Stepping Into New Ministry Methods

This week, the widespread news of the arrest of Pastor James Coates of Edmonton, Alberta, for continuing to hold full church services against public health regulations, has had us all sitting up and thinking.

At the same point in time, like vectors intersecting, my own pastor found himself arrived at 1 Peter 2:13-17.

It made me ask this: What are we doing?

In an interview with Justin Peters, Erin Coates (wife of James Coates) said that the spiralling needs around them during shutdown caused them to re-evaluate what the nature of life-preserving and life-saving ministry has to be. I wholeheartedly agree, both with her concerns and with my own pastor’s teaching. The question of how to save lives is serious and immediate. At the same time, we can’t do lifesaving work by appointing ourselves as above and beyond the people around us. The Christian calling is consistently one of servant-leadership.

As I put it all together in my mind, I wondered: What opportunities have we missed? How can we provide lifesaving measures while also providing the example of being willing to live alongside a messed-up world and show love and respect to the people in it? What if we’d started constantly, actively collaborating through our democracy’s mechanisms of communication a year ago?

The year is gone, but it seems this will be ongoing, and we might be wise to settle into a ministry pattern of innovation. Permissions have been obtained through interacting both positively and negatively with authorities; at the time of this writing, one wonders whether those interactions have been vigourous enough, since worship services are currently constrained to 10% capacity while other gathering places with higher risk factors (gyms, yoga studios) are at 25%. (Link)

With all of this in mind, I’d like to encourage the churches to get noisy. Not necessarily in a public way, but in the old-fashioned way. I was raised by a social activist. She taught me that a handwritten letter carries more weight than any other communication form, back in the day, because it takes the most time and care. If you can put pen to paper legibly, please do so. Express your concerns and convictions. Express your doubts. So many of us are only talking to each other, only posting memes on social media to vent frustration.

What goes in a letter to a government official?

  • Their correct title (always show the respect of knowing to whom you’re writing)
  • A greeting which gives thanks for something about the way they’re fulfilling their role (show honour to the official, whether or not you personally like them or their job or its results)
  • A clear statement of the concern about which you’re writing. The more specific — not detailed, but specific and data-oriented — the better
  • A suggestion for remedying the concern that uses concrete data (example: “In Christian worship services, singing is generally limited to three songs of no more than 4 minutes in length; gym users are also engaging in deeper breathing, generally for longer than 12 minutes in total, and yet gym capacities are currently higher than places of worship. Please consider allowing religious singing to have an equivalency to gym use, as it provides physiological and psychological benefits to those who may not be able to exercise more vigourously”)
  • A statement of support or conviction about our mandate to work with authorities in whatever ways we can, according to conscience

We can also “get noisy” about community care by using the existing channels for volunteering. Below is a screenshot of Help Next Door MB. This is an online service where people can post simple needs for help (i.e., one said “truck to move a dresser”) and others can sign up to connect and fill that need.

Besides volunteering, we can help people discover and use the service in the first place. I noticed very little on the site for my region, which suggests to me that it’s being underutilized. I suspect that most people are simply taking care of these needs for each other, but this is intended to fill gaps for those who don’t already have that support.

Currently, seven Manitoba churches are challenging the level of power granted to the Public Health Office in court. Although at least one of them has created a tainted reputation through civil disobedience, we can carefully consider and plan how to use the correct mechanisms, such as the courts, in order to defend our ability to offer the spiritual care for which so many people are starving.

Above all, we can express honour towards other human beings who are hopelessly fallible and limited, struggling under cumulative burdens of bureaucracy, politics and layers of law and regulation. We Christians have a saying: “The Law kills, but God’s Spirit gives life.”

There’s another, too, more Judaic in nature: “Gird up your loins like a man.” Where we see barriers, we have no business chickening out of using the blessings of our democratic system to work at them. As laypeople, chirping and clucking away online is the farthest thing from girding up to support our pastors, elders and communities.

What are we doing?

I encourage you to forget social media. Forget all the mainstream media versus alt-media noise and confusion. That is dealing in hypotheticals. It’s a rabbit trail that keeps us from our true Christian work. Real needs are here and now, and we’re called to wade into what’s before us.

Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted himAnd if someone likewise competes as an athlete, he is not crowned as victor unless he competes according to the rules.

2 Timothy 2:3-5

I encourage you: Clear your head. Aim your communication time where it will hit the right target. Leave the noise behind; write a letter and help a neighbour. Consider the laws and remember that Paul “appealed to Caesar” in a much harsher regime. This, too, can be lifesaving work as we consider the social cost and the mental health cost of current methodologies.

We can only find out what happens next by moving forward under the biblical principles which form our ultimate law and citizenship, as outlined by the biblical writers. As Pastor Dan said, these are for all times and places.

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 

15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 

16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 

20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 

21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 

22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 

24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 

25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 2:13-25

Sc > Sc

Should Women Think?

“Should Women Think?” is the title of a chapter in Nellie McClung’s 1915 suffragist treatise, In Times Like These.[1] Writing in response to drastic social inequities which fostered abuse of women and children, and driven by the political helplessness of women to respond to the atrocities of World War I, McClung used her Judeo-Christian background as a Methodist minister’s daughter to lay out a Christian case for dismantling the pre-Christian, Greek-style upper-class male supremacy of the Victorian era.[2]

Victorianism Versus Christianity

Given the penchant for that brand of Victorian ideals within modern protestant fundamentalism (one can hardly call a separatist mindset “evangelical”), it seems pertinent to hark back to what Christians were saying in Victorian times. Since I have McClung’s volume here on my desk, it’s not at all inconvenient.

In the vein of Solomon’s Ecclesiastes musings, McClung wrote:

So we ask, in all seriousness, and in no spirit of flippancy: “Should women think?” They gain in power perhaps, but do they not lose in happiness by thinking? If women must always labor under unjust economic conditions, receiving less pay for the same work than men, if women must always submit to the unjust social laws…if women must always see their sons degraded by man-made legislation and man-protected evils–then I ask, Is it not a great mistake for women to think?[3]

This is our dilemma: If we think too much on the evils of the world, perhaps the pain will only overwhelm us. Or will it? After all, we give birth. And yet, too often, we give up our minds to the idolatry of worldly male authority.

Do Women Have the Right to Oppose False Teaching?

One may wonder how this is even a question. An interesting dynamic plays out between conservative evangelical women and fundamentalist false teachers, a good many of whom are also women. In the first place, a cultural tradition of rigid segregation of the genders tends to drive a wedge between husbands and wives, effectively dividing and conquering. Separated from their husbands’ friendship and community of thought, women are exposed to a lot of teaching that their husbands don’t hear about, or hear about too late – after their wives have absorbed and accepted unbiblical, manmade “doctrines of the home” or “doctrines of femininity.”

Once women open the door to these false teachers of a pagan persuasion, those teachers insist that their spiritual hostesses must be silent, submissive. To speak up is to be a “Jezebel.” Yet these false teachers infringe upon the very areas of life which they supposedly assign exclusively to women – home and child-raising/education – and they infringe upon the very areas of life which they assign exclusively to husbands: to be the leader and spiritual teacher in the home. And so their falseness is immediately obvious, should a woman think about it for even a second.

…That is, if these things must always be, if we must always beat upon the bars of the cage–we are foolish to beat; it is hard on the hands! Far better for us to stop looking out and sit down and say: “Good old cage–I always did like a cage anyway!”

But the question of whether or not women should think was settled long ago. We must think because we were given something to think with, ages ago, at the time of our creation. If God had not intended us to think, he would not have given us our intelligence. It would be a shabby trick, too, to give women brains to think, with no hope of results, for thinking is just an aggravation if nothing comes of it.[4]

In that light, those who oppress the intellectual freedom of women become the accusers of God, a small Satan, their doctrines promoting the idea that God has indeed engaged in quite a shabby trick by how He designed womankind.

Perhaps instead we women should ask ourselves, “Am I willing to subscribe to the false idol of a ‘God’ whose ‘holy and righteous’ character is demonstrated by shabby tricks?”

Do Women Have a Responsibility to Oppose False Teachers?

Again, one wonders how this is even a question. Given that false teachers make their entrance into many Christian families through materials picked up by married women – the primary educators and spiritual nurturers of the family – we have at least a responsibility to discern those materials using the Bible in its full context, without relying only on proof-texts. Any genuine commitment to Titus 2 can’t possibly be overridden by any inversion of biblical priorities: God first. If applicable, marriage second. If applicable, children a close third. The rest of the world, including church, older women’s advice, and society at large, comes last after caregiving commitments.

How Then Should Women Think?

That means that when a church leader is telling a woman to be silent, to cease being “contentious,” “usurping,” or whatever label is applied – the hierarchy of Godly priorities should put such admonitions in their proper place: Last among considerations.

Let all things be done decently and in order, including our commitment to doctrinal fidelity. Is silence the will of God? Is silence a true service to my husband? My children?

Or is “Silence, woman!” merely the pseudo-rebuttal of a spiritual charlatan clinging to heretical love of power and esteem?

Even in order to consent to silence, we must think.

Let’s be clear, though, that I don’t say much in public. I talk freely among friends only, because it’s my nature. It doesn’t matter whether a person talks a lot or almost never, only whether they speak what’s necessary when it’s most necessary. The thing is, I do know my place, and my place looks like this:

If it’s not the will of God as revealed in the unity of Scripture and nature, then it doesn’t serve the people I serve. In which case, the purveyors of it, whatever idea it is, may go and find themselves a handbasket. Even a small Satan should be appropriately prepared for the future.

That’s what I think.

[1] The title of McClung’s book references the hymn, In Times Like These, We Need a Savior.

[2] In Political Thought from Plato to NATO, contributor Christopher Rowe writes of Socrates’s era that “‘anyone and everyone’ here read ‘any adult male citizen’. Even at its most generous, Athenian democracy was extremely restricted in its extent, excluding women, slaves and other groups which together must have accounted for three-quarters of the adult population.” The definition of “citizen” was further restricted among adult males by class considerations. [Source: Political Thought from Plato to NATO, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company (Pacific Grove, California), 1988; p 20.]

[3] Nellie McClung, In Times Like These, McLeod and Allen (Toronto, Ontario), 1915; p 38.

[4] Ibid. p 39.

The Dog and the Handler

“It’s not mysterious. It’s not eerie. It’s a beautiful sight, a dog trusting his nose, ignoring his handler’s efforts to get him to unstick himself from the flypaper scent that he’s stuck to. The dog who ignores the handler’s gaze, which is irrelevant to the task at hand. This is what real faith should look like — hard and unwavering… The dog’s commitment to the truth in the face of your moving away… The dog pointing his nose or paw or whole body at the scent, telling his handler, You bloody idiot! It’s here!”

-Cat Warren, What the Dog Knows

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

-Hebrews 11:1

We all have a dog and a handler within us: an intuition (a concrete body of knowledge built through hands-on experience and training), and an intellect (reasoning and abstraction). Our ability to key in to reality — emotional and spiritual and relational, sometimes even physical — depends on whether the handler controls the dog so much that it learns to alert only in response to the handler’s indications, rather than the reality around it, or whether the dog is given freedom and trust enough to be able to show the handler things unseen, though just as real.

At the same time, the dog can’t do its work without the handler on the team, training the dog, knowing where to start the search. These two function together, not separately, in mutual respect for each other.

This is what real faith should look like — hard and unwavering. It’s realistic, brought about through the external input of hands-on experience, but at the same time, it’s oriented by the compass of reasoning that’s been taught through outside references. Both internal wellsprings need to inform each other by utilizing time-tested things outside themselves.

We have senses that our various cultures teach us to ignore. What the west ignores, the east may embrace, and vice versa. Every dog is a different breed and colour. However, the most crucial and universal sense may be what Calvin called the sensus divinitatis, or sense of the divine. Often, the cues to crush that sense come directly from culture, upbringing, and peer influence.

Scripture says that unbelievers know God (Rom. 1:21), but it also says they do not know him (1 Cor. 2:1415:341 Thess. 4:52 Thess. 1:8, compare 2 Tim. 3:7Tit. 1:161 John 4:8). Evidently, then, we must make some distinctions, for in some sense or senses, knowledge of God is universal, and otherwise it is not.

Rom. 1:18-32 is the classic text on this question. Here Paul stresses the clarity of God’s revelation to the unrighteous. God reveals his wrath to them (verse 18), and makes truth about himself ‘plain to them’ (19), ‘clearly perceived’ (20). That revealed truth includes his ‘eternal power and divine nature’ (20). It also contains moral content, the knowledge of ‘God’s decree that those who practice [wicked things] deserve to die’ (32). Significantly, the text does not state that this revelation in nature communicates the way of salvation. 

John Frame, “Unregenerate Knowledge of God”

Sensing the existence of something divine isn’t enough to let us intuit or reason through how to connect to the divine. In fact, when we follow our own mysticism and our own cherished ethical comforts, such as people are basically good, it’s not that the handler is training the dog badly: it’s that the handler is trying to train the cat.

Now, if you put the cat in charge of the team, the best you can expect is a benevolent anarchy of subservience to the cat’s comforts and a starved, neglected dog. The cat may purr and snuggle and make you feel good, but its nature hasn’t been designed to serve the same functions as a dog.

According to what Romans 1 says, the first glimpse of truth is when we’re able to perceive God as wrathful. Before that, we puttered along obliviously, not even getting wind of a warning of this news. But it’s not the last glimpse. There’s a whole scent trail to follow, things which eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man; all that God has prepared for those who love Him. (1 Cor. 2:9)

The question is, what’s to be done with this? Can the soul bear to proceed further and discover the rest of the picture of a God who is also love? Or will we do as most do, as described in Romans 1? Frame continues:

The knowledge given by general revelation is not only a knowledge about God, a knowledge of propositions. It is a knowledge of God himself, a personal knowledge. For Paul says, not only that the wicked have information about God, but that “they knew God” (21).

Nevertheless, according to Paul, the wicked do not make proper use of this revealed knowledge. Rather, they ‘by their unrighteousness suppress the truth’ (18). He continues, ‘although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools…’ (21-22). Paul describes their foolishness as idolatry (22-23). In his view, idolatry is not an innocent search for the divine or the result of honest ignorance. It is, rather, willfully and culpably turning away from clear revelation of the true God. So it is ‘exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images…’ (23), exchanging ‘the truth of God for a lie’ (25).

Frame, ibid.

The first thing we want to lie to ourselves about is God’s wrath towards sin: The infinitely powerful grief, anger and outrage of God towards the evil and harm our choices have brought into the world. We begin by exclaiming that God must not be good if He allows bad things to happen. Then we end by discovering in the biblical account that He does in fact judge, punish and intervene to stop evil — and saying we want no part of such a harsh God and the healthy boundaries He imposes upon our various penchants for doing evil.

Most of us give up being dog handlers in favour of being cat herders. This first knowledge is more than anyone can bear, unless the grace of God Himself really does intervene to soothe the spirit with a greater and realer comfort than petting the cat can provide.

There are several problems in this dilemma. First, if the Creator God is good, why is there evil in the world? Secondly, if the Creator God is evil, why is there good in the world? Thirdly, if we do away with this Creator God nonsense altogether, where can we anchor our concepts of personhood, purpose and meaning? Is there anything but the shifting sands of our own opinions? Does any of the pain we’ve experienced even matter, or are we ultimately, utterly alone in our most secret sufferings?

Here, we come upon what the dog knows: The scent of truth that eludes our inner handler and all his or her reasoning and overthinking. That truth is that there is both good and evil in the world, and thousands of years of human effort through religion, good works, social engineering, morality, ethics, and all the best of human love have failed to advance us in goodness or even in moral sophistication. There is nothing new under the sun.

The very, very best we can do is to reimagine the world as something it isn’t: to exchange the truth for a lie.

And that’s not doing anything at all, in reality. We never find out where the dead bodies really are. The innocent take the blame for crimes they didn’t commit, and the guilty go free. Our own perception of justice becomes irreparably warped.

The harder way is to train the dog in the wisdom handed down and then to trust it, rather than controlling it to the point of uselessness. If, by God’s grace, He intervenes to show us how to train our intuition even the tiniest bit, we find ourselves called to something beyond the superstition that matters of life and death are mysterious and eerie. Though it’s stark and harsh, we find ourselves compelled to pursue the trail we can’t see until we find the putrefying corpse that emits its odour through these tangled woods.

Death cannot be untimely if there’s no good; death cannot be death if there’s no evil. And yet, death is.

Of course the wrath of God is awful. It means death is real, and worse, it means there’s no hoping in ourselves, even though we bear His very image.

Though we try to march on past this indication, more and more entangled in our own false narrative of events, that dogged sense of the divine keeps pointing to the evidence and the reality. Usually, we manage to untrain it, starve and neglect it. The cat’s affection will cultivate our ego, our own sense of prowess in the living of life, at the expense of nature and reality.

Yet the cat is still a predator, quietly destroying birdsong in the garden, digging up the flowers and leaving excrement in exchange. She’s indiscriminate: Though she takes the rodents and their damage and diseases, she takes the better things too. Even without active intention, just by following function, the cat and her toxoplasmosis come — affectionately, warmly, comfortingly — to take our sight and mind and health. Death still is.

For the sake of cat lovers everywhere, the author would like to acknowledge that this metaphor, like all metaphors, is not meant to be a literalistic representation of the character of either dogs or cats, just as dogs or cats are not meant to literalistically represent the character of either our sense of the divine or our sin nature, and that this metaphor occurs primarily to provide delight and validation to the incomparable, incorrigible Quixote, whose leathery Texan hide and quick wits enabled him to survive the long over-persistence of a feline demon beneath the sink.