Blessed Are The…

Sermon on the Mount painted by Ivan Makarov 1889

Sermon on the Mount painted by Ivan Makarov 1889

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Jesus, “The Sermon on the Mount,” Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV

But, as Kenton pointed out on Kurt Willem’s blog, without the resurrected Jesus, these are just words, and words that mean nothing.  If Jesus stayed dead, then the human nature that reverses the beatitudes, that worships wealth and power, has the last word.

The worst thing is, even as Christians, we sometimes let that human nature get the last word in our lives and churches.  I’m guilty of this myself, sometimes.  I’ve struggled with every one of these, mostly as the offender.  To be honest, I still struggle with some of them.

Too often, we have our “Church-attitudes”

Blessed are the rich, for their tithes support the church programs.

Blessed are those who put on a positive face, who acknowledge no public pain or weakness, for they are attractive to others.

Blessed are the popular and charismatic, for their celebrity builds the church.

Blessed are those who appear righteous and respectable, well-dressed and presentable, for they bring no scandal to the church.

Blessed are the moral gatekeepers, for their criticism, condemnation, and gossip truly bring their brethren closer to God.

Blessed are the safely conforming, for they bring no challenge to their Evangelical conservatism or Mainline liberalism, but allow their fellow-congregants to believe they are right, and their counterparts are barely even Christians.

Blessed are the right, for the arguments they win will surely bring the lost to Christ.

Blessed are those who complain about persecution in America, for media criticism and fast food boycotts are clearly equivalent to the prison and martyrdom so many Christians still face.

Blessed are you when the right people revile you, when you hold yourself above the sold-out liberals/small-minded fundamentalists, for they will know we are Christians by our enemies.

Kenton is right: without a resurrected Christ, the beatitudes are reversed.  And that’s true even in the church.  If we lose sight of the resurrected Jesus, our human nature takes over, and we sanctify our own pain-avoidance and power-seeking.  And sometimes, I am the worst offender.

Things I Don’t Understand, Death Before Adam Edition

Horned Viper by H Krisp Creative Commons

Horned Viper by H Krisp, Creative Commons

File it under “things I don’t understand” right next to complementarianism, but I just don’t get the idea that Young Earth Creationism is necessary to the Christian story of redemption.  Now, don’t get me wrong: I understand a belief in Young Earth Creationism.  It fits the “plain meaning” of Genesis 1 better than any other interpretation, even if it is out of step with current scientific understanding.  My point here isn’t to debate a young versus an old Earth (though I’ll probably get to that one in time), but to address this one puzzling concept.

For those who aren’t familiar with the idea, you can watch this video and also this one and see Ken Ham, a leading Young Earth Creationist, debate Dr. Walter Kaiser, a professor of Old Testament studies.  If you don’t want to watch forty minutes worth of videos, you can read this article, which explains the position, and, if you’d like, this article that both further illuminates the position and argues against it.

To sum it up:  Death is the consequence of sin [Romans 6:23, Romans 5:12].  If there was death before Adam’s sin, or if there was no literal Adam, then death is not really a consequence of sin, and there was no point in Jesus’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

And that is what I don’t understand.  How can anyone who lives in this world question, for even one instant, the existence of sin?  America’s violent crime rate has been falling for 20 years, but we still have roughly 15,000 murders per year, and millions of violent crimes.  War rages across the world, between nations, cartels, and terrorist organizations.  Practically every government on the planet is corrupt to one degree or another (some legalize graft and call it “campaign finance reform,” but that doesn’t make them any less corrupt), and many still kill and torture to protect their “interests.”

Evil even permeates our daily lives.  Most of the chocolate we buy is produced by child labor, including widespread slave labor.  We so often treat the people around us horribly.  We turn away people in need.  We get so sure that we’re right that we trample on anyone who disagrees.  We lie, we gossip, we scheme, and we live so utterly, terribly selfishly.

How can anyone look out this window and wonder whether we need a savior?  We surely haven’t saved ourselves, not in five thousand years of recorded history, and not in all the long years before.  And there simply is no way that God’s power is limited by something Adam did or didn’t do.

That’s why I don’t understand the belief that “no death before Adam” is absolutely necessary for the effectiveness of Jesus’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.   It just seems like looking at things backward.  But maybe that’s just me.

The Ethics of Disaster Preparation

Port Sulphur, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina

Port Sulphur, LA, after Katrina. NOAA

As I sit here, listening to the rain from Isaac’s feeder bands battering our windows, my thoughts have turned to hurricane preparation, and then disaster preparation in general.

I’ve been reading up on disaster preparation and management for several years now.  It’s a hobby of mine, I guess, and one that can be useful.  I certainly have some of the coolest flashlights around.  That said, it does have a bit of a dark side.

A lot of prepping and survivalist literature, communities, and online forums tend to take a very self-oriented view.  Part of the “survivalist” mindset, I think is the idea that to survive, you have to focus on the survival of yourself and your group (family, buddies, etc), to the exclusion of everybody else.

I think some of this comes from the backgrounds of many of those who set the tone – in an infantry unit, it’s your group versus the enemy on one hand, and a population you can’t trust on the other.  But some of it comes from the selfish, atomized, community-less nature of American society, and I honestly see the worst of it in people who aren’t former soldiers.

But wherever it comes from, the theme seems almost axiomatic: you don’t help anyone else, because that involves splitting your supplies, and taking on one more mouth to feed, clothe, and transport.  That is, unless that person has important skills, equipment, or knowledge that will help you to survive.  Even then, you have to worry a lot about who you can trust.

And I suppose there may be a certain degree of prudence to this if you ever find yourself in a zombie-pocalypse – why just look at all the trouble helping strangers brought to Hershel and his family in The Walking Dead.  But zombie-pocalypses are the stuff of comics, movies, and television.  They’re not the real world.  And in the real world, we have a responsibility to maintain our humanity even in the face of disaster.

—-

So, let me turn my critical eye inward and stop kvetching about the culture.  Looking at what I’ve done to prepare for this storm, I see a number of missed opportunities.  Both of which would have required a plan ahead of time (doesn’t all disaster preparation require a plan ahead of time?).  The first, and arguably biggest, was that I didn’t give a single thought to finding out how to help the homeless in our city find shelter during this storm.  Even though we’re far from the coast, the wind and rain threaten to be much stronger than any thunderstorm.  Right now, I feel compassion, but that’s all I actually can do now.  Feeling bad on my part doesn’t help anyone.

The second, and arguably the most shameful, is that I still don’t really know my neighbors that well.  I know the young couple across the street, who hold Bible studies, and my neighbor to the right, who’s lived in this neighborhood for a very long time.  But the others?  I only know them to wave at them.  I wouldn’t know if they had any specific needs for this storm.  And that’s really pathetic.  They’re my neighbors in the most literal sense, and I don’t even know them.  And I have no excuse.

I’ve basically fallen into the survivalist selfishness by accident.  Sure, I wouldn’t grab a shotgun and chase somebody away who’s just asking for food or clean water, but I’ve set myself up to not be in much of a position to help anyone.  Great job, Tim.

—-

Oh, I hear someone saying, cooperation doesn’t work in a disaster.  Let me tell you a story about my village.  Perkinston, Mississippi, late August and early September, 2005.  Katrina hit, and knocked out power and water for three weeks.  My parents (God bless them) stayed, not because they were too proud to evacuate, but because they had some friends with serious medical conditions, and they wanted to be there in case those friends needed to be rushed to a hospital.

After the storm, when it became clear that power and water were out, people started pulling together.  One friend, Mr. B____, had well water (for those of you who live in the city and never encountered that term before, that means he was outside of the municipal water grid, and had a water well in his yard with a pump that supplied water to his house).  That pump usually ran on the standard electrical grid, but could run on a generator.  Mr. B____ ran the pump for about an hour a day, providing water for his family and for several other families, including my parents.  Those among these beneficiaries who had gasoline brought it to him so he could keep the generator going.  Mom remarked to me, “It’s funny, but that gas can was just as full when I got it back than it was when I dropped it off.”

FEMA distributed supplies (they’re not completely worthless: their failures were well-publicized, but their successes were not), and the people generally tried to help distribute them, even to people who couldn’t make it to the drop-off.  In time, donations from further upstate poured in, and the locals created a food pantry to manage distribution of the goods.  They called it Our Daily Bread, and it’s still in operation to this day, running on donations from individuals and local businesses.

It’s true, a shark-selfish survivalist strategy might have worked, too.  My parents and their friends might have survived based on what they had stored.  Some individuals, the ones in the worst health, might not have.  And, in such a dog-eat-dog scenario, looting might even have taken place, as we saw in New Orleans.

But no looting occurred, not because Perkinston people are too good to take extreme measures if they’re starving, but because they were too good, and too well connected to each other, to let it get to that point.  Nobody starved.  Nobody died.  Nobody got gunned down.  The community came together, and they not only survived the worst hurricane in Mississippi history, they thrived.

—-

The real shame, here, is that I’ve had seven years to learn from their example, and I still haven’t gotten it yet.  But I’m trying, and I’m learning.  I hope this will be the turning point.

Hurricane Prayer

Twisted Tree in a Storm

(Original Photograph, 2012 Tim Dedeaux)

As the storm comes: Abraham’s son, Jacob’s father, Isaac,

As the wind lifts, and the air hangs heavy,

Announcing its coming while it is still far away.

Father God, I won’t ask you to spare us from the storm.

That storm’s got to hit somewhere, and I won’t wish destruction on someone else.

I will ask that you calm the winds, as you did in Galilee so long ago,

But I know you may choose not to.

And in that case, I merely pray for your mercy:

May we be prepared,

May those in the most danger choose to evacuate,

May they find means, even if they don’t own cars,

May the shelters stand,

May the generator-fueled refrigerators keep the insulin cold,

That no life would be lost.

And in the aftermath,

As the sun shines across broken cities,

May our hands be extended

Not grasping as looters or closed as enemies

But open, as neighbors.

Amen.

A Clarification about Complementarianism

In writing about complementarianism yesterday, I did something that I’m all too often guilty of doing: I talked about the more radical edge of it as if it were the whole.

In other words, I talked about complementarianism in a way that makes all those who identify as complementarian sound utterly sexist.  That was not my intent, clearly.

Complementarianism as it exists in America, is a broad and difficult to define concept … so slippery, that the From Two to One marriage blog spent four posts just defining terms!

At the most minimal core, complementarianism is the belief that men and women are different in some way, and have some kind of difference in their God-given roles.  I think most of us believe that to some degree.

But that definition is too broad to be useful.  It’s like a man who was taking a hot-air balloon ride, and, looking down, didn’t recognize the landscape.  “Engineer,” he asked, panicked that they might be lost, “where are we?”  The engineer looked over the edge, looked back at the man, and said, “We’re in a balloon.”

Well, thanks.

An actual useful definition of complementarianism would need to be narrow enough that it actually excludes more than a handful of people.  So what I’m talking about is the idea of God-ordained different roles, to the extent of:

  1. Male headship in the home (wifely submission, as opposed to egalitarianism’s mutual submission and equal leadership)
  2. Male headship in the church (women may be excluded from all leadership roles, or possibly just the priestly/preaching role)
  3. The preparation of the next generation of girls to be good wives, first and foremost.

#3 is the one that troubles me the most.  I have no problem with women choosing to live in complementarian marriages, choosing to subordinate themselves to their husbands.  But I do have a problem with girls being told that that’s their role, and that’s where their worth and righteousness comes from.  I have a problem with girls being pushed to not get an education, to marry young, and to stay married even if the husband abuses them.

And while not everyone who calls themselves complementarian takes this approach, it is not a rare or unique thing.  Heaven Ministries, Buried Treasure,  and Ladies Against Feminism have all published articles questioning the need for higher education or outright advising against it for women.  A simple Google Search turns up even more.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that there is a significant group within the wide tent of complementarianism that I have a serious problem with.  While I don’t want to paint everyone who takes that title with the same brush, I feel like I have to stand up and speak out.  Because this affects our daughters, our sisters, our female friends, and that means it affects us all.

Why I Have to Talk About Complementarianism

Solomon's Judgment by Peter Paul Rubens

Solomon’s Judgment by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1615

Edit : I realized that in this post, I’m guilty of doing something I all too often do; letting an extreme group stand in for the whole group.  I’ll post more on this, above, but suffice it to say that I’m talking about the far end of complementarianism, not the centrist end.

You know, there was a time when I thought the complementarian/patriarchy issue didn’t affect me. I wasn’t raised that way, I had (and continue to have) an egalitarian marriage, and, frankly, this “gender roles preset by God, regardless of the individuals’ specific gifts” business sounded like nonsense to me.  This was never something I personally had to grapple with, and so I never really thought it was important for me to turn my attention to it.

But now I see how much it impacts people raised within it.  I see how much it colors discussions on Christianity.  Just because I’ve been sheltered from it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  And maybe I haven’t been sheltered from it as much as I thought.  Maybe, being male, I heard it and forgot it.

So it is possible that I encountered complementarianism and just didn’t realize it.  I do seem to remember a couple of sermons on Ephesians 5:22, and thinking those sermons might have been different if he’d read the rest of the chapter instead of just that verse.  This was, of course, pre-Danvers Statement, before there was an organized movement to sanctify soft patriarchy and return the church to 1950’s American gender roles.

Maybe I wasn’t hit by it because I wasn’t the target.  Complementarianism in practice is all too often about telling women how to be “biblical” – that is, how to be submissive and dedicate their lives to the support and edification of their husbands. The husband’s role, to love her and guide her as Christ loves and guides the church, may get equal attention, but it may not.  And it’s also harder to define, harder for a church community to agree on what it will look like, and, clearly, harder to enforce.

That never really occurred to me, perhaps because Dad and I studied the Bible together from before I was old enough to remember it up until I was in high school.  We used commentaries and chain references to see how the scriptures interacted, to explore their context, to get clarification for terms that were unclear or might have multiple possible translations.  I asked questions, and if Dad couldn’t answer them, he’d ask around until he found someone who could (our preacher had to call one of his seminary professors to find out what a “Tishbite” was, as in “Elisha the Tishbite.”  I was a little disappointed that it just meant he was from Tishbe).

So I knew about Deborah, Ester, Aquila and Priscilla, Lois and Eunice, and other Biblical women.  I knew that Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus, and was chosen to tell the Twelve that He had risen, to be the Apostle to the Apostles.  As far as additional reading went, I grew up on C. S. Lewis, not John Piper.

From my perspective, separate roles for men and women, based on gender and not on individual gifts or callings, seems legalistic, proscriptive and authoritarian, and maddeningly tied to an idealized version of 1950’s American conformity.  It seems so unlike the great freedom granted by Jesus Christ, even deaf to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  I’ve read the verses on wifely submission, but knowing what I know about first century Greco-Roman house codes, I see those verses (in context) as radically upending the existing sexual hierarchy.

Yes, women were to continue in their first-century gender roles [Eph 5:22 ], but wives and husbands were to remember that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Gal 3:28]  And the idea of mutual submission, of laying down one’s life for one’s wife, loving her like Christ loved the church?  Radical at a time when (as they were for most of human history) women were, legally speaking, property.

It’s important to remember that one of the big “wives, obey your husbands” verses is Colossians 3:18.  The next seven verses talk about husbands’ responsibility to love their wives, children’s responsibility to obey their parents (along with an admonition to fathers not to “exasperate” their children), and finally, how Christians who are slaves should relate to their masters.  If we really think first century Greco-Roman house codes are some kind of Godly ideal, doesn’t that mean we need to bring back slavery?  And if we’re not willing to hold our fellow man in bondage, why do we want to hold our fellow women in bondage?

I don’t want to write this as if I have all the answers.  I created this blog to live in the questions, to grapple with scripture, God’s will, and my own thoughts, not to preach a certain viewpoint.  Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time doing that here.  Okay, I’m failing utterly to maintain any questions, any objectivity here.  Which of course makes me question whether I should even post this.  But I think I have to, because of this next paragraph:

But now I realize it affects me.  If I have a daughter, it will affect her.  It affects everyone around us.  If my unborn child is a daughter, she will inherit a Christianity very different from the one I grew up in.  She will inherit a Christianity that tells her that her purpose comes not from what God can do through her, but what she can do to support whatever God is doing through her husband.

I don’t want my (possible) daughter to hate her own independence, to abhor her ambitions, to denigrate her dreams.  And I certainly don’t want her to base her sense of self on a man, other than the Son of Man Himself.

Those of us who are male can sit in our safe places and pretend it isn’t happening, just like those of us who are white can ignore racism, and those of us who are heterosexual can ignore homophobia, and those of us who are wealthy and live in post-industrial nations can ignore the suffering of the world’s poor.

But it doesn’t make it right.

Repetition – an Explanation

I’ve posted two “Repetitions” here, and it occurs to me that some of you may be wondering just what I’m doing.

Well, it all began back in college, when Dr. Meadors had us read Soren Kierkegaard, including Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing and Fear and Trembling/Repetition.

I have to admit, some of Kierkegaard’s writing went right over my head.  Other parts of it challenged me (the knight of faith, the teleological suspension of the ethical as seen in the story of Abraham and Isaac).  But one part slipped, almost unnoticed, into a little empty space in my mind, and hid, almost unnoticed, for many years.

Repetition.

In the beginning of Repetition/Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard re-tells the story of Abraham and Isaac several times.  And each time it’s different.  One time, it focuses on Isaac’s broken trust in his father.  Anther time, it focuses more on Abraham’s pain and dread of what he has to do.

But what struck me was this: the Bible gives us an outline, a story in a form much shorter than what we are currently used to.  It tells us what happened, but we must infer or imagine the feelings, the reasons, the details.

And so we do.

There’s a huge sub-genre of Christian fiction retelling Bible stories in novel form, but even those of us without literary agents rewrite the stories into modern-style narratives within our minds.  And that’s good, because it makes it more than just a brief passage, an efficient chronicle of something that happened long ago.  It helps us make the story real to ourselves.

But it’s important to remember that we don’t know how Jacob or Ruth or Abraham felt (at least I don’t).  It’ s important to know that those details (the ones that didn’t make the canon) could go any number of ways.

And so, when I retell stories from the Bible, as I will sometimes do here, I never just tell them once.  That would be an “answer,” and an answer I am surely not qualified to give.  But by writing the story again and again, using different possibilities, different approaches, I can keep myself engaged with the questions, with the Bible itself.

How did Jacob feel when he wrestled the angel?  Why did he stay behind at the Jabbok ford?  Who started the fight?  If Jacob hoped to live, what did he base that hope on: his gifts and plans, God’s protection, or Esau’s mercy?  Did he ever fear the angel would kill him?  Did he even know what he was wrestling?

I don’t know.  But it helps me, sometimes, to imagine.