A Hell of a Tone of Voice (Some thoughts on how we talk about what happens after we die)

A while back, I was asked to participate in a panel answering questions about heaven and hell. The group had spent a couple weeks in a series looking at what Scripture says about what happens after we die. They were asking questions about heaven and the various ways people have understood “hell”: is hell eternal conscious torment? Is it annihilation—a case where we are, and then simply are not any more? Is there a case to be made for Christian Universalism – where after a time of suffering, all souls are restored to God? What about Martin Luther’s idea that death was sleep? Was CS Lewis onto something when the faithful Taarkan (a Muslim-figure) is allowed into Aslan’s eternal Kingdom in The Last Battle (whereas Susan Pevensie, who wore lipstick, was not?And why would a good God allow for a place like hell, anyway?

I had several other teaching commitments that week and so declined the invitation, but even if I hadn’t been busy I possibly would have said no, anyway. My sieve-like memory knows that I studied this stuff  before, but the content is mostly gone. It’s been a long time since I read up on the various theories of eternal punishment, and I would have had to brush the dust off some of my theology books and do some serious reading.

But the invitation itself got me thinking: what have I believed about this? And, are there reasons to revisit this topic now? I certainly grew up believing that hell was a place of eternal conscious torment, but some of the Bible scholars and teachers I have learned from don’t agree. And certainly, given how upsetting and offensive the idea of eternal conscious torment is (It’s the ultimate version of “my way or the highway”, isn’t it? Even for people who never got a chance to hear about God’s way…), I resonate with the desire to understand this in a way which reflect God’s goodness and mercy and compassion , which annihilation and christian universalism both seem to allow for.

I was a little surprised to find myself thinking: it doesn’t matter what conclusion I come to on this.  Not really. God-fearing people have come to different conclusions on what the passages referring to Hades and Gehenna and punishment mean, and I don’t know that I can sort it out with a new, independent rigorous study of my own. But what matters more to me is this: the tone of voice we discuss this in. Because even if I’m not sure what Jesus meant by the all the hell talk, I’m sure of this one thing: whatever he meant by it, he considered it VERY important to avoid, and a VERY good reason for people to trust in him instead. It’s better to suffer egregious bodily harm in this life (lose an eye! or a hand!) than to have two eyes and two hands and go to hell. Whatever hell means (and Jesus would know), he warns people to go to ANY LENGTH to avoid it. He went to hell himself to keep us from there. Whatever hell means, he assures us it’s not somewhere we want to be. Weeping and gnashing of teeth sound awful, even if they’re hyperbolic.

So even if it is true that we are annihilated, or we suffer a while and then are reconciled to God (and maybe this is the case, I don’t know), Jesus doesn’t seem to think that those options should be something which, when explained, we should feel we are comfortable with. If anything, one of the ways we might know we’ve come to the right conclusions about hell is that we respond the way Jesus says we should respond: with urgency. with grief. with seriousness.

I remember Dave, one of my campus pastors, teaching a few of us students twenty years ago about how to prepare and teach a small group bible study. We were discussing the passage in 1 Thessalonians about the Lord’s coming, and someone in our group got a little “firestone and brimstone-ish” in his conclusions. Dave commented that even if everything my friend was saying was true, he’d missed an important thing in the passage: 1 Thessalonians was written to comfort believers, not to threaten them. And so, whatever we made of the content of the passage, the tone of our conclusions on the paragraph should be wrapped in the comfort of the letter’s context.

I’ve carried those words with me since: we need to pay attention to the tone of voice of the speaker. I still don’t know what exactly happens after we die: how our spirits and bodies might be separated or joined again at resurrection, how conscious we’ll be, what the first and 2nd resurrections might look like, or what hell is like. But I’m sure about Jesus’ tone of voice on which I want for me, and which one I definitely don’t want for me or anyone else. And that is sobering as hell.

 

Photo credit: free stock photos from Pexels.com

When Church Feels Like Ballet Class (some thoughts on Posture, Strength, Flexibility, and Attitudes)

 

Someone asked me recently when last I was “wowed” by church. I didn’t know what to say, but it made me wonder about the question: should I expect to be “wowed” by church? If not, what should church feel like?

I’ve been wrestling with this for days, and the closest answer I can think of is to say I want church to feel like a ballet class. It’s been a long time since I was in ballet class but this is what I remember from the years I spent in pink tights: there was something profoundly good about group dance classes. I could work on stretching and routines at home, and I could have a hundred dance parties with friends… but ballet class was non-negotiable. We all stood in a row at the barre, and worked through the warm-ups, positions, and attitudes of the discipline together. We would stand tall, and the teacher would remind us to breathe, to look up, and we would move our bodies through first, second, third, fourth, and fifth positions; seeking beauty and strength in every exercise.

The studio had mirrors so we could check our alignment, and work on moving in concert with our class members. The teacher would walk up and down the length of the barre, sometimes moving closer as my feet were extended in point to make a micro correction to the position of my hip, or my ankle. I was always trying as best I could to be in the right position, but the teacher could see little adjustments that needed to be made and it was always surprising to me how a little nudge, a little turn of the foot or angle of the neck could suddenly lengthen an arabesque, or make me feel a stretch in a way that I hadn’t before and which I just knew was right.

I cried as I tried to describe this to my husband as my hope for church. I don’t expect church to be a Master Class with Misty Copeland every week. And I’m not a beginner: I can just imagine how overwhelming, foreign, and downright awkward an adult ballet class must be to someone who hasn’t done it before. But church at its best feels to me like a ballet class: where we gather in community to do things we could have done alone at home, but there’s something so good about stretching and strengthening our souls in a group setting. Singing and sitting under teaching feels to me like a series of barre exercises under an insightful instructor: my spiritual walk mirrored by the practice of those around me; and the words of the songs and preacher are seldom BRAND NEW BIBILICAL REVELATIONS!!!! with brand new coreography…. but they are like the micro-corrections of attitude and posture in life by the Holy Spirit. See how I thought I was extending myself in the right direction? No, the instructor nudges, adjust a little that way. Adjust a little this way. Breathe and make this adjustment. And see? Feel that stretch? I know it is right.

On a good Sunday, I leave church spiritually limber: my body and soul attuned to the rhythms and attitudes of grace. My deepest core has been strengthened, I am more flexible than when I came in, and I am grateful.

I love you, friend, but I don’t want your essential oils (or leggings, or mascara…)

If you’ve been around church women for any length of time, chances are you’ve been invited to some kind of product party: a “no pressure, just-a-bunch-of-girls get together” with food and a presentation of jewelry, essential oils, makeup, leggings, cleaning products, accessories, nutritional supplements, skin care miracles, or (fill in the blank) on display.

Or, you’ve been invited to an online shopping party to buy books or mascara that will Change your Life.

Or, (and this might be my least favorite), you’ve been added to some FB group you did not ask to join and now have live videos appearing in your feed of someone applying their makeup.

Church life, it seems, is a hotspot for business. Multi level marketing (the I-sell-to-you, you-sell-to-your-friends, your-friends-sell-to-their friends model) is a 34 billion dollar a year industry, according to Christianity Today’s feature article on the topic… and a vast proportion of those sales are by and to women, and church ladies are at the forefront of the salesforce. There’s a reason your facebook feed is filled with church contacts selling stuff.

I used to think it was just me who got an icky feeling every time I got one of these party invites. I don’t like shopping at the best of times (I can feel my soul leaching out of me with every step I take deeper into the mall), but I’ve been wrestling for months on what it is about this particular type of shopping that makes me so antsy, and more and more I’m realizing it’s not just me… and getting closer to articulating what it is that bugs me.

So let me start out by acknowledging the good things about this trend. Targeted primarily at women who cannot engage in the workforce full time (because they’re caring for kids or parents) and women who need additional income because they’re in lower-paying jobs (I know multiple teachers and medical assistants who are keep ‘consulting’ businesses on the side for this reason) – these businesses do something wonderful: they acknowledge the talent and leadership potential of women, and give them opportunities to use their gifts in a significant way. The trainers invest time in developing women’s gifts, and they encourage them and build community among their participants.

Let me say from the get-go that I FULLY believe in acknowledging, developing, and encouraging women as able and ready world-changers. The world has come a long way in the last fifty years, but office space and church life still remain places where women sometimes aren’t fully welcomed as adding significant value. These companies SEE the incredible power and potential of women in the pews in a way we could learn from.

I also want to acknowledge that for a handful of women, these stay-at-home businesses have provided significant income opportunities, allowing women to help put their kids through college, or pay off student debt. That’s a wonderful thing. They work hard. I’m thrilled for them. And yet, I know a much bigger number of women who landed up investing more than they earned, and for whom the hours invested and nights away from home hosting parties have yielded very little. So, there’s that.

So why do I feel icky about it? Is it that I loathe the free market so much that I can’t bear to see people sell stuff? Nope, that’s not it. Is it that I am jealous of others’ success? Nope, that’s not it either (I wrestled long and hard about this.) I think, when all is said and done, the unease I feel about this phenomenon is for two main reasons:

First, it muddies the waters of friendship. True friends are one of my chief life lines as I cope with the stresses of this life stage (I wrote about it for Christianity Today this month here, if you’re curious.) Knowing that there are people whose care for me is genuine makes the world of difference, and it feels yucky to doubt overtures of friendship from other Christian women: am I a friend to them? Or just a potential customer they’re being friendly to? When someone who’s never been active on social media all of a sudden becomes highly active, liking all my posts, and posting highly hashtagged pictures of herself “living the dream” after years of never posting a thing…. I smell a rat. If the first time you message me after ten years is to “connect” and ask me about what’s up in my life and oh-just-breezy-sharing that one of the things you’ve been up to is starting this or that business… it doesn’t feel like friendship to me. 

And I hate feeling like a bad Debbie-Downer-Doubting-Thomas mashup about friendship. I think one of the most precious resources we have is our friendships, and I cannot shake the feeling that these billion dollar industries are muscling their way into sacred spaces they have no right being in. Especially when the language of the company is such that purchasing their product is seen as “supporting your friend’s business”. I don’t want a price tag imposed by some third party on how well I support my friend. I don’t want the first time I’m invited to your house to be for a sales/pampering/shopping party… that doesn’t feel like friendship, either. I love and believe in girl’s time, but I don’t want to be on my guard when someone invites me to spend time with them: will I have to resist a sales pitch? do I have to rehearse my awkward excuse? How many polite refusals can a friendship endure?

I feel some real grief for women wanting to build a business in these models: they are gifted and talented and I know they are trying to make an honest living in a way that supports their family… but the relational cost to have to look at a significant part of emotional support base all as potential clients has to be something that weighs heavily on them. It is no small wonder that I see friends engaged in these businesses bonding more and more closely with other women in the same business: new communities beyond the church where no-one has a before/after comparison on how their friendships are now.

My second big concern is this: these companies make us spend our invitations on a product instead of on Jesus. The model for sales is actually eerily evangelistic: consider the way we are encouraged to share our faith..

Be such a great friend, and live such a good and flourishing life among people that they will be drawn to you. Pictures of radiant smiles, testimonies of how your life is different, celebration of community and change all help show this.

Invite others to share in the joy of what you’ve found.

But do so with gentleness and grace.

And if anyone asks you for a reason for your hope, do so with gladness. 

Invite others to join the “family”, and hope that their joy will be contagious, too.

But what’s the source of the joy? My feeling is you can’t say “It’s Jesus. Oh, and also my amazing product,” in the same breath.

The evangelism model above works for the gospel… and remarkably well also for Tupperware, Young Living, Pampered Chef, 31 Bits, Doterra, Arbonne, LulaRoe, YouNique, NorWex, Beach Body, Premier Jewelry, Rodan+Fields, Urborne Books, and fill in the blank. Perhaps I also need to add here that the quality of the products that are being sold is often really great (such cute leggings! and necklaces! And your skin really does glow!) But the question remains: what do people associate with you, when they imagine you completing the sentence, “__________ has made all the difference in my life.”

Often we only get one chance to invite people into our lives, and one chance to share the story of what’s made the difference. My deep concern is that person-to-person sales leverage relationships for the wrong purpose: it uses our opportunities to build relationship in service of a product and not the Person.

I don’t ever want to be a person who has their overtures of friendship met with suspicion. No-one wants to be friends with the person who “just wants to evangelize them”. Whether for God, or their product. I think I have a way to go (we have a way to go, really) in learning how to develop and believe in women. I believe women can lead. I believe there are ways of developing and supporting income-generating projects. But I don’t believe the model we have on offer from companies that make their billions by exploiting my friendship-list is a healthy one. I know a handful of women who manage to walk this line of friendship and business remarkably well (and I should say, most of these are involved in justice-motivated ventures to support entrepreneurial women in developing countries)… but these women are exceptional in more way than one.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to buy your product. But I really, really do want to be your friend.

 

 

 

A story and a prayer about Cake

Once upon a time there was a cake. Some travelers came upon the cake, and being hungry after their long journey, they cut it into even slices and shared it between them. Where they came from, the King ate most of the cake, so this was a real treat. Not long afterwards, some local people arrived and said “hey, who ate our cake?”, and the travelers shrugged: “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” they said.

The travelers liked this land with its good ingredients for cake, and worked very, very hard to make as many cakes as they could. A strong workforce was kidnapped imported to come and make cake. But the workers were not allowed to eat any of the cake. Not at all. Every now and then the workers would try to run away, or complain that they, too, liked cake – but those workers were punished and killed for their insolent cake-wanting ways. Some of the more heroic people who quashed uppity cake-wanting workers even had statues erected in their honor. Freedom, independence and liberty to eat cake. That was worth celebrating.

Many years later, some realized that women liked cake too, and some years after that, that black people should get to eat cake as well. The self-evident truths that all men are created equal needed to include all of mankind: men and women, people of all colors. This was a huge celebration.

But, in the years that followed, some of the original cake eaters began to complain that they didn’t feel the portion size of their cake was what it had been before. “We deserve 20oz cake servings,” they said. “Make our cake great again!” When others protested saying, “your expectations that you deserve the biggest slice of cake were set by a very flawed history…”, they got upset. “Are you calling me racist?” they said?

“No,” said others. “we’re just saying that we need to acknowledge that white people have always got the biggest pieces of cake, and that wasn’t right. That’s what privilege is: expecting a piece of cake without anyone questioning your right to it. We need to recalibrate our serving size. We need to make sure that those who have never had cake before get some. We need to watch out for bullies at the table who want to snatch others’ cake away. We must oppose leaders who fail to condemn militant whites-only-cake-eating-groups.”

There’s a lot of cake. There’s more than enough to go around. We don’t need to be greedy.

//

When Nehemiah asked for news of what had been happening in his home country, people told him of “great trouble and disgrace”, of “broken walls, and gates burned with fire.” (Nehemiah 1:3) When Nehemiah heard these things, he sat down and wept. He mourned and fasted, and prayed to the God of Heaven: “O Lord, who keeps his covenant of love, please listen. I confess the sins we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned.”  (Nehemiah 1:4-6, abridged from NIV and ESV)

I stopped still when I read these words earlier this week. Nehemiah was a generation later than those who were most directly responsible for the tragedy that had befallen Jerusalem: he wasn’t the rebel, surely? But Nehemiah knew something I—we—have been slow to learn: there can’t be any petition for help or any hope of praise until we have lamented the wrong and repented of our individual and group participation in it, both now and in history.

Even I and my father’s house have sinned. Even I have expected a bigger piece of cake. I did so because my whole life I’ve been told that I deserved cake. Work hard, and you will get cake. I worked hard, and I got cake… but I also believed that others who didn’t have cake maybe didn’t deserve cake, or didn’t work hard, or didn’t like or want cake. Their cakelessness was surely their problem, or worse yet – their fault. White people have always had cake, and we have teased and punished others for asking for a slice. We may not live in a time when it’s illegal for some to eat cake, but when we refuse to look at our portion sizes or to acknowledge that we’ve become fat from cake while others starved, then we continue to perpetuate skewed slicing.

I have been silent when people have pointed out inequalities. In my social media feed and in our churches, we have been silent, and the elephants in the room have left people trampled and bleeding.

And so, I’m lamenting and repenting.

Oh God, my failures in seeking justice have been explicit, implicit, and complicit. I have done wrong things, and I have failed to do the right things. I have benefitted from a system which gave us so much cake at others’ expense, without showing humility and gratitude and compassion to others. I have not listened to others’ stories, or I have nit-picked and found fault with them and in doing so, dismissed them when they pointed out the size of my slice. I have been ashamed to have the size of my slice noticed. We have been hoarding the cake. We have stayed silent in rebuking cake-stealers. 

Lord, you know I don’t hate people of color, but you know the ways in which our cake-hoarding has hurt people of color and I’m sorry I’ve been so slow to own that. We have been so slow, and so silent, and our passivity has perpetuated the problem. God, you have made and love all people. You own all the cake. You forgive and redeem the hardest of hearts and the worst of situations. Please teach us to share. Please give us humility. Please make us better listeners. Please teach us to lament wrongs and repent. Please dismantle our defensiveness. Please would you fill every plate and every heart and every stomach by your grace. 

 

Image credit: Pexels, common license C00

Teach us to weep

Jen Michel’s book Teach Us to Want remains a highlight of my reading in the past few years. What does it mean to want things as a Christian? Is it okay to desire things, or to have ambition? What place (if any) do those have in the life of faith?

This past weekend I got to hear Jen speak, and she reminded us of both the caution of desire (we should be wary of wanting, because we want wrongly, willfully, and dangerously); as well as the call of desire (because wanting lies at the heart of prayer, and transformation, and discipleship as we learn to want what God wants). Jen’s words are soul-mingling with a number of other voices of late: Paul E Miller’s practical and profound insights in A Praying Life, the beautiful paths of spiritual formation mapped out in the novel Sensible Shoes, as well as the wise mentoring of Ruth Haley Barton in her podcast Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership.

What do we want? What do we hope for? What do we pray for? And how do we cope with the glaring gaps between what we hope and pray for, and the grueling realities of how life sometimes is? How do we discern where God is at work, and what he has for us in each of these? What happens if we wanted and desired good things, and they were withheld or lost?

I have a journal full of questions and confessions and thoughts that have no place on this blog, but I do want to share this one thing, because perhaps you’re wading through some deep waters, too:

There is no path to spiritual wholeness that does not walk through the rocky terrain of grief and lament.

I’m learning to grieve. Right alongside, “Teach me to want, Lord”, I’m praying “teach me to weep”. Teach me how to notice and name the losses and disappointments of this life, and to lay each of these before you. Teach me to feel the hard feelings. Teach me to process pain in your presence.

Grief is not only a feeling we feel with the loss of loved ones. It’s what we feel when we lose anything: friendships or dreams or hopes or the change in a situation. There are good things about each life stage, and when change happens (even for good reasons!), there is still some grief we feel in losing what we had before. Noticing it. Naming it. Calling out the elephant in the room… or prayer closet as the case may be.

My friend Alastair Roberts made an insightful observation about the role feelings play in our spiritual lives: we are not to be ruled by our emotions, but we are not to be dismissive of them, either. Instead, the Psalms teach us to attend to our feelings: to notice them, listen to them (for our emotions, like our minds and our bodies, each give us some information about the world and ourselves), and respond appropriately.

I can have all the “God is good and God is sovereign” theology firmly tucked under my proverbial Belt of Truth and Breastplate of Righteousness… but all of that does not muscle out the fact that sometimes, my heart still hurts, and disappointments still come. It is true that we can say, with Paul, that “in all these things (including death! disease! disappointment!) we are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus who loved us” (Romans 8)… and at the SAME TIME to acknowledge that we feel hard-pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down (2 Corinthians 4:9).

“Why are you so downcast within me, O my soul?” asks the Psalmist.

And then he lists the ways. There is no fast forwarding to hope. Joy may come in the morning, but sometimes there’s still a long night to endure before then. In truth, I think sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do in a situation is to cry.

I made a list of all the things I’m sad about right now: not a prayer list asking for help. Just a “I’m sad” list. This is not the kind of list I would have thought it was okay to write in a journal, but I’m learning that there’s a good and right place for lament.

Teach us to weep, O Lord. May all our longings be laid before you, all our sighs heard by you; and in time, would you lift our heads.

I believe because…

When I was six, I first believed because the Sunday School teacher told us a story about who could be with God forever in heaven. We needed our own ticket, he explained, holding a carefully folded piece of paper in his hand as an example. We couldn’t get in with someone else’s ticket, or by snipping off a corner of a ticket. He snipped a corner, and then another, and then another. He unfolded the piece of paper to reveal a cross. Our ticket was Jesus, he said. The snippets were just…. trash. Jesus was a friend who would never leave us. Jesus was the one who would bid us welcome into heaven. And anyone who asked Jesus for a ticket could have one. And my six year old heart—longing for a forever friend and a welcome to heaven—believed.

When I was twelve, I believed because—like ballet and piano and reading books—Christianity was part of Who I Was, and What I Did. I belonged. And my well-worn copy of the NIV with its randomly highlighted verses (because it was the highlighting itself that seemed spiritual, not the verse itself), did bring comfort and hope and stability in a time when so much around me was unstable.

When I was seventeen, I believed because the Holy Spirit seemed powerful and I heard stories of mighty answers to prayer. I believed because belief was the gateway to a community of really nice, welcoming people, with a place to use my piano gifts in church, within easy Sunday walking distance.

When I was twenty, my world was turned upside down and I believed because everything else was falling apart. Again and again I was drawn to John 6:63, as the disciples stared at Jesus, incredulous about the difficulty of what he was saying and asking. “Will you leave me, too?” Jesus asked Peter (and me). And my own heart would echo Peter’s reply: “To whom else will be go? You have the words of eternal life.” I had no answers for why God allowed suffering or why He seemed silent in the face of heartbroken prayers, but no other community had answers either. At the very least, Jesus had compassion for the brokenness and had chosen to enter into the heartache. So, he understood. Even if I didn’t. To who else would I go?

When I was twenty five, I believed because I sifted through all the evidence for the resurrection. Compelled by law school’s training to have sufficient evidence and witnesses for anything that claimed to be truth, I learned about the historicity of documents and textual criticism and how it was that we established anything from history to be true. Turned out, the evidence for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was significantly better attested in history than any evidence for Genghis Khan or Julius Ceasar or a multiplicity of other things we accepted as historical fact. I believed because it was true.

When I was thirty, I believed because I held my newborn child in my arms, and marveled at the wonder of life. How could ears be so perfectly formed? How was it that my body—without any research or intellectual effort on my part—had known exactly how to grow what was needed to house this beautiful life? Surely that was God. Shell-shaped ears and eyes that looked at us and baby breath and the ability to find breastmilk from the first moment? I believed.

When I was thirty six, I believed because again, and again, and again, and again… things happened that could not possibly have been “coincidence”. I would reach the end of my limits on something, send up a quick prayer in desperation, and seemingly out of nowhere an offer of help would come. We would totally run out of money, or time on our visas, or out of patience with our kids… and a gift would arrive, or an official would extend mercy we hadn’t expected, or some moment of delightful laughter with our children would reset our tolerance limits and we would find breathing space again. I’d be tangled up in a relationship, and just “happen” to read a verse that spoke directly to the situation. There were signs of God’s attentive care and involvement all around, if only I had eyes to see.

Last week I read Psalm 107:2:

Has the Lord redeemed you? Then SPEAK OUT.

He has. Again, and again, and again. He has forgiven more sins and healed more wounds than I can recount. He has answered more prayers and paid closer and more loving attention than I could ever give him credit for. I still have days of believing because I feel his presence and know the truth of Jesus… and still have days of believing because I don’t have any other better options.

But I believe.

I do. It’s more than habit or culture or community. I believe there is a living, active, loving God who gives each of us life and breath. I believe he wants relationship with us and a restored world where all of creation (including us) live in harmony. I believe he sent Jesus to make that possible: that pain can be healed, the worst of sins and failures can be redeemed, the most alienated of people can be drawn in.

I believe, and therefore I have spoken (2 Corinthians 4:13).

And, Lord willing, will keep believing and speaking.

What I want from church: the Jesus of the Gospels

Jesus – The Prince of Peace (Akiane Kramarik)

I find it ironic that in the midst of the conversation about the undervalued and misunderstood role of women in the church, the church is often still characterized by preaching a message which is packaged in a more “female” way, and thus undervalues and misunderstands the call of both men and women to discipleship. What do I mean by this?
Why “female”, and why in inverted commas?

Our evangelism is characterized by a presentation of our felt needs: we are sinners in need of a Savior, guilty ones in need of pardon, lost ones in need of a Shepherd. The gospel is marketed towards our emotions. Our worship songs sometimes sing declarations of God’s majesty, but can also often tend towards the “Jesus is my boyfriend” lyrics, calling for us to declare “I’m so in love with you” “in this intimate place” – right in the middle of our corporate worship services. These refrains are uncomfortable for me, but all the more awkward for my 6’2″ husband who won’t even whisper “I love you” on the phone when he’s at work. Our ministries appeal for service help in the more “feminine” categories: welcoming, working in the nursery, teaching children’s church, providing snacks. Hospitality, children and food are not traditionally the areas where men sign up in their droves.

Church may be a place where (for many) there is a “masculine feel” in leadership, but I find the message and ministry of the church often have a distinctly feminine feel. If you ain’t the preacher or an elder, the opportunities for men are limited. Of course, my husband can change a diaper with the best of them, but in some nurseries men are not permitted to serve, and the bevy of faithful bible teachers who serve in children’s ministry remain predominantly female.

I wonder, though, if the feminine “feel” of our ministries doesn’t take its cue from the felt-needs-based way in which we pitch our message. Jesus is a comforter, a healer, a Savior. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, the suffering Servant, the loving rescuer.  That Jesus rightfully and perfectly holds all these titles is proof that those nurturing qualities do not belong exclusively to the female domain. Jesus IS the epitome of love, of care, of welcome.

However, as a woman who is a disciple myself, as a woman with a husband who wants to serve with the particular gifts God has given him, and as a woman who is raising sons and daughters: what I want from church is this – a robust preaching of the Jesus of the Gospels.

I want to hear about the Jesus who demanded loyalty, who commanded authority from storms, sinners and satanic forces, who said vexing and frustrating and wild things. I want to hear preaching which is not just faithful to His words but to His TONE: of comfort but also of rebuke, of welcome but also of warning. I want to hear His dares, His call to come and die, His challenge to make hard choices. I want the Jesus of the gospels who does not just meet our needs, but who calls us to bold and courageous adventure, to self-sacrifice, to taking risks. I want the Jesus who promises huge rewards for huge sacrifices, who embraces fiesty Peter and wayward Mary and touchy-feely John.

I want the Jesus who welcomed the little children, but also the Jesus with eyes like a flame of fire, with feet of burnished bronze and a sharp two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. Whatever that wild imagery means, I want to grapple with it. I want the Jesus who inspires my awe and calls forth my worship: a gospel from The Gospels. That’s the Jesus I want. That’s the Jesus I need: the one who is worthy of the honor, adoration and allegiance of men and women alike.

A few years back, Preston Yancey invited women to write guest posts on what they wanted from church. This was my post which ran on his blog. A reader recently asked me if I could help her find that piece, and it seems to have disappeared from the internet so I’m publishing it again here. And, just to say, since that time I’ve read Leslie Leyland Fields’ book Crossing the Waters, which is about as robust a dive into the wild, tender, authoritative, awesome Jesus of the gospels as I’ve ever come across (you can read an excerpt here). And it’s written by a woman 😉