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Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Stealing Power

As we were watching Sing this weekend with our kids this weekend, we laughed as Mr. Moon climbed up and over to the neighboring building when his theater lost power in order to plug into the power from his neighbors. The scene reminded me of the beginning of one of my year’s of teaching. The school had undergone major HVAC renovations over the summer, which required a corner of the classroom to be dry walled to contain the new equipment.

In the case of my classroom, this eliminated the only working outlet in my classroom in which I was supposed to teach technology and plug in a laptop cart. The other outlet in my classroom was shorting out pencil sharpeners, so plugging in the laptop cart could have been disastrous. The solution became to procure a large surge protector with a long chord and to steal power from the connecting classroom. Not a good long term solution, but in the short-term, it solved the power issue.

The lectionary passage from John’s gospel this week talks about Jesus appearing to his disciples, but there’s something in the passage that I haven’t noticed before. Jesus breathes on his disciples, much like Creator God the creation account breathes into the dust and brings that dust to life.

20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20:20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 20:21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 20:22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The power of the divine breath giving new life to disciples paralyzed by fear. Re-creation with the divine breath.

As disciples of Christ, we have all ended up in times of fear of paralysis. Times when hiding behind a closed door seems like a much better option than going outside to see what has happened and what it means to walk in the aftermath of a loved one dying; what it means to walk in the realization of a terminal illness diagnosis; what it means to walk with a new identity that we never meant to receive, divorced, homeless, unemployed.

In those moments, we feel completely powerless. Our fear and uncertainty has sapped any reservoir of power we had saved up. In those moments, we can’t find an outlet that will give us the power we need to get up and go out. Again and again in communities of faith and in family units, I see people who are in the midst of crisis trying to sap the power from other people. They try to steal the power that others who have walked through difficult times have found by becoming co-dependent, by taking and taking and never giving anything back.

This is spiritual abuse.

Our power should not be stolen from other people. Although in the short-term it can solve our power issue, it’s not an effective long-term solution. You will have to move from person to person, community of faith to community of faith, sapping people and communities of their power until you are left alone. Our power to overcome our paralysis of uncertainty can only come from Creator God and the Risen Christ who have breathed the divine breath into our dustiness and our fear and transformed us into new creations.

How total depravity of humanity and biblical submission impact women

I stepped out last week to share my wrestlings with the theology of depravity of humanity and offered instead the suggestion that perhaps we were created inherently good. As I have thought and read about total depravity, I have found that this theology is often taught in connection with biblical submission or the idea that men and women were inherently created different, each having a unique role. This belief often manifests in the practice of not ordaining women as deacons, ministers, or allowing women to preach or teach men.

The impact of these two theologies combine to impact women drastically. Total depravity teaches women that they are inherently flawed. Biblical submission teaches women that they are inherently lesser than men and are restricted in what they can and can’t do. The compound effect of these two theologies is a vast number of women who believe, “I am not good. I am not enough.”

As a baptist woman in minister, I have found it doesn’t really matter if you grew up in a community of faith who taught total depravity or biblical submission because the impact of these two theologies have now made their way into our culture. The result is women who believe they are broken and that they have to try to be good enough. The manifestation of this constant attempt to try to live up to standards that are based on these theologies is to attack other women and remind them that they are not good nor enough.

If you aren’t sure this is true, ask a woman minister who has been the loudest and fiercest in objecting to her answering her call to ministry. I can almost guarantee you, her answer will be other women. I’ve heard this story over and over again.

The recent campaigns to stop mommy wars is a good and important step, but until we uncover the heart of the matter of where the need and desire to shame and guilt each other begins, these efforts will only cover the surface.

How about I start?

I not only believe that you are inherently good, I believe that you are enough. You as a woman are enough. You as a woman are inherently good.

I believe wholeheartedly that the true self that lies at your very heart is good and enough. I don’t believe you are lesser than. I don’t believe you are lacking, flawed, or stained. I believe at the very core of who you are resides the divine breath.

I believe that you are godly and good in the very essence of who you are, not because of what you do or don’t do.

I believe, we as women, have believed in theologies that keep power in the hands of the powerful and maintain hierarchies in religious institutions. And I believe, we as women, will be the ones who change this as soon as we start believing that we are good and we are enough.

You are inherently good.

For years, I believed in the depravity of humanity. In other words, because of what took place in the Garden of Eden involving Adam, Eve, and a serpent, the rest of humanity inherited a sinful nature. It was preached over and over again in churches, youth camps, and revival events. “Everyone must repent because all of us bear the mark of original sin.”

Even through my seminary years as we studied the theology of sin and the theology of good and evil, I couldn’t grasp a firm understanding of what it would mean to consider that perhaps humanity was not in fact inherently evil or sinful. I couldn’t fathom the possibility. It was too much for my theological framework to bear. I knew if I took that one block out and analyzed it, deciding whether it fit into my understanding of theological history and interpretation history the whole Jenga tower of my fragile theology would tumble.

I have always believed I was not good enough. Not that I was bad necessarily (even though the voice of religious authority in my life ensured me that even though I was saved, I was still sinful by nature), but there was always more I could be doing to gain favor with the Creator God. I believed that my role in this life was constantly try to make up for my sinful nature through any and every means possible, knowing all along that I was fighting an uphill battle I would never overcome.

In my studies as an educator, I believed strongly in the power of a strengths-based perspective rather than adhering to the deficit-perspective that the age of accountability and standardized testing was capitalizing on. Even though I had students who couldn’t read in my third grade class, I worked tirelessly to find some sort of written communication they understood whether that was a video game, a label on a t-shirt, or even their own name. And there was always some strength that could be built upon. That strength gave them confidence and courage to keep learning. 

What if the same were true of our faith? What if instead of reminding ourselves and our congregations of the sinful nature, of the depravity of human souls, we instead, for argument’s sake, consider the possibility that humanity is inherently good? What if it was the very divine breath that was breathed into our nostrils started a transformation in the Garden of Eden not towards evil, but towards good?

It’s taken me six years to even offer this as a possibility, but I am overwhelmed with evidence that suggests that perhaps this is in fact closer to our human nature than what Calvin suggested. In the midst of the 2015 flood relief, I saw people of a mobile home community who had been without potable water for one week desperate for survival, make sure that other people had water before they did. I saw them self-monitor making sure everyone got one case of water before ever taking another case for themselves.

I see this every week in our work at the homeless shelter. When stripped of power, position, and privilege something miraculous happens: community and fellowship. If there is one person who has a bag of cough drops, she shares it around the table making sure that everyone gets one, even if she doesn’t know if she will be able to buy another bag.

Perhaps it is the fear of losing our power, privilege, and position that reveals our insecurity about who we are and why we were created. In this uncertainty, we become disciples of the hierarchy and importance of our culture’s values: beauty, wealth, and comfort. We become such ardent believers that we disguise our very core nature. Perhaps it is in the best interest of our culture’s need to preach consumption that we are reminded again and again that we are not pretty enough, not wealthy enough, and not comfortable enough that we engage in transactions that make us witnesses to a gospel of the depravity of humanity. Perhaps this is not of God, but is of the gods of capitalism and consumption.

If we believe that inherently God’s creation is good as Creator God uttered after each day of creation in the Genesis 1 account, then we will treat each other differently. Instead of looking for flaws, we will look for each other’s strengths. Instead of distrusting intentions, we will believe in the goodness and the divineness that was breathed into our lungs to give us life. Instead of attacking each other with divisive words, we will instead choose to encourage. Instead of engaging in business and activities that bring about the kingdom of a culture of consumption, we will instead invest our time and resources into the subversive acts that uproot this culture and bring about the kingdom of God.

Maybe it just takes one voice crying in the wilderness:

You are good.

Creator God, said so, and so say I.

“Do not resist an evildoer.”

This week’s gospel’s lesson is not an easy one:

5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

5:39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;

5:40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;

5:41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

5:42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

This is as an important lesson to us as modern day disciples as it was to Jesus’ disciples. Jesus was trying to prepare his disciples for the resistance they would certainly meet as they followed him. Bringing the kingdom of God here on earth was not going to be met without tension and conflict.

And as I read these words in preparation for our weekly chapel service at Transitions with ministrieslab, I knew I had no words, no divine inspiration to offer to a people group who had experienced so much systemic discrimination.

And so I didn’t.

I read God’s word, the word of Jesus to his disciples aloud, begging the Holy Spirit to let these words and truths find a home within my soul and mind and then I listened. I listened to story after story from this makeshift, ever-changing congregation who shared of the times they had encountered people at gun point and had not attacked or responded in kind. I listened to stories of domestic abuse and wondered with the person whether it was wrong to leave that relationship when the gospel says to turn the other cheek. I listened to stories of loved ones stuck in cycles of abuse and heard the hope for their future in the words of their significant others. I heard stories of regret and resurrection lives changed because they finally learned to turn the other cheek and love the very people they didn’t want to talk to, eat with, or be associated with.

I heard God’s voice again and again in the voices of God’s people. God’s people in a group room crowded with too many chairs in a homeless shelter on a rainy Wednesday morning singing “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” and I knew this is what we must do.

We must not resist evildoers, but love them, really and truly love them, not merely tolerate them.

We must give generously to anyone who begs from us without judging them for how they might use what we give.

We must turn the other cheek, again and again, as Jesus did, even unto death.

This is the word of the Lord to his disciples.

But, Is There Childcare?

Ben’s no longer an infant. He’s not quite a toddler. We’re in this strange phase of development some have termed pre-toddler for the ages of 12-18. He just moved up classes at his drop-in nursery where there are ramps to run up and slides to slide down. There are toy doors to open and close and close and open and open and close, perhaps one of his favorite past times right now.

As a mother, I’ve hit the stage where I don’t have a baby. I don’t have an infant. There’s a stark difference in the conversations I have in passing. It’s no longer, “Is he sleeping? Are y’all sleeping?” Instead it’s “Is he walking? Is he talking?” The questions indicating that no more and more each day he is developing characteristics that will last him into adulthood. But the strange phenomenon is that the more adult-like his characteristics become, the less people think about his needs.

“As I am invited to participate in communities desiring to shape and mold the future of the church, my question still remain. “Is there childcare?” A shocking question that reveals assumptions that childcare is something for parents to “take care of” not something to plan for in order to ensure that the voices of young parents and young professionals are wanted. We inherently understand that the future of the church lies in the hands and feet of these young professionals and their children. We just don’t understand their needs enough to care to meet those needs instead we criticize these young families saying, “They just don’t come,” or “You can’t count on them.” 

Perhaps this missing demographic is missing because your community of faith isn’t considering how to set the table, provide the infrastructure for the lives they lead. The day in and day out routine of changing diapers, filling sippy cups, and finding high chairs. The strain and pull asking all they have. Perhaps what these families need is someone to think ahead for them, someone to want them at the table so strongly that they have already planned to take care of their children.

Are we planning for a church that has been or a church that will be?

On Being Curious

I watched as Ben went through his book wagon to find the book that matched the character of his favorite show. I was astounded at the way he pointed to Curious George and looked at me with a smile on his face. I’m so curious to know what is going on in his head as he is interacting in new and different ways every day.

And as I watch him, I’m overwhelmed with the realization that we aren’t curious about each other. We are shocked. We are frustrated. We are dumbfounded. We are disheartened. We are disillusioned, but we are not curious. We don’t want to know how the people on the other side came to the conclusions they did. We do not want to know “their” reasoning or “their” understanding. We want to retreat to the safety of our communities: the ones who believe the same thing we do.

But I’m curious. How could we have been living in such distinctive, distant, disconnected realities and still be neighbors? How could we have been so sure that others saw the world as we did only to find out that we were wrong as our reality shattered to pieces around us?

Real change cannot occur until we recognize the vast privilege that blinds us to reality.

If you are interested in real, systemic change, you have to be curious enough to sit and wonder. You have to be curious enough to cross the street to your neighbor, the one who didn’t vote as you did. You have to be curious enough to understand the disconnect before offering solutions.

Thanks be to God for little reminders from mini humans looking for a good book to read.

Seeds of Hope

Yesterday, I made butternut squash soup because sometimes when I don’t know what to do, I just have to create something, anything, participating in the creation process and begging Creator God to breathe life into the dustiness of humanity. It’s a recipe I’ve made over and over again over the past year fiddling and tweaking with just the right amount of half and half to add to make it creamy, but not so creamy it’s too rich.

As I went through the motions of peeling and chopping the butternut squash, I stopped myself from dumping the seeds into the trash because I remember one of my friends told me that she cleaned the seeds added a little olive oil, salt, and pepper and roasted the seeds to add to the top of the soup or a salad or just to have on hand for a little snack. So, I went through the messy process of cleaning the seeds, washing and rinsing the innards of the butternut squash off the seeds. I dried them off and then tried unsuccessful to hold onto the slippery seeds wondering why she had made it sound so easy when it was really requiring a lot of effort to get those seeds to the point of being able to put in the oven.

And I then I thought, this is exactly what I feel like right now in the midst of the last week, the first week in a reality that I’m finding it hard to gain footing in. I feel like I chasing down slippery seeds of hope, trying to grasp them and catch them before they go down the drain or onto the floor.

Because what I know is that these seeds of hope can be planted or roasted to provide sprouts of change or nourishment or fellowship or something transformative that can ground us to community and to love. I know this can happen because I’ve seen it. I’ve tasted these seeds of hope and change and fellowship and communion and I know they are good.

But it’s going to take some wrestling to get the innards of hate and dissension washed off from these seeds of hope. It’s going to take getting our hands dirty. It’s going to take planting those in dirt and watering and waiting for them to sprout them or dousing them in olive oil and salt and pepper and enjoying the sustenance they provide around the table.

It’s going to take work, time, and energy. Don’t lose heart. Seeds of hope lead to seeds of change and new life.

Things Could Change, Things Could Be Different

“Things could change, Gabe,” Jonas went on. “Things could be different. I don’t know how, but there must be some way for things to be different. There could be colors.

“And grandparents,” he added, staring through the dimness toward the ceiling of his sleepingroom. “And everybody would have the memories.’

“You know about memories,” he whispered, turning toward the crib.

Gabriel’s breathing was even and dee. Jonas liked having him there, though he felt guilty about the secret. Each night he gave memories to Gabriel: memories of boat rides and picnics in the sun; memories of soft rainfall against windowpanes; memories of dancing barefoot on a damp lawn.

“Gabe?”

The newchild stirred slightly in his sleep. Jonas looked over at him.

“There could be love,” Jonas whispered. 

The next morning, for the first time, Jonas did not take his pill. Something within him, something that had grown there through memories, told him to throw the pill away.

-Lois Lowry, The Giver

Piece by Piece

I’ve been an avid puzzler for most of my life. I was the one who would drag out the puzzle board made in my dad’s shop and beg and plead with others in my family to do a puzzle, even if it was a puzzle we had done time and time again.

There’s something about putting a picture together piece by piece, bringing order out of chaos, that calms my innate anxiety. There is a big picture we are working to create piece by piece.

This is what I think we have been missing. Rather than working towards a big picture together, we are clinging to the pieces of our individuality in the same way my brother would always hide the last piece wanting to be the one who clicked it into piece completing the puzzle.

A puzzle is comprised of pieces that are interconnected: a little pink smeared on the edge of a mostly yellow package. The top of an i one one piece with the base of that same i on another piece. And as I search for those tiny details, small ways that one piece connects with another, I am reminded of the grave importance of doing the same with you.

Even if we cannot directly connect, I can connect through other pieces, other individuals I have met, other places I have found, other experiences I have had and see that although we might be on the opposite end of this great puzzle we are still connected.

We cannot be whole without each other. The big picture can not be complete without each piece clicking into place. If we aren’t willing to work together, be joined together, be connected together, then there’s no way the big picture will come together.

And no one likes coming to the end of the puzzle and realizing there are pieces missing. No one likes coming to the realization that all the hard work and time and energy spent has only resulted in a broken, fragmented, fractured picture.

We can create something beautiful together if we are but willing to connect, truly and wholly to one another.

Quarrels Among Us

When I share with people that I come from a family of six, one of the first things they ask is, “Did y’all get along?” I always answer yes and no. There were six of us, which multiplied the possibilities of people you could quarrel in what I am sure felt, to my parents, like an unending roll of the dice.

There were certainly times that we had trouble getting along: a phenomenon not unique to our family, which I know because of the invention of the Our Get Along Shirt that I’ve seen on Pinterest. You take one big shirt and put both kids heads through the neck hole and then the each get one arm out. Parents, there’s a little practical advice for you this morning!

There’s always a point when you are living in community together as families or communities of faith or friends that there is going to be some sort of quarrel or bickering or picking at each other. It’s how we examine our own perspectives and how we develop empathy and sympathy for someone else’s point of view. The quarreling brings up issues that are important, but eventually if you want to survive and thrive as a community who is walking through life together, there has to be a resolution to these quarrels.

And this is the point at which we hear from Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians chapter 1 beginning in verse 10.

Hear now the word of the Lord.

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[a] by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.[b] 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God[c] that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

I have to admit that there’s part of me that is suspicious of Paul’s claim here in 1 Corinthians. Doesn’t it kind of sound like Paul is just saying that the people of the church of Corinth should simmer down with the allegiance to different people so that they are faithful to him? Sure, he uses the argument that we all belong to Christ, but isn’t he trying to undo the power of Chloe and Apollos and then throw himself into the mix just to appear humble?

It would be easy to interpret this passage with that understanding, but there’s something more to these divisions. This is not a Clemson/Carolina or more importantly, a Duke/UNC division.

These are deep quarrels. Quarrels that turn to us vs. them. Quarrels that turn to factions and groups standing on opposite sides unwilling to even hear the other side. Quarrels that divide. Quarrels that can’t be solved with a get along shirt.

Paul isn’t suggesting that there should be no quarrels, but rather that there should be no divisions among us as followers of Christ. We should quarrel. We should discuss. We should live together in community, which means that we have to struggle to be together and be there for each other. When we don’t quarrel and pretend as though we all believe and agree to the same things, then we are missing a huge part of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

The cross.

The cross as Paul recounts in verse 17 loses it’s power when we cling to our own side of the story or tenaciously adhere to a specific teacher or a political party or yes, even a sports team, because we aren’t willing to sacrifice ourselves as Christ did.

And that’s what Paul is encouraging this community of faith deeply divided to wrestle with. For being a follower of Christ cannot occur until we, like Christ, are willing to sacrifice our body and yes even our blood for someone else.

You know one of the things that inevitably happens when you find yourself in the Our Get Along Shirt with someone is that you have to consider the other person’s needs. If the other person is thirsty, you have to go with him or her to the sink to get water. If that person is tired, you have to sit with them and beside them. Your time and your plans are not your own because you are walking so closely with someone else.

If we did think of others before ourselves, if we looked around us and wondered how can I meet someone else’s need today, then I’d be willing to bet, we wouldn’t have much time for talking and debating whether we liked Chloe or Apollos or Paul better. We would be too busy being the hands and the feet of Jesus, the hands and feet that were crucified on a cross, to others in our communities of faith and in our communities who are in grave need.
Perhaps getting along, or being of the same mind and purpose as Paul puts it, has a lot more to do with walking and living with each other in community, touching shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip and understanding that everyone needs community.