When I was eighteen, the car I was a passenger in swerved to avoid rear-ending another vehicle. Two other vehicles—a car and a truck—hit us. Devastatingly, an elderly woman in the other car had a heart attack at the scene and died. In an attempt to comfort my friend, who had been driving and was at fault, I said to her as we left the hospital, “God must have had a reason for her to die now.” My friend looked at me and replied, “I don’t want to know that God.”
New to the faith and so young, I didn’t realize at the time what I know now—my words not only didn’t comfort my friend, they made her pain worse.
How many platitudes have you heard people utter in the face of death?
When we’re uncomfortable or uncertain, awkward words tumble out. If platitudes are the best we’ve got, though, what do we have to say in the face of tragedy? Personal tragedy, like the loss of a loved one, or a national tragedy, like Uvalde? Does what we really believe about death change what we say when we face it?
A girl in the high school class I taught showed up one morning in a T-shirt that had Mickey Mouse emblazoned on the front. I paid it little attention. It never occurred to me that Mickey was a dangerous character, plotting a school coup. I taught the class, comprised of seniors, and sent them on to their second-period class without a thought about their attire.
That is until I found myself in trouble with the principal for not sending the girl home. You see, the school had a rule against screen-printed clothing, and Mickey was an offender. Cuff him. He’ll never see The Happiest Place on Earth again.
Discernment is a gift of the Spirit. It means to be able to determine right from wrong and not to be deceived by anything that would lead us to foolish choices. As we spend more of our time creating rules about whom we associate with, what is acceptable to believe, and whose group is “in,” we’ve lost the skill of discerning guidelines created to help us flourish from barriers created for a false sense of security.
Luke narrates a story that helps us determine one from the other.
One Sabbath, as Jesus was walking through the wheat fields, his disciples were picking the heads of wheat, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. Some religious leaders said, “Why are you breaking the Sabbath law?”
Jesus replied, “Haven’t you read what David and his companions did when they were hungry? He broke the Law by going into God’s house and eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests can eat. He also gave some of the bread to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:1-5 NIV)
On two other occasions in Luke, Jesus healed people on the Sabbath. Rather than be overjoyed for them, the leaders “were furious and began talking with each other about what to do to Jesus.” They had their rules. No work—including good work—was to be done on the Sabbath.
These were not God’s rules. They were human additions. Originally, God commanded humans to observe a sabbath—a healing, restoring, reconnecting day of rest. It was intended to remind us that we belong to a creating, saving God who works while we don’t.
Somewhere along the line, leaders studied the words of Scripture, interpreting every detail and creating long lists of what was allowed and not allowed.
They did this with good intentions. Life was more jumbled and chaotic after the exile, so they were returning order, giving people a sense of comfort, stability, and identity.
Sabbath is one of the most important commands, so they parsed it out and asked themselves what, exactly, “work” meant. Deliberations went on and on, which is how we come to the notion that merely picking a piece of grain randomly in a field, swishing out the chaff between your fingers, and popping it in your mouth is illegal “work.”
By Jesus’s time, obeying these interpretations had become a source of pride instead of an expression of love for God. Rules had become a way to wield power over people rather than to give them safe community guard rails.
The Sabbath matters to Jesus because the whole concept was meant to free people. Legalism about it ended up burdening people, just as it does now.
While we may not have to decide our own Sabbath rules, we are in the position of having to figure out for ourselves, “What are my rules going to be? What principles am I going to live by? What are my guard rails? How does Jesus help me discern them?” Most of us don’t (or shouldn’t) have these dictated to us, like clothing rules in a high school. We have to exercise our own discernment muscles.
Jesus invites his listeners, and us, to explore these helpful questions:
Are your rules setting people free?
Are they giving rest?
Are they doing good?
Are they saving lives?
Are they helping others?
Are they bringing you closer to God?
Discernment is not a gift for only a few. It’s a requirement. We’re all told to be wise as serpents. We’re all instructed to be responsible for our own choices and the voices we choose to hear.
Mickey Mouse rules don’t bring about the flourishing God planned. Wisdom does.
This spot was empty in July. I had a newsletter and blog ready to send. It only needed a push of the button on the 4th or 5th. Instead, I found myself on a plane on the 5th, headed for Connecticut. I didn’t want to go.
Let’s start at the beginning. 35 years ago, I said “yes” to corresponding with a pen pal in Sing Sing prison, New York State. It was a program set up by Prison Fellowship. Wally wrote to me faithfully. He called (collect) every week. I was less faithful at writing, but I at least chatted on the weekly calls. Really, he chatted. I mostly listened, until the timer cut us off.
Through releases, returning to different prisons, drug episodes, homelessness, a terrible marriage choice, and more jail sentences, Wally and I kept writing and kept finding each other. I also moved, four times, and before the internet, keeping tabs through that was harder than you think.
Wally was a faithful friend, and also a professional thief and drug addict. Humans are a little complex that way. Someone on twitter last month asked me why I would choose to help a man she considered less than worthy instead of people more deserving. I didn’t answer. The question didn’t merit response.
If a person can’t see the humanity of a man because he’s homeless and addicted, I refer them to Shakespeare. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” Humans are all equally the image of God. Wally’s soup kitchen friends, whom I met in Connecticut, are not lesser images than those of us pontificating with our on keyboards how we would weigh human worth. God’s breath in our lungs gives us all enormous weight we’re too frail to carry on our own yet too glorious not to.
I got a call on Friday July 1st that Wally had chosen to enter hospice care for his stage 4 lung cancer. I didn’t blame him at all—it was the right and dignified choice of a man who has had little choice over the entirety of his life. I started checking flights.
Friday he was resigned but feeling OK. He could be in hospice for a few months. Monday they told me he was worse, but still, he could live for a few weeks. Tuesday, they called again and said he might not make it through the day. My plane was at 6pm. It got canceled, and the assistant got me on an earlier flight. Earlier, meaning I had to leave immediately.
A lot of us were praying I’d make it in time, but when the plane landed, I had a message to call the hospital. I did, and the information was what I’d feared. We’d lost Wally just an hour or two earlier, while I was in the sky between Chicago and Hartford. I guess I’m not the first person to cry in an airport.
Wally had named me his next of kin and medical power of attorney. Wading through Connecticut law looked daunting, and the gratitude I have for the hospital staff and everyone else who gave me both assistance and compassion is enormous. They did everything so well and so kindly. At some point, I’ll be the recipient of his ashes, the dust that we all return to the only thing left, except the beat up wallet and phone I carried home.
Friends, I’m still processing.
Processing the grief of a life that could have been so much better with a family who encouraged rather than abused (and a functional, redemptive prison system).
Processing the sadness over never hearing “God bless and you know I love you. You’re all in my thoughts and prayers,” on every single sign off to a phone call or letter. Every one, for 35 years.
Processing the trust that a man who had learned not to trust anyone put in me to make his life and death decisions.
Processing the love that the staff and clients of his favorite place, the soup kitchen, had for him that overflowed in a memorial service right there in the kitchen that I was blessed to conduct.
Processing how I witnessed, for two days, the reality of the dignity of every human life. Most of all, I’m a witness to Wally’s life, the longest running one he had. So I’m telling his story, because he deserves that. We all do.
I had a friend in high school with a white Camaro. Classic car. Meticulously restored. White-glove-clean inside and out. But whenever this friend had to go somewhere, he got a ride from friends or family. He owned a car, but he never drove it out of the garage. He retained it as a showpiece, but the purpose that car was built for—transportation—never happened.
Believers in Christ sometimes act like that Camaro owner. We (think) we have meticulous theology, airtight beliefs, and a knowledge of right and wrong. We’re constantly disciples, learning about God, but for what purpose? What is knowledge of God without action that resembles God? Jesus isn’t interested in us all getting a Ph.D. in Doing Church. He wants us to drive the car out of the garage and use it for its purpose.
If you’ve been around social media for any length of time, you’ve seen the reactions to weeks like we’ve recently had.
“I’m shocked!” “Heartbreaking.” “How is this still happening?” “I can’t imagine.” “Why aren’t we doing anything about this?”
This can be any number of things.
Right now, it’s a(nother) devastating school shooting. A week before it was a(nother) supermarket shooting, aimed at black Americans. Before/concurrent with that, a(nother) report of massive church negligence and buried abuse. But it could be so many things.
We’re always shocked.
Not really. We’re never shocked anymore if we admit the truth. Anyone still shocked hasn’t been living in reality. It’s an easy placeholder when we have nothing else to say. When we have no intention of doing anything about the source of our shock.
We’re always heartbroken. We can never imagine what the tragedy is like, even though we can’t help but imagine every time we go to school drop off, at least for a while. BIPOC can’t help but imagine constantly.
We pretend we don’t know why it happens, and we wring our hands in hopelessness at any change. Then we go back to our lives and pray, in those hiding places in the depths of our minds and hearts, that “next time” isn’t coming for us. We know there’s a next time; we know the space between is increasingly tighter.
It comes down to retention of power. What have we proven ourselves willing to accept in our fealty to the god of power? What sacrifices does this god require to grant power to those who are willing to feed it, bow to it, and beg from it? Church, how many silver coins have we taken to retain our small fiefdoms?
We know the answers.
Too many church leaders have been willing to accept the collateral damage of people in our congregations dying or being permanently disabled by Covid. It’s a sacrifice worth making to the gods who will ensure we remain popular and powerful.
As a whole, we’re willing to risk our children’s lives and mental well-being, so long as we can retain the power we imagine guns grant us. Future generations damaged by the psychological dissonance of fearing the place they should be safe don’t matter. Persons obsessed with their “rights” (and their campaign donations) keep their power. Children are a disposable sacrifice willingly made to uphold illusions of guns bestowing power and safety. Church leaders will pretend this is true so their base remains beneath their pedestal.
Abandoning church abuse victims, while destroying their mental health and reputations, seems a small price to offer the gods. It leads to easily retaining the power of office, leadership titles, and flowing funds.
Women know, too, when they speak up, that they will be screamed down by the worshipers of power. They know the price they will pay. They understand their abusers will receive at best 12-year sentences. Almost certainly, they’ll never even face legal ramifications. They know their careers will be endangered. Women recognize their detractors will be congratulated quietly in secret church meetings and openly on social media. The acolytes will never readily accept insulting their gods.
Our citizens, and future citizens, of color appear marginal losses compared to the blessings bestowed by white majority power. The zeal to retain it—refusing the delusion of “replacement”—allows for just about any sacrifice on the altar of supremacy. Violence is a tenet of the religion. It’s preached from pulpits that dare to be backed by a cross.
Our women endangered by traumatic pregnancies can be re-victimized and even left to die, because control over their behavior matters more than their lives. The church rightfully cares for life, but the lengths some will go to legally control rather than preserve life reveals their true goal. He who holds the control over any group’s bodies wields the power. Ask anyone who has a passing acquaintance with slavery in the US.
That acquaintance, by the way, some in power desperately would have us not ever pass, for the same reason. Defaming brilliant people of color is a price they consider well worth paying. Don’t ask, don’t tell about our history of horror, and all will be well.
Make no mistake—these things are all related. They’re all related to power. They’re all part of the design to keep it at all and any cost. They’re all deeply rooted in the church, not just the culture.
Our outraged shock is misplaced. We should be past it. We can no longer be shocked, and we ought to give up the pretense. Shock isn’t action. There is no prize for being the most appalled. We’re not impressed by those whose privilege allows them to be continually amazed.
Our repeated cries of “Why?” only feed those in power. So long as we’re asking questions and wringing hands, we won’t be making any demands. Powerful churchmen can even appear righteous by answering the questions. Deflection. Whataboutism. Thoughts and prayers.
The church needs to strike at the idolatry. She needs to ask herself—what am I worshiping? The church—its power structures and people—must return to its founding Rabbi and internalize his words of humility and emptying. The people who crave churches based on goodness, while acting in humility and kindness, can’t hold back on those strikes. The American church has a graft of an evil branch attached to its tree, and it needs pruning. After all, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137.4). This land, right now, is very, very foreign.
Any church leader who prizes reputation over transparency shouldn’t lead.
Any church leader who bows to white values (sometimes mistaken for family values, biblical values, God and country values) shouldn’t lead.
Any church leader whose behavior and doctrine embody disdain for women shouldn’t lead.
Any church leader who isn’t willing to submit to and be taught by the marginalized shouldn’t lead.
Any church leader whose love affair with authority exceeds a love for people shouldn’t lead.
And denominations should be holding their leaders to this, or we are right to abandon them. The church in American isn’t failing because of culture wars or Millennials and Gen Zers who just want to sin freely. We’re failing because we’re worshiping a false god and preaching a false gospel. When we give our offerings to the god of power, we reap the whirlwind we’ve sown.
Why does this keep happening? Because those in power are willing to let it–they want it to keep happening. Those not in power need to be loud in our refusal to assent.
I woke up at 3:30 this morning, and I was preaching a sermon. Or as I prefer to say, teaching a sermon. Yes, I was awake, watching myself, in a sense, creating an outline on a whiteboard and inviting the congregation to talk about repentance and forgiveness. It was a very strange experience, needless to say. At the time, I thought to my semi-aware self, “I hope I remember this in the morning to write it down, because I think it’s good stuff.”
Who knows though how good 3am theology really is? Also, as I’m writing this having been up since 3:30am, I make no guarantees on its quality, either.
I am writing it down. I believe that someone needs to hear it, whether that’s you, my congregation, me—I don’t know. It didn’t come to me for no reason though, so here, at least, is part of the forgiveness piece.
What Forgiveness Is–and Is Not
Many people in the church, especially women, are bullied into forgiveness rather than walked alongside toward it with grace. You don’t have to look far right now to find the double anguish of women who have spoken up about abuse seemingly helped along by the church. In too common practice, leadership then accuses them of trying to destroy their church/pastor/spouse by not engaging in “biblical” forgiveness.
What they mean, of course, is not being willing to pretend the abuse never happened, and if it did, to agree that they are mostly to blame.
So where do repentance and forgiveness belong in the cycle of church life and discipleship?
Forgiveness seems to me to have 3 steps.
(Yes, even in an odd awake dream, I apparently alliterate like a good preacher. The “repent” side was also 3 ‘R’s.’ Whatever.)
“Release” is what we typically see Jesus talking about when he mentions forgiveness. In Matthew 18.22, he uses a word that means to cast away or to let go. When Peter famously asks how many times we should forgive someone who has harmed us, Jesus answers with “seventy times seven”—a phrase known to mean “infinite.”
When someone harms you, continually release them from the debt they owe you. Let the account go. As Paul will later explain, “Love keeps no record of being wronged.” So forgiveness, to Jesus, means to free both people from the imprisonment of holding on to a wrong. He asks that we choose to toss away the accounting books that hold the debt.
This aligns with the parable with which he follows his statement to Peter. A rich man forgives the massive debt of another man. The second, however, chooses to hold on to a much smaller debt owed to him. This, Jesus makes clear, is an affront to the generosity he has had extended to him. As what we now call the Lord’s Prayer teachers us, true gratitude for our own forgiveness results in forgiveness extended to others.
In Jesus’ definition of forgiveness, books are wiped clean.
But what is not happening in this story? Debts are wiped clean, but does this mean the people in the story are to go forward pretending they had never been incurred? Do they allow the person to accumulate debt again in the same way? Jesus doesn’t demand that. The release is required—but the reconciliation and restoration are not necessarily a part of that equation.
That’s where we can fail, in an abusive situation, to teach forgiveness the way Jesus did. Forgiveness is a miracle and a sign of a heart alive to Christ’s deep love for them. It can never be marveled at enough. Downplaying its importance is to forget Jesus’ pretty serous words earlier in Mathew 6.14-15.
Yet forcing it, in a world where we know repentance is often false and peace a one-way street, feels like an abuse of the very concept. It appears to be mocking Jesus’ “490” proclamation, not endorsing it.
Full disclosure—I am a #metoo woman. I was abused by a relative from the ages of 8-14. I have quite a clear grasp on what it feels to demand forgiveness versus come to it by grace. I have forgiven. The release is complete for me. Nevertheless, restoration of the relationship was never on the table. The harm done continues to this day, and a demanded restoration of trust would have been a sham. Indeed, with three daughters of my own, trust would not ever be offered in any way. We both have freedom. We do not have a relationship.
This is why it’s helpful, I think, to look at this 3-step process for forgiveness. We can get through step one, and that truly is the forgiveness that Jesus asks of us. Steps 2 and 3 may happen, and they may not. Either one is OK.
A possible Step 2—reconciliation—is simply to say to another, “You’re part of the family again. You’re accepted back.” The person has repented, and the relationship is mended.
It’s the church treasurer who stole money and repaid it reconciled to the body—but she is not necessarily given back a position at the till.
It’s the person who has gossiped or lied about another being taken back into a group of friends or a church small group. The person lied about has received an apology, but he might never entrust that friend with vulnerable truths again.
It’s the alcoholic parent being invited to Thanksgiving and the family vacation at the lake. His daughter, however, will continue to hide keys and perhaps credit cards.
Reconciliation is a move beyond release to acceptance, with caution. The release is done. The forgiveness part is over. The shalom has begun. It is not yet complete. In this place it might never be. We cannot force reconciliation nor should we, because we could be pushing someone who has already forgiven back into a relationship where there is no true repentance.
The abuse will continue, and it will be twice as damaging, because everyone will assume all is well when a happy face bandaid is put on a deep unhealed wound. There will be pressure for the wounded not to speak up again, and the abuser will take advantage of that.
Reconciliation is the choice of the victim, and it should never be assumed.
Restoration seems to take it one step farther in the sense that the relationship is restored completely. Terry returns to the equation.
This is the church treasurer not only being invited back to fellowship but to trust and leadership. It’s the spouse not only forgiven abuse or adultery but the repair of the relationship to a better state than before. It’s Saul of Tarsus becoming Paul while Ananias vouches for the man who would have killed him a month before, given the chance.
This is the kind of “as far as the east is from the west” forgiveness God extends. It’s not a human ability. When it happens, it’s a miracle of grace and God.
It doesn’t have to happen.
I believe it’s time we look at Jesus-taught forgiveness for what it is, not for the painless (for the perpetrator), “don’t make waves” conviction many church leaders fall into. Forgiveness is the release of debt. It can be done unilaterally, as in my case mentioned above.
Jesus emphasizes its importance because our unwillingness to wipe clean the slate of another shows a poor understanding and experience of God’s great love in clearing our own slates. Bitterness and resentment in the heart and soul of a believer set up a roadblock to our own intimacy with God. We lose our first love.
Reconciliation and restoration are never unilateral. They cannot be the work of one person. The image of either one requires two sides coming together. Thus while one offended party does the work of release, the offender must be doing the work of repentance. (Recognize the wrong, take responsibility for the wrong, and restore what was taken—if you want to know the 3 R’s in that half.)
The reconciliation and restoration are possible—but they are not required. This side of eternity, many things will be restored by the grace of God. Many, however, will not. This is the tension with which we live as believers. We believe and hope for God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven. We recognize that this liminal occurrence isn’t common. We pray for grace. W repeat. Amen.
Some time ago, we watched the movie “Arrival.” Twelve alien ships hovered over the earth, and the movie’s tagline asked everyone’s question—Why Are They Here?
This was roughly the attitude of the Romans toward the early Christians. They had no idea what to do with these alien people whose thoughts, actions, and values no longer matched their society. Like many others do when confronted with people they don’t understand, the Romans did what history records—they persecuted the different ones.
Peter writes to his churches in this climate, and he offers some controversial instructions to those suffering people—instructions we wrestle with still. In fact, this is the third time this week I’ve wrestled with his instructions to wives, a record even for me, an avowed evangelical feminist pastor.
“In the same way, you wives must accept the authority of your husbands. Then, even if some refuse to obey the Good News, your godly lives will speak to them without any words. They will be won over by observing your pure and reverent lives.” (1 Peter 3.1-2, NLT)
What’s the Point?
I like to look at an author’s reasons for writing something, whether it’s an epistle in the Bible or a Facebook “news” article, before I decide what he or she means. (Forgive me, I used to be an English teacher. Also, it’s just good exegesis.)
For Peter, the overarching point throughout his letters is this—
You can see it everywhere in his words. This was Peter’s filter, the lens through which he saw and wrote every line. Why does that matter when considering his instructions to wives?
If we don’t look at those verses through Peter’s intended lens, we don’t see what he wanted us to see. It’s like looking at at the Rockies with a fisheye lens when they were meant to be panoramic. You get distortion, mountaintops that swell, lakes and trees that shrink. You miss the point.
Peter reinforces his theme when he tells his readers the reason for wifely submission—your husbands will be won over to Christ because of the way you live.
What’s the Context?
Christian women married to unbelieving men was common. Some were married before becoming believers. Some married later by the command of a father or because there were too few Christian men. (There were fewer men in the society as a whole—much the same problem that China faces now for some of the same reasons.) Whatever the reason, they found themselves in a dilemma. They knew they were free and equal in Christ. Some believed it would be right to leave their spouse and begin over as a believer. Everyone, especially Peter, knew wholesale acts like that would make the surrounding society hate and misunderstand Christians even more.
Since the goal was—repeat after me—to behave in a hostile world in a way that points people to Jesus—Peter discouraged that. He wanted those women to remain in their marriages and bring the men to Christ.
Peter, like Paul, addresses the tension between offering new freedom, which looked too much like revolution to the Romans (and they were right—it was), and maintaining security and order. In Christ, you are free and equal—but how do we use that in a society where that’s seen as a dangerous, rebellious, uprooting of every social order?
In a world where the empire, your husband, and possibly everyone else is against you, how do you respond? The only option for the underdog was to submit. Peter imagined women whose goodness to their husbands would be so beautiful the men would have no choice but to see Jesus. (“You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God.” v4)
Commoners, Slaves, and Wives
Regardless of chapter division, these instructions for wives to submit come in a series of three. We come to chapters 2-3, and we see the word “submit” (voluntarily accept the authority) three times. Christians—submit to your government, slaveowners, and husbands. All three legal institutions that require your allegiance.
Yes, all three. The thing we moderns don’t comprehend is that the marital relationship in Rome was every bit as much a legal arrangement as slavery and citizenship. A husband was a woman’s legal owner. He was not, as we like to believe in our modern western world, her lover. Certainly, love and affection did happen, and Peter banks on this, but it wasn’t the expected outcome. The institution resembled our modern marriage about as much as your relationship to your dog does.
So his instructions to wives are the same as they are to slaves and commoners. Submit to your legal authority. Behave in a way that is so Christlike neither he nor anyone else can say anything against you.
In a hostile world, point your spouse to Jesus.
If one is going to assert that these verses mean all women submitting to their husband for all time, then we’re forced to also assume all slaves are to obey their masters for all time, because this group of three was not meant to be divided. The same verb is used for all because all three groups (commoners, slaves, and wives) were legal underdogs in Rome.
If that’s the case, my denomination’s entire raison d’être was unbiblical. I’m going to have to tell the bishops.
People tried to claim Peter’s biblical submission regarding American slaves in the 1800’s, but the public found this a reprehensible application of Scripture. Strangely, many Christians do not find the same argument regarding wives at all reprehensible, but they embrace it as a statute for all time. This doesn’t preserve the integrity of Peter’s argument or grammar.
More accurately, Peter was imploring his people to accept whatever institutions they were under and use those structures to glorify Christ. The question then is, do these structures still exist, and if not, to what institutions do we submit? An argument has been made, for example, that we submit to employers in much the way slaves were told to submit to masters, because that is our similar modern institution. Similar, because an employee’s welfare is in the power of the employer, but different because no outright ownership exists. Certainly, we must also recognize that Roman slavery and American chattel slavery were very different things. Marriage, I would argue, is not at all the same legal institution it was then, either.
A Whole New World
Was submission of slaves to masters a temporary state until Christianity permeated enough of the world with its salty tang that the institution of slavery no longer existed? If so, then why not the submission of wives to their legal owners, their husbands, until the same thing happened with the institution of marriage?
We get a hint of that, in fact, in following verses.
“In the same way, you husbands must give honor to your wives. Treat your wife with understanding as you live together. She may be weaker than you are, but she is your equal partner in God’s gift of new life. Treat her as you should so your prayers will not be hindered.” (v7)
Peter drops a revolutionary bomb here. Husbands, love your wives, because you are equals. First, Roman culture didn’t consider loving one’s wife a necessity. They actually considered it a downright inconvenience. Second, equals? LOL.
Peter had a new world order here in mind, but he was mapping it out slowly. While Christian wives were submitting to unbelieving husbands? Believing couples were to model what real kingdom life was like. They lived in love and respect with one another. When an unbelieving husband was brought around to Jesus, that’s what he saw, and that’s what the new believing couple would become.
It was a strategic revolution in family order, but it was slow.
In fact, Peter’s plan for marriage was far more difficult than the simplicity of women submitting to men. That would be easy. His calling for mutual honor was far more difficult and powerful. Wives and husbands would love so well that submission would not be even close to what they did. They would transcend it. The sacrifice for one another and the desire to encourage, lift up, honor, respect, and give to the other would be beyond some paltry submission. That is what would, and did, bring unbelieving Romans to Christ. Which was, as we said, the whole point.
My youngest daughter got me started watching Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. We’re a musical theater family, so she knew the show would click with me.
I knew the dad would die. I also knew I would sob, because I sob at toiletry commercials or a beautiful turn of phrase. What I didn’t expect was how much that death would break me both with memories of my own dad (who loved to dance with me, as hers does) or with the crushing communal grief we all share in COVID’s destructive ramifications. I sobbed, not just for Zoey but for me. For our friend Lauren, who lost bother her parents in one week. For my father-in-law living alone. For modern widows and orphans, all of whom have grieved too soon.
When should we expect to lose those we love? What is the precise time span that we can accept life on earth has been adequate? Exactly where is that line between when we shout angrily at the sky in defiance at a death too soon and when we sigh resignedly at a life well lived?
Much of popular Christianity tells us to accept that death is a natural part of existence. Cue Simba, the circle of life and all that. We ought to celebrate our loved ones’ lives and carry on, not take too much time to cry in the dark, quiet hours of the night.
Somewhere between losing my mother-in-law, studying Genesis with the congregation, and watching COVID numbers mount, I decided something. I don’t believe that anymore.
With Dylan Thomas, I believe unapologetically in raging against the dying of the light. Going gently has never been my form, after all. Yet, theologically speaking, we have room for our rage.
Humans began this world with a life-giving tree in a garden and a mandate to flourish. We will end in a city and a veritable forest of trees of life, healing and wiping away all tears for eternity.
But what do we do with the in between?
How might it have changed the way we all spoke to, argued with, and cared for others in a pandemic if we had taken the time to articulate a good theology of what we believe about death? Not where we believe our souls will fly to—but what we tell others about the purpose, or lack of purpose, behind the great equalizer.
I’ve been told many things about death over the years since I lost my first significant person—my sister when I was fourteen. Some phrases have no place in our theology of death. Everything happens for a reason. It was her time. Many others, meant to console but succeeding only i
There is tension between closing our eyes in peace knowing whom we will see when next we open them and aching to continue the joys and efforts of our lives.
There is mystery in the truth that God didn’t create us for death and yet we die, without omnipotent intervention.
People die, and they usually die when there is still so much more they want to do. That doesn’t mean God was finished with them. It means God is potent enough to carry on the universe without our individual contributions.
A few years ago, I stood contemplating the Atlantic Ocean on the shores of Rockport, MA. I felt the weight of a new pastorate, a struggling church, the school work I was just beginning there, family illness, and more. Looking at the water, I felt God speak calm to my burdened soul. The weight of the world was not on my shoulders. My shoulders are frail and finite. They are a drop in that endless water I watched land on the shore in meandering waves. The water goes on. It always will. The individual drops matter, their stories and deeds contribute to the fulness of the ocean, but they aren’t the whole.
A good theology of death accepts this tension.
A healthy view of death from a Christian standpoint doesn’t insult the love that neither death nor life can separate us from by implying that God always intended to pull a bait and switch on us with that Tree of Life in the garden.
Nor does it bargain with the Creator, presuming on our prideful faith to keep us safe from life’s plagues.
A good theology of death refuses to bank its integrity on claims of certainty—the God we see in Job can burst those at will. It admits that we aren’t certain. We don’t know the reasons. We cannot, as Gandalf counsels, see all ends.
Don’t go quietly into that good night. Rage. It’s OK. Jesus raged at Lazarus’ tomb. Rage at death and joy at the afterlife can coexist. Peace and anger can shake hands over a deathbed. They’re not opposite entities. They’re twin ends of the same cord, held in tension before a mystery we cannot, try as we will, resolve.
The summer after high school, I performed a concert for my church. For probably an hour on a Sunday evening, I sang and played the piano and gave some testimony. I thought I could sing like Sandi Patty. Reader, I could not.
I’m certain it was awful. I’ve since had some voice lessons and ten years of community theater musical experience. But back then—my four-bar solo in Oklahoma! My senior year did not qualify me for the undertaking. Yet people smiled and clapped and told me how much they enjoyed it. They were my people, and I was theirs. I was going off into the big world of college with their applause, and nothing else mattered.
Jesus gives his first public teaching in his hometown. It makes sense. Home breeds comfort. The people are already on your side. You can’t lose. At first, that’s how the story plays out.
Earlier the year, I began to research places we considered traveling this summer—Estonia and the other Baltics were competing with Iceland for top spot. We finally settled on a dark horse not in contention—Croatia and Montenegro, with day trips to Slovenia and Bosnia.
It’s been a top five destination for me since I saw a photo of Montenegro, a country I’d never heard of, on a National Geographic cover in the dentist’s office. So when I saw tickets come across that were significantly cheaper than the norm, I grabbed those and let the other two places wait for another day. (Of course, now, it’s all a giant unknown. At least we’ve had a lot of practice with that lately.)
But the research got me.
After perusing the standard tourist pages, I dove into the history of the Baltics. I learned the stories of their occupation—Estonia has hardly known freedom in its entire existence—and the particular horror since WW2. I encountered stories of families torn apart and lives lost in desperate bids for freedom boating across to Finland.
“The Soviet policy of ‘Russification,’ implemented soon after the occupation, amounted to cultural genocide. It forbade the Estonian flag, imprisoned resistors, and made Russian the official language of the country. Tens of thousands of Russian workers were brought in to dilute the ethnic Estonian population. Estonians became serfs to their masters in Moscow. Within six years of the first Soviet troops arriving in Estonia, the country lost about 25% of its population to execution, imprisonment, deportation, and escape.”
I read about over two million Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians joining hands across the length of the three countries to protest for self-rule. Who could not admire the resilience, creativity, and courage of a people whose entire population sings their way to freedom?
Moving on to our new destination, I began to read of the breakup of Yugoslavia. In these countries, sadly, people did not sing or grasp neighbors’ hands to fulfill their dreams of freedom. Instead, many turned on one another, neighbor against neighbor in Bosnia. Snipers picked off Muslim citizens who dared to leave their houses in daylight, and families buried their dead in the dark for safety. This history I’d remembered, of course. Only vaguely, though.
My own history has made me ignorant of much that has gone on in the world. I was never taught history. Oh, I remember learning American history repeatedly, year after year. Not once, however, do I recall learning world history, except as it impinged on America occasionally in the form of war.
Then in the 90’s when the seams of the USSR were ripping apart, I was giving birth to three kids and noticing very little outside my small world of diapers and Barney and trying to continue a writing career between breastfeeding and nap times. Oh, and I was also going to seminary. So world news wasn’t top of mind.
Now, however, I know.
Knowing makes the world closer. It humanizes events. It gives faces to people who only want to live with self-determination of the details of their own lives.
These are the Ukrainian people. My heart breaks for them and prays for their freedom and peace.
Leaving the European political scene, these are also transgender teenagers in Texas. These are Afghan, Syrian, Guatemalan refugees. These are women in abusive situations. These are black Americans trying to birdwatch in a park.
In Genesis God gave humans dominion to grow, learn, and be free in the land. God gifted humanity with agency and purpose. Taking those things away is the most devastating thing one can do to a human soul, because they were the first gift of a loving God who knew the created ones completely. It’s also, as Lisa Sharon Harper points out in her new book, Fortune, the first weapon of a conquering people.
Take away agency, and you take away the will to fight.
This is why I weep for the Ukranians and others who might be next in the path of a lust for power.
This is why I fight for my black siblings who still can’t live, work, get an education, drive, walk, jog, or wear a hoodie in the place of their choosing.
This is why I set up apartments for refugees and support sanctuaries to women fleeing a dictatorship in their own living rooms.
This is why I’m learning about teenagers who don’t feel like their bodies are obeying their very souls and fear telling anyone about this struggle inside.
Because God created people for good, peacemaking kinds of freedom. Not the kind of “freedom” that denies responsibility for our fellow humans in favor of personal preference and rights. that’s not God-given freedom–Paul calls that indulgent selfishness.
“You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love.” (Galatians 5.13, CEB).
God created humans to be free in the original Edenic definition.