For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland. – Isaiah 43:19
In the Gospels, Jesus tells a parable of a king who invites his friends to his son’s wedding party. The friends decline for various reasons – I’m busy, I have other things to do, and so on. Most of us in that situation would say, “well, that’s it then, no party after the wedding. If we can’t have a party with the ones we invited at first, then we’ll just cancel the party.” But instead, the king tells his servants to throw open the doors and bring in every one from the streets who wants to come along. We’re having a party anyway! I love the imagery of this parable: if the ones who were invited won’t come, then fling open the doors because anyone can come in. It may not look like how it was planned, but it’s happening.
We serve a God who builds tables in the wilderness, who makes streams flow in deserts, who causes the barren places to spring forth with new growth. We see in the Gospels the heart of God to heal us, to save us, to set us free. We see what life looks like in the Kingdom of God, over and over again, the creative and extravagant grace that cuts through the brambles and the boundaries to the heart. Some part of me thinks it’s a delight to Him: a delight to make a way where there is no way, to do a new thing among the ruins, to surprise us.
I often find that the Spirit leads us to a new thing instead of the tired dichotomies of our self-imposed or culture-imposed limits. We tend to think in Either/Or, in the black-and-white. Usually this isn’t creative enough for a counter-cultural, more-than-enough God.
I see this theme of creativity even in the story of the crucifixion. The spectators and disciples are bound by two options: either Jesus rescues himself from the cross by calling own the angels armies or he dies, end of story. But instead, there again, the creativity, the unbound-Spirit, instead forges the unexpected path: resurrection. There is something miraculous beyond our finite options, our either/or doesn’t fit in the openness of the Kingdom of God.
So when I feel caught between a rock and a hard place, I try to look for the third way. I see a legacy of disciples behind me and before me and around me who have done that with such conviction and prophetic wisdom. For instance, Martin Luther King Jr. who chose the third way of peace-making in the face of systemic injustice and evil for African-Americans. Instead of believing the lie that he had to choose between violence or silence, he chose the redemptive path of subversive peace and non-violence.
In a marriage, we think we have two options. We can either continue on in hierarchal marriages as handed down to us from ancient cultures such as the greco-roman household codes, baptizing them in sacred language until we believe that God wants only a wife to submit within a marriage, or we think we must have a thoroughly modern marriage in which no one submits to anyone, every one for themselves. Instead, in Scripture, we see the third way: mutual submission. As spouses submit to one another, Christ as the head of their home, they prophesy a creative Kingdom way forward, a life centred on honouring each other, loving each other well, moving as one-flesh. I see these opportunities in mothering as well, particularly as the tinies are now growing up and into such marvellous little people with tender spirits.
In our engagement with justice issues, we can think that we have two options. We can either fully engage and then become so filled with despair and anger and hopelessness that we are swallowed by the darkness ourselves, or we can keep our little light in a room filled with light with our heads stuck in the sand, singing lovely songs to the choir. We think we have to choose between being overwhelmed by the truth or pretending the truth doesn’t exist. Instead, Christ calls us to being the light in the darkness. There is a way to read the newspaper, become angry, be engaged, walk through this world with your eyes open and your heart a bit broken while still carrying the hope of Christ within us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We don’t have to choose between being engaged with the eradication poverty or injustice or evil and our joy. No, we can grab that little candlestick and march out into the night.
I’ve been thinking about the language of the third way as some conversations have gone on this week about women’s role in the church. It came up again because of The Nines conference but really it’s not just about this one conference which has ignited a fierce debate yet again, the issue is merely indicative of the sorry state of most of our churches and conferences in their views about women. The organizers patronizing tone and insistence that women can only speak to “lady issues” is, sadly, only representative of the larger issues within the religious establishment of some circles.
What a tragedy of missing the point, what a sad indictment. It grieves me.
So I find myself again presented with an opportunity. I have to call it an opportunity because when it feels hopeless and useless, then what? Because, let’s be honest, it can feel hopeless. It makes me angry.
(Have we talked about anger as a helpful sign? In your anger, don’t sin, of course not, but for heaven’s sake, let yourself get angry. Pay attention to your anger. These things still make me angry and I believe that’s okay. It’s the “then what?” after the anger that can open a path to a new way forward.)
So when confronted with the exclusion of women or minorities by people who really don’t care to change or listen from those within the religious establishment, what are my options?
Do I argue and force and campaign my way to a seat at their table?
Do I ignore it and simply move on?
Or is there a third way? is there a new way forward for us?
This is a complex question for me. In the first instance, I don’t really want a seat at that particular table. Part of me believes that the current American evangelical church culture is a sinking ship so I’m not too eager to get on board. That’s not my world, not my table, not my tribe, and, much as Jesus told the disciples to shake the dust from their feet if they aren’t welcome, I’m willing to shake the dust. As Maya Angelou said, when people show you who they are, believe them. I believe a lot of the religious establishment is showing us who they really are: we better believe them. If they can’t see – and won’t see – then it isn’t my calling in life to make them see. (I think that can be some other people’s calling – it’s just not mine.) I’m content in some ways to just give them over to their little self-congratulatory parties and echo chambers.
It also makes me examine my motives: am I angry because I feel left out? Because I think I deserve a platform and a voice? Because I want to be important? Because I want affirmation and accolades and influence? I don’t think so, but those are questions I have to ask myself. What’s my motivation for this fight?
In the second instance, I can’t pretend that isn’t a real thing and so retreat “out to the wilderness” to throw flowers in the air and sing Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs. It matters because people matter, because justice matters, because God’s heart is for us. We’re in a time when I believe that the voice of God’s people is desperately needed: we need to see a glimpse of what life looks like the way that Christ intended it at creation. What are living our lives into? We need to engage in the issues of justice in our world, and in our churches. I don’t want to stick my fingers in my ears and pretend that just because I personally don’t want to preach and I personally don’t want to lead and I am not regularly oppressed that it isn’t happening elsewhere.
The truth is that patriarchal systems hurt men as much as they hurt women. Just as women were not created to be oppressed and so it damages us, I believe that men were not created to be the oppressors and that it will damage them. We were created to be image-bearers of the Almighty God together, so there is no room for that language or practice without some serious hermeneutical gymnastics and soul damage.
What is the new path? Where can I set up a table in the wilderness? What is the new thing God is wanting to do here in this space between the rock and the hard place? Surely there is something besides a cage match to prove my worth to people who will never be convinced in an effort to gain a seat at a table that doesn’t interest me anymore, or checking out entirely.
I found myself resonating with so much of what Christine Caine said in this interview at Christianity Today. The happy-clappy charismatic outside-of-America tribe is pretty small really, so Christine Caine has been a favourite preacher of mine for years, even before she burst onto the scene in the USA, because she’s of my tribe. I have tremendous respect for her as a leader and mentor-from-afar, and she reminds me often of the ways that God is doing a new thing:
I have not really been a part of American evangelicalism, and I must admit that looking at it from the outside is interesting…. I may sound simplistic in my response, but I honestly believe that if you do what God has called you to do and have a spirit of love, grace, and humility, God will take you places where no man ever could….I just started by helping people and preaching the gospel to those outside the four walls of the church; in fact, I still do that. I was never looking for position or title within the establishment because most of the people I am trying to reach are not in it. If your true priority is people and not a position then there is always a place for you.
David was busy tending the sheep and then suddenly he was anointed as king. If you get busy being about the Father’s business he will come and find you when he is ready to promote you. If God anointed you then he will appoint you. We all have the privilege of being co-laborers with Christ. If we are prepared to work in anonymity and obscurity there is always plenty of work to be done. The Pharisees had Jesus in their midst and did not even recognise that the Son of God was amongst them. All of the arguing in the world is not going to open some people’s eyes. Nevertheless Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good.
Sometimes I think we need to stop arguing and just simply get out and do some good on this earth. The eternity of multitudes hangs in the balance. They are waiting. Let’s go and give some Good News to a world full of bad news. Let’s take a living Jesus to a dying world. The Spirit of God lives within all of us who are Born Again and out of us will flow rivers of living water if we let them. Let’s not clog the rivers up with dead end arguments, and let’s simply get about the Father’s business.
I came to this realization years ago, but sometimes I still need reminding – usually after I’ve logged onto Twitter to see the futility of trying to convince the willfully ignorant.
God’s ways often look very upside-down to us: not only are they counter to the culture around us, but often they are counter to the culture of the religious establishment. I want to find that creative, God-of-more-than-enough, streams in the desert way forward.
I don’t know if my energy needs to go towards propping up a system or institution whose time is probably coming to a close. I think I want my energy to go instead towards the highways and the hidden corners, banging my old pots and pans into the night, wake up, wake up, the bridegroom is coming and there is room for you at His table! I want my energy to go towards knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection, and then living that truth into every corner of my life as a disciple. I want to move through my life and this world in the way that I believe Jesus would do so, singing songs of love and freedom and grace – even to the ones who are barring the door against me.
My third way right now – as best I can perceive it anyway – is that my activism is on behalf of others first and so I am free to make my true priority the Kingdom of God. I see the way that Jesus engaged with the religious leaders - he didn’t have a lot of patience for them – and I don’t feel quite so bad that I lack patience for the religious establishment in our churches.
In the meantime, I intend on getting on with the work of the Kingdom, I’m done waiting for permission. I don’t need anyone’s table or platform to be about the Father’s business in my right-now life. For each of us, this will look different – thank God for that! Some of us are called to stay within slow-to-change structures, while others are called out. Some of us are called to advocate from within, others are called to live the new version out to create a vision for what could be for the ones still coming after us. One is not better than the other.
In a way, I feel terribly sorry for the conference and church leadership in many pockets: they are truly missing out. They are missing out on experiencing the fullness of the Body of Christ, and I think they are the poorer for it. It’s a warning to me as well: I want to have eyes that see, ears that hear, and a heart that understands when the Spirit is doing a new thing.
I look around me and I know the truth: we’re already here. Sometimes I’m so busy focusing on the “not yet” aspect of the Kingdom, that I forget the “now” of it, too. It’s right now. I see it all around me. I don’t want to be so busy lamenting the places where the Spirit has not yet broken through, that I miss celebrating and participating in the right-now. We’re already building those outposts for the Kingdom and just because one small enclave of Christianity isn’t convinced, I don’t want to lose sleep over that. I believe Christine Caine spoke a good word for us today.
I don’t need a seat at their table – in Christ, really, there is only one table, laid out with the bread and the wine, there is room for me there. God is doing a new thing, and I want to perceive and then live into his creative new way forward. Maybe the doors will open, maybe the doors will be torn off and tossed into our bonfire, maybe nothing will change, maybe everything will change.
And maybe, just maybe, we’ll see streams begin to flow in the desert.