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Walking the Path of the Perpetrator

As an attendee of the annual conference of the New York State Dispute Resolution Association, I recently had the privilege of experiencing a day-long training on restorative justice for mediators facilitated by Elizabeth Clemants. Elizabeth is the founder of an incredible non-profit called Hidden Water, which provides no-cost mediation and restorative approaches for adult survivors of childhood sex abuse and their families – including former abusers who are ready and willing to walk the path of the perpetrator by taking responsibility for the harm they have caused. She clarified during the training that we have all caused harm – that we all must walk the path of the perpetrator. Hearing such a deeply Christian message at a professional training set me back on my heels a bit. It has also sparked reflection, the first fruits of which I share here.

Have you ever experienced the tender sweetness of holding a sleeping baby? Part of what is so special about those moments spent cradling a new life is an infant’s freshness and newness and openness. Their skin is so soft and smooth that it practically glows. Their eyes are wide and full of wonder. They smile, laugh and cry easily and freely and naturally. Even a few years later, everything is different – toddlers are routinely mistrustful, and their knees and elbows are already roughened by years of crawling and falling. Exploration and painful lessons take their toll. Life scars us.

People scar us, too. We all have to reckon with the way others hurt us. We can brush it off, ignoring the wounds inflicted on us. We can downplay it, emphasizing our resiliency while de-emphasizing the capacity of others to hurt us. We can justify the harm others have done us, attributing our pain to our own defects, our own shortcomings. All of these are valuable psychological defense mechanisms. They prevent us from seeing ourselves as disempowered victims and preserve our self-image as strong individuals capable of shaping our own fate, which is critically important for our emotional and material well-being. We are not the absolute masters of our fate, though, and given enough life experience, given enough pain and grief, each of us will confront the limits on our ability to direct our own life. Each of us must reckon with what that means for how we see ourselves and our world. This challenging work is one of the essential foundations of wisdom, and it is the path of the victim.

But there is another path, equally important and in some ways harder to walk.

Each of us moves through the world damaging others with our sharp edges. Often we hurt others by accident. Sometimes we do so on purpose. But none of us is so virtuous or so careful as to make it through this world without leaving wounds in our wake. We have withdrawn from those who had a right to expect our emotional engagement. We have imposed on those who had a right to expect our restraint. We have abandoned those who had a right to nurture, and we have oppressed and abused those who had a right to freedom. To own the reality of that, to sit with its impact, without minimizing, denying or justifying it to ourselves – that is a work that takes courage and the willingness to sit with painful truths. That is the path of the perpetrator.

Not only is holding grief and sorrow for the way each of us harms those we encounter part of the path to wisdom and maturity, it is also a nonnegotiable part of the Christian walk. If we cannot own our sin – both the evil we have done and the good we have failed to do – we cannot receive the grace of God. Without admitting our guilt, we are incapable of receiving forgiveness. Without being open to the realities of our own faults and temptations, we will never be willing to “stand still in the Light and submit to it,” in the words of the prophetic Quaker George Fox. No matter our race, ethnicity, economic status, gender identity or political affiliation, we can never step into the fullness of God’s promise for us until we admit our inability to live lives of righteousness and goodness without him, and until we sit with the real pain and damage that implies, some of which we may never know.

Walking the path of the perpetrator is not for the faint of heart. Listening to those we have hurt, letting the Light show us the darkness inside – it’s a painful thing. But the Spirit of Christ is with us, and within us, as we do this work. And in that Spirit, all things are possible.

The Limits of the Law

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

– 1 Timothy 1:8-14

A friend of mine recently sent me a very thought-provoking article with the title, “Why Discipleship Is the Key to Ending Abortion.” Though we have only known each other a few months, I could tell you some stories about how awesome my friend is – about how she is a powerful minister of the Gospel, about how open-minded and open-hearted she is, about how our connecting was an obvious move of the Spirit. But instead I’ll just say that we share a deep concern for the casual way our society dismisses the lives of our most vulnerable children. That concern and sense of mission – the strong sense of being called to rehumanize the heart of our nation – is why I was so surprised by the fact that reading the article convinced me of what I had never before realized: that when the Church seeks political influence and sway, it cannot carry the Gospel of Love into the world.

The article says what many Christians believe, irrespective of their political orientation. Whether we are passionate about saving babies in the womb or protecting them at the border, we may realize that we need to change hearts, but we continue to believe that our focus on changing laws is the highest priority. This belief is not only false, but blasphemous.

Please don’t mistake me: laws matter.

As a Black woman who has been romantically involved with White men, it is painful to me to think that my foremothers were neither legally permitted to marry White men they may have loved, nor protected from sexual assault by White men they may have hated. The laws that kept my family enslaved and excluded aren’t just part of a history lesson: my own mother grew up with hand-me-down books from the White schools, unable to sit down in most restaurants to order a meal, knowing that if ever a band of White men came to the house looking for violence – as they sometimes did, up in the country – there would be no help beyond her father and his shotgun. Laws matter.

But hearts matter more. Jesus never told his followers to interpret or influence the law or its application. He told them to spread the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. That is a completely different task, which depends not on punctilious compliance with each detail of the law, but on the faith – freely chosen – that the transforming love and grace of God is present and available to all. If Christianity is known less for the open hand of fellowship than for the sword of state power, who will choose that faith? And can that choice be truly free?

People who accept the God-given reality that human dignity transcends skin color will not engage in racial violence or deliberate discrimination – no matter what the law says. People who don’t will find ways to skirt, manipulate or outright break the law to enact their racist agenda – no matter what the law says. The law can constrain and punish the most egregious wickedness, and I’m glad it does: I appreciate not having to worry about a lynch mob showing up at my door! But notwithstanding our legal advances, I have personal experience with teachers lowering the test scores of their Black students and guidance counselors tracking them away from college. And there is evidence that many prosecutors – whose sole job is to enforce the law – routinely break the law in their quest to punish Black defendants.

Similarly, despite the appealing rhetoric we used to hear about making abortion “safe, legal and rare,” we have seen the destruction of healthy, growing babies increasingly normalized, destigmatized and celebrated – sometimes with actual applause! In this context, the argument often made by pro-choice activists – that criminalizing abortion won’t stop abortion as much as cause women to seek it by riskier means – is probably true: a woman who is convinced of the rightness of ending her baby’s life will find a way to do so, no matter what the law says.

In our present era of mail-order abortion pills, thinking that legal prohibitions could put a stop to abortion is likely sheer fantasy. The only way to effectively restrict abortion to tough cases – child rape, incest, severe birth defects and truly dangerous pregnancies – is to make it unthinkable to destroy a beautiful, healthy, growing child. That requires a change of heart, a new perception of reality that cannot be achieved by legislation but only by transformation.

The truth is that heart change is a grace of God, which the Church can cooperate with by humble discipleship or impede by grasping after worldly influence. It is outside the power of any government to accomplish and, when we try to use government to transform, we often unleash far greater problems than we solve.

Worshiping a Suffering Savior

Who has believed what we have heard?And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

– Isaiah 53:1-5

Seven Bridges was a miracle baby. His mother, Tami Charles, had been told over and over that she would not be able to have biological children, and she was overjoyed when he was born. But Seven had a congenital bowel condition that required him to be fitted with a colostomy bag shortly after his birth. By fifth grade, he had had 26 surgeries to address his condition and had been teased mercilessly about the appearance and smell of his colostomy, including being choked and beaten up by bullies. His parents reassured him that in the fall, he would start at a new school, where his classmates wouldn’t know his medical history. But eight months is an eternity in the life of a child. On January 19, 2019, while his father was at choir practice and his mother was at the grocery store, ten year-old Seven went into a closet in his family home and hanged himself.

Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of prophecy. But despite the fact that many believe he was the promised messiah (“Christ”) of the Jewish people and the son of God, he was born into humble circumstances to a mother whose chastity was doubted. His ministry was marked by insult, isolation and persecution, as he was accused of drunkenness and gluttony, law-breaking and blasphemy. While he often drew adoring crowds, in his moments of greatest need, Jesus was a man the world turned away from, a man who grieved and suffered, a man who was despised and rejected. In his final hours, the fragility of his tortured flesh was on full display as he was publicly executed as a criminal, and in the moments before his death, Jesus was a man who felt himself forsaken by God.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus came to the world to show us what pure righteousness looks like in human form. It is remarkable, then, that he was not a strong and handsome denizen of the halls of power. Rather, he was a man without beauty or grace, who, in both his ministry and his crucifixion, had firsthand knowledge of rejection and suffering. In fact, the Christian faith seems to be unique in defining its God as much by pain and humiliation as by glory and might. But as we claim to honor a suffering savior, does the gospel we preach give sufficient weight to Christ’s radical solidarity with us in our weakness?

We are properly grateful for divine healing, whether spiritual or physical. But when there is no healing, when we are saddened and disgusted by our own condition, do we remember that our Lord himself experienced humiliation and isolation, that he suffers with us? Do we preach that message – that though it is devastatingly real, none of us bears our pain alone – in our churches and meetings and to our families and friends and, yes, to our children? Most importantly, do we encourage each other to search the faces of those we might instinctively reject as difficult, deformed or defective for their resemblance to our Savior – and to embrace them accordingly?

Jesus was born in obscurity, and he died in shame. Yet it is the bedrock of our faith that his death is our salvation, his resurrection is our triumph and his continued ministry is our perfection. Our Father used Jesus’ very lack of external advantages to magnify the high honor of his calling – and that is how he wants to use each of us. Our instinct is to play up our abilities and conceal our vulnerabilities out of shame, but God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, not our strength.

Let us boldly praise our Lord, who does not call the qualified, but qualifies the called. Let us boldly praise our Lord, who puts heavenly treasures in earthen vessels. Let us boldly praise our Lord, who has a high and holy calling for each of us, whatever our weaknesses and imperfections.

It is our duty and privilege as followers of Jesus – and it just might save a life.

Guarding Each Other’s Dignity

We will work with each other, we will work side by side
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we’ll guard each other’s dignity and save each other’s pride
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love

– Excerpt of “By Our Love” by for KING & COUNTRY

When I read about the early Church, one thing that never fails to move me – sometimes to tears – is the love the brothers and sisters shared with each other. No mere platitude, this love was expressed in solidarity so deep that followers of Christ sold their homes and kept the proceeds in a common pot. They not only cared for the poor within the fellowship of believers, but outside of it as well. Nobody was turned away; nobody was left behind.

How different that world is from my world, from Babylon! What a splendid inbreaking of the Kingdom of Heaven! In Babylon, worth is measured by earnings – past, present or future – and by status, but in the Kingdom, every person is cherished, whether or not he can work, whether or not she is profitable. In fact, in the Kingdom, the poor and lowly are considered particularly blessed! In Babylon, once I’ve got mine, you’d better worry about getting yours, but in the Kingdom, people put the interests of others above their own. In Babylon, we prioritize productivity and navigating our calendar as efficiently possible, but in the Kingdom “wasting time” in teaching, in prayer and in sacrificial relationship with others is the highest and best use of the day. In Babylon, we do our best to make ourselves look good, including by shredding others’ reputations, but in the Kingdom, human weakness emphasizes God’s glory and, as the song says, believers “guard each other’s dignity and save each other’s pride.”

Most of us know that we are supposed to guard each other’s dignity in our speech, and we try – however imperfectly – to avoid gossip and disparaging comments. But how can we bring this attitude to our actions?

I had an unexpected opportunity to answer that question a few weeks ago. I had gotten involved in a lively exchange on the subway with a man a few years older than me. I was excited that he was not only getting off at my stop but also taking the same commuter train, as good conversation makes the long trip home so much more pleasant. But as soon as the subway pulled into the station, my conversation partner, who used a cane to walk, started giving me “outs” to let me smoothly exit the conversation, noting that I would likely want to take the stairs, that the elevator was probably dirty, that I might miss the earliest train. In response, I smiled wryly and remarked on the weirdness of running off in the middle of a conversation, particularly for someone raised by human beings rather than by wolves.

While my gentle joking allowed us to return to a thoughtful and rewarding interaction, I was inwardly horrified that the man felt the need to give me tacit permission to leave him behind, particularly since we were going in the same direction. What kind of rude, crude, uncouth Philistine would abruptly abandon a conversationalist so warm and engaging? But as I have continued to reflect on that question, the real answer has become uncomfortably clear: I would.

The truth is, continuing our conversation meant slowing down significantly. It meant moving much more deliberately than my typical “places to go, people to see” bob-and-weave style. If my family had been waiting for me at home, if I had been rushing to meet my husband for dinner, if I had been hurrying to complete an assignment for work, would I have accommodated my companion’s languid pace so easily and naturally? Almost certainly not. And my self-centered, utilitarian orientation would have caused me to miss out on a beautiful experience of engaging with him around matters of faith and connecting with him around questions of spirituality.

The toxic busyness and me-first heartspace that characterize Babylon often prevent us from experiencing and responding to opportunities to share the Gospel of love. Even worse, we may come to view other human beings as objects to be acted upon, impediments to be discarded or obstacles to be overcome. This attitude stands in grotesque contrast to the way of the Kingdom, which honors all people as the precious and beloved beings that God knows them to be. In Babylon, we worship beauty and power. We cast aside those who can’t keep up. In the Body of Christ, though, the parts that outwardly are the least dignified – the parts that are weak, unsightly, imperfect –  are treated with the greatest dignity.

What would it look like to carry a Kingdom mentality into our daily interactions? What could it be to jealously guard the dignity of the people in our lives? What concrete steps can we take to infiltrate Babylon as God-empowered agents of radical respect?

Spirit-Led Evangelism

Many thanks to my friend (and fellow Friend of Jesus) Johan Maurer for publishing this piece on his blog, Can You Believe?, and for encouraging me to distribute it widely.

Have you ever been amazed by God? Has he ever surprised you with joy, healing, challenge or transformation? When you experienced God’s grace and power, maybe you looked for people to talk to about it with, only to be met with indifference or worse. Or maybe you were afraid to even try to tell some people your story for fear of offending. Or maybe you started off boldly in your first wave of enthusiasm, only to lose your confidence as the experience lost its freshness.

It is hard to talk about God, Jesus and the spiritual life in this moment in American history. Many of our non-Christian neighbors find the little they know about Jesus to be attractive or intriguing, but they know enough about the failings of the church to have very negative opinions about actual Christians. If we do have non-Christian friends, it may be despite our Christian faith rather than because of it – we may be seen as the exception that proves the rule.

So many of us want to follow Jesus’ directive to go and make disciples but don’t know how to engage people who are skeptical of, indifferent to or uncomfortable with the Gospel in a way that:

  • Is authentic to our own communication style;
  • Is honest about Jesus’ bold claims;
  • Honors the uniqueness, spirituality and God-given worth of the individual before us; and
  • Is unscripted and responsive to the leadings of the Holy Spirit.

I hope this will help you get started!

Understanding Evangelism
Evangelism is simply sharing the good news of the Gospel of Christ, nothing more and nothing less. Please purge your mind of any thought of “converting” anyone: that’s the Holy Spirit’s job, not yours! What you can do is share your own experience of God’s grace and power and invite others to reflect on and respond to God’s love for them.

Understood this way, evangelism isn’t about “winning souls”: it’s about opening doors to deeper relationship with God through Christ. It should also be clear that sharing the Gospel isn’t something we only do to the “unconverted”; the Gospel is also something that we should share with our brothers and sisters in Christ who need encouragement in faith. When sharing the Gospel becomes part of our ordinary life, rather than something we reserve for special initiatives or occasions, we create space for God to use us to touch lives in ways we can’t imagine and open paths we may never see. The Word of God is a seed scattered freely among all people, but we can, with God’s grace, help provide a bit of water, or sunlight, or fertilizer to help that seed take root and grow.

What is the Gospel?
Part of the reason that sharing the Good News can be so hard is that it is such good news! The Gospel is so big that it can be hard to sum up in a few words, and I won’t even try. However, I will describe different aspects of the amazing saving work accomplished by and in Christ.

I encourage you to explore parts of the Gospel that are uncomfortable to you. Several years ago, I read Death by Love, a book that explores different aspects of the atonement – the way Jesus reconciles God and humanity. My least favorite parts focused on penal substitution, the idea that Jesus accepted God’s punishment for our sins on our behalf. The whole concept seemed barbaric! But I was recently able to share exactly that truth with a dear friend struggling with painful guilt over the harm unwise personal decisions had caused her family. The reminder that Christ had already taken on and discharged the weight of her sins at Calvary brought her such joy, peace and healing that we both wound up in tears!

I am so grateful that I stretched myself to read and absorb that book, even the parts that I found disturbing, because it prepared me to be an agent of God’s grace to a friend in her time of need. Learning about the different aspects of the Gospel will give you a language to minister to the real people and real problems of the people you meet. Isn’t that worth a little discomfort?

With all that said, the Gospel is the good news that:

  • God passionately loves each and every person in the world;
  • God created everything in the world to work together in harmony;
  • God will set right every injustice on the Day of Judgment;
  • Jesus has paid the price on the cross for every bad thing you have ever done or will ever do;
  • Jesus has broken the stranglehold evil, dysfunction and addiction has on your life, on your family and on this world;
  • Followers of Christ have the authority to collaborate with God in his holy purposes of life, reconciliation, healing and sacrificial love;
  • The Body of Christ is a family that is holy and eternal;
  • The Spirit of Christ is here, now, to guide you into a new way of living and to empower you to shed old habits and dysfunctions;
  • Jesus provides a model for what it means to be fully human, as God intended for each of us to be;
  • The blood of Jesus has cleansed you of all defilement;
  • While you cannot earn a place of honor with God, you don’t have to – in Christ you have all the holiness and righteousness you need;
  • By fellowship in the Body of Christ, you can participate in a holy community outside of the power dynamics of the world’s hierarchies and enter into messy, glorious, life-sustaining fellowship;
  • Each and every true follower of Christ – regardless of race, class, disability or any outward characteristic – is a precious and gifted channel of God’s glory and grace; and
  • Jesus can bring you healing from all manner of woundedness.

Now, isn’t that good news?

Preparing Your Mind to Share the Good News
Read and reread your New Testament and books, including devotionals, that lift up and celebrate the Gospel. (I enjoy the Solo Devotional, which is based on the fresh and relevant Message translation and invites life-giving, interesting contemplation and reflection.) Put the Good News into your own words. Connect it to your own life. How have you experienced Christ’s power? How have you experienced God’s grace? Listen to quality hymns and praise songs, which illustrate different elements of the Good News. For example, compare “Victory in Jesus” with “He Leadeth Me” with “Canticle of the Turning.” Each is an excellent exposition of the Gospel, but the first focuses on Jesus’ victory over sin and death, the next on the ever-present guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the last on God’s care for the weak and his revolutionary justice.

There’s no single right script when you share the Gospel, and there’s no wrong testimony. The important thing is to get comfortable telling the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. The practice of putting it into words for yourself will help you internalize this precious gift in all its glory. This will make it much easier to live each day to the glory of God and, of course, to share the Gospel with others.

Preparing Your Heart to Share the Good News
If you are reading this, it is because you are eager to start sharing the Good News – or at least curious about the idea. Maybe you realized you aren’t acting out the Great Commission and you would like to. Maybe you see how people around you could benefit from the hope Jesus shared. Or maybe you’re so excited about Jesus you can’t help sharing.

Wherever you are in your evangelism journey, you should ask God for two things: love and discernment.

Love is essential for the work of evangelism, because people can tell when they are a “project” and they don’t generally appreciate it. Love in this context is not so much a feeling as it is an attitude or way of being. The kind of love you need for evangelism – and for the Christian walk in general – says:

  • You and your inner world are precious to God – and to me;
  • It is a privilege to hear your thoughts, problems and concerns; and
  • Your need is more valuable than my time and preferences.

There will be times when God will open a door to a relationship or conversation that you’d rather stayed closed, because you’re busy or distracted or you don’t have natural affection or affinity for the person you are called to speak with. Love is what lets you say, “Not my will, but your will be done, Lord.”

Pray for love. Pray for patience. Pray for a tender, listening heart. Cultivate awareness of others. If you seek earnestly to grow in love, I promise you will.

Discernment is tapping into a deeper reality, accessing the mind of God and being sensitive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Discernment is being attentive to “nudges” of the Spirit, who will lead you in all elements of evangelism – who to start a conversation with, who to build a loving spiritual friendship with, what part of the Gospel will be most meaningful and how to share it, and so forth. Discernment takes you beyond your intelligence and wisdom and gives you access to God’s intelligence and wisdom. That’s a big advantage!

Practicing different forms of prayer and worship is a great way to grow in discernment. Praying the psalms, contemplative prayer, and intercession without an agenda – waiting for God to tell you who or what to pray for – are good ways to grow in discernment, and anyone can do them. I also highly recommend meditating on scripture, particularly the prophets and the words of Jesus, so you can get familiar with what God sounds like. This is really valuable so that you can tell the difference between your own thoughts and intuitions and the wisdom that comes from God. In addition, singing and other forms of praise will help overcome any inner resistance to really trusting God to carry you through conversations with strangers, sharing messages you don’t understand, being open and vulnerable and all the other risks that come with letting God use you to draw others closer to him.

Pray to grow in wisdom and faith so that God can use you extravagantly for his glory. Pray for a bold and generous spirit. Pray to know and obey the voice of Christ inside you. God will hear you, I promise.

Just Do It!
As you go about your day, ask God, “Who can I encourage today? Who needs to experience your love today? Who can I bless today?” Be ready to obey God’s call. You may have to do some “self-talk” to follow through but you never know where obedience can take you and what conversations it may start.

For example, God may prompt you to add a few minutes to your commute by buying breakfast for a homeless person, which may lead to conversation about why you are doing it. You can then reply by sharing how God has put people in your life to help when you needed it and you feel called to be that person for someone else. Or you may cross paths with a colleague who is upset and whom you can comfort. It’s not always appropriate or productive to share the Gospel in every situation – discernment is required. But if you try to live the Gospel all the time and you ask God for opportunities to share it, you’ll find that they come up more often than you might expect.

Don’t wait until you have “mastered” the right information or techniques. Just open your heart and ask the Lord to lead you, praying the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Here I am; send me.”

Spirit-Led Evangelism in Action
I actually started writing this on a flight from Minneapolis to Sacramento. About an hour into the 3.5 hour flight, I noticed that the young man seated next to me had put away his phone, flipped through the seat-back magazine and was looking desperately bored. Part of me wanted to seize the opportunity of traveling alone to set out my thoughts on Reimagining Evangelism, a book I had just finished and that was still on my tray table. However, I was aware of the uncomfortable irony in writing about evangelism while ignoring the actual person sitting next to me. Eventually, I couldn’t continue writing.

So instead I made a banal comment about how they used to give you food on long flights, and soon my Catholic row-mate Bobby and I were off to the races, discussing our respective career goals, thoughts about evil and strategies for negotiating challenging work environments. I was able to encourage him in his calling (he was a paramedic) and testify to him about the value of connecting with God. He didn’t even flinch when I started talking about how followers of Christ are called to respond to evil (I did avoid the term “spiritual warfare”!), and he seemed pleasantly surprised when – after over two hours of conversation – I asked if I could pray for him during our descent.

It was one of the most anointed conversations I have had in a long time, and it confirmed my hope that when we set aside our plans and open ourselves up to God’s unexpected motions, when we leave space for the Holy Spirit to act, when we are willing to testify to God’s grace and power, we can be blessed – and bless others – in unforeseen and beautiful ways.

Welcoming the Gifts God Sends Us

The gifts [Jesus] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

– Ephesians 4:11-16

Too often, we in the Church ignore or downplay what the Bible says about the gifts of the Spirit that God bestows on every believer through the power of the Holy Spirit. In more conservative congregations, this may be because of a desire to see authority and influence flow through the “official” channels of church leadership rather than according to the beautiful anarchy of God’s grace. In more liberal congregations, gifts may be ignored or downplayed due to a misguided egalitarianism that studiously ignores the fact that different gifts may entail different degrees of visibility and require different levels of accountability and support. Whatever the reason, we seldom recognize and nurture the gifts that God has shared with the body of Christ for the glory of his name.

Of course, there are some exceptions. Most local churches know what to do with folks who love to teach about scripture: get them involved with Sunday school or, if they are particularly passionate and gifted, send them to seminary. As Neil Cole points out in Primal Fire, houses of worship themselves are typically laid out like lecture halls. What does that reflect, if not a particular focus on the teaching gift? And while seminaries are getting better at equipping students for a variety of ministries, teaching and scholarship remain the heart of the experience. At nearly every seminary, students being prepared for ministry are supposed to gain a certain basic facility in reading, interpreting and teaching from scripture, regardless of their ultimate ministry goals. (Pastoral counseling is also part of the curriculum, though notably smaller in significance.) Similarly universal expectations with respect to evangelism or prophetic discernment or launching new ministries in an apostolic vein seem largely absent.

In my own corner of the Church, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), it is the pastoral (shepherding) gift that is most easily negotiated. We put our most effective shepherds on committees where they pray for us, cook for us and make sure we are all comfortable and happy. This is a beautiful and essential contribution to the Body of Christ, as long as it does not come at the expense of the other gifts. When shepherding is disproportionately emphasized, we lose the sturdy foundation of sound teaching, we stop sharing the Gospel with our neighbors through evangelism, we stop taking risks to start new ministries with the faith and energy of the apostolic gift, and we are set adrift without the prophetic guidance of the Holy Spirit. When we neglect the full range of spiritual gifts, our activities are increasingly stagnant and self-focused, rather than the dynamic and sacrificial ministry embodied by Jesus and the early church.

Even worse, when we routinely marginalize certain gifts, we begin to see their exercise as dysfunctional and their absence as normative, rather than the reverse. When the prophet challenges us with uncomfortable truths, rather than using our discomfort as an opportunity for reflection and discernment, we tell her to tone it down, complain that she is “unwelcoming” and, if she doesn’t get the message, we run her off. We come up with a hundred reasons not to support the efforts of the evangelist, and if he does by grace succeed in bringing new people to our congregation, we quietly freeze them out unless they are exactly like the people already in attendance. And God help the apostle, who is routinely doubted and perceived as reckless, divisive or naïve (or all of the above), rather than supported and guided in the launch of new and needed ministries.

By marginalizing, suppressing or excluding three or more gifts, we drastically limit our ability to effectively share and live the Gospel. Instead of a hand with five capable fingers, we choose a hand with one or two fingers – and one of the two may be sprained! This is not how the church is designed to function and, as the cultural forces that for centuries pushed people toward religious practice fade away, as shrinking budgets lead to cuts to all but the most essential ministries, churches that fail to nurture all the gifts will wither and die. And if they aren’t forming disciples, preaching the Gospel and serving the needy, they will deserve to.

How does your church identify and nurture spiritual gifts – or not? Have you witnessed the dynamic of gift exclusion at work? How can we learn to welcome the gifts God sends us?

What I Learned from “Weinstein”

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.

– Matthew 27:3-5

I recently watched the Frontline documentary, “Weinstein,” about famed filmmaker Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long resistance to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. While the documentary as a whole was painfully revealing, exposing as it did the willingness of most of us to put aside what we know is right when we feel enough fear for ourselves and our futures, there was one scene that was particularly striking. In it, model Zoe Brock described her experience of being lured into Weinstein’s hotel room under false pretenses only to have him strip and attempt to assault her. She managed to lock herself in the bathroom, where she shouted at him through the door to get dressed. When she came out, Weinstein was sitting on the bed, clothed and crying. His words to her pierced my heart : “You don’t like me because I’m fat.

When we hear that “Jesus saves us from sin,” it’s easy to picture a moralizing God who is always ready to catch us in wrongdoing and always eager to punish us for it. This image of God as a judge and disciplinarian is scripturally supported, and the view of sin as wrongdoing is not incorrect. But sin isn’t just the way we do evil. It’s also the pathology that twists and perverts our spirits, deforming the nobility that is our birthright. Sin prevents us from trusting in God’s love and power and instead makes our friends and neighbors a blood sacrifice to the false god of our woundedness.

“You don’t like me because I’m fat.” These are devastating words, coming as they do from a famous, powerful and critically acclaimed filmmaker, a man at the peak of his craft. These words paint a portrait of a man so consumed by insecurity that no amount of accomplishment could soothe his fears. And to be clear, there is no sin in anxiety, and there is none in uncertainty. But when instead of leaning on the promises of God to calm our doubts, we turn our insecurities outward and manipulate or bully others in order to bolster our fragile egos or soothe our clanging anxiety, we have crossed a line that is both deadly serious and tragically human. And all the compassion that we may – and should! – feel for someone in that position does not erase that person’s wickedness and depravity.

And sadly, as much as we may wish to believe otherwise, the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have no monopoly on wickedness. Any of us can become a predator or manipulator when we see something important to us put at risk, whether it is our financial security, reputation or self-image – unless, that is, we make a choice to trust in God rather than in our own fears. Absent such a commitment, the only thing that separates any of us from a Harvey Weinstein is that he had the power and influence avoid the repercussions of his actions longer than most.

That choice – to trust, really trust, in God – is hard to make, and I believe that it is only through the grace and power of the Spirit of Christ that we can consistently make it. Sometimes that means taking lumps rather than lying our way to safety. Sometimes trusting God means deciding for the good of someone else to do things that we would rather not do and to refrain from activities we desperately want to engage in. Sometimes it means climbing on the cross with Jesus. It’s not easy, and it sure isn’t fun, but it’s the only way to cure the cancer of sin.