When A Transformational Shift Occurs . . .

There I was . . . sitting in a class . . . simply moving through a master’s degree . . . minding my own business . . . when my worldview took an unexpected turn . . . my life underwent a transformational shift.

The class . . . pastoral counseling.

The instructor . . . waxing eloquent on the psychological theory of family systems.

At some point in the lecture, the instructor began to use his own life as an illustration of the concept of differentiation  . . . he drew a diagram  . . . and my perspective was changed forever.

  • At one end of a continuum, he spoke of the I. This is called disengagement.
  • At the other end, he discussed the We. This is called enmeshment.
  • In the middle was I/We. This is called differentiation.

Of course, a person could be anywhere on this continuum. For instance, to the left of the middle was I/we, and to the right of the middle was i/We.

The instructor talked about how we begin life with absolute dependency (We), and as we mature, we progress towards independence (I). Thus, one could say, we begin life enmeshed and move in the direction of disengagement. However, as I discussed last time in my blog, our family system teaches us how to relate to other people, and in doing so, it helps to spawn our identity, or how we relate to others in relation to ourselves. Through the relational patterns that we acquire in our family system, we learn who we are with others outside the system. If we are raised in a family system in which we tend to be more enmeshed than not, we may tend to take responsibility for the other’s feelings. For instance, if we were given intermittent praise from our parents, we become dependent on others for approval and respect (I say this because intermittent praise is the most powerful motivator, creating addictive behavior . . . just think of gambling). If our parents were emotionally distant from each other (that is, they were disengaged from each other, being emotionally described as Is), they may turn to a child to care for their emotional needs, generating enmeshment in the child (We); therefore, rather than teaching the child to become an I that is interdependent from the We, the child becomes emotionally responsible for the adults. Disengagement may also be part of the emotional-relational pattern in a multi-generational family. Rather than being there for each other, members of the family may distance themselves physically/emotionally when they are in pain or in conflict. That is to say, whether there be enmeshment or disengagement, the emotional/relational patterns in our family system may be such that they keep us stuck in our journey to becoming I/We. As a result, we become more dependent on others (i/We) or more independent from others (I). In the former, we are fused to others, and in the latter, we are emotionally (and maybe physically) cut off from others.

A healthy emotional/relational person, according to family systems, is differentiated.

It is that ability to be connected to the other while still being who we are. In disengagement, we are only able to be who we are if we remain separate from others, and in enmeshment we are only able to be who we are if we lose a portion or all of ourselves in others [think Runaway Bride in which the character, played by Julia Roberts, enjoyed whatever type of eggs that her fiancée enjoyed, be they fried (fiancée #1), poached (fiancée #2), or egg whites only (fiancée #3)].

The concept of differentiation is actually borrowed from biology. When the sperm (male cell) and the egg (female cell) unite, they form a cell that science calls zygote. Science informs us that when the zygote has multiple cell divisions, it becomes an embryo. Notice: this cell division is not disengagement, but it is called differentiation in that there is division and connection that transpires at the same time. Thus, we can say that cells remain connected while still being who they were meant to be. A nose is connected to the respiratory system, but it is a nose, not a lung.

So it may be said of human differentiation.

 

How do I know to what degree I am differentiated . . . you may inquire.

Glad you asked.

 

The first test was mentioned in my previous blog (The Powerful Reality of a System) . . . how long does it take you to become like your 12 or 15-year-old self when you are back with family? 2 days? 2 hours? 2 minutes? You see, family systems theory holds that our true level of differentiation appears in how differentiated we are in our own family of origin. In other words . . .

When Dad mentions _____, how do you respond?

When your sibling says _____, what is your emotional reaction?

Are you able to think about your reaction and choose how you will respond, or is it a knee jerk reaction of disengagement or enmeshment? Examples of emotional reactivity are compliance, rebellion, cut off, attack, withdrawal, overfunctioning, or underfunctioning. The more emotionally reactive we are, the less differentiated we are.

If we would be honest with others and ourselves, each of us will spend the rest of our lives learning to differentiate. The question is: are we up for the challenge?  And if so, how is this done?

At this point, I feel it is my duty to warn you: when I discovered the concept of differentiation, it seemed that everywhere I looked, I was repeatedly exposed to this idea. TV. Movies. Circumstances. From driving down the freeway with someone tailgating me to needing to fly regularly to another city to finish my degree, my opportunities to differentiate seemed to abound. Such opportunities became so frequent that it became the running joke in our marriage. Thus, consider yourself forewarned.

According to family systems theorists, the process of becoming more differentiated transpires within our own family system.

This occurs by setting out to learn who people are in our family. “Oh,” you say, “I know my family.” But do we? Do we only know our older brother as he is in his role as an older brother? Or do we genuinely know his story? What was it like when he was the only one in the family? What did he think of having another sibling? In other words, we need to learn the stories behind the people in our family. By learning who they are, their fears, anxieties, joys, by sharing the family secrets, we learn who each other is . . . really. Thus, we remain connected to each other, but not just to their role. Such a connection helps us to embrace more who we are and who they are, generating in the relationship an energy when the other is seen, heard, and valued.

Thus, one could say that close relationships are a test.

  • to be able to be connected while being separate;
  • to be an I amidst the We;
  • to accept them and ourselves no matter if others approve/disapprove of or agree/disagree with us;
  • to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of emotional reactivity.

Relationships, then, are particularly opportunities for self-differentiation.

As a Christ-follower, a theology of differentiation may be seen in a variety of ways. It may be viewed in an understanding of the Trinity in that each member of the triune Godhead remains connected while being separate persons. There is homogeneity with diversity. Thus, if we are to reflect the image of God as persons, we are to be connected while being separate.

Most recently, I was struck by Jesus’ self-differentiation.

This is repeatedly seen in the Gospel of John. For example, in chapter 7, the Feast of Tabernacles was about to be under way, and Jesus’ brothers told Jesus:

Leave here and go to Judea so your disciples may see your miracles that you are performing. For no one who seeks to make a reputation for himself does anything in secret. If you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.

Now, before we think, “Oh, they are just giving him helpful advice,” we need to notice the John’s parenthetical phrase in verse 5:

For not even his own brothers believed in him.

Taken what we have discussed in the previous paragraphs, here are Jesus’ siblings . . . his own family system. Yet, at this point his siblings do not really know him. They are making fun of him. After all, if you want to make a name for yourself, go out and show yourself to the world!!! If they are typical siblings, they are laughing at him as they say it, and if I am the typical undifferentiated sibling, I emotionally react by fighting back or crying (and since I am the youngest in my family, I would probably go to Mom). However, Jesus responds, “My time has not arrived, but you are always ready for any opportunity.” It is to be noted that Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is in charge, which is different from the Gospel of Mark. This is seen by the repeated use of the word “hour” or “time” (e.g., 2:4; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20; 12:23; 13:1; 17:1; 19:28). Jesus being in control may be viewed in that Jesus knows his betrayer (ch. 6) and places in motion the very act of betrayal. It is also seen in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus reveals who he is and negotiates the release of his disciples. We see it when he bears his own cross, whereas Mark speaks of Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross. In addition, Jesus’ legs are not broken since Jesus dies on his own accord in John, whereas Mark omits the possibility of the breaking of legs. John also speaks of Jesus being the one who lays down his life rather than someone taking his life from him. Thus, in chapter 7 of John, Jesus refuses to join his brothers, but he does travel to Jerusalem for the feast at a later time, but he does so in secret.

I also believe that Matthew implicitly points to Jesus’ own differentiation.

In chapter 16, Jesus informs his disciples that he will suffer much and die at the hands of others. It is at this point, Peter takes Jesus aside and says, “No! This must not happen to you!!” While we may be prone to focus on Peter’s reaction, I want to draw our attention to Jesus’. Imagine, in the last three years this is one of the people with whom you have been investing much of your time. In fact, John’s Gospel says that Jesus calls his disciples “friends” (Jn. 15:15). Not only that, but here is one who is considered to be part of your inner circle of three (see Mt. 17:1). This is one with whom you have a close relationship. It is with him the two of you walked on water (Mt. 14), albeit for only a little bit. You even have changed his name, calling him Peter, rather than Simon. This is one into whom you have invested much of your energies. After all this effort of being with him, he has recently indicated he knows you when he declared you to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Mt. 16:16). By all accounts, this is a close relationship in which each other is known. Now, he wants to have a little talk with you . . . privately. Herein lies a genuine temptation. Herein lies an opportunity to differentiate. Such tests . . . such opportunities may come from those who seem to know us best but do not. It comes from those with whom we have a relationship. In this passage, Jesus sees it for what it is: a temptation not to remain true to who he is, but to deviate from being God’s act of ministry to the world, the embodiment of the love of God. Jesus looked beyond Peter, saw the spiritual warfare in which he found himself, and rebuked Satan. Jesus remains separate from Peter while remaining connected. After all, Jesus died for Peter, too.

I think in the contemporary church, we, too, are being faced with the opportunity to differentiate, to be a We while being an I.

Within the political landscape of our nation, we are a nation divided. Unfortunately, I fear we are also becoming divided in Christ’s own body, cutting members off from one another, saying, “I don’t need you.” Hmmm . . . This sounds reminiscent of Paul’s words to the Corinthians about the body of Christ in chapters 12 and 14. Could it be that the American church is being faced with a test, and that test appears in our relationships? An opportunity to differentiate? Are we able to hear the one who is on the opposing side, or are we emotionally reactive, judging and/or labeling the other without taking time to hear the other and may be even cutting off any relationship with the other?

Today, I believe the church has an opportunity to powerfully reflect the image of the triune God to the world through our relationships: an opportunity for members of Christ’s body to differentiate by embracing each other in both our homogeneity and in our diversity. I leave you with these words of Jesus from John’s Gospel:

Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.

 

 

 

 

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The Powerful Reality of a System

A decision has been made to visit your immediate family.

Whether you live a few hours from your siblings and/or parents or whether they are simply minutes from your doorstep, the plans are in place . . . and so is the customary little speech.

You know . . . that little talk your spouse gives you prior to visiting family. Or maybe it is the little lecture you give yourself. No matter if it is your spouse or you talking to yourself, the contents of such an admonishment have a similar ring:

  • Do not react when your sibling says . . .
  • Do not be pulled into the fray when your father says . . .
  • Do not become defensive when Mom chides you for . . .

And every time, you wholeheartedly agree that this time it will be different. This time you will be kind. This time you will not become emotional. But . . . after each visit a different lecture ensues, “I thought you said you wouldn’t react!” and once again, the little pep talk has fallen on deaf ears. Once again, it only took a day (if you’re lucky) or maybe an hour (and for some of us, minutes) of being with family before you find yourself reacting as if you were . . . well . . . twelve, or maybe much older like . . . fifteen. If you were honest, it really puzzles you as to why it is that every time you are with family, it is the same reaction.

May I simply say . . . I feel your pain . . .  or  . . . been there done that . . . too many times to count.

Herein lies the power of a system, and in this case, it is the family system.

In the West we have the tendency to underscore the individual, or the self, overlooking the power of a system. This is interesting, considering systems exist all around us, and we live in systems as well as having systems living in each of us. There is the solar system. Ecosystem. The governmental system. An automobile has systems, such as the electrical system, the climate-control system, or a computer system. Our body has systems, such as the nervous system, the digestive system, or the respiratory system. At the risk of stating the obvious . . . if one piece malfunctions in the system, if one tiny little part breaks or is injured, it impacts the entirety of the system. Suddenly, we are sweating in the car when the climate-control system breaks down. Or perhaps we ate too many hot peppers, and our digestive system is complaining. The word “system” comes from Latin and Greek words, which mean “to place together.” A system, then, is a corporate entity that is more than the sum of its parts. As such, the system unites and organizes the individual parts into a functioning whole. The system, then, is powerful as it influences every member of the system. If one part changes, it influences the other elements of the system.

The family system is no different.

When we were born, we were dropped into a multi-generational family system that had been operating for years. Patterns existed on how to relate.  Roles were established. Spoken and unspoken rules are obeyed. As a newborn in this family system, we begin to learn these patterns, our role, and the rules because these are the types of things that help the system maintain its balance (homeostasis) and resist change. This balance, which has been formed by several generations, looks different for each family. Maybe one family has an unspoken rule: You shall not express feelings while another family system has a rule that feelings are to be expressed. Both families may implement similar strategies to ease their anxiety when the rule in their family system is broken. If, in the case of the non-expressive family system, a member begins to express feelings, the members of this system become anxious and seek to bring the family back into balance through such strategies as overfuntioning/underfunctioning; distancing from/pursuing the member who broke the rule; or triangulating with another member by talking to one member in the family about the rule breaker in order to ease any anxiety.

Or maybe the oldest child has the role of an overfunctioner, the one who takes responsibility for everyone else. If the oldest child begins to change and no longer overfunctions, the family members become anxious and may attempt to begin acting in ways so that the oldest continues in his/her role as the overfunctioner or maybe some other family member replaces the oldest as the overfunctioner.

This is the power of a system.

The power of the family system stretches to our relationships with those outside of our family of origin.

  • If we are an overfunctioner, we may take responsibility for others’ feelings and/or actions in another system, such as our work system, school system, or our place of worship. That is, we have a strong desire to fix everyone or to ensure the other does not feel badly—that is, the other’s problems become our responsibility. This is a common trait among clergy or those in the other helping professions.
  • Or maybe as the youngest we learned in our family system to be irresponsible, the underfunctioner, and the family clown; thus, we may fulfill this role in a similar manner in other systems, expecting others to care for us by picking up the slack for us.
  • Or maybe a rule in our family system was that anger was to be expressed through silence or loud shouting; thus, as we enter other systems, we find ourselves adhering to this rule, be it among friends, co-workers, or congregants.

This is the power of a system.

 

It behooves us as Christ-followers to pay attention to a system’s power.

My own pentecostal tradition has a reputation for stressing the individual above that of the community.[1] Such individualism appears in the pentecostal approach to Scripture. For instance, when reading Ephesians 6, my tradition underlines the spiritual warfare that individuals face. That is, demon powers and individual spirits are emphasized as beings who wreak havoc on the individual Christ-follower. I want to assure you that the purpose of this blog is not to debate the theology of the existence of demonic powers, but it is to stress a broader view of this passage as presented by such scholars as Walter Wink in which powers refer to spiritual systems of a society that seek to dominate and control, such as a corporate personality or the basic essence of an institution. I am not suggesting that individual evil spirits are nonexistent, but I am inviting us to consider that this is not the only way to view the concept of powers and principalities in Ephesians 6. That is, I am taking a both-and-approach, and in this blog I am stressing cosmic powers, the powers of domination that a system of an institution (local, regional, or national) or of a culture (be it local, regional or national) may hold over us.

Consider with me the broader system of a culture whose values are informed by the media and television/movies. What if I asked you to describe the image of a superhero? Until recently, I suspect that the image Americans held of a superhero seldom deviated from being a Caucasian male. Now, thanks to movies such as Wonder Woman and the Black Panther, the superhero image is beginning to become more diverse. This is the power of a system. It has been in existence for many generations, and it teaches us particular roles and rules, both explicitly and implicitly.

As a Christ-follower, we, too, must become aware how the cultural system or an institution of society or government is influencing us, and in this blog, I seek to underscore this influence in the area of violence.

Contemplate with me the following question: Are we easily embracing the violence of the cultural or the institutional system that upholds domination, or are we striving towards the non-violence upheld by the kingdom of God? Granted, I fully recognize that as fallen humans, we will not do this fully as God instructs, demonstrating our dependence on the reconciliation of Jesus Christ. Yet, in this blog I seek to expose how we may have been abiding more by the violence of the spiritual systems of society rather than the non-violence of God’s reign, particularly in more recent times.

Consider with me the words of Jesus when he speaks of the violence of the kingdom (Mt 11:12). Theologian Thomas Torrance points out that the violence of the kingdom of God refers to Jesus living a life of non-violence, which calls forth the violence of this world. The message of grace and forgiveness, for Torrance, is the non-violent violence of God in that it is more powerful than any other force and can overthrow evil.[2] Practical Theologian Cynthia Crysdale supports this when she uses Wink’s understanding by noting that it is ingrained in us that good people (such as Popeye) fight evil that is outside of themselves (Popeye’s nemesis, Bluto) through the violent use of power and control (Popeye wins a fight with Bluto after swallowing a can of spinach); this promotes and perpetrates a myth that “violence and control” are “redemptive” (Popeye saves Olive Oyl).[3] However, Jesus does not support this view of violence. As Crysdale comments, Jesus Christ, who embodies God’s reign, does not use violence but lives his life according to a different set of values from the religious and political orders of his day, and the logical result is his death. Through his acceptance of death, Jesus reveals both the nature of God and the nature of true humanity in that God does not use violence to destroy violence.[4]

In Matthew, we see how God’s reign is not characterized by the violent systems of humanity. Consider with me the contrast between the systems of this world and the characteristics of God’s kingdom as seen in chapter 5 of this Gospel. In our cultural system mourning (the externalization of grief) is no longer upheld as it once was. No longer is it expected that the immediate family wears black for a year. It also is now a rarity to observe the pulling over of vehicles to honor a funeral procession, and it is even becoming increasingly acceptable to avoid having a funeral or memorial service, a space in which people are free to externalize their grief. Contra to the systems of this world, God’s kingdom welcomes the mourners by blessing them, and not only them but the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are poor in spirit as well.

Matthew continues in verses 21-22 by stating how the system of this world embraces the rule “Do not murder”; however, in God’s kingdom one does not insult the other. In verses 27-30, we note that in our human systems, we frown upon adultery, but under God’s reign, one treats each person with dignity, respect, equality, and mutuality by not even lusting after the other.

Such is the contrast of the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, I fear, we who proclaim God’s reign with our lips, have succumbed to the influence of the kingdoms of this world. We readily embrace the violence rather than the non-violence as embodied in Jesus Christ. Instead of offering mercy when others label and condemn us, we practice an eye for an eye by labeling and condemning them in turn. Thus, no longer is it only politicians who practice insult for insult, but as Christ-followers, we follow their example with other Christ-followers, be it on Facebook, email, or face to face. In essence, we are living out the rules and roles of the systems of this world. These are spiritual forces. Not simply individual spirits who wreak havoc in individual lives but powerful systems of domination as seen in our institutions, our businesses, and our cultures.

As Christ-followers, specifically as Pentecostals, I fear we may have become blindsided by focusing on individuals fighting individual spirits to our detriment by missing the domination of the violence of the systems of this world. I admit to being heartbroken how we implicitly embrace the patterns of the world’s systems through our violence in which members of God’s kingdom label and insult one another who are also members of God’s kingdom. Hence, we are inadvertently embracing the influence of the powers and principalities of violent domination that the systems of this world have perpetuated among us as members of Christ’s universal church. In the same way that Jesus Christ embodied the violence of God’s kingdom through non-violence, we are called in the power of the Spirit to participate in Christ’s ministry of non-violence. According to Galatians 5, I surmise that the violence of world systems includes hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, and factions, but the non-violence of God’s reign are: love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, against such there is no law. That is, there is no law against exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit; thus, we have the freedom to live them out in abundance in God’s kingdom.

It is the intention of this blog to generate a call to take the higher road, to embody the violence of the kingdom of God through non-violence. It is a reminder, that we are not simply fighting individual demonic powers, but we also are fighting the powers and principalities of the systems of this world. We enter into the fray of the battle when we seek to live out the fruit of the Spirit in the power of the Spirit. That is, we fight the violence by embodying the non-violence of God’s kingdom.

Holy Spirit, open our eyes to see the principalities and powers of the systems of this world, so we may participate in your ministry of non-violence by standing against the tide of violence, thereby being involved in spiritual warfare. On this day, may God’s kingdom come right here on earth as it is in heaven through your people.

 

[1] Such a characteristic is not only apparent in the West but in pentecostalism worldwide, such as  research conducted on the content of pentecostal sermons by Gwyneth McClendon and Rachel Beatty Riedl, “Individualism and Empowerment in Pentecostal Sermons: New Evidence from Nairobi, Kenya.” African Affairs 115, no. 458 (2016) 119–44. doi: 10.1093/afraf/adv056.

[2] Thomas Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 149-150.

[3] Cynthia Crysdale, Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today (New York: Continuum), 43-44.

[4] Ibid., 53-55.

The Power of Touch

I smiled to myself when I saw them.

It appeared to be an older sibling walking his younger sibling to his first day of school. As they passed by me, the expression of the older one communicated to me that the older sibling seemed .  .  . well .  .  . how shall I say it .  .  . uncomfortable. You see, the older sibling was holding the younger one’s hand. Despite the appearance of awkwardness, the older one was willing to hold the sibling’s hand, causing me to wonder if the little brother was afraid or anxious.

The power of touch.

An appropriate touch can calm the anxious soul. Communicate peace to the conflicted heart. Heal an inner wound. Provide comfort to the bereaved. Convey care to the hurting. Relate love to the outcast. Simply the holding of someone’s hand can be reassuring, stating wordlessly, “You are no longer alone and isolated. I am with you.”

Some of you who know me may be surprised that I would write about touch as it may seem out of character for me. After all, I am not a touchy-huggy-kind-of person. You may wonder, “What qualifies her to address the topic of touch?” Maybe that is precisely the reason I am writing about it: it is something on which I reflect and analyze due to the fact that I am a minimalist hugger.

For those of you who do not know me, I was raised in a family system that was not exactly the hugging type. When I speak of family system, I am referring to a system that is multi-generational, not simply one’s immediate family. As I consider my relatives, I cannot recollect a single one of them that I would label as The Hugger. I am of rather reserved German heritage with a Hutterite-Mennonite background; thus, part of who I am results from generations of relatives being less than the emotional and physical expressive types.

At the same time, I am fully aware of the healing power of touch. In an article published in January of 2017, the Harvard Health Publishing posted, “The Healing Power of Touch” in which it cites a number of studies that demonstrate how massage therapy assists in physically healing a person, such as in the recovery from surgery or an injury, in the amelioration of pain, and in the lessening of stress.[1]

Similarly, a colleague of mine told a story of attending a seminar in which the presenter requested a volunteer to join him on the platform. The audience observed the presenter holding this volunteer in an embrace until eventually the volunteer began to weep. Such a demonstration was utilized to illustrate the healing power of touch.

And yet . . . as healing as touch can be, it can also be wounding.

  • Ask Pat Baranowski, the former executive assistant to Pastor Bill Hybels. After the being sexually violated by Hybels, The NY Times reports that Baranowski eventually went from being high performing, capable executive assistant to a woman who struggled in maintaining a job, losing her condo, and suffering from panic attacks and physical difficulties.[2]
  • Inquire of the one who has experienced sexual abuse as a child, such as one of the 1000s of childhood sexual abuse survivors who were molested by any one of the 300 priests in Pennsylvania.
  • Invite a client to share her story of boundaries being violated by a counselor.
  • Talk to the 1 in 5 college women who were violated[3] or read the many stories in a Washington Post article of college students who experienced sexual assault, including college students of Christian schools.[4]

When touch becomes inappropriate, physical boundaries are violated, and wounds are inflicted.

Healing. Wounding. This is the power of touch.

As Christ-followers, it behooves us to be sensitive about the appropriateness of touch, particularly if we are desiring to be considerate of those who walk among us, be it a visitor or a long-time attendee. Behind that smile may be the wound or a scar of boundaries that were crossed. Of personal power having been usurped. Of the rules of a family system that had clear physical boundaries. Thus, in a day when inappropriate touch is in the news and an increase of individuals are surfacing around the world who have experienced the violation of said boundaries, it may be time to stress and/or examine a theology of touch. It may be time to ask ourselves, “When does touch heal and when does it wound?” For me, this includes an additional question, “Am I respecting and honoring the other’s will? Does my interaction with the other communicate honor toward the person’s being?”

I have experienced a variety of churches across the USA in my lifetime, and one quality seems to remain among Christ-followers who are huggers: They hold fast to the belief, “Everybody is to be a hugger.” Unfortunately, by their actions, and sometimes words, they force this belief on others, showing disregard for the other’s being and the other’s needs for respect, mutuality, honor, dignity, and equality. By asserting, “I am a hugger,” huggers have the tendency to violate the will and boundaries of strangers and friends alike by dishonoring and disrespecting the personal space of their intended targets.

Consider a person whose boundaries were violated in either a sexual or non-sexual manner in a relationship containing a power differential. Now consider huggers pushing their way past the clear fences that have been erected by the intended target. Instead of respect, the target is dishonored. Instead of exhibiting power with, huggers assert power over. When a hug is forced upon someone, her identity is subsumed while her power is being usurped. In essence, huggers extinguish the will and the individuality of the huggee. While they may intend to be a giving and healing agent, they are actually focusing on themselves and their own needs, and thereby communicating to the target, “You are to be like me. You are here to meet my needs.” In family systems theory, this signifies an unhealthy relationship of enmeshment that conveys, “We are to be the same. I need you to be like me in order for me to be comfortable. I need you to be a hugger like me because I cannot tolerate differences. My identity comes from your being like me.”

If we teach children about appropriate and inappropriate touch, is it time we instruct congregants and pastors on this as well? If we are to provide spaces of healing through relationships among congregants, then is it time develop a practical theology of touch that heals through respect?

Consider the following reflections with me.

  • If a church encourages people to greet one another in the congregation, is it only sufficient to express welcome and love through touching? May the elements of welcome and love be communicated without touching while respecting the other’s will?
  • If we are sitting with one who is crying, do we assume the person longs for a hug? Or is our desire to give a hug more about our uncomfortableness with the other’s tears than it is about us comforting a person? At times, when I am crying, I desire someone to embrace me; however, I have also experienced moments when I am crying that I do not want to be touched. Tears in the presence of the other means one is emotionally exposed, vulnerable. Security is of the utmost importance and to violate the other’s space during such vulnerability can hinder, if not abruptly terminate, the healing impact of tears. How many times has our own uncomfortableness with the other’s tears motivated us to hug someone, secretly hoping that the hug will heal—that is, the tears will stop? In such moments, we neglect the reality that tears have their own healing power, as “emotional tears also contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying.”[5]

As a Christ-follower, I am actually a member of a tradition that underscores touch. As you can imagine, belonging to such a group as a minimalist hugger elicits many opportunities for reflection on the relationship between touch and respect. Pentecostals have a practical theology of touch, meaning they demonstrate their theology through action. We may not openly discuss it in our services, but we believe in embodying our faith through touch.

  • People are frequently anointed with oil in prayers for healing.
  • People pray for one another by placing a hand on them and verbally offering up requests to God.

These types of practices demonstrate how touch is associated with faith in our circles.

We often note how Jesus Christ touched people and how people touched Jesus in order for healing to occur. Recall with me the woman with the issue of blood (Mk 5) who believed, “If only I touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Mark records:

“Jesus knew at once that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’”

It is evident that touch was an embodiment of faith, particularly when Jesus says to her:

“Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

I also suspect that there was something about Jesus that drew people to him, specifically those who were labeled as sinners or unclean. It would seem they trusted him, for why else would they spend time with him? These people were people who were unclean. Some were rejected and shamed so that they became accustomed to people avoiding them, such as the lepers or even the woman with the issue of blood. Yet, something about this One said, “He is one to be trusted.” His very presence, then, for these individuals fostered trust.

Yet, there is one more thing about Jesus: his embodiment of touch is healing.

Consider with me for a moment the theology of the hypostatic union in which Jesus Christ is completely divine and completely human. In the person of Jesus and in the theological construct of hypostasis, one could say that God touches humanity completely—embodying humanity—so that there is a relationship between the divine and humanity within the person of Jesus. That is to say, the divine relates to humanity in the very body of Jesus Christ. Touch cannot be more intimate than that! The divine is forever connected to humanity. This is the touch, this embodiment, that heals humanity. As Christ-followers we speak of the day when God will be all-in-all so that all of creation will be healed—that is, reconciled. We have a taste of this when Jesus is completely God while being completely human. This is a portrayal of healing through embodiment.

It is significant to note that while God longs for a relationship with humanity, Jesus does not violate human will by forcing his will on us. Instead, although Jesus reconciles all of humanity to God, Jesus is also one unique human; thus, he honors the will of other humans, respecting their individual choices. It would be my assertion, based on my last blog, that we are able to participate in Christ’s ministry through touch and also through non-touch while honoring the will of the other. We respect the other’s will by offering an opportunity to touch through such words of inquiry as:

  • Would a hug be helpful?
  • Would it be helpful if I held your hand?
  • Would it be appropriate if I prayed for you by touching you on the shoulder or hand?

Since we do not always know who walks among us who has been wounded by the inappropriate crossing of boundaries, we empower that person who may have been robbed of her power when we use the language of invitation. By respecting the will of the other, we are being healing agents through the power of the Spirit. We are trusting that if the other says “no” to being touched, he is saying “yes” to something else very vital to him, such as security. When we learn to invite and to embrace the possible difference of the other through our inquiry, we provide an opportunity for healing.

 

[1] “The Healing Power of Touch,” Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School, January 2017, https://www.health.harvard.edu/alternative-and-complementary-medicine/the-healing-power-of-touch.

[2] Laurie Goodstein, “He’s a Superstar Pastor. She Worked for Him and Says He Groped Her Repeatedly,” The New York Times, August 5, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/05/us/bill-hybels-willow-creek-pat-baranowski.html

[3] Nick Anderson and Scott Clement, “1 in 5 College Say They Were Violated,” The Washington Post, June 12, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/local/2015/06/12/1-in-5-women-say-they-were-violated/?utm_term=.601329cc7cfd.

[4] Nick Anderson, Emma Brown, Steve Hendrix, and Susan Svrluga, “Sexual Assault Survivors Tell Their Stories,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/local/sexual-assault/.

[5] Judith Orloff, “The Health Benefits of Tears,” Psychology Today, July 27, 2010, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/emotional-freedom/201007/the-health-benefits-tears.

[The above picture is provided by pixabay.com]

A Lesson from Souper Potatoes

My Dad loved Souper Potatoes!

“What are Souper Potatoes?” you say?

This is a little recipe I discovered a number of years ago that involves combining 5-6 partially cooked medium potatoes, grated (frozen hash browns if you prefer, but fresh potatoes make it creamier and tastier); 1 can of cream of chicken soup; 2 cups of sour cream; 2 cups of shredded Cheddar; and 2 Tbl. of minced onions and placing them in a buttered baking dish and baking them at 360 degrees F for about 45-60 minutes. For variations, you can include maple flavored sausage and/or sprinkle some crushed corn flakes on top. And my Dad would devour a huge portion of a pan in an attempt to fully assault his taste buds.

When my husband traveled to SD to spend a weekend with my Dad while I was pursuing my doctorate, Dad became excited (truly!!) about his son-in-law making Souper Potatoes. If you know my Dad, he tended to be a reserved man, keeping his feelings and thoughts to himself . . . unless he was hunting or playing a competitive game of Moon. This enthusiasm showed when my Dad, who only heated up food in the microwave (translation: he did not cook), started buying the ingredients in advance so my husband could begin making Souper Potatoes the instant he walked in the door. During the weekend, my husband churned out 2-3 big pans of the stuff and then froze them in individual packets for my Dad to eat for the next month.

On one weekend, my Dad declared to my husband that he wanted to help.

This created no small dilemma . . . It was evident to my husband that it would be easier if he did the task himself. After all, here was a man who did not know the difference between a rubber spatula and a plastic turnover (a colloquial distinction made in the region) . . .  a man who did not abide by the axiom “cleanliness is next to godliness” . . . What was he to do? How could this son-in-law provide a way for his elderly father-in-law to participate in the making of the dearly loved and revered recipe for Souper Potatoes? How could he communicate his care and love for his wife’s 80-something-year-old father through participation? This necessitated his son-in-law to be quick on his feet as he needed a plan in the next few seconds. My Dad’s task? Stir the ingredients until they were thoroughly mixed. And, let me tell you . . . my Dad did it with great gusto! He no longer was sitting idly by and watching someone else do all the work. He was participating with his son-in-law in making something that my father loved to eat. On top of that, Dad took it upon himself to fulfill the role of cheerleader . . . pushing his son-in-law to work faster and faster and faster! You see, Dad lived by the philosophy: There IS a reward for speed. And he decided it was his duty to instill this philosophy in my husband . . . at least when it came to making Souper Potatoes.

Many of us have been placed in similar situations in which my husband found himself that day.

Sometimes we are assigned to complete a school assignment in a group, an assignment we may find much easier to tackle on our own. Or maybe your boss insists that you train an assistant and use a certain project as training ground. Or maybe a friend wants to return a favor and offers to assist you on a task that you had planned to do by yourself. If you have children or grandchildren, you may be in the middle of a job when you hear a little voice, “I wanna help.” No matter the scenario, the thought flashes through your mind, “It would be so much easier to do it myself.” In a nanosecond you sense the tension: efficiency vs. relationship.

 That is what it boils down to, isn’t it? Efficiency vs. relationship? Time vs. presence? The task vs. the other?

In a time-oriented culture, it is challenging for us to choose relationship over easy. The person over the project. And yet, that is what participation does . . . participation communicates value . . . significance . . . love.

As a Christ-follower who is also ordained, I struggle with the emphasis that is placed on getting results in ministry.

That is, I frequently experience my tradition as stressing outcomes. This became apparent to me in attending my denomination’s national meetings a number of years ago. I sat through one seminar that informed me that the minister needs to pray for a revival—that is how your church will grow. Another seminar instructed me: it is all about preaching—your church will increase when it has good preaching. And still a third seminar told me that it boils down to leadership—you have to be a good leader! I remember my head just spinning as three “successful” pastors, whose churches had increased in numbers, advised me to use three distinct methods on how their churches multiplied. What were my husband and I to do? I remember sharing this dilemma with another, much wiser, minister who said, “This is simply what these three pastors happened to be doing when the Holy Spirit moved in their churches.”

And the light bulb came on.

A number of years later I came to understand this theologically as participation.

Approximately, ten years ago, I took a class during my Master’s program, which was taught by pentecostal Graham Buxton, called “Participation in the Ministry of Christ.” Since that intense week-long class, this concept has continued to simmer within me, which has enabled the rich taste of this theology to be savored. If the truth be told, I have needed this time for the deep essence of such a rich theological concept to be fully relished. I confess that I have in the past settled for the wearisome flavors of my culture’s emphases on pragmatics, outcomes, and speed to dictate my appetite. But I did not find these flavors to be robust in nature, and instead they fell short of generating satisfaction within my being. While they drove me to consume them, they were like empty calories from a fast-food restaurant in that while they may be appealing initially, they failed to create a long-lasting fulfillment.

I discovered that as I began to drink of this full-bodied theological concept of participation, I experienced freedom, strength, and joy that was accompanied by a deep longing for more. It is an interesting blend of fulfillment and longing. It is like being satisfied while wanting more. Maybe a more appropriate way to say it is: because it fully satisfies, it generates a zest for more.

Participation’s basic foundation is summarized in the words of Ray Anderson:

All ministry is God’s ministry.

Throughout the scriptures we observe God ministering to humanity. We see it in Genesis 3:21 as God gives clothes to Adam and Eve. We observe it later in Genesis when God chooses Abram and eventually informs him that he is to be called Abraham who will be the father of many nations. From the seed of this man comes a nation, Israel, who is called upon to minister to the world. In essence, this is how we know God: through God’s acts of ministry. In the Hebrew scriptures, God ministers to the world through Israel, and it is through these acts of ministry, which both reveal God and reconcile the world to God, that we know who God is. In the New Testament, particularly the Gospel of John, we see that God continues to minister to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. John 3:16 is clear: God loves the world, so God gives the Son to minister to the world. After the Son ascends to the Father, the Spirit is sent and continues the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world. This ministry involves the Spirit grieving and groaning with all creation as creation longs for the day when God will be all in all, and all will be reconciled to God.

The point is: God instigates ministry to the world, not humanity.

Humans would not know God unless God ministered to us; thus, the very idea of ministry is God’s, which is why Anderson says that all ministry is God’s ministry.

In many ways, participation is about relationship, not outcome.

God could minister to the world through only God’s self, which is particularly seen in the person of Jesus Christ. God is all powerful and all knowing; therefore, God does not need humans. God is a relational god who is complete relationally in God’s self. The concept of the perichoresis bears this out.

The perichoresis emphasizes both the unity and the diversity of the triune Godhead. God is one while also being three distinct persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; thus, God is both one and three. This unity and diversity reveal the relationality of the triune Godhead and reminds us that one cannot explain the Trinity as a solitary subject neither can one refer to it as three divine persons. Instead, as Jürgen Moltmann points out, the Three dwell in each other, and each one shares one’s personhood, consciousness, and will with the others; this sharing also forms their shared nature, consciousness, and will.[1] Miroslov Volf explains, “The one divine person is not only itself, but rather carries within itself also the other divine persons, and only in this indwelling of the other persons within it is it the person it really is. . . . In a certain sense, each divine person is the other persons, though is such in its own way . . . .”[2] Now, God desires humans to participate in this relational love, and to this end, God is ministering to the world in the power of the Spirit. Buxton comments that since Christians are participating in this life, they are invited to join the “Father, Son, and Spirit [who are] united in their longing to see all humanity forever caught up in the joy of divine love.”[3] We are invited to participate with the three-in-one in their ministry in the world, “dancing with God in a world that has lost its way.”[4] God’s relational love for humanity, then, includes humanity participating with God in the ministry to the world.

Participation is about the relationship.

The contrast of participation being about the relationship, not the project, may be recognized in the type of slogan around which my tradition rallied. The slogan was: ‘Til He Comes. The teaching was that Jesus will not return until every nation and tribe had heard the Gospel; thus, we must hurry to proclaim the Gospel to every living creature so that we can speed up Jesus’ return. Translation: It is up to us. Did you notice how this centers on project, outcome, and pragmatics? Under this understanding all ministry becomes human ministry. It is as if Jesus ascended and sent the Spirit to us and said, “Okay. It is up to you. Time is of the essence.” This means, Jesus is waiting until we complete the assignment at hand and then, and only then, will he return. So, we work and work and work, trying to accomplish this task that we have been assigned.

Participation, however, is about relationship.

Because the triune God longs for relationship with humanity, God’s Spirit is already moving in the world, ministering to the world. What does this mean for Christ-followers? It means inquiring: What is the Spirit doing and how can I participate in it? It means, I am not alone, but I am working alongside the Spirit who is already ministering to the world that God loves. In Anderson’s words, God’s ministry “precedes and determines the church.”[5] My purpose moves from solely focused on what I am to do well so that I get results to knowing Christ who is ministering in the world through the power and presence of the Spirit and joining in that ministry.

In short, it is not all about me; it is all about Christ.

Holy Spirit, help me to see how you are already ministering to those around me and in me so that I may join you, partaking through ministry in your relational love.

 

 

[1] Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology:  Ways and Forms of Christian Theology, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2000), 322.

[2] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), 209.

[3] Graham Buxton, Dancing in the Dark: The Privilege of Participating in the Ministry of Christ (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2001), 20.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), 62.

Worship & nonViolence

I don’t remember how she found us. We were living in a large city. She was a complete stranger to us, but there she was at our door. She was bright, articulate, had a great job, and knew more than one language . . .

And her husband was physically and emotionally abusing her.

I remember feeling helpless as she described her situation. It was as if she had been trapped, literally, by her husband. I doubt that she married him with the belief that “Hey, I’m going to marry this guy even though he is going to abuse me.” In other words, domestic violence is not planned. As those who experience domestic abuse may tell you, it does not simply occur with those who are poor or of a certain race. It is no respecter of persons. No matter one’s education, occupation, social status, race, ethnicity, income, religion, and not even being of a certain gender eliminates the possibility of experiencing domestic violence. None of these characteristics is an inoculation preventing domestic violence . . . not even being a follower of Jesus Christ or being in full-time Christian ministry.

To be honest, I have no idea what happened to that woman. I regret that on that day, I simply heard this woman’s story prior to her drifting away into the throngs of people, but on this day, as a Christ-follower, a Pentecostal, and a minister, I want to address this difficult but real subject.

You see, she was not the only woman I have met who has experienced domestic violence, be it emotional and/or physical. Except for this aforementioned woman (of whom I do not know well enough to say), all of them have been Christ-followers. In one of our places of ministry, we followed a minister whose wife had called the police due to domestic violence but later dropped the charges. In other locations, a couple of women indicated that they did not realize they were experiencing domestic violence until they had stumbled upon stories or research in which they saw their own reflection.

Concerning the latter, these women’s experiences, from what I have read, were not the exception. I actually think it is common for many humans to believe, “Bad stuff just won’t happen to me,” which is argued in Ronnie Janoff-Bulman’s theory on shattered assumptions. When “stuff” begins to happen, we may tell ourselves a particular story to protect ourselves and/or avoid a contrasting, albeit more painful, reality. Then one day, the story, in which we worked so hard to find shelter, is shattered. Somehow . . . some way… we come in contact with an alternate story that forces us to see our lives through another lens, and . . . well . . . the story fits. While we may initially be shocked, saying, “No, it cannot be,” we find ourselves strangely drawn to this other view. The more we study it, the more we clearly see, “This describes me.”

Such an experience may occur in little or large ways in our lives. For instance, if you are a minister, your story about domestic violence may be, “Domestic violence does not transpire in my church,” or “It’s her own fault for not leaving.” The first story is similar to, “Bad stuff won’t happen to me,” which is an assumption about one’s own world that says, “It does not happen in my world”— that is, the church world. The second story is residual of a just world theory, which was proposed by Melvin Lerner. It holds that “When people do bad, bad stuff happens; when people do good, good stuff happens.” One version of this philosophy is how we criticize victims (be it sexual assault, domestic violence, loss, various traumas, etc). We think (implicitly or explicitly) that it was something the other person did that contributed to the assault, violence, loss, trauma, etc. Christ-followers, we are guilty of this when we say, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Translation: it’s her own fault for staying. Or when women hear, “You are sinning against your husband. If you would be kind to him and submit to him . . .” And . . . Yes . . . ministers still say these things . . . Just talk to a domestic abuse survivor in the church.

The situations of domestic violence are incredibly complicated.

In some cases, the woman has no money—she must leave with only the clothes on her back. How many of us would have the courage to do that? Others may have a little bit, but it is not enough on which they can live. Who will take them into their home? Fortunately, I have known some women who have said, “My friends have offered to help me.” Still others fear the stigma of divorce that exists in the church, which may generate for the woman shame and guilt for even thinking of such an option (see Domestic Abuse in the Church a ‘Silent Epidemic’).

Unfortunately, domestic violence may end . . . tragically. Leslie Morgan Steiner in her TED Talk says that the final act of violence for many women is death (see Why Domestic Violence Victims Don’t Leave). We do not like to think about that, do we? We prefer to believe that law enforcement or will programs protect the victims—another story we may tell ourselves to keep our world safe; the reality is: only so much can be done by these agencies.

If you are a minister, how often do your congregants hear about domestic violence?

Would you believe a congregant who told you, “I am experiencing domestic abuse”? In a study conducted by LifeWay in 2014 a survey of 1000 ministers, 42% rarely or never spoke through sermons or large group messages about domestic violence (see “Pastors Seldom Preach about Domestic Violence”). LifeWay published results of another study in February of 2017, which was conducted in 2016 of a survey of 1000 ministers. (see “Good Intentions, Lack of Plans, Mark Church Response to Domestic Violence”). The article notes the following: 47% of the ministers stated that they are not aware of domestic violence in their church, and 15% say there is no one who is a victim of domestic violence in their congregation while 37% say that one of their congregants has been a victim of domestic violence. As a Pentecostal, I was particularly interested in the following statement in the article:

“Lutheran (70 percent), Methodist (63 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed pastors (62 percent) are most likely to believe domestic violence took place if a church member files for divorce and cites domestic violence as a cause. Baptist (49 percent) and Pentecostal (40 percent) pastors are less likely.”

At the same time, 87% of all the ministers surveyed strongly agreed with the statement, “a person experiencing domestic violence would find our church to be a safe haven.” The contrasting messages become apparent when one survivor is quoted in the article telling of how her church had to investigate to see if her report of domestic abuse was true. The issue is: the victim often does not have time to be investigated—the person needs help now. Besides, as the article stated, investigations place the survivor at more risk.

It saddens me that ministers of my tradition are more than likely to not believe the survivor. What does such disbelief communicate to the victim? My voice is not respected? My voice is not equal to the other? Does it point to our preferred assumption about the world, “Bad stuff does not happen in my world—my church”? For me, this communicates our theology. If we do not believe the survivor, are we communicating something about God? In the same way that God’s act of ministry of sending the Son conveyed God’s love, we need to ask, “What are we teaching about God through our own acts of ministry?”

As I ponder this, I turn to a biblical story of an act of ministry that defied the culture of the day, and in so doing, it says something powerfully about God to us as well as our own acts of ministry.

The account of which I am referring is in John 4 where Jesus is having a conversation with a Samaritan. This conversation is enlightening, particularly when one considers where John chooses to place it in his Gospel and when one understands, as Thomas Torrance asserts in Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, that both chapters 2 and 4 reveal Jesus Christ as the Temple. In chapter 2, we read of Jesus’ cleansing the Temple. This cleansing occurs after the writer informs us, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (1:14) and after John the Baptist announces, “Look, the Lamb of God” (1:36). As Melissa Archer notes in a paper presented at the Society for Pentecostal Studies in 2017, just as God’s glory was in the tabernacle, so it is now in Jesus—he is the Temple. He also is the spotless Lamb so that unlike this Temple, he does not need to be cleansed. Since he is the Temple, no one will be hindered from worshiping God—no matter one’s race, ethnicity, or gender— an issue that John seems to continue to press in this conversation at a well in Samaria in the middle of the day.

We are first confronted with Jesus’ challenging of the culture in verse 4 with the phrase, “But he had to pass through Samaria,” indicating the unlikelihood of a Jew passing through Samaria. As scholars note, Jews often chose to travel around Samaria, up through the Transjordan in order to avoid contact with Samaritans.[1] The Samaritans descended from a remnant of Israelites who remained after the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C., who thereby married foreigners who had been brought to the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrian rulers; hence, there was an antagonistic relationship between the Jews and the “half-breeds,” the Samaritans. It seems that the phrasing “had to pass through,” then, implies that God is calling Jesus to go through this undesirable region.

Pentecostal Rodolfo Galvan Estrada, III helps contemporary readers grasp the undesirableness of this region in his paper presented at Society for Pentecostal Studies in 2017, “John 4:23–24: The Spirit and Ethnoracial Tension in Worship.” Estrada writes of the history of violence between these two groups. This violence particularly surfaces in verse 20:

“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you people say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.

For Estrada, the words of the Samaritan woman portray “a memory of violence” and point to the trauma “that Jesus’ Jewish ancestors had inflicted upon her community” in 128 BC when a Jewish priest burned the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim in retaliation for the Samaritans supporting the Syrians in the war against the Jews in the 2nd century BC.[2] Estrada writes of this conversation:

“Jesus is urging Jewish and Samaritan communities to understand that worship in the Spirit is primarily characterized by the rejection of violence and anti–social behavior that their mountains have symbolized and ethnic relations fostered.”

In other words, true worship, worship in the Spirit, rejects any kind of violence.

While not all victims of domestic violence are women (1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner; see National Coalition Against Domestic Violence), domestic violence, or violence of any kind, points towards asserting power over the other. This is unlike Jesus who does not exert power over humanity but demonstrates that the divine is with humanity, as seen in the hypostatic union in the person of Jesus; thus, by the divine becoming human, humanity is lifted up into the divine life.

Not only is this evidenced in the hypostatic union, we see this through Jesus’ own act of ministry to the Samaritan woman as mutuality is displayed. It is apparent in this chapter that both Samaritans and women have experienced others exercising power over them. Pentecostal Craig Keener notes that Jesus not only breaks a moral boundary but he also crosses gender and socioeconomic boundaries.[3] This is indicated in verse 9 by the woman’s words after Jesus asks her for a drink:

How can you—a Jew–ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water to drink?”

It is also seen in verse 27:

“Now at that very moment his disciples came back. They were shocked because he was speaking with a woman.”

A woman!?!?!

Keener explains, “Jewish men were to avoid unnecessary conversation with women,” and such behavior was “unbecoming for a scholar.”[4]

And . . . she is not just any woman but a Samaritan!?!?!

It has been suggested that Samaritan women were identified by the Jews to be “menstruants from their cradle” in Niddah 4.1.[5]  As J. Ramsey Michaels notes, this implies that they were always perceived to be unclean.[6] However, uncleanliness is not a concern for the divine-human one. As the divine Temple, there is no need to be concerned about being defiled by the unclean (such as were other priests or religious leaders; see 4:9;18:28) because Jesus cleanses others as the Lamb of God and is the Temple that does not need to be cleansed. He is the presence of God. The Fourth Gospel emphasizes in this chapter that in Jesus—the Tabernacle—the boundaries that are in play concerning who and where people may worship God are absent. The exertion of power over is not present in God’s presence. In essence, there is no violence in true worship that is done in spirit and in truth . . . worship that is done with our whole being  . . . in all we say and do, not just on Sunday morning with other congregants. Can this be said among our congregants? In our sacred spaces of our relationships?

Today, may I be one to participate in Christ’s ministry of mutuality, of respect, of dignity, of protection, of safety, of kindness . . . saying “No” to domestic violence and sexual violence no matter what history has practiced, be it in the culture or in the church. May I worship in spirit and truth with my whole being, living out the coming of your kingdom, . . . right here  . . . on the earth . . . as it is in heaven.

 

[1] See W. Hall, Harris III, “John,” in NET Bible®, First Edition Notes, edited by W. Hall Harris, III, et al. Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies, 1996–2005. CD-ROM, John 4:4, n 7; Gary Burge, The NIV Application Commentary: John, The NIV Application Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 140. Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel According to John, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 1997), 153, 72.

[2] W. Hall Harris III, “John,” in NET Bible®, First Edition Notes, edited by W. Hall Harris III et al. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies, 1996–2005), CD-ROM, fn8.

[3] Keener, Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003, 585.

[4] Ibid., 596.

[5] Niddah,” Come and Hear, http://www.come-and-hear.com/niddah/niddah_31.html#31b_45 (accessed April 26, 2013).

[6] J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, edited by Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 2010), 239-40, n. 35.

The photo is provided by Pixabay

 

One of These Things is not Like the Other

Which one are you?

You walk into your favorite restaurant, and you sit down at a table. The server hands you a menu, and after studying the menu carefully, you: A) order the same thing as last time, or B) order something different?

Recently, my husband and I went to a Thai restaurant. I am not a prophet nor a daughter of one, but I could predict that my husband would order chicken satay for an appetizer. That’s right . . . He belongs to group A. When I asked him his reasoning, he said, “I don’t like risk.” In other words, there are no questions or uncertainty but instead predictability and stability. Now, I confess, I usually gravitate towards group B. You know . . . the one who says, “Choose something different, Pam. You only live once. So . . . go ahead . . .  live a little . . . even if it is only selecting a new item off the menu. Live dangerously!” Of course, this has its own hurdles. I find myself time and time again paralyzed by choice. If I say “yes” to one thing, then that means I am saying “no” to something else. Oh, what to do? What to do? On this particular day, would you believe that while my husband was predictable by ordering the same appetizer, I, too, was predictable when I ordered my main course?  It’s true. You see, when I go to a Thai restaurant, I cannot seem to order anything but curry. Oh, I get tempted by ginger chicken or something like spicy Thai basil chicken, but in the end, I end up with curry. I may change it up a little: Beef for chicken. Red curry for green. But my ultimate favorite is panang curry, and if it appears on the menu, I am like a moth to flame: I cannot say “no.”

Oh, how we gravitate toward the familiar. We like it. It is comfortable. It is safe. Cozy. Secure. Like a newborn being held by Mom, we like the security sameness brings. An infant believes, “Mom and I are one. Mom is an extension of me,” as Margaret Mahler’s theory holds. This is security at its finest. It is not until after five months or so that baby begins to realize, “Hey, you are different from me! You take a shower and leave me in my crib. I wake up, and you are not there.” Such a realization brings tears. Anxiety. A lack of security. This separation, or difference, is not safe. Yet . . . it is through difference that we learn, “I am not you. You are not me.” It is through difference that we learn who we are.

Consider, for instance, mathematics. Remember as a kid being presented with four objects and being told to identify which one of these is not like the other? Remember that little ditty from Sesame Street?

                                                 One of these things is not like the other.

                                                 One of these things doesn’t belong.

                                                 Can you tell which thing is not like the others

                                                 By the time I finish this song?

Difference, then, becomes an important part of our human development by teaching us to say: I am me. You are you. You are not me. I am not you.

But somewhere along the line, we come to believe that difference means less than. How this happens, I am not sure. After all, when we study mathematics, what does the following equation communicate:  A ≠ B, C, nor D? It simply says that A is not equal to B or C or D. It does not say, A is less than B, C, or D. When ≠ is used, it does not mean: A < B; A < C; or A < D. Simply put: ≠ is not the same as <.

In spite of the rule of mathematics, we still have this human tendency to believe that ≠ is the same as <. Let us be honest with ourselves: human history repeatedly plays this out, and we do not need to look very far into our history to observe it. If there is a different race or ethnicity, the race or ethnicity with power has oppressed the other. Unfortunately, if the one who has been oppressed is able to gain the position of power, the oppressed usually becomes the oppressor. And the pattern tragically continues. The difference may be in age groups, such as the young and strong dominating the children and the elderly. It may be a difference between genders. It is no secret that the subjugation of gender and of children continues today as human trafficking remains a real issue. In American suburbia, women and children are being used as human slaves, including for labor or for sex.

Too often, the merely different becomes the less than, the voiceless.

As I reflected on the idea of difference, my mind was drawn to that of being a child once again. While we sang “which one of these things is not like the other,” at some point we embraced another song “difference is equal to less than.” Many of us as adults recall our own stories of when difference was equated to less than. Maybe we were the child who was different, the less than. And just maybe we were the child with the power, the greater than. A girl’s clothes were deemed not the latest fashion. A boy was seen as not the fastest or the strongest. A girl was labeled as not thin enough. The boy was considered not bright enough. Her skin was a different color. His religion was unfamiliar. A child’s grades may be too high, or a child’s grades may be too low. It was as if there was a dance, but the steps to the dance were unclear. Only those with the power seemed to know the dance steps for the day. Thus, on any given day, a child may remain clueless as to why his or her uniqueness was seen as . . . less than.

How this evolves, I am not sure. It could be our natural aversion to uncertainty and our longing to be secure. I mean, experiencing something different is risky, and if we have an aversion to risk, then we are more likely to opt for predictability. According to attachment theory, we are hard-wired for a desire for a secure base; thus, uncertainty presents a certain amount of anxiety, generating a longing for security. Perhaps we seek to gain that security by asserting our power over those who are different, becoming the greater than.

Difference does not need to engender a power differential. It can be utilized to create power with. Consider my previous blog on empathy in which sympathy sees us as the same, but empathy views both the similarities and differences. Difference, then, is included in the means to encourage the other through the expression of empathy; it is part of the vehicle to empower the other through validation and communication that “You matter.”

If you are a Christ-follower as I am, difference is repeatedly seen in Scripture and in our theology.

Consider 1 Corinthians 12:14-18:

For in fact the body is not a single member, but many. If the foot says, “Since I am not a hand, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. And if the ear says, “Since I am not an eye, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. If the whole body were an eye, what part would do the hearing? If the whole were an ear, what part would exercise the sense of smell? But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decided.

It is here we see that the body of Christ has different members, and the beauty is found in the differences.

In the Gospel of John, difference is utilized as a literary device. There are two individuals with encounters with Jesus in chapters 3 and 4.

Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Judea Samaria
Man Woman
Jew Samaritan
Night Mid-day
Pharisee, ruling member of Sanhedrin Married 5x, living with a man
  Messiah revealed

Here the Gospel writer uses two stories, inviting us to pay attention to the details by way of difference. Two religious conversations, yet different. Interestingly, the one we might naturally view as less than (the Samaritan woman) is the very one to whom Jesus reveals he is the Messiah and is the one who is used via her testimony to cause others to come and see Jesus.

The Gospel itself embodies difference. It is the Good News of God, who is not us, embracing humanity by becoming human while still remaining God. That is, God walks among humanity as the person Jesus Christ, the one who is the human-divine one. Jesus Christ, then, becomes an expression of God’s empathy: embracing difference and similarity.

Theologically, orthodox Christianity holds to the doctrine of a triune Godhead, in which the Trinity consists of homogeneity and diversity; thus, we could say that when we embrace the differences of the each other in the catholic church (the whole body of Christ), we are reflecting the imago Dei. We are reflecting the beauty in difference.

So, my invitation to us is: May we resist the pull of our culture that says difference = less than. Instead, today, may we see how we may participate in the ministry of Jesus Christ through the presence and power of the Spirit by embracing difference, seeing its beauty.

Oh, and in case you were wondering . . . I ordered the panang curry.

The Unmapped Experience: An Escort to Empathy

It was . . . to say the least . . . a difficult experience.

Not one we had been prepared to have . . . after all, who thoroughly plans for these difficulties? And yet . . . such an experience significantly altered us, putting us on a new trajectory. Maybe it was like we were on this journey through a wilderness with a map. We trusted the map. In fact, it was someone we trusted who gave us the map. We had been told, “This is a good map.” We spoke with others who had followed similar maps, and they had informed us of their experiences, which provided us with a few little rules, or maybe axioms, of the journey    . . . you know, like things to do . . . things not do . . . bits of wisdom. In other words, the patterns of their journey informed our journey, generating some expectations.

So with a map in hand and feeling confident with a sense of purpose, we plunged into the wilderness. We were excited. We were tenacious, particularly at first. Granted, the wilderness was not quite how we had envisioned. After all, a map can only give us so much, right? It wasn’t until we were in it that we saw what the map left unsaid. The hills were little more treacherous than we had imagined. The caverns were a little deeper. There were some sizeable boulders that obstructed the path. Some large timbers that had fallen in front of us. This was to be expected, we said to ourselves. So . . . despite the harsh terrain, we still trusted the map because we trusted the one who gave us the map. We remained determined, and we continued . . . we followed the map.

Now, on this journey, we had some ideas of what we would see . . . you know . . . some expectations. We all have them when we take a trip. Others had told us their stories of similar journeys. They said, “Now, make sure you see this!” “Oh, you must take the time to see that!” “If you take this alternate route, then you will see this.” Thus, there were some things we expected to see along the way. As it would happen, some of those things we just did not have the opportunity to see. At times, the item was just a little too far off course. During other times, our progress on the journey was slower than we had imagined it would be. The terrain was a little more arduous, so we were forced to slow down, hindering our ability to complete all we had planned. Of course, this was a little disheartening. But . . . still . . . we forged ahead.

We had people supporting us, cheering us on. They had expectations for us, too. And well . . . who wants to disappoint others? Don’t forget the one who gave us the map . . . Certainly, he must have had expectations for us. After all, he chose to give us this map. These thoughts pushed us. Besides, many needs were being met through the map. Security. Respect. Approval. Acceptance. Fulfillment. Purpose. Contribution. Guidance. Direction. To matter. Meaning. Identity. Add to those needs the support, the encouragement, and the expectations. They all played a part in our perseverance to remain on this journey.

Then . . . maybe on a day when we least expected it . . . the map disintegrated . . . or for whatever reason, the map was no longer accurate. The journey had not only been disrupted, but it had ceased. Life, as we knew it, would be forever changed. It did not continue according to the map. Amidst all this, we found ourselves unprepared. This was not how we had envisioned our journey through the wilderness with what we had considered to be a reliable map in hand. This was not how it was supposed to be.

Without a map . . . well . . . we were lost. We had entered into unmapped territory.

Unmapped territories.

They can take so many forms. We do not enter a marriage saying, “Oh, this will end in divorce,” or “This relationship will contain domestic abuse.” We do not throw ourselves into a career thinking, “I will file for bankruptcy in five years.” And we certainly do not love someone with the plan that person will die a premature death. It isn’t like we set out for these things to happen, right? Maybe we believed in the American dream. Maybe we held implicitly to the belief, “If I live right, life will be good to me.” Maybe we unconsciously thought, “Bad stuff happens . . . but to others.” We just did not think it would happen to us.

For me, I believed in a God who gave me the map. I trusted God. I trusted the map. And I even saw God as the Creator of my map. Since it’s God, then how can it go awry? But one day . . . the map was gone. I was angry with the Creator and angry with me. Who wouldn’t be? I had invested my whole being in the Creator’s map. Had God abandoned me? Had I failed God? I had obeyed. I had trusted. Now . . . here I was in the wilderness without a map. What kind of deal was that? I was quite disoriented. Very little was familiar, and this infuriated me.

What about my supporters? You know . . . those who were encouraging me on my journey? We all have them. Well . . . I did not experience most of them venturing into the wilderness to find me. They knew I had disappeared in the wilderness, but many did not seek me out. Of course, I was quite ashamed for being so lost. And those who did venture into the wilderness to find me . . . well . . . I did not find many of them to be very helpful.

There was one. He spoke with me right after the map dissolved, but that was when the impact of my new reality had not yet sunk into my being. When he heard the story, he said one of the most helpful things that served as somewhat of a signpost in my lostness. It was sorta like a you-are-here sign: I was still lost, but I knew where I was . . . here. Where was here? The friend said, “It sounds like you are experiencing the death of a dream.”

The death of a dream.

Such a death had not been on my map. This death left me out in the wilderness, not on the other side of it. I was lost.

Okay. I now knew I was here, but this was still unmapped territory for me. Later, another supporter informed me that it takes an average of three to five years to mourn the death of a dream. In some ways, this information provided me with a cursory map beyond the you-are-here signpost. Yet, it was cursory, which meant it did not take me out of my wilderness. I remained lost.

This experience was a number of years ago now, but it changed me, and it continues to have its impact.

I am reminded of how I have heard it said by more than one individual, “Now that so-and-so (family member) has died, I now get it when others lose a loved one.” Some individuals have even apologized for their failure to be present with others during their grief. I can imagine this could be said of many of us about our own unmapped experiences. Journeying into unmapped territories changes us positively, or even negatively. As others besides myself have discovered, these unmapped experiences can open our eyes to be present to others in ways that we had not been previously, particularly through the power of empathy.

As a Christ-follower, I suspect that the triune Godhead has understood this. While I have stated elsewhere that I believe Jesus is God’s embodied expression of empathy, I also see in the Hebrew scriptures where God calls a nation to allow their unmapped experiences to lead to empathy for others. In providing commands to the Israelites on how to live, we read in Exodus 23:9:

You must not oppress a foreigner, since you know the life of a foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.

This is not the only time God instructs the Israelites to draw from their own unmapped experience as a foreigner, so to speak. Similar commands appear in Leviticus (e.g., 19:33-34) and Deuteronomy (e.g., 10:19). In Deuteronomy they are repeatedly reminded in various ways, “Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt; therefore, I am commanding you to do all this” (e.g., Deut 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22). God, then, reminds the Israelites to draw from their unmapped experiences of being slaves in the land of Egypt.

For me, this is empathy. I define empathy as including,

both cognitive and affective aspects in that it involves a skill as well as one’s emotions in which a caregiver identifies within herself similar feelings and experiences to the one receiving care but separates her feelings and experiences as being different from the carereceiver’s.

Empathy, then, involves both similar feelings, needs, or experiences and uses them to help identify with the carereceiver while recognizing that my feelings, needs, or experiences are not exactly what the other is experiencing. It is as if someone is drowning, and I am reaching out to help them by standing with one foot on the shore and one foot in the water so that I am simultaneously in the water but not in the water.

In the Israelites’ unmapped experience, they had lost their freedom. Now, since they were liberated from that experience, God is, in essence, instructing them to empathize with others who are currently foreigners in their midst. For me, this is a description of empathy because I see the presence of both similarities and differences.

  1. They share the similar experience of living in a different culture, being an outsider. The Israelites are being invited to reflect upon their experience in order to feel with those who are having the experience of living as strangers or aliens among them. The notes for Exodus 23:9 in the NET Bible speak of the word “life” as being “soul, life,” and it could be translated, “You know what it feels like.”
  2. They are commanded to feel with those who are different from them. Just by the mere fact that the word “foreigner” is used, it means they are not the same as the Israelites. Of course, sameness is attractive, and maybe God understood this, which is why we see God appealing to their unmapped experience and calling them to empathize. Let’s face it: humans like sameness. It is easy. Differences, however, are another story. They are harder. I think it is a human tendency to fear difference, which can result in wanting to rule over the difference or make it more like us. This means, it takes work to overcome that fear and to empathize. However, differences can produce incredible fruit in that we can be enriched and transformed.

How does this play out for you and me?

Maybe you are presently journeying through an unmapped experience. I may be tempted to say, “We are the same,” but in that moment, I am no longer empathizing but sympathizing. I am being pulled into my experience without considering you and your experience. That is, I begin to drown with you. I am trying to pull you into my experience and make it more like mine.

OR

I can say, “I have experienced loss, but I have not experienced your loss.” I can tap into my experience of loss to help bring limited understanding to what you may be experiencing. Simultaneously, I am recognizing your feelings, needs, and experience of loss are not mine; thus, I am attempting to listen to you and hear what feelings, needs, and experiences you are having inside your loss. Such an effort enables me to feel with you in a limited way while honoring your experience. My unmapped experience, then, becomes my escort to empathy as I join alongside you in your journey in an unmapped territory.

Holy Spirit, today may I participate in what you are doing in the lives of others who are in their own unmapped experiences. May I allow you to use my unmapped experience as my escort to empathy, embracing difference while fostering healing.