Category Archives: Church life

Certain Chiefs

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Certain Chiefs

How ready are any of us to stand firmly against an angry mob bent on wickedness and oppression?  How willing are we to risk our property, status, or lives for the sake of defending those who are being exploited?  Tucked away in the 28th chapter of 2 Chronicles is a very short story about “Certain Chiefs” of Israel who did just that.

To be perfectly candid, this is one of those stories that I’m sure I must have read before, but had my life depended on it, I couldn’t have recalled a single detail.  Not one.  Until now.  Now I will never be able to read this passage again without also marveling at God’s character displayed through what these “Certain Chiefs” did.  And I will now also be searching out and calling for Certain Chiefs to rise among us with me to do the same.

Background

The kingdom was divided – Israel and Judah were, in fact, warring with one another.  Ahaz, one of the most despicable men to ever reign, was King over Judah.  Not only was Ahaz guilty of flagrantly whoring after false gods, he was leading God’s people to do the same.  He led them into the darkness of pagan practices, and into committing abominations before the LORD, including offering their children as burnt sacrifices.  It was an abhorrent, ugly time and Ahaz had no shame.

Therefore, God handed Judah over to the King of Syria and also into the hand of the King of Israel, whose army did incredible damage to Judah.  In one day, Israel cut down 120,000 of Judah’s warriors.  Judah’s top officials were slain, including the King’s son.  And still fomented by their oppressive victory, Israel’s army rounded up captives indiscriminately – 200,000 women, children, elderly, and infirm.  The soldiers confiscated their possessions and stripped many of them naked.  Then they proceeded to march this humiliated, defeated throng toward Samaria, into slavery.

Though God had given Judah into Israel’s hands because of Judah’s great sin against him, it is clear from the passage that Israel went too far.  They had slaughtered their kinsmen in a blind rage, and it was clear that their lust for domination had not yet been satisfied.

Unfortunately, there are many such stories recorded in the Bible.  The account of one nation ruthlessly defeating another and carting its inhabitants off into bondage is not unique.  But to my shame, and perhaps yours, too, this is also what made this passage one that I didn’t remember anything about.  With a proverbial yawn I can easily read past an account like this.  I can become numb to horrific suffering because there is so much of it and it doesn’t really seem to affect me.  Yet that very fact should stop me in my tracks and shake me to my senses!  The commonness of accounts of brutality is no excuse to fail to recognize the reality of the human drama – and trauma – that is being described in these stories.  In one day, 120,000 valiant men were wiped out, civil order was destroyed, and an army drunk with rage rampaged through the streets gathering up everyone they could, stripping people of everything they had, and driving them into captivity.  Can you imagine the terror?

Courage amidst the carnage

But God is faithful, even when his people are not.  The oppression of his people – especially when it is oppression committed by his people – is something God hates.  He will see to justice – sometimes through the carnage, sometimes because of or in spite of it, and sometimes, in the very midst of it.

We begin to see the character of God revealed in verse 9 when we read, “But a prophet of Yahweh’s was there (in Samaria), whose name was Oded, and he went out to meet the army…”

Prophets’ courage to speak truth to power is well-documented.  It might be easy, again, to miss the impact of this man’s actions because they are not singular, but rather expected among the “prophet guys.”  But listen to what he said to this blood-stained army returning after their shameful conquest:  “Behold, because the LORD, the God of your fathers, was angry with Judah, he gave them into your hand, but you have killed them in a rage that has reached up to heaven.  And now you intend to subjugate the people of Judah and Jerusalem, male and female, as your slaves.  Have you not sins of your own against the LORD your God?  Now hear me, and send back the captives from your relatives whom you have taken, for the fierce wrath of the LORD is upon you.”

This prophet, this human being, stood up to a horde which had just slaughtered over 120,000 seasoned fighters.  He might have done it shaking in his sandals, but he did it.  He might have done it thinking, “today is the day I die,” but he did it.  He knew the kind of callous disregard for human life they had displayed, and yet despite the risk of being just one more body added to their heap, he went out to meet them and warned them against continuing in their wickedness.  He warned them that their sin had already reached the God whose name they claimed to be defending, and that they were only adding to the enormous guilt they already bore.

Oded said and did all the right things, but the army didn’t listen.  I can’t help but think that sometimes faithfulness seems fruitless.  But it never is.  We need men like Oded today, but sometimes, warnings are not enough.

Certain Chiefs

The story says that “Certain Chiefs… stood up against those who were coming from the war.”  These Chiefs – men who had already been recognized as leaders and who were well-respected in their communities – took Oded’s work a step further.  While Oded warned and instructed the men of the army not to continue in their wicked scheme, these chiefs stood firmly against them and said, “We will not allow you to do this.”

This is not warning alone – this is standing together and saying, “Even if you are willing to persist in this unconscionable thing, we will not allow you to do it.  We will stop you.  We will fight against you if we have to, but we will not just sit idly by and watch you ruin all of us by your wicked oppression.”  It’s the ancient equivalent to “over my dead body!”  We need men like Oded today, but we need Certain Chiefs, too.

When I read this passage through clearer, humane eyes, I was astounded by the courage and integrity of these leaders.  They stood for what was right in the face of great power, great hostility, and tremendous evil in front of them.  They stood firmly and were undeterred by what had to have been the very real threat of their own lives.  But because I also read this passage through the lens of trauma, I wept at what these words must have meant to the 200,000 captives standing there watching their fates being held in the hands of the men before them.

Those who had no hope of being redeemed were suddenly presented with that very hope.  Rescue.  Those who had no power to free themselves from the tyranny of their powerful oppressors probably caught their breath with the gravity of it all – could this really be true?

Redemption

I don’t know what it was that convinced the armed men to scatter, leaving the captives and all their spoils just lying there, but they did.  Was it a steely glare?  The firmness of the Chiefs’ united front?  Was it because the Chiefs were father-figures to these young soldiers, and they were able to shame them into abandoning their plans?  We can’t know from the text why the armed men took off, but we know they did.  And if the righteous actions of Oded and the Chiefs hadn’t already been noteworthy enough, what follows in the account shows the abundant and compassionate tenderness of the God we serve towards those who have been victimized by others.

These Chiefs – these same respectable men of rank and position in their communities – went into the throng of captives and did the unthinkable.  These Chiefs clothed the women and children and the elderly.  They gave them sandals for their feet.  They distributed food and drink, tended to wounds, and assisted the weak and disabled to get them all safely home.  The text could be translated, “the Chiefs took the captives by the hands…”  What a beautiful picture of Christ-like, servant-leadership.  These Chiefs used their power, position, and resources to rescue, and then to serve, to bind-up, to feed, clothe, and to restore.  Like the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, these Chiefs of Samaria knew that the true character of God is revealed when we love our neighbors as ourselves.  And like the wicked, unforgiving servant who had been forgiven a great debt needed to learn, these Chiefs knew that though Judah’s sins were great (and they truly were) there was nothing to be gained in subjugating, oppressing, or grinding Judah into the dust.  Israel had her own sins to reckon with, she could let God deal with Judah’s.

Where are our “Certain Chiefs”?

If this story was only intended to give us a picture into the true and tender character of our God in the face of wicked oppression, it would be sufficient.  The God of the Bible hates the oppressive abuse of people.  There is no doubt that the domination and control of one person over another is an affront to the image of God in that person, and his wrath is kindled against oppressors in a way that little else manages to provoke.  Abuse is never OK with God.  He will mete out justice against perpetrators, and he will do it in a way that tenderly cares for those who have been damaged by them.

But today we are in the midst of a reckoning of our own.  Anyone who is awake has heard of the many, many scandals and stories of all kinds of abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, and criminal misconduct coming to light from every sector of society – including the church.  There is no denomination or faith that has been untouched – we are all affected by this wickedness that has been tolerated in our own ranks for far too long.  So many lives have been irrevocably damaged because of the wicked things our own people have done.  It’s been ignored, minimized, and even tolerated across every social divide.  In the name of “protecting reputations” of organizations or personalities, we have collectively permitted perpetrators to oppress victims – our own sisters and brothers – in our churches, organizations, and homes.

So I have to ask the question:  Where are our Certain Chiefs?  Who are the faithful among  the leaders of our own faith communities who will stand firmly against this terrible blight?  Who will be the ones with integrity who already have positions of authority, status, privilege, and respect, who will not only cry out, “This is wrong!” but who will stand together and declare, “Abuse will continue here over my dead body!”?  Who among our current leaders has the guts to risk property, comforts, and life for the sake of the vulnerable, the weak, and the oppressed?  And once redeemed, who will serve, feed, shelter, and protect?

Be assured, it will cost you a great deal.  The vulnerable can only afford to thank you.  Most of them will, but not all of them.  (Some of them might even criticize you for taking so long!)  Before one victim is completely rescued another will appear needing even more help.  Abuse is ugly and evil – it morphs and it dodges behind really, really good sounding words.  It is incredibly difficult to root out.  You will be called to stand against people you thought you knew.  You will be called to hold friends or superiors accountable for their wicked deeds.  You will be misjudged, your character will be maligned, and you will be called crazy, or evil yourself.  But it is right to love your weak, vulnerable, oppressed neighbors as yourself and to seek justice for them.  You will honor God by your lives if you are willing to be like these Certain Chiefs.  In that day, you will hear, “Well done my good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your Master!”

God’s heart is to rescue and redeem.  We reflect his image well when we do the same.

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When even the “good guys” don’t get it…

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What do you do when even the “good guys” don’t get it?

Not long ago I had one of the most perplexing conversations I’ve ever had.

While I was waiting to speak with someone else after the morning worship service a man – a leader – came up to me and started a conversation.  He is one of the good guys.  Kind.  Compassionate.  Caring.  His wife is beloved.  His children are happy and stable.  He genuinely works hard – and gladly – for the welfare of the flock.

And that is why this conversation was so perplexing.

He leaned over to me, and in an effort to be lighthearted and engaging, he said, “Did you notice that it was the women who were the ones who commented on what the angels were wearing?”

I blinked in disbelief in what I had just heard.  I couldn’t help but simply stare at him with an open-mouthed lack of response.

He was referencing the sermon text, Luke 23:32-24:53, which covers Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, and the events that followed.  The text mentions that when the women who went to Jesus’ tomb with spices for his dead body, “two men stood by them in dazzling apparel.”

He continued, “Isn’t that just like women?  I can be talking to my wife about something and she can’t remember any of it, but then she’ll say, ‘Oh yeah! That’s the night I was wearing my skirt with the frills on it and the big flowers,’ and then she remembers.”

I didn’t recall it being recorded that the women mentioned this in the text – surely it came out at some point, but the Bible doesn’t draw any attention to the women talking about clothing.  I finally said, “I don’t think the angels’ clothing was really all that important to anyone at the time.”

And then I couldn’t help myself.  Since he was still standing there, willing to continue in conversation, I said, “Actually, what I did notice from that part of the story was that Jesus’ resurrection was revealed to those women first, that their immediate response was to share that glorious news with his disciples, and that the men didn’t believe them.  And it occurred to me that men not believing women, simply because they are women, regardless of the veracity of what they are saying, is still a problem.”

Now it was his turn to blink with an open-mouthed lack of response.

I went on, “_________, with all due respect, and I mean that sincerely, what you just said is offensive.  We have a serious problem with men thinking that women are dimwits who don’t care about serious, theological truths and issues that genuinely matter.  This thinking is such a distortion in the church that it  makes this a place that is ripe for abuses of power and authority to take place.  At the heart of this is an attitude of superiority and a devaluing of women.  While we give verbal ascent to both sexes being equally made in the image of God, we don’t really live it out as we should.  It’s not a joke.”

To say that he was surprised by my response is an understatement, but to his credit, he was willing to continue to engage.  But the way the conversation went after this has sent me spinning for months.  He said, “OK, tell me this.  Don’t you think that the whole #MeToo stuff is going a bit far?  Don’t you think that there’s a lot of claiming of victimhood when it’s not really true?  I mean, guys are afraid to flirt now – what’s so bad about a little harmless flirting?  Everyone is so worried that they’re going to be accused of sexual harassment that they can’t even ask a woman out on a date.  And what can a man possibly say in his own defense?  Don’t get me wrong, I agree that sexual harassment is wrong, and we shouldn’t tolerate it, but I have to ask, in light of all that is coming out with the #MeToo stuff, what about the men?”

The truth is, I wanted to yell at him – rail at him.  I was honestly flabbergasted at what he had just said.  “What about the men?!  Are you kidding me??”  THE MEN?  I’m sorry – did you just say that OUT LOUD?

Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to not want to embarrass either of us, and the inkling that he was genuinely asking me a sincere question.  An annoying question, an ignorant question to be sure, but a sincere one, nonetheless.  And so, I answered him as best I could.  I tried to give him a little education on the scope of the problem.  I gave him a few statistics – and told him that every study done shows that the problems of abuses of power are equally as bad in the church as they are in society in general.  I explained to him that #MeToo encompasses every kind of sexual misconduct from unwelcomed sexual advances (including some of the “harmless flirting” he mentioned) to gang rape and sex trafficking and every unimaginable thing in-between.  And I tried to explain to him that even in our congregation – this group of God’s people that we both love dearly – it has been exceedingly difficult to have anyone understand the nature and impact of being a lamentable member of the #MeToo “stuff”.

His response to all of that made me sad.  Really, really sad.  He said, “I know, I know, but what about the men?”  I had tried to address many of the reasons that sexual misconduct should be taken seriously, but I hadn’t answered his biggest concern – that he might be falsely accused.  I tried one more time.  “___________, false accusations are wrong.  Period.  There is never, ever, an acceptable reason to accuse someone of wrong-doing when it isn’t true.  You will never hear me defend that.  But the reality is that the incidence of that is very, very low.  Yes, we need to be on-guard that men are not also victimized by false allegations.  But please, please don’t get hung up there.  The problem of sexual misconduct is incredibly vast.  Many have been victimized by it and many continue to be. It causes life-long suffering in many cases.  It stems from a fundamental view of women as less than – less entrusted by God spiritually, less intelligent, less wise, less worthy of respect simply because they are women.  It comes from attitudes of entitlement – why should women have to endure ‘harmless flirting’ if it’s not wanted?  What do you say to your daughters when men view them as nothing more than merchandise for their own greedy pleasure rather than human beings with dignity, worthy to be respected?  Please – you have got to look at this differently.  You have to see how un-Christlike this is!  You have to see the opportunity for men to stand up and be the ones correcting other men from viewing women this way – in the work place and in the church.

He said, “Oh, I definitely see where this kind of thing is a problem in the workplace.  But I don’t agree that we have that much of a problem in the church.  We value women here as co-heirs with Christ – equal but different….  Hey listen, gotta run.  It’s been great chatting with you.  Enjoy the rest of your day.”

And that was that.  I have no reason to believe that any of what I said (or anyone else for that matter) has resonated with this man.  There has been no acknowledgement of this, no follow-up of any kind.  And so I am left saddened by the ineffectiveness of my words and the depth of misunderstanding revealed in his.

The saddest part of this for me was that he is one of the “good guys.”  A man who loves his family, is well-regarded in the church and community.  He cares about people – he really does.  He just doesn’t value us all the same way.

This is the level of ignorance we are dealing with – all of us.  Things like male privilege, white privilege, national superiority, and every other kind of thinking that creates an “us” and a “them” are so ingrained in us that it will take a huge amount of effort to fundamentally change the thinking that is involved around these inherent wrongs.  It is profound.  It is not universal, but it is pervasive, and those who are blind to their own ignorance are the hardest to reach with the truth of it, however kind or caring they might otherwise be.

I have puzzled over this conversation many times since it happened.  It has served as a reminder that many of my brothers (and sisters) have a long way to go in understanding so many basic things.  But so do I, for it has also served as a reminder that Jesus has been incredibly patient with me.  He has had to speak slowly and clearly to me because I am frequently too dense to understand what he is saying.  He has had to repeat things many times because I am prone to forget what he just taught me.  And he has had to lovingly rebuke me when my stubbornness (or laziness or arrogance) has interfered with progress on the path of righteousness.  I want to be like him – loving enough to slow down and be clearer, loving enough to be patient and kind in the face of sluggishness, and loving enough to be unalteringly committed to truth and righteousness even when it is unwelcome.

This is what we do when even the “good guys” don’t get it.  This is what we’re called to.

Attention-Getting Love

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Attention-Getting Love

I had three little grandsons here recently while their mother, aunties, and I worked on a project.  Their presence not only brought delight, but a flood of memories.  Noisy, active children don’t fill my days anymore, and it’s admittedly easier to see the kinds of things I’m about to share now than it was when mine were young, but it occurred to me that caring for little ones is a beautiful picture of the love that Jesus showed to us.  While it might seem tedious and utterly insignificant to tie little shoe laces, encourage use of the potty again, or distract a tired toddler, the literal bending low and lifting up of vulnerable, needy human beings is exactly what Jesus did for us and what he calls us to do for one another – and he says it will get attention.  “By this will all people know that you are my disciples:  if you love one another.” John 13:35

As I watched my daughters serve me while they were also keeping tiny boys safe and happy I marveled at how they transitioned not only from one task to the next, but also between high-pitched cries for attention, help, or refereeing.  I smiled as I watched them handle all of it with grace and patient love.  I was drawn in and warmed by how they treated these three young souls.  It was attention-getting love.

I couldn’t help but connect some dots that have been swirling around my own head lately regarding the astounding way that Jesus showed us the unnatural kind of love we are to show one another.  I’ve benefited from hearing Diane Langberg say again and again that the Almighty Ruler of the Universe is the author and owner of all power and authority, yet he used it, not to control or manipulate mankind into subservient conformity to his will (which is what we typically think of as power – the ability to pressure, control, or force another to do one’s bidding).  Rather, Jesus used his power to rescue us from a sin-filled cesspool of our own making and then issued a gentle invitation to, “Come, follow me.”   She’s given me much to think about.

There are many examples in our culture of immoral, unethical, and unloving use of power and authority – governmental agencies that use their position not to protect and defend, but to bully and intimidate.  Bosses in the workplace who steal credit for ideas and productivity rather than holding up their employees for honor or recognition.  Religious leaders who use the sheep to feed unholy desires for praise or lust rather than protect them from ravenous wolves.  Husbands who bully and intimidate their wives to build kingdoms for themselves rather than cherishing and protecting them.  But Jesus calls us to do it differently.  He calls us to what he demonstrated to us by bending low and lifting up.

Because of this, passages like Ephesians 5 have begun to look different to me, too.  I have almost always heard this passage taught with a focus on headship and submission.  It has, at times, even focused on the instruction to submit to those in authority even when they are terrible because this honors God.

But this focus is unhelpful for two reasons.  The first is that it leaves too many doors open for abuses of power to be tolerated when they should not be.  For example, while there may be times we need to stick it out in difficult circumstances, “Wives submit to your own husbands in all things,” does not call a wife to submit to oppressive control or abuse.  But this verse is often used by abusers to keep their wives in groveling submission to them.  It is incredibly difficult to de-tangle the truth of what Scripture teaches from the distortions wielded by abusers – pastors need to be clearer on this.  Without the counter-balancing instruction of when it’s right to stand against sin, submission to power and authority in all circumstances becomes the understood teaching and many suffer needlessly because of it.

The second (and more important) reason this kind of approach is unhelpful is that it misses the main point of the passage.  The book of Ephesians is about unity in the body of Christ.  In the previous chapters Paul explains how unity and love for one another is even possible through Christ and then in chapter 5 he tells us how.  He starts off by saying, “submit yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  In other words, because you love and revere Jesus, you will honor him by loving one another as he did.  Here’s how…

Wives, do everything you can to serve your husbands in order to help them thrive and flourish – your focus is their good.

Husbands, lay aside all your selfishness and do everything you can to love your wives in order to help them thrive and flourish – your focus is their good.

Children, your parents have been given to you to help you thrive and flourish – honor them and it will go well for you.  Parents – especially fathers – make sure you don’t do anything that exasperates them in that process – your focus is their good.

Workers, work hard and sincerely do everything you can in order to help your bosses thrive and flourish – your focus is their good.

Bosses, help your workers thrive and flourish – your focus is their good.

None of this is about claiming power or authority in these common roles.  Jesus turns our ideas of power and authority on their heads!  Paul is telling us, “despite any power or authority you might have, don’t act like the world – act like Jesus!  Instead of using your power and authority to oppress, use it to serve, protect, and build up.”  The point of Ephesians 5 is this:  all of you, no matter your role (or what you think it might entitle you to) – use it to serve as Jesus served, love as Jesus loved, honor as Jesus honored, lift up as Jesus lifted up.

As I watched my daughters serve my grandsons in this way it got my attention, drew me in, and caused me to praise God.  This is how Jesus loves us.  When we serve, love, honor, and lift up the vulnerable, weak, and helpless around us – especially those over whom we have power or authority –  we are loving the way that Jesus loves.  And that beloved church, gets the attention of a world that is starving for attention-giving love.

Is The Church Ever a Refuge for the Abused?

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Is the Church Ever a Refuge for the Abused?

This question came up in a recent twitter thread in response to outrageous comments which have resurfaced made in 2000 by yet another leader of a major Christian denomination (Paige Patterson, President of the Southwestern Baptist Seminary, part of the SBC).  These comments, similar to John Piper’s comments in response to how women should respond to their abusive husbands, are quite literally nauseating to those of us who have suffered at the hands of abusive husbands.  But they should be nauseating to every decent human being, too.  These statements are inexcusable and yet, both men, prominent leaders in Christianity, refuse to retract their words.

Additionally, new high-profile cases of pastors and church leaders committing, covering up, or being dismissive of the damaging impact of abuse in their churches seem to be coming to light each week.

It makes everyone wonder, is the church ever a refuge for the abused?

While these cases are horrific – I mean truly and thoroughly horrific – it would be wrong to denigrate the whole of the body of Christ with the same broad brush.  We have a shamefully long, long way to go in righting these damaging wrongs against the vulnerable in our midst, but there are some shining examples of loving pastors, elders, and church leaders who are desperately trying to understand these issues and their impact, stand for righteousness, protect the vulnerable, and be the agents of change in this culture of cover-up.

I know – I am blessed to be a member of one such church.

My pastor and elders are by no means experts in the fields of abuse of any kind – they would be the first ones to admit to that.  But they have sought to faithfully – and lovingly – walk beside me on the darkest path I could ever imagine.

They have been humble enough to learn – though the learning curve has been steep and difficult for all involved.  They have been gracious enough to be challenged by a deeply wounded family and yet remain compassionate and kind at all times.  They have been willing to re-think positions they’ve held dear in light of newly acquired understanding of the dynamics and impact of abuse.  And they have wrestled with their own hearts about how to respond in faithfulness to scripture and compassionate care for my children and me.  And because of all of this, they have also had to endure false and ugly accusations against them because of their willingness to stand against evil.

This has not been an easy road for them or for me.  This has, at times, been a torturous process.   It has been years-long, and we’re still not on the other side of it all.  I have had to be both sufferer and tutor on a path that I don’t know how to navigate either.  But these men have been willing to try to see with new eyes what it means to shepherd, protect, and defend one of the flock who was being devoured.  They didn’t know how to fight this battle before I came along, but they have been willing to learn and then learn some more in order to do so well.  My pastor, in particular, has been doggedly faithful in leading them in this.

I know that I am in the minority.  There are too many – far, far too many – abominable stories emanating from pastoral responses like the ones above.  The norm is for pastors, in their woeful ignorance and sometimes arrogance, to think that abuse is a marital problem rather than an insatiable desire for controlling power and domination emanating from an idolatrous worship of self.  Those of us who love Christ and understand his call to all of us to be humble servants in his kingdom need to relentlessly call for our leaders to be knowledgeable and discerning in the issues of abuse of all kinds.  But let us also, with reverence and deep appreciation honor those who, like Jesus, use their power and authority to bend low, protect, deliver, and help set captives free.

Is the church ever a refuge for the abused?  It is grievous that the question has to even be asked this way.  Jesus would take cords and make whips out of them for those dishonoring the character of his Father with such callous disregard for his little ones.  But thankfully, there are faithful, Christ-honoring shepherds who love him, and his flock enough to stand up for the oppressed, stand against their abusers, and defend against harm.

Thank you strong and gentle shepherds – your reward in heaven is great.

Wise… and gentle

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Wise …and gentle

As would be wholly expected, there is a growing swell of backlash and criticism of those using #MeToo and #ChurchToo to draw attention to sexual misconduct in our culture.  I get it.  I even agree with some of it.

There is little doubt that there are those who are (ironically) abusing it for personal gain or even vendetta.  False reports of sexual assault are rare, but every false allegation is wrong and should be dealt with accordingly.

Additionally, within the ranks of Christendom, we tend to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to anything with origins in the secular mainstream.  There are some angry, foul-mouthed, inarticulate, illogical voices in the #MeToo choir, but as both a leader in the body and a victim, I’m asking the church to listen anyway – to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.

The problem is messy … really messy

Like trauma, #MeToo and #ChurchToo are messy.  It makes sense that this dam of silence would break open with a wild, reckless torrent that is slicing through society.  Whatever you think about all of this, one thing is sure – this involves a lot of people.  This is not a movement being led by anyone – it’s a phenomenon of individuals publicly declaring that they have been the victims of everything from unwanted sexual advances to gang rape and childhood sexual abuse – and that they have been largely silenced by the very systems of power perpetuating the abuses.  Also like trauma, it is a confusing deluge of stories that will take time to sort out and make sense of.

It’s going to take patience and wisdom, and a great deal of truth-seeking, but I contend that all sexual misconduct is inherently wrong, and it is, therefore, worth wading through the mess in order to pursue righteousness.  I also contend that despite the inarticulateness and offensiveness of some of the voices connected to #MeToo and #ChurchToo, that we should listen discerningly.  Any problems associated with the way things are coming out are worth sifting through to seek to understand what victims are trying to say.  Someone angry about their abuse should not be chastened because of their anger – they should be listened to in spite of it.  It will require godly insight for hearers to get past the bitterness and hurt and listen to the message behind it.

I’ve heard men complain that they are afraid of being wrongly accused no matter what they do or don’t do.  I’ve heard them complain that harmless flirting is now being called sexual harassment, and that they are afraid to help children in distress for fear of being labeled a pedophile.  I’ve listened to concerns that believing victims without due process will lead to witch hunts.  And though sexual misconduct is almost never committed publicly, I’ve even heard it (absurdly) suggested that allegations not be taken seriously unless there are at least two witnesses.  Brothers, I understand these concerns – they spring from rational objections and need to be taken seriously, too.  I’m not advocating that your concerns be dismissed, but you may need to get used to feeling uncomfortable with some of this process.  It may actually be the means God uses to increase your compassion for those who have been treated so unjustly and insensitively.  These things are worth working through with reason and compassion – wisely and gently.

The problem is massive

We have a massive and, until recently, largely unaddressed problem.  The church has the problem, too.  Until we address it with honesty and humility we will effectively continue to contribute to it rather than offer any real solutions.  None of the concerns that men have – no matter how valid they might be (and they are) – should be used to dismiss or silence the women crying out for justice.

No arbitrary “grading system” of severity – with unwelcome sexual advances being at one end of the continuum and violent sexual assault being at the other – should be used to dismiss anything on that continuum.  They are all wrong and no one should be pressured into tolerating any of them.  Not all of these offenses result in trauma, but all of them are inappropriate and unacceptable – and they have been rampant.  The lumping of all the offenses on the spectrum together into one complaint might be confusing, but the reason for this is actually pretty straightforward:  all of these offenses involve the abuse of power for sexual gain.  Period.  And no Christian anywhere can make a case for this being acceptable – ever.  In fact, we absolutely must say just the opposite.  But we can do it with wisdom and gentleness.

This is going to be incredibly difficult for a long time

I know that listening to story after story of sexual abuse is wearisome.  But it is necessary because defending the vulnerable is right, and we cannot begin to understand the magnitude of both the offenses and their impact without listening to those affected.  It might be helpful to remember that the weariness in listening to the stories – even thousands of them – cannot compare to the agonizing burden being borne by the ones living them.

Jesus told his disciples, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so, be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Mt 10:16)  Snakes sense danger coming a long way off.  They constantly monitor their surroundings for the approach of predators and effectively ward off both stealthy and brazen attacks with decisive and effective offensive abilities.  I can’t help but think that this is an appropriate choice of analogies when considering confronting sexual predators hiding in sheep’s clothing.

Likewise, at the same time, we are to be gentle – innocent, harmless – as doves.  Also an apt analogy when considering caring for the abused.

Jesus really can redeem this

There is an answer to this.  This is not hopeless.  The evil involved in this is incomprehensible – but greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.  Beloved church, let’s not be dismissive or fearful of a messy – but necessary – call to attend to the scourge of sexual misconduct, crimes, and abuses in our midst.  There are many things that need tending to in this – calling perpetrators (and the complicit) to  account, tending to the wounded who have been violated, addressing the larger issues of systemic power imbalances, and looking for ways to teach little boys and girls, teens, and adults how to interact with one another in ways that honor God and his image-bearing likeness we all share, are just a few.  But please don’t let the enormity of the problems tempt you to try to ignore that they exist.  Jesus does provide answers for all of us – victims, perpetrators, and those on the sidelines whose heads are spinning because of the confusion and overwhelming size of it all.  He will give us wisdom when we ask for it.

Let’s help one another be wise… and gentle.

How Could This Happen?

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Nassar victims

I wept as one young woman after another came forward and bravely faced him. I silently cheered them on as the tears freely fell down my face and onto my shirt – I didn’t care who saw me. These brave women faced the demon who had tormented them and they survived. They will remember that moment, too, and it will strengthen them when the black memories seek to haunt them – and they will. Along with many, I look forward to hearing their stories of victory and grace that surely will be told.

Besides the sheer weight and magnitude of the evil done (which, in truth, is incomprehensible), a number of things have struck me hard with this story as a result of questions that are being repeatedly asked. In an effort to help the church become better equipped at walking alongside abuse survivors, I’m writing today to both educate and, hopefully, equip the body with tools of understanding and discernment to use when facing abuse in their midst. The questions I’ve repeatedly heard are, “Why didn’t they tell someone when this was happening to them?” “Why didn’t the other adults who knew do something?” and “Why was it so easy for this guy to convince people he wasn’t abusing anyone even after credible allegations were made years ago?”

Why didn’t they tell?

A common thread through almost every single testimony was that of the victims not knowing what was happening to them when the abuse took place. It’s difficult for many people – people who have no history of abuse – to comprehend how someone could not understand where moral, ethical, or legal boundaries ought to be when it comes to touch, behavior, demands, or even language. People tend to imagine themselves in the shoes of a sexual abuse victim and believe they know what they would do. They think – rationally, calmly, and from the safety of their homes and abuse-free lives – that they either wouldn’t put up with what these victims endured or that they would report it immediately. But that is so far from the experience of a victim that it is neither realistic nor reasonable to expect.

It was clear from these testimonies that all of these girls and young women were vulnerable to ongoing sexual abuse because they did not know that what was happening to them was abuse. They were expertly lied to. Little children simple can’t know that what is happening to them is inappropriate adult behavior until someone explicitly tells them so. They are dependent on the adults in their lives to teach them what is right and what is wrong. When a trusted adult abuses them and tells them that this is a “normal” procedure (or some other lie), they can do nothing but believe them and to accept the behavior as normal and right. They might know they don’t like it. They might know that it hurts. But child victims don’t know that what is happening to them is wrong. Because it’s usually done by someone who is trusted, it is accepted.

But even young women can be easily convinced that the abuse that is being perpetrated upon them is something they must accept. Abusers always enjoy a position of power over their victims – if they didn’t the victim wouldn’t submit. There is vulnerability inherent in abuse, no matter what kind it is, and no matter how old the victim is. But there is another dynamic going on for victims as well. Unless we are given specific information about what abuse is, where the boundaries are, and when to tell, we tend to generate a personal definition of abuse as “something worse than what I am experiencing.”

Seeing one’s self as a victim of abuse is repulsive. As noted above, child victims simply don’t know that they are victims, and the truth is, adult victims rarely see themselves as victims until someone else points it out to them. In fact, it typically takes a long, long time to come to terms with the fact that someone you love and trust is hurting you for their own pleasure, gratification, and/or satisfaction. A long time. It presents as a cognitive distortion of such magnitude that it is very difficult to come to accept as truth. This was also evident in many of the testimonies given last week.

Additionally, and not insignificantly, victims are not stupid. They know full well what it will cost them to openly accuse their abusers of their crimes. The goal of coming forward might be to get abusers to stop, but it often doesn’t happen because of how difficult it is to make abuse charges stick, and to be believed. It is a very common experience for telling someone about abuse to come at an indescribably high price to the victim. Victims have already been terribly wounded by the abuse – not many want to open themselves up to wounding again by the shaming, blaming, and attacking that will surely come if they tell.

Why didn’t adults do something?

A second question I’ve heard surrounds the incomprehensibility of adults knowing that something was amiss with this man and yet they did nothing to stop him. It is hard to detangle the complex web of complicity, cover-ups, and failure on the parts of so many adults in authority, but it is clear that many had opportunity to do something to protect the vulnerable but failed to do so. Complicating the very disorienting truth of not understanding what was happening to them, victims did tell, but what we know from testimony after testimony is that they were not believed, or that their stories were minimized or ignored, or worst of all, they were made out to be the ones doing something wrong by calling a trusted adult’s character into question. This is a very common experience for abuse victims – both children and adults, and the damage done by this is incalculable.

Authority figures of all sorts – parents, coaches, administrators, trainers, and medical personnel knew about this man’s abuse and did nothing. They were dismissive. They were indignant at the accusation (rather than the abuse). They worried that they would forfeit their positions, be cut off from the sport they loved, or miss out on the gold medals (ie – their glory) they coveted. They were willing to sacrifice child after child on the alter of fame, power, and prestige. Some didn’t want to make waves. Some thought they wouldn’t be believed. Some didn’t think it was bad enough to make a stink about. All of them are culpable. All of them bear a heavy weight of responsibility. And the same will be true for each of us if we suspect that abuse is taking place and don’t do all we can to stop it.

The only appropriate response to a report of abuse is to move heaven and earth to make it stop. Period. Nothing else is more important. Not protecting the perpetrator’s reputation, not waiting to try to figure out if the victim’s story makes sense, not protecting a system’s reputation, or a complicit adult’s aspirations, wealth, or career – nothing. The betrayal of the adults in these girls’ lives and their failure to protect them before and after the abuse is every bit as bad as the abuse itself. I’m glad to see that this is not ending with one man’s sentencing because there are many who failed these girls. And this is a very common experience for abuse victims, too. We would do well to listen to their excuses and examine our own hearts very closely to see if there is any similar thinking lurking there. Any time we “don’t want to be bothered,” or “don’t want to make a fuss,” or want someone else to take care of it, we are doing the same thing that these complicit adults did.

How did he get away with it for so long?

The third question I’ve heard many ask is, “Why was it so easy for this guy to convince people he wasn’t abusing anyone even after credible allegations were made years ago?” As all abusers do, this perpetrator went to great lengths to cast doubt on his victims’ claims. Even after he was convicted, he continued his attempts to try to excuse his behavior, explain it away, or deflect attention away from what he did in order to try to minimize both the charges against him and any possible consequences he might need to pay. His tactics ranged from distorting the truth and calling abuse a “medical procedure,” to calling into question the veracity of the testimony of his young victims.

As I was scrolling through social media to see what people were saying I ran across a very encouraging series of Tweets from Wade Mullen (@wad3mullen), professor at Capital Seminary and Graduate School in Pennsylvania which address this issue head-on. Mullen offers a list of 12 tactics abusers use to disorient and confuse both victims and those trying to make sense of what is being said when a victim comes forward with an allegation. These are classic abuser tactics, and Mullen puts them into a concise form so that we can learn to recognize them when someone is trying to deceive or confuse us.

Mullen’s list is below in its entirety. It is excellent. It takes a messy, confusing set of tactics abusers use to discredit their victims and obscure the truth and helps us see what’s really happening. Clarity, above all else, is needed when dealing with those who consistently distort and misrepresent the truth. It is encouraging to hear Christian leaders speak truth into this topic. It often takes a long time to realize what is really happening in many cases of abuse – perhaps this helpful list will make it easier to clear a way through the fog in less time. As I’ve written before, trauma stories are often disjointed and messy when they first come out. It is easy to become frustrated with a victim’s lack of clarity and the way the details come out in “bits and pieces.” It is the nature of trauma to render victims speechless, but Mullen’s list helps explain the things abusers do to make it even harder for victims to be clear enough for others to understand and believe them. Hopefully you will begin to understand why those walking alongside need to be patient – and careful – to listen well to victims of abuse.

Here is Mullen’s list of 12 ways abusers attempt to redefine what they’ve done:

“Lately, #metoo and #churchtoo and now #175years victims have been emboldened to share their stories. In response, some abusers have issued statements in an attempt to define the “incident” in the way they want everyone to define it. Here are 12 of the many tactics we’ve seen recently:

  1. The details of a victim’s story are disruptive to the image of the abuser. Therefore, abusers will give it a label and say nothing more about it. Her details may destroy their definition of the “incident” and reveal coverup of a crime, not a mistake which the abuser regrets.
  2. Although he was an adult in a position of authority and trust, the abuser gives the impression it could have been consensual and typical. This tactic is called blurring and hides the truth without putting the abuser in the indefensible position of telling an outright lie.
  3. Abusers take every opportunity to mention the abuse took place a long time ago in a place far way. We tend to care more about recent harm done to those close to us (our own children). By amplifying these gaps in time and place, they create distance between you and the story.
  4. Abusers place great focus on their “redemptive process.” By using qualifiers like “full” to describe responsibility and “every” to describe the steps taken, they promote themselves as exemplary models of redemption. We should then trust them when they say it was “dealt with.”
  5. a) Abusers use a very subtle tactic I call polishing. Just as your shoes look better after you polish them, which in turn improves your overall appearance, abusers polish the people who have known about their abuse but have nonetheless supported him. b) By stating the behavior was known by other leaders and relatives who have continued to support him, abusers use them as a witness to their narrative. Now followers will have to reject the witness and credibility of their leaders and friends if they are to reject the abuser.
  6. Even though the story is about pain inflicted on the victim, attention is given to the abuser’s pain & how saddened he is. This is called supplication and it causes his followers to pray over him, applaud him, and call him worthy. Sadly, he receives what the victim never did.
  7. Abusers can be quick to say “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” but real apologies include a full and complete confession without explanation or excuse and an offer to accept penalizing actions. Restitution begins immediately with the victim and includes cooperation with the law.
  8. When abusers can’t refute a story, they try their best to dilute it. Diverting attention away from the crime and toward the perceived positive outcomes like lessons learned and the good they have done since, causes followers to view negative events in a positive light.
  9. When abusers state how uncharacteristic this behavior is of them, that they never engaged in similar behavior before or after the incident, they are trying to convince people they should not be linked to this kind of behavior. It may be true, but it doesn’t need to (be) said.
  10. Abusers may make a big deal about their pursuit of forgiveness and make it more important than the pursuit of examination. However, truth must precede confession which precedes forgiveness which precedes change. Forgiveness is exploited when it prevents discovery of truth.
  11. Abusers will try to conform themselves to the side of the victim, so as to keep people from taking sides. When they claim to be on the side of the victim and offer healing, but avoid the truth, they put the victim in a trap. When she doesn’t concede she’s seen as unforgiving.
  12. Abusers will abuse the Bible by quoting passages on mercy, love, compassion, grace, and forgiveness. They boost teachings that will serve their cause and belittle teachings that threaten their image (truth, justice). It’s another trap that seeks to pit you against Scripture.

“Abusers who engage in this complex process of managing the impressions others form of them will always confuse their targets. It is easier to manipulate and control confused people. The abuser will then influence their thoughts so that they voluntarily act according to his plan.”

The only thing I would add to this helpful list is that when the abuser’s attempts to reframe the story fails to convince anyone that the victim isn’t telling the truth, he will go to great lengths to smear her reputation, and call her sanity and trustworthiness into question. This, too, is a classic tactic. These are good to know and understand as you wade through the many, many stories coming out into the light. All of these are common experiences for victims of abuse.

What can the church do?

Believe that abuse takes place in all the places you would never suspect. Believe allegations of abuse – the incidence of false reporting is rare, and it should not be used as justification to not pursue the truth. Protect the vulnerable, seek justice for those who have been oppressed.

And, beloved church, as we seek to minister to every sinner – abusers included – let us not focus on the things abusers say, but much more on how they conduct themselves over the course of time and through the testing of stress, struggle, and consequences. Abusers who are truly repentant will abhor all that they’ve done, not seek attention for any of it. They will seek the victim’s well being – even if it costs them much. Abusers need to be held accountable because the temptation to abuse again will be incredibly strong, and will be a life-long battle.

Victims, on the other hand, need much care. They will almost certainly need counseling with qualified counselors, and a lot of patience, love, and compassion as they try to learn how to carry their stories of abuse with them for the rest of their lives. As Christians, we love stories of forgiveness and redemption – and we should. Our Savior bent low to rescue us from our own filthy messes. But when it comes to abuse, we must not be easily fooled into believing words of repentance and change. As C. H. Spurgeon noted, true repentance can be seen when we dread our sin “as the burnt child dreads fire.” Until that is evident in an abuser’s life, we would be wise to question everything.

May God be glorified, church, as we arm ourselves with knowledge and seek to find ways to respond that bring no further harm to the vulnerable, even while seeking to call the guilty to repentance.

Enough with the #MeToo stuff already

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jilbert-ebrahimi-33575Enough with the #MeToo stuff already, right?

It’s not going away, is it?  Every week more men are being confronted and exposed by angry women.  Enough already, right?

Christian women are among those reporting, too, however, we, the church, are very uncomfortable with angry people.  We want things quickly tied up into neat theological packages.  We think that because we can read from the “angry” parts in our Bibles to the bits that talk about settled trust in God’s righteous dealings with wrongs in the space of (maybe) ten minutes or so, that our anger, grief, or pain should be dealt with in about the same amount of time.  Sometimes we’ll give it a week or two, but that’s about our limit.  We know that’s silly, but still, we recoil when we hear someone express how the crimes of those in power have impacted their lives and made them angry.  So enough with the angry women and all the tiresome dredging up of old wounds.  Just move on, right?

Beloved church, it’s time to wake up.

John 13:35 says that people will know we follow Jesus because of our great love for one another.  But the very, very sad truth is that a woman can call a Domestic Violence hotline and get more care and compassion than she can from far too many churches if she tells someone there she has been victimized.  They believe her story – we want her to prove it.  They listen to her halting, disjointed words that are almost impossible for her to get out – we get frustrated because she doesn’t make sense.  They ask questions that help her think – we don’t say anything because we don’t know what to say.  They offer real and material assistance to help her get safe and get out of the destructive relationship – we debate whether or not she should go.  They follow up with her to make sure she is stable and safe, they offer counseling, and make sure her children are ok, too.  We… usually don’t.

We have no excuse.  We are wrong to ignore this – painfully, willfully, persistently wrong.  We can no longer claim ignorance.  #MeToo won’t let us – neither will the statistics that reveal the church has the same problem the rest of society has.

When the #MeToo movement hit social media I wondered what the response in the church would be.  To my great disappointment, it has been largely a continued silence or a collective whine about how angry all these women are.  (Individuals are crying out for justice, but churches are not.)  There was even an article touted by people I respect called #MeToo, But God, which was a call to neatly (and quickly) tie up the package of pain that these women bear into tidy theological boxes that make us feel more comfortable but actually increase the pain of the already wounded.

I think that a part of our problematic response is that things like #MeToo lump all manner of sexual misconduct into one complaint.  We publicly agree that all sexual misconduct is wrong, but we privately acquiesce to some of it.  Sexual innuendo in the office doesn’t really seem that bad to some.  “Harmless” touching doesn’t seem like something to really get that upset about – women have been dealing with that sort of thing for millennia, right?  Well, I would argue that is part of the problem.  But even if you think those sorts of claims can hardly be categorized as “sexual harassment” please be careful of your blanket responses to the “lumped together” complaints, too.  Many of the #MeToo participants have been attacked, abused, and treated as worthless garbage by those who exercised positions of power or authority over them or were supposed to love and care for them.  They have been traumatized and typing six characters on a social media post is the closest they’ve ever come to telling anyone.

These are your family

Beloved church, we cannot continue to have so callous a disregard for the broken and the suffering in our midst.  We must learn what we need to know in order to come alongside the hurting in a way that actually offers comfort and care.  These women are our sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.  They are sitting in the pew next to you.  They are teaching your children, holding your infants, and helping you love Jesus.  They are your family.

I agree that the only hope in all of this is God’s redemptive work, but I also know the desperate struggle of wrestling with the dual realities of the abuse of power and God.  The agonizing wrestling that seeks to reconcile a good God knowing about the abuse and him doing nothing to intervene is not as simple as adding ‘but God’ to the end of ‘me, too.’  Think about how difficult it is to get to the place where you might be able to say, “I was molested, but God,” or, “he raped me, but God”… Try to fill in the rest of that sentence  “… had a perfect plan for my life that included violence that radically changed everything and distorted all that I believed before”??  While this might be true, I hope you can see that it is an intensely difficult truth to grapple with – one that requires a great deal of wrestling with God over a long period of time.

Adding, ‘but God’ will make you, the listener to the story feel much better. But it won’t help the woman in your church fighting for faith.

Grieve with those who grieve without insisting they say things in a way that helps you feel more comfortable with their pain. If you can do that, you may indeed comfort them and eventually have the standing in their lives to help them discover the ways they can include the, ‘but God’ parts – when they’re ready to do so. Taking them there because that’s what you want to hear is neither comforting nor helpful. You end up being like Job’s friends and have the potential to add more pain and do significant damage to an already wounded person.

Let them be angry if they are angry – you probably would be struggling with anger, too.  But don’t stop there – ask them if they would be willing to tell their story, then listen way more than you speak.  The story may come out in bits and pieces, it might not seem to make much sense, it may be fuzzy and unclear (kind of like the #MeToo narrative) – listen anyway, and don’t draw conclusions about where you think she ought to be. Just be there and listen, and try to imagine the gravity of what she is telling you.  She has witnessed evil incarnate and that is no small thing. Please be gentle.

Redemption will be revealed, but not by you

There is redemption to be revealed in every one of these stories, but the victim needs to uncover it.  But listening (or not) will reveal something about us, too.  Standing with someone in pain is also painful. None of us wants to stand there for very long without relief.  Your presence in their pain communicates a great deal.  Do not underestimate this.  But ignoring it communicates something, too.  It communicates that their grief does not matter to us, that their painful wrestling with God is not significant, and that what we value most is theological accuracy and not the human being wrestling with it. I have been blessed by a few faithful comforters along the way.  But I have encountered far too many who have lacked the strength and courage it takes to walk alongside suffering well.

This coming Sunday is Right to Life Sunday.  It is about the dignity and value of each life.  It is not essentially about life vs death, but it is about the inherent value and worth of each human being made in the image of God.  Sexual trauma shatters that image for each victim.  We see ourselves as worthless, invisible, and discarded.  And part of that message comes from being silenced into obscurity.  You can help restore it if you simply listen and seek to understand.

Jesus showed us how when he entered into the grief of, and wept with, Mary and Martha over the death of their brother, Lazarus.  He went to them, and he wept with them, knowing full well that the very next thing he was going to do was show them, ‘but God’…