Baptism of Love

This Sunday is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

In the three synoptic Gospels, the story is remarkably the same: Jesus appears where John is baptizing, receives baptism, and upon that moment a dove descends from the sky and a voice is heard saying “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew’s makes it more a proclamation than an acknowledgement: “This is my beloved son”).

The account in John’s Gospel is a bit different. It is recorded as John the Baptist’s testimony about the events—more autobiographical than narrative. And interestingly, John the Baptist sounds as though the familial relationship between John and Jesus that is established in Luke’s Gospel, did not exist. John knows that he himself is not the Messiah; he has been told to watch for the Messiah and that he will know him when he sees him.

A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me. I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel…I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit’ (John 1:30-33).

Twice John says that he did not know Jesus. It feels odd, but perhaps is clarified in the purpose for Jesus’ baptism in the first place: “He is submitting himself entirely to his Father’s will: out of love he consents to this baptism of death for the remission of our sins” (CCC 536). Jesus is fully God, yes, but also fully man, with free will—he cannot be compelled to sacrifice himself. He must choose it. In the moment that he chooses it—his baptism—he becomes “the manifestation (Epiphany) of Jesus as Messiah of Israel and Son of God” (CCC 535).

So maybe John did not know his cousin Jesus as Messiah until that very moment.

Which brings me to my point. Jesus is baptized by John before his ministry begins. Before he calls an Apostle. Before he changes water to wine at Cana. Before he preaches a word, heals a blind man, meets a Pharisee. At the moment of his baptism, he is unknown, even by his own cousin.

But not by God.

By God he is known and loved. He doesn’t have to earn it. Of all the humans who have lived, Jesus may be the one who most deserves this love. But God shows us that even he, the Son of God, can’t earn it. It just is.

And so it is the same for us.

I believe that this love is available to every single one of us, and conversion—which is really saying that we believe in, accept and return this love—is timeless. There are an awful lot of non-Christians out there who walk  in the world like they know God loves them and has asked them to be his hands of love. Who am I to say that because they do not wear a cross that they are not about God’s work?

But for those of us baptized in the water in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—through Jesus’s baptism, death and resurrection, we have been gifted the grace of the Spirit, which enables us to believe in God, hope in him and love him; gives us the power to live and act under the prompting of the Holy Spirit; and allows us to grow in goodness (CCC 1266).

We have been gifted the power of love.

Imagine, imagine what we could do if we truly believed in our bones that God loved us like that? And if we truly believed that love was our superpower, our inheritance, and our legacy?

News…

So as we wait in the quiet winters of our lives—not only this season of Advent, but also this time of COVID, or whatever winters we are currently experiencing—we have to keep the light of hope burning in our hearts. God will keep his promises to us.

Just as he said.

Over the summer, my parents spent 78 days on the road with their dog and their RV. When they returned, my mom had soreness in her ribs that she thought was the result of slamming the bed lid on my dad’s truck one too many times.

But it didn’t get better and an xray finally showed that she had 3 broken ribs. It seemed odd that slamming the bed lid could break ribs, so she had a bone scan. She was diagnosed with osteopenia a few years back, which is the precursor to osteoporosis, so we worried that she may have finally crossed that line. But the scan came back ok.

The morning after Thanksgiving, she got up to use the restroom and threw out her back. When the pain, exacerbated by her ribs,  didn’t subside, my dad called an ambulance. New xrays showed that she hadn’t thrown out her back—she had cracked a vertebra.

I never bought the story that the cracked ribs came from shutting the bed lid. I suspected the dog—Maggie is 18 months old and full of life, and my mom walked her 4 times a day. I was sure that Mom tripped over Maggie on a walk and fell—but didn’t want to tell anyone. Maggie is the light of their retired lives, the newest baby in the family. Mom would want to protect her.

The orthopod said that he could do a simple procedure to glue the cracked vertebra together. That happened the first Friday in December. He didn’t like what he saw and took a biopsy. The following week she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. This is how I explained it to my kids: MM is a cancer of the bone marrow that affects the parts of our bones that scrub old bone away and grow new bone. The part that scrubs old bone away becomes over-active and the part that builds new bone is suppressed by the cancer cells, making it possible to crack ribs from shutting the bed lid on the truck. Apologies to Maggie.

She is in the midst of diagnostic testing, while recovering from her back surgery and waiting for her ribs to heal—something that may not happen until treatment brings the bone scrubbers and bone growers back into balance. That’s a hard thought for everyone, because her pain is significant, and hard to watch. I have to be careful around her, because as a survivor, I want to tell her All The Things I Learned, but I know that’s not right. It’s her path. She has to walk it her way. She witnessed for me. Now I witness for her.

I didn’t get around to weeks 2, 3 and 4 of Advent, obviously. I took my girls south last week and we helped care for Grandma once she got home. When I came back here today to tell you where I went, Hope, Justified was the first thing I saw. I laughed. God does not always move in mysterious ways. Sometimes he moves in giant highway signs that say “For hope, please refer back to your own damn words”. All right, then. Winter has come, but my hope and faith are secure. I know there is a tightly woven blanket of love around our family, and good doctors, and my mom’s own strong body and mind. And I know I can ask you to pray for her, for relief from her pain and for healing.

Merry Christmas, friends. Here comes the Light.

Hope, Justified

The first week of Advent, the candle is called the Prophet’s candle, and the theme for the week is Hope.

The old testament reading on Sunday spoke to the hope of the people of Israel:

The days are coming, says the LORD, 
    when I will fulfill the promise 
    I made to the house of Israel and Judah
(Jer 33:14)

My heart thrills to these words because I know they will be echoed on Easter Sunday in Matthew 28:6, when the angel tells the Marys “He is not here! He has risen, just as he said!”

Just as he said.

I didn’t understand how important this was to me until a bit ago, when one of my children asked me why I believe in God. “Because he keeps his promises” I told them without hesitation, and realized the truth of the words as they left my mouth. I am a Martha—practical and proficient. I am also a Thomas, in a way. I don’t need to see with my eyes to believe, but I need to feel presence. I need to be in relationship.

It takes a lot of hope and trust to be in relationship with God. I didn’t know that as a child. I thought the adults in my life could see God himself; I figured that at some point, I would have enough faith and poof! be able to see God too. When that didn’t happen by the time I was in high school, I kind of thought I wasn’t good enough. But who wants to internalize that? So I built a God wall around myself and dared God to climb it. If he loved me, he would. 

God could have blown my wall down in a hot second, roared at me in all his glory and humbled me into submission. But he loves me, so he didn’t.

He could have met my demand that he prove himself in my life by climbing that wall. But he loves me, so he didn’t.

Instead, he moved in someone else’s life, and I was lucky enough to be a witness.

When I was a junior in high school, my religion teacher Mrs. D was a sweet, young and faithful woman who was newly married. Early in the year, she announced she was pregnant. This is not an announcement that a teacher undertakes lightly. Pregnancy is a private matter, but in a way, your students are part of your privacy circle. You can’t hide it, and you know that they will become invested. So you think carefully about when you will tell them. In all three of my pregnancies, my students were the last to know, well into the second trimester.

I don’t know how pregnant Mrs. D was when she announced her first pregnancy. But she lost the baby soon after. When she announced in the Spring that she was pregnant again, she waited long enough that she had a bump. But again, soon after announcing, she lost the baby.

We were so sad for her. Sometimes in teenagers, that looks like anger. I was critical of her continued prayers in class that God would send her a child. It made me uncomfortable, like she was begging for something for which she had already been told no, twice. Her hope felt too vulnerable to me, too trusting, like her heart was laid outside her body and unprotected. How many time would she allow God to break her heart?

But she persisted, in hope and faith.

When we returned in the Fall, she was clearly pregnant again. She didn’t say anything. She walked around class every day, in maternity clothes, acting like there was no growing belly, nothing to see. We figured she was scared and who could blame her?

But she wasn’t scared. And she was not as pregnant as she looked.

She was carrying twins.

When she told us, with a clap of thunder, I could see God.

Not because of my faith. Because of hers. Not because God kept a promise to me. Because he kept a promise to her. Not because his plan for good won out in my life. Because it won out in hers.

I do not mean to suggest in any way that her struggle with becoming a mom was for my benefit. It’s gross to even type those words. It was her journey, and I don’t know the intimate truths behind it.

And at the time, I still thought her relationship with God—and therefore mine—was transactional. God had taken two babies away and then when she was ready?…deserving?…obedient?…enough, he gave her two babies at once. It would take me years to shake off this misunderstanding, that our God is a God of whims and manipulations. Not until my own spiritual battle around a serious illness did I understand the folly of that thinking: God does not create pain in our lives for his own glory later. He loves us and will work his plans for our good, for our welfare and hope (Jer 29), and work all things—even the bad and evil things—for the good of those who love him (Rom 8). It’s not transactional. We don’t have to deserve it. It is ours from love. Our hope is justified.

So as we wait in the quiet winters of our lives—not only this season of Advent, but also this time of COVID, or whatever winters we are currently experiencing—we have to keep the light of hope burning in our hearts. God will keep his promises to us.

Just as he said.

How the Household Codes Justify Racism

(#10 in a series)

There is a group of white moms in this nation who call themselves “Moms For Liberty”. In Tennessee, one of the most vocal leaders is a nasty woman whose only school-age child attends a private school. Nevertheless, she has made a name for herself attacking public school curriculum that tells the truth about race relations in the founding and building of this nation. I’m not talking about #CRT. This is not about teaching the naked, murderous triangle trade to second graders. This is about “The Story of Ruby Bridges”.

Six year old Ruby Bridges.

If you just dismiss this as more privileged white supremacy in the South, you are making a mistake. It is not just in the South. It’s more pernicious, with implications nation wide.

One of the main criticisms of The Making of Biblical Womanhood is that it exposes the oppression of white women within what is a predominantly white and privileged faith movement. Barr speaks to African American Protestantism briefly in chapter 7, and to the Iglesia movement in the US not at all. To her credit, she now realizes this and has acknowledged her narrow focus. I think her work is so important that we should give her grace—her focus was narrowed by her upbringing in the Southern Baptist church, and on purpose. She is waking up to many realities of the world outside that experience. The good news is that she is growing, as all white feminists—including myself—must grow.

I wrote to the book as she presented it—sans race—because I believe that more white women need to understand what they have to gain from clinging to their own oppression, so that we can stop being a roadblock to ending the oppression of others.

I’ll say that again—white women have something to gain from their oppression. And we know it.

If you read the Household Codes in Paul’s letters, you may have noticed something besides the call for women to submit to their husbands. In Ephesians 6, Colossians 3, Titus 2 and 1 Peter 2, the exhortation for wives is followed by one for slaves: Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse (1 Peter 2: 18). These very verses were used to justify the ownership of slaves in the Southern US through the Civil War. For example, the Presbyterian Church of America (formerly  the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America):

At the start of the Civil War, southern Presbyterian churches split from northern presbyters and formed the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. This southern wing of Presbyterianism explained their defense of slavery in a theology that emphasized a literal reading of the Bible. This reading saw a support for slavery (where does the Bible say slavery is a sin?) and for racial differences (often in the story of Babel).

Presbyterians who opposed slavery were cast as deviating from a literal, faithful reading of the Bible. These were viewed as deviations from true Christianity; abolitionists were using theological arguments, not Biblical texts, to make their case. (www.religionnews.com, 6/10/2016).

In fact, the PCCSA released a letter to all Christian churches in 1861 exposing their embrace of Original Sin (hierarchy):

“Human rights are not a fixed, but a fluctuating quantity… As you go up, the

number of rights increases, but the number who possess them diminishes. As you

go down the line, the rights are diminished, but the individuals are

multiplied….Before slavery can be charged with doing him injustice, it must be

shown that the minimum which falls to his lot at the bottom of the line is out of

proportion to his capacity and culture.” (Richards, John Edward, The Historical Birth of the Presbyterian Church in America)

I use the PCA as an example, but I could have used the Southern Baptists, whose Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, founded by slave owners, “backed a white supremacist ideology” (Oldest Institution of Southern Baptist Convention Reveals Past Ties to Slavery, 2018). Or even my own Catholic church, the dominant faith in Spain and Portugal, whose ships initiated and perpetuated the Triangle Trade, and whose Jesuits priests sold 272 slaves from that trade to save the University of Georgetown from bankruptcy. All of them used a strict reading of scripture to justify their participation in one of the greatest sins of humanity, reading justification for enslavement into the bible, just as they did patriarchy, in service to themselves and at complete disregard for the Gospels.

It was—is—a triumph of Original Sin, seeded in our houses of worship.

So here is my confession: as a white Catholic woman, I knew my church had a patriarchy problem. But I didn’t see the racism problem until it sat up next to me in Mass and shouted out during the elections in 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2020. And the reason is not that it didn’t exist, but that I didn’t have to see it. As a white woman, I had that choice.

And that’s what made me realize that white women have something to gain from their oppression: status.

After all,  if the Bible is inerrant in Colossians 3:18, then it must be inerrant in Colossians 3:22. White Christian women  who follow biblical womanhood are expected to submit to their husbands, but the trade off is that they will be held higher than those “down the line” whose “rights are diminished”.  History has borne this out—plenty of violence has been inflicted on people of color in the name of “protecting” white women.

And while Barr is right that the sin of hierarchy has made some white Christian women victims, the trade off has made many more willingly complicit in the sin of inflicting oppression on others. Like the “Moms of Liberty” demanding that the world can only been seen through their eyes and experience, we exchange nominal freedoms for the right to feel better than everyone except the white men in our lives.

And then we call ourselves “oppressed”.

Realizing that my feminism is privileged and part of the problem has been hard for me. But our favorite guy Paul makes the way forward pretty clear:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little” (2 Cor 8:13-15).

Original Sin

(This is #9 in a series)

Barr helped us understand how hierarchical patriarchy was self-serving for the Greeks and Romans and perpetuated a culture of war where those who control the resources—money, power, violence, property—make rules that have historically served themselves. She showed us how the Catholic church and then the Protestant churches used—profited from?—supported?—patriarchy as a social structure to elevate their own power and interests, even to the point that these social structures were then read into the Bible, turned around and presented as God’s Truth. 

This is a product of dualistic thinking, where the world is black and white, win or lose, best or worst, rich or poor, healthy or sick, fed or hungry, etc. Franciscan Richard Rohr believes that the human propensity for dualistic thinking is driven by our ego, which he defines as “that part of the self that wants to be significant, central, and important by itself, apart from anybody else. It wants to be both separate and superior” (www.cac.org 7/12/16). It is  base human nature to assert our self over others. The Catholic Church calls this base nature “fallen”.

In fact, here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) describes Original Sin:

Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart, and abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command…in that sin, he preferred himself to God and by that very act, scorned him. He chose himself over and against God…Created in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully “divinized” by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God” but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God” (CCC 397-398).

Unhappy with being “less than” God, humankind reduced God to his possession of power, then lusted for that power, in violation of the three sins of which John warns us in 1 John 2:15-16:  If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

The disobedience in the Adam and Eve story is also sin, but it is not the Original Sin. It is the effect of the desire to be greater than God. Hierarchy IS THE ORIGINAL SIN. It has manifested itself throughout history as war, genocide, racism, colonization, fascism, communism, totalitarianism, nationalism, and patriarchy. 

Since sometimes the concept of hierarchical patriarchy seems too liberal arts college for most Christians—and no surprise there is a strong anti-academic vein in evangelical congregations—it’s important to have personal examples. Barr shares hers in Chapter 8.

It begins with a name familiar to the secular world through a scandal related to the Duggar family. You may remember that when news of Josh Duggar’s sexual molestation of 5 young women (including his sisters) broke, the Duggars claimed that at the time they had sent Josh to the head of their evangelical congregation for “counseling”. That man’s name was Bill Gothard.

Barr tells us that she attended a sermon by Gothard with her then-boyfriend. She makes the point that they were not dating, but “courting”—which meant that “marriage was in (their) future”. She speak of her understanding of marriage which came from her Southern Baptist upbringing: “that women are weak while men are strong”. As their relationship progressed, her boyfriend became abusive, and Barr felt helpless to escape what within her community was considered a de facto engagement. It was her job to stand by him “hoping that what I experienced as anger would mature into strength and that all would become right with my world” (202).

It took the movie Sleeping With the Enemy—a Julia Roberts movie about a woman who goes to great lengths to escape her abusive husband—before Barr realized she was in significant danger.

No wonder—she was raised in a church where men like Paige Patterson were powerful and prominent leaders. In 2000, Patterson said this, as reported in The Denver Post (5/4/2018):

Last week, an audio recording surfaced on which Paige Patterson, a high-profile Southern Baptist leader, says abused wives should avoid divorce, pray for their violent husbands, and “be submissive in every way that you can.” Patterson is an ordained pastor, a former SBC president and the current president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

“It depends on the level of abuse to some degree,” Patterson is heard saying on the 2000 tape. “I have never in my ministry counseled anybody to seek a divorce, and I do think that is always wrong counsel.” He adds, “On an occasion or two when the level of abuse was serious enough,” he has suggested a temporary separation.

This man was the president of a Baptist seminary. In 2018, when under fire for mishandling a rape allegation on SWBTS campus which would eventually lead to his downfall, when questioned by the victim’s mother about his decision making, “Patterson ‘lunged across the table, firmly pointed his finger in her face and threatened to ‘unleash’ lawyers on her if she dared question his leadership’” (baptistnews.com, 6/24/2019).

Barr knows now that there is a link between patriarchal complementarianism and abuse in evangelical churches. The data bears it out as do the myriad of sexual misconduct scandals of the last decades. Barr sums it up here: “Hierarchy gives birth to patriarchy and patriarchy gives birth to the abuse of sex and power” (207). I see this reflected in my own Catholic Church and the sex abuse scandals that continue to plague us. They are a result of the clericalism of a hierarchical church, the elevating and isolating of a group of men, empowered with almost unquestionable authority, backed by wealth and prestige.

Both examples have one glaring fault in common—the absence of women in positions of equal power, resulting in a unnatural imbalance where men and the institutions they lead become extremely disordered.

We all—but women in particular—have an obligation to look at our churches through a new lens. How does our faith institution promote hierarchical thinking? How does it support patriarchy? How does it shield its male leaders when they become embroiled in scandals of sex and power? How does it make room for women and in what kind of roles?

How does it participate in politics and which candidates does it support? How successful has it been really in growing past Original Sin?

My Church doesn’t score well. Does yours?

I have one more topic next week, an extension of Barr’s conversation into our current social climate. Until then, I’ll leave you some of Barr’s final words:

Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus.

Jesus set women free a long time ago.

Go, be free!

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