you are, with or without your active basal ganglia.

For more tips on how to manage your anxieties, check out Therese Borchard’s blog, “Beyond Blue,” here at Beliefnet.  Here she shares 12 practical ways to manage your anxiety: http://www.beliefnet.com/Health/Emotional-Health/2009/11/Ways-to-Manage-Anxiety.aspx.  Or, check out these prayers for strength, compliments of interfaith minister Rev. Victor Fuhrman: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Prayer/2010/03/Prayers-for-Strength.aspx

 

“Exorcise Wall Street”

Shane Claiborne is a founding member of The Simple Way.

Author and activist Shane Claiborne has recently proposed an “exorcism” of Wall Street (as opposed to an occupation).  Claiborne takes the story of Jesus’ exorcism of the demon-possessed man, “Legion,” as biblical precedent for the idea.  What do you think- “exorcism” or “occupation”?  I have republished Claiborne’s post, which was first posted on the blog, “Red Letter Christians,” in full below:

There was an occasion in the 60′s where a bunch of hippies surrounded the Pentagon and tried to exorcise the demons. It didn’t work. Despite their valiant effort, not much happened that day.

Nevertheless, I am one of those Christians who believes in angels and demons. But I think the traditional Christian understanding of these things needs a major makeover. Seems to me the Tempter comes in many forms, and is just as likely to dote a three-piece-suit and wingtips as he is to have horns and a pitchfork. And perhaps the angels look more like the bums in the alley than the feathered white babies on Hallmark cards.

One of my favorite demon stories from the Bible is about a guy named “Legion”. As the story goes, Jesus is walking through an area near the sea of Galilee and meets a dude who is in chains, violently possessed by demons. When asked his name the fellow says, “My name is Legion, for we are many”. Jesus drives the demons from the man into a bunch of nearby pigs that charge into the water and die. And the man is free.

But here’s why I like the story. As with most good stories, there’s a whole lot more going on than meets the eye. For starters, the word “Legion” was a familiar word, used for a division of Roman soldiers (much like a platoon), and there would have been many legions in the area. The Decapolis where Jesus meets the guy was a group of ten cities (hence the name) under Roman occupation, and a hub of the Roman military. The man in the story is said to be “occupied” by a demon, a word loaded with meaning both then and now, especially among people whose land was under foreign occupation. The demon occupation was leading the man to hurt himself, bound up in chains, living in the cemetery among the dead. Death was in the air, in a land infected with violence and militarism. Nearby is a band of pigs, a quintessential “unholy” animal for first century Mediterraneans, and the demons ask to be sent among the pigs.

Read: Shane apologizes for misquoting U.S. Gov’t War Spending Statistics

So Jesus grants the request and casts them into the pigs, which immediately “charge” into the sea and drown. No one could have missed the subversive symbolism of the pigs “charging” into the sea, as they remembered their own liberation story which climaxes with Pharaoh’s legion of troops “charged” into the sea where they drowned, hundreds of years earlier.

It is also noteworthy that the word “cast out” used in the exorcism is the same phrase used when Jesus drives the money-changers from the temple because they had turned it into a market. No wonder the story ends with folks telling Jesus to leave their town.

I started wondering what that story might look like today. Maybe it would go something like this.

Jesus was walking down Wall Street in the Empire State. He met a man occupied by evil spirits that had caused the man to gorge himself on food and cover himself in gold chains. He lived in the shopping malls and banks. When Jesus asked the man his name, the man replied, “NASDAQ”. Meanwhile, about a mile away a train loaded with cows was passing by, on the way to the market. Jesus cast the demons out of the man and into the bulls, which charged down Wall Street and into the Hudson River where they drowned. The man was set free. The crowd told Jesus to get out of town.

Here’s what I love about the story. The man gets set free. Sure the pigs drown and the owner was undoubtedly ticked, but the oppressed man is delivered from the self-destructive patterns of his occupation. He is free.

This story can still be true today. We’re all recovering from our own demons… whether we are occupied by violence or the market, or racism or hatred. We can all be set free.

And the good news is no one is beyond redemption – not even the 1%, the CEOs, the bankers, the terrorists. The revolution is big enough to set both the occupied and the occupiers free.

Perhaps what we need today is not an occupation of Wall Street… but an exorcism. And after Wall Street gets cleansed, maybe we’ll move on to the Pentagon and give that another shot.

God May Still Use the Church for God’s Mission. Maybe.

Yesterday’s exchange with a stranger on Facebook who saw Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize winning picture and my accompanying prayer and proceeded to explain why my prayer, with its inappropriate, “Mother-Spirit” language, would not be heard and why I, an “unsaved sinner” would not be answered, sparked some thinking and praying yesterday.  By “thinking” I mean that I spent much of my morning absent-mindedly going through the motions of grocery shopping and children chauffeuring with this stranger’s commentary as a kind of recurring subtext in my mind, like subtitles in a movie flick.  There I was unloading groceries on the table and it was “This is why that prayer did not reach God’s ear,” or I was changing Sam’s diapers to the tune of “God is not a spirit-mother.”  By “praying” I mean that I spent the first half of the day complaining to God about self-righteous, “religious” people who take it upon themselves to pronounce me doomed because of my doubts.

So there I was obsessing, complaining and patting myself on the back for my bravado in being honest about questions of suffering and so on, when it hit me: that there is something deeply wrong and even diabolical at play under the surface of these kinds of petty spats between us “religious types” over how we pray and worship.  Mark Labberton, in his book, The Dangerous Act of Worship, touches on it when he describes how contemporary worship wars obscure the necessary connection between worship and God’s justice.  The tragedy? That so often we Christians find it easier to attack one another rather than the deep injustices in the world that break God’s heart and should break ours, too.

Kevin Carter’s picture stirred in me at once both a great sense of despair and a desperate need to pray for God’s goodness to shine in these dark places and to use me in the smallest of ways to channel that goodness and in turn be transformed.  Whether or not I used the right words to pray is of secondary importance, ultimately. Whether or not I was “sinful” or “saved” was, too, actually.  That the child in that picture and the plight of the many like her today was relegated to the background because of a religious dispute is the ultimate tragedy- insofar as this kind of thing has been happening for years and over and over again in various pockets of religion.  As friend and missional church thinker and practitioner Lance Ford puts it, in quoting a preacher he once heard, “a religious spirit cannot bear a compassionate heart.” How can we expect to bear even a piece of God’s heart in the smallest of ways when we wrangle over the pettiest of issues?

This, I suspect, is the biggest issue facing today’s church: more and more people are recognizing that God is choosing to carry out God’s mission without the help of the local church.  Which should not be that surprising, maybe, because we have seen this once before, after all.  The Bible I read tells a story about how God chooses a people for God’s Self and calls them to a mission of feeding the hungry, healing the sick and freeing the captives, all as a way of pointing to the dawning of God’s kingdom, which we Christians pray for every Sunday when we say, “Thy kingdom come…one earth as it is in heaven;” but then God’s people fail; in fact, they fail over and over again, becoming insulated in their wrangling over all sorts of religious issues- so much so that God chooses to act without their help.  Enter Jesus.  He comes to fulfill God’s mission because God’s people could not do it themselves, and when He does, He does so apart from the help of the temple, without the prescribed methods of the religious types of His time.

Yes, God may still use the church for God’s mission.  Just maybe.  And at times God does.  But when God chooses to use those outside the church to fulfill God’s mission, I am not in the least bit surprised.

 

 

Another Reason Why I Am On Occasion An “Agnostic Christian”…A Response to My Last Post

By way of an update, I received the following comment in response to my last post, and have decided to keep the identity of the person who wrote this private (although their response was shared publicly).  Apparently my gendered language for the Three-in-One God and my doubt on occasion in the face of such suffering, as depicted in pictures such as Kevin Carter’s photo of a starving child (see last post), mean that I am “unsaved” and “still in sin;” they also mean that I can expect my prayer not to be answered.

This person’s response to me was the following:

“My heart aches for this child, but this is why that prayer did not reach God’s ear. “Lead me, Mother-Spirit”. God is not a “spirit mother”. And [HE] does not listen to the prayers of the unsaved. 1 Peter 3:12 “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and [HIS] ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” The prayers of those who are still in their sins (unsaved) are not heard by God.”

I would like to believe that God’s Love is big enough to contain my doubt and complex enough to contain my gender, too; and if to doubt is to sin, then God is not very big. I choose to believe that we serve a great, big God.

An Agnostic Christian’s Valentine’s Day Prayer

A starving child in the Sudan famine of 1991 crawls to a U.N. food camp located 1 km away. No one knows what happened to the child. The Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, Kevin Carter, committed suicide three months later. (Special thanks to friend Lance Ford for introducing me to the photo.)

Forgive me, Father God, for seeking shelter in the statistics, so that I might never have been obliged to know that somewhere in the middle of the Sudan, an abandoned child bowed down to You in starvation, waiting to become a vulture’s next meal. Help my unbelief, Friend and Brother Jesus Christ, when I doubt that you out of Love really descended into hell, which is here, in this picture- far away from what you would wish for this dearly loved child, or for me, in my indifference to the cries of this, your loved one. Lead me, Mother Spirit, from the parched land of despair in these dark places around the world and in my own life, to your banquet table of hope, where I might even now feed this child with my feeble prayers and the smallest of deeds on behalf of the “least of these” who cry out to you.  As you fill my stomach, make me hunger and thirst for Your righteousness.  In the strong, merciful name of Jesus, Amen.
 

“got hope?” This very personal meditation on suffering and the nature of Christian hope will be the concluding chapter of my forthcoming spiritual memoir, “Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls.”

“Leaders Who Last”: A Review of Dave Kraft’s Book, for Feedback

I mentioned that fellow saint and sinner Tammy Perlutter’s review of Dave Kraft’s book, Leaders Who Last, was one inspiration for my last post. Here it is for your feedback.  You can find more of Tammy’s musings at her blog, “Raggle-Taggle.” (Thanks for sharing, Tammy!)  Have any of you read Kraft’s book? If so, would you agree or disagree with Tammy’s inferences?

“The Bane of the Pastor: Nice and Draining People”

This is a slightly scathing review of Dave Kraft’s book, Leaders Who Last. This is a Re:Lit publication put out by Mars Hill. To be honest, I’ve been less than impressed by what has been coming out of Mars Hill and especially what’s been coming out of Mark Driscoll. I’ve also been just plain mortified by what I have been experiencing and reading about regarding leadership and pastoring in our Evangelical churches. And this book describes it perfectly.

This book started off fairly strong, although it was bit too mega-churchy, motivational speaker-like for my taste. I did a lot of highlighting and I will attempt to implement some of his suggestions. My biggest concern and major argument with the book is the last section.

In the introduction he defines a leader as “a servant of God who is called by God to shepherd, develop, equip and empower a specific group of believers . . .”

Sounds great. Until you discover the disclaimer at the end of the sentence. “A specific group of believers.” At first I assumed the specific group of believers is the church body the pastor/leader is called to shepherd. It turns out I was wrong.

“Why is so little time invested in the right kinds of people? The draining and nice people get all the prime time. The resourceful and the trainable get the leftovers.”

“Suffice it to say, a leader needs to spend the largest chunk of his ‘people hours’ meeting with disciples hungry for training, not counseling with draining people.”

So basically, Dave Kraft is saying that the rest of the church, the ones who aren’t hungry for discipleship or who are in a state of need, are the wrong kind of people the leader should be spending his “people hours” with. So the leader should delegate them to other “leaders” with lesser skill, less time, and even less respect for the individual.

I am seriously starting to think that the term “pastor” should not even be given to someone who does not have the spiritual gift of shepherding or the desire to invest in people. We do not get to choose our community, we are graciously invited to be a part of it. Has the very definition of shepherding changed in the last 2,000 years and I’m expecting something of a pastor that I shouldn’t? Is “pastoral care” obsolete?

Maybe we need to redefine what a pastor or leader is, and name them accordingly. A leader who isn’t a shepherd should have a different title altogether, like Sunday service facilitator, lead teacher, vision-caster, preacher, congregational motivator, or we can just call them “person who leads a specific group of believers–but only the ones he deems worthy of his time and attention–so as to make more leaders just like himself, who don’t waste their precious gifts and skills and degrees on those who will never bless and improve and grow the church like they will.”

Did I say that out loud?

 

If Jesus were a CEO Pastor…

"Take nothing with you...except for a good suit, this watch, and oh, here's your quota. And take the client to a really nice restaurant, too, because image is everything."

If Jesus were a CEO pastor, then…

…before the sending out of the disciples, he would have canvassed the neighborhoods around Palestine before devising a marketing strategy (Matthew 10).

…he would have sent the disciples out, in the spirit of Steve Carrell’s character, Michael Scott, from “The Office,” in suits, with Armani watches, leather brief cases, the church credit card and a “sales quota” for church membership expansion.

…he would have used billboards, newspaper ads and every manner of slick advertising to attract people to his church.

…he would have read all the motivational, self-help books out there, including Dave Kraft’s Leaders Who Last- (see fellow saint and sinner Tammy Perlutter’s review, which inspired this list and which you can read in the post that follows)- and he would have preached like it, too.

…he would have crafted a vision statement and strategic plan with measurable outcomes at least every couple years just to stay current with “church growth” trends.

…he would have picked his followers based on looks, business background, pedigree and/or how well they could give to the annual stewardship campaign.

…he would have had little time for sick people with all manner of afflictions because they would be a drain on his time (forget about healing, in other words!).

…he would have approached all relationships with a view to what they can do for his image and his church.

…he would have cultivated and employed his celebrity status, seizing every photo opp and interview with the ancient “press corps” rather than keeping his identity as “Messiah” such a big secret.

…he would have taught his disciples to pray, “my kingdom come, my will be done.”

…he would have used a good lawyer to help him avoid a very inconvenient, not to mention painful, crucifixion (which would have ruined his reputation after all).

…he would have never showed his scars, because that would have meant he had been wounded- and he would have taught his disciples to do the same.  (“The Golden Rule” for effective CEO pastors? “Never show your vulnerabilities.”)

I’m so glad Jesus was not a CEO pastor, because it means He has time for people like you and me- and He chooses to use people like you and me, too.

 

“Terminator and Jesus”

This video, which came out some years back, lends some humor to all the Internet buzz around “masculine” versus “feminine” Christianity.  I stumbled on it thanks to David Lumley, who posted it on friend Michael Frost’s FB page.  (Thanks, David!)  I can’t think of a better caricature of “macho masculinity” than the Terminator, can you?  Which makes me wonder what the feminine analog might be in the way of a caricature. Maybe Charlotte from “Sex in the City”?  Or, some helpless waif from a Disney fairy tale? Got any ideas?

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The Heresy of Masculine Christianity: A Response to John Piper

John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, advocates "masculine Christianity."

The other day my son’s pre-K teacher commended him for continuing with his work when the other kids around him were goofing off.  My son had gone on dutifully coloring away with his crayons when he could have been lured away from the task at hand.  I was proud of my son, with one corrective: that if he were ever to see one of his classmates playing in such a way as to hurt him or another child, he must stop what he is doing and speak up.

Which is why I have decided to put my crayons down, too, and respond to the latest calls by popular evangelical thinker, writer and Baptist minister, John Piper, for a “masculine Christianity.”  Sadly, I fear that Piper’s so-called “biblical” theology is yet one more example of how we evangelicals are just as guilty as liberal Christians were at the turn of the twentieth century, for example, of making God into our own image and twisting Scripture to fit our own agendas, with the result being very damaging implications for our life together as men and women equally called and gifted to serve Christ and Christ’s mission in the world.

“Heresy” is a strong word- in previous ages, Piper could have been burned at the stake- but here I employ the term not to argue that Piper should be barbecued, but rather, to demonstrate how Piper’s proposed “masculine Christianity” actually departs from orthodox Christianity as defined by the creeds of the early church.  Of greatest issue here is Piper’s problematic treatment of the nature of God, which in turn influences how he reads Scripture and the nature of what it means to be “made in the image of God”: “God has revealed himself to us in the Bible pervasively as King, not Queen, and as Father, not Mother,” Piper writes. “The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son. The Father and the Son created man and woman in his image, and gave them together the name of the man, Adam (Genesis 5:2).”

Strikingly, Piper’s description of the divine nature completely ignores the unique personhood and participation of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.  In Piper’s construction of “masculine Christianity,” “She” has gone painfully missing.  She is, in Hebrew, the feminine ruach: She is present from the very beginning, hovering over the waters at creation and infusing the man and the woman with the very breath of God; and it is She who alights first on Jesus’ head in the form of a dove, authorizing and blessing Jesus’ mission, and then on the heads of the first followers of Jesus at Pentecost, empowering and sending them out to participate in God’s mission.  Without the Spirit, God’s mission in and through the church is dead.  No Spirit? No mission.

Whether intentionally or not, Piper implicitly denies the existence and divinity of the Third Person of the Trinity in his construction of a masculine God- a fact which places him in the ranks of the fourth-century “Pneumatomachianists”- how is that for a mouthful?- whose teachings rejecting the divinity of the Holy Spirit were condemned as a departure from orthodoxy at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and later at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. And it is this heretical view of the nature of God that in turn allows Piper to read Scripture as an affirmation of manhood at the expense of womanhood. Within Piper’s framework, manhood subsumes womanhood and implicitly takes on a kind of salvific role, precisely because Piper chooses to emphasize the necessity of the Father and the Son’s male gender, in turn linking it with what it means to be “made in God’s image.”  If we were really to tease out the implications of this stilted reasoning, though, Jesus’ maleness, rather than his humanity, becomes necessary for salvation (insofar as salvation is the restoration of God’s image, despoiled by sin, in us): what Jesus has not assumed in human form (in this case, the female nature), Jesus cannot actually save after all (a theological statement first established at the Council of Nicea with the affirmation that Jesus was and is both “fully human and fully divine”).

Piper goes on to lift up only those parts of Scripture that would support the notion that God wants Christianity to “have a masculine feel,” leaving us to assume that Scripture makes little room for more feminine ways of describing God or for honoring women’s equal contributions to God’s mission.  And nothing could be further from the case: God is a mother bird who longs to shelter her children under her wings; God is Wisdom personified as a woman; the Samaritan woman at the well becomes arguably the first apostle; and the Syro-Phoenician woman, in her dogged faith, is the only person recorded in Scripture to actually change Jesus’ mind.  Of course there are many more biblical affirmations of God’s feminine nature and women’s important role in God’s mission. These are only a few.

There is also clear historical evidence to show that women in first-century, household churches were serving Christ equally alongside men (as opposed to “coming alongside” men, as Piper would prefer to describe women’s role in ministry); this, in response to Piper’s heavy reliance on passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 and Ephesians 5:22-33 to support a traditionally patriarchal approach to marriage and church leadership.  I could go on.

In conclusion, Piper’s argument is not most damaging because it is heretical- although by drawing notice to the heresy inherent in Piper’s theology, I do hope to reduce the potential of such biblically dressed chauvinism to only further centuries of harm done in the name of God against women.  (Piper is, afterall, and rightfully so in many ways, a very influential and respected leader in the church; people take what he has to say very seriously.)

Piper’s case is most damaging because of its implications for God’s mission, however.  The Triune God we worship is a God who, in the power of the Holy Spirit, anoints, sends and equips both men and women to witness to and minister God’s love in Jesus Christ in all manner of ways.  This “Three-in-One” God is not an exclusively “masculine” God; nor is this God an exclusively “feminine” God; this God is One whose image we all bear, male, female or transgender, and whose saving love we all have the capacity to receive and share. When we deny the fully free, fully equal, fully invested collaboration of males and females as modeled within the Godhead Itself, we no longer occupy the Good News that God really is restoring the world.  Nor are we able to effectively share that Good News in life-giving ways, either.

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