Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Reclaiming Two Bad Words

Anne Graham Lotz' latest book is Expecting to See Jesus.

The other day Anne Graham Lotz spoke with NPR about her journey as a woman who has faced resistance in her vocation. The preacher, author and daughter of the famous evangelist, Billy Graham, says she is privileged to wear the label, “evangelical feminist.”

Which struck me.  These days “evangelical” and “feminist” are loaded words.  They carry a lot of baggage, and rarely do they come as a pair joined at the hip.  If anything, the “evangelicals” and “feminists” I typically hear about in the news are the last people I would expect to see holding hands taking a leisurely stroll together.

Lotz went on to describe her understanding of an “evangelical feminist”: “It’s just a woman who knows what she believes, has strong convictions and the courage to stand up for them regardless of glass ceilings or boundaries that other people may want to place upon us.”

There are plenty of biblical examples of just these sorts of women, Lotz says.  And maybe this is where “evangelical” comes more into play.  Because an “evangelical,” as originally conceived during the Great Awakening movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is someone who places a strong emphasis on biblical authority.  (How “biblical authority” can be bandied about to support various political platforms in and out of the church is another story, but a common denominator among evangelicals is this prioritizing of Scripture.)  So Lotz turns to Scripture in looking for her feminist role models.

An “evangelical” is also someone who believes in the importance of personal conversion.  Here again Lotz appeals to personal experience in recounting her own conversion to “evangelical feminism” and its impact on her parents:

RAZ: And yet, I understand that early on, when you began spreading your message, even your father, Billy Graham, and your mom, Ruth, they weren’t entirely supportive.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOTZ: That was when I started that Bible class that I told you about. And they were not supportive. And I think one reason was because the traditional role of women in my family have been that the mother stayed at home, reared the children, kept the house so that the husband, father, could go out and do ministry, which was my mother and father’s case. And so they just felt that, you know, I had three children and a husband, and my role was to stay at home and be that traditional type of wife and mother.

So they didn’t think I should, but once again, I wasn’t living my life to please my parents. As much as I love my mother and father, I knew that I was called of God to teach that Bible class. So I’ve been teaching for about three years, and I looked up in the class one day and they were sitting in the middle of my class. I’ve been going for about five minutes, so I had to, you know, catch my breath, swallow hard, and then I stopped and introduced them and then went ahead and finished the message.

From that day to this, they did an absolute about-face in their opinion, and they saw what God was doing. They saw that God had indeed called me, that people’s lives were being changed. I was getting people into God’s word. And I’ve had no two greater supporters than my mother and father unless it’s my husband and my children.”

An evangelical emphasizes the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and its transformational relevance to the world.  An “evangelical feminist” does this same thing- only within a framework that assumes God calls both men and women to serve God and God’s world, equipping them with gifts that in themselves are gender blind.  In this framework, to reject God’s call to serve using one’s gifts for preaching and teaching would be more than “un-feminist” or “un-evangelical,” although it would be both of these things, too.  At heart it would be unfaithful.

So I applaud Lotz for her courage to take two bad words that do not often belong together and reclaim them for their original meaning. It has inspired me to do the same.  From now on I will gladly be pigeon-holed as an “evangelical feminist.”  Thank you, Anne, for your bold example and the trail you are blazing for women like me.

 

 

The Spiritual Practice of Getting Lost

See more funny signs at http://www.beliefnet.com/JesusDaily/Features/Fun-Chuch-Signs.aspx?p=12

“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be…mistreated four hundred years. But…afterwards they will come out with great possessions.”  Genesis 15:13-14

Have you ever been lost? If not, you may want to try it sometime.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World, recommends it as a helpful spiritual practice- as one of those “ordinary-looking places where human beings have met and may continue to meet up with the divine More that they sometimes call God.”  An “altar in the world,” in other words.

I remember standing in the dark on a curb in a run-down section of Queens, New York.  I was twenty-one years old and preparing to start my very first job the next morning. And there I was.  Stranded, lost and feeling awfully vulnerable.

I hadn’t intended to be there, of course.  I had hailed a taxi cab with every expectation of making it to my destination.  The only problem was that my driver was lost, too.  He had started driving only a few days before.  Before that he had been driving somewhere in Africa where English is not the primary language, because he didn’t speak a lick.

When we had driven around for about an hour looking for the address scribbled in my datebook, I had finally in exasperation ordered him to stop the car and let me out.  So he had.  Right there and then.

Ten years later the same thing happened again.  With only a few variations.  This time we were in Beijing, China.  This time when my driver couldn’t find the hotel, he pretended the hotel didn’t exist, jabbered away on the phone with a friend of a cousin whose mother he had met while playing Mahjong, and then dropped me on the doorstep of that friend’s rinky-dink hotel.  Which proved to be a bit of a comedown from the elusive, four-star “Emperor’s Palace.”  I spent the night tossing and turning in a claustrophobic, smoke-stained room above a noisy street.

Experiences like these are good preparation for the times when we find ourselves really lost, Taylor writes.  And this can happen “anywhere, in all kinds of ways.    You can get lost on your way home.  You can get lost looking for love.  You can get lost between jobs.  You can get lost looking for God.”

Taylor is refreshingly honest about the times when she has been lost: “I have set out to be married and ended up divorced. I have set out to be healthy and ended up sick.  I have set out to live in New England and ended up in Georgia. ..While none of these displacements was pleasant at first, I would not give a single one of them back.  I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the path…I have decided to stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and engage it as a spiritual practice instead.”

The Bible is replete with examples of how “God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.”  Abraham and Sarah are an obvious one.  They set off on a journey that twists and turns.  Along the way, Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister, twice; Sarah passes off Hagar to Abraham so he can use her as his mistress; and Abraham passes up the prospect of seeing his son, Isaac, grow up (only to be told at the last minute that he won’t have to).  Later, Abraham’s descendants wander forty years in the wilderness, and Jesus forty days.  The take-home?  That we need to be willing to set off on a journey with nothing but God’s promises to us.  We need to “consent” to be lost, “since you have no other choice.”  This “consenting” or surrender is the practice that helps us develop a kind of “rock-bottom trust.”  Which is really a groundedness in the faithfulness of God to hold and steady us when we cannot do this for ourselves.

Here is Taylor again:

“Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure.  When we fall ill, lose our jobs, wreck our marriages, or alienate our children, most of us are left alone to pick up the pieces.  Even those of us who are ministered to by brave friends can find it hard to shake the shame of getting lost in our lives.  And yet if someone asked us to pinpoint the times in our lives that changed us for the better, a lot of those times would be wilderness times.  When the safety net has split, when the resources are gone, when the way ahead is not clear, the sudden exposure can be both frightening and revealing.  We spend so much of our time protecting ourselves from this exposure that a weird kind of relief can result when we fail.  To lie flat on the ground with the breath knocked out of you is to find a solid resting place.”

Last year I found myself there: lying flat on my face with the breath knocked out of me.  My safety net had split.  My resources were gone.  My friends had begun to fall away- or, I began to discover who my real friends were.  The way ahead was not clear, and I felt totally exposed. Which really was both frightening and liberating all at once.

In that time and since, God has met me more than in all my years of “success” put together.  Raw trust, dependency on God, humility, groundedness, gratitude, self-awareness, prayerfulness, vulnerability, honesty.  These are the “great possessions” that can emerge when we find ourselves in the wilderness without our bearings.  They can make saints and sinners alike rich in the things of God.

 

Great Expectations

 We all expect things out of the cards we have been dealt in life.  We expect to find  the right someone and be married for life.  Or to land the job that will finally make  us happy.  Or to live long enough to see our children grow up, go to college, and  start families of their own.

We expect things not just as individuals but as societies.  In first-world America we  expect  that trains run on time, that our grocery stores will have food on their  shelves, that  we won’t die from polio.  We expect that the stock market will one day  rise again. Or, that our politicians, however  corrupt or disconnected they might  be, will eventually do what we are demanding they do- or be voted out of office.

At heart expectation is desire.  Desire as entitlement: that what I want I deserve to have.  Entitlement insofar as “I” or “we,” the source of the desire, presume to be at the center of our universe.

Even our smallest, pettiest expectations can be great to the degree that they fill a void that would otherwise be there in the absence of our desires.  While the object of these desires can be good in and of itself, the desire for some future possession of the object can rob us from an experience of God’s grace in the present moment.  A moment in which our hearts can be free to desire God and God alone.

Only when we have been emptied of these attachments can grace truly enter in and make a home in our hearts.  “Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void,” Simone Weil writes, in Gravity and Grace.

But if the void is an act of God, making us aware of our need for God and God’s grace, human will can still play a role: “we can fix our will on the void,” Weil writes.  In other words, the compulsion to buy that next cute pair of shoes online when my shoe rack rivals Imelda Marcos’?  We can choose to look beyond this desire to be well-dressed, impress others or seek escape from something else.  We can acknowledge whatever is driving our urge and then look beyond it to the emptiness this compulsion is trying to fill.

In a sense this act of the will is a bit like slaying dragons, because our expectations have taught us to believe in a non-reality.  A false mode of existence whereby what we acquire materially is what makes us lovable, worthy or significant.  When in fact nothing could be less true.

And when we slay the dragon and face the void, we can choose to sit there.  In that emptiness.  In the void.  And it is there we can wait with open arms to receive the grace of God.

Weil puts it like this:  “The extinction of desire (Buddhism)- or detachment- or amor fati- or desire for the absolute good- these all amount to the same: to empty desire, finality of all content, to desire in the void, to desire without any wishes. To detach our desire from all good things and to wait…Always, beyond the particular object whatever it may be, we have to fix our will on the void- to will the void.  For the good which we can neither picture nor define is a void for us.  But this void is fuller than all fullnesses.  If we get as far as this we shall come through all right, for God fills the void…The good seems to us as a nothingness, since there is no thing that is good. But this nothingness is not unreal.  Compared with it, everything in existence is unreal.”

These days our nation has been forced to stare in the face of failed expectations here, there and almost everywhere.  We as individuals and families, many of us, have watched our variations on the “American Dream” fall apart.  Like little children on Christmas morning, we have run downstairs with great expectation to find only coal in our stockings.  Maybe now more than ever, we are ready to be “in the void.”  Maybe many of us are already in it.  If so, God’s grace is finding us, and may it fill us to the brim.

 

Injustice in Global Perspective

First world problems in global perspective, compliments of friend Michael Frost

A friend forwarded on the following letter from a leader in the Coptic church in Egypt who will remain unnamed.  Five days ago authorities killed 26 peaceful protesters, most of them Christians speaking out against a recent deadly attack on a Coptic church (among a string of attacks without impunity):

Dear Friends,

Thank you for sharing our difficult time.

We are passing through a dark tunnel of violence, feeling grief of death and injustice. The light of forgiveness is shining with a painful love. Trying to bring forgiveness and justice together is a big struggle, but we are committed to the love that never fails.

We are hardly pressed on every side, yet not crushed. We are perplexed but not lost, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed. We do not lose heart and continue to work for justice to be fulfilled. We continue to love and declare forgiveness so the peace of God will overshadow all hearts. We continue to work on the healing and support of the innocent victims. And we continue to pray for the victims, for the offenders and for a better future.

Thank you all for your love, care, words and actions to bring justice and forgiveness together. 

These days when “Occupy Wall Street” is the rallying cry across my country, it is sobering to think that there are others across the globe protesting far greater injustices.  Standing up for much more basic human rights.  And then dying for it.



What Distinguishes the Suffering of a Follower of Christ?

Variations on the theme of "elephant poo."

Most of us at one point or another have asked the question, “Why does God allow suffering?”  Frustratingly, the Bible I read never gives an answer.  Suffering is simply a given.  A bit like the bumper sticker, “Shit happens.”

Except more than that, too.  Because while we as Christians do not have an answer to the age-old theodicy question, we do have some pointers on how to approach suffering from within the framework of faith.  So that our suffering becomes redemptive.

This help comes from at least one place, in 1 Peter 4:12-14:  “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.  If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.”

The writer of 1 Peter was addressing his letter to a community of first-century believers facing persecution.  Their suffering was of a specific kind.  But suffering can be of the more garden-variety type, too.  A spouse dies.  Or, we lose a job and find ourselves chronically unemployed.  Or, we get the diagnosis we most dreaded:  cancer.  It is still suffering.  It can still feel like a burning away of all that we thought we knew about God, ourselves and our world.  A “fiery ordeal.”

And unlike the notion in some Christian quarters that “every day can be Friday,” the writer of 1 Peter tells us to expect suffering. Christians by virtue of their humanity, and at times because of their faith, will suffer.  Suffering is part of what it means to be human. Period.

There is to be a difference in how Christians suffer, though, according to this passage.  And this is where 1 Peter offers a consolation prize that is as challenging as it is comforting.  I like to sum it up in “3 P’s”: Presence; Purpose; and Passion.

Presence.  Christians can know that God is present with them in their sufferings.  Which is not to imply that God is not with non-Christians in their sufferings.  Only to affirm that in Christ we have an abiding assurance when we go through painful trials that the Spirit of God is “resting on” us (v. 14). This is the same Spirit that like a mother bird hovers over her babies, watching, sheltering, nurturing and drawing us under her wings (Psalm 17:8).  The same Spirit that hovered over the face of the waters at creation (Genesis 1:2).  The Spirit that creates out of nothing and nothingness something beautiful.  That takes the dull, senseless matter of our hurts and tribulations and transforms it.

This sustaining, nurturing, life-giving Spirit of God is with us.  Hovering over us.  And it is, the writer of 1 Peter tells us, glorious.  It is “the spirit of glory.”  Much like the glory of God that shone most brightly on a cross, so that even a centurion standing by, one of Jesus’ executioners, could exclaim, “This truly is the Son of God!”  So, too, in our suffering, God’s Spirit hovers over us: like it did over Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove, it proclaims that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters.

Purpose.  Just as and because God is with us in our trials, our suffering serves a purpose.  If God’s Spirit is with us, hovering over us, then our pain and anguish are the stuff of new creation.  They are the clay that God is using to remake us.  They aren’t just crap- or if they are, they’re elephant poo. Elephant poo being recycled to make stationary.  (I really saw this the other day at The Aquarium gift store.)

Our first question can be, then, “God, how would you use this terrible thing before me for your purpose?”  The whole “Why me, Lord?” thing will never get us very far; so while our first inclination is understandably to ask this question, we thankfully don’t need to sit on this bench too long.  God’s purpose puts us back in the field to play with whatever has been handed us, trusting that one day we will understand just how our poo was used.

Passion.  Here is where the message of consolation cuts both ways.  As a challenge, it can rub us the wrong way.  We are to “rejoice” in our suffering.  Say what?

Before we jeer and boo and throw paper airplanes at the writer of 1 Peter, he gives us a qualifier: we are to “rejoice insofar as [we] are sharing in Christ’s sufferings.”  Our weeping and tears over the death of a spouse?  They belong to the cries of One who like a lover came near and dwelt among us- only to have his life cut short against his will- and felt the incredible pains of separation.  Our painful embarassment over the loss of a job and inability to find work?  It takes its place within the humiliation of One who deserved the gold, gem-studded crown of a king and got one made of thorns.  Our diagnosis of cancer and all of the anguish it brings?  They are a dimension of Christ’s own great tribulation in the face of death.

Christ’s Passion for the world, in the pouring out of His life on a cross, somehow mysteriously embraces, enfolds and transforms our sufferings, so that Christ’s Passion ignites and intermingles with our passions, changing them in the process and opening our hearts to the world around us in all of its pain and beauty.  With the result being that we don’t have to walk around emotionally beaten down by our suffering.  Or cynical, checked-out and disengaged from our world because we would rather not feel pain.  We can be passionately involved in the lives of those around us and in the sufferings of our world without succumbing to despair.

Presence.  Purpose.  Passion.  These are the marks of Christian suffering.  They are what make the suffering of a follower of Christ distinctive.

 

“SLOW CHURCH ZONE”

“Speak softly and carry a big stick,” goes the African proverb.  I think of it every time I jog past this sign near my house.  Because if there were ever a place where many of us have felt like we must “speak softly” and “carry a big stick,” it is in of all places “church.”

Sunday mornings can quickly become our “church zone” days.  In the “church zone,” we are careful to self-edit.  We put on nice clothes to look good for others even if we don’t feel good inside.  We put on pleasant expressions to hide the brokenness underneath.  We use “Christian” language even when it sounds awkward or forced.  We follow all of the religious cues.  We pretend to ourselves and those around us that because we’re in here, “in church,” we are somehow different or better than the world outside our doors.

If truth be told, many of us who have tried to be more transparent in the “church zone” have often been hurt. When we have honestly sought to live into the biblical notion that we, the church, really are “brothers and sisters” in Christ, we have been shafted.  When we have been real about our struggles, we have been ganged up on.

Then there are those who, in seeking privacy during their times of deepest affliction, are shocked to read about themselves on the front page of the church newsletter, or become against their will the juicy subject of the next prayer meeting.  All in the name of so-called “Christian” love.  No wonder that many of us instinctively look for the “big stick,” whatever that may be: we are looking to protect ourselves from further violations.

Sometimes I meet Christians who while fully aware of the church’s brokenness would prefer to treat it as if it were a big, family secret. “We wouldn’t want non-Christians to hear these things” goes this line of reasoning, as if once a Christian, all of the mess of our lives, our sin, our imperfections, and our “issues,” should no longer exist.  As if once we step through the doors of a church building or join a Bible study, we are somehow only saints and no longer sinners.  Maybe the fear is that if we let the cat out of the bag, our lives won’t adequately witness to the transforming Good News that Jesus loves us and gave Himself for us.

This is a natural fear.  We want to believe that our relationship with Christ has really changed us.  Has meant something. And we’re afraid to look at all of those places where it has yet to.

And this fear comes from a place of good intentions.  Those of us who love Jesus want the world to know how great He is. We want our lives to reflect the difference he makes.  We don’t want the world to see how Christians, when we get together, are often just messed-up, broken people with issues.  Just another batch of shared humanity.  No more.  No less.

But the reality is that church is chock-full of sinners.  Messed-up people all of us.  Sorely in need of God’s grace each of us.  And telling ourselves or others otherwise and keeping the cat in the bag as if it were a shameful secret, is not just unhelpful.  It is bad theology.

So, while telling the truth about this reality can be hard, I suspect that in the end it is a whole lot more life-saving than the alternative. One theologian who told the truth was the fourth-century theologian, St. Augustine:  “The man who enters [church] is bound to see drunkards, misers, tricksters, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators, people wearing amulets, assiduous clients of sorcerers, astrologers.  He must be warned that the same crowds that press into the churches on Christian festivals also fill the theaters on pagan holidays,” Malcolm Muggeridge, in A Third Testament:  A Modern Pilgrim Explores the Spiritual Wanderings of Augustine, Blake, Pascal, Tolstoy, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, quotes Augustine as saying.  (The one thing lacking about this wonderful book is that it does not include citations, so if any of you can recall which of Augustine’s works this comes from, I’d be appreciative.)

When we tell the truth, we become free- or at least freer.  We become free to see ourselves not as Christians but as human beings desperately in need of God’s grace.  Grace embodied not just in that one moment when we accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and thought everything would change, but every day. Every moment.  And we free ourselves to share with others the unvarnished gift of the Good News: that Christ loved us while we were yet still sinners.  Not after we got our lives in order- because then He would have been waiting around for, literally, forever. But before then.  And always.  This is Good News.  For the very reason that it tears down our “church zones.”

 

If you’re up for a good laugh and some provocative theology, you can find other strange, funny and intriguing church signs here: www.beliefnet.com/JesusDaily/Features/Church-Signs-Across-America.aspx and http://www.beliefnet.com/JesusDaily/Features/Fun-Chuch-Signs.aspx.

 

 

Confession of a Yard Sale Junkie

I confess I’m a yard sale junkie.  On most any Saturday the signs in the neighborhood trigger those irrepressible hunter-gatherer instincts. In no time I am digging through other people’s junk looking for treasure.

It is amazing, too, what turns up, and what I convince myself I can use.  Clothes, jewelry, books, CD’s, weird gadgets, ceiling fans, the occasional birthday or Christmas present even.  (If you’re reading this, be assured that you have never received one of these.)

To find that great deal that no one would ever guess I bought at a yard sale is a rush.  I love those moments when a girlfriend exclaims, “I love your skirt!  Where did you get it?”  Then I can answer matter-of-factly, “At a yard sale…for a buck.”  Which typically elicits a mix of surprise and feigned envy.

Of course there are those times when even a yard sale purchase becomes regrettable.  Regrettable because once you’ve bought it you can’t take it back. There was the carpet that we later discovered smelled like a whole litter of big, hairy dogs had slept and peed on it over the course of a lifetime.  Or, the never-worn, boutique dress that looked stunning on a hanger but that neither I nor every girlfriend on whom I subsequently pawned it off could wear without feeling like her chest was concave- hence, “never-worn.”

There can be something mildly voyeuristic in the whole enterprise of complete strangers investigating other people’s old stuff.  At various times when I have stumbled upon something of interest that is now of no value to their owner and have made an innocent inquiry, it has felt as if I have unknowingly overstepped a hidden boundary in our brief acquaintance.  The other day I was poring through a treasure trove of theological literature at a moving sale.  I had exclaimed, “What a great library you have!  These are books that we ministers love to read!”  The woman selling the books in a moment of self-conscious admission then shared that she at one time long ago had been a member and elder of a nearby Presbyterian church.  Apparently these books had belonged to that “phase.”  It was clear she felt a bit uncomfortable with the direction the conversation might take.  I didn’t ask questions, but she gave up those books willingly, 50 cents a piece, and I was glad to give them a home.

Lately, I have been struck by the fact that much of life is a process that involves weeding through our metaphorical “junk”- and we all have “junk” if we’re honest.  There’s all of the baggage we’ve collected through the years.  Or, the stuff that others pawn off on us, a bit like dresses that don’t fit right but that now we’re stuck with.  Sometimes it is hard to find a place for it all.  (Have you ever had the experience of your stuff being turned away by the Salvation Army?  I have, once.)

But when we can’t find a place for the wrongs we’ve done or that others have done to us, or the hang-ups, inadequacies, or shameful secrets, or the sudden losses that rock our world and leave us wondering how to make sense of them, Jesus can.  When we can’t find a rhyme or rhythm to the various and sundry items that we’ve laid out on our lawn in hopes that someone will find a use for them, or see their intrinsic value, Jesus can.  He specializes in making a home for “lost” people and things.  “For the Son of Man came to see and save the lost,”  He says (Luke 19:10).  All we need to do is surrender.

Jesus Walks On Water

Remember the crazy story about Peter and Jesus walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33)?  To refresh our memories…Peter and the disciples are out in a boat in the middle of the night when Jesus appears, taking a little stroll on the lake and looking a bit, well, ghostly.  (Who wouldn’t, after all, in such circumstances and at such an hour?)  So Peter calls out, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”  Jesus’ answer in the affirmative provides Peter with just enough courage to step out of the boat and onto the water.

What follows has inspired many a sermon on the need for faith- Peter’s faith, our faith, you catch the drift- with the implication being that if we all only had a bit more faith, we all might walk on water.  The problem with this, of course, is that it isn’t really good news for most of us. Most of us do not have that kind of faith, and frankly never will.

The really good news here is that Jesus walks on water, and comes to us when we call out in our faltering moments of fear, distrust and despair.

Nadia Bolz-Weber articulates this truth winningly in a recent sermon delivered to her congregation in Denver, Colorado and I commend it to you:  http://sarcasticlutheran.typepad.com/sarcastic_lutheran/2011/08/jesus-walking-on-the-water-a-sermon-sarcastic-and-serious.html.

Mess Happens

Painting by Paolo Veronese, c. 1550

A friend likes to say, “Small people, small messes.  Big people, big messes!”

Have you ever wondered where God is in all of it?

One of my favorite stories from Scripture is of the woman at the well (John 4).  If there were anyone who walked around with a great big sign on her forehead that reads, “My life is a mess,” she would qualify.  She has been through a string of dead-end relationships, each of them a failed experiment in so-called “love.”  When she comes to the well at midday all by herself, she is hot, tired, sweaty, and very much alone in her mess.  She is probably one of many people, regardless of their circumstances, who walk around in a low-grade depression, disappointed by the way life has turned out.

Yet Jesus meets her there.  Right in the middle of her mess he meets her.  He doesn’t offer a magic wand to make the mess go away or promise that he will be the one to clean it all up.  He doesn’t shrug off the mess as if it doesn’t matter.  He doesn’t pretend that the mess is not there. (Have you ever been in a long conversation with someone only to discover in the mirror later that part of your lunch had been stuck to your face the whole time?)

If anything, Jesus may actually be the first person to tell this woman that she has a great, big sign on her forehead that reads “My life is a mess.” Only, thankfully, he doesn’t use those words.  Instead he simply tells her the truth that no stranger just passing through could ever guess without a direct connection to the soul: “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.”

And then, if this woman with five husbands and a live-in lover is willing to try one more time, Jesus offers her Himself.  “Living Water,” he calls it- as opposed to the same old, dreary water she has been drinking from other so-called “wells,” which always leaves her emptier than before.  This time Jesus invites her to try her luck on a Love that can actually save.

Does this woman’s mess disappear after she meets Jesus?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  The text leaves us free to speculate.

What changes is the woman’s ability to tell the truth about her mess.  In the new-found light of how God sees her she can share her story freely and without shame.   She can acknowledge the mess that is there and the One who helped her see it while loving her all the same.

I used to think that the best indication as to whether Jesus had really “met” a person is how neat and tidy their lives appeared and how well they told their story about how Jesus had cleaned up their life  (helped them get sober, healed them from sickness, turned their whole life around, etc.).

This story tells me otherwise:  “The woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.  Could this be the Christ?””

No slick testimonies.  No dogmatic apologetics.  No pretenses, even, that the stranger at the well is beyond doubt God Himself.

Why?  Maybe because the person who has met Jesus is often the one with the spaghetti on her face and the red sauce running down her bib, who now knows it and can laugh- all because of the One who knew her through and through and loved her all the same.

Damaris Who?

Her name was Damaris.  Ever wondered about her?  She appears in the form of an afterthought, (one of Luke’s “oh, by the way” comments), as one of the “few” who believed upon hearing Paul’s speech in the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-34).  Some biblical commentators guess that to have been mentioned as a woman she could only have been of high social status.  This might accord with the fact that Christian tradition also identifies her as the wife of Dionysius the Areopagite (the one other person who is named among the “few” who believed and who later went on to become the Bishop of Athens’ fledgling church).  The Eastern Orthodox church actually sets aside a day for Saint Damaris, but for Reformed Protestants like myself, Damaris takes her place in a long line of forgotten saints and sinners, many of them women whose contributions to the church and the world will remain shrouded in mystery and known (with the exception of a small collection of biblical scholars) only to God.

Yet that anonymity does not make Damaris’ contributions any less meaningful, or her commitment to building God’s people up with the love of God any less a compelling witness.  Often our best mentors and role models are those whose presence is easily taken for granted.  (I suspect any parent who sacrifices their professional aspirations to rear children can appreciate this truth.)  Such persons may dwell inconspicuously “in the margins” of a life’s main plot line, but the imprint they make is unquestionable.

Recently, I was reminded of this truth as it often plays out in our churches when standing in the International Museum of the Reformation in John Calvin’s Geneva, Switzerland.  There, a panoply of male Reformers and their writings, from Calvin and Luther to the lesser known, bedecks the many exhibit rooms, each representing a century-long “chapter” in the story of the Reformation from the sixteenth century to the present.  Women theologians and philosophers only make their debut by name in the very last room devoted to the twentieth century, and I was surprised and a bit rueful to think that I only now was making acquaintance with most of them.  Amy Plantinga Pauw makes a similar observation about women’s representation in mainline ministry settings: they “remain heavily concentrated in associate positions, in small and struggling churches and in alternative ministry settings,” she writes in the most recent issue of The Christian Century.

The other day at the grocery store my two-year-old daughter, Sam, was introducing herself very loudly in the latest dialect of English (if you could even call it that) to anyone in the dairy section who might listen. “She’s making herself known- and that’s a good thing!,” someone exclaimed- and yes, I had to agree, it was a good thing.

But Damaris’ legacy is not ultimately about making herself known.  It is about making known, in her own unique “dialect,” the God she has encountered in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ .  I only hope that more and more women in the church will, like Damaris, find their voice wherever they are called to minister.

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