Saturday, March 31, 2012

My Dad's "Conversion"

The Jesus picture occupied a very special place in my childhood home, the space above the mantel of the fireplace. It was Dad’s version of an altar.

I never really understood why he had Jesus’ portrait in our home. He never went to church even while he dropped me and my sister off at the Lutheran church every Sunday morning for Sunday School. I started when I was seven or eight years old. By the time I was twelve, I hated church and demanded an end to the meaningless ritual. He agreed. Perhaps he had a similar experience as a child and that’s why he never went himself. Perhaps it was because he was Presbyterian.

I still did not understand why the Jesus picture was over the fireplace. Dad never talked about spiritual things. I never saw him pray or read the Bible. Early on I figured out the difference between the language spoken at the Lutheran church and the language spoken at home. When I heard him use the words “Jesus” and “God” they obviously did not mean the same thing to my dad as they did to the church people.

So why the “altar”?

He never told me how he got the Jesus picture, but after I became a Christian in high school, Dad told me a story about it. An incident happened before we started going to Sunday School. It’s probably why he wanted to take us, to give us a shot at spirituality.

Dad came home after work one day to find an Okinawan woman “witnessing” to my deaf-mute mother concerning her religion, Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist movement that was growing rapidly on the island. Over a period of a month, the woman convinced Mom that if she converted and gave money to them she would be healed. She would regain her hearing and speech. But there was another condition.

The Jesus picture had to come down.

If the picture meant nothing to Dad before this, it meant something now. The Jesus picture was no longer the image of a gentle Savior who was known to sit around sheep and children but the icon of a holy and jealous God protecting the vulnerable and requiring loyalty. Dad was incensed that the woman had promised something she could not deliver to my mother. How dare she invade his home with her religion and her demands! He refused to dethrone Jesus from the wall. Mom was so furious with Dad that she gathered a few belongings and left the house with the woman.

He let her go.

Dad chose the Jesus picture and almost lost his wife. (Yeah, she came back later when she figured out the lies.)

Fast forward to a particular night of my junior year of high school. “Hey, Dad. I became a Christian tonight.” “That’s nice.” End of conversation.

Again fast forward a few years when I’m in Bible college. Dad prays the “prayer” and now I consider him a Christian.

Then years later when he’s retired. I write him a letter assuring him that once saved, always saved even if he still hates church.

Final fast forward to the days following his sudden heart attack and death. I listen to audio tapes made by Dad. In the middle of instructions on where to find everything in case he dies, he suddenly bursts into verbal praises of God.

I let him go.

This thing called “conversion” is not one decision. It’s a journey. It’s a life of choices and conversions. Of moments of faith. Of doubts. Of final breaths of praise. Of letting go.

I believe that when Dad got to heaven, it wasn’t the doubts or his aversion to church that defined his journey. Instead I imagine he heard these words from Jesus:

Thanks for keeping my picture.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

My Faith Story Has a History

Years ago I remember sitting at my desk during my church history class in seminary wondering where the women were in the textbook. The only woman mentioned in any detail positively was Queen Elizabeth I of England. There were certainly plenty of men whose stories had been written and whose words had been studied extensively in Bible classes.

Interesting that one of Elizabeth’s favorite mottoes was video et taceo or “I see and say nothing.” As the absence of women’s stories became more evident, I adopted the opposite motto: non video et non taceo – I do not see and am not silent. So for my final class paper I decided to explore women in the history of the church. I was dumbfounded. In the process of researching and writing I came to several conclusions.

1.     There are plenty of incredible stories of godly women who demonstrated great faith and courage in the face of marginalization and persecution.

2.     Most of these stories are not familiar because men have written the majority of church history books and have ignored or devalued the contribution of these women.

3.     It is important that women of faith know their own history, that they know the stories of women who sacrificed much to follow Christ and that they have models of women who resisted creatively when oppressed, wrote passionately when silenced and found new avenues of ministry when marginalized.

I wrote my paper outlining a course just for women who wanted to understand their faith history. It was both enjoyable and inspiring to me as I focused on the early church years to the Reformation. That paper opened my eyes to the reality of women’s struggles to live out their faith and their calling in a world where men were in privileged positions of power. Unfortunately that reality continues in my world today.

Even though the man who wrote the history book used in my class did not see the extraordinary women whose stories should have been written on its pages, I know God saw them. I know because God wrote his own history book and he included the stories of women. What’s so amazing is that most of them are stories in the Old Testament where patriarchy was the ruling cultural paradigm. Men may have physically written the Bible and the history recorded in it but they were inspired by God to include both prominent and obscure stories of women.

I think of Rahab the prostitute in the city of Jericho, the first target of Joshua’s campaign to conquer the land for Israel (Joshua 2). How odd that Joshua would send two spies to Jericho after the disastrous attempt forty years earlier by Moses. Furthermore, the plan did not really need any intel from the inside since they would be marching only on the outside. But I think God saw the heart of a prostitute who clearly saw the footprints of Yahweh from Egypt to the walls of Jericho. He saw Rahab and sent the spies to provide protection from destruction and a pathway for her faith to be fused with a chosen nation, a pathway for her DNA to become fused with a future chosen Son (Matthew 1). Rahab is so prominent that she is among the names of the faithful in Hebrews 11.

But God also saw a quiet woman, the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17). How odd that God didn’t keep the brook in the ravine full of water for Elijah when he was already using ravens to bring bread and meat to the hiding prophet. Instead God sent Elijah many miles across the Jordan River to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea where he met a starving widow who was in the process of fixing a last meal for herself and her son. God saw the desperation of this unnamed woman and sent a prophet to provide resources for her physical needs and later a miracle of resurrection for her son.

From the prominent to the quiet, from the bold to the desperate, God saw these women, pursued them and embraced them. I am continually impressed by the quality of women I meet in the Old Testament. But more than that, I am impressed with how often God included them in his history, a significant contrast to the history books written since the canon was closed. I am greatly encouraged by the overall implication: God loves the female half of his image.

I believe God deeply grieved when women were treated as property rather than sanctioned as his image-bearers. He had compassion for the widows and the prostitutes. He answered those who suffered under the cultural pressure of bearing children. God saw them, heard their cries, answered their prayers, listed them in genealogies, used them to save people and gave them prophetic words to deliver messages and speak truth.

And there have been similar stories throughout church history.  All of them together assure me that God sees women today and still considers our stories as integral to his purposes for the Kingdom. God writes his own history and only God can write our stories, our personal history as women who bear Christ’s image and are called to his purposes.

In an earlier post I described my vision for gender reconciliation. But how can this vision become a reality?

I’ve come to realize that even if the rules change and women are given places of leadership, the partnership is still vulnerable to misunderstanding and fear. I believe it is important for men to step into the stories of women with the intention to understand what it feels like to be a woman with a history of objectification, oppression and marginalization. Men who want to relinquish their place of privilege and power need to understand what that looks like from women’s perspectives and why some are fearful or conditioned to refuse men’s efforts to treat them as coworkers in the Kingdom.

I believe a good first step into women’s stories is to know their history. To those who want to love the women in their church well, I ask that you read all you can about women in church history and how they were viewed or treated by men in their times. Listen to their voices. Identify the passions of women and the fears of men. Pay attention to patterns of oppression and disengagement. Then allow these stories to inform the stories around you, the relationships you see between men and women.

I believe knowing the history of women in the church is one small but significant step towards gender reconciliation. I think I heard from another student after I completed my paper that the professor began to add the stories of women to his church history course.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Song of Collaboration

In my last post I described my vision for a Blessed Alliance, a partnership in the Kingdom between men and women who are encouraged, equipped and empowered to serve from their giftedness rather than their gender. I mentioned an “aha!” moment during my ministry trip to Beijing when I discovered something in the Bible that was relevant to my vision. It happened at our women’s retreat during a talk given by one of the Chinese women leaders.

As Mawei expounded on the qualities of a leader as demonstrated by Deborah in the book of Judges (chs. 4-5), I realized that I had never really paid attention to the details of the story. But I had listen to or read essays from plenty of other people who considered her story to be significant.

On one side of the debate, Deborah as a judge and prophet in Israel has been offered as biblical evidence for the full equality of women in leadership. On the other side, she is seen as an unfortunate and less than ideal substitute for the lack of male leadership. The text makes it hard to deny that Deborah is given tremendous respect for her leadership abilities, not to mention her prophetic gift which had strict qualifications according to Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). And it doesn’t seem to me that God had any problem recruiting unwilling judges (read about Gideon in chapter 6).

Barak is caught in the middle of the debate and is often characterized as weak or more strongly, as a coward. However some commentators believe this portrayal is too harsh. His only response is to request that Deborah accompany him to the battlefront. Barak did not dispute Deborah’s instructions. His only “weakness” may have been a lack of confidence to hear directly from God and so he wanted the prophetess to be nearby in case there were further divine orders. He had ample reason to be afraid with only ten thousand fighting Israelites against an untold but probably overwhelming number of men and 900 fearsome chariots. Yet Barak displays great courage and obeys God’s command given through Deborah. He is no weak man!

But he is also human and subject to the same lessons of faith as any other person in the Bible. Consider Moses. Even after the spectacular display of God’s presence in the (non)burning bush and of his power in the transformation of the staff, Moses still resisted God’s command to go to Egypt to face Pharaoh. When he put up the excuse of not having the gift of eloquent speech, God appointed his brother Aaron as a temporary mouthpiece. Eventually Moses found his faith and his voice so that by the time the Israelites were ready to enter the promised land after 40 years of wandering in the desert, Moses was doing just fine in the speech department (read the book of Deuteronomy).

I believe Barak also goes through a development of character and courage. Judges 5:31 tells us that after the death of Sisera and his army, the land has peace for forty years. It is not too much of a stretch to think that Barak’s initial fear has been transformed into a faith and confidence that helps to sustain this peace. In fact he is included in Hebrews 11, the “hall of faith” (11:32).

The story of Deborah is actually the story of Deborah AND Barak. A story of two individuals in partnership called by God to fulfill his purposes for the nation of Israel. A story of two leaders gifted in different but complementary ways, a judge-prophet with a general. A story of a woman who does not back away from the word she receives from God but delivers it to a man who may have been fearful initially but was still appointed by God. A story of a man who submitted to a woman nationally recognized and respected as a leader.

This is a story of mutual collaboration and dependence with roles defined by gifting and actions orchestrated by the command of God, not by cultural expectations. They operated from their strengths and leaned into the other in their weaknesses. Deborah could not wield a sword nor chase a chariot. Barak did not have the spiritual ear to discern God’s voice nor the wisdom to settle disputes. Deborah needed Barak and Barak needed Deborah to achieve the peace God intended for his people.

This collaboration is even more evident in the song of victory in Judges 5. Note that the song is sung by both Deborah and Barak (5:1) even though I have heard and read many refer to it as just the “Song of Deborah,” probably because it appears Deborah is singing most of it (5:7). As far as I know, this is the only song in the Bible written by two people. As if to illustrate their complementary roles, Barak joins her in an antiphony of mutual encouragement that echoes the theme of collaboration (verse 12):

      Barak:         Wake up, wake up, Deborah! Wake up, wake up, break out in song!
      Deborah:    Arise, Barak! Take captive your captives, son of Abinoam.

I wrote on a previous blog describing marriage as a dance of mutual submission. Here we have a song of mutual respect and honor, both praising God for his work of deliverance through their collaboration.

How I wish the church would see leadership and ministry in this way!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

My Vision for Gender Reconciliation

In her guest blog post Lisa DeLay writes about her understanding of the term “the call”:
It's important in the course of this story to share that I don't take the word "call" lightly. It hardly ever applies to me, save two other times. I just don't use that language, and I tend to be suspicious when people over-utilize that word.
No, for me a "call" is like this deep conviction planted in my heart (think Dallas Willard. The heart = one's control center/will). This conviction then progresses through prayer, study, introspection, and wise counsel. I sense that if I don't move in a certain direction I'll be standing against something much bigger than me, and blocking it somehow to my own detriment.
I’m with her on this one. I’m not confident about a particular call on my life but I am confident about my convictions, gifts and passions. Furthermore as I’ve reflected on the trajectory of my experiences, both educational and practical, I’m considering a path that will require the same process Lisa suggests.

In a nutshell, this is what concerns me most today: I believe the evangelical church needs to experience a deep, transformative change in relationships between men and women, a change that results in what Carolyn Custis James describes in Half the Church as the “Blessed Alliance.” This alliance is a return to what God originally designed when he created male and female in his image, his imago dei. Both women and men were created to fulfill their mission together, to rule and subdue the earth together. Nothing in Genesis 1:26-28 indicates hierarchy or authority, only partnership.

James describes the alliance further:
This foundational truth elevates the seriousness of the Blessed Alliance well beyond men “making room” for women and trying to tweak the system here and there to keep us happy. Much deeper kingdom issues are at stake than resolving debates over disputed passages, deciding who’s in charge, resolving conflict, defining his and her roles, and dividing the proverbial pie so everyone gets their fair share. God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” This statement means our brothers cannot be the men God created them to be or do the job God is calling them to do without their sisters. Together, we are God’s preferred method of getting things done in the world. He created his image bearers male and female, blessed them, and spread before them the global mandate to build his kingdom.
I have observed some interesting patterns in the past six years through the stories of many female leaders I have encountered, through the blogs of women who are increasingly voicing their frustration and anger, through books that are documenting the experiences of women leaders, and through my own journey into the wonderful yet hazardous sphere of church ministry.

Many have attempted entering into the debate over disputed passages. But from my perspective it is getting nowhere. In fact, the trenches are being dug more deeply. I’ve met women who were committed to resolving conflict and misunderstanding. But it ended up with more misunderstanding and often they were treated as the enemy. More women are being trained in seminary and are gifted for roles that are not traditionally sought by women. But few churches are hiring them or placing them in leadership positions. Instead they are boxed into safe ("biblical") places of ministry and their voices are not welcome at the table of leadership. Many are exiting the evangelical church and entering mainline denominations where women are welcome. But from what I hear women are still treated poorly in those denominations.

What’s so disconcerting about these stories is that many of the women in ministry are serving under or alongside of men who express their desire to value and encourage them.

So what’s behind the disconnection?

I want to explore this question. I believe this is my next step. It’s not much and it’s more for personal understanding. But I can’t ignore the vision growing deep inside me.

A vision of a Blessed Alliance in which God is most fully and accurately imaged in mutual loving, collaborative, and respectful relationships between men and women whether single or married.

A vision of reconciliation between men and women who work hard against the curse of domination and control, who dismantle fences set up to create safety zones of disengagement, and who choose repentance rather than contempt or fear.

A vision of partnership in doing Kingdom work so that both men and women are fully equipped and operating out of their gifting and passion and the leaders flow with the movement of the Spirit rather than an organizational chart.

A vision of inclusion that recognizes the need for both male and female voices at every level of leadership and ministry so that the perspectives of both genders are welcomed and celebrated not excluded nor confined to cultural roles.

I talked about my vision and convictions with my new friend Liz. We discussed a possible ministry of promoting the Blessed Alliance and what that would look like. She said she got goose bumps hearing what God had laid on my heart. I certainly got encouragement.

Then later that week at the Chinese women’s retreat we both got goose bumps when I made a discovery in the Bible. Perhaps it’s not a huge discovery but it was one of those “aha!” moments that set some wheels turning in my head.

I’ll tell you about it in my next post.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A River Runs Through It

For the past two weeks I have been writing in my other blog, Out of Portland, where I describe my recent adventures in Beijing, China. My trip last September was an incredible experience but this trip was even better.

For one, I was more comfortable and familiar with what I would be facing so that my preparation was quicker and less stressful. Second, our team of seven bonded quickly and experienced a wonderful depth of unity and love. Third, despite many obstacles I received huge answers to prayer and my confidence in Christ increased. And fourth, rooming with Dr. Liz Selzer was a serendipitous experience as she generously offered advice and affirmation in my quest to follow God’s call on my life.

By “call” I mean my final life work, my greatest contribution to the Kingdom, the place where my passion, my gifts, my education and my experiences converge on my purpose for being alive. So what is my call?

I have no idea.

I have hints. I have convictions. I have made choices in my educational pursuits. I see patterns in my personal history.  I have experienced successes. And failures. I know what my gifts and strengths are as well as my weaknesses. I have experienced times of aliveness and joy. I have also experienced deep pain and disappointment.

I also had one of those moments with God when I think He told me something to help me understand how my journey with Christ would be shaped. I don’t presume to “hear from God” but there are times when the moment is so sacred, so outside the box and contrary to what I normally know or think that I can’t help but believe the “voice” was divine.

And what did I hear?

I may never receive THE CALL.

This piece of news came during an exercise of communing with God in nature which my seminary professor assigned to the whole class while on a prayer retreat nearly 12 years ago. I had been wrestling with a decision and decided to pray about it during this exercise. While walking along a small river that ran through the retreat center I encountered God through several metaphors.

The first metaphor was a huge boulder sitting in the middle of the raging spring waters. As I reflected on the rock, these thoughts tumbled through my brain: Harriet, you are like that rock in the river. You are resisting doing this thing I have asked you to do. You will not budge from your comfortable place and flow with my Spirit. Instead you are creating a lot of foam with your complaining of the situation that I have asked you to step into and help to be part of the solution. The real decision you must make is whether to obey me and move or stay where you are.

Rats! I did not like being compared to that stubborn boulder! And I did want to obey. So I submitted my heart to what I believed God was asking me to do.  The wrestling was done. But there was more to the river.

I walked a little further down the flow and came to a small tributary that broke off from the main river. A small island had formed and I could see where the tributary rejoined the river. As I stared at the small stream, another thought converged with my mind: Harriet, this thing I am asking you to do is just a temporary detour. There are some things for you to learn here that you will not learn anywhere else. Don’t worry. Eventually I will take you back into the main stream of the purposes I have for you where you will use the gifts I have given you.

Okay. I can handle temporary. Temporary ended up being three and a half years. And the things I needed to learn ended up being the most painful lessons of my life. But it also ended in some of the deepest healing moments and greatest growth experiences ever. The detour was worth it. And there was one more river metaphor to come.

When I finally pulled my eyes away from the tributary I looked up to observe the rest of the river’s flow. What I saw was a little disappointing. The river took a bend shortly after the small stream reconnected and I could not see much more of its flow. It did not take long for the final thoughts to form: Harriet, for now you will not know where I am taking you. You will not get a clear call to your life. I am asking you to trust me for only the next step. Don’t worry about the far future and what it will look like. Just pay attention. Follow me one step at a time.

And this is where I’ve been since my tributary experience ended six years ago. I still do not know what my “call” is and so far, this is what is supposed to be. I’ve taken little steps along the way. China has been a big step. But I’m still not sure China is a call.

Then I roomed with Liz. The step into China was a step into Liz’s ministry. We talked about what has been growing in my heart to do. She listened and asked questions. With her knowledge of people and ministries across the church landscape, she affirmed the passion forming deep within me. It’s hard to ignore the timeliness of this connection. I think my next step is starting to become more clear.

I’ll try to describe it in my next blog.