Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Dream Deferred

It was seven years ago this month that I first realized that I was being called to become a pastor. The circumstances of that event and so many things that have followed have increased my certainty that this was a true experience, and that God is calling me, compelling me forward, to a life of ministry. I knew at the time that this meant years of preparation and I was okay with that. On the education side I went back to college, got a ministry degree, took a year off to catch my breath and then started seminary a year ago. On the ordination side things have been bumpier, for reasons I don’t feel like rehashing right now. But suffice it to say that ordination is still off in the future, and seminary will require at least two more years if I am able to continue full-time. So seven years have gone by, and I’m still in the ‘preparation’ stage.

I don’t feel bitter about this lengthy period of preparation. But my longing to be set free to plant a church and finally be doing what I feel such a calling to do has been sustained so long that it is threatening to turn to sorrow. A good friend of mine was trying to engage me in conversation about our dream church plant the other day and I found myself not wanting to talk about it. At some point it feels painful to keep dreaming about something that is still just out of reach. There are so many people I know or know of who need the kind of community that I dream about. When the mother of one of my daughter’s friends asks me if she can go to church with me, I feel so sad that I have no place to bring her. There is no way she can travel to the church we’re serving at in another city an hour away. And that church would not know what to do with this poor, broken, alcoholic woman with previous church abuse baggage. And there are others… I feel this desperation for the church I dream of to be a reality. But I still have to wait, deferring my dream until the kairos moment when it will be birthed into being.

I have great hope that this time will come in the not-too-distant future, and great joy that this dream is now shared with my future husband. But for now, it’s still time to wait and prepare.

A Dream Realized

This will be a more personal than theological entry and I thank you in advance for your indulgence. My scarce writing on this blog is largely because I’ve been busier than usual. In addition to the usual school, work, parenting routine I’m preparing to marry my fiancĂ©, Josh Clark, in just two months! ( I’ve been single for over 8 years now with only a couple of less-than-wonderful dates in all that time, until meeting and falling in love with Josh a year ago. This weekend marks the anniversary of when we attended the Off-the-Map conference in Seattle and “it all started.” We’re leaving tomorrow to attend this same conference, and I guess I’m feeling reflective about how much things have changed this year.

I worked hard at not being a desperate single person, at not putting my life on hold to find a man, at not indulging in much self-pity, and in making a good life for my daughter and me. But even so, I remember poignantly how alone I would feel in my bed at night, exhausted from a long day’s responsibilities, longing for someone who could just help with the laundry. So many years of singleness after years of an empty marriage made me wonder sometimes what love was really like. I would watch my friends co-parenting their children in the way I might look at a National Geographic magazine portraying some foreign culture. And sometimes I would dream of meeting someone who would be the right fit for marrying a divorced-single-mother-pastor-church-planter with a pre-teen daughter, realizing that such a man might not exist.

So it was a year ago that I looked with wonder into the eyes of Josh Clark and started to realize that he just might exist after all. And I discovered with even more amazement that I could be the woman of someone else’s dreams too. As our lives are coming together I am finding the daily joy of watching a dream unfold – the dream of loving and being loved in return, the dream of sharing life with a wonderful person who makes a great partner in the daily working out of life and faith. I’m filled with gratitude and thankfulness that this dream has become reality!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Some Late Afternoon Thoughts on Church Culture

The other day I talked with a young woman who is being actively recruited by a Mormon church in town. She was invited by a friend, and she has found this particular church to be very inviting, caring, understanding and open to answering all her questions. She feels good there. She doesn't know or care much about theology, even though she identifies herself as a strong Christian. The love they are showing her and the genuine attention they are giving her are enough to make acceptable whatever theological claims they present to her. She has visited a number of orthodox Christian churches in town and none of them have appealed to her in the way that this Mormon congregation appeals. And to be honest, I completely understand. I can hardly blame her for caring more about the way she feels when she's there than about theological orthodoxy. I've been to most of the other churches she named. With one possible exception, I agree with her feelings about them. I wish very much that I had an alternative to offer her.

I spoke with another friend the other day who will have nothing to do with organized religion after being brought up in Christian schools and churches. She's been there, done that, and said "no, thanks." There are a handful of Christians she respects, but walking into a church with it's weird sub-culture and people who are products of that sub-culture is not something she will ever do. I can't blame her. I don't really like it either and I am one of those products of weird church sub-culture.

Over the years there have been times when I've invited people to attend church, and I've always been painfully aware of how strange church seemed to my friends. I've always wished that I could go to a church where it was really comfortable to invite people - where there wasn't this obvious cultural wall to climb and where the 'us-and-them' mentality was absent. I've always wanted to be a part of a church where I never had to fear embarrassment from what might be said or done by the pastor or worship leader, and where our church culture was the kind of thing that made people want to belong rather than want to flee. I've given up on finding one. I hope desperately that I'll be able to help pastor one.

As a pastor and seminarian, I care very deeply about theology. But these conversations have reminded me again that it's how we behave that matters most to others. As Jesus has taught us, it all comes down to love.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Divorce (Continued)

I assume that divorced ordinands are required to explain their theology of divorce, and the advice they would give for troubled marriages, because it is regularly observed that people's experiences influence their theology. As a Wesleyan denomination, we do value experience as part of the Quadrilateral, as it is held in tension with Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. It is much harder to be dogmatic and graceless for events that one has personally experienced. No one comes to the conversation about divorce objectively, whether or not they have experienced a divorce personally.

I believe that divorce is always a tragedy. It always results in and from people's brokenness, sin, and pain. Even when divorce is the best course of action in a particular situation, it is only better than some greater evil and not the best possible outcome for a marriage. Divorce breaks a covenant - a sacred vow - and the consequences within one's own soul and within one's community are far-reaching and devastating for such an action.

The Church traditionally sites two circumstances in which divorce is acceptable for a Christian - when one's spouse has committed adultery, and when one's spouse has abandoned the marriage. Recently, many Evangelicals have also come to accept divorce in cases of spousal abuse. While I affirm all three of these circumstances as justification for divorce, the decision to seek a divorce remains a highly contextualized decision that should be made with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with the counsel and support of Christian community. Even in 'justifiable' circumstances, the possibility for healing and reconciliation should not be ruled out quickly. Many marriages that seemed past hope have been restored, and as a pastor I hope never to give up too soon on the broken marriages of those I may counsel. In each situation, I will pray, listen, and seek understanding and the guidance of God's Spirit before ever lending my influence to someone's decisions in regard to marriage and divorce.

For those who are faced with the reality of the divorce, I hope to offer the grace of God and the hope of Christ. Divorce is both a tragic end, and a new beginning. As Christians we rejoice in the grace of God that brings healing to our broken lives and hope for new seasons of life following divorce. I hope to encourage people who have experienced divorce to throw themselves into healing, forgiveness and restoration as they seek God and discover God’s will anew in their lives. I am also passionate about the care of children who have experienced the divorce of their parents, and will encourage parents to attend to their children’s grief and recovery. As with others, those who are or have experienced divorce, need the community of believers to support and care for them, nurturing their faith, meeting their needs, and equipping them for the future. As a pastor who has gone through divorce, I am grateful to be able to offer the encouragement of personal experience as one who has been down the roads of both recovery and single-parenting with its tremendous joys and challenges.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Theology of Marriage and Divorce

At the beginning of Genesis, we find the story of Creation. According to the narrative, God created a human being. This person had a beautiful relationship with God, untroubled by any sin in which they would walk and talk together in the cool of the day. In spite of such peace with God and Creation, this person was deeply lonely and God recognized that this loneliness was not good. The result is the creation of the first woman, (at which time Adam is first identified as male). God created them for relationship with another - different and yet so similar that Adam declared "This one is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!" The post-Fall writer of this scripture chose to describe the essence of their relationship in this way, "They were naked and not ashamed."

The unity and un-selfconscious vulnerability and intimacy of this relationship contrasts sharply with the post-Fall reality. From that point up to the present day, relationships between women and men are now regularly characterized by shame, fear, hiding, and conflict. We are far from God's Creation ideal. "Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you." Power struggles are now part of the problem too, and from them emerges violence, oppression, and manipulation.

Marriage is intended to be the beautiful relationship described in pre-Fall Genesis, in which the pain of loneliness subsides in the beautiful union of husband and wife, who work, play and love alongside one another without fear and without shame. But since we are scarred by sin, we do experience pain, selfishness, fear, and shame. We hide parts of ourselves from one another. We hurt one another - sometimes deliberately. We struggle for power and control. And all these things make it difficult to trust, be vulnerable, and to live in forgiveness. Some of us have a harder time than others, but successful marriages always require the best we have to offer along with heavy doses of forgiveness since our best will still be far from perfect.

From the Creation account, we learn God's intention for relationships between men and women, and we learn how that intention has been distorted by sin. This should both inspire us, and give us pause to reflect on how we can live and love in this way. It should also humble us, as we realize how dependent we are on God's grace to live in this way.

Trinity and Marriage
From the Creation account we also learn that human beings are created in the image of God. Trinitarian theology teaches us about perichoresis - the divine dance in which the Creator, Redeemer and Comforter are both three and one. Each one is distinct in personality and cannot be subsumed into a single identity. And yet their unity is so complete that Christians are monotheists. We worship one God - a unified, three-person God.

"The two shall become one flesh." Scripture's description of marriage also describes a tension - a dance between unity and individuality within marriage. There are two people with distinct personalities, gifts, names, and bodies. And yet marriage makes them one - an unbroken mysterious unity that transcends their individuality without obliterating it.

Human sexual desire and our longing for marriage is rooted in our identity as beings made in the image of a tri-une God. Too much individuality in marriage, and the unity of the relationship may be compromised. Too little, and a person may be lost and de-humanized in the relationship. Healthy marriages are relationships of unity that respect the unique individuality of the persons within the marriage, and which manage this dynamic tension. Unhealthiness in marriage happens when one person tries to dominate or overpower the other person, or when either person is not free in the relationship. Brokenness also happens when either person becomes consumed with self-centeredness and destroys the unity of the marriage bond. As fallen ones, we all struggle with this tension between unity and individuality, between freedom and control, and between self-sacrifice and self-centeredness.

Covenantal Relationship
Marriage is a covenantal relationship - the most sacred of vows that a human being can make. In the Old Testament, making a covenant involved sacrificing an animal, cutting it into two pieces, and then walking between the halves of the animal. If one party broke the covenant, they were agreeing to share the fate of the animal. Obviously, such covenants were not entered into lightly and were broken only with disastrous consequences. Shockingly, God chooses to enter in a covenant relationship with Abraham and his offspring. When they broke the covenant over and over again, God remained faithful and eventually came as a human being to be sacrificed for them, to take on himself their consequence of breaking covenant with God.

Marriage is also a covenant relationship and in our culture we have no context for understanding the gravity of such a commitment. But scripture teaches us that there is a mysterious revelation of Christ's relationship to his Church within the relationship between a married couple. They are both covenantal relationships. Christ teaches us that faithfulness, forgiveness, and sacrificial love are marks of living in a covenantal relationship. And he teaches us that even when the other party fails, we must choose forgiveness and reconciliation. However, even Christ does not force others to love him or live in relationship with him. He offers everyone the freedom to accept his love, forgiveness, and sacrifice - or to reject him and all that he offers. The covenant is still a relationship of freedom, and marriage must also be a relationship of freedom. But where there is freedom, some will use it to break relationship. From this reality springs the tragedy of divorce. More thoughts on this to come...

Divorce Clearance

Since my last post, I became engaged to my wonderful fiance Josh, who I met in seminary. I could write at length about how wonderful he is, how fabulous our relationship is, and how great our engagement has been, but I'll try to stay closer to the topic of this blog, which is theological discussion, and spare you the mushy stuff. :o)

Josh and I have begun to build our future lives together and for us this includes dreaming shared dreams of ministry. These dreams include church-planting as co-pastors and we are excited for the day when we will be able to launch that adventure together. But for the time being we are focusing on serving wholeheartedly at Josh's church while we work toward ordination. For me, this has meant recently jumping back into the ordination process with my former (and now current) denomination. The ordination process is more complicated for me because I have to go through a process known as "Divorce Clearance." I can definitely understand why the denomination wants to know the circumstances of my divorce and why that has bearing on my fitness for ordination. However, it does seem that this process is flawed and unfair in many respects. Divorce is the only life event that is isolated for special consideration in the ordination process. I could have murdered, embezzled, smuggled drugs or prostituted myself, and the regular processes of ordination would be sufficient for me. But since I have gone through a divorce (which I did not want or choose and did everything in my power to prevent), I'm going to experience a much higher level of scrutiny than other ordinands. Josh has suggested that I wear a red letter "D" on my chest when I go for my DC interview with the bishop. :o)

One thing that I'm being asked to do, that other candidates are not asked to do, is to write an explanation of my theology of marriage, and how I would counsel others who are in difficult marital situations. I've decided to share this in my blog, even though it's probably too lengthy for this venue. But before I do, some questions to ponder about divorced people and ministry...

  • What should irrovocably disqualify a person from pastoral ministry? What makes these disqualifiers more significant than other possible disqualifiers?
  • Why does the Church single out divorce as it does? What is the Church communicating by doing this? (Nikky Cruz - made famous by David Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade - was guilty of murder, drug dealing, leading a violent inner-city gang, and generally living a life of complete depravity prior to his conversion. He is ordained in good standing with a denomination that refuses to ordain any divorced person under any circumstances.)
  • If the church takes divorce so seriously, why is the divorce rate higher among Christians?

Just some food for thought, and now I will try to express my theology of marriage and divorce in the next post.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Looking Inward

“Anytime you have a negative feeling toward anyone, you’re living in an illusion There’s something seriously wrong with you. You’re not seeing reality. Something inside of you needs to change.”

Anthony de Mello, Awareness: the Perils and Opportunities of Reality.

This rather provocative quote was presented in class, in the context of being self-aware in situations where you find yourself feeling angry at others. The idea is that if someone else seems to be causing you anger (barring situations of injustice, etc.), there is something going on inside of you that is being triggered and it's not really about the other person. By being aware of yourself and the things that trigger you ahead of time, you gain personal power in those situations when they arise.

True knowledge of self empowers you. I think that this quote, while rather strongly stated, speaks even beyond the context of anger. At the root of many negative emotions toward others are my own prejudices, insecurities, and fears. What makes me respond with more kindness and grace toward one person than toward another? Perhaps this person recalls painful things from past? Or could it be that the things I secretly hate most about myself are the things that I most reject in others? When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, it is as much a command for self-love as for loving others. When I can love myself and receive grace for my faults - then perhaps I can extend that to others who remind me of my weaknesses. And when I can receive healing and experience forgiveness for the painful events of the past - then perhaps I can extend love toward those who remind me of those events.

Self-awareness means recognizing when subtle negative emotions are triggered within me, and being deliberate about seeking the grace from God to love and heal whatever is at the root of those emotions. It also means recongizing when I may be triggering such things in other people, and extending grace to them, even if they cannot embrace me in return.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Take a Rest

I was challenged the other day in class to consider the importance of Sabbath keeping. I don’t have any inner resistance to the idea of deliberately taking a day of rest. But I’m like everyone else – just too busy to pull it off. Or at least, that’s my excuse. And it’s not entirely invalid. I’m a full-time graduate student, a part-time employee, a single-mother, a girlfriend, a daughter, a sister, and so on. When I went back to school several years ago, I gave up my regular Sabbath-keeping in order to pull off getting an education. It may have been necessary. But I paid a price for that within myself that I am still paying.

The admonition in class was full of compelling arguments. Woven into the fabric of the created order is the need for a day of rest. God rested. All of creation was designed for a cycle of rest. Setting apart a day of rest is one of the ten commandments. Is there any other of the nine commandments that you would break unrepentantly and claim impunity? To refuse a day of rest is to fight against the very fiber of how you were made, in the image of God who modeled rest and commanded rest. Our culture is obviously suffering from our collective refusal to stop and rest. The pressure that is on families and children to always be going and doing, with little or no time when that pressure is removed, is contributing to stress disorders in children. And for people in ministry, burnout is inevitable for those who refuse to take a day of restoration.

I asked one of my carpool friends, who happens to be a pastor, if he takes a day of rest each week and his story was compelling. He credited his discipline in this area to saving his marriage and his ministry. He strictly makes himself unavailable to everyone but his wife from Friday night to Saturday night every week. No homework. No chores. No phone calls. No e-mail. He described it with joy.

Theology always has implications for the real world – the way people actually live. I’m compelled to consider my own theology of Sabbath keeping and its implications for the way that I actually live.

Monday, February 06, 2006

On Being Counter-Cultural

A discussion arose the other day on how Christianity is supposed to be counter-cultural, and it occurred to me how much this phrase gets thrown around and how it can have very different implications depending on its context. 'Counter-Cultural' to many of the Christians I've been around means to reject the culture at large and surrender to church culture, which really means reject only certain things about the culture at large, and embrace church culture, which may or may not be any better. Example - I know Christians who have rejected the sexual culture outside the church, but have fully embraced the culture of materialism (exacerbated by the concept of "blessing") within the church. I know Christians who have rejected cussing, alcohol, and 'R' rated movies as being products of the culture who simultaneously embrace un-just war, sexism, and consumerism within their church culture.

At the same time, there are reactions to church culture that are partially corrective but then create their own problems. I know a Christian who has rejected legalism as part of church culture. But he still embraces the materialism and consumerism of both church and secular culture with abandon. In other words, he seems to be rejecting whatever he doesn't happen to like from both cultures, so that neither culture causes him to make sacrifices of his lifestyle.

There is a great tension between cultural relevancy and counter-culturalism. In what ways do we connect with and redeem culture, and in what ways do we become counter-cultural?

I believe that the answer has to be found in the example of Jesus. Jesus engaged the culture around him, and yet he was constantly challenging cultural norms with his teaching and with his example. Christ's life was redemptive.

If we are to be 'counter-cultural' like Jesus Christ, we must stop using that term to justify our rejection of culture (negative understanding) and learn what it means to engage and redeem culture (positive understanding).

So what does that actually look like? What will this cost us?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Musings on Double Predestination

In Christian History class we’ve been studying the Reformation and spending a lot of time on Luther’s theology. My professor, who happens to be Lutheran and truly a person of grace, was waxing eloquently about Luther’s theology of the cross. He emphasized the grace of God in being present with us even in our sins, and how wonderful it is to know that we are not able to add anything to Christ’s salvation. As I listened to the beautiful words of grace and mercy describing Christ’s love and suffering for humanity, it struck me how odd it was for Luther to have such a high view of God’s grace, and yet believe in double predestination. Double predestination teaches that God has created some human beings for salvation and some for damnation, and there is nothing anyone can do about their eternal destiny. All of these wonderful descriptions of God’s grace become one side of a double-edged sword, of which the other edge is the blade of damnation and eternal hell-fire.

Given the way that the new testament speaks of God’s love for all of humanity, and how God ultimately intends to redeem all of creation (not just a few elect human beings), how can we attribute to God the malicious behavior of creating people in his own image for the purpose of damning them to hell? It flies in the face of the definitions of love and justice that come to us from the scriptures.

My patient professor pointed out (after I rather passionately voiced my frustration with Luther’s theological position), that the Lutheran church does not believe in double predestination as their theology was codified by Malanchthan rather than Luther. He also explained Luther’s top-down understanding of love and justice as being defined by God and not by any standard outside of God. Thus Luther could believe that God both loved humanity, and damns most of it to hell, at the same time. I am just an amateur theologian. I have neither the brilliance nor the knowledge of the Reformers. I offer my thoughts with the humility of someone who knows less and less about what she believes for certain with every passing year of theological study. But this idea that God could simultaneously love human beings who bear God’s image, and have created them for eternal suffering in hell, is so absurd to me as to offend the deepest well of my faith. Does not the Bible teach us what love is? With no personal offense to my Calvinist friends, if I really believed that God’s love translated into predestining people for eternal hellfire, I think I would love God in kind by turning my back and walking away. With love like that, who needs hatred?

I am reminded of a woman who was in one of my undergraduate classes who shared the gut-wrenching story of losing her infant daughter in a tragic accident. She explained how people would try and offer her comfort by telling her that it was God’s will that her daughter was killed in such a horrible way. This woman only survived the crushing blow of grief by clinging to God’s presence and God’s love and care for her in that experience. She said with some passion, “Don’t make out the God that I love, who has sustained me in my suffering, into a murderer.” I feel this way about double predestination. Please don’t make the God that I love, the God who I am seeking daily to surrender my life to, into a malicious creep who damns people to hell and calls it love.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Welcome to Karlene's blog! I have been inspired to start blogging as a way of sharing what I am reading and writing during my seminary studies, and hopefully to interact with you on these subjects.

So grab a cup of coffee, kick off your shoes, and add your thoughts to the conversation. Thanks for stopping by!