Monday, November 25, 2013

Dropping the Mic: Reflections on Jesus Feminist

We are shaped by the voices we choose to listen to. I know that everyone is seeking to "find their voice" these days, that unique contribution and perspective each person brings to the world, but sometimes we neglect the communal aspect of the discovery. We don't lift up a rock one day and find our voice under there. Our voices are formed more than discovered, and the people that we become are, in large part, determined by the voices that we pay attention to.

Churches are also shaped by the voices we choose to listen to. The people that we choose to give authority to have a powerful say in what sort of communities we are and what sort of communities we are becoming. Yes, we affirm that God, the Bible, and the ancient creeds are our authorities, but the truth is that those authorities are almost always mediated to us through human beings. The Scriptures weren't written in English, after all.

It is unavoidable that churches will be formed in the images of those who lead them and those who are allowed to speak in them. Communities have a way of taking on the personalities of their leaders. Those whose voices are heard the most will have the loudest influence on the character of a community.

Sarah Bessey's book, Jesus Feminist, makes the pretty airtight case that it has predominately been the masculine voice that has reverberated throughout sanctuaries and church classrooms and theological halls in contemporary Christianity. Though there have been notable and important exceptions, the voices of men have echoed the loudest from our pulpits.

In my endorsement, I wrote this, "Sarah says she doesn't feel a call to preach, but she speaks with the fire and artistry of a great preacher. Her sermon is one of hope: though the Church has often ignored the voices of women or lumped them into one limiting category, a revolution is coming. Sarah's voice is prophetic and she will free other women to speak and act with power, love, and courage. And may it be a summons for men in the Church to speak less and listen a lot more."

I was not just being colorful in talking about Sarah's preaching. If you have read my book, you know that I believe strongly in diverse leadership and that I want to see a lot more women teaching and preaching and pastoring and leading in our churches. This is an equality and justice issue, absolutely, but it is also a spiritual and community formation issue. Who are the voices that are shaping us? If we only hear the voices of men on Sunday mornings, and in Tuesday night budget meetings, what, and who, are we missing? What are the scriptures that get neglected? What are the images and metaphors for God that are overlooked? How are our church budgets lopsided? What are the gifts and who are the gifted that we are neglecting?

I believe it is high time for us male leaders to drop the mic for a while. We have had our turn to speak and now it is time to listen. If we are truly serious about being "servant leaders," then we need to acknowledge that the first task of a servant is to listen. If you are not listening, you are not a servant. You can't talk about an "upside down kingdom" without getting on the floor and looking up.

I do not mean that sort of listening that is simply listening for ammunition to use in our argument, the silent pause before the thunder. I do not mean listening to the warm-up act before I headline the tour. I mean the sort of listening that comes in with an genuine openness to having our minds changed. The sort of listening that says I will listen to you not just once but again and again and again, because you have had to listen to me again and again and again and again. I will lead with my ears. I will risk listening to the pain of others, and I will be open to their pain breaking my heart. I will take up my cross and die to myself so that others may be exalted. 

I have no doubt that Sarah's book will get a wide hearing among women who have felt silenced or relegated to corner ministries in the church, but this post is primarily a call to men. Read Sarah's book. Especially if you are prone to disagree with her theology, take a small step. If you don't believe that women should be preaching in church, take a risk and go and hear a female preacher on Sunday morning and listen for the Word of God. Stop talking and listen. 

One image of God that Sarah says is neglected by the predominance of the male voice in our communities is God as Mother. If women were preaching every Sunday we would hear a lot less about war and football and a lot more about childbirth. I am convinced that something new is being born in the church, and God's daughters are waking up to the gifts the Spirit has given them. It is a time for hope. The music of the future is wafting backwards into the present, and I hope the Church is listening.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Meals that Change Your Life

Some meals can change your life.

Every Thanksgiving I find myself reflecting on how significant the act of eating is to our lives and even how central it is to our faith. Sometimes it seems odd that we celebrate a holiday that centers on a meal, but then I remember how many unforgettable scenes in the Bible revolve around the table—Moses and the elders eating in the presence of the Lord on Mount Sinai, Peter shocking the Jewish world by eating with the Gentile Cornelius and, of course, Jesus presiding at the Last Supper as the head of his new family, a sacramental meal replicated countless times throughout the ages.

The meal that changed my life featured an oversized helping of pre-packaged lasagna. Truth be told, I don’t like lasagna. But 15 years ago, lasagna became for me the very embodiment of hospitality, to the point that I can’t see a piece of lasagna without being taken back to that meal.

It was three weeks before the start of my junior year in college, and I was spending the summer in Los Angeles. I had joined a team of students who were living at an African-American church in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. My teammates were Korean and Indian, and I was the only white person for miles in every direction. It was my first real experience of cultural displacement, light years away from anything that felt like home, and I had often felt like I was drowning in multicultural confusion.

It is surprising that I associate that time with hospitality, not only for personal reasons, but also because the history of the interaction between the church and the neighborhood was marked by an unfortunate lack of hospitality. Fifty years earlier the neighborhood and the church had been predominantly white, but an influx of African-Americans led to what’s called "white flight," with the bulk of the residents moving north. The church became a black church, with only a handful of white families commuting on Sunday mornings. Two decades later, there was an Hispanic migration into the same neighborhood, and the resultant "black flight" affected everything but the church. The church remained almost exclusively black.

There was little to no relationship between the church and its neighbors. Crime and suspicion were high, which I learned firsthand the time I set off the alarm in the church sanctuary and found myself at center stage in a police helicopter searchlight. Our team was asked to help facilitate relationships between church members and the surrounding residents. As you might imagine, four college students from a local liberal arts college were not terribly effective at bridging the divide.

After a largely unsuccessful summer, full of team conflict and lukewarm relationships with church members, I lived by myself at the church for two weeks. I was sleeping on a shabby couch that was eight inches too short, sweating through 85 degree nights with no air conditioning. I couldn’t open the windows because of the crime risk, and when I turned on the lights cockroaches would scatter, leading to many sleepless hours imagining I felt them crawling on me. I was just learning how to cook, and most of my meals involved some combination of pasta, red sauce, beans, crumbling tortillas and overripe tomatoes.

Needless to say, when Stephen invited me to dinner at his house, I greedily accepted. Stephen was a pastor working part-time at the church while attending seminary. He was from Kenya, and he had moved to the United States for his theological education, bringing his wife and two children with him. He was joyful and affable, with a deep, contagious laugh, just like every other Kenyan person I have ever met.

I anticipated that dinner for several days. Stephen picked me up from the church, and my hopes for a home-cooked meal in a comfortable, climate-controlled setting were high. But my spirits fell when we stopped at a budget grocery store on the way to his house, and he bought a large pre-packaged lasagna and salad-in-a-bag. To be honest, I felt angry. This is what he is going to serve? He knows I’ve been eating horribly all summer and that I’ve lost about 15 pounds. He knows I’m living alone in a sparse, uncomfortable setting, and he can’t even cook something from scratch? I don’t even like lasagna!

We arrived at his simple apartment—with no air conditioning—and I sat down at his rickety kitchen table while Stephen cooked the lasagna. When it finished baking, he cut me the largest piece I’ve ever seen. Plate-sized is an understatement, since its juicy corners were dripping over the edges. But he only cut a bite-sized piece for himself, as small as mine was big. He explained he had eaten a big lunch.

I didn’t think anything more of it as I dove into my piece, my distaste for lasagna temporarily overwhelmed by my ravenous, 20-year-old hunger. During the meal, while picking at his food, Stephen asked me about my family, my major, my friends and my future plans. I remember how genuinely interested he was in my life and how he encouraged me to consider seminary.

Halfway through dinner, his wife crashed through the front door, in tears, and immediately retreated to the bedroom. After returning from comforting her, Stephen explained that she had started a telemarketing job that morning but had been fired after just a few hours because no one could understand her thick accent. This was the third job she had lost in a month.

Later, after she recovered, she came out into the living room and we shared a wonderful conversation, with much laughter. Some of their missionary friends stopped by, and they all told stories, from their narrow escapes from thieves in the middle of the night to Stephen’s tale of praying for a wife and then meeting her two days later. I lingered as long as I could that night, relishing those hours of feeling at home.

Looking back on that night, I am astonished at how long it took me to put all the pieces together about that meal and about their situation. It wasn’t until I was in seminary, three years later, that I realized the full truth. That store-bought lasagna, the one I complained about, was their family’s food ration for the entire week. Two adults and two children, living on a part-time income and meager savings, were going to eat what was left for the next six days. Stephen had served me an overflowing portion of something he couldn’t afford to give.

A life-changing meal is not defined by what you eat, but by whom you eat it with. Tax collectors and prostitutes ate meals with Jesus the Messiah and received acceptance, Gentiles ate meals with the apostles and gained salvation, and I, a self-absorbed, naïve, entitled college kid ate a meal with a Kenyan pastor and his wife and received a gift of extravagant, sacrificial hospitality.

Stephen and his family still live in the area. I think it’s time I buy some lasagna.

Friday, November 8, 2013

When Someone is in a Storm

Nothing shuts down a person in pain like quoting the Bible at them. As I write that, I can hear the sirens of the Heresy Police surrounding my building. Yes, the Bible contains the words of life, the promises of God-with-us that have comforted saints and resurrected sinners. But the Bible can also be the ultimate conversation killer. It can be used as a tool for silencing people and for short-circuiting grief, hurt, and depression. Sometimes people use the Bible in a way that makes a hurting person feel like God is telling them to shut up.

I don’t like saying this, but it has been my experience that Christians are often worse at dealing with people in pain than others with different beliefs. Truth be told, I have chosen on many occasions to share my painful moments and emotions with non-Christians rather than Christians, because I knew I would be better heard. This saddens me. It seems to me that no one should run into the fire like Christians, because we follow a Savior who descended into hell. But we all know it is far less messy to stand over people in pain than it is to enter their worlds and risk feeling pain ourselves.

I once heard a ministry colleague say: “I’m going to be with a person in the hospital tonight. Time to speak some truth.” This idea prevails in many Christian circles, that preaching is the healing balm for suffering. Whether it’s sickness or divorce or job loss, a crisis calls for some sound Biblical exhortation. I have a number of issues with this. First, it assumes that the hurting person does not believe the right things or believe with enough fervency. They may end up receiving the message that their faith is not strong enough for them to see their situation rightly, or that something is wrong with them because they are struggling. Second, preaching to people in pain preys on the vulnerable. It’s stabbing the sword of truth into their wound, or doing surgery without anesthesia. Unwelcome truth is never healing. Third, “speaking truth” into situations of pain is distancing. You get to stand behind your pulpit, or your intercessory prayer that sounds strangely like a sermon, and the other person is a captive audience, trapped in the pew of your anxious truth. Suffering inevitably makes a person feel small and isolated, and preaching to them only makes them feel smaller and more alone.

Dr. Seuss wrote some classic stories, but he also gave some classically bad advice: “Don’t cry that it’s over. Smile that it happened.” Your role as a listener is, by all means, to let them cry that it’s over. Don’t be the Grinch who stole grief. Be a witness to their tears. Each falling tear carries pain and it’s the only way to get it out.

A hurting person is in a storm. They are cold, wet, shivering, and scared. Preaching, platitudes, and advice will not get them out of the storm. Don’t tell a person in a storm that it’s a sunny day. There will likely come a day when the clouds part, but it is not today. It’s not your job to pull them out of the storm. It’s your job to get wet with them.