A Reflection on Suffering

Stephen Mitchell sees surrender rather than submission in Job after he has endured his trials by the Accuser as well as the confrontation with the Unnameable; “Surrender…means the wholehearted giving-up of oneself. It is both the ultimate generosity and the ultimate poverty, because in it the giver becomes the gift.” (Mitchell xxvii) This is the kind of man Mitchell sees when he reads Job’s words at the end, “I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite. Listen and I will speak; I will question you: please, instruct me. I have heard you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (Mitchell 88) Mitchell identifies in this a great humility rather than self-abasement.

 

Meanwhile Victor Frankl writes of his personal trial, which echoes Job’s, in the concentration camps. Frankl writes, ‘Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost.” (Frankl) To Frankl it is not an act of surrender but rather an act of heroism, maintaining a spiritual freedom and independence of mind even in the most dire of circumstances. The possibility that one might not only withstand such suffering but to do so and still retain their compassion and dignity would seem impossible to believe, if in fact it had not been witnessed.

 

Mitchell writes of the dialogue between Job and God that “In order to approach god, Job has to let go of all ideas about God: he must put a cloud of unknowing…between himself and God, of have the Voice do this for him.” (Mitchell xix) For Mitchell, this embrace of the unknowing is the critical connection for Job to approach God, yet for Frankl I see love as the very thing which he believes tethers us to the divine; that gives us a glimpse of our salvation. He writes, “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets…The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” (Frankl)

 

It is this extraordinary gift of love that allows us to bear the unthinkable and endure the unimaginable in a such a way that dignity can be retained. As the world presses its brokenness in on us we can choose to answer with a love that was defined by Mitchell earlier, as a giver of a gift that is our very selves. “We who lived  in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Frankl) This, too, we see in Job through Mitchell’s perspective. Confronted with the reality of God and the great suffering he has endured, Job chooses to change his attitude from a lament that he was ever born into praise for an awesome God whose very character is beyond fully knowing for us.

Works Cited

Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press, 1963. Electronic Excerpt.

Mitchell, Stephen. The Book of Job. United States: Harper Collins Publishers, 1987.

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Lysa TerKeurst: Disappointment (Catalyst Notes)

Lysa TerKeurst is a best-selling author a dozen times over as well at the president of Proverbs 31 Ministries.  She started her talk asking us to raise our hands if you’ve even experienced disappointment and/or someone being disappointed in you. Of course, all hands were raised. This is a common human experience. She then stated that Satan keeps us isolated through and in our disappointment. In James 1:2 it tells us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,” and this is because pure joy is NOT the normal way we understand trials. It just isn’t. But if we sit in our disappointment instead of understanding it through joy, we become the playground of the enemy.

She then walks though Genesis 2. That the man was told not to eat from the tree (and he didn’t write it down, so God was like, ‘Dude needs a helper,’ and women have been making lists for men ever since). As we move a little further into the story, we see the serpent speak. There’s a big difference between how the serpent communicates and God. God speaks in freedom and gives restrictions for our protection. The enemy speaks in restriction first, thinking that God is holding out. But when we read the story we see that EVERY tree in the garden was good and pleasing the the eye. It wasn’t like the tree they weren’t supposed to eat from was this massive temptation shining about everything else in the garden. The real temptation of the fruit was gaining wisdom.

So people ask, why didn’t Adam speak up as they ate the fruit? He was standing right there. We don’t really know, but it is sad that he didn’t. When they saw their nakedness and felt the weight of sin and shame for the first time, they concealed themselves. Fig leaves weren’t adequate because sin requires a blood sacrifice, and so God goes and kills the first animals and uses them to clothe man.

God was merciful in his punishment of them. He protected Adam and Eve so that their death could be a gateway to restoration. That garden was the place for which the human heart was created: to exist in perfection. Even today, we continue to expect perfection from people. Some might wonder why God didn’t strip that part out of our hearts, but it’s so necessary to our life and faith. Stripping us of hat would have taken the possibility for us to realize the perfection of God. In Revelation 21 and 22, we see restoration (and God telling him to write this revelation down), Eden restored. But sandwiched between these two gardens is another: the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus, in existence at the very beginning of it all, would have created this garden with as much intention as he created the other two. His soul was overwhelmed and he asked Peter, James and John to stay here and keep watch. Lysa says that she thinks this ask is as much about keeping watch for soldiers as it is about watching how he deals with what he’s being asked to do; he knows what is coming for them as well. Jesus teaches us how to wrestle well between feelings and faith. Jesus knew the devastation.

And when things aren’t just broken pieces you can glue back together, when all you see is dust. It can be hard not to feel discouraged or hopeless. We can’t glue back together dust. Yet we worship a God who loves working with dust. Dust is a sign that new is just on the horizon. Jesus, in his prayer, tells his father my will or thy will, and he’s showing us how we ought to respond in these times.

The garden, designed by God, sits at the Mount of Olives where Jesus ascends to the heaves and where the bible also says Jesus will stand when he returns. It’s an important place, so it makes sense to ask what we can learn from it. One thing we know for sure about the garden was that it was full of olive trees. What do we know about olive trees?

  1. In order for the olive tree to produce fruit, it must have harsh winds of east and refreshing winds of west
  2. Fruit is not usable straight from the tree; we have to go through a process of removing hardness and bitterness (like that in our hearts
  3. What is most valuable is what comes from being pressed and crushed; an oil that can be used for light

Our God has taught us quite a bit about how to deal with struggle and disappointment, as well as which voice we should listen to and how to recognize God’s voice.

 

Discovering the Feminine in the Triune God

Martin Luther once asked, “Of what help is it to you that God is God, if he is not God to you?” (Migliore 232) At the heart of this and most other theological questions sits these two: ‘Who am I to God?’ and ‘Who is God to me?’ Many of us are compelled by these thoughts to seek within and outside of ourselves for answers that provide clarity and vision for our life and future. In Genesis 1:27 (NAB) it says, “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (Bible 19) Both sexes were created by God in God’s image and yet the female is rarely represented in the triune God when we look within the walls of the church. Mary Daly once said, “if God is male, then the male is God,” (Johnson 99) and while our behavior as an overall faith community reflects this, we need to ask ourselves if this is truth. Women of faith are asked to find themselves in the Bible through the women in it’s narrative, yet men are not only dominantly represented within the stories recorded in the Bible, they see themselves reflected in the very persons of our Triune God. This pneumalogical paper will explore how history shaped our understanding of who the holy Spirit is, identify several key characteristics for who the Bible says the holy Spirit is and reveal how women who were systemically excluded from representation within the Godhead can come to recognize themselves within the holy Spirit.

The importance of the Holy Spirit cannot be overstated. Jesus himself emphasized the tremendous value that such a Helper would have to humanity in John 14:26 (NAB): “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name-he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (Bible 1610) Although Jesus asserted the value of the Holy Spirit, it’s uncontrollable nature made it a challenge to the hierarchy the church eventually formed itself into: often the Spirit was treated more as a problem to solve or a question to answer than an opportunity for deeper relationship with God. In fact, the holy Spirit wasn’t always understood as a person. “It was the Cappadocian Fathers in the fifth century who fortified the notion of the Holy Spirit as a person. Basil the Great became known as the ‘theologian of the Holy Spirit,’ thanks mostly to a desire to establish the tri-unity of God against attempts at tritheism…” (Clouzet 15) There ought to be a point of clarification around the term person, particularly as we consider the individualistic lens through which Western civilization operates. The personhood of the Spirit does not negate the truth of God as one. “…both mimetic theory and modern psychology teach us is that the “person” is not autonomous — we are in fact interdividuals rather than individuals… non-consciously interconnected far more than we consciously realize. And so, if we are going to even attempt to label the Trinity as three “persons,” we need to acknowledge that the person is a person only because s/he is in relationship with an ‘other.’” (Distefano) Thus, as the Church sought to understand the Godhead, or the triune God, it necessitates that it is not as individual persons but as persons in relation to one another.

This is, in part, the very thing which challenged the inclusion of the person of the Holy Spirit into the Godhead. One major contention was the origin of the Spirit. In fact, the controversy over its origin lead to a division in the Church that is considered by many to be the greatest disagreement in the Church’s history: “…the Eastern Church discovered the now famous filioque clause in 1014. To the Nicene Creed had been added the word filioque-Latin for ‘and the Son’-now stating that the Holy Spirit proceeded ‘from the Father and the Son.’…leading to the permanent rift between the Eastern and Western Church: the Great Schism of 1054.” (Clouzet 16)

While the holy Spirit was eventually understood by many, through doctrine, as both a person and component of the triune God, the very nature of the Spirit ran against the grain of the rising influence of rationalism. Industrialization further hindered our ability to embrace the unknown that is the Spirit. The world was usually understood to be more like a machine than a wonder, ruled entirely by laws and able to be understood through cause and effect. This left little room for the Spirit to operate in through the 18th and 19th century. “Protestant scholasticism with its ‘rechte Lehre’ (correct doctrine), produced ‘a more mechanical view of the role of Scriptures,’ and ‘as a result the witness of the Spirit tended to be bypassed.’ The Word alone, without the Spirit, was regarded as the basis for authority.” (Clouzet 16-17) Those who did focus on the doctrine of the Spirit tended to focus on the work rather than the nature of the holy Spirit’s person.

Regardless, there has been what some might term a revival. “Nowadays, it will not do to speak about the Holy Spirit as the theos agraptos- the God about whom no one writes-as did Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century.” (Clouzet 11) As this revival has occurred though, many tend to focus on what the holy Spirit can do for us rather than who the holy Spirit is to us. The danger of this approach is perceiving the Spirit less as a person who is the triune God and a bearer of wisdom and truth and more as a genie who grants wishes if we ask the right way. Furthermore, “…the doctrine of the Spirit became the concern of individual and corporate praxis, or experience, rather than dogma, or theology.” (Clouzet 17)

Although the nature of the Spirit may seem elusive in the Bible due to the biblical focus on its works, that does not mean we are incapable of discerning its nature through what is given to us. It is as Paul writes in Romans 14:4 (NAB) “For whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” (Bible 1709) We can be assured of three things regarding the Spirit: first, that it is understood to be part of the Godhead. A few examples of how we know this include 2 Corinthians 13:13 (NAB) which frames them together: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the holy Spirit be with all of you.” (Bible 1765) I Peter 1:2 (NAB) also blesses through the triune God, “…in the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctification by the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ: may grace and peace be yours in abundance.” (Bible 1903)

Second, that the holy Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son, not a lesser component. Jesus makes this known at the Last Supper, recorded in John 14:15-17 (NAB): “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept…But you will know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.” (Bible 1610) Jesus referred to parakletos, (often translated as the Advocate or the Helper) as another parakletos. This means that Jesus, already acting as an advocate for us, would ask the Father to send another like him to us in his absence. He promises not to leave them as orphans. “Just a few minutes earlier Christ had referred to Himself and His Father as equals (vv. 9,10). If the Comforter is equal-or parallel-to the Son, and the Son is equal-or one-with the Father, the Comforter, or Holy Spirit, is equal with the Father.” (Clouzet 20)

Lastly, we know that the holy Spirit is in possession of attributes unique to God. I Corinthians 2:10-11 (NAB) speaks to the intimate relationship and knowledge shared between the Father and the Spirit: “…this God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God. Among human beings, who knows what pertains to a person except the spirit of the person that is within? Similarly, no one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God.” (Bible 1721) The Spirit is not merely a messenger sent by God but one that scrutinizes the depths of God and all God’s creation.

What, though, do we know about God when it comes to gender? It is a popular framing, particularly within modern churches built on the foundations of an androcentric patriarchy spanning back millennia, to understand the relationship of the Godhead as primarily that of the Father, the Son and the Spirit (the Spirit being an it or a he). God as a Father serves as the primary means of understanding Elohim or Adonai (or any of the other various other names for God) in churches, most notably because Jesus referred to Elohim as a Father so often (hardly a surprise if one is trying to establish one’s divine origin). The ascribing of exclusive gender to Elohim based upon the words used by Christ rather than the entirety of the Bible is outside the scope of this paper but worth noting, as it indicates a bias towards the masculine. Additionally, I recognize that Jesus was certainly born a man. However, the assertion of the Spirit as a neutral person (it) or a male (he) is highly questionable.

This masculine assumption does not accurately depict the historical language of the books in the Bible and therefore creates the opportunity for a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s nature: it associates power with an entirely masculine God rather than a Godhead whose power manifests in both the feminine and the masculine. This is a problem not only because it is inaccurate, but it leads to a flawed living-out of the gospel. Rosemary Radford Ruether once wrote, “Whatever denies, diminishes or distorts the full humanity of women is appraised as non-redemptive;…what does promote the full humanity of women is of the Holy, it does reflect true relation to the divine, the authentic message of redemption and the mission of redemptive community.” (Johnson 94) Feminist theology isn’t about displacing or minimizing the value of men or the role they play; men are also created in the image of God and the masculine images used to depict the Godhead are accurate and invaluable for providing insight into the character of God. However, equally important is restoring women to the role that that Elohim, Jesus and the holy Spirit called women into. It works to reveal the places where we lack alignment as a Christ-center community with the will of God. “Sallie McFague summarizes the feminist critique of patriarchy and its legitimating theology by contending that the heart of our most pressing issues today is the misuse of power…exploitation of the natural environment, or of political, economic, racial, cultural, and gender oppressions…the fundamental problem is ‘the question of power; who wields it and what sort it is… Is power always domination?’” (Migliore 68)

This leaves many wondering if the feminine can be found within the Godhead. In most modern translations, the holy Spirit is predominantly referenced in either masculine or neutral terms. But why? When we look back into the grammar of the early languages used, we can see an implied relationship between the rise of the church patriarchy and the disappearance of the feminine holy Spirit. “Although the New Testament was written in Greek, Christianity was born in a Semitic milieu and Jesus himself will have spoken Aramaic (of which Syriac is a dialect).” (Brock) This means that the New Testament was not written in the spoken language of Christ but translated from Aramaic (also the language common to many of the early communities) to Greek. “…when these communities spoke of the Holy Spirit they naturally used the standard Aramaic word for ‘spirit’, ruha (also ‘wind’ as pneuma), which, like Hebrew ruah, is grammatically feminine.” (Brock)

A pronoun in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac languages are necessarily either feminine or masculine, and thus, up until around 400 AD, it was always treated as feminine grammatically. However, in Greek translations a word like pneuma becomes, through its translation, neuter (still not masculine). “From the early fifth century onwards…in defiance of the grammatical rules of the language, they treated the word ruha as masculine whenever it referred to the Holy Spirit.” (Brock) This mattered, because early on it was understood that something truly revolutionary was being taught by God: “an ancient, unassailable truth with new clarity: God loves women and passionately desires their flourishing. When violence is done to women, to their bodies or their spirits, it is an insult to the divine glory.” (Johnson 96) Yet this idea was subversive to all dominant cultures at the time. Some hypothesize that shift from feminine to masculine is the influence of the Greek language but others, particularly considering the Greek translation is still not masculine, hypothesize that it is the disapproval of the Spirit as feminine that causes the shift.  By the 6th century, that practice becomes normalized although occasional outliers can be found in poems or liturgical texts.

A major indicator that these changes were made based on the issues around gender roles is found in the Peshitta, a revision of the Syriac New Testament made in the early fifth century. “Rather surprisingly there are only two places in the Gospels where the revisers who produced the Peshitta chose to alter the feminine of the Old Syriac to the masculine; it so happens that both are passages where the Holy Spirit ‘teaches’ (Luke 12.12 and John 14.26).” (Brock) The fact that the feminine was maintained in other parts of the text speaks to their belief that the gender of the holy Spirit was originally only an issue in spaces when the holy Spirit served in a role that was culturally only acceptable for men; She could no longer be a she.

This same shift is visible in the treatment of Logos and mellta and compels us to push beyond the assumption that the gender change was only due to the role the holy Spirit was serving. If the femininity of the holy Spirit were not an issue for the Church what reason would it have had to alter the texts that serve as the foundation and support for their faith? The collective community would be unlikely to systemically shift the holy Spirit from feminine to masculine unless the femininity was considered a problem and/or the shift to masculinity was an opportunity.

“In Syriac Logos, ‘Word’, is translated by another feminine noun, mellta. Accordingly in the Prologue of the Gospel of John the Old Syriac treats Mellta, the Logos, as feminine, and this usage is reflected, not only in the fourth-century writer Ephrem (which is to be expected); but also very occasionally in texts of the fifth, or even later centuries, even though in the Peshitta revision the gender had already been altered to masculine.” (Brock)

When we contrast this change to words we find in verses like Galatians 3:28 (NAB), where an equal, mutual love is held up as the goal, we can see an incongruity begin to reveal itself. The early Church was a body of people who were all one in Christ Jesus, who saw themselves equal in their relationship to the Godhead.   “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Bible 1776) Yet this aspired-to state has a relatively short-lived existence over the lifetime of the Church. “…despite the irreplaceable participation of women in the founding and spreading of the church, women were marginalized once the community became somewhat established…Banned from the pulpit and altar, their wisdom has not been permitted to interpret the word of the gospel nor their spirituality to lead the church assembled in prayer.” (Johnson 91-92)

Rather than maintaining the roles originally given to them, a shift began in the male body of the church on their view of woman. Thinkers of the time began to focus on the female body as a gateway to the enemy rather than a person made in the image of God. Instead of operating as ‘one in Christ,’ women were reframed as temptresses of men and came to represent the reason that men fell from favor with God. “In the third century Tertullian viewed women as a second Eve…and because of their sin the Son of God had to die. Augustine, while affirming that woman is equal to men in her spiritual capacity, taught that in view of her body and social role, ‘she is not the image of God,’ but can be considered so only when taken together with man who is her head.” (Johnson 92) While Augustine could see the image of God in man alone, the feminine was only redeemable through her relationship with the masculine. Thus, man was independent while woman became interdependent: her access to the divine could only be found through the opposite sex, thereby becoming the secondary, less desirable gender not only in church but in society; ironically, this suppression of women was propelled by the very faith that once lifted women beyond the stature of chattel to equal standing with men in relationship with Christ.

To understand the true obstacles faced by Jesus in transforming the world, consider the account in Luke 13:12-16 (NAB) of Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath: note the response that religious men in power have for a woman crippled for 18 years and the way that Christ responds not only to her, but to that man:

When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.” He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant that Jesus had cured on the sabbath, said to the crowd in reply, “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the sabbath day.” The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for watering? This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the sabbath day from this bondage?”

The man in power showed no compassion for the woman, nor did he celebrate the miracle that was her healing. Instead, he focused on the violation of the Law. Jesus points out the man’s hypocrisy and elevates the status of the woman. Unlike the religious man who saw her as a broken Law, Jesus described her as a daughter of Abraham: Jesus’ treatment of her wasn’t because of her actions as an individual but rather because of her general identity as a woman of God’s chosen people. Indeed, the men Jesus addressed had greater compassion for a thirsty ox or ass than they did for a woman crippled for nearly two decades. Jesus asks, “…ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath day from this bondage?” Jesus takes issue with her bondage and desires freedom, something that honors God more than honoring the Sabbath. There is a tremendous lack of alignment in values between the men and Jesus, particularly regarding the value of women.

Diving into biblical accounts like these and recognizing what they reveal about the society in which Jesus walked, demonstrates how necessary discernment is in recognizing what is of man and what is of God. This discernment given to us by the holy Spirit, who not only scrutinizes everything but also reveals truth to us, can lead us down a path of deep relationship and greater reconciliation between each other and God. This is critical; in fact, the Kingdom of God is not even available to us if the Spirit isn’t with us. It says in John 2:5-8 (NAB)

Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Bible 1588)

This kind of relationship with the holy Spirit can sound weird, but the ramifications are profound. Cath Livesey is a leader within what she calls a prophetic church, which means (in its simplest terms) that they listen to God for each other. Prophecy in this context is understood as something given by the Holy Spirit that points towards Christ. While most churches like hers understand the holy Spirit as a he or an it, the notable difference of a church operating in relationship with the Spirit is a shift of power. The Church is not threatened by their inability to control the Spirit but celebrate operating in its fullness; the gender of the follower being moved by the Spirit is of no consequence. “…prophecy is about hearing God for other people. When we look at the Bible we see that prophecy involves the process by which the thoughts and intentions of God are communicated to his people via a human vessel. It origins are… divine revelation.” (Livesey 35) They see the power given by the Spirit as the primary means by which they can bring freedom and transformation to the church and the community, not as means for domination. This is certainly progress, but it still does not take us to a place where the feminine is inherently recognized in the Godhead. Do communities like this demonstrate that the gender of God doesn’t matter if you operate in the Spirit?

“While language reflects our world, it also shapes the way we construct our experience of the world. As hallowed by tradition and currently used, all-male images of God are hierarchal images rooted in the unequal relation between women and men, and they function to maintain this arrangement…Instead of evoking the reality of God, they block it.” (Johnson 96) We still aren’t knowing God as fully as we could because we limit how God can be understood. And while language and power are neither good nor evil the way those two things are applied and used by humans can be alter our trajectory greatly. When we look at how power is used by what is a vastly androcentric world, we discover a systemic marginalization of women:

While women make up one-half of the world’s population, they work three-fourths of the world’s work hours, receive one tenth of the world’s salary, own one one-hundredth of the planet’s land, and constitute two-thirds of the worlds illiterate adults. Together with their dependent children, they comprise 75 percent of the worlds starving people and 80 percent of homeless refugees… they are also raped, prostituted, trafficked, and murdered by men to a degree that is not mutual. (Johnson 91)

This same imbalance of power exists within many religious organizations. Within the Catholic Church, only men can serve as priests, and only men have authority over many of the rites Catholics understand as being critical to their entry into the kingdom of God.  “Exercising public authority in the church, men assume the right to speak of God; their own privileged position then served as the chief model for the divine. As a result, verbal depictions of God in liturgy, preaching, and catechesis, along with visual representations in art, have forged a strong link in the popular mind between divinity and maleness.” (Johnson 98) Human history teaches us that when one group holds all the power, it effectively subjugates or oppresses those that are not of that group (examples include apartheid, ethnic minorities in Europe during WWII, the current crisis in Syria, etc.). While some might consider such comparisons to be dramatic, the point is to emphasize the disparity of power and the inevitable lack of freedom it creates. In effect, the patriarchy becomes a barrier to people better knowing God.

In summary, what the current Church perspective creates is a decision point for women. The first option is to receive relationship with God only through male bodies; that they are her intercessor, her priest, her path to Elohim, Jesus and the holy Spirit. The second is that, “As Carol Christ astutely observed, a woman may see herself as created in the image of God only by abstracting herself from her concrete bodiliness. But she can never experience that which is freely available to every man and boy in her culture of having her full sexual identity affirmed as being in the image and likeness of God.” (Johnson 99) The risk of these two options is that our community continues moving forward with God as a male icon, resulting in a failure to reconcile relationships between women and God, women and men, and God and men. The Church also continues to limit the triune God: “…it reduces the living God to an idol. Exclusively male language leads us to forget the incomprehensibility of holy mystery and instead reduces the living God to the fantasy of an infinitely ruling man.” (Johnson 98) By embracing the holy Spirit in her feminine identity as she was spoken of by Jesus, by remembering that she is equal to the persons who form the Godhead and by walking in the truth that not only does she possesses the attributes of God but that women are made in her image, we gain a richer and deeper answer for the questions we seek as individuals as well as a fulfillment to our calling as the Church. For the Church, “…to call for justice in the world the church must itself first be just. If church structure is in service of mission, then without just internal structures the church’s mission in the world will not be credible.” (Hines 167) Ultimately the femininity of the Spirit expands who God is to us, who we are to God and who we are to one another, thereby transforming the Church.

Works Cited

Bible. Saint Mary’s Press College Study Bible. Winona, MN: Christian Brothers Publications, 2006. Book.

Brock, Sebastian. “The Holy Spirit as Feminine in Early Syriac Literature.” Ed. Soskice, Janet Martin. After Eve. Collins Marshall Pickering, 1990. http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/brock.asp. Electronic.

Clouzet, Ron E. M. “The Personhood of the Holy Spirit and Why It Matters.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society (2006): 11-32. Electronic.

Distefano, Matthew. “The Holy Spirit is not a Male, Conservative Evangelical.” 25 April 2016. Patheos. Blog. 25 April 2017.

Hines, Mary E. “Community for Liberation.” LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective. United States of America: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1993. 161-184. Book.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. Quest for a Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. United States of America: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014. Book.

Livesey, Cath. My Sheep Have Ears: Exploring Prophecy with Discipleship and Mission. United Kingdom: 3DM Publishing, 2015. Book.

Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014. Print.

 

A Reflection on “Love, Sex and Dating” by Andy Stanley (Part Three)

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to check out Part 1 and Part 2 first.

Chapter 4 looks at ‘becoming,’ and that doesn’t mean that this transforms into one of the many self-help books that Americans seem to love to read, talk about and then move on to the next book. It’s about becoming the you that you are meant to be, because that is a necessary element to a successful relationship. Why? “Truth is, your relationships will never be any healthier than you. Here’s why. And this is important. Relationships are never stronger than the weakest link…The stronger, more mature, more secure person in a relationship is always forced to make up for, defer to, or fill in the gaps created by the weaker person.” (57) I know, I know, this sounds uber harsh. But it’s also accurate. Think about the relationship problems you hear couples talk about. Is the issue really their relationship?

Let’s back this up a little. I think we all recognize that our lives are often richer, fuller, more joyful lives because of the relationships we have. And it doesn’t stop at the emotional, social and spiritual support that these relationships provide. It gets physical. God also gave us sex. Sex that feels really great. “If God created and gave us the capacity for satisfying relationships, it’s reasonable to assume God knows a thing or two about how to prepare for and operate one.” (59) This makes sense, right? Who knows how to operate something better than the designer, the creator, the originator of that thing? God actually teaches us this in the New Testament, and it lines up with what Andy Stanley writes about with regards to focusing on ‘you becoming’ versus ‘you finding.’ “…if you approach the New Testament asking, ‘How do I find the right person?’ the text is silent. But once you muster the courage to ask, ‘How do I become the right person?’ the text comes alive.” (61)

Ask yourself what happens to the ‘right person myth,’ after marriage. Does it dissipate? Or does it linger? Do people with that attitude, upon facing challenges and difficulties, end up questioning if they are with the ‘right person’ because things aren’t all good? It’s stunning how often we see people insistent on changing the person they are with. “‘If I could get my spouse to act right, everything would be all right.‘ Odd thing, these are the very couples who married assuming that they had met the right person to begin with. Turns out, the right person doesn’t always act right.” (62) This is another reason to focus on ‘becoming.’ If you are a person who just searches for the right person, your focus will always be on making them right, and not on yourself. Conversely, if you marry someone who believes in the right person myth, then any issues that arise would rest on the idea that you are not, in fact, the right person.

Depending on the circles you run in, there’s a lot of talk about love as a verb.  This means that rather than love being driven by feeling or chemistry, love is demonstrative action. This is found all over the New Testament, but not so often in our romantic comedies, which tell us that action is driven by the feeling of love. As an example from the New Testament, consider Matthew 5:44, where we are asked to love our enemies. Certainly if they are an enemy, you’re unlikely to find emotion to be a driver to act loving. Rather, we are being asked to demonstrate love for those who come against us! What this tells us is that relationships are built on choice rather than chemistry. “Great relationships are built on good decisions, not strong emotions. Again, falling in love is easy; it requires a pulse. Staying in love requires more. Specifically, embracing love as a verb.” (63) Remember, again, that this is not what society tells us. It says that you get what you give, it demands people to ‘get what they deserve,’ as long as you do your part I’ll probably do mine (unless something better comes along).

Where does this land us? Many of us (ahem) have experienced it firsthand: “The results are fragile relational contracts built on conditional agreements that leave both parties focused on the behavior of their partner…they are relationships built on ‘mutual distrust.'” (64) The end result of this is that each person expects the other person to carry the weight of the relationship and the expectations in it; failure to do so is a failure to meet the contractual requirements and confirmation that the other person is not, indeed, the right person. Disappointment, blame, and moving onto someone else become a continuous cycle for all parties. But then there’s this alternate path available to us:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” John 13:34 “The Greek term translated new in our English Bibles connotes strange or remarkable.” (65) Something about what we’re being called to in love is remarkable from what love was before! We’re supposed to love like Christ did: sacrificially. What does this look like? Ephesians 5:21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Yeah, I know. Submitting. This can be a hot topic but I want you to hang with me here, okay? Let’s really understand what’s being said.

Paul is writing about what Andy Stanley calls mutual submission. “…Paul wasn’t calling for an unequivocal unilateral abandonment of personal independence. This is a one another thing…mutual submission doesn’t work unless it’s mutual. It only works when both parties work it.” (67) This is not the way the vast majority of people operate, and that’s why Paul points us back to our reverence for Christ. Why? Because we are meant to be inspired by Jesus’ example and use it as a model for our own relationships. Ephesians 5:22-5:25 says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord...Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The emphasis is added to highlight the mutual submission that is inherent in this verse. This is the kind of relationship we are called to, but it might all just sound a little too good, right?

“The alternative is to invite fear into future relationships… While your reservation is perfectly understandable, it’s entirely unnecessary and counterproductive. You were created for more than guarded relationships and ‘I will as long as you will’ love. Truth is, you hope that’s true, even if you’ve never seen it or experienced it.” (68) I John 4;18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” Don’t we want that? Aren’t we called to that?

At one point Andy Stanley was fundamentally asked if he believed that having a two-headed home (instead of the man being the head of the household) was like a two-headed monster; if he believed the man should basically be the head of the household. He replied:

“Before I answer your question, imagine you’re married to a man who genuinely believes you are the most fascinating person on the planet. He’s crazy about you. You have no doubt that your happiness is his top priority. He listens when you talk. He honors you in public. To use the old-fashioned term, he ‘cherishes’ you. He’s not afraid to make a decision. He values your opinions. He leads, but he listens. He’s responsible. He’s not argumentative. You have no doubt that he would give his life for you if the need arose. You never worry about him being unfaithful. In fact, to quote an old Flamingos’ song, he only has eyes for you… Would either of you have trouble following a man like that?” (70)

And if you read that, you’re answer was probably no, I wouldn’t. In fact, you probably said, “Where do I find that guy?” Why? Because that sounds like a really amazing guy, a man that is easy to follow because you are confident that they have your best interests at heart. You don’t have to fear it or fight it. “Stand-alone submission is dangerous. But mutual submission? That’s different. A relationship characterized by mutual submission is the best of all possible relationships. It is a relationship worth preparing for. It is a relationship worth waiting for.” (71)

I also thought, as I read Andy’s description, am I a person that ALWAYS listens when other people talk? Do I honor those I love in public and cherish them? Am I responsible and not argumentative? Faithful? I think that the answer to most of these are yes, but there are certainly ways I could grow in order to make these characteristics stronger and more frequently demonstrated. I believe that taking those steps will help me prepare for whatever it is I’m waiting for.

Want more? Check out A Reflection on “Love, Sex and Dating” by Andy Stanley (Part Four)

Stuck on a Verse

This verse keeps coming back to me today. In the verses before this one, he had dug a couple wells and lost them to others each time, yet he persists (out of necessity, I suppose). But when things finally work out, he doesn’t attribute success to HIS hardwork, persistence, or his willingness to keep going against all odds. He glorifies God. He recognizes God in the blessing. “At last the Lord God has created enough space for us to prosper in this land.” I often think that if God gave us Christ, and we are supposed to be like-Christ (hence Christians, or ‘little christs’), then doesn’t that mean that we ought to emulate all the characteristics that God does? I’m certainly not talking about judgement, or things God says are only for God to do, but I think we can learn much about what God hopes for in us.  I certainty admire the posture demonstrated by Isaac, but what is being revealed to us about who God is?

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Christian Life and Politics

I hear the laments of people who feel like their faith has been hijacked; who look at the face of Christian’s in the media and even in the people around them and feel anger and sickness.  They want to disassociate themselves with their faith and God because of what they see playing out locally, nationally and globally in his name. But friends, we must remember that this darkness is not evidence of God’s absence but rather a choice in the disobedience of his people. Therefore we must seek the light and shine it into those places which reject it.

We must remember and be encouraged that even Jesus saw this, that he knew that there would be people proclaiming deeds and works in his name who knew him not. Your spiritual family is not with those who claim a title but do not know what it means. In Matthew 12:48-50 it says: “But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus recognizes those who abide in the Word of God as his family, not the workers of lawlessness. And this is a lawlessness from God, not this world. It says in Matthew 7:21-23, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.’” In really simple terms, what is that law that Jesus speaks to?

There’s several places where Jesus makes this really simple for everyone. One instance is right before he illustrates his point in the story of the Good Samaritan (keeping in mind that Samaritans were a shunned people by the religious, and Jesus later sent his disciples SPECIFICALLY to Samaria, wanting them to continue the work he had started with the Samaritans):

“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” -Luke 10:25-28

It’s also expressed again in Matthew where he reminds us that ALL the law and the prophets hang on the fact that we love God with our entire selves (heart, soul and mind) and that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” -Matthew 22:36-40

This might seem fairly obvious and simple but consider that God doesn’t want part of you; he wants all of you. Politics, employment, friendships, policy, institutions, family, finances… these all belong to God and the choices we make matter deeply. It says in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” We cannot trust in our God, love him with all our being and love our neighbor as ourselves if the space we are operating out of is fear. Fear of Others, fear of terrorism, fear of economic downturns, fear of scarcity, fear of man, fear of loss. This is not what God’s people were made for!

In 1 Peter 2:9 we are reminded, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We bear light into the darkness! We are not a nation formed from blood or heritage but rather from a King who came to earth and spilled his blood not out of obligation but out of love.  Love.  Love for a God that is good. Love for a people that persecuted Him. Love for a world that yearned for salvation even when it turned away. We cannot find anything to boast in unless it is the profound way God redeems every part of our lives. We are told in Luke 3:8, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” We must remember to not become prideful but be a people of repentance and humility, for who are we apart from God?

But, you say, this is real-life 2000+ years down the road, right? Life feels pretty hard. People we love are dying and suffering, anger and violence appearing to push in from all corners, and things are just so different from that time…how could we possibly know what we are meant to do? Yet, the world has been a messed up place for a super long time, and this isn’t a new story for anyone. It was dark in the time of Jesus and his answer wasn’t to build walls, reject the refugee, and blame the oppressed for their oppression. It wasn’t to deny the existence of privilege. Jesus tells you what will happen to you and it isn’t based on your feelings or the amount of money you gave or the roles you held in your church. You will be sorted based on how you cared for others.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ -Matthew 25:31-36 

And then you consider the ‘blow away moment’ that comes next when we discover that even the righteous didn’t recognize God as they were meeting the real needs of others rather than protecting what was theirs.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:37-40

Consider how truly profound this statement is. How could Jesus be present in the strangers we welcome, or in the naked we clothed or the sick we care for? What relationship could Jesus possibly have to us visiting those in prison?

Love. Our God is love. Agape. God doesn’t just feel love; God IS love. It says in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Because if you know Him, you know love, and where there is love God is present. When one of us goes to the prisoner to show solidarity, God is there. When you go to give warmth through clothing, God is there. When you welcome the foreigner, the refugee, the stranger, God is there.

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:41-46

Our fate is clear; it is a choice. Will we be a people who chooses to care for the sick? Who gives asylum to the stranger? Who quenches thirst and satisfies hunger? Or will we choose to be a people lost to our basest fears?

 

 

Reflection on Love

“…A bad person can receive the sacrament of the body and blood of the Lord, for is said, “All who eat and drink unworthily, eat and drink judgment on themselves.” [1 Cor. 11:29] A bad person can have the name of Christ and be called a Christian. Such people are referred to when it says, “They polluted the name of their God.” [Ezek. 36:20] To have all these sacraments is, as I say, possible even for a bad person. But to have love and be a bad person is impossible. Love is the unique gift, the fountain that is yours alone. The Spirit of God exhorts you to drink from it, and in so doing to drink from himself.

Excerpt from St. Augustine’s Love Sermon, italics added for emphasis

I haven’t figured out much of anything, but I feel like if someone were to ask me what God called us to as his children, I would summarize it thusly: Let love overflow from you; let love be the foundation of your words and your actions. Have every step be a movement born out of love.

This does not mean things like grace, truth, justice, etc. aren’t important. They surely are and we know they can co-exist; in fact to love is to be honest rather than deceive, to show grace in the face of injury, to seek justice for the oppressed and marginalized. But if we lead with justice, we often miss opportunities for grace. If we lead with truth, we sometimes lack compassion. The foundation must be love. If it is not built on love, what will lead you?

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:7-8

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” 1 John 4:16

Reiterated, perhaps because it is so hard for humanity to fully understand, is the fact that God is love. It is not saying God feels love but rather that God’s very nature is that of love; that to love is to be in relationship with God and to be unloving is to not know God.

How are we to love? This is perhaps the hardest part, because we are not called to love just the people we like. Not to limit it to only our family and friends. Jesus was perfect but he didn’t love only perfect people. He spent a tremendous amount of time loving those who were seen as untouchable, despised, neglected, marginalized and cursed. What is Christ’s response to these people? To all people?

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3:16-18

We are not meant to love from a distance because God does not love like that; God is relational and personal. It is worth noting that God is love because our God is Triune. A solitary God before creation could not be love without having another to love. Love is communal; it requires plurality. We cannot truly love in solitude and although our God is one, our God is also three.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” John 1:1-3

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'” Genesis 1:26

So we see that they were together from the beginning; that they were one but also separate (I know, it can sound confusing and we can’t fully comprehend it but think of it more as 1x1x1=1 instead of the more confusing 1+1+1=1). Most often we can understand God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit more easily through their relationship. Described by St. Augustine through the lens of love, the Trinity can be discerned through seeing God as the lover, Jesus as the Beloved and the Holy Spirit as love.

“And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'” Mark 1:11

“And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Romans 5:5

Love is such a big part of this story; in fact I would say the entire story is about love. Jesus even told us the two most important commandments were to LOVE God with all our hearts, soul and mind and to LOVE our neighbor as we LOVE ourselves. To know God is to love the way God loves. It is a reckless sort of love, a love the abides even in the midst of rejection, disappointment, failure, and disobedience. It is love at a cost to oneself. A sacrificial love; an abundant love. It is a love that whispers in the darkness, “You are loved and you can love.”