When I got the email wondering if I would be up for speaking at Port Williams for thanksgiving, and I was told that Pastor Don would be away, it caused me to reminisce. This fall marks my fourth year here in Nova Scotia, moving from Sudbury, Ontario. It has been an eventful four years to say the least. Along the way, I am thankful for the friendship Don and Anita have extended to me. They were one of the first who called me up four years ago and said, “Hey you’re new to the area and so are we, come on over for dinner.” So, I am thankful for that gift of friendship.
Can I just say that it has been interesting to see Pastor Don climatize to being Canadian in real time? The culture shock has been a pleasant surprise, or at least that is what it seems like from his Facebook page. Now, I came from living in the hustle and bustle of Toronto, then pastoring in Sudbury where it was winter for a solid six months out of the year, but I think Don and I have both have had this feeling like Nova Scotia has been this refuge that we have both grown to love. Autumn in the valley is simply beautiful. Last weekend, my wife and our five boys – yes we have five boys (we had three and my wife really wanted to try for a girl and then we ended up having twin boys – three are with me today as my wife was also asked to play at Bethany Memorial to relieve their pianist) – but anyway last weekend we went hiking. We went to Noggins to picked apples and got terribly lost in their corn maze. I bought a caramel apple pie from there for later today.
We are so blessed. These are the words that ring in my mind this weekend, and I want to reflect more on what they mean today. I want to reflect on a text that I read this week with my son, Rowan, who we have been trying to read the Bible together every night. The passage, James 1:1-18, is about acknowledging God’s giving. I will read from the beginning of the book in chapter 1 for context, but I want to focus on the last verses.
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. 2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10 and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. 12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved. 17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. (NRSV)
James, who is very likely the brother of Jesus himself, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, one of pillar-leaders of the early church along with Peter and John and Paul, writes a letter to the Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman world to give them important advice about how to live wisely in light of the challenging times they face.
We are facing challenging times today, aren’t we (not that ours is the same)? It looks like they faced issues of division in the church, poverty and persecution, and to all of these, James recommends living out the character of Christ.
He begins this letter with advice on confronting the trials they face, but then he quickly addresses the rich and the poor. And then he makes a point of warning his congregations: “Don’t be deceived,” He says. Well…what are they deceived about? He says, “Make no mistake. Every good and perfect gift comes from God above, whose character does not change. But,” he says, “he has chosen us according to his purposes as first fruits.” If you read the passage quickly, it gives an impression like James is constantly segueing between several subjects, but they are actually all very connected.
People are facing trials where they are tempted to go another way than Jesus’ way. It sounds like staying on the right path will cost them, at least some of them, deeply, financially. Many are facing tough times. Yet others seem untouched by all this misfortune. And they are wondering, where is God, how is God acting in all this?
It kind of sounds like there are people in his congregations who believe God made them fall to temptation or that God brought calamity on them, meanwhile there are those who have made it through pretty good, and they are tempted to think God has done good to them more than others. Perhaps God makes some people rich, because he loves them more, and others poor, because he does not love them quite as much.
For five years I was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. This is a church about four hours north of Toronto. Sudbury was a cold place with very warm people. The church itself back in the late 70’s moved from its old building in the downtown to the area of Garson, which was a sub-urb of the city about ten minutes from the city centre.
The church moved out there thinking this would become the next up and coming affluent neighbourhood in the city. The reality was the opposite. The city built supplemented income housing there in an effort to move the problems of crime and poverty out of the downtown.
As I got to know my neighbourhood, I realized this was an area that struggled. A few moments really reiterated this to me. I remember one summer taking my kids to a playground behind our house. This playground overlooked on several sides a couple of different sub-divisions of the neighbourhood. There was ours, which was a group of semi-detached homes, then down the street were larger ones, a sub-division of newly built two story detached homes, but on the other side there were row homes and small apartment buildings, supplemented income housing and homes like that. My kids began playing with some of the other kids, and I joined in, playing tag. The one boy introduced himself. My son introduced himself pointed to our house. “We live just over there.” The boy turned and said, “Oh, you live there. My mom says that is where all the rich people live.”
I was stunned. My house was smaller than the house I was raised in. I always thought of our home as modest at best. But of course, that was my perspective, being raised in a middle-class family.
A part of me wanted to insist, “What? I am not rich! I work as a pastor! Pastors are not rich!” (Or if they are, let me just say, I have some questions).
I remember walking back home lost in thought. I felt conflicted. You see, I was raised in a fairly strict Dutch Baptist family. My dad was the son of a card-carrying fundamentalist Baptist pastor that came over from Holland. And there was a particular set of values instilled in me, many of them good, but they went like this:
Dutch people believe in hard work and that the life you live reflects that hard work.
A Dutch man is to provide for his family for this is the measure of being a man.
If you were poor, it was because you were lazy or not frugal with your money, pure and simple, and you needed to just man up and work.
To be a Christian is to be honest, have integrity, and to fulfill your obligations at work, church, and home.
If you do these things, these are the kind of things that God blesses.
God’s blessing means among other things, material provision, our daily bread and probably a good career with a pension.
God is sovereign, so God chooses what he wants to happen, and nothing happens that God did not choose. Somehow this strong sense of social mobility was married to this notion of God’s sovereignty, even though they actually don’t really go together that well.
These values have served me incredibly well, and I know as a father to five boys, I will teach them to be men one day that are honest and hardworking and of course to trust God. But when we stroll into the territory of God’s blessing, I never understood passages in the Bible like the one James just lists: “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.“
Well, that seems mean. What does James have against rich people? It is not their fault! That does not seem particularly wise given what the Proverbs say about hard work and everything else. Doesn’t God want us to plan and be frugal and save our money and work hard and through all of that enjoy the fruits of our labor? Those passages are in the Bible too, and I must say, I like those passages much more than this passage here.
But the reason for why James says what he says was illustrated to me one thanksgiving. As our church started doing outreach in the community. When I started pastoring, our church was that summer a dozen people, all easily twice my age. In some cases, three times my age. I worried about the future of the church, but I figured I can’t make this church grow, and I can’t attach young families to our church where there are churches with slick programs and staff in the area. So, I resolved to minister to those least fortunate in the community. We volunteered at food banks. I would drive people to the food bank and then take them out for coffee. I would deliver food to shut ins and we organized a community meal at one of these single-room apartment buildings. That meant over time a hand full of people started attending the church.
One person in particular was a man quite troubled. He faced a lot of mental health issues. He had no family. He lived in a one room apartment around the corner from me. I remember in church that thanksgiving Sunday remarking that I felt very blessed: a good home, good job, good family, health…I said I feel so blessed. Well, this person came up to me after the service. He, a young believer, although he was older than me, often asked those curious questions after the service. So, he came up to me, “Pastor, how do I become blessed like you? I wish God would bless me like that.”
As we talked, he shared with me that deep down, he worried maybe God did not love him all that much at all. Or at least not as much as God did for others. After all, God heals those he loves, and he has struggled with a severe mental illness his whole life. God provides for those he loves, and he could never find work, often he could barely leave his apartment due to his illness, and he struggled on disability payments that barely covered his rent let alone food for the month.
God blesses those he loves, and that implied for him, either he has done something wrong his whole life, his whole faith, or God just didn’t choose to love him as much as others.
My heart sank with those questions. I remember having a very pensive and reflective thanksgiving that year. My wife wondered why I was so quiet, lost in thought. I am always lost in thought by the way (that is an occupational hazard of being a professor), but this time more than usual.
I thought to myself, for instance, I was born able bodied. I didn’t have to be. I couldn’t control that. I was born able minded. I didn’t have to be. I was born into a loving household. I didn’t have to be. I was able to meet a person who has been an exacellent life-partner, my wife, where I know some people, some good people, that the person they married just was not the person they thought they were. We were able to have children, lots of kids (some days I am tempted to think too many kids). They are healthy boys.
It gave me pause, a pause that lasted through the day, of just how many opportunities I had received, that those, who were just as able, smart, and good, in many cases better, did not get. And yes, while there were good choices and hard work along the way, I felt overwhelmed by the fact that so much of the goodness of my life was not because of me, what I could choose and control.
That conversation fundamentally changed how I think about prayer, blessing, what it means to have good things in my life, and what my responsibility to others is.
This is what James is getting at: he says that all good things come from God. If you ever think God wills bad things, or shows favouritism, loving some more than others, that goes against the God who has an unchanging character of love, perfectly for every human being: every human being, without exception.
But we forget this. We have to find ways to adjust, shall we say, this truth in order justify why our lives are materially better than others, why we don’t have to feel bad about that fact, or more importantly, feel obliged to do something for those that have less than us, how we don’t have to do something as churches, as a society, about poverty, about mental health, or about systemic injustices.
That is when days like today, thanksgiving, we engage in that religious talk about being blessed or being thankful, and yet, if we ignore our responsibility to those less fortunate, that God loves all people with the same perfect longing to provide and lift all people into a place of flourishing, if we forget that, I am going to suggest to you we are not truly engaging in thanksgiving.
When we talk this way, thanksgiving ends up meaning something more like self-congratulations: I am thankful I worked hard; I am thankful I got good grades; I am thankful I made good career choices; I am thankful I did not marry someone who does not pull their weight; I am thankful I am such a good parent; I am thankful I have done so well.
This is a part of a mentality in our culture, a cultural myth of sorts that has a long history and endorsement in the church: the myth of the self-made person. You see our culture has this very strong insistence on the worth and power of the individual. This in many ways is a good thing. We believe people have inherent dignity and worth, individual freedom, conscience, and responsibility, but these insistences can have a down-side when made into an extreme: We can turn these values into the notion that all the good things in our lives are our doing. It is not because of privileges we were born into, opportunities we did not choose, all the various ways the starting line in the race of life was a bit further up for us than other people. This breeds a culture of entitlement where those that have less are effectively blamed for their misfortune.
Or we do something even worse: we think to ourselves that God wills this inequity to be the way things ought to be. We end up saying something, implicitly, truly terrible: we say I am thankful for the fact that God loves me a whole lot more than most of the people on this planet. I am thankful God wanted me to be privileged.
But that is not the pattern of Scripture. The deep contours of Scripture show that God chooses no one for ultimate ruin nor does God will evil or tragedy to anyone.
But what God does do is chooses, as James says, those who he will use to be the first fruits of an entire harvest of the goodness done to all people.
This is a pattern that begins in Father Abraham, who was blessed in order, the Book of Genesis says, to be a blessing, so that all the families of the world can be blessed through him.
It goes on to the Book of Exodus where God says he chose the Israelite slaves not because they were so much better or stronger or promising than any other nation, but because God favours the weak and the oppressed. God chooses the least of these in the world. God chooses to liberate them from bondage, not because he loves them and only them, but that through them, God says, they will be a kingdom of priests, firstborn of the family, as if all nations are God’s congregation, all our God’s family, but Israel is God’s paradigm and instrument of doing good to the rest inviting them in.
This continues on to the time of the prophets where, when God’s people grow haughty and disaster comes on them, Isaiah says God will uses a righteous remnant who will live in these difficult times self-sacrificially for the sake of the rest.
This all culminates in Jesus Christ, God himself who came in human form and chose himself to bear rejection itself at the cross, so that if anyone every questions, “Has God chosen me a sinner? Does God love me? Does God want what’s best for me?” All they must do is look at the cross and see the God that was willing to give of his very self for the sake of others, even those who meant him harm.
This is all so, so, so important to keep in mind in this time of a pandemic. We have not seen the disaster living here in Nova Scotia that many have elsewhere. We live in the safety of the Annapolis valley. While this past year was tough for me, teaching online and being stuck at home with my kids, I think my life just not been as bad as those who have faced unemployment, the loss of their business and livelihood, the impact of anxiety or depression.
I have seen how this terrible virus can hit. Some are not affected badly, others fatally. A college classmate of mine back in Ontario got covid, a person my age, went to bed with a cough and did not wake up. A person I know in Toronto got covid and he will now never breath again without a respirator.
Where does all this leave us: Do we pat ourselves on the back for having a government that responded well to the crisis when so many people did not choose where they live nor did they vote for the governments that are not acting responsible? Do we say God has protected us and God has blessed us, when the implication of that might sound like God has refused to protect others? We can very easily fall back into a thanksgiving that is actually self-congratulations and self-thanking. It is thanks-getting not thanks-giving.
Let me tell you the story of an inspiring person that illustrates the attitude we must have. His name is Charles Mully, born in 1949. He is a Kenyan business owner and philanthropist. At age 6, his parents abandoned him on the street. He spent years begging and getting by living on the street. He was able to be enrolled in school, and being exceptionally intelligent, succeeded. At age 16, he walked into a church and heard the Gospel, and he accepted the message of salvation. He did not have any money to go into higher education so, he packed up his things and walked 70 kilometers to Nairobi to find work. He did odd jobs until he eventually worked as a farm assistant and then for a construction company. He met his wife and they had eight kids together. During all this he saved enough money to buy his own truck and began his own trucking company. Within a short amount of time, he procured several other companies. Very quickly he became a multi-millionaire.
One day he was driving by in his car, and he saw a street boy, homeless, and he realized that there was no achievement he had that made God love him any more than those kids on the street. In fact, he concluded that the reason why God brought him from homelessness into such wealth was not for him to keep it but to give it away. And that is what he did. In 1989, he sold all his businesses and properties, opening up his homes to serve as shelters for the many street kids of Kenya. Since 1989, he and his family have helped 23 000 kids out of homelessness.
I tell you this story because If ever there was a self-made person, if ever there was a person that you could say, “That man earned every cent he owns,” if ever there was a person who might be tempted to think God has favoured me from rags to riches, it would be Charles Mully. And yet for him, his faith compelled him to believe that all the good things of his life were from a God that loves all people with that same perfect love. And with the goodness he has been given, with true thanksgiving, he realized he was to be the first fruits of a plan of God to help others with what he has been given.
What does that mean for us, for you and me, Port William Baptist Church? I hope you don’t take anything I have said to be some kind of kill joy on your festivities this weekend. God surely does want us to cherish the good things in our lives. Give thanks for your families with your families, enjoy turkey and pumpkin pie, play with kids and grandkids in the back yard. These are gifts from God that I know I don’t deserve.
But let us not stop there. It can’t stop there. For it to be true thanksgiving, it must be both giving thanks to God, but also giving thankfully to others.
If we acknowledge that all the goodness we have in our lives comes from God above, that God wills tragedy and misfortune to no one, what will we do to make sure we bring this goodness to others, those that don’t family, don’t have work, or don’t have health? How will we be fathers and mothers to the fatherless, the motherless, empowers to the oppressed, comforters to those in despair? How will we be first fruits in the way the Spirit of God might be call us of a harvest of blessing that is intended for all people?
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. but when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Galatians 3:23-4:7, NRSV)
The year is 1591 in Scotland, a women named Eufame MacLayne is pregnant with twins and goes into labour. The labour is difficult, physically and emotionally taxing. It is painful. So painful that she pleads with the midwifes for relief. Out of compassion, they give her a strong pain-relief drug. She delivers her babies.
This might seem like a reasonable thing, but in the 16th century it was illegal to use pain-medication for child-birth. The ecclesial authorities learn of this crime, and bring the young mother, still recuperating from child birth before a tribunal.
Her crime: trying to lessen God’s curse on women. God mandated in Genesis 3 that women, due to their sin of eating the fruit, should suffer during childbirth, and how dare Eufame MacLayne be so obsessed with her own freedom and bodily autonomy that she would absolve herself of God’s punishment on her gender.
The church tribunal deemed her guilty. Her punishment was no mere parking ticket: She was burned at the stake. Let that sink in for a second.
Genesis 3 the woman’s pain in child bearing is increased, and this is a sign of the fallenness of our existence. The church in the 1600’s deemed it their duty to enforce the curse, to enforce our fallenness, to enforce the consequences of sin. I find that tragically odd. One would think it is the church’s duty and pleasure to undo the curse. One would think!
Notice also in Genesis 3 that as a result of the man and the woman choosing to go against God, turning in blame towards one another, our lives as gendered individuals are marred by competition, and sadly, but patriarchy: : “your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.” The companionship of one flesh in Genesis 2 is sundered into the barriers of sin: rather than mutuality, hierarchy, rather than reciprocity, domination.
Sadly, many churches to this day deem it their duty, much like the church did to Eufame MacLayne’s day, to enforce the curse, setting up barriers to women in ministry, refusing to recognize women in leadership, whether in the home or church or in business or in educational institutions.
The year is 1860, America stands on the brink of civil war between North and South, largely over the issue of slavery. The Baptist Convention, for those who were listening in Dr. Maxwell’s classes, has already broke asunder, as the North barred Southern Baptist slave-owning candidates for missionary work. Southern Baptist preachers defended the right to own slaves as biblical, and moreover, the right to own black slaves for they are dark skinned and therefore under the curse of Ham. Once again, it is the church’s duty it felt apparently to enforce the consequences of sin, rather than undo them.
The North, lead by Baptists like Francis Wayland, argued scripture must be read through one’s conscience, which deems it unconscionable to own another human being. The South saw this as liberalism. The Bible has slavery. “It says it, that settles it.”
The South, as history shows, looses the civil war, the slaves are freed, but in the wake of this defeat, many Southern leaders flow into the ranks of the KKK, and by night carry out brutal intimidation and lynchings, an estimated 5000 lynchings happened over the next decades.
We like to high-brow our American neighbours, but Halifax tells of its own injustices. In 1960, those who lived in Africville, had their homes and their church bulldozed, forcibly relocated so that the MacKay Bridge could be built.
In the name of economic progress, the land and homes of the marginalized are always a reasonable price.
The year is 2020 we are seeing this today, with the fight of the Wet’suwet’en over whether a pipeline can go over their land. If the Wet’suwet’en were White, would we be so eager to ignore their voice?
The dismissive mentality of many Canadians reflects an old habit of the colonizer who came empowered by the doctrine of discovery, that if explorers found a land not governed by Christian lords, it was their right and duty to take over that land to absorb it into Christendom.
It was their duty to re-culture the natives into Christian culture, the tragic folly of this is evident to us in the estimate 6000 children who dead in the squalor and abuse of the residential school system.
I want to tell you that these horrific things were done by godless people, by those that do not know the Bible. The reality is far more sobering: All these deeds were perpetrated by those who chapter and verse’d their injustice.
This truth makes this message all the more urgent today. It makes the work of your studies, of this college, work of organizations like Atlantic Society of Biblical Equality, the holy fellowship I see in this room, all the more necessary: The Bible must be read through the eyes of equality, which is the eyes lightened by the Holy Spirit.
1. We must read the Word of God with the Wind of God
This is a sermon that cannot stand alone for there is so many passages well-intending Christians have invoked to close down equality: Eph. 5, 1 Cor. 11 and 14, 1 Tim. 2. I can’t treat them here, and why I think there are strong reasons why they are often read out of context.
I would hope to impress upon you the necessity that we must read the Word of God with the Wind of God, Scripture by the Spirit: for “the letter of kills, but the Spirit gives life,” says Paul.
We must read the Word of God with the Wind of God. Words spoken without breath will be nothing but a mute whisper in this world.
Or as William Newton Clarke, one of the first Baptist theologians to consider biblical equality for women’s ordination, writes in his profound little memoir, 60 Years with the Bible, “I used to say the Bible closes me down to this, I now realize the Spirit of Scripture opens me up.” I would hope to impress this on you today.
Why? Because the Holy Spirit opened Paul up, in Damascus first, and then, here in Galatia.
As the early church expanded beyond Judea, the Apostles saw the Spirit’s reach exceed their grasp. The book of Acts shows the wonderful accounts of the Spirit disrupting and unsettling and spurring on and causing the church to reach out.
In Galatia we see Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus Christ and wanting to be apart of existing communities of Jewish Christians. But this created a problem: if Gentiles want to be apart of the people of God, a group called the Judaizers insisted they have to become Jewish.
How do you become Jewish? By submitting yourself to the law, which begins in its epitome, circumcision.
As Markus Barth pointed out, circumcision was the church’s first race issue. Here a religious command becomes a racial issue. Jew: circumcised therefore clean; Gentiles: uncircumcised therefore unclean.
How did the Spirit open up Paul? He realized that the Spirit is without prejudice.
2. Because the Spirit is without prejudice, we are justified by our faith
“Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” Did you do something to make God love you or did God love you and you just had to trust it?
Gentiles who were not circumcised, who were not setting out to live out all 613 some-odd laws of the OT, or to becomes Jews by circumcision, never the less, had the Spirit come upon them.
One should note, Paul does not have a problem with obeying what God has commanded here. People forget that Paul actually tells Timothy to get circumcised in order to be a more effective minister to his Jewish brethren. 1 Tim. 1:8 says, “we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately.” Obedience is not the problem, using the Bible to justify inequality is.
If you are obeying the letter of the law in such away as to delude yourself that this is why God favours you and why you are better than others, why it reinforcers your privilege and superiority against another, you have made the law do something it was never intended to do. And that is what the Judaizers were doing.
Paul responds, “no one is justified before God by the law, the just will live by faith.” He is quoting the Old Testament here. That is what the law is supposed to remind us of. Trust God’s mercy; trust what his Spirit is doing.
That is what qualifies us to be the people of God. This is what makes you a child of God. Period.
Paul then does something profound. Just as Jesus transgresses the letter to fulfill it spirit, Paul says, if that is how you are going to use circumcision. I’m ending it. It’s done.
We often fail to appreciate just how radical this is.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that “The Pauline question whether circumcision is a condition of justification seems to me in present day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation.” That is how radical, progressive, and revolutionary Paul was being.
Circumcision is considered the eternal ordinance in Genesis. But I it got in the way of knowing Jesus. If it got in the way of God’s love. It got in the way of what the Spirit was doing. Well, circumcision just didn’t make the cut no pun intended.
Paul called into question the very centre of his Jewish religion in the name of the love of Jesus Christ. Brothers and sisters, we have to ask ourselves, are we going to follow the Spirit, even if that means forsaking our religion too? I hope so.
3. Because we are justified by the unprejudiced Spirit, we must remove all barriers to equality
At the apex of the epistle to the Galatians, he offers this powerful manifesto: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
Jews and Gentiles are equal in Christ, therefore the physical restriction of circumcision, dividing the two, was removed in the name of what the Spirit was doing.
In Galatians the act of the Spirit is without prejudice in bestowing the gift of salvation, by it we cry out “Abba Father.” In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul lists the same manifesto before listing the gifts of salvation. Verse 12:
For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit….
Jump down to verse 28 where he lists the result of drinking of the one Spirit: And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.
Notice that apostleship is in this list, notice that leadership is in this list. If the Spirit is without prejudice in bestowing the gift of salvation, by this same logic the Spirit is without prejudice in giving the gifts of salvation.
Equality of the gift and gifts is part and parcel with the logic of justification by faith. You can’t have one without the other. Because we trust that the Spirit has brought us Gentiles into the people of God, we can’t help but trust the Spirit also calls anyone, regardless of race, gender, or status, to lead his church. You can’t have equality without justification, and you can’t have justification without equality. Gift and gifts are one as the body of Christ is meant to be one.
It would be a gross error in judgment to think that just because Paul is working within society with slavery that Paul is not trying to subvert slavery.
It would be an equally gross error in judgment to think that just because Paul is working within a culture that saw women as subordinate, that his writings are not trying to gently subvert this either.
The church has not done well to notice this, but the Spirit is without prejudice, we are justified in equality, and that is why the physical barriers to this new humanity must come down.
Interpreters from Martin Luther to recent commentators like Ronald Fung have been content to say that this manifesto only pertains to spiritual equality. In faith, slave and free people are spiritually equal, despite one owning the other; men and women are spiritually equal, despite women being subordinate to men. In the words, the barriers to equality in our bodies don’t matter. In other words, dualism.
This does not take into account the bodily nature of circumcision. And if you don’t feel like circumcision has something to do with bodily equality, men, you just have to ask yourself: if a church expected you to be circumcised in order to be a member, imagine if they said that in the bulletin, would you really feel welcomed? The issue of equality is very much a bodily matter.
Women’s equality, racial equality, economic equality, they are all very different and need to be addressed in very different ways, and yet they are connected. We cannot have equality from one without equality for another. Why? We are all human. We did not choose the skin we are in.
I have no control over the circumstances of my birth: I could have been born female; I could have been born native or black; I could have been born in a country ravaged by corruption; I could have been born with a developmental disability or a severe mental illness. Let me push you further: I could have been born with XXY chromosome syndrome and fallen outside the gender binary. I could have been born with testosterone deficiency, and thus been bodily female yet a chromosomal male. That is exceedingly rare and our political discourses have surely marred this discussion, but the fact remains: I did not choose the skin I am in.
If that is the case, with the social barriers out there today, the stereotypes, we must all ask ourselves, if this could have been me, how would I want to be treated? Equality must be our guiding principle, empathy and conscience must guide our interpretation, because Paul says later in Galatians, the whole law is summarized in one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
And if we don’t, as Desmond Tutu once said, “If I diminish you, I diminish myself.” Because I could have been you. “We are a lot more alike than we are different” (Charlie Taylor).
Some see bodily differences as the reason for social barriers, the Bible sees our bodily differences as what necessitates the hard work of physical equality. Our physical differences are what makes the equality of the new humanity all the more beautiful.
4. The cost of equality is worth it
About ten years ago I was pastoring in another Baptist denomination that was founded in part by the rejection of women in ministry. I found myself in seminary zealously against women in ministry. Back before this in seminary, my first year of bible college, I wrote a paper why the egalitarian professor at my Bible college, Dr. Bill Webb, should be fired for his liberalism. A word to the wise, don’t ever write a paper about why your professor should be fired. My professor, a lady named Lisa Onbelet, very graciously asked me to rewrite this paper.
Yet, when I took Dr. Webb’s hermeneutics course, I found him able to give gentle, articulate answers about the scriptures I quoted at him, such that I found myself convinced. And this is good advice for anyone as we have these conversations: be gentle and be patient. Know your Scriptures.
Bill was eventually let go from his position, and we all knew it was due to his convictions.
When this happened, I knew that this would have consequences for me as I began to pastor. As I sat down with the leadership of the association I was apart of to discuss further funding for a church plant in the next town over, talk of ministry turned to talk of theology, and the leader wanted to know if I was in or was I out.
I could have remained silent, our first child, Rowan, had just been born. I was doing full-time doctoral studies, working 10 hours week as a TA, 10 hours a week as a soup-kitchen co-ordinator, 20 hours a week as a church planting intern. Meagan had gone back to school on her mat-leave to upgrade her teaching degree along with life-guarding in the evenings. We were barely scrapping by.
I could have stayed silent, but I knew that I couldn’t. I would not be able to live with myself if I denied my conscience and my convictions.
The association leader gave an ultimatum then: shut up and toe the party line or have your funding cut. I pleaded with this man for several hours over coffee to no avail.
“Why can we not centre our denomination’s unity and how we do the Gospel on something like the Trinity, who God is?” I insisted. His response, which I had to write down because I couldn’t believe it, he said, “No, Spencer, gender roles is more important to the Gospel than the Trinity.” For many Christians that is the case.
That night I said to Meagan I am going to have to fire up my resume and leave the denominational family my grandfather, Fritz Boersma, was a founding pastor. After dozens of resumes were sent out and no call-back, no church wanting to hire a doctoral student, but finally First Baptist Church of Sudbury called.
In hindsight this was a small cost in the end compared to women I knew that studied at this Bible college to realize no church would ever take a chance on them no matter how talented or passionate or godly they were.
There is still work to be done. I just got a message from a woman wishing me luck and she mentioned she was speaking with her church about why they can have women pastors. I realize I will never have to do this. I will never have to justify my profession or my vocation because of my gender. That is precisely why I am saying this now.
But it was a wonderful experience pastoring a church that had long supported women in leadership, cultivating a thoughtful open-minded community, but also I can tell you that while our denomination or congregations as a whole upholds equality in principle, it still has a long way to go in practice.
Whether it is women’s ordination or reciprocity in marriage, racial justice, indigenous reconciliation, hospitality to refugees, dignity rather than disgust for sexual minorities, or seeking to treat those who face poverty with the material support a person made in God’s image deserves, each one of these were weekly struggles in pastoring.
With every new face around the church came the question of what toxic, half-baked, youtube-google-searched theology are they bringing in with them. Many I found have built their entire faith on staying safe. Many love justifying social barriers with scriptures. Many Christians love treating the New Testament as the second Old Testament, shall we say.
There is that option pastoring and in preaching when you know a sermon illustration that the text calls for will upset important members of the church who are set in their ways and each month you know the church’s budget is holding on by the skin of its teeth, it is easy to just not talk about these matters and offer people a comfortable, spiritualized Gospel.
I was pleased and humbled to have First Baptist Sudbury grow well in my five years there, but I know it also came with one sermon after another where so-and-so wasn’t there the next week, all to find out that they didn’t like being “pushed on those issues,” and eventually “moved on” to the next church in town.
I also found pastoring that just as many women were opposed to equality as men were. For some, the notion of being restricted meant they don’t have to be responsible and don’t have to worry. The idea that God might call them to something more risky and vulnerable and messy, well, subordination meant safety.
After all, the Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt, didn’t they?
Proclaiming God’s word will cost us. It will cost us in a culture that has fractured into tribes of self-interest. It will cost us pastors even more as we pastor churches that have too often created cultures that cater.
I worry that there are many that want to ignore this conversation on equality let alone our duty to uphold it. And from a worldly perspective, why should I as a Western, English-speaking, white, straight, middle-class, male be asked to give up something for people I don’t know? One might say, “White privilege? Life is hard for me too you know!” If freedom is the point of rights, why would I give up my freedom for another’s rights?
But for Paul, this is not his line of thinking, and it can’t be ours. His equality is founded on the God who took on our flesh, “born of a women, born under the law.” A God who gave up his freedom so that we could be free.
We are equal because the barrier of heaven and earth was broken, because the king became a slave, because the holy one took on our curse, the blessed one took on our cross, because the righteous one became sin, because the first became last, because God removed every barrier between God and sinner with his very body, so that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come… nor anything else in all creation, can to separate us from the love of God; because of this, we are one, we are free, we are saved, we are blessed, we are counted as God’s people, considered God’s children, inheritors of the kingdom of heaven itself. Living this out is our equality.
God bore the cross so we could be free, and now we must bear our crosses so that others can know this freedom.
Equality will cost us, but I also know there is so much more to be gained, when we see churches that embrace all the gifting of the Spirit regardless of race, gender, or status. This is when the kingdom shines through the beautiful mosaic of Christ’s body all the clearer. The cost is worth it.
Because the kingdom is Paul’s equality, he is able to say, I am willing to endure hardship, hunger, persecution, peril, even the sword, to make this equality possible for another, especially those whom this world as forgotten. He is able to say, for him living is for Christ and to die was gain. The cost is worth it.
May we die to self today, and may we embrace new life in Christ.
May it be the case for us today and hereafter.
Let’s pray. [Given the topic of this sermon, I am going to take a different form then the normative pattern of prayer to the Father in the name of Jesus, and actually, pray to the Holy Spirit as the Book of Revelation does]
Holy Spirit, Spirit of Christ addressing us now, Sophia-wisdom of the Father before all creation.
You hover over the deep of our soul with a creativity that formed the heavens and earth.
In you we live and move and have our being. We sense you in our midst; we feel you groan with sighs too deep for words over the state of our broken world.
Forgive us for neglecting you. You are the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. You make the equality and freedom we seek possible.
Forgive us for the ways we have refused to see the image of God in another. Be with the marginalized of this world. Give eyes to see them and ears to hear them.
Be with our female pastors, who face barriers our male pastors do not. Be with our pastors that work for racial equality, indigenous reconciliation and care for those in poverty. Call us all to work for equality in all forms, even if it costs us. No cost compares to the riches of your kingdom.
We thank you that by your love we are justified, by you we cry out “Abba Father!” Teach anew to read scripture with your refreshing breath; breathe upon us the fire of Pentecost to speak your Gospel to the cacophony of this world.
But remind us that the same gentle presence we sense here as we sing is the same that raised our saviour Jesus Christ from the grave. May we never forget it.
By you one day the earth will be filled with the glory of God as water over the sea, by you every knee will bow and tongue confess Christ is Lord in heaven and on earth and under the earth, by you, God in Holy Trinity, will be all in all.
Come, Holy Spirit, Come. We thirst for you.
In Jesus name, amen.
What do you want to be known for?
Interestingly you can take courses online on how to be known for things. They are called personal branding courses. They are marketed to business people, and the theory is just as a company should be known for a motto and a certain style, so you should be too. The course essentially gets people to think in simple terms:
Because I am x, I am known for doing y. Or Since I do y, I am x. Answer that yourself. Think about it.
What do you want to be known for? What does First Baptist want to be known for? It is something I have thought about this week.
A few people have asked me, “Now that it is your last sermon, you get to say whatever you want, because you are leaving.” Like I can now air out a list of grievances that I have kept to myself for five years, like this is Seinfeld’s Festivus: “I got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re gonna hear about it.” [Spoken in Jerry Stiller’s voice, of course].
I have to admit, I really don’t have grievances or axes to grind or anything of that sort.
As I looked through the scriptures, I came to 1 Cor. 2, which actually had Paul reporting to the Corinthians what he resolved to do and be when he was with them, and therefore, I think, what he wanted to be known for.
I think it is the right answer. It is the answer that we should all strive for. He writes:
“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” – 1 Cor. 2:2
I have resolved to know nothing, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Paul wants above all else to be known for the Gospel. I do not want my last sermon to be about me (although I will tell a story or two). As I planned out my final sermon, I have resolved to center it on the most important thing I can be about and First Baptist can be about: who Jesus is, the Gospel.
The Gospel is our salvation, our purpose, our unity, our joy and hope.
1. The Gospel is Our Salvation
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4: 7-10)
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel,” (2 Tim. 2:8)
I admit, 1 John 4 is probably my favourite chapter in the Bible. I had to mention it on my last sermon! God is love because God was found in the person and work of Jesus. That is our Gospel.
Our Gospel is that God is love. God is our creator. He made the world out of his generosity. He has made every human being in his image and likeness, as his children even though we, as prodigal sons and daughters, have failed to realize him as our Father.
We worship a God that made us, loves us, and will not see any of his creation be lost. We do not worship a God that only loves some of his creation or only seeks to save some of his creation, but a God the loves perfectly without limitation.
We know God is love because God is a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, an eternal community of love in one being. Before the world began, before creation and sin, God is love.
God came in Jesus Christ, in human form, in sinful flesh, to show the loving solidarity of God with all sinful humanity, and the restoration of God’s people in him.
God in Jesus Christ died on a cross, died a cursed death, the death of a sinner for all sinners, to show us sinners, he has died our death. It is the mystery of our faith that constantly baffles me: God in Christ loved us more than his very bodily self. God is that kind of self-less love.
God our Father raised Jesus from the dead to show a love that is victorious and powerful. As Jesus has taken on our flesh, now in Jesus, we all have the hope that the very worst of this world, the very things that have stolen us away from his love – these things do not have the final say.
As my friend, Brad Jersak was saying this week, “God is love. God is not love but also just or holy or wrathful. God is love period.”
God’s love is holy because it is pure. God is infinite because his love is immeasurable. God’s love is powerful because it is unfailing. God’s love is just because he is in equal measure merciful. God’s love is capable of anger because God’s love passionately cries out to a world gone astray, hoping that we would change and come back to him.
We understand all of God through Jesus. We understand all of God through Jesus’ cross. If there is an idea of God that contradicts the display of a God who would willing give up his very life for us because of his great love for us, we simply have departed from the God of the Gospel.
God’s love is not simple or sentimental, it is complex and mysterious, surprising even uncomfortable, but it always comes back to love. It is always understood through love.
If we can define God in any way other than love, as I have found, we will inevitably find ourselves without a Gospel that offers salvation to us sinners.
We stand on the Gospel that God is love. If God is not a God of consistently personal, perfect, and powerful love, we simply do not have a Gospel. Period.
One pastor told me that preaching is the fine art of being a broken record. If I have been a broken record these past five years, I have also learned that this truth is so counter-intuitive to our limited, sin-soaked minds, that we have to constantly remember it, re-hear it, re-tell it, and re-live it.
Otherwise we simply forget it. Never forget this, First Baptist Church.
2. The Gospel is Our Purpose
“To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21).
The Apostle Paul writes this to the Philippians saying life for him is serving Jesus, walking with Jesus, being willing to die for Jesus, death being nothing in comparison to having Jesus.
When you know what you are about, you have purpose, nothing else matters.
Funny story: I know a person that put that as their high school year book blurb, and the school called the police because they were worried he was suicidal.
We ended up going to college together. He is now a pastor in BC. He is not suicidal, he just believes in something this world does not understand. Although he probably has gone a little nuts since he has a big batch of kids like I do. As long as I have known him, he has lived with purpose.
When we rest in Jesus Christ, when we draw close to him, when we resolve to know nothing but his Gospel, we are captivated by the beauty of what he is, and we want to live that love out to others. That is our purpose: We live to see what the Gospel can do in us and others. That is what gets me up in the morning (other than screaming babies).
Sharing the Gospel can take on implicit and explicit ways. I have gotten to share the Gospel on Sunday mornings, at weddings, at funerals, in times of blessing and in times of tragedy. I have gotten to share the Gospel over coffee and over board games, on the street and in my office. I am always surprised at when people say they are reluctant to share their faith since they are worried about a negative reaction. When we set out to live and speak good news for others, saying and doing something good to them and for them – without an agenda of trying to force them to become a Christian or come to our church or believe this or that, but simply being there for them, to listen, to give hope, and share ourselves, my experience has been overwhelming positive.
Yes, a lot say no thanks. A lot say they want to but there is no follow through. It does require patience.
I think of our McCourt meals and taking people to the food bank on Tuesdays. This simple an act of service and fellowship has openned doors for me to sit and pray with dozens of people, many of whom as shut ins are too sick to come to church, but are precisely the kind of people that God has a special heart for. Or others are people that face terrible mental illness. Many times I have gotten the privilege to be an ambassador of Christ to be the first person that sees them as a person of value and worth, and when they ask, “why do you do this for people?” I get to tell them why.
Sometimes sharing the Gospel is quite explicit and decisive, other times it is a simple act of kindness or service.
Or it can be planting a community garden to promote community and food healthy food in our community. That lead to Alexander Kuthy to start coming here. Remember Alex? He sadly passed away a little while ago, but he shared his testimony with us. An irreligious man that hated the church growing up because a priest tried to sexually assault him. He lived most of his life completely unconcerned with God until he had an accident and he said, “All of a sudden I was aware that I needed God.” Alex would stroll into my office and chat with me. In five years, I can probably count on my one hand how many appointments I had at my office that were actually booked in advance. That’s just fine, my life is far more interesting for it. Alex lived with a new purpose. You saw that in him. He said he lived all his life for himself, now he was making up time living for God. He believed in devoting his life to “spreading peace” as he said it often.
I hope everyone goes home, reads some scripture, meditates, and prays upon it, and asked themselves, “What is my purpose? Is my purpose living the Gospel, completely without reservation? Is my reason for being alive walking in God’s love, worshiping in God’s love, showing others God’s love?”
If it is and the person next to you agrees, that is the church, brothers and sisters. That is what we are doing here together.
3. The Gospel is Our Unity
“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)
It is such a simple phrase. Jesus is lord, and salvation is in trusting that work of the resurrection. Jesus is our unity. We so often make it Jesus plus a hold lot of other stuff, or Jesus can only mean the way I relate to Jesus.
I have spoken before that I was raised with a very fundamentalist faith. My grandfather was a fundamentalist Baptist pastor, and that is what formed me growing up. Fundamentalism is a lot of things. While many come by it sincerely, as I did, at its very worst, it is an arrogance that all my thoughts and interpretations are the right and infallible ones. It is often obsessed with control and certainty and simple pat answers; that affective sense of certainty in essence shields the reality that since most fundamentalists do not believe God loves all people perfectly, there is a deep sense that God might actually not love them either, unless they do and think a certain way. It is also oddly then obsessed with very specific and convoluted doctrines, whether about creation, the Bible, the atonement, how Jesus will return, you name it, and perfectionist behavior, usually obsessed with sexuality above any other sin. Each doctrine or behavior is then turned into a litmus test of who is truly a Christian and who is not, disregarding the historic creeds of our faith and that our communities must embody grace. It also sees everyone who believes differently and acts differently as dumb, delusional, or dangerous.
I know this not because I look down on fundamentalists, but because I used to think that way. I really did not know any other way to be honest.
I have learned the simple biblical truth that, as James McClendon has put it, “Fundamentalism just isn’t fundamental enough.”
When I came to First Baptist, I did see something different. First Baptist, like many other historic First Baptist Churches in North America, has a long history, enduring all the movements over the last century. Some of our members have been in this church for over 50 years. It has learned to endure diversity. Many of the First Baptist Church family when I came had lived together as a community for so many years they just resolved to keep being a family together, no matter what.
Being committed to being historically Baptist we have upheld the liberty of the conscience of members of this church to interpret the Bible for ourselves in community as our denomination on the whole upholds that our churches are autonomous yet partner together for the Gospel.
For the last five years I have marveled at just how diverse First Baptist is, the different faith backgrounds and experiences, the different doctrines and ideas of faith and how they have functioned in people’s lives, and the sincere commitments to keep learning the Bible together.
That is rare. It is difficult to live out, but it is refreshing in this divided world we live in.
It has been oddly refreshing to lead a Bible study hearing all these perspectives come out, and sometimes quite heatedly, but then have a recognition that we are all sincerely trying to follow Jesus together, and he is our unity.
First Baptist is a diverse place, we all don’t think the same, and we have to reckon with all our diverse backgrounds and experiences and ideas, whether on theology, politics, or on what color the carpet should be.
But if Jesus is our unity, we are bound by blood as family.
As we do this within our walls, we have a vital witness outside our walls. The Gospel has been our unity with all the other churches here in Garson and Coniston. I don’t think you realize the high regard we are held in by the other churches. And it has been an honor working with so many excellent pastors and priests.
One of the most powerful moments in my years here was when we gathered for worship with St. John’s, Trinity United, and the Anglican churches.
I remember the second ecumenical service I participated in here, we went to St. John’s. That year the liturgy called for each person to pair off with a person from another church, and come to a font of water, dip your fingers in it and make the sign of the cross over the other person’s head, asking forgiveness for the sins we have done against each other.
I have never seen the Spirit move so powerfully. People broke down crying in repentance and hugged right there.
That moment was not of ourselves. That was the Spirit moving as we, Christians from very diverse traditions, simply came together to worship Jesus.
The Gospel, the simple Gospel, is our unity. Nothing else should be or can be.
4. The Gospel is Our Hope
“But Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.” (Heb. 3:6)
When you are able to be there and see our God working. It is the best thing in the world.
While pastoring can be quite difficult, it is propelled along by the conviction that God never gives up hope on people and neither do we.
One more story: Some of you remember Jered. He does not live around here anymore. A troubled young man, who had been in and out of prison, with so much chaos in him you could immediately tell just from hearing him talk.
The chaos and pain with him was so bad, he once told me he resolved to stop believing in anything because his mind was so unreliable he just had had enough. If you can imagine living like that and being at that point?
I remember coming home that day shook-up by his words. “How can the Gospel reach someone that unstable?” I thought. How can our Gospel mean anything if it can’t bring hope to someone like him?
A few days later, I remember seeing him at the residence. He came up to me: “Spencer, I had a really difficult night. I was in a really dark place…Then he showed up.”
“Who?” I asked. Jered just pointed upwards. “He did. I can’t be an atheist anymore,” he said. God showed up for him in a time of need, far beyond what I or anyone is capable of. In that dark moment God appeared and told him he had worth and that he was loved and that there was hope.
That is the hope of our faith. God does not give up on people. He has not given up on me; he has not given up hope on you; therefore he will not give up hope on anyone. He simply will not give up on this broken world.
Because of this – this good news – we live with purpose, with unity, with joy and hope.
Let us pray…
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)
We have all heard the Christmas story before.
The Christmas story is the story of a baby born miraculously and mysteriously to a virgin mother.
About a nobody girl named Mary, who saw the announcement that she would be the mother of the messiah to be the greatest privilege of her life, despite its meaning she would be ostracized perhaps the rest of her life, since she was not married
It is the story about a good and merciful man, named joseph, who when he heard that his fiancé was pregnant and he was not the father, he could have subjected her to disgrace and even had her stoned in the culture, but moved with compassion, simple was going to dissolve the marriage quietly.
A man that was reassured by an angel to marry the woman, and that he would be the legal father of the savior of the world.
It is a story set to the back drop of God’s people conquered and oppressed by a massive empire, ruled a tyranny Emperor who claimed himself to be the Son of God.
It about this little unlikely family having to travel miles through storm and sand to the town of Bethlehem to be counted by order of the Emperor Augustus.
It is a story about this family who upon returning to their own hometown found that no one wanted to give them shelter for the night. No family wanted them.
It is a story about the king of heaven being born in the muck and mire of a barn.
It is a story about good news announced by angelic hosts to lowly shepherds, forgotten in the wilderness, tending their sheep.
It is a story about wisemen following stars, fooling a local corrupt ruler and coming to worship the messiah child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It is a story about an escape in the night as Herod sent out guards to kill the children of Jesus’ age, trying to stop the potential usurper.
And so, this is a story about miracles and the messiah, about faithful servants and faithful spouses, unplanned pregnancies and ancient prophecies; it is about shepherds and tyrants, about journey and escape, about humility and royalty, oppression and hope.
This story is the first Christmas. It is the story. It is the most important story. It is the story of all our salvation. Our salvation began to be accomplished in history on that day, in that stable, in that dirty manger, to that poor Middle-eastern couple, two thousand years ago.
It is the truth that God is now with us: the incarnation. The infinite God dwelling with us mortals.
It is the truth about God’s rule. The messiah Jesus shows how God rules: he chooses the lowly; he chooses the poor; he chooses the unworthy, the forgotten, the unlikely. He prefers them to the powerful, the rich, the proud, and the oppressor.
It is the truth about forgiveness. Jesus wasn’t just the king of the righteous. He didn’t just love the deserving. He also loved sinners. In fact, he died for the people trying to kill him. He died for Emperor just as much as the shepherds. He died for King Herod just as much as the wise men. He died for the criminal and the terrorist just as much as he died for you and me.
The Christmas story is the truth about God’s fundamental character of love and compassion, about God being born in our form, identifying with our plight, binding himself to our fate, all to say that nothing can separate us from his love.
Immanuel: God is with us. He is not against us, he is for us. He gave us his son. He gave us himself.
It is also a difficult story to believe, too isn’t it? We live in a world of skepticism. It seems that usually about this time every year someone publishes an article, proclaiming their modern brilliance at just how unbelievable the Christmas story is.
Angels don’t exist. Miracles don’t happen. Virgins don’t have babies. Stars don’t give travelers directions. Gods don’t reveal themselves. It is simply an unbelievable story.
It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing. Things like this just don’t happen.
But our culture’s skepticism over the things of God – whether it is the possibly of miracles or the fact that God could indeed reveal himself – pays a high price.
Skepticism against the Christmas story is skepticism against hope itself.
We live in an apathetic age.
Wars can’t be stopped. Poverty can’t be solved. Politicians always lie. Life is always unfair. Marriages never work. Churches never help. God isn’t there.
There is no life after death, and ultimate no reason for life before it.
Right and wrong, good and evil, hope and tragedy, these are just creations of the human imagination with no real anchor in reality.
The world is not getting better. In fact, it is getting worse and to be honest, most people would think we are not worth saving.
Forgiveness? Hope? Love? Goodness? It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing.
It is unbelievable.
Perhaps the Apostles passed along this story not because they were primitive, but because they were just like us.
They lived in a skeptical age. Tyrants stayed powerful; peasants stayed poor; lepers stayed sick; women and slaves stayed property; the dead stayed in the grave; and there is nothing new under the sun.
…Until Jesus showed up. Perhaps the reason the Apostles passed along this Christmas story is precisely because it was unbelievable. Unbelievable yet true.
This is a watershed moment in history, a game-changer, a paradigm-shifter, an epiphany, an event.
God showed up. Hope showed up. Goodness and mercy and forgiveness showed up. Nothing like this had ever happened in their time. Nothing like it before or after. Prophets had foretold this, but who could expect it happening in this way?
Perhaps this story is true in all its remarkable, exceptional, unbelievable, beauty.
We can ask, just like Mary, “How is this possible?” And the angel’s words are just as true today as they were two thousand years ago: With God all things are possible.
With God all things are possible.
If we grant that, this story starts making sense.
Good does triumph over evil. Love does triumph over hate. Forgiveness does triumph over hurt. Peace does triumph over violence. Faith does triumph over idolatry. Hope does triumph over despair.
These truths are not the delusions of us human bi-pedal ape-species with an overgrown neo-cortex.
The deepest longings of the human heart, the groaning of the soul for a world without hunger, sickness, sin, death, and despair – as unrealistic as that sounds – that yearning knows this story is true the same way our thirsty tongues know that water exists.
Its real. Its possible. It is out there. It is here: in Jesus.
The only left to do with this story, when we are done pondering it and puzzling is to trust it.
Can you tonight trust this unbelievable story? Can you trust that with God all things are possible?
Can you trust that your life is not just there without value, but it is a gift, it was planned and made by a God that sees you as his child?
Can you trust that the wrong in your life, the sins we have committed that no excuse can defend has been forgiven by a God that knows you better than you know yourself and sees with eyes of perfect mercy?
Can you trust that God has come into history, has shown us the way, has died for our sins, and conquered the grave?
Can you trust that God can set right all that has gone wrong as we invite him to renew our hearts, our minds, our souls and strength, our relationships, our job and family, our past and future, our communities and our country?
Can you trust that this Christmas story about God’s miraculous power, his unlimited compassion, his surprising solidarity, can be shown to be true this night just as much as it did then? In you, in the person next to you, in this church, in this town.
We give gifts at Christmas time as a sign of God’s generosity, but do we look forward to God’s gifts to us each Christmas?
Do we look for the gift of renewed spirits?
Do we look for the gift of transformed hearts?
Do we look for the gift of forgiveness of past hurts?
Do we look for the gift of reconciled relationships?
Of new freedom from guilt and shame, from hurt and hatred, from addiction and despair, from materialism and apathy.
What gifts are we going to see given from God’s spirit this Christmas.
Perhaps it will be like what happened to Nelson Mandela (just one story I read about this week about how the truth of Christmas changed someone in remarkable ways). In South Africa where Blacks were segregated off from the privileged of White society, Mandela as a young man advocated armed uprising and was imprisoned for life in 1962.
In prison he faced all the things that would, by any worldly standard, destroy hope, love, joy and peace in any man’s soul. He was beaten by the guards. He recount one day being forced to dig a pit that the guards taunted him saying it would be his own grave. As he dug, they peed on him and spat on him. The prison was so dirty he contracted tuberculosis.
Conditions like that fester the heart not just the body, but the miracle of Christmas reached him. Mandela recovered his Christian faith in prison, and was moved with hope towards a better tomorrow, with love and forgiveness towards even his guards that beat him.
In a sermon he gave later in life, he spoke about the hope he gained knowing that the messiah was born an outcast like him. This unbelievable Christmas story, the story that we recite and remember till it we often take it for granted, restored a man’s heart in one of the darkest of places.
Christ’s name is Immanuel: God with us. God was with the shepherd, with Mary, with Joseph, with the oppressed Israeli people, and so, also with Nelson Mendela.
After 26 years in prison, campaigns to have him pardoned succeeded, and Mandela went from prison to the presidential campaign, running to become president and end apartheid, not through violence but through reconciliation.
He won and he even had the guard that beat him from prison, whom he reconnected with and forgave, at his inauguration, a guest of honor.
Its an unbelievable story isn’t it?
How will God work something unbelievable in you tonight?
We could say that our lives aren’t as fantastic as Mendel’s, but then again, if we say that, we would be selling ourselves and our God short.
You see, a story about angels and a virgin giving birth and about a God found in the form of a baby might be unbelievable, but we Christians take that as part and parcel of what our unbelievable God does.
There is a saying that goes if you are in for a pound, you might as well put in a penny.
If we know that God has done the miraculous, can we trust him now with the mundane?
If we know that God has given us life, can we trust him with our finances and family?
If we know that God has atoned for all sin, can we trust him with our fears and failures?
If we know that God has conquered the grave, can we trust him with the worries of tomorrow?
If we know our God is a God that can do all things, that he has already accomplished everything, perhaps can you trust him with something small now. Let’s do something small right now. Something small but still significant.
Let’s have a moment of silence and stillness. We don’t get enough of those in this busy season. Have a moment right now to say to God whatever you need to say or to listen to God and hear whatever he as been trying to tell you, then we will pray together…
Living God, Father of our lord Jesus Christ.
May the worship we have shared this Christmas lead ro acts of service which transform people’s lives
May the carols we have sung this Christmas help others to sing, even in times of sadness.
May the gifts we exchange this Christmas deepen our spirit of giving throughout the year.
May the candles we have lit this Christmas remind us that you intend no one to live in darkness.
May the new people we have met this Christmas remind us that we meet you in our neighbors.
May the gathering together of family and friends this Christmas make us appreciate anew the gift of love.
May these unbelievable stories we have told again this Christmas be good news of great joy to us and all people, proclaimed on our lips and embodied in our lives.
May the ways you have come close to us this Christmas not be forgotten.
May we remember your unbelievable love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness – that you are our life, our light, and our salvation, this season and always, because of Jesus Christ our Lord.
[End prayer modified from Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for a Community of Disciples by the Baptist Union of Great Britain]
I have heard some really vitriolic criticisms of the movie, The Shack.
I am reminded of the parable of the emperor’s new clothes. A foolish emperor commissions new clothes to be made. They were invisible, a deception on the part of the tailors, but they tell the emperor that anyone who thinks they are invisible are foolish. So the emperor pretends he can see the clothes and scorns anyone that does not. On parade, an innocent child points out that he is naked, and the jig is up. The emperor realizes he is in fact naked.
Paul Young is that child, I think. The emperor is evangelicalism; his clothes the pretension to orthodoxy. Our children know our flaws better than anyone, and Paul Young, as a child of evangelical thinking, a pastor’s/missionary kid, is speaking from the inside. He is not an outsider.
Some of Paul Young’s testimony resonated with me. I was raised with a very conservative theological paradigm. I went to seminary, where we liked to joke, “Of course, we are fundamentalists, we just aren’t as angry as those other people.” But the truth was we were angry too. Anyone that held beliefs different from us, if they were significant, were wrong and worse than that, dangerous.
I have learned there is a big difference between “right belief” and “believing in the right way.”
Some of the biggest critics of The Shack have been Reformed Christians. Now, these Christians are our brothers and sisters. They often don’t recognize that, but that is on them not us. I’d prefer to take the high road. We have the same Gospel, just different particulars, but I would point out there are some particulars that I think are deeply problematic.
I do not speak as an outsider on this. In college, I loved listening to John Piper. I read Calvin’s Institutes and I thought Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology was the greatest contemporary work to put theological pen to paper.
Now, I think the only reason I thought that was because I had not read much else. Since then, I have read at least one systematic theology every year. For me I moved beyond some of my more ultra-conservative convictions because they fundamentally could not stand up to either the Bible, historical Christian thinking, or the phenomena of life itself. I’ll explain…
For Calvinism, since God elects some to salvation and others not, and there are those Christians that claim to be “Christians” (like those Catholics and liberals and people that watch HBO) but are not (grace was not enough for them), I had to be hyper-vigilant theologically. I found myself always angry and annoyed at someone’s theology, even disgusted. I did not want them to contaminate me. If there were people that were not Christians but thought they were, the only way I knew I was saved myself was to always keep articulating every question I had theologically, ever more precisely, and to stay away from those that differed (you can read more about my journey in learning to accept other Christians here). Questions over infra-lapsarianism or super-lapsarianism became faith crises as to whether or not I actually believed God was sovereign and therefore whether or not I was saved. Discussions like this all became slippery-slope arguments. Arminians denied God’s sovereignty; open theists God’s impassibility; egalitarians, God’s authority. I was very good a pointing out the proverbial speck in another, ignoring the proverbial log in my own.
I could not reckon with the fact that there were sincere, biblically-minded Christ-followers that did not think the same things as me. See, when I looked at a biblical passage, and had an interpretation I thought was by the Holy Spirit, I could not doubt that. Everything hangs on certainty. I have often said that a fundamentalist cannot ask whether or not they are truly wrong on a core issue of doctrine, because to do is to doubt God and to invite doubt about one’s salvation assurance. Self-fallibility is too risky, even if it is true.
In this scheme, I did not believe in justification by works, but that just meant I was saved by doctrinal works. I was certain of my salvation because of the correct ideas in my head.
This proves potentially fatal if you ever encounter an important yet ambiguous text, which was often in seminary, or change your mind, or just don’t know what to think. The Bible became a scandal to my own theology, whether it was the unsustainable idea of its inerrancy, the refusal to admit the existence of woman leaders, or passages that did not fit an impassible God. As I began to see some of my theological convictions being contradictory, I felt like I was losing my salvation.
In one summer, while that was happening, my “shack” occurred. My father died of cancer; my mother was also suffering from cancer. Several friends of mine went through severe moral and faith crises, which for their sake I will not go into (you can read more about the whole experience here). I was left penniless, working at a Tim Horton’s on night shift, wondering if all this Christianity stuff was even true.
I ended up having a remarkable shift where God encountered me in the abyss of my confusion. I realized that if God is love and God is in Christ, then my ideas of faith can fail, but God will still have me. It was a profoundly mystical experience.
That lead me on a journey to rethink my faith, since I suspected there was more to it than just one tradition that no longer nourished me. This is a hard thing to say to some of my Calvinist friends, who I do consider my brothers and sisters, but I find that this theology is so intellectually and biblically problematic that it induced a faith crises for me, yet still nourishes them.
Nevertheless, that summer I began to I read deeply. I went to the University of Toronto soon after where I got to study under so many different voices. In high school I was a fundamentalist, in college I moved to being a conservative evangelical, in seminary I felt like I was becoming increasingly liberal, in post-grad studies I read deeply in postmodernism and mysticism, by doctoral studies I found myself gravitating to the school sometimes call “post-liberalism,” which lead me to do my dissertation on James McClendon, a Baptist narrative theologian.
Along the way, I started reading church fathers, mothers, and doctors. These are the most esteemed thinkers and saints the church has looked to. I gravitated to the mystics: Dionysius, Nyssa, the Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart, but also Irenaeus, Aquinas, Athanasius, Anselm, and Augustine, etc.
One thing that I started noticing was that what I thought was “unorthodox” was widely held by those who were actively bound by creeds. When I told them about my upbringing, they looked at me recoiling, noting how unorthodox it was.
I found that, ironically, the narrow view of what I considered orthodox was actually not viewed that way by those who had read deeply in the tradition of historic Christianity and had strong conservative commitments to historic orthodoxy. What is “orthodox” here is the bounds of acceptable biblical reflection that the church over 2000 years has developed, using church fathers and doctors, councils and creeds. The sad thing was that the over-protective, arrogant, isolated, and suspicious mode of my past beliefs ironically made me closed to something the greater sweep of Christianity held to be appropriate.
Bonhoeffer once said that those that cannot listen to a brother or sister will soon find themselves unable to hear the word of God also. I think this statement is applicable.
Here lies the irony of those that criticize the “heresy” of The Shack. The notion that Young has moved beyond conservative evangelicalism is not abandoning orthodoxy; it is coming back to it!
I’ll explore this further in my next post.
The other day I got to participate in a showing of The Shack that our church, First Baptist Church of Sudbury, and Valleyview Community Church sponsored.
It happened in the beautiful Imagine Theatre Movie Lounge with its wonderful recliner seating (I am not being paid for that plug by the way – it really is nice!).
The Shack is a movie based on a book where a man, Mack, suffers the loss of his daughter. His daughter, Missy, is murdered, and he hates God for it. His life is beginning to unravel when he gets a card requesting his presence at the shack where his daughter was murdered, signed by “Papa,” the name for God his daughter used.
Mack goes to the shack wondering if the murderer is there, and Mack comes ready to kill him. When he goes there and finds no one, he lets out his anger at God. Shortly after in the woods, a man who we find out is Jesus, invites him back to the shack to have a weekend with the Trinity.
God the Father, “Papa,” is portrayed as female, a big black lady and the Holy Spirit is portrayed as an Asian woman, Sarayu. Mack is invited into fellowship with them. Mack is struck by the warmth of Papa, the relatability of Jesus, and the mysterious wisdom of Sarayu.
Mack learns that the Father is fundamentally love. Rather than seeing God the Father as distant and unforgiving, disconnected from Jesus – essentially being the thing Jesus saves you from – the Father is unified with Jesus, one in the purpose of loving humanity. The cross is the full disclosure of the love of God, all of God. Mack is surprised to see the mark of the nails on Papa’s hands.
Mack goes out to the garden and speaks with Sarayu. They begin digging a hole. Mack wonders why the garden is so messy and wild. The garden, Sarayu indicates, is Mack’s heart. Her work is wild and beautiful and creative and she is working in him, growing something that he does not understand right now.
A pivotal point in the journey is that Mack goes out on a boat. He begins to think about his pain and his loss, and realizes the boat is sinking into the dark waters. The sea is the primordial chaos of satanic sin, seeking to swallow him. The only thing that saves him is that he sees Jesus walking on the water towards him. He grabs a hold of Jesus and does not let go. After that is some, as I call it, “Christian cheese,” where Jesus and Mack goof around walking on the water. The point is theological: Mack admits that Jesus is the most accessible of the members of the Trinity.
Mack is taken to a cave where he is confronted with lady Wisdom. Mack angrily wishes God to smite the killer of his daughter. Wisdom invites him to sit in God’s throne and play God for a moment. Wisdom invites him to give judgment on who will live and who will die. Eagerly Mack sits, ready to pour out his ire on his daughter’s killer. However, Mack’s other two children are placed before him. Their sins are recounted, and Wisdom requests Mack to choose between them, who will be preserved and who will die. Mack is confronted with the fact that if God is a loving Father to all people, God still loves the murderer, despite his brokenness, and is working to save him just as much as all his other children, not wanting any to perish.
At this point, Mack is given a glimpse of heaven, and sees Missy enjoying the fellowship of Jesus. He realizes that God in his love has placed her in a place beyond the pain of her death, and this comforts him to know she is okay.
Mack begins to heal as he learns to forgive as God has forgiven him. In the process, Mack learns he has to forgive his father, who was abusive. Interestingly after he does this, Papa appears to him as a male. Mack needed healing to approach God as Father. Papa previously appeared as a mother to appeal to the love that Mack already knew. Now, Papa is about to teach Mack a new stage of forgiveness. Papa brings him to the place where his daughter’s body was hidden. Along the walk, Mack is confronted with the need to forgive his daughter’s killer. As Mack lets go of his hate, Papa then brings them to the small cave where the body is stashed.
They delicately bring the body back to the shack and Mack realizes that Jesus has been working on a beautiful casket for his daughter. They bring the casket to the garden, and Mack realizes that the hole he was digging with Sarayu was a grave to bury Missy in. Mack realizes the love the Trinity had for Missy is the same as his and that God was with her through all that she went through. They all have a little funeral service there together.
Mack leaves the shack with a new found love at work in him, which he uses to rebuild his fractured marriage and family.
The movie was wonderful: good acting and cinematics. It is a bit of a crier, with many emotional and touching scenes. Admitfully, a movie of this nature is hard to pull off. Depicting God as a character, let alone the Trinity as a black lady, a young middle eastern man, and a weird Asian lady, is hard to do with warmth. We expect either the comical Morgan Freeman of Bruce Almighty or the powerful austerity of the voice coming from the burning bush like in The Ten Commandments. To depict Mack engaging in a friendship with God, and to do so tastefully, is perhaps most difficult because we don’t often want to think about God that way.
The movie presented the love of God, the invitation to trust Jesus, the wisdom of the Spirit, the need to live out God’s forgiveness and love as a response to the problem of evil in perhaps some of the most clear and success ways I have seen in Christian cinema. I look at some of the crap out there in Christian movies, not to name names, but The Shack was frankly refreshing.
Now, some will say that this is just literature and others, the movie’s critics, point out that it is teaching theological convictions. Both are correct. My reaction to the theological themes of the movie, which I will take up next post, are same as the book. Several years ago I read the book curious as to whether it was “heretical” but was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. My reaction is the same: “Am I missing something? Why are people getting angry at this?”
If you want to understand the book you really must listen to Paul Young’s testimony here. People need to walk a mile in Young’s shoes before casting judgment. In deed, as Christians I don’t think they can do that without listening to him. The Shack is a metaphor for his wrestling with God, as a man that was the son of missionaries, thoroughly indoctrinated in evangelical thinking. We would be wise to listen to the views of such an insider. Our children know our flaws better than anyone. His father abused him and taught him a theology of shame. Later in life he was unfaithful to his wife, repented, and sought counseling. The level of vulnerability and emotional insight in his testimony is staggering. The counseling was so intense that he almost committed suicide, but through it, he finally understood God’s love and grace. The book was written as a present to his kids, never intended to be published at the scale it has achieved. For any critic of Young, even if you disagree with his ideas, I would hope they would extend understanding on a person that shows us so much about how to follow Christ through suffering and brokenness.
As someone who is a person that saw abuse in our home (my mother’s husband to her), as someone who did grow up around emotionally toxic Christianity (my father was a pastor’s kid and his father abused him), this movie is highly therapeutic. As someone that has experienced a lot of difficulty, especially in my college years with my parents dying of cancer, while I will get into it more in the next post, this movie has forgiveness and faith at the center.
That is, I think, what the book is about at the end of the day: A man learning about the love of Christ through pain and suffering, propelling a person towards forgiveness. Am I missing something? What is wrong with that?
“I did not even know theologically that these people could exist.”
This is what a pastor told me as we sat chatting at his house for lunch after service several years ago. I spoke at his church and my message was on drawing close to the love of the cross. Recently a friend of mine then had came out to his church and was driven out. He went suicidal, and seeing the whole thing, I was outraged at those Christians. One of my points challenged them to stop their hatred and conditional love of sexual minorities and thus to truly embrace the fact that we are all justified by faith not by works.
I thought this would be a controversial sermon, but it was met with unanimous approval. One lady even came up to me and said, “Pastor, what a fine sermon. One day you will become the next John MacArthur!” I choose to take that as a compliment.
At lunch the pastor turned to me and expressed that he also felt challenged by what I said. He told me that he was doing door-to-door evangelism one day – God bless him! – and a person greeted him and let him come in. As he started talking, the person shared startling information. This person appeared female, but was actually “intersex,” meaning that while she appeared mostly female, she had both male and female genitalia. Neither she nor the pastor I spoke with shared specifics beyond that.
She turned to him and said, “Do you honestly think that if your church knew this about me that I would be welcomed in your church?”
The man sheepishly tried to respond, and as he did he looked around and saw the pictures of her family. She apparently had a lover, who was female, and they had a child.
Overwhelmed, he turned to her and said, “Honestly….nope, my church would freak out.”
So, he thanked her for her time and dejectedly left. And as he turned to me, he uttered a statement indicative of the grand mess the church with its uncritical beliefs has gotten itself into:
“I did not even know theologically that these people could exist.”
For him, he believed that there was male and female and that was it (which is a pretty bad way to read Genesis 1-2). If you don’t fall into those comfortably, it’s your choice, your fault. However, in doing so, his beliefs prevented him from not only reckoning with the basic facts of life: that intersexed people (and this is something different than transgender) exist and they were born with both genitals in some way. It also prevented him and his church from having grace on people it should have been showing grace to. He admitted to me with deep shame that his church was not prepared to love the unloved.
The way we talked about this person was a matter of ministry: is this person loved by God? Is there a place for her in our church? Those are the important questions of us as a church. However, people are talking about this issue in regards to politics…
Once upon a time our laws were blissfully naïve to the existence of the full range of the children of God. Women went to the bathroom that had a person with a dress in it; men to the one with a person in trousers. We are told that trans-people have always been around, and it seems like these people used the bathrooms that best corresponded to how they looked, and the watching world was none the wiser. If they did go to a bathroom that did not correspond to how they looked, they did so at risk of ostracization and even being beaten up.
Lawmakers did one of two things: institute laws that prevented trans people from using bathrooms of their current gender or institute laws that protected them, giving them the right to use the bathroom of their current gender. Either way, people were not happy.
Now, I am going to talk about a sexual topic today, which we have to say always makes people squirmy. Sexuality is a dimension of the human person that is closest to who we are at our most vulnerable. Therefore, we are the most guarded and sensitive about those topics.
Obvious proof of this: how many couples here even go to the bathroom while their spouses are in the bathroom with them? I don’t like to even with my spouse being near me, let alone another man, let alone anyone else. Thank-you very much.
There was an East Side Mario’s in Hamilton. In the men’s washroom, there were urinals. Anyways, I went to the bathroom there, and I found that the urinals were only about a foot apart. No barriers. Another guy came in. He obviously had to go. Came up to the urinal beside me, and started going. Our shoulders were touching. I couldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. It was very traumatic for the both of us.
All of that is to say, matters like sexuality, we are more sensitive to. People naturally will get upset about these kinds of things no matter what people say. People make knee-jerk reactions based on their sexual-disgust feeling. Evangelicals are particularly susceptible to this. They are ironically “liberal” reading their experience of bodily shame into Christian ethics. Where guilt and shame-based preaching abides, evangelicals fixate on matters of sexual disgust as their core political concern, forgetting far more grievous social sins. I have heard evangelical pastors say really idiotic stuff like, “I am not homophobic; I just think the whole gay thing is disgusting.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted this when we visited the U.S. He thought evangelicals resembled gutter journalists, obsessed with what people did with their genitals to the neglect of all other ethics. I think that is more or less true.
So, keep that in mind, and now let me sketch out a timeline of this kerfuffle.
Most people don’t even know that the legal battle in Canada is a done deal. A transgendered person can use any public bathroom that they feel corresponds to their gender.
In Canada, in 2012, the NDP proposed Bill C-27, which amended the criminal code to protect other “gender identities.” If you remember the Conservative party was in power at the time. Over the next few years, it went through various readings, eventually being fully passed in 2013. What is interesting about his (and you can look up all the transcripts of debates and votes on the internet) is that the bill would not have passed if 30 some odd votes were not given by conservative MP’s. On most of the votes that happened on Mar. 20, 2013, the bills were passed by 150 to 130, give or take. The 20-30 votes that were needed to tip the bill into being passed came from the conservative party.
This means the party could have prevented the bill if its leader demanded uniformity (which he often did). This to me smacks of the lip-service conservatism that says it is pro-life but does nothing about it (Harper actually quashed his own MP’s from trying to talk about it), or in this case, says it is against a bill, but lo and behold, supplies just enough to get the bill passed, but not enough for it to look like the conservatives supported it.
I say that because I am very weary of any political party claiming to be the “Christian option” in this day and age. At least as far as I understand the conservative party in Canada, it does not seem like the definite traditional-Christian party anymore. It seems like a house divided at best. This does not mean the liberals are “the Christian” option either, or the NDP. Christians are called to affirm that Christ is King and all other politics authorities are secondary.
I find in politics there is very little integrity. Politicians refuse to admit their faults. They will argue their points, even if they know they are wrong. They will demonize their opponents to win. They often have ulterior motives: making a corporation rich or appealing to a voter base. For that reason, Christians should always keep politics at arms length. Only the kingdom of God will restore society, not a liberal utopia or conservative nostalgia. We are not going to build the kingdom of heaven by who we vote for.
At any rate, the Bill was met with interesting protests from trans individuals. Take for example, Brae Carnes (first picture below), who posted in male bathrooms, exposing the obviously problem of making all transgendered people go into bathrooms that did not match their identities. I don’t think any conservative would want a person that looks like the next two individuals in women’s bathrooms either.
The issue changes when it has a face doesn’t it?
I think intuitively when you see just how far transitioned these people are that it would not be a good idea to force them to go to the bathroom of their birth gender. But there are lots of transgendered people that do not look that much like their transitioned gender. For them, going to any public bathroom will still be dangerous.
Many conservatives did oppose the bill under the notion that it put women and children at risk. Potentially a predator could come into a woman’s bathroom and claim to be a woman, and refuse to leave. There are a handful of examples that show laws the protect transgendered people have been manipulated by sexual predators. For instance, a man claimed to be transgender, and used it to living in a woman’s shelter, committing acts of sexual assault. There are those examples.
Certain places in Canada installed gender-neutral, co-ed bathrooms. I remember using one of these bathrooms at University of Toronto. Apparently these bathrooms were quite unsafe. They certainly were awkward.
Then HB2 hit. While Canadians dealt with this debate rather quietly and civilly, as we often do, for good or for ill, but when things happen in America, it happens like singing a bad campfire song again: “Second verse same as the verse, a little bit louder a little bit worse!”
North Carolina passed the law allowing organizations liberty to enforce that a person ought to go to the bathroom of their birth-gender.
The company, Target, refused. They said, if you are trans-gendered, you can use whatever bathroom you feel meets the gender you feel. Note that they are merely exercising the rights that HB2 gave them.
Conservative family values lobbying organizations protested this and organized a boycott of Target of almost 1.1 million signatures. I think organizing a boycott like that is foolhardy. Even if you are morally outraged at Target, there are so many more immoral companies out there that Christians are not boycotting, so by doing this to Target, this portrays that Christians really have uneven standards.
Also, think about it this way: Would you appreciate a company refusing to sell to you if it knew your religious convictions? Lets say an atheist bakery refused to bake bread for church communion? We would be outraged at the pettiness. Yet this is why I cannot see those conservative Christians they would refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding as anything but petty.
In wake of this, two particularly disappointing things happened:
First is that there is a story of a woman, who had short hair and was athletic, was followed from the woman’s bathroom and harassed by Christians in a public place because they did not believe she was a full woman. Now Christians are the ones straight people need protection from!
Second, the leader of one of these family values political lobbyist groups, Sandy Rios of American Family Association, admitted in an interview that her organization actually sent men into women’s bathrooms to scare women and children into agreeing with her agenda. That is the height of hypocrisy. Her organization claimed to be about protecting women and children from men in their bathroom, yet they are the ones sending men into said bathroom all for the sake of their political agenda. What if one was, as they argued, a woman that was raped? Again, there is this odd necessity to now protect bathroom from Christians.
We should note that if this is true, the American Family Association has very likely put more men in women’s bathrooms than there are instances of sexual predators abusing transgender laws. While there have been instances of sexual predators abusing transgender laws, these instances are very rare. With good reason: How many times do you think a predator can get away with doing that? Predators need absolute secrecy, and it seems like only the really stupid ones would try to do that.
But given the whole debacle, the whole thing is really quite sad. Just plain sad.
Personally, I find the conservative politics the most abhorrent. It is mostly because Christians often back conservative politics, so there should a higher expectation of moral integrity, which is not there. But perhaps it is my own disappointment with the party I was raised to support. While liberalism worships sexual liberty in a problematic way, Christians who support conservative politics routinely come off as condescending and apathetic towards others. Evangelicals routinely ignore basic science on matters of gender. The persistently make one issue about another. Do conservative evangelicals really care about transgender people? Or do they just want their political sensibilities validated and codified?
They sound like they just want the church to flex its muscles and the world to bow down to them and wave fans at them for being so right. That’s probably most sad part.
Personally, I would rather say, “I don’t know but I care,” then be obsessed with have all the right answers, and coming off like I don’t care.
I know Christian pastors that harp on this issue and don’t even know a single transgender person. These pastors are not acting like the priests of Christ but acting like pharisees of the law.
Those that do this forget some very important facts. They read their Bibles, but not the book of nature. This much I do know about the science: There are people – less than 1% but that is still quite a bit – that are born with different configurations of gender. Some are born being physically male but have within them ovaries. Some are born physically female, but have within them testes. They often don’t discover this till years later, and then they understand why they feel “different.” Some are born with both genitals, believe it or not. Some are born physically male or female, but their brains are hardwired to be the opposite. There are all sorts of other examples like this.
When I hear of unique cases like this, I turn to God and reaffirm the strange but blessed diversity of God’s image in humans. He made us all; he loves us all; he claimed us with the dignity that belongs to his children. The more we lovingly draw close to others different from ourselves, the more we see the divine image.
If they are born that way, there is the unsettling truth that I could have been born that way too. So could you. We can’t control the circumstances of our birth.
I could have been born feeling like a female within, and being drawn to “girlie” stuff as my parents looked on with confusion and concern.
I could have had a disappointed father that always made me feel like half of a “true man.”
I could have been the one mocked in gym class change rooms as my peers invented new insults.
I could have been married with kids, trying to live a normal life, but never feeling like “myself” around them, or anyone else for that matter.
I could be the one dying of confusion, despair, and even self-hatred of why I am the way I am.
If this could be any of us, we must follow Christ’s command to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
How would I want to be treated in public? Hopefully just to be left alone. What kind of world would I hope there be for me? Hopefully a just one. What kind of church would I hope there be for me? Hopefully a compassionate one.
What they go through could be what any of us could be going through, and therefore it is our obligation to care and do something.
I am amazed at how many people don’t get this.
I often ask myself: Why cannot people be more rational? Why can’t Christians particularly have empathy? Or at least discuss things with a least a drop of honesty and integrity. So, let’s try to do that.
Note that there are two major responses to this debate:
(1) Liberals have made it their goal to proclaim that all gender is fairly fluid and that choosing the gender that one feels is the best approach. This usually involves hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. How that works, I am not going to get into here.
(2) Conservatives tend to ignore the existence of true intersexed people, and emphasize that there are many others that are plainly gender confused because of the break down of the nuclear family. It is nurture not nature. The person had an unstable childhood, so their gender is unstable. In those cases, recommending gender reassignment surgery is a bad option. It causes more harm to an already unstable person. The best thing a society can doe is get back to the stability of the “good old days.”
Who is right? I don’t think either side has it completely. Let’s admit that. When issues polarize, there is very rarely one perfectly right side.
Christ forbids the notion that there ought to be an “us” versus “them.” Eph. 6 :12 warns, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” I worry about those Christians that excel at making enemies of the people they are called to preach reconciliation to.
At least as far as I have read, gender reassignment surgery has been shown to relive the anguish of some transgender people, but also in many cases create whole new problems. I am not a psychiatrist, so that is all I can say. Whatever a transgendered person is going through, we know it is going to be difficult. We should be honest about that.
Now, bring in politics. What do you do when a person identifies as a woman, but was born a man, and wants to use a woman’s bathroom? Some say, “Let them if it helps them feel some modicum of security and peace.” Others say, “I don’t feel comfortable with a person of the opposite physical gender being in that bathroom. The laws can be abused by predators.” Again, both have a point, but neither side have it all.
There seems to be a bunch of concerns here that all Christians should have:
- Transgendered people are valued and should be kept safe from harassment.
- We need greater awareness for the existence of transgendered people and what they go through.
- However, the concern is also that in doing so, society promotes the notion that our genders are fluid, which could cause physiological harm to some that need more structure.
- Women and children could be put at risk by sexual predators abusing transgender laws
You will notice that liberals tend to prioritize (1) and (2) while conservatives prioritize (3) and (4). But, if you can admit that both sides are trying their best to uphold justice some way, I think we can have a better way of thinking about his whole debacle.
We cannot be satisfied with any law that does not protect all vulnerably parties. We don’t get to choose who we defend the dignity of, one way or another. We are called to defend all people’s dignity. All people, not some, not just your kids, not just transgendered people either – all are made in the image of God. Everyone is. We don’t get to choose who to care about. All deserve our love in how we talk, think, feel, and write policies.
So, what should a Christian do? Should we advocate for the laws to stay the same? That did not happen, and there should be a law that protects trans people. Should we advocate for the bathroom laws to pass uncritically that can be abused? No. I think there needs to be further criteria to how the bathrooms are used. Should we advocate new ones that can further allow transgendered people to get beaten up and harmed, protecting the churches prerogative over others? No.
Many say we should move to installing gender-neutral bathrooms that are fully enclosed. That is probably the way things are going to go, but that sounds expensive. I don’t think companies can accommodate every public bathroom being converted that way. There does not seem to be a good answer here.
I think the obvious response for Christians, when the law of the land does not reflect the perfect justice of God is to pray and trust and hope.
I recently read through 2 Peter. Peter is encouraging a congregation with the hope that Christ will return and one day the world will be ruled by God not people. So, he says,
“We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13)
We are to live like exiles in a strange land, for we are citizens of a different kingdom.
This admits that the current situation does not have a comfortable solution that Christians should be happy about. If any law leaves a vulnerable party unsafe, we should not be happy about it. We need to continue to rethink, listen, and pray.
What does that mean? I don’t know. I don’t know the answers to many things in life. But as I said, I would rather say that I don’t know but care then that I know but come off like I don’t care.
I don’t know if I have a position, but I do know the posture: Christ. I don’t care much for politics, but I do care about the people. That is what we should focus on: the posture of Christ and the people in need of love.
I look at this world, and all I know is to cling to the love of Christ, the love he showed me, and the love I ought to extend. True religion is, according to the prophet Micah 6, “To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” The more I befriend people that much different me, the more I see Christ working around me. That is a humbling thing.
I know that politics is not the vehicle of the kingdom of God. The Gospel of our God loving all people, forgiving all sin is. Our world is broken, so we need to walk graciously in Christ, for our sake and others. There are broken people in it, like ourselves. If we are to love our neighbors, we need to listen to them and walk with them.
May you walk in the peace of Christ in this broken world, on this matter and all things.
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” – Phil. 1:21
Like good Protestants, but bad students of church history, we are going to have to jump 1500 years into the future, to the dawn of the Reformation. In this room here, I imagine we have Christians from different denominational backgrounds like Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Mennonite, Pentecostal, even some Catholics as well. And some of you even know what those words mean! Those words tend to mean less today not just because we don’t know our church history, but also I think because we have a deeper recognition that we are all one in Christ Jesus, despite minor doctrinal differences in how we interpret our Bibles. It was not always so…
The first Baptists, called by their enemies, the “Anabaptists,” were radical Protestants that saw all the wars of religion, killing between Protestants and Catholics, and the concluded that faith has to be free and voluntary. They were committed to non-violence and refused to let the government legislate religious belief one way or another. This is what Baptist call the separation of church and state – more accurately it is the separation of faith from power.
Again, most Christians now affirm this in one way, shape, or form, but back then, the Baptists who preached freedom of religion and conscience, something we take for granted now as our un-revocable right as a citizen. However, back then, they were deemed enemies of the common good by the established churches and their governments, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. And so, authorities hunted the Anabaptists. This was a dark moment in European history, Catholics killing Protestants, vice versa, Protestants killing Protestants. Christians who all believed in the same Jesus, executing other Christians. What were they killing over?
Baptists held to believer baptism, Reformers and Catholics to infant baptism. In hind sight that is a terrible thing to fight over, let alone kill. It was petty. Yet, where state-religions were strong, so also was the need to control people to get them to believe, and so the Anabaptists, who dissented from this, were chased. Their punishment: they were often dragged to bridges and lakes and flung into the water to drown as a kind of ironic punishment for being re-baptized.
One man was arrested by the Dutch authorities for his Baptist convictions. His name was Dirk Willems, and he was imprisoned purely for saying he no longer believed what other Christians of his day believed. He never hurt anyone. The accounts say that he managed to escape the prison, slipping out of an unbarred window. It was winter time, and so, in order to evade his pursuer, he ran arose a frozen lake neighboring to the prison.
The guard chasing him, being a bigger man, fell through the ice. Dirk was home free. But then he stopped. What would Jesus do? His conscience pricked him, and he was moved with compassion on his persecutor. At great risk to himself, he dragged the man out of the icy water, warming him with his own body heat. Dirk carried the man back to the prison, accepting that if he retuned, he would be re-arrested. Sure enough, some prison guards did not care about his very obvious compassion and bravery, let alone the injustice of his charges to begin with, and sent him back to his cell.
For being a Baptist heretic and because he refused to let his own enemy die rather than escaping, Willems was burned at the stake 16 May 1569.
Can you imagine his thoughts? Turning to save the man that would imprison him, knowing that it mean confronting prison and the death penalty?
It seems difficult to imagine, but that is what Jesus did for us. While we were still sinners [still his enemy], Christ died for us.
Father, we pray for Christian unity, as Jesus prayed “May they be one as we are one.” Empower us to end our petty squabbles and focus more on you. Remind us that the only way we will show the world your son is by having the same reconciling love Willems modeled for his own pursuer. You teach us to love our neighbors as our selves and may we love even our enemies the way Christ loved us, counting their lives more important that our own.
“Woman, behold your son” … “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26)
While it is easy to see this passage of Christ looking to his mother, Mary, and instructing her to embrace John, the beloved disciple, and John vice versa, as a simply provision undertaken by our Lord to ensure his mother is cared for, these passages offers us glimpses of something deeper. Let’s look at both John and Mary here.
Why is Mary told to refer to John as a “son” and John to refer to Mary as his “mother”? The provisions of care do not necessitate this, yet Jesus insisted. He could have just said, “John, take care of her.”
Some have seen this as Jesus recommending a relationship between Mary and the disciples.In Christ, there is a new family, a global family, of the redeemed that all began at the cross. Mark 3:35 says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Here we see the constitution of that family, gathered around the crucified Jesus, listening to his instructions, and so, compelled to treat one another as family.
But it surely meant more than that for John. Mary and John are among the few that actually stayed close to Jesus. They did not flee like the rest of the disciples. John was allowed near the crucifixion site, perhaps because he was so young. We know this because only boys too young to serve in the military could come near the execution site for fear of uprising to save the crucified.
This helps us understand why John sometimes refers to himself as the “beloved disciple,” who “reclined at Jesus’ side.” Peter would have been much older, the eldest of the disciples, possibly. It is also possible that John was the youngest. He was only a boy, small enough to need hugs from Jesus. He may have seen Jesus has a father figure.
Jesus taught us to call God, “Abba” (Daddy). John may well have called Jesus, “Abba.”
John is standing there, watching his father figure die. So, this was more than provision of care to Mary, it was recognition of mutual support. They would need each other. You can understand Jesus’ words now as commissioning the young John. “It is time to be a man, now John, take care of Mary, treat her like your mother.”
As we see John’s writings through the New Testament, particularly in his epistles, John took up this commission well. He was an apostles of family and love through and through. He constantly refers to his congregation as his “little children,” not unlike what he was when he learned his essential instructions from his master.
We know from church tradition that John’s dying words to his church was, “Little children, love one another!” Love shun through John’s writings at all points, especially in passages like 1 John 4:7-12:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
His church was his family, and love was his ministry because Jesus was his hero.
Can we look to Jesus like John did?
Now, Mary: Protestants have often forgotten the importance of Mary. We have done this out of understandable reasons: it is out of discomfort with how high Mary is elevated in Catholicism. But as Catholicism raise Mary too high; Protestants are guilty of not raising her high enough.
In church history, veneration of Mary began because of how Mary pointed to a proper understand of Jesus. Jesus died in the flesh (contra some who denied his humanity) because Jesus was born to a human mother: Mary was the guardian of Jesus’ humanity, the theotokos, “God-bearer” in Greek.
But, sadly, Mary was elevated to a kind of co-operator with Christ in some Catholic theology, which Protestants simply feel makes her into an idol. But we should ask is how do we properly adorn Jesus’ mother so that she once again safeguards her son’s high place? We might phrase this better by asking, how does respecting Mary as a mother – us looking to her motherly qualities – how does that bring us deeper into appreciation of Jesus? Or, how does understanding Mary as mother deepen our understanding of Jesus as our brother?
The picture displayed above renders this clearly: eyes too sorrowful to see clearly, but too concerned to look away; hands, clenched praying perhaps both that her son would be faithful to the onerous task she bore him for, but because she bore him, praying pleading with God to relent of the suffering her son is feeling.
To look to Mary as our mother is to look at Jesus’ hanging on the cross, not as an abstract idea, a stale doctrine, a historic account, or an expression of our own sentiments, it is an attempt to see the cross for what it is, and not bypassing it too quickly.
Seeing the cross as our salvation can too readily jump from its tragedy to the benefit we get out of it. We can easily see Christ as suffering on our behalf and we can say, “thanks,” and continue on our merry way. We can selfishly forget the cost of the cross. We can easily look at the cross for what we get out of it, not what God put into it.
When we look to Mary as the mother of Christ, we also look at the cross through the eyes of a mother. Someone’s son died on that cross. Someone’s little boy, her pride and joy, everything she lived for, is being murdered mercilessly, dying that miserable death.
And do you not think that it may have occurred to her that while she knew Jesus was dying for her sins, she would have gladly died in her sons place just to save him from the pain? Don’t you think even that she would have gladly refused her own salvation if it meant saving her little boy’s life?
It is only when we look at the cross through Mary’s eyes do we appreciate the cost of the cross for us. It is the cost of a life more precious than our own.
It is only when we lament the cross through Mary’s tears are we ready to say thank-you to a God that gave so much we will never understand.
It is only through the love of Mary for her Son that we ready to love the world as Jesus loved it.
May we love as John loved. May we look to you as our daddy, our father figure. So close to us that we can “recline at your side.” Help us to remember that we are beloved disciples, not just disciples. Draw us closer into the family of God. May we treat your sons and daughters as brothers and sisters. Give us opportunities to be big brothers and sisters to others.
May we mourn for you as Mary mourned. And in our mourning, let us remember the provision that Jesus gave at that very moment, the only true provision against the tragedy of this age: You gave us the church, the family of God. Help us to take care of one another. Help us to love one another.
This is a reflection I wrote back in 2011, when my first son, Rowan, was born. It is, as I call it, a “theo-poetic” reflection, as I could not help but think about the grandness of this event as connected with faith in God.
Some would question whether fatherhood is a valid impetus for religious reflection. What do the two have to do with each other? I am of the opinion that even an atheist, when gripped with the beauty of life’s greatest moments ultimately resort to religious-like vocabulary: words of transcendence like “sublime” or even, “sacred.” There is a reason why the Hebrew prophets were not scientists or philosophers – those who think the mysteries of life can be objectified, scrutinized, and exhausted, those that naively hold that thought begins in doubt and ends in certainty rather than beginning and ending in wonder. Rather, all of the prophets were poets.
Many know their fathers as appearing cold and silent, perpetually poker-faced. After my son was born, my wife turned to me wondering why I did not cry at the sight of my son. I said that I did not know. I almost felt ashamed that I did not. Could I be that emotionless? However, as I reflect on this, and many of the powerful moments of my life, I have found that there are, for me, moments so profound that their magnitude invokes such a complex polyphony of emotions, our bodies do not know how to express one where our minds are wrestling with many. It is not that men are emotionless or emotionally shallow (as some have said), it is, I think, that sometimes we are so complicated, no one expression of emotion does justice. Thus, we appear reductionistically simple.
For this reason the Christian scriptures were not written as pure historical reports, logical propositions, and empirical data – objective yet dry, stale, and irrelevant – but rather as narratives, poetry, proverbs, and epistles – subjective, personal, and thus, real and relevant. Poetry is the enemy of science, as science accuses poetry of un-realism, yet it is poetry that seems to come to grip with what reality is for the human experience more than science. In French, the same word is shared for an account of history and a story, l’histoire, as it is understood that in order to communicate the flavor of life’s memories accurately, one must ironically use the metaphor, forsaking the demands of the factual in order to fulfill it and employing the rich meanings found typically in fiction. The wondrous thing about poetic reflection is that it is the attempt to wrestle into words the things that matter most to us, yet render us silent and speechless.
It is a strange wordless feeling becoming a father. Watching my wife’s pregnancy was just that: watching, a position that intrinsically predisposes a father to a sense of aloofness. Another’s pregnancy, for all its power to produce the sense of maternity, is no process to prepare for one’s own paternity: no inherent connection is formed between father and fetus, no nesting instinct clicks on automatically. A guy does not spend his childhood unwittingly rehearsing for childcare with his toys and their many nursery related accessories. Compared to the astounding ability to produce life from within oneself, to shift seamlessly and intrinsically into a parental-consciousness, men are left feeling as the “weaker sex.” Fatherhood, at least in its initial impulse, far from its place in perceived male headship, subverts the great chains of social hierarchy – hierarchy with all its promise of strength and security – that we as men wish to remain unthreatened.
I take Meagan in to be induced on the evening of Good Friday. We stay the night for observation. I don’t sleep. I can’t sleep: part anticipation part the stiff hospital chair-bed-thing is not actually suitable for sleeping.
Then the labor happens in the morning, Easter Saturday, April 23. Trumpets from heaven might have well of blasted: all the signs were there, all of it expected, however, an urgency sweeps over you that makes you feel you were never ready for what is to come. All preparations feel illusory and inadequate. It is the eschaton of my life, as I know it.
Moments become eternal as memory fragments into snap-shots that somehow also bleed together like a long exposure photograph: At the hospital, Cervidil administered, epidural, lunch from the Hospital’s Subway, contractions set in, the movie Ben-Hur plays in the background, cervix is fully dilated and ready to push. I look at my watch, its 4:25. Ben-Hur is at the chariot race scene. I hold Meagan’s hand. I hold her leg. Meagan’s mother, on the other side, does the same. Breathe. Push. Pause. Breathe. Push. Pause. I see the head.
I am not going to lie, it is gross. Life in it’s most raw forms, we often find disgusting; without all our prim and proper adornments to shield ourselves from the overwhelmingly messy purity that life is, we find it scary before we can properly appreciate it as sacred.
A haze of helplessness, ignorance, and anxiety from watching my wife have contractions, have pain, have labor, have something I have never witnessed before and can never understand, leaves me unsure of what is going on, what I should be doing, what I could even do at all. Men are supposed to “fix things.” I don’t know what to do. I say, “Good job,” as if I am the expert, as if I am not feeling awkwardly pathetic.
It all comes to the pivotal moment I see the little body and the loud cries begin. The sur-reality of labor splits sunder by the sharpness of the in-breaking reality of delivery. Adventus at 4:57.
The image behind the shadowy ultra-sound phantasms and amorphous movements within the belly manifests itself for the first time in one tiny distinct form: the crying naked body of a tiny baby boy. The tohu-wa-bohu of childlessness break by the bara of conception, that leads to the badal and miqveh of pregnancy, and culminates in the final barak of birth.
I give my wife a kiss, no longer simply between two lovers, but from the father to the mother of our child. A mature love is affirmed, love that culminated in new live, a new journey: our family. I hold my wife, my wife holds the baby, the baby holds my hand. Bone of my bone holding flesh of my flesh: we are three, yet, in love, we are one.
We named him Rowan Albert Boersma, Albert after my dad, John Albert Boersma. However, I was so tired after the birth that when I called my family to tell them the news, I told them the wrong name! It was the most pleasant point of exhaustion, I’ve ever felt!
I take my son in my arms and I look at him, and he opens his eyes and stares at me. Some refer to a religious experience as an “I-Thou” encounter, the finite “I” encountering God’s absolute “Thou.” The presence of the infinite being produces a sense of being infinitesimal, under the weight of the wonder of that which is Wholly Other. To hold my son for the first time is an similarly unspeakable feeling, apophatic yet oddly inverse: I feel like the thou, staring down at this being that is in my “image and likeness,” this person that is utterly dependent on my providence: so small, so fragile, so vulnerable, so innocent, but above all else, just so. With all that I am, I pronounce blessing on this being: I see him as “very good.” His finger reaches out and touches my finger in Michelangelo-esque sublimity.
As I sense myself as the Thou, the child becomes the I. And thus, I see myself in something other than me. In doing so, eye to eye, I sees I, self-hood is seen in another and otherness in self, an infinite reciprocal circle of identity and alterity. A type of self-transcendence occurs. The I-Thou reverses as I stand before a new tiny Thou. All senses of deity, the feeling of being bigger than you have ever been, paradoxically permeates with the sense of being smaller than you ever have been, feeling the full weight of fatherhood, the magnitude of responsibility, and the fear of innumerable potentialities of failure. The future in all its awesome potentiality presents itself, simultaneously dazzling as dangerous.
In holding that child for the first time, with the instantaneous love, you feel that you are more sure about what is right in the world than ever before, yet at the same time the most unsure. With love, an kenotic agape occurs as someone other than yourself becomes the measure of your essence. As you love this little someone, you see yourself in them, and your own idenity as a loving person becomes bound to them, covenantally. You bind your self-hood to something other than yourself, freely allowing yourself to be taken hostage to this someone that you know has the uncontrollable judgment to pronounce you a success or a failure in your task of loving, in your ability to be loving. The certainty in love appears also as the greatest risk. For those that define masculinity as a man’s self-sufficiency, power, and ability, fatherhood appears as a threat-to more than a fulfillment-of manhood.
Is this what God felt like as he beheld Adam? Is this what the Father felt as he looked down upon Christ lying in a manger? Through the divine tzimtzum, is this the risk of God’s essence as love entails as he constantly proclaims to his children, those other than himself yet from himself? Is this the mystery of God’s promise and proclamation to all humans, when he says, “I am love; I created you from love; I love you; I will always love you”? Is it in the finite response of gratitude for God’s love that God’s infinity is realized? Did God, as a being whose supreme ontological predicate is love, risk his very deity in the act of creating humans? It is only when every “knee bows and tongue confesses” the Spirit’s love, Christ’s lordship, and the Father’s paternity that God will truly be “all in all.” The marvel of God’s sovereignty is his willful vulnerability.
How can God be vulnerable? In Greek mythology, Cronus the Titan devours his children so that none can challenge his sovereignty. Zeus the all powerful, Cronus’ son, slays his father, only to become an absent uncaring father himself to myriads of bastard children of the women he seduced. He, the “father” of all gods, is a god that intervenes to win wars for his subjects – wielding the symbol of his power: the lighting bolt – only for the profit of more temples, more worship, more reputation, more fear of his might. The gods of the Greeks were defined as timeless, impassible, unchangeable, omnipotent and omniscient. And because of this, the Greeks logically concluded, in all their metaphysical sophistication, that the gods do not care about us. They must not care, or else they would not be gods! To care is to be weak. This is what the world conceives of as divinity: power and control.
Some wonder why an infinite deity would choose to identify himself as gendered and allow himself to be named by his people as “our father” (although there are many parts of scripture, I should point out, where God is depicted as motherly too), yet everywhere in our world we see absent fathers – people, perhaps, afraid of the risk of love – broken homes, abandonment, even abuse. And yet in our darkest moments something, someone, beyond all our experience, beyond all notions of how the world is, pierces the veil of despair and shines through in glorious consolation: God as love appears as the one that never abandons, always keeps his promises, always protects, is always proud, is always daring to love.
The God who identifies himself with the stories retold by the community that claims their brother is Christ is a God that we profess does nothing like what a god is expected to do: he comes into history, changes himself into a sacrifice, suffers with us, becomes weak and helpless choosing powerlessness over violence, chooses compassion over wrath, and even is said to have become the very thing God is not: the misery of sin and death. Though the vile yet beautiful cross – the symbol of the Christian God’s awesome ability – all this was done to say to all the fatherless: to all victims those crying out for rescuing, to all the abandoned that will never understand themselves as being worthy of a father’s proud smile. All this to say to all people: you have a father! Daddy loves you. He is proud of you. He will rescue you. He is never going to leave you.
Indeed, no psychological projection, no philosophical system, no misguided mythology constructed by human minds could invent the notion that a God would choose to use masculine language to define his magnificent characteristics yet fundamentally in his very essence, in his very being and becoming, be something so unbecoming of the impassible power and sovereign invulnerability of our notion of “male” deity, that is, the unfathomable and ineffable reality that God is love.
Hearing my crying child, holding him for the first time, and not knowing what to do to end the crying is an absolutely terrifying experience. Something so small renders someone so much older, bigger, and more capable that itself, ultimately incapable: omnipotence dissolves into omni-incompetence. However, he calms down and sleeps sweetly, and I pause to take in the strange soothing fragrance of a new born baby at peace on my chest, his soft head against my cheek. We both rest, I in pride and Rowan in purity. I think to myself that this is how God must have felt on the seventh day. Shalom, the peace that all existence strives for, engulfs us.
I use the blue musical teddy bear to comfort him, the same one my father used to comfort me. Now I understand what my parents felt, and I regret every moment that I ever took their love for granted. My father has passed away, my mother also, yet I am here. I say, “Daddy is here. Daddy is never going to leave you.” A generation passes, a generation comes, and yet in the flux of life’s frailty, for all its uncertainty, love is what remains eternally and assuredly the same. Death is no competitor to the renewing power of life through love. The “risk” of becoming a father, love’s risk of being inadequate, vulnerable, and the potentially a failure, in turn, is then what becomes illusory, dissolving into epiphany, as love’s jeopardy becomes life’s victory, as love demonstrates itself as the essence of immortality, as love demonstrates that love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, never ends and never fails.”