Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Christian Life (Page 1 of 8)

I Am Woman, Hear Me

Some months ago, the controversy du jour involved Vice President Pence’s policy of not meeting women alone. Some found his policy appalling, some found it quaint, and some found it proper. I weighed in on it here because it touched a bit of my own history and struggle as a teacher and particularly as a pastor.

In response to my post I received a kind and insightful email from a young woman whom I had had the pleasure of coming to know ten years ago. She is an intelligent and sensitive follower of Jesus who, as a woman, has had a difficult time finding a home in the church. In her email she shared her experience as a woman in churches similar to the ones I have pastored. I think we need to hear her, and others like her. (She has given me permission to post her comments, though I have edited them for brevity and anonymity.)

Neither she nor I bring these thoughts with any kind of agenda. But understanding the experience of others can implicitly suggest necessary agenda. If it does, I’m glad.
I am grateful for her honesty.

When I first started to engage in Christianity, it was really clear to me that I would always be limited in some way as a woman. When [my male friends] had questions, they’d just go meet with the pastor. When I had questions, it was just not the same, even if that’s not an explicit rule. All the pastors were men and I’m a woman. So the natural supposition was to find a woman, but for many reasons that can be difficult.

To just know that’s not really an option when you have a male pastor, to engage as an individual and share your questions and concerns, subtly tells us “this is for men” and that women aren’t priorities here….

To be taught from a young age that my very biology is evil in some way, not because we’re all evil (total depravity!) but because I am a threat to men in some unknown way that I do not control, that I can be responsible for leading men astray, or that there’s a risk I’ll harm their reputation simply by being a woman, the internalizing of those messages is confusing and hard and leads to lots of feelings of self-hatred and questioning of yourself….

I had an experience of sexual abuse from a church leader as a child and so the argument that women are a risk to men is minimized when I know the opposite (that is, statistically more probable).

Going to church as a woman can sometimes be a heartbreaking experience. Every time I went to church with a male, whenever people would come over to say hi, he would be greeted first. He would be engaged in conversation. My presence there was in relation to the man next to me. There were a couple of times that I would try churches for weeks by myself and really wouldn’t make connections and then a guy would come with me and all of the sudden we’re welcomed. You can definitely make the case that the guys were just more outgoing and friendly, but it was definitely not every time.

Yes, these aren’t huge things. I’m not being stoned when I walk through the door or anything, but it is obviously discouraging to feel, even subtly, as if I don’t have a place because of my gender.

I invite others to reflect on this and to share similar, or contrasting, experiences.

Chutzpah in Nashville

I learned the meaning of ‘chutzpah’ the hard way.

As a young seminary student I witnessed an ordination exam which I and a few others felt was inadequately conducted. Somehow the fact that I was a young seminarian and the exam had been carried out by experienced ministers was lost on me. I went to one of my professors who had been involved in the exam and pointed out the deficiencies we had observed.

His response was predictable. “It takes a whole lot of chutzpah for you to walk in here and say that.”

I had never heard the word, but the tone with which that sentence was delivered communicated its meaning perfectly. “Who do you think you are to criticize those who have been doing this for the number of years we’ve been at it?”

Indeed. Who did I think I was?

I’m grateful for that professor. He was angry, rightfully, at my cheek. The impudence involved in stepping out of my role and placing myself in a position to assess my elders and find them wanting was massive.

Perhaps I am engaging in another display of chutzpah in raising a tiny voice of protest against the various scholars and genuinely godly men and women who have attached their names to the “Nashville Statement,” recently issued by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Perhaps they need to stand up as one and stare me down saying, “Who do you think you are?”

But perhaps the shoe this time is on the other foot. I find myself asking, “Who do they think they are?” The CBMW is an agenda-driven independently formed parachurch organization. It is not the church and yet it presumes to raise its voice to scold and instruct the church. The very fact that it demands to be heard with authority and to speak to and for the church suggests that there has been a massive realignment in Evangelical Christianity’s definition of and respect for the church. That which was born to assist the church, the parachurch, has grown in its youthful impatience to swallow its parent and to act with independence and swagger.

The preamble of the Nashville Statement should be re-written in terms that require us to ask questions even more fundamental than those of marriage and sexuality:

“Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be THE CHURCH.”

For that is the hidden revolution in statements like this. Whether the content is helpful or not is beside the point. The very existence of the document and the impetus of those behind it reveal that its authors have not only lost patience with the church, they have seen her as no longer bearing any power or weight.

Speaking as I am attempting to do into the independent, consumer mind-set of Evangelical Christianity, I know that many who read this will be mystified by my concern. So far has our respect for the church and her messiness and process fallen. But having not arisen from the church, a statement like this bears no ecclesiastical authority. There is no labor of any church court or body behind it. It lacks the carefully weighed, though painfully slow, nuanced pastoral concern of ecclesiastical process. It was not generated at the request of the church, and it has not been adopted as the stated judgment of the church. Hence it has no authority beyond the respect given to the names attached to it. And though I have respect for many of these, it is an Evangelical Celebrity Document and nothing more.

For a group such as this (complete with a ‘donate now’ button placed dramatically at the end) to speak to and for the church is chutzpah. But it is chutzpah barely noted because before there was loss of respect for marriage in Evangelical Christianity there was a greater loss in respect for the church.

Note: An earlier post taking issue with the statement’s doomsday tone can be read here.

Breathless in Nashville

Call me weary.

A few days ago I was finally able to read the recently issued “Nashville Statement” of which some, but not all, readers will be aware. I have some thoughts about its content, but I need to say that whatever merits it contains or lacks, I can’t get beyond its sky-is-falling tone. A friend calls it breathless, which strikes me as accurate. In my life there’s been a whole lotta breathlessness going on.

I grew up in a mainline church whose doom was pronounced by conservative voices in her midst. I began to flourish in my Christian understanding when the twin terrors of “charismania” and biblical errancy were staked as boding threats to be opposed. Soon we were being told that if we did not stand foursquare against women being ordained, the end would come. As well, all we held dear would perish if we did not take a life or death stand against the theory of evolution. And if we did not make immediate changes to the way we “do” church there would soon be no one to fill our pews as the youth, we were warned, were leaving and never coming back.

I have been hearing of the end of the church and her witness for so long that I can, or will, no longer hear such messages. When we are told that the only path of faithfulness is to Jump! Respond! Take a stand! all I want to do is to take a nap.

The Nashville Statement, addressing the shifting and rapidly evolving Western cultural position on sexuality, strikes the same rhetorical drumbeat:

“Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age?”

Catastrophe is imminent unless, of course, we fall in line with those behind this statement. But I’ve heard this song before. I change the station and move on.

Perhaps I lack the necessary cultural awareness and cannot see how weak the pillars are which hold the sky that will soon collapse upon us. A number of people I greatly respect have signed on to this and perhaps they are right. Perhaps I should awaken from my slumber. Perhaps this is the one issue, the one that rules them all and that will, in the darkness, bind us.

But I’m prejudiced against ultimata whatever its source.

It is not just prejudice, though. I have a great confidence in Christ’s church. In spite of the challenges she has shown herself quite resilient, hasn’t she? I see no reason for that resilience to pass. I believe her people will continue to trust Jesus, to love and serve one another and their neighbors. I believe the church will continue to worship, and struggle, as she waits and longs for the kingdom that will come.

For help along the way, a true consensus statement articulating and defending the traditional view of sexuality offering a humble and compassionate restatement of the historic Christian view of marriage with irenic engagement with some of the emerging counter proposals would be welcome. But that is not what we have been given.

It is the teacher who speaks with a calm and reasoned voice who gets heard in a noisy classroom. That is the voice we need.

While we wait for it, let us continue to serve Jesus through his church. In that we should not grow weary.

The Great Commission without the Church? Inconceivable.

Many Christian ministries are driven by a single eyed focus on Jesus’ final words (Matthew 28:19, 20). These words have been sloganized as ‘The Great Commission’ to impel an urgent evangelistic effort to find and develop committed followers of Jesus Christ. This would be admirable if this common use did not eviscerate the heart of this commission by eliminating the place of the local church.

Most properly understand that these words ask for more than finding converts. Jesus says

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…. (19)

Jesus wants his disciples to help others become his followers. This involves clearly

…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (20)

This commission is fulfilled, it is felt, when the new disciple begins to make and teach other new disciples. But it is not.

We have not been compliant to the commission if the new convert is not as well, through baptism, admitted to the membership of a local church. The whole commission reads:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19, 20)

Jesus’ Jewish followers would have heard this in covenantal terms, as should we. In their heritage, when someone from ‘the nations’, not born a Jew, came to faith in Yahweh, his verbal expression of that faith was not enough to mark him as a follower of Yahweh. He could claim faith and live righteously, but he would not be admitted into the life of the followers of Yahweh apart from receiving circumcision, the mark of covenantal inclusion (see Exodus 12:48). Then and then only would he be considered a follower, a disciple, of God.

The only change in the minds of Jesus’ listeners would have been the nature of the mark. Circumcision is now baptism (a subject for another day). Baptism marks a person’s being included among the followers of Jesus. By this act one is marked as belonging to God, as having been admitted to the community of faith, to the church of the living God. This step is integral to genuine discipleship and cannot be omitted from our understanding of it. We have not fulfilled the call of the commission if we do not lead Christ’s converts to Christ’s church.

Groups operating outside the context of the church do wonderful things, but they cannot fulfill the great commission. Any work that fails to establish as its center the act of discipling converts into the church is not being obedient to the final words of Jesus.

My son’s Marine recruiter hung with him long after my son had signed his commitment papers. I later was told that Marine recruiters don’t get credit for the recruit until he steps onto the yellow footprints at Parris Island. Only then has he fully discipled his charge.

Only then has he fulfilled his commission.

Especially in Nottingham

Some of us live squarely, if unwillingly, in Nottingham. We live where those close to us die in childbirth, where innocent drinks become desperate addictions, where brilliant minds descend into dark caverns of mental illness. We live desperate for hope.

If we pray, there are many paths along which those prayers could be shaped. The path followed by some of the Psalms led to imprecation, prayers wishing ill upon their enemies. Such prayers strike our gentle and sentimental sensibilities as too harsh and ill-fitting to be worn by Christians.That is, until we come face to face with our real enemies. Paul reminds us:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:10-12)

We can puzzle over the effective power of the forces of darkness, but we ought never doubt that their efforts are arrayed to harm us. It is against THEM, the agents of death and decay, that we pray. Language that sounds violent and inhumane becomes understandable against such an enemy.

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Mankind will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges on earth.” (Psalm 58:6-11)

Awful words these, yes, but not when aimed at one whose food is the infliction of grief and death and suffering and despair. To pray thus negatively, is to pray this positively:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9, 10)

To the degree God’s will is not yet manifest on earth, we pray that it would be, that our understandable fear would be replaced by the certain hope of the coming kingdom.

We pray harsh words against a bitter enemy, all the while longing for this:

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth! (Psalm 57:11)

Which is to cry out, with John and all the saints,

Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

Such prayers are never lost upon the God who cares.

Especially in Nottingham.

Not in Nottingham

At the heart of Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood is a song penned and sung by Roger Miller (and covered here by Mumford and Sons) which captures the heart’s anguish when life has penned us in with sorrow.

Nottingham was home to the poor people for whom Robin Hood robbed the rich. But even with his heroics, life grew grim. It was unfair.

Every town has its ups and down
Sometime ups outnumber the downs
But not in Nottingham

To escape the despair one might flee, but when the oppression is so deep, the sorrow so profound, even that seems impossible.

I’m inclined to believe
If we weren’t so down
We’d up and leave

Unable or unwilling to escape, an appeal is made for relief, but it meets only silence.

We’d up and fly if we had wings for flyin’
Can’t you see the tears we’re cryin’?
Can’t there be some happiness for me?
Not in Nottingham

Pretty heavy fare for a Disney film.

The sequence over which the song plays is an image of rain falling on a people for whom all hope is lost. It’s an honest prayer of lament asking in despair, “Can’t there be some happiness for me?”

For the many who pray such a prayer, the response, it seems, is never more than the sound of rain on the pavement.

In some ways, it’s a biblical prayer. The psalmist prays in this way:

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me. (Psalm 88:14-16)

There is, the biblical writers knew, a time for weeping and mourning (Ecclesiastes 3:4). And yet they did not shrink back from penning such honest laments because they knew, unlike the poor stricken residents of Nottingham, that there would, as well, be a time of laughing and dancing (also Ecclesiastes 3:4).

“Can’t there be some happiness for me?” Yes, they knew there would be. There is resurrection on the other side of death. And for that we long.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation. (Psalm 42:5)

VP Pence and My Mom

I didn’t know it was the ‘Billy Graham’ rule. I thought it was just sage advice from my mom.

Twitter, at least, has been all a-flutter (a-twitter?) with the surprising and shocking (?) revelation that Vice President Mike Pence operates with a policy of not dining alone with women other than his wife. I’m stunned that this is in the least bit controversial. I’ve not heard his justification for his policy. I’ve only heard what others, some bitterly opposed, have said about it. But since this was my policy for many years, I want to toss a few words into the fray.

After college I had the wonderful privilege of spending three years teaching English to seventh-graders. I liked that age. I loved their energy and enthusiasm and I loved seeing their minds begin to engage the world around them. They were old enough to begin to have intelligent conversations but they had yet to inhabit the cynical, cool world of the older adolescent.

My mom had for many years taught that age, and as I began my career one piece of advice she gave me stuck: don’t let myself be in a room alone with a junior high girl. In her experience, even in the 60s and 70s, all it took to ruin a man’s reputation was a girl’s accusations. True or not they could stain and ruin a male teacher. She wanted to protect me from that.

As I transitioned from teacher to pastor that counsel stuck with me, magnified by the terrible track record  of male pastors staying out of emotionally and sexually charged relationships with women. To not spend time alone with a woman – either in my study or over a meal (Starbucks was not a thing back then) – seemed at the time like a wise policy to adopt.

This policy did more than to protect my own reputation (and by extension that of the church). It gave my wife needed security. The tale is old as time, that a pastor under the guise of regular counsel of a woman moves from pastor to confidante to lover. And though I saw no reason that that would happen in my case, who does? It seemed wise to erect barriers that would give my wife an added layer of confidence.

My role was no where near that of a US Senator or Vice President. And I would never presume to demand that others embrace the rules by which I steered my life. But I understand how important reputation is and how easy it is, no matter who we are, to be careless in the preservation of it.

But as a policy it proved unsustainable for me. I pastored a small church in which I was often on site alone with a female administrative assistant or financial manager. Is there any greater stereotype than that of the pastor running off with the church secretary? But it was unavoidable, really, and so we did it. Not the running off, mind you. The being alone.

It was not only unsustainable, it was in the end unfair to women in need of spiritual and pastoral care. One could theorize that they could get that from their husbands or from other astute and wise women, but that was theory and not reality. My policy caused the neglect of sheep in my congregation in need of care. And so, eventually, I abandoned it.

I now meet with women, preferably in a public place (my mom’s voice is still in my head) when possible. Most of the time, my wife is aware, and she has the right and responsibility to speak to me should she perceive that any one relationship is receiving more attention than she thinks it should. I still am concerned about her sense of security.

Being Vice President invites the spotlight, and Mike Pence will no doubt have many things to answer for. But this should not be one of them. I can’t say if in his case he should or should not hold on to this policy. Looking in from the outside I’m inclined to say that it is impossible for him to do so. But I would never imply that his decision is reflective of weak character. It may be reflective of wisdom.

Or of listening to his mom.

The Decently Religious

The other day my son shared with me a picture taken at his workplace. It showed two publicly posted pieces of Jehovah’s Witness literature which someone had defaced with a sharpie, marred with images and words ridiculing the content of the postings and those who posted them.

We seem to live in a day when no one group is immune from hate, nor one group alone capable of perpetrating it. Christians have shown themselves more than capable of defacing and ridiculing the positions of others and Christians receive ridicule in return. And in both directions, it is tiresome. It’s why I so long for recovering the virtue of decency as a fundamental Christian, if not human, virtue. If we are to be attacked, let it be for our righteousness. And if we are to attack, let it be with kindness.

In expressing that longing, though, I reveal that I have bought into the public perception that Christians are in fact “Hate Filled Hypocrites“, to borrow the ironic title of one provocative book. That Christians are not decent is such a prevalent image of Christians that we all come to accept and believe it.

Stephen King is a wonderful writer with often marvelous characters. His Christian characters, however, such as those in Under the Dome or Needful Things are cardboard cutout stereotypes of fanaticism and bluster. I’m currently reading Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy novel, Elantris. Sanderson’s gift is in world building not character development, but in his world the really obnoxious, plotting, cynical characters are the religiously fundamental. We assume that commitment to a religious faith by definition means annoying.

Current controversy does not quell that supposition, especially when news outlets would rather quote the provocative outbursts of a Franklin Graham rather than the thoughtful expressions of a Tim Keller.

Public representations of Christians as extreme and hateful will never go away, especially as we Christians play to type. But I wish I could introduce to the world the large numbers of Christians known to me who have been and are decent men and women, though unknown apart from the few people around them. These are those who face struggles and cares, and yet find joy in the midst of them. They look for ways to serve, and they stoop to pick up others when they fall. None are perfect and all fail in particular ways. But they are genuinely decent people. I have been blessed by such people. I wish more people could know them.

These are not those who are measured and calculating in their religious life and expression. They just live pouring out love for God and for one another. These are those spoken of by the prophet Malachi.

Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name. (Malachi 3:16)

These are the quiet ones walking humbly with their God and, it follows, loving mercy. They are the decent ones, the truly religious, of whom God says,

They shall be mine…in the day when I make up my treasured possession. (Malachi 3:17)

They are the apple of God’s eye. I wish you could meet them. I think you’d like them.

Lenten Joy

That Christianity is a life of receiving and not a life of doing is at the heart of the gospel of grace. It also is at odds with our popular conception and experience. We cannot shake the idea that Christianity is at heart a life of doing, a confusion that sometimes is unnecessarily heightened during Lent.

Christians peering into the season of Lent anticipate a period of denial where they are challenged to self-examination and repentance. They take themselves low to root out sin lurking in the dark corners of their person. As much as this is a necessary thing bearing much promise many of us cannot help but see it as a time of rejecting delightful things just because, somehow, we are not supposed to do delightful things. We have bought the misconception that Christianity is a matter of what we do, and in order to help us stop doing we have Lent. This is not, of course, the formal framing of Lent, but that this is how some perceive it is sad.

James B. Torrance, a Scottish Presbyterian scholar whose little book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace has recently been refreshment for me, reminds us what we lose when we make our faith primarily about what we do is joy. Repentance (of which much is said during Lent) is not an act we do in order to prompt God to forgive, but it is a reception by us of a forgiveness already given. Christianity is rooted in what God has done securing a forgiveness which we do not prompt but only receive.

We have a hard time with this because we can only think in legal terms. God is a judge before whom we stand confessing our sin. Our penitence, perhaps enhanced by a period of Lenten fasting, persuades God to forgive us and we go on our way. That all seems proper and right, but it is contrary to the spirit of the gospel of grace coming from our covenant keeping God who reveals himself as a Father. Repentance is not an act by which we persuade God to respond to our penitence with forgiveness. Repentance is rather our responding to his already secured and pronounced blessing of forgiveness.

Summarizing John Calvin, Torrance says,

“Repentance is our response to grace, not a condition of grace.”

On the cross of Christ the sacrifice has been offered and forgiveness pronounced, all prior to our confession and repentance.

In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son the father’s heart is gracious toward his son even when the son is in the pigsty. When the son repents and returns, he receives the father’s embrace, an embrace which the father was willing to give all along and which the father did not need to be persuaded to give.

Christians tend to enter Lent thinking they need to make themselves somehow more worthy of the Father’s embrace, that they, in some manner, need to act, to do, to urge him to be more forgiving. It is not that at all. Lent is a time for us to clear away the fog and see more clearly the vast measure of the Father’s kindness to us in Christ, that there is in fact no condemnation for we who come to the Father through the Son.

Yes, we are encouraged to take concrete action during Lent. We are encouraged to deny certain privileges, perhaps, or certain foods or other things ordinarily permissible. But we do so not to earn or curry the favor of God. We do so to clear away things that obscure our vision that we might more clearly and more joyfully receive the grace that is already there.

In this way, Lent is to be a joy. Let us with joyful anticipation enter in.

Community for the Self-absorbed Millennial

My post on community generated a couple of offline queries both of which, for different reasons, were referring to the idea that the church is failing to reach Millennials, that supposedly self-absorbed and entitled generation that Gen-Xers have unleashed on the world under the benevolent and clueless gaze of Boomers like me.

And yes, I think too much is made of those supposed generational distinctions, but that is for another day. I’ve a different fish needing to be fried this morning.

When my correspondents mentioned Millennials leaving the church I went to the articles on which those concerns were based. I have a suspicion that arises whenever alarmist statistics are being tossed about in Christian circles. Somewhere in this will be the hand of Barna the Christian statistical guru. And my suspicions were confirmed.

Why I suspect this and why it is a concern I expressed now nearly 6 years ago. I encourage you to click through to that post and read it (although it is long).

The point of that post is that Barna’s work has credible critics which should cause us to hesitate in referencing him. Particularly concerning is his tendency to use data to fan into flame worries on which, coincidentally, he has written a book. When Barna’s sky is falling other more careful analysts see a rather sunny, or at most a partly cloudy, day. Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion offers a calmer, more nuanced take on the data, normed over many more years and consequently more carefully nuanced.

Believe who you will. But I hope you share my concern that Christians especially should be anxious to speak the truth. We should be as cautious with what we say following “Statistics say…” as we are (or should be) when our sentence begins “The Bible says…”.

What does this have to do with community? Those who like to divide the world into Millennials vs. Gen-Xers vs. Boomers say that it is the Millennials who are longing for community and that in this the church is failing them. Whether this analysis is accurate or not I’ll leave for those more skilled in demographic research. I rather think, statistical research aside, that the demographic slice most looking for and longing for community are those humans created in the image of the Triune God. I think the church should seek to serve these people.

Page 1 of 8

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén