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Feb 28


In the last strip on the month we see Jimothy touting an old argument which holds that since men were created first, they are more important than women. Beth shows how the logic doesn’t really hold up if you carry it through the rest of the creation narrative.

The creation narrative of Genesis 1 has humankind being created last, a sort of grand finale in God’s creative work. God says creation is good, and then humankind is very good. There is significance and meaning in the order of events – humankind being created last is a sort of stamp on their specialness (in this story man and woman are created at the same time). In Genesis 2 (the second of the two creation accounts) it’s interesting to note that Adam is made first and then Eve. If we use the framework of the first account, it would imply that the woman is the finale of creation since she is made last. I don’t know that’s what the author is implying, but it is interesting to consider.



Psyche, Spirit, Body

I’m convinced most of the great debates, which we first passionately take part in and then gradually learn to appreciate as expressions of different aspects of reality, are simply that – expressions of the complex nature of the cosmos. They also evidence our various ways of perception so that we can believe the Calvinist and the Armenian when we see the fire in their eyes and the earmarked pages in their Bibles. So it could be this question is of the same nature; if so, I just haven’t realized it yet.

Which is the start and which is the goal – which is the gateway to the other – which is primary? Theology is psychology? In graduate counselling classes, theological explanations are seen as second rate. They are viewed as moral arguments which may only point to psychological realities. Psychology is primary, though some try to access it by theology.

And in books such as The Cure which we’re reading as a group at Aim Right, “sin” is viewed as the primary explanation for unhealth. Things like attachment theory or even therapy are means of accessing and dealing with sin and its effects. This is to say that theology is primary, and psychology is an access point.

Perhaps psychology and theology aren’t the best terms here. But the questions seems to be rooted in how we relate and understand ourselves in context. Are we working to be reconciled to the divine or are we working to be made psychologically whole? Obviously, or perhaps not always obviously, but seemingly, the result is pretty similar (though the theologian may resist here). It is my view that what is called “God” very often an idol, something rather constructed, a “god.” In this case, I think psychology is accessed through religion, trite religion.

When “God” is understood differently, as in “the Tao which is the true Tao cannot be named,” I think theology is correctly and ultimately , primary. Psychology is a subset, a throughway, to theology, queen of the sciences. But I’m afraid this is a far cry from anything very much resembling Evangelicalism. This religion is, for most of human history, inaccessible to most of the world’s people. This is never true of a psychological understanding. I.E. if there are people, on islands or deep in Asia or whatever, who are said to be psychologically well but theologically damned, I don’t think this is a theology adequate to be primary.

This presents a bit of a quandary to ever affirming anyone’s viewpoint it seems. So many are certain that God damns those who don’t pray the prayer, walk the aisle, etc. In this case, I think their religion only points to something more ultimate – something like a psychological accounting. Even I don’t really know what I mean by “primary.” I don’t thing that’s the best way of putting it. Jung comes closest to what I sent sense here in my reading so far.

He tells the story of speaking to a primitive mountain tribe, the Elgonyi, whom he asks about their religious customs. They do not consider it a religious act, but they tell him of their tradition of every morning upon leaving their huts at sunrise they “spit on their hands, and hold them up to the sun” (Modern Man in Search of a Soul, pg. 150). Jung goes on to comment on the meaning of this ceremony:

Clearly it is an offering to the sun which for these natives in munguthat is mana, or divine – only at the moment of rising. If they have spittle on their hands, this is the substance which, according to primitive belief, contains the personal mana, the force that cures, conjures and sustains life. If they breathe upon their hands, breath is wind and spirit – it is roho, in Arabic ruch, in Hebrew ruach, and in Greek pneuma. The wordless, acted prayer, which could equally well be spoken: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Does this merely happen so, or was this though already incubated and purposed before man existed? I must leave this question unanswered” (Ibid, pg. 151).

Jung admits he doesn’t know which is primary. Earlier in the same chapter, he comments on baptism:

“Baptism endows the human being with a unique soul. I do not mean of course, the baptismal rite in itself as a magical act that is effective at one performance. I mean that the idea of baptism lifts a man out of his archaic identification with the world and changes him into a being who stands above it. The fact that mankind has risen to the level of this idea is baptism in the deepest sense, for it means the birth of spiritual man who transcends nature” (Ibid, pg. 145).

Jung poses the question, which I believe is something similar to what I’m trying to get at, this way:

“The question is nothing less than this: does the psychic in general – that is, the spirit, or the unconscious – arise in us; or is the psyche, in the early stages of consciousness actually outside us in the form of arbitrary powers with intentions of their own, and does it gradually take its place within us in the course of the psychic development” (Ibid, pg. 147-148).

Are we best aided in our troubles by the pastor or the therapist? It depends who you are of course. My sense is that whichever you are the most inclined to seek out, you may be better served by the other. Those who grew up in church, couples who’ve only ever heard sermons on marriage might ought to see a therapist. And those who’ve gone religiously to counselling an its books may be hungry for a spiritual food which a pastor could provide. Writing in 1933, Jung thought, “It is indeed high time for the clergyman and the psychotherapist to join forces to meet this great spiritual task” (Ibid, pg. 229).

Theology and psychology are each wonderful avenues into the greatest questions. I cannot yet, and perhaps never will, tell which one subsumes the other – whether “sin” is another way of getting at un-wholeness/imbalance/separation in the psyche, or whether these malfunctions or broken patters of behavior are something signalling a disunion with the divine (God).

Other ways of getting at the question might be in terms of prayer/meditation: do you pray because you believe communicating/communing with the divine reorders your being and your psyche – or do you pray because you believe that saying phrases falls on the ears of deity, and God acts as a result of your words?

Did Christ come so that humankind could learn a way of living which was peace with each other and in his teachings find a way of reordering ourselves and acting out our lives; or because a blood sacrifice was necessary to appease/propitiate the wrath of the deity so humankind could live in bliss for eternity and at peace on earth?

Is cocaine addiction the devil, or is the devil cocaine addiction. Is using cocaine (drugs, pornography, etc) falling victim to the predation of an active, real devil character – to be bludgeoned by the tools of darkness. Or is cocaine addiction a manifestation of evil which is just anthropomorphised?

It doesn’t ever seem to be only of the two. It must be both. Still I am not satisfied I understand. Kierkegaard seems to think it is the spirit which reconciles, or unifies, the psyche and the physical. So maybe it’s better this way. Rather than asking whether theology or psychology is primary, we could say the spiritual reconciles the psyche and the physical, it is something of a bridge. According to Kierkegaard, the human being is the synthesis of psyche and matter unified by spirit (The Concept of Anxiety). So it seems humanity is where these realities touch together.

I am certain I will someday have much more to say on these topics. But for today, I have many questions.

painting by Faye Akassa

Tradition (2.)

This post is part 2 in a 7 part series of relflections as I turn 25 years old. I’m convinced that to be human is to struggle and to struggle with God. This series serves to honor the difficult questions. I don’t know if everyone has questions their mind continually turns over while they walk the dog, shower, drive to work, but these are mine. I’m hopeful that in 25 more years I’ll have more compelling, more faithful answers to them than I do now – or that I’ll have moved on to more interesting things altogether. Either way.


Intro

In a recent counseling course, we surveyed the approaches to therapy, from Frued to Jung to Yalom and so on. There have been thousands of studies published trying to figure out the best ways to do therapy. Do we try to alter behavior, do we analyse subconscious thoughts, do we try to change thought patterns, etc?

The conclusions are a bit of a somber tale: no theory or method is a clear winner at all. Healing seems to have less to do with what is being done in therapy and more to do with the fact that therapy is happening. I’ve come to think of church in similar terms. Thomas Merton had this to say about the necessity of communing together.

“The Desert Fathers who ran spiritually amok in the third and fourth centuries did not fail in asceticism. Their fasts and their penances were almost incredible…Where, then, did they fail? In humility and charity. This failure was expressed in a contempt for mankind in general, for the other hermits, a contempt for the common prayer life of the Church and a conviction that they could do without Mass and the Sacraments.” – Thomas Merton (Bread in the Wilderness)

The Good

I grew up in a conservative (ish) Mennonite tradition, and that’s where I first learned theology and a lot of other things.There is so much to celebrate about the tradition I grew up in. I experienced transcendance there; I communed with the holy. Growing up, the moments when I felt closest to God, the times things really fell into place for a moment of clarity – many of those instances where in church.

There was a really strong focus on sharing our lives with each other. There were monthly meals which our congregation ate together. All the time folks were making announcements about someone needing practical help (a roof, a fundraiser, a baby, a music night) and people flocking to pitch in. There was a deep sense of being a collective whole that seemed so natural. It’s really only when I was away I realized how unique it was. Growing up there, it seemed like the best way to live. Why wouldn’t everyone pitch in for a monthly meal?

In that tradition, we also did everything we possible could in house. Everything from running sound equiptment to leading worship to building maintencance to actually preaching was done by people in the congregation. No one was every brought in from the outside to perform an important church function. This meant that for me it was really easy to be involved. I wanted to help with music, so I allowed to help play worship and trained on the soundboard. And like we all do, I thought we had things pretty ironed out.

photo taken from TFC bulletin board

The Rest

I remember driving to church one Sunday and feeling a deep and uneasy pity for man mowing his yard – a heathen working on the Sabbath. Whether that was my own idea or what was being preached isn’t really the point. This man fell outside the lines of our tradition, and it was clear to me he was wrong.

I think there’s a tendency to grow up thinking our parents and our pastor and our friends have it nailed down. Our people get it. And then you grow up and start to realize there are lots of other folks holding the same Bible in their hands, singing songs to the same God, and it’s looking a whole lot different. This seems to be going on at a much accelerated pace in the last years. Millenials and Gen Z seem to be deconstructing from the traditions we were raised in.

I’m convinced much of this is a good thing. And it’s not happening because we’re particularly brilliant or care more about God; no, I think it has a lot more to do with having exposure to other Christians and ideas through digital technology.

It’s almost funny to listen to us talk about church. So many of us say the same thing – well we’re going to a non-denominational church now. I sense a real break away from tradition, a need to get out from under what we’ve perceived to be wrong with church. I say we because I feel this so deeply. When I reflect on some of the things that passed for normal in church growing up, I almost wonder if memory is failing. But there is also a sort of unmooring that accompanies attending a church without a denominational background or long faith tradition, and this is where a lot of my generation find ourselves.

I have absolutely no qualms with the term deconstruction. There is so much ugliness which has been blended into American Evangelical Christianity – unbuilding is absolutely necessary. If you want to remodel your house, the walls with rot have got to come down. And this isn’t a new idea. Folks, like Rich Mullins, were saying these things in before 2000. The question is – where do we go from here? Once we’ve found the rot, what comes next?

Transcendence

A few months back I found myself in a church service where I just cringed for about an hour straight. I was there somewhat against my will, and what I heard was brutally distasteful and downright unchristian in the truest sense. Hearing God’s name plastered on blatantly false teaching made me physically sick to my stomach.

And then I looked over to my right and saw this young man having a deeply meaningful experience. I opened my eyes during the alter call, and there he was raising his hand in a sincere act of faith to recieve salvation. I was torn – clearly this service was garbage, and also clearly this other person had experienced something transcendent and apparently communed with God. Could both things be true at the same time? Can different people see the same thing and have very different experiences. It seems so.

I’ve had many conversations with friends, and I suppose I’ll have many more, about how to know if you should leave a church. There comes a time when you are uncomfortable because things are going wrong – whether that’s teaching or abuse of power or whatever. But I also know it to be true that the people who started the non-denominational churches all came from somewhere. I think “non-denominational” is attractive to many folks like me because it holds the promise of being free from the baggage we’re trying to get away from. But anytime you have people, those people came from somewhere, and doing something more than once births a tradition anyway.

Brian Zahnd recently Tweeted, “Without transcendence religion is just politics.” And I’ve been thinking about that ever since I read it.

How do we get out of “just politics?” A later post in this series aims to dig deeper here. But it’s clear to me there isn’t one way or one tradition. I’m also convinced that traditions, in their differences, are able to offer richness which is unique to them. Carl Jung thought the pysche operated based on balance and equilibrium. When one part was deficient, it’s opposite was stronger. If one part was shifted, it’s opposite was shifted to compensate. This strikes me as correct about church traditions.

There are ways in which the Catholic church, with its liturgical focus and proper vibe, is unable to provide the same fellowshipo as the Mennonite church I grew up in. And my Mennonite church, with its insistance on doing everything in house, created a culture where formal theological education was viewed with suspicion. The Southern Bapists have an incredible emphasis on spreading the gospel to other countries, and God help them, their denomination does some terrible things to native peoples in the name of Jesus. Just as there cannot be one “right” person on any subject or any one “perfect” player in any sport, there can’t be one right church tradition. Our strengths are also our weaknesses in some sense.

Moving Faithfully Past Positivism

The way forward is, to me, not clear. But I am certain in involves giving up our obsession with positivism – this is the obessession with grasping the objective truth. Thinking there must be one right answer, that only one way can be right, is what led many of those before us to think their tradition had it figured out and everyone else was stupid. We must go beyond that. Quite frankly, it means we stop using the Bible as a textbook of answers about things it wasn’t written to answer. The positivist temptation is certainty.

wikipedia definition

We must become aware of the values and dispositions of our own tradition, as well as the flaws, without just becoming disembodied, amorphous blobs. We have to belong to somewhere. But this should lead to an openness, a willingness to celebrate other traditions, a desire to integrate more fully. This would make many shudder who are adamant our goal is to remain as separate as possible.

Many of my generation and the ones after me are trying to figure out what it means to move faithfully out of dogmatism. Where do we go from here? I don’t think there is a clear answer, and I have so much to learn. I’m confident there is a whole lot that is good about where I came from. For me, there was enough reason to leave and look elsewhere for a church home.

I think that in church, like in counseling, most any “theory” can work, but not everything works for everyone, and not every place is conducive to healthy living. It has more to do with finding a place and a people where you can recieve the love of others and the love of Jesus and give it out too. And I for one and still figuring out what that means.


Diffuculty of Hell & Ease of the Spiel (1.)

Introduction

This post is part 1 in a 7 part series of relflections as I turn 25 years old. I’m convinced that to be human is to struggle and to struggle with God. This series serves to honor the difficult questions. I don’t know if everyone has questions their mind continually turns over while they walk the dog, shower, drive to work, but these are mine. I’m hopeful that in 25 more years I’ll have more compelling, more faithful answers to them than I do now – or that I’ll have moved on to more interesting things altogether. Either way.


There’s a scene in Bridge to Teribithia (the movie) where May Belle informs Leslie, “If you don’t believe in the Bible, God’ll damn you to hell when you die.” May Belle’s stance is a blunt but rather accurate summation of most of the sermons and calls to repentance I’ve heard.

If you were to ask 12 year old me why I said a prayer to become a Christian, the answer would’ve largely resembled, well I’d very much like to not get damned to hell for eternity. I’m not here to deny hell outright or tell you I’m not a Christian or something, but this is worth reflecting on. It’s been a year since I wrote my statement of faith in which I discussed hell briefly. When I last looked at the topic, this is where I came out if you’re interested.

Hell is the Ultimate Gotcha!

If someone holds a gun to your head and says they will definitely shoot you unless you do what they say, you just do what they say. Many presentations of “the gospel” are essentially this. Except that instead of a quick and painless death, they’re talking about being horrifically tortured by demons while your skin melts off in a place of darkness and fire. Not only that, you also never get out – so it’s horrific for a hundred million years, and even then you’re not even a hundredth of the way through. With a threat like that at your head, who wouldn’t pray the prayer? Just take listen to Bill Wiese’s incrediby manipulative sales pitch and tell me you aren’t ready to get on your knees and pray whatever prayer it takes! It’s not about the way of Jesus or even heaven – it’s just about not going to hell! The comment section on YouTube is just people typing out pleas for mercy because they don’t want to go to hell either. Can you get saved in a YouTube comment section?

If we didn’t have the hell card, we’d be forced to work a lot harder at articulating the gospel at summer camp, VBS, on the street, in church, and such. What does it mean to be a Christian? What is the meaning of the kingdom heaven? How do I take part in it? On a recent episode of the Voxology podcast, Mike Erre asks, what Jesus meant when he told his diciples to share the gospel. “What did he mean by ‘go’? Did he mean engage in lots of awkward conversations to have people pray a prayer about what happens when they die?” I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind. Yet, we’ve put so much energy into the spiel.

The Spiel

Under the conviction that everyone who hasn’t said a prayer asking Jesus into their heart to be their personal saviour will burn in hell for eternity, we are left with the task of getting as many people to pray the prayer as possible before it’s too late! Some even say if believers can’t point to the very day they prayed the prayer, then they can’t be sure they’re “saved.” But that isn’t how Paul talks about salvation. It’s not a box to check off to get salvation in your pocket. It’s described as a process.

Paul says we have been saved (past tense): But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3)

Paul says we are being saved (present tense): For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing (II Corinthians 2)

Paul says we will be saved (future tense): Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5)

The question becomes, what is the gospel message? I’m convinced it’s something we can bear witness to, however it isn’t something we can easily pin down and say this right here is what it is and what it always will be. I think just as much as “repent and be baptized” is a gospel proclamation, so is the prophetic word is Isaiah,

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
   to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Lazarus being raised from the dead and the widow recieving justice and the proud being brought low and the rich being sent away empty. These are all pieces of the gospel.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
 He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

When someone gets up to share the gospel from the pulpit, or when youth group kids are told to be bold and share the gospel message, it’s pretty rare to hear talk about the rich getting shorted or the poor getting filled or rulers being brought down. But that’s because you can’t distill the gospel in its fullness into a sentence or one conversation.

So our answer to that, since we believe eternal damnation is what’s at stake, is just to make it as simple as possible – we try to master the spiel. The gospel is a sales pitch. And with every head bowed, every eye closed, we thank God for each hand raised who has bought into “the gospel message.” As an admissions counselor who is trained to cover all the high points about a university in a short time period, I’m often struck by how the gospel spiel resembles a pitch for kids to come choose a university.

We love to cite the numbers: we had 17 salvations at VBS last week and 28 baptisms the week before. If the gospel is a salespitch which can be accepted to make sure you don’t go to hell, then a spiel makes sense. I don’t think any of those things are particularly true or very helpful. If the gospel is more than just an abstract understanding about the afterlife, if it’s actually what Mary is talking about in her song, then I think this opens up a lot of avenues for “sharing the gospel.” This requires greater faith. Mike Erre notes in the podcast mentioed above that the church’s job is to be transformed into the image of Christ – it is not for us to transform the world.

Josh Garrels puts it so beautifully in this short clip reflecting on John 6 – the work for God’s people is to believe in the one he has sent. I think this means there is real work required, work to believe in the presence of God in the everyday. If the gospel means the hungry get fed, then could we share the gospel by going to the park and handing out sandwhiches to our neighbors? If the gospel means freedom for the prisoners, could we help inmates with their court cases in confidence it is gospel work? Could we do our jobs as mechanics fixing cars with assurance we are participating in sharing the gospel? I truly think and hope so. Otherwise, we’re left going about our daily lives trying to convince ourselves our work matters, but really we’re looking for any opportunity to “share the gospel,” to interject regular conversations with a spiel about someone not going to hell. And that is just tiring for believers and really annoying to everyone else.

Those Unfortunate Souls

The unfortunate souls – this is where the wrestling really happens for me. I do not reject the concept of hell outright. But I have a lot of discomfort and doubt about how we talk about it and who gets sent there. There are just too many unfortunate souls.

The belief of many Christians is that to go to heaven, you need to accept Jesus and pray the prayer. Or, if you were born before Jesus came to earth, you need to…be an Isrealite. Both in my view are really problematic. Firstly, folks of antiquity didn’t have air travel. So if you weren’t born in Europe or some parts of Asia, there is no way you’re hearing about Jesus unless someone happens just along. There are entire continents of people who just unfortunately will all be damned to hell due to their lack of proximity to Bethlehem and Paul’s missionary journies. That is a serious bummer for them.

And perhaps an even greater bummer is everyone who wasn’t an Israelite before Jesus was on earth. I remember being in a philosophy class and feeling a bit sorry for Socrates – brilliant guy who benefited millions and gave his life to seeking the truth, but he missed Jesus by a few hundred years, and he was Greek, not Jewish. Similarly, I’m reading a book by Thomas Merton (a Christian monk) about the life and teachings of a Chinese philospher in named Chuang Tzu who lived around 300 B.C. This guy was remarkable. He spends his life in search of Tao, which is something like the source and guiding principle of all reality as conceived by Taoists. But God also put him on earth before Jesus came, and he lived in China. So even though he spent his life in pursuit of truth and virtue, and even though his teachings are deeply influential (even to a Christian guy like Merton), he never got a chance to raise his hand at the end of a service with every head bowed and every eye closed. Bummer.

It really seems like your chances of hearing the gospel speil are increased if 2,000 years ago you were born in Europe. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says something which gives me a lot of hope for guys like Chuang Tzu and a lot of suspicion for the speil verision of the gospel which we place so much importance on.

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8)

Sharing the Gospel

Maybe this is the question we should consider. If you couldn’t use fear tactics about hell, how would you share the gospel? I think sharing the gospel means inviting people into a truer, more beautiful story than what we’re handed in the world, and it’s about being transformed. There is no formula per se. It will look differently in different places. It is always about relationship, but here we must say more. It’s not about building relationships just so we earn the right to tell people we’re right and they’re wrong, and that they need to believe what we believe. This is manipulative and just an outworking of the spiel.

We also need to share the gospel with each other, with believers. I think we get pigeonholed into just trying to share the gospel with unbelievers. Yet those among us need to hear continually as well. And if you believe in the spiel, this gets pretty weird. Imagine you walk up to an elder in your church and start laying out for him a five point plan of salvation, telling him the way to be saved, and asking him if he would like to repeat the sinner’s prayer. That would be weird, and he’d be like uh, I’m already saved, but thanks. But if the gospel is more than a spiel, then it might look like walking up to your church elder and telling her, I’d love to have you over for a meal to celebrate your birthday. Or walking up to a person on a street corner and giving to them a sandwhich, because the good news of the gospel is that the hungry get fed. And the gospel is that others care for me, that my mother loved me and my father taught me to play baseball and that my friend flew out to visit me. We must not neglect to share the good news with one another.

I think sharing the gospel is great. But I am wrestling with what that means. I don’t think it can be formulated or done in one sentance. I kind of hate the spiel. The spiel makes me very uncomfortable. It’s also very uncomfortable to think about folks getting sent to hell to be eternally tormented or annihilated (but especially tormented) because they never heard the spiel or said yes to it. In my reading for my statement of faith, I came across one author who said something like: If God indeed desires all to be saved, might there be a possibility that in the end his will is accomplished? (Romans 5:18). And while I find that a very interesting idea, I am not convinced everyone is saved in the end.

The Ugliness of Hell

It is difficult for me to imagine the same God who in this life desires reconciliation and restoration will desire eternal torment in the next. I’m reminded of those who are sent to prison punitively, where there is no thought of their restoration to society, only paying for crimes in some abstract way. The way we speak of hell reminds me, as a therapist in training, as a place of unending, inescapable trauma. It’s a place where you can never heal or find any respite for your misery – you are left to languish there forever like prisoners sentenced to rot in prison until they die. I’ve been in prisons and watched old men playing cards next to their walkers, waiting to die. There’s no hope of reintegration or restoration.

If God so desires reconcilation, healing, rest, the broken being restored in this life, how is it those things are thrown out in the life to come? Forgive me for being blunt – prescribing hell (physical pain, social isolation, and no hope of any recovery) seems sadistic. Many people who commit crimes in this life do so because of crimes done to them or traumas they experienced. A fate of unedning trauma and torture of the worst kind in hell seems an odd way to resolve the arc of a broken life on earth.

Final Thought

This has been a rather long reflection, but I’d like to offer one more thought here. This was an idea that struck me a few months ago. Much is made of the question, What is the fate of those who never heard the gospel (or the name of Jesus)?

What if our answer to this question is the answer to our own personal fate? If you honestly think that every person who doesn’t get a chance to hear the name of Jesus will be damned to hell, perhaps there isn’t much hope for you either. Who’s to say you have heard the authentic gospel? Who’s to say your church preacher told you everything you needed, or your Bible reading produced all the correct conclusions, or your profession of faith came from a sincere heart of repentance? Perhaps you are the one who has not properly heard and believed the gospel message. Or if our answer to the question is that God is merciful and desires to save, and that anyone who seeks for him will find him, then perhaps you too in all your bumbling will find grace as well and be saved.

Last night, Aleisha and I went to the AMC down town and watched Where the Crawdads Sing. There’s a scene towards the end where the girl being accused of murder, an outsider, tells her lawyer she will not take the stand to defend herself. She says that when the jury of townspeople judges her, they judge themselves, because they know nothing about her. I wonder if we, in our judegements of others and proclamation of their fate, condemn ourselves.


In the Dirt With the Angel: 7 Reflections on turning 25.

In Genesis 32, Jacob has just left his uncle Laban’s house where tensions were very high. He heads out and goes to meet his brother, Esau, who may very well kill him and take everything he owns. After sending gifts as well as all his family, servants, and possessions to meet Esau across the river, Jacob remains alone and terrified on the other side. That night, he wrestles with God until the sun comes up – refusing to let go until he is blessed. The man he is wrestling says,

“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

And then it’s written,

Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

Israel, the new name given to Jacob, means struggles or wrestles with God. So then the Israelites (or the children of Israel) are the ones who wrestle with God, or children of the one who wrestled with God. This name and a blessing are given after getting down in the dirt with God. I love that.

Yesterday, I turned 25. I would like to write 7 reflections detailing my own wrestling. They’ll serve to help me understand what I’m thinking through, perhaps be helpful or at least amusing to someone else, but mostly they’ll be a landmark. When I look back in another 25 years, I may just laugh – that’s what I have to do when I read myself from 10 years ago. Still, it helps to remember and honor the present struggle with God which I think is the task of the believer. In 25 years, these questions may seem insignifcant, or maybe not. But I won’t be able to look back unless I record them.

One of my heros wrote a song on his 25th birthday called “24,” and he’s still playing it now 20 years later. This is my own attempt at something like that. They will be published…soon.


The seven topics are (probaby) as follows:

  1. Difficulty of Hell & Ease of the Spiel
  2. Within Tradition
  3. (Too) Quick to Think, Slow to Dance
  4. Slipperiness of the Kingdom of Heaven
  5. The World in a Grain of Sand
  6. The Faith Required
  7. The Necessity of Struggling


I wanna see miracles, see the world change,

I wrestled the angel for more than a name,

More than a feeling, more than a cause,

Still I’m sining, Spririt take me up in arms with you,

(Switchfoot, “Twenty Four”)


After the Jester: 5 Ideas for Women & Men in Church

In February, I published a comic strip. It was a sattire project – this strip is what I imagine a conversation around gender roles might look like if the ideas we hold internally spoke to each other openly.

In this piece I would like to look for answers to two questions:

1. Why write a comic strip like Fundamentals?

2. What is a better way forward for the church?


[First Question: Why write a sattire strip like Fundamentals?]

Ian Crohn suggested if you distilled the writings of the desert fathers down to one phrase, it would be “Wake up!” Sattire overstates its point for exactly that reason. It calls to attention, shakes, says “wake up!”

I don’t have a long career of writing, but I’ve published enough to know that gender issues and politics are two of the diciest subjects. If you enter these spaces, you will probably get a lot of views, but it will get uncomfortable pretty fast.

You might get called a heretic by your pastor, asked to meet for breakfast to discuss your work and encouraged to stop. Your best friends might be encouraged to disasscoiate with you. I’ve had the privelge of each of those. What I’ve found is that these conversations tend to only happen behind closed doors. I hate awkward tension, and I don’t want to stir up strife; however, I do think there’s some truth in Gloria Steinam’s words, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

So why write a daily comic strip? Why raise a gender issue for 28 days in a row? Because we need to wake up. David Dark likes to say, we become what we’re willing to sit still for. Speaking only behind closed doors is to say; yes, there are problems, but it would cost me (or us) too much to tell the truth about them. Our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters have recently found out just how much it may cost not to say anything.

There are those (even now reading this) who simply cannot speak up. It would be their ruin if they spoke out. But for me, it’s just uncomfortable. That is something of a privelge I recognize.

[Second: What is a better way forward?]

I’m a long time fan of The Holy Post podcast (hosted by Phil Visher, the Veggie Tales guy, and Skye Jethani). They’re often criticized for holding conservatives accountable and not saying much about liberals. Their response, and I think it’s a good one, is that these are our people. Sure, there’s a heck of a lot wrong with the left wing and liberal Christians, but that isn’t the Evangelical crowd – that’s not who we rub shoulders with on Sunday. That isn’t where we come from.

After writing this piece about gender roles in the Mennonite church, I received something of the same critque from a friend: you’re not really Mennonite anymore, so why does it matter what you have to say? Another friend, a pastor, responded, yes there are problems here, but so what? What do you suggest we do? I don’t attend a Mennonite church on Sundays. But that is where I was raised and spent my childhood. Those are my people. And maybe it doesn’t matter much what I have to say, but I know there are people asking these questions, even if only behind closed doors or in closed Facebook groups. My comic strip, and the five claims below are my attempt to open the conversation. It’s one I wish I could’ve had a long time before today. I would like to propose some ideas and offer another vision.

*if you’re reading this and have no idea what any of it means, then these aren’t your people 🙂

(1.) Women must be allowed to worship in freedom

Women are gifted by God (and who would say otherwise?!) But they must be allowed to fully exercise those gifts. As it stands in many church communities, only women with certain gifts are able to use them to worship freely. We should work toward an environment where women (married or not) are empowered to work, think, teach, lead, and follow as God has so called them. We should leave behind the days where women with the gifting to lead and teach are faced with the choice of stifling their calling or walking away from their local church family.

Some men will likely feel uncomfortable and threatened (pissed off even). In the Greco-Roman world where Jesus grew up, women were seen as impure, deformed males. Yet even here, a New Testament church emerges where women host church their homes, contribute from their businesses, teach, and prophecy. If this kind of freedom could exist among an oppressive and deeply sexist culture such as first century Rome, we in 21st century America have no excuse for operating as a church family in ways that keep women afraid of fulfilling their calling. I agree that some New Testament texts about women and their roles are difficult, and I don’t know what is meant at all places. Still, I don’t think there is any excuse for a church culture where women are afraid of fulfilling their potential because it will upset men of the church.

Many will agree with me here, but they will balk at action. They’ll take the stance of thosed who said in hushed tones that all people were equal but opposed integration because everyone else isn’t ready for it yet. I guess I’m tired of that kind of balking. I’m tired of women having to be afraid of upsetting men, of hestitantly asking permission to teach Sunday school or to say a few words between songs lest they step out of line.

(2.) We must share the load and the reward

I demonstrated at length in a piece how in conservative church communities there is often the desire to remain separate from secular culture in visible ways (like clothing). If a church sees this as a good goal, men and women must share in this together. What often happnes is that men put this responsibilty soley on women. While women wear clothes that distinguish them from “the world,” such as dresses, skirts, head coverings, etc., men enjoy the comfort of blending in. Men are permitted to dress exactly like those outside the church while women alone bear the responsibility of maintaining the difference. Either the goal of dressing to separate is abolished, or men must participate. In this way, I think the Amish community holds a better standard – men and women share the task. Men wear suspenders and straw hats so they too are separate from the world. I think the reason why we separate this task and give it to women is because of the following point below.

(3.) We must resist the sexualization of women’s bodies

The primary resistance to my position above will undoubtedly be “modesty.” In the name of modesty, women are asked to hide their bodies. Cape dresses are designed to de-form the female body. Why? So that it doesn’t serve as a temptation to men. It is because we have so sexualized the bodies of our sisters that we require them to design special clothes to hide their form. I am not an expert in this area, but I could go on. Perhaps it’s sufficient to say we should learn from what we’ve done: by requiring women to go above and beyond to hide their bodies (never wear hair down, never wear legged pants, never show belly/back even when swimming), we have created the reality where these things are “sexy.”

Men of conservative churches often sexualize women’s bodies (and are taught to do so from a young age). If you don’t believe me, read a book like Every Young Man’s Battle where women are described as temptations to male purity and the sastisfaction to men’s lust. Ironically, conservative Christianity often sexualizes women’s bodies even in ways secular culture does not. I have atteneded exactly three college/universities, and trust me when I say no one is blushing over seeing someone’s knees. Seeing a girl’s kneecaps or, God forbid, stomach is only percieved as “immodest” or “sexy” if we’ve created an environment where it’s forbidden. Hypermodesty creates the sexualization of women’s bodies. To get beyond this would require recongnizing the female form as God-given and something that neither men nor women need to be ashamed of. The requirments imposed by so many churches have no scriptural basis, but they have huge implications about how boys are taught to view girls, and how women are told to view themselves.

(4.) Women must be invited into decision making spaces

While it may be argued from some scriptures that women are not permitted to serve as a lead pastor, there is no legitamate scriptural precident for excluding women from committees, boards, or other gatherings of decision making. In churches where decisions are made by casting votes, women must be invited to participate in day to day decisions. Similarly, in deciding church will require, women must be part of the conversation. It is simply inexcusable that in many churches decisions about what women will do/wear do not even include women! The result is not husbands leading their wives in a familial setting. The result is men being more important than women. In conversations about finances, the vision of the church, ministry strategies, mission boards, church policy, teaching plans, etc., women must be invited to lend their gifts.

We must work toward what Katie Funk-Weibe calls an engendered story. I’m reminded of the words of the Psalmist,

Listen, daughter and pay careful attention: Forget your people and your father’s house. Let the king be enthralled by your beauty; honor him, for he is your Lord. (Psalm 45: 10-11).

(5.) Women must be allowd to live as to the Lord and not to men.

For too long, to be faithful has meant to live up to the measuring rod laid out by men of the church. Women mustbe allowed to set their eyes higher, on pleasing their Lord. Their worth, their bodies, their gifts, their place – these do not belong to the men of the church. They are holy and to be offered to their true, good king.

Conclusion

As discussed, if you want to get in trouble, raise gender issues. And after reading, some may say: He has a point, but I’m not ready to step on any toes.

It’s is an important issue, but we’ve got to go slow – we’ve got to avoid upsetting people.

This just isn’t a hill I’m willing to die on.

On the other hand, maybe you agree with me – this is a hill worth dying on. This is half the church we’re talking about. This is about who our sisters and daughters and mothers are told they’re supposed to be. For a long time, I was too afraid to say anything. I figured if this is the way things are, there must be a good reason. Or even if it isn’t ideal, it isn’t so bad. Or if it is bad, it isn’t that bad for me.

I guess I’m done with all those answers. This is not a tertiary issue. I’d say it’s a fundamental.


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The Summer Trip

May 16th was our two year anniversary! We planned to take a road trip to southern California and sleep in our car for about four days. In the weeks leading up to leaving, we found and ordered what we thought we’d need (car tent, power supply, air mattress, cooler, gas stove, etc.) and then took off hoping for the best. It was an incredible trip that we’ll remember for long time – and things went surprisingly well.


The Route

  • (Wednesday) Phoenix to Santa Barbara
  • (Thursday) Malibu, Laguna Beach, Ventura
  • (Friday) Oceanside, Encinitas, Del Mar, La Jolla
  • (Saturday) La Jolla, San Diego
  • (Sunday) Phoenix

The Ride

I found a Hasika “Tailgate Shade Awning Tent” on Amazon for about $80 which made sleeping in the our Toyota Venza pretty pleasant. At night, we put a few of the larger items outside (cooler, beach chair) and laid our back seats down. This left enough room for an air matress, and when the back gate was up with the awning attached, I could completely stretch out. It was actually really fun.


The Food

We bought a two burner, propane camp stove from some friends so we could cook at the beach. We only ended up doing this a couple times, but it worked super well! We took a cooler and ate most of our meals from there. We figured we ate out about five times in five days. Between sleeping in the car and taking our own food, we kept the expenses pretty low (except for gas – gas was high).


We ate at a great little place in Little Italy in downtown San Diego.


The Beach Towns

We’d been to Del Mar before and definitely want to return. This is such a great beach spot with both a nice town and a beautiful beach. The photo above of me with the grill is at Del Mar.

Aleisha and I agreed that Laguna Beach was the place we’d move if we were going to southern California – for sure a favorite. La Jolla also turned about to be a ton of fun (although finding a place to park for the night was really hard).


Before we left I bought a wetsuit. And a few years back, Aleisha and Luke bought me a surfboard. It was great to not have to rent anything anywhere we went. I did a lot of surfing. It made me realize though that west coast waves are harder than east coast waves, and I’m a bit out of practice.

Overall, we had a blast! It was kind of surprising how smoothly the whole trip went. We decided that next time we’ll plan ahead a bit more about where to park overnight as finding a place to sleep can be challenging. This was a lovely way to experience the coast of California.


Teddy

The day we got back to Phoenix was the day my mom flew in with our new puppy, Teddy. We got him from my aunt Thersea who raises beautiful little dogs (Palmetto Upstate Puppies)! He is so far a great addition to the Bear family. Teddy sleeps well at night, mostly, and is very chill overall. He sometimes complains about having to go on walks. We love him.


In Other News

Aleisha is the program and intern Director at Aim Right Ministries and has recently also taken a job with City of Joy. They’re an incredible organization in Rwanda, and Aleisha manages their online store. I’m still working as an admissions counselor at Grand Canyon University where I’m also in my third class towards being licensed as a mental health counselor.


Feb 27


When we don’t even consider hiring men for positions we’d prefer to fill with women because a man would find it demeaning, all we have to do is take a small step back to see how low of a view of women we have. Jimothy’s argument here is that a man would be insulted by the notion of taking a position traditionally filled by women. What’s implied (if not said outright) is that women can expect less because they are capable of less. Men can expect more because they are capable of more.



What does it say when we deem work to demeaning for men and perfectly suitable for women?

How are stereotypes around “male” and “female” work engrained in my community?

Do I encourage people to use their gifts or just steer them toward gender stereotypical work?


Feb 26

So much of the reality we live in is culturally constructed. Simply, things are the way they are because we have decided to make them so. In Communication as Culture, James Carey says it this way.

Reality is not given, not humanly existent, independent of language and toward which language stands as a pale refraction. Rather, reality is brought into existence, is produced, by communication–by, in short, the construction, apprehension, and utilization of symbolic forms.

Under the sway of realism we ordinarily assume there is an order to existence that the human mind through some faculty may discover and describe. I am suggesting that reality is not there to discover in any significant detail…To put it colloquially, there are no lines of latitude and longitude in nature, but by overlaying the globe with this particular, though not exclusively correct, symbolic organization, order is imposed on spatial organization and certain, limited human purposes served.

This particular miracle we perform daily and hourly–the miracle of producing reality and then living within and under the fact of our own productions–rests upon a particular quality of symbols: their ability to be both representations “of” and “for” reality.

– James Carey

God created us to build reality. In Genesis 2 we read,

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

God not only gave Adam a task, he actually waited “to see what (Adam) would name them.” And whatever decision Adam made was how the world was built: that was it’s name. The task for humankind in the garden is still our task today – to make order in the world, to co-create with God. I believe God is still looking on with anticipation, to see what they will make of the world.

We may disagree on the best way forward. In fact, we will most certainly disagree. Yet I believe we are one step ahead if can realize that what we decide is largely of our own making, that the world we inhabit is one we’re building. We decide, over time, what will be considered normal, what is required, who is in and who is out, what is liked and what is shunned. Our decisions, our actions, and even our silence contribute to constructing the reality we share. As much as we might like to think we’re just taking all our cues from scripture, even a simply analysis reveals we are so often just making it up as we go.

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Scripture isn’t a textbook with an index of answers and procedures – though some try to force it to be. Whether we admit it or not, much of our world (the rules, the norms, the ways of life, the traditions, the expectations) is of our own making. This is true in church as much as outside it. Once we acknowledge that, we can move beyond Jimothy’s ignorant insistence that everything we’re doing is taken right from scripture.

Perhaps God has made us to choose and to build and construct our worlds. And that is an incredible responsibility with huge implications. We’re farther ahead if we can recognize that we are indeed choosing and building and then evaluate what we’ve made.



Is it scary to think that much of reality is built by human choices?

How does claiming a scriptural basis for human-made rules give power to those in charge?

What ways might we have decided to make reality other than what we’re living in?


Feb 25


“The best marketing scheme in history is men successfully getting away with calling women the “more emotional gender” … because they’ve successfully rebranded anger as not an emotion”

Claire Willett

Jimothy here reiterates the old argument some folks like to level – women are too emotional to be trusted with leadership. I, like dear Tim, often don’t even know what to say when this claim is made. It’s ridiculous, unfair, and lazy. Not only is it scientifically unsound, it’s also not been my experience. I’ve had female professors, worked under a female manager in a corporate setting, and watched my own wife lead a team of people. The “too emotional” argument is absurd at the familial, church, corporate, and national level. But it’s a powerful argument and has been used to keep men in charge for a very long time.



If we include anger as an emotion, are women still “more emotional”?

Do I speak with lazy generalizations about how women are made or behave?

How are both men and women damaged by lazy speech like Jimothy’s?