Archive for January, 2009

Words of Wisdom and Power

Friday, January 30th, 2009

From missionary, physician, activist and scholar Katharine C. Bushnell, from “God’s Word To Women,” published in 1921 –

“The teaching that God punishes Christian women for the sin of Eve is a wicked and cruel superstition, and unworthy the intelligence of Christians. But in addition to this, the doctrine has laid a blighting hand upon woman’s self-respect, self-confidence and spiritual activity, from which causes the entire Church of Jesus Christ suffers moral and spiritual loss . . . “

And for those “strong patriarchs” out there who believe they have authority over their wives . . .

“What would Satan . . . wish done to woman, his enemy? He would have her so crippled she could not contend with him successfully. How better could he cripple her than to incite her husband, the one living closest to her who has strength to do it, to hamper her activities as much as possible?”

Mother Dear

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Her voice was like cold lemonade poured from a pitcher on the hottest of summer days — rushing with sweetness, refreshing, thick and soothing, promising blessings not at all diminished by a sudden, biting sharpness that cut through the sugar but made it no less sweet. She was born and raised in North Little Rock, Arkansas; when I was young, my grandmother’s speech was a wonder to me, her accent both mysterious and comforting to a girl from the desert Southwest. Deeper than most Southern women’s honeyed drawl, Mother Dear’s voice was rich and billowing, comforting like down gathered into a worn blanket, but clear and purposeful, not hesitating, not coy; for all its accented Southernness, its timbre was not that of a pampered antebellum lady. My grandmother had a woman’s voice, not at all masculine, yet without the cloying, alto sweetness of the Southern debutante.

Hers was the voice of a strong woman. When she died twelve years ago this week, though, it was long gone, a casualty of age, heart failure, and the undefined, strength-sapping respiratory problems of the elderly. My mother and I had flown to Little Rock when my aunts agreed it was time — time to say goodbye while she was still alive; time, perhaps, to plan the funeral we somehow knew would come within days of our arrival. I had seen her only a few times since my marriage in 1984; by the mid-90s, I had two children with whom cross-country travel was difficult. The last couple of times I saw her were on my visits home to Tucson, visits coordinated so that Tucson became the halfway-point between North Little Rock, Arkansas, and Monroe, Washington. But by the time my youngest son was born in 1993, she wasn’t able to travel; as a stay-at-home mom whose husband’s business was struggling then, I couldn’t, either. Mother Dear saw Anthony last when he was two; she never got to see Jonah. She exists for my sons as a respected but remote memory — the grandmother with the accent, the grandmother who taught Mom how to fish, the grandmother who had a potato-sized chunk of an actual meteorite on her bookcase, who once shot a prowler, who lived in the house with all the trees, Emma’s mom who ended phone conversations with “y’all be good now. Be sweet.” She existed, to them, as a character in the story of my life — fascinating, but a fixture in my life and not theirs.

That’s one of the great griefs I feel — my sons never got to know their maternal grandmother, and they won’t know their aunts, their grandmother Emma’s sisters. They know that Rosemary and Ann love them; they knew that Mother Dear did, and they see my mother fairly often and experience her love regularly. But all they know of my grandmother were stories of the walloping joy I’d feel when Mother Dear would get off the plane in Tucson, unpack her powders, creams, and colognes in my bedroom, settle into her “pedal pusher” slacks and sensible blouse and, for two weeks, infuse our home with warmth and affection and laughter, not to mention the knee-weakening delight of Crisco-fried chicken. She slept with me in my old bed, which belonged to my other grandmother. I used to wonder if Grandma’s feelings were hurt by that, and yet her comforting bulk and the softly faded scent of Mother Dear’s powder and cold cream as she slept next to me assured me that, at least for that night, there would be no conflict, no anger, no unease anywhere in the world. I used to pray fervent, confessional Catholic-girl prayers that the two weeks would go by slowly, drawn out, I hoped, because I’d promised God I’d be good. It was never long enough.

Every other year, we’d drive from Tucson to North Little Rock, and without question my happiest memories were when we swung into the driveway at 1224 W. Long 17th Street, tumbling out of the car amidst a flurry of aunts, uncles, and cousins. The summer humidity, the smell of grass, the towering pecan trees and the odd little squirrels who populated them was a wonderland to me, filled with the people I loved most. My aunts doted on me, and I worshiped them. Their beauty seemed to increase every time I saw them — Anne, with her soft skin and a dimpled smile that flooded my heart with love; Rosemary, funny and sassy, treated me, her stringy-haired, gawky niece, like a queen. My cousins hovered around us and planned adventures designed solely, it seemed, to drive Mother Dear crazy. We played kickball, chased squirrels, fished in the lake for catfish the size of housecats, drank Orange Crush ’til we were sick, and ate all manner of fried things. The adults drank beer and talked; we eavesdropped, conspired, manipulated and finagled privileges unknown to us at home but overflowing at Mother Dear’s.

Her house was a simple, two-bedroom wood-frame house with a porch and screened doors whose swinging and rattling sounded so comforting that, even now, I refuse to let Jeff replace the one leading from our kitchen to the side yard. No one in Tucson has wood-frame houses; I thought that living in something other than cinderblock or stucco made you rich, and it wasn’t until high school that I realized that Mother Dear had very little at all. But she took her Catholicism seriously and adored her family; she indulged us as if she were rich, and her home was always open, her kitchen redolent with the aroma of something fried, something baked, something in the oven or on the stove. That little house was, for me, a castle, a mansion, and a hidden retreat, and it took me awhile to realize that the woman who lived in it, not its size or accouterments, made it that way.

Sometime this spring or early summer, I’ll fly to Little Rock to visit my aunts. The house is no longer in the family; the cousins are scattered. The neighborhood has changed. I hope some other kids are playing kickball in that back yard, and I hope no one has fixed the creaking old screen door. I don’t know if I’ll drive over to see the house. I’ll wish I were 10 again, and I’ll feel much older than almost 50. Rosemary and Anne will still be beautiful, their voices like a symphony and their embraces like a sanctuary. I’ll hate saying goodbye to them and I’ll weep remembering when I said goodbye to Mother Dear. These women are part of the foundation of my life, and I pray that I honor them by building on it a home that my children and theirs see the same way I saw Mother Dear’s.

Mother Dear’s home was the best place in the whole world to me, and someday she and I will be together in a heavenly dwelling of everlasting peace and joy, full of every good thing. I spend hours and hours every week studying the Bible and reading books on theology; I’ve preached and pastored and taught Scripture to scores of people. But my theology of heaven is simple.

It will be, for eternity, the feeling of joy at the sound of tires crunching over a gravel driveway and the screen door flinging open as we pull into Mother Dear’s place. Someday I’ll “pull into Heaven,” and she’ll be there, arms open, eyes twinkling, and I’ll remember those few times when I was given a glimpse of the joy of Heaven, seen through a small, simple house and a precious, simple woman who loved God and loved me.

Could He Really Have Meant It?

Monday, January 26th, 2009

I’m always amazed at the way evangelicals who insist that the first, easiest, and clearest reading of Scripture is, without exception, the only way to read it — but then produce a convoluted sort of pretzel logic when it comes to Jesus’ admonitions in the Gospels to love our enemies, pray for our persecutors, turn the other cheek, and seek peace with all people.

The role of women in the Church and home, for example, is dictated by a literal reading and firm application of three or four verses in the epistles. The condemnation of homosexual behavior found in a scattering of references in both the Old and the New Testaments is enough to fuel the fiercest homophobia, and the practice of tithing is read by those who give and those who don’t as a clear, unquestioned command of Scripture. The first and most obvious reading, context be damned, tends to govern our conduct as Christians — until we get to the red-letter stuff, the words of Jesus Christ. That stuff, taken literally? Seriously? The very idea is dismissed in a hermeneutical hurricane these days, roaring and relentless in its analysis of His clear, simple, and undeniably difficult words, but rarely concluding that they be taken and applied and believed at face value.

There’s nothing more dissonant than a fundamentalist who argues, from Scripture, for war and violence, cursing and hating. Here in Moscow and throughout contemporary Christiandom, we hear that Jesus wasn’t a pacifist and probably holds those who are in pity, if not disdain. The “turn the other cheek” thing? That’s for the millennium, or for the tribulation, or before the Rapture, or only for first-century believers. Pray for our enemies? Oh, but not “these” enemies, the ones we have now, and not for the ones we once had, or will have, or could have if we actually took Jesus’ words to heart. Seek peace with all? Give not only your cloak but your shirt, too? Walk the extra mile for an enemy? Certainly. But only some enemies, sometimes, under some circumstances, and only still if it’s raining on a Wednesday in Baltimore.

Jesus in the Gospels? Revolutionary, truly — but we’re in a different climate now, which Jesus likely knew about but didn’t address. He meant those things then, to be sure, but with a wink toward the post-millennial dominionists and Reconstructionists of our day who wrestle with how to take Scripture literally without, ummm, taking it ALL that way. There was a time when that sort of “love your neighbor, seek the good of all” ethic was, you know, appropriate — but the dawning of the Eschaton and the sure arrival of other words and ideas not easily understood simply HAS to provide needed context to Christ’s admonitions, lest we get all gentle and peaceful and humble.

You know. “Feminized.” Weak with “Father hunger.” “Heavenly-minded but no earthly good,” especially to a world soon to be tamed by Christians who can’t possibly do that if they’re constantly turning the other cheek . . .

But what if Christ really, seriously, honestly, meant for all of us, always, to follow His commands? Fear of feminization and disdain for peacemakers really ought not energize our theology; concern for “Biblical masculinity” and confidence in the “dominion” of the Church shouldn’t be the filter through which we decide to obey God. I pray to see evidence of “red-letter literalism” in my own life; I fear that I see little of it in the practice of the Church in Moscow.

Parenting By The Book

Monday, January 26th, 2009

I’ve taken a week off from blogging, happily consumed with the celebration of my eldest son’s 20th birthday. We rang it in over the course of several days of dinners out, dinner in, a trip to Couer d’Alene and lots of calls from the relatives, all of whom feel compelled to sing Happy Birthday to a young man who pretends not to love it all. I continue to marvel at the reality that while one son is a committed vegan, the other begins his third decade thrilled to pieces that we got him four filets mignon from Omaha Steaks. Plus pork loin, even.

Honestly, they really are brothers. I was there when they were born and everything.

So I’m a little sentimental these days. Jeff and I are half-empty nesters with a sophomore in high school and a sophomore at the UI, and the house seems so quiet at times without both boys always around. I’m blessed with two wonderful, kind, intelligent, funny sons, and being their mother continues to be the role I treasure most. Nothing else I do matters if I don’t honor God by mothering them with the love I learned from Jesus.

I’ve been given a lot of opportunity over the last few months to counsel young mothers and fathers who ask me about parenting — what books did I read, what ministry did I turn to for guidance, did we spank/breastfeed/let them play with toy guns, etc. I think I’ve been a pretty good mom, and I’m always grateful for the opportunity to help young parents learn how to be good parents. But Jeff and I didn’t read parenting books; I think I finished one, maybe, when my youngest was about five. We rejected the model of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family as being far less Biblical than culture-reflecting; Dobson and his ilk demonstrate much of what’s wrong with contemporary Christiandom, and I wasn’t about to school my sons in their methods. We spanked only a few times, and I consider each one to have been a failure on my part. I breastfed longer than most American women do, and we didn’t let them play with guns. The greatest blessing of my life has been that I could stay home with them, and we read, we cuddled, we explored, we talked, and we did it all again, many times, every day. Yes, it was sometimes exhausting; no, I wouldn’t take back a minute of it. And maybe it shows, if not in me, then in my kids — people ask me about parenting quite often, and I have only one thing to recommend, only one parenting style or household management plan that’s ever made sense to me: the Fruit of the Holy Spirit outlined in Galatians 5.

I wasn’t raised in a Christian home and neither was my husband. We both had much to unlearn and much more to learn, and as we grew and lived together in Christ, the fruit brought about by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, mercy and self-control — began to be the guide and the goal for how we brought up our sons. If I demonstrated love, kindness, peace, mercy, gentleness, patience and self-control in mothering them, and if I trained them to develop within those qualities, they, their dad, and I all found not just a sane and safe household, but tremendous joy as well. If I approached every interaction, every opportunity, every spilled glass of milk, with patience, mercy, and self-control, it had an amazing effect, both on me and on my boys. If we opted for true discipline — training, modeling, and encouraging good behavior — and not punishment, we got the kind of behavior, generally, that we wanted. And when we didn’t, it became, with self-control, patience, and mercy, much easier to approach each incident by asking first what it is they needed, and then trying to satisfy that. So if there was a mid-morning meltdown, for example, I learned to ask myself, and later to ask them, what it could be that they needed — a snack, a diaper change, a hug, a “book break,” a time out, or whatever. The fruit of the Spirit within me prompted a relational approach to parenting, not an adversarial one, and I think that’s the model God intends in our every interaction as Christians.

Even with, especially with, our children.

Lamentably, too many “Christian” books and methods thrive on adversity and control, not to mention spanking, and for the life of me, I can’t see Christ in any of it. You don’t “discipline” your kids by spanking them. That’s punishment, not training, and the ease with which parents equate the two is a fruit of something else entirely. Kids need to be punished sometimes; I just doubt that it’s as often as the prevailing Christian culture demonstrates, and I reject that the “rod and staff” that comfort us in Psalm 23 is meant to be used to whip ‘em in Proverbs 13:24. Kids can be taught not to touch the knickknacks on Grandma’s bookshelf without spanking or threats thereof, and the lesson learned by an infusion of the fruit of the Holy Spirit brings forth kids who are not just trustworthy and self-controlled, but also gentle and joyful. In a culture roiling with violence and smothered in fear, I can’t think of any better gift to have left my children.

They’re good men. I can’t wait to see the gifts they offer to the world around them.

"Holy" Executions

Friday, January 16th, 2009

I’d like to clarify something in my post yesterday regarding the “holy obedience” that occurs when the State executes someone. I said that execution might be (or, I’d argue, might not be)obedient, but that I couldn’t call it “holy.” A correspondent asks why not; surely all obedience is a holy thing, right?

I don’t think so. My objection to using Romans 13 as a basis for capital punishment is a hermeneutical one. If “bearing the sword” actually does mean “injecting the drugs, releasing the gallows trapdoor, or pulling the switch,” it would seem that the text demands that of all crimes committed by “evildoers.” Reconstructionists might like to go there, but I won’t; there are those who would execute people according to Mosaic Law, which means that murderers, homosexuals, and defiant teenagers would face death. The injustice of capital punishment as it now exists renders it automatically a violation of God’s command in my eyes. Further extending it only compounds the injustice, inviting more of the Holy One’s wrath.

That said, there are myriad reasons for my opposition to capital punishment, reasons I believe to be entirely Biblical and evocative of the example set by Christ Jesus. I don’t see any execution as a “righteous” thing, but even if it were demanded by Scripture, the result, while obedient, cannot be holy. It’s a tragedy of loss all around: A person created in the image of God, a person whose sins were atoned for at the cross, someone who was at some point in their lives the delight of another living being, carries the weight of enormous guilt along with the despair and hate that led them to kill. They may, like Karla Fae Tucker, die redeemed and forgiven, or they may, as did Timothy McVeigh, die in defiance and condemnation. The same goes for their victims, and for the little deaths that accompany every nightmare still lived by survivors. Horror is never exterminated when the one who caused it is. I believe that the LORD who desires the salvation of all, not wanting anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9), grieves at the depth of loss a State’s “obedient” execution symbolizes.

I was in Mexico right around the time McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who seemingly faced his execution with stony defiance (his reportedly claimed “invictus,” Latin for “unconquered,” at his death), was executed. I asked Lupita and Rut what they thought of the situation. With tears in their eyes, they pointed to a photograph in the newspaper of people partying it up when McVeigh was pronounced dead — people gathered in lawn chairs around a bonfire, laughing and whooping it up Super Bowl-style. Some had signs, one of which read “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord!” How could the death of a human being, someone apparently lost for eternity, someone who injected horrors unimaginable into the lives of thousands of people, be celebrated — if that death was the result of sin and darkness most of us cannot comprehend? “The LORD wanted to save him,” Lupita said gravely. “How can they be happy?”

I know my Calvinist readers would retort that it appears the LORD actually didn’t want to save him; remember that no true Calvinist can confidently say to another person, “Jesus loves you and died for your sins.” He might, actually, according to Calvin, have chosen that person for eternal damnation “for His own good pleasure.” But my Wesleyan hosts had it right, I think. The only response to McVeigh’s and any other execution can be a sober examination of what we, the presumably non-executable, can do to plant seeds of hope, lovingkindness, mercy and justice wherever we go.

That sounds like a good sentiment on which to build a Christian walk. How tragic, though, that a faith journey whose foundation is mercy in the name of Christ is so readily mocked and so easily dismissed.

“Holy”? No. It’s a holy thing to lament the loss of promise, the death of hope, the emptiness of justice and the spiritual void that marks the death of the murderer, but I cannot call his execution holy. There is holiness to God’s justice, but the result of it grieves the One who faced execution that all might live.

Heaping Coals. Again.

Friday, January 16th, 2009

Sigh . . .

The Bible teaches that when your “enemy” mistreats you or offends you, you should offer him blessing upon blessing, which, “as coals heaped upon him,” the Lord uses to spur his repentance. The idea here is that hot coals are uncomfortable; when heaped on by a believer, the coal-recipient might stop to ponder the situation. They might see the contrast between good and not-good conduct, what’s pleasing to the Lord and what’s not.

Or they might just laugh at the person earnestly heaping the coals, which I imagine is the response here. Still, one of them might become bothersome enough for the target to adjust his conduct. I can hope, can’t I?

And so another coal for the author of Blog and Mablog, who today posts that Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson will, along with evangelical Pastor Rick Warren, offer an invocation at Obama’s inauguration. Robinson is a homosexual man, which Wilson clearly finds distasteful, so he describes him as a “poofter,” and mocks the inauguration’s prayer ceremony as “queer eye for the straight guy.”

“Poofter”?

A lot of Christians, even those who find homosexual behavior to be uniformly condemned in Scripture, are able to discuss gay men without resorting to epithets. A lot of Christians, even those who are disappointed in Robinson for his insistence on non-Christian-God-specific prayer, are able to discuss that position without seeing his sexual orientation first, foremost, front, center, all around and through everything he does, says, or writes. That Robinson is a bishop might concern Wilson, but perhaps he could levy his criticism toward the man as a bishop and not as a gay man. He’s intemperate and unkind, but he’s also a little hung up on the idea that one’s homosexuality is about all you need to know of someone before you attack them. Most people, after all, are more than their sexual orientation.

On the other hand, Robinson’s being homosexual does offer Wilson a chance to break into his vault of epithets and pejoratives for gays, and it’s been, like, a whole month since he’s pried it open.

And so I pray that Moscow’s own would-be bishop might find the epithet vault forever unnecessary as he finds more Christlike ways to address fellow human beings — even the ones he clearly hates.

Dubious Wisdom, Part 2 — Food and Fathers

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

While I doubt that the Westminster Confession, the Heidelburg Confession, or Calvin’s Institutes include the assertion that “correlation is not causation,” and I’m certain the Apostle’s Creed doesn’t, readers and followers of Doug Wilson learn early on, and are reminded often, that when things happen at the same time, it doesn’t prove that one caused the other. For example, Wilson would say that my wearing Birkenstocks did not cause a sunny, toe-warming day. And he’d be right. It’s an argument he uses often, if not always correctly.

The “correlation/causation” pony is generally trotted out to malign the reasoning behind concern over global warming and its cause, leftist economic theories, and the increased interest in food safety, ingredients, and origin. Usually the pony plows over the straw men Wilson sets up, and the audience applauds another perspicacious analysis of the issues of the day. Food and “food weirdness” has occupied his mind quite a bit lately, and we all know that Wilson thinks that such weirdness is getting worse; people might actually begin to believe doctors who suggest that dairy products aren’t good for little Johnny, or take charge of their high cholesterol by not eating meat. Worse, they might — it appears they actually DO — sometimes make those decisions without involving him.

What’s a powerful pastor to do but offer spiritual succor in the form of a diagnosis of wavering, withered faith?

And so we have Father Hunger, the miasma through which weak and immature believers wade as they read labels, change their diets, worry about E.coli, and try to go organic. Now, though, Wilson sees absolute causation in correlation — it’s clear that THIS has irrefutably lead to THAT. It seems that in this case — almost never in any other, but definitely, absolutely, in this case — the decreasing number of solid, patriarchal Christian fathers has caused the swelling tide of food-frightened nutrition neurotics. Fathers have failed over the last few decades, during which time people — all people, even people with loving fathers — have seen an increase in both information about and concern over what they eat and drink. Voila, and pass the sugar cookies.

In Scripture, Jesus talks about how even bad fathers wouldn’t offer up a snake when their children ask for bread; how much more extravagantly generous, then, is God to His children? Jesus is faithful. Our earthly dads might not be. When fathers fail, Wilson says, to “give bread” and instead give not-bread — stones, snakes, condemnation, harshness, neglect, abuse, etc. — people seek the “bread” they’ve missed, but they don’t believe they’ll ever get it. They’re sure their Father in Heaven just won’t offer it, and they become wary of the bounty set before them, circling the pot roast with trepidation and doubt. Unable to believe that God will give bread even when their earthly dads didn’t, people then are consumed as they consume — they worry, wonder, research, moderate, reject, switch to or gobble up because they themselves are consumed by the Father/father void in their lives. As fathers, and Christian fathers particularly, contribute to the Rejecting, Ineffective, Harsh Paternal Wasteland around us, society becomes hungry for something it can’t find and probably can’t really understand anyway.

This, evidently, is why people eschew Big Macs and fries and try to eat more salad. It’s Father Hunger, and its cause is evident because Pastor Wilson has told you so.

Now, I don’t have a seminary education, but I’m guessing that the classic pastoral approach to how people choose to eat is pretty much to let them follow their consciences — uncondemned and unanalyzed. Neither am I a professional historian, and yet I do know that in my five decades on this earth, new information about things like antibiotics in milk, bio-engineered corn, irradiated hamburger, resistant bugs, foodborne pathogens, trans fats, peanut allergies, lactose intolerance, the environmental impact of fast food production and consumption, heart disease and the beta-carotenes in my salad has increased enormously. I tend to use this information to help guide my food choices, and so do other people. Likewise, I’m not a dietitian, but I can tell when my gut rebels against one thing and when I feel better after eating another. And because my science background is non-existent, I rely on common sense to stop at a couple of Oreos even when I want to eat the whole bag. My son suffered a nasty case of food poisoning the week before his first birthday, so I scrupulously check out lunch meat and its packaging before fixing a sandwich, and imperfect parent that I am, I nonetheless toss it out when in doubt.

And I do all of this even though I had a kind, supportive, affectionate model and disciplinarian in my dad. I suspect that’s the case with a lot of label-readers, and if it isn’t, their loss isn’t achingly manifested through their munching on a celery stick.

Cause-and-effect is a difficult thing to argue. A lot of things happen concurrently without affecting one another — but sometimes, there is a THIS that does cause THAT. I might, for example, argue that as doctrinal discernment and Biblical literacy decline, people are much more likely to align themselves with bad teachers and ruthless pastors. Or I might point out that pastoral arrogance and over-control leads to a confused, weakened, unsteady flock. No coincidences here, just consequence.

A final example: Mocking one’s congregants and dispensing bad advice while teaching aberrant doctrine and enjoying the benefits of hierarchy and patriarchy makes the Gospel message look bad, really bad, to others. The cause is evident . . . and the effect is beyond lamentable, because it’s no longer an argument, a logical proposition, or an exercise in pastoral influence. Bad behavior from the clergy causes damage to real, live souls, and a bad shepherd can’t take refuge in claiming that it’s all the fault of other people’s dads.

A Double Shot of Dubious Wisdom — Part 1, Violence

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

Moscow’s Doug Wilson, the most powerful, most famous, and most prolifically opinionated pastor in town, continues his tear on violence and Christianity. And I continue to refute much of it, if only to provide an alternate perspective that I believe is not only Biblical where his isn’t, but better captures the heart of New Testament theology, which suffers under his analysis.

It’s almost as if I think this stuff really matters . . .

But it does, actually. It is important, and absolutely worth refuting, when a Christian pastor mocks his pacifist brethren while calling for the State to do its Scriptural job and practice violence against criminals — a duty required, though, only until the Church gets its anemic, feminized act together and grasps that the full realization of the Kingdom of God involves war. It matters greatly when he describes the inevitable victory of Christ and its effect on the world as something much like a spectacularly executed, mighty, even merciless, military undertaking complete with the physical carnage war leaves behind. And it certainly is worth discussing when a pastor fails to grant that centuries of a Christian theology of non-violence has at its origin the Reconciler whose example and teaching pacifists take as their model, probably because they love Him enough to take his words as seriously and literally as they can.

Is it really odd that so many of those taught by the Lamb of God find themselves so repelled, so outraged, by violence?

Was the Church’s witness for peace, justice, nonviolence and reconciliation over the past two millennia simply the demonstration of muddle-headed, soft-hearted, sentimentalists who, in their piety, actually sought to be like Jesus? Who led them before Wilson came along to slap their weak little wrists and teach them the ways of warfare — not spiritual warfare, not the combatting of the violence of sin with the power of love, but real war? Gory war, weapons-and-tactics war — war that, presumably, makes real men out of its participants and levies real justice against its victims. If the Church, by and large, has failed to proclaim a Gospel of violence in offering the message and person of the Prince of Peace, should it remedy its errors by calling for more combat, more violence, and more aggression so as to “take the world for Christ”?

More to the point, do we teach our sons to develop the fruit of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, mercy, gentleness and self-control), or to develop big biceps and a robust, hearty appreciation for fighting? Remember that on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Christ Church held a boxing tournament, one that included kids in the 60-lb. range. While other Christian churches were praying for peace, for our soldiers’ safety, for the well-being of the Iraqi people, Wilson and his macho men were enthusiastically encouraging their kids to step into the ring and throw a few punches for Jesus. All in fun, of course, which makes the grotesque irony even more hideous.

Hanging in the living room of our first house was a poster that said, “There will be peace on Earth when the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other.” My son is a pacifist. I am not. I would fight to defend someone in my care, my neighbor or a guy on the street; I think I would defend myself. I have been the victim of violence. I’m unalterably opposed to capital punishment because in slaughtering the poor and extending the mercy of continued existence to the rich (you may read “slaughtering Blacks” and “extending mercy to whites”), it has become an illegitimate exercise of the State, reflecting the very worst, most sinful attitudes of society.

Even if Romans 13 allows for the State to execute wrongdoers, and I’m not convinced that it does, that command would require justice and equality as God sees it, and those are in short supply in this country’s gallows, prison cells, and courtrooms. His justice is certainly not demonstrated when the race of the victim determines the sentence of the murderer, or when shoddy legal representation brings about the death of people darker and poorer than I am. Above all, I grieve over the execution of even the most violent, malevolent, unremorseful killer. His death at the hands of the State and the crimes that sent him to it represent the ruin of a human being created in God’s image, a person Jesus died for. That loss of potential is tragic, and I won’t apologize for my grief.

Wilson disagrees. In his declaration that the State HAS to kill criminals, and that it really ought to do a better job of it, he writes, “If the violence is directed against a serial rapist and murderer, the State’s violence is obedient and holy.” If Romans 13 truly does command the State to wield the sword of capital punishment, the righteous, just application thereof would be obedient. But I cannot call it holy, and I cannot preach a gospel that looks so little like its own founder’s example. I don’t doubt that violence will poison our world until the Righteous One comes again; I just don’t intend to take up any weapon or applaud any combat other than that of love and its assured victory over evil.

Responding to Nick Gier: Forgiveness, Blasphemy, and Process Theology

Monday, January 12th, 2009

Last week, my friend Nick Gier, Professor emeritus of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Idaho, posted a Vision 2020 essay on the divine or human origin of forgiveness. The post was prompted by President Bush’s list of presidential pardons. While Nick and I disagree on the origin of forgiveness, I think we’re both convinced that there is much Bush himself needs to seek forgiveness for.

That said, Nick asked my take on what he wrote, and so here it is:

I believe that every deity in every faith calls on its followers to practice forgiveness; in this sense, I believe the ability to pronounce blessing from offense is divine. As a Christian, I believe that the LORD God offers the forgiveness of the Creator to His creatures who offend the Law that He has set forth; His primacy as LORD both qualifies and enables God to do that, and my sinfulness both provokes and necessitates my seeking it. But Nick thinks that the doctrine of God’s immutability — the unchanging nature of God — strikes at the heart of the process theology he defends, a theology that teaches that God cannot know that which is unknowable, or the future. Because God appears to “repent,” “relent,” or “change his mind” some 33 times in the Scriptures, the Christian doctrine of immutability is not only untenable, Nick says, but makes His forgiveness a practical joke — He assigns punishment to sins that he knows he’s going to remit. I’m summarizing, of course, and I trust that I’ve done so respectfully and accurately.

I abhor process theology, though, because it strikes at the very heart of the “trinity” of attributes God possesses as God. He is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent; He is everywhere and never “not there,” He is all-knowing and never surprised; He is all-powerful and never stymied. Because I believe that the language of Scripture that attempts to describe God is by necessity limiting, and perhaps unfortunately so, to describe His mercy, mercy that comes in response to a change in human behavior, as “repenting,” “relenting” or “changing His mind” is bound to be unclear, appearing to mean what it cannot (that surprised, impressed, or chagrined, He changed His mind) while struggling to convey what it wants to. The intent of words like “relented” is to express His mercy in response to humankind’s change of behavior — but the change is on our part,not His. He knew it all along.

I would also take issue with His suggestion that Mark 3:29 is an exception to Jesus’ unconditional offer of forgiveness in Him. The verse refers to the impossibility of forgiveness for those who “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit,” and Jesus’ words are unequivocal — that can’t be forgiven.

But it’s a tautology; the only way the human being can receive forgiveness is to respond to the promptings and conviction of the Holy Spirit in faith, and if one refuses to do so — if one rejects the Spirit, or “blasphemes” Him — she or he has refused the only means of forgiveness available. If, in the driest, hottest part of the Sonoran desert, someone is dying of thirst, and I have sufficient water for him and for all like him, offered freely and endlessly, that person can have his thirst “forgiven” — done away with. But if that person, under all of the same circumstances, chooses anything and everything but the water that could and would save him, he would die. And I could rightly say that “blaspheming” (if I may, simply for analogy’s sake) my offer of water could not be forgiven — not because I didn’t feel like forgiving him, but because he didn’t take the water that I offered and that was the only thing that could save his life.

A note on “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” — if you’re worried that you’ve ever committed it, don’t be. Your concern shows that you’ve not blasphemed the Spirit by hardening your heart completely. But why wonder, wait, or watch it harden? Call on Him now and rest — rejoice! — in forgiveness. And let me know if I can help you.

I appreciate Nick’s request for my response and also his thoughts on forgiveness. I’ll end this with my belief that only the Perfect One can forgive, and all of us Desperately Imperfect Ones need His forgiveness. A god not omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent is a god really not worth my time or yours, though; I’ll go with the One I can never surprise.

A Serving Of Federal Vision? I’ll Pass, Thanks

Friday, January 9th, 2009

The Auburn Avenue (Monroe, Louisiana) Pastor’s Conference is underway again, and I’ll be interested in what odd spins on Reformed and classic Evangelical theology emerge from it this time.

The AAPC was the incubator, a few years ago, of the Federal Vision theology, which gave rise to a series of troubling doctrinal assertions — Wilson, Wilkins’, and a handful of other pastors’ views on soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation. The FV created a stir in Reformed churches that continues today, and I’m convinced that its wider dissemination would result in fireworks from the rest of Evangelicalism, if it heard of the FV. Granted, the Church today hasn’t exactly demonstrated iron-clad doctrinal discernment — in other words, Benny Hinn is still on TV — but anything that strikes at the classic Evangelical credo that “God doesn’t have any grandchildren” probably would cause a stir to the tract-passers and co-worker evangelizers among us.

I’m not in the Reformed camp; a majority of those who are, and who have reviewed the FV, find it disturbing and at many points at serious odds with the Westminster Confession. As a non-Reformed, non-Arminian evangelical, I disagree vehemently with the FV (which I’ve studied extensively, from its originators’ and its critics’ perspectives). It’s a significant departure from the soteriology of the Gospel that the Church has embraced since the Resurrection, and what I believe are its errors (infant baptism, infant communion, baptismal regeneration or “saving baptism,” salvation-by-Covenant parentage, etc.) are part of Wilson’s CREC (Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches) denominations throughout the country. The FV strikes at the heart, I believe, of the Gospel, including that Gospel preached here in Moscow at Christ Church and Trinity Reformed.

In a nutshell — a very basic nutshell — the FV holds that Covenant identity/membership/birth confers salvation that is then the believer’s to lose. You’re born into the family of God, “saved” by and enjoying all of the benefits of the Covenant, and only by not persevering, by apostasizing, is your redeemed, Covenant status lost. But Evangelicals have correctly understood the Gospel to say the opposite: You’re not born “saved;” you become saved, for eternity, through faith by grace, and it’s not, most evangelicals believe, something you lose. The difference?

It’s significant: Either you’re born saved, but then you could become lost; or you’re born lost, but then you can become saved. Even the Jesus Freaks of the 60s and 70s got this one right. Each person, whether born into a Christian pastor’s family, raised in a family of immigrant Sufi poets, or delivered on the floor of an atheists’ convention, must receive Christ on her own. No matter our Daddy’s faith. Before receiving Christ, our status is the same: Lost, and needing to find Him.

FV Pastor and Wilson pal Steve Schlissel echoes his colleagues’ disdain for evangelizing “Covenant children,” although he does so with just a touch less gravitas than, say, Moscow’s Peter Leithart. Critics charge that he and other FV’ers preach that “by birth alone, the children of Christians are blessed with salvation, without any qualification.” Schlissel doesn’t object. But answering a critic’s assertion that “Baptized children . . . must . . . be evangelized and must come to a personal faith in order to receive the salvation offered by God’s covenant,” Schlissel offers this:

“This statement is repulsive to God’s testimony that the children of His people truly and fully belong to Him. . . . If I appear to leave (a conference) believing that the children of believers are anything other than fully children of the Living God, please shoot me.”

Nonsense. I would, however, like to shake some sense into you, Mr. Schlissel.

Both of my sons, who now are 20 and 15, have accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior. Neither has been baptized yet; both were born to my husband and me, who had been Christians for several years before their births. We prayed daily for their salvation and for our testimony to them. We read the Bible, talked about Jesus, went to church, prayed with them, and led them to their receiving Jesus in their elementary-school years. Schlissel, Wilson, Wilkins, et al, would say that none of that was necessary in bringing them to where FV’ers say they already were — saved — but argue that without baptism, there is no salvation. And Schlissel indicates he’d reject what Jeff and I did with all his heart, because our efforts would be the sign of a “monstrous” church that presumes that kids need to be saved.

Somewhere, an elderly Sunday School teacher weeps. The Church ought to as well. On the other hand, there is laughter abounding — laughter from the Enemy, who no doubt loves that kids from Christian families are raised to believe that, when it comes to their eternal destinies, it’s all taken care of. After all, there’s no need to seek the salvation you’re told you already have . . . with thanks as much to Mom and Dad as to Christ.

The Federal Vision is bad stuff. Why it flourishes in evangelical churches isn’t altogether puzzling, of course — that “Covenant” status can be pretty heady stuff — but it is a tragedy, a perverse doctrine that I honestly believe has infected, confused, and deceived many of my neighbors here in Moscow. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit would reveal the hollowness hidden by the puffery, spin, and erudite language, and lead His Church to Truth.

(All quotations from The Auburn Avenue Theology Pros & Cons: Debating the Federal Vision, Knox Theological Seminary 2004, p. 85, 94, 95, quoting Richard D. Phillips and Steve Schlissel).