Monday, March 23, 2015


Coming to terms with Lent

One needs, this day and age, to be concerned with cultural appropriation. It is a hard thing. On one hand, cultures grow and develop by interacting and borrowing from other cultures. That's not really a problem. What bothers people, especially people from oppressed groups, is when people take aspects of their culture and borrow them in ways that are disrespectful or diminishing of their original culture. It can be seen as a colonization and exploitation, again, of a culture forced into subservience.

And thus I approach the celebration of Lent. From 1987 to 1993 my father pastored a church with a long and rich cultural liturgical tradition. While everyone in the church was loving and while my memories of the church are primarily positive, there was an extent to which we were always somewhat foreign to the culture. We weren't interlopers, pe se, rather, I guess I would say, honored guests, in that place. As expatriates often do, we tended to exoticize, criticize, and idealize our host culture. Even while we eventually acculturated to this environment, there was an extent, like that of white missionary in a non-white indigenous culture, where anyone could tell that we were different.

First off, there were cultural differences that would have even shown up in the census data. The people from the church were ethnically and culturally Germans from Russia. Both my parents grew up with friends who were people of this ethnic group. My aunt (my mother's sister) even married a man from from this group and I think my cousins consider themselves part of this group. While my parents had moved away, first to Alaska and then to Wyoming, they were familiar with the foods, and some of the cultural norms of this group, but were never really a part of it. Having grown up far from this culture, I was less familiar than they.

Then there were other cultural differences. My father was ordained in an independent Restoration Movement Christian Church after attending a Bible college of the same persuasion. This is a tradition that distrusts tradition. Prescriptive liturgy is viewed somewhat skeptically as non-scriptural and therefore smacking of "the traditions of men" (Mark 7:6-13). During his travels in his capacity as a minister of those churches, he'd also picked up a bit of Pentecostal understanding that did nothing to assuage a resistance to tradition, fearing that prescriptive liturgy might "hold to a form of godliness while denying the power" (II Tim. 3:5). Both these traditions and a bit of the more conservative brand of Baptist thought coming from my time in AWANA and my enrollment in an ACE school constituted my own burgeoning theological outlook. It left little room for holy days, responsive readings, and prayers read aloud word-for-word. I even hated hymns at this point, feeling that they weren't "spirit filled." I was eleven when we started, so don't blame me for being immature. I totally think hymns are spirit-filled now.

In many ways, the nearly seven years we spent there made me a part of the culture. While most of the cultures that influenced me growing up viewed alcohol askance, I was able to find a place for it so long as it is quite controlled. (Although at this point in my life I basically don't drink because I don't have the money for it). I love grebel, and runzas. I went through their ritual of confirmation and so in some ways really I am a part of the culture. The culture had such a profound effect on me, I even learned to speak German later in life. I also celebrate a few holidays and traditions that most people in my faith communities do not. Those include Lent.

There are many Christian communities that celebrate Lent. These communities are generally associated with some of the more liturgical focused traditions. Some less liturgical congregations will take part in larger Lenten community services where there is a strong ecumenical Christian association in a particular town, but those ecumenical "Lenten services" or "Lenten Luncheons" are the full extent of the participation of most Evangelical, Restoration, and Pentecostal groups. Since leaving that church in 1993, I haven't been part of a community that focuses on liturgy. I've attended various churches and been part of various communities in the Restoration Movement and various Pentecostal churches and a few other Evangelical or Fundamentalist  churches none of which focus on liturgy and none of which take Lent seriously. I do, however.

On one hand, I have to say that holy days don't matter. The less liturgical culture really is my culture and I know that they aren't necessary. The holy days of the Old Testament are types and shadows fulfilled in Christ and there are no holy days prescribed in the New Testament. On the other hand, something related to days and times DOES matter. The cycle of the year and the rise and fall of the sun have an effect on us. To tie them to our spiritual life makes sense, just as it makes sense to tie them to what foods we eat when and when we do outdoor activities. This is what liturgical Christian cultures do, and it's what everyone does outside of Christian cultures. Sledding in June in the northern hemisphere is not done. Breakfast, lunch, and supper more or less follow the sun.

And I think things were done by God on purpose. We celebrate Christmas in December but the truth is we have no clue what in what month Jesus was born. We do know when He died, however. The reason Easter is on a different day each year is that we know exactly when he died and celebrate that day according to the Jewish calendar He used. His death, burial and resurrection took place at a time when, astronomically, the days begin to get longer than the nights. Light is literally overcoming darkness and goes over the "half-way" point during Lent. Light triumphs. I really think God did this on purpose. And so while if I told the members of my current faith community that I was was celebrating Lent, they'd make fun of me for being "Catholic," I'm going to continue to celebrate it.

I celebrate it by focusing on Christs life, death, and resurrection. I do this by reading the Gospels. I read them alot. I pretty much read a gospel every day during Lent. We call them "books" of the Bible, but they're really not that long. Some days I get busy or tired and I don't get to it. I do this in addition to my regular Bible reading, which I also sometimes get busy or tired and don't get to. Still, days where I read the Bible are more common than days where I don't.

I also try to eat fish on Fridays during Lent. Fish is cheap during lent. It is yummy. It is almost an excuse. Last Friday, however, my wife, who really doesn't like fish, really, really didn't want it, so we skipped it. It's okay.

I also give something up for Lent. During my smoking eras, it was almost always cigarettes. I don't smoke now so, I give up something else. Either last year or the year before I gave up cookies. I've given up quite a few things during Lent including movies, fantasy books, shaving, elevators, bread, and chocolate over the years. I happened to have a conference on a multi-level hotel the year I gave up elevators and I will never again give up chocolate during the only time when Cadbury eggs are available. That was a dumb move. This year I gave up fast-food sandwiches and fast-food french-fries. I didn't exactly give up fast food, because that wouldn't fit with our busy lifestyle, but finding something on the menu is a little more difficult.

In some ways what you give up for Lent reflects Christ's sacrifice, but I think it would be blasphemous to compare His death on the cross to me getting a bowl of chili at Wendy's rather than my favorite Baconator with no mayo but with ketchup and onion added (two more weeks). It's really just another way to reflect. We eat fast food at my house way too often. So, at least once a week, there is this moment where I remember, it is Lent. We are headed toward Good Friday, toward Easter. I look at the sky and the clouds and think about what Jesus was doing, historically, as we headed up to his last few weeks before His death. I do this contemplation at McDonalds, not usually a spiritual place for me, but it becomes one.

So, I spent a few years in a culture. It's not my culture. I hope that my appropriation from that culture is not disrespectful because it does so much for me spiritually. This isn't the only mark it made, but it is probably one of the more important ones.

Thursday, March 5, 2015


Coming to terms with submission.

Submission vs. Liberty

Most Americans and probably most of Western Civilization struggle with the concept of submission. We love freedom and liberty. We believe that, while some people may gain power over others through various means, all people are created essentially equal. No one really has the right to tell us what to do. They may negotiate with us as free citizens to do something for them if they are willing to do something for us, but they are not able to order us about without some kind of compensation. There will be no taxation without representation. We all have a right to a fair hearing. We have equality before the law. If we do not, we are being treated not just unfairly, but unjustly. Justice requires liberty and liberty requires justice. I could keep on going with the clichés indefinitely, but they reflect a basic notion of how we think.

Most American Christians and Western Christians agree with these notions on some level. Congregationalism is the norm within American denominations and every where governed by a presbytery or some other council, the choosing of principals is somehow democratically governed at some level. We choose an equal to rule us because, practically, someone needs to be in charge. We don't like it but there it is.We try to choose the "best" person for the job, but recognize that there is nothing that makes this person inherently better. When we can we argue for appointment on merits; a person has earned his or her place and that's why we put them there.

So, we don't like it when we see verses that imply some sort of non-egalitarian relationship. We bristle when we see that wives are to be submissive to their husbands (1 Cor. 14:34, Eph. 5:22, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, I Peter 3:1, ), that we are to be submissive to governing authorities (Romans 13:1,I Peter 2:13, ) , that slaves are to be submissive to their masters (Titus 2:9, I Peter 2:18), that people should be submissive to their elders (I Peter 5:5) and that we are all supposed to be submissive to one another (Eph. 5:21). Well, maybe the last we can handle because it sounds fair in a way. Most of us also don't have a problem being told to be submissive to Christ (James 4:7), after all, He's God, but to each other, that's a different story. It seems unjust. It even seems unwise. I mean, have you looked at some of the governing authorities lately?

So, are contemporary western Christians wrong to believe in freedom and liberty? 

I don't think contemporary western Christians are wrong in their beliefs in freedom and liberty. I don't think that they are wrong in the essential equality of all human beings. There are scriptures to point to this as well, that talk about our liberty in Christ, that explain that God is "no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11). Probably the most powerful of these verses is Galatians 3:29. This seems to fly in the face of people being forced to submit to others on the basis of some arbitrary signifier. 

When we come to a situation like this, where the Bible has apparently contradictory exhortations, we are left with a choice. One side's wrong. The other side's wrong. They're both wrong. We don't understand. The choice to always choose the latter is part of what makes essential Christian thought. I would say that if you choose any of the other choices, you are not reading the Bible in a Christian way. It is how we can read the Bible without picking and choosing our passages. It is the means by which we can come to know the Bible and God better. It does not leave us in a type of holy paralysis, however. Once we realize that we don't understand, then we are given the responsibility of reasoning with God and figuring it out.

Submission as arbitrary signifier

I would submit to you (get it, ha, ha) that part of the reason for this difficulty is an understanding of submission that is a little different than the meaning that comes immediately to our heads when we say or read the word. 

When I hear the word, I think about training dogs. Sometimes a dog will be headstrong and unwilling to take training. However, eventually, after a battle of wills and sometimes brute force, a dog will submit. Often, they show their submission by rolling over on their back and peeing on themselves. The dog has accepted their secondary state. They have accepted that they have no power in the relationship. This is a necessary state to begin training in which the dog's desires and needs take a backseat to the desires of the trainer. The dog becomes obedient. A dog in such a state will forgo its natural inclinations to fulfill the whims of the trainer. For English Cockers, the breed with which I'm most familiar, trained dogs are supposed to be "steady to wing and shot." That means that they wait for permission after a bird has flown to go chase it. That's not natural. That's not the dog's will. Thier will has been broken. Every trained dog has had its will broken in some way. 

And I have no moral problem with dogs being treated like dogs. I know there are people who do. Maybe I'll write a blog someday addressing you, but for now, you're wrong. I do have problems with people being treated like dogs. I even have a problem with people willingly allowing themselves to be treated like dogs. No adult has the right to arbitrarily order another adult around. In fact, I honestly think that the orders we give to children and dogs should not be arbitrary, but it's not always possible to explain given the lack of verbal ability. But once a person can speak and understand speech coherently, that has to end. 

I also don't think that arbitrary rulership is the meaning of the passages on submission. I think we have to think about the word in a different way. 

Etymology of Submission

The basic concept that got me to reconsider my understanding of submission came from my pastor in our Wednesday night service. He asked us to think about the word "submission" and take it apart. You'll notice a root, a suffix, and a prefix. The root word is the same as the root of "missive," a letter sent to a place or "missile," a projectile aimed at something. While a missive or missile is on its way to a person or place, it is on its mission, which is part of the word above. People can also be on missions. In fact, we should be. Each one of us has been given a mission from God. Several years ago, God revealed to me (I'd rather not get into the whole process, but it wasn't a booming voice) that His mission for me was to become a Christian Man of Letters. That's my mission. It's also a submission.

A submission would be a mission that fits within another larger mission. That's what the prefix "sub" means. Yes, it means "under" but not in a "less than" role. A person without substance has nothing to stand on. They are empty "shallow" people. There has to be something to hold it up. 

I am in a number of submissive relationships. I work at a university where I have above me a chair, a dean, a vice president and and president. I have a church with a pastor and elders. I live under a government and among a people and a nation. They have their missions as well. Sometimes they are more or less clear to me. Still, it is my responsibility to make sure that my mission fits under their mission. My university and even my country needs men of letters to teach and to write. So, it works. I believe that a Christian man of letters is beneficial to my church. So my mission fits there. If it doesn't submission doesn't mean I change my mission. My mission is from God. If I am at a job where my mission and their mission are at odds, it's time to find a new job or perhaps, time for them to find a new employee. Perhaps I should evaluate whether or not my mission really is from God, but if it is, it's my mission and I am in submission as long as my mission helps them accomplish their mission. 

So when the Bible says that women must "submit" to their husbands, it is not placing them in a servile role or arbitrarily placing a man over them because he lacks ovaries. Rather, it is saying, ladies, the mission that God gives you, your mission in life, is a unique mission just for you. That mission should be a mission that supports your husband's mission. If your husband goes off drinking and wants you to make sure there is money for booze rather than paying rent, that won't aid you in your mission, and if he were following his mission, it wouldn't aid him either. So, don't. Your mission is included in as a submission for him, but if he leaves the mission behind, you are still on your mission. Your mission is from God.

But it's Greek.

That's all a beautiful thing, you might think, if the Bible were written in English. It wasn't. It was written in Greek. The etymology doesn't work in Greek. This was my concern after considering the Pastor's sermon last night. I thought that perhaps if I went and looked it all up in the Greek, I might not find the same argument. Submission might not mean a mission which supports a mission. 

Except that it does. In the passages translated "submission" that I cited earlier in this piece all use the same Greek word which we translate as "submission." That word is ὑποτάσσω (hypotasso). That word functions semantically just like the English word submission. The prefix, ὑπό, is also a preposition. Prepositions are weird in any language, but ὑπό usually translates "under." The second part of the word is τάσσω, which was a military verb meaning "to order." A person who has been ordered to do something is on a "mission." So, it's exactly the same. In fact, to the original readers of the Bible the relationship would have been even more clear because the etymology is less obscure. You have orders. You have orders that fit within his orders.

Not servility.

So, the call to submit is not a call to be ordered around and treated like a dog. It is a call to check and make sure that your mission is supporting those to whom you are submitted. If not, you might need to either change the relationship (and get out), or make sure the other person is fulfilling their mission, or to really consider whether or not your mission is a mission from God.