Sunday, October 30, 2016

Face Of God

How I study the Bible is that I read through one Old Testament book, one book of the New Testament and cycle through the Psalms. Currently I'm reading through the book of Genesis. It's an odd book to read from Creation all the way through the death of Joseph. Now I have either read through or heard the stories from the book of Genesis my whole life. They are overly familiar to the point that I falsely believe that I know everything this book contains, that there is nothing new to learn, that I have either mined everything that book has to offer or heard it ad naseum in sermons and teachings from childhood on. Then, as God so often likes to do, He reminds me that I am far from grasping even the slightest bit of scripture fully.

This morning, I was reading the chapter on Jacob's returning to the land where his brother Esau lives. Despite the many years he has been away, Jacob is terrified of his older brother, whose birthright he has stolen through trickery. The night before he will meet Esau, Jacob is alone and finds himself wrestling a man until the dawn. This story is one that I have read and reread and heard and reheard over and over and over. The man touches Jacob's hip and put it out of joint. He renames Jacob "Israel." When Jacob asks the man his name, the man answers with a blessing. Jacob names the place of this encounter Peniel, which means "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered." We've all read this and heard this story. But where I found myself this morning was in a place that was at once overly familiar and completely anew. It wasn't this scene of Jacob wrestling the Lord, but in Jacob facing Esau again for the fist time after many years.

Never, in all of my readings or hearings, have I picked up on this line, which is how Jacob greets his brother, "No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand.For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me."


Think about that. Jacob has just come from an encounter with seeing the very face of God and yet, as he addresses his older brother, he uses the phrase, "For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me."

Was this merely hyperbole during a moment of reconciliation? Was it mere diplomacy on the trickster Jacob's part to try and mollify a brother he is mortally afraid of?

Certainly the description of Esau being a ruddy and hairy man with rough skin is not one we would naturally apply as one that is like seeing "the face of God."

The Midrash, which is the ancient commentary on the Hebrew scriptures, speaks of this encounter in this way:

Jacob mentions God's name to Esau in order to intimidate and frighten him. It then mentions a parable in which a man is invited by his friend to dine with him. When the man arrives at his friend's house, the host has planned to murder him. The man then says, "This dish is delicious. It tastes like one I had in the royal palace." Upon hearing this, the host was afraid, "So he knows the king . . ." The host decides not to go through with his murderous plot. Jacob was doing likewise. By saying to Esau, "For to see thy face is like seeing the face of God," Esau will then rethink his plan to harm Jacob, "Since the Holy One brought him to such honor, I stand no chance against him."

Was this really Jacob's way of warning his brother, "If you harm me, then you will have to answer to God"?

The text doesn't ready that way. 

Yes, Jacob is fearful. But, like the father of the prodigal son, Esau has run to meet Jacob and, just like the father in that parable, embraces him and "fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept."  It is in those lines that I grasp that Jacob understood that the reception he received was not the one he deserved. When Jacob expected wrath, he instead, received grace. Esau extended to him, in that moment: love, mercy and compassion. He welcomed his brother back just as the father does his prodigal son. 

When Jacob tells his brother, "For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me," is being quite literal. This once harsh and angry man, is now one who is filled with gentleness, kindness, and familial love. He does not view Jacob as the enemy but as a beloved brother.  He keeps reminding Jacob, "I don't want your flocks and your gifts. I am just filled with joy that you have returned to me." (Reminds me of that verse in Matthew 9:13, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice").

How much is this another biblical portrait of the grace of God?

As I thought about this beautiful passage, I began to think about the people in my own life. How many of them would say to me, "For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God"?

To those who have wronged me, do I offer them the hand of forgiveness and mercy? Do I offer unconditional love, total humility, acceptance and even joy? He, without condition, forgave the wickedness and sins that his younger brother had committed against him. Jacob stole his birthright. This meant that the younger brother had stolen all of the privileges, advantages and paternal inheritance that was rightfully his in that time and culture. How many of us would be willing to do so if someone had taken our portion right out from under us? Most of us are unwilling to at even the most minor of slights or hurt feelings. Yet if  Esau, who did not know Christ can, what is my excuse?

If we, as Christians did, how big an impact would that make on the culture around us?  Would others not see the face of God in us when we do?

Certainly I cannot help but think of the lines in Les Miserables when Victor Hugo wrote. "To love another person is to see the face of God." I want to love like that. I want to love as Esau did his brother Jacob.  Reading this story in Genesis has made me realize how deeply I want others to see the face of God in my face through my actions and by, ultimately, what is in my heart.

May we all be "the face of God" to a hurting and broken world. This is my prayer.

Thursday, October 27, 2016


The Transfiguration  by Theophanes the Great

So often in the Christian faith, we have focused on the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, but paid scant attention to the transfiguration. Three out of the four gospels have passages about it. I began to meditate on the passage in Luke when I read chapter nine, verses 28-36. Prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus has fed the five thousand, Peter declares Jesus as the Christ, Jesus foretells his death and tells his followers to deny themselves, pick up their crosses and follow him. What's interesting is that Jesus ends the statement with, "But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God." And some will, as Jesus takes Peter, James and John off with him to go to a mountain to pray.

Scholars and early Church Fathers, such as Origen, believe the mountain to be Mount Tabor. At the time, it was known as Jebel et Tur (or mountain of mountains) in Arabic. This mountain is covered in green vegetation and calcareous rocks. It stands 1843 feet above the Mediterranean. The prophet Jeremiah writes of the mountain, "As surely as I live," declares the King, whose name is the Lord, "one will come who is like Tabor among the mountains . . ." (46:18).  The Psalmist writes, "You created the north and the south, Tabor and Hermon sing for joy at your name." It may also have been the mountain mentioned in Deuteronomy where Moses blessed the twelve tribes of Israel. Mount Tabor rises from its surroundings and is isolated from the surrounding plain around it and was praised for its beauty.

Scripture tells us that Jesus took Peter, James and John up to the mountain to pray. Much like in the Garden of Gethsemane, we find that while Jesus prays, his disciples fall asleep. What occurs next is beyond miraculous because it reveals how the Transcendent became a man (the Infinite in finite form) but was about to reveal how close the kingdom of God really was.  Finite world intersecting with the infinite one.  While Christ prayed, all three of the gospel accounts, state that his appearance of his face altered and he became as "light." Matthew would write that "his face did shine like the sun." In Greek, the word for transfiguration is metamorphoo which means "to transform" and is where we get our word metamorphosis.

Further, the gospel writers inform us that two men began to talk with Jesus: Moses and Elijah.

Why Moses and Elijah?

Both men had encounters with God on a mountain (Exodus 19 and 1st Kings 19).  During both encounters, neither man could see the face of the Creator. But now, here they stood, looking into the face of Christ, who created all things. The face of God in the face of man.  Astounding.

Both men symbolized the Law and the Prophets in Judaism, but now they stood before what was greater than Law: Love. Love incarnate. Love in the flesh. Love the higher law. "I have come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it."

And what were they discussing?

The departure of Jesus. Just as he had spoken of his death before coming up to the mountain to pray, Christ speaks of his, and the word used in the Greek was the same one used for "exodus." As Christ stands with Moses, who led the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt, he is now telling of a new exodus, of a new way that God is going to free and save his people: the cross. In the transfiguration, we are getting a glimpse of what is to come: crucifixion and resurrection. Love is revealing its plan of atonement (of making at one with), which he would soon accomplish in Jerusalem. By calling it an "exodus," Christ is beginning the connection to Passover, which he would transform and make new through his offering himself as the broken bread and spilled wine. Just as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt after Passover, even more so would Christ. A new and greater Exodus

It's at this point that our thick-as-brick disciples awaken to see the "glory" of the Lord, as well as the two men talking with him. The veil was lifted in that moment and these three common men began to see how things really were. They saw that the line between heaven and earth was a thin one at best.

In his book Simply Jesus, N. T. Wright says of the transfiguration of Jesus:

What the story of Jesus on the mountain demonstrates, for those with eyes to see or ears to hear, is that, just as Jesus seems to be the place where God's world and ours meet, where God's time and ours meet, so he is also the place where, so to speak, God's matter - God's new creation - intersects with ours. As with everything else in the gospel narrative, the moment is extraordinary, but soon over. It forms part of a new set of signposts, Jesus-shaped signposts, indicating what is to come: a whole new creation, starting with Jesus himself as the seed that is sown in the earth and then rises to become the beginning of the new world.

Three of disciples were seeing the truth of "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the earth is full of his glory" (Isaiah 6:3). Is it any wonder then that Peter wants to stay here, in this moment where he is witnessing the kingdom that all of Israel has been waiting for? He sees Jesus as the promised messiah. And, Peter being Peter, took it upon himself to suggest, "Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah." He wants to remain in the glory, in the heights where God and humanity are meeting in absolute splendor. Who wouldn't want to stay there? Why would any of them want to leave this mountain when the next one to come will be that of the cross?

Mark writes that the three disciples were terrified and that Peter said all of that because he didn't know what to say. And who would? When we begin to truly see the awe and wonder that is the holiness of God, how can we think of mere words to speak in that moment? Should we not simply fall to our knees in worship?

As C. S. Lewis wrote:

"The transfiguration, then, symbolizes the life to come and thus the goal of ascetic pursuit. It reminds the believer that the vision of God unfolds amidst the splendor of holiness while also pointing toward the way in which the final movement to ecstatic wonder is always grace-filled and joy-laden. It is the sudden burst of divine light as when Helios peaks over the horizon casting his rays on all creation so that the world glows in the gold haze of dawn, translucent and transformed."

In all three accounts, no sooner has Peter spoken when they are all overshadowed or encompassed by a great cloud. Now they are about to experience Yahweh. A voice from the cloud informs them, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him." Just as God spoke as Jesus was being baptized, before he entered the desert for forty days of fasting and temptation, so, too, does the Father now affirm the Son and his mission before he undertakes the path that leads to the cross. Father speaks what the Son again will need to hear. All sons and daughters need this from their own earthly fathers.

I love that in all three of the gospels, this passage about the transfiguration is followed by the miracle of Jesus healing the boy with evil spirits. It begins with a man rushing up to him, kneeling before Jesus and pleading, "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is my only child." How those words must have resonated with Jesus in that moment because he had just heard, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." The man then tells of an unclean spirit that torments his son. Jesus will heal the boy, but I love the parallel of fathers and their love for their only sons.

Now, upon hearing the words coming from the cloud, the disciples fall on their faces in terror. The next action once more reveals the compassion of Christ, who gently touches them, saying, "Rise up and have no fear." Isn't that why Jesus had these three there on the mountain with him?

I love how Matthew writes, "And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus." It immediately drew to my mind the beginning of Psalm 121, "I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence comes my help." They are lifting up their eyes to where their help will come from at all times: Christ.

This moment the transfiguration, was a glimpse of the new creation that Christ was promising.

These men saw the glory of the Lord before his suffering and then his ultimate glory: his resurrected body and his ascension. In this moment, Jesus was revealing them the Eternal Truth of who he was, though he warned them, "Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead."

Luke's account end with, "And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen."


Can you imagine being entrusted to keep that profound and great a secret? Especially if you were a loud mouth like Peter? Were the three disciples who went with Jesus tempted to after they came down from the mountain and came upon the others? Surely Peter, James and John gave each other knowing looks or whispered among themselves at times. "What are you three whispering about over there?" Luke might inquire. Like guilty children, they would reply, "Nothing."

I wonder if I could have kept it.

Imagine being the first person ever to see the Grand Canyon or to stand atop Mount Everest or to go into space. Now imagine not being able to speak about it to anyone - not family or friends or even strangers. No one. Now magnify those experiences to encountering the glory of God.

How would one even begin to find the right words to describe what one had seen?

There would be none accurate enough. They would all fall desperately short. The best we can ever do to describe the Mystery or the Ineffable is through metaphor. There are no words to fully comprehend  the Word, which is the beginning and end of all things.

Thankfully, I don't have to be silent about the transfiguration Christ has caused in my own spiritual life. His transfiguration led to the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension that caused my own transformation from life to death, darkness to light. It was in him and through him and by him, as Paul writes in the book of Romans.

Christ's transfiguration causes our transformation because we begin to see, for the first time, his true glory. His transfiguration should lead to our adoration. Worship should always be our response to Jesus.

The Greek word for Christ's transfiguration is the same one the Apostle Paul used to describe our own in Romans 12:2.

As I read this passage in Luke, I found myself asking, "How can we not be changed when we, like those three disciples, come into contact with the Divine Mystery for ourselves?"

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Prayer For Monday

"My Lord and my God, take from me
everything that distances me from you.
My Lord and my God, give me
everything that brings me closer to you.
My Lord and my God, detach me
from myself to give my all to you."

- Nicholas of Flue

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

This Holy, Precious Life

While heading down a back road, I found my breath taken away by the sight of a red-tailed hawk swooping before me and then rising instantly back into the air. It was a glorious sight that truly made me grateful that I was there to witness it. How much of life is about being present?

Isaiah 6:3 announces, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth was filled with his glory!" How many of us read that verse and pay scant attention that it is the "whole earth" that's filled with his glory? How many of us take little notice of this truth in the world around us? We should not need the chorus of the seraphims to remind us of the beauty and grace that touches everything in creation.

Do we, like children, still delight in finding a frog?

Or splash in puddles from the rain?

Do we live lives of love, joy and great laughter? Are our hearts filled with hymn like song when gaze out over the mountains?

Or how about when we look upon a iris in full bloom? In the smile of a stranger? In the voice of a child singing quietly in another room as they play?

Does the love of God glimmer in us like sunlight on the waters? It should and those around us would notice the delight in the dance of our days as we understand that the movement of grace flows through us and upon us. Unlike so many, as believers, we should grasp the wild expansion of God's compassion in the very landscape around us. Because we understand the gift of this creative act, we should be able to hold such beauty within us as no one else can. The whole earth is filled with his glory because it is a composition of the infinite, it provides us with a suggestion of what is to come. Unlike so many others, our exploration is filled with fixed intention because we know that the cosmos and all contained within it rest within the Divine Mystery. 

Time is precious because it is finite on this side of the veil. It is a gift no less because of its finiteness. All of the delicateness and artistry of this world are here, not by the mere chance of a cosmic accident, but as an expression of tremendous love. Everything (from the rivers and oceans, to mountains and forests, to each and every person we come across in our days) are the expressions of a God who, in this very act of speaking us into existence, is a reminder that God loves us.  

Sometimes it can be so much easier to remember that when we are walking through the woods than when we are walking through a busy store or in morning traffic. Yet those around us are no less wondrous than the very trees and creatures we find in nature. All are varied expressions of a Creator who declares each one, "Good." I think a part of fallenness is our inability to see the sacredness of each other. Christ reminded us of this when the Word became flesh. He became one of us to cause us to remember, "The kingdom of God is within you and among you." Is not the wrinkled hand of an elderly person not as dear and precious and beautiful as the exquisite golden and red leaves that emblazon our trees in Autumn?  

Why then do we not tremble in awe at the majesty of the moment? Or be overwhelmed with gratitude?

Why are we so oft to forget the blessedness of this second with each breath and beating of our hearts?

Do we too often miss the holy in the quotidian moments of our busy days? Do we not comprehend the sublime in the smell of freshly baked bread? Or in clean sheets on our newly made beds? In the embrace of a friend? These are all consecrated moments that reveal the very nature of our God. as the Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, "Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy." How many of us forget that? I know I need to be frequently reminded, if by the dive and dance of a red-tailed hawk in flight or one of my sons taking my hand as we walk at night.  In those reminders, God speaks, "Be filled with wonder. Give yourself to delight. Love and joy should penetrate you until it comes bursting out. Discover amazement and hear the song contained in each sunrise and sunset. Be aware that all of this is precious. And, when you have, simply offer up your thanks."

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Meditation For Monday

“Late have I loved you, O Beauty, so ancient and so new, late have I loved you. For behold you were within me, and I outside; and I sought you outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things which you have made. You were with me, and I was not with you. I was kept from you by those things, yet had they not been in you, they would not have been at all. You called and cried to me to break open my deafness and you sent forth your beams and you shone upon me and chased away my blindness. You breathed fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and now do pant for you.”
- Saint Augustine, City of God

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


Red Vineyard by Van Gogh

I find rootedness when I read the book of Psalms. I read one every day and when I come to the last, I start over. It's the only book of the Bible that I do that with, where it is a constant in my every day life. There is such a richness and depth to the Psalms that they are continually opening up new meanings and further expands my understanding of God and my relationship to Him. 

This morning, as I had my cup of coffee (I agree with Dorothy Day, who commented, "My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the psalms."), I opened the book of Psalms to 130. What struck me as I read this Psalm, which I have read and reread more times than I can remember, the seventh verse stood out to me as I came across these words, "For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption." It was the word plentiful that grabbed me and my mind immediately pictured a bountiful harvest. I could envision workers in the fields gathering the crops and how their baskets were overflowing. 

In Hebrew the word for plentiful is nedabah, which means freely, willingly. This is connected to a voluntary and freewill offering. 

God's redemption is plentiful. It's freely given. It is abundant, generous, and bountiful. 

What a glorious image to have of redemption.

The Hebrew word for redemption is gaal. This is to redeem or to act as kinsman, as seen with Boaz in the story of Ruth.  In biblical times, one could redeem a person from bondage or a field (as noted in Leviticus or, again, in the book of Ruth). Plentiful means that there are many and various ways that God can deliver us, according to His compassion and loving kindness. All of this is a gracious act on His part and not our own. I know, from my own life, how there have been so many times when it was God, like the Father in the parable of the prodigal, who ran to me. He pursued me even when I did not seek Him or even when I tried to flee from His loving kindness. That's why the Psalmist writes, " . . . even if I make my bed in the depths, You are there" (139:8). When I abandoned God, He, thankfully and mercifully, did not abandon me.

Yet in our daily lives, how many of us lose sight of this plentiful redemption? I do. Frequently. I forget to reframe my perspective that I'm living in a world redefined by Christ's magnificent redemption of it.  By his entering our history, he completely changed our theology in a way that it should impact both our biography and how we see our geography.

Consider this, despite God's sovereignty, He offered, not imposed, redemption. He offered salvation and not domination. By Christ remaining on the cross, he offered us a messiah and not a dictator (as there would be no choice if he had have gotten down).  Unlike Caesar, King Herod and even Caiaphas, Jesus was not a ruler by oppression and imposition, but through transformation and recreation. In him and by him all things are made new.

The Bible begins with creation but its focus quickly shifts entirely to redemption and salvation. As Eugene Peterson writes of God's redemptive power in parting the Red Sea, "At the very outset, we are meant to understand that salvation is not limited by conditions, by impossibilities, by conventions."  Certainly incarnation defies conventions. God leaves kairos (infinity or His time) and enters chronos (our time). Through incarnation (the Word becomes flesh) comes resurrection and redemption. It defies our conditions and conventions that a kinsman redeemer does so through suffering and the cross. Yet once we grasp the comprehensiveness of this act, we begin to see all of our live through a cruciform lens. For the Christian, ever day is Easter. We should go about our days in the wonder of resurrection and transformation.

Over and over again, and in how many ways and over how many times, does the Creator of the universe come to us to redeem us from whatever we have chosen over Him? From stagnation to a life lived more abundantly because it's lived in Him.  

Even when I have not been loving, He still loves me because He is love. As Ephesians 1:7 reminds us, "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace." Once again "riches of His grace" or "plentiful redemption." We are reminded again and again and again throughout scripture that it is His love, His grace, His redemption that saves us.  And we don't just experience that once, but throughout our lives. Is it any wonder this is called the gospel or good news? 

The Harvest by Camille Pissarro

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Value Not Devalue Of Women

To objectify women is to pervert the sacredness that they are created in the image of God (Imago Dei). To silence them is to devalue part of His voice. 

We live in a world where 35% of women reported that they have experienced sexual or physical abuse by either a partner or non-partner. That is only the reported cases. According to the Center for Disease Control, one in every four women experience some form of abuse at the hands of "an intimate partner."  

In a study done by The Christian Post they found that:

65% of pastors had spoken one or fewer times about domestic and
sexual violence, with 22% indicating they addressed it annually, while
33% mentioned it "rarely." 10% of pastors said they had never taught on it.

According to the Department of Justice, one quarter of women were raped or physically assaulted by their spouse, the partner they were living with, or a boyfriend. 

Every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted. 

So why is this issue not being addressed in our churches?

Part of the problem is that when churches are so focused on teaching submission of women and the headship of men, it can often lead to abuse,. In fact, studies have shown that one in every four Christian marriages have had at least one episode of physical abuse. 

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists report that 3 to 4 million women are beaten in their own homes every year. According to the Department of Justice, approximately 2,000 women are murdered by an intimate partner each year.

Now we have a Presidential candidate who speaks of women in a way that encourages a rape culture. Many are dismissing his words as "boys will be boys" or "locker room talk." Luke 6:45 warns us that, "From the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." So why are so many conservative Evangelical leaders still supporting this candidate? It should come as no surprise, since they do not value women in their churches. They do not believe that women should be leaders or have position of any authority in their churches. The voice of their daughters are not worthy as their sons and, unfortunately, they are posing this as how God designed the Church and marriage to be. 

Yet if we go back to Genesis, we see that both man and woman were made in the image of God. So why then has so many made woman inferior or less than? Genesis tells us that God created woman to be a "helper" to man. The Hebrew word is ezer, which means "rescue," "power" and "strength," It means coming to the aid of. So Genesis 2:18 can then be translated as "I will make a power (or strength) for man."It stresses equality, not inequality. 

Throughout the Old Testament we see women in roles of authority rather as prophetess and leaders in Jewish society: Deborah, Esther, Hannah, Huldah, Miriam, Rachel, Rebekah, Rahab, Ruth and Sarah. The 10 Commandments even tell children to "honor" both father and mother.

By the time we come to the New Testament, the culture demeaned and devalued women. They suffered under restrictions that limited their role in society and gave them no power, often treated as inferior and no better than slaves. In the Temple they were allowed to observe but never participate in worship. A woman had to walk six paces behind her husband. Then along comes Christ. Throughout his ministry, we see the importance of women. Unlike the men of his day, Jesus exalted the role of women. At the beginning of Luke 8, we are given a portrait of how they were instrumental in his being able to proclaim the kingdom of God because women like Joanna and Susanna provided financial support. 

In the New Testament, we find women most often those who understand the teachings of Christ and are most outspoken in their proclaiming him as the Messiah. The first to do so was the Samaritan woman at the well. Not only is this the longest conversation recorded that Christ had with anyone, but she was also the first to go forth and proclaim the truth of who he was. More often it was women who saw the worth of Jesus as Messiah while the men, especially his disciples, argued over their own worth and place in the kingdom of God. Is it any wonder then that when Mary pours the expensive ointment in worship of Christ, the disciples become angry with her. Yet Jesus asks them, as he continues to ask us, "Why do you trouble the woman?" (Afterall, she's the one getting it right).

At the cross, it was mainly the women who were present and did not abandon Christ. 

After his resurrection, it was to Mary Magdalene that Jesus first appeared.  Mary Magdalene was mentioned throughout the life and ministry of Jesus and is the one to tell the disciples (fearfully hiding in seclusion) that Christ was alive; yet, later in the history of the Church, her role would not only be downplayed by the Church Fathers during the Middle Ages, they would also demean her by calling her a "prostitute" and a "promiscuous woman" something that was never mentioned once in any of the New Testament gospels. In fact, biblical scholars believe that she was most likely an older woman. 

In the early movement of the Church, women played a dominant role. The majority of early Christians were women, as is often the case in churches today. More women in the upper echelons of society converted to Christianity while men remained pagans. Because of their zeal for the faith, women would go on to impact the society outside of the Church. One example was Fabiola, who founded the first Christian hospital in Europe. More women studied theology with Jerome (who translated the Bible into Latin) than men. Saint Augustine would later declare that women were wiser in spiritual matters than the modern philosophers. During the Second Century, Clement of Alexandria wrote of how the apostles were accompanied by women missionaries, who would go and witness to women so that no scandals would be aroused. 

In his letter to Timothy, Paul even speaks of women deacons of the church. One of note was Junia, who was "of note among the apostles" and Phoebe, who was a "deacon of the church at Cenchreae" (Romans 16). The four daughters of Philip are mentioned as prophetesses. Another was Ammia, who worked throughout Asia Minor. 

Clearly these were not "silent" women in the Church but actively declaring the truth of the faith.

When we in the Church do not value women we devalue God: His handiwork and His image. The history of the Church is full of these women of valor, who were as vital to the spread of the gospel as any male apostle or prophet. Jesus clearly valued them in his own ministry. He included them and spoke to them openly (something not done in that culture). He did not keep women at arm's length, nor did he silence them, even when they questioned him (like the woman who reminded him, "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master's table" in Matthew 15 and is the start of the gospel going beyond just his Jewish audience). 

The Church must see women not as subservient or lesser than. God did not create them to be so we have no right to try to recreate them not in His image, but the one we have of them. Nor should we allow for society to treat them as unequal. Gender equality should not be issues of debate but simply a given fact, and the Church should be at the front, calling for it to be so. The voices of our daughters should be no less than the voices of our sons.  

Nor should those within the Church allow for "locker room" talk to be treated lightly or as something boyish because it's not. In a pornography driven culture that uses sex to sell even something as trivial as a hamburger, the Church needs to stand up and say, "No, these are our sisters in Christ." When vulgar men view women as only objects, as parts of their anatomy for sexual pleasure, the Church needs to admonish and correct this by presenting the strength and power that women have had throughout history of both the Church and the world. These are women of honor, integrity and intelligence. I raise my sons to edify women, not objectify them as our culture too often does. 

Too often the Protestant Church has criticized the Catholic Church for the emphasis it has placed on the Virgin Mary, but maybe we've gotten it wrong. Maybe the problem we need to face is that we don't value women enough. Instead of silencing women, we need to listen and heed them because they might teach us what we have so far failed to grasp: that our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters bring their own insights to the table. They have perspectives that we do not see and could broaden our own. Certainly my own has been from the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila to Therese of Liseux to more modern writers like Madeleine L'Engle, Kathleen Norris, Ann Voskamp, Jen Hatmaker, Anne Lamott, Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans (just to name a few).

How much can the Church impact the world if we truly begin to listen to them and what they have to say instead of dismissing, rejecting or silencing them?  If Jesus listened, how then can we not?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Humbling Lesson Of Humility

Two Peasants Digging After Millet by Vincent van Gogh

The German poet Goethe once wrote, “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” Wise words that I often use in both parenting and my interaction with others. 

Years ago, to earn extra money, I took on a part-time job cleaning an office building. I worked at night, after most of those who worked there had gone home. I would vacuum, empty trash cans, clean the bathrooms and the break rooms. Usually it was very quiet and, being a solitary person, I had time to be with nothing more than my thoughts and the silence that was only broken by my own work. Sometimes I would come across someone working late. Most were genial and would greet me, but there was one man who did not see me; he only saw a menial worker. Doing the job that I was, he made assumptions about who I was, how much education I did or did not have, and, if he spoke to me at all, it was in a demeaning way. He would push the trash can towards me with his foot. Unlike others I had met in this building, this man never asked my name, or how I was doing or made even the slightest attempts at civil small talk. There was a part of me, deep down, that wanted to get up in his face and say, "You don't know me. You don't know anything about me," and then tell him about the two degrees I had earned, the education I had, reference works of great literature and philosophy and, basically, school him on not making assumptions about those who work at jobs he considers beneath him. But I didn't. Part of the reason came from having been around people who feel the need to give you their curriculum vitae. This happened to me when I was just out of graduate school and working at Barnes and Noble.

This particular Barnes and Noble was just outside of Chapel Hill. We had a lot of students and professors who shopped our store from both Carolina and Duke Universities. One night, as I'm shelving some books, an older man in suit comes right up to me, indignant about the fact that our bookstore only carried two of a book of literary theory. When I politely explained that two was more than we normally carried of a book of literary theory because they did not sell large quantities (in fact it was the least visited part of the store - along with poetry and philosophy, sadly). He then informed me that he had written this book and I feigned being impressed. This man then told me his name and asked if I had ever heard of him. Now, I had a degree in English and one in Communications. I read widely and of diverse subjects and interests, but I had not heard of this man. When I said that I hadn't, he then began to rattled off his entire list of accomplishments (books he'd published, awards he'd won, etcetera). He was offended that I had never heard of him and he proclaimed me, "Ignorant and needing a decent liberal arts education." as well as letting me know he would never set foot in this inferior bookstore ever again. For that last part I was eternally grateful. After he stormed out of the store, I just stood there feeling sorry for him. He was, indeed, a man of some accomplishment and renown (years later I would see him being interviewed by Charlie Rose), but none of that matter in the face of someone who did not recognize him. He based his worth not on his accomplishments or achievements, but on his being noticed by others for them. 

Ego and pride are something we all struggle with. We all deeply want recognition and to be seen. We don't like to think that who we are and what we do doesn't matter. I was definitely struggling with that in dealing with this man working late as I had to take the trash out of his office while he thought I was beneath him. It was humiliating. Part of the humiliation was that I wasn't doing what I had always dreamed I would do, that all of the people who had told me over the years that I would become rich and famous because of my art and my writing would be surprised to see me cleaning offices. 

Night after night, as I cleaned, I hoped that this man would not be working late, that I wouldn't have to see him again, and I dreaded as I worked my way from the top floor to the bottom where his office was on the very last hall I had to clean. Making myself miserable, I felt compelled to pray. Not for myself or for that man not to be there, but for him. I didn't know him or his life or really anything other than his rudeness. So I prayed. 

Sometimes our prayers don't quite work the way we had hoped. The more I prayed for this man, the worse he got. One night he stopped me and decided to show who he was by what he had and what he made. I have met many like him, who want to raise themselves up by what they own, how much they make, where they live, and of what they can buy. He bragged about his success in a way that reminded me of Alec Baldwin's character in Glengarry Glen Ross as he tells those beneath him that the expensive watch he wears and the expensive car is who he is. Just as I had with that professor, I felt not jealousy or envy but sadness. Why did he feel the need to put me in my place? I listened quietly until he finished and then went back to cleaning. Instead of pushing the trash can near me for me to get it, he knocked it over. Trash spilled onto the carpet. He waited and watched to see how I would react. Everything in me wanted to lash out at him, put him in his smug, self-centered place. I wanted to tell him off and storm out. But I didn't. I simply gathered up the trash and took it out. 

That night, on the way home, I was hurt and angry. My wounded ego and pride spoke loudly and I felt humiliated and stupid and worthless. As I fumed in my anger, an image came to mind. A vivid one of Christ, kneeling before his disciples to wash their feet. Humbling himself to clean off the dust and muck and filth that had gathered on them. The son of God, the creator of all things, washing the feet of his creation. I think of the line in Philippians 2:7 that said, " . . . but he emptied himself, taking on the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men." 

Bondservant comes from the Greek word duolos, which means slave who is entirely at the disposal of his master. In Roman times, a bondservant could mean a slave who voluntarily served others. And that's just what Christ was. He left the kingdom of heaven to become lowly and of little status in a backwater town in Nazareth in Galilee. 

I was silenced. 

After that, I prayed that my attitude towards this businessman would change. I was learning the hard, difficult lesson of Philippians 2:3, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves."

If I'm honest, if I had been a disciple, I would have been one of the ones arguing over who would be the greatest and sit at the right hand in the kingdom. It is sinfully natural to want to exalt oneself.  We all want to proclaim, "Look at me! Look at what I've done!" Like children on the playground trying to get the attention of their teacher or at home to get their parent to look. We crave acceptance and to be seen. 

When we aren't, it is easy to become bitter or angry. 

But earthly glory has no kingdom worth. Accolades, awards, accomplishments mean nothing ultimately. It's nice to be recognized, but, as Mother Teresa once said, "If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are." I would add to that, "And whose you are."

I would love to write that there was a change in that man, that somehow he found out the truth about me and remorsefully approached me and apologized, but he never did. While he did not change, I did.

What he taught me, however, was to see others. Those in the lowliest positions. Those who clean bathrooms or sweep parking lots or do any of the  numerous jobs most of us would balk at doing. Back when Wal-Mart had greeters, I would speak to them whenever they greeted me. This stunned most of them, who were used to going unseen and unspoken to. 

Christ calls us not to rise, but to descend. We are to be not with the proud and the arrogant, but with the humble, the lowly, the forgotten and neglected. When we don't consider ourselves better than others, we are free to truly love others. We are not judging them or ourselves by others' standards, but are open to being present with another, to seeing them as they are, hearing what they have to say, and loving openly and without condition. This is what Christ did and what he's called us, as his followers, to do. 

Two Hands by Vincent Van Gogh