Hmmm . . . . now I've got your attention, don't I?

This weekend is the couple's retreat at our church. My husband and I don't participate, and I am okay with that. We have lots of ways to renew our marriage, and most of that happens best in solitude. We also have lots of ways now to be active socially with other couples, and I prefer baseball moms and dads to a church retreat where my husband would be uncomfortable. I understand that my happiness is wholly tied to my own spiritual state and my own obedience, and that a good marriage is just icing on the cake.

I do not begrudge all the couples who are going to the retreat their time away or their time together, though! It is a wonderful thing to have an opportunity as a couple for some time of solitude and some time of community with others who share your values and world-view, and it is a wonderful thing to get some teaching on marriage. They all have my prayers, both for the friendships between couples and for the marriages represented. I do believe that God delights to see two people who love Him live out that love in faithful kindness to each other.

I also think God delights to see married couples enjoy each other sexually for years and years and years. I think that's the height of sexual pleasure, and that it works best when we women really get what it is all about. (I think men have an easier time with this one, for some reason.) It is about fun. Period.

We women can make sex into lots of things it was never designed to be:

  • Some of us make it into a means of courtship, which we find unnecessary for a long-term love relationship.
  • Some of us make it into what the wider culture tells us it is: something we do when we feel strong desire, but not something to do if desire is absent on either side.
  • Some of us make it into a way to control our spouse, bribing them with it, or, more negatively, withholding when we’re angry or disappointed in order to get them to “shape up” or even in order to punish them.
  • Some of us make it into something we associate with the negative parts of the wider culture in its attitudes toward sex, and think that we serve some sort of corrective function to witness to an idea that sex is unnecessary for happiness, even if we are married.
  • Some of us think that only bad girls really like sex, and are afraid to admit to ourselves that we like it too . . . so we don’t, even though God wishes we would!
  • Many of us run into sexual challenges over the course of our lives that make sex less appealing, and we don’t value it highly enough to understand that God wants us to make a healthy sex life a priority if we are married.
  • Most of us are at least conscious enough of the evangelical culture’s “proprieties” that we are cautious about doing or saying anything that would give away the idea that we think sex is fun, even though we all give lip-service to the idea that sex within our marriage is a good thing that God ordained.
  • Some of us think that sex is wonderful when we are emotionally and spiritually connected to our husbands, but that sex without that context is empty and disappointing.

Sex is hugely connectional -- and that is why it needs to stay within marriage. But, within that context, sex is just wonderful God-ordained FUN! Sex is best when it is free of a need to make it a hugely spiritual experience. (That allows those hugely spiritual experiences to happen, though -- just like making sex about your spouse's pleasure makes your own pleasure more intense.) You don't need to "feel in love" in any intense way at that point in time. You don't even need to start out with a strong feeling of sexual desire yourself. You just need to show up for a team sport, improve your skills over time with the help of your teammate, and enjoy the one thing that can be fun and refreshing to the two of you even when you are not sure you really want to stay together any longer. Then when you actually do "feel in love", you get those spiritual experiences!

Lots of us women don't get this! We haven't learned to accept our own sexuality enough to practice using all the skills we need to really make it fun. That is one of the reasons I am glad for the Song of Solomon and for the book of Esther. We can be like Esther and groom ourselves to be sexual toys for our husbands as well as intellectually and spiritually alluring women, and honor God in doing so. We can be like the lover in the Song that pursued her King, even when circumstances in life make the pursuit less than "smart". We can understand the role of our sexuality in God's plan for a full, abundant life, and that that, like all the rest of our "following after Jesus", has absolutely nothing to do with our husband's goodness or desirability to us at any given point of time. (I wonder if Esther had ever actually seen the king before she had to show up and perform sexually, knowing that she would likely be with the concubines the next morning, cast off and never called for again?)

Like Esther, if God has put me in the position of allowing me to fully express my sexuality with another human being (in Christian marriage), I can prepare. If I am naive about sex, there are many tasteful and helpful Christian books to give me ideas about physical techniques, which my husband can help me actually master. If I have little physical or emotional desire or enjoyment of sex, my doctor can help me figure out the best way to address that. (Many women find proper hormone balance or addressing depression or loosing weight and gaining muscle tone to be miraculous things for their libidos!) And if I am disillusioned or disappointed or angry with my husband, I can learn to imagine him as God sees him: capable of wonderful things, capable of being forgiven and free, capable of learning to love me as I let God teach me how to love Him. And if sex makes me feel guilty, or I see it as somehow "dirty" or distasteful, I can use all God's tools to find enlightenment and healing there: prayer, Bible study, good Christian books on marriage and sex, and private conversation with women friends and/or therapists or women pastors or spiritual directors.

So part of "following after Jesus" is this: I not only seek to remain chaste before marriage and seek to remain faithful during marriage, I also learn the skills of sex (in grooming, seducing, responding, making love, using my imagination as God intended, etc.) and use them in my marriage for the fun and restoration that God intended -- for my own fun and restoration, and not just for my husband's! -- and let that enrich my walk with God, whether it enriches my marriage or not. :-)


God Wants You to Be Rich!

If you are a good Christian, really following Jesus, you know these things:

God wants you to have a happy marriage.
God wants you to be employed doing the thing that is His "call" on your life.
God wants you to have well-disciplined kids who are on the path to being healthy adults.
God wants you to have a hospitable home where you can entertain for Him.
God wants you to be healthy.
God wants you to live as perfect a life as you can, and not rest until you have the fruit of all of the above statements -- or else you reveal that you really don't fully receive His grace.

Okay, there is truth in all the above statements. But there is also error! And the best way I can explain it is by pointing us all back to an obviously error-filled statement: "God wants you to be rich!"

Most Evangelicals spot right away the error in the "health and wealth gospel". After all, Jesus said "It is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven." Yet we also recognize that a life lived according to God's principles of responsibility and stewardship often does bear the reward of the produce of our hands -- both for the individual and associated family, and for us as a community. I think we get the point Jesus was making: that we are to be Kingdom people, focused on God and obedience to Him, "and all these things shall be added unto you." And we do understand that that isn't a promise of earthly riches.

That passage is fun (Matthew 19:16-26), because it is the passage where Jesus called the rich young ruler to leave all and follow Him, and instead the man left, sad. The disciples were amazed at Jesus telling them that it was hard for a rich man to be saved, because the thinking of the day was that riches were evidence of the blessing of God on the life of a man. So they asked, "If a rich man can't be saved, who can be?" And Jesus told them, "By a man's own efforts it is impossible to be saved, but through God's efforts anyone can be saved."

So we get the riches thing, right? We study the whole of scripture, and understand the call to obedience and good stewardship and hard work, with obedience at the center. We see all the places that Jesus and the writers of the epistles to the early churches talk about not valuing possessions but rather valuing Jesus and valuing others. And we get it. Riches are not evidence of godliness, and not evidence of God's blessing. Riches are not to be our goal. And if we find ourselves "blessed financially", we are to take care that they do not get in the way of our relationship with God, and that's so important that we need to sell them and follow Him rather than let them stop us from following Him. (It brings to mind his statement that we should gouge out our eyes and throw them away rather than allow them to lead us into sin, for it would be better to lose a part of one's body than to lose one's whole body to Hell.)

But how about my list at the start of this post? Don't we take each of those things as the same kind of evidence of God's favor that the disciples took riches to be? What if we examine each one of those statements in light of the whole of scripture? Does scripture support my list "as-is", or does it require a bit of modification?

I believe it requires quite a bit of modification. Jesus gave us His own list, after all, and this is what it said about who was really eligible to be seen as a national of the Kingdom of Heaven:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. "

And I think that all goes back to the same statement that He made to the disciples about who could be saved, if not a rich man. Who can be saved, if not the man and woman who have achieved a Godly, happy marriage? Who can be saved, if not the man and woman who have raised great kids? Who can be saved, if not the man and woman who are stewarding their money and resources wisely? Are these not all obvious evidences of God's blessing and pleasure with a man and a woman?

No. It is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Then who can be saved?

No one. Unless God intervenes.

But blessed are you who know you are impoverished and that only God's intervention can save you.

Leave everything you have, and go and follow Him.

"And I say unto you that, as much as you have left for my sake, you shall receive many times as much, and shall inherit eternal life."

So, what's my point?

It is this: We are as guilty of idolatry when we make our marriage or kids or career or home or "good stewardship" or "effective ministry" or even "godly life" our goal as we are when we make riches our goal. Our goal is simple: Jesus. We need to chase a relationship with Him, and pleasing Him, the way we chased our spouse (or the way they chased us) when we met and fell in love. We need to dedicate ourselves to a life with Him the way our Evangelical culture calls us to dedicate ourselves to all those things I listed that "God wants us to" be and do. And we need to realize, as we learn in our marriages and other intimate relationships, that relationship is all about time and communication and attention to one another. We cultivate passion by listening and responding, and by spending our time on doing that over and over and over. (And ask yourself: where does God rank in the list of the places I give my time and attention?)

Back to my initial list of our "markers" of godliness . . .

Does God want all those things I listed? Sometimes. But let's re-write each statement in the list to reflect the heart of His call, and to reflect the fact that not every outcome is promised or within our power to execute. For instance, instead of "God wants you to have a happy marriage", we can list "God wants you to let Him lead you in establishing your relationships" and "God wants you to honor your commitments" and "God wants you to let Him teach you how to authentically love another person."

And the best part to me is this: He says at the start: "You don't have to clean up your act and then you can come to me. Just leave it all and follow me!" And then He says 2 years into it, when I bemoan that I'm really not getting any better, and that I must not really be His: "You don't have to clean up your act and then you can come to me. Just keep showing up! I will clean up your act over time, as you and I hang out. I want your time and attention!" And then He says 15 years into it, when I've "blown it all" so badly that I'm convinced that He'd never take me back: "I never left you. You are just as much a sinner as I already knew you were. Now maybe you get it a little better, that's all. You can't clean up your act first and then come to me. You can't clean up your act. All you can do is show up, and let me work with you. I love you. I will change you. But it will take time. And you have to drop the embarrassment and just keep showing up, whatever the truth about how messed up you still are. I already know, and I love you anyway!" And so, each day, He says: "Come as you are, and come now! I have something for you!"

God offers us life -- full life! Let's take Him up on the offer by drinking deeply of Him first, and letting every other good and perfect gift come forth then from His hand. Then I may still not have enough money to pay my bills, or may not be married, or may be unhappily married, or may hate my job, or may have kids who thoroughly embarrass me or disappoint me, or may be sick and dependent. But I will have full life, and will not worry about anyone else's judgment that I must not really be following Him, or that I am just reaping what I sowed when I wasn't really following Him. Because I will know that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven . . . but that with God, all things are possible!


Love, Judgment, and Rejection

A friend told me how he knew God did not judge:

"When I held my first baby in my arms and looked into his eyes, I knew that nothing that this boy could ever do would ever make me reject him. My love for him was just a given. And I knew that God is like that too, and that nothing I could do and nothing you could do would ever make God stop loving. His love is even stronger than my love for my child."

I think my friend is right about God's love. God is love. Nothing we do can make Him stop loving us.

But if I use my friend's moment of spiritual insight as our starting point, I think we can understand God's judgment from within the analogy of father and child.

My friend did not just let his son do whatever he wanted as he grew. He imposed discipline. That discipline was based on my friend's vision of what should happen in the world that he created for his son, and a vision of how his son needed to grow and live in order to have everything he needed. When things didn't happen as they needed to happen, teaching happened. The teaching was based on a judgment that something wasn't right and needed to change. Some of that teaching was punitive, but much was just pointing out the results of some choices, and helping his son think through how to get what he really wanted through his choices. God is like that with us. He trains us up, through the "judgment" of natural consequences of our sin, and through the kind discipline that seeks to avoid the harsher consequences of real-life natural consequences.

This kind of judgment imposed during the growing years is just a reflection of the vision my friend has for the basics of a happy life for his son. He doesn't want to control him or change him. He wants his son to be exactly what his son wants to be. But he knows that, in order for his son to have that opportunity, he needs to be alive, he needs to be healthy, he needs to not injure others, he needs to have an understanding of the world and of himself and how it all works, he needs certain habits that will serve him well, and he needs certain tools and skills. Without any of those things, my friend's son will not be free to be himself. He will be bound by horrible limitations. And all that doesn't even start to look at the implications of not just a single son, but of many sons all living together and impacting each other, and his desire for each of them, and his need to protect each of them from each other.

Judgment serves a purpose in raising my friend's sons, just as it serves a purpose to God in training us all up. To say otherwise is just an exercise in semantics because of a dislike of the word "judgment", but it doesn't change the reality behind temporal judgment.

And if my friend's son reaches adulthood and chooses to reject a relationship with my friend, my friend will do everything he can to foster a restored relationship, and will keep loving his son even in the midst of a broken relationship, but he will not force his son to love him. Indeed, there is no way he can do that. Love cannot be forced.

The doctrine of final judgment is all about free will and our freedom to reject our father, even though He never stops loving us until that final death.

The doctrine of final judgment tells us these things about God:

1) He is after a harmonious free world populated by creatures who have free will and choose to love Him and serve Him in the fullness of all they were created to do and be.

2) He never forces any of those creatures to participate with Him in His purposes.

3) Through nature and revelation He has given an open invitation to participate in everything we were created to participate in fully. Through Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have everything we need to take Him up on His invitation. And through final judgment, He honors our choice.

4) He ultimately so values their free will that, after having done everything to win them back that He can do (short of violating their free will), rather than "raping" them spiritually, He lets them go. He never stops loving. He allows them to stop loving, if that is what they choose.

So my friend is right in his spiritual insight. He just needs to project it out 20 years and 40 years and 60 years, and incorporate the idea of many children into the face of his first child.

God loves us all just as much as my friend loves his son. And all He does out of His holiness and His anger at sin and in His purpose for His Kingdom Come is indeed done out of that love. Even judgment in all its forms -- temporal and eternal.

The Point of Judgment

I was riding in the car with Noah and Brooks on Saturday, and, interrupting my musings about the lesson I was teaching on Monday about God's judgment of sin, heard "Mom, when we're in the new heavens and new earth and have our new bodies, will we get to do what we want and still not sin, or will we just have to do what God wants?"

Me to myself: "Oh, boy . . ."

Then, to Noah, who asked the question, I explained: "When we're in our resurrected bodies in the new earth, we'll be able to do what we want and still be pleasing to God. He didn't want puppets in the first place when He created everything, and that's the whole point of it all. He wanted real people that could do what they want to do, that loved Him and that He could love."

Noah was silent for the rest of the ride. I expect the next question to come out of the blue soon. Maybe today, as I have a lot of "windshield time' with him today and tomorrow.

But that question was perfect. What is God after? What was He after? And how does it all work?

I think we need to answer all our questions about the law, grace, mercy, judgment, free will, and God's sovereignty in the light of those questions.

And I think we need to keep in mind that He doesn't give us a nice, neatly wrapped theology with all the answers to our questions. He gives us stories and letters -- to tell us about our REAL GOD, how He acted in the lives of REAL PEOPLE, and His explanations for some of it. And then He does give us all we need to know how to be in relationship with Him again and to know what He requires of us at any given point. And He poured His Spirit out on His people to let them also have the power to be in relationship with Him and to do what He requires of us at any given point. We have all we need. And we need holes in our theology.

We need holes in our theology because a relationship with Him requires a continuing process of getting to know Him better, and because He is God, and we are not capable of encompassing all the aspects of knowing Him fully. But, just think! He made us in His image! So in growing in Him and in knowing each other and in knowing ourselves, we get to know Him better as we see Him reflected in each of our faces.

Revelation tells us that there will be a day of judgment when all that we have done -- good and bad -- will be exposed and known. Then it tells us that those found in the Lamb's book of life will enter into eternal life, and that those not found in the Lamb's book of life will be cast into the eternal fire. Then it goes on to describe the new heavens and new earth, and the new Jerusalem.

So we have salvation through Christ alone -- but everything we have done will be shown for what it is and what it isn't. Those who rejected Christ's atoning work will not inhabit the new heavens and new earth. The new Jerusalem will be a place of joy and peace and freedom. We won't be puppets, and we will no longer fight our sinful nature.

God has no sinful nature to fight. We do, and will until we and all creation see that day of freedom, and we are in our resurrected bodies. But after judgment, all those who keep wanting to use their free will to cultivate their passion for things other than God's best will be out of the picture. Those who have a new nature through Christ's work for us will be free of their sinful nature, but still be creatures created with free will. And in our freedom we will authentically serve Him, and fulfill His purposes in creation.

So the point of judgment -- post-Christ's-atoning-work -- is the point of creation in the first place.

These are mysteries.


Missing the Point: "Propriety" and Authentic Freedom

I am growing to really really love Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Living each day with Him brings greater clarity each day to the pieces that didn't make sense to me at the start. I am far enough into it all now that I get that it works, that He was telling the truth about life and people and relationships. (Follow Him, and see for yourself!)

I love the stories of His interactions with the Pharisees, too! His theme there is "You're SO missing the point!!" We see that with His reaction to their reaction to His disciples eating grain as they walked through a field on the Sabbath. We see it as He talks about what is dedicated to the Temple and what is used to care for and honor one's own parents. We see it as He tells His stories, like the one of the sinner and Pharisee in prayer, or the one of the good Samaritan. And it occurs to me that we often miss the point just as badly, don't we?

We relate to Jesus just like the Pharisees related to Moses, David, and the prophets, don't we? We ignore Christ's words as "unrealistic" or "undo-able" and substitute in our own proprieties to keep us safe from the sins we know would devastate us, individually and as a community. For instance, Jesus tells us not to just not commit adultery, and not to just not divorce illegally, but to avoid divorce completely if it is within our own power, and to manage all this by beginning at the beginning and not fantasizing about sex with someone who is not your spouse. Evangelicals say that that would be nice if it were possible, but especially men are not capable of not fantasizing about sex with other women; so we will make sure at least that it doesn't go any further than fantasy by putting in place our own proprieties about contact between the sexes. This allows men to be men (and women to be women, although that isn't as much a part of the evangelical myth as of the hidden reality) and enjoy the occasional "unavoidable" fantasy, but never pay the consequences that "real sin" would cost them or our whole Christian culture. And, like the Pharisees, we are so missing the point!!!

Sexual purity and faithfulness in marriage are valued by Jesus because they are necessary to foster a culture of the necessary and appropriate intimate relationships that should exist in the church, and ultimately in the new kingdom. Impurity and unfaithfulness do not just rob our spouses of what we have promised them, and do not just injure us in what we lose in our own character and in our marital intimacy. Impurity in thought or action also robs the object of our thought or action of the relationship God intended us to have with that person, and robs us of the same. The hallmark of our identity as Jesus' disciples is to be the love we have for each other, and it is to nourish us and form us. We are a BODY made up of each other, and each part is necessary for the whole to function as He intended it to function, here and now, in our lives together. We have jettisoned the treasure of those healthy relationships to maintain the facade of purity and faithfulness so that we can look "nice" and like we never needed a Savior or His Kingdom in the first place. We are pharisees ourselves now, and if we want the treasures of the kingdom, we better let go of our silly "propriety" and let Him direct us into actual holiness in a way that actually works for real men and women. He gives us His Spirit poured out on us and He tells us how things really work -- and so the power to follow Him and live in His Kingdom is available.

But we allow for a little "invisible" mental sin but "keep it safe" by living by our "proprieties". I am so glad Jesus didn't live that way Himself! If He had, He would never have let the whore cry over his feet and kiss them and wipe them with her hair. He would never have ministered one-on-one to the promiscuous woman at the Samaritan well at an odd hour when good girls were back home with their water -- especially after she flirted with Him. He would never have allowed Mary to learn Torah while Martha played the appropriate role for a godly woman, because learning Torah was not only forbidden to women but was far too intimate a teaching relationship between rabbi and disciple. And the accounts of His "improprieties" for the culture go on and on!

Of course, He was Jesus, and so He couldn't think lustful thoughts, right? Or, even if He could, because He was fully man as well as fully God, He was God, and so He wouldn't have had the same danger as another man, right?

I don't think that gets us off the hook! As I said, He has given us His Spirit and has taught us TRUTH about how things really work. And an examination of His life and then an examination of human culture teach us that He calls us to a purity of thought and not to rules because it really is what comes out of a man that defiles him, and all the external rules in the world won't restrain a mind and body stirred up by cultivated fantasy. We are not -- as the gnostics taught - divided into body and spirit, with each functioning independently. We are whole people, and any attempt to live lives that assumes otherwise will lead to disillusionment with a gnostic world view. It just doesn't work! What I do affects my mind and will, and what I do flows from my mind and will. What I desire motivates my actions. What I think about will form my life.

So I'm not called to pull myself up by my bootstraps and make myself sinless. I'm not called to try really really hard to "not think about pink elephants" and keep my thoughts pure. I am called to "fix my eyes on Jesus" and called to "love one another, for by this they will know that you are my disciples" and am called to let Him "make me better" as I stay in honest relationship with Him and with my community of faith. But, within that context, I need to know how things work and what following Him will end up looking like. And He does tell us how things work and what following Him will end up looking like!

In the area of gender and sexual relationships, He held up three principles for us to live by:
  1. He called for sexual purity and sexual faithfulness, beginning at our thoughts and continuing to our actions.
  2. He treated everyone with respect -- men and women -- and not just with respect, but with appropriate openness to a growing familial intimacy. We are to be brothers and sisters, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters.
  3. He managed His sexuality not by rules that limited real agape relationships, but by managing His own thoughts and emotions, even if a woman appeared possibly provocative, as did the Samaritan woman at the well. We are to manage our purity the same way -- by learning to control our thoughts, which control our motivation toward action. (And, again, we do this by focusing on reality and on Him, and not by focusing on "not thinking about pink elephants". I can't make myself stronger here, but I can focus on Him and let Him guide me through the process, as much time as that takes Him. My salvation is wholly a work of His grace, and I cannot add to it! I must just "abide" and let Him heal me and change me.)

We demonstrate that we actually do understand that men are not incapable of doing anything but surrendering to their hormones by how we handle true familial relationships in our culture. If we hear of a pastor molesting his daughter, we do not generalize that father's sin and thus call for all fathers to be kept out of situations where they are alone with their daughters and something bad could happen, nor say that we should at least apply that standard to pastors even if not to all fathers, because pastors must be held to a higher standard. Nor do we even call for limits on the numbers of times that a father can be alone with his daughter, or any other such idiocy. We understand that the value of a father-daughter relationship is so very great and that the normal inhibitions and love of most men are so very sound that the problem was not with the circumstance of the father's time alone with his daughter but rather with that particular father's lack of love and self-control. He was sick -- not normal! -- and hurt his daughter deeply in the process. And a huge part of how she has been hurt and of how hard her healing will be for her is this: her very healthy need for her father's love and affection has become mixed with a sick desire for his sexual attention, because that is what he cultivated. And separating those two things out for her will affect all her relationships and will affect her whole life, because it will be hard for her to separate inappropriate sexual intimacy and very healthy relational intimacy.

(I think it is an important aside here for me to make clear that this is not part of my personal experience! On the contrary, my father's love for me and clear mental discipline and clear boundaries with all women -- but obvious sexual enjoyment of my mother exclusively -- lay the foundation for my belief that men are capable of much more than we seem to think they are! Not only have I never heard my father speak disrespectfully of a woman, but have stories from my ex-husband of the ways he is careful to respect women even when "alone with the guys.")

So our healthy familial relationships illustrate that we do possess the ability to be around attractive people of the opposite sex and never have any hint of sexual fantasy cross our minds. Those relationships matter too much to desecrate them by even "harmless fantasy that no one would ever know about." We get there that the fantasy would harm something sacred. To be the Church that God intended us to be, we need to function as a family. There need to be real relationships between men and women who are not married, or we will continue to function with men in power and women behaving neurotically and the Spirit being limited by a culture that cannot respond as the un-crippled BODY of Christ was intended to respond to the world around us. God created us male and female for a reason, and all the voices need to be heard and all the gifts need to be exercised to fully live as the community God intended us to be. The greatest cost of sexual fantasy and of the compensating distance men and women put between themselves and their brothers and sisters in Christ is the cost to God's purposes for the Church in the current generation. Men who sit in closed offices and only interact with women other than their wives in artificial interviews cannot effectively lead and minister to the Church as a body. The Church as a body requires leaders who can effectively hear and utilize all the voices and gifts that God has given them to shepherd.

The culture of secular corporations and secular educational institutions is teaching us all that men and women can work effectively as a team of equals. In that world, a utilitarian focus on the organizational goals keeps things real in their "proprieties." We can apply the same sanity to the goal of following after Christ as He teaches us His values and agendas. We are still sinners, and bad things will still happen -- but a focus on Christ and an honesty with each other will be much safer than a blind adherence to the "do not taste, do not touch, do not do this, do not do that" form of "safety from sin."

So what would this look like for the Church? Would it be okay for your husband to become intimate friends with someone that is working with him on a particular project or committee? Would it be okay to have your wife riding alone with your male pastor once a week to a class they are taking together? Would it be okay for your female pastor to be meeting together with a male elder for private prayer at a set time each day?

We need to grow up! Rules about propriety don't keep us from hurting our own marriages or someone else's marriage. Obedience to Christ and accountability to the whole community as we all speak the truth to each other DO. If my husband is friends with a woman with whom he works closely, he knows and she knows the nature of their friendship and focus, and I probably do, too, and most of those who are on-lookers do, too. People pick up on romantic and sexual vibes very quickly, and likewise have good sensors to tell them when things are appropriate and focused on healthy organizational goals. If your wife is riding alone to class with any male friend or coworker and it doesn't feel right to you, it probably isn't -- no matter what she might tell you about your sensors being broken. But if all is well, you probably feel peace about it, and so will other on-lookers. And that 60-year-old female pastor relates very appropriately to the 32-year-old man she's praying with each morning, and her congregation knows them both well enough to affirm them in their daily prayer time; so it's quite appropriate for them to continue praying together.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't be wise about how we all relate! Nor am I just saying we should uniformly ease up on the "rules", because many grow out of the common sense and wisdom I'm talking about in the last paragraph. I am saying we should add this "rule" to the mix: every woman and every man deserves full participation in the community of faith, and for those in power to limit input from the opposite gender and justify it by "proprieties" is wrong. The social rules in place must show a high value of inclusiveness in circles of planning and power, with the understanding that decisions by committees are made primarily in one-one-one conversations before the committee convenes, and not it committee meetings. Social conventions that provide for real relationships between men and other men and between women and other women, but no friendship one-on-one between the sexes except for married couples or in groups that prevent real conversation about anything important just don't support the healthy community that we are destined to live in! A high value of sexual purity and marital faithfulness is designed to protect healthy community, and that healthy community will best nurture the individuals that will participate in healthy faithful marriages. Let's not miss the point here!!!

The men and women I know who seem to really walk with God each day don't debate any of this stuff. They know what the goals are, and they can sense if they are "fixing their eyes on Jesus" or not, and if you and I are, too. They understand all the agendas that our emotions make us latch on to . . . and that a need for power, or a desire for sexual excitement, or a fearfulness about life and what will happen next that results in a huge need for control, or a need to minimize conflict and justify the status quo, or a need to challenge the status quo because of an enjoyment of conflict for its own sake, or any of the other dynamics that we're all subject to . . . all yield to His authority and His agendas, but most of all to His LOVE. And it is that love that we are called to deliberately and consistently offer up to each other, unhindered by "proprieties" that have a root purpose of allowing hidden sin without allowing it to become public.

May we all grow in that wisdom! May we become a culture that reflects the reality of our sinfulness and of His forgiveness and healing of our sinfulness! Then we will not live by "silly rules", nor will we need to deliberately flaunt another's "silly rules", but we will walk in righteousness that all can agree upon, because "against these there is no law." "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."

And that is who we are. Let's live in it fully. He wasn't lying when He promised us that power, together in an honest community . . . His Kingdom come, right here, right now!


Friendships: Initiating, Responding, and Subtle Rejections

There are more people in my life toward whom I have warm feelings than there is time for me to have intimate relationships. More than anything, I have concluded, relationship -- that is, friendship -- is a product of time and attention. Passion, connection, mutual commitments and mutual interests, mutual ways of approaching life, the happenstance of where one lives and works and exercises and shops . . . these all can give birth to friendship, but it is time and attention that sustains friendship.

I find it relatively easy to be the one to initiate friendship, and to initiate the time and attention that nurture friendship. I think this is a product of genetics and good life experience. I was fortunate to have the parents I have with their love of people, and have been fortunate in the life I have been given and the richness of it. I have been blessed with good experiences with people that give me less fear of rejection and more expectation of mutual enjoyment of each other. Life is -- more than anything else to me -- made up of the people with whom I am friends.

My walk with Jesus has also been a big part of my life with people. As I was celebrating Good Friday (yes, celebrating) I was struck with the degree to which He has just always been there, and the way that He spurs me toward reaching out in friendship to others. He keeps reaching out to me, and the love He shows me is instructive in how to love others. I think that is the first place that the Holy Spirit works: He changes my natural responses to others and "trains me up" in all the ways of loving that will bring real joy to my own life and to the lives of others. And prayer for others is the cornerstone of that in my life.

For most of my life He has truly been the "Hound of Heaven", and my relationship with Him is wholly due to Him seeking me out over and over and over again, as I kept trying out other avenues of meaning and satisfaction. I have been observing, though, that He doesn't initiate nearly as much these days as He used to. He seems to wait for me to notice the "disconnect" in my walk and seek Him out when I get busy with other distractions (good and bad). I wonder what it is like to show Yourself in all Your glory and perfection to someone again and again, and still have them ignore you and chase other things?

But when I walk in to my house intending to spend time alone with Jesus, and plop down to do just that, He shows up and all is forgiven. He keeps showing Himself in greater and greater ways to really be REAL and TRUE and SATISFYING. And I wonder at myself that I can know Him and still go hours ignoring Him as I do at times. And I wonder even more at those who know Him and yet go more than hours -- they go days or weeks or years -- and ignore what they know from experience. Only Jesus satisfies, and secondary joys satisfy only as they flow from walking with Jesus and enjoying Him and obeying Him.

I think about my own friendships and how they flow: who initiates, who pursues, who pulls away . . .

My closest friendships all have mutuality. I am usually the one who initiated friendship at the very start (although not with all of my friends!) and may be the one who chases the friendship for periods of time, but there is always the ebb and flow of pulling back and being chased by my friends. There are times of less contact and times of more contact, but it is not one-sided over time. A good friendship requires both friends to want to connect. A good friendship requires both friends to initiate the time and attention that build friendship. A good friendship is never passive on one side for long, or it is, by definition, not a real friendship.

I wonder how much our God is like that. It fits what I see in scripture and life. He is willing to pursue. He is willing to chase those He loves. But a response of love from us is not passive! It becomes passionate enough that we chase Him, too. I think that's what the ancient creed was after as it said "if we deny Him, He also will deny us. If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself." Friendship can stand any wound that can be forgiven and still have the friends re-engage in a mutual interest in each other . . . but friendship cannot withstand the wound of disinterest and permanent disengagement. It is simply a matter of definition, and nothing else. God can forgive faithlessness in one who shows persistent (if flakey) interest in Him, but He will not keep chasing one who shows consistently over time that he really doesn't give a yawn about knowing Him.

The filter of limited time and passion produces the same fruit in our "friendships". Those whom we feel warmly toward but who show no inclination to "chase" our friendship will fall by the wayside as will also those who feel inclined to "chase" a friendship with us but for whom our own emotions are not as passionate as they are for others. The friendships which stand the test of time in my life are those that are mutually desired enough that when one pulls back, the other takes over the role of "pursuer". And this has nothing to do with romance or sex . . . I am talking about my friendships with women and my friendships with men that are platonic.

Rarely do I choose to walk away from a friendship deliberately. What happens instead is that a pattern develops over time that shows that my interest in a friendship with someone is not really matched by my friend's interest in a friendship with me, and so there is never a moment of "rejection" on either side, but rather just an unnoticed "moving on" as I invest myself where my interest is reciprocated. Nevertheless, all those little signs of greater interest in other things than me are indeed subtle acts of rejection. They are just a kind rejection, and not an "in-your-face" rejection.

That's what happens to Jesus with most people too, isn't it? Most people don't decide against friendship with Jesus. (Just look at the statistics about how many Americans consider themselves "born again"!) Most people just practice the "kind rejection" of spending their time and attention on other things. Nevertheless, it is indeed rejection, over time.

This Easter my response is this: I will learn to really walk with Him. I will learn to hear His whisper even when I'm distracted. I will pursue Him.

After all, He has pursued me for a very very long time!


Holy Week

Tonight I get to go and celebrate communion with my church family, and all week I get to celebrate in a fresh way that God has chosen to bring His kingdom to my life and home in real ways each day. The Holy Spirit calls me to yield to His power within me to heal me and change me. God the Father plans new ways each moment to adjust His Story to the ways my free will can twist the plot. And the resurrected Jesus invites me to join anew with Him in intimate communion -- alone and together with His other followers. Fresh joy!

It is so easy to fall back into the old ways of thinking and living and communicating, even when I have experienced that blessed fresh life He brings! But at least now I know what I am missing, and I can turn to Him so easily when I have any need at all, but most especially when I need Him Himself.

I will go to the Good Friday Service at Irvine Presbyterian, and then probably to the Saturday evening service at St. Andrew's rather than fighting the crowds on Sunday morning. Easter is amazingly significant personally to me -- and it is a joy to celebrate it over and over with those others who know that Risen Christ whose feet we cannot hold on to . . .

Prayers that this Easter will be a time where He shows Himself in new and fresh ways in your life!