Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Gospel In An Alabaster Jar

I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.

My guess is, if I were to ask you who Jesus is referring to and what she did, you would have to scramble into the deep recesses of your Bible memory to come up with the story. Or most likely, the connection between his statement and her story has never stuck though you may know the story well. It is recorded in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9 and John 12:1-8. (Luke 7:36-50 is a story of a different woman.)

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

With that one act, a firestorm of angry words were loosed as the disciples argued the value of the perfume and where it should have gone. But Jesus defended her. He validated her expression of devotion and reframed it as part of his journey toward the cross.

Wherever this gospel is preached, her story is to be told. How many times have preachers been obedient to these words of Jesus? How could such an amazing tribute be so forgotten?

Ever since my Greek class in seminary where I wrote a 20 page paper dissecting this story, I have been on a mission to wipe away the centuries of dirt and dust on her epitaph. What she did should inspire and encourage every woman who knows the transforming power of the gospel.

Usually the gospel is associated with the twelve male disciples who walked with Jesus, heard his teaching, witnessed numerous miracles, gathered to eat the last supper with him, and then changed the world after the resurrection.

But you also have to embrace twelve disciples who lacked faith in the threatening wind and waves (Matt. 8:26, 14:31), who had no compassion on the hungry multitudes (Matt. 14:15), who were dull when it came to parables (Matt. 15:16), who were stumbling blocks to Jesus' path to the cross (Matt. 16:23), who divided over greatest among them (Matt. 20:24), who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Matt: 26:14, 27:3), who fell asleep when Jesus needed them most to pray (Matt:26:40), who chose violence instead of trust when challenged by a soldier (Matt. 26:52), who chose denial rather than loyalty when challenged by a servant girl (Matt. 26:70), and finally, who were absent when Jesus was laid in the tomb and were absent when he was resurrected (Matt. 27:60, 28:10).

In his gospel account Matthew often is less than favorable in the depictions of his fellow disciples. But when it comes to the story in chapter 26, he shines a brilliant spotlight on a woman who, sandwiched between stories of betrayal, represents the ideal disciple.

Though John identifies her as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, Matthew keeps her unnamed for the purpose of setting her as the example of discipleship for everyone, both male and female. Interestingly, Matthew never refers to any other of the stories of this significant family trio nor names them.

Yet we know Mary well from the other gospels as the woman who has already broken a serious cultural glass ceiling by sitting at the feet of the Rabbi Jesus. The male voices of complaint are strangely silent. The voice you hear is Martha's and her complaint leads to a gentle rebuke from Jesus concerning priorities. This story is often used to encourage women who identify with her to be more like Mary, to take the time to stop and sit at the feet of Jesus in private devotion.

But we could take this story further and encourage women to sit at the feet of Jesus with the men. Or encourage women to not criticize women who are called to be in the room with the men rather than in the kitchen.

So many layers of meaning...but back to Mary and her alabaster jar.

In Matthew's one snapshot of her, Mary does not disappoint us in showing us again she moves outside men's boundaries and lives in the freedom of Christ.

For Matthew, she is the personification of devotion, loyalty and extravagant love. Her simple act is transformed into a sacred act by Jesus. What the disciples misunderstand and judge is received by Jesus and elevated alongside the gospel. When they think they have a handle on Jesus' teaching especially concerning the poor (they had just heard the parable of the sheep and goats - Matt. 25), a woman  steps into their man cave and with one act, upsets their rules and rearranges their priorities. She does not utter a single word, yet she teaches the men. She seeks no glory, yet now her story is to be remembered by preachers until the end of time.

Among the stories of these disciples, her story must not be lost or forgotten lest we disobey Jesus. Among the stories of leaders and disciples today, our stories as women must not be lost or forgotten lest we disregard what Jesus set out to do.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lords favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
Isaiah 61:1-3

Women are also oaks in the forest in a mutual display of his splendor.

Long defined by the curse and confined by earthly traditions, our stories have been redeemed by Jesus and elevated alongside the stories of men.

Often misunderstood and judged, our acts of discipleship and gifts of service are sacred, being ordained by our one, true Master.

Between the stories of failure or betrayal or abuse by men are women who quietly enter the room with courage, head straight to the feet of Jesus and declare without words their place as an equal disciple.

Matthew, Mark and John were three men who obeyed Jesus by including Mary's story in the gospel accounts. But his command went beyond the historical borders of the written word to the wherever preaching of the spoken word. With his statement, the picture of a most favored and faithful disciple took feminine form.

Any church who takes seriously the words of Jesus should tell Mary's story each time the gospel is preached. Even more, in considering the broader implications of his tribute, every church should validate the presence and stories of women in their midst.

Otherwise the image of a Christ is incomplete and unbalanced just as the image of God would be incomplete without the Genesis creation of male AND female.

As for me, I will never forget Mary's story. I will keep walking into the room with my "alabaster jar" in obedience and devotion to my Jesus.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Eulogy for My Sister

The thought of writing a eulogy for my younger sister, Pat, was a daunting one for me. So a couple weeks ago I decided to flee Portland and go to our family beach house where there would be fewer distractions. I had no idea how I could condense into a few minutes a lifetime of memories and include with those words some measure of comfort and closure. At the least I had narrowed my thoughts down to one thing – my perspective as her one and only sister.

I began by searching for all the quotes I could find on sisters. So today I offer a few of the ones that helped me decide what stories to tell and thoughts to share. It seems appropriate to borrow words from authors since Pat was such an avid reader.

Here is my first quote from Charlotte M. Yonge, which is also my disclaimer:

“Elder sisters never can do younger ones justice!”

But for Pat, I will try.

It is so true what Susan Merrell says: “Our brothers and sisters are there with us from the dawn of our personal stories to the inevitable dusk.”

In our particular dawn to dusk life as sisters, however, there was a long period in the middle when we were not very sisterly. It started in high school where our personal tastes in activities, friends and values went in separate directions. It continued through college years, weddings, births and the raising of our children with occasional intersections reminding us that we did share the same family. Communication was minimal.

All this to say I didn’t know my sister very well during those years.

Cali Rae Turner said this about her own sister: “The best thing about having a sister was that I always had a friend.” Unfortunately I didn’t realize Pat could be my friend for much of my life. But that changed when our father passed away in 1993 not long after he retired to Florida. Pat and I became responsible for our mother’s care.

So my sister-stories are broken into two parts: our growing up years on Okinawa and then our grown up years as Mom’s caregivers.

I was 2 years old when Pat entered my world on September 23, 1958. Most of my memories come from the black and white photos now fading in our albums. Some are imbedded in my brain. But others were refreshed as Pat and I reminisced about life on Okinawa in more recent years.

I laughed when I read this quote by Barbara Alpert: “Sister. She is your mirror, shining back at you with a world of possibilities. She is your witness, who sees you at your worst and best, and loves you anyway...Some days, she’s the reason you wish you were an only child.”

I have no memory of this at all but Pat told me she used to push my buttons so badly that Dad gave me permission to slap her if she didn’t stop. Apparently the slapping got out of control and he had to withdraw his permission. I don’t know if that reveals I was a potential sister abuser or that Pat was a real pain in the ass as a kid.

I really don’t remember the slaps or even how annoying she was but I do remember the fun we had.

We both loved the hill behind our house where we climbed aboard our cardboard boxes to race over the bumps and knife-sharp blades of waist-high grass.

We both loved the annual carnival organized on the military base. We might watch a snake and mongoose fight or jump out of the parachute tower but Pat and I spent most of our time racing go-carts. Still in grade school, our favorite thing to do was to challenge the macho servicemen to a race. If we won, they had to pay for our next ride. We hardly spent any money those summers. Of course we didn’t tell the guys that we were such regular patrons at the go-carts the operators would secretly tune our carts for greater speed.

Pat and I also loved roller skating. We spent many weekends on the outdoor rink. You guessed it. We were always up for the races and often won in our separate age divisions. But we also had some differing skills. While I gravitated toward figure skating, Pat was incredibly good at limbo. I could never match her balance and strength.

During middle and high school our interests diverged even more.  She became the athlete and I became the nerd. I’m not sure which was more profitable. I may have earned more money for my grades but Pat avoided more punishment. While I found myself grounded for a month at a time every other month during my teenage rebellion, Pat used her athletic skills to her advantage during hers. Whenever she got grounded, she would plan a father-daughter time of shooting hoops and then casually challenge Dad to a game in which every shot she made would be one day deducted from her restriction period and every shot he made would be one day added. Pat ended up never staying grounded.

Even so she turned out all right.

When I left home to attend college in the U.S., I would say Pat and I were not really friends.  Mainly we just didn’t understand each other very well. But we slowly made up for those lost years after our mom moved to Oregon 17 years ago to live with my family.

In fact in our later years, our divergent tastes and values began to converge again, sometimes to the point of weirdness. Like the time we picked the same pattern and color of material to recover furniture unbeknownst to the other. Or the time Pat came to Portland wearing the identical sandals I had also purchased from Macys.

Margaret Mead said, “Sisters is probably the most competitive relationship within the family, but when the sisters are grown, it becomes the strongest relationship.”  Her observation was true for us.

As much as I love our mother, it hasn’t been easy to know how to care for someone when communication is very limited and challenging. My appreciation for Pat grew tremendously as she became my sounding board and support whenever I needed her.

Carol Saline nails what Pat was really good at doing. She wrote, “Sisters function as safety nets in a chaotic world simply by being there for each other.”

In a scene in the book The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern where a woman has lost her younger sister in a tragic accident, the character confesses this in her eulogy: “I do not mourn the loss of my sister because she will always be with me, in my heart. I am, however, rather annoyed that my Tara has left me to suffer you lot alone.”

I confess as well I am annoyed that my sister has left me to care for Mom alone, but then I trust that she has helped me build enough courage to handle the rest without her. For those of you who experienced Pat as a safety net, I hope you also believe that you have enough courage to live life without her.

When Pat called and asked me to come after her diagnosis was made, there was no question in my mind I would be there for her as well. Louisa May Alcott said, “Help one another, is part of the religion of sisterhood.” I’ve learned that to be true as our hearts were knit together in a strengthening sisterhood and friendship.

I don’t want to spend time right now recalling everything from the last 9 months as she battled this horrible monster called cancer. Many of you have followed her journey through the Caring Bridge site. Obviously the last few weeks were the most difficult as death came sooner than any of us expected or wanted.

But I want to summarize those weeks by borrowing the words from Charlotte Bronte who describes the last days of her dying sister, Emily. They seem appropriate for Pat.

“My sister Emily first declined. The details of her illness are deep-branded in my memory, but to dwell on them, either in thought or narrative, is not in my power. Never in all her life had she lingered over any task that lay before her, and she did not linger now. She sank rapidly. She made haste to leave us. Yet, while physically she perished, mentally, she grew stronger than we had yet known her. Day by day, when I saw with what a front she met suffering, I looked on her with anguish of wonder and love. I have seen nothing like it; but indeed, I have never seen her parallel in anything. Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.”

Before I close I have a couple more stories to tell you, one that I only learned about soon after Pat was diagnosed with lymphoma. These are especially for those of you who surrounded her with your faith and prayers.

Her journey with cancer included a path of embracing a faith in Jesus Christ. She began to ask me questions about God, Jesus and the Bible maybe because I have been a friend of Jesus since high school and have my master’s degree in theology. Despite the lack of religious discussion in our home, I realized , like me, Pat possessed a natural inclination toward God and spiritual things for a long time. In these past 9 months her inclination developed into a confident faith.

I also believe God had his loving hand on Pat for a long time. She told me the story of one particular night many years ago when the children were very small.

She woke up to find a young, well-dressed man in her bedroom. It startled her but for some reason she felt no fear. Silently the man left her room. She decided to get out of bed and follow after him. She never once thought she needed to wake Chuck up. After a brief pause in the living room and a long gaze at Pat, the man exited out the front door. Still without any sense of alarm, Pat turned to go back to her bedroom, but as she passed through the kitchen she smelled gas and saw that one of the burners on the stove had been left on. She quickly turned it off and realized if she hadn’t gotten up the family would have been in danger.

Pat asked me what that experience meant. Was he an angel? I could tell she had wanted to ask that question for a long time.

I answered her that I did believe in angels and perhaps what she saw was indeed an angel. I then told her this experience revealed to me one thing – God had his eye on her and her family. However I also explained this experience could not be taken as a guarantee of continued protection. God would not always provide escape from suffering or death. But no matter what she faced in the months ahead, she could lean into his promise that he would always be present with her.

A few weeks later Pat decided she wanted to watch one of the Katie Couric shows that had been recorded on her DVR.  She randomly picked one. The show’s topic happened to be “Heaven.” Katie interviewed several guests who had died but then after a short period of time came back to life. All of them testified they experienced some form of what they believed to be heaven during that period. After the show Pat and I talked about heaven.

From that point on she never waivered in her belief that God was with her and that heaven was her destiny.

One day while we were waiting for test results in Tampa to find out why Pat was declining after the transplant, she called me into her bedroom. She wanted to tell me her last goodbyes, tell me how much she loved me. I was not ready for this. I refused to give up on her treatment. I wouldn’t let her say her goodbyes.

Exasperated she gave me that look she gives when people don’t take her seriously. Then she cupped her hands around my face, drew me close and declared, “Harriet, I’m going to be alright!” I knew what she meant. After gazing into her eyes for a few seconds, I conceded and said, “Yes, Pat, no matter how this turns out, you are going to be alright!”

In the moment of her passing, Pat’s face showed no pain and no fear. It was a moment of sacred peace. And I imagined when God welcomed her into heaven, he took her face into his hands and said, “You have done well, my brave daughter!”

I miss my sister terribly.

These words from Louise Bernikow express my moments of deep grief:
“Between sisters, often, the child’s cry never dies down. “Never leave me,” it says, “do not abandon me.”

But then I choose to say these words from Katherine Mansfield:
 “Bless you, my darling, and remember you are always in the heart – oh tucked so close there is no chance of escape – of your sister.”

I hold Pat in my heart now but some day I will see her face to face. Pat, you cannot escape your sister.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Departures: A Reflection on Death

  • I am sitting next to my sister as she lays in her hospice bed dying, not from the cancer she's been fighting since August but from a side effect of her most recent chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant. So devastatingly ironic. Pat beat the cancer but not a side effect and it has blindsided us. 

    The family is working hard to keep her comfortable. She hasn't had any water for a week so we know her time is very short.

    I am grateful to be present with her just as I have been for most of the last nine months. Once in awhile she'll open her eyes and I think perhaps she recognizes me. It's so hard to let her go. Her body is not letting go too easily either. But without water it will be forced to release her precious soul to God.

    I know if Pat were to suddenly become conscious of her surroundings, she would be so disappointed to still be here. She had expressed that disappointment the morning after she started hospice. A few days later she lamented how much harder it was to die than she thought. I think she underestimated the strength and will of her body to stay alive.

    Waiting with my sister in this very difficult time has stirred up many reflections on death and the process of dying. If you were to look at Pat's face, you'd never know she is dying. She is as pretty as ever. As I gaze at her face and stroke her beautiful bald head, I can't help but think about one of my favorite movies, "Departures," which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2008 (it's on Netflix streaming).

    It caught my attention for two reasons. First, it is set in Japan (I am half Japanese born and raised on the island of Okinawa). Second, the story centers around a cellist (my husband plays the cello).

    The cellist loses his job in the symphony which forces him to sell his beloved instrument and look for another job. He falls onto a completely unexpected career path, training to be a "nakanshi" or one who prepares the dead for burial. He also falls into disfavor with his wife and friends who are abhorred by his "unclean" work.

    I have watched it 4 or 5 times now, most recently with Pat's husband and their adult kids. I am continually struck by how differently death is treated in America compared to Japan. Or more specifically, how different the perspectives are concerning the body when the spirit has departed.

    I have been to a few memorial services. I have been to even fewer viewings of the body. In my experience people stand in line and spend very little time, usually seconds, to capture their last memory of their beloved family member or friend. Not once have I viewed a body prepared in such a way that it captured the essence of the living person. I never had the expectation that a body could look the same on either side of death.

    Until now.

    In "Departures" as you watch the young cellist transform from a vomiting apprentice to a professional, you quickly sense the Japanese have a different view of the body. It is treated with such tender care in a ritualistic preparation for burial. It is beautiful to watch.

    One thing that caught me by surprise was the location of the ritual. It is not performed in a cold room of a mortuary. No, in Japan, it is a community affair as both family and friends gather in a home to watch the nakanshi prepare the body of their loved one.

    As his training progresses, the cellist learns there is a story behind every departure. His job is to make space for that story to emerge and provide what the subtitle suggests: the gift of last memories.

    The ritual is done very slowly, giving time for the onlookers to respond to each movement of his hands as well as to the other people in the room. Eventually there is a noticeable change in their response to the departed one. The facial expressions and verbal exchanges reveal stories either filled with conflict and pain or filled with love and wonderful memories. Certainly all are filled with deep grief and loss.

    Another thing that caught me by surprise was the goal of the nakanshi to capture the essence of the life of the departed. For the first time I realized how little value we place on our physical bodies once the spirit departs. We hurry to bury or cremate it. We minimize its place in our journey of grief, in our loved one's journey to eternity.

    As the cellist/nakanshi gently shapes each face to its previous living resemblance and meticulously applies makeup, I begin to see each body as a redeemed, restored vessel for all the memories of both the departed and the left behind. A vessel with its own unique glory shaped by the years it lived with a soul. No matter the story, the last memory for the onlookers will be the memory of the departed's best self.

    Pat was prepared for and unafraid of death. One of her first statements after receiving the diagnosis was, "I have lived a good life. I am ready to die." Even now as death approaches, her beautiful face still celebrates the good life she had. Her current unconscious state of transition into eternity still betrays her incredible strength.

    Both "Departures" and being with Pat in her dying has changed me in profound ways. I want to be able to say at the end of my life, as Pat did, "I lived a good life and I'm okay with dying." And I want my body to tell my story. I want my body to display the glory of a life filled with love and beauty and God.

    Recently a  high school classmate of Pat's posted a quote on Facebook:
    It takes a heart-filled person to live, a courageous person to fight to live, but the ultimate instance of honor and bravery comes to those who are willing to face the end of life.
    It's rare to find one like Pat who displayed all three. Her lasting memories are reflected on her face and in the faces of the multitude of friends and family surrounding her. Her glory is the extravagant love she so freely gave and the faith she embraced in the last months of her life.

    Pat, I honor you, my brave little sister. May your departure be filled with peace and grace.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

There Is No Middle Ground for Women in the Church

Night Seesaw from Flickr via Wylio
© 2008 Peat Bakke, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

When it was time for recess in grade school, I usually made a beeline for the seesaws. I loved flying up and then dropping suddenly to hit the ground with a thud.

But I loved even more the challenge of keeping the seesaw suspended in mid-air with a playmate who weighed the same as I did. For some reason the gravitational stalemate gave me a sense of satisfaction.

Perhaps my fascination with playground physics was useful in helping me accept theological tensions such as the sovereignty of God and the free will of humans. I try to hold two seemingly contradictory views together in balance.

But it doesn't work for me as an evangelical woman with a passion for ministry in a church community.

There was a time I tried to keep both a hierarchical view of authority in the church and a freedom for women to use their Spirit-given gifts as they felt called by God.

I had started the journey of wrestling through the issues of a woman's place in the life of the church. But then I got caught in the middle where I was undecided how far I would go along the spectrum of beliefs about women.

I was certainly moving away from complementarian theology (women can only be teachers and leaders of other women; husbands lead, wives submit) which took shape during Bible college and was reinforced in my church. Years later I progressed to believing women could teach men and preach behind the pulpit.

But it was hard to cut the cord to nearly 30 years of believing the absolutist doctrine of ordained male leadership. Surely women could be truly valued and free under the authority of male elders. Godly male elders. Really really kind gentle male elders. And if they had a family, elders who loved their wives and daughters and therefore understood other women enough to pay attention to their voices in the community. (Hmmm...I could never figure out why single male elders were allowed despite the plain reading of 1 Timothy 3:2.)

I was trying to find a middle ground, that sweet spot on the seesaw that kept my complementarian theology balanced with my egalitarian heart. I even found a church that was trying to do the same thing with their "soft" complementarian position.* They really believed that it was possible for complementarians and egalitarians to worship and serve together in one community. I really wanted it to be possible too.

But after six years of disappointments, I quit straddling the fulcrum between egalitarianism and complementarianism. I lifted my foot off the one side and planted both feet fully on the side of full freedom for women and what I believed to be the real vision of the Kingdom. I couldn't run fast enough down the plank to search for a fully egalitarian church, one with women elders, which I found.

I love seesaws, but on the issue of women, the metaphor doesn't work. I cannot be an egalitarian and worship in a complementarian church anymore. And as moderate as a "soft" complementarian church may be, it is still a hierarchy with power vested in men alone.

Eventually my seesaw had to tip to one side or the other. I made the choice of which side with full integrity as I searched through Scripture and with discernment in how the Spirit had been moving in my life all along.

The middle spot is unsustainable on this issue. Gravity will win and one side will crash.

It will crash because theology and Bible interpretation has been and will continue to be a place of disagreement. In other words humans will always pick and choose what they want to believe and practice. Churches that try the middle spot will find that it is a place where theology is suspended or ignored or compromised. But it doesn't work for the long term because theology cannot be kept private when the practices of the church are public. A church cannot avoid practicing their doctrine of women. So complementarians walk out of services when a woman preaches and egalitarians grieve where women are absent or silenced.

It will crash because we are sinful. In other words humans are limited and fallible and will always struggle with loving well. So there is no such thing as truly benevolent male elders. Sin has distorted perceptions of women as well as perceptions of men. The only way to overcome sin's impact on gender relations is to distribute the power equally and create a leadership space where every voice has authority and choice to submit to one another. Without women in the room, hidden misogyny or damaging attitudes may not be exposed. As long as men hold absolute authority there is always the possibility for blind spots and an inability to hear women accurately. And maybe even the possibility of abuse. How can a church address justice issues in the world if it's not willing to address justice issues in its own house?

It will crash because we can't rid ourselves of our cultural influences and agree upon one lens through which we view and interpret the world or Scripture. In other words humans will always have their biases. But many biases have changed through the course of history. Much of God's will in heaven and the movement of the Spirit on earth is a mystery but if we pay attention to what He has been doing through time, we can glimpse the path we should take culturally. If God created male and female to rule together at the beginning and if there is no gendered hierarchy in the new heavens and new earth, then the middle time of the church should be an increasing transformation into what God intended and will bring about in the end.

The transformation may be slow, but it's unstoppable. And it's better understood in hindsight.

Luther's Reformation tells us that the church got it wrong at one point. When it comes to women, they have it wrong again. But I believe there's another reformation in the air. It may be hard to find evangelical, egalitarian churches now but I sense a tipping point ahead.

The seesaw has a slight tilt to one side. 

*The "soft complementarian" position is articulated by Craig Blomberg in his essay found in the revised edition of Two Views on Women in Ministry. The doctrine and its practice is established by loosening up on some biblical passages while holding fast to others. Women are free to use their Spirit-based gifts in teaching and preaching but they are excluded from positions that hold the highest level of authority in the church whether it's an elder board or a senior pastor position.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Faith's Menopausal Moments

CAUTION: Men may find this post offensive or confusing or possibly enlightening. Consult an older woman if counsel or education is needed.

I haven't picked up a feminine pad for a long time. I am so happy to be done with that aspect of womanhood.

During perimenopause my husband bravely accompanied me to see Menopause the Musical: Celebrating Women and The Change so that he could be better prepared to survive this stage of my life. We both got more information than we wanted.

As it turned out, compared to other women who have gone through menopause, I really had an easy time with "The Change." But I did have my moments of hormonal craziness. Unfortunately it landed during a time of spiritual craziness too. Not a good combination. It created a lot of bad memories, deep hurts and an unreconciled relationship.

But recently, because I love metaphors, I was able to reconcile menopause with spirituality.

I've been reading My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman just released earlier this month. Wiman wrote this after being diagnosed with an incurable blood disease at age 39. Last fall he received a bone marrow transplant. (You can read a CT interview with Wiman here.)

Since I am currently doing caregiving for my sister who just went through a bone marrow transplant, I was curious about how his faith fared in this crisis. I'm not done with the book yet but I have been touched deeply by his transcendent and life-giving words even as he was "standing at a cliff." Wiman poetically makes sense of faith even while we are insensitive to its latent presence.

I love this paragraph in the first chapter:
In fact, there is no way to "return to the faith of your childhood," not really, not unless you've just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some half-remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you'd been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life--which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived---or have denied the reality of your life.
I am in my fifties and I definitely do not believe now what I believed at fifteen which is about when I first responded to the gospel.

I have always loved change. And I have loved the process of growing and changing in my faith, my understanding of God, my spiritual perceptions and biblical knowledge.

What I haven't loved is the connection between pain and growing, between challenges and changes. (Insight into my weird brain: Immediately I saw the "lle" inside the word "challenge"  which, when removed, becomes "change." Then I started thinking of words that begin with those letters to further the connection. I came up with life and love emerge. I am so nerdy.)

At first I wanted to forget and move on from those painful, challenging events. But it didn't work. The more I tried to forget, the more the memories haunted me and the anger resurfaced like the bubbling of a backed-up sewer line in the basement.

Eventually I realized that forgetting was a form of denial and it was keeping me from moving on. So I quit calling them memories and referred to those experiences as stories, stories to remember, to tell and to submit to the healing presence of Christ.

My past stories have contributed to my "story in the middle" but this middle keeps changing because I haven't lived all my stories. I will keep changing as long as I continue to have faith in Christ and as Wiman points out, faith in life. I am on the other side of the middle of my years, but when it comes to faith, I am always in the middle.

Wiman used a masculine metaphor to describe what living a life of faith is not and the impossibility of going back to a childhood faith if you are really living and not in a coma. I couldn't help but think of a feminine metaphor to describe what living a life of faith is. At least in my experience as a woman.

Enter Menopause the Moment.

For me, experiencing change includes one or more of the following:

  • a shift in my universe (most of them are smaller than that, but some have been pretty darn hard)
  • imbalance (spiritual, not hormonal...or maybe both)
  • times when I feel like I'm going crazy (or I want to believe everyone else is)
  • anger (can I call them spiritual hot flashes?)
  • depression (I know I'm not alone here)
  • sleeplessness (I have my most significant conversations in my head at 3 a.m.)
  • irritability (this is an external sign that I am wrestling with God internally)
  • mental fuzziness (amazing how biblical knowledge, including a BA in Bible and an MDiv in theology escapes the synapses in my brain)
The more significant the change required, the longer the menopausal moment. The more significant the developing story, the longer it takes for me to process its place in my imaginary memoir.

But then the change happens. Sometimes it happens slowly. Sometimes it's instant. Almost always it involves an encounter with God. 

And the shift in my universe becomes a shift towards Christ. Towards repentance. Towards knowing I am beloved. Towards knowing others are beloved. Towards trust. Towards life. 

Each spiritual menopausal moment is an opportunity to move on and deeper into the life God intends for me.

Eventually the moment becomes a memory and the memory a story and the story a chapter in the memoir of my faith in God. My faith in life.

(If you think this metaphor was rather lame, wait until I write about "senior moments.")

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why Patriarchy Keeps Women From Growing Up

My Daddy and Me

There have been many moments in my life when I thought or spoke these words out loud: I don't wanna grow up! I've said that even in my fifties.

It's human nature to want periodically to shed responsibilities and lean into others to tell us what to do, make our decisions or take care of us. When I'm really old and this becomes a possible reality, I wonder if I'll feel irritated or relieved.

Sometimes I want to return to being a little girl with her Daddy by her side, oblivious to the adult world.

But then I remember my Daddy. He worked hard as a parent to ensure I would fulfill my own adult responsibilities well. He did all he could to help me grow into a strong, self sufficient woman (maybe sooner than most kids if you want to read that story).

This meant he gave me increasing freedom to make my own decisions. This meant he kept loosening the boundaries around me and encouraging me to explore new territories on my own. This meant he understood his job as a parent was to nurture my inner strength so that I would step into the world without any sense of entitlement or inferiority.

My daddy wanted children badly but he didn't want children forever. He was committed to raising me to be a fully functioning adult, confident of my abilities to maneuver through life and confident of my standing as an equal member of the human race.

No one I know would suggest remaining in parent mode well past the normal formative years. No one would think this is healthy for anyone, whether the child, the family or the community at large.

But this is essentially what patriarchy does to women in the church.

When women are denied equal authority, equal responsibility and equal voice, they are being treated like children and are denied adulthood in its fullest sense.

When leaders have important conversations and make significant decisions without full representation from over half the church, then women haven't really grown up.

When women are barred from sitting at the table of leadership, they are being barred from the table of adults.

When men restrict a woman's sphere of influence or define the Spirit's calling in her life, they presume to be her "fathers" when she should have only one, her Heavenly Father. Never once have I heard a father dedicate his daughter to future male church leaders to spiritually guide her through life.

Patriarchy perpetuates a church culture in which girls never leave the watchful eye of a father and never really become adult women with full freedom and equal value or voice under Christ's reign.

Patriarchy is a problem for women. And it's a problem for the church because in reality without the full adulthood of women and full partnership with men, the church is crippled and adolescent. 

Voices are increasing in number as they expose problems with male-dominated church leadership. As a woman, I offer my voice, small as it may be, but determined:

I refuse to remain a child in the church or be treated like one. I am an adult!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What I Wished I Learned from the Church as a Single

Valentine's Day. My husband and I were engaged on that day 34 years ago. We are celebrating with Roberta Flack and the Oregon Symphony.

But I know this particular day is rather difficult to get through for single women. Once you get past grade school and the required distribution of Valentine cards, the delivery of red roses from an admirer is a fantasy and all the commercial hoopla makes it more painful.

There has been a lot of blog chatter lately addressing the struggles of singles in the church. Or rather, the struggles of singles WITH the church. At the same time I have been having or overhearing conversations around me with single women who are raising questions or revealing the pain the church is inflicting.

My beautiful and single friend, Kaitie, invited some FB responses to an article written by Ryan McRae, a single man in his 40's who dropped the pursuit of his call to ministry because a church job was dependent on his marital status. He had these strong words:
The church tells us that being married is a spiritual barometer—and that is a total lie from the pit of hell. 
Now add the topic of sexuality into the pot and the stew really gets hot. Delving into the seven deadly sins as part of the Lenten season, last Sunday my pastor addressed the first: lust. I couldn't help but think about the added weight some churches put on single women to bear the responsibility of a man's lust.

This past week several bloggers including Sarah Bessey and Elizabeth Esther addressed the persistent double standard in the church that boys will be boys when they lose their virginity but girls are "damaged goods" when they succumb to a boy's touch. The message is clear: the Gospel does not apply to a woman's vag...I mean, virginity.

I read the blogs but did not comment. What could I say? I was married when I was supposed to in my early 20's. Now I'm middle-aged and happily married to the only husband I've ever had sex with. I stayed home to raise our children, setting aside my own desires for a career or a ministry. I have been validated and deemed worthy in the eyes of the church.

But I have also mentored many young women in my Christian lifetime. I have seen their anger and I hurt alongside them when leaders, teachers and preachers speak and act in ways that makes them feel small and invisible, even doomed to lifelong singleness or a less-than-perfect marriage because of past choices. One young single woman told me how it hurt deeply when her pastor stated in a sermon that married couples understand the Gospel more clearly. A single, never-been-married woman now in her 70's who was a Wycliffe missionary in Peru for most of her adult life shared about a male pastor who insisted God wanted him to talk about marriage at a conference despite the presence of 40 single women.

As a single I did not dream of getting married. I hardly gave it a thought. But I did like boys a lot and fell into unhealthy patterns of fantasies, manipulations and breaking hearts. It was a miracle I ever married a wonderful man at such a young age of 23. I had a shallow faith and a lot of patterns to change. My 33 years of marriage had its times of doubt, loneliness, loss of desire, temptation to cheat and spiritual pits.

There are some things I wish I had learned before I got married. There are some things I believe the church could have said and done to help better prepare me and perhaps spare me from some of those rocky places.

Let me say at this point that I also know that God in his grace carried me through those rough times, taught me what I needed to know, replaced lost dreams with new ones and transformed me, along with our marriage, into the wonderful partnership it is today. I embrace the rocky places as part of my story now. But that doesn't mean I can't share what I learned after the vows or wish the church had said to those who feel pressure to get to the altar.

Marriage and/or children do not define you. Your identity is one of being part of a transformed humanity, redeemed by Christ, adopted by the Father, and empowered and indwelt by the Spirit. You are called to pursue Christ and serve others until you meet him in heaven where your resurrected existence will know nothing of marital status.

A husband is not a savior. No human being, even your most intimate friend, can be held responsible for your spiritual life. You own your own spirituality. A healthy interdependence of any community, including a marriage, is only as strong as each member's absolute dependence on Christ alone. As I wrote in a previous blog, one must be careful in considering the analogy in Ephesians 5 to not make the correlation between the husband and Christ too closely. A husband’s love cannot accomplish for the wife what only Christ can do. A husband does not make a wife holy – only Christ does. A husband cannot cleanse her through the word – only Christ does. A husband does not present his wife to Christ as a pure and blameless bride – only Christ does. Husbands are NOT like Christ in this way and the husband is NOT responsible for the wife’s spiritual state. This is an inappropriate extrapolation from the metaphor.

Marriage is not the only place you can become holy and blameless. In 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul wholeheartedly supported those who remained single and even encouraged it for those who wanted to pursue Christ undistracted. Those who seek to understand and experience the depth of the Gospel do not have to be married in order to do so. Profound spiritual formation can take place anywhere.

Marriage is not a required qualification for your ministry resume.
According to the Apostle Paul, ministry can be enhanced by remaining single, not diminished.

The heart of a church is not families but individuals who are first brothers and sisters, not husbands and wives. The current state of marriages and families requires attention in the church, but an equal if not greater emphasis should be made on the singles in our culture. The inclusion of singles into as many aspects and activities of church life as possible is the best way to communicate their value as co-laborers and members of the faith community. A church that works hard to build healthy friendships between women and men, both married and unmarried, more closely fulfills God's design that his family reflect his image in their mutuality. Genesis 1 focuses on the social interconnectedness of male and female when they are created. Genesis 2 spotlights a subset of those relationships in terms of a one-flesh union of a man and a woman. A healthy relational and spiritual community that is inclusive of singles is the best way to prepare those who may eventually get married and those who remain single do not miss out on satisfying levels of intimacy within such a community.

These are some of the things I wished I heard from the church before I got married. Maybe I would have taken it to heart and been spared some of the rocky places. Maybe not. But at least I would have started with a healthier and biblical perspective of spirituality, ministry and marriage.

So these are things I would say to any single friend.

And maybe we should prolong grade school and distribute Valentines to everyone we know and love, especially the singles.

What would you add to my list?