Sunday, December 11, 2011

Longing for Messiah

The pastor was calling us to do something.

He was asking us to actively seek.

He was inferring that perhaps, with all the craziness all around us, all the busyness, all the hullabaloo, we might actually need to be a little more intentional about listening for the story of advent, the voice of God, the word of light.  We might actually need to, I don't know, turn things off.  Take time away.  Create space.  He didn't call us to a fast per se.  But he did ask us to write down a specific thing we might do in order to, you know, listen.

Good for him.

Normally I would be elated and affirmed in the chance to delight over the church community moving in sync with that which the Spirit is moving in me.  This time, however, I was just a little annoyed.

"Really? Ya think?" is what I found myself thinking.  It was more a rueful sentiment than any kind of bitterness.  It was like I had been out gathering wood for the winter when, at the first sign of snow, my neighbor finally poked his head out and said, "Oh, I guess we should get ready for cold weather, huh?"

I suppose.  If one were going to do something like that, yes, this would be a good time.  Though frankly, and I say this without malice: It's a little late.  The wood will be cold and a little damp now - not that you can't dry it and use it.  But ... what were you thinking???

It's like being a vegetarian and having someone come up to you and say, "That seems like a neat idea. I'm going to be a vegetarian for a week."  You might think, "Good for you."  But you might also kind of roll your eyes and get back to your life.

Because for you it IS a life.

As soon as the pastor made the call to response, my spirit rejoiced in the sacred, communal moment that followed, as if it was saying ...


And that's when it hit me.

O God how I miss sacred community.

How I miss the reverent among the mundane, the divine in the midst of the ordinary, the transcendent among the broken, the beautiful alongside the normal.

I miss the Concert of Prayer.  I miss the prayer walks.  I miss the brothers and sisters who sat on the floor in the Westside Room, late afternoon sun streaming through the wall of windows, and wept over each other's lives.  We were the church to each other. Once.  I miss the 'liturgical service' and I miss the band.  I miss the place where I could go to worship and be a part.  I miss the crazy people whose lives were a freaking mess but who actually heard God's voice and it changed them.

I haven't left my church but I wonder if my heart has.  I do not find worship there anymore.  I find wonderful people, beautiful people, even.  But I do not find the Spirit of God moving in and among them communally, whispering over their lives and hearts, disrupting things.

A friend made this observation: "People don't go to your church to get real," she said.  "They go there to hide."

At first I cracked the comment up to the usual accusation of hypocrisy in the church.  (In case you haven't noticed, hypocrisy is human nature.  Most people are duplicitous.  Most of us hide, and often that hiding can be and is appropriate in some ways.  But that's a different story.)  Then I dismissed it because, well, if people REALLY wanted to hide, why would they go to church at all?  They could just stay home.  It seemed a bit of a non sequitur.  But as I thought about it, I realized that it was true.   I don't hear people practicing a whole lot of confession at my church (though it does happen here and there).  People don't come to my church and bare their souls or expose their brokenness, you know?  They don't seem to come to be particularly real or messy or present. What does one do with that?  What does one do about it?

Maybe it is happening elsewhere.  Maybe it is supposed to happen elsewhere and my pining is more a reflection of what is lacking in my life than what is lacking in my church.  And I love the people at my church.  But this is where my advent journey has left me...

Still longing for Messiah.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

In the Midst

Reinvent Advent (part five)
An excerpt from Letters to an Atheist

I don't believe in God because of an argument written by a man who studied Hebrew and the ancient near eastern cultures to present me with a functional ontology of creation.  I don't believe in God because our doctrines are particularly reasonable; it is, after all, an issue of faith.  Fundamentalism contributed to my oppression as a woman; that is certainly not why I believe in God.  I do not believe in God because it is the best answer out there, though it may be, and in many ways I find that it is, particularly in this: It offers me hope.  But that isn't even why I believe in God.

I believe in God because a man was tortured and died in order that I might have the invitation to believe in God.  I believe in God because I heard about his suffering and it both broke my heart and it touched me in a way that I had not been touched before.  Hearing the story of the Messiah, it was as if he were in the room with me testifying to me himself. It was like experiencing intimacy for the first time - intimacy with a man who died, intimacy with a God who lives.  It is an unreasonable reason.  But life is unreasonable. Humanity is unreasonable. I am unreasonable.  Whoever claims otherwise is the most unreasonable of all.

I believe in God because I accepted that sacrifice.  I accepted it.  That's all.  I accepted that it was for me, that it covered me.  I believed that I was in need of forgiveness, in need of saving.  I agreed with this man and with this God; I accepted his forgiveness and I was filled with love for him, with gratitude, and with a desire to experience that intimacy again, a desire to serve him and be close to him.

I believe in God because I decided to trust him.  I don't care about the fallacies of literalist thinking - I mean, I do because I think literalists often act like morons, but I don't care.  Literalists did not keep me from God; they did not keep me from believing.  They hurt me but God was there.  God was with me.  God was in the midst.

I believe in God because I learned to trust him.  I believe in God because he was there that first moment of believing and he has been there every moment since.  I believe in God because he granted me just the tiniest glimpse of his very presence and it changed my world, it changed my very soul.  And somehow he continues to do it over and over and over again.  I knew him.  I can know him.  I want to know him.

I believe in God, simply, because he helped me.  I did not cry out to him, but he called to me.  I did not know I needed him until he spoke.  And then when I prayed, he answered.  He helped me when I was 13.  He helped me when I was 25.  He helps me even now.

I have chosen to honor God with my decisions, with my body.  And just as God was in the midst of flawed fundamentalism, God was with me and God was in me even though I still carried despair and self-loathing, even though I was a fractured spirit.  In this one thing I know who I am.

I believe in God because he spoke to me in ways I could not understand and made me understand.  I believe in God because he spoke to my spirit and told me the truth and He continues to do so now.  And the truth - it sets me free.  When or if he stops, I will die, and I will die seeking him, for there is no other way for me to live.  I believe in God because he Himself challenged fundamentalism and showed me its flaws, and he shows me that he is still there.

He is in the sometimes meaningless rituals, because he is not dependent on man's heart or man's understanding, he supersedes it; he is in the midst.  He is in the sickening intellectualism, the constant debating.  He was there among the pharisees.  They wailed and moaned and all the while he was there, saving people, rescuing them, healing them, loving them, challenging them, dying for them.  He was there in the midst.  And even when they killed him they could not choke him out.  Though intellectualism slay me as fundamentalism did, God is still here.I don't believe in God because of people or even in spite of people.  I don't care.  I believe because I tasted intimacy and I want it.  Nothing else is even worth my attention; nothing is worth my time.  I want Christ.  I want his Revelation.  I prefer his suffering.  I want his Peace.  I need his wisdom.  There is nothing that makes this life worth living except for him.

Let others do or say whatever they must, but I must have The Messiah.

Paul had all the right teachings in probably their purest possible form and they did not bring him life or salvation.  He had righteousness.  He had power.  He had religious standing.  He had the promise of a covenant!  It did him no good.  And the Messiah was in the midst of it even so.  And it was the Messiah that saved him.

That is the Messiah I know.  And as disillusioned as I am with Paul, we have that in common; we are siblings, co-heirs.  We are one and the same.  Because just as God is in the midst of flawed fundamentalism, God was in the midst of Paul, just as He is in my midst as well.

I don't do this because it gives me life.  I do this because God gives me life.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Lamp-Post and the World in Need of Light

Reinvent Advent (part four)
An Excerpt from an Essay written for Theology of Creation

The leaves have fallen. The grass is brown and coarse. The light has given up its early mornings and early evenings to cold, to dark. It is as if Death has hung its cloak upon the sun, and the grey and dormant garment has settled lightly but solemnly over the earth. These are the sights in which we look for and to advent. It is a poignant setting, a fitting context for a journey into a creational redemptive theology. The advent story, draped in death, is one that whispers of something new. It offers and speaks life, the hope for it, and the need of it.

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined" (Isaiah 9:2). This passage speaks of a very specific, concrete experience of darkness not unlike that which we see and hear and feel with the coming of winter, though its context is a death born of oppression rather than fallen leaves, and a chill wrought by exile rather than a few more hours of night. It was in this darkness, to the people who lived and walked and made their lives in its shrouds, that light came. And it is no accident that it is light that came, light that was spoken over and into this place and this people. Regardless as to whether darkness is oppression, sin, chaos, nothingness, death, or merely the absence of function and purpose and relationship, it was light that God spoke first and in the beginning, light that God brought to bear to create.

The incarnation is first and foremost an act of creation, whether ex nihilo or otherwise. Is it any wonder that John begins his own advent narrative by returning to the moment of creation and retelling the story so that we might understand the coming of Christ? The very nature of conception and birth is our corporeal participation in God's creative work, his creative charge, and his creative blessing. It is in keeping with that initial design of ongoing, developing potential, re-creation, and the begetting of something new, something different, something more. The nature of Isaiah's prophetic voice is its link between God's first creative word of light to the light of Christ. The advent story captures in its stark simplicity the strains of suffering and darkness alongside the disruptive wonder of creation, and the exquisite yet painful beauty that is the place where these two meet: Redemption.

Consider the juxtaposition as presented in The Magician's Nephew, by C. S. Lewis. The scene is darkness, a distinct absence of movement or life, like an empty stage in a theater in the off-season, closed and locked-up tight. Several characters have stumbled into the scene and stand a moment in the emptiness.
In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing ... Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them ... There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it ... Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count ... cold, tingling, silvery voices. And the second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars (p. 116-117). 
In the midst of that exquisite moment of creation, there stood among the witnesses she who was the potential for this new world's suffering:
Suddenly the Witch stepped boldly out toward the Lion. It was coming on, always singing, with a slow heavy pace. It was only twelve yards away. She raised her arm and flung the iron bar straight at its head. Nobody ... could have missed at that range. The bar struck the Lion fair between the eyes (p. 127). 
The reader understands at this point exactly how this evil, this potential suffering, this risk has come. It was a child's mistake, his sin, foolishness, and selfishness that brought the Witch to Narnia in that moment. The Christian studying the story of our own creation gains a greater insight. The very nature of God's creative work is that of giving and allowing the voice of Other to speak, to have an impact on God himself. Thus, the scandal of creation is that it allows the same potential for suffering to find its voice, too. Even as light is spoken into the dark places - in the creation story, in Isaiah's story, and in the story of advent - the potential for suffering is a painful reality, the great risk of God's profound move to create.

Yet, Lewis' tale goes on to describe a remarkable image of redemption, redemption as the effect of creation on the first act of evil:
The bar struck the Lion fair between the eyes. It glanced off and fell with a thud in the grass. The lion came on ...
"Hullo! What's that?" said Digory. He had darted forward...
"I say, Polly," he called back. "Do come and look."
It was a perfect little model of a lamp-post, about three feet high but lengthening, and thickening in proportion, as they watched it; in fact growing just as the trees had grown.
"It's alive too - I mean, it's lit..."
"Don't you see?" said Digory. "This is where the bar fell - the bar she tore off the lamp-post at home. It sank into the ground and now it's coming up as a young lamp-post" (p. 130-131).
The beauty of this image - the image of something dead and lifeless, a bit of metal torn from its own purpose for that of destruction, offered in violence with the intention of death - is that creation is not stopped. It has its way with even this substance, this malicious act, and the result is redemption. The result is new life, light, and purpose, not just in the moment of re-creation, but in the ongoing story of re-creation. This is the lamp-post that greets Lucy generations later. This is the light that guides her into - and here is the image of darkness again - a Narnia in perpetual winter, a Narnia in need of life and light, a Narnia in need of ... advent ... in need of Christmas.

This is what I consider as the leaves fall and the days grow dark; we are a world in need of light, in need of advent, in need of Christmas.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sex, Vulnerability, and Advent (Oh. My.)

Reinvent Advent (Part Three)

I have been fascinated by the reference in scripture describing man as the head of woman.  Some interpretations of this passage (in conjunction with others) have had no small part in the dehumanization and exploitation of women and the detriment of the human race at large.  I have presented it in a previous blog as it appears in the context of Christ as head (who, not considering his headship as something to be grasped, became a servant, a slave) as well as in the context of the mutual submission (we are as connected and dependent on one another as the head is to the body and the body to the head).

So, this may sound crazy, but I'm wondering about this passage and the notion of responsiveness.  Like, what if it's hinting at the way we are designed to be responsive to one another?  For example, men are renown for being responsive to the body: Theirs; Anybody else's. You get the drift.  They have a reputation for being obsessed with sex and prone to self gratification because they are tuned to be responsive to something.  So what if this hardwire is a design strategy meant for good instead of evil?  What I mean is, in the context of relationship and this whole head/body metaphor, a man's body isn't connected to him - it's running around out in the world with a mind of its own - and unless a man is responsive to that body, how will he ever be able to take care of it?

"This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh ... and what in the hell is it doing now???"

Seriously, the only way a guy is going to be able to respond well is if he learns how to hear and feel what this body has to say.  He has to learn the language.  He has to value what that body is communicating about what it needs, what is good, and what is going on in the world.  He has to take that as seriously as he takes his own body, because if he does not, well, he is like a head cut off.

It seems ironic that Christianity doesn't teach this kind of connectivity; men just generally aren't taught how to use their responsiveness to connect instead of dominate, decide, rule, self-gratify, or isolate.  And considering all the shame they are likely to feel when they offer themselves and the response they get is "that is not good," I can't entirely blame them for resorting to control tactics, self gratification, and isolating behaviors.  Isn't that what women do when they hear "you are not beautiful or worthwhile"?  I don't think either one of us have understood that crucial bit of information that says, "This other person is like your body, your head! You better figure out what is going on with it or, frankly, you'll die."

In fact, isn't that what makes it a great metaphor for Christ?  He was responsive to what was happening in his body.  And he knew that, unless he responded to care for it, it would die, relationship would die, everything he had worked so hard to create - the ongoing gift of life - would die.This is the kind of responsiveness God demonstrated with creation from the beginning! He gave it the opportunity to have a voice and it had an impact on him. He sought it out, he listened to it, and he responded. It changed everything.

I sometimes wonder if that is why women are urged to "respect" men: If men are responding the way they are designed to, then they are in a unique position to be exploited themselves.  Further, I think this is where the language of submission can be helpful if we understand it not as a hierarchy, but as an offering.  In other words, one way to understand submit is "to give."  I give this to you; I submit it for your consideration.  Women have to give their responses to men, the good the bad and the ugly, so that men can know what is good ... and bad ... and ugly.

This puts me in mind of the story of Esther and the way she presented herself to the King. From the beginning she offered herself in humility & vulnerability.  Even when she broke custom and interrupted his counsel, throwing herself at his mercy, she used every bit of her authority ... to be vulnerable yet again.  She submitted herself. She gave what she had.  Not just her beauty. Not just the things that made the King look good or feel good.  She gave it all.  Praise God that the King was responsive, for she had vital information for his welfare and the welfare of her people - his people.

I think about sex.  (Yes, I think about sex.)  I think about the fact that men want the sex act to be mutually pleasing and when it isn't, they tend to take it personally.  It feels as if it is about them and their adequacy.  They can feel like failures.  They can feel rejected.  If they are wired to respond and take care of the body, that kind of makes sense.  If they are being vulnerable, that makes sense.  Ironically, that vulnerability means that they are functioning as designed, and that is why it is so crucial that women respond in vulnerability, too, and NOT hide their responses.  It cannot be mutual unless he knows what is good and what isn't.  That's what makes sex so freaking vulnerable for both parties.  He has to try and she has to say, "Not like this, like that."

Okay, that was awkward, but I thought it pertinent.

Because vulnerability is what the story of Christ - and the passage about headship and servanthood and mutual submission - is all about.  We are called to be vulnerable with one another, to be open to risk.  And we, both men and women alike, have to learn how to do that in honoring, edifying ways, ways that make it as safe as possible for continued vulnerability.  We kind of have to get naked with each other, so to speak, and stop our hiding.  It is our way of undoing what was done in the garden.

Now, what does this have to do with advent?  Oh, you mean the ultimate story of vulnerability?  If God coming in the flesh, being born of a virgin and cared for by a man who is not his father doesn't sound like the same story of demolished hierarchies, responsiveness, servanthood-headship and the giving kind of submission, I don't know what does.

But if this is the message of advent, it is terrifying.  How many of us want to be called upon as Joseph was?  (But we are.)  And how many of us want to put ourselves in such a place of vulnerability, as Mary did?  (Yet we must.)

So here is to another advent, and another hope of new life.

*     *     *

Please note, if anything that I've said sounds anything like an appeal to make oneself vulnerable or submit to abuse, that is NOT what I mean.  I do believe that there is a vulnerable, God-honoring way to approach abuse and exploitation.  I know for me, it was terribly vulnerable to open myself up to rejection by articulating a boundary.  I had to draw a line in the sand and say, "No, you aren't going to do this to me anymore," and it meant that I had to accept his decision when he chose his addiction over me.  It was excruciatingly vulnerable to forgive and let him go.  Everyone's circumstances are different and must be treated differently.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Reinvent Advent (part two)

People scoffed at me for beginning an advent fast before the first official Sunday launching the season. Heck, people scoffed at me for fasting during advent at all. But I confess I consider it their loss, for I am crying out for the Messiah, expecting Him, preparing a place for Him. And what else is advent about?  What could be more important or pressing, especially this time of year?  For surely I have already seen the space that I have set aside being claimed by the Spirit of God.  It is as if, long before I even thought to desire and wait in expectation for Him, He was waiting in expectation, longing for me. And so it was that advent began for me with a Wednesday evening worship service, one that I attended because of a very special offering of amends.

Prepare the way for the Lord...

Interestingly, both the relationship through which that amends came and the service itself were frail and rather unremarkable.  Yet in their simplicity, surely they were ordained to bear Emmanuel. That is what I found in them that night: God With Us.  God with us - in Humility and Repentance. God with us in Promise.  God with us in Confession and Remembering.  God with us in Community, Family, Knowing and Being Known.  Do not mistake me, these were not ideas that were taught that night. They were not notions that were given tribute in words.  These were the things that actually happened while I was there.

And speaking of knowing and being known, in just four short days of celebrating advent, God has already been making things known, making Himself known.  I stumbled across a verse from Acts (2:28):

He has made known the way, the journey...

God has made it clear that He has called me.  There is no mistaking it. There is no talking around it anymore.  There is no doubting it.  He reminded me today that He has called me very specifically to speak vision into the lives of others; to see His story, to hear it, and to speak it so that others might see it, be invited by it, and live into it, too.  His story, it is adventure.  His story, it is life.  His story is freedom, it's love, it's healing.  His story is transformation.  And His story, it is personal.  It is speaking all around us and we are desperate for it. We are dying without it - slow, endless, painful deaths.  If I am called to minister, this is my ministry.  If I am called to preach, this is how I must preach.  I have known this for some time now, but honestly, I forgot.  And do you know why I forgot?  Because I am desperate to hear God's story myself.

He has made known the paths of life...

The very first verse I ever memorized was a prayer from Psalm 25 (4-5):

Teach me your ways, O Lord
show me your paths
guide me in your truths and teach me
for you are God my Savior
and my hope is in you all day long.

Even before the day that I renounced my covenant with death, God began teaching me a new way, a way of life.  That was the only reason I could renounce death.  And in spite of the last two years, He is still teaching me.  This very afternoon I slammed face-first into the fact that I need to be told God's story. I need to hear the narrative that bestows God's meaning - and therefore God - to my experience.  It is the very breath of life.  It is then that I am quickened. It is then that I am stirred.  It is then that I have strength for the journey and love to offer the world.  It is the path of life.

I am not just called, I am in need.

In and with joy, His presence will fill, fulfill, complete...

I need it whispered to me in the dark places. I need to be reminded of it in the light.  For it is when I can hear and see God's story that I can be where He is.  It's not just that I need people to tell me the story that they heard once, the story that they decided to believe.  I don't need the story that they think God is probably telling or should be telling.  I need people to actually listen, listen to the ongoing revelation of God's story in me as well as how it is unfolding in their own lives, as it is manifesting - giving birth to - Emmanuel.  I need them to tell me what they hear and see, lest I miss it, lest I forget, lest I die in need of it even while it is being told all around me.

It dawned on me today that I have experienced this kind of community before in an ongoing nature; I have participated in it, and it fulfilled me. I knew joy once.  But little by little the practice has ebbed, even up to the point that I did not share my testimony this year, as I always do on my anniversary of new life, because somehow I could not hear God's story in it anymore.

How is that even possible?!?

And how is it possible that in four little days of reinventing advent God has already offered so much?

Regardless, on this the first Sunday of Advent, I stand knowing these things full well:

1. I am called to minister, to preach, to speak the vision of God's story to others (and as a sub-text, I know I must be involved in worship through music in the community I serve).

2. With my call comes my own unique need to have others hear and speak God's story to me.  Oh, it's true. I need people.  I need you, my people.  I need God with us.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (?)

Reinvent Advent (part one)

After a fit of weird weather, it is finally getting cold here in Kansas City. A frosty windshield greets me most mornings when I go to work now. The wind has gotten sharp, demanding a scarf and mittens even in the afternoon.  Yes, I think it is safe to say that it is officially that time of year. Traffic has doubled and the stores are so crowded that a simple trip to pick up milk becomes an afternoon endeavor.  It is the time of year when I start to feel this pressing urge to burrow into a happy, dark hole somewhere and hide - the hap-happiest season of all.

Call it a case of the Grinches but there is something about the holiday season that makes me feel particularly anti-social.  Or perhaps it is the time of year that merely spotlights an ongoing antisocial attitude that I otherwise try to smuggle in under the radar.  Regardless, my windshield isn't the only thing getting frosty this November.  For whatever reason, as everyone else is thinking about getting together, my heart kind of aches to be left alone (though maybe not in solitude exactly).

You see, to me, winter is a time to be silent, to wander in the cold in quiet contemplation, to mirror the muted colors and commune with the barren ground, the empty trees, the pale skies.  This is a somber time to me, not festive, and careless crowds and cacophony are distinctly dissonant and particularly obnoxious - irreverent even.  If there is togetherness to be had, it shouldn't be harried, tinny, or shallow.  It should come after one has lain in bed on a grey morning and, after a while, has finally ventured out into a warm kitchen to sit with a few others and sip coffee.  It should start with low, soft tones.  It should move slowly.  It should be a time of savoring and seeing and listening and being.  And all the raucous, the jarring cheer, it so jangles my spirit sometimes that I want to build up a downy, feathered wall about 18 inches thick between me and the rest of the world to mute their carrying on.

This is the time of year that I want to think about what is really important, what is real.  I want to actually examine the year that has gone by, what it meant, what it could mean.  I want to actually give some thought to the year coming up.  I want to pay attention.  I want to feel. 

And sometimes I feel like I am the only one.

Last year I walked through the weeks of advent in just such an effort to examine, to pay attention, and to feel, in the hopes of finding and/or creating my own traditions, traditions that enrich my life, that connect me to others, that connect me to God.  This year I have decided that, from November 23rd to December 23rd, I am going to stage my own minor protest.  I am going to fast - fast eating out, fast any and all movies, who knows, maybe I'll even fast social media.  I want simple meals prepared and eaten at home without spending a lot of money.  I want simple evenings of peace and quiet, that my mind might acclimate again to the world in which I live instead of the over-stimulated land of the non-living.

So, Tuesday next, I am going to go out with a friend after a Thanksgiving service, and when we are done making merry, I am going to give in to my desire to hole up.  I am going to claim my hours as my own and my days for the sacred.

Once upon a time I decided that I did not want to watch others live life, but wanted to, myself, live a life worth watching.  Turns out that is harder than one might think.  I am not sure how exactly I got sidetracked.  I think, honestly, I just got sucker-punched in the ring one afternoon and it's taken a while for the dizziness to go away.  But it's time to reorient.  And what better time to do that than advent?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Girl without a Father

I want to tell you a story about a little girl - a little girl without a father.

She is tall for her age, a little scrawny, with long, stringy, mouse-brown hair that cascades down her back. From these locks peer freckles and a lopsided smile, her simple grey eyes mostly hidden. Photographs always seem to catch her thus, with her hair in her eyes, a dirty face and, for a period of time, missing her two front teeth.

She is a tomboy in a sun dress.  She gathers her skirt around her legs in a most unladylike fashion and rides her dirt bike through the dusty, wheat-colored fields near the low-income housing track that is her home.  She likes to play with toy cars, racing them through sawdust and then marrying them off in front of all their car friends (because everybody knows that the Jaguar always has had a thing for the Camaro).  She likes to build forts out of left-over building materials; bits of two-by-fours and concrete blocks become castles and elaborate homes with vaulted ceilings and walls of windows.  She creates obstacle courses and pretends she is a great warrior, tracking through jungles, fording rivers, climbing trees to ... get to the other side.  She gets into fights with the little boys down the street and she beats them up. They love her for it.

In fact, she is one of those little girls that always manages to work her way into the hearts of those around her.  She can be as quiet as a church mouse, those veiled eyes quick but guileless.  But she is also prone to bursting forth in dance with great abandon and delight. She makes up little songs about silly, inane things, like advertising jingles for con-artists.  She assigns theme songs to her pets.  She sings them in her breathy, little-girl voice all the while grinning like a cheshire cat.  And speaking of cats, sometimes she even fancies herself to be one. Still other times she is a WWF wrestler.  But most often she likes to think she is a filly, and she gallops embarrassingly through grocery stores whinnying at the other patrons.

Okay, so maybe she is a strange child, but certainly a very imaginative one.  In fact, she has an imaginary stallion that travels with her on the long car rides to grandma and grandpa's house by running alongside the vehicle - just off the edge of the road - leaping over fences and dodging through cross traffic.  Her imaginary horse has a friend, an imaginary bird much like a hawk, and the bird often accompanies them, too, flying overhead as they go.

If you met her, you would find that she is surprisingly shy.  You would see her eyes grow serious and watchful under those chaotic brown tresses.  You would forget she is there as you get into your adult conversations with others around you - that is, until she pipes up with a witty or insightful comment.  Then you would look at her with surprise and wonder, "How could such a young child be listening so intently and understand so much?"

But what you wouldn't see - what you would never see even if you watched every moment of her little girl life - is a little girl with her father.

You would never see her crawl up into someone's lap and cry until comforted.  When she cries, she cries alone; she cries until she cries herself to sleep.

You would never see her ask for anything, not from anyone.  If she cannot do it herself she will go without.

And you would never, ever see her talking about herself - what she likes, what she doesn't like, what her favorite color is, what she wants to do when she grows up.  She doesn't offer and no one ever asks.

You see, because she has never seen a time when her family was okay.  She has never seen her mother hugged, held, or taken care of.  She's never seen her sisters guarded, protected, or secure.  She has never experienced a man offer a kind word or non-sexual affection.  She has never seen any woman be anything but on her own, by herself or, worse, belittled or abused - and even so young, she thinks it is better to be alone than be abused.

There is a great sadness that this little girl carries, a sadness that she can't articulate, a sadness that she doesn't understand because it's caused by all the things she's never seen.  But she'll never let you see it.  No, she holds it close and she carries it dutifully.  It's her job.  It makes her one of the adults even though she is a nutty little kid.  And she's good at her job.  She takes it seriously.  It motivates her to do well in school, to be a leader, to stand her ground in the face of bullies and in the face of the rejection of her peers.  It pushes her to be strong, to prove herself.  She will be the exception.  She will be the one to take care of things somehow.

But the harder she tries, the more she finds that she's just a little girl.

And the more that she is confronted by the fact that she is just a little girl, the harder she tries.

That is a story of a little girl without a father.

That is my story.

Monday, September 12, 2011

What a Man has to Offer, Part 3

I decided that I should at least make SOME effort to finish SOMETHING I’ve started.  And this started, as most of my endeavors are wont to do, with a random conversation … that developed into a blog post … that developed into a three-part series about … of all things … men. 
So, without further ado, here is a final attempt to describe the valuable things that men have to offer in relationship...
A man who is secure enough in his identity to see his faults and his failures … nay, a man who can look his failure dead in the eye and stare it down as if he’s Daniel Craig in Cowboys and Aliens, this is a man who is welcome to audition for the hero in my Sci-Fi Western just about any day of the week.  But I’m not just talking about a man who can admit when he’s wrong; he has to own his character defects.  He has to accept the consequences of his actions and endeavor to rebuild when necessary; he has to understand what it means to make amends and to live a life worthy of repentance.

There is something breath-catching about humility, something that hints of a backbone made of steel, something that flashes the way Conan’s oiled, bulging muscles glint in the sun.  Real humility is strong. It’s solid. It’s even a little intimidating.

God told me something once.  He said, “It’s not about whether you make a mistake, it’s how you deal with the mistake afterwards that counts.”  He doesn’t say that to everyone, mind you.  He was specifically challenging my perfectionism, my legalism, my neuroticism.  He was teaching me about a humility that doesn’t cling to a fragile idealism, that doesn’t shatter at the mere hint of reality.  Humility doesn’t minimize wrongs.  It embraces them carefully, respectfully, as one embraces someone with a really bad sunburn.  It seeks correction.  It seeks instruction.  It seeks the good.
But humility isn’t just about the integrity demonstrated in the aftermath of a screw up.  Humility acknowledges that one doesn’t have all the answers to begin with.  Humility listens, for example.   Humility says, “Teach me.”  In fact, humility is one of the most formidable weapons one can wield against denial, oppression, and insanity.  And it is intricately intertwined with the next item on the list:
I hesitate to use this word, honestly, lest it tap into or connote something that has to do with money or a capitalist idea of success.  This is not about financial security.  This is about a man who IS secure, who knows who he is and what he’s about, who has grounded his identity in the Creator not the created.  This goes back to the Daniel Craig metaphor; it takes a secure man to admit his wrongs, his character defects.  A fragile man cannot face them.  They are too scary.  They mean too many things.  They are too overwhelming, too awful, too depressing.  They don’t feel good and they obliterate easy answers.  A man who finds his security in something bigger than himself can feel and he can feel bad.  He doesn’t need to have answers. He can be in difficult situations and not know what to do and it’s okay.
Secure identity, like many things on this list, is not something that one just decides to have or do.  It has to be sought.  It has to be built over time.  It is something for which to be fought.  It has to be valued and chosen again and again.  It has to be wrought in one’s spirit by a power greater than self.  But when it is sought, it can be offered, and when it is offered, I thoroughly and completely agree with John Eldredge: It creates a safe space for a woman to feel and be feminine and to offer herself, too.
But, enough with the vague and abstract, the deep and philosophical!  I think I shall conclude this epic with some old-fashioned, concrete, social-science concepts…
The Ability to Tolerate Negative Emotion and to Delay Gratification
A man who runs from difficult feelings is a coward. Take it from a woman who runs from difficult emotions.  It’s childish.  It’s selfish.  It’s unattractive.  It’s destructive.  
This is not about masochism.  This is not about codependency or martyrdom.  Those things are not gifts in relationship - they are nasty life-suckers. But a man who chooses to feel and who can tolerate discomfort, anxiety, sadness, and even anger without jumping ship, rescuing, judging, attacking, criticizing, or wallowing has got an amazing strength to offer - a substantive, lasting kind of strength that isn’t blown about like a sailboat in a hurricane.
Directly related: The ability to delay gratification.  This is the foundation for that backbone of steel, the whey protein for those glinting muscles.  Most guys don’t bother to cultivate these gifts, let alone offer them, because they aren’t easy and they don’t produce instant results.  No woman is going to pass a guy on the street and do a double-take, whispering to her friends, “Dang, did you see that guy’s ability to delay gratification?! I want a ride like that in my back yard!”
I may have inadvertently created a double entendre there.  Oh well.  The point is, well, that IS the point.  Who wants to tolerate negative emotions and delay gratification when all it’s going to mean is having to do it, well, more?  But this is the gift of long-term relationship.  This generates the kind of respect that follows you for a lifetime.  This isn’t Johnny Depp as Captain Jack; it’s Orlando Bloom as the new Davy Jones.  It’s going to take the right girl being in the right place in a once-every-ten-years-kind-of-way in order to really appreciate it.  But oh, the appreciation!  Of course, that isn’t even the point, either.  The point is to develop respect for oneself, that’s the point.
Now, for those of you who have demonstrated the ability to tolerate negative emotions and to delay gratification long enough to make it this far, I have a bonus for you.  The list was supposed to end here but there is one more thing, one more gift a man can offer:
Once upon a time in a white, Euro-American culture, it was manly to be the lone ranger, to go it alone, to prove yourself by yourself by doing it yourself.  Perhaps this is a necessary element of some stage of our development as people.  Maybe it might even be a rite of passage for men.  Okay. I can accept that.  And if there is any doubt, be sure to revisit gift number four on the list: Adulthood is a hot commodity.  But with just the tiniest bit of digging, we have discovered that no man ever did it alone.  A man in isolation is just a needy creeper in sheep’s clothing - sometimes in wolf’s clothing - and no little girl dreams of someday being a man’s soul support.  In fact, if a woman has fantasized about her wedding (and not all of them do, mind you), it’s most often about the communal delight.  A woman wants to rejoice with others in you, and she wants others to delight with you in her and in your relationship.  
Go read Song of Soloman.  It’s in the Bible.  
But more than delight, this also goes back to a man being an adult and developing his social skills.  A healthy man invests in relationships besides the romantic.  He invests in the world. He invests in life.  How do you think he learns how to be in a romantic relationship?  He needs friendships. He needs mentors, brothers, sisters.  He needs accountability.  How do you think he builds all these character traits I’ve been cooing over?  He serves.  He finds purpose in that which is larger than himself.
I love it when a romantic interest wants to be a part of my life, wants to meet my friends and include them, when he cares about my world, my family. I also love it when he invites me into his world, a world that is not shabby and neglected and bereft of human contact but filled with people who know him, people who respect him and whom he respects.  It tells me I’m not in it alone - we’re not in it alone.  It provides safety.  It prepares a place for relationship to grow.  It empowers me.  It empowers us.  I want him to have someone to whom he has confessed his deepest darkest secrets, and in general I’d prefer it not to have been a woman.  I want him to have friends who can talk sense into him when he’s not thinking straight.  I want to know people are encouraging him to follow God, holding him up, and holding him accountable.  I want to know he’s taken the time to invest in and create that.  When a man offers himself to community and he offers community to relationship, he offers something larger than himself, something more than he alone can give.  He offers life.
*     *     *
Until we meet again,

Friday, August 26, 2011

What a Man has to Offer, Part 2

This is not my usual attempt at an extensive, cohesive expose with carefully chosen words and hyper-sensitive phrasing. This is me attempting to articulate the things I look for in relationship, the things that I find valuable in relationship, the things that I hope men might want to offer.  Inspired by a random conversation (where you can read about the first 3 qualities) and a smattering of dating experiences (as well as one 8-year marriage), here is the next installment of my perspective on What a Man has to Offer:

4. Adulthood (& Playfulness)

Speaking of innate attractiveness, a man who has accepted responsibility for his life is pretty hot. I'm talking about some of the basic tasks of being an adult, like how to manage his time and his space, the ability to go grocery shopping and do laundry and accomplish at least some basic cooking techniques, and endeavoring to do and create the things that he wants in life instead of waiting for someone else to do it for him.  A man who doesn't see himself as being half a person waiting for the other half to come do the things necessary for him to be an adult offers the possibility for adult relationship.

Newsflash: Women don't like to be nags, but often times they are ...invited... into that role by a man who acts like a child.  Just sayin'.

I sincerely think that part of what it means to be an adult is NOT expecting someone else to do it for you.  That's not to say that one doesn't have limitations, weaknesses, particular gifts, graces, and preferences; that's not to say that one should not look for a complimentary partner.  But as soon as a man moves into a position of putting off life-tasks and making them someone else's responsibility, he stops offering relationship and starts looking for someone to "fill a role."  This is just as true of women as it is of men, and in both cases, it's pretty unattractive.

On the flip side of being an adult, when I studied male temperament and personality theory in college, one author presented the notion that every man has a little boy aspect to his personality.  He has boyish energies and boyish delights and boyish playfulness.  I think a man who learns how to invite and initiate play in his grown up relationships offers more than he will ever know - joy, fun, personhood, laughter, respite, and repair - just to name a few.

5. A Defined Sense of Self & Good Boundaries

It is a gift to know what a man is thinking, what his values are, what he wants in his life.  It can actually be inviting and comforting to know what a man doesn't want, what he has questions about, what causes him angst.  It is a pleasure to be in a relationship with a man who has deemed himself worthy enough to know who he is, or at least to engage in the process of knowing, and who is learning how to offer [communicate] that in honoring, life-giving ways.  It is also extremely attractive when a man has the self respect to know how to take care of himself, drawing lines to steward his heart, mind, and energy.

In an unusual example, I had a friend with whom I went on a couple dates.  As he learned about my story, at a very appropriate time and in an incredibly respectful way, he shared some things with me very honestly and specifically about his own struggles, temptations, and past.  He shared because he had faced his own demons, if you will, and taken responsibility for them.  They weren't eradicated, but he owned them and owned who he wanted to be.  He was actively engaged in the process of accepting and respecting himself even as he fought his own battles to be a man.  Even though some of his struggles were similar to those that destroyed my marriage, I only ever felt respected and protected by this man. We were able to develop a friendship as a result, a friendship that meant, when it came time for him to share his story with another woman he began to date, he asked me for my feedback and advice.  He had heard me communicate my respect for his story but he had felt rejected so many times before, he was wondering if he should take the risk with her.  My answer: YES!  You, your story, your gifts and your struggles, are of infinite value to a woman who is healthy and real.  Hiding your story or who you are because you're afraid you won't get a particular kind of response or relationship, men, is ugly, dishonest, and manipulative.  But a man who has taken 'a fearless and searching moral inventory,' if you will, does not hide from himself or others, and offers something of infinite value in relationship: Intimacy - with a REAL person.

A man who knows himself also knows (or is endeavoring to discover) the lines he needs to draw to honor and protect himself and relationship. What woman doesn't want honor and a sense of being protected in relationship - or the knowledge that her relationship is being guarded even when she's not aware?

6. Partnership

Arguably, culturally defined and generally accepted gender roles can serve a significant purpose in that they help people know how to act in socially acceptable ways as they grow up.  They can provide a foundation from which to explore the world, self, and relationship.  They can be a diving board for identity development and they can also facilitate the development of partnerships when people do not know how to engage in that process more intentionally.  It may be easier for me to partner with someone who has the same cultural expectations about the roles we will take in relationship with one another because it means we have to talk about it less and it doesn't require a lot of skills in exploring what our values mean to each of us.  It could free us up to do other things.  It can make things more intuitive and maybe require a lot less work.  And I sincerely think that the nature of creating partnership is overlooked in this innate and sometimes unexamined process.

So I will use a couple word pictures to describe the value of what a man has to offer related to the creation of a partnership...

If a man were to go into business with another man, he probably wouldn't expect someone else to tell him exactly what roles they each would take or how much each should invest.  No, upon determining that they could go into business together, they would probably endeavor to find out how much it would cost and evaluate how much each could put down.  Maybe one guy has the tools and the other guy has the money.  Maybe one guy has administrative skills and the other guy people skills.  Maybe they find that they're both good at all of it and they just work really well together on the job.

A man offers the possibility for the most dynamic, most effective cooperation when he brings this perspective of co-creation and partnership into relationship.  It's like the contrast between the old-school way of doing church: You teach Sunday School because Sunday School teachers are needed. Contrast this to singing on the Worship Team because God has given you a passion for music and a heart for creative adoration of the Creator.  It's not that the former is bad.  Sometimes we have to work, we have to do things that are not our preference, we have to fill a role.  This is part of being an adult and functioning in the real world (that isn't set up to cater to our individuality, by the way).  But how much more do you have to offer, how much more free do you become, in the second scenario?

A man who is interested in getting to know the person on the other side of the relationship, who asks questions for the purpose of finding out what can be created together, offers a once in a lifetime opportunity.  A man who is willing to ask and to learn offers himself and others the chance to be more than  they can be by themselves.

*     *     *

Adulthood, playfulness, definition, boundaries, and partnership ... I guess I technically sneaked a few more into this second batch than I let on.  I am also keenly aware that life and relationship would probably be a lot  better (and a lot easier on men) if women practiced these things as well.  In other words, women have a lot to offer in these areas, too, but again, it seems like men feel a greater resonance with other values.  Maybe they feel like there are gifts that women can offer but don't.  Maybe women don't understand how valuable some things are to men.  Either way, I find myself wondering as I compose my last list ... What does a woman have to offer?  How would a woman answer that question as opposed to a man?  Perhaps that is a topic for another blog.  Until then, stay tuned for the final three ... or four ... ideas about just what a man has to offer relationship.

Coming soon to a blog near you.

Near this one.

Here, actually.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What a Man has to Offer, Part 1

“Men want to feel useful.”  

It was a side comment in an ongoing discussion about masculinity and femininity, gender roles and Christianity.  I think it was an attempt to describe why some men, particularly more “conservative” Christian men, feel intimidated or threatened by anything that sounds like women’s lib.

Though the statement offered a tremendous amount of insight into and opportunity to understand the person who said it, it did not clarify for me anything that seemed to be innately - or uniquely - masculine.  However, in a roundabout way, it did get me to thinking about men, usefulness, and differing values between the sexes.

Honestly, what does a man have to offer in relationship?  

It makes sense that traits or characteristics that are esteemed by men may be very different than those women value in relationship.  Interestingly, however, some of the most valuable things I think a man has to offer do not seem to be entirely unique to men.  In other words, the things I find myself appreciating most about men (relationally) are not things that I would describe as distinctly masculine traits, nor are they qualities that only men can offer.  But, for whatever reason, they are strangely meaningful, powerful, and desirable in the masculine context - or perhaps they just feel and mean something a little different coming from men.  It might even be that men and women are on different pages about how meaningful certain qualities are, so it is particularly valuable when a man offers certain things.  Whatever the dynamic, here are some initial thoughts in what I see as being a 3-part series on

What a Man has to Offer

1. His Word

Words are powerful.  Perhaps it is true that women in particular want to know that they can trust a man's word, but when we feel like we can count on and invest in the things that men say, that their word is meaningful and substantive, it is freaking Pirate's Gold to us. Seriously, it is like buried treasure in the back yard, and we are die-hard treasure-hunters.  Any adventurer worth her salt is constantly asking things like:  Does he do what he says he will do?  If he has to renegotiate, does he do it with self respect AND respect for others?  Does he value the agreements, commitments and promises he offers others as much as he values doing his own thing and pleasing himself?  Is his yes, yes?  His no, no?  Is he flippant, sarcastic, or a dreamer to the point that those around him can’t take what he says seriously or don’t feel like they can trust what he says?  Do his actions and his words match?

If men want women (or anyone else, for that matter) to respect them, it necessitates that they pay attention to their words; what they say (and therefore what they do about what they say) matters.

2. Sexual Energy and Integrity

A man’s testosterone is a gift - when it is coupled with honor, character, and emotional maturity.  Sexual energy offered in the form of initiative, pursuit, healthy tenacity, curiosity, care for self and others is needed, wanted, desirable, invaluable.  Sexual character that is the integration of sexuality, physiology, emotion, intellect, spirituality, and values - personal, cultural, corporate, relational - is a prize.  Seriously, we're talking the World Cup.  It revs our engines.  It gets our blood going.  It's exciting; it's energizing; it's inspiring.

Let's take the example of Christian men who are proud of their virginity but who have neglected their own social development or are often just as riddled with lust, selfishness, and the objectification of women as the more sexually experienced.  Virginity isn’t the prize; it’s character, integrity, and maturity that turns our heads.  The sex act itself is like the bow - values and the motivation from which they spring are the gift.

Because men are often raised with different cultural (sexual) paradigms, and frankly, because of biochemical differences in the brain, I think men can really overlook the power they possess within the context of their sexuality.  In fact, I wonder what would happen if men didn't see their sexuality as being, oh, I don't know, a burden, isolating, out of control, or even solely personal - their prerogative for self gratification and pleasure.  I see a man's sexuality as something like the power of creativity.  A painter paints partially for himself, for his own expression, but an artist's work is meant to be seen, given, if you will, heard, experienced.  It is designed to impact the world, to touch and impact others.  Sexuality and sexual integrity is bigger than the sex act and I  firmly believe it is meant to be that kind of creative-force gift, offered in and to community.  A man's sexuality can be a source of power and edification in relationship - and frankly, should be.  If passion is energy then sexuality is a nuclear power source, and it is a power that can be hoarded, squandered, ill-stewarded to the point of destruction, or offered to bring electricity to relationship.

I know, I might get a little carried away on the word pictures and metaphors, but get used to it because there's more to come.

The point is, a man who asks himself what he is doing with his sexuality, who takes ownership of it and its expression, is a man who has a lot to offer.

3. Work Ethic

Let me say with some conviction that a man who isn’t afraid to work hard - whether that be in the form of physical exertion or the sacrifice of time, talent, intellect, and passion - offers some of the most valuable aspects of his personhood: His uniqueness, his will, his effort ... his strength.  Just think about the nature of strength: It has to be developed over time, honed, mastered, coupled with wisdom and discernment.  Hard work and strength are synonymous.  Perhaps that is why, on a visceral level, whether he works hard to accomplish something concrete, to contribute to a greater good, to be self-sacrificial, or to improve a relationship, there is something innately attractive about a man who doesn't shy away from hard work.  It is one way he offers his strength.  And it can be particularly valuable when it is applied to relationship itself.

*     *     *

Again, these are my initial reflections based largely on the things that I find valuable and why.  Other concepts like "A Defined Sense of Self," "Curiosity," and even "Personal Care and Hygiene" are floating around in my head as possible additions to the list, but I honestly don't know how this will end.  What would you include?  What do YOU cherish, value, prize?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Post Father's Day Post

I am really grateful for men.

I am really grateful for men like the one who described for me this week what leadership looks like to him after years of figuring it out for himself. He shared from the wealth of his experience about things he learned along the way.  In so doing, he offered insight and affirmation.  He didn't ridicule my experience, questions, challenges, or circumstances.  He also didn't try to fix me.  He talked to me as if I were a leader - because I am.  He talked to me as if I were an equal - because I am.

I am grateful for the man who was big enough to release me from his own ideals and paradigms that I might find God's plan and purpose.  That takes amazing strength and security.  He treated me like a human being, capable of knowing and following God, created uniquely for God's pleasure - because I am.  And I am also grateful for the man who endeavored to understand what it might be like for a woman to want so desperately to know that she was created for God's pleasure - and not man's - because it wasn't enough for him to just feel heard and understood himself.  He practiced mutuality as if it really were mutual - because it is.

I am grateful for the man who was so secure and well-defined that he sat me down one day and told me that he wanted to open doors for me when we were out together. Then he asked my permission to do so.  In fact, I am grateful for every man who has EVER asked my permission when it pertained to something that was mine.  And now that I think about it, I am grateful for every man who has asked. Period.  Asked questions. Shown genuine curiosity.  Demonstrated authentic interest and the desire to learn and know.  I have been treated as if I am valuable and worth knowing - because I am.

I am grateful for the men who aren't afraid to say, "I'm sorry," or "I was wrong"; for the ones who can admit when they've made a mistake and ask for forgiveness; for the ones who can accept their own weaknesses, failures, and limitations and name them as such without making it who they are.  They teach me that I am more than my brokenness - because I am.

I am grateful for the man who wrote a book on the relational spirit and the ways we close off, shut down, or shut out; for the man who wrote about his journey recognizing his own white, Euro-American, oppressive male culture; for the single dad who wrote about how fathers break their children.  I am grateful for the lay leader in my church who was willing to come to my home when my husband was caught in an affair and talk to the two of us in the midst of the devastation, in the midst of the chaos and insanity and mess.  

And one of the reasons why I am so grateful for these men is because I never had a father.  I never had a father to mentor me, to affirm my gifts or abilities or calling.  I never had a father to want what was best for me or to encourage me to live out of what I was created to be.  I never had a father to teach me how I should be treated, to advocate for me, or to ask me questions.  I never had a father to tell me that I was valuable or to embody values around relationship, emotion, communication, and assertiveness as a man.  Through these and many more men, God has been father to me.

So, thank you.  Thank you, men, for fighting the battles you have had to fight to be good leaders, to be secure individuals, to love sacrificially.  Thank you for whatever messages or obstacles or powers you have had to overcome to care, to get involved, to ask, to offer, to figure out how to be men when there isn't clarity on what that even means half the time.  Thank you for being human beings instead of stereotypes.  Thank you.  I am grateful.

That is all.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Beautiful Feminism

"Feminists are not a lonely tribe of women fenced off from the rest of society. Feminists read cookbooks and clip coupons from Sunday supplements. Feminists like to dance, flirt and wear high-heels, often doing all three at the same time. Feminists can like men--and enjoy the process of liking individual men for their own worth instead of valuing all men simply because they're male. Feminists enjoy and value the company of other women. Feminists don't wish they were men; they celebrate their womanhood."

"The point of feminism is not to alienate men, but for women to focus on our own concerns and needs, to establish our own values. These may or may not coincide with the already established values of our dominant culture, just as our concerns and needs may or may not fold neatly into a relationship. The point is to work on making decisions based on choices that are really choices instead of following a script--in other words, it means learning to laugh at what we find funny instead of just following along with the laugh track..."

From an adaptation of They Used to Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted ... read the full article here.

Gina Barreca, Ph.D.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Heart of the Samurai

I was a Samurai once.

Oh yes, it's true.

I have the sword to prove it.

When I was a Samurai, I was specifically in charge of honoring the dead.  I would go out to the battlefield and tend to the fallen, to give them a burial fitting their service and sacrifice.  Each of my comrades was special; I knew something of each story. All had come to fight for something they cherished in their lives, whether family, purpose, or King.  If some had fought more valiantly than others, it did not matter.  In death they were all equal.  In death they were all honored.

I discovered that I was uniquely gifted for this task.  I carried a sense of the sacred with me wherever I went.  I recognized it instantly in my surroundings and circumstances, savoring its meaning as flavor in life and a sweet perfume in death.  I have always been drawn to the eternal, the epic, the generative.  Unique among my comrades, I could honor the stories, honor their memories, honor the peace when others might only see tragedy, endings, and fruitlessness.  I did my job quickly, respectfully, and passionately.

Upon reflection, I consider now that this may be why I was called up in the heat of battle one day.  We had been at war for some time and casualties had been high.  Many had died in what seemed to be senseless skirmishes and I wondered when I would be pulled from my duties to fight beside my brothers and sisters.  Would I finally experience the charge of the field only to be defeated by chance instead of skill?  We could all feel the tension mounting, the crescendo of our cause building in our hearts and minds and ears.  Troops were being called out more quickly.  The sounds of fighting were louder, closer.  It was time for the full force of our army to be brought to bear on our enemy.  That is when I received word.

There was a sudden hush.  The fighting ceased.  In the center of the field between us and our enemy, space opened.  I could see our warriors were weary.  Perhaps it was that they were losing sight of what was precious to them, or beginning to wonder if their side was really the right side to be on.  Whatever the case, my fight, as it would turn out, my task when I was finally called upon to enter into the fray, became a battle for the heart. 

You see, in that moment of respite, I was called forth to speak to the assembled, to read the Samurai Code of Honor, to remind our fellows of all that was meaningful to them, of the oaths that they had taken, and of everything that was on the line.  I stood in the center of that field, my face to the sky, appealing as much to the heavens as to those around me.  Within a stone's throw was my enemy.

To this day I do not know if my commander saw that moment coming, saw it and planned it that way, or if it was just chance that I was still alive at that crucial point in time, alive and possessing just the heart and gifts needed for what was to come.  I suppose it does not matter.  What I do know is that I was selected in that moment to stir the hearts and faith of our warriors, and it was the one thing I was uniquely qualified to do.  I had seen and commemorated what others gave their lives for.  I had cherished the sacred moments in my heart.

My fight was not with swords but words, ideas, and passion. I went head to head with our enemy's best orator, and when I was done no one could remember her words.  When the final notes of my voice faded from my mouth, no one could hear anything but the shouts of my people as they plunged back into the battle, and I turned at that moment to find my opponent dead at my feet, not a mark on her body from a blow.  In the battle for our honor we had been fighting to the death; let no one misconstrue the power of our passion!

I remembered these things today as I sat around a table with my friends, so seemingly removed from war and death.  I cannot tell you exactly what brought the memories to mind or why, but I suppose it doesn't matter.  What I do know is that the battle I fought so many years ago - when I was a Samurai - was only ever meant to open my eyes to the battle I fight here and now in this more mundane-appearing life. That war was a testimony to the way that God made me uniquely me and equipped me to do battle in this world for the hearts and minds of my compatriots on the journey.  God used that experience as a part of my call to ministry, and not long after my days on that battlefield tending the dead, I conducted a funeral service for my own sister.  And about the same time I was anointed to preach and teach at local churches - about death and life and recovery; about the battle for our hearts and how to fight it.

So I suppose I am still a Samurai: A Samurai Pastor.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Synopsis on Sex and Intimacy

I have received several requests for the information I included in a post I wrote some time ago about sex and ministry. So, back by popular demand, the following is a synopsis of what I learned about sex, pornography use, masturbation (self stim), and sexual addiction during my graduate studies in counseling.

The Thing About Sex

There are two primary chemicals released in the frontal cortex of the brain during sex: Oxytocin and Dopamine. Oxytocin is the "peace" chemical created by and in attached, intimate (committed) relationships (it takes at least six months for Oxytocin to reach the attachment levels to match the Dopamine released during sexual activity). Dopamine is the "high" that is also, coincidentally, highly acidic.  Oxytocin bonds with Dopamine, neutralizing its acidic properties so that the two together create pleasure and a sense of well-being, promote mental health, and provide all of the benefits associated with sex. However, without the right amount of Oxytocin, Dopamine floods the brain like heroine, creating one of the most addictive highs known to humankind, while its acidic properties literally eat away the brain tissue.  When it drains from the system, it leaves the brain in a state of imbalance experienced as a "crash," or depression, from which it takes 10 days to return to a normal chemical balance.  A that point, however, normal no longer feels like normal both because of the addictive high and because, over time, one starts to suffer from brain damage as measurable crevasses and holes are eaten into the frontal cortex.

What that means is sexual stimulation outside of a committed, attached, intimate relationship does not produce enough Oxytocin to balance Dopamine levels.
 In other words,
casual sex & pornography use ... literally destroys brain tissue. 

The worst part: It destroys the part of the brain where personality and impulse control are managed.  So not only does one become addicted to the Dopamine high and anhedonic when brain chemistry is actually "normal," but the part of the brain that helps one control one's impulses is damaged, making it more and more difficult to manage one's emotions and delay gratification.  Incidentally, this is also the section of the brain that facilitates our ability to understand the difference between right and wrong and to create intimate relationships, connection, and attachment.

And people think that it's not hurting anyone?!? Not only does this create addiction (eg. reaching out to a "substance" to feel better, only to feel worse and need more of the "substance" to feel better again) but it literally changes one's personality and thinking over time, destroys impulse control, isolates and then erodes the ability to foster and create the intimacy and connection one needs to be human - to survive. It is not just that pornography objectifies people, it is that it fosters the process of disconnecting and dehumanizing self, others, and relationship physiologically in the brain.

Suddenly, Paul's words "everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial" seem particularly pertinent. It is not a question of what is sin and what isn't. It is not a question of "how far" one can go. It is a matter of that which creates or destroys life in the body, in relationships, in the spirit. This is why accepting, understanding, and stewarding our sexuality is so vital to us as human beings. This is why it isn't just about marriage, too, because destructive, addictive sexuality occurs in marriage all the time, with heart-breaking consequences.

The Good News

The damage caused by sexual addiction is one of the only kinds of brain damage that can actually be undone.  The frontal cortex and what is called the "joy center" of the brain is one of the few parts that be stimulated to growth throughout life.  The way to promote healing? Intimate relationships! Healthy, attached, intimate relationships stimulate the growth and development of the frontal cortex. This is how babies grow and develop - and another reason why relationship - family, community, the church - is so important to us as human beings from the cradle to the grave. This is part of the reason why recovery groups work - they facilitate authenticity, vulnerability, accountability, knowing and being known - they facilitate the creation of real connection and intimacy (ideally). In fact, the 12 Steps reconstruct one's ability to build relationship, among many other amazing things. But recovery is a process. It is vital to stop the damage by "sobering up" so that the brain can recuperate and heal, and you can learn how to love and be loved again (or perhaps for the first time). That is why recovery from sexual addiction calls for sexual abstinence even in marriage! Abstinence creates the needed environment to begin physiological, emotional, and relational recovery, which is why I believe sexual stewardship starts when you are single.

You can find additional discussions about sexuality and being single here.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

We are Adam

And the Lord God formed man [ha-adam = the Adam] from the earth [ha-adamah = atom/dust particles of the earth] and breathed into [Adam's] nostrils the breath of life, and man [ha-adam = the Adam] became a living being [nephesh = animal].  Genesis 2:7
I am a locally licensed minister.  I am seeking God's direction pertaining to ordination.  And I am a woman.

The following is an exploration of Genesis taken from Bonding: Relationships in the Image of God by
Dr. Donald M. Joy, Ph.D. (Evangel, p. 20-31).  I offer excerpts of it here (in black text) because God has used it to challenge me and the doctrines I equate with Christianity - doctrines God Himself challenged when He called me into ministry.  This study is one of many that invited me to consider my ideologies (in red) about being a woman, a Christian, and an American fundamentalist.  It all began with this:

The unfortunate translation of the Adam as "man" has thrown us into a "bachelor Adam" misunderstanding of God's creation of humans.

The bible text explicitly rejects the idea of a "bachelor Adam" Creation.  "The Adam" of Genesis 1:26-28 are clearly the male and female first humans: Image-bearers of the Creator God. It is clear because the repeated pronouns referring back to the Adam are the plural "them."  
Watch how clearly the male-female Adam species comes through when we ... provide consistent plural terms:  
Then God said, "Let us make [the Adam, the human species] in our image, in our likeness, and let them [See the plural? It has always been there!] rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
So God created [the Adam] in his [God's] own image, in the image of God he created [the Adam]; male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
God created the Adam in both  male and female models.
God blessed and empowered "them" not "him."
When God created [the Adam], he made [the Adam] in the likeness of God. He [God] created them male and female; at the time they were created, he [God] blessed them and called them "man" ["Adam"].  Genesis 5:1-2
Even the footnote enclosed with that deceptive generic pronoun which has deceived us English readers, "man" takes us to the bottom of the page ... in order to tell us the truth: "Hebrew adam."  It is a simple matter to return through the text and replace every masculine pronoun with the Hebrew noun "the Adam."

This "Adam" business is ... complicated by the fact that after the human failure and sin reported in Genesis 3, the male takes the species name.  Adam forever after denotes the first male in the human drama. But it is clear that Adam in Genesis 1 and in Genesis 5 includes both the male and the female: "They" are Adam.

God blessed and empowered "them," not "him."   

Dr. Joy goes on to say, 
I drank deeply at the fountain which intoxicated us with the idea that "men are in charge."  "Take control" is what we thought Adam heard.  And we bought easily into that model of masculinity ...  We are especially placed in charge of everything, we thought - the male bonus.  This reflective second look at Creation came with a painful jolt.  It is clear that God empowered the man and the woman: to produce children and to creatively manage this planet, "have dominion!" some translations read.  "Take charge."  But nowhere is one of them to dominate [have dominion or take charge over] the other...

The Genesis 2 story describes the formation of "the Adam" as solitary...

Solitary but not male...

then as a final Creation touch to make "them" truly "in the image of God" ...

a God, who the author points out is also referenced by the plural pronoun...

God splits the Adam...

God takes the solitary human creation and makes them two, one distinctly male and one distinctly female.

The surgery opens the tsela [Greek: pleura] and builds up the woman from ... parts of the Adam.  When finished, God has formed Woman [Hebrew: Ishshah] ... When the residual, left-over male parts revive, the first man [Hebrew: Ish] awakens...

But isn't it true that Paul teaches that the husband is the "head" of woman?

On the matter of "head" and man's responsibility in St. Paul, notice that translators have not served us well ... inserting a heading between Ephesians 5:21 and 22 which complicates the "head" and "submission of women" passage ... You can see that "submit" appears in [Ephesians] verse 21 and is bi-lateral.  What follows explains how submission and care work mutually - both ways.  What is frightening is that more careful translations tend to use italics to show where English words are provided when no Greek words are actually there.  So, the New American Standard on my desk, which observes this practice, honestly puts submission in perspective ... Inspired Scripture omitted "submission" or "subject to" specifically in addressing the woman's responsibility (verse 22) and allowed the term only in the double-edged verse (21): "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."  And the entire focus of the verse is predominantly addressed to men on respecting their "body," their wife. 

Note the metaphorical use, not literal.  A wife is not a husband's body literally, but they are so intrinsically connected that what he does to her he does to himself, as to his own body.  Likewise, the husband is not the head of a wife literally; he is as interconnected with her as a head is with a body - they are one flesh.  The head doesn't rule over the body any more than the body rules over the head - they must submit to each other - as the Dr. Joy has pointed out that the text clearly states.  In fact, the entire relationship is then paralleled to Christ and the church, a relationship of mutual submission - that's right! Mutual! For Christ did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but instead became a servant submitting to death, death even on a cross.  If anything, being likened unto the head in this context means that the husband must lay down his life like a servant to his wife, and she should cherish his sacrifice the way the church cherishes the blood of Christ.

The teaching climaxes in the unity focus and insists that the head and body are "one" in the creation sense!

Furthermore, the end of the argument is this: "Neverthelesseach one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himselfand the wife must respect her husband."  Mutual submission.

So let us admit that our brokenness likely distorts what we see in Scripture.   And let us at least ask why translators have ignored the sense of the passage by the way they break it up with side headings which separate a sentence from its only verb.  Are they, too, in the grasp of their own brokenness and tendencies to control or their preoccupation with locking women into passive and idolatry roles?  Yet the text itself is an elegant corrective to the very errors we have tended to think it teaches.

In every Pauline reference to creation and to headship, his conclusion is always the same: Unity in God's sight.  "Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For if woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God" (1 Cor 11:11-12).  How much more sense does this passage make when we look at Genesis as Dr. Joy invites us to, stepping out of our English translation paradigm?  "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28).  And in the one reference Paul makes about women not speaking in the church, he says "I" do not let a woman speak in the church - not that God has ordained such.  He references this decision to his cultural paradigm that man was created first (which he has already debunked in 1 Cor 11:11-12) but which is still his cultural paradigm, one he tempers with mutual submission in Ephesians, so he honors it.  I would be particularly interested to know if he is referring to the church or the synagogue here, as well, but the point remains.

As I study Paul's letters to the churches I am discovering his attempts to help a people of diverse backgrounds and cultures in pagan, polytheistic world understand what is imperative in Christ.  He does not oppose cultural teaching, for example, that says women should cut their hair when they pray (or else cover it) even though he concludes by saying, "If you're going to be contentious about this, the church has no such practice."  Throughout his letters he encourages the people to continue in their cultural heritage when their cultural heritage does not corrupt the essentials of Christianity, such as with immorality, because his premise was that gentiles did NOT have to give up being gentiles in order to be Christian.  Thus, if your culture doesn't allow women to teach in church, great. That's not what is important as long as you are practicing mutual submission that precludes the exploitation of women as if they are not human.  If you're a slave, stay a slave - as long as you don't engage in the practices of the flesh.  Paul doesn't advocate slavery anymore than he proclaims a Christian doctrine of male dominance.  He continues to bring his point back around to what is important: Unity and mutual edification in Christ.

They - male and female - are Adam.  I think if we were to truly understand that, we might be empowered to embody the principles Paul described when he told us we are one, head and body, created for mutual submission in order to survive, in order to live, in order to reflect the image of God in which we were created.

They are Adam.

We are Adam