when hurting helps

(The title of this post is a play on the title of a book called When Helping Hurts, by Corbett and Fikkert. This excellent book describes the ways that common practices in the world of Christian missions can cause more harm than good. This post is not about that book…I just like a good turn of the phrase.)

I am sitting in a large circle of seminarians (graduate theological students), their professors, and various people connected to their seminary. As is the case in many seminaries across the country, the majority of students and professors are male, with one female faculty member and a small number of other women, some students and some spouses.

The speaker, an Orthodox priest, has just concluded his talk on what sustains his faith and the floor has been opened for questions. Excellent questions, all of them, but my mind is wandering. I think about how I would answer the same questions. I think about what I might have said had I been asked to speak. I think about a paper I wrote when I was in seminary. I think about dinner.

And then I realize something. Except for three professors, the only people who are asking questions are women.

***

My wife was the speaker before the Orthodox priest. She was asked to give a short devotional talk between the two main speakers for the day, and she rocked it. Her talk was about the sustaining and redemptive power of vulnerability, and she posted her notes for that talk on Neo-Restorationists. The day after the post went live, she received an e-mail from a minister who said that this blog post had sparked an amazing conversation with one of his congregants, conversation about the nature of church and salvation, and had been a catalyst in the deepening relationship between the minister and this congregant.

She received high praise for the talk at the retreat. But let me restate that last point just to make sure I’m being clear. It wasn’t my wife’s talk that sparked transformation for this minister and congregant. It was her notes.

How many preachers do you know who can say that their sermon notes were that transformative for someone?

I am not telling you all of this to brag about my wife. Okay, I’m bragging. But mostly I am telling you this because I want you to know that my wife is brilliant, well-spoken, well-trained…and completely convinced that she is not worthy to speak to a bunch of seminarians and their professors about God.

I might get nervous when I speak in front of that same crowd, but I don’t have to be convinced that I’m worthy of it. That is because fifteen years ago, I was asked to lead singing in church. I was asked to pray in front of my church. I was even asked to preach in my church. I had plenty of role models to choose from, because everyone that I saw doing those things was the same gender as me.

Fifteen years ago, my wife was asked to do none of those things. When she searched for role models who shared her gender, she saw women who were in the church kitchen doing the work of hospitality rather than leading singing. She saw women praying silently rather than publicly. She saw women asking questions instead of preaching.

***

I look around the circle, trying to remember where all the questions have come from. I have only mildly been paying attention, so I am finding it difficult to work through my fuzzy recollection. One question came from a female student I don’t know. Then a professor. Then the wife of a second-year student. Another professor. Two more female students and a female administrative worker. The female professor.

I was right. At least seven women in the room have asked questions, and only three men. Men, professors, who have learned through degree upon degree upon degree how to ask questions.

Not a single male student has thought of a question they would like to ask this Orthodox priest.

Though the topic of the day is that which sustains us, I start to think about that which forms us…and those are not always the same thing. You see, we men in the room have been formed by being asked to lead singing. To pray publically. To preach. We’ve been formed by watching these things done by men that we look up to, and having these same men ask us to do these things. We’ve been formed by being asked to be public, outspoken leaders.

The women in the room – though they have many additional skills, talents, and gifts – have been asked to cook. To pray silently. To ask questions. To serve. These are the only things that many of these women have been asked to do. As I look around the room, I realize that these women have learned to do these things well.

We are all formed by the things that we do. Sometimes we do the only things that we are allowed to do. And those things form us as well.

Do the rest of these men sit here silently because, like me, they are too busy thinking about how they would answer the same questions? Because they are thinking about what they would have said had they been asked to speak? Because they are thinking about that one paper?

Do we sit here silently because we have only learned how to answer questions rather than to ask questions of others?

And all the while, these women…these women…are asking beautiful questions of this Orthodox priest. Not because it is the only thing that they are allowed to do in this setting, but because they know how.


Soil and Sacrament, by Fred Bahnson

At its core, Soil and Sacrament is the story of one man’s journey back to the garden of the Lord.  Fred’s journey will feel like home for the growing number of people who recognize that the wounded and broken soil of North America is easily counted among the “least of these.”  His is a story of vocation, the pursuit of a life that beautifully fits both the world we have been given as well as the gifts that have been placed inside of each of us.  This is the life and these are the gifts that we find when we pursue the pursuit of the one whose yoke is easy and burden light.  


robots

Last night, I had the rare and cherished experience of playing video games and drinking bourbon with my Jew-ish friend Ben.  We got to talking about the complexity of the human brain, and here is a rough summary of the ensuing exchange:

Ben: “The human brain is the most complex structure that we know of.  There is nothing else in the known world that comes even close.” (Ben is one of the most ridiculously intelligent people I know.  He said a lot of other impressive things to back that up, but I wasn’t smart enough to catch a lot of it.  Plus, you know, bourbon.)

Rosten: “When I was in college studying psychology, I was always amazed that psychology seemed to be laughed away by some of the other science fields…physics, engineering and the like.  Considering the complexity of the human brain and how little progress we’ve made in really understanding how our minds work, it seems like psychology will always be one of the most difficult sciences.”

Ben: “Think about it this way.  As far as we can tell the most complex system that an engineer can hope to emulate is the human brain.  And when science fiction writers sit around and imagine, “what would happen if someone actually did build an entity that complex?”, the answer they always land on is that the entity freaks out and kills us all.”

Rosten: “Yeah, I had definitely never thought of it that way.”


the hermeneutic of love, the church, and our LGBTQ neighbors

For the church that practices a lifestyle and worldview of love, their interactions with an openly gay neighbor would be fairly distinct from how we have seen much of the church interact with the LGBTQ community. First, regardless of what the members of that congregation believed about what the Bible says about homosexuality, they would not be angry, scornful, or judgmental towards their neighbor. They would not look at the neighbor as someone that the church needs to change. They would not feel the need to inform their neighbor of their opinion of “the homosexual lifestyle.”

This church would welcome the neighbor to share the pain and suffering that they have experienced as an openly gay individual, rooting that experience in the pain and suffering of Christ. They would share their own pain and suffering with the neighbor, letting them know that not only are they not perfect people, but that they have made mistakes. They would assure their neighbor that they have hurt themselves and and their loved ones, and that they have also experienced anger, scorn, and judgement, both from themselves and from those around them. They hold their own brokenness closely as a reminder that regardless of what they believe, we are all in the same boat.

This church may not have decided what exactly they believe about homosexuality and the Bible, or how they think God feels about homosexuality, but they have certainly talked about it. And it wasn’t just the preacher that talked about it. The entire congregation has shared openly, discussing the verses, hearing about what specific words meant in the context they were written in. They aren’t afraid of talking about hard topics, and they don’t debate. They listen deeply to what everyone has to say, and they are challenged by the thoughts of their sisters and brothers. They pray and listen to the ways that the Holy Spirit is moving inside of them to challenge their preconceptions.

This church welcomes their gay neighbor into community, into a life of prayer and deepening that will lead to growth in the life of Christ.  And most importantly, this church has faith that Christ is what their neighbor needs…Christ, and not condemnation.  For it is Christ who will work in this church and inside of their neighbor, who will create a clean heart and renew a right spirit in them.  Whatever that means.

[This post is mildly editted from an essay I wrote for a final in one of my classes last semester.  Some of the thoughts in this post draw from Elaine Heath’s The Mystic Way of Evangelism.]


good-newsing

I often wonder how misguided we are when we think that we need to market for God.  Maybe that’s just me though.

Communicating good news to someone isn’t just about telling them where good news is missing in their life, but also about helping them see how good news is already there.  Talking with someone about their dreams, asking someone about their kids, listening to their stories…these are all important parts of evangelism.  They may seem mundane, but perhaps that is part of the beauty of creation, that the things that often seem so very mundane, normal, or even base, are often the very things that are closest to the heart of God inside of us.  For example, think for a while about the theological implications of friends, food, breathing, sleeping, (ahem) sex.  Think about what it says about God that we were created to be so amused by the sound of a fart.  Ladies, don’t lie, you’ve laughed at some point or another.

If you keep digging deeper into this perspective, evangelism is something very integrally human.  So many of our well-intentioned ideas about evangelism feel an awful lot like marketing strategies, as if the King of all creation needs a new public relations firm.  Please don’t think that I am attacking Christianity, or trying to put down our efforts.  Rather, I want to say that evangelism is much easier and more intuitive than we try to make it.  Evangelism looks much like being a true friend, a real person in a life that so often pressures us to be less than real with the people around us.  Hearing about someone’s day, helping a friend do something that is important to them, finding out what makes the person next to you come alive, or even what is slowly killing them…these are all things that don’t happen very well outside of true friendship, a relationship built on safety and reality.

Having said that, there are those humans that we either know or know of who are deeply integrated into the Life of God, who have come to the point where they walk closely with God and therefore see the Divine in people and the world around them.  We don’t have to wonder if they are safe or if we can be real with them…because they have come close to the Safe Place, the Eternal Reality.  Sometimes we call them saints.  Sometimes we don’t know what to call them.  One time we called him Messiah.  You’ve talked with one of these people or you have heard about someone talking with them.  These people somehow seem to be able to move past the gloss that we put on our lives, to get deep into the dirt in our fingernails and the grit between our toes, to the places where we hide the parts of ourselves that we believe truly unloveable.

It is here where our reality is affirmed and our pain consoled, where we are reminded of the beauty that lies deep within every person.  It is here where true evangelism, the good news, shows us that we are truly loved and lovable.


humonastic

If you are like me and think that history, when written well, is exciting and enlightening, helping us to understand not only how our past has led us to our present but how it is also leading us into our future, then feel free to read the next four paragraphs.  They will hopefully help you understand why I chose to combine two seemingly disparate words into the title of this blog.  If you are like me and become annoyed when a hack writer acts like he knows something when he actually doesn’t, feel free to skip said paragraphs…you might like the last paragraph better.  Also, regardless of what I said in the first sentence, I do not promise that these paragraphs fall into the category of “written well.”

Humanism has always been a bit of a dirty word in some Christian circles, whether we are talking about the Renaissance humanists who were often caught in the middle of the clash between the Reformers and the Catholic Church, or my secular humanist friends who have seen very little that is redemptive in their experience of the church.  The early humanists were themselves Christians.  They were not interested in making an idol out of humanity, nor were they interested in supplanting the church.  They were teachers who emphasized education in Classical Greek and Latin language and thought, the literature and ethics of a time that appeared less bleak than the life and faith of the Dark Ages in Medieval Europe.

The term has been used in a variety of ways over the last five hundred years.  Today it is used broadly to describe beliefs that were popularized in the Enlightenment, seen strongly in the writings of early deism and modern liberalism.  Regardless of which period we look at, humanists have held an essential belief that humanity is inherently good, a view that some Christians have agreed with and others have heartily disagreed with.

Monasticism (and for this blog, specifically Christian monasticism) has perhaps an even more varied history than humanism.  Derived from the Greek word meaning “alone” or “only,” monasticism began with the Desert Mothers and Fathers dedication to poverty and prayer, and those who followed them into the desert, forming communities around their lives and teachings.  Though many great names and orders have come from this tradition, they have primarily shared a focus on prayer, devotion, and a simple way of life.

Through the course of church history, both humanism and monasticism have often received a great deal of criticism.  And rightfully so; at their worst, they have been reactionary, a pendulum swing from the abuse and neglect they have seen in the broader church.  At their best, they have challenged the status quo and drawn the Christian faith and society at large to deeper self-understanding…things that also regularly draw criticism in this life.  Some monks have been humanists; some humanists have also been monastics.  Many monastics and humanists would very likely consider the combination of the two words to be rather heretical, as it were.

Now that we have waded through all of that, I must say that this is not primarily a historical blog, nor is it a systematic theology blog.  I am a poor historian, and an even poorer theologian.  My primary purpose is not to teach you about humanism or monasticism, as if I were an adequate teacher of either.  I am a poor humanist, and a far poorer monastic.  I certainly don’t intend to convince you of either perspective, as if either had a singular point of view.  Rather, over the course of the past two years I have found that my own perspective has increasingly grown somewhere within a combination of these two perspectives.  This new perspective has greatly changed the way that I see and describe the world around me, and it seems to be changing almost daily.  Through this blog, I hope to share my reflections of life from the perspective of a humanist monastic…a humonastic perspective.


stories

Most of the teaching in the church that I grew up in was focused on propositions and ideas rather than stories.  Don’t get me wrong, there were stories involved.  The preacher in the church that I grew up in was a broad-shouldered country man named Buck.  He played linebacker at ACU, went fishing on the weekends, and had a kind voice.  So yes.  We heard lots of stories.

They were stories about the Gospel, whether they were in the Bible or not.  But the gospel that was present in these stories could not stand alone.  Or perhaps, wasn’t allowed to stand alone.  These stories pointed to ideas, and those ideas were what was important.  The stories that we read in Bible class and played with on the flannel graphs, those were all about ideas too.  And more often than not, the point wasn’t really driven home until we heard something from Paul.  Paul has a lot of great ideas, but he never seemed to tell many stories.  But Paul was always the meat of the meal.  The stories of Daniel and the lion den, David and Goliath, Joseph and the technicolor, err, coat of many colors…those were all appetizers, just something to whet our appetites until we could get at what would really feed us.  That is, a big ol’ serving of Pauline theology.  I can smell it right now.  It’s cooking in the teachers’ work room.

But the more that I read Jesus and his stories, the more that I see his stories in the world around me.  Sometimes the stories are sad, like a rich man wanting so badly to grasp the Kingdom of Heaven but not being able to let go of his riches, or the kid next door who wants so badly to have a father figure pay attention to him that he settles for watching soccer or climbing trees with the grad students next door.  Sometimes the stories are happy, like a woman who is pardoned by the man who was asked to be both her accuser and her executioner, or the kid next door who plays happily outside, all the while not knowing that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.

While Isaiah may not see the Kingdom of Heaven in his life, or even be looking for it, there is something about him playing out there in our front yard that points to the Kingdom and draws it nearer to us.  And maybe that points to some of what we’re missing in our churches.  We must be missing out on something, when we forget that the sound of a child’s laughter describes life in the Kingdom much more poignantly and powerfully than any sermon ever could.

There’s something undeniably mystical and other about the Kingdom, that can’t be described propositionally or systematically.  The Kingdom isn’t as neat and tidy as we often try to make it out to be.  Like Isaiah, it has grass stains on its knees, and dirt on its face.  Sometimes it gets a little nicked up, maybe even a little bloody.  Not because it is weak or wrong, but because it is real and alive.  It doesn’t want to sit inside all day.  It wants to go outside and play hard, to dance and to love.  It is a story that wants to be told.

But it is also a story that you have heard.  And I’m not talking about broad-shouldered country preachers and Bible classes with flannel graphs, although sometimes they tell the story well.  I’m certainly not talking about men in suits standing on street corners.  I’m talking about the sweet little old lady who knows that she smells a little funny, but still wants to give you a hug every time she sees you.  I’m talking about the person walking down the road carrying everything that they own on their back, who probably doesn’t know that they smell funny, but you certainly would if you were to give them a ride.  I’m talking about that kid on your street.  These are all images of the Kingdom of Heaven.  They are walking stories…stories that you will never hear unless you invite them into your home, into your car, into your embrace.

But for now, I’m going to go outside and play.


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