The Middle

TruthI started writing this morning and it started to sound familiar.  Like I had written this once before.  I went back into my archives and, sure enough, I had written some really similar thoughts about five years ago.  So I’ll repeat them today.  

I don’t think I’ve ever written anything I believe stronger or that I’m more convicted about.  Read on…

The world we live in is more complicated than it used to be fifty years ago.  No doubt.  For crying out loud, it’s more complicated today than it was last year.

I don’t think the world is more sick and twisted and evil than it’s ever been.  I don’t think sin is more prevalent or humanity is any darker than it was during the days of Noah or the reign of Nero or the crusades of the middle ages or the tyranny of Hitler.  Sin is sin.

But what I do think is different today is access.  Information…any and all kinds of information…information with no filter for the voices and opinions and ideas that speak into our minds and hearts…all of it with unlimited access.

For all the good that technological advancement has brought, it has come with a price.  The internet…with instant and unlimited access…and the satellite…with the capability of bringing world events live to our recliners…have changed everything.

No longer are values or information or “truth” given in controlled doses by people we trust.  It is sensory overload and every man…and every “truth” for himself.  And may the loudest or most powerful or most manipulative win.

And it’s just the way it is.

One of the problems I see is christians these days are fighting themselves into a corner.  Running scared.  There is a paranoia and fear that we are losing the battle.  Especially here in the United States.  They say we are losing the battle for the minds of our young people.  They say we are losing the battle for the morality of a nation.  They say we are losing the battle for orthodox doctrine.  They say we are losing the battle for right against wrong.

Many followers of Christ are drawing lines between “us” and “them”.   As some try to bridge the gap with love and generosity, the Body of Christ has begun to turn on itself.  And because powerful and influential voices are heard loud and clear and instanteneously…and without filters…people are forced, or even coerced, into choosing sides.

And that’s inside the doors of the church.

My fear?  As the church becomes more militant and combative in our fight for truth, justice and the American way, the more our commitment to expanding the Kingdom will be compromised.

Come on.  Is our highest calling to preach the gospel to all nations and reach the lost with the message of hope and grace and healing revealed in the life and words of Jesus or not?  Are we called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus or not?  Are we to do what he did…say the things he said…treat people the way he did…and live by giving value to the things he valued or not?

You may say that Jesus was an extremist.  Some say he polarized people and drew lines and caused his followers to choose sides.  And in a way he did.  But he also did something else.

He navigated the middle.

He rubbed elbows with everyone.  He was as comfortable with the prostitute as he was with the aristocrat.  He saw the good, or at least the potential for good, in all.  He partied at the wedding feast and he taught in the temple.  He loved the saint and the sinner.  How about you?

He was a living bridge and not a wall.  He was a window and not a barricade.  He was always the safe middle ground where all were accepted.  All were welcome.  All were loved.   Such a far cry from so many of his followers today.

Are you safe?  Are you welcoming?  Do you listen?  Do you try to walk in the shoes of the other…to see what they see and feel what they feel and understand why they may think and act the way they do?  Without judgment and rejection?  Do you still have more to learn…even from people with whom you have differences of opinion or conviction?

Do you draw people in or do you push them away?  Are you known more for you love or your rhetoric?

Can I offer a suggestion?  The more people are defined by right and left…liberal and conservative…pro this and con that…the greater the need for some people who can navigate from the middle.  Followers of Christ who can understand and articulate and sympathize with both sides of the fence.   Any fence.

We desperately need a new generation of believers who will not be bullied by anybody.  Who will not be intimidated by new ideas or run scared by change.   Who will not be frightened by people who are different…philosophies that are different…and even ideas that challenge our orthodox understandings of the church and doctrine.

The world we live in has changed.  Technology has changed.  The flow of information has changed.  The rate of change has changed.  But people still need to meet jesus.

And if that’s going to happen in the world as we know it now, we need to have people who can navigate the middle.  The middle is where peace is forged, where compromise is found, where surprising friendships and new alliances are born.  The middle is where people are drawn in, not alienated.  

Will that be you?  Will you be a person who navigates the middle?

(If you think this is a call for people to have no convictions and to take no stands, you have missed my point.  Wholesale.  I will always study to show myself approved by God and contend for the truth as I understand it with passion and determination.  But I refuse to be a stumbling block to those who see things differently than I do.  For me, living as Jesus lived and treating people the way he did must take priority.)

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Marriage Tuesday

marriage 2Wanda and I grew up in a culture (church and society, at large) that assumed men were to be in charge.

Men certainly held most, if not all, the positions of highest rank in society.  Men were the mayors and principles and corporate heads and police officers and military leaders.  A female president?  Absolutely unthinkable.

Men were the movers and shakers.  Men were the bosses and decision-makers.  I was taught that men were created by God with inner strength and clear thinking and emotional stability that women didn’t have.  Women were designed by God to nurture and support…to be man’s “helper”, not his leader.

In marriage, a woman’s place was in the home.  She needed to keep her husband sexually satisfied…and give him a couple of kids for posterity.  Preferably at least one boy.  Keep the house clean…make sure food was on the table for her man at the end of his work day…keep the kids washed and fed.  The man provided and protected.  The woman submitted and served.

Church life was more of the same.  The men were the leaders.  They met behind closed doors to make important decisions and seek the direction of God.  Wives were not invited to those meetings, because they really didn’t have much to offer.  And they couldn’t be trusted not to gossip.   Men preached.  Men taught the adults and youth.  Men served communion and offered the priestly prayers.

And don’t even think about inviting a single woman for her leadership input!

Women sang, taught the children and washed the baptismal robes and glass communion cups.  Yeah, we had baptismal robes back in the day… 

I’m not making this stuff up.

Looking back, it’s pretty much always been a man’s world.  In fact, because of the patriarchal structure that has been present since the beginning of history, it’s easy to conclude that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Men had the power.  Men had the control.  Men were the leaders.  Men had the position and influence.  And that’s why Jesus was such a revolutionary and why the words of scripture can be misunderstood without even thinking.  Check it out:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,  and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  Ephesians 5:21-25

There are two lenses we use to interpret these words…the lens of culture and the lens of truth.   There is no doubt (historically) the Apostle Paul was writing this letter to followers of Christ who were living in a pater familia culture…a culture of male dominance and authority.

So when the first century christians heard these words for the first time, they must have sounded life-changing and life-giving…especially to women:

  • We are all to live a lifestyle of submission…not just women.
  • Women were now to submit to their husbands as they did to Jesus…the gentle shepherd, not the domineering boss.
  • Husbands were to now get their definition of “headship” from a suffering servant, not a military commander.
  • Husbands were to exist to serve their wives…never to treat them as a possession or an employee.
  • Submission could now be seen as something beautiful, because the husband would never “tell” his wife to do anything…ever again.  They would never abuse power, because his power was emptied the way Christ’s was emptied on the cross.

Did these new believers still live in a male-oriented, male-dominated culture?  Of course. Were women still abused?  Yes.  Were women still treated as property?  Yes.  Were women still considered second-class citizens who existed for the pleasure and service of men?  Yes.

But Paul is saying if you are a follower of Christ…if you are a follower of this “new way”, your marriage cannot look like that!  You may have to live and work and socialize in a cultural context of male domination, but inside the doors of your home (and within the vows of your marriage covenant) you must not ever act like that!

Over the course of my 63 years, the culture I live in has changed.  There are some things I wish we could turn back the clock on, but the role of women in society is not one of them.  I am so grateful to live in a world where it’s possible for women to be looked at as equal.  I am proud to live in a country that encourages young girls to be anything they want to be!  

I know it’s far from perfect.  Many men are still rude and obnoxious pigs.  Women are still sexualized and abused and mistreated and overpowered by men…and sometimes by each other.  There is still a huge gap in the pursuit of equal pay.  But there is progress.

It’s even changed in the church.  Women who are gifted speakers, teachers, leaders, visionaries and influencers are now living in a culture (both church and society) where the ceiling of service has been lifted.  We now see more and more women who are openly following in the footsteps of the female prophets of the old testament, the female disciples of Jesus’ earthly life, and the faithful female church leaders of the first-century church.

These women are no longer secrets.

As for marriage, I am honored to live out my life with my equal.  I am beyond grateful that we were taught, as a young couple, to go against the grain of culture and society and live out our marriage biblically.  I am humbled to realize I am called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as the defining picture of what it means to be a husband.

And to be married to someone who expects no less than that from me.

 

Finding my way back

Hey.  Remember me?

I’m not eeeeven going to try to explain where I’ve been or what’s been going on with me over the past “who knows how long?”.  Not now.  Maybe later.  Just not now.

What I will say is I just haven’t had the words to finish the sentences.  I start and I can’t finish. I feel it in my heart and I can conceptualize it in my mind, but somewhere between my brain and my heart and my fingertips, I go dark.

It’s been that way for months.

So I’ve had to let the words of others speak for me.  Reading the completed sentences of others have become my voice.  The wisdom of others has touched my soul and brought clarity to my thinking and healing to my wounds.

The scholarship and judgment and spiritual depth and common sense of others has become my voice…speaking to an intimate audience of one.  Me.

“That’s me!  That’s what I’m thinking.  That’s what I’m feeling.  Those words are shouting my pain…crying my confusion…clearing my path…declaring my faith!”  Man, am I grateful for the writings of others.

One of God’s gifts to me during this season of wandering is a guy I’ve never met and knew nothing about.  I stumbled on his writing late one night about six months ago, as I was reading another, more popular and well-known blogger.  I read just a little and I was hooked.

His name is Winn Collier and he’s a minister in a small church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Yeah, that Charlottesville.  If you’re interested, you can read a little about him here.  One of these days, I’m going to write him and tell him how much his writing has meant to me on this leg of my journey.  Until then, I will continue to look forward to his next post.  And then his next…

Here’s a portion of what he wrote today.  It’s actually a letter he wrote to a friend of his. Carve out a few minutes of quiet and read his words and let them speak for you.  You’ll be better for it.

You know, though, how Charlottesville has been siphoning off so much of my energy in so many other ways lately. Our dear, broken town has been splayed across the news, and it’s not going away–last night CNN had a link to a livestream of our town’s City Council meeting–can you believe that? In the middle of Hurricanes and DACA breakdown and North Korea shooting nuclear missiles, there sits our town council with a lead-in from Wolf Blitzer.

John, I tell you, on August 12th, I experienced the most vile and vicious ways we degrade ourselves and others. I know racism and antisemitism is still very much with us, but I’ve never seen it bare its fangs– so brazen, without any twinge of conscience. And then, later, I stood between two groups of people spewing the most evil, dehumanizing words at one another. I will never forget that. Never. And though I would never want three people to die to be able to get to this point, I am grateful that now our wounds, festering so long, are in the open, that we simply cannot ignore them. I hope that now we can embrace serious national repentance. I hope that we can truly become brothers and sisters, that we can make communities where everyone truly belongs.

You talked about the “In-between”. I feel that all the time. I feel it, for instance, in trying to navigate how to live well in a time where we cycle from one crisis to the next, rarely without any moment to catch our breath or think deeply, certainly no time to think clearly. One downside (of many) to the 24-hour news cycle and firehose-style social media is that we are tempted to believe we can have (or should have) our finger and our mind on every issue, every crisis, every worthy concern. But we can’t. Only God can do that. If we think that we have no responsibility to engage the sorrows and injustices of our world, we need God to expand our heart. However, if we think that we are responsible to confront every sorrow and injustice of our world, we need God to chasten our bloated (and destructive) delusions.

Of course, for many of us, our overblown sense of responsibility comes from the shame blasted out from those who like to sound like God, only with a heap of self-righteousness poured on top. A long time ago, I gave up giving someone else that level of authority in my life. I’ve got my hands full trying to follow Jesus’ voice; I can’t tune in to the million-voice siren call on Facebook too.

All this reminds me of Ignatius who often signed off his letters with this inspiring jolt: Go set the world aflame! That’ll get the blood flowing, won’t it? We do need more people striking their match. However, Ignatius also regularly insisted on our need to foster a Holy Indifference. This Holy Indifference was Ignatius’ way of describing an abiding trust in God that keeps us from getting swept away in the emotions and demands of those things (and often good things) that simply take over more energy than they should. It’s not a call to apathy, not by any means. However, it is, as one writer put it,”peaceful acceptance, realistic expectations, and careful consideration.” If we have indifference but no flame, we’ll waste our life. And if we have the flame but no indifference, we’ll just burn, burn til there’s nothing playful or hopeful or curious left in us at all.

Beautiful.  Powerful.  Life-giving.  Words.  You can read the whole blog post here.

I have been completing more of my sentences these days.  Maybe you’ll get to start reading some of them again, soon.

Until then…

Theology for Grasshoppers

Grasshoppers 4(For the uninitiated, “Theology for Grasshoppers” is my attempt to tell my story of faith to my grandkids.  I hope I’m around long enough to tell them personally.  But just in case I reach the finish line before I get the opportunity, these letters will be the record of what I believe and why I believe it…in words and stories they can understand.)

Hey there, Farrasprouts!

Sooo, what do pink socks, a miniature Batman, Superman, Darth Vader, Chewbacca, and a ninja warrior, a baseball, a minion fan/candy carrier, a squirt gun, plastic eggs, sour gummy worms, a bow, assorted rocks, and a stuffed rabbit have in common?

Those are all your little leftovers of fun that seem to live permanently on the floorboard of Mimi’s grammamobile…things I don’t ever seem too much in a hurry to clean up.  I saw them all again this afternoon and they made me happy.

And they make you guys happy, too.  Life is so simple for you right now.

I think a lot about what you guys are going to be like as you grow up.  What are the things that will make you happy?  Where will you invest your most important time and energy? What will stir your hearts? What will be your passion?

The world is at your fingertips.  There’s no telling what you will do with your lives.  I hope I’m still around to see it.

But what you end up doing is not what’s most important to me.  

I bet you will get really good at doing some things.  You may rock it at sports or become great writers or singers or get fascinated with medicine or cars or law.  Who knows?  But before any of those things can take on any lasting meaning, there’s something else that will always matter way more than talent or education or experience.

It’s called character.

WHO you are will always be more important than WHAT you do.

Character is about heart.  Character is about what kind of person you are on the inside. Character is certainly about how you treat people, and choices you make with your time, and your responses in times of struggle and frustration.  But it’s even more than that.

Character is about who you are when nobody’s looking.  Character is about what you do and think about in secret.  Character is about standing UP to wrong, even when it hurts your reputation.  Character is standing FOR those who need help.  Character is about being the right KIND of person.

Character isn’t always popular, but it is always pleasing to the One who matters most.

Way back when I was your age, I was taught to try to live by the Bible verse that says, “Always think about things the way that Jesus would think about things.”  Philippians 2:5 (*FFT)

I promise, if you do that, you will never be sorry and your lives will turn out pretty awesome, no matter what path you end up walking down!

Be Wise, Grasshoppers.

Papi
(*Farra Filtered Translation)

Marriage Tuesday

marriage 2After all these years, I still care deeply about marriage and helping couples have the best marriages they can possibly have.  I’m always a sucker for saying “yes” when a couple (especially a young couple) asks me for help.

Right now, I’m meeting with two young couples who are preparing to get married and I’m also going to be overseeing the ceremonies of two other young couples in the next couple of months.

Here’s what I can tell you about these four couples:  From what I can see, they all define marriage in a different way.

And that is their prerogative.  That’s true for all of us.

Each of us enter into marriage with some presuppositions about what marriage is and what we are hoping ours will become.  We have beliefs about marriage that have been carved out since our childhood (when we lived with our parent’s marriages) and got further refined as we watched marriages (both good and bad) in our adolescent and young adult years.

We come to conclusions about the nature and purpose of marriage by watching and listening. The differences between us is our sources of influence.  The people we watch. The voices who speak into our hearts.  The words we trust and have authority in our lives.

But make no mistake.  What our marriages are built on…what our marriages grow into…what our marriages ultimately become…are our choices.

I’ve said this before, many times.  I always ask couples why they want to get married. They are almost always quick to tell me it’s because they “love” each other.  Now, as noble and foundational as love is to marriage, that’s never the answer I’m looking for.  At least not in the form I’m hoping to hear.

How about some of these reasons:

“ I find my greatest joy in serving her.”

“I want to grow old together.”

“We are better together than we are separate.”

“I want to live absolutely and fully committed to him.”

“Our individual giftedness compliments each other.”

“I completely and totally trust him.”

“I am drawn to her character and example like no other.”

“He refines and challenges my shortcomings.”

“She inspires me to live out a higher calling.”

The reason I seldom, if ever, get these kinds of answers is because most couples are not thinking deeply about marriage and they are drawing their definitions of marriage from sources other than the nature, character, words, and example of Jesus.

So when it comes to your marriage (current or future), here are the questions to ask:

Who is influencing your thoughts and your process of defining marriage?

What is your source of moral and relational authority?

Is your marriage what YOU say it is, or are you submitting yourself to a greater influence?

No matter what, it’s still your choice.

Theology for Grasshoppers

Grasshoppers 4(For the uninitiated, “Theology for Grasshoppers” is my attempt to tell my story of faith to my grandkids.  I hope I’m around long enough to tell them personally.  But just in case I reach the finish line before I get the opportunity, these letters will be the record of what I believe and why I believe it…in words and stories they can understand.)

Hey there, Farrasprouts!

I want to teach you something that’s a little above your pay grade right now, but it’s definitely something you’re learning first hand these days, whether you know it or not.

It’s the value of repetition.

One of the things that separates people who just “get by” in life, from people who ultimately do amazing things in their world is how well they master the art of repetition. That means learning to do the same things over and over and over again, in order to do them better.

Holdie, in your short career as a little baseball player, you’ve already experienced the value, and the results,  of practicing the same exact patterns when you swing a baseball bat.  Back elbow down (not “up” like everybody tries to tell you), hands at your back ear, see the ball, front foot down early, swing for the fence.  Again and again and again and again and again.  Repetition.

Great soccer players understand this.  Great guitar players understand this.  Great doctors understand this.  Great debaters understand this.  Great husbands and wives and dads and moms understand this.  Great scientists and carpenters and dancers and teachers…and even old pastors….understand this.  Repetition.

I hope this sinks into your little hearts someday.  Repetition is a spiritual thing.  It can feel dull and boring, yet at the center of repetition you can find the fruit of self-discipline.  

You can be fooled into thinking there are so many different things you could be doing, other than deepening your skills through repetition.  Repetition isn’t the “fun” part. Practicing  the fundamentals gets no attention and no awards and no trophies.  But it’s the only real path to get you where you’re going.  And it’s the stuff of legends.

Through repetition:

  • A baseball swing becomes a work of art.
  • Reading becomes joy.
  • Dribbling becomes dancing.  
  • Mathematics becomes a symphony.
  • A painting becomes a masterpiece.
  • Prayer becomes intimate conversation.
  • Faith becomes the oxygen of life.
  • Hope becomes confidence.
  • Love becomes the abandoning of self.
  • Trusting God becomes instinctive.

These are pretty deep things, little newbies.  Most people don’t practice them enough to ever fully realize how awesome life can be when little things are mastered.  

Don’t run from repetition.  Run to it.

Be wise, Grasshoppers. 

Papi

Marriage Tuesday

Marriage TuesdayAccording to my clock, I’ve still got about an hour before Tuesday is over this week, so here comes a Marriage Tuesday…

I have dozens and dozens of divorced friends.  The last thing in the world I would want is for my words to inflict any more pain on them than their own reality has already done.  It’s with that awareness these thoughts are offered.

There is no question the ones who feel the brunt of the pain of a divorce are the husband and wife.  It was not their goal to grow apart.  It was not their desire to draw loved ones into their conflict.  The needs of the children always weigh heavily on the parent’s hearts.

Even though one almost always feels more like the “victim”, neither is ever entirely blameless. Sometimes one feels like they are doing all the work, while the other is just going through the motions.  Some couples work and work and work to figure out what’s wrong and stop the bleeding and heal the hurts.  Every now and then it pays off.

Sometimes it doesn’t.

There is almost always a mess of collateral damage, also.  Some of it is obvious.  Finances. The house.  Loss of identity.  Loss of confidence.  Changed relationships with in-laws and extended family.  Holidays.

Here’s one issue that’s seldom talked about: How the divorce affects the church.  When the divorcing couple are both part of a church family (along with their kids), the church is living in awkwardness.  We don’t know the “whole” story…if we know any real story at all. Sides are often chosen and loyalties are declared.  Story lines are controlled by who’s talking and who’s listening.  Truth is slippery.

Worse yet, the church family can know absolutely nothing, because the couple has chosen to keep their struggle private.  Maybe they believe it’s nobody’s business.  Maybe they’re hoping it will get better and reputations can be spared.  Maybe they are simply living in denial, while their friends are living in the dark.  Until it blows up.

When that happens, we (the church) lose one, or sometimes, both of the partners.  Our children’s ministry loses their kids…at least half the time.  We lose their shared responsibilities.  We lose their financial support.  We lose friendship.  Their need to move on (for the health of their new relationships or just the need for a fresh start away from memories of their old life), leaves the rest of us just feeling loss.  And less than what we were.

And me?  Because I am usually more intimately involved with the couples, my feelings of loss are usually pretty acute, even though my emotions are mixed.  Somebody’s loss is almost always someone else’s benefit.  It doesn’t mean I have to like it!

So here’s the takeaway.  To all of my divorced friends:  My prayer will always be for your best. I hope the painful part of your life is in your past and you have found healing and strength in your new life…filled with new friends and new opportunities for you and yours.  May redemption be your song.

However, if you are still married and your relationship is less than what it should be…falling short of what it could be…hidden from what others see…held together by a veneer of social respectability, while it is crumbling below the surface in ways that only you and your partner know…it’s time to raise your hand.

It’s time to let someone in.  It’s time to swallow your pride.  It’s time to remember your vows. It’s time to live by faith and no longer by sight.  It’s time to ask for help.

It’s time to face the prospects of the potential collateral damage.  Before it’s too late.

It doesn’t have to be this way.