The Verse I’d Never Seen Before

baptizing woman

Sometime in my 20’s, I started to cry. The transformation was astonishing: from being the Kid Who Didn’t Cry, I became the One Guaranteed To Blub. I cried during commercials, during Oprah, during weddings, and every-time-without-fail : I cried at baptisms. The beauty of seeing a believer washed new; brave and bold and dripping with the passion of one reborn undid me every time.

And so it was, a few months back, that I sat crying as I witnessed a baptism one Sunday morning: wiping tears as I corralled the toddler with one arm and a bribing snack, shushed the preschooler who was pretending to be a fighter pilot, and snuggled my 6-year old close. My tears dripped off my chin and onto her hair, and I wondered how bad the crying would be on the day when it was my own children in the baptismal font. If a stranger’s baptism undid me so, I would for sure be bawling when my own children’s day came. I wallowed in dramatic thought a moment longer: “do you know what would make me really ugly cry?” I thought. “If their dad were to baptize them.” I had seen some pastor friends baptize their kids. The mental image was exquisitely poignant.

Later that night, I broached the topic with my husband. “When the time comes, “ I asked, “do you think you would like to baptize our kids?” He mulled it over for a moment and shrugged: “not really.” I nodded, a little disappointed. Maybe he would be more excited about the idea in the future.

A few weeks later, I found myself sitting huddled at my dining table in the early morning dark, scrambling to finish reading Matthew’s gospel before my BSF small group. Even though I was in a hurry, something pulled me to a stop. Jesus’s words in Matthew 28:18-20 leapt off the page:

“(18) All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  (19) Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (20) And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

I read it again, and again. And I cried.

How was it that I had never seen verse 19b? As a woman – how had I never seen that?

I knew that the promises belonged to me: the One who has all authority in heaven and on earth (v18) is the one who is always with me, even to the end of the age (v20b).

I knew too that the Great Commission applied to me: I, too, was called to go and make disciples of all nations (v19a), and to teach them to obey all that Jesus commanded (v20). Surely this was my overarching goal as a Mom: to disciple my children as disciples of Christ.

And yet, I had never seen the permission – no, the mandate – to be one who baptized too (v19). For years I had lived, loved and served in a church where men did the preaching and the officiating of communion and all the baptizing (for these were pastoral, and therefore male, functions). And since I had never, ever seen a woman baptize, I had never, ever seen verse 19 commissioning me, as a woman, to one who is enjoined in the calling, reaching, baptizing and discipling work of the Great Commission.

Later that night, I settled down next to my husband on the couch. “Honey, remember I asked you whether you wanted to baptize our kids? Well, this morning I was reading in Matthew, and it occurred to me that if Jesus has called me in the Great Commission to disciple our kids and to teach our kids… don’t you think I should be able to do the middle bit too – and baptize them? Because I’d love to. I mean, if they wanted it, and it was okay with you. But I’d love to – and I just never even thought it was a possibility.”

He looked up and paused. “I don’t see why not,” he said, “if you want to.”

I do want to.

I do. And as it turns out, Matthew 28 says it is allowed: not just as a concession, but in fact as a command. For I, as a woman, am one of the beloved disciples he has called and commissioned.

And so, when the time comes, I would love to be able to baptize our children in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Even if I cry the whole way through. They would be tears of joy.

 

Photo credit: Rishi Bandopadhay (The Water Pours Freely), licensed with Flickr Creative Commons (edits by Bronwyn Lea)

The Case for Excommunication

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This was meant to be a no-blogging week, but I have a story to tell and now is the time to tell it.

Why now?

Well, last week Leadership Journal published an article written by a former youth pastor and convicted sexual predator entitled “My Easy Trip From Youth Minister to Felon“. I do not want to detail the ins and outs of the article, and to their credit – Leadership Journal took the article down and issued an apology.

(If you do want some quick background, though, I would refer you to the hashtags #takedownthatpost and #howoldwereyou on Twitter if you would like to read up on the outcry for justice that erupted after this post. Also, I would commend to you Karen Swallow Prior’s #HowOldWereYou: Origins of a Heartbreaking Hashtag and Halee Gray Scott’s To Publish a Predator. If you read nothing else on this topic, read those two.)

This is not a post about sexual predators in the church, though. This is a post to say that at times like this, I want to make a case for us to take the Bible’s words about church discipline, or excommunication, to heart.

In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus spoke about how we were to deal with situations where a Christian sins against another – calling for an increasing number of witnesses and publicity if the person does not repent. If the person did not fully repent, Jesus said to treat them as “a Gentile or a tax collector” (in other words, outside of the worshiping community). Such a public “binding” would be reflective of a heavenly binding, said Jesus: the words we speak corporately against egregious deeds echo in the heavens.

In 1 Corinthians 5:1-12, Paul wrote to a church where some had been caught in terrible sexual sin – and the community had done nothing about it. Paul had strong words for this church, who had “become arrogant and had not mourned instead, so that the one who did this would be removed from your midst.” Rather than turn a blind eye, they should have spoken up and dealt with the couple – excluding them from fellowship to show them the grievous nature of what they had done. This expulsion, or “handing over to Satan”, was hoped to show the offender the seriousness of what they had done, in the hopes that the “wake up call” would bring them to repentance (v5).

Furthermore, Paul says, to fail to exclude them from fellowship would mean that the church was keeping a breeding evil in its midst: it would be keeping “leaven in a lump of dough” – a combination which could only lead to further spiritual and moral fermentation (v6-7).

Waste no time: said the Apostle. Deal with this kind of stuff swiftly.

I am not unaware of some of the incredible difficulties that might come from putting this into practice. Abusive and cult-like churches can quickly turn these passages into licenses for witch-hunts and a paranoid control of others’ lives. In addition to the problems of the abuse of this practice, there is also the problem of discerning when it should be applied: should all young couples who are known to be engaging in pre-marital sex be called out? What about those who download pirated movies? Or use their cellphones while driving?

We are always in danger of hypocrisy here: none of us are without sin; none of us qualified to throw the first stone. The threats of being piecemeal, hypocritical and partisan are tremendous, not to mention the damage we fear it would do to the church’s reputation as a place of grace and welcome. How would we communicate grace if our community knew we were people who sometimes singled out unrepentant sinners?

These considerations are enough to stymie almost every church I know into a position of passivity in the face of gross sin. But when I read this last week’s articles – I was reminded of a story I want to tell.

I once attended a church where someone was excommunicated. The situation was this: an elder in our church had decided to abandon his wife. I knew the couple well, and his behavior tore our community apart. Those who served with him and under him in church were angry and felt betrayed. Those who loved them both were hurt and bewildered. Those who watched his young wife respond with an almost impossible amount of grace and strength were heartbroken. We all felt so helpless. Our pastor spoke with him: he would not change his mind. A few more elders went to see him a second time: he would still not change his mind. And finally, after much prayer and consideration, a closed meeting of church members only was called after one Sunday morning service – and in it, our leaders announced that he was officially being removed from our church community as a response to his behavior.

Granted: the man was not there and did not hear what was said (he received a letter informing him of the decision after the fact). Granted: he could easily have attended the church around the corner who would have been none the wiser about what had happened behind our closed doors. BUT those 10 minutes of church discipline (the only I have ever seen enacted in my 30+ years of church attendance) made a significant etch on my soul – for in that moment, our community named what he did as unacceptable. We called it sin. We took a side. Doing so brought a clarity and a relief to our hurting community who had felt so helpless in the face of someone who had been causing hurt. We said “that’s not okay, and God says it’s not okay,” and just the saying of it made a difference.

I am reminded of this one incident, more than a dozen years ago, when I read of pastors committing sexual offenses against parishioners in their churches.

Yes, they should be prosecuted by law. Yes, they should be fired.

But for the health of our communities – they should also be excommunicated. There is healing in a hurting community standing together and saying “that is NOT right, and we will not have it here.” It is an extreme thing to do- but it occurs to me that in these extreme cases which cause extreme pain, it is appropriate. The hurting church is not without remedy to call out evil.

And more than that: I believe the Gospel demands it.

 

A Year Without Seasons

Photo by Joisey Showaa - Four Seasons (Flickr Creative Commons)

Sunday’s church service was warm and welcoming. The music was great, the sermon was rich. Just like the Sunday before that, and the Sunday before that, and the Sunday before that.

In this way, our church is a little like San Diego – a place which weather.com describes as having a “moderate climate, and an endless 70 degree summer.” San Diego is the epitome of “temperate”: always warm, but not hot. Cool at times, but never cold. The people from there carry the happy-go-lucky air of those whose only shoes are a pair of flip-flops. Some say it is the most glorious weather of all.

San Diego is warm and welcoming. But San Diego has no seasons.

Denver, on the other hand, has seasons. Denver summer days average 90 degrees, with occasional triple-digit spikes. Their winter temperatures shiver up to no more than 45F. Summer is Hot(!), and winter is Cold(!), and as the temperatures plummet during the Fall transition, the leaves burst out in red, yellow and orange songs. Summer has heat, Fall has color, Winter has snow play, and Spring bring the hope of brave bulbs peeking out after their long hibernation. Some say this is the most glorious weather of all.

On Sunday morning, I sat in my church grateful for its San Diego-type climate. But there was a part of me that longed for a little bit of Denver. For Sunday was Pentecost, and not one word was said or sung to acknowledge it. It was a Sunday like any other.

For believers who observe the liturgical calendar, Sunday was celebrated as the church’s birthday: the day when the Holy Spirit was poured out to fill the church as God’s new temple. It was the day when the church was empowered and commissioned to go into the world, when Babel with its one-language-divided was answered with the arrival of the Spirit and many-languages-united in understanding. It was a day to celebrate the unification of the separated families of humanity.

There was a reason that thousands of Jews were gathered at the temple on that first pentecost. It fell on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot: the day when God’s spirit was poured out on Israel at Sinai and the law was written on tablets of stone (Exodus 19). Hundreds of years later, it was at Shavuot that God’s Spirit poured out the Holy Spirit who was to write the new covenant on human hearts (Jeremiah 31:33) – the day we know as Pentecost.

Pentecost is a joyful ‘summer’ celebration, it basks in sonlight after a season of sadness. Following the stripped, autumnal days of Lent’s loss and the wintery shadow of Good Friday, Easter Sunday – with its promise of new life and a new birth – looks and feels like Spring: the joy of bulbs peeking from the snow after it seemed nothing would survive the dead of winter. Pentecost is like summer: the full joy following the hope of Spring.

The church calendar, and the liturgy which accompanies it, take us through spiritual seasons. It leads us through repentance, grief, waiting, enlightenment, and just as those who have endured the winter crave the returning sun all the more, so too the liturgical calendar celebrates joy and renewal and worship with the gratitude of those who have known loss.

My insightful friend Stanford (who also goes to San Diegoesque church), recently observed that in churches where we do not have a formal liturgy, the worship and teaching pastors carry a heavy theological load. Week by week, they bear the weight of incorporating all that needs be said about history and purpose, mission and calling, sin and salvation, suffering and hope.

It is up to them to ensure that the whole counsel of scripture (and not just our most comfortable parts) is read: that we have honored and acknowledged Scriptures’ laments and judgments as much as we have celebrated its deliverance and joy. It is up to them to lead and instruct us in prayer. They alone bear the burden of expanding our rather narrow emotional and theological bandwidth: a weight which, in Denverish churches, is shared by the church fathers.

Liturgy gets a bad rap: to many it seems rote and routine, soulless and stilted. And I daresay, without the Holy Spirit, it is. But non-liturgical churches have their own unspoken liturgy – the same phrases we say, pray and sing, week after week. They just aren’t written down in a book. And without the Holy Spirit, it can be just as soulless and stilted.

I love my church, and I like worshiping in San Diego. I love the people in my San Diego, and I am not looking to move.

But sometimes, I still find my soul longing for seasons.

*thanks to Stanford Gibson, Lois Tverberg, Tim Keller and Alastair Roberts for their helpful thoughts- links are included above*

 

The Lie Jerry Told Us

Jerry Maguire is one of those movies that is stuffed with great quotes: “Help me help you”, “Show me the money!”, and “It’s not show friends. It’s show business,” to name just a few.

But arguably two of the most famous lines in the movie come from the romantic interchange between Jerry and Dorothy at the end. The first of those is “You had me at hello.”

I love it, but personally, I like this spin even better:

you had me at bacon

“You had me at hello” is only the second most famous line, though. I’m willing to bet that the most famous by an order of magnitude, is the line that comes just before it:

“You complete me.”

I LOVED this scene in the movie at the time, but over the past decade I have developed a love-hate relationship with it, since I have heard that phrase “you complete me”, or “he completes me”, or variations on that theme on the lips of many young couples since. Dating couples seem to have developed a Jerry–Maguire-litmus-test for compatibility: do we fit together like two parts of a puzzle? Do we match? Is he or she the “half” I have been looking for all my life? Do I feel complete?

There’s a spiritualized version of the Jerry-Maguire-compatibility-standard too, which I have heard at wedding after wedding after wedding. It goes something like this: “We were single for all those years and we learned to depend completely on God, and now God has given me the gift of this spouse to complete my blessing. We are ONE.”

As if you were half before.

As if you were “incomplete”, but now are whole.

As if spouses were gold stars for good behavior as a single.

And frankly, friends, it both frustrates and saddens me. The “you complete me” mantra has capitalized on a deeply-held lie which we are fed: that singleness is lesser, that marriage is more, that lives without spouses are incomplete, and that lives with spouses are ipso facto magically, wonderfully full and rich and complete.

It’s just not true, and the lie does damage both to singles and to married people.

To singles, it slights and demeans their contribution. It puts them on social and spiritual “probation”. To married people, it places an impossible burden on both husband and wife.

Marriage was not ultimately meant as a “means for personal fulfillment”. Jerry and Dorothy, sweet as they may be, are misled to believe that marriage is the cherry on the top of a successful life. We live in a world which mistakenly believes that life is always about ME, and the corollary of that is a belief that marriage is also about ME-you and you-ME: it’s about US.

But life is not about me, and marriage is not about us. Making one’s life goal to be about personal fulfillment (whether as a single person or in marriage), is a Sisyphean task. No matter how much we try, no matter how good a “fit” our friends or spouse may be, “completion” can never be found that way. Marriage requires work and commitment. It has seasons of loneliness and feeling very incomplete, even when things are healthy. Relational challenges happen, and growth needs to happen – and we rarely feel “complete” when we realize how much room for growth is yet needed. “You complete me” is a relational albatross for those in the marital trenches.

Life is about me-for-others, which is another way of describing love. And love in marriage, is me-for-my-spouse, so that together as a family we can be us-for-you. The couple who spend their lives holding hands and facing inwards will eventually discover that there is a high cost to having turned your back on others. However, the couple who stand holding hands and facing the world side-by-side still have TWO free hands with which to serve and love the world, even while they remain connected to each other.

Ultimately, it is Jesus who completes us. “You have been made complete in Christ,” says Colossians 2:10. Single or married, we find our fullness and completion by being connected to God. If we are single – we stand fulfilled in Christ, with two hands free to reach out to the world around us. If we are married, we stand fulfilled in Christ, and as a couple we still extend two free hands to reach out.

So, be warned, friends: I love going to weddings, and I’d love to attend yours. But if anyone makes a “you complete me” speech during the toasts, please pardon me if I cough quietly in the corner. We sell ourselves short if we believe what Jerry told us.

“You complete me,” is a line for prayer, not for our partners. And said to the right Person, it never disappoints.

When you feel like you don’t have it all together…

On Sunday morning, we attempted to make it to the 9am church service.

We had a promising start: everyone awake on time, and enough milk left over for every one’s cereal. So far, so good. After that, things got a little dicey. An hour later we had found a second pair of shorts for the 3-year old, after the first was sacrificed to the aforementioned cereal. I forfeited my shower, and put my daughter’s hair in a pony tail rather than fight the battle to get it brushed.

We were heading out towards the car when my husband let out a barbaric yawp: there were plops of poop on the hallway. Our toddler had crafted an award-winning blow-out and was dropping bombs (literally) as he tooled around the house. I abandoned my make-up bag: “you take the baby! I’ll get the floor! Go! Go! Go!” One has to move fast on these things or else little feet are irresistibly drawn to test the squelchiness of the deposits.

My fervent cleaning was interspersed with cries of “don’t stand in it!” and concurrent “put your shoes on” instructions. Five minutes later, the cleaning was done and with a backwards glance at the clock, I gave up on the shoes for the boy. We piled into the car. I passed out pretzels to the kids as we snapped their buckles shut: partly to supplement their breakfast and also to give their mouths some thing else to do other than whine.

Five minutes later I looked at my reflection in the car mirror. “I am not wearing mascara,” I declared to my husband. “I don’t think I can go to church.” He kept driving. Oh well, I thought. Perhaps God has ordained that I will cry this morning and it will turn out for the best that I didn’t look like a raccoon all day with tear-smudged face paint.

Minutes later we pulled up into church. The kids shuttled off to their various classes, we waved hello at friends, we got settled. We drank in the warmth of friendship and the spiritual richness of the morning, and I had all but forgotten about the harried hurriedness of our morning until I got home and came across this clip:

I watched it twice and laughed until tears streamed down my mascara-free face. Apart from the celebrity-walk-of-fame music announcing our arrival, it was us in that video, down to the barefoot boy.

What a great reminder: I don’t need to have it all together before I go to church. Church is the togetherness of the un-put-together, and it is warm, wonderful and real. Jesus loves us as is. Sweat pants and barefoot boys happen, as do tears and stresses and sadness. It’s good and it is welcome. We can go as is.

But I might still put a back up mascara in the car. Just in case.

Thank you for loving my children

Thank You For Loving My Children

Dear friend,

In case I haven’t said so before, I wanted to thank you for loving my children. Maybe you don’t think it’s a big deal, but I want you to know it means the world.

Thank you for looking them in the eye and greeting them by name. You are teaching them they are valuable.

Thank you for asking them questions about their lives and waiting patiently for their stumbled replies. You are teaching them the currency of conversation.

Thank you for entering their imaginary worlds and helping find the pet unicorn a snack. Thank you for reading to them, even though they were sticky and stinky. Thank you for for pretending you couldn’t see them under the kitchen table when they hid in the same place for the tenth time playing hide-and-go-seek. You are teaching them that that they are wanted. You are showing them the value of play.

Thank you for that time you played rough-and-tumble T-ball with them. Thank you for asking about their first day of school. Thank you for reminding them to say thank you when I’m too weary to remind them again. Thank you for telling them your own childhood story to distract them from their tears.

Thank you for being a safe adult, another role model in their “village”. Your presence in their life is more valuable than you know. They soak up your laughter, your kindness, your pleases-and-thank-yous.

We take our children to church, but you are the church to our children. You are one of the teaching aides God has put into their life, and they love you.

Thank you for loving my children, and in doing so, for loving me.