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September 3, 2015

In the last week alone, a fairly well-known Bible teacher in the Messianic community, Ligonier Ministries head RC Sproul, Jr., and the President of Southern Baptist-affiliated North Greenville University each stepped down from their leadership positions after violating their marriage vows. In the case of at least two of them, they were forced to confess after they were caught via Ashley Madison or irrefutable video evidence. Let’s face it – when you confess only after you’ve been caught, your confession has the ring of “I’m sorry I got caught” (channeling second-term Bill Clinton), more than it does “I have sinned against God and humanity”.

signWith a hat tip to R.E.M. for the phrase, more than ever we in the body of Christ need to “Follow Me, don’t follow me, me, or me” without thinking. Bad news about “Christian famous” figures travels fast these days. For every well-known figure who’s managed to disqualify themselves from ministry because of bigger-than-marriage sexual appetites and divided hearts, there are dozens more who are either addicted to porn or having an affair with the Children’s ministry director or whoever. When I tabulate my own experience at the 11 churches at which we’ve been a part for at least one year during our 36-year marriage, the majority of them were damaged at some point by revelation of a leader’s sexual sin. And those are just the ones I know about! It’s probably safe to say there’s other nasty, disappointing stuff I haven’t been privy to.

At this point, it doesn’t matter. The damage has been done. And some wisdom has been won as a result.

Perhaps because I’ve always struggled a bit – and sometimes way more than a bit – with the notion of positional authority, I’ve kept all spiritual leaders at arms’ length after I experienced the trauma of spiritual abuse. Just because someone has the title of Pastor or Leader or Big Kahuna doesn’t confer on him or her instant authority to lead me. My real leaders are those in mutual relationship with me.* Most of those at the top of a church or Christian subcultural org chart have as much relationship with me as a third cousin, twice removed. They are family, true enough. But just because we’re related doesn’t give them the right to direct my life, any more than it automatically confers on me the right to ask them if they have an Ashley Madison account or two.

God in his kindness has preserved my faith in him, and given me wisdom for my journey through a religious landscape where God is at work exposing wolves pretending to be shepherds. Most believers in this country are coming to terms with the fact that “Christendom”  is no longer the default setting in this culture – and that we may be facing increasing pressure from Islamist fundamentalists from without, as well. There is no room for “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos” tribe-making and unblinking allegiance to a particular leader. The leader fails are happening in lots of different streams and corners of the church. It isn’t pretty right now, but it is beautiful. This exposure and purifying trend is a gracious work of the Holy Spirit. It is his love for leaders and followers alike that is bringing this sin to light.

I’m not a fan of D-I-Y spirituality. Far from it. I am willing to learn from Big Kahunas and Pastors – living and dead, in churches and via books, articles and podcasts. But the learning comes through the filter of wisdom and discernment. I don’t just “feed and feast” on what I’m served as thought I’m at some sort of never-ending Christian buffet. Some of what they’re serving is junk food. Some of it is rat poison. And some of it is decent food being cooked by chefs with filthy, unwashed hands. At the same time, I am more aware than ever that in my vocation as writer and sometimes speaker God is holding me to a higher standard. With every exposure of a duplicitous leader, I take more seriously than ever this truth:

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. – Hebrews 4:13

Church, don’t hitch your soul without question to following your pastor, a communicator with a microphone, or anyone who speaks with lots of imperatives and zero transparency/accountability. Don’t let their moral failure become your own spiritual derailment. Follow Jesus.

What are your thoughts about the seemingly-weekly news about the moral failures of spiritual leaders? How have you been affected? 

 

* My true pastors and leaders include my husband, members of my family in relationship with me, and believing friends who are walking alongside of me and I am walking alongside them in mutuality. Within the context of these relationships, I am safe to express my struggles, questions, and insights, and I have earned the right to speak when asked into the lives of these people, as well. 

 

Image via Creative Commons 2.0 search

 

August 20, 2015

This post is part of the Patheos conversation around the topic of recovery from traumatic church experiences in conjunction with Reba Riley’s just-released memoir, Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir Of Humor & Healing. I’m a survivor of spiritual abuse and a veteran of a few churches with epic levels of dysfunction breeding like a supervirus just under their shiny surface. I’ve written a lot about this topic in this space (here, here, and here, for starters). It would have been easier to walk away after the hurt, but like Riley, I’m still here, a part of the Bride.

boundary markerThat isn’t to say I’m here in the same way I once was. The negative experiences have left me with battle scars and some hard-won wisdom. I have four boundary markers in place where I once had wide-open trusting innocence when it came to church life. Those boundaries include:

No more church “membership” – I have no intention of ever again going through a formal membership process in order to join an individual church. In the past, my husband and I have been official members of a couple of different congregations. These covenants have benefitted and protected the organization while giving me nothing in return. In addition, they create a two-tier culture within a church. Those who are members have access to leadership roles and ministry opportunities. Those who are non-members get to exercise their gift of ushering. The New Testament certainly doesn’t describe the church in these terms. Belonging was based on love, belief and relationship – period.

No more guilt as a motivator to “serve” – When a church leader talks constantly about bringing the whole tithe into the storehouse or tells a congregation that it’s our duty to help staff children’s ministry (while never taking a turn in the nursery themselves!), their antics set off my BS detector. There are certainly theological questions related to the way some leaders present tithing as a mandate to the church, but my resistance to the way in which a leader calls me to action has more to do with filtering his or her ambitions from the ask.  An ambitious church leader looking to build his or her little empire may use the right Christian-y words, but there will be a needy, demanding spin on them. It’s one thing to call members to sacrificial giving and service. It’s another thing to guilt them into it.

No more shutting off my brain – or any other part of myself – I’ve done a lot of theological reading and now have 40+ years of experience in a wide variety of churches. Honoring what God has given me means I maintain my critical thinking when I listen to a sermon or participate in a worship service. I want to be found in Christ, but I do not believe this means losing myself in the process. In fact, losing yourself is what happens when you join a cult, right? Author Reba Riley explained why the way in which she’d been taught to find her identity in Christ stripped her of her personhood:

“Placing your identity in Christ” is lingo for church-approved codependence: you allow your church’s brand of Jesus to dictate what you do or don’t wear, eat, read, discuss, watch, and listen to. You let your church’s Jesus pick out your lipstick and your friends, run your bank accounts, and prescribe your wardrobe. Having my identity in Christ was the problem, the entire reason I fell apart when I could no longer believe. When I left my faith, I didn’t have anything of my own.

Though I never lost my faith in my Messiah as a result of some crappy experiences, I realized that I’d sometimes traded who God had made me to be for the “privilege” of being a part of a church. This meant silencing doubts, dialing down my personality (usually unsuccessfully), and playing nice in order to get along. Dying to myself as I follow Jesus does not mean becoming a clone.

No more looking for validation in all the wrong places – Gender roles and spiritual gifts play a part in this boundary marker, as I’ve been a part of strict complementarian and/or cessationist congregations while never buying their silly/fearful theological party line. However, this is a bigger issue than either of those things. I learned the hard way my vocation and gifts didn’t always fit neatly on some church’s org chart – and that org chart was almost never in any way related to the way in which God designed his body to work. I don’t wait for someone’s permission to offer my gifts to another believer or group.

How about you? If you’ve survived a traumatic church experience or three, what boundary markers do you now have that allow you to continue to be a part of the big “C” church and/or a local congregation? 

 

Image via Creative Commons 2.0

May 31, 2015

My husband and I left the US for Israel on May 21. In the span of the 10 days we’ve been here, I’ve been following a string of excruciating stories from the Evangelical world that have included the exposure of incest/abuse/coverup happening within America’s favorite Bill Gothard poster family, the Duggars; the tale of legalistic spiritual abuse of a woman who divorced her pedophile husband by the leadership of Village Church, pastored by Acts 29 head Matt Chandler (who did offer an apology this weekend for the clumsy way cases like these have been handled by the church in the past); husband and father of five, pastor Matt Mikela losing his job at his Michigan congregation after someone discovered he’d been caught trolling for sex on a gay hook-up site; and former congressman, Wheaton College grad Dennis Hastert being accused of siphoning funds to pay hush money for years to a former student with whom he had a sexual relationship.

These stories weren’t an aberration. Last week wasn’t a hiccup. Whether it is via recent Pew Research stats or the flow of blogs, books, and conferences describing the general decline in both numbers and influence of the church in society, it all adds up to a whole lot of subtraction, in part at least because the beauty of the love of Jesus has been obscured by sins of sex, power and money by too many of those at the top of org charts in local churches or denominations.

Millstone
Millstone

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

The word “little one” (mikros) refers to someone who is small in size, age, experience, or influence. In other words, exactly the kind of people Jesus sought. Though we often apply these words to children, really, we are “little ones” if we aren’t the top banana in a community. The last week and a half has been a painful reminder that some in power have fed their own insatiable appetites in the name of Jesus. Justice can seem excruciatingly slow for those of us who’ve been chewed up and spit out by lousy, selfish leaders.

In all of the bad news listed above – and the hundreds of stories like them that may never hit the headlines – I hear good news.

“…He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God. (1 Corinthians 4:5)

Though this passage references the final judgement, it reflects God’s character to expose what is in the darkness. He is purity itself, holiness itself, light itself, justice itself. The exposure of some leaders’ sin should be an encouragement to little ones everywhere: God sees and knows at a level none of us can begin to imagine. He will have the final word on these matters, and that word contains the letters m-i-l-l-s-t-o-n-e in it. This should also inject the fear of the Lord into each one of us whether we’re Leaders or simply see ourselves as just another mikros, because each and every one of us influences others in some way.

I used to know a salt-o’-the-earth dude named Ernie who put it this way: “You can do it God’s way. Or you can do it God’s way.” I am praying for each of us who wears his name that we will choose the former, rather than being exposed via the latter.

* * * * * * *

P.S. – We’re finishing up our 10 days in Israel tonight: Our trip began in Ashdod, where we enjoyed incredible hospitality in the home of some kind friends. We celebrated Shavuot/Pentecost with some from the Messianic community. My husband spent a couple of days in intense and productive board meetings on behalf of Caspari, and I had the opportunity to tour the Tower of David in the Old City for a second time with some guests, soak up the atmosphere on Ben Yehuda, visit and pray with old friends who are living in the region, pray at the Western Wall, search for a bookstore in East Jerusalem, and get really, really lost. We ended our stay with a couple of days in Haifa, where we visited Bet She’arim, ancient ruins with an astonishing 2nd-4th century A.D. cemetery, and Safed (Tzfat), a mountain town that is the world’s center for Kabbalah-style Judaism and home to a whole lot of hippie artists. This is my 7th trip to this complex and sacred land. Every time I visit, I leave a piece of my heart behind.

Or perhaps I find the pieces of my heart I didn’t even know I was missing.

 

May 7, 2015

Ed Stetzer wrote a helpful post called “Missional Angst and Western Church Norms” about the shift in the church away from consumer-driven models of ministry. He noted that some are being called out of existing churches to live their faith in more organic ways (the Radicals), others are choosing to stay put and tweak from within the organization (the Conservatives), and a third group are the Critics.AngstLargerHe describes the latter group this way: “…church consultants, authors, professors, etc.—can be professional church ‘angsters.’ Their blanket criticism against Western cultural norms in established churches can prohibit pastors from loving the people to whom Jesus has called them in the style consistent with their social context. Furthermore, many critics want to still operate within the Western culture norm, but constantly complain about it. They are vocal in criticism, but light on action. They condemn the norm, but won’t actually quit their jobs to live out their proclaimed principles.”

Stetzer is right in calling out these folks. I read blogs written by some of these armchair analysts. I have friends who’ve carried their wounded souls out of the church after getting caught in the crossfire of bad politics, abuse, or lousy teaching. Heck, I’ve been told on occasion that I complain too much about the church. Sometimes I have. But…

Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist. – George Carlin 

Of the group who’d fall into Stetzer’s category of Professional Angsters, there is a subset who might better be classified as Professional Complainers.  These microphone-holders traffic in heat and fire, and sculpt their carping, demoralization and division like a sculptor might work in clay or bronze. Their insider’s critique might be as accurate as a two-edged sword, but they’re swinging it as though they’re hacking through Everglades-like undergrowth. The sword clear-cuts both healthy plant and noxious weed.

I believe a larger proportion of Angsters are not speaking and writing to burn the church, but because they love what they know she could be. They’re sad. Some have been hurt. Some have been ignored or marginalized. When they speak the truth about bad politics or spiritual abuse or false teaching, they are doing so because they care about what happens to her. I believe most of the angsty outliers are a gift to the church, not a curse. Winston Churchill once said, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” 

A couple of decades ago, someone in Stetzer’s position may have dismissed the complainers as problem children or shamed them for not toeing the party line in their church, but there’s far too many of us to marginalize now. Many who express dismay are serving the body of Christ by speaking up about dysfunction and abuse of power in the church. I’ve done those things in this space. And I’ve also tried to celebrate when I see the church looking like just like the beautiful bride she is becoming. I recognize the temptation to become an armchair critic. But I think the greater sin is to paste on a happy face, sprout the party line, and remain silent when dysfunction is happening.

I appreciated Stetzer’s encouragement to all of us to not allow kvetching to become a cheap version of a spiritual gift. Complaining is not a prophetic act. We must be willing to move on our convictions, rather than insulated by our pain and frustration with the Institution. “We can learn from the example of Jesus,” he wrote. “He comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. We all should afflict the comfortable, no matter the context, so that our people would live as radically on mission as possible in a sustainable way for their congregation.” 

Today, I am reading the words of Jesus below with the Angsters in mind. He values the outliers, the prophets, and kvetches, even as he calls the Angsters to speak and act in self-sacrificial love toward those who dismiss them as nuisances or treat them as enemies of the church.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:3-11)

Are Angsters a gift or a distraction to the mission of the Church? Why do you say so? 

Image, Turnvater Janosch, via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0 search

December 22, 2014

I’m a sucker for all the year-in-review lists that pop up at this time of year. I’ll read with glee those wry month-by-month summaries of the past year like Dave Barry’s annual column, or those annual lists of the worst movies of the year (or ever made, which will no doubt be rejiggered to include this stinker). Maybe it’s because as the calendar year winds down we’re all prone to a bit of reflection before we dive head-first into our regularly-scheduled lives again. Or maybe it’s because I like to measure the opinions of others against my own. Or maybe it’s because I’m supposed to be writing a book, which means I’m easily distracted by the endless buffet of Buzzfeed quizzes (“I’m Melanie from Gone With The Wind! I knew it!”) popping up in my Facebook feed. Year-In-Review lists often fit this category, but I think they can also serve as a bit of a Selah as we take some time to consider what we’ve gained, what we’ve lost, and who we’re becoming as our lives move through time. They can also become matters for prayer or action.

So, in the spirit of “if you can’t beat `em, make a list of your own”, here’s my own two-part review of the year.

First, in no special order, are the news/cultural events that hit the closest to home for me this year. In every case, some aspect of these stories carried into 2014 from previous years (or millennia, as the case may be). And in every case, these stories will carry into 2015:

The Intractable: The summer’s war in Gaza was a PR boon for the terrorists in Gaza, who managed to convince Western media of their victimhood in the conflict.

The Heart-rending: The rise of ISIS and the resulting tidal wave of refugees across the region are sowing the seeds for an even larger crisis. I don’t think it’s a question of “if”, but “when”. Stories of brutal persecution of Christians by ISIS caught our attention, briefly. The people who’ve borne witness to horrific events are the ones who should be forming our understanding of what it means to be the church in the world that is being reshaped by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

The Worrisome: Newsweek’s July 29th cover showed a young Jewish woman holding a suitcase accompanied by the words “Exodus: Why Europe’s Jews Are Fleeing Once Again”. The rise in anti-Semitism in Europe isn’t news, but the sharp spike in violent incidents like this one, in conjunction with events across the Middle East, reads like writing on the wall. Instead of “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin“, the letters spell “WAKE UP” to Jews and committed Christians alike.

The Infuriating: Mars Hill Church in Seattle exported a strange brew of a particularly agressive, testosterone-fueled fundamentalism blended with beer drinking, tats and swearing. What they were selling, aggressive young wanna-be pastors were buying, thus spreading the Mars Hill culture like a virus across Evangelicalism. Meanwhile, those who’d been wounded, marginalized and exiled from that culture reported stunning levels of spiritual abuse…and they were silenced and shamed for years. Thank God for the internet, which allowed victims and critics to find another, band together, and speak truth to power. Too bad it took so darn long for some measure of justice to come.

The Inspiring: Pope Francis shows his true colors, which look a lot like the colors Jesus wears. He touches the untouchable, tools around Rome in a Ford Focus, and kneels to wash the feet of juvies. Go, Papa Frank!

The Stunning: The police shootings leading to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the unbelievable decisions of grand juries in Ferguson, MO and New York City stating that there wasn’t enough evidence to send the officers responsible for pulling the triggers in these cases to trail exposed our culture’s blinds spots when it came to both issues of personal responsibility and the systemic, historic sin and injustice embedded in our culture. While there were some rioters exploiting the chaos following these events, particularly in Ferguson, there were were others who showed up to march peacefully in solidarity, helped clean up after the riots and committed to working for change. But the rage and desire for revenge loom large. On Saturday, a gunman killed two Brooklyn police officers execution-style as payback for the deaths of Brown and Garner.

The Just Plain Fun: Jimmy Fallon.

The_berries_of_Bittersweet_-_geograph.org.uk_-_970950 On a personal level, this year has been a bittersweet one.

Our daughter divorced after more than ten years of marriage. Her ex-husband is the primary caregiver for their two  children, and my husband and I have been actively involved in helping him out by caring for the boys a couple of days a  week  through most of this year. Bill and I have learned in new ways this year that sometimes love looks a lot like just  showing up. No one involved in this situation will ever be the same, but we are not without hope, precisely because the  One who is Love keeps showing up, too.

There has been much sweetness in addition to that deep sorrow. My husband recently started a new job with a company spun off from his former employer. Both of my sons are currently working on their Master’s degrees while working full time. My older son’s wife, a gifted vocalist, works full time, attends school part-time, and in her spare (!) time, launched a small bookkeeping business.

At the party, friends since 8th grade
At the party. Friends since 8th grade.

I’ve been a writer for many years, but struggled for years to land another book publishing contract after the small publisher with whom I’d been working when I wrote my parables books went out of business during the recession-on-steroids of 2008-ish. I was overjoyed when Beacon Hill Press green-lighted If Only: Letting Go Of Regret during the summer of 2013. The official release date was July 1st, and it was a long-held dream of mine to have a book release party so I could say thank you to those who believed in me and my work. It was a joyous event, though when it came time to say a few words, I was so overcome with emotion that I forgot 98% of what I planned to say. It was fun doing blog, article and radio promotion for the book, and I prayed that the effort would put the book into the hands of the readers who most needed to hear its redemptive message. (Watch this space next week, as I’ll be giving away some free copies to help launch 2015!)

Christianity Today magazine gave If Only an Award of Merit in the Christian Living category on their 2015 Book Award list. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was working at the bookstore at Trinity International University creating sales displays for the books included on this important yearly list. I have a very big imagination, but I never could have dreamed this week’s honor. Never. Ever. Wow.

I’m grateful most of all for the nearness of God throughout this bittersweet year. The valley of the shadow seems as though it might be a permanent mailing address, but the people living in this neighborhood – family, friends, my writing community – have reflected the love of Jesus, and reminding me in countless ways that even my darkness is not void of light to him who created the light.

May this season with its long, dark days be filled with the light of the Messiah. God’s blessings to you and your family this Christmas and always, friends.

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:4, 5

 

August 29, 2014

We home schooled our children from 1992–2004. During those years, home schooling was not yet mainstream. Like many other families worried about running afoul of truancy laws, we paid our yearly dues to the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) in order to ensure we’d have access to legal help if we needed it. Their conservative, home-schooling dad lawyers, including Doug Phillips, were regulars on the home school convention speaking circuit. When Phllips left to launch Vision Forum, I understood it to be a related enterprise, but focused solely on a particular theological and social grid toward which they were working to funnel the home school movement: dominionist theological understanding and an aggressively pro-patriarchy family and church structure. He wanted to be free to focus on strengthening the faith and practice home school families in his camp without all the bother of wasting his time on court cases with secular home school families as defendants, which was sometimes the case with the work he did with HSLDA.

Often sharing the platform at home school conventions with HSLDA speakers were various members of the Advanced Training Institute crew, disciples of Bill Gothard. (The ‘19 Kids And Counting‘ Duggars are an ATI family and exemplars of Gothard’s teaching.) This cozy arrangement where the Gothardites got away with presenting themselves as the pinnacle to which the rest of us rank-and-file home schoolers were supposed to aspire made perfect sense, as many of the leaders of the state home school organizations in the states in which we lived during our home school years were ATI families.

The formulas preached by these people were so air-tight. The tribes formed around messages of Phillips and Gothard and others like them were so…well, family-like. For those of us home schoolers trying to navigate doing something still viewed in those days as counter-cultural, there was a great temptation for many home school parents to ally themselves with one of these ready-made cliques peer groups within the larger home school community. (I alluded to this when I wrote about home school parents a couple of years ago here.)

Our family’s home school experience was shaped by these dominant voices during our home school years. While we were never in the patriarchy camp or had any affiliation with ATI, other than using one of Gothard’s Character Sketches books for morning devotional reading one year, we were surrounded with people who were Gothard/Philips devotees. Those of us who weren’t a part of this vociferous, dominant subset often found ourselves walking on eggshells in order to maintain connection with the home school community around us. No, it wasn’t good for us, and it wasn’t good for most of our kids. The bullies ruled the home school playground particularly  where we lived in WI. And we let them, and our fear of them, have too much a voice in our family’s home school experience.

There were bits and pieces of teaching from the Phillips or ATI camp my husband and I could affirm at a far more dialed-down level, like importance of fathers’ involvement in their children’s education or the value of learning to seek and find God in the various things we were studying. But of course, Scripture itself coaches us in those basics, right?

There are other bloggers who have tracked some of the excesses of adherents of these leaders, as well as being used to unmask the sexual sin and spiritual abuse of Gothard and Philips. (Click here and here for a couple of examples; there are plenty more sites out there if you search.) The reading isn’t easy.

Yesterday, Michael Farris, the long-time Chairman of HSLDA and Chancellor at Patrick Henry College, posted this short essay, entitled “A Line In The Sand”. He wrote:

But with these recent scandals in view, we think it is now time to speak out—not about these men’s individual sins, but about their teachings. Their sins have damaged the lives of their victims, and should be addressed by those with the appropriate legal and spiritual authority in those situations, but their teachings continue to threaten the freedom and integrity of the homeschooling movement. That is why HSLDA needs to stand up and speak up.

Frankly, we should have spoken up sooner. How much sooner is hard to say. There is a subtle difference between teaching that we simply disagree with and teaching that is truly dangerous. While we did not directly promote their teachings using our own resources, we did allow Vision Forum to buy ad space to promote their products and ideas. We were wrong to do so. And we regret it.

What has changed our minds are the stories we are now hearing of families, children, women, and even fathers who have been harmed by these philosophies. While these stories represent a small minority of homeschoolers, we can see a discernible pattern of harm, and it must be addressed.

Mike Smith and the HSLDA board of directors join me in apologizing for failing to speak up sooner. We intend to change that, starting now.

I certainly appreciate the mea culpa. So much damage has been done by these teachings, and by the hypocrisy of leaders like Philips and Gothard. It wasn’t just the families who slavishly followed their lead. The overflow of their teaching flowed into places they never could have dreamed – local home school support groups, small churches divided by the unyielding convictions of some of their followers. It is too bad that it took criminal charges and years of internet outcry from those most wounded by them for another leader to speak out at long last. It is another case of leaders serving other leaders, instead of caring for the vulnerable “least of these” in their charge.

While speculating about what might have been if Farris and a few other key leaders would have raised their concerns sooner is a fruitless task, I can say that what I look for in a leader is someone who is willing to put his reputation and security on the line to defend those most vulnerable. HSLDA has spent a generation waging war on laws that prevented families from home schooling their children, but they were blinded by the fact that they had a responsibility to confront enemies who’d set up shop within the nucleus of the movement. Because that’s what real leaders do.

And this failure to lead has application far beyond the boundaries of the home school movement. This is a cautionary tale for all leaders. Silence is tacit approval – and is the exact opposite of the culture of the kingdom to which Jesus calls us. Jesus confronted sin within the camp of his own people, and defended, loved and healed the most vulnerable: children, widows, the sick and oppressed. This is who he is, and it is who he empowers us through his Spirit to be here and now.

How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. – Psalm 82:2-4

July 13, 2014

It’s complicated.

No, that’s not a Facebook update on my relationship status.* Recently, I wrote a short bit as part of a group post for the Her.meneutics blog about the need to embrace complexity in our understanding of maturing faith. There’s complexity, then there’s the borderlands just beyond complexity. Those lands have names like Chaos, Confusion, and “It’s Complicated”.

Recently, I read two books that captured the complicated nature of being a Jewish person in an Evangelical subculture: My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders The Bible Belt in Search Of His Own Faith (Harper Collins, 2008) by Benyamin Cohen and Jew In The Pew: A Memoir (Kipling House Books, 2013) by Jenny Berg Chandler. Cohen found himself curious about and perhaps coveting some sort of entre into the churchy Atlanta culture surrounding his modern Orthodox lifestyle. Chandler, who grew up in the first wave of the post-1967 contemporary Messianic Jewish world, eventually migrated into the mainstream Evangelical church for a couple of decades before hitting an emotional and spiritual wall. Both books detail the authors’ respective struggle to make sense of their Jewish identity using the prism of the church to do so.

Cohen spent a year sampling from the Christian buffet, visiting services and outreaches at places like Eddie Long’s mega-church (shortly before this all came to light), a Christian rock festival, a Pentecostal healing service and a wrestling-for-Jesus event. He also attends a couple of mainline services, a Catholic monastery and engages with a Mormon, a nod to the reality that many in this country perceive Mormons as just another branch of the Christian church. But it was the non-denominational expressions of Christian faith that captured his imagination. He explains, “Of all the Christian churches I know, evangelical churches seem to be the most exciting, the most fantastical, and the most entertaining. I wholly admit this is based on nothing more than multiple viewings of the 1992 Steve Martin comedy Leap of Faith, about a crooked preacher who inspires the downtrodden at elaborate Holy Roller tent revival services.” By year’s end, though he found elements of the way in which we practice Christianity compelling (while being rightly repulsed by others), Cohen’s journey through the borderland served to direct him back to a more settled practice of the Orthodox Judaism of his youth.

Chandler grew up in a Jewish family that divided when her mother came to faith in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. Chandler’s parents divorced during her elementary school years, somewhere along the way, her grandparents embraced their now-divorced daughter’s faith as well.  Chandler spent the second half of her childhood in a Messianic intentional community. Like too many who formed congregations in the midst of the tsunami of 1970’s Jesus Freak-era revival, of which the modern Messianic movement is sort of a subset, the group where Chandler’s mom and grandparents landed ended up devolving from joyous revival into spiritual abuse at some point during her teens. The family left the fellowship bearing wounds. Chandler’s faith in Jesus remained intact, and she eventually married a Gentile believer. The young couple set about building their spiritual lives in the non-denominational, then Anglican, branches of the church. After years of this, she found herself restless and feeling disconnected from the Jewishness of her faith, and from her own Jewish identity. Her self-published memoir details her year-long attempt to rekindle Jewish observance in her family and integrate into the mainstream Jewish community while maintaining her identity as a Jewish believer in Jesus.

Chandler and Cohen both capture the strength and the struggle of what it is to be Jewish in America right now. The strength for observant Jews is a powerful connection to a small but formational community, shaped by a shared vocabulary of Sabbath/festal cycle practice. The struggle is that ritual and a focus on ethical behavior don’t necessarily create an intimate relationship with God. Cohen longed for a faith more personal and active than ritual’s habits afforded him. He’d witnessed the commitment and enthusiasm the committed Christian Gentiles surrounding him seemed to have for their faith. He wanted that in some form for himself. Chandler had lots of warm childhood memories of those rituals. Though she had a personal connection with faith in her Jewish Savior, she felt increasingly disconnected from her Jewish identity by years of immersion in the d-i-y liturgy of non-denominationalism and the church year calendar of Anglicanism.

Though I chafe at the formulaic “a year in the life of” memoir structure, in the cases of both Cohen and Chandler’s books, the structure made sense. Jewish life is shaped by these cycles, and the year Cohen took to explore Christianity (with a brief foray into Mormonism, which is not exactly orthodox Christianity) a nod to that. Every season of the year has a different story to tell us about the One who created sun, moon, stars and our revolving planetary home. Both books also featured heapin’ helpins of Jewish humor and guilt. (Where does one end and the other begin? That’s a question for another blog.) Cohen wrestled mightily throughout his Jesus year with the un-kosherness of his Christian explorations, as well as the tugs he sometimes felt toward a faith so unlike his own religio-ethnic idenity. Chandler’s identity confusion came out in angsty anger toward the Christian church’s dispassionate disconnect with its Jewish roots, as well as her uncomfortable realization that she didn’t quite fit in the mainstream Jewish community, either.

Cohen’s book is the more readable of the two, a mark of his own skill as a writer as well as the fact that it had been through a stringent vetting and editorial process by a big name publisher. His observations about Evangelical subculture are worth the price of the book. There is nothing quite like seeing the familiar through the eyes of an interested outsider. Cohen is sympathetic, fair and kind in his assessments of the various churches he visits. I wish he would have engaged a mature, solid Jewish believer at some point in his Jesus year, because that would have certainly added a whole new set of questions to the ones he already had. I am grateful for the book, and pray that the restlessness that sparked his journey into the borderlands continues to prod him forward. I don’t think his faith story is settled yet – not when the entire year was itself a prayer.

Chandler’s self-published book has value in its important message that the church isn’t always an easy place for Jews who believe in Jesus to be. There are a number of places in the book she either tries too hard to strut her Jewish cred, talks too much about the stuff of her daily life (dog, cooking, driving kids to and fro), or repeats her rants about not fitting in anywhere. Her message about what it means to be a Jew in the pew is an important one, and is why I am talking about it here while praying she elects to put the manuscript through a merciless editorial process with a paid professional. My critique is offered in love, because the message of her book is of great value to sparking conversation about the subject. In many ways her story – and her frustrations – mirrors some of my own experience in the church.

Because we who are Jewish believers are often told by well-meaning Christians with weak theology that our Jewishness doesn’t matter now that we are following Jesus (click here and read a couple of the most recent comments on my recent piece about the Jewish roots of Christian sabbath to get a sense of what we’re up against), I commend both of these books to you if you care about the Jews in your pews – or those standing on the sidelines, full of questions, watching.

 

*In case you’re wondering, this October, Bill and I will be celebrating our 35th anniversary.

 


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