My Evangelical Earthquake

My Evangelical Earthquake

Last winter, as part of a family trip to London, we spent an afternoon at the British Natural History Museum. While we were there we encountered an exhibit that replicated what it might have felt like to experience of the 6.9 Kobe earthquake from inside a grocery store. I moved with the throng of other tourists onto the exhibit platform against my better judgment. For most of the crowd, this was going to be little more than an amusement park ride. For me, it would be reliving personal history.  

I was in my final semester of college the morning the Northridge quake literally jolted me awake at 4:45am with tremors so intense my head banged over and over against the headboard of my bed. So when the museum simulation began with its first jolt, the tourists chuckled and squealed, but I fought a full-scale panic attack. When it was over, I had to find a bench to sit on to collect myself.

It was 25 years ago, but the feeling of falling asleep in the safest place you know, only to wake up to pain and chaos, gets into your cellular memory and never leaves.

When I wrote about my journey to and through TMU, I omitted many of the specifics of my upbringing intentionally. The 6th commandment doesn’t come with an expiration date, and the process I’ve followed to try and separate what were objectively influencing factors from my subjective perception of them as a child is still very much in work. It’s sufficient for now to say what I did then –  that the baggage I brought to TMU as a wide-eyed freshman from Australia is precisely what made the Biblical blueprint for life I was taught there so attractive.

It wasn’t that the authority and submission framework was compelling in and of it itself- it was the promise of spiritual and circumstantial safety that came with it that drew me in.

The language of the spiritual danger of the evils of culture and lies of false doctrine spoken at TMU was the language I’d heard spoken all my life. Its familiarity was reassuring. Heresy was everywhere, and falling prey to it was as simple as reading the wrong book or accidentally striking a yoga pose at the gym. So we read books by all the “right” people (heavy emphasis on the Puritans, Calvinists and anything by John MacArthur), and were warned about all the “wrong” ones (secular psychologists, the Charismatics, anything by Beth Moore).  We learned which sociopolitical issues were essential for Christians to care about (abortion, marriage), and which were dangerous (feminism).

But while these outermost walls of spiritual safety were designed to protect our souls from dangerous theology or worldliness, we still needed a working system for living inside them.

That’s where complementarianism came in.

In the complementarian blueprint as I was taught it, men and women were created to function in very distinct, almost oppositional roles. Men lead, women followed. Men were made to crave risk, women security.

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https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/52-6/parental-pictures-of-spiritual-leadership-part-2

The woman’s domain was the home and child raising, the man’s, everything else. God made male leadership and authority to serve as a protective shield for women, to create an atmosphere where women would be happy, fulfilled and secure.  To live inside this framework was to enjoy safety, stability and the blessing of God; to step outside it was to be in step with the world, the flesh and the devil.

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https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/54-17/gods-high-calling-for-women-part-4

I didn’t grow up in this kind of warm, stable environment, and I felt its lack acutely. Moreover, as a young believer, I longed for God’s love and approval more than anything else. And so I built my life according to the blueprint I was taught, at a significant cost that I willingly paid as an act of sacrificial obedience to God, believing that God would bless me.

Eventually, my understanding of the gospel matured so that I came to understand and experience the freedom of knowing that the basis of God’s love for me isn’t my obedience, but Christ’s. And so I began to live more freely, even as the ecosystem of my family’s life operated according to what the complementarianism model taught at TMU and GCC would define as ideal – every aspect of it aligned with doctrinal orthodoxy and overseen by committed Christian men.

Then the tremors began.

It started with the discoveries that the history of my spiritual forefathers I’d been taught had been majorly revised. I’d been taught all about their orthodox doctrine, but next to nothing of their heterodox practices – their advocacy for slavery, their propping up of racial segregation, their passive and active resistance of the Civil Rights movement – all of it in the name of doctrinal orthodoxy.

Then, contemporary spiritual fathers began to be exposed, men in the church whose doctrinally sound teaching had nourished my soul and enriched my faith. Some succumbed to political pragmatism.  Others fell into personal impurity. In one case, the enormity of his sexual sin was so great that its exposure drove him to suicide. Another awaits sentencing after being convicted of two counts of aggravated assault of a minor.

With one story after another, the closely guarded trust I’d placed in these men because of the purported purity of their doctrine was shattered.

Then earlier this year, the greatest tremor of all happened. In the space of a few months, I experienced a collection of trials that intersected every axis of my life at once – relationally, vocationally, financially, and spiritually. So I did what I’d been taught – I took refuge against the spiritual safety walls I’d been told would hold me up. But as I leaned on them, they crumbled into dust.

I sat amongst the dust and the rubble, hurt and disoriented, for a long time.

But for the last several months I’ve been rebuilding the structures of my life with better material, using a very different blueprint – one I’ve been taught by the prophet Jeremiah.

5 This is what the Lord says:

Cursed is the person who trusts in mankind.
He makes human flesh his strength,
and his heart turns from the Lord.
6 He will be like a juniper in the Arabah;
he cannot see when good comes
but dwells in the parched places in the wilderness,
in a salt land where no one lives. — Jeremiah 17:5-6 (CSB)

Jeremiah’s perspective on the consequences of trusting in men is very different than the one I was taught at TMU and Grace Community Church. Jeremiah compares trusting in the strength of human men to being like a juniper bush in a desert wasteland, with no water in sight, and the ground so thick with salt that whatever drops of rain fall from the sky are instantly leached away. Entrusting ourselves to human strength isn’t a path to safety or prosperity; it’s a recipe for disaster.

There was a time when I would have read those words and nodded right along with them.  I would have assumed Jeremiah just meant the unrighteous, the amorphous “pagans” I was taught Christians were so different from.  But I was wrong, and now I know from personal experience how right Jeremiah is.

So do innumerable others.

Over the last five or ten years, an entire cottage industry of websites and social networks has sprung up for people, many of them women but not all, whose stories are like mine in kind, and far, far worse in degree. They built the framework for the Christian life they were promised would be safe, and it collapsed. Even worse, when they asked for help to fix the damage, those called of God to be conduits of care, inflicted more damage by ignoring or dismissing them and denying there was anything to repair.

Crushed by the very infrastructures on which they’d been taught to rely, many are walking away, rebuilding their lives with blueprints of their own design. I’ve never understood that impulse like I do today. But I’m not joining them. Jeremiah’s words remind me that  I’ve got no more ability to cover and provide for myself than anyone else.

But Jesus does.

7 The person who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence indeed is the Lord, is blessed.
8 He will be like a tree planted by water:
it sends its roots out toward a stream,
it doesn’t fear when heat comes,
and its foliage remains green.
It will not worry in a year of drought
or cease producing fruit. — Jeremiah 17:7-8 (CSB)

Placing our trust in the LORD, Jeremiah says, is like being tree planted by a river, with roots that reach out into the water to draw from a constant stream of nourishment. The heat of trials can’t hurt us. The drought from a lack of human provision or resources doesn’t frighten us, because the source of our life doesn’t come from them.  

To paraphrase another Rachael, “I don’t trust the church. I trust Christ.”

Trusting in Christ as the source of my life doesn’t mean I’m building a giant bunker around myself, so it’s just me and Jesus. Trusting in Christ means trusting His words about what he’s building and the means he’s employing to build it. I’m still totally committed to my church, and to my family (the rest, to be honest, is still TBD).

Trusting in Christ means I’m not going to be building a giant platform for myself on the wreckage of the church’s wrongs, nor joining forces with those who have. And trusting in Christ means trusting Him for the wisdom to know when to be quiet, like Sarah (1 Pet. 3:6), as I have been for a very long time.

But trusting in Christ also trusting Him for the wisdom to know when to speak up, like Abigail did (1 Sam. 25:24), and Esther (Esther 7:3-4), and the woman of wisdom in Proverbs 8 (Prov. 8:1-8). It means trusting Him with what to say, and, especially, with what happens as a result.

If the Internet seismograph is accurate, the tremors that are shaking American evangelicalism are far from over, and it remains to be seen which structures, which institutions, will survive.

What Jeremiah promises, and what I’m learning afresh, is those who trust in the LORD have nothing to fear. Neither do those whose trust has been in other things – in other men, or in themselves. But that is if, and only if, they repent of their sin, receive the forgiveness that is theirs because of Christ, and commit to dismantling those untrustworthy structures and rebuild new ones on Christ, and Christ alone.

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Between Heartache and Hope (or, How Hermeneutics Done Well Is Good For Your Soul)

I recently finished the fourth week of the hermeneutics class that my pastor, Josh, has been leading for a small group of women at my church, and it’s been the bomb-diggity. (Josh once commented in passing that “Paul was straight up gangster”, so I’m just following his lead with the hipster speak.)

Part of the reason I’m loving this class so much is its structure. Josh is walking us through a book of the Bible (Ruth), and teaching us one or two hermeneutical principles with each section we study. We then compare our own study with a someone else’s (in this case, Paul Miller’s solid work “A Loving Life”), to strengthen our ability to test an outside author’s examination of a text against the hermeneutical principles we’re learning. The final step is a discussion about a discipleship relationship we’re accountable to pursue, to apply what we’re learning in our shepherding of other women.between-heartache-and-hope-e1499990129737.jpg

Like I said, bomb to the digitty.

Truth be told, I didn’t drive to last week’s study last night brimming with hope over what God was going to teach us. God had been walking me through some trials that had me identifying with Naomi way more than I had anticipated. I was emotionally drained and spiritually empty. This was a humbling irony given I that was the one who had been asking for and praying for this class to happen for a solid six months. I was dragging myself to the study on commitment autopilot, with my mind and heart overfull with the cares and disappointments of the last several months, and it all felt wrong.

The exercise we’d been assigned that week was one of fitting micro and macro together. We were to read through Ruth in its entirety several times, asking ourselves how the last four verses in chapter 1 fit into the arc of the entire narrative. I had been immediately drawn to the way this final set of verses passage acted as the completion of the circle begun in the first verses. In the first five verses of chapter one, Naomi had left famine-stricken Bethlehem with a husband and two sons. In the last four verses, she was returning with none of them.

“She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:20-21 ESV)

Naomi’s words summarized her interpretation of all that had transpired up to that point; she had left Bethlehem full and was returning empty, all at the hands of the LORD. But the author’s closing comment about the barley harvest gives us a window into what Naomi could not yet see, and what would unfold in the next chapter. I thought this was the insight Josh was wanting us to see.

It took about twenty minutes of discussion and guidance from Josh to unpack how much deeper this section really goes.

The book of Ruth concludes with a group of women speaking over Naomi words that stand in contrast to Naomi’s words at the end of chapter 1. The blessings the women describe extend far beyond Naomi personally. What the LORD did for and through Naomi was something that had begun long before her, through the line of her new son-in law’s ancestor Perez, who himself was born out of the aftermath of a whole-scale family collapse. And it would continue long after her, through the lineage of her grandson to David, and from David to Jesus. And from Jesus to the entire world.

“Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4:14-17 ESV)

All of this was foreshadowed in the last verse of chapter 1.


Naomi believed she was coming home bereft of everything that signified God’s blessing and care for her. What she couldn’t see was how God was already preparing her, and the generations who would follow her, for blessings that were even greater than the ones she had lost. The seeds of the blessings God was preparing to pour out on and through Naomi, had been planted in the soil of her present trials, and were already beginning to grow. She just couldn’t see them yet.

In many ways, Naomi was looking at her circumstances the way her ancestor Eve had looked at hers. Naomi was focussing on what she had lost, and not what she had. But unlike Eve, Naomi chose not to turn her heart away from God. She turned towards Him as best as she was able – to His land and His people. And in doing so, she placed herself exactly where she needed to be for God to do abundantly beyond what she could have asked or thought.

God had been at work for Naomi’s good, and our good, all along.  The hard things of chapter 1 and the blessings of chapter 4 were inextricably linked. They always are.

There is no resurrection without death.

You would have had to be there to witness the way Josh let us sit with our various initial impressions and thoughts, before leading us to, and through, the words of Naomi’s friends in chapter 4. He took his time. There were uncomfortable silences. If brains could sweat, ours surely were.

As Josh finally lead us through the parallelisms between Naomi’s words in chapter 1, and the words of the women in chapter 4, it was as though the Holy Spirit superimposed my name onto Naomi’s. I could see the trajectory of my heart, and I could see how God was calling me to respond.  I could see Him – His trustworthiness, His mercy, and His deep, deep love.

And so my thoughts on my drive away from the study were entirely different from the ones I had had on the way there.

Beyond the way God had worked in my own heart, I was struck afresh by the process God had followed to do it, and what that meant when it comes to the discipline of Bible study and principles of hermeneutics. I’ve read the book of Ruth countless times. I’m familiar with the way it is often taught to women, with all of its drama and romance and relatable characters. I’ve heard the “Waiting for Your Boaz” and the “Living Like Ruth” sermons, and rolled my eyes through most of them. Shallow wading through the surface of the book of Ruth yields shallow, and narrow, insights. But weeks spent in deep, directed study, grounded in tried and true principles of biblical exposition, that reveal the character and the work of God, has yielded fruit that has been nourishing and strengthening my soul, and changing the way I think and act.

I was raised in a tradition that valued training in doctrine and hermeneutics as ends in themselves, and I’ve got the scars to show for it. But this week I was reminded anew of how hermeneutics done right, as a means to the highest and best end of knowing God in a way that changes you, is truly good for the soul.

*Since so many of you had asked,  my pastor gladly permitted me to share the syllabus and notes from the initial session he wrote. From scratch.

Seriously – Bomb.Dig.Git.Ty.

If you end up using/leveraging them, and they’re a blessing to you or your church, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to let him know in as many ways as possible how much this ministry is a needed blessing.

Womens Equipping Syllabus

Women_s Equipping Session 1

When Trials Come, Then Go, Then Come Back (Hannah – Part Two)

When Trials Come, Then Go, Then Come Back (Hannah – Part Two)

I’ve read a lot of pastoral and scholarly treatments on 1 Samuel 2 that dive directly into the depths of Hannah’s prayer; I haven’t read so many that consider the significance of its timing. Hannah’s words of prayerful exultation don’t occur when she first finds out she’s pregnant, as with Mary’s. Nor do they happen just after she’s given birth, like Eve. Hannah’s prayer occurs several years after God has answered her previous prayer in giving her a son, when she’s preparing to honor her vow to God and give her son back.

In “Through His Eyes – God’s Perspective on Women in the Bible”, Jerram Barrs asserts that, through Hannah’s words, “we come to believe that Hannah gives up Samuel to Eli joyfully” (165). Later, he characterizes it, in contrast to her earlier prayer,  as a “song of happiness” (166), a notion at which I arched one highly skeptical, perfectly sculpted lady eyebrow when I first read it.

Two years after I had cried myself to sleep over my singleness after my best friend’s wedding, I had finally walked down the aisle at my own, and  was now laying in a hospital bed in the maternity ward, gazing at my new  baby girl as she slept in a warm, padded crib next to me.

For the first nine months of her life, my daughter had lived under my heart, her body literally tethered to mine. For 24 hours a day, my body had given itself over completely to nourishing, strengthening, and protecting hers. Then the day came when my body pushed hers out into the world and away from mine. Now she slept, in peaceful vulnerability, all by herself.

My daughter was barely six inches away from me, but it felt like sixty miles. It was as though a piece of my heart had been torn from me and was clinging stubbornly to hers, still beating. The feeling faded with time, but has never entirely disappeared.

With each milestone of separation and independence that followed (for her and the two sisters who came after her) – the first night at home in her own crib,  the first morning at preschool, the first sleepover, the first boy-girl party, the first driving lesson – it would return. If you ask most women with children, they’ll describe something similar –  that whenever our children are out of the protective reach of our eyes and our arms, a piece of our heart goes with them.

The environment in which Hannah was leaving her barely preschool aged son was not one that was exactly primed for being raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Samuel  was being handed over to the custody of a passive old man with failing eyesight, and his two grown sons who treated the house of God like their personal party palace. Aspirational models of biblical manhood they most certainly weren’t.

And let’s not forget the situation to which Hannah would be returning, after she pried her beloved son’s arms from her neck and and travelled back home to Ramah without him. We can hope that Peninah’s taunting might have abated in the wake of Samuel’s birth. But the noisy presence of her children would have served as a continual reminder of the son Hannah could see and hold only once a year. And Elkanah, the husband who could have intervened but didn’t, would probably have continued in his clueless confusion over why his wife was still crying.

It’s no wonder modern Bible translators go back and forth on whether Hannah says she is really giving her son back to God, or if he’s just on loan.

However much joy Hannah expresses in the opening lines of her prayer, it was most certainly a joy mixed with tears. But in this way, Hannah’s prayer models the attitude Paul exhorts the Corinthians to pursue in 2 Corinthians 6:2-10 of rejoicing in the midst of sorrow.  Hannah’s words are the words of a woman who has learned through experience how to bear up under the trials and tribulations of life, not by pretending they don’t exist, nor by giving in to despair, but by leaning fully and continually on the One who has been sovereign over them.

The LORD is wiser and stronger than any adversary. (1 Sam. 2:1,3,10)

All the world’s resources in avoiding or overcoming adversity – strength, riches, power – are His. He grants them, and withholds them, as He sees fit. (1 Sam. 2:4-8)

The power over life and death is His. (1 Sam. 2:6)

All He requires is our faithfulness. (1 Sam. 2:9)

God had proven Himself faithful to Hannah in the trials of her past. He would be equally faithful to her, and to her son, in the future.

Hannah’s prayer is the prayer any of us can pray whenever we are standing in between God’s deliverance from adversity or trials in our past, and the prospect of adversity overshadowing our future.

When the job offer finally comes, or the abusive boss moves on.

When the medical report reads“negative”, or the pregnancy test reads “positive”.

When an LEO husband comes home safely from his shift.

Or an African American son comes home safely from a party.

When the job offer hasn’t come, and the abusive boss is still there.

When the medical report reads “positive”, or the next pregnancy test reads “negative”.

When your husband is deployed into combat, or your wife is being wheeled into brain surgery.

When your child starts preschool, or public school, or college on the other side of the country.

As you drive away from the rehab center, the prison, or the cemetery.

As a white woman hugs her husband or son goodbye before he drives to work.

As an African American woman does the same.

Through Hannah’s prayers, and what God both before and after them, we see how God was working to do abundantly beyond what Hannah could ever ask or think. In time, God blessed Hannah with other sons and daughters. But He did so much more than that.

The  son Hannah had given to God, grew up to anoint the king through which an even greater King, the promised Messiah, would come. In his incarnation, life, death and resurrection, Jesus experienced everything to which Hannah testified. He suffered weakness, poverty, hunger, and persecution.  He lived a fully human life of perfect faithfulness to God.  He laid his life down and subjected himself to death. And now He sits, exalted, at God’s right hand, preparing to return to judge the earth and make all things new.

Hannah’s prayer models a way of praying over, singing about, and talking about God’s sovereignty and care in the midst of all of our circumstances –  past, present, and future – because of the One who reigns over them all.

 

When Words Fail (Hannah – Part 1)