Friday, June 30, 2017

Women are Not From Venus

I think I've found the problem--the center of sexism, not just in the church, but also outside. Patriarchy, gender battles, the glass ceiling, and snarky jokes about men--they all have one source.  And I found it in the book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

I read the book in college. I was dating the man I would marry, and I wanted to do it right.  I wanted to make sure I understood him.  And the author said true things about men and women, but he started with one big, fat problem.  Men are from Mars, women are from Venus--the claim is that we are fundamentally different. He said our problems came from assuming the other gender was like us. I can only guess he was thinking of a very limited number of problems, and not the big ones.

I am a human being. So are you.  And the "different planets" idea, as charming as it sounded, is poison in the water.

Of course, the author didn't invent the idea. The pitch worked because he was saying something we already believed.  But it's wrong.  And the reason that sexism still lives, even in presumably innocuous forms, is the belief that men and women are different kinds of creatures.

So I'm not going to be stupid here, and say men aren't different from women--experience tells us that's a load of hooey.  And I'm not going to get into the argument over whether it's in our brain chemistry or our upbringing.  It doesn't really matter how we got here.  What matters is where we think here is.  Men and women are different, and I have no ambitions to erase those differences or to deify and enforce them.  I'd rather clarify them.

The place we go wrong, is this--we differ, not in type, but in degree.  We all know that not every man you meet is taller than every woman.  Not every one is better at spatial reasoning, more interested in cars, or more bored with shopping than every woman.  Our differences are statistical, not fundamental.  When we make comparisons, we're not making it up, but we're comparing averages, not species. We couldn't be, because we're the same species, made of the same stuff.

In the book of Genesis, God creates humanity from the dust of the earth, and gives his own breath to animate him.  But the man is a single unit.  He has the company of all the creatures of the earth, he has communion with the infinite God. What he doesn't have is someone like him.

You can see this is the point in the creation of woman.  When he wakes from his sleep, in Genesis 2, verse 23, and cries out in joy over her appearance, the gender arguments are missing the point.  We waste our time arguing over whether this is an act of naming her and therefore, perhaps, an exercise of authority.*  The point is what he says about her: "This is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone!"  He is saying, "Here is someone like me!"

She is woman, named from his name, and he is man, but they are both human.  They are not first and second, or original and derivative. They are male and female.  The man is not looking for a subordinate--he has plenty of those already.  He needs a partner.

And then the fall came.  Sin drove the first wedge between man and woman.  When they leave Eden, Adam names his wife in the way he'd named the animals.  She is Eve, the mother.  She is one step removed from what he is, and a mere form of the word "man" is no longer enough to describe her. Her identity is other now.  The name emphasizes their separation, their difference.  They are distinct now, and from this moment in history on, we see each other from the outside, as strangers.

And this is the essence of patriarchy, and of sexism.  The heart of sexism is failing to see one another as made of the same stuff.  It's only when we put half of the human race in a separate box from ours, that we feel comfortable judging them by the box.  The well-meaning 1950s husband loves his wife--he wants to support and protect her. But he considers her a different kind of creature--delicate, feeling, beautiful, sensitive.  That's why he can disregard her judgment, or laugh at her driving or her manner of speech with his friends, and still feel he's showing her honor.  It's because he believes she's a collection of different traits and skills, rather than a different arrangement of his own.

This is why, today, my facebook feed is still littered with jokes about women--usually posted by women--or about what men are like.  It's because we are still allowing ourselves to see one another as our gender, instead of so many examples of human beings.  It's why so many members of our church can still feel instinctively that pastoring is a man thing.  Behind the fistful of textual arguments, genuinely believed or not, is the fact that we've had it in the man box for so many centuries, we can't picture it in the woman box.  But we don't need to.  We need to get our heads out of the boxes relate to human beings.

We are all human. We need the right to be human beings first. Our gender is only a nuance to that identity, and it's one of many.  The secret to relating to men, or to women, is relating to human beings.  And the only way to win the gender war is by making peace with the enemy, one human being at a time.

I can't fix sexism.  I can't unravel the Curse.  Probably you can't either.  But I can choose to relate to people as themselves, and not as their boxes.  I can't kill sexism, but I can make it look ridiculous.  And maybe, if we all do that, it will be enough.

*The Hebrew text gives good reason to say that it isn't.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Why I Don't Say Jesus is Coming Soon

Church has a special language.  We learn this as kids, when we go to Sabbath School and sing about "This Little Light of Mine" which really isn't a light.  The teachers tell us to be good sheep, but then they make us walk upright and speak in words.  Most disappointing of all, they offer us swords, and then hand us the Bible.  But we learn.  Church has a different language, and words mean something a little different there.

I don't remember what age I was when I realized "soon" had more than one meaning.  There was the usual soon--as in, when I should be ready to leave for school.  And then there was the Second Coming "soon."  There's only so long you can go, expecting it to happen in a few days, or a week, before you catch on that this a different meaning for the word.  We go on believing Jesus is coming soon, we just have to change the definition a little.

For more than 150 years, our church has proclaimed that Jesus is coming soon.  It is our first doctrine, from back in Millerite times.  It's very nearly the center of our identity, people who care about getting things right, from the Bible, because Jesus is coming soon.  But we have to admit that it hasn't come as soon as we expected.

We're not the first.  At the end of the book of John, Jesus tells Peter, "If I want him (John) to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?"  The twelve expected him to return in a single lifespan.

 I've often thought, as I hear someone fear-mongering about world events signalling the end, what it would have felt like to live through WWII, to learn about the Holocaust.  Surely, the world couldn't continue any longer after those things.  But what about the fall of Jerusalem, or the collapse of the Roman empire?  US politics might be intense right now, but they're not barbarian-hordes-and-Nero-burning-Rome intense.  It's painfully possible we will have to live beyond this, too.

I have three kids, and like every Adventist parent before me, I don't expect them to grow up and have their own kids before the Second Coming.  But I don't say "soon" to them.  I say someday. It's hard enough trying to explain how long they have to wait for Campmeeting, and I'm just not ready to try explaining the other.

Someday, not soon.  How can I justify that kind of heresy?  It's because one day I quit listening to the evangelists, and listened to the teacher who sent us back to Matthew 24 with more careful eyes.*  It's because the same Jesus who said, "Yes, I am coming soon" (Revelation 22:20), also said, "see to it that you are not alarmed . . . the end is still to come." (Matthew 24:6)  In fact, look at the larger passage:

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed.  Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.  All these are the beginning of birth pains.
                                                                                                                     --Matthew 24:6-8

The point isn't the wars or the earthquakes.  Jesus isn't trying to shake the disciples up.  He's trying to comfort them.  And the last illustration is telling--birth pains.

At 2am on January 25, 2007, I woke in labor.  It was my first child.  I didn't know how it would go, but I knew for certain now that my daughter was coming.  I took a shower.  I braided my hair so it wouldn't look awful in the new-baby photos.  I packed the last items I would need at the hospital.  I was nervous, but excited.  I didn't know how long it would take, or how bad it would be.  But I knew how it would end.

Soon isn't the most useful word, even though we get closer every day.  Soon tries too hard to tell us when, but it isn't the point.  The point about the Second Coming, is that it's certain.

After 2000 years of waiting, after seeing every sign of the end repeated ad naseum, after the public pain of the Great Disappointment, we have to answer the question of whether it's even going to happen.  Were we all fooled about this?  Was the promise false?

That's the moment we can be glad Jesus said it's not yet.  Whatever the cause of these last 2000 years, I'm glad he warned us not to be alarmed. It's still coming.

And I still believe in it.  I am a Seventh-day Adventist.  I believe my Savior is coming again.  Not because the world is falling apart, but because he promised it. This is the point.  I don't know if this is the end, or just another contraction.  But I know it will end, and I know how, and it's good news.

*Dr. Jon Paulien, to be precise, who deserves a lot more credit for this reading of Matthew 24 than I can give here.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Cleanliness, Godliness, and Sabbath Rest

Friday cleaning just doesn't happen the way I picture it these days.  Last week, I managed to clear the toys from the living room floor (multiple times), and I swept all the hardwood floors, but the vacuum never touched the carpet.  There's still clutter on the kitchen counter and I'm just not going to think about the bathrooms.

It's not that I don't love a clean house, or think it's important.  I love to bask in the marvel of clear countertops.  I find the sight of freshly-vacuumed carpet intoxicating in its beauty.  My soul is at peace when my surroundings are in order.  But I usually have to make that my immediate surroundings, because there's no way I can achieve it in the whole house at the same time.

The kids, of course, are extremely helpful.  I love the way I can get called away from cleaning apparent hurricane damage indoors, to deal with a bathroom trip that was badly timed.  And, of course, trip over Legos in the hall en route. Occasionally I get through a whole job, like scrubbing the toilet, or getting dressed after a shower.  Then I go downstairs and learn my peace and quiet was bought a the price of a mixed-media art project dripping from the kitchen table.*

Cleanliness, the old saying goes, is next to godliness.  Of course we all know that's not in the Bible, and we've managed to laugh it off for the last generation or two.  After all, who could compare sweeping to righteousness?  But I'm gong to suggest there's more to this saying than we thought.** 

Cleanliness is a spiritual thing.  Don't believe me?  Open a new tab on your browser, and start reading articles on Minimalism.  My Facebook feed gets a regular dose of them.  The point isn't just about decluttering your living room anymore, it's about decluttering your home and your soul.  It offers peace, focus, rest.  And I believe it's a good thing, although my own household will never do more than lean a bit in that direction.

Cleanliness is spiritual.  I know because of how deeply that fresh-vacuumed-carpet feeling is tied to my sense of Sabbath rest.  I know, because my Adventist heritage tells me there's a deep connection between my outer environment and my inner life.

Order effects the human spirit. Cleanliness impacts our souls. In that way, it's like nature, art, and music. These are all places where our physical world bleeds over into our souls. All of them can be powerful forces in our spiritual lives. And because of it, all of them also can be idols.

But cleanliness is different from the others, because it's something you create yourself. I remember reading, in more than one place, that no matter if we have money or talents, we can all have a clean house. You're off the hook if you don't have a flair for decor, but there is no excuse for dusty baseboards.  So get to work, Sloth, was the message implied.

And this, I am afraid, is where cleanliness actually stands next to godliness. Both of them deal with our own works.  Which means both are frighteningly vulnerable to legalism.

This is what legalism is--these are good things. We have no choice about pursuing them, if we want to feed our souls. But we aren't fed by the pursuit, by our work.  Legalism happens when we forget that.  It happens when we pursue good, instead of God.

Of course, since the legalism of cleanliness is like any other kind, it also has the same cure.  The cure for legalism is failure.  I cannot achieve godliness, and I cannot achieve cleanliness either.  And here it's only fair to acknowledge that my children are a gift from God in more than one way.  I want cleanliness, but instead I live with controlled chaos.  I can't deny my own limits, I have to look elsewhere for true order.  I can't make myself good, so I have to look for a Good that is greater than I am.  I will never find value and purpose in being successful in my home.  I need God to give that to me.

I'm going to rest this Sabbath in my little pocket of order, and I hope you will too, however small it is.  I'm not going to be weighed down by all I could not do.  Because the distance between cleanliness and godliness is really not worth arguing if you can find your joy, instead, in God.

Then Jesus said, "Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.    
                                                                                                            --Matthew 11:28, NLT

Happy Sabbath!

*I know, I know.  Someone out there is saying this is because I just haven't taught my children how to clean up after themselves.  To which I can only say, "Bingo."

**In fact, I do some of my best philosophical thinking as I spot-mop under the table.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Gospel in Nail Polish

"Tell your wife," the anonymous comment read, "to dress appropriately for church.  No more pants and spaghetti straps."

I held the blue paper in my hand, and turned it over a few times.  It was the most ridiculous thing I had ever seen, at that moment.  It was a pastoral review form.  And this member wanted to talk about my clothes.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to throw it away, or wear it as a badge of honor.

Yes, I knew people noticed me.  And I knew I was in the traditional East.  I had heard, on a Sabbath afternoon, perfectly serious people talk about the color of the elder's socks (visible as he sat on the platform) as if this was legitimately their business.  But I had also expected I had earned some slack, since they had known me more than three years, and I had been struggling to pull together a maternity, and then nursing-friendly wardrobe I could afford.

I know people notice me. I am married to the pastor, and everyone knows who I am. So I have tried to be a good example, including my appearance, since that is all some people know about me.  But being a good example means something in particular to me.

I have noticed, in my 18 years of being the pastor's wife, that notes like this have always been anonymous.  I have never met the clothing police face to face.*  In fact, if it weren't for the anonymous notes, I couldn't tell you that the critics even existed in my churches.**  I have to conclude that either there are very few of them, or they aren't passionate enough about their opinions to get serious.  So I don't feel obliged to please them.

Moreover, Jim has a theory about growing healthy churches, which he calls "Don't cater to the kooks."  I just expand it to include the critics.  What he means, of course, is that you have to feed the culture you want to grow in a church. You don't make healthy churches by jumping through hoops for unhealthy people.  Instead, you encourage and support healthy people.

So I take care with my example.  I take care to consider who my example is supporting.

One morning I came to this same church in my winter wool skirt (long) and high-heeled tall boots.  One of the younger women came to me, excited about them.  "Now we can all wear those boots," she said.  And she told the story of another young woman who had worn some, and been told she looked like a harlot.  Of course, now that the pastor's wife wore them, they were okay.

The conversation opened up a whole new way of thinking for me.  If I have to be an example, let me be an example of what I really believe.  When spring came, I went out and bought nail polish in rainbow colors for my toes.

I look in the mirror with new eyes on Sabbath mornings.  I don't dress to offend the critics, but I don't dress to please them, either. I have never been hurt by the church fashion police, but I know that others have been berated, excluded, or kept from volunteering because someone disapproved of what they wore.  So I ask myself, "Can my example be used against someone else?  Could someone point to me to defend a theology I don't believe?"***

Life is not about the clothes you wear.  And if that's true about the need to look fashionable, it's also true about the need to look conservative.  Appearance does matter.  But it matters only as a means to something more important, like hinting at the relevance and vibrance of our faith.  Or communicating that I am an approachable person.

So what's my bottom line on this one?  Get dressed.  Be sure to wear clothes.  And try to suit them to the occasion, and the function.  Then put your mind on other things--things that truly matter.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.  John 13:35

*Well, once, but it was a visitor, and someone with so little social sense that I can't really take it seriously. 

**Okay, there is also the "reporting for someone else" tactic.  You know--where someone tells you, "I thought you should know that some people have been saying . . . "  This usually means "I said to my friends, and they all nodded, so they must agree." On really serious issues it comes out as "There are a lot of people who think . . ." but it translates to the same thing.

***I remember one morning when I realized I was wearing a denim skirt and sensible shoes.  Plus, my hair was in a bun at the nape of my neck.  I changed to pants right away.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Giants in Prayer Meeting

I don't love prayer meetings.  I know somewhere out there are red book quotes to say I am essentially a bad person because of it,* but it's still the truth.

I think the problem (aside from having young children) must be that I don't speak the language of prayer meeting.  There is a certain spiritual language that happens, less at church, but still in prayer meeting.  That's because prayer meeting is still the intellectual property of another generation, the group who wield the quotes with innocent happiness, expecting that hearing them will make me happier still. The language is a highly spiritualized mixture of metaphors about sheep, and light, and the world as a term for evil.

The format, as I've experienced it, is usually this:  after a bit of chatting, someone stands by a chalkboard, or gets out a piece of paper, and starts a list.  The members start naming local illnesses and foreign tragedies, church institutions and world events that need prayer. Then one, or several, or all will pray.  Because the list is usually long, it's often referred to as a unit.  The rest of the prayer is filled in with flowery language--again, mostly metaphors. And since I don't relate to the expressions, I find myself fighting distraction.

But there was one exception.  One prayer meeting that moved me down to the soles of my feet.

It was our first prayer meeting in Warren, Pennsylvania.  Jim and I were fresh out of undergrad, two religion degrees, lots of ideas, dropped into the middle of a very rural, very traditional, and above all, very large district.**  We started with business meetings at each of the churches, talking about what they wanted for the future.  Warren wanted to start prayer meeting again.  As soon as the idea was mentioned, a warbly-voiced member chimed in with "Wednesday night at 7pm."  And so it was planned.

And so we showed up, on Wednesday night at 7pm.  I wasn't enthusiastic about the meeting.  There were so many more important things to do with our time, and the church's limited energy.*** But we started the meeting, and the saints shuffled in.  And after the usual litany of unremarkable requests (I didn't know the people well, so the ailments of absent members didn't mean anything to me yet), we all drifted to our knees the best we could, and settled in to listen to each other pray.

I had a prayer forming in my head.  I would be expected to say something, after all, and I wanted to be sincere and concise both.  At the same time, I was getting cramped from staying in one position so long.  I tried, very carefully, to shift my weight and move my legs.

And then he started praying.  He was old, and sick, and a stiff wind might have blown him away.  His voice was slow and unsteady as his gait, and I knew I was going to have to fidget some more before we got through this prayer.  And it was as bad as I expected, dry prayer cliches I'd heard every week in church, about sickness and backsliding, missionaries and colporters. The phrases were as dry as the sawdust on the floor of the tent-meeting images they evoked.

Then he came to the youth.  I hadn't seen any youth yet--I didn't know who he was talking about, or if the prayer was for all youth, everywhere. But when he came to the youth, his voice broke.  I heard a sob, and a sniffle.  He went on, fighting to keep his emotion-laden voice audible. Their world was so different, he said, their troubles and pressures so foreign to him.  He asked God for strength, to help them face it all.

The emotion reached me where the phrasing couldn't. The broken phrases weren't far from cliches themselves, but I could almost drown in the conviction of his sincerity.  He meant it.  The tired out church-language sounded false to me, because it wasn't my language, but he meant every word.  The weight of conviction pinned me to my place like a wooden stake.

With my eyes tight shut I could see an image of him reaching up to God.  I couldn't see his weakness, in the darkness behind my eyes.  Instead, I was overwhelmed by the vision of God reaching down to him.

I felt like a worm.  This man was contacting the holy God.  Who was I to judge him for his age or his ineloquence?  My professional education dropped in value in my eyes.  We had come to his town to share the love of God, and there was no better qualifier for the job than knowing God himself.  The world felt different when I opened my eyes again.

I still do not love prayer meeting.  But I understand a little better the value of the people who do.  People who don't speak my language, but still talk to God.  They often seem weak--old, or sickly--but I'm learning not to judge too quickly.  Hidden in their ranks are some of the strongest saints I will meet.  So I try to listen to what they mean, and not be troubled by the cliches.  And if one of them offers to pray for me, I never turn them down.

*At least, the way the words are quoted, it sounds as if the speaker means that.

**There were six churches, and about enough members to make one small church of the type I was used to. I liked to say we had one church named Distant (for the town) and five others that ought to be--there was a lot of driving in that district.  But all of that is another story, for another day.

***Here I must point out, in deference to my Warren friends, that turned out to be a vibrant church, and more resourceful than they appeared.