Becoming a Liberal Christian IV: Unforced Rhythms of Grace

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It’s taken me a while to finish up this blog series, so bear with me here. If you want to be reminded of previous blog posts, check out I, II, and III. Also, I was planning another blog post to be IV, but the writing spirit wasn’t moving me, so here is what I have to say next.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Chronicles of Narnia regarding Aslan (a Jesus-like figure):

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I have heard it said that Jesus came to disturb the comforted and comfort the disturbed. Walking with Jesus is not a walk through lilacs, unicorns, and lollipops, nor is it walking on egg shells to appease a God with his eyes narrowed, finger outstretched, and ready to strike people down who don’t do (a politically conservative understanding) of his will.

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The 25th Anniversary of The Little Mermaid and The Demise of Mark Driscoll

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I know, how could I possibly pair seemingly unrealistic topics of my childhood favorite Disney movie and Mark Driscoll? Continue reading. It shall all make sense in due time.

My blogging rants have previously spanned to the topics of Mark Driscoll and Disney (e.g., here, here, and here).

In the last few months, a lot has gone on in the world of Mark Driscoll (MD) and Mars Hill, Driscoll’s Seattle-base mega-church. While the purpose of this blog post is not to summarize what all has transpired, I will catch you up to speed here:

The quick summary: Shit went down. MD resigned and Mars Hill has disbanded.

The longer summary: The trouble started when MD got into some trouble regarding posts he made 14 years ago under the pseudonym of William Wallace II to attack “emerging-church-type feminists and liberals.” Why this happened to resurface after 14 years I have no idea, as Driscoll’s last year has hardly been clean, including controversies with possible plagiarism and allegations of paying off NYT best-sellers list. Somehow, the conglomeration of controversy spiraled in the last few months and resulted in the following: Acts 29, the church-planting organization Driscoll himself started, kicked out Mars Hill from its organization (major burn to MD) –> MD resigned from Mars Hill, saying he didn’t want to take away from the church mission, yada yada –> Mars Hill chose to disband.

This is HUGE in evangelicalism.

HUGE.

MD has been (with some exceptions) America’s evangelical, manly-man, neo-Reformed, social-media-savvy sweetheart. He captured the lives and hearts of thousands of Mars Hill goers. I myself, as I admitted in previous MD posts, used to listen to his podcasts. He is a captive speaker, quick with words, quick-witted, and relevant. Churches were planted. Good things happened. I do not want to negate the good things.

Do I believe that MD loves Jesus? I think that he does.

Do I think that MD bettered the city of Seattle and beyond? I think he did.

Now onto why I’m really writing about this story.

I am going to try really hard not to kick MD when he’s down. MD has long been controversial, and specifically what gets me going, are his homophobic and sexist comments that have been plentiful and sadly influential. Anyone who mocks effeminate worship leaders on Twitter is going to get a mouthful from me.

I saw the way this impacted others. Attending a Mars Hill campus in person in 2011, I was horrified to find every other woman pregnant and blonde and gorgeous. Every guy was ripped and strangely Driscoll-like in physical appearance. Everyone was white.

My own church when I lived in California preached out of MD’s book Real Marriage, a book filled with questionable antidotes such as one regarding a woman’s haircut pleasing her husband. This was the book also associated with a  plagiarism/ NYT best-sellers list scandal.

When MD resigned, Mars Hill leadership wrote the following: “Pastor Mark has never been charged with any immorality, illegality or heresy. Most of the charges involved attitudes and behaviors reflected by a domineering style of leadership.”

Uh…….?

How exactly are we defining immorality?

What is to be said for so many previous MD followers in therapy from attending Mars Hill and being subjected to degrading “church discipline” for being, for instance, a stay at home dad!!!! (GASP)?

What is to be said for the numerous controversial, hurtful comments that MD has said via Twitter or in personal conversations?

Those are moral because… MD believes that Jesus is God? And his doctrine is in line with certain standards?

Rachel Held Evans, in a typically eloquent post on Facebook yesterday, wrote the following:

It surprises me sometimes how people who are cruel and unkind get a pass on rude behavior from Christians because “at least their theology is sound.” But your theology is only as sound as the fruit of the Spirit it produces. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control – both Jesus and the apostle Paul taught that THESE are the things to look for when assessing whether someone is preaching the true gospel or a false one. I am so much more inclined to listen and learn from a teacher who exhibits these traits than those who may be highly credentialed whose fruit is bitter.

I think we as the church need to take a long, hard look at what fruit we are producing and the ramifications it has on others. There is this archaic idea that heresy means what you believe or cheating on your wife. I think this blog gets it. At the end of it, the writer, Kristen Howerton, says:

“It’s time we examine the negative ramifications to long-standing microaggressions, misogyny, and verbal abuse as seriously as we would embezzling or sexual misconduct from a church leader.”

Exactly.

More later but first…

NOW ONTO THE LITTLE MERMAID. 

The 25th anniversary of everyone’s favorite classic was this week. Growing up, I was obsessed with Ariel, as was every late 80s-90s girl. I had my Ariel Halloween costume and Ariel dolls and barbies and Ariel EVERYTHING.

I LOVED THE LITTLE MERMAID. Who didn’t? Cute, clever, catchy, adorable. A success for Disney, a success for mankind.

It wasn’t until I saw this Second City clip several years ago that I got to thinking:

What messages was this movie really teaching me?

Maybe not the 1st… or 100th… or 1000th… time that I saw that movie at age 4 would I think differently, but I wonder… what kinds of things did I implicitly learn?

I wonder… what we would find if we did a study on young girls before and after watching The Little Mermaid? Specifically, I wonder whether we would find that little girls are less likely to want to be a woman president or the effect a movie such as that would have on their ambitions and views of womanhood.

And as someone who has had an eating disorder for 13 years and is sensitive to weight-based discrimination, this movie is SO FRUSTRATING! Ariel is practically a mass-disseminated cartoon pro-ana figure, so much so that this PERFECT “Realistic Movie Trailer” renames the movie, The Little Waistline. And how fitting that the villain is a fat old woman. Perpetuating decades of stigma against older women and showing young girls that FAT IS BAD.

I read the host of perky articles that come out on the day that The Little Mermaid turned 25, and I tried to relive my childhood love of this movie. It didn’t work.

I know too much. I’ve been through too many years of therapy. I’ve battled too many companies selling pro-ana shirts, and we still haven’t had a woman president, and eating disorders are existing in unprecedented numbers. I have battled my entire life the voice that tells me to sell myself for society.

That started in childhood. THESE are the messages young girls get!!!!!

It’s not The Little Mermaid‘s fault, but does this movie perpetuate these messages, in my opinion? A resounding YES!

BRINGING IT TOGETHER

I told you I would bring it together. Now what could a middle-aged pastor from Seattle have to do with a movie about a mermaid?

Turns out, a lot (in my opinion).

Media, my friends, is an important thing. We are not untouched by what we fill our minds with; we are not untouched by what we watch or see or listen to or by the venues and organizations we attend.

Media is powerful, sometimes so subtle, you don’t realize how it’s slowly seeping into your consciousness, changing the way you see the world.

Both to Mark Driscoll and The Little Mermaid perpetuate some ugly stereotypes about the objectification of those who are different, whether it is those of different genders, sexual orientations, physical appearance, or anyone who you label as “the other.”

Sadly for evangelicals, Disney is stepping it up. Movies like Frozen and Brave are FAR (X 1000) better than movies like The Little Mermaid. I think Disney is learning their lesson. I am hopeful for today’s young girls, that they will be empowered to do WHATEVER it is they want to do, including achieving equal pay and other problematic society ills. I am hopeful that the movie Miss Representation and The Representation Project exist. I am hopeful because activist movie clips like THIS are going viral.

For evangelicals, I am not so sure. The oppression and discrimination of women and LGBTQ people is still prevalent is so many churches. And while The Little Mermaid turns 25 this year, MD JUST resigned. Apparently mocking stay-at-home dads and effeminate male worship leaders is still kosher in evangelicalism. So I guess the evangelical church is at least 25 years behind the rest of culture. Probably more than that.

I am not trying to be a hater, or promote a boycott of Disney/ Mark Driscoll. Like I admitted, I listened to Mark Driscoll. I loved (LOVED!!!!!!!!!) The Little Mermaid. If you like MD or old-school Disney movies, you know what, have fun. I will probably show my future daughter The Little Mermaid.

However, I think it’s well within my rights as a human to be critical of culture. I am in the field of mental health as a career, and I am an activist regarding body image, eating disorders, and gender-related concerns. And some of these things don’t sit well with me.

I am all too familiar with the scars that life leaves, and I am a fan of changing things so that people in the future can have a few less scars in life. So I’m going to leave you with the following thoughts:

For Disney lovers who show their little girls The Little Mermaid: If you must show your little girl this iconic movie, please have a discussion about it with her. She is SO much more than her body and selling and starving herself to please some hot dude (per the realistic movie trailer “white Aladdin”).

For evangelicals: Think before you preach, attend church, talk to others, and use the Bible to condemn. We need a movement based on love and acceptance, a movement that honors differences, and minimizes support groups needed for people in church. I mean GUYS how crazy is it that people should need to be in therapy or band together because of an oppressive church experience that leaves them feeling like scum. How much do you think Jesus is weeping because of that? MD’s popularity shows me how much we evangelicals are under the sea-– and many people don’t even know it.

“Engagement Season”: On Being a Single Christian

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Apparently we are now in “engagement season,” as this picture on Instagram that went viral showed. The viral nature of this picture has prompted lots of discussion on marriage/ singleness, so I decided, maybe it’s time for me to start talking about singleness, because, well, I am single. And I think about it a lot. Now let’s up the ante: let’s talk about Christian singleness. 

First a little background.

When I was growing up, I thought that my life would begin when I got married and had children. Even though I was always a high achiever, I considered career goals to be a back up plan reserved for my first few years of marriage prior to the commencement of popping out babies. I had this world view for a disturbingly long time– even in college, I was prepared to meet Prince Charming at any time and leave everything I had to follow him. My identity would be in being Mrs. Prince Charming. That’s where I would find worthiness and wholeness.

I was primed to think this way. My role model growing up was Ariel from The Little Mermaid, which, looking back, is scary, as this Second City skit hilariously depicts. I was idolizing a voiceless young girl who changed her body for a complete stranger who she apparently loves. Not to mention that she is 16. Growing up, I also saw a lot of educated women who stopped their lives when getting married and having children. The rest of their existence was filled with helicopter parenting, militant PTA presence, facilitating parties, and complaining to the principal about difficult calculus teachers. What is a young girl to learn from these models of love, marriage, and womanhood? That being a wife and mom were king. More than anything, those experiences colored one’s identity and guided the rest of a person’s life. Getting a job? Getting a raise? An education? Apparently less exciting and valued than blowing $70,000 on a wedding, as this article from the Huffington Post shows. 

My experience as an evangelical Christian with dating and marriage has been much, much worse than my experience with singleness in the dominant culture. Things get elevated when moral and divine components embedded into discussion. As a teenager in an evangelical church, I was given rhetoric like, “God’s plan for your perfect mate,” a poem that can be summarized by the following: God wants you to have the perfect marriage. Just wait. Draw close to him, and when the perfect time comes, he will give you more than you could ever ask or imagine in a mate. I heard things like, “If you dance with God, he will let the perfect guy cut in,” and, “God is writing my love story.”

I drank the Kool Aid… for a while.

I patiently (well, not that patiently, let’s be honest) waited for Mr. Right to march in, and (cue the crickets). It hasn’t happened. Theologically, this has been problematic for me. Am I not being a good enough Christian? Am I not holy enough? I’ve been having this really long dance with God, and it’s super awesome, but when is this awesome guy going to cut in? Maybe if I learn this lesson… and that one… GOD AM I BEING PATIENT ENOUGH YET???? (Crickets). Okay, guess not.

There is this strange theological view of God as a cosmic matchmaker who is facilitating billions of chick flicks. What about those of us who haven’t gotten cast? What about those of us who haven’t gotten the ring by spring? Are we missing something? Are we not good enough? What about people who never get married? Or who get divorced? Or who are in abusive relationships?

In my despair over being single, I’ve poured over Christian literature on singleness (and marriage). I remember reading a book based on the story of Ruth, which described how she patiently waited for Boaz. I read it every time I was lonely, which was a lot. Over the years in church, I have gotten the consistent message that a primary concern of the Christian life is getting married. I saw marriage portrayed like a massive party with balloons, blow up toys, and awesome cake. You could finally have sex. The instructions that Paul gives about lifelong celibacy? Contextual, apparently.

Unfortunately for me, I’m not willing to be this single Christian woman who prays daily for my future husband and cultivates the traits of “sweetness and submission” to male authority figures. After years of therapy and theological education, I will not wait on the edge of my castle in a Cinderella dress waiting for my Mr. Jesus-Right to sweep me away. Yes, I pray, and yes, sweetness and submission can be beautiful and godly things, but I think that God is much more concerned about how I live and love others where I am than wistfully cry myself to sleep and read Mark Driscoll, who obviously understands the plight of single women (oh wait…).

Jesus talks about a lot of things. Poverty is a big one. The oppressed. Healing. However, the Bible does not talk much (anything?) about picking a marriage partner in the way that our modern culture conceptualizes marriage. The Bible can generalize to things like marriage, and there are clearly examples of marriage being a blessing in the Bible, but the Bible is not a guide book for dating or marriage. It is so much more than that. In addition, the way that the current evangelical church has defined dating and marriage are not inherently cornerstones of our faith. Just because many Christians are married and God can work in marriages doesn’t mean that marriage should be “the” ideal for every Christian adult’s life. Clearly marriage is not a mark of holiness and godliness in and of itself because Jesus and Paul both chose celibacy.

The evangelical emphasis on marriage is so pervasive (google the books/ articles written on marriage by evangelicals), I wonder if it borders on idolatry. The implication of the dance-with-God–then-the-perfect-guy-will-cut-in phrase is that you stop walking with God when a guy comes around. God is like your wingman who desires you to have a greater good… MARRIAGE. Isn’t that kind of problematic? Christian Mingle, a site that appears on my facebook page incessantly, has the verse Psalm 37:4 on its home page, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Then right below it, it has a picture of a couple gazing into each other’s eyes. If I recall correctly, Psalm 37:4 is not really talking about marriage– it is talking about delighting in God. Not God… so you can get a better husband. Not God for anything. God for himself. Elevating marriage over God is something that I have struggled with doing in my own life, but I think that a lot of Christians– including pastors– do that as well. And their beliefs are conveyed to teens in youth group and divorced single moms and single twenty or thirty-somethings attending baby showers every weekend, and it hurts. Yes, marriage is something to strive for and is something to be celebrated, and yes, churches are right to address marriage, but marriage cannot be seen as the only (or “preferred”) path, because it’s not.

Recently, I read an amazing post by Christena Cleveland called, “Singled Out: How Churches Can Embrace Unmarried Adults.” It is beautiful, and you should totally check it out. She writes, “In a Church that was founded by a single guy, singles are terribly marginalized.” Cleveland also has some helpful tips for churches so that singles are not treated like second-class citizens or oddballs. Also importantly, Cleveland has the experience of being unmarried herself. I appreciate how Greg Boyd, a married pastor, invited Cleveland to speak with him about singleness to his church so the voice of an unmarried individual was heard.

You know what is annoying? When people who are not single think they have the right to talk about singles. I grit my teeth when I hear someone say, “I was exactly like you, and then this guy came along, and everything changed! But I totally know what you’re going through.” Pastors are historically annoying about the topic. I can’t find statistics about this, but from my own experience: most pastors I know are married. And they got married at 22 to their high school sweetheart. And then they preach to their churches about marriage and have marriage seminars and have the audacity to say they understand singleness? You haven’t been single since you were 18. You’re done now.

If there is one thing I learned in seminary, it is this: it is hard to live in the tensions: between what you want and don’t have, between what is and what should be, between what you know and don’t know. I am not willing to settle for pat answers about… most things. Marriage is one of them. I am not willing to accept the evangelical cultural mandate for a certain kind of marriage. Yet, I am looking for a Christian man. This leaves me with a small pool of potential relationship partners, but it is a risk I am going to have to take because I am not willing to lose myself and my convictions for some guy just because he loves Jesus. Consequently, I am not willing to date a guy who is not a Christian just because he happens to be more accepting and liberal.

In lamenting about our lack of choices of single men, my roommate joked that Rachel Held Evans should start a dating service so we can filter out all Christian guys who are expecting us to submit to them for all major decisions. We would both sign up. Neither of us are joking. However, until then, I will be content learning more what it means to love the other, following the Spirit imperfectly, and realizing that in Christ, I am enough. I am enough with or without a husband, with or without a family. Until that right guy comes along, if he ever does, in the dance that is life, I will be awkward dancing in a corner eating Sour Patch Kids and laughing at my own jokes. Honestly, and this has taken me years to say that, I am okay with that.

Reflections on Christmas

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Christmas comes by every year, and the familiarity with Jesus’ birth has an inoculating effect on the story’s beauty and mystery. Christmas stories range between inspirational and downright weird. Example: the other day I was at a church service during which angels started to the fly from the wings of the auditorium to the stage (via tight rope, of course). It was quite the shock. I sympathize with Rachel Held Evans on how disappointing it is that Christmas can so easily become about our “rights”—our right, our authority, to sing a song with Jesus’ name, to have a nativity scene in public, to say Merry CHRISTMAS emphatically to everyone.

The arrogance of the Christmas propaganda gets to me, and this Advent reflection by Henri Nouwen helped me articulate why: “God is where we are weak, vulnerable, small and dependent. God is where the poor are, the hungry, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the elderly, the powerless. How can we come to know God when our focus is elsewhere, on success, influence, and power? I increasingly believe that our faithfulness will depend on our willingness to go where there is brokenness, loneliness, and human need… I realize that the only way for us to stay well in the midst of the many ‘worlds’ is to stay close to the small, vulnerable child that lives in our hearts and in every other human being. Often we do not know that the Christ child is within us. When we discover him we can truly rejoice.”

In my life as a Christian, I have always thought that weakness and vulnerability have been states to conquer. I have faced this pressure, perhaps from myself, from the church, or in our culture, to arrive at some elusive point. To reach this sub-human state in which I can quote any Bible verse on command and be strangely excited at all times. I have been grasping for this supposed point of arrival, and it hasn’t come. I have lived my life waiting and never finding, hoping that after this therapy session, hearing this song, reading this book, saying this prayer… maybe the clouds would fade away and I would be free. I grow frustrated at God and ask, “Why? Why am I still dealing with all of this? Why won’t you answer my prayers?”

Henri Nouwen’s words have helped me refocus on the message of God giving up power and becoming vulnerable in the form of a person. What if there is not this single “point” of solace or arrival in this world? What if the good news of great joy is that God meets us where we are poor and weak? Maybe poverty, weakness, and vulnerability are not states that should be overcome over the course of the Christian life. Maybe these states are to be cultivated and nourished. Maybe powerlessness is the seed of hope that enables God to come and dwell.

It is hard to imagine God loving me and caressing me in my vulnerability and hurting. And yet, that is exactly what God came to do for the world. God heard the groans, the cries, of his hurting people. They must have filled rivers with their tears of oppression over hundreds of years and, at best, were clinging onto a sliver of hope for redemption. Christmas is the birth of hope, that death and suffering are not the final word. Christmas whispers that God is waiting in the darkness.

The anticipation—the agonizing waiting—is excruciating. I wanted to be healed yesterday. The process of hoping and waiting is tedious and long, and I beg for it to end. Similarly, Jesus did not come in the exact time that others wanted. He could have come the day after sin entered into the world. But he didn’t. God is a god of patience and grace. In contrast, I have my manic to-do lists, and if I don’t finish everything on that list in approximately 2 hours, I get stressed out. His timing and perspective on life are so different from mine.

All will be fulfilled in due time, but in the present, God has invited me to walk with him in all the crevices of life. I am thankful that it is in the crevices, rather than in my triumphant victory lap on a unicorn, that God reaches out his hand. Limping, wincing in pain, I take it.

It seems so absurd that God would want to love me in all my weakness, as Brennan Manning articulates in this awesome video. God loves me not as I will be, or as I should be, but as I am. I’m not this manic Proverbs 31-quoting, frenetic cookie-baker, superwoman Christian. Most likely, my old issues will swirl about and leave imprints and scars for the rest of my life. If my journey thus far is any indication of the future, I will be bedraggled and hurting, plagued with questions that need answers. Maybe God is not as set on me conquering my “issues” or “flesh” as I am. Maybe God loves me– even in all my complexity, inability to settle with superficiality, and the deep feelings that must be heard and understood. Could that be okay? Could there be something profoundly beautiful in accepting that?

More than that, it is this place of humble waiting, this patient vulnerability, where God wants me to meet others. It is so refreshing thinking that I don’t have to be above, or better than, others in order to meet them where they are. I love how this video shows the difference between empathy and sympathy. The message of Christmas shows that God is an empathetic God. God felt where his people were hurting, and he climbed down the ladder into the cave. Moreover, it is with that same sentiment that we are to descend into the lowly places to meet others. If even God is willing to go to the lowly places, shouldn’t I also go there as well? The process of encountering God in a state of wounded-ness is holy, but there is also something redemptive in doing that for someone else.

I find great hope that God will never tire of me saying, “Daddy, I’m scared, and I don’t know what to do.” I never have to worry that I’m not together enough. God can hold all of me because he is everlasting and powerful, and I am not too much for him. At the same time, he can truly understand what I feel because he has experienced what I have. He is in anguish about the same things that give me anguish. Jesus, too, wept.

Christmas is not a phase to get to the “punch line” (the death and resurrection of Jesus). Christmas is beautiful and holy in and of itself. Its passing every year has lessons to teach the world. It helps me understand and value the vulnerable child in my heart and spread that to others.

May Christ’s deep love and empathy envelope you this Christmas. May you find beauty in the Christmas story. May you rest in that today, tomorrow, and every other day of the year.