Shutting Down

Hi Everyone,

Just wanted to let you know I am shutting down this blog.  You can email me at kdabaghian@gmail.com. I wish you all well on your journey!

-karen

 

Why We Tell The Story

Why We Tell The Story

Yesterday afternoon I watched in wonder as my little Julia, one week past her 10th birthday, portrayed the beloved character Ti Moune, in her school drama club’s adaptation of the musical, Once On This Island. Spoiler alert: I fought back tears from start to finish, but not for the reasons I expected to.


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Set in the French Antilles, Once On This Island tells the story of Ti Moune, an orphan peasant girl, “black as night,” who lives on one side of the island with her people— the poor slaves who make up the islands’ servant class. On the other side of the island live the wealthy grandes hommes, the fair-skinned land-owners who shut their eyes to the suffering and poverty of the peasants so they can benefit from their labor unhampered by conscience.

The island is overseen by four gods — Asaka, Mother of the Earth; Agwé, God of Water; Erzulie, Goddess of Love; and Papa Ge, Demon of Death. Unbeknownst to the peasants and grandes hommes alike, the gods commence a cosmic wager designed to answer the most enduring of questions: can love conquer death or is death the most powerful force in the universe. All agree, Ti Moune’s life will be the the balance sheet upon which the wager is played.

The gods cause a great storm to lash the island, during which a young grandes hommes, Daniel Beauxhomme, is fatally wounded. Ti Moune rescues Daniel, stepping into her destiny and holding back the Demon of Death by exchanging her life for his. With Papa Ge temporarily sated, Ti Moune nurses Daniel back to health, falling in love with him and imagining he loves her in return. Soon the grandes hommes realize Daniel is with Ti Moune, and bring him home to his father’s grand hotel on the other side of the island, the gates of which are tightly shut to keep the peasants out. Ti Moune, with the help of the gods, gains entrance and continues to care for Daniel, who begins to love her in return.

But at the moment it seems love will conquer the great divide between the privileged boy and the peasant girl, Daniel admits to Ti Moune that he is betrothed to a woman from his own class. Daniel is given the choice — go against the proscriptions of his community and choose Ti Moune, whom he loves and to whom he owes his life, or kneel to social expectation and marry his betrothed. Choosing convention and ease instead of loyalty and love, Daniel betrays Ti Moune and casts her away. At that very moment, Papa Ge arrives to test Ti Moune and play out the wager — he gives Ti Moune one final opportunity to recant on her vow, one final chance to save her own life. Brokenhearted, Ti Moune picks up a knife to stab Daniel in the back but in the final second she casts its violently to the floor and collapses in grief, choosing to die so that Daniel can live.

Two weeks later, Daniel is married and as is the custom, the bride and groom throw coins to the peasants outside the gate as part of their celebration. Starved and dying, Ti Moune calls to Daniel, hoping he will yet love her, but upon seeing her, he stoops only to place a silver coin in her outstretched hand, an act so profane it takes your breath away.

The gods, in their compassion, give Ti Moune a peaceful death, and moved by the depth of her love, turn her into a tree that to this day, the story goes, stands in the entrance to the hotel, forcing wide open the gates. The story ends with the ensemble telling us that for the generations to come, the children of both the peasants and the grandes hommes played beneath Ti Moune’s branches, one community formed from rich and poor, black and white, formed because of a love that conquered death.


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Good theater blurs the lines between fiction and reality for the audience, and this is where my part picks up, with the blurry line of watching my daughter become Ti Moune, watching her wonder about her destiny, discover it in the broken body of a boy on the brink of death, trade her life for his, bear his betrayal, choose even to die, and then see her choice bloom bittersweet.

As the story unfolded and I started to realize that Daniel was going to betray Ti Moune, every ounce of my mama bear heart reacted. My souls’ depths started screaming, Don’t do it Ti Moune! He doesn’t deserve you. You, my sweet precious little girl, do not give your life for his. Take up that knife, drive it through his back, do whatever you must to live.

“Its just so different when its your child,” He whispered, there in the dark of the theater, as I saw in the face of my 10 year old daughter the face of Jesus, filled with chesed, with divine, loyal love that outrageously defies explanation and common sense and self-preservation, that argues beyond doubts’ shadow that all our theologizing about the cross is the mere clanging of symbols, useless to teach us anything real.

Want to know what the cross means? Skip all the pontificating by talking heads and don’t bother with all the Big Important Books purporting to explain it all. Just watch your child die for someone else. Even if is only in your imagination. Even if its just a play. And it doesn’t really matter who your child dies for, because I guarantee you there will never ever be someone who is so deserving that you will look at them, then at your child, and back again, and agree the exchange is legit. Never.

I touched the ethereal tip of something I have known my whole life and yet, in an instant, realized I have never really known: why Jesus died for me. Not the theology mind you; I know that of course. No, this was about the essence, the part that resists being reduced down words and bullet points. I grasped it, there, in the face of a little girl acting a part in a play, and I haven’t stop crying since. Jesus died because he loves me. But saying so, alas, the words can’t touch the meaning, can’t take us where we need to go. Still I try: I couldn’t love Him in return and He still died, not as a chess piece in some cosmic arrangement but because He couldn’t help himself. Because all of Him loved all of me, because love ran red hot in his veins, and nobody, not even God, was going to stop Him.

God watched him die and I wonder, did God’s mama bear heart scream too? Did God hold his tongue as I held mine, to let the story play out, to honor the choice made by His Son?

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In the past I’ve had people say angrily to me “I didn’t ask Jesus to die for me,” and indeed, they did not. I understand the emotion they are expressing, the sense of non-agency involved with the idea that someone dies for you and you didn’t ask for it, the powerlessness, and the desire to reclaim both agency and power. And actually, I applaud that desire. I don’t think its pride. I think most of the time it shows itself in individuals who, in one way or another, have been denied human agency in their lives and the impulse to get it back is a God-given one. I have no quarrel with that.

And yet, I can’t help but feel they, and me too, we are all so painfully far from the glorious edge of this mystery.

The point is not theology or agency, nor is it a cosmic quid pro quo that says, “since Jesus died for you, you are now obligated to live for Him.” The point is not wallowing as undeserving or endlessly trying to enter into how much the crucifixion must have hurt.

The point, at least as I see it now, is this: we get glimpses of what love looks like in the ordinary stuff of life, the moments shared between friends, lovers, families. And these glimpses are real, they are, and they are good gifts from a Good God. But it is in the tidal wave of grief and suffering, where the distance from crest to trough terrifies us and defies our human ability to cope, that Love radiates its deepest hues. Ti Moune’s love for Daniel was certainly evident in the way she nursed him back to health and basked in his love for her. But it became powerful and otherworldly, it grew unimaginable dimensions as it faced Daniel’s rejection and betrayal, as it chose its own death rather than kill the beloved. Love that conquers death can only fully be seen juxtaposed to death, such that if we are ever going to know how much Jesus loves us, we have to stand there at the cross and watch it all unfold. Stand if you can, friend. I cannot. I collapse there, overcome. I am loved like that.

Why does God allow suffering and grief? I don’t have an answer. I think, probably, there is no answer, certainly not this side of death and maybe not on the other side either. But in the darkest moments of our life, if we can bear to watch the tidal wave at is crashes down on our heads, we just might catch a glimpse of what Love is, what Love does.

Jesus, Inc.

Jesus, Inc.

The good news: my book is published! Well, its available for pre-order and I think it will be actually available next week. I should know the drop date, but I don’t. I know the soccer schedule for today and that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

The bad news: I’m still ambivalent.

When I was younger (by at least half and maybe as much as two-thirds) I desperately wanted to be an author and maybe even a speaker. My goal was to have a book published before I hit 30, because after that I would be close to dead and I didn’t want my book jacket photo being of an old person. True story.

Looking back I think this youthful desire actually reflected a few dynamics:

  1. In Christian circles, the only place a woman could contribute ideas in an more-or-less equal way to men was in the author/speaker circuit. The pulpit was not available, because ovaries. That led to #2:

  2. As a female you were basically screwed if God had gifted you with prophetic or teaching gifts,* and the older I get the more convinced I am I fit into the former bucket, which explains a little about #3, namely

  3. I felt I had A Lot To Say.

In the intervening years, my hair has started to turn grey, I have permanent bags under my eyes, and I genuinely feel I have Nothing To Say about God or the life of faith. The older I get the more mysterious it all is — less propositional, impossible to communicate didactically, only apprehended incarnationally, with limbs and tears. God seems to be antithetical to reduction of any sort, and thus faith becomes, I don’t know, perplexing.

It would have been soooooooo much better if I had published my first-and-only book before the age of 30, when my book jacket photo would have been of a young person. When I knew so much more and I had so much to say. When I wasn’t so lost.

But here I am, with Travelogue about to drop, feeling horribly vulnerable and quite truthfully regretting that I didn’t leave it on my shelf where it probably belongs.

As if that’s not enough, my ambivalence stems equally from a deep discomfort with what I have taken to calling “Jesus, Inc.”

I’m a high tech marketing professional by trade, which means that I should be pretty good at marketing my own book. I know all the right things to do and then some: blogging and SEO, contributed articles, give-aways. You know, build the brand. But I don’t want to. It feels like I’m marketing Jesus, or worse using Jesus to market myself, and I don’t like it. I can’t wrap my head around “Jesus” and “Business” set cheek and jowl as if they can legitimately occupy shared space.

Of course is not that simple. I know deeply faithful Jesus-people, who are conference speakers, published authors and brilliant bloggers with sites optimized for search engines, and who are building their readership one relationship at a time with integrity and for honorable reasons. Jesus is truly at the center of what they are doing and I am proud to support to be part of it. It is good and right and true, what they do and I’ll not back down from that.

I still don’t want to do it.

And, at the same time, I’ve watched a drama unfold within the so-called “emergent” church for many months** that has the veneer of “Jesus” but turns out its “Business” and its ugly and destructive and not-Jesus-at-all. Whitewashed tombs come to mind. It reeks of money and minor celebrity, of scheming people jockeying for advantage and well-meaning people discovering they have ungodly bedfellows but can’t get out of bed because its a bed they themselves have made.

Thus on the cusp of Travelogue being formally published, I find myself with tons of dissonance (no surprise there) and oddly grateful. Grateful that if this book sells not even one copy, it will have been worth it for all that I have received. Grateful that as a published book I can get it to people who want it, for less money than it was costing me to print it myself (Rabbi, remember the days of $25 unit cost?). Grateful that as publishing niches go, Travelogue is in a pretty tiny one (let’s face it: poetry and the Psalms … not exactly source material for the hot take) so I’m not at risk for any kind of commercial success.

* * *

*As a side note, I have many friends who fall into the category of believing the pulpit is no place for ovaries, and suggest that God might want me to be a prophet only to women. Or children I suppose, assuming the male ones are not over the age of 12, or 15, or 26 depending on your cultural assumptions. My problem with this is the Epistles (ie: location of discussions of gifting) don’t seem overly concerned with parsing out gifts-based-on-audience. Gifts, as far as I can tell, appear to be based on the Spirit.

**There are plenty of examples across the entire spectrum of Christian theology and praxis; this isn’t juxtaposing conservative v progressive, only pointing out the progressive one is the one I’ve been watching.

What Liberian Christians taught me, thanks to NPR

I have been captivated these past months by the global response to Ebola — a response that tells us far more about ourselves and each other and what we truly believe than any amount of pontificating and posturing ever could. We see who we really are when confronted with such a dangerous and deadly foe.

I have felt a huge range of emotions — outrage at times, fear and deep grief, anger and hope too. I have swung wildly in my views on how the US ought to be handling our efforts in West Africa as well as our efforts at home. I have recognized the cold grip of racism deep in my bones and prayed earnestly for forgiveness, for the grace to learn true repentance and see as Jesus sees. It is a long road for me, this excising of the sin that thrives below the waterline of my soul, that is at once profoundly individual but also institutional and thus engrained in my very worldview.

So, whenever there is news about Ebola, I tune in, and a few days ago that took me again to NPR on my afternoon drive down to pick my daughter up from school. The story was being told by a Western journalist who had been (actually might still be) in Liberia at one of the Ebola treatment centers. I may not get the details exactly right — I was driving after all and not taking notes, but let me give you the sense of it.

She described how, first thing in the morning, the Liberian care-givers, many of them pastors and other Christian leaders, would arrive already in their scrubs, bleached to bland, barely-there pastel colors, and begin the process of preparing for the day ahead. They would start their morning with prayer, a portion of which NPR recorded and then played for those of us tuning in.

In the recording you hear a Liberian pastor pray for grace for his team, for mercy for his patients. He prays for courage and hope, for compassion and safety. As he prays, the background is not silent like you would find in a typical Western white church. There is singing and chanting as the men and women who are gathered that day affirm his prayers and raise their own voices to God in worship. The journalist then explains that the group prayer is followed by a few moments of silent prayer, where everyone has a moment to soberly consider the reality that today might be the day they contract Ebola and face their own death. The care-givers look the specter of their own death in the eye, pray for protection, and suit up.

By the time I reach the school parking lot, tears are swimming in my eyes. It seems God can use even NPR to speak with me, and I feel a profound joy in that realization, affirming with the poet-king:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you. (Ps. 139:7-12)

I learned in my year in the Psalms that these spontaneous emotions are doorways to the sacred. That may seem obvious to you, but for me, I developed in my teens and 20s the spiritually debilitating habit of suppressing my emotions, swallowing my feelings so I could think more clearly (rationality was a prize far greater than tears in those days).

I’m all for thinking clearly, but if you are seeking the face of God, you have to learn how to loosen your grip a bit, receive rather than control.

So there I sat, waiting for my daughter, trying my best to step in the sacred space opening up, and I was struck in that moment by how simple the Gospel really is and how badly the Western evangelical and mainline churches have together messed it up.

These Liberian healers, men and women scrubbing in to minister to the sick and dying, they embodied the Gospel, the good news of God’s Kingdom inaugurated among us by the person and work of Jesus.

First, they prayed. The sang their songs, and prayed their fears and hopes, together with one voice and silently as individuals sharing a communal space. They cast their cares upon a Good and Sovereign God. And then they put their lives on the line for the sake of another.

They didn’t stop to figure out if the sick and the dying were Christians with correct theology. They didn’t decide to risk their lives only for the patients who contracted the disease innocently and refuse treatment for those who contracted it by way of social or sexual practices they found offensive. They didn’t send out 140 character bromides about the “ebola of unbelief” or use the humanitarian crisis as an opportunity to promote their theology. They prayed for grace, mercy, safety, hope, peace. And they put their lives on the line as if to prove they meant every word of their prayer, as if they believed God was stepping into the quarantine rooms with them. As if they believed they were God’s answer to their very own prayers.

We in the West get this all wrong, and I am chief among the mistaken.

The Evangelicals, among whom I still most of the time count myself, we totally get the “prayer” part. We are great at praying and worshipping, and I mean that genuinely. We really do. We know how to submit to the sovereignty of God, how to pray for healing and repentance, mercy and faith. We know how to raise our voices and testify to the saving work of Jesus and we know how to open our souls to the sacred space of corporate prayer and worship. But when it comes to good works, we Evangelicals of recent history saw them in terms of conversion “missions” where we exported our systematic theologies and went on “exposure” trips to 3rd world countries to see first hand how successfully the natives were implementing our Western worship practices and Biblical interpretations. We sometimes built houses and dug wells, and I don’t mean to say these missions trips were (or are) without merit, but my observation in retrospect is that our attitude was more as teachers and leaders bearing gifts for the less fortunate, rather than as humble, authentic learners cogently aware we were standing amid giants of our shared faith. The idea that Africans, South Americans, Indians or Arabs living in relative squalor had something fundamental to teach us about the Gospel, something inaccessible to us because of our Western affluence, was beyond the scope of imagination.

The Mainliners and Catholics, with whom I have lots of experience but less theological commonality, they totally get the suiting up part. If you have a cause that needs arms and legs, get them involved. For years I watched in utter amazement as nominal Catholics and Protestants of all stripes quite literally went all over the globe to dig wells and vaccinate children and build churches. But they could not speak of Jesus or give testimony to their faith or conversion journey. They squirmed at the idea of either prayer or worship, and felt deep discomfort even uttering the name of Jesus in polite company. Jesus, I came to understand, was for them something of an embarrassment.

This is of course not news, and of course I am generalizing. The point is, we have watched for many years the back-and-forth between the social gospel liberal folks and the prayer-in-schools conservative folks, and neither one of us got it right.

These Liberians, living in the hot zone — they are getting it right. The gospel is both, together: confessing with our voices that Jesus alone is Messiah and King, and demonstrating with our bodies that His Salvation and His Kingdom have come. Prayer and worship followed fast by the sound of boots striking the cold hospital floor. A worship song hummed while gloved hands wash blood from a faltering man’s eyes and ears. Tears and a holy benediction over a body bag in size extra-small.

I do not understand this Gospel but I want to. I understand the words but not the essence of it, not really. My Western affluence makes it difficult to engage the Gospel like this, and doesn’t Jesus himself say this? How do I then live in the “where” and “when” God has called me to for now? The tension this creates for me feels unbearable at times, and perhaps that tension was part of my tears that day listening to NPR. It seems simpler there, in Liberia. More accessible, more present. I am most certainly romanticizing it, my robust imagination creating a version of reality that is certainly false.

Nevertheless …

Nevertheless, my struggle to weave together my humanity, God’s sovereignty, and the world’s great need rages on.

What compassion looks like

Yesterday afternoon I was listening to NPR interview a Doctors without Borders nurse who was in Africa working in one of the Ebola zones. The interview focused on the protective gear the nurses and doctors wear to treat Ebola patients, and it was fascinating — the specific way into and out of the gear, the challenges of working in the intense heat that the suits produce (there is no ventilation since ventilation would mean potential exposure), and the fact that it takes two people to get each other dressed and undressed. As the nurse kept repeating, “there are no shortcuts with Ebola.” Skip a step and you potentially expose yourself or your partner to the deadly virus.

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The interview took place from the point of view of keeping the nurses and doctors safe, and I for one am glad we insist on our caregivers being cared for in this way. These are brave women and men on the front lines of the Ebola outbreak. We ought to pay close attention to protecting them — for their own health and for the sake of containing the outbreak.

Then, at the end of the segment, the interviewer asked what changes the nurse would like to have in the protective gear to improve her working conditions. Her answer was arresting.

She replied that what she most wished for was a different way to protect her face. The hazmat suit, along with the protective mask and goggles, means that the only part of her face that is visible to a patient is her eyes, and even eyes are hard to see well behind the goggles. She went on to say that because Ebola is so contagious, patients are completely isolated. They have no family by their side, they cannot be touched except through layers of rubber gloves, and all they can see behind the yellow suits and medical-grade masks and goggles is the eyes of their nurse, their doctor. Many patients die this way — alone, isolated, afraid, hungry for human touch and companionship.

The best I can do, she went on to say, is smile at them with my eyes, but I wish they could see my whole face so they could know they are not alone.

Her answer for how to improve her working conditions? Help me love the terrified, the isolated, the dying more, better, fully.

Would that I understood compassion like this.

“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.”
― Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging

GI Jane got me thinking …

GI Jane got me thinking …

Time for a confession: about once a month I sit down in the middle of the day.

That’s it. That’s my confession. You were hoping for something a bit more titillating, weren’t you?

Mainly I sit down because I’m so exhausted that the mere thought of trying to be productive makes me want to curl into the fetal position and cry, but since doing so would freak me out, instead, I watch TV.

TV, in the middle of the day, even with 999 channels (we have satellite) is an utter wasteland. 999 channels and there is seriously Nothing On. Friends reruns. Two-bit talk shows. Porn. Flipping channels can honestly make me despair about the future of civilization, or wonder if we’ve deceived ourselves collectively into thinking we are civilized when that ship sailed long before The Maury Show hit the airwaves.

But every once in a while, deep in the HBO channels, there’s a movie on that I remember from my 20s and I’ll watch it for a while. Last month it was True Lies (1994). Remember that disaster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis as Harry and Helen Tasker? The most impressive thing in that movie was the AV-8B Harrier jet that Harry commandeers near the end. But what arrested my attention at this most recent viewing was the way in which the movie captures the shift that was well underway by the mid-90s concerning the relationship between the sexes and women’s roles in particular — what the expectations were for us in marriage, the workplace, society, sex.

Movies, we all know, both reflect and shape cultural expectations, so when a mess like True Lies hits the screen, we unwittingly bear witness to the tension, usually without even knowing it. In my case, I didn’t see anything “wrong” at the time with True Lies — to the contrary, I thought it was great that the frumpy housewife got to be a sexy spy after all, and that she did things like slug her boorish husband in the jaw for lying to her. But the movie drips with misogyny — I just didn’t have eyes to see it.

This month I watched GI Jane (1997). Demi Moore plays Jordan O’Neil (note the gender-neutral name), a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy who is manipulated by scheming politicians (a redundancy if ever there was one) to be a token female in a fictionalized version of Navy SEAL training and, if she makes the grade, covert ops. It is assumed that she will ring out of bootcamp and prove that all women for all times should not serve in the US Military. Of course, our hero does not fail. She shaves her head, meets every challenge and shows she’s not only physically capable but also clever, a natural born leader. In the end, she gets serious (and poetic!) props from the Command Master Chief, played by Viggo Mortensen — the only thing in the course of her experience to bring tears to her eyes.

I’m sure library shelves are full of graduate-level theses examining the portrayal of women in film, and I have no intent of adding to that discourse here.

Rather, I want to point out — and maybe this is obvious — that when you sit down and watch a 20 year old movie it is much easier to see the ways in which our culture was trying to make sense of how men and women ought to relate, in what ways were they same and different, what the available roles were for each gender. Schwarzenegger was at the pinnacle of his movie career in 1994 and represented the ideal archetypal male. Demi Moore had posed for that scandalous Vanity Fair cover 6 years earlier and her physical transformation into GI Jane had both men and women alike slack-jawed (how on earth could a woman, a mother, do those one-handed pushups?).

Here’s the money shot. I point all this out because we are, of course, in a similar transformational cultural moment — maybe we never left the last one — and too many of us are too blind too much of the time to what is happening and what is at stake. I include myself in there, friends. What it means to be men and women is Up For Grabs right now, as technology and a global economy have shifted the ground from underneath our feet. I’m sure there are many other factors, but those two stand out for me.

The Church that I love is trying to figure this out too, both theologically and practically, and as you might expect, many people seem to be retreating to a place far away from that midline: the conservatives are getting more conservative and the progressives more progressive. Few want to occupy the tentative, tension-filled space near the middle where the line is hard to see because you are standing right on top of it.

I could write a thesis on the myriad ways in which this is happening right now in Evangelical culture. In fact, it would take a thesis-length paper to do it justice. On the one end of the spectrum, we watch the redefinition of gender-as-spectrum and the concurrent redefinition of marriage; Tony Jones and sacramental vs. legal wives; the Emergent Church and LGBTQ inclusion, and so on. On the other end, pretty much anything connected to Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Al Mohler; the Authentic Manhood movement that places Jesus in Schwarzenegger’s coveted role; the Duggars, Duck Dynasty, and lots of guys like this fellow, affiliated with John Eldredge, who in all fairness, explains forthrightly and quite thoughtfully that his blog is for men. Manly men (or those who want to be). Knife-toting, flannel shirt wearing, God-fearing, Spiritual Leader (TM) Men, not wussy metro men who live in suburbs and enjoy wearing Tommy Bahamas shirts and drinking wine. And Definitely Not For Women.

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Because women are the opposite of men, male is the opposite of female, masculine is the opposite of feminine. Or is it women and men are on a continuum, a spectrum, with gender as fluid and negotiable, and roles between and among men and women also best understood as fluid and negotiable. Or something else that’s not linear at all, a gender version of wave particle duality?

We are living in this tense cultural moment and it is hard for us to see the ways in which we are being shaped by and also reflecting and reinforcing our preconceptions. Some of us don’t care because we think it doesn’t matter. Some think if we withdraw far enough the raging current won’t knock us or our children off our feet. Some pick up arms of all sorts to wage culture war.

What will we think 20 years from now, when time and distance and experience yield hindsight and, one hopes, at least a modicum of wisdom? What will our movies, our blogs, even our theology tell us about ourselves 10 years, 20 years hence?

Perhaps the more salient question, given that there is nothing new under the sun, is how ought we to live this moment? How ought we hold the tension, treat our “enemy” who wants to shape male and female in ways we don’t approve? How ought we think about and engage with those who hold the opposing point of view?

I don’t have the answer, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

From the Rabbi: My Favorite Biking Experience

From the Rabbi: My Favorite Biking Experience

My favorite biking experience took place in Bossano del Grappa, Italia in 2008.

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Altopiano di Asiago

Each morning scores of Italians would fly by and we would hear the hum of the gears. We did five rides of varying degrees of climbs. The most spectacular was a 50 mile ride with about 3500 ft. elevation to the wondrous town of Asiago. At the end of each day I would withdraw by myself for some quiet time by the river just below our little family run hotel. There is simply no better way to vacation for me than to exercise through Italian scenery and reflect by the river’s edge. But the sweetest moment came on the last day when I borrowed the hotel bike and headed off in my flip flops, pedaling to find some flowers for our host. Not finding the flower store, I stopped to partake of some gelati when…

“A Wave of Beauty”

While biking up river seeking fiori…to no avail
a gelati bar binds me to a group of lively old menPICT0061
who just descended the Forza climb
each one dapper draped in red and white
take their repose at the bar
but just before they cross the threshold
a young beauty makes her way up the hill
on an old bicycle oblivious to the all bravado
she catches their eyes and seizes their hearts
with more emotion than they can constrain,
until one relieves the strain and shouts, “Belleeeesimaaa!”

Laughter roars as they make their way into the bar,
but one lingers long enough to see her face once again,
she turns, smiles and yes, even waves.
That insignificant gesture sends shock waves
through his beleaguered bones
and infuses the old man with such vitality
a warrior’s cry thunders from his lungs
summoning all his friends, who pour out into the street
to hear him recount the story
with wild hands waving as only Italians can do,
they surround him in their huddle of gregarious congratulations.
It was as if he had won the lottery, or had won her hand in marriage.

What is it that captures a man’s eye?
in its purest form it is not lust
but elegant beauty,
young, graceful and innocent
that makes us boys again
Flowers failing search
even across the ponte
one closed store after another
sends me home empty handed
until the old italian stallions
bike past me
and I, for a few moments,
trail behind
drafting their sleek peloton
as if one of them.

How does a Christian magazine end up posting a letter defending statutory rape?

A week ago, the Christianity Today (CT) imprint, Leadership Journal (LJ), published a letter written by a man in jail for statutory rape of a teenage girl in his youth group.

It was published as a cautionary tale for pastors and other (male) church leaders lest they too “fall into sin” which, in this case, was positioned as an extra-marital affair between consenting adults. Only at the end of the letter does the reader learn with horror that the female participant was in middle school when the abuse began.

Within hours of the article being posted, a huge — and I mean huge — backlash walloped CT and the Journal, and after an appalling 5 days (the editors’ first instinct was simply to delete all negative comments), the letter was replaced with a genuinely awesome apology and retraction (it is included in the link above) demonstrating that finally, after countless emails, blog posts, comments and tweets, the publishers understood just how warped their point of view was that allowed them to publish a rape apologia couched in Christian vernacular and supported with Bible stories.

A number of bloggers have written about the ordeal — some of them sexual abuse survivors themselves, others who have grasped the consequence of gender discrimination in the church and the ways in which warped theology contributes to a climate wherein abuse thrives. One blogger in particular caught my attention and it is to her ideas that I wish to add.

She unmasks the nuance that had the predator/prey relationship been between an adult male and a teenage boy, CT and LJ would never have published the letter. It would have been so obviously despicable, unrepentant and narcissistic. The same holds true had the rapist been an adult female pastor, teacher or coach and her victim a teenage girl (or boy). We are crystal clear in these scenarios that these are not “extramarital affairs” or “consensual relationships.” We are crystal clear that one person is a target of sexual deviance and the other a predator who manipulates others for their own gratification.

So why — how — did the editors at CT/LJ miss this?  Why could they not see the same dynamic in this situation?

Surely a part of the answer is that in many Christian circles, a relationship between a dominant male and a submissive female is normative. It is proffered as the ideal model for marriage and the operating model for church governance.

When I was growing up, I picked up the message that the “ideal” Christian wife was younger than her husband, less educated, less professionally accomplished, embraced her calling to be submissive, and above all desired to be shaped by her husband’s wishes, ideas and leadership. The “ideal” Christian husband was the exact opposite: he was older than his wife, well-educated, had professional or pastoral aspirations and above all desired to be the spiritual authority and leader in his home. Authentic partnership and mutual submission were nowhere in the story line, although looking back I find it funny how few of us actually lived out this leader/follower narrative. Either we were terrible church-goers or God was particularly merciful. I’m thinking it was a combination of both.

Lest you think this mentality has gone the way of all flesh, look no further than the embarrassingly popular Duck Dynasty patriarch and his encouraging of child marriage to see this idea alive and well. The clear message from Phil is that a man should marry a girl — 14, 15, 16 tops — so that he can mold her into a well-trained, subservient wife. Her humanity and the giftedness and calling of God on her life are irrelevant at best, and more likely simply non-existent. She exists solely for him, the argument goes, because Genesis says so. He is entitled to her.

(As an aside, are you aware that the Duck Dynasty patriarchs are putting out a Bible? Yep. Thomas Nelson is publishing a new King James version with commentary from Phil and his son Alan. Words fail). DC FF Bible

As sex scandals continue to rock the conservative evangelical world, comparisons are being made to the Catholic abuse scandal of years past. I am convinced that part of the reason we all reacted so vehemently to the news of widespread sexual abuse of altar boys by priests was precisely because we could all understand deep in our bones just how powerless, how un-equal, how un-consenting these boys were. We didn’t have to be told that a teenage boy does not willingly, naturally become a sexual submissive to an adult male for the purpose of that man’s pleasure. But we have to be told this very thing when a man’s victim is a girl. Especially if she is a teenager.

So here’s where it hurts: we could see the horror of male clergy abuse of boys clearly because it violated our worldview, wherein boys are agents in their lives and have full and unfettered rights to their bodies. When they are made powerless (we even have a word for that: emasculated) we can see straight away that something is horribly, egregiously wrong.

But girls, in this worldview, are powerless by design, by divine edict. Their bodies belong to their male protectors, the men who are entitled to them. It is their God-given role to be powerless, to require male leadership in order to thrive, and so when girls are victimized, we don’t recognize it as such. At first blush it looks normal, maybe slightly off but only slightly. The man was a little too old for her. She was maybe a little too young. Things will even out eventually. 

(Interestingly, there is no equivalent word for what happens to a girl or woman when she is robbed of agency or power — linguistic relativity would argue that this is both a reflection and a cause of female powerlessness).

I am not the only person to wonder if this horrible rape-apology letter would not have been published had there been women on the CT/LJ editorial board. Strong, opinionated, educated women, women who were viewed by their male peers as equals, whose voices were weighted equally in shaping editorial decisions.

For me, this week-long decent into a necessary yet excruciating discussion of sexual abuse in the Church that I love so much has reminded me again why I am a proponent of women’s full equality in marriage and church. The Bible I read says God made men and women to complement each other (no, I am not a “complementarian”). We are not the same. We see differently, experience differently. We are shaped by different forces in our culture, by our biology and the ways we were nurtured. Equality does not imply sameness. To the contrary, it is our difference that is our strength. We need each other — in marriage, in friendship, in church governance, in ministry.

In our equality, in our diversity, as peers, in partnership, we bear God’s image and accomplish God’s first, formative call on our shared humanity:

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

From the Rabbi: The Most a Poem Can Do

Bringing Four Worlds Together 

Slide1Stanford professor John Felstiner, reflecting on Paul Celan’s poem Es Stand, commented that the most a poem can do is to bring four worlds together through its metaphors or images. “And when it does,” he said, “the poem becomes explosive.” These worlds are the natural (creation), the spiritual, the political/geographical, and the personal.

When we apply the four worlds of the poet to David’s psalms, we can begin to appreciate their enduring significance through their many layers of memory. First, there is the historical situation that places them in the context of David’s story. Second, we find Israel using David’s psalms in new situations with different liturgical settings. Third, these prayers take on greater significance as they give shape to Jesus’ prayers. Finally, as we are “in Christ,” David’s psalms become our prayers.

I experienced the explosive power of the poem on my second visit to Romania in 1989.

While we were studying the David/Jonathan story, several agents from Romania’s secret police (the Securitate) were searching for us in the forest in order to arrest our hosts for housing us (it was illegal to have foreigners in their homes without reporting it to the police) and conducting a Bible conference. In the midst of their intrusions into our camp, four brothers (all were named Jonathan, as if by divine coincidence) put their lives on the line to protect us from the police. img124

I had never experienced this kind of sacrificial love before. It was as if the ancient David/Jonathan story was being re-enacted right before our eyes. At one point I took my position on a secure height to watch for any agents who might be coming up the road, while the Romanians took cover inside a large tent to worship and study God’s word.

Sitting in silence I began meditating on Psalm 27. David’s metaphors broke my soul wide open.

When evildoers assail me
      to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
      it is they who stumble and fall. (Ps 27:2)

On four different occasions, the Securitate came to devour our souls, but each time they stumbled and fell. And then I read further in the psalm:

                  For he will hide me in his shelter
                        in the day of trouble;
                  he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
                        he will  lift me high upon a rock.
                  And now my head shall be lifted up
                        above my enemies all around me,
                  and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of  joy;
                        I will sing and make melody to the Lord. (Ps 27:5-6)

As I was reading these verses, I could hear the voices of the Romanians singing their songs of praise concealed “under the cover of his tent.” The David story and song that had shaped Jesus’ story, was now shaping our lives in this new setting on a hillside in Costeşti, România. I was overcome with the joy of having a small part on the stage of God’s wondrous drama of redemption.

This explains why certain hymns or spiritual songs evoke strong emotions within us, while others may not. When specific lyrics give voice to significant experiences in our lives, or to emotions we haven’t yet been able to articulate, or evoke layers of memory and accumulated emotions, they can stir our hearts to the core.

The hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” has always been a favorite of mine. I came to appreciate it first for its lyrics that give voice to trust and contentment at a time of loss. My appreciation was heightened when I learned the occasion for which it was originally written.

But it wasn’t until I sang it with a couple grieving over their six-year-old son at Stanford Hospital, that its power became explosive. As Timothy had only hours left to live, we lifted our voices to sing the hymn. I didn’t remember the second verse, but the nurse taking care of Timothy did. And she did not hold back. With her full-throttled voice she boomed out the second verse. When she did, it was as if angels came into the room and flooded us with a peace I can only describe as transcendent. Suddenly the hospital room was transformed into the gate of heaven. I watched in awe as a mother held and caressed her dead son. Then Timothy’s nurse washed his body with as much dignity as if he was Jesus. The sting of death had disappeared, totally.

That Sunday at church our worship leader had selected the hymn not knowing what we had experienced earlier in the week. As the words rang out, I looked behind me and saw Timothy’s mother singing, tears streaming down her face. We made eye contact in the secret acknowledgement of what God had done that week. Such is the power of the poem.

[1] John Felstiner, Paul Celan, Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 268.