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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Category: Scripture

Risking the Heights (and climbing blind)

jenmichel@me.com

COTW lake We came home last Saturday from family camp in the Adirondacks. This is the fourth year that we’ve spent a week of vacation there with two other families. Inevitably, it is one of the best weeks of the year. 

Beside the beautiful view of the lake, the nightly campfires, the fantastic chapel speakers, we have always enjoyed the many sporting activities and competitions the camp offers. If I can brag just briefly, after having been dethroned last year by a seventy-something couple, Ryan and I are once again reigning mixed doubles tennis champions. (More accurately, we are co-champions, having decided to split the ice cream sundae gift certificates with another couple rather than play the second match of a double-elimination round). Sporting competitions, especially those with prizes, suit the sensibility of being a Michel. As Audrey, our oldest daughter has jokingly asked, “How do you spell Michel?”

W-I-N-N-E-R.”

This year was the second year that our older kids participated in outdoor rock climbing, the first that Ryan and I joined them. After we hiked out to the isolated spot where we would spend the afternoon climbing and had listened dutifully to the instructions of our belayers, I volunteered to go first in my group. I wasn’t nervous—until, of course, I was five feet above the ground and convinced there was no higher hold for my hand.

“I think I’m going to come down now,” I announced to Tessa, my twenty-something belayer. Winner, I was not.

“Really?” she asked gently. “That’s fine if that’s what you decide to do. But what do you think about having me talk you through this a little?”

On the one hand, I had the comfortable reassurances of midlife pragmatism. What did I have to prove? On the other hand, I nurtured the smallest inkling to put myself into Tessa’s hands, to let her voice guide me just a little further on.

“OK, sure. Talk me through this.”

She began calling up instructions.

There’s a small place right be your knee to put your feet.

  Look a little to the right. See that small crevice? You could put your hand there.

 Hoist yourself up like you are getting out of a pool.

climbing

I listened. And what I had assumed to be sheer rock face actually betrayed cracks, crevices, small openings for fingers and toes that hadn’t, at first glance, been visible. I made it to the top and touched, with surprising exhilaration, the very top of the rock face. Enthusiastically, I volunteered to do another climb.

This experience of rock-climbing, as metaphor for faith, is rather obvious. How many of us, five feet from the ground, decide to come down? We aren’t going to risk falling. We aren’t going endure the strain of our muscles for an uncertain end. We refuse to listen to the voices at our back, calling up instruction.

We’d rather have certainty on the ground than risk at the heights.

We’d rather have sight than blindness, even if it means staying put and getting nowhere.

Several days after the afternoon of climbing (which turned out to be, for me, the best day of camp), I was reading the story of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9. I was immediately struck by the fact that upon meeting Jesus, what Saul got wasn’t sight but blindness; not clarity but confusion. Of course we have the advantage as readers to know that the blindness and clarity lasted a mere three days, but Saul did not have that knowledge. For all he knew, blindness was his now permanent condition.

As Saul learned, the journey of faith is lot like walking (and climbing) blind. This is, in fact, its most predictable condition. In reality, we shouldn’t really be surprised when God takes us up an unexpected rock face, which on the way up, seems to have no foothold. There would be no need to listen to his gentle, reassuring voice pointing out the cracks and crevices if we had a set of stairs in plain view. There would be no occasion for surrender and trust.

Faith begs the willingness to leave the certainty on the ground for the risk at the heights.

Faith begs us abide the seemingly permanent condition of temporary blindness for the wobbly promises of staying in motion.

Faith grows with strain and tension, even from the furnace of our own heart’s fear.

climbing 2


If you haven’t signed up for Miscellany, my monthly-ish newsletter, you can do so really easily. Just scroll up to the top of the post and enter your email in the right-hand column. It will be coming out on Monday, August 1st.

Next week, I’m beginning a weekly guest series calling, “Home: Musings and Memories.” I’ve invited writers from across the internet to share their stories of home, and I hope you’ll come back, every Friday, to find them here.

Fact or Feeling: What's the Basis of Evangelical Faith?

jenmichel@me.com

Think of how evangelicals may describe the Bible: unchanging, inerrant, authoritative, truth. Well, "in the world we are entering, the concept of the Bible will be completely different," said David Parker, theology professor at the University of Birmingham. Speaking recently at the Hay Festival in England, Parker predicted that technology will prompt personalized digital versions of the Scripture, "like an individual copy" of the Bible.

If Parker is right, we evangelicals might have some major questions. How would this editorial control affect our faith? Could it lead to an eventual erosion of sound doctrine? Would the capacity for changing our sacred texts ultimately diminish their authority?

Biblical has become the evangelical "brand." We read the Bible; we quote the Bible; we live by its truths and teachings. For us, much would be lost if biblical authority eroded and eventually disappeared.

However, according to T.M. Luhrmann's recent book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, there may be a difference between how evangelicals perceive their commitment to the Bible and to what extent it actually influences how they articulate and live their faith.

* * * * *

Read the rest of what I wrote on "The Feel-Good Faith of Evangelicals" at her.meneutics.

Be a neighbor: write.

jenmichel@me.com

Just yesterday, I received a letter in the mail from my lovely college friend, Amy. Amy and I traveled to Africa together in college with a team of three other students from Wheaton College, one of whom is now my husband. (The missionary we'd stayed with had warned about the amorous powers of the African moon. He was right.) I remember when Mali's first summer rain flooded our room - and destroyed our inventory of feminine hygiene products. If you are a woman, you will understand that panic that ensues when you realize the tampons you've brought from America are now useless, and there's an ocean between you and Walmart.

Amy and I shared that moment. I guess it's kind of an inseparable bond.

Amy and I are still in touch (yes, we're both graying by now), and she, having recently felt nudged by God to write, has shared a little bit of her journey with me. Like any writer who has spent significant time before a blank page, Amy's discovered the demons of self-doubt. They're a nasty bunch, I tell her, confessing how I've tried to tame a few and give them a loving home. I warn her not to try this.

I've given Amy whatever feeble advice I have to offer, but I find she's making her own extraordinary sense of this particular calling in her life. She doesn't need my help at all.

In fact, she's got a project now that she's begun, which she's calling "Heart to Hearten." Over the next year, each day Amy will be writing a handwritten letter of encouragement to a friend or acquaintance, and it will specifically include a passage of Scripture.

Why do I love this project so much and find it to be such a faithful expression of the calling to write?

1. Because she's writing as an act of love. Love God, love others - pen that on a page, and honor your calling in the most fundamental of ways.

2. Because she's seeking to communicate God's truth. I am sure that Amy feels as I feel: we have nothing to say. Split our skulls down the middle, and find them hollow. Writing isn't discovering truth: it's discovering new ways in which old things can be said. So get your nose in the Book, and start telling someone what you find.

3. Because she's writing everyday. God's calling you to do something? You feel inadequate? Ill-equipped? Practice, honey. It's no more glamorous that showing up, sitting down, and resisting the disappointment that it should feel different and you should feel more important.

4. Because it blesses. I got my note in the mail yesterday from Amy and opened it to find these words. "Jen, one of my favorite things about you is your constant willingness to be real. . . . I am certain this will be a reason your book will stand out . . . Your vulnerability and honesty will draw your readers in and have a lasting impact on them."

I'm writing the chapter on confession this week, and this note, written probably weeks ago and delivered at Canada Post's notoriously slack pace, arrived on the very day I needed it - as a reminder to write as honestly and authentically as I can. I am blessed.

(Although I confess: I like you knowing she things the book will " stand out.")

Write for your neighbor, says Calvin Seerveld. (He's someone famous and smart, so you should probably listen.)

Or said this way (by me, someone un-famous and obtuse), be a neighbor: and write.

 

 

 

 

 

When your right hand causes you to sin

jenmichel@me.com

I don’t expect the certainty I once did about hearing God’s voice. When I was in the infancy of faith - a teenager - God was so gracious to me. I could palpably sense His nearness, and I needed that reassurance. Having converted to Christ after a week of summer camp with my youth group, I came home to the process of slowly losing the friendships that had once meant so much. I was a new me - and awkward in that newness. For as welcomed as I felt into the arms of God, I felt equally as alienated from the people who hadn’t shared my experience and couldn’t understand it. But God was good, near, and His voice as close to audible without actually having the quality of sound. Reading my Bible in that early season of faith was nothing rote or routine: it was the actual experience of communion, of friendship. For years, I filled pages of journals. Prayers. Thoughts. Conversations. And I’m grateful for this early start with Christ, which had all the empirical qualities of being real.

I could feel God.

I might wish that it had continued, the electricity of that newness. But like every love relationship, my walk with Jesus has matured and deepened, settling into the steady rhythm of a pulse. A heartbeat. Unconsciously, it beats.

Faith. Faith. Faith.

There is a reassurance about this, too, but I find it requires more attentiveness. The sky doesn’t always light up with the certainties it once did. And God whispers more than before. It’s necessary now to pay more attention. And sometimes, in the whirl of the day and the distraction of the contemporary mood, I fear I could miss it. Him.

(Although God can be persistent.) This, too, is grace.

Yesterday, I sat down in an unfamiliar church flanked by friends. And reaching for my bulletin, my eyes fell on the sermon title: “When to Cut Off Your Hand.”

If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

This has been a distant refrain of the last two weeks. A whisper. A hint. A gentle nudge in the direction of reflection. Of repentance.

I hear Him inviting me into these words.

If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

These are words meant for me. But I haven’t yet lingered on them. I haven’t given myself sufficient pause. I haven’t - to be honest – had the courage to allow these words their voice.

I haven’t reconciled myself to the change they announce. (And isn’t transformation always what Scripture intends?)

If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

I fear I lack the ruthlessness.

 

 

An insight from the Book of Numbers (Numbers?)

jenmichel@me.com

I’ve gotten behind on my Bible reading. I have a million reasons to justify my recent neglect (or at least eight). The most recent was a stomach bug, which confined me and two of my children to the couch all day yesterday. We were a pitiful sight.

But today, thankfully, I’ve felt better incrementally each hour. By 10 a.m., when I thought my stomach could tolerate Advil, I took it and blessed the Power above that brought us Ibuprofen.

And this afternoon, I opened the Scriptures although, I must admit, I was pessimistic about having to catch up on two chapters of Leviticus and five chapters of Numbers.

Immediately, I was surprised and chastened by my lack of faith. Why must I continue insisting that the Scriptures give me quick-fixes and sound-bytes, teaching that is easily tolerable and immediately relevant? And clearly this is what I seek if Leviticus and Numbers cause me such dread.

I wish I weren’t so self-seeking in my spiritual pursuits.

But gratefully, God grants us the insight we do not deserve - even when our hearts drag their feet and clamor for something more exciting.

Numbers 4:19. This is it. What God says today.

“Aaron and his sons shall go in and appoint them [the Kohathites] each to his task and to his burden.”

The book of Numbers details, in its early chapters, how the Israelite camp is to be arranged and to which tribes the tabernacle duties fall. It’s given to the Kohathites to carry the most holy things of the sanctuary: the ark of the covenant, the table of the bread of the Presence, the lampstand. But they cannot look on these sacred objects: before they carry them, it’s the job of Aaron and his sons to cover them with cloth and goatskin.

So why is Numbers 4:19 a thunderbolt of insight today?

Three reasons:

  1. The work we have to do is assigned to us. Let’s not mistake this. The New Testament also makes clear that God has foreordained our good works – planned them in advance. Lest you think that you’re particularly clever in thinking up the good you do (or intend to do), you’re not. I’m not. We’re all acting on orders. Our call is a response of obedience.
  2. We should be careful to do no more and no less that what God has assigned to us. Later in Numbers (chapter 16), Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, gets the grand idea that he’s just as holy as Moses and Aaron. “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them.” He wants Moses’ job description, not his own. And jealousy over another man or woman’s calling never ends well. For Korah, it costs him his life and the lives of those in his household.
  3. The tasks, which God gives us, can sometimes feel synonymous with “burden.” Doing good can initially feel good. We may be met with immediate gratitude. Maybe we’re told we’re special, gifted, even extraordinary. But eventually tasks assume rhythms of monotony, and those accolades no longer sustain.

And that brings me back to #1: we’re doing the work, which has been assigned to us.

No more. No less.

And for the purpose of pleasing Him.

 

Damaged Goods: How should the church respond to sexual sin?

jenmichel@me.com

With all the emphasis on virginity as virtue’s Holy Grail, if a Christian woman isn’t a virgin when she marries, she’s made to feel that she has somehow disqualified herself from God’s greatest blessings and callings. That’s how Sarah Bessey explains the unfortunate subtext of much of the purity speak that is happening in our churches in her recent post “I Am Damaged Goods.”

“In the face of our sexually dysfunctional culture, the church longs to stand as an outpost of God’s ways of love and marriage, purity and wholeness,” she wrote. “And yet we twist that until we treat someone like me… as if our value and worth was tied up in our virginity.”

* * * * *

Read the rest of my post today at Christianity Today's blog for women as I try and answer this question: How do we talk about sexual sin in ways that don’t shame and yet stay faithful to the biblical truth that sex outside of marriage is, after all, sin (Heb. 13:4)?

 

Time in proper perspective: What the Bible says about the past

jenmichel@me.com

Getting time into proper perspective is one way to live life well.  “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom,” prays Moses in Psalm 90:12. Modern society is hustled by time: we feel the burden of it in ways that generations before us haven’t. And despite all our priorities for “saving time,” we are oriented in all the wrong ways toward it: we may save our minutes, but is this any guarantee that we aren’t wasting our years? What does the Bible have to say about time, and what does this mean for a New Year? Today, I’ll consider what the Bible has to say about the past.

In Biblical time, the past only matters as a record of God’s faithfulness. We aren’t meant to live tethered to our yesterdays, especially when they become for us a source of self-accusation.

The long list of our past failures – the record of the moral debt that we all owe to God and to neighbor – is, if we are in Christ, nailed to the cross from which He hung. This is immensely good news. 2012 is under our feet, and if we want to look back, it should not be to rehearse our sins and tear open the wounds of guilt, which the Scriptures teach Someone has died to heal:

“[Jesus Christ] wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities and upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace.

By his stripes we are healed.”

Because of Christ, God’s memory is deliberately short when it comes to keeping record of what it is we owe Him (Psalm 103:11, 12). And if God chooses to erase yesterday’s record, why would we insist upon rewriting it?

No, the only real reason to look back is to rehearse the acts of grace. God has been faithful, active, and present in the past. And this is always true, whether we believe it or not, feel it or not.

2012 may have carried with it some unwelcome news, a host of disappointments, even deep and profound sadness. It may seem like the biggest leap of faith to proclaim the presence of God in a year of barren darkness.

But it is always by faith that we proclaim God’s redemptive work.

And if 2012 has inaugurated a season of joy, if the past year has ushered in accomplishments, answered prayers, new friendships and more blessed change, may we each with gratitude receive the good gifts, which to us from Above have fallen.

Because whether life has been good to us or not in the past year, it is by faith that we embrace and proclaim the goodness of God.

“You are good, and what you do is good,” (Psalm 119:68).

This is the theological certainty we need for all dimensions of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raccoon-phobia: And what I'm learning from Jeremiah

jenmichel@me.com

I am terrified of raccoons. I suppose it began the day when one greeted me from inside my garbage can. I lifted the lid to find a masked bandit burrowing in the trash. And as is true with Toronto raccoons, they scare us far worse than we scare them. Ryan recently relayed a story typical of their nonchalance: several weeks ago, he was outside in the late afternoon when one casually sauntered down the driveway toward the backyard. Had the raccoon been able to speak, Ryan imagined he would have announced, "Honey, I'm home!"

What has any of this to do with what I've been reading in the Bible recently?

Nothing except that I'd left my One Year Bible in the car several days in a row, and in order to retrieve it in the dark hours of early morning, I would have to chance an encounter with a racoon.

So I didn't.

Clearly I'm no candidate for martyrdom.

But I did remember that I was in the book of Jeremiah and decided to continue reading there - from a Bible that was safely shelved in my family room.

God's Word has been speaking to me through the book of Jeremiah in ways that are timely and relevant. I marvel at how this happens: that I land at a certain passage, and its providential counsel speaks directly into a situation I'm facing.

Jeremiah is a prophet asked by God to preach hellfire and brimstone. Judah is soon to be exiled, and he's tolling the warning - except no one cares and there are a host of other prophets announcing peace and prosperity whom the people would much prefer to believe.

It isn't as if Jeremiah is always impervious to persecution and threats and hatred. He begs for his life. He pleads for God to intervene. He commiserates that such is his task.

Jeremiah is human, not bionic man: there is real sadness and despair and fear in the midst of doing what God has clearly called him to do. But what you sense is the open dialogue he shares with God - that it is to God he always returns and finds safety and further courage to keep advancing.

"If you have raced with men on foot, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you are so trusting, what will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?" Jeremiah 12:5

When God calls us to participation, we shouldn't imagine that it will be easy, that our movement forward will be unobstructed, that we will feel perpetual joy and peace as we work for the kingdom. No - that is the wide road.

And that's not the one that we travel.

Do something for God, and remember that it will always, always require of you COURAGE. And you don't get courage handed to you in a vat, as if all you needed was to ladle it out and drink it up when the situation demanded for it. You get courage in the form of a Person, who is the Holy Spirit. He walks with us, resides within us: He's closer than our breath.

He is always near, hemming us above and behind and around.

"I will make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls . . . they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the LORD, to deliver you." Jeremiah 1:18

There are so many forms of courage that we need as God's people: relational courage: to forgive and be forgiven, to speak truth and to receive it back in kind; moral courage: to do what is right and defend what is right; spiritual courage: to offer to God and to others whatever breeds from our faith; vocational courage: to work as if we were working for the LORD, not for men and woman; emotional courage: to stick it out in the dark places of self-doubt.

I have no doubt that you need courage today. I do. And I have no doubt that we need it because God's calling is usually bigger than us. God invites us into jobs that only He can do.

And faith grows in that kind of partnership.

"And without faith it is impossible to please God." Hebrews 11:6

 

 

 

 

Ye Who Are Weary Come Home

jenmichel@me.com

Diagnosed last week with strep throat, I was forced into bed with back issues of The Atlantic and a novel (Home, by Marilynne Robinson). (If only all days were so unfortunate.) Robinson is not maybe what some would call a prolific writer, but of the three novels she’s produced so far, they have each, for starters, either won the Pulitzer, been nominated for the Pulitzer, or received some other fancy, literary award. Not too shabby. Housekeeping, her first novel, was written in 1980. I read it in college (and gosh, I wish I remembered more about it). Gilead, her second book published almost 25 years later, is a friend’s FAVORITE novel of all time (and she’s my smart friend, so I consider that a reliable recommendation). I read Gilead and liked it, although I’m sure my having only “liked” it has more to say about me as a reader than the quality of the novel itself. (I noticed on the back cover of Home that one reviewer had said of Gilead that it deserved to be read slowly, reverently.) But Home, Robinson’ third novel, the book that kept me company last week, is a treasure: it’s poignant and profoundly beautiful. This is not a full-scale review of Home: I’m hoping I can say just enough about it to make you read it. (And by the way, this would be a fantastic read for a book club.) Jack Boughton, the main character of the book, is a troubled man. As a child, he felt himself to be a stranger in his own home and to his own family. He was always disappearing, and as we come to find out later, he was never far, hiding and hoping to be found. As an adult, Jack took to the bottle, got drunk on regret, and after a twenty year estrangement (during which time he saw this inside of a prison and missed his own mother’s funeral), Jack finally comes home. He’s again down on his luck and hoping for second chances in Gilead. His father is dying (the man who served for decades as the Presbyterian pastor of their small Iowan town), and his younger sister, Gloria, by her own unfortunate circumstances, has also come home. The book is intensely theological, and Robinson asks the hardest questions about grace. Jack, who is now “incandescent with hope,” (he’s been sober for more than seven years, and he’s loved a good woman), can he whose compulsive habit it is to shine his shoes, comb his hair smooth, and soothe his loneliness with a bottle, can he escape what feels to be the sad inevitability of, well frankly, his sin? Home gives complicated answers, and I guarantee you will cry.

Like Robinson’s character, Jack Boughton, Jon Blow has had his own experiences of alienation. I read about Blow as I was plodding my way through all of my back issues of The Atlantic last week. (Oh, the misfortunes of strep throat.) Blow’s story is not one that would ever typically interest me: the brilliant, steely-eyed forty-one year old video game developer made millions off Braid, a video game he developed, which is supposedly impossibly cryptic in its symbolism. Blow won’t tell what the game really means, but suffice it to say that it has neither machine guns nor scantily clad women, which is the more typical fare of most video games today. (I wouldn’t know firsthand.)

Blow is a genius: he made his mark with Braid, and he’s reinvesting his millions to develop and produce a new game called The Witness. On all levels, Blow wants his games to blow (no pun intended) the current categories of gaming: their narrative capacity, artistic detail, and psychological intrigue.

But the guy is lonely. Jon Blow has that typical story of feeling abandoned as a young child, his parents present but emotionally distant. “Early on, I detected that there weren’t good examples at home, so I kind of had to figure things out on my own. I had to adopt a paradigm of self-sufficiency.” Now, this intensely private man, Jon Blow, is putting on public display his own sense of alienation through his video games. Although he doesn’t admit what his first game, Braid, really means, most agree that it has something to do with the creation of the atomic bomb. Taylor Clark, the author of the article, goes a step further, however, to venture aloud (with Jon) a guess at the game’s even deeper meanings. “The atom bomb itself is a metaphor for a certain kind of knowledge. You’ve been chasing some deep form of understanding all your life, and what I think you’ve found is that questing after that knowledge brings alienation with it. The further you’ve gone down that road, the further it’s taken you from other people. So the knowledge is ultimately destructive to your life, just like the atom bomb was – it’s a kind of truth that has a cataclysmic impact. You thought chasing that knowledge would make you happy, but like Tim [the main character of Braid], part of you eventually wished you could turn back time and do things over again.”

Side by side, Home and Braid would seem to have so little in common, and in many ways, the story of Jack Boughton and Jon Blow are different. Both are alienated figures, but Jack Boughton has the restraining force of home and family in his life. While it’s hard to immediately say whether or not the novel is completely hopeful, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve begun to conclude that it is a story of hope, not because Jack is as reformed as we want him to be at the end but because we know that in another twenty years, when he’s again down on his luck, he has somewhere to make his return. It is the story of the Prodigal Son:  the son may again “come to his senses,” and this change of mind, this repentance will largely be owed to his memories of home.  Home and family: Robinson means to clearly say that they are means of grace in each of our lives.

Jon Blow’s story is infinitely more tragic: there is no home to which he can make his return. There would not seem to be any apparent means of escape for his sense of alienation: even the self-knowledge that he sought in the hopes of muting his inner estrangement has proven explosive in his life.

Our world is peopled with Jack Boughtons and Jon Blows. I am Jack Boughton and Jon Blow. The cover of last month’s issue of The Atlantic bore images of two naked people, embraced in the dark, illuminated only by the glow of their cell phones they each held in their hands. “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” And the answer is no. We don’t need facebook to make us lonely. Our alienation predates our technologies. In fact, this estrangement – from ourselves, from one another, from our Creator, and even from our physical environment – is the oldest story of the Scriptures. The man and woman God had made and commissioned with the care of creation: they chose doubt and mistrust, and so begins the longest running story of human alienation.

I can’t help but see that the Christian story offers the greatest hope for answering that alienation and reconciling us: to one another and ultimately to God. It teaches us both the source of our alienation and the solution to it: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who’ve sinned against us.” If we’ve failed to understand our alienation, I’d argue it’s because we’ve lost the best language by which to talk about it: sin. Jack Boughton is a sinner. Jon Blow was sinned against. Whichever it is, sin chosen or sin absorbed, all sin will unravel us: our inner selves, our conscience, our relationships. The Bible proclaims a return home, a reconciliation to wholeness, and the path has been cleared by Jesus, whose intentions are to bring us into His family.

 

The ironic language of John Piper's masculine Christianity

jenmichel@me.com

I am making a late arrival to the maelstrom of controversy regarding John Piper's recent address to pastors at a conference called, "God, Manhood and Ministry: Building Men for the Body of Christ." His address was entitled, "'The Frank and Manly Mr. Ryle' - The Value of a Masculine Ministry," and in his sermon, Piper explores the life of J.C. Ryle, a pastor and bishop in 19th century England. From the life of Ryle, Piper extracts eight lessons of " masculine ministry." I recommend taking the time to watch the video. I want to begin by saying that I respect the ministry of John Piper and have listened to and benefitted from many of his sermons. He faithfully proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ, and for this, we can all be grateful. Moreover, Piper and I are agreed that the work of the church leadership, in Piper's words, "is not to be the ministry, but to free the ministry, according to God’s word, by the power of God’s Spirit, for the glory of God’s name." For the fervent passion and carefully reading of the Scriptures that Piper usually brings to this task, he deserves our thanks and commendation.

Piper begins his address with a very cursory glance at the Scriptures and the "masculine feel" of Christianity: Adam and Eve were together referred to as, "man," God is predominantly Father, Son, and King; the Israelite priests were male, and leadership in the New Testament was conferred to men.

However, Piper does not explicate the Scriptures in this particular sermon; instead, he examines the life of J.C. Ryle, admitting the subjective lens which he takes up for the task. He has, after all, been asked to speak at a conference with the theme of building men for the body of Christ. Piper even uses the word, "bias" to describe his approach. I'm grateful for his candid admission. It is indeed true that each of us is subject to interpretations that are biased and limited as we are conditioned by our culture and often confined by our experience. Mine, I'm sure, will be evidenced soon enough. In so far as any of us tries to bring faithful objectivity to our understanding of the Scriptures and the discussions that ensue, we often fall short of attaining the standard of truth-telling to which we aspire.

To acknowledge our penchant for bias is not to automatically do the post-modern giving up on truth that plagues our culture. We must not make the same mistake that Ryle's contemporary church culture did and against which he so vigorously fought, giving up on doctrine and dogma and embracing as a substitute a "jellyfish" Christianity that had no "doctrinal spine." It does mean, however, that we need to keep careful watch over our interpretations, submitting them to rigorous testing for subjectivity. A hermeneutical rule of thumb: would any Biblical principle we assert stand the test of universality? Would it hold true for people of every corner of our globe and every past, present, and future generation?

I consider that Piper has fallen painfully short of this kind of objective truth-telling when he describes what feels "masculine" about Christianity. His arguments are almost entirely predicated upon sensibilities: what feels masculine? what feels feminine? We all know that our sensibilities aren't always reliable arbiters of truth. I don't often feel that which is just to be just, that which is right to be right, that which is true to be true. Ironically, Piper's language is arguably more "feminine" than "masculine" by his own standards, never achieving the forceful, authoritative and penetrating clarity he insists (rightly) that we need.

Let me give you some examples of these muddied waters of sensibility:

Piper (in asserting the need for manly courage): "The reason we call such courage “manly” is not that a woman can’t show it, but that we feel a sense of fitness and joy when a man steps up to risk his life, or his career, with courage; but we (should) feel awkward if a woman is thrust into that role on behalf of men." (emphasis mine)

I have a feeling that argument may not hold much historical water were we to ask Charles VII how he felt when Joan of Arc brandished her sword and kept the English out of France. I rejoice in all expressions of courage, male and female - in the Bible, in history, and in contemporary culture - especially as it is mustered for the purposes of Christ and His kingdom.

Piper also asserts that the language required of preaching must necessarily be masculine:  "The point is that godly men know intuitively, by the masculine nature implanted by God, that turning the hearts of men and women to God with that kind of authoritative speaking is the responsibility of men. And where men handle it with humility and grace, godly women are glad." (emphasis again mine)

Forceful, authoritative speaking is assumed as masculine, and women are to be glad for the expressions of it. While I do not propose we overthrew the gender differences affirmed in Scripture, nor do I support female eldership in the church or maternal leadership in the home, I rejoice, as do all godly women I know, in any and every faithful and forceful proclamation of the gospel, whether from the lips of men and women. And as I seem to remember it, the rocks will do this good work of proclamation should men and women fail the task.

Piper discusses the unique leadership challenges facing the church and calls for a masculine tour de force: "We need decisive strength, not weakness in the face of resistance."

Here are more cultural presuppositions; we are made to see men as more decisive, women as weaker and prone more strongly to cowardice and retreat when faced with resistance. I heartily disagree. I could call on any number of historical or Biblical examples, but closer to home (and using Piper's own standard of sensibility), I see my own role as a mother laying claim to decisive strength in the face of resistance. I have children who prefer hitting to peace-making, standing to sitting at the table, idle t.v. watching to household chores. Decisive strength is not simply a man's job. It is to be galvanized for any and every task to which we are called because each of our callings, gloriously individual and necessarily sacred, will be met with the resistance with which Christ Himself was met and for which He gave His own life.

I imagine if you polled any number of people from all over the globe, you would have a complicated array of answers to the question underlying the premises John Piper asserts. I don't imagine that what feels masculine to an American white male necessarily feels masculine to an aboriginal woman in Papua New Guinea. What might feel masculine to a blue-collar factory worker might not necessarily feel masculine to a male poet laureate. What are we to do with those differences in sensibilities?

Arguably, we go to the text. We poll Biblical authority. Piper believes he's done this. Early in his ministry, he took a pen to the gospels, ascribing big "T" to the tough sayings of Jesus, little "t" to the tender sayings of Jesus. Guess what he found? Yep. Jesus is generally more tough - and masculine. What may appear to be the "plain sense" of the these texts is, however, not plain at all. Again, it's a question of sensibility. What feels masculine and tough is not a universal standard to which we can all agree. But the implication is clear enough for Piper: language that is tender and sentimental is feminine. Words that are tough and forceful are masculine. I intend to poll my children tonight around the dinner table. Based on this distinctions, is your mother more like a man or a woman? I fear I may have to pull my pants down to win the argument.

Are we to do our deciding about the nature of what Biblical, godly ministry and leadership really is based on our feelings, which are in large part conditioned by the homes we grew up in (Piper himself admits this), the nations of our citizenship, and any other number of conditioning factors? Is reliance on sensibility not the hopelessly "feminine" approach Piper decries, one sure to lead us further from the task of masculine ministry, which Piper works here so vigorously to defend? Where in the world is that "masculine" voice of authority on which we're supposedly to depend?

Not only Piper's does own language deconstruct, but it can hardly be considered helpful in the task to which Piper and I agree the church is called, which is to free and equip the people of God - both male and female - for active ministry. Although such an address was not meant for me but the male attendees of the conference, I can't help but feel more, not less, confused by the distinctions Piper has put forward. He has argued for his feel of masculinity, which indeed isn't mine. Once again, I, like many other women, am led into a paralyzing mistrust of myself and my sensibilities, made to feel wrong when my language tends more towards force rather than sentimentality and when I don't fit the neat confines of his categories.

Piper works to emphasize that women are as capable as men and can and in many cases should do the truth-telling of men. However, note the careful wording of his distinction between male ministry and female ministry: "[God] inclines men to take humble, Christ-exalting initiative, and inclines women to come alongside the men with joyful support, intelligent helpfulness, and fruitful partnership in the work." I am not at all comfortable with relegating women exclusively to these cheerleading responsibilities, and I do not believe that distinction does faithfulness to the stories of Biblical women such as Ruth, Rahab and Esther, to name a few.

Piper is not an enemy, nor am I a feminist in the traditional sense. However, I believe that the slippery language of what Christianity does and does not feel like is not a path to greater freedom for women in the church. No doubt we need to achieve greater clarity about our gender issues, and for this task, we will need not the exhumed life of another white man from a century ago, nor our culturally conditioned and subjective notions of what Christianity feels like. We will need convincing arguments from Scripture, the kind Piper has not offered here. Indeed, I am not at all sure how his argument stands up to 1 Thessalonians 2, where Paul describes apostolic ministry both as the gentle work of a "nursing mother taking care of her own children" as well as the work of a father who with his own children, "exhorted . . . and encouraged . . . and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory."

 

 

Empty Pockets

jenmichel@me.com

Too many of the big religious words go undefined these days. And I'm one for words.

I can sink my teeth for days into a single word or a short phrase. I have little capacity for more. The sheer noise of this household, the demands of our schedules, the insistence of my technological devices,the quiet voice of the Spirit. Everyday I feel battered by the simplest of decisions: to what do I pay attention?

And so it is that simple words and phrases have a way of arresting my attention and capturing my imagination. I knead the words, pulling and stretching and letting them rise, hoping that something permanent will lodge within me and do that mysterious and invisible work of transformation.

At the communion table this past Sunday, our pastor spoke these two words, words that have rattled around in my soul over the last several days.

Infinite obligation.

The context of his words, as you can imagine, was Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross for all humanity. But rather than referring to our guilt as sin, he phrased it like this, as infinite obligation.

Those words pierced me in a new way. A sinner, I know I am. Anger. Pride. Hypocrisy. Fear. In defiance of all my best efforts, they cling to me, lurking in the shadows, publicizing that I am chronically failing God, myself, and the ones I love most fiercely.

But infinite obligation?

The story of the Prodigal Son, to which I referred yesterday, is a story of obligations. Against cultural convention, the younger son demands his share of the inheritance before his father's death. He wants it now.

It's a shameless act. A flagrant kind of slap in the face.

And of course the inheritance buys him his share of fun, but it's only a matter of time until the funds run dry. At his most desperate, he decides to return home.

"I shall get up and go to my father, and I'll say to him: 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I don't deserve to be called your son any longer. Make me like one of your hired hands.'"

And if you know the story, you remember that it is when the son is still a long way off, barely visible on the horizon, that the father sees him, gathers his robes and runs to him, announcing to that his son, his lost son, is found! Kill the best calf, bring the best robe, we'll throw the kind of party that no one will forget!

Because Jesus is such a masterful storyteller, the parable of the Prodigal Son offers some many layers of meaning, too many to explore here. (I highly recommend the book, Prodigal God, by Tim Keller.)

But one thing the story does do is explain a word that wants to wriggle out of our hands. A word we're convinced is outdated. A word that makes us uncomfortable, but a word that is uniquely biblical and indispensable for describing just what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Repentance.

The son came home with empty pockets. He had no excuses to offer his father.  The damage was irreparable, the obligation infinite.

And the father received him because his love for his son, screw-up that he was, was just that big.

Repentance is an empty-pockets kind of moment and requires just enough faith to come home.

Before we've yet reached the door, the Father's love silences our speeches and receives us, screw-ups that we are.

It's just that big.