Friday, March 16, 2012

"The women"

On Sunday, our Bible study class studied the biblical narrative of the woman caught in adultery in John 8.  The story ends with Jesus looking at the woman, both of them standing, eye to eye, and telling her, "Go and sin no more."  It's a familiar phrase but something about it has always troubled me.  People don't change just because someone tells them to.  "Just do it" (or "Just don't do it") doesn't actually work.  The roots of our brokenness go deep and change is usually hard and sometimes elusive.  Surely Jesus knew that.

In Faithwalking, we try to model the process of transformation on the method that Jesus actually used and that seems to have continued into the early church:  bring people together who are all on the journey of change, put them in small groups for teaching and even smaller groups for deep learning.  Offer what is now called "coaching" but used to be called "discipling," as a more experienced (but not perfect) fellow-traveler comes alongside a small group of others and offers what Jesus offered--good questions, a few profound answers, and a safe place to explore repentance and a different way of life.

As I wondered about what happened to the woman in our story and wondered whether that very brief experience with Jesus was enough to set her free from whatever had brought her to that place of sin and exposure, I remembered something.  Twice in the gospels, the male gospel writers give brief attention to "the women" who were also following Jesus.

1 After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.  Luke 8:1-3

40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph,[d] and Salome.41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. Mark 15:40-41

Like the Twelve, the female disciples were also traveling together in a small group of unlikely friends.  Don't you wonder how a woman who had been delivered from 7 demons ended up in this relationship with the wife of the manager of Herod's household?  

In my imagination, one or two very brave and very devoted women must have begun following Jesus at a small distance, offering to help in the unique ways that a woman could and then folded into their group the women whose lives were changed by this itinerant rabbi.  Just a few at first, probably, and then one by one, women came to find out more and ended up staying, until there were "many others."  

I can imagine them staying up late at night talking about Jesus' latest teachings and what they meant and what it would mean to really live them out in their own ordinary womanly lives.  I can imagine them finding women in the crowds who had come to listen to Jesus and engaging them in conversation.  And, on Sunday, I could definitely imagine them encircling this shamed woman after the men had left and offering hugs and grace and the larger message of the gospel and maybe a cup of coffee.  

I can see them inviting her to go with them and maybe she did.  Maybe they embraced her and sent her back to her village with a new understanding of what had just happened to her.  Maybe they told her how they had learned to "sin no more," and encouraged her to imagine that could be possible for her.  Maybe they lifted her shame off of her so that she could go in peace. 

I'm aware that this is just my imagination and that we don't know what happened.  The story of the women in most of Scripture and church history remains unknown and untold.  About this particular cluster of women, though, we know that they were there during Jesus' ministry and they were there at the cross and they were still there at Pentecost (Acts 1:14).  We know that they embraced both radical roles (following a rabbi and supporting him from their own means)  and traditional ones (caring for his needs).  We know that they were braver and more faithful at the end than the male disciples were and we know that one of them was the first to know about the resurrection.  We know that they received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and prophesied.  It's really not hard to imagine the rest.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Crushin' on Jesus

There is a lot of language in evangelical spirituality about being "in love" with Jesus.  I just finished a good book about cultivating a more radical love for God based on humility and obedience but toward the end, it veered off into this romantic view of spiritual devotion.

The idea is that because God is more important to us than any human relationship, we should feel the same kind of emotional attachment to Him that we feel in our intense relationships.  Since the most intense emotional connection we feel is the rush of feelings associated with being "in love," then it supposedly follows that if we are really seeking to "love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul," as Jesus commanded, then we will have those same kinds of feelings, at the same intensity, that we have in the early stages of infatuation.

Not only have most of us read this idea in books and listened to it in overwrought, manipulative sermons (I remember quite a few from youth camp), we even sing the words, "Jesus, I am so in love with you," in one popular worship chorus.  This isn't a new idea, either.  The beloved Victorian-era hymn "In the Garden" captures these overtones as well and there's a reason why it is rarely cited by men as their favorite hymn but often by women.

I don't want to say that we shouldn't explore the themes of Jesus as Bridegroom or Jesus as Lover, since these are clearly biblical metaphors.  But practically speaking, I think that this way of thinking sets up unrealistic expectations for Christians who are sincerely trying to follow Jesus but don't feel what they think they are supposed to feel.  That leads to unnecessary guilt, for one thing, and disappointment in their own spiritual lives.  It also leads to a unique style of musical worship which strives to manufacture a kind of low-level ecstasy mimicking infatuation.  These effects, among others, are having an impact in the modern evangelical church.

It doesn't work, unfortunately, because the "in love" feelings are actually the result of a biochemical cocktail made up of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine and serotonin and create a slightly manic, highly anxious form of minor mental illness.  Couples struggle when they learn that this state of infatuation can't be maintained in a marriage, especially when they have come to define it as "love."  And Christians feel guilty and inadequate when they can't maintain it in their spiritual lives, and they wonder what's wrong with them and whether God will judge them for being "lukewarm."

I'd rather see Christians (and couples, too, for that matter) strive for the kind of love that people exhibit in happy, longterm committed relationships.  The kind of warm affection that comes from positive regard, fondness, forgiveness and grace and allows us build a solid relationship over time . . . the kind of love that sometimes feels overpowering and intense but mostly feels like being "home" . . . the sacrificial love that seeks the good of the other person even when it costs something . . . that's the kind of love for God that I wish we would aspire to.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


I love Facebook, I really do.  It appeals to the extroverted part of me, which needs to connect, while accommodating the introverted part of me, which needs to keep just a little distance.  Thanks to Facebook, I've made contact with people I care about but had lost touch with, I've reminisced with people who used to be very important in my life and I get to hear some of the details of the lives of people I am close to but don't interact with regularly.  What's not to like?

My friend--who also likes Facebook--was saying the other day that it reminds him of the social interactions in the small Louisiana town he grew up in.  You know how it works in small towns, right?  You go to the grocery store and see ten people you know.  Each one of them tells you what they've been up to and who they saw while they were up to it.  If they went to Dairy Queen for lunch, they tell you about that and then they tell you about whether they got the ice cream sandwich or the Dilly bar for dessert and then they tell you who else was there and what they had for dessert.  See, just like Facebook!

Seriously, I know that Facebook has its problems.  Some of them are the new problems of the digital age:  hacking and emotional isolation and social alienation and the lack of privacy.  Some of them, though, are the same old problems that people in small towns or in close-knit urban neighborhoods have always known:  how difficult it is to be confronted with the lives of other people who seem to be happier or healthier or otherwise better off than you are, the tendency to keep things superficial,  to assume we know more about people than we do and then to judge and of course, the lack of privacy.

I'm sure there are academics somewhere studying all of this but I'm really intrigued by the social effects of Facebook and how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Catching up

C was watching an old episode of Seinfeld tonight, in which George and Jerry were discussing the option of going to therapy "once a week for $80 a session."  Um . . . exactly 20 years later, I'm doing therapy for--yep, you guessed it--$80 a session (unless I adjust the fee based on income and then it's less.)  I'm not sure how to feel about that.   Last year, I discovered that my clients were paying their tattoo artist more than they were paying me, but then I realized that I get more than one chance at success, whereas the tattoo artist doesn't, so maybe I'm glad not to have the pressure.

On another note, to catch you up on things around our house . . . Boo is home for spring break and we're planning to rest some, eat some, shop some, and clean some.  Sounds like a great week!  (I still have to go to work, but always have a lighter schedule when school is out.)

Mowgli is in NC hanging out with friends, climbing and hiking and seeing old classmates.  We hope to have his diploma framed for him by the time he gets home.  He will also hear back this month from the four grad schools he applied to so there's a little extra suspense there.  He's been working every chance he gets so we're glad he's getting a little fun time away.

I ended up choosing two daily disciplines for Lent:  something to give up (snacking) and something to take on (reading.)  In both cases, I tend to graze rather than stopping to think about what I'm doing and nourishing myself wisely.  So far, it's been very fruitful.

I'm still working toward the 5K, although I've modified my expectations.  (If you don't know me on Facebook, I was pretty discouraged when I discovered that my months of running on a treadmill at the gym did not yield the same results when I started running on the road.)  I did go get fitted for running shoes (as several of you suggested) and it was completely awful and humiliating but I now have very supportive running shoes, so we'll see if that helps.

I left this morning at 6:45 a.m. to get to Houston in time for a meeting and got home at 6:00 p.m.  I've either driven or flown somewhere out of town every week for ten straight weeks and that may be getting a little old.  On the flip side, though, I'm getting wonderful opportunities to do exciting work with the most amazing people so it is ALL good.  All of it.  I'm blessed by my family and my church and my work when I'm at home and I'm blessed by my friends and my colleagues and my work when I'm gone.  I'm doubly, triply, quadruply blessed.  And kind of tired of my car.

C has been sick but he's recovering now.  Baylor beat Kansas tonight so he is walking on air and March Madness is in the air so he will be in heaven for a few weeks.  He's also really enjoying his preaching series and the new BLESS team at church and celebrating his 5th anniversary here and so life is good for him too.

So . . . how are things with you?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Thoughts about recent events

I know better than to get upset by the rantings of a bully and so that's not what upset me.  What hurt--and I use that word purposefully--was watching so many decent people defend him and his vileness, whether out of agreement or self-interest, I don't know.  Knowing that this kind of thinking is acceptable for at least 15 million people in this country makes me feel vulnerable and afraid.  Knowing that at least 8 companies were willing to say differently makes me feel a little better.

Let me be clear:  this is not about disagreement between people about legitimate issues.  What is at stake here is addressing disagreement or differences with women by seeking to humiliate or degrade them sexually.  It was wrong when Ed Shultz did it last year by calling Laura Ingraham a slut.  It was wrong last week when another "entertainer" did it on the radio and then added so much more vile commentary. It is wrong when it happens to Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin and it is wrong when it happens to Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.  It is wrong when it happens in families as domestic violence. It is wrong when soldiers and militias do it as they systematically rape women and girls in Africa and other war zones.  It's wrong when it shows up in its mildest form and it's wrong when it shows up in its most tragic.  What disturbs and scares me is that we apparently don't have agreement on that.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Mixed feelings

Just a few minutes ago, I was chatting with the organizer of the retreat at which I am presenting workshops.  We were discussing a mutual friend who is supposed to be at the retreat but hasn't arrived yet.  I say that maybe she isn't coming and the retreat organizer says, "No, she has to be here because she's leading Holy Communion." Then she adds, "Not that there aren't plenty of priests here but (she lowers her voice) I really wanted a woman."

I hear that a lot these days.  Recently, a man in my own denomination (state level) contacted me and asked me to be part of a panel at an upcoming meeting.  He named two very accomplished male ministers who had already agreed to serve on the panel and then said, "But we really want a woman."  That wasn't the reason I declined but it made it easier.

I can't even describe how ambivalent I feel about this.  I can remember what C used to call "the angry years," when I was studying theology and ethics and pastoral care in seminary with the full awareness that there would not be jobs waiting for me when I graduated, when men approached me in the halls (not often but more than once) and demanded that I defend my right to be there, when I constantly reminded myself that things change, that the arc of history is toward justice, that it would get better.

And it did.  Not in my denomination, which, on the national level even more rigidly excludes women in ministry than it did when I was a seminary student, but certainly in the Church at large.  It was about 9 years ago that a group in my denomination invited me to speak at one of their events and then uninvited me when they discovered that I was ordained.  I thought that meant that I needed to stop hoping for a public ministry, a pastoral ministry, and just be happy with what I was "allowed" to do, ministering to clients in the safe space of my office.

I could not have been more wrong.  The chances have come faster than I can take them. Like Lucy in the candy factory, there have been more opportunities, more affirmation, more ministry, more adventures than I could ever hold, coming faster than I could ever imagine.  Everywhere I go, women are wearing clerical collars, holding important positions, leading worship, running meetings.  They are not oddities or novelties; it is taken for granted that they will be there and that they should be.  It feels like a miracle.

So now it seems the tables have turned.  I feared (and experienced) not having opportunities because I was female; now, I often realize that I am being given opportunities because I am female.  Even though I don't always know how to feel about that, it's also true that I celebrate this with everything in me.  My heart sometimes sings, sometimes grumps, "It's about time!"  Not just for me but for all the women who are so gifted and so called and so effective.  We are part of the future of the Church and it's lovely.

Much of this has happened because some men in power have decided to share their power and have made it a priority to welcome women to what was previously a "no girls allowed" clubhouse.  I've been the beneficiary of such grace by my male colleagues and it always feels empowering and deeply meaningful.  At the same time, more women have had the courage to continue to work for and even create opportunities for ministry, no matter what anyone else said they could or couldn't do.  I am deeply indebted to them.

I have recently been blessed to be in ministry contexts where gender no longer really matters, or maybe it matters but it doesn't define anything.  In those settings, it no longer has serious political meaning and men and women work together in healthy, mutually affirming ways.  Then I remember that I was right all those years ago:  things did change and they are getting better and there's no turning back.