Tuesday, May 22, 2012

On the Eve of the Evangelical Woman

I am amazed by the power of naming.

Though I do not agree that the act of naming equates with greater authority, I have to admit I appreciate how sensitively Adam named his female partner. Twice. Once in Genesis 2 and once in Genesis 3.

This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man. Adam totally got it. He instantly recognized the wondrous creature before him as sharing his humanity and solving his aloneness. And he fell in love.

Then after the fall Adam named the woman a second time. Eve. The name means living. It’s as though he was defying the final curse – for dust you are and to dust you will return. But I don’t believe it was defiance. It was hope. The first breath exhaled in response to the consequences, the terrible curses unleashed by sin. Eve. Not “We’re sorry.” Not “Please forgive us.” Just “Eve.” A woman’s name that embodied hope for the newly fallen world.

But ever since Genesis 3, women in general have struggled with being named by others in ways that have nothing to do with a given name.

You can’t teach because women are more easily deceived.

You can’t lead because women are weak.

You’re not invited because women are too distracting sexually.

You can’t question because women want to domineer.

You can’t say anything because women are too emotional.

How ironic that Eve was the “mother of all the living" yet so many women in the church do not feel alive, at least not in the sense that Jesus intended. Instead of feeling like God's handiwork and free to do the good works prepared by God (Ephesians 2:10), many feel caged and unable to break out of gender stereotypes, to find their place in the faith community and to shed shameful names.

Carol Kuniholm commented on a previous blog post in which I encouraged women to not silence their voices because of theological intimidation by men. She points out that the lack of biblical knowledge is not the only reason women are reticent to speak up. Carol identifies several other barriers:

In thinking about why I sometimes find myself silent on the issue of women in the church, or on other issues of importance, I find it has less to do with theology, or lack of confidence, and more to do with the way women who don't fit the common mold so quickly suffer personal attack. Even in secular politics, women who dare to speak their mind find themselves accused of being strident, unfeminine, "sluts," or worse. Women who have chosen the path of acquiescence are often threatened by women who speak up, and use gossip as an avenue to force conformity. Men who like to hear themselves talk can make life hard for those who object to being constantly shut down or interrupted. 

These are all attempts to name women in damaging ways, to shame them into silence. These are violations of relationship within the family of God. This is not Christ-like. This is not love.

So I encourage women to help each other reject these names, live into your new name in Christ and combine your voice with other men and women who believe in freedom and equality. Like Adam realized, I want you to know you are not alone. So I say again…

TEACH! You bring much needed wisdom and creative theological insight.

LEAD! You are ezer kenegdo – women of strength called to partner alongside our brothers and fight the Enemy together.

BE PRESENT! Your femininity is not responsible for keeping men from lusting.

CHALLENGE! You can disagree with a gentle and quiet spirit and speak the truth in love.

SPEAK! Continue to be vulnerable even if it makes others feel uncomfortable.

Sisters, you are daughters of Eve and your name is not “deceived” but LIVING.  Through you I believe there will be unleashed a fresh movement of the Spirit in the Church because Christ is alive in you.

Friday, May 11, 2012

No Ordinary Mother

I have always been struck by the absence of the Virgin Mary in sermons, Bible studies or conversations about role models that take place in evangelical churches. My hunch is people want to avoid anything that sounds Roman Catholic. Which is unfortunate. Mary is an extraordinary woman.

Yet Mary, in some ways, is caught in the middle. On one hand, she is one who should be venerated. For crying out loud, SHE WAS CHOSEN BY GOD TO BEAR HIS SON! Her response to the angel Gabriel revealed a remarkably mature faith for such a young girl. She doesn't wiggle out of her calling like Moses did: Gabriel, can I skip the being pregnancy part and use a surrogate mother? And after she seeks out her relative, Elizabeth, Mary breaks out in a song that echoes Hannah's prayer (1 Samuel 2) and reveals her understanding of God's bigger story. But unlike Hannah who handed Samuel over to Eli, Mary does not ask Elizabeth and her husband-priest Zechariah to raise her unborn child in the temple. (The continued connection to Hannah cannot be missed however when Mary has to retrieve her young boy from the temple.) She knows her calling is to raise the Son of God herself. She deserves to be called "Blessed."

On the other hand, Mary was also an ordinary woman. Her humanity is most evident when you compile all the references to her in the gospels and observe her through the lens of motherhood. I did this a few years ago and I was pleasantly surprised to see a normal mother struggling with the same problem all mothers have - letting go of our children.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to be in her shoes, to raise what I assume to have been a perfect child. Did her heart jump each time Jesus the baby cried for her breast milk? Did she panic when Jesus the boy fell and marred the skin that wrapped the Messiah? How did she handle the pressure from the town mothers to hook him up with their daughters?

My study resulted in a poem about Mary, the mother of Jesus. Which I would like to share with you. Kind of. It's a bit intimidating to post a poem when I do not claim to be a poet or even aspire to be one. So please bear with my juvenile attempt and listen to the story of Mary, an ordinary mother learning to let go of an extraordinary son, the Divine Son.


Imbedded nails and lifted post,
That dreadful cross bore my son.
Nerves entwined, in a silent scream,
Mind and soul were now numb.

Gazing upon his battered face,
Grief swelled with each drop of his blood.
In this final test of a mother’s love,
Memories rushed in like a flood.

A virgin message to virgin ears,
Yeshua, Immanuel, his name.
And Simeon spoke of hearts exposed,
But mine would be pierced with pain.

And like the prophecy Simeon spoke,
My own heart rose and fell,
Filled with wonder, then drained with fear,
From a humble birth to death’s knell.

As I nursed the God-man in my arms;
My heart he did fill, my life he did bless.
I gave up my will and gave him my womb,
But he wasn’t mine to possess.

Raising Jesus was a mother’s dream,
A perfect child indeed.
So when he delayed for days at the temple,
I was confused at my young son’s need.

Upset at what seemed to be disrespect,
Worry is every parent’s right.
But he was surprised we were anxious for him
Since he had been Home each night.

I heard, I treasured and pondered those words;
I must not possess was his warning.
Many more years he remained in our home,
But I knew it could change any morning.

Strong in body and wise in mind,
I knew he had power from heaven.
Years passed as I mothered God’s Son,
Waiting for a sign to be given.

Then one day, Jesus departed
For the river baptism by John.
I expected much more than a Voice from above,
Instead for forty days he was gone.

Surely there would be a miraculous sign
When the Messiah was revealed.
So when the wine ran out at a wedding,
I went to my son and appealed.

With a subtle hint, I mentioned the need,
But he knew what I wanted to say.
Again with a gentle rebuke in his words,
A mother’s voice he would no longer obey.

From seas to cities, he gathered disciples,
I watched him with heart full of pride.
But pride turned to fear as I heard words of evil,
“He’s insane, he’s the devil!” they cried.

How dare they accuse him of being possessed!
I know who he is, what he’s worth.
So I had to see him and rescue if needed,
And tell them of his holy birth.

The crowds were too great to even get near
I demanded a message be sent.
Instead of a welcome or a look of relief,
He had words to confront our intent.

“My family are those who do God’s will.”
He pointed to all gathered near.
I knew he was saying the voice of the Spirit
Is greater than a mother’s to hear.

Memories faded as I stood on that hill,
Against the nails my son strained.
Surely God would deliver His Beloved,
But with each hour my hope drained.

Must a mother let go even to death?
What good has my sacrifice been?
I know Jesus saw my questioning eyes
And to John instructions were given.

In the final hour as he hung on the cross,
He gave one last push on the nail.
He cried, “It is finished,” and his spirit departed,
I felt my heart tear like the veil.

When the spear of the soldier pierced his side,
The words of Simeon came true.
With his blood darkened by the sins of the world,
The sword pierced my own soul through.

After the cross and the nails released him,
I held his body so lifeless.
Why should God give but then take hope away,
And a tomb and not me possess?

Little did I know what three days would bring,
Even the tomb would release.
And later the gift of the Spirit would come,
All works to salvation would cease.

My heart he does fill, my life he does bless,
He rules from his heavenly seat.
No more letting go, I finally possess Him,
A mother’s sacrifice now complete.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

God My Mother

A few years ago I was reflecting on motherhood. Or more accurately my own mothering. It was painful as I faced the reality of my less-than-perfect attempts to raise three sons. I knew they carried the wounds and scars of my humanity and I prayed they would navigate life in such a way to find healing through the mercy and grace of God as I had. I promised myself that if they ever were in town together on Mother’s Day, I would take THEM out for dinner to celebrate the fact they survived my motherhood.

My three sons. My amazing, gifted, loving three sons. Now they are all married to strong, gifted, incredible women and they are raising their own children with the grace and mercy I wished I had displayed more often as a young mother.

I am deeply grateful. I am humbled. I am awed by God’s gift of my family.

But it was not always how I felt many years ago when I had no clue what being a mother meant. As a young teen my babysitting career ended after my first job. I had fallen asleep after the kids were in bed and the unreasonable parents were furious with me. I never babysat again. Nor did I ever volunteer in a church’s nursery or children’s department.

I never had dreams of being of a mother.

Until I woke up with three sons under the age of 3. Literally woke up. Three C-sections in three years. Their arrivals were not quite part of my overall plan. My plan was to build our home, pay off the mortgage and then start a family.

Instead we moved into our unfinished house a couple of weeks before our first son was born. The boys were teenagers before the last detail of the house was completed. And they were out of the house and married before we made our last mortgage payment.

Nothing worked out the way I had planned. Of course in hindsight everything worked out much better. However it involved living what seemed at times to be a bad dream.

The first five years of surviving babies are a blur in my memory bank (I didn’t have a single full night’s sleep during those years). The toddler-preschool stage was a nightmare because the boys were out of control, or more accurately, I was out of control. Then God called me to homeschool them through junior high. (Seriously God?!) It was really rough when they entered high school.

Thankfully God gave me a husband who was one of 12 children. He knew how to change diapers, loved playing and wrestling with the boys, taught them how to drive and basically, stayed calm while I nearly went insane.

But then an amazing thing happened as each left home. I began to have hope that indeed we would all survive my motherhood. And we did.

For all the potholes I describe above there were more often stretches of laughter at funny antics, adventures on camping trips, evenings of family devotions and Jon’s storytelling, celebrations of achievements and many other moments of togetherness.

I look back in awe of God’s wisdom and mercy. The road through motherhood was pretty rough for me but it shaped me in profound ways.

I have been transformed through motherhood, even “saved.” Being a mother has taught me more about God than any other life experience and has been the most powerful context for “working out my salvation” (Philippians 2:12).

I think I get a sense of what the Apostle Paul means in 1 Timothy 2:15, one of the most perplexing verses in the Bible for women.
But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
When my third son was born I was in a spiritual pit, not sure whether I was still a Christian or if God existed. A motherhood crisis was coinciding with a faith crisis. It turned out that as I struggled to respond to the cries of my babies, God responded to the cries of my heart. And he saved me. He met me in the pit and restored faith.

Since the years that followed my faith rebirth, I read my own story into that verse and I see how childbearing has helped save me from myself. My anger. My efforts to control my life and others. My selfishness. My discontent. Childbearing helped me to find my heart and it led my heart straight to Christ who mothered me through motherhood.

I know that Mother’s Day is a day for children to celebrate their mothers. Some can do this more than others. Many have mothers who were absent or inflicted great damage. Others have no children with whom to celebrate. But we all have a perfect Father who is also a perfect Mother, One who answers our cries, nourishes our souls and walks us through life. Where I have failed as a mother, God will be to my children.

Happy Mother’s Day, God.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Deaf-Mute In All of Us

People have often asked me what it’s like to grow up with a deaf-mute mother. Before she came to live with me after my father passed away I would respond with a puzzled look and say something like, “Uh, I never thought much about it.” Seriously. Then I’d try to lighten the awkward moment by telling the inquirer what an advantage I had as a teenager. I could say whatever I wanted and my mom would never hear it.

On the serious side, communicating with my mother is very difficult, often frustrating. She doesn’t read lips. In fact she doesn’t read at all since she never had an education. My father made up a sign language for our family that is much like charades. If you have played the game you know how difficult it is to be understood. Concrete words are not easy. Abstract ones are nearly impossible without a common point of reference.

When I left home, I slowly came to realize that my growing up years were anything but normal. It wasn't until my mother came to live with me that I began to understand how her silent, unhearing presence impacted me in profound ways.

I have never had a deep “conversation” with my mother. In our relationship, I am as deaf and mute to her as she is to me. Now that she has lived with me for the past 15 years I am painfully aware that loneliness and isolation is her normal. I grieve for her inability to connect with the world in meaningful ways.

Lately I’ve come to the conclusion that life with a deaf mother in some ways is not all that different from life with normal hearing people.

Occasionally I run into people who hear my words but act deaf. I have conversations with people and I can tell I have not been heard. When I have something important to say I am treated in such a way that makes me feel like they wish I came with a remote and a mute button. Attempts at dialogue end up being a game of charades with large amounts of emotional energy expended to make limited points of connection.

Being deaf or mute doesn’t have to have a physical cause. It can be a state of the mind and heart. For the person who is trying to speak, the blank stares in response can have any number of causes.

A closed belief system. Fear. Preservation. A position of superiority or privilege. Lack of trust. Exclusion. Pride. Lack of empathy. I have been guilty of all of these and more. I know I have been deaf to the stories of others, to their attempts to connect with me.

And I have often stopped my ears to God.

This phenomenon is described in Scripture often where the loss of physical senses is a metaphor for the spiritual, emotional and mental state of a close mind and hard heart.

Psalm 135:15-18 The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, nor is there breath in their mouths. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them. 
Isaiah 6:9-10 Go and tell this people: " 'Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.
Jeremiah 6:10 To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the LORD is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.
In the Old Testament, the main Hebrew word for “to obey” is the same word for “to hear, listen, pay attention, perceive.” The Jews understood that deafness is the lack of deep understanding, accurate perception and immediate responsiveness. Hearing is the prerequisite to obedience and to action.

And hearing is necessary to a transformative community, a community that listens well to God and to each other.

I’ve been in a season of articulating some concerns, expressing my passions and advocating for gender reconciliation. It’s been a season of refinement, of clarity and of growth. The result has been further shaping and a deeper confidence of who I am and who God is to me as a woman. I am finding my voice and speaking up. But I know that it is not my responsibility to open deaf ears.

It’s fruitless to keep speaking to closed ears. It’s exhausting to keep participating in a “charade.” It’s time to turn my attention and energy to those who are listening and need a listening ear, to those who need encouragement to speak because they have muted themselves among the deaf.

God is shaking up the church. For those who are willing to abandon their trenches of tradition, he is unstopping ears, unmuting voices and powerfully reconciling men and women along the Way.

Isaiah 35:1-6  
The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you." Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.  

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Where Is the Voice of the Evangelical Woman?

I love the story in Luke 10 where Jesus affirmed Mary’s presence at his feet rather than in the kitchen with Martha. Mary was treated as an equal among the male disciples. I imagine her participating boldly in the theological discussions ensuing from Jesus’ teachings.

But Martha was not to be outdone by her sister. In the story of her brother’s death (John 11) Martha also entered into a theological discussion with the Rabbi. She was well versed in messianic prophecy and resurrection theology and Jesus engaged her fully as he did men like Nicodemus.

The space at Jesus’ feet had no gender restrictions.

The title of this post is adapted from another post by Leslie Keeney, “Where Is the Voice of the Evangelical Academic Woman?” She asks why theologically inclined women are not participating in conversations taking place on theology blogs or academic blog tours.

Keeney offers five possible reasons:
  1. Women don’t like the spotlight and shy away from self-promotion.
  2. Women avoid verbal confrontation and expressions of ideas that may invite criticism.
  3. Women are more comfortable in an all-female environment and avoid sharing power with men.
  4. Women are fed up with the “old boys’ club” and have given up trying the change the power structure.
  5. Women think about and discuss theology differently than men. Keeney implies women therefore are not understood, valued or included.

I found this list of reasons why women are not speaking up in the academia applicable to why women are not speaking up in churches, more specifically evangelical churches that limit women to certain roles.  However there are a few differences between the two arenas.

Keeney recognizes there is more freedom for women in academia to pursue studies and teaching positions where it is “theoretically a level playing field.” That is not the case for evangelical women who believe they are called to non-traditional roles in the church. Men dominate the high ground of leadership and circle wagons around the pulpit.

Also many make a distinction between church and educational institutions that teach the Bible. Therefore certain passages in Scripture like 1 Timothy 2:12 are not applied in the classroom. That distinction permits men to learn from a female professor while they resist teaching from a gifted female teacher in the church.

Lastly academic women who do not comment on blogs or participate in public theological discussions are still able to do what they have been called to do – teach and encourage discussion in their classrooms. Not true in the church. Not speaking up results in the perpetuation of traditional thinking and practices. If women do not voice their objections or challenge the system, then men, in general, will continue to dismiss or marginalize them.

I know that this is not true of all men or all churches. There are men who recognize women’s giftedness and who speak up for women, advocating for their inclusion. There are male pastors and elders who have rejected the traditional views of women and have embraced a full partnership with them. I am grateful for these men, including my husband.

But there are not enough of them. And I know there are many women who are silencing themselves.

However, lately I am hearing a rising chorus of voices. Gifted voices. Intelligent voices. Passionate voices. Female voices that do not have to sound male to be heard. Confident voices that do not shrink back when accused of not being “biblical.”

Keeney believes “there has to be a middle ground for women who are called to storm the gates with intelligence, grace, and love.” Though she is referring to women in the academia, her statement is also true for women sitting in pews.

Most of the women I know who are in the pews have these qualities but they hesitate to “storm the gates” for one main reason. They lack the confidence to voice their objections to hierarchical structures because they have not been encouraged to learn theology or to engage in theological discussions. Many do not know there are alternative readings of Scripture that allow more freedom for women than what has been granted in male dominated leadership. In order to challenge the traditional structures, an increasing number of women are realizing the need to study what Scripture has to say about their place in the church.

There is a woman in Portland who is committed to equipping women to speak up. Her name is Pam Hogeweide, the author of Unladylike: Resisting the Injustice of Inequality in the Church.  She hosts  “theology camps” where women can learn what the Bible has to say to them. Pam is taking a proactive role in helping women find their voices.  What would happen if theology camps for women popped up across the nation? I believe increasingly informed female voices will make a significant difference in the church.

So I say to evangelical women in the church…
  1. Speaking up and declaring what you believe God has given you in terms of gifting and calling is not self-promotion. It is obedience to Christ.
  2. Offering a different perspective and idea or confronting hurtful attitudes is not criticism. It is speaking the truth in love. 
  3. Sharing power with men or partnering with them in kingdom work is not creating sexual temptation or weak men. It is fulfilling the mandate of Genesis 1:27-28 to rule together as co-image bearers of God.
  4. Challenging the power structure or old boys’ club is not rebellion. It is living the kingdom principle of equality and mutual submission.
  5. Thinking about and discussing theology from a woman’s perspective is not heresy.  It is a deepening of our understanding of who God is and how he works.

Where is the voice of the evangelical woman? It is rising slowly above the din of debate, above the walls of exclusion.

It is a voice of intelligence, grace and love.