#metoo and the Bible

Our theme at Alum Creek for 2018 is “This is Us.” At the end of 2017, we gathered hundreds of pictures of the people who make up our church and through the website Picture Mosaics, we created this image of our stained glass windows. We had a large 3′ x 4′ canvas printed that we will display throughout the year as a vivid reminder of who we are.

I love the symbolism of all of these pictures bleeding into the larger image that represents our church (the stained glass hangs in the center of our sanctuary as a focal point). We are all part of something bigger than ourselves, and this image illustrates our small role in a larger picture. In conjunction with this theme, every Sunday in 2018 our sermon focuses on a different character from the Bible: 52 different individuals highlighting the mosaic of people who make up the story of Scripture. It was difficult to narrow the studies down to only 52, but I did my best to select a group of diverse men and women from the Old and New Testaments who help highlight many diverse voices that are a part of Gods’ kingdom. With such a diverse cloud of witnesses, it is easy to find ourselves voices that are sympathetic to our own.

As I was compiling our list of studies for 2018 at the end of last year, the number of women outing male predators, offenders, and criminals had grown from a steady trickle to an outright avalanche. Accusations rained down on some of the most powerful and successful men in Hollywood and Washington sparking a movement that coalesced under the hashtag “metoo” and more recently “time’sup.” From Weinstein to Spacey and from Keillor to Franken, accusations have ranged from the inappropriate and uncomfortable to the violent, manipulative, and outright criminal.

The Bible has more stories than we’d like to admit that victimize (the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19), ignore (Bathsheba), and undermine (1 Timothy 2:11-15) the voice and standing of women. Any honest study of the people in the Bible must confront these difficult stories.

At the end of the 2017, I settled on the 52 different people we would study and matched each of the 52 names with a Sunday. It just so happens (call it the Holy Spirit; call it coincidence), our character study yesterday was Tamar. There are actually two different Tamars in the Bible, and they both are the victims of sexual crimes. As I prepared for yesterday’s sermon with Larry Nassar’s trial unfolding as a background soundtrack, I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a more timely topic. I attempted to weave the stories of the two Tamars with those of Larry Nassar and Andy Savage (a Memphis, megachurch pastor who recently was forced to deal with a skeleton from his closet.) It was not an easy message to try and orchestrate and it’s not as if a bow can be tied on a neatly wrapped up conclusion. Instead, I tried to live in the tension and get out of the way and listen to the victims that are so often ignored. The manuscript is below if you are interested in reading it.

Tamar and Tamar

January 28, 2018 (preached at Alum Creek Church)

As the idea for this year’s theme came to me back at the end of last year, I spent several days compiling a list of the characters that we would study this year in our sermons. One of the things that really drew me to this overview was that our stories would come right out of the Bible and we would cover all kinds of topics. “This is us” is the glue that holds this year together, and, like those of us in this room, God’s kingdom is a diversity of people with all with kinds of stories to tell. I came up with about 100 different people we could study, and many of them would have similar stories to tell, so as I weeded down the number to 52, I tried to provide the most diverse group of characters I could.

As we go through the year there will be a few mini-themes – for instance, during Lent we’ll consider several different people who have a story to tell from the Passion of the Christ, and we’ll study Esther on Mother’s Day and Jacob on Father’s Day, but generally speaking there was a lot of randomness as to when each particular person fell.

As sexual misconduct, abuse, and even violence against women was beginning to make major news as national figures like Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and Harvey Weinstein, the #metoo movement or trend began to take shape and it felt like something we should talk about. As a matter of fact, there were many stories of women in the Bible who could say #metoo. Their voices are crucial to the Bible’s story and it just so happened that one of those stories fell today. I had no idea, when I determined the dates of these studies that this week would be the week of Larry Nassar’s trial and sentencing. This couldn’t be a more timely message from the Bible, but I have to warn you, it won’t be pleasant.

This morning I am going to try to get a lot said in our time together. As I set out to really tackle this story this week, my passion and conviction grew stronger and stronger. I began with an appreciation that we had stumbled upon a relevant topic and figured many of you would be interested in listening, but I ended with a broken heart and a conviction that this message is long overdue in our church.

One of the challenges that we face in this day and age, and it seems to get more difficult as the years pass, is we have a tendency to allow the world of the media, politics, academia, and social media to determine the rules and language of our discussions. If we are honest, many of us – maybe all of us – have allowed the media and our social media circles to provide the framework by which we think through and discuss important matters. We start with the news, our favorite talk show personality, a trendy hash tag, some article we saw on Facebook, or other media outlet, then sprinkle on a Bible verse or some quasi-Christian perspective to try and justify our voice on controversial matters.

I believe that God calls us to something much more radical than that. Jesus wasn’t calling his people to separate their “personal spiritual lives” from their lives of activism and action. A faith in Jesus Christ is one that mandates an awareness and calls our voice to social concerns. How do we address trendy and timely social matters without getting sucked into the debates, the pandering, and the fickleness of it all? I believe it is through knowing the story! When we immerse ourselves fully in the biblical text, it’s amazing how relevant that we will find it to be! And we are going to see that from two stories in the Bible this morning.

Today we study the story of Tamar, but the first thing that you need to know is that there are two Tamars in the Bible and each of them have a #metoo story to tell. We are going to hear from them both this morning.

We are going to talk about the second Tamar first – just to confuse you! – she was the daughter of David and her story is told in 2 Samuel 13. The scene is set for us right out of the gate, and we can all paint the picture clearly with our mind’s eye. This is a story that is familiar to us all – it’s one that has been told way too often.

Tamar was Absalom’s sister and she was beautiful, and their brother Amnon was smitten with her. There is some ambiguity here as to whether Amnon was Tamar’s half-brother or full brother (the way the text is written, they are most often seen as half-siblings), but that gets us away from the story. Amnon was obsessed with Tamar. She was so beautiful he couldn’t think of anything else. The text says that “he was so obsessed with her he became ill.”

I want to make this very clear as we set out to study this story, Amnon is a predator. It may be his sister, but as I read the story, notice how eerily familiar the story sounds.

2 Samuel 13:1-20

At several points in this story, we see the work of a predator.

First, there was the manipulation by Amnon to make his friend feel sorry for him. “What’s your problem?” he asks. Predators, somehow, have a tendency to make themselves out to be the victims of their own poor choices. He was just hung up on this young women’s beauty? Really? There even seems to be an inherent belief here where Amnon is showing that “he can’t help himself.” How often do we hear that from predators?

Amnon displays the manipulation of language that is common in predators. He tells Jonadab that he’s in love with “Absalom’s sister” – distancing himself from her. However, when she is in his presence, he tries to appeal to her care and concern by referring to her simply as “sister.”

He invokes pity and plays off the good intentions of his sister. She has genuine concern for him, and he uses that against her. He goes through this long process of creating the perfect setting by which to take advantage of her, sending everyone out of his room and being left one-on-one with the object of his obsession.

Tamar protests. At least marry her – she pleads. There’s disagreement about whether this would have been a legitimate option anyway since they were related, but David had been known to bend the law, so who knows? She’s trying to come up with any kind of excuse or alternative she can because she is threatened and she sees where this is going. But it turns out he wasn’t sick at all, and he jumped at her and overpowered her and raped her. And then he casts her aside. For as much as he loved her, now he hated her even more. Maybe it was a guilty conscience, but mostly it was the selfish disappointment of finally taking what he wanted. While Tamar . . . we’re told that she lives as a desolate woman.

What an unsettling story. Everything about it makes me feel dirty and want to think happy thoughts to try and rid my mind from it.

In many ways it’s the story of Larry Nassar. Some sick person with a twisted view of sex and a selfish drive to use his situation to take whatever he wants and prey upon the vulnerable and well-intentioned. And just like Larry Nassar was protected at different levels by the institutions he served, Tamar receives no justice. The text goes on to say that when King David heard about what happened he was very angry . . . but we get no sense that he did anything about it. As a matter of fact . . . as the story unfolds in 2 Samuel, their brother Absalom takes revenge into his own hands and kills Amnon. Perhaps what may be the most shocking of all parts of the story, we are told that David mourned many days for his son Amnon. And while we may not expect him to rejoice over the death of his son, we are left with that lingering thought, “What about Tamar?”  David was angry about the rape, but did he ever mourn for Tamar? The absence of such a sentiment speaks volumes. No further mention is made of her and we are left with the impression that she never gets over it – living in desolation – like so many victims kicked to the side of the curb and forgotten.

The other story of the other Tamar is told in Genesis 38. The circumstances surrounding that story are different, but the same. I’ll do my best to summarize this story without reading through it entirely. The story is really the story of Judah and his three sons: Er, Onan, and Sheilah and the plot revolves around the ancient practice of levirate marriage. If a husband dies before providing an heir to help care for his wife, the husband’s brother would (in a way) inherit the widow and would be responsible for providing an heir. It’s an ancient practice that is a tradition in many parts of the world, and was practiced at this time (as hard as it might be for us to wrap our heads around it).

We are told that the eldest brother, Er, married Tamar, but he did evil in the eyes of the Lord and was put to death. Thus, Onan is left to provide an heir for Tamar, but (in one of the more sexually explicit passages in the Bible) he had sex with her but released his semen on the ground, so as not to get her pregnant. He was subsequently put to death because that was evil in the sight of the Lord. (We could spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out all of this since it seems so strange to us, but we’re not going to take the time to unpack that story now).

By this point, Judah is heartbroken because he has lost his two oldest sons and only his youngest is left and he’s worried about losing him too. Therefore, Judah sends Tamar away until Sheilah is older, and he tells her they will send for her when his son is older. From the beginning of that story, we hold out very little hope that Judah actually has the intention of ever giving Sheilah to Tamar and he doesn’t.

Years later, Tamar gets word that Judah is coming to the town she has been staying, pretends to be a prostitute, and solicits Judah. Judah accepts, and as payment he promises to send her a young goat from his flock. He allowed her to keep his staff and his seal at collateral. When the goat was sent back for payment, the prostitute was nowhere to be found, and so the matter was forgotten (apparently, Judah thought he got a free night with a prostitute).

Tamar becomes pregnant and word gets around after a few months when she can no longer hide it. Judah . . . of all people . . . Judah is outraged and suggests she be put to death as an adulterer. Tamar wisely uses the staff and seal to prove that it was Judah who had had sex with her. The end of the story is one of the more dramatic in the Bible:

Genesis 38: 24-26

 

To fully understand this story, you have to consider the context. It is told directly before the story about Potiphar’s wife and Joseph. There is an intentional stark contrast between the actions of two of Israel’s sons – Joseph and Judah. But just as with the other Tamar story, we see again the trappings of what the whole #metoo movement is bringing to light.

If we see Larry Nassar in Amnon, I wonder if we don’t equally see Andy Savage in Judah. If you aren’t familiar with the story of Andy Savage, it broke during the first week of the year. Savage is the teaching pastor at a mega-church in Memphis, TN. During a service on January 7, he read a statement when he confessed a “sexual incident” that happened when he was the youth pastor for a church in Texas. As he was driving a 17 year old teenager home from church, he drove past her house, into a secluded wooded spot, groped her breasts, and made her perform oral sex on him. Then he told her to never tell anyone – that she needed to take it to her grave.[1]

Much like Amnon, Savage knows the manipulative power of words, and as he read his statement used many slight variations to minimize his assault.[2] He was “in college” (although he was in college, he was 23 – she was 17); “over 20 years ago” – it was 20 years almost to the day; it was a “sexual incident” – he never mentions oral sex or that he groped her breasts; he says he “resigned from ministry” – though the congregation threw him a going away party; he says he “accepted full responsibility for his actions” – though it does not appear he nor the congregation ever reported the incident to police for the crime that it was. This story highlights breakdowns in responsibility and accountability. He went on to work as a pastor of young adults at a church in Memphis and you wonder if it was ever told to them.

This story reeks of the deception and dysfunction of these two biblical accounts. As someone who has been in personal and one-on-one situations with girls my entire ministry, when I read this story it made my stomach wrench. This was too close to home. And the Nassar case has reminded us of just how powerful these positions of power can be.

This is a difficult sermon to wrap up. I don’t know how these stories hit you. You could be a man who needs to repent of the way you treat or think about women. You could be a man who has skeletons in your closet that need to be dealt with. You may be a woman who hears these stories and knows the hurt they bring more intimately than you’ve ever told anyone. You may be a woman who hasn’t had such heinous acts done to you, but you know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable and objectified.

There are lessons here for us all, and I just don’t have time to give any of them justice, so I will leave you with these.

1 – You are the loved and cherished child of God. No one can take that away from you.

2 – You have been created with dignity and filled with meaning, regardless of your gender.

3 – God desires harmony and mutual respect between all people – and calls his people to be examples.

Mostly, I just wanted to get out of the way this morning. I am far from perfect, but this is a topic that (and I am grateful to say) has not landed close to home. I empathize as much as I can, but it is impossible to fully comprehend. Towards that end, I can think of no better way to end than with the words of the very first woman who spoke out against Larry Nassar’s sexual assaults. She was the first one who bring accusations forth paving the way for over 100 others, and she was also the final victim to read a prepared statement at the trial. Her words are a perfect closing to this morning. Her name is Rachael Denhollander. The boldness and conviction it must have taken to stand face to face with this man, and to utter these words of truth and grace are beyond my ability to understand. This is what the Gospel looks like. [You can view the entirety of her remarks here. We played the excerpt below which comes around the 27:08-29:02]

In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.

[1] Her story originally appeared here: http://thewartburgwatch.com/2018/01/05/i-thought-he-was-taking-me-for-ice-cream-one-womans-metoo-story-of-molestation-by-her-former-youth-pastor-andy-savage/

[2] Full service was broadcast here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyKdluNR95I

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Bush’s War

One of my favorite television shows has become PBS’s Frontline. It’s basically the PBS version of Dateline or 20/20. They report on human interest stories, global features, but, since the beginning of the Iraq War, they have spent much of their time reporting on stories from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Terror. I have caught several, and am excited about their recent work reviewing their five years’ worth of data compiled in the new documentary feature, “Bush’s War.” It is a lengthy two-part feature that began here in Columbus last night for two and a half hours. I was only able to catch the last half, but thankfully you can catch all their past episodes online.

One of the most disturbing trends in the recent years of our country has been the alignment of churches to the partisan divide in the political landscape of this country. There are blue and red states, and now, unfortunately, there seem to be blue and red churches. This is a horrible trend that must turn back.

PBS’s documentary on the war is eye-opening and disturbing at the same time. Conservatives will wage the old “liberal media” accusations, but this documentary is probably the most extensively done and inclusive project done on the war. The website has hundreds of interviews, statistics, and information that lays out the facts of the war. Leading up to the war, in the first part’s coverage last night, it is not evident how much the American people were misled, how deceptive Bush’s administration was, and how much of a mess we have gotten ourselves into as a result.

As a self-proclaimed pacifist, the war is especially troubling. To argue against the war immediately makes one a Democrat. To question the President or his cabinet makes one unpatriotic (I am that), and “Liberal” I’m not sure that I am that. The death toll of American soldiers is at 4,000. The death toll of civilian Iraqis is many times that. There is no upside to war. “But Saddam’s dead!” comes the response. Is any man’s death worth thousands of innocent lives? Cain committed the first murder and he was a marked man – marked with grace, that anyone who met him would NOT kill him.

I believe the preemptive military strategy that the United States has taken since 9/11 is one of the most biblically-contrary ideologies to enter the national political scene in decades. It has allowed for military strikes to be ordered to “prevent” future attacks. It is America flexing its muscles as the only remaining Super Power and is rooted in her imperialistic nature. It cannot be consistent with the character of God.

One of my fears is that our children will grow up with war as the norm. There will always be wars, but it is unfortunate that the lone Super Power is responsible for so many of them. Christians are called to be people of peace, but this is the furthest from their vocabulary when it comes to many of their international diplomacy support. Christians are often the loudest defenders of these unChristian American policies.

The Frontline documentary spends much time discussing the interrogation tactics that D. Rumsfield had such a hand in rewriting. This marks another aspect of the Bush administration that must be acknowledged as ungodly.

Shane Claiborne, in his new book, claims that the Church has fallen in love with the state and, as a result, has lost her political imagination. What a glorious proclamation to the current state of matters. Christians have lost their concept of love and grace and suffering servitude and exchanged that for one dominated by power and hungry for control. This opportunity was ever-before Christ, and on every occasion he turned the other way, why must we choose a different way to fight Christ’s battle?

Beyond Cognition

I am realizing more and more every day just how cognitively driven my faith has been – the faith that was imparted to me has been. It was drilled into my head, usually subconsciously – the more you know about the Bible, the better off you’ll be. It’s almost as if I came to expect that there would be a test given at the gates of heaven and if I knew enough, I’d get in, but if I didn’t, there would be big trouble. Now, we would never admit this. We knew (again, cognitively) that we were saved by faith – but again, even this was just a matter of fact – cognitive knowledge.

And now I’m learning to see the Gospel as so much more than cognition. As a matter of fact, how much cognition is there? The Gospel, as Paul writes it, is simple: Christ, the God-man, came in the flesh, died on the cross, and was raised from the dead. If we could just focus on that! Why do we allow so much of the other stuff bog us down? That is the core of the Gospel. If a person is baptized as an infant, does that threaten the core of the Gospel? I don’t know that it does. In all cases they are acting in a desire to appease the God of the Gospel. Do some come closer than others? Sure. It is unsettling, it is confusing, but it seems to be more in line with the biblical story than where many Christian groups find themselves currently.

Shane Claiborne is on to something. He’s too radical for many folks, and they can easily miss what he’s on to. I have a great deal of respect for him and what he’s doing with the Simple Way project, but I haven’t sold my house and taken my family to inner city Columbus. I see the destitution there nearly every day, and believe me my heart cries out for there and we’ve had discussions about going down there, but I remain in my suburban comfort shell. But I think I see what he’s on to. His message is . . . “let’s stop talking, and DO something.” Do something. It is the message of the cross. It is a story invoking action. Hearing the Gospel we should be compelled to action. Instead, we have been compelled only as far as belief . . . as statement of fact.

I really believe that Shane Claiborne is what he claims to be – an ordinary radical. That is what more of us need to strive to be. Instead of just doing something, I hear too many people worried about the “red flags.” “This sounds like the social gospel, didn’t the liberal project fail?” “What about their soul?” “They’re just users, we can do more productive things with our money.” I would be more interested in these conversations as I think they raise valid concerns, but I’m unwilling to have them with people who aren’t doing anything – anything more than “being a good nice person.” Shame on us if we think that Christ came and died brining the kingdom of heaven to earth so that we could be nice Christian people. I am looking for examples of nice, Christian people in Scripture and I don’t see many there. I see radicals. Men and women who would die for their faith. Who would risk the security of their family for the sake of justice and mercy and kingdom ethics. The kingdom of God is at hand! I love Shane Claiborne’s statement, it’s one I have adopted into my daily thoughts and prayers, “Another world is possible.”

We’re not stuck with this one! We’re given this one, and as Christians it is our duty to make it look “on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus calls down heaven on earth, not us to a glorious place on high . . . but heaven on earth . . . now! Wow! (By the way, I’m pretty sure I ripped that rant off of Rob Bell in Velvet Elvis, so don’t call me a pirate here . . . ha ha). Go and change the world . . . I really and truly believe we can do it . . . we are just going to have to get uncomfortable, unsafe, and unsure.

Good to be back

Well, it’s been a little while since I’ve had some time to post here. After looking over my blog posts for the past few months, I’m realizing it’s time for me to put some of my own things on here. Enough book reviews already! Hopefully, it is helpful to see these books reviewed. It’s impossible to read everything that’s out there – even on a given topic it’s hard to read all that’s there on that, so I find it helpful to share what we’re reading. However, let’s not get carried away. I’m going to work at actually shortening my reviews (imagine that!) and offering more frequent personal musings reflecting on what I’ve read collectively (as Gary Holloway quipped this past weekend at a conference I attended, “Everything I know I read in a book.”). So you can judge how “mine” this stuff actually is.

I’ll begin my aspirations towards shorter book reviews here with a quick note about Justice in the Burbs. Simply put, this book is great! It’s a realistic, down-to-earth, practical quick-hitter on the topic of awakening your social conscience. Mary Beth and I have been having lots of deep discussions looking at the status and direction of our life. Our social consciences have been awakened and the Samson’s hit us right between the eyes with this book.

The way that the book is put together is probably its best strength. Lisa Samson is a novelist by trade and she created a story following a typical suburban couple through the process of awakening their social conscience. This aspect of the book makes it especially easy to relate to. Following each section of fiction, Will follows with a short, but pointed, teaching section looking at the issues the fictional couple is faced with. Finally, at the end of each chapter, there is a devotional contribution from several different authors looking at the issues raised from yet another angle.

All throughout the book I found myself saying, “Yeah, that’s what I’ve been saying.” They manage to deal with a difficult and convicting issue in a gentle yet poignant manner. Anyone interested in simplifying your life and seeking practical easy-to-implement answers to questions like, “How do I serve the poor in my suburban context?” and “How can I live justly in an area that seems to have everything anyone could want?” would do well to read this book.

There is much I could say about this book . . . but, hey, I said I would shorten it up. This book definitely takes a real and critical look at the American culture and a Christian’s responsibility of living in a land of plenty . . . offers much good fodder for discussion.

Along those lines, Mary Beth and I are committed to living more justly in our setting. I think it began with a commitment to simply by getting rid of some of our stuff. However, upon doing that, we realize just how complex things really are. As a result, what began as a simple process of getting rid of some things has turned into a complicated venture to simplify in many manners. Seeking God’s vision and direction in all of this is complicated and challenging.

I’ve befriended a guy in jail that we have begun discussing allowing to move in with us in a few months. Now, it’s all on the table, and the real discussion has begun. Pray for us as we venture into the difficult, yet exciting and rewarding journey into justice.