Blessed Be The Ties That Bind

By Brent McDougal

A patchwork tapestry hangs in our home, a cherished gift to my wife, Jen, that was first created by her great-grandmother. Jen’s grandmother repaired and added to it, as did her mother. Now Jen stitches it back together from time to time and even adds a piece or two, as 100-year-old fabric tends to deteriorate. 

It serves as a generational symbol of diversity and commonality. Its beauty derives from various colors and shapes, but its form depends on the common threads.

Many say in these days of bitter partisanship that we have lost something important. Having grown up in a divided Montgomery, Alabama, I can say that much of what we believe we lost was an illusion. If you think it was so much better 50 years ago or even 25 years ago, ask your black or Hispanic neighbors. 

Even so, there’s a strong sense that America is fraying at the seams. It may be that it all needs to fall apart before it can be stitched back together in a stronger, more beautiful way. But for now, it feels like the fabric is unraveling.

What’s missing? 

The common thread of neighborliness. 

Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s the command second only to loving God with all of one’s being. 

What if Jesus meant our actual neighbors — the people who live on the right and left of us? 

There’s power in this simple teaching, one that can help to mend what’s tearing apart. It can create the social cohesion that we are lacking.

Social cohesion may be defined as “the willingness of members of a society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper.” Societal cohesion deals with the interconnectedness of social relationships to achieve social outcomes. Such factors as inclusion, identity, cultural factors, individual well-being, income equality and social justice all contribute to the success or failure of a society to remain united and flourishing.

United means knit together, and true flourishing is about more than money.  

Researchers in Canada have identified key components necessary to any useful concept of social cohesion. One ingredient is the willingness to get along. Are people willing to cooperate in the array of collective activities that allow a society to survive and prosper? This may include the willingness to help a neighbor with their yard or coach a little league team. Obeying traffic rules, paying taxes — these indicate one’s willingness to cooperate.

There’s a little hope there, at least where I live. I often see soccer coaches loading up the car on a Saturday morning. I see neighbors lending a hand. 

A second essential component is that socially cohesive societies value and celebrate diversity rather than resisting it. A society can have social order but not social cohesiveness. Authoritarian regimes that rail against diversity and promote the values of only a portion of society may appear orderly, but the lack of true cohesiveness will eventually erode order.

Now we’re in trouble. Most people value diversity in principle, but not practice. We’ve given up on school desegregation, opting for neighborhood segregation. We hang out mostly wth people who share our skin color, education, and interests. Plus, some people disproportionately make the rules that others must follow. Like a cast over a broken bone, order can mask a fracture.

Collectively, we have to want to be cohesive. Ironically, cohesion isn’t possible unless we value diversity. Diversity necessitates common threads. 

But what if some people only make room for certain pieces to be included in the American tapestry? What if some people actually desire that we would disintegrate?

One of the most potent responses we can have to the unraveling of America is our recommitment to being good neighbors to one another. 

Followers of Jesus can act counter-culturally by demonstrating love, care and active involvement in the lives of their neighbors, no matter their party, skin color or creed.

Furthermore, we need a revitalization of the neighborhood church. These churches take responsibility for the field has God has called them to work. They don’t try to be the biggest or most popular. Their focus is outward. Their outcomes are harder to measure, because they're focused on messy, beautiful, broken people through long-term relationships. They love God and seek to be good neighbors. 

We’re in the mending business. Our thread is neighborliness. 

So invite a neighbor over to pass out candy for Halloween. Open your Thanksgiving table for the person on your block who seems isolated and alone. Knock on a door and start a conversation. 

You’ll be making something beautiful to pass down for generations. 

Cheers for the Daughters of the King

By Pastor Brent McDougal

Along the Sea of Galilee, the fishing village of Magdala has been excavated in recent years. It was the hometown of Mary Magdalene, the woman out of whom Jesus drove seven demons. She was also a witness to the crucifixion (when most men had run away) and the first one to see Jesus after His resurrection (see Mark 16).

Last year I was with a group that spent some time in the church built at Magdala to commemorate how Jesus called fishermen as His first followers, but also women like Mary Magdalene in the beginnings of His movement.

I spent a few quiet moments by the shore throwing stones into the sea. I imagined what it would have been like to see the bustling fishing town, but also to see Jesus striding in, followed by a group that would have been unimaginable before Him — men and women learning, serving, and experiencing healing together.

We can’t underestimate just how revolutionary Jesus was in His posture toward women. He didn’t treat women as if they second-class citizens or sexual objects. Instead, He called them daughters of the King. He taught women as His followers and called men and women to work side-by-side in the Kingdom of God. His approach toward women was one of equality, dignity and empowerment.

Dorothy Sayers characterized the effect of Jesus' orientation to women in this way:

"Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious.”

Today, I’m feeling thankful for the women who have made a difference in my walk with Jesus.

I’m thankful for my mom and grandmother, who taught me about Jesus and modeled His life.

I give praise for Sarah Shelton, whom I worked with early in my career, for her courage and steady voice even when she was challenged, questioned, and dismissed for her calling to preach.

I’m full of gratitude for the women in my church — the leaders, teachers, servants, organizers, prophets and poets. I’m consistently moved by the women of prayer.

But there is still a long road ahead toward the fullness of Christ’s community.

videoblocks-young-woman-sitting-among-creek-on-rock-and-throwing-small-stones-in-water-with-trees-on-background_h2xowpersg_thumbnail-full01.png

My friend, Bob Rognlien, was with me at Magdala. He wrote this week, “Unfortunately this revolutionary affirmation of the equality and worth of women got lost as the church became increasingly shaped by society rather than by Jesus' teaching and example…Even in our own era of equal rights for women, the church continues to lag far behind society as a whole in affirming the equal value and importance of women. In countless ways that most male church leaders are woefully unaware of (myself included), the gifts and leadership of women are overlooked or unconsciously devalued, to the detriment of us all.”

How can we be different? What can we do to not overlook, to not devalue, the importance of women? How can we experience more of the rich fellowship Jesus came to create?

First, we cherish. We cherish all children and youth, but in this era, we need to make sure we pay attention to the callings and voices of females. We show value by serving all with dignity, by giving equal leadership opportunities. We show reverence and honor to widows. We treat women as Christ would.

Second, we listen. We ask people to share their experiences. What has been your experience as a female in our society, in our church? What has been painful? How is God calling you? What can we do to help?

Third, we protect. We say clearly that in the life of our fellowship, and inasmuch as we can influence our community, this is the standard: no abuse, no harassment, no patronizing, no objectification, no diminishment.

What Jesus started on those shores of Galilee was like a stone thrown into the waters, with ripples widening out.

He’s still disrupting the waters. He won’t be content until it’s all changed— above and below the surface. He won't rest until every woman and man has an equal place, beloved sons and daughters of the King.

Pick a Card (Not Any Card)

By Pastor Brent McDougal

One of the earliest names for God is really no name at all. When Moses was called to go to Pharaoh to say “Let my people go” (what would become the Exodus), Moses asked, “Who should I say sent me?” God responded, “Tell them I AM sent you.” What kind of name is that?

It speaks to the nature of God beyond description, defying one name. Being. Without beginning or end.

Which leads me to ask: who are you, really? You have a name. People could describe you in various ways. But what is your core identity? How would you complete the phrase, “I AM____”?

A few weeks ago I heard on NPR about a performance in New York called In and Of Itself by an illusionist named Derek Delgaudio. My wife thought I was crazy, but I was so captivated by the show’s concept that I bought a ticket for the next week and caught an early morning flight. 

The performance centered on the idea of identity. How do you see yourself? How do others perceive you?

I entered the theater lobby to see a large board with hundreds of pegs that each held a card that said “I AM” with a distinct phrase below. Each audience member was asked to choose one, but how? The cards stated things like “I AM a leader,” “I AM a freak,” “I AM a heartthrob,” “I AM a dream” and so on. It wasn’t easy to pick just one. My identity (and yours) is so much more than one thing, or what people see. I finally picked a card and took my seat. 

The show was fascinating, but it was the finale that I’ll never forget. Delgaudio said something like, “Each of you chose a card that represents something about who you are. For some of you, it was kind of fun and your choice didn’t mean much. But for others, the choice was really meaningful. If that describes you, stand up right now.” 

About 100 stood up out of 150. One by one, Delgaudio looked people in the eye and stated what they had chosen. “You are a maverick.” “You are an intellectual.” “You are an artist.” I have no idea how he did it. If he was correct, the audience member nodded and sat down. For all 100 people, he named exactly how they saw themselves. Some people were crying. All of us were amazed.

For a long time, he stood before one woman before saying in choked words, “You are a nobody.” That was the card she had chosen, how she saw herself. 

No matter which one word you might choose, know this: no one sees the fullness of you. You’re not God, but you are more than anyone knows. You are a mystery. You are a gift. You are somebody.

Psalm 139:13 says, “God, you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” 

Who are you, really? How you answer that question is crucial, because when you know deep down who you really are, you have a solid foundation to build a life of peace and joy and impact to the glory of God.

Do you know who you are in Christ? Let me remind you who you are today. You are alive with Christ (Ephesians 2:5). You are free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2) You are holy and without blame before him in love (Ephesians 1:4) You have been chosen by God out of the darkness of sin and into the light and life of Christ so that you can proclaim the excellence of who he is. (1 Peter 2:9) You are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, to do good works that he has prepared you to do. (Ephesians 2:10) You are a new creation. (2 Corinthians 5:17) You are an ambassador for Christ. You are the light of the world. You are healed and whole in Jesus. You are a branch and He is a vine through which you receive life.

Know who you are, and then be who you are. Your identity is received, not achieved. It’s something God does, something God speaks over you. It’s not what you earn; it’s what God gives to you. The world is waiting for you to be who you are made to be.