Prescription for a Pauline Headache


The Word of God proclaims, “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church."  1 Corinthians 14: 34-35  (as quoted on

 "Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was." - Romans 16:7

 “…It ought to be said that from a biblical standpoint, there is no tolerance in Scripture for women leaders in the church, apart from women leading other women--older women teaching younger women and leading their children and so forth.” –John MacArthur

“About the injunction of the Apostle Paul that women should keep silent in church? Don't go by one text only.” – Theresa of Avilla

This subject of a woman’s authority has been a thorny issue for the church for a very long time. Entire denominations have split over this. People’s lives are ruined over this. Which perhaps is understandable, if, as many Christians believe, Paul’s writings are The Word of God. Because if they are the words of God, how can God contradict himself so often?  And apparently contradict Jesus, too?

Paul’s words were used over the centuries to justify Antisemitism, authoritarianism, slavery, misogyny and sexual bigotry. He also wrote tender love poems memorized by people around the world.  Which Paul should we listen to? Or should we listen to him at all?

Now, I think there is an enormous amount of good stuff in Paul's writings. There’s a lot we can learn from what he has to say and a lot (but not all) of his advice is well worth heeding (even though he is really not advising “us” who came 20 centuries later – Paul thought the end of the world was just around the corner). It’s even been said that Paul, and not Jesus, was the true founder of the Christian religion.

But a lot of what he says just doesn't make sense to contemporary ears and a lot of today’s Christians have dismissed Paul as irrelevant or even dangerous to the faith.  I even considered doing so myself but then remembered that Paul’s work is the earliest known written account of the Christian faith, years before the earliest Gospel. If the Gospel writers were likely influenced by Paul then how can we ignore him? And then how do we reconcile him to the Gospel? This used to give me terrible headaches.

Unless I stopped trying to make this first-century square Jewish peg fit into our Western culture’s round holes I would always  bog down in his words. Instead of some iconoclastic mouthpiece for God I needed to see Paul as the man he was, when he was, and where he was. Paul needed to be put back into the scope of real history, freshly scrubbed of all the unfortunate doctrines and dogmas that his writings are the source of.I believe that many of Paul’s words are taken so far out of context that the resulting Christian theology is tragically flawed -so flawed that the world has suffered terribly for it. This theology has become the conventional Western Christian wisdom and, using circular reasoning, is now the distorted lens through which we view Paul - as well as Jesus.

That’s why I am excited about this upcoming series on Paul and Empire at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center.  I’ve read a couple of Crossan and Borg’s books and they were mind opening; intelligent and scholarly - not written for seminarians, but in a way I could understand. I’ll admit it was hard for me at first because they so thoroughly skewered ‘truths’ that I once held to be sacred. But when I began to learn about Paul and Jesus’ “back stories”, the story of Israel under Roman domination, everything began to make sense. The now obvious parallels to our day and age began to emerge and I was able to understand better what Jesus meant by the ‘coming Kingdom of God’ and what my minor role might be (or how I might be standing in the way).

But more importantly, the headaches are gone.


Minor Miracles

I have a very clear memory of the first miracle I ever experienced, when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. I was taking a shower, washing my hair with Johnson and Johnson's Baby Shampoo, the only shampoo I had ever used. I was intrigued to discover that there was a new bottle in the shower, with a picture on the outside of a dashing man with dark hair and a sharp part along the side. I didn't know what it was, but on a whim, I squirted out a glob and put it on my head. To my great surprise, it made my squeeky clean, tangled hair smooth and easy to comb. Of course, I just had my first experience of conditioner, but the thought that went through my mind was, "This is a miracle." I can still remember the sense of awe and gratitude I felt.

I realize, of course, that conditioner is just a human invention, and now when I remember that story, I feel a little embarrassed. But last week I had another, similar experience, and a similar reaction. I inherited an old rocking chair from the office of my last job three years ago, and have been meaning to refinish it ever since. I started on this job two weeks ago using a very noxious chemical that removed the old finish only after I rubbed it on a small section of the chair for about five minutes straight. I was looking at a very long, unpleasant process, and I was feeling pretty unhappy about it.

Then, one evening last week, it occurred to me to buy a power sander. Rosa and I had a great mother-daughter trip to the power tool section of the Lowe's, and the next day I gleefully sanded off the finish from the whole chair in a couple of hours. I actually got a little teary when I realized how well it was working. The sense of awe and gratitude that I felt reminded me strongly of my first "miracle".

And now I have another one to add to the list. Yesterday, I accidentally spilt an entire cup of tea on my laptop, which was then pronounced dead by the geniuses at the Apple store. As a last ditch effort, I propped it open in front of the heater in my office for a couple of hours, and when I returned, it worked perfectly. Again, tears of joy.

None of these events constitutes a miracle in the traditional, Biblical sense. All of them can be explained without having to appeal to divine intervention. But in a way, that doesn't really matter to me. Each event surprised me. Each delighted me. And for that reason, each experience gave me practice in welcoming unexpected goodness into my life, and nourished my capacity for gratitude.

I hope I never stop experiencing these minor miracles.

What I Learned From Mary Aitken

I learned through the email grapevine that a dear old friend, Mary Aitken, died Sunday night at the age of 87 at the nursing home where she had lived for the past four or five years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hearing of her death has made me think a lot about what I learned from her, and abut what a privilege it was to be her pastor for eight and a half years.

If you knew Mary, it might be a bit of a surprise to read the previous statement. For one thing, Mary was pretty demanding. Even when I knew her, she didn't get around that easily, but she still wanted to go places. It took a huge effort Mary to the Gardner museum, the Harvard Faculty Club and other locations for our Bible study's art discussions and luncheons. And she constantly requested that I visit her, even if I had just been to her apartment for an hour the week before. She had multiple health crises in the time I knew her, so it's not surprising that my kids actually thought her name was "Mary Ache-in".

But the truth of the matter is, I enjoyed being around Mary. It certainly helped that she loved babies and children, and all three of my kids spent plenty of time crawling around the floor of her apartment, playing with her Rock-and-Roll Elmo and eating all the candy and ice cream sandwiches that she saved for them. And she loved to talk, so I learned her complete life story within the first year of our acquaintance. From that point on, I loved to hear the way in which favorite stories cycled back and back again. Soon, we had shared memories of her past.

At one point, Dibbie and I were discussing Mary's insistence that we both come over to her apartment and watch a new video she had gotten about the trans-Canada railway. We were both a bit amused at Mary's excitement about something so mundane, but then Dibbie said, "The thing is, Mary enjoys life." I had to agree.

Mary was not a spiritual sage. In fact, she really struggled with her faith. She was haunted with regret over how her mother had died, and her inability to care for her at the end of her life. She was really bothered by several other situations of unfairness she had encountered in her life, and found it very difficult to forgive wrongs done to her. But I still found her inspiring, in large part because she was able to get really excited about small things and really touched by small kindnesses. And also, she was able to fall in love, or at least develop a massive crush, and dream of finally getting married at an age when she could only walk with the help of a walker.

Okay, so that was probably a bit crazy of her. But who cares? I think of Mary sometimes when I hear some wise soul go on about the importance of truly Being Present to the Here and Now. Mindfulness has a lot going for it, but sometimes living in a state of denial, living in a fantasy world isn't such a bad option either. When I knew her, the Here and Now of Mary's life was pretty tough, and it only got worse over the past five years. But she had an ability to detach from her circumstances and float around in memories and in dreams. Since she often invited me to come along on these journeys, I got to see their benefit too.

I loved Mary, and I loved being her pastor. I wish I could be in Massachusetts Friday to bid her farewell.

Behold, I Stand at the Door

One of the benefits of pastoring a 38-year-old church is that we haven't collected nearly the amount of bad art that inhabits most older churches. Many of the pictures hanging on the walls of old New England churches of the sort I first served were put there by people who died shortly after hanging the picture (or so it would seem) and as a result, the picture can never be moved.

One of the most common is this one, called, "Behold, I Stand at the Door and Knock". It always amused me because Jesus looks so polite in the picture. I used to imagine a reinterpretation entitled, "Behold, I am climbing in through the window because you haven't answered the door."

So, the nob on KC's front door is acting up again. Sunday evening, as I was leaving the church after Candlelight Evening Prayers with Normale, Anne and Greg, it looked a fair amount of wiggling and jiggling to get us out. We were joking that if Jesus were to come to our church, he would say, "Behold, I stand inside your church, trying to get out the door."

Hmmm. There might be something to that....