Worshipping in the Paradox

Of note: last month, when it seemed that Twitter was about to go under, I started a Substack account. I think the place has potential, especially with new chat features, etc., but as yet, I’m not…um, finding a lot of readers there. So this and the next few posts will be re-shares from Substack, most of which were first re-frames of old Tweet threads. So it goes. Reflecting and refining is writing. Not everything I post there will come over here, so feel free to follow there, too.

In the afterword to Fundamentalism in American Culture (1980), historian George Marsden challenged readers to observe the way the church moves through the world (past and present) with both eyes open:

We live in the midst of contests between great and mysterious spiritual forces, which we understand only imperfectly and whose true dimensions we only occasionally glimpse. Yet, frail as we are, we do play a role in this history…. It is crucially important then, that, by God’s grace, we keep our wits about us and discern the vast difference between the real forces for good and the powers of darkness disguised as angels of light.1

He elaborated that “the theologian’s task is to try to establish from Scripture criteria for determining what in the history of the church is truly the work of the spirit,” whereas the historian, while keeping the big picture in mind, refrains from making judgments “while he concentrates on observable cultural forces.” In doing this, Marsden says, the Christian historian “provides material which individuals of various theological persuasions may use to help distinguish God’s genuine work from practices that have no greater authority than the customs or ways of thinking of a particular time and place.

It seems to me that for most of us out here in the wide world trying to follow Jesus, the task of both theologian and historian are set before us each day. Every choice, every conversation, every worship service, every news article, every election, presents a challenge of evaluating our next right move in light of both Scripture and culture. Every moment is a little dance of deconstruction and reconstruction in real time.

Of course, we are not left to our own wits in this dance—the Lord is with us, directing our steps, teaching us to walk humbly in His path—but the paradox does hit us between the eyes with astonishing regularity.

As my friend Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt put it:

“There is a lie that says our delight must be unadulterated in order to be real, that we are only truly happy when we are only happy. But I am convinced that joy and grief are less like pigments that mix together and more like the warp and woof of a textile. They are threads that weave together into a profoundly human experience.”

In the dance of real-time church history, we can be filled with sorrow & anger at the shortcomings of God’s people and the wickedness the church perpetrates in God’s name, and yet long for its restoration from a deep place of love given by the Spirit.

Multiple things can be true at once.

  • The visible church can be a hive of consumerism, apathy, abuse, callousness, nationalism, and pride and yet still administer the means of grace each week to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for God’s sake.
  • The church as an institution can be entangled down to its bones with corruption, the cancer of pharisaism metastasizing through its leaders and members and yet bear within it a remnant of faithfulness, even in denominations or associations that reek of sin and self-righteousness.
  • A local congregation may take no public action and make no public statements on the brokenness and violence and sorrows in the world and yet be full of members who are, in Jesus’ name, weeping and praying and serving those who are ground up by a hard and cruel world.
  • A Christian can experience Sundays when it is hard (or even impossible) to muster the courage to go to church, and yet long to be in the fellowship of believers, to praise the Lord, to taste the bread and wine. 
  • A Christian can hate what the church becomes when it worships power and cultural norms rather than Christ, and yet love the church enough to cry out to God in lament that He would cleanse and reclaim and restore it as His own.

We long from our deepest guts for these contradictions to cease, and for the church to fully do justice and love mercy always in every place, but the place of contradiction is the place of work and of prayer.

And so we cry out at every gathering: 

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

And so, we who know the pain and the joy of the church at the same time pray fervently that God would:

Give us today our daily bread
And forgive us our debts, 
As we also have forgiven our debtors
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.

We are those who know all too well our own hearts. We know, as Solzhenitsyn said, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” and so we pray:

Lord Jesus Christ
Son of God
Have mercy on me
A sinner. 

We can long for these things, pray these things, and yet be moved to righteous fury by those who try to hold the word of God and the people of God hostage to systems that devour the weak and prop up their power. Zeal for the Lord of Hosts does not make contradiction between fierce love, fierce lament, and fierce anger necessary. For our God is with us in our concern for His house, with greater zeal than we will ever muster.

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes” (Ezek. 36:22-23). 

And yet the promise that God makes from His holy zeal is not the abandonment of his people, but our complete repentance and rebirth in the midst of recognition of our deep brokenness.

In the rest of Ezekiel 36, God promises:

  • To gather us in (v. 24)
  • To cleanse us from impurities and idols (v. 25)
  • To give us a new heart and a new spirit (v. 26)
  • To put *His* Spirit in us to enable us to do His will (v. 27).
  • That we will be His people and He will be our God (v. 28)
  • That he will save us from all our uncleanness and provide for our needs (v. 29). 
  • To bless us abundantly and remove our disgrace (v. 30)
  • To cause us remember our evil ways and grieve over them in repentance (v. 31).
  • To allow us to experience the shame of our wickedness for His sake. (v.32) 
  • To rebuild our ruins, to re-cultivate our desolate places, that life may again be found among us (vv. 33-36)
  • To hear our pleas so that all will know that He is the LORD (vv.37-38).

Again, all these things God does for His own sake. We pray with lament and anger and sorrow at our own failures knowing that God will not ultimately allow His name to be profaned by those who call themselves His people. We know that He delights in justice and mercy, and that He is still working out His glory in us.

At one level, this restoration is a gift freely given in spite of our wickedness, but never without rooting out and despising our wickedness. God will restore and judge. God sees the evil, and He knows our love and longing. He has woven it through His word, and given us cries of anguish to deliver back to Him in prayer.3

Cole Arthur Riley sums this up better than I can:

Those who refuse or neglect to tap into the sorrows of the world may find joy elusive. There is so much that is worthy of lament, of rage. Joy doesn’t preclude these emotional habits—it invites them. Joy situates every emotion within itself. It grounds them so one isn’t overindulged while the others lie starving…joy says, Hold on to your sorrow. It can rest safely here.4

As we take our daily steps in that dance, may you be strengthened to hold on to the tension and see that joy and sorrow don’t have to fight each other to be true. May you pray like prayer matters, with the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves.

Notes

  1. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, second ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 259-60.
  2. Ibid., 260.
  3. “Whenever I dig into the Psalms I have this thought: how could I give up on Christianity? I have barely even tried Christianity.” — Andy Stager
  4. Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories that Make Us (New York: Convergent, 2022), 165-65.

Image: Slot Canyon, Washington County, Utah. October 2016.

Voicemail

dear god,

i tried to call satan the other day.
nobody answered, so i left a voicemail,
i hope that’s all right. 

i don’t really need a call back,
just some curses for my enemies,
not so much to kill them or anything,
but a little nudge to scare them straight.

i’d normally ask you for this, god,
but you seem busy, or at least
i think you only want us to talk to you
about personal problems like sin,
or sickness, or salvation and stuff.

i know you’re all about mercy and grace, but,
frankly you seem a little wishy-washy
on vengeance and violence, or so I’ve been told.

sure there’s stuff in the bible
about people asking you to smash
some babies from babylon on the rocks,
and david wanted you to send blindness
and seizures on the guys who were chasing him.
maybe you heard him, i don’t know,
since he was a king and all.
do you really want me to bug you about this?
it all seems more in satan’s lane. 

i called him one time before,
trying to score some personal advice on
something you said i probably shouldn’t do.
he didn’t answer then, either.
i guess he was with another customer?
that seems like something he’s pretty good at,
helping people be their best selves.
i think he really just wants to be like you,
you know, but with his own special style. 

i tried to call satan the other day,
but the phone just rang and rang.
i guess maybe he’s busy, too. besides,
i don’t really need his help to do my own thing.

Image: Cemetery oaks, West Feliciana Parish, La., June 2016.

A Tribe of Grace

This morning, driving to work, I was between audiobooks and so tuned in to our local NPR affiliate.

Morning edition co-host Steve Inskeep introduced a bottom-of-the-hour human interest story about a husband and wife by alluding to Valentine’s Day. That’s pretty unremarkable, but something about it got my hackle up.

He said something along the lines of “It’s the day before Valentine’s Day—did you hear that? The day before. You’ve been notified.” It was a throwaway line, signifying nothing more than a popular radio host yukking it up for listeners, but my mind started to go toward how I perceived that nod to societal pressure to do something above and beyond for my wife because of the arbitrary yet sacrosanct commercialism of February fourteenth. Then I drifted to thinking of how single friends might feel about that, and before a few seconds had passed I was mad at someone I’ve never met about something I don’t really care that much about, all while trying to merge onto an interstate at rush hour.

Mercifully quickly, though, another thought pushed in, and I cut Steve the slack he’s certainly due as someone who spends a few hours each day with a hot mic stuck in his face.

In politically right-wing circles, a popular bogeyman is the politically correct, “woke”, “social justice warriors” who supposedly want to police our thoughts. On the left, people are equally incensed at the insensitive, boorish, racist, sexist, talk and actions emanating from locker rooms (and often the White House) these days.

Of course the traction these stereotypes get is due to the fact that their worst expressions do actually exist (though likely in much smaller numbers than either side perceives). In reaction, we keep pushing ourselves to ever greater hyperbolic contrast to distinguish our own virtue. In the froth, we’ve accelerated our sociopolitical sorting, with a default setting of anger at the other side (never mind that the lines between me and the “other” are ever shifting).

This isn’t news to anyone with eyes and ears in America today. But what hit me after my momentary bristling this morning is how much both broad camps that we’ve sorted ourselves into suffer the same core problem.

One group is so sensitive to any transgression against any historically oppressed group (or chosen identity) that the day is filled with microaggressions—many of which are very real, but many of which are as ephemeral as my NPR rage (call it “centering commercial-romantic synthesis” if you will). They cannot brook any dissent from their campaign to purge judgment and negativity from public discourse.

Another clustering of people is so self-assured in their own normalcy that can barely be bothered to extend sympathy to anyone who is different, broken, scarred, or scared. They increasingly delight in stepping on toes for the sake of breaking them, with “owning the libs” serving as more of a motivator than any substantive statement.

Both of these subsist on a failure of grace, practicing the same excessive self-interest—whether it is expressed as moral codes decoupled from repentance or stumbling blocks unhitched from a meaningful path forward. And as we pull in opposite directions, rifting an entire society, the legitimate concerns of racial injustice, family disintegration, lack of economic mobility, freedom of speech, mistreatment of women, care for the unborn (and their mothers), environmental degradation, etc., to just so many tribal shibboleths. And our media outlets act as gasoline on this fire, reducing the public square to all outrage, all the time.

This is getting us quickly into a hole that I’m not sure we can find a way out of, and the church of Jesus Christ too often hastens to leap in to the fray by joining one side or another rather than presenting a transcendent community that addresses earthly problems with the perspective of the kingdom of God. Neither trying to be right as a bludgeon nor trying to be kind at the expense of eternal truths does our calling any favors.

I’m not going to try to offer solutions today (though there’s plenty of other spots on this site where I’ve tried to do so). I’d simply like to say that I’m embarrassed by how seldom I think before I emote, and how my emotions are so culturally and politically malleable. It’s a complex world out there, and the complexity is a feature not a bug—designed to keep us humble, both dependent on and freely bestowing grace. As C. S. Lewis has a character put it in The Great Divorce: “‘But of course!’ said the Spirit, shining with love and mirth so that my eyes were dazzled. ‘That’s what we all find when we reach this country. We’ve all been wrong! That’s the great joke. There’s no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living.'”

Steve, I’m sorry.

Image: North Carolina Museum of Art, “Swan Attacked by a Dog”, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1745. Photo by me, January 2019.

A True and Better Way to Be

The last of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

Nothing I’ve said in this series is truly original to me (or even to this millennium, in terms of Scriptural exposition), and there is much more left unsaid. Why then does the suggestion that the church could and should do more to elevate and affirm the dignity of our sisters cause so many Christian men to squirm?

Perhaps it is better to ask why anything going by the label of “feminism” (however accurate) under a Christian header is likely to draw condemnation from theological conservatives—in long, deconstructive blog posts, sharp Tweets, and nuanced sermons—while blatant sexual abuse and an entrenched culture of misogyny requires a society-wide mass movement to even begin receiving a second look. Increasingly, it must look to those outside the church as though any attempt to use Scripture to prop up a hard-and-fast division of gender roles is little more than a fig leaf for powerful men who want to keep women from that same power so that they can continue to abuse them whenever, wherever, and however they choose.

The body of Christ should be at the forefront of overturning this imbalance, but Satan is no fool, and he has divided us here as in so many other places. The congregations and denominations that give this a running shot are typically already well down the road of letting the world interpret Scripture for them on multiple other points, undercutting their witness and effectiveness in changing the larger church conversation. A Christ-like feminism has to look to Him and His Word as its sources, not “dumpster-diving” for ideas in the trash bin of history, as Carl Ellis would say.

Scripture is shot through with a robust vision of both male and female dignity and power, affirming God’s good design and honoring His authority. This is not a tacked-on or optional back-reading that has to be shoehorned into a Christ-centered understanding of the Bible, but quite foundational to the Gospel message. As we explored in the second post of this series, if denouncing violence and mistreatment of women seems, through our theological lenses, as so much creeping liberalism, our understanding of gender relationships has indeed been built around evil and oppression—not Scripture—all along.

A vision of Christ’s love for women, seeking their dignity, protection, and flourishing is not hard to find in the gospels. Christ pauses His “important work” to have compassion on desperate, shamed woman and heal her (Luke 8). Christ pours out the joy of living water on a woman running from her past (John 4). Christ protects a sinful woman from the over-harsh judgment of a hypocritical mob of men so that she might receive grace to repent (John 8). Christ allows a woman who has been used up and cast out byJohannes_(Jan)_Vermeer_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_-_Google_Art_Project men to bathe his feet with perfume and wash them with her hair (Luke 7). Christ entrusts the testimony of His resurrection to a woman, who could not even bear witness in a court of law in that day (John 20).

Christ’s very existence in human form is our model (Phil. 2:5-11). Incarnation is the opposite of both abuse and paternalism. It inverts the world’s idea of power, subsuming infinite strength and privilege into loving, sacrificial service. Christ empties Himself, voluntarily sheds the trappings of power to exercise it most fully in submission to the lowly and bearing the most unjust of deaths for us.

In God’s grace, this present apocalypse—this unveiling of secret sins—should be seen as an instance of judgment that begins in His own household (a la 1 Peter 4:17), purging us and fitting us to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). May He rip away all our idols of toxic masculinity (and toxic femininity) that deface the image of God with broken alternatives. May He use it to lift up the work and voices of men and women who can demonstrate Christ’s restoration to the used, abused, and sorrowing. May the church repent from reflecting the worst of our culture and grow to leading us all in the way of Christ—defending the weak, freeing the captives, holding evildoers to account, and teaching a true and better way to be—as many already are, and have throughout her history.

This is the way to “get the straight of things,” to take justice and righteousness from the realm of “taste” back to the center of what it means to faithfully follow Christ together.

One Next Step
If we’ve come to grips with the scope of the problem, and begun to own the diagnosis that God’s church is experiencing an “epidemic of denial,” what do repentance, corporate lament, confession, and mutual accountability look like?

I’ll return again to my friend quoted in the first post of the series. I’ve left her voice anonymous out of respect for her privacy (though she’s more than welcome to change that at her discretion). She is a biblically grounded, faithful follower of Jesus, an active member of a church in a theologically conservative denomination, and employed at an internationally recognized ministry organization. If you need all that context in order to hear what she says, though, instead of being willing simply to listen to the concerns of a daughter of the King, you’ll understand why I’ve tried to write what I’ve written.

“As a woman in the church who is oh so very tired, I’ll say this: if you are pastor or leader within the church, particularly in theologically conservative circles where women do not hold direct positions of leadership, it’s essential that you acknowledge this moment. We need you to acknowledge what it’s like. If you aren’t, you are shirking your pastoral responsibilities.

“Start simply. As a first step, add five sentences to your congregational prayer next week. Each week, your sisters hear prayers about natural disasters, shootings, abortion, or decisions and crises facing our immediate church body. Expand your horizons with something as simple as:

‘Jesus, in the midst of seemingly endless stories and revelations of how our sisters experience hurt and degradation, even and especially in the church, I pray for my sisters in this room. Would you give them peace and courage in the absolute reality that they bear your image and are precious to you. As their brothers, we repent of the ways each of us individually and collectively have been passive, dismissive or perpetrators of transgressions against our sisters. We have failed to reflect your image in how we have treated them. God, bind up the broken-hearted in this room, and help all of us to be agents of your mercy and holiness toward one another.’

“If you think that this prayer would set off a firestorm of controversy within your church, you need to pray it all the more. Because your sisters even more desperately need it, and your brothers need to hear it, too.

“I can tell you with complete vulnerability and honesty, if I heard this prayer, I would burst into tears of relief. And I guarantee you I wouldn’t be the only one.

That’s where I pray we can go next.”

Image: Christ in the House of Mary & Martha by Jan Vermeer