Last in series: Escape the Rat Race (the letter to the Colossians)
Unfortunately, we lost this week's audio recording due to technical difficulty. Sorry for the inconvenience!
YOUR HOME CAN HELP YOU ESCAPE THE RAT RACE
Today we are bringing in for a landing our series of talks “Escape the Rat Race!"
We’ve been talking about the pressures that most every modern American city dweller feels
The pressure to keep up, to not lose our spot in line, to plow forward with our head down, to climb the social or career ladder… or else!
These pressures can wield a fair amount of power over our experience of life
It can leave us feeling like we’re living a mundane, unfulfilled, trapped existence
Going from deadline to deadline, long day to long day, obligation to obligation
Hard to access connection or meaning or joy or the beauty of the world
Hard to feel spiritually alive or close to God or any sense of higher purpose
Even more, last week Kyle really brilliantly highlighted for us the connection between the pressures of the rat race and "the status quo” that keeps the powerful powerful and the poor poor
He took us to the musical number “At the end of the day” from Les Mis to show us the particular brand of the Rat Race in Pre-Revolution France
That brought to light a lot about our own American brand of the Rat Race today
And it also helped us to enter into another historical brand of the Rat Race - that of the first century Greco-Roman city Colossae (modern-day Turkey)
If you’ve been with us, you’ll remember that we’ve organized this series of talks around the letter St. Paul wrote to the early church in Colossae (it’s from the New Testament of the Bible)
Well, today, we come to the final section of Paul’s letter to the Colossians
And we encounter a unique style of writing completely foreign to modern people like us, but common in the first century:
What historians call a “household code"
It is what it sounds like: a moral code of conduct for a household
Here’s how a household should operate
Here’s what each member of a household should be doing, and how they should treat each other
How to keep one’s house in order.
And this genre of the household code got me thinking about a definitively American Genre… not of writing… but of TV:
The Family Sitcom
Everybody Loves Raymond
All the shows from ABC's “TGIF” - remember that?
In America today
The nuclear family and the household is sort of sacred, so the idea of moral codes of conduct instructing people so directly might feel like a bit of an outrage, or at the very least inappropriate
But in a way family sitcoms are our own versions of household codes of conduct; they are just far more indirect in the way they instruct us
Think about it
In general, they reflect an image of our culture's status quo
Since Family sitcoms became a thing in post-WWII American TV culture, the vast majority have portrayed white, upper-middle-class, quote-unquote “mainstream” America
A recent Mic Online Magazine survey of 50 contemporary family sitcoms found 34 revolved around white families
The vast majority have promoted traditional gender social roles, and traditional gender stereotypes — this is what men are like; this is what women are like
They have characters who are funnier and wittier than we are, houses that are cleaner than ours, and their conflicts are always resolved within a half hour
So that’s not direct moralizing, but we still are internalizing “lessons” from their messages, aren’t we?
Because inevitably we compare their sense of humor to our sense of humor, their house to our house, their conflict to our conflict
I don’t mean to say family sitcoms are bad (I watched Family Matters and Full House just as much as the next Millennial!),
BUT the cultural impact of the established TV genre of the Family Sitcom does a lot to keep people in the American Rat Race
They, by and large, reinforce the status quo
This is why I think they're a helpful modern parallel for the ancient household code genre of writing
The important thing to know about Greco-Roman Household Codes from Paul’s day is that
In general, any morality or conduct they condoned was about maintaining the status quo
They were concerned with keeping things the same, in order, respectable
They were written by powerful people in the arts or philosophy, to demonstrate that person’s cultural influence, and to maintain a basis for their status and power
And, as a result, they kept everyone else in society in the Rat Race
They were always written by men… because men were in power
They addressed men only… women and children were thought of as lesser beings
And further, they addressed men who were free only… those lower on the social totem pole, like slaves, weren't worth talking to… they were just for talking about
This was a different institution than the kind of slavery we are most familiar with in American history… but the economic disparity between masters and slaves was the same
Here’s an excerpt from a well-known ancient household code from the Greek philosopher Aristotle (not a contemporary of Paul, but the school of thought that followed in his footsteps was)
Of household management we have seen that there are three parts—one is the rule of a master over slaves… another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the older and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature…
The freeman rules over the slave after another manner from that in which the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature.
So… yeah... Bracing, to say the least, to our modern sensibilities, huh?
Not a fun read… it feels dismissive and arrogant
Well, let’s take that standard-fare Greco-Roman household code and put it side-by-side with Paul’s version of a household code from the letter to the Colossians… this is from chapters 3 & 4
18 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.
4:1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven...
5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Now we live in a totally different world than the Colossians did, obviously, but here’s a couple of notes I think are worth making from Paul's version of a household code, in comparison to the traditional household codes of his time
First off, Paul personally addresses women, children, and slaves; he isn't just speaking to the men… he even addresses the women before the men!
All of that is countercultural
Second, every statement to any member of a household has an opposite statement to communicate balance, mutuality, reciprocal relationships
Wives do this, husbands do this
Children do this, fathers do this
Slaves do this, masters do this
Third, Paul does have power and authority in this context (he is a male of higher status, with repute, and the people he’s writing to have heard of him and trust him)
BUT he doesn’t use that to his advantage…
He is not defended or protective of his status in what he is writing
By comparison to the norm, he is empowering everyone in society who is not male and not “of status”
He also takes care to see and acknowledges societal outsiders… those who don’t fit into traditional family units
Finally, just his general tone is different…
Paul seems to be interested in the quality of family members' relationships, rather than how correct those relationships are, according to some societal norm
I think Paul uses the household code genre the way a TV Show like “Blackish” uses the Family Sitcom genre.
Do you know “Blackish”?
It is a really smart show from actor Anthony Anderson (who stars in it) and creator Kenya Barris
It’s a funny and insightful look at a successful black man and his family struggling through matters of cultural identity in a predominantly white world
It is, no doubt, a family sitcom... through and through
BUT rather than just reinforce the status quo, like most family sitcoms
Blackish courageously goes where no one else will,
It tackles difficult matters,
Its relationship to culture isn’t “business as usual”, but instead it encourages dialogue and questions like “does anything need to change?"
One episode revolved around the use of the N-Word
One episode revolved around the debate over spanking children in discipline
One episode revolved around responding to news of police brutality toward racial minorities, and also responding to those responses, like all that happened in Ferguson
Nearly every episode identifies a tension in parenting or family life or identity for black Americans
But then rather than conform to stereotypes... Rather than preach a message one way or another about that tension...
The show explores how and why equally-likable characters arrive at opposite sides of those tensions
I think Blackish, in the best way, stands out like a sore thumb, among all the other family sitcoms out there
Blackish is to the world of Family sitcoms, as St. Paul is to the world of household codes
Paul's household code is about setting the cultures of these 1st century families in the Colossian church on a trajectory toward something different than the status quo,
He leverages a culturally familiar genre to be countercultural in particular ways, encouraging
Marriage and sexual relationships based on mutuality and consent
Parent and children relationships based on trust
Slave and master relationships based on justice and fairness
Historians have lately been considering the fascinating idea that Paul was possibly the first feminist
That the shifts he initiated to the trajectory of “what ideal gender roles look like” or “what ideal families looks like” were the first that needed to happen in the ongoing process toward gender equality
This makes it all the more ironic and unfortunate that much of the church world, historically, has reinforced the status quo of gender inequality
A lot of that comes down to mishandling Paul’s household code here in Colossians (and mishandling other examples of the genre in the Bible)
They mishandled them by not seeking to understand them in context -- in comparison to other household codes of the time
Instead, they’ve been observed as isolated statements,
“Wives, submit to your husbands” - end of story
And so patriarchy was reinforced
What I think we modern readers of the letter to the Colossians can come away with is the wise suggestion that:
The cultures of our households matter - they have power
They can pretty easily just be another reality reinforcing the status quo and a Rat Race experience of life
Or, if we take some care, their power can be harnessed to be the opposite
Whether your household is the “traditional” American picture:
The nuclear family - wife, husband, kids
Or your household is something different
A couple with no kids… maybe you don’t even plan on having kids
My household is my wife, my son, and also two housemates
Maybe your household is just you… that’s still a household with a culture!
Maybe your household is you and a roommate or two… that’s a household!
Maybe your household is your nuclear family, but also some of your extended family - grandparents or aunts or uncles or cousins
What comes to mind when you ask yourself: What is the culture of my household?
How do people treat each other here?
How are (quote-unquote) “outsiders” treated here?
Do you like the culture of your household?
Do you feel like it reflects the values you want to reflect?
Do you personally feel empowered as a valuable member in your household? Why or why not?
Is there anything about the culture of your household you wish you could change?
These sorts of questions help to tell the story of how much of our life at home (when ideally we’re most at rest) feels like a Rat Race
The promise Paul continually has turned the Colossians back to as we’ve gone through this letter is:
Following Jesus is an escape from the Rat Race
Life can be tiring and hurtful and pressuring and infuriating…
But your spinning wheels can find rest wherever Jesus feels close
That can be through prayer - I feel Jesus close to me because I’m taking a quiet moment to pray
Or it can be through connection with others - I feel Jesus close because his Spirit is present in the relationships between people
Or it can be through just a flash of meaning or purpose or joy that I get while I’m going about something else - I feel Jesus close because this good experience felt like a gift directly from him
No matter the avenue we’re taking to follow Jesus, he will always lead us to rest from the rat race
So, what if the cultures of our households were spiritually life-giving?
What if our homes felt like refuge from the rat race?
I’ve learned in my experience that there is no single correct way to do that, but that asking the question is extremely rewarding!
For the last nearly five years now, my wife and I have lived with housemates
It started as an effort to save money on rent and utilities
But we actually fell in love with it after a while, and now want to continue doing it not just because it’s cheaper
One of the main reasons was just that it forced us to be intentional in a way we never had about the culture of the household we were living in
We were now dealing with the expectations and desires and personalities not just of two adults who are married, but of (for the first year we did this) SIX adults, some of whom don’t even know each other that well
It forced us to have conversations - How do we want to operate as a house?
About things like cooking and cleaning, sure
But also about deeper things
For all six of us that first year, it mattered that we had a home that felt spiritually life-giving
THE QUESTION THOUGH WAS: what does such a household look like?
We had different opinions!
For some of us, it meant:
a quiet, peaceful place to retreat to after long days interacting with people at work
But for others of us, it meant:
a happening, joyful place to be filled back up after feeling alone all day at work
No one was more correct than the others
The best we could do was try to balance and make space for all of these opinions
Respect what each person desired when it came to creating a spiritually life-giving environment
And so we’d have to have follow up conversations and do conflict with each other because inevitably we’d overstep bounds with each other or let each other down or have to clarify things
These conversations often didn’t feel easy, but they insured that we all continued to be intentional about the culture of our household
Now, living in community with other people may not be the right call for everyone… I bring up my own experience not to comment on that, but just to say:
This was what forced me to be in intentional conversations about my household’s culture
And to be considering and respecting the opinions and desires of others, not just my own
And I am so glad to have ended up in those conversations
Because that year living with those six people, our house DID feel spiritually life-giving!
Our house DID feel like a refuge from the American Rat Race
It felt refreshing emotionally and spiritually and physically to be there… it wasn’t just the place I slept and ate in between long days of work
The conversations we had in our home inspired me
The way we tried to do conflict rather than let passive-aggressiveness stew made me feel safe
The fact that I could have asked anyone of the people I lived with to pray for me, and they would have totally met me in such a space
When I was in our house, those hard-to-shake pressures to keep up with others, to make more money, to climb ladders of success or status weighed on me less… they had less power to dictate my mood
It wasn’t that our living situation was some kind of magic formula…
It was just that we ended up spending a lot of time that year intentionally talking about our household’s culture, and trying to respect each other’s opinions and desires
Any living situation can have that kind of intentionality
And it pays off! In the form of a household culture that feels spiritually life-giving!
So I wondered if, for this week, I might leave us with a takeaway along the lines of being intentional about our households…
First, consider in prayer what a spiritually lifegiving household culture is to you
It can be so clarifying to express in our heads or even out loud our processings and thoughts with the belief that Jesus is listening to us… that’s what I mean by “consider in prayer”
Maybe we feel Jesus highlight something we said as we do that
Or maybe we sense Jesus speaking something to us, a new picture or thought we hadn’t previously come up with… so it’s important to listen as well as talk, when we pray
Anyone of these things might happen for you… everyone’s prayer life is a little different
And then, if there are others in your household, swap your considerations with them
If it feels like you could ask them to do this same prayer exercise, do that, and then compare notes
Or if it doesn’t feel like you could ask them that, then do your best to share openly what’s on your heart
The goal here is trying to act in some way on Paul’s wisdom that the culture of our household impacts how much of life feels like a rat race
Well, let me give us some space to even get started on that endeavor of prayer and intentional conversation for this week
If you would, stand with me now, and I’ll lead us all in prayer