21 September 2018

Meditations for Winter


Lately I've been thinking a bit about how often I hear Christians say, "You can't live the Christian life in your own strength," and then they proceed to give you advice on how to do exactly that. Somehow -- don't ask me how -- this phenomenon has become immune to being questioned. We're supposed to accept statements like these uncritically; if we don't, it's just evidence of our hardness of heart:

"If you don't hear God speaking, it's because you're not listening."

"If God feels far away, it's because you moved away from Him."

"If you want God to use you in great ways, all you have to do is be willing/available."

"If God doesn't seem to be at work in your life, it's because you're sinning, so repent."

"If your prayer life feels frustrating, be more disciplined in the habit."

"If it's not working, you're just not trying hard enough."

Notice what all of the above have in common: they're attempts to "fix" parts of our spiritual lives on our own. If things are going wrong for us, it's either our fault or God's fault, we reason -- and we know it can't be God's fault, so that leaves only one other option. We need to try harder, do better, give more, pray more, serve more, have more faith, fill in the blank...

I tried for a long time to wrap my head around how this is not "living in your own strength" -- until I finally gave up. I didn't just give up because I was too tired to try anymore; I gave up because the evidence for trying was no longer compelling.

I found too many stories in the Bible of people to whom God spoke even when they weren't listening (Abram, Gideon, young Samuel, Elijah, Saul of Tarsus), as well as people who waited for God to speak or intervene in their situation, yet they heard nothing for a long time (Job, Sarah, Hannah). There were stories of people whom God used in a particular way at a particular time for His own reasons -- their willingness or lack thereof didn't have much to do with it (Jacob, Moses, Balaam, Jonah, Lazarus). And there were stories of people who felt forgotten by God even though they weren't living in sin (David, Mary and Martha, John the Baptist, virtually all of the Old Testament prophets).

It seems that some of us are in good company.

And some of us are still persuaded that we can hear God speak or know our life's purpose or have this or that spiritual experience if we just set our mind to it or believe hard enough. "According to your faith be it unto you," we echo the words of Jesus to the blind men in Matthew 9, forgetting that these men were actually standing in front of Jesus Himself at the time, and He had already made up His mind about what He was going to do for them. But it's all the same, we figure -- where there's a will, there's a way.

No matter what, we're in the driver's seat.

I'll venture a guess as to how this happens so easily, and bear in mind this isn't a comprehensive answer. I wonder if our Western -- in this case, American -- culture provides a conducive environment for fostering this way of thinking. The American ethos, after all, contains a healthy dose of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, every-man-for-himself philosophy. In many parts of the world, fate and karma are the values people live by, but not so much in ours. "Reach for the stars" is our rallying cry. If we want it, we'll do it, have it, take it, whatever. America loves underdogs and "rags to riches" stories and people who make great comebacks from terrible circumstances: Even when the deck is stacked against us, we will overcome. We will be victorious. We will find a way.

And I don't think that's a bad thing, per se. Proactivity and innovation and refusing to settle for the status quo are all great qualities. You could argue that that can-do spirit is the very reason for our country's existence. We have done some great things because we believed we could.

But I do wonder if some of it hasn't seeped in to our Christianity and colored the way we approach our spiritual journeys. I wonder if it encourages us to mistakenly identify delay as defeat. Accepting that a situation is outside of our immediate control isn't something we're proud to do.

We criticize the "Name it and claim it" philosophy when it comes to health, wealth, and prosperity, but we apply that same idea to matters of faith. We have quick, tidy answers that don't take into account all the other possible (highly varied and individual) reasons for our frustrations: Maybe prayer isn't working for us anymore, not because we just aren't disciplined enough, but because it's time for a different approach to praying. Maybe God has stopped speaking to us or working with us in the way that we're accustomed to because He's preparing us to experience a different way of relating. Maybe we're sad all the time and the answer isn't that we just need to meditate on Scripture more. Maybe, just maybe, we need a good antidepressant (speaking from experience there).

Sometimes the problem isn't that we need to stop doing "the wrong thing" or start doing "the right thing" in order to turn things around.

Sometimes, we're just waiting on the passage of time.

This is par for the course almost everywhere else in the visible world. Time passing is what happens while we wait for trees to grow new leaves in the spring, for flower petals to unfold, for fruit to ripen, for seeds to mature to the point of readiness. "To everything there is a season", and all that. The point is, we can't force any of these things to happen. Will we cause a tree to grow faster by scolding it or telling it what it should look like at this point in its life? No, there's really nothing we can do but wait. Meanwhile, the sun and the rain and the dividing cells and the microscopic organisms in the soil do their work.

All factors which are out of our sight and completely out of our control.

Note also that growth isn't a once-and-done deal. The tree expands and branches out and yields its fruit and multiplies while the warm season lasts. Winter always comes around again, and the active production of new growth pauses for awhile. It's a time for resting and recouping. This can be a disheartening time for someone who doesn't know or can't remember what spring looks like. Wintertime looks (and feels) a lot like death.

But there's always life underneath, and the tree enters each wintertime a little bigger, a little stronger than it was the last time.

I don't think it's totally unforeseen that "growth" is God's metaphor of choice for how we progress in the Christian life. (I hate to even say "Christian life" because all of life is life, and our relationship to God isn't somehow separate from everything else) We cycle. We have our springs, our summers, our autumns and winters and we take something from each one. "Wintertime" is usually the most feared time of all, because it's almost always the darkest, the coldest, and the least comfortable. It's a time where we aren't actively flourishing and "producing." Not surprisingly, it's a time that tends to invite criticism from ignorant onlookers, who don't see what's going on below the surface. Nevertheless, wintertime is necessary. The summertime wouldn't be what it is if there were no winter.

And God does not hold it against us, the time that we take to grow and process. He doesn't become alarmed during those periods when we don't have much to offer -- just as we don't become alarmed at the shedding of leaves from a tree in anticipation of winter. It's all part of the plan. It takes time.

The idea that we don't control our spiritual growth in the same manner and with the same methods that we use to control our diets or our budgets (hard work, discipline, the "right" mindset, etc.) isn't a popular one. It doesn't preach well. It doesn't sell well. And it doesn't do much to make us feel like we have everything under control.

But it's what we'll always find at the end of ourselves and all our trying -- however we get there, whenever that may be.

08 September 2018

Does Your Umbrella Leak?

How many of you have seen Bill Gothard's infamous "Umbrella of Protection" graphic before?

If you haven't, count yourself lucky. If you have, you're in good company. Either way, I want to offer some of my thoughts on this illustration, since it is so familiar to many of us who come from complementarian church backgrounds.

According to Bill Gothard (who was somewhat of a household name to fundamentalist homeschoolers of the 1970's and beyond), the umbrellas represent layers of "spiritual protection":

God-given authorities can be considered “umbrellas of protection.” By honoring and submitting to authorities, you will receive the privileges of their protection, direction, and accountability. If you resist their instructions and move out from their jurisdictional care, you forfeit your place under their protection and face life’s challenges and temptations on your own. (original emphasis)

I'll grant that "protection, direction, and accountability" are aspects of God's grace that -- more often than not -- come to us indirectly through human means. That fact notwithstanding, I have several issues with Bill Gothard's umbrellas.

For one thing, his picture shows a total lack of understanding, not only of theology, but of how umbrellas work! I mean, how many umbrellas does a person need to shelter them from the rain? One. Who in their right mind uses three of them stacked on top of each other?

You only need one umbrella, people. 

This isn't hard. Even preschoolers know this.

It should go without saying, but if you're using more than one umbrella at a time to protect you from a rain shower, then one or more of them are unnecessary -- or broken -- and need to be scrapped.

Things get interesting when we take this oh-so-elementary knowledge of how umbrellas are supposed work, and apply it here. We're left with this question: Which umbrella is the most important -- the one we couldn't do without? (I hope you'll say "Christ's", because that's the right answer!) Which naturally brings us to our next question:

Why isn't Christ's umbrella big enough to cover everyone -- the husband, the wife, and the children -- without them needing to be (or have) separate umbrellas? Why does God need multiple layers of protection beneath Him? Does His umbrella leak? What is the husband protecting his wife from that Christ alone is unable or unwilling to? The implications of the answers to any of these questions are scary, to say the least.

In fact, it almost looks like the husband is protecting the wife from God, and the wife is protecting the children from the husband, which makes for a pretty dysfunctional family dynamic if you look at it that way.

Worst of all, though, is the fact that the wife is separated -- by her husband -- from direct access to God. God's protection and provision for her is mediated through a man, who is (obviously) a fallible human being. Meanwhile, the benefits the husband receives from God come directly from God Himself. It's sort of like Moses speaking to God on behalf of the Israelites -- except, that system of relating to God was supposed to be dispensed with after Jesus died on the cross (the book of Hebrews is my recommended reading material on that topic).

Funny, isn't it, that some of us believe God would tear through the veil of the temple so we could have access to all that He offers us, meanwhile leaving intact "umbrellas" between us and Himself. There's something kinda wrong with that idea, I think.

And yet I still believed it for a long, long time. By the time I got married, I'd thoroughly internalized the "umbrella hierarchy" and all that it implied. It was precisely this thought -- the thought of someone else standing between me in my relationship to God -- that nearly destroyed me in the first year of my marriage. Coming to a realization on these points is ultimately what started me down the path to egalitarianism:

If being married means Christ can no longer protect me and provide for me Himself, then I would have been better off never getting married. 

If being married places a barrier between God and myself, then I am better off single.

And we're not even delving into how misguided and damaging is the assumption that "protecting and providing" are only (or primarily) the husband's responsibility, or that caring for children and "managing the home" is only (or primarily) the wife's responsibility. That's a whole 'nother ball of wax right there!

Having said all of this, I don't believe it's enough merely to point out problems with the "bad" model of authority. We need to replace it with a visual of a better one. Thankfully, someone has already done this for us (I don't know who the artist is, or I'd credit them):


Notice that there's only one umbrella, and it belongs (as it should) to Jesus.

Male and female leaders stand side by side as equals, both fully covered by Jesus and neither depending on the other for what He alone provides.

Note as well that the children stand alongside the adults, not underneath them. God's protection and blessing covers them as well as their parents.

Now, if anyone ever tells you you need "the umbrella of protection", you know which one to take with you!