Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What Could've Been

I think grief is hardest when it finds you unprepared. At funerals and hospitals, we are prepared for grief. At the supermarket? Not so much.

I am not the type of person to be emotionally overwhelmed very easily. When I feel negative emotions, I am talented at pushing them aside and going about my day (or entire life). I find emotions distracting and annoying. But, I know that this way of existing is anti-shalom. I am fragmented and that is not good. So, I've learned how to embrace emotions when they are essential. (Sometimes they're worth stomping out, such as when I'm acting bratty.) I still don't like them, but I have found how vital they are to maintaining open lines of communication with God and others. So, with this grief, I am letting myself feel. And it's actually been helpful.

However, sometimes being in touch with my grief sucks. In an attempt to not be caught off guard by it at random times, I have started to pay attention to when it arises. And I've found a trend!

My grief is found most strongly when I think of what could've been.

When I think, "Now I would've been 13 weeks," my throat tightens and my breathing becomes irregular.  When I think about Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and starting 2012 without, I am unable to think clearly. Even now, thinking about these things, I am finding myself at a loss for words. I am having to muscle through this paragraph.

And while it is good for me to grieve what is not, it is not good for me to dwell on what could've been. Dwelling on my imagined future is easy. I thought I knew what the future looked like. And now I am in the future of the past. And it is not the future I imagined. And that sucks.

I know that I am not alone in living out the reality of unfulfilled dreams. Babies die, yes. But everyone dies, and they often leave us at unexpected times. With death, we are always left with thinking about what could've been. But the same is true for illness, divorce, natural disasters, break ups, business failures, and accidents of all sorts. Even men and women who fixate on a potential romantic partner only to have their advances rejected must grieve the lost dreams of their future. Those of us grieving a loss find ourselves tempted to live in a constant world of could've, should've been.

But I must remind myself of the truth. The truth is that my future of dreams was precisely that: mine. Those dreams, even when shared with others, were manmade. God never handed me a preview of my life saying, "Here, this is what your future holds." He doesn't do that. He's always known what my future would look like, and He is not changing course now. Christmas 2011: I was never meant to have a baby, I only thought I was.

Teasing out our dreams from God's isn't fun. When our dreams are good, reality often feels bad. But instead of focusing on what could've been, I need to focus on what is.

What is?

God is all good.
God is all loving.
God is all powerful.
God is all wise.

And because He is those things, I can trust Him entirely.

The pain is not lessened. But He is greater than the pain.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Lie of Purity Pledges

true love waitsphoto © 2008 Jenifer Flinton | more info (via: Wylio)I grew up in an amazing small town in Christendom, America. In fact, I had an idyllic childhood. But I had a rocky adolescence. By the time I turned 18, I had attended six youth groups, all at a different denomination, but all squarely Evangelical. And these years were very confusing to me, especially in regard to my budding sexuality. I heard a lot of mixed messages, but the message I heard the most clearly was "True Love Waits." In fact, I asked for (and received) a True Love Waits purity ring for my 13th birthday. (Why, since I was confused about the whole thing? Um, it was advertised in Brio magazine! I needed it just like I needed my WWJD necklace.)

The schools I attended were public, but even there I heard a lot of abstinence-only education. Outside of school, I heard a lot of speakers talk to us youth group kids about our sexual purity and how important it was, especially in regard to "keeping our marriage bed pure." But perhaps the most memorable lesson I learned was during our health class in high school. A lovely, well-intentioned woman from a local non-profit gave our class an abstinence-only presentation. During the presentation, she asked who wanted an Oreo cookie. Everyone answered yes. Then, she passed an Oreo cookie around the class and told each one of us to spit on it and take a little bit of it (if we were brave enough). When it got back up to the front of the class, she asked, "Okay, who wants it now?" I know she did not intend for me to receive a message of guilt and shame that day, but I did. You see, by the time I had reached high school I had already made some poor decisions in regard to boys, my body, and my sexuality. And I knew they were poor decisions. I kept trying to "start over." But this presentation cemented in my mind that I could never start over; I would forever be that disgusting Oreo cookie. And so, I entered a horrible cycle of sin, guilt, shame, apathy, and more sin.

I don't tell you this story to excuse my behaviors, to blame the people in my community (they were truly amazing people), or to make you feel sorry for me. I tell you this story to explain how revolutionary it was for me when I realized that the Christian-culture obsession with sexual purity is nothing more than well-intentioned works righteousness.

A year or so after getting married, I was laboring full-time as a collegiate minister. I was leading some women through a Bible study on the book of Hebrews when the Holy Spirit hit me upside my head with the truth that asking women to guard their purity was like asking them to guard their righteousness or holiness. It was ridiculous! Am I righteous because of my own actions? Am I holy because I refuse to participate in sinful actions? No! I am righteous and holy because of the blood of Christ. We are not pure, no not one. Even those among us who abstain from sex, "bounce" their eyes, and pray with the sincerest heart to God for sexual purity are not pure. Even couples who save their first kiss for their wedding day are lacking in regard to God's holy standard. Our sexual activity does not make us impure; our hearts of rebellion and idolatry make us impure. We are born impure and act accordingly.

Now, I do not think that teaching our youth to obey God's teachings is wrong. Nor do I think abstinence is backwards or misogynistic. In fact, since being married, I am fully convinced of the importance of sexual fidelity and abstinence before marriage. I learned so many lies about myself, my body, men, and relationships from the poor decisions I made. And I know that those who preach sexual purity mean only to protect people from learning these lies and suffering the consequences of poor choices. But preaching abstinence is different than teaching purity. Abstinence is an action (or lack thereof); purity is your state of being. They should not be confused.

But, there is a strong undercurrent of works righteousness to these efforts for sexual purity and it is hurtful, not only to young hearts, but also to the beauty of the Gospel message. Though we are completely unable to rescue ourselves from our own condition, God enters our story and rescues us from ourselves. We, and our efforts at self-cleaning, are the very things that stand in the way of clinging completely to our rescuer. He wants to BE our purity, not just give us purity. His life and work was enough. It was complete--He was the final and perfect sacrifice. It is finished, done, over. Our hope for sexual purity should be completely placed in Jesus, not in our good (or lack of bad) behavior.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Creation, the Fall, and Gender Inequality

I don't know about you, but Genesis is one of my favorite books--not just books of the Bible, but books in general. I LOVE the mix of poetry, love, depravity, and hope. On the first page and the last, I am mesmerized (although I admit it can get a bit tedious in the middle). 

In the debate about gender roles in marriage, the Church, and the world, people often point back to Genesis 1-3 when claiming that God created a hierarchy of role differentiation and male headship between the genders. John Piper and Wayne Grudem use the phrase "God's created order" ad nauseam in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (see page 51). Piper, Grudem, and others (including Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. who authored the chapter on Genesis in the book) claim that Genesis proves that men and women were created with different giftings, roles, and commands from God. Additionally, they use the natural world as it is today as evidence for their teachings on male-female roles. Sometimes they use science, clinging to study after study showing that we are in fact better (or worse) than each other at different things. Ortlund even goes so far as to claim that "it is God who deliberately ordains inequalities in many aspects of our lives" (100). 

I often get frustrated with the details of these claims, but I have never been able to piece together my own thoughts coherently. For example, I am often frustrated with arguments based on the order of creation. I never believed that man was inherently dominant to woman because he was created first. That feels akin to saying fish are supposed to be dominant to "beasts of the earth." It just doesn't ring true. I do not see an inherent hierarchy in the order of creation itself. (I do see that creation is getting increasingly complex as the creation story goes on, but that does not support male dominance as far as I can tell.) But, my frustrations with the "created order" claim have never helped me form an understanding of the Creation/Fall story as a whole.

But Gilbert Bilezikian's book Beyond Sex Roles has come into my life! (Thanks to my gift-giver!) Gil (as I affectionately call him since I can't pronounce his name) works through gender-pertinent Scripture piece by piece and evaluates what the Bible is and is not saying about the role of women. Starting with Genesis, Gil works through both the story of creation and the story of the fall. I felt as if I was seeing fragments of the story before, and now a larger understanding of Genesis 1-3 is starting to come into focus for me. (Caveat: It's not entirely in focus, just more so.) 

What am I seeing?

In essence, God created equality, partnership, oneness, and love between men and women; sin and the fall created hierarchy, domination, separate spheres of influence, and distrust. 

From Bilezikian's reading, there is nothing to indicate that God gave man dominion over the woman. Rather, Gen 1:26 shows that God gave "them" dominion over nature. (And because some people read "them" as multiple men rather than Adam and Eve, Gil turns to Gen 5:2: "He created them male and female and He blessed them and named them Man" (NASB).) 

At creation, the order of creation was, in terms of both inherent value and power:

Adam & Eve

As Gil says, "It is proper to regard both male dominance and death as being antithetical to God's original intent in creation" (56). However, after the fall, things changed. God is now outside of the order, meaning that He has to intervene in order to have relationship with and proper rule over Adam and Eve once again. In our fallen world, the hierarchy of God's world has been warped so that it is out of the created order, not in design, but in practice. The fallen order is: 

God         Nature

Further, instead of Adam and Eve having proper dominion over nature, Adam is subject to it; he cannot live, eat, or be successful without its cooperation. Adam will spend his whole life seeking to harness nature only to die and be eaten by nature itself (becoming dust). Eve will seek her whole life to have oneness with Adam again, but her desire will never be fully satisfied; he will rule over her as a master to his slaves. Indeed, Genesis continues to show the acting out of this fallen order: Women become the property of men very quickly.

What does this all have to do with following Jesus in our daily lives today? 

In short, this empowers us to unravel the work of the fall by restoring men and women to equal partnerships with one another in marriage, the Church, and the world. We, as Christians, are called to be agents of God's redemptive work to restore Eden, and in so doing we must call out male dominance for what it is: injustice and brokenness. We must align ourselves with God's created order, not the order of the fallen world. While we live in a world that is fallen, we swim upstream against the brokenness. We do not embrace the fallen order of things as good, nor do we allow them to cloud Church teachings in regard to marital equality, Church leadership, or the empowerment of women. In a nutshell: Christians should be subverting the dominant (fallen) paradigm, not adopting it as our own.

For instance, while study after study might prove that men and women are not equal, are better and worse at different skills, and should have segregated spheres of influence, study after study will also show that we are selfish, hateful, and insatiable. And while we are born with unequal gifts, this does not prove that it is God ordained; it only proves that it's "natural" just like sin. The only conclusion that should be drawn from the current state of humanity is that we are sinners and science proves it. Christians should not be using these studies to "prove" that God created men and women to do different things. God created us to rule together over nature and the specifics of "gender roles" are not found in Genesis 1-3. While some Christians might point to Genesis 1-3 and say, "But God created us to do different things and that's okay," Bilezikian says, "I call your bluff" (my paraphrase of the entire book).

So, as far as we are able, let's labor for redemption and stamp out the curse. Deal?

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

One Way to Identify Idols of the Heart

photo © 2010 Zinnia Jones | more info (via: Wylio)
Idolatry is a hip term in a lot of contemporary Christian thought. Despite how hip it is, I like the term because it resonates with me. I do, constantly, try to turn good things into ultimate things; that is idolatry in a nut shell. (Of course, we can all turn bad things into ultimate things as well, and those are still idols. But I think those idols are easier to identify, and I think we repent of them more quickly. I think we all agree that worshipping satan is bad.)

It's hard to identify the idols of your own heart. This is part of the reason why God calls us to live in community. We act as God-filtered mirrors for each other, calling out idols when we see them (in love). Our idols are easier to see when they conflict with the idols at work in the culture in which we live. Yes, even our cultures have idols. (Don't overanalyze that. Culture is just another way of saying "a group of people who see the world in a similar way.") If you were to spend time in a different culture, you would probably see its idols quickly. Some cultures idolize honor, or riches, or fertility. Unfortunately, the idols in our own hearts are just as important as the idols we see in others. And until we have dealt with our own, we are credential-less in the work of dethroning other people's idols. 

So how do you go about identifying the idols of your heart? Well, moving to another culture might be one way. But, that's not what I want to address now. Now I want to address idols as revealed through (pre-)parenting.

Josh and I aren't parents yet, but in even talking about our future children our idols have surfaced. (I can't imagine how bad it's going to be later!) You see, Josh and I have had a running joke/argument for years based on this question:

If our children could either be beautiful or brilliant, which would you choose?

I choose brilliance, and I have logical reasons for this. Josh chooses beauty, and he also has his reasons.

This conversation about our future children reveals our idols on two levels. 

1. The reason I would give my children brilliance before beauty is that I honestly have a hard time being loving toward non-intelligent people. I hate to admit this publicly, but it's true. I favor intelligent people and judge less intelligent people. And I'm talking about all sorts of smarts here: If people are only book smart, that's not enough; if people have IQs off the chart but don't know how to navigate socially, that's not enough. I want all sorts of smart in my life. I am attracted to smarts WAY more than I am attracted to bodies. I give mad respect to people who can wrestle with me intellectually. If you win, you're my new best friend. I'm being serious. My idolatry of intellect permeates my whole life. (I do, by the way, have exceptions for the young, old, and mentally disabled. For some reason, I can deal with them. In fact, I love them because they so often challenge my idol in ways I can't guard against.) 

And before you think Josh gets off the hook, his idolatry of beauty is equally destructive and real. Of course, I can't explain for him quite as well, so I won't try.

2. Answers aside, the question itself reveals our idols. Josh and I came up with this horrible and silly question. And how did we construct this question? We thought to ourselves (the whole one flesh thing at work!), "What are the two most important traits to have? Now, which is most important?" And the fact that we came up with intelligence and looks says a lot. We didn't come up with generosity, service, hard work, humility, or courage. We came up with smarts and looks, neither of which is of particular importance to God. Gosh, we're going to be great parents! 

So, I offer this simple fill-in-the-blank for you now as a way to reveal idols of your heart: 

It would be a tough pill to swallow if my future (or current) children lacked _______.

Of course, I understand that this may not be as effective for others as it was for us. But as we're in the pre-parenting stage of marriage, our thoughts have traveled to children. If I was still 21, I'm not sure this question would be nearly as effective. But, I offer it nonetheless.

And I ask, through what/whom has God revealed the idols of your heart to you? And how do you process with God and others when these idols are unmasked?

(Also, does anyone else find the photo amusing/disturbing/sad?)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Seven Weeks of Lent Reviewed

About two months ago I posted my plan to study, in depth, the seven words of Christ from the cross. A lot of people post about their Lent plans at the start of Lent, but few provide any resolution at the end of this season for the viewing world. So today I want to provide some resolution to my Lent to match my enthusiasm of two months ago. 

My plans for Lent didn't exactly go as I had planned. Surprise. But, God had a bigger and better plan. My plan was to use Lent to deepen my study of the Word and to more deeply appreciate Christ's work on the cross. I believed I achieved the latter, but not because I was studious during Lent. I was anything but. During most of Lent I was barely able to focus on work. But these short words from the dying Savior were exactly what I needed. Thank you, Lord, for your sweet mercy in using my plan and making it better.

Week 1 (3/9): "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do."
Week 2 (3/16): "Truly, I tell you today, you shall be with Me in paradise."
Week 3 (3/23): "Woman behold your son." and "Behold your mother."
Week 4 (3/30): "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"
Week 5 (4/6): "I thirst."
Week 6 (4/13): "It is finished!"
Week 7 (4/20): "Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit."

These seven words, unbeknownst to me, were God's plan for walking me through my own loss. I found out I was pregnant during Week 2. As such, meditating upon God as the ultimate architect for all families was perfect for Week 3. I miscarried during Week 4. Having already been meditating upon Jesus's 4th word from the cross, I felt His words give voice to my sorrow. Week 5 was, strangely, soothing to my soul. And Week 7, though undocumented, was my sweet surrender: Into His wise hands I commit my life, body and soul. I rarely feel the comfort of God as tangibly as I did when meditating upon Jesus's last words. But, God was present in his Word and in my heart. Hallelujah.

So, that was my Lent 2011. It was wonderful and horrible all at once, and I am thankful for it.

Thank you for walking through it with me.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

NYC, Humility, and Unity

Coming Soon–Eustace in 3Dphoto © 2010 r reeves | more info (via: Wylio)
You are probably unaware that out in the blogosphere a rally has been taking place this week: the Rally to Restore Unity. It is "an online rally to promote open dialog between people with different perspectives in the Christian faith." It "includes a synchroblog, roundtable discussions, celebrity guest posts, and a fundraising effort for Charity: Water."

Today, I join the rally via post. I'm not witty or funny like most of my fellow ralliers, but I think the way we Christians treat people (including other Christians and non-Christians) who disagree with us is a serious problem and needs to be addressed. If the theologically-aggressive crack-fest that was Love Wins was real (please tell me it was a dream), we do not know how to love one another well. Instead, we are addicted to assertion, judgment, and pride. 

I am certainly guilty of being an overly-confident person. I am usually pretty sure that I am correct about things. Really. I think my way is the best way. So, how has God dealt with my pride? In lots of ways. But one of the most effective tools he used was sending me to live in New York City. 

In case you don't know, in NYC everyone thinks they are right all of the time. And to be honest, NYC is full of brilliant, amazing people. It seems like everyone was the best and brightest from their hometowns: valedictorians, presidents of clubs, misunderstood artists, small town celebs, etc. But then we all moved to the same city and it turns out we weren't so special. And when you live in a city full of the best and brightest from all over the country, you start to get sick of one-up-manship, debates just for the sake of it, and constant analysis. (Or am I the only one who got sick of it?)

That said, I went to a GREAT church in NYC--a church where all of us "bright and brilliant" people could actually sit and respect the people who opened their mouths on stage. Our head pastor, Tim Keller, didn't say illogical things without acknowledging that they were illogical. It was refreshing. For the first time, I was able to really sit under the authority of the elders of my church and rest there. I had never felt comfortable in that position. But I trusted them. And you know why?

My sophomore year of college, as God was breaking through a lot of walls to my heart, I attended a special event at Redeemer, R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Can Men and Women Get Along? At the end of the evening, Dr. Keller took questions from the audience on the topic. And a few questions in, a young man stepped to the microphone and immediately challenged Dr. Keller on Redeemer's position regarding women in leadership. Their exact positions aside, the young man was very assertive and aggressively challenged Dr. Keller in front of a room full of nearly a thousand people. The man claimed that Redeemer's stance was incorrect and unbiblical. I was, to say the least, nervous for this young man. I thought Dr. Keller was going to rise up and match the level of "I'm rightness" felt in the room. 

But he didn't.

Dr. Keller graciously answered the specifics of the question. And when the young man pressed him further, Dr. Keller surprisingly just shrugged and said, "You could be right." 

I was stunned. 

He continued, saying something to the effect of, "It's entirely possible that I'm wrong about this. But I have made a judgment call to the best of my ability based on what I think the Word of God is saying. And I could be wrong, but I do think that I am right. But luckily, the Kingdom of God does not rest on my being right about this. In fact, lots of us disagree on this issue, and we're all going to be in heaven  bowing down to Someone else one day." (This portion of the talk may or may not be on the recorded version of the event. I have not listened to it at all. And it could be substantially different in my memory because it was nearly 8 years ago.)

Dr. Keller also used to say (and probably still does) that in 5 or 10 years we will probably realize that we are wrong about something.  And when we realize what we've been wrong about, we're going to wish we had held our opinions a bit more loosely and shown humility with how we lived our lives. So, why don't we just go ahead and assume now that we're currently wrong about something. And, let's go ahead and have the attitude to match that reality?

So, this is my contribution to the Rally to Restore Unity: Humility comes before unity, and repentance is essential to true humility. So, let's all repent a bit more deeply and a bit more freely. 

I love this Rich Mullins quote, which I saw the other day among the Rally to Restore Unity posts: "I think if we were given the scriptures it was not so that we could prove that we were right about everything. If we were given the scriptures it was to humble us into realizing that God is right and the rest of us are just guessing."
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