Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What do we do about our sisters?

My parents had five children.  I am the oldest.  My sister (Elsa) is the youngest.  I am very close to my sister.  She lived with us for a season while she was trying to pull things together after a painful divorce.  She eventually found a wonderful husband and now lives in Colorado Springs.  Elsa is a prolific writer and has been a constant source of encouragement while I have been trying to figure what is next for my own manuscript.  She will be in Columbia this week.  I can’t wait to see her.  Elsa’s smile is infectious, and I am sure we will have numerous talks late into the night that will be mutually uplifting.  I’m so glad she is coming!

Last week, I was in Redding California.  I spent most of my time with Sarah Sumner.  She and her husband (Jim) hosted me in their home, but much of my time was spent with Sarah.  She is the dean of the seminary that is creating the Master’s program we will be bringing to Woodcrest.  For three days, I went to various meetings with her.  I met some amazing people and marveled at her leadership.  She is wise, quick-witted and a person of high integrity.  We talked at length about my manuscript and often talked late into the night about matters of personal and spiritual significance.  How good and pleasant it is to have such a dear sister in the Lord.

OK, let me stop right there for a moment and ask you to take stock of what is happening in your thoughts as you process what you just read.  Do you feel nervous?  Are you worried about what might be really happening between Sarah and I?  Does this sound like fodder for juicy gossip?  Isn’t it interesting how often that is our first thought?  Did my story about my flesh and blood sister affect how you read about my time with Sarah?  What would you have thought had I just started this note talking about my time with Sarah?

Quite ironically, one of lunch meetings I had with Sarah last week was with another visible Christian leader in the community (who happened to be a male).  Part of our conversation was about a lunch the two of them had several weeks before.  It was a “problem” because he was a man and she was a woman.  And, because their lunch was just the two of them…people were “talking.”

In a day and age where Christian leaders regularly fail us (most notably on the matter of sexual purity), I can understand why this was a “problem” for my brother.  He is a young, handsome, prominent and highly-regarded Christian leader in the community.  I understand the complexity of what he was trying to navigate. 

That is why I adhere to a similar set of boundaries myself.  I never have lunch alone with a woman.  I avoid traveling in a car alone with a woman who is not a member of the family.  No extended counseling sessions with women.  I even wrote about the importance of these “necessary boundaries” in my first team-building book.  It is all about minimizing risk, protecting personal boundaries, and understanding the power of perceptions.  I get it!

But, I was challenged by Sarah’s response to my brother at the lunch we shared together.  I have been pondering it ever since. 

She said something to the affect of, “Why must we automatically sexualize male/female relating?  Why must every encounter between a man and a woman necessarily raise questions about sexual infidelity?  Certainly, in the scriptures we have numerous pictures and images of appropriate male/female relating.  In fact, the most common image is that of a brother/sister connection.  If we can’t model that in the church…who will?  Should we allow the excesses of the few circumvent the benefits to the many?”

WHOA!

This morning I did a brief Bible study on the times and places where we find a reference to the image of “brother/sister” in scripture.  There were seven pages of references in my on-line concordance (168 references to be exact).  Let me note a few of them:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.”
                                                                                                            Matthew 18:15

“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
                                                                                                           Matthew 18:21

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
                                                                                                            Matthew 25:40

“Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
                                                                                                            Mark 3:35

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”
                                                                                                            Mark 10:29-30

When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.
                                                                                                            Acts 18:27

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.
                                                                                                            Romans 1:13

Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.
                                                                                                            II Corinthians 13:11

OK, I think you get the point.  Through out scripture there is a constant drum beat of brother/sister relating that is good and right…dare I say normal?  But, I believe my friend’s response to Sarah is the more common reality in Christian community today.  He said, “Sarah, I hear what you are saying.  But,  I have no idea what that actually looks like.” 

Perhaps I have an advantage that I have a “blood sister” whom I love and feel very close to.  My connection with her is all about her and who she is in her womanhood, but it isn’t sexual, or maybe better said: “It is not erotic.”  Therefore, I have a mental image and real-life experiences of what relating to a sister-in-the-Lord looks and feels like.  By saying that, I do not mean to suggest that I have it all figured out.  In fact, I’d like to get clearer on it.

Perhaps even this post can help start a new level of conversation. 

What do you think?

12 comments:

glitch-man said...

Whoa. Deep stuff. And a conversation I'd truly like to have, with anyone who takes it seriously, but definitely not in a public format, like on Piet's blog. This is getting into personal stuff that, IMHO, needs to remain personal. For me, at least. That being said, I think this is a great question and would make a great study, even if not for the weekend.

Debbie said...

I have a wonderful brother - we may not have the same type of relationship as you and Elsa but I love him very much and could tell him anything. I have a lot of close male friends. My thoughts of having lunch or dinner with a married male friend is not so much why "our" minds go to the sexual but others who might not know Christ as we do. What they know is people professing to be Christian then living a life that is unChristian - like infidelity. I do not want to give them fuel for their beliefs that we are all hypocrites, that there must be something going on, etc. I know my intentions, my male friends know their intentions, but the world does not and that's where it becomes hurtful. My 2 cents.

Pastah Piet said...

Debbie,

I agree with you. That is why I have the ‘boundaries” in place that I do.

AND, here is where I have been wrestling with it all. There is a scene in Luke 7:36ff where Jesus meets a “sinful woman” who washes his feet with her hair. The Pharisees see this and say, “If this man knew what kind of woman was touching him, he would have nothing to do with her” (vs 39). If there was ever a time where Jesus should have been aware of his reputation it was in that very moment. In my opinion, he put too much at risk . If I were giving Jesus leadership counsel in that moment – I would have said (with the Pharisees, “Not a smart move master!”

Which then begs the question, “Why did Jesus do it?” Certainly he knew how this looked. Certainly he understood what he was putting at risk. So, why go “there”? Why give his enemy “fuel” for their critiques.

The only thing that makes sense to me is that he did so for the sake of love. Sometimes loving well requires risk. Sometimes it means being willing to let somebody else wonder about you.

That said, clearly, I am not Jesus. I also have a wife whose preferences I need to respect. I don’t want to be naïve about the ways in which I can be deceived by myself and others. This is not a simple matter.

But, what I find increasingly unsettling (maybe just in me) is that it is so easy to use the excuse of boundaries and protecting reputation etc., as the righteous sounding reason for not doing what Jesus prioritized above everything else. Love.

Dusty said...

Society today paints everything as a scandal, and sadly, there are far too many scandals. People don't trust people... sex sells, and everybody wants to hear the "juicy stuff." Jesus had credibility and maintained it. It was probably a little different back then than it is now.

Males and females, married and unmarried have to always be aware of perception. As a single guy, I have to be aware of who I even sit by in church, or if I sit with them too often because even church can be seen as an "intimate setting." Many of us live as if in a fishbowl, and the day we forget that everyone is looking into our world is the day we will make the mistakes that lead to our demise. While males and females CAN have completely friendly, professional and platonic relationships, transparency but be maintained in today's age for our credibility to be maintained. The problems may not in actuality be ours, but rather in the eye of society... But that will in turn become our problem. Attempts to justify legitimate actions are sometimes seen as defenses to wrong doing, to which we have no control.

Some people say "it doesn't matter what other people think" but honestly, it does. Its just an issue of how important one's credibility is to themselves, and if a person loses their credibility, what else does he/she have?

"Better safe than sorry." "If it doesn't look good, its no good." "When is doubt, don't." -Three terms my "employer" stresses again, and again, and again. I do better at it some days than others!

Stacey said...

Hey Piet,

So you got Miriam and I talking. We’re currently sitting at Panera avoiding our homework because your questions are way more fun!

The first one we have is about the historical context of the phrase ‘brothers and sisters’. The first century world would have had a very different understanding of that term than we do and we were wondering how that might affect/change our understanding of it today. For example, the way it is phrased seems idiomatic, that it was perhaps more of an ancient way of saying ‘us all’? We know the historical understanding of the phrase isn’t everything, but we’re wondering what a first century audience would have understood the phrasing to mean.

We also were thinking about the verses you selected. Matthew 18 in particular seemed to be a conversation about how we should think about relating to other people, not just other men and women. The crux of it seems to be a focus on unity in the community of God. So, if that is the case, are we asking the question “what will bring unity to the kingdom of god” in everything we do (including our male/female relationships) Unity can still mean you will be misunderstood, but how can we, in humility, embrace those ‘hard things’ and strive towards and greater understanding of the kingdom of God as being about ‘us’ instead of ‘me’ or ‘you’.

That then led us to wonder if, perhaps, the question is not “can I go with him/her alone and have this talk” but “who else could benefit from or bring more depth to this conversation and lets invite them along!”. There are, of course, conversations where one-on-one is best, but, more often than not, could we all not benefit from a more inclusive, community-oriented experience?

Stevi said...

Here's a thought that kind of threw me a curve-ball in thinking about this topic. With the prevalence of people dealing with same-sex attraction, is our view maybe even too narrow?

In regards to sexual temptation, if we view all opposite-sex friendships as "dangerous," and all same-sex friendships as "safe," it seems to me that maybe we're walking a minefield with our eyes shut.

We're not only missing out on some beautiful brother-sister relationships, we may also be putting our friends who privately struggle with same-sex attraction, in a dangerous spot.

Even friendships between people who are not sexually attracted to one another can become emotionally unhealthy when the friends become each other's pseudo-spouse - their source of security and affirmation.

Should we maybe be focused less on the strict boundaries between males and females, and maybe focus more on promoting healthy Christ-centered platonic relationships and avoiding unhealthy and inappropriate emotional or sexual entanglements?

Pastah Piet said...

Stacey,

Shame on you for letting my blog post keep you from your studies! But, I won’t tell on you. AND I loved your engagement of the piece.

Let me give you my take on what you expressed – at least as I am processing them in this moment – I am not ready to draw any firm conclusions quite yet. I am just asking questions.

On your first point, on how the first century culture interpreted “brother/sister” relating – and whether or not that would be different then how we view those same relationships today. Good point! Apparently you must be doing your hermeneutics homework in close proximity to your blog reading. My initial take on that is that the words “brother” and “sister” must mean something specific (not tied to cultural norms) from a Holy Spirit perspective. In other words, I believe there is a picture in God’s mind about what “brother/sister” means and that is really at the core of my question. What does that mean? What does that look like?

In terms of the verses I selected, I basically took the first few I found in the concordance that had slightly different nuances in their meaning – and I was particularly interested in the NT teaching – so the fact that many were from Matthew was just a product of where I started. The larger point is that there are 168 references all together.

Finally, to clarify, I am certainly not suggesting that one-on-one male/female relating is at the heart of brother-sistering. In fact, that may be a recipe for disaster! I believe we have all seen quite enough of that. So, yes, this has to be figured out “in community” (in the truest sense). That is partly why I started the conversation here in a blog. Maybe we can just start tossing out some ideas and see what sticks. Thanks for delaying your homework long enough (great sacrifice - I know) to add your two cents ;o)

Pastah Piet said...

Stevi,

Great re-direct!

I think you may be right. I believe the main point may in fact be to: promote healthy Christ-centered platonic relationships and avoid unhealthy and inappropriate emotional or sexual entanglements – be it male/female, male/male, female/female, dog/cat…

Thanks for that!

-Mel. said...

When I read your first few paragraphs, I thought, “that’s what friends should be.” However, I’ve seen this work both ways in my own life. Most of my closest friends growing up and in adulthood have been guys. I’ve shared dreams and had deep fulfilling conversation without romantic entanglements. But, around when I got married, a Christian brother relationship turned bad. In the space of a few months, he went from years of closeness, to lying, to not speaking to me, to vaguely creepy. We haven’t spoken in over two years. It’s sad and confusing at the same time. Who wants to go through that again?

As far as people talking, I think that’s inevitable. Like someone meantioned, it’s not just male/female. If two guys or two girls hang out all the time, there’s talk about that too. I had an colleague who hung out with a group of women “too much” and people were talking about them being gay. It’s no wonder modern people avoid having serious relationships with anyone!

I think that if I can help a blossoming Christian guy/girl with questions about faith, than it’s worth the risk. I do think that was what Jesus was doing. The girl in the passage was more important than talk. But, I don’t have that kind of discernment. Part of why I was friends with the guy above was because he was a fairly new Christian and was asking me questions that needed guidance. Was he asking questions because he just wanted me there, or did he really want the answers? How do we judge that?

Mrs. Neuge said...

Being brutally, depressingly , simply, honest...

Our culture is simply not set up to teach pure Christian values. Our children are taught from such a young age that they can use whoever they want for their own personal gain and that any individual (same sex or opposite) is only here on Earth for their own sexual fulfillment.

With this in mind, there is no brotherhood/sisterhood to be found...only a lot of broken/lost souls who desperately need to be saved.

Mary said...

"Treat the older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity." I Tim. 5:2

My thoughts: Purity is not ignorance or innocence; it is self-control and appropriate "disinterested" admiration, agape, thinking about what is good for the other person.

Doctors and nurses have professional appropriate standards. Therapists as well. Part of being a professional is being trustworthy.

After my mother died, my father and I had many long talks, sometimes all day long. One time he said to me, "Every relationship is sexual because you are always a sexual being!" He was looking back on a long life of dealing with the stress of attraction and the discipline of appropriate relating, knowing he had reaped the rewards of purity.

Eternity is going to give us lots of time to be brother-sister and sister-sister and brother-brother friends. Hallelujah!

Pastah Piet said...

When words are many, sin is not absent…
Proverbs 10:19

I am preacher, author and rookie blogger. I am also trying my hand @ twitter and I probably send/receive 100 texts/day. That means I am smack dab in the middle of that “when words are many” category. Therefore, it stands to reason that the “sin is not absent” piece is also relevant for me.

I sinned at least four times in the posting of this blog.

First, I did not ask Sarah’s permission to use her name in bringing up a topic that I thought might make for interesting discussion. That was insensitive and unprofessional.

Second, I didn’t accurately portray what was said at the breakfast table. People weren’t “talking" about them – rather Nathan’s wife expressed concern about Sarah and Nathan meeting one-on-one over lunch, because it violated an agreement they had made about meeting with members of the opposite sex. I extrapolated that this “agreement” was based on the possibility that this would create “talk” – but I didn’t know that and I further exaggerated the point that it was already happening. My recounting of the story was therefore inaccurate.

Perhaps that seems like a small detail. But, the larger and more significant point was that I made the story bigger then it needed to be and made it appear (however unintentionally) that people were “talking” about Sarah and her pastor, when in fact, that was not happening. The truth is that Nathan and Sarah both work really hard on maintaining an ethical standard that is above reproach and even small twists in stories like this can do undo harm. I deeply regret my cavalier attitude about that.

Third, I made it sound like I “never” violate certain boundaries of male/female relating. The truth is that I have certain practices that abide by (generally speaking) – but there are certain instances and certain people with whom I make an exception. By writing the blog the way I did, I set myself up as something different than what is actually true.

Finally, I wrote the blog from a distinctly male perspective. However inadvertently I may have been in my description of the challenge of brother/sister relating, it was still written with the slant that women can be a problem for men – without giving credence to the fact that men can be equally culpable. So, though I may have been trying to point out a double-standard, I reinforced it just by the way I wrote the blog. UGH!

All that to say that I have a new awareness of the sin potential in many words, and I am re-doubling my efforts at being more truthful. Please forgive my carelessness.

Piet

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