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.
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.
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.”
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, 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.
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?
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.
“How do we embrace the toil of freedom?” That is the question that friend, screenwriter and producer Okorie Johnson sets out to answer in his forthcoming film, “Canopy.” As an introspective look at how one particular African American struggles to pursue his dreams in his own context (Atlanta, Georgia), the film lifts up one unique strand of a very rich tapestry of contemporary African American experience.
Freedom bought at a high price- in this case, through the long, hard struggle of civil rights activists and the suffering of their ancestors who once sang about hope and a future while in shackles- carries great responsibility. For at least one segment of today’s generation of African Americans, the question thus becomes, “How do we honor the legacy of that hard-fought struggle for freedom?” Okorie’s answer seems to be this: that we let nothing, including our own shortcomings, stand in the way of our dreams.
Are there implications here for how we might understand the nature of Christian freedom, too? I think so. Centuries ago many in the early church gave their lives as witness to their faith, and today we see similar acts of courageous martyrdom by followers of Christ all around the world in places of repression. What does it mean, then, to live into freedom and embrace freedom’s responsibilities and toil when this kind of martyrdom marks our story?
In the spirit of black history month, and with a view to furthering the work of other passionate, creative tellers of life-giving stories, I commend “Canopy” to you. You can find a teaser for the film here:
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s “The Heresy of Masculine Christianity: A Response to John Piper.”
“Look!, [John the Baptist] said. “There’s God’s lamb! He’s the one who takes away the world’s sin!” -John 1:29
“God is angry with us every day,” someone exclaimed to me the other day.
And if truth be told, there was a time in my life when I really believed this, too- or at least the way I often unconsciously related to God embodied this view. Within the recesses of a stern, muscle-flexing, fire-and-brimstone presentation of the Gospel, in which we were all “sinners in the hands of an angry God” (to quote the nineteenth century preacher Johnathan Edwards), God seemed a bit like a crotchety, old grandfather with an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder, seeking often violently and unpredictably to stamp out my inherent sinfulness…and I? I could never measure up. I had to be on guard not to tick God off. Which ultimately meant abiding by a “gospel” of constant guilt and sin management.
I am still recovering.
John the Baptist’s language for Jesus as “the lamb of God” who takes away the sins of the world is, therefore, problematic for me, in the same way that so much of the Bible’s language around sacrificial “blood offerings” to appease an angry, bloodthirsty God is. Why does the God of the Old Testament seem so beholden to these violent demonstrations of repentance? Why couldn’t God ask Abraham to do something other than sacrifice his own son? Why not have Abraham plant a tree instead- or a forest, for that matter? Or, if this were not costly enough, why not demand that Abraham give away all his possessions to the poor? How is it, moreover, that this same God can in turn sacrifice His only Son as a kind of peace offering with all humanity- a way to “atone” for our erring ways and, in turn, restore our relationship?
These questions linger. But whereas for many of us today, sacrificial language is archaic and disturbing at best, for John the Baptist, this way of describing God’s work would have resonated deeply: “the blood of the lamb” was the distinguishing mark of rescue for God’s people, Israel, in their flight from captivity under Egyptian rule; and it was this miraculous liberation that the annual celebration of “Passover” signified. It is not a coincidence, then, that in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death occurs on the very day of Passover. Jesus for the Gospel writer is the sacrificial lamb who takes upon himself not just the sins of the Jewish people but of the whole world, thereby fulfilling God’s prophecy that Israel will be a “blessing” to all the nations.
But how do we retrieve this very uncomfortable imagery of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb for our time? I would propose that one way is by consulting other places in Scripture. Later in John, Jesus is also the Good Shepherd who “lays down” his life for the sheep. In the act of Jesus’ self-offering on the cross, the Shepherd identifies so closely with His sheep that He takes their place. Jesus stands in for the most vulnerable, misguided, wayward, bleating lambs among us who have “gone astray,” or gotten stuck in the bramble or are up against a wall with a wolf breathing down their neck, and Jesus says, essentially, “I am in your court.” And this identification with us, precisely because it is God (as opposed to just another human being) acting as both Shepherd and lamb, is life-giving.
There is another way to reconstruct this language of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Enter again Mechthild de Magdeburg. In a brilliant, speculative move, Mechthild imagines a dialogue at the beginning of time between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit- a conversation in which the Son and the Holy Spirit cajole the Father into creating human beings out of the Triune God’s overflow of divine love, knowing full well what may come of this act of love (the Fall and human beings’ willful disobedience) but desiring it out of love, anyway.
Later, Mechthild imagines the convening of another “council,” this time to decide what to do about “the filth” that human beings have since made of the gift of being formed in God’s image (III, 9). This time around, the Son, again supported by His Advocate, the Holy Spirit, kneels before His Father and asks for His father’s blessing to “take bloody humanity” upon Himself, so that He might “atone” for “human guilt” by “anointing humankind’s wounds with the blood of His innocence” and “binding all human beings’ sores with the cloth of wretched disgrace” (III, 9). Here again God must be persuaded to redeem us, and God is. “Love wins,” so to speak.
Within Mechthild’s imaginative framework, then, the “Lamb of God” is no helplessly bound sacrificial child led off to slaughter by a sadistic father: Jesus actually subverts our often mechanical, guilt-and-fear-laden approaches to sacrifice, and instead by His own free choice, without any coercion from the Father and purely as an act of great love and power, becomes the divine Scapegoat, the One whom we are invited to blame for our existential “guilt” and aimlessness. And this Jesus, according to Mechthild, must come to our defense within the Triune God Itself. This Jesus must convince an undecided Father about the necessity and glory of His mission.
This, I suspect, is the beginning of what it means to proclaim today that Jesus is the “Lamb of God”: God’s outpouring of love freely given for us, as a kind of covering or olive branch for all the ways that we in our existential guilt can project all kinds of things on God and one another. Now we don’t have to walk around thinking that God is angry at us all the time.
This video is an intimate look at the systemic nature of the commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking of women and girls. The woman in the video who is narrating the story is herself a survivor of sexual exploitation, and she, through a ministry called “GEMS,” has since dedicated her life to helping some of the very same women whose shoes she once walked in. When I watched this video for the first time several weeks back at the third service of Clairmont Presbyterian Church, it moved me deeply- and it has stayed with me since. Apparently one in four children is sexually abused…
“Where is God in this dark place? Is God at work here, and if so, how?,” I’ve been asking. Join the conversation on our Facebook page, “Fellowship of Saints and Sinners.”