Archive for December, 2009

Resolutions on New Years Eve

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

If my back cooperates, we’ll be ringing in the New Year with our dear friends Greg and Mary, eating gumbo, drinking wine, playing games, and — at least in my case — fighting to stay awake past my usual 9:30 bedtime. It promises to be a lot of fun, and as I prepare for the start of 2010, I’m reminded of one thing:

This New Year, I resolve only to not make resolutions.

This is primarily because my goals are high and numerous — there are so many areas in my life that I really ought to approach with greater character and self-control, and I save up so many of my hopes and goals and wishes and dreams for January 1 that it’s nearly impossible for January 2 to come without my having failed in something. I want to eat more raw spinach and less refined sugar, drink less coffee and more water. I want to take all of my vitamins and supplements and get at least 20 minutes of heart-pounding exercise every day, and I want to combine all the torn scraps of paper, sticky notes and old address books into a single coherent, streamlined source. I truly want to read my Bible with clarity and devotion and keep a journal without self-editing, just as I want to cultivate more kindness and gratitude while filing off the serrated edges of my righteous anger and ridding myself of all unrighteous anger.

I want to dust the entire house at least once a week and learn to bake pies. I want to not feel like a complete and utter failure when I don’t.

And therein lies my problem. I have an idea of what Keely 2.0 would look like — some upgraded version of my current self, with all the bugs and errors worked out so that I enter 2010, and present myself to others, bright, shiny, and perfect. It’s a common dream, I think, but it’s also, for the Christian, a hopeless one.

If we could please God through our own efforts, we wouldn’t need Divine grace. And we can’t; a God who could be bowled over with delight at my or anyone else’s good deeds is a God not worth worshiping. A God so easily impressed would have little to offer the world — certainly not salvation, certainly not lasting joy, and certainly not the dual power of Divine justice and Divine love. This isn’t to say that the Lord doesn’t take pleasure in our good works; it’s clear from Scripture and simple logic that he does. But if our selflessness, kindness, goodness and generosity could bridge the sin-gap between Heaven and Moscow, there would be no need for a Savior — nor would our eternal home be terribly, markedly different from our town.

The promise of the Holy Spirit, and the fruit produced by living in the Spirit, is a result of our recognition of our own powerlessness and our crying out to the One who is all powerful. It’s the job of the Spirit to work in the faith-pleading, redeemed believer — to develop in each of us who call on God character that more and more conforms us to the image of Christ. We can cooperate, of course, or we can shrug off the living God inside us and go at it ourselves, squaring our shoulders and setting our sights on things that are very likely very good, but entirely unattainable on our strength.

Years of discipleship as Christ’s forgiven and beloved, not to mention years of frustration at goals set and soon set aside in failure, have given me comfort. There are areas in my life that need my attention, but only in cooperation with the Spirit within; there are things in my life that bother me and yet don’t seem to bother the Lord, and there are things in my life I’m quite satisfied with that, in quiet times, I know really aren’t satisfying, fulfilling, the Better that God has for me. I’ve been promised abundant life in Christ. That’s not found in a tally of deficits, a list of goals, or even a report of Really Profound Areas Of Obedience In Keely’s Life. It’s found in discovering and embracing, living and loving — unabashedly — who God has made me to be. God is glorified in us when we live the unabashed life. If we could grasp the delight he looks at us with and the depth of color, quirks, characteristics and qualities created in us for God’s glory, we would laugh at the thought that we’d ever tried any other way.

To paraphrase Iraenus, the glory of God is woman fully alive. And so raw spinach is good, and dusting is good, and love is always better than not-love. But lists and resolutions and promises made every December 31 don’t bring life. Only Spirit brings life; everything else just forestalls death. That’s no way to live.

No "Silent Night" At The School Concert?

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

I understand that quite a few Christian parents were upset that the Moscow schools’ Winter Concerts didn’t feature religious songs — a protest that I’m sure rang across the country in the days before Christmas vacation.

Reliable sources say that at one Moscow elementary school’s concert, about half of the songs were about Christmas — the Santa version thereof, not the one reflecting Christ. The other half were general songs about winter, or songs reflecting non-religious winter traditions from other cultures. From the grumbling after the show, however, it seems that the Christ-following parents of these elementary school children were decidedly unhappy that specifically religious Christmas songs weren’t on the program.

Why would they be? Moscow’s public schools — and this is one of the best things about them — are full of kids from many different religions, cultures, and countries. I’ll grant that most people celebrate December 25 as Jesus’ birthday, in a vaguely Christian-ish way that manages to combine Christ, Santa Claus, and Wal-Mart in a triumverate of Americana. And I know that in years past, schools’ winter concerts reflected Christian traditions — even when it seemed at odds with both the Constitution and the religious practices of other, non-Christian students.

But public schools aren’t the place to establish a fully Christian — and by that I mean “devoted to worship of Jesus as Messiah” — celebration of the holiday, any more than they’re places to conduct baptisms. That’s not what we ought to ask of public schools, and we shouldn’t want to. Because if the public schools bend to my religious faith’s traditions, they’ll bend to another’s when its adherents are in the majority. I don’t want children singing worship songs to a God they don’t worship, and I imagine that’s how non-Christian parents feel when their kids are performing in overtly Christian programs at the public schools they support with their tax dollars.

The fact that Christianity is the “majority faith” in this country isn’t a reflection on the piety or faithfulness of those who claim it, and it hasn’t kept the culture from descending into a decidedly un-Christian morass of greed, filth, violence and oppression. There is a world of difference between American Christiandom, which is tepid in its discipleship and fervent in its embrace of the world, and true Christianity, which is infinitely less common and eternally more profound. The difference is between the Bread of Life and the pabulum of the Christian-ish, represented by a narrow gate on the one hand and Doorbuster Specials of show and pageantry on the other.

My concern about schools isn’t whether or not they reflect my religious beliefs. Frankly, there’s enough evidence that churches don’t really engage in worship, and I wonder if the feigned outrage over “secularized” holiday programs in school isn’t a cover for a sense that we’re asking schools to reflect what our churches have not. I can’t help but believe that if the Church celebrated the birth of its Savior by giving itself over to love above all, humble service, simple and profound worship, acts of kindness, and a de-emphasis on THINGS, we would be so moved — and so busy — that we wouldn’t be at all worried about a Kwanzaa song at a public school concert. In fact, we might even find something valuable in its message.

I have fond memories of school programs and concerts, and I preferred the ones about Lewis and Clark, bees, and the weather to the predictable and dull “holiday” songfests. But let the schools have their pageants, and let’s support them — and our kids — as they do. Let’s not, though, expect our kids’ schools to train them up in the way they should go or teach them to sing the praises of the Most High. Public schools are public schools, churches are churches, and woe be it to us if the latter is so impotent that the former must do its work for it.

Choosing Against The Poor

Monday, December 28th, 2009

I admit it. I have decidedly statist tendencies.

Living in a house with a very vocal anarcho-mutualist son whose grasp of economics far exceeds my own makes for some spirited discussions, the kind of debate that has my husband retreating to his office or workshop while the woman of his dreams and the fruit of his loins hash out the problems of rich vs. poor, injustice vs. justice, capitalism vs. socialism, and how buying Fair Trade coffee, while a good start, cannot be the strongest stand the Christian takes on issues of economic justice.

And while I’m not a socialist, I do believe that government has a Biblical role in establishing, however imperfectly, the righteousness of God in its dealing with poverty. People are too important, too precious to a holy God, to be held hostage to the free market and to legislation that protects inequality; government can be a tempering force that protects the needy from the impersonal capriciousness of the market and a means of providing for a taxpaying public whose disenfranchisement nonetheless subjects them and their families to injustice. What individuals in government today may or may not recognize as their part of a mandate from God, the Church surely must.

That mandate has been watered down, explained away, and in some parts forgotten, but it exists nonetheless, ringing out with undeniable clarity in the pages of Scripture. The Lord clearly has never made the care of poor people solely the job of government; the Church is God’s chosen vessel to call for and itself demonstrate sacrificial giving for society’s outcasts. Still, there are things government simply can do better, on a larger scale and with more cohesiveness, and God’s people should encourage its rightful efforts while at the same time giving itself in unabashed advocacy and provision for those government also seeks to help, in ways that government can’t — namely to glorify our Lord Jesus in service to his people. Government can’t worship our God nor any other, even though it has a part in the things that he has ordained.

But social programs for the poor seem to be utterly in line with the authority God has given to the State, beginning, perhaps, with Joseph’s efforts in Pharaoh’s government in Egypt, an event described in the Old Testament as a “secular” government — certainly a government more hostile to the righteousness of God than today’s Congress — providing for the poor inside the Covenant as well as outside of it. And while the people of God should devote themselves to the care, empowerment, service and uplifting of the poor around them — which apparently, tragically, still needs to be argued — there simply are things that government can do that individual congregations can’t.

But the Church in the United States has what I would generously describe as an inconsistent view of what government should and shouldn’t do. I won’t be generous in labeling that as anything other than the result of its prostituting itself with a political party and social movement that looks less like Jesus than it does Ayn Rand. Either way, the consequence is the crippling of our Gospel witness and the deaths of real people — the “least of these” the Author of that Gospel calls his very own.

The evangelical community has a seemingly unquenchable desire for secular government to ensure that society reflects the righteousness of God, as they see it, in reproductive, sexual, marriage and other arenas — but it expends tremendous energy in trying to squelch the State’s efforts in remedying economic injustice and caring for the poor. It’s an odd hermeneutic, indeed. The Church sees tremendous Scriptural support for the State to legislate personal morality while denying any Scriptural imperative for it to legislate economic justice and provision for poor people. The Church knows it cannot have it both ways, and so it seems to have chosen against the poor, enthusiastically calling for the State to “reflect Biblical values” by discriminating against gay people, for example, while vehemently arguing against any justification for the State to reflect moral values in providing for the needy.

There’s a lot of loss in that equation, but the loss of civil liberties pales next to the loss of life. Theories and arguments don’t feed hungry children; theories and arguments seeking to show that the Bible would have the State not expend its efforts in helping the poor can kill them. And it’s not hyperbole to note that this peculiar exegesis does result in death. The effect of economic injustice and legislation that protects it isn’t simply that the rich get richer — it’s the enshrinement of the perverse belief that the poor are poor because of lifestyle choices government simply can’t address and shouldn’t be allowed to try to. When that belief, demonstrated either as blithe disregard or sheer contempt, is reflected in legislation, real children who then can’t get medical care, or food, or shelter, die. So do the elderly, the addicted, the unemployed, the cheated and abandoned, and everyone else whose poverty is deemed the result of “personal choices” or otherwise subject to a free market they say Scripture upholds unequivocally — laissez-faire economics as the pinnacle of Christian social endeavor and disdain for the poor as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, it seems.

Not even the most die-hard “libertarian Christian” would suggest that the Church has no responsibility for the poor, although they often define the “right kind of poor” in such a way that very few of the needy would actually receive any benevolence from it. But a hermeneutic that concludes that the State should reflect a “Biblical” moral agenda tends too often to be one that defines poverty as a moral issue only in terms of judging the morality of the poor. With a fervor for the free market that far exceeds any fervor for true righteousness, these “libertarian Christians” sacrifice the needs of real people on the altar of the market, considering the resulting devastation no concern of theirs. Some of them have found a home in the GOP; others hold the Republicans in disdain but nevertheless stand with them in condemning sentimentalist liberals and soft-hearted, thick-headed Christians who see a Biblical role for government to aid the poor. Either way, they’ve made their choice, and it isn’t in favor of the poor.

And, as conservatives love to remind us, “choices have consequences.” An embrace of the market at the expense of the Gospel and a hermeneutic that calls for government involvement in the bedroom but not in the soup kitchen has some dire consequences, the unveiling of which will have an eternity’s worth of surprises for all of us.

Heading Westward Over The Mountains

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

We’ll be packing up the Dodge and heading back over to Snohomish (Western Washington) in an hour or so, and my blogging will be significantly reduced as four of us descend on my poor mother-in-law, who has only one computer and whose house isn’t networked or whatever you call it so that I can use my laptop.

And what a pity THAT was longer than my Christmas wishes to all of you — but please know that I pray abundant blessings for each one of you, with special wishes for Chris Witmer’s family in Japan. Please keep his wife and daughters in your prayers. They’ll be spending their first Christmas without him, and I’m beginning to understand how hard that is. If you celebrate Hanukkah, my apologies for having missed it, and if you enjoy Kwanzaa, may it be a time of blessing and renewal. If you have no religious preferences, I hope peace and provision shower upon you in 2010 and beyond.

Most of all, may those of us who follow Christ follow him into the darkest, most hopeless, most impoverished, most broken places — the places where the rejected, forgotten people live — and do so in joy, knowing that we don’t just bring him there for others. More often, we more fully find him there as well.

That’s living. I wish it abundantly on you, now and always.

My Ministry Way Back Then

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

Someone asked me recently to talk about my work in Western Washington, where I spent 1990 through 2001 teaching English and ministering among largely undocumented Mexican workers in Snohomish County. I will, but only if you promise to remember what an ass I can be, how impatient and selfish I can be, and how any noble thing I’ve ever done is only because of the grace of the One nobler — and kinder, and braver, and more loving — than I.

Got it? OK, then . . .

I was blessed, then as now, to not have to work when my boys were children. My oldest was one when I started; my youngest came along about four years later, and both have had as many people in their lives call them “Antonio” and “Jonas (ho-NAS)” as have called them Anthony and Jonah. They went with me everywhere. I worked on my own, supported generously by my husband — I wouldn’t take any donations, because I wouldn’t discuss the legal status of those I helped, and I knew that if would-be donors knew they were not here legally, they wouldn’t give. I wouldn’t ever deceive them or imperil my friends.

I taught English, in Spanish, to more than 250 people, using material I developed. Everyone got a bilingual New Testament (the NIV and its Spanish counterpart, the NVI) and my own study notes, drawn up for use by people who generally were not able to go to school for more than a few years and who were thus sub-literate in their native language. I’m all for immersion when learning a language, but we met only two hours a week, in the basement of First Covenant Church of Monroe; that’s not enough to “immerse,” and teaching in English would’ve been not only pointless, but cruel. I speak Spanish, and I went with what worked.

I called my ministry “Vecinos,” which means “neighbors,” and when I joined in 1999 with a woman who had been a missionary in Mexico, I brought my ministry under the encouragement of the Duvall Evangelical Methodist Church. We began “Iglesia Vecinos de Duvall” in 1999 and it continued until 2002, when I moved to Moscow with my family. Ferol and I both preached; she did more of the pastoral visits in the Duvall-Carnation area and I focused on my classes and pastoral work in Snohomish County. Most of our people were terribly poor, working double shifts at dairies, factories, and farms. Most were utterly determined to make a decent life for their families, and virtually all showed a strength of character that I’ve never been called to, working harder physically than I’ve ever had to. My ministry motto was SERA’, Spanish for “will be” and an acronym for Service, Empowerment, Relationship and Advocacy.

I spent sometimes 15 or 20 hours a week working with people — sharing meals, counseling, teaching from the Bible, providing transportation and translation, and helping with doctors’ appointments, traffic court, and kids’ school. I’ve tried to convince a man that his impotence was likely due more to his diabetes than a curse from a local witch, and I’ve prayed with women who self-aborted out of desperation over another unplanned pregnancy. I lived as much in community as possible with those I worked among. We babysat each others’ kids, I ate better food in their homes than they did in mine, and while I was with 10 or so women when they had their babies, I was also with a couple who lost theirs. My faith was shaken, strengthened, tried, tested, and ultimately found to be more profound than it would have been. I had dear friends die suddenly; I lost others to deportation or moves, and I saw mothers, especially, deal courageously with childrens’ medical problems that would’ve been fatal in Mexico but could be treated here. No one I know — none of the hundreds of people I met and worked with — came to scam the system, flout our laws, or take your jobs.

I’m not someone to whom you’d enjoy telling Mexican jokes. I’m not likely to smile tolerantly if you share with me your theology of national boundaries and “God’s natural order” of things, nor will I shrug my shoulders if, as has happened to me here in Moscow, you remind me, speaking of poverty, that “Jesus said ‘the poor you’ll always have with you,’ so obviously that’s what He intends.” And if you show contempt and complacency when you play the law-and-order ticket by condemning those who would cross over without papers, I’ll ask you, as kindly as I can, how much poverty, disease, hunger, and crime you would keep your babies in if you knew you could take them somewhere safer. If you’re like most, you’ll lie, telling me you would simply “trust in the Lord,” and you’d remind me that they should, too. You can say that, as a head of household or someone protected by one in a safe, relatively affluent, place in the U.S. Your role as head will be questioned, threatened, and mocked only by feminist bloggers and mean secular neighbors, not by the hunger in your childrens’ eyes, not by your fear for their lives, and not by your inability to do an effing thing about either.

I’m glad for you. But when the gunshots and the crackheads and the gangs and the kidnappers descend on your house, and when your kids don’t get enough to eat — even of cheap starches and fillers — and you can’t afford a doctor’s visit when they’re sick, much less the immunizations that might keep them well, and when there’s hope elsewhere and only a man-made boundary makes it illegal to go to it, I’ll help you pack. When you cry out in the crisis — not one that’s struck suddenly, not a problem or two that’s repairable, but a crisis that has consumed you from your first minutes of life, like a hurricane that never stops or weakens — and your family’s very lives are at stake, you’ll have my prayers. And you’ll forget that you ever sneered at a Mexican dad who crossed over to work, or mocked a Mexican mom who carries her baby on her back to join him. Moreover, you’ll thank God for any hope that doesn’t involve denying him, and you’ll come to see that crossing a national border without papers is an act of faith, not an act of rebellion, not a portrait of contempt.

May it never happen to you like that, and may all of us cultivate the gentle places in our hearts, the places that keep us in our Lord’s will.

The Death Of Single-Payer Healthcare

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

It looks entirely possible that the Democrats will pass their healthcare bill, and utterly impossible, as we’ve expected, that it will reflect a single-payer system — the kind most other developed nations have that ensures medical care to everyone within their borders.

I don’t assume that other countries are simply more kind-hearted than the United States when it comes to providing for their sick and injured, nor do I think that a sudden inundation of decency will usher in a single-payer system here. It’s economically unwise for the U.S. to continue down the path its on, and some day, I hope, our politicians will recognize what these other countries have come to understand, and that’s that a chronically ill population beset with disease that would have responded well to prevention and monitoring is a disaster for productivity. It is a deepening morass for hospitals struggling with “charity” cases and millions of dollars in unpaid bills, and it’s an economic nightmare for those who for whatever reason don’t have insurance, or have insurance that bails on them, and then become bankrupt when serious illnesses strike. Moreover, it’s a moral issue for a nation that blithely calls upon its Judeo-Christian heritage when disaster strikes, but ignores the imperatives of that heritage between disasters.

American Christians are a comfortable lot, really. We cry “persecution” when our kid’s Bible study group can’t meet in a classroom during school, we change churches because the ratio of hymns-to-choruses is off, we’ve found a political party full of people who hate the same people we hate, and we pretend to be Biblical literalists in our analysis of bedroom and reproductive issues while ignoring the Scriptural mandate to give to others with an open hand — understanding the power God has given government to maintain order and provide for its citizenry. Christians in the U.S. don’t tithe, and I’m not sure they’re Biblically obligated to give 10 percent — in most cases, it ought to be more, easily, and yet the Church in the U.S. contributes about five percent of its income. Our walk with Christ is one undertaken too often along the safest and prettiest paths with little regard to where he actually might be leading us, and when it seems he might be drawing us toward interaction with, empowerment of, and advocacy for the poor, we expend enormous effort constructing a theology of marketplace-driven “Christian” solutions and an exegesis of “Biblical” insouciance toward others.

American Christians are seemingly more concerned with being right than righteous, and generally don’t do well on either. But the energy devoted to hating Obama, demonizing liberals, sabotaging the public square and souring the dialogue therein is remarkable, particularly on the part of genuinely good people who nonetheless take their cues from Beck and Limbaugh and not Peter and Paul. The Republicans, fattened and fed by swelling ranks of “values voters” and Palin-drones, have announced a season of slaughter on any attempt to build a public option to address the healthcare poverty of millions. The Democrats have had their collective spines removed, judging from the tepid response to outrageous GOP arguments, and Christian social moderates and liberals have preached a lovely message of healthcare activism to a choir dropping dead from age, exhaustion, and irrelevance.

Where is the voice for the poor? And why isn’t that voice roaring from our Churches?

In a nation battling 10 percent unemployment, even greater underemployment, and the flushing away of living-wage jobs with health benefits, tying access to medical care to employment is foolish. Elderly conservatives who decry “socialized medicine” from their hospital beds after Medicare-paid knee surgery cannot be the voice of the popular uprising against a single-payer system — but they’ve been co-opted, swept up in an anti-Obama firestorm that isn’t content to try to destroy the man, but everything he touches as well. It’s a low point for the nation and a stain on American Christians.

If the time spent explaining away the Gospel imperative to care for the needy, the sick, the aged and the poor were instead directed toward a living out of that imperative, we would have a system that doesn’t require its citizens to live in that horrible space between serious illness and the fear of becoming bankrupt if ever developing one. That’s not a space where kindness or grace lives. And while I believe that a single-payer plan is the U.S.’s only reasonable economic and social option, I also believe that until every single politically conservative Christian in this country has a real-life story to tell of their own physical and financial ruin at the hands of our for-profit system, not a damned thing will change.

Grace, Restraint, Piglets, And My Friend Ashwin

Monday, December 14th, 2009

I thought that a comment from my frequent critic, Ashwin, deserved highlighting. He was upset with the tone of yesterday’s “Piglets At The Teat” post, wherein I tried to offer encouragement to anyone whose pastor condemned both social services and those who made use of them as “piglets suckling at the teat” of evil government.

Here’s what Ashwin says:

“Not one of your best. I recall you liked to think of yourself as writing with “grace and restraint.” Not here you don’t.

What is the matter with you? Where does all this bile come from? There is nothing in Mr. Wilson’s writings that would justify such frothing at the mouth – unless you are more committed to a leftwing ideology than to the Gospel.” (Comments, Prevailing Winds, Dec. 14, 2009)

Golly. It’s hard to know where to begin. First of all, I didn’t mention Doug Wilson by name; it’s instructive, I think, that Ashwin was able to figure out who I was writing about. Not that it was terribly difficult, but he clearly made the connection between heavy-handed “pastoral” conduct and my reaction to it, correctly guessing from both that it was, in fact, Wilson’s words I found objectionable.

Second, I think that calling needy people, especially needy Christian people, and most pointedly needy Christian people who find themselves in desperate circumstances “piglets” is what’s woeful — not my response to it. I think that if I had called Wilson a “pig,” that would have been really wrong. I didn’t. Only one person in this situation did the ugly name-calling thing. It wasn’t me.

Third, Ashwin has in recent days described my writing as “calling down fire” on my brethren in Christ; here he asks where my “frothing at the mouth” and “bile” come from. My correspondent truly is a refined fellow, as is clear in his writing, for which I commend him. But I wouldn’t want to conclude from his description of what constitutes “frothing,” “bile,” and “calling down fire” that he’s a timid sort, less refined than brittle in reacting in horror to words that, in truth, don’t come close to the frenzied rhetoric he chastens me for.

Fourth, I can’t think of what’s “left-wing” about objecting to pastoral abuse. Lord help us if the right wing embraces inappropriate pastoral thundering as their territory.

I think that what Wilson says and writes about social services and poverty are imprudent and misdirected. If they had no effect on the witness of the Gospel or on people listening to him, I’d describe them that way. But you can’t defend people from cruelty, point them away from error, or invite them to explore a better way by tripping daintily over paths strewn with someone else’s contempt. The Church, frankly, could use a little direct language in confronting evil.

When the house is on fire, nothing good at all comes from simply tugging at your collar, wiping your brow, and asking if anyone else feels a bit warm.

Marijuana: Legalize It!

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

I think I’ve covered this before, but for all it’s worth, and in answer to a question asked of me this week, yes — I think marijuana should be legalized.

Not just medical marijuana, although that would be a great start. Not just “decriminalized for personal use,” which seems like a ridiculous thing to still be debating. And not just as a concession to a failed war on drugs, even though marijuana’s legalization could recoup some of the losses of a disastrous, and disastrously unjust, social experiment.

No, I think it’s wrong to let government decide that people cannot make use of a plant put here by God, a part of creation that brings significant blessing to those who use it for relief from pain and nausea and significant pleasure to those who simply enjoy it recreationally. Make it illegal for minors, prosecute people who drive or work under its influence, but leave the drug alone. Better yet, regulate and tax it, making it safer for consumers and funding some of this country’s gaping social needs.

Until it’s legal, I don’t want my sons using marijuana, and once it is, I would hope that they don’t abuse it — just like I hope they wouldn’t abuse beer, wine, and Peppermint Schnapps. But I don’t feel safer or more morally grounded because pot isn’t legal, and I’d really rather that my government focus on battling things that could harm me or whose presence calls into question the moral character of my country.

"Piglets Sucking At The Teat" — When Barnyards Take The Place Of Green Pastures

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

I know that many of my readers have for a pastor a man who teaches — and teaches with sneering certainty — that Christians who avail themselves of government-provided social services are accepting help from an occupying enemy force hostile to all that Christ wants in this world. Put it that way, and he does, getting help like that would be a really bad (lazy, stupid, immature) thing to do.

He teaches that government is a necessary evil, one that Christian men accept with chagrin as a chastening from the Lord; the largesse, then, of the government, even as it’s funded by taxpayers just like those in his congregation, is something to be rejected. Not just in the belief that God will provide for his people, but with the certainty that God will never provide for them via government.

And yet, because their pastor isn’t a mean person, not someone whose contempt for government would ever spill over onto his congregants, he graciously softens his description of those who might have benefited, or might, with growing families, benefit, from social services. A label for them is necessary, of course, but he’s not one to pile on to make a point. Not to seem too harsh toward those who might use food stamps, or young moms who benefit from WIC, or couples who hope for available Section 8 housing, or sick congregants who accept Medicaid, he uses the gracious and nurturing language of barnyard stock to describe them — those Christians, not as strong and enlightened as he, who make use of the government’s social safety net when they feel they’re in free-fall.

He calls them “piglets sucking at the teat” of government. “Hogs” would be unkind.

Pastors are supposed to teach, preach, provide care and counsel, and model mature Christian behavior around their congregants — behavior that’s of the same moral quality regardless of its witnesses. Pastoral guidance is a welcome blessing from the Lord, part of the arsenal of counsel adults consider when making life decisions. At its best, proffered by a caring, wise pastor, it ultimately recognizes the priesthood of the believer and eagerly concedes the innate intelligence and sensitive conscience of his congregant.

Other times, pastoral guidance takes the form of a paternalistic, certain decree from the pulpit, delivered with an odd combination of cheerful disdain and frosty rigidity that presumes first that there is a single, right, best answer for everyone and, second, that the pastor knows what it is, probably even before the congregant does. And so the family, especially young ones encouraged to start having kids early and often, has hoisted on it the burden of expectation — big families on one income — and the tyranny of diminished options, namely, no possibility of receiving government help without incurring the sneering disapproval of the pastor and those of his congregants eager to be found in his good graces. A term that seems dripping with irony here, given the paucity of both the good and the gracious in his counsel.

And so, in the spirit of goodness, grace, and Christmas, I offer my readers for whom the above seems familiar a gift. I’d like to offer you what, in reality, you already know but perhaps haven’t fully received as you try to carve out a place in community by emulating those around you, even when you’re choking back tears in doing so.

I’d like to gently remind you that you’re not bad people — you wouldn’t, for example, ever consider snatching a purse and ripping through a stranger’s wallet to help with the kids’ immunizations. You’re not stupid people who would buy a few dozen Irish linen dinner napkins while your kids went hungry. Most of all, you’re not spiritually dead people. You’re entirely able to hear from the Lord your Shepherd all on your own; he won’t bypass you to instruct your pastor on how to pay for little Micah’s ear-tubes surgery. You and your spouse are accountable for the state of your family, and God has not charged you with its care without promising to lead you in the hard stuff of how to do it. And while he undoubtedly is displeased with the course this and every other human government takes, he is equally likely, in his sovereign power, to establish government as a source and storehouse of help for the needy, as he did with Joseph, Pharoah, Egypt and the Israelites. Yes, some government workers are true public servants, Josephs asking the Lord to use them in a culture teeming with uncertainty and inequality. You haven’t been taught that.

God may not have you sign up for food stamps in any given season or semester; God may lead you to use Medicaid for your surgery or sign up for Section 8 as your family grows. But what God won’t do is insult you in your need, nor mock you as you try to alleviate it. And someday, maybe, the difference between the loving graciousness of the Almighty and the mocking presumption of your pastor will penetrate your soul, and you’ll leave for sweet green pastures where no one who calls himself a pastor would dream of dragging his or her congregants through the disrespect and ridicule of the stockyard.

A Clarification — "Rejoicing" and Galatians 3:28

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

I wrote a response a few days ago to my correspondent Dan, a very kind brother who has discussed the complementarian/egalitarian debate with me off-line. In my “Confidential to Dan” post, I wrote the following about Galatians 3:28:

“We know that “Greek” here means Gentile; further, we know — and rejoice — that race, social standing, and gender differences aren’t eliminated by this verse. Both experience and the context of the preceding text confirm that.” (Prevailing Winds)

I should have been more clear on what I meant by “rejoicing” that race, social standing, and gender differences “aren’t eliminated by this verse.” Clearly, we all rejoice that slavery no longer exists in the United States; it turns out to not really have been the mutually harmonious relationship local teachers have described it to be. Imagine.

Nonetheless, serious and sinful social differences exist in the U.S. — the rich experience outrageous wealth and privilege, the poor are subject to vicious, violent poverty, and the middle class is shrinking and adrift, with a much more insubstantial anchor in far less stable waters. Even apart from slavery, too many are not free. This is nothing to rejoice about; it is something to repent of, and until the Church sees poverty as primarily a justice and not a financial issue, the poor will continue to have their faces ground into the dirt by the rich. We’ll rejoice when the Church and the culture it should convert decide to fight poverty, not fight the poor.

Clearly, context and reality show us that poverty still exists in a world saturated with luxury. And we know that there are still Jewish people and non-Jewish people and that the Church is being built from women and men from every race, tribe, cultural, language, and color. And, obvious to all, we still have men and we still have women in this world. Injustice and evil aside, it’s clear that the New Testament doesn’t present a Gospel that causes the differences between people — both the ontological and societal differences — to just go away.

So. If I recognize that some of the differences between people are ground in sin, and if I join you in recognizing that people are different, different in ways described by the verse, what did I mean when I said there was cause for “rejoicing” over the statement in Galatians 3:28 that racial, social, and gender differences “are no more”?

Here’s the verse: (“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” Gal. 3:27-8, NAB 1991).

This is a revolutionary verse, one that codifies two vital truths. The first is that vibrant, beautiful, rich differences between people in the Church continue; if Galatians 3:28 truly is lived out, there will be no melding together of the gorgeous diversity of God’s people into one bland, beige blob that reflects the majority culture only and is thus impotent in confronting and clueless in comforting the world around it. This is a truth that ignites my rejoicing; it’s the same truth that ignites my rebuke of those in the Church who are invested in the injustice of bigotry. According to this verse, and consistent with the entire message of the New Testament and the prophetic promise of the Old Testament, there are no ontological or societal barriers that can keep the faithful believer from full participation in the Church, full use of one’s Spiritual gifts, and full inclusion in the work of Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit. The Temple curtain has been torn, death has been defeated, and the horrors wrought by the Fall are now, in the victory of Christ, being overturned.

Putting it simply, the woman and the man filled with the Spirit, grounded in the Word, and wholly devoted to Christ cannot, according to our Almighty God in his Word, be kept out, put down, or set aside by their sisters and brothers in Christ or by any tradition, institution, or culture that prefers their exclusion. The gates of hell may not prevail against the Church, but, sadly, some inside may hobble it. May God have mercy on any believer who takes comfort in the things that dull, distress, and deceive his beloved.

Ashwin accuses me, in his comment on the “Confidential to Dan” post, of “calling down fire on (my) brothers” when I call for the true expression of the Gospel in the Lord’s Church. Now, Ashwin — my passion is ocean-deep and my beliefs rock-solid, but I believe that I’ve written with grace and even restraint. If I’m ever “calling down fire” in this blog, or in person, be assured that it won’t look like what you’ve read. That’s not to say that that moment won’t come, but I think my readers can recognize that while I’m angry, I’m not hysterical. Nonetheless, I thank him, and Kurt, for their comments.

And I agree with Kurt that this is not just a justice issue but an issue of the charism, the gifts of the Holy Spirit and their expression in his Church. I also agree with Ashwin that the Church cannot be run like a secular corporation, and that’s not what I’m calling for. I’ll write more about the Church conforming to the culture around it at another time, but I join Ashwin in criticizing any Church that chooses marketing techniques and organizational psychology at the expense of the Gospel.

Somehow, though, I don’t think he’ll see it that way, and that’s the delight, if not at times the frustration, of blog-writing.