Scripture- Egalitarian from the start

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I grew up in a tradition where the idea of women in ministry is still an issue. My husband grew up in a tradition where women have been in ministry for as long as the denomination has existed. When we got together, I let him know I was called to ministry. Not to be the wife of a minister but for me to be in ministry. I took great pains to spell this out for him. I told him of my calling, my experience, my training, and I had scripture to back it all up. After my soliloquy, he smiled and said “OK”. My adrenaline was going, I was ready for a fight. I was ready to verbally assault him with my passion and wit and all I got was “OK”! For him, this conversation is passé. His life story it includes not only his mother as a pastor, but a grandmother and great grandmother, not to mention countless aunties. The conversation is so passé, it bores him. Not because he isn’t supportive of women, but precisely because he knows women should be in leadership in the church, have been in leadership in the church, and, at the end of the day, it was God’s idea from the start.

And so we start at the beginning. This will be difficult for some to hear but Genesis 1 is not the beginning I mean. It is not the earliest text we have. Genesis is the first in the story as put together in the cannon but Judges 5 is arguably the oldest text in scripture. It is in this, the oldest of text that we find our earliest models of leadership. (Judges 4 was actually written after 5 and it appears to offer a retelling of the poem filled out with prose.) And so we begin in one of the oldest stories we have with a story where a woman and a man are in leadership, partnership. It is this egalitarian model that leads the people to victory. It is a model where it is Deborah and Barak are serving together. Each in a distinct role. Each leading from position of strength that impact men and women.

This passage has much to teach beyond the obvious. With it being the earliest text, Deborah was among the earliest leaders. There is no quibbling in the text as to her role. There is no debate if she can emotionally handle this or if she should have authority over the men around her. It is a fact, not a point of argument. She is a judge. She is in authority. For those who would claim that this situation was somehow a less than ideal situation or that a woman should not have been in leadership at this moment of crisis, please note that the text offers no criticism of Deborah or of the reality of a woman in a leadership role.

Here is what I love about this passage. She speaks truly and clearly without emasculating or devaluing Barak. She is so secure in who she is that she doesn’t need to belittle him as he asks for help. I have heard sermons depicting Barak as weak, as an embarrassment to men everywhere for asking the help of a woman. That is not in the text. In fact, Barak clearly respects and values Deborah. He is not threatened by her nor does he infantalize her. The mutual respect is stunning. They are aware of the task at hand, they are aware of how it may be viewed by others and still, they do what is right.

Deborah goes on in Judges 5 with a poetic telling of the defeat of Sisera. She names and credits Jael for the tactical move, the hands on interaction which led to victory. In all too many instances, a woman can rise to positions of leadership only to make it even more difficult for other women around her. Deborah does not do this. Her model of leadership shows not only respect for men but for other capable women around her. She is secure in herself and does not feel threatened when another capable woman is present.

So why do we care if this is one of the earliest accounts in scripture? It is significant that Deborah appears in a leadership role in the Bible’s oldest passage because it demonstrates that those advocating for an egalitarian position are not merely bending to their surrounding culture. They have not caved to the pressure of society. The idea of women in leadership was established in the Bible’s oldest text. It was there from the beginning.

To focus on Deborah as an exemplar of women in leadership is to acknowledge that there was a time when women and men worked together in leadership long before the monarchy was established. It is a Biblical model of who and what we are to be that comes from who and what we have always been. Christians today are not jumping on the latest cultural bandwagon trying to keep up with an increasingly egalitarian culture. Christians are in fact actually reading their Bibles. And it matters.

Proximity and Violence

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Yesterday was the International Day of Peace. It’s been around since 1981 in case you missed it marked on your calendar. This is a day declared by the United Nations to be dedicated to world peace, in particular the absence of war and violence. International Justice Mission sent a petition around asking for signatures to urge the United Nations to protect those in poverty from violence. It’s as simple as this, those who are poor have less power and fewer resources and experience an inordinate rate of violence every day.

For Christians fighting poverty and violence should be a part of our every day existence. One way to do this is to move from proximity to embrace. I explain what I mean below in an excerpt from a paper I wrote for an upcoming conference. What it boils down to is this, we do violence to others when we think our not harming them personally is enough. We do violence to others when we refuse to listen or get to know anyone because we assume we already know their story. We do violence to others when we turn our heads and declare they don’t exist in our community because we don’t want to see them. We do violence when we settle for proximity instead of imitating Jesus and throwing our arms around others in embrace. It is difficult and it will change you. But isn’t that part of what Jesus has asked of us?

The conference is on Religion and Education in The Unmaking of Violence. While my paper focuses on disability, the principle is for everyone.

 

Embodied theology must also be lived out, requiring actual, real time interactions with one another. It must be more than creedal statements or vague declarations. The church needs more than proximity to those with disabilities for violence to be prevented. Arne Vetlesen argues, “there is no necessary correlation between human proximity and moral conduct…Proximity interacts with a number of factors; it does not by itself bring about, does not by itself account for, moral conduct or lack of it.”[1] We in the church must not only talk about including others, we must actually do so. Miroslav Volf discusses the inclusion of others at length in Exclusion and Embrace. As we seek to live an inclusive embodied theology we must understand “the will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity.”[2] Moving relationships from hypothetical declarations to proximity to embrace is a process but one necessary to unmake violence. Further, Volf assumes “that the struggle against deception, injustice, and violence is indispensable” as the will to embrace becomes a priority.[3]

The move from proximity to embrace establishes reciprocal relationships where those with disabilities aren’t just tolerated but truly integrated.”

[1] Arne Johan Vetlesen, Perception, Empathy, and Judgment: an inquiry into the preconditions of moral performance, (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1994), 275.

[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 29.

[3] Volf, 29.

Talk about discrimination

lestinnocentbloodJust because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I talk with youth workers all the time about inclusion. Inclusion is woven into our very jargon when we speak of the gospel being for everyone. What we say officially however does not always match functionally.

As Ferguson has permeated the news, conversations of racism have risen again. A tragic reason, and long overdue, but the conversations are needed. What I am hearing from many young (african american, asian, hispanic, native american and white) leaders is that they know racism exists but that it is not their battle or that they just don’t see it. I couldn’t make this up. As I proceed to name a few places where I see it with them, it is as if a veil is being lifted. And then the floodgate is opened. Frustration or anger often follows. They begin to realize that they had be so socialized to see something as “normal” that they didn’t even see it as discrimination.

I hear this same comment when I bring up including people with disabilities. “Oh, yes, that is important but we don’t have anyone with a disability in our youth group / church / school / community”.

I hear this same comment when talking about including women in leadership. “Oh, we don’t have any women who are interested / qualified / called”.

And again when I talk about the gospel and those with different gender or sex orientations. “Oh yes, that is a huge issue in The church, but not my church. We don’t have anyone identifying / struggling / living with any of those issues.”

Inclusion demands that we talk, openly about all of these possibilities. Inclusion demands that we talk long before we know someone with a disability or can identify racism. You will do it imperfectly, do it anyway. You will make mistakes, do it anyway. You will receive pushback, do it anyway.

One of my very favorite books is “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed” by Philip Hallie. It is the story of a small village named Le Chambon in France during the Holocaust. In this village, conversations of peace making, of the gospel’s inclusion for all had been taking place for 400 years. Long before they knew that they would be put to the test, long before they dreamed they may have a chance to extend life to anyone…Jewish refugees and Nazi soldiers…they talked about inclusion. It will blow your mind to see what a difference their deep seeded beliefs made when faced with a real life situation.

We are late to the party. We don’t have the luxury of 400 years of history shaping us to push hard for inclusion of all, to work for peace, to fight discrimination for a variety of people. To be imitators of Jesus inviting all to the table with welcoming arms.

Late to the party however still means that the party is going on. It’s not over and indeed, in this case I would argue better late than never.

What we do have is a choice of how to respond today. Our junior high and high school students see issues of discrimination every day. It is a part of the fabric of their lives. It’s time we adults figure out how to better model what God actually intended. It is time we learn to navigate the waters of discrimination on a variety of fronts so that all may know Jesus actually brought good news for everyone.

 

Mandela, freedom and generations to come

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There is a sense in the air that a great loss has occurred in the world. Nelson Mandela lived well though not always treated well. He served others regardless of his station in life. He lived more than most could ever dare to attempt. With his death goes the real time role model of what is possible in the human spirit in ways that will never again be duplicated. Even still…his legacy is large and unmistakable. He indeed changed not only the course of South Africa but of the world.

Three years ago we went to Pretoria, Mamelode and made a quick trip to Johannesburg to the Apartheid Museum. Today is not the day to recall that trip but it is to recall that Mandela was integral to the very contents of this museum. In particular, there is a section with quotes. Each section of quotes was color coded. For each color coded section there were color coded sticks to make a sculpture from the quotes which resonated with you. Long before my daughter could read, we walked through this museum with her. She chose her color and then her quote. The picture above captures that small moment where we attempted to expose her at a very early age and to have a visual to share for years to come as we teach her of the world. We talked of the horrors and the triumphs that took place there. We talk of the horrors and triumphs in our world today. We talk and pray for those who are hurt and struggling. We talk about how to work for peace and justice in our world and on her playground. We talk of Christ who set this as a task before us.

Today we remember Mandela. We talk of the great man he was and the the great legacy he left knowing we may never fight injustice as broadly or deeply as he did…but that we and she certainly will not if we do not continue to remember and share this story and many more that also reflect God’s call for peace and justice.

Education for girls matters.

What would you give for your children to be educated well? And by your children, let’s start with those under your own roof if you have any. Does this question change when you are thinking about adolescents in your youth group? What about your neighborhood? City? The world? My oldest is just old enough for preschool. In our area preschool is not free. My husband and I had the conversation about whether this was something we could afford or not. Ultimately, we had the luxury of this being a choice and while we are stretched and had to cut back elsewhere, she is able to attend. We even try to offer a little during fundraisers to allow others scholarship money when possible.

This past week we watched Girl Rising, a film about educating girls around the world. More than that, a film about the changes that come when a girl is educated. It took not only the courage of girls but of their fathers, brothers and other men and boys around them. While is about girls, it is also about humanity and the dignity men and women extend to won another. Just a few facts from the film: There is a lower rate of death during childbirth (the #1 cause of death in girls 15-19 is childbirth), girls with 8 years of education are 4 times less likely to become a child bride, a child born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to survive to the age of 5, 80% of all human trafficking victims are girls. For a complete list of statistics and sources check out the Girl Rising Stat sheet. For each year of education a girl receives, her status and her chance of survival as well as her chance to avoid abuse an poverty rises.

My girls will never know a world where education is not an option. Some classrooms may be better than others but still, they will be in a classroom. My responsibility is to know what is being taught, to support efforts toward reading and writing. Even more, my responsibility as a mom seeking to pass on what it means to follow Christ means that I MUST let my daughters know now that education is a privilege. That it is something that is to be used to better the world for themselves and others. That even if others do not agree with their beliefs, that no woman, no girl deserves to be born into a world where she is simply a commodity or sexual object which may be discarded on a whim. Education can break the cycle.

This is a part of our back to school conversation. We are working on what this will look like played out in our family life and our world. What about you? What would you give for all God’s children to be educated well?

Check out Girl Rising donations through 10 X 10 productions. They have partnered with several amazing organizations. If not donating here, do something. Donate, tutor, pray, advocate, educate others on the needs of girls (and boys) in many parts of the world and at home.

 

A tale of two camps: including friends with disabilities

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What if we spent more time asking “How do we?” instead of saying “We can’t.” What if we asked “What can we do?” instead of saying “We’ve never.” What if inclusion were the norm and exclusion bewildered us?

I’ve been to two different camps this summer. At the first, a junior high girl was sent home not for being disruptive, not for sneaking out, bringing alcohol or drugs, starting a fire, or  having sex. She was sent home because she was born with FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome).

She was the right age. She had a counselor who was both a little overwhelmed yet excited to be with her. She needed extra attention and came across as younger than she was…but she was there. She could tell you exactly what was happening in a conversation even when it seemed she wasn’t paying attention. But she was sent home.

I ached for this girl. I ached equally for the family who trusted their child to a church camp, a Christian community, an extension of the body of Christ only to have her turned away. I have researched and interviewed hundreds of families who have shared such stories with me. Most left the church. Many walked away from God. This was the first time I was at the camp to see it happen. The leaders of this camp made the decision to send her home without the counselor’s input or mine.

I want to be careful, these are good people seeking to serve God and simply felt they were not equipped, that this young woman was a distraction to others and that she was not getting anything out of being at camp. They decided that they were not the ones who should be doing this.

But maybe it wasn’t about what she would get. (Though I believe the Lord was speaking clearly to her and she was much more aware than most realized.) Maybe it was about what she brought to the table. About what she could teach the leaders and campers. Maybe it was about the camp and its staff being a light on a hill to her family finally welcoming one of their beloved in. Maybe. But it wasn’t. The only answer was “we can’t.”

At the second camp I’ve attended this summer, I had the privilege of helping to greet group after group after group of teenagers whose needs went far beyond needing a little extra attention. Roughly 100 special needs friends came to camp. Travel alone was demanding. Flights, long drives, extra helpers for wheelchairs, meds for days…and with every new challenge, the question became “what can we do to be a friend to this person?” “What do we need to build?” (as in ramps), and “How can we accomodate?” This was not because everyone there was trained. In fact, for many it was the first time meeting a friend with special needs. It was because there have been people who weren’t afraid to change the question. They moved from “should we?” to “how do we?” and never looked back!

the backlash when speaking up about abuse

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In nearly every class I have taught for the last 15 years two major topics have arisen. One is a conversation around ministry with and to those with disabilities. The second, and all too often not unrelated, is around issues of abuse and violence.

I have no shortage of stories of horrific things that have been done to children and youth. I also have no shortage of youth workers who have been wounded in the process of trying to do right. I have spoken before about the very seminary where I taught being told that there was no place in chapel to have this conversation. As frustrated and angry as that made me, I was simply ignored not told I was a trouble maker for bringing up this very subject.

It is beyond time for leaders, vocational ministers and lay leaders to take a stand. To demand better. To seek justice so that peace may come. To be willing to face consequences and speak truth even when it costs.

Amy Smith has been valiantly speaking up for those who have been abused for years. She has also been a volunteer youth worker for years. It seems that a narrow understanding of what is “good” for our children has distorted the perspective of leadership where she has been. While I do not know her personally, I know her work. I know that what she is experiencing is deeply personal. I also know that being uninvited to the table is not necessarily a sign of being wrong. In fact, it may be that she was a little too right.

Read her story, hear her words. I am telling you now, if you are not angry at the end you need to check yourself. We MUST have this conversation and we MUST encourage those who are being wounded in the process.

Being silent does not mean there is not a problem. It means the problem is sure to continue.

Amy Smith- watchkeep

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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

At 19 a typical American male might be witnessed yelling at the screen of a video game, washing the old car he’s quite proud of, playing sports, falling asleep in class at a college somewhere, looking for girls to …, and working hard at a fast food restaurant. Chechen born American naturalized citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may have done all those things, but he also allegedly took part in helping his older brother carry out an act of terrorism in the fatal bombing of strangers at the Boston Marathon a week ago. Dzhokhar has been described as a quiet, kind, and friendly, boxing enthusiast. His elder brother described as more outgoing, extrovert, friendly.

As I was watched and listened to too much news yesterday, reporters and “experts” gave their take on what could possibly cause an apparently “good kid” by all accounts go bad, I began to feel tired and weary. All the speculation, the waiting, the talk game, the hyper-news spectacle, it was too much. The TV kept flashing the young man’s face, he looked innocent… whatever innocent looks like. His brother, 26 year old Tamerlan Tsarnaev was dead by now, leaving his younger sibling to fend for himself. Whose idea was it to bomb, and why?

After a day of intense waiting behind barricades, cheers suddenly broke from the crowd which signaled that Dzhokhar had been captured. He had been hiding in the stern of a boat parked in the back of someone’s home. The kid was in bad condition, bleeding, apparently shot, and taken to a hospital for care. Authorities want to assure he stays alive. They want answers. We all want answers. What would make seemingly average and content young people (so they say) do something so terrible to people who had not hurt them? There are always clues.

It’s all speculation at this point until and if the surviving young man decides to speak. But their father who resides in his home country of Chechnya, said via phone that his sons are not responsible for this act, his sons are good boys and not involved in violence or terrorism of any sort. He said they liked living in America and were happy there. He insisted the American authorities must be mistaken in accusing his sons of this heinous act.  Their uncle, on the other hand, living in the U.S. said he’s ashamed of what the boys had done, calling them “losers” saying “they had not been able to settle themselves thereby hating everyone who did.”

And of course there are the words from the elder brother who is noted as having said he didn’t have one American friend, he just didn’t understand them (Americans).

I don’t know these young men and I don’t know the answers. Perhaps all that will unfold for us over the next few days and weeks. However, after twenty years of youth ministry work and training, one thing I think I know by now and that is, a young person, particularly a 19 year old male who may feel displaced, with a fragile sense, a distorted sense, or no sense of communal belonging, nurture and support, all of which helps create and seal a sense of identity and purpose… in the worst case scenario, even a “good kid” is capable of almost anything.

 

What would cause you to sever ties with your tradition?

It had been a long time since I read this piece but it was forwarded to me by a friend after being re-posted this past January. It originally aired in 2009. Surely something could have changed by now?! (I placed just a portion of the letter below, for the full version follow the link.)

My new thought in reading this is less about the actual content and more about the fact that someone (it just happens to be President Carter) was pushed to the point of leaving his lifelong faith community over a theological stance that has real world implications.

I am repeatedly having the conversation with godly, faithful followers of Jesus who are lost. Lost in that they don’t know where to go for church, for community, for service or for education and training. They entered adulthood excited about the possibilities they considered as an adolescent and feel lied to or let down as they learn of the deception and discrimination perpetuated in the name of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

One dear friend described the church this way…”It’s like having one of your best friends marrying a woman you don’t like and trying to figure out how to maintain the relationship. The bride of Christ, she can be a bitch and yet, she’s still the one Jesus chose so we’ve got to figure out how to love her too.”

I am curious what pushes you to continue loving the church and how this might mean seeking a different community in which to serve God? I am curious what would push you to sever ties? Many lament the consumer culture around churches and dismiss it as shallow on the part of those who “church shop”. I get that and I can get on board to an extent. But maybe, just maybe we see movement or even more the dropping away for many from church not because of disinterest or being shallow but because they actually care and cannot stand to be a part of the distortion and mutilation of what God intended.

I am also curious what we are teaching our young people that leads to such damaging faith fractures as they mature and enter a season of life where they are more apt to question what is taught and to put together the ramifications of narrow boundaries. How do we do better youth ministry, honestly and actually keep our jobs?

I am concerned both about the faith of leaders as well as that of those they are leading when we no longer feel we have space to speak up and ask questions and choose instead to depart to an isolated wandering world of Christians looking for others who also feel they can no longer be a part of their tradition.

One final note of hope, I do love the repeated metaphor of adoption. Perhaps it is in realizing that we have been abandoned, orphaned so to speak that we can find the true family of God. Perhaps.

Losing my religion for equality…by Jimmy Carter

Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.

I HAVE been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service…

The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.

I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.

In celebration of anger

Years ago I was asked “do the things that make God angry, make you angry?” I loved this question. It freed me to actually be angry about a few things. I am not naturally wired this way and it was absolutely liberating to embrace the notion that anger could actually be righteous!

A few years after that I had a parent of one of the teens in the church where I served tell me that God is never OK with our being angry. This was the teaching they were giving their teenage daughter and she beat herself up every time she became angry with her little brother or some other injustice in the world. She lived in a space where she felt she had to be absolutely at peace and in control regardless of the circumstances around her. She also lived with a lot of guilt and frustration.

While I know in my head that anger is OK, I still don’t know what to do with it. I don’t want to be angry about everything and in fact am rarely angry with wrongs that happen to me. I am much better at being angry for others or for bad situations in general. I usually try to turn my anger into advocacy. When it comes to being angry when I’ve been wronged, I’m still not very good at it. Mostly I just feel hurt. And yes, I have enough schooling to know that is just anger turned inward and is not all that healthy, a post for another day.

For today, I want to celebrate anger. I want to say it is really OK to be ticked off at the injustices and crappy things in the world. In particular, to be angry over the crappy things the church and christians have done to others, both in the church and outside. To be angry that we are far more exclusive than Christ Himself ever was. To be angry that we have managed to reverse the trend of scripture from opening up faith to others to closing the circle ever tighter. To be angry that far too often our colleges and seminaries pander to donors rather than standing for what is true. To be angry that brilliant students love to learn and are encouraged and challenged and then realize that what they hold to be true is unable to be spoken aloud in churches leading to conflicted ministers and congregations who have their ears tickled rather than being transformed into the church. To be angry that clergy have abused their power spiritually, emotionally, physically and sexually. To be angry that we are more concerned with who is “holy enough” rather than “needy”. To be angry that still children and youth are too often relegated to an afterthought and not considered as precious and equally made in the image of God. To be angry that racism, sexism and a whole host of other discrimination takes place in the name of serving God.

Tradition says that today is the day we remember the Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. God incarnate, after riding into Jerusalem on a donkey knowing full well death was just around the corner, goes to the Temple and flips over the tables calling a spade a spade. He says “My house shall be called a house of prayer but you have made it a robbers den!” He named, out loud, that the Temple had become other than it was intended and in one action opened the doors for the blind and the lame, for children and for all those who were not in powerful positions seeking to maintain the status quo.

The response was “Hosanna”!!! We typically think of this as a word of praise…it really connotes a cray for salvation.

Hosanna today, this week and in this point of history. May we be saved from our own devices and instead become who God created us to be. May we be angry enough that we have been on the wrong path that we fight to make it right.

What makes you angry pulling out your own response of Hosanna?