Monthly Archives: April 2014

When Hurting Helps

Guest post by: Rosten Callarman

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Voice of Justice

I found out recently that a junior high girl from my neighborhood got beaten so badly by two boys that her optic nerve was nearly severed – and it happened in the middle of class. There are a thousand things we could say about this, and we could discuss the bureaucracy, the teacher’s hands being legally tied, broken homes and broken systems for years and never get anywhere. That is not what I want to focus on today.

I’m of a personality that generally struggles to have hope in the world. There are moments of light in my life – I see my friends and I see strangers exhibiting random acts of kindness, and in those times I remember hope, but then something like this happens and I find myself lost in this dark world again. How can such a thing be? Intellectually, I can reason about it all, but in my heart, none of it makes sense. I experience cognitive dissonance. I lie awake at night thinking of the sweet girl whom I have known for years now and whom I have watched slowly lose hope as darkness has visited her time and time again to steal her life away. She is so young, and already she has gone through more than people know and more than any human being should ever have to suffer.

We could speak of ways the system needs to change; we could speak of proper parenting techniques; we could speak of how politicians and administrators should help; we could speak of how the girl was sassy. We could speak of a million things and still end up in the same dark hole. We can intellectualize all day without once acknowledging what I believe to be the most important thing for us to recognize:

A human being has suffered needlessly and brutally, and this should not happen.

I know – of all people, I know – that the world is not perfect, and people are not perfect, and systems are not perfect. It’s easy to say, “Shit happens.” It’s easy to logically explain why such injustice occurs. It is not so easy to face the fact that there seems to be so little we can do. I am someone who values logic, perhaps sometimes to a fault, but tonight I could not value logic in the same way. Tonight all I could think was that this is not right; this must not be; this must not happen again.

So much happens in our world that we end up casually dismissing because there is little or nothing we can do about it, but this is something we cannot dismiss. So much happens in our world that is drama and entertainment, but this is the real pain and the real suffering of a real girl, and this we cannot laugh off or push aside. There is nothing I can do to change the fact that this happened, and it seems that there is precious little any of us can do to prevent such tragedy from happening again, but what we can do is speak. This is the time to speak. Christian, Hindu, Atheist, Muslim, Jewish – it matters not – all are people and can empathize with the suffering of a fellow human being for we all experience suffering in one way or another. But tonight I am reminded of words that to me with my background are familiar:

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless; plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:17)

Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. (Psalm 82:3)

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

I won’t say any of us, regardless of religious, political, and other views are any good at this because as a whole we’re not. What I will say is that whatever your background is and whatever your beliefs are, I hope you will consider these words tonight, and I hope you will mourn with me for the injustice that has happened. I hope that you will speak up, or at the very least I hope that you will add your tears to the ones I have shed tonight. I hope that when we witness injustice, we will never be silent again.

Vulnerability

By: Laura Callarman

I know a very wise man who often says that “the pathway to intimacy is mutual self-disclosure.” Over the years I’ve scoffed at this idea and rebelled against it in a variety of ways—largely because (often subconsciously) I didn’t always want to take the risks necessary to gain intimacy. But in the end I’ve come to believe so fully that he’s right. The pathway to intimacy is mutual self-disclosure… Or to say it my own words, in a way that perhaps fits the context of what I’ll say here a little better, I believe that it is vulnerability that sustains us.

Vulnerability is the foundation for intimacy, for relationship, for community, and for growth—whether that’s with God, with others, as the church, or even just within ourselves. I’ve seen this at work over and over again in various contexts in my life, and I’m guessing you have too. My relationship with God is only as strong as I’ll allow it to be by opening myself up—the good, the bad, and the ugly—to God’s healing power. My relationships with my husband and my family thrive when I show my true self and wither when I don’t or am not invited to. Yes, it’s clear to me that vulnerability—particularly vulnerability well received—is at the core of what it means to be healthily human.

We see that all throughout Scripture. “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” (2 Corinthians 4) “My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4) A father welcomes home his wandering son. A shepherd searches for his lost sheep. The body gives honor to its weakest parts. We rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn…

And yet too often we live in a different reality, one in which we avoid acknowledging our weakness or sharing our true selves. Too often our relationships are shallow, skimming only the surface of what’s going on in our lives. The standard and expected response to “Hey, how’s it going?” is quite simply, quite blandly, “Fine. How are you?” “What’s up in your life?” “Oh, not much. You?” If our marriages are struggling, our relationships with our kids or our parents are empty, and our churches are places of rote religiosity, it’s because we’re not connecting at the heart level. If those relationships are flourishing, if true community is being strengthened wherever we find ourselves, it’s because we know each other—deeply.

And knowing each other deeply comes from a willingness to be known deeply. It’s this mutual self-disclosure thing. That’s how it works. I can’t demand vulnerability from you, ever. Period. Demanding is not the way to go. But I certainly can’t even reasonably hope for you to be vulnerable with me if I’m not willing to show vulnerability myself. And that’s scary. Because I know who I am. I know my own failures and faults and sins, and I want to keep those hidden. Sure, people say they like me, even say that they love me, but if they knew what I know, they’d turn their backs and run. How many of you have ever thought that? If my church knew that my marriage is falling apart… If my friends knew that I’m an addict… If my professors or my students knew how much of a fake I feel like right now… If I actually told God about my doubts… If… If… If… Fill in the blank. So many things that I want to keep hidden because it feels safer. So I don’t open myself up, and you don’t open yourself up, and we wonder why our relationships feel so anemic.

Somehow, if we’re going to be the people that God has called us to be, the cycle’s got to change. We can’t have true community without it, and without true community our faith will suffer.

So one part of this cycle changing is obviously each of us deciding to be courageous with our vulnerability and open ourselves up to others. Another part, perhaps a little less obvious, is each of us deciding to receive vulnerability well, with tenderness and love rather than dismissiveness, judgment, or fear. Recently my own church has identified some of the strengths of our community, and perhaps most significant among them was that we are safe people for one another. We invite vulnerability by displaying it and by honoring it. We protect and serve one another’s weaknesses rather than preying upon them. And because this is the environment we cultivate, it makes it much easier for us to share our vulnerability, thus drawing us into closer relationship.

Take a few minutes to do some reflection with me. Close your eyes, if you’re willing, and think of a time when you felt appreciation for how someone received your vulnerability in a way that was more protective than predatorial, when they showed God-like tenderness to your weakness… Relive that moment. Experience it as you did then, and I’ll have a few questions for you as you do…

What did you feel at the time? What were your emotions? … What did this person do well in receiving your vulnerability? … What did you do well in sharing it? … How did the experience affect your relationship?

I would guess that if we were to share those experiences we’d find some common denominators among us, one of them being that vulnerability being received well brings joy. It brings joy by strengthening the bonds of relationships, by helping us recognize that we belong, that we are loved, that we matter.

And you do belong, you are loved, and you do matter. In case you’re interested in some further personal reflection on vulnerability as something that can sustain us, I have a few more questions for you to contemplate. Close your eyes again, and think and feel through these things with me.

Where or how do you feel most vulnerable right now?

Who are you sharing your vulnerability with? Is the response one of love and tenderness?

Is vulnerability part of your most significant relationships? Your church? Why or why not? How could you encourage it?

What opportunities do you have to build community and strengthen faith by sharing your own vulnerability and thus inviting others to do so as well?

What might God desire for you as some next steps into healthy vulnerability?

Think of these things as an invitation, not a requirement. They are an invitation to intimacy that is challenging, without a doubt, but so beautiful and so sustaining that you’ll wonder how you and your faith ever survived without it.

Churches of 2 to 2000

By: Janet Mendenhall

The church and I go way back. On the day I was born, my mother was sitting in Bible class when her water broke.  She was a very young preacher’s wife; they were in their first church at the time.  A fellow class member drove my mother home where she called the doctor and waited until my father finished teaching his class and preaching his sermon. Then they headed to the hospital and I was born that evening.

My father preached in six congregations over the next 12 years in varying sizes and locations. He then preached off and on in nearby small towns throughout the rest of my time at home.  I cleaned church buildings, sniffed the mimeograph fluid as I folded church bulletins, played church, rode Joy Buses, attended week-long gospel meetings, and visited hospitals and nursing homes. I know about church. I know the good, the bad and the ugly.

The church is the collection of the hearts of people committed to joining God in his mission of reconciling the world. And there are a myriad of expressions of the church: the traditional institutional church, less traditional institutional churches meeting in a variety of less formal settings, house churches, and other emerging communities of faith lacking any institutional tie. In each of these, both within the institutional setting and without, are good-hearted people seeking to usher in the Lord’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Compassionate, loving hearts looking for the best ways to be kingdom bringers. I have been blessed to be closely affiliated with folks choosing to express their faith in a variety of ways, from churches of 2 to 2,000, who have challenged me to open my heart and mind. I am hopeful for each of these groups to join hands and hearts to challenge and encourage one another as one body.  We have much to offer one another.

I have heard much talk lately about the bad and the ugly of the institutional church, without much accompanying talk about the good. And there is much good. Ignoring that good is wrong and paints an incomplete picture of the kingdom. I want to share some typical good stories with you.

This week I will preach for a community of faith that meets weekly as part of the outreach of a big downtown church. This group also comes together for a tasty and filling lunch three times a week. They are a supportive and cohesive group of God’s people, helping each other walk in a difficult world.

A small Baptist church in my neighborhood has purchased an abandoned school building nearby. While the members wait to discern the ways it can be utilized fully, they host activities and events there, warmly welcoming the neighbors to join them. They are especially gifted at welcoming neighborhood children and youths.

I know of a small congregation outside of town that has been gathering as a community of believers for many years.  They are proud of their church and its building. Having a place to come together to meet and worship and commune and share life with one another is important to them. It is ordinary life, but it is sacred as they do it together:  worship services, Bible studies, potlucks, baptisms, weddings and funerals.

Perhaps my favorite expression are the members of local churches who faithfully show up on Sunday mornings and in the middle of the week at area nursing homes to worship and fellowship with the saints who are as best I can tell among the nearest to the margins.  I join them as often as I can.

I have a favorite church-planter friend, whom I often refer to as my hero. He is supported in part by a large church in town. He and his wife recently relocated to a mobile home park on the edge of town and are building community within the park and planting a church in its midst. And they are doing good things and having too much fun and loving their neighbors.

A dear friend of mine pastors a mid-size church that has decided to be intentional about being good neighbors to the community around them. They have worked alongside neighbors to build a beautiful community garden and are actively involved in the life of a nearby elementary school.

A tiny church in my neighborhood is offering a free soup lunch to the neighbors two Saturdays a month. They have taken in a young boy living across the street who wandered over one day and found himself in acolyte training from a sweet elderly gentleman who knew it was important to make this young man feel a part of things.

Church looks different than it did that Sunday over fifty years ago when I was born. New expressions of church are everywhere. I think that is a good thing. Many of those committed to the institutional church are seeking ways to better connect with people.  Many of those disillusioned with the institutional church are seeking ways to better connect with people.   More people better connected to one another and their Creator. I KNOW that is a good thing.

Time to Sow

By: Steve Holt Sr.

What time is it, anyway?

To everything there is a season
And a time for every purpose under heaven.
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep.

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.  Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.  Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true.  I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (John 4)

 (Jesus) also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4)

Contrary to the passage from John 4 above, it appears we are not in the “time” of harvesting.  Such may have been true for the time Jesus said it, but it is true no longer.  The world is fragmented and pluralistic.  No one position holds much, if any, persuasive power with all the other positions.  I think Christianity is largely, though not exclusively, responsible for this.  Since before Jesus ascended, Christians seem to have been more eager to harvest than to sow.  We didn’t cultivate the land.  We didn’t hoe.  We didn’t water.  We just went out there with our machetes and began chopping at the plant even if there was nothing to harvest.  We weren’t careful with the sensitive seedlings; we just hacked away.  We didn’t invest much in the crop; we just wanted the fruit.  We made “Christians” out of pagans who didn’t have a clue about what faith was all about.  We forced people to see our point of view.  We wielded scripture like we would a sword, swinging away and believing that hearts would certainly accept our point of view and fall in line.

We believers haven’t loved much through the millennia.  We haven’t tried to see others’ points of view.  We haven’t accepted people where they are.  We’ve condemned those who wouldn’t go along.  We thought “shaking the dust off” meant having nothing to do with an infidel, so we kept to ourselves, isolated behind our church doors.  We simply skipped over the sowing and watering stage and went right to harvesting.  I think that’s where we still are.  That’s perhaps why we just throw out scripture willie-nillie (or is it willy-nilly?) thinking the world is going to suddenly say, “Oh yeah, now I get it.  So, that’s what that means.”  And when they don’t, we condemn the whole lot.  Friends, the grain is not ripe…stop trying to harvest it!

Harvesting puts you in one camp or the other.  When you attempt to persuade another to accept your point of view, you must expose your hand.  And today when you reveal where you are in regards to any issue, you are labeled and set aside by everyone in the opposing camp.  The lines are drawn, the armies are gathered, and very little persuasion takes place.  Deadlock becomes the rule.  In vain, we keep trying to reap what we have not worked for.

Love is how you sow.  It’s the only way.  It’s the “hard work” from the passage above.  Love is the only universal language, the only universal religion.  When done like Jesus, it’s the only thing that will get the attention of the world.  Christians are called to reach out to those who are farthest from us with love…not scripture, not sermons.  Book, chapter and verse might be useful during the harvesting stage, but not when sowing.  We must get off our soap boxes and get in the trenches with the rest of the world.  We’ve got to admit our own sinfulness and view all others as fellow sinners who have as much to teach us as we might have to teach them.

The sad truth is that the Bible means absolutely nothing to most people on Earth.  We are FAR, FAR away from having the right to quote scripture to this world.  Christianity is viewed by most people as empty and impotent.  We are a LONG, LONG way from presenting Christianity or “church” as a viable option for most people in the world.  What can change that—slowly, imperceptibly—is true, deep, unconditional Jesus-like love.  Love will outlive us, if sown sincerely and consistently.

So, Christians can continue to throw out scripture, call people names, label and condemn, but we will continue to reap the same results…bitterness, anger, isolation and fragmentation.  That’s insanity.  And the Kingdom cause will suffer.