Repent: The Gospel Message to Racism, Policing, and Me

John the Baptist, Cameroon

In a rising tide of fists and voices, the path of righteousness is increasingly difficult to find. Whose opinion do I trust? With whose grievance do I side? How do I even think about the events that are taking place around us? Whose narrative is right?

A nuanced understanding is necessary, and I think it is fair to say that no movement or group is going to get everything right. Rather than take sides in yet another polarizing shouting-match, or follow my algorithm-generated news feed (which scrupulously selects and reinforces the slant towards which it knows I lean), I am drawn back into the oddly stabilizing message of John the Baptist, which somehow managed to step on everyone’s toes with leveling conviction.

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

No racial group gets to claim special status or immunity from John’s scathing social commentary. In order to be “in” with the King, each had better start by examining where their own life fails to line up with His way of love. This gospel of peace works as an objective, outside perspective, enabling me to first look into it to remove the log from my own eyes, and then to look again to see where others might need to change too.

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

The fruit of repentance looks like sharing whatever I have with those who don’t have it. No discussion of who they are, what they deserve, or whether they align with my particular perspective. No discussion of whether I am an oppressed minority or a privileged majority. We share. We tend and keep. We look out for each other. Why? Because as Jesus would highlight in the racially charged parable of the Good Samaritan, our core identity is as neighbors, not ethnic groups, religious affiliations, social classes, or political parties.

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Luke 3:7-14

But John also had some pointed gospel applications for those “neighbors” with particular forms of power. To their credit, tax collectors and soldiers had come in humility, openly asking how they might align themselves with the way of the Lord. To those with financial power, John applied the law of love to taking only what was right rather than what they could get away with. To those with policing power, John applied the law of love to treating everyone fairly, which includes being careful to find out the facts before accusing anyone. Whether or not these soldiers saw themselves as powerful, the people whose lives hinged on their right use of law and careful use of force certainly did.

I am grateful for the police. I am grateful for the many officers who have corrected me, protected me, and helped me in times of need. They used their power for my good, to the extent that when I see a uniform, I feel safer. But not everyone shares my experience. The children in the community where my youngest child will be attending school tell of how the sight of a policeman strikes them with terror when they are playing in the street. Will this officer accuse them of something and take them away, as they have seen happen with their friends? Will a simple inquiry escalate into a violent arrest that costs them their life, as they have seen through their media feed? Fear and distrust breed reactive behavior, conditioning these children to a fight-or-flight response to the approach of any police officer, whether gentle or aggressive.

“There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you.”

There is a talk African-American mothers have to have with their sons, the talk in which they plead with them to avoid any encounter with police and, if approached, to avert their eyes in deference and answer with a simple “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” I have never had that talk with my son, both because he has the experience of being unafraid of the police and because he has the luxury of likely being given the benefit of the doubt if caught in a questionable situation. I cannot imagine the crushing effect a talk like that must have on a young, budding soul. Howard Thurman commented, “There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 39).

What change does the gospel require of me?

What is the gospel for these young people? What is the gospel for their mothers, for police officers, for you, for me? What answer would John give each of us if we were amidst the throng asking, “What should I do, then?” I suspect the general idea would be, “Stop fighting to protect your own way of life and start looking out for the interests of others!” That’s universally hard, both because it involves death to self and because it involves waking up to the “other.” It involves being willing to admit where I have fallen short, even when I feel I am being unfairly treated or belligerently accused. And it involves loving people whose agenda may be damaging to my identity, my status, and my way of life. Whoever my neighbor is and however much it might cost me, I don’t get a pass on love.

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” …
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.
Luke 18:18-23

The privileged young ruler came to Jesus with a similar question: What change does the gospel require of me? His unwillingness to pay the price for change led him to retreat to the safety of his own home, community, and newsfeed. But in so doing, the price he unwittingly paid was entrance into the Kingdom, where Jesus seeks to bind all people together in the radical way of love.

Entitlement, Racism, and the Lie of Limited Resources

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When my children were young I took them to our train station to drop off a guest. As a parting favor he gifted each of them with their own bag of chips, which they clutched to their chest like rare treasure. Before we could exit the chaotic South Asian platform, a crowd of ragged beggar children swarmed around them, tugging on their clothes and extending grimy hands in a plea for food. My first impulse was to drive the intruders back, protecting my own blond babies from being mobbed and robbed of their little treat. I am ashamed to admit it now, but I felt my children were entitled to their chips, and though I felt pity for these brown scraps of humanity, I didn’t value their nurture and well-being to the same degree as I would have if they looked, smelled, and sounded like me.

“I would like these children to remain in their poverty, and I will eat my chips.”

Like me, Jesus’ disciples struggled with implicit racism, valuing their own “kind” over the other ethnic groups around them and assuming God’s favor on them over the others rather than on behalf of the others. In a human economy, there were only so many chips to go around, and they wanted to make sure there were plenty for their own kids.

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

No wonder the disciples got upset when a Syrophoenician beggar approached Jesus for a favor. On one hand they had been conditioned to expect His compassionate response to the myriad of marginalized individuals who came clinging to His robes and calling out from the street sides. That was simply His way, and they were learning to appreciate it. But those were needs from within the family. This woman pestering Jesus was an outsider. If He started doling out favors to all of them, then how much time and energy could they realistically expect to be left over for their own people? It wasn’t that they wished any ill for this woman, but they wanted Jesus to maintain His priorities (meaning them) and keep first things (meaning their best interests) first. Her persistent presence made them uncomfortable.

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

But Jesus’ priorities didn’t match theirs. In fact, His entire approach to resources and races was radically different from theirs. Jesus recognized the entitled mentality of His followers, and gently challenged it through His witty banter with the other-race woman. At first glance His comments to her seem shockingly racist. Children vs. dogs? Even if He did have an exclusive calling to the Jews, He didn’t have to insult her like that. But Jesus’ comments were as much aimed at challenging His disciples’ implicit racism as they were at engaging the woman’s need.

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus knew a courageous, witty woman when He saw one. He threw her a soft pitch, and she hit it out of the park. Using derogatory language that had most likely been thrown at her before, He put a little spin on the metaphor that placed this “dog” not on the street as an unwanted outsider, but rather under the table as a beloved member of the family. And this plucky, determined image bearer took His cue and ran with it. Yes! She would take whatever place in the household she was offered as long as it meant she could share in the family benefits. Like the psalmist singing “I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God…,” she recognized the treasure of the Kingdom and banked on it. I can almost see the twinkle in Jesus’ eye as He bantered with this woman, and the smile on His face when she pushed back with her demand.

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”
His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”
“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.”
Matthew 15:32-34

Jesus’ interaction with the woman was not only an invitation for her to stand up for the dignity that was rightfully hers; it was also a demonstration for His disciples to witness His view of people from other races. His use of their racist language put a mirror in front of them, causing them to see the ugliness of their own attitude and giving them the opportunity to see another way. And if they were still struggling with the idea that opening the doors to “her kind” would somehow deprive “the children” of the house, He demonstrated otherwise by healing and feeding 4,000 outsiders from her region, with 7 basketfuls of leftovers to match the number of complete fullness.

If I am willing to stand up for the right of my children to eat their chips in safety and without fear, why am I not willing to do the same for children of another color?

Jesus’ example challenges our hidden assumptions about resources and race. If I am willing to stand up for the right of my children to eat their chips in safety and without fear, why am I not willing to do the same for children of another color? Does Jesus’ compassionate care end with my family and community, or does He intend me to extend the same to all of His image bearers crying out for security, dignity, and equal access to resources? To be honest, this raises fear in me—fear that if I expand the circle of my involvement my own family will suffer lack. Somehow it is easier to send a donation to help suffering children of color far away than to notice and share with the ones in the next neighborhood over.

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
“Twelve,” they replied.
“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
Mark 8:17-21

My son hung back from the demanding hands, stating in his toddler simplicity what I have often been too hypocritical to admit. “I would like these children to wemain in their poverty, and I will eat my chips.” But my daughter knew the joy of sharing and the lavishness of the Sharer. She imitated Jesus, moving forward into the crowd to carefully distribute her chips into each outstretched hand and make sure that no one was missed.

Waking up to Whiteness

art credit: Catherine Clark

I remember the first time it really registered with me that I was white. We had been living in South Asia for a few years by then, and I had gradually grown accustomed to being stared at constantly whenever I ventured out into public. My response to the unrelenting looks, comments, and stereotyping treatment had gradually shifted from overwhelmed to annoyed to humorous to tuned-out. I had finally integrated enough to speak the local language, develop my personal style within the cultural milieu, and feel like I fit in with my local friends. One day we were in a sari shop together, and I turned to the mirror with a potential purchase draped across my shoulder.  I almost dropped the sari with shock over the lanky white woman staring back at me. I don’t know what I expected to see, but this woman stood out like a sore thumb from all the delicate brown faces around her. No amount of linguistic or cultural adaptation would be able to hide her very white features. The incessant reactions from strangers in the marketplace were simply a reiteration of my irreconcilable “otherness.”

Years later I shared this story with an African American friend. He laughed and welcomed me to the club. Racial un-consciousness, he pointed out, is the luxury of the dominant group. When you are a minority, you can never forget that you are different. The moment you do, someone else will remind you.

Racial un-consciousness is the luxury of the dominant group.

And he was right. Sometime later I was sitting by this same friend at an elegant dinner party in honor of the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Around our table were prominent leaders, clergy, and academics, of which he was all three. If anyone didn’t belong there, it was little old me. After scintillating conversation around the lecture we had just heard, someone at the table asked my friend a subtle question. At first I missed it, until my friend’s deflated expression clued me in to the fact that he just been the subject of a racist joke. My guess is that the joker was simply trying to be funny, but his insensitivity to someone who has endured a lifetime of demeaning treatment effectively communicated that despite his degree, position, and invitation to the table, he was irreconcilably “other,” excluded from being one with the rest of us. 

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. …
Matthew 8:5-8

The Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant must have lived with a profound consciousness of his race and the way it affected those around him. On one hand he was the despised outsider, the “dirty Gentile” whose very presence in Palestine represented and enforced foreign oppression. On the other hand, he belonged to the race with superior power, affording him authority, legal rights, and military rank that were denied most Jews. It meant that he had to constantly calculate how his actions would be interpreted and what impact his words would have on the situation around him. In the midst of such a racially charged situation, he did not have the luxury of throwing around a careless joke or of assuming that the cruel behavior of other Roman soldiers bore no connection to how he was seen by the Jews. Like it or not, he was a part of the system that had hurt a lot of people, and as kindhearted and well-intentioned as he was, he had to tread carefully in the way he approached Jesus.

Similarly, white people in America represent systems and individuals that we may disagree with, but which our racial heritage inextricably connects us to. It is not enough to abstain from racist comments or discriminatory practices. In the eyes of those who have been repeatedly hurt by people like us, we represent a system of historic oppression that has continued to break trust in its treatment of its African American citizens. We can point to the times that our system has gotten it right (like integration of schools, equal opportunities legislation, and African Americans in the highest levels of leadership), but we cannot ignore the many ways in which racism continues to rear its ugly head, even in the actions of “crazy” individuals or “fringe” groups. Each time an unarmed African American is unjustly killed by a white American, the scab gets ripped off of a deep wound in the community of which he or she was part. And that wound was inflicted by one of “us.”

As followers of Christ, the onus is on us to go the extra mile in affirming the culture, ideas, and leadership of those “our people” have hurt.

We need to learn how to handle our whiteness. In the South Asian context, my whiteness represented a history of colonial oppression. As a follower of Christ, the onus was on me to go the extra mile in affirming the culture, ideas, and leadership of my brown neighbors. Even in situations where my position or experience may have “earned” me the right to take charge, I had to learn how to intentionally make room for people who “my people” had treated as inferiors. We both had to work at this, learning to speak openly about our differences and laugh together at the things we had once assumed when all we had known of each other was “white” or “brown.” I am amazed at the level of grace my brown neighbors were willing to extend to me, but it also took a lot of needed humbling on my part (a humbling which, I might add, did not always feel nice, especially when my friends took me at my word and treated me accordingly).

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew 8:10-12

The Roman Centurion humbled himself, showing a deference towards Jesus that even His fellow Jews did not, and was commended for his faith. We, who have now been included “at the table” along with him, would do well to follow his example.

Narrative Wars and the Way of the Cross

I did it!
art credit: Catherine Clark

Everyone loves an overcomer story. We cheer for the underdog, holding our breath as they persevere through obstacle after obstacle and booing the advantaged one simply for the fact that he expected to come out on top. But what about those moments when life casts us in the overdog role? “I didn’t sign up for this!” we may be tempted to whine. “I’m just doing my best to live my life and do good by all. I didn’t ask to be written as the oppressor in someone else’s story!”

Race killings and race riots in the United States have awakened many white Christians to the prevalence of racism. But with that awareness comes a deep discomfort as lifelong assumptions about how the world works and who we are within it are suddenly overturned. I wonder if much of white angst in America today comes from fear of being cast as the bad guy. If I listen to the cries of my African American brothers and sisters, my version of the story—the one in which I am the “little person” who worked hard, came from behind, and made it despite all the odds—comes under threat. Instead, I’m suddenly that privileged, arrogant “champion” we all despise, enjoying the luxuries of monogramed equipment and expert coaches to give me every advantage in the game of life.

Since when is pride compatible with the cross?

I don’t like that second version of the story, and even when I am pushed to admit that it is true, I don’t like the way that it makes me feel about myself.  I’d rather rehash stories of the American Revolution in which “my people” fought off the colonial oppressors with bare feet and raw grit.  I at least want the luxury of largesse, to think of my people as the liberators who brought down the Nazis or brought aid to suffering populations around the world. But when I stop to consider the story from the perspective of a Native American who was driven from her land or an African American who was imported to the land but denied equal status, “my people” come out as the bad guys. Add to that generations of mistreatment and social positioning in which my people continue to come out on top, and the pride I feel in my heritage—the heritage which forms much of my identity—starts to crumble.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews…
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
Philippians 3:4-7

Perhaps that is exactly what needs to happen. It may not feel nice, but since when is pride compatible with the cross? The reason we love the underdog is because God Himself has a heart for the disadvantaged. Scripture is replete with statements about what He does for the humble and how He treats the proud. The fact that I am holding on to my pride reveals which side of the narrative I actually am standing on. As a follower of Jesus, I get to lay aside anything in which I formerly found gain, including the advantage of my whiteness.

“I don’t see color”—spoken to a person of color–is a sure sign that I do.

But how can I help that? Perhaps a second cause for white angst comes from the sudden sense of helplessness in the face of finding ourselves on the wrong side of history. I want to jump the fence to the other side, distancing myself from the racism around me with claims of #NotMeToo. “I don’t see color”—spoken to a person of color–is a sure sign that I do.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Philippians 2:1-4

Examining myself for areas of implicit bias (while assuming that they are probably there) is a good start. Where do my impulses betray an internal sense of being better than, or perhaps deserving better than, people of a different race? These may surface in the respect I demand for myself or the treatment and opportunities I expect for my children. Am I equally incensed when these are not afforded to my neighbor from a different “community” or her children? Am I equally invested in looking out for her interests as I am my own? What have I done (or not done) to change the systems that make it hard for them to flourish?

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.

…“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks…”
John 4:9,21-23

Confronting the areas of bias within myself not only benefits Black lives; it also helps me become more like the Jesus I adore. I adore Him for His meekness with the Samaritan woman, absorbing her defensive reactivity over the way her people had been treated and extending to her a listening ear, a willingness to consider her side, and a friendship that broke all the social rules. I adore Him for going out of His way to seek out her company and sit with her on her turf, neither lecturing her for making a mess of the opportunities that had been afforded her nor insisting that she adapt to His cultural ways in order to be accepted. It can’t have been easy to listen to His people being framed as the bad guys, yet He acknowledged their privileged position in history while also considering her too valuable an asset to leave out of the new integrated community He was forming.

And perhaps it is in Jesus’ example as a privileged Jewish male that I find a way forward as a privileged white woman. Try as I might, I can’t stop being white. And I can’t undo the parts of my heritage that I am ashamed of. But I can humble myself, reach across the racial divide, and use whatever advantage is mine (though I may need help in being able to see it) to my neighbor’s advantage. After all, is this not what Jesus did for me?

Beloved on Friday: Persecuted but not Forsaken

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Something has shifted in how I experienced this Good Friday, and I am still struggling to put it into words. For many years now, I have used this day to enter more fully into the sufferings our Lord endured—not because they were insufficient in and of themselves, but because I want to knowChrist, both in the fellowship of His sufferings and in the power of His resurrection. Keeping vigil with Him through the hours of the night on Thursday and then through the horrific series of events that culminated in His death on Friday afternoon has been a labor of love, motivated by my desire to feel the things He felt and therefore adore Him more fully.

My experience of trauma and abuse several years ago radically heightened my sensitivity to our Lord’s experience of the same. As I mentally replayed a blow-by-blow account of all Jesus went through during His arrest, trials, “breaking” by the Roman guards, and finally crucifixion, I would focus on the Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 descriptions of His suffering, focusing in especially on His sense of abandonment by the Father. The overwhelming horror of it all left me in anguish at the foot of the cross, longing for it all to be over and for Sunday to come set things right.

I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; He heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.

Return to your rest, my soul, for the LORD has been good to you.
Psalm 116:1-2

But last night’s Maundy Thursday vigil framed my experience of today in an entirely different light. Bouncing back and forth between John 13-17 (Jesus’ final words to and prayers for His disciples) and Psalms 113-118 (the Psalms He and His disciples would have been singing as they finished up their Passover meal and headed out to Gethsemane), the theme of God’s victorious love kept ringing in my ears. Of course on Passover night they would have been reflecting back on the progression of God’s love in redeeming Israel from slavery, from the sea, from the surrounding nations and their gods, and from their own fears as they progressed from Egypt to Zion. And this is the narrative, as N.T. Wright argues in The Day the Revolution Began, in which Jesus chose to frame His own unfolding story.

How would Jesus have been experiencing the victorious love of God in the midst of His own suffering?

But how would Jesus have been experiencing the victorious love of God in the midst of His own suffering? As He sang these lines about love and faithfulness, trust and deliverance while grappling with His impending betrayal and death, what was He thinking? It is easy to see the love of God for us in the sufferings of Jesus, but where was the love of the Father evident for Him in these events?

“Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.
John 13:31-32

“If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. …the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me,but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.
John 14:29-31

This is where Jesus’ lengthy discourse with His disciples in John 13-17 opens my eyes. Apart from preparing His disciples for the trauma they would soon face, Jesus was processing His own thoughts on what was about to happen. He did so in external dialogue both with His band of confused friends and with His very present Heavenly Father. Again and again He affirmed the goodness of what was about to happen, not just for His disciples’ sake but also for His own.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. John 15:9a

…You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.
John 16:32b

Far from the heresy commonly sung in some Christian communities that “the Father turned His face away” from Jesus hanging on the cross, Jesus grounded Himself in the sustaining faith that His Father would never leave Him nor forsake Him. Those last few hours as He prepared for His fast-approaching “hour,” He couldn’t say enough about the Father’s love for Him. While this was partially for the benefit of His disciples, I’m increasingly convinced that it was also for His own benefit. Just as the Father’s affirmation of His belovedness at His baptism had sustained Him through the trial of the wilderness, Jesus’ repeated affirmation of His own belovedness to the Father was preparatory to His ability to keep believing and living in it when everything around Him would scream otherwise.

“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.”

“And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” John 17:1, 5

At this juncture, Jesus’ requests of the Father were in line with the horrors that would soon befall Him. Having just urged His disciples to ask the Father for their heart’s desire and promised that He would grant it, Jesus asked the Father for His heart’s deepest desire: to be glorified both in the Father’s presence and along with His beloved friends. The cross was the next crucial step towards the fulfillment of this prayer, and both Jesus and His Father knew it. He would be lifted up from the earth as a spectacle for all to see, through one set of eyes a spectre of gore and shame but through another set of eyes a vision of victorious love.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” John 17:24

The Father was not only loving us though the cross; He was also loving His precious Son. Though Jesus’ prayers for deliverance in Gethsemane and His feeling of abandonment on the cross manifested the depths to which His sufferings took Him, the overarching narrative in which He consciously engaged was one of being profoundly loved. He was living in His own exodus story, paving the way to bring along the multitude of brothers and sisters He wanted to share in His glory. No one took His life from Him, not even the Father. Rather out of a profound sense of loving and being loved, Jesus willingly entered into the most agonizing labor love has known. And the Father and Spirit endured it along with Him.

Out of a profound sense of loving and being loved, Jesus willingly entered into the most agonizing labor love has known. And the Father and Spirit endured it along with Him.

This transforms the way I walk with Jesus both through this painfully victorious day and through the Good Fridays that will surely come in my own life. Because I am so profoundly loved by the Father, His Son, and their Spirit, I have the opportunity to join the family business of laboring over our shared inheritance, the Kingdom of Heaven made tangible on earth. In the dark hours that are part and parcel of that advancement, I will not suffer for Jesus, but rather with Jesus.

As His own story so beautifully manifests, all believers’ experiences of trouble, hardship, and persecution only confirm how very held we are in the love of God. We enter not into a family relationship where our Father is opposed to His children or afflicts suffering on them from an aloof distance, but where He is with us, for us, and at work through us by the power of His victorious love.

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:36-39

 

The “Who am I to God?” of Abuse—From Pawn to Power through the Path of the Cross

IMG_3865I saw another one today. As I passed by on my morning run, she stood on the side of the road waiting for a bus, freshly groomed and tastefully dressed for going out into public. But the beautiful hair and clothes failed to hide her hideously disfigured face, bearing the characteristic pulverized look of someone whose features have been dissolved by acid. What this woman’s story is and how she has survived such a vicious attack on her womanhood I cannot say, but she bears the scars (quite literally) of her abuse for the whole world to see and never forget.

Somehow the sight of her grotesquely marred beauty reminds me of the high-powered civil rights attorney whom I met over dinner in a neighboring country last week. Her scars may not be visible to the human eye, but the lingering effects of childhood abuse continue to haunt her as she bravely battles for a relationship with the God who didn’t protect her. Beyond the ongoing fear of the same thing (or the next disaster) occurring again, she wrestles with the question of God’s involvement in her torment. Was He absent, uncaring, or simply using her distress to create a better story for her to testify to His grace? Even with the last option, she is left with a god who is little different from her abuser, callously using her for his purposes despite the damage it would cause her.

Awake, awake, Zion, clothe yourself with strength! Put on your garments of splendor, Jerusalem, the holy city. The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again. Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, Daughter Zion, now a captive.
For this is what the LORD says: “You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.”
Isaiah 52:1-3

As I wrestle again with the deep theological angst to which abuse gives rise, I can’t escape the story of Jesus’ abuse and the way Scripture repeatedly weaves it through the stories of other abused individuals (and cities, as the case may be). Isaiah calls out to Jerusalem, referring to her in terms of a woman who has been penetrated, defiled, and held captive in fear and shame. He picks up the refrain of her lament (echoed in Psalm 44:11-12), acknowledging that she was tossed out and sold for nothing but also echoing the promise that her redemption will occur in an equally baffling manner.

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
Isaiah 52:7,9

And what is this good news that the evangel’s feet so eagerly carry to the bruised, battered woman sitting abandoned in exile? Your God still reigns. He is neither bound by the helplessness that overwhelms you nor heartless towards the tears you are too numb to shed. He is still in control and His reign is one of both sovereign power and of tender compassion.

But how does that news help the one whom He seemed to abandon?

Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness— so he will sprinkle many nations,and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living…

After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,and he will divide the spoils with the strong,because he poured out his life unto death…
Isaiah 52:14-15; 53:3-4, 8, 11-12

Isaiah leaps straight from this hope-inspiring call into a gut-wrenching description of the depths of abuse and abandonment that God’s Righteous One would experience. His face would be pulverized beyond recognition; His body stripped, beaten, flayed, and pierced until it could hardly be compared to a human form, much less the glorious image of the invisible God. The wrongness of what would be done to Him would not be protested by His contemporaries. Rather, He would suffer this abuse in silence, betrayed by His friends, ignored or despised by the public, and ultimately feeling forsaken by God.

And yet Isaiah’s description doesn’t stop there. It points forward to the fruit of this Victim’s suffering, the deeply satisfying vindication and glorification that would come as a result of all that He had endured. Perhaps most amazingly of all, that fruit would involve not just His exaltation to the throne of God and the adoringly bent knees of kings and angels en masse, but it would also include the healing, consolation, and exaltation of the broken woman spoken of in Isaiah’s earlier chapter.

By His stripes she would be healed. His suffering would be God’s reply to her agonized questions of who she was to Him. Far from the insignificant pawn or the castoff slave girl that her experience had led her to believe she was, she was the one for whom He would give Himself. He would personally shoulder her grief and take her abuse on Himself. But he would not stop there, leaving her permanently bowed at the foot of the cross having received forgiveness from her sins but still broken by the sins of others.

“Sing, barren woman… “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes… “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.

“Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will rebuild you with stones of turquoise,your foundations with lapis lazuli. 12 I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.

…no weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and this is their vindication from me,” declares the LORD.
Isaiah 54:1-4, 11, 17

Isaiah casts the spotlight back on the desolate woman, calling her forth to sing, to expand her sphere of influence, and to step up into the powerful position that God is preparing for her, too. Just as He will resurrect the Suffering Servant and exalt Him to a position of power and glory, He will turn the woman’s shame into glory, personally vindicating her before her abusers and rebuilding her to a level of beauty and status greater than she ever knew before.

As I zoom out again to the myriad of men and women who have suffered abuse in this world, Isaiah’s powerful prophetic words (many of which have already been so poignantly fulfilled) grip me with a new level of hope and vision. They confront the small-minded comfort to which I have clung, raising my eyes to the vision of empowered enthronement that God has for all of His beleaguered sons and daughters. His goal is not just His glory at our expense. Nor is it a warm blanket tenderly wrapped around trembling survivors. He responds to the pain of our past, the terror of our present, and the despair of our future by personally blazing a path through the same circumstances, but which ends in a radically different destination than human experience would teach us to expect.

IMG_3864 (1)

As we follow in the footsteps of our Lord, sharing in the fellowship of His sufferings even as He entered into ours, this path leads us to the splendor and strength that Isaiah called broken Jerusalem to rise up and embrace. This is who we are to God, and this is the destiny for which He has been preparing His suffering servants all along.

When My Faith Hurts My Children

IMG_1608“But what about your children?”

The question came from a concerned friend in the congregation last year as we presented our past work and our upcoming move. His well-intended question jarred a deep insecurity in me, resurrecting an unresolved tension that I have lived with since the Lord first called us to this pilgrim life as a young couple.

3 Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. 4 Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

I remember wrestling with the Lord over this issue seventeen years ago as my husband and I first began the process of packing up and moving to the place God was leading us to serve. As I counted the cost involved, the Spirit moved me to joyously lay down my rights, my comforts, my proximity to family, and even my life. But as I looked down at the swelling bump growing within me, my heart froze with fear. What about this little one? What if something horrible happened to her because of my choice to serve God in what we already knew would be a difficult, possibly dangerous place?

Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: 6 He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.

The Lord’s answer to me then was something I have had to keep returning to ever since. “They are not your children. They are Mine. If this is the life to which I am calling you, then it also the life I have planned out for them. Remember that I love them more than you ever will.”

I confess that my faith in this area has been severely tried. In those early years I watched my babies burn with dengue fever and lie listlessly overcome by typhoid, driving me to cry out helplessly on their behalf. I mourned their lack of clean air, open playgrounds, and nourishing community. And yet through those years I also watched the Lord preserve their lives and nurture their growth in beautiful ways, both despite and because of the circumstances in which they were growing up.

16Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked; 17 for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous.

Aware of the unique challenges our children faced because of our lifestyle, my husband and I devoted ourselves to compensating for their losses. We threw ourselves into lighthearted family rituals and rigorous home education, seeking to shelter our children from the intensity and pain that constantly weighed on our bodies and souls. Of course no amount of dancing around the kitchen or bedtime tickles could cover the terror of seeing their father repeatedly carry their unconscious mother out the door in a panicked rush for the emergency room. Nor could our attempts at levity and a positive spin on things protect them from the terror of seeing their mother violently attacked, from the trauma of yet another emergency evacuation, and from the loss of yet another home and community.

18 The blameless spend their days under the LORD’s care, and their inheritance will endure forever. 19 In times of disaster they will not wither; in days of famine they will enjoy plenty.

In the years that followed I mourned my own inability to be the super-mother I had prided myself on being. Though the zeal and vitality with which I had formerly engaged my children was gone, I prayed that God would compensate for my brokenness by providing for my children what I could not. As my Good Shepherd led me through the valley of darkness and back out to the green pastures of healing, I saw Him mothering my children through the other nurturing adults He brought into their lives. Mentoring aunties and uncles, proactive music teachers and prayer partners, and doting grandparents (both natural and surrogate) stepped in to guide, teach, nurture, and provide for my children. Humbling as it was, God strengthened my faith through His faithfulness to my children.

The funny thing about faith, though, is that it always has farther to go.

The funny thing about faith, though, is that it always has farther to go. So when one of those nurturing adults raised the question about our return to South Asia, of course my heart sank. Were we being reckless and irresponsible as parents to take our teenagers out of the relative security they had found and back into the place where life was so uncertain? Stories filtered through my memory of embittered young adults whose faith in God and relationship with their parents were shattered by similar experiences. Were we ruining any hope our children might have of becoming healthy, well-adjusted adults by heeding our Master’s call?

Despite all we can do to alleviate, comfort, and support, trying to eliminate the source of our children’s hardship would ultimately mean trying to buffer them from God.

With trembling hearts my husband and I put our future on the table for family discussion. Bitterness and pain, fear and faith all reared their heads as we talked about what we felt God leading us to do. Little incentive readily presented itself for why these teens should give up their lives to follow their parent’s calling, and yet that is what they chose to do.

23 The LORD makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; 24 though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him with his hand.

In the year that has followed, we have had ample opportunity to hold our breath and cry out in despair, “Lord, where is your goodness for our children? How will you reward their faith?” We have walked with them through dark valleys no child should have to endure. One has faced the traumatic rupture of the buried fear and pain from her past, bravely fighting for life itself, while another has quietly born up under the culture shock symptoms of a perpetually upset gut and an isolated social life.

25 I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. 26 They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be a blessing.

As parents, we see our children bearing the brunt of our life calling, a cross we never intended them to have to carry. We want to step in and do whatever it takes to protect them from this pain. But despite all we can do to alleviate, comfort, and support, trying to eliminate the source of their hardship would ultimately mean trying to buffer them from God. The fact is that they, too, are participating in the sufferings of Christ. Whether they signed up for this or not, He has chosen them for the noblest of human callings: to know Christ both in the fellowship of His sufferings and in the power of His resurrection.

28 For the LORD loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones… 34 Hope in the LORD and keep his way.

Psalm 37

While I have experienced the sweet fruit of living out this sort of radical faith and wouldn’t trade it for anything, I struggle to exercise it on behalf of my children. What if they don’t make it out the other side? What if God doesn’t come through for them as He has for me? In response to my wavering faith, the Lord once again speaks to my soul, “Be still. They are in my hands. Watch and see the good things I am doing for them. ”

And I can already testify that He is.

Waiting With Haste

ohcomeletusadorehimbymatthaisstomer
Adoration of the Christ Child by Matthias Stomer circa 1630

As I sit on our South Asian rooftop listening to birdsong and soaking in four years worth of sunshine, nothing feels urgent. Of course the usual piles of laundry, children’s schoolbooks, and student’s assignments await my attention, but up here my mind goes into neutral, simply drinking in the slow beauty of the moment.

But if I peel back a layer deeper into my soul, I confront within myself a practiced apathy, one which has crept unnoticed into my spirit through prolonged waiting on God. It’s not that I haven’t been seeing His hand at work in amazing ways (this latest move topping the cake), but there are desires near and dear to my heart which I haven’t yet seen Him meet. And though I can explain away why the timing might not yet be right and how He is using this period of waiting to do a deep work in me, the fact is that my soul grows weary of wanting.

I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God.
Psalm 69:2

In a self-protective measure, it slowly slips into not caring so much, both about the things God has withheld from me and the things with which He has already graciously filled my arms. Why can’t I engage life with the same level of anticipation and zeal that normally characterize me? Why do I find the immediate and the mundane so much more comfortable to focus on than the long term and the profound? If I’m honest, the answer lies somewhere between exhaustion and fear.

From this position, I feel a growing awe over the persevering faith that so many of the saints of old sustained through a lifetime of waiting. Didn’t Abraham get tired of moving around, waiting for the child and the land that God had promised him? Didn’t Moses ever feel like staying in his bedroll and watching the ancient near-eastern equivalent of Netflix instead of getting up each day only to discover that the cloud wasn’t drifting towards the promised land yet?

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
Luke 2:36-37

But the hero of the faith whose story really resonates with me this morning is Anna. Unlike Simeon, it doesn’t seem that she had really been promised anything specific by God. She had no angelic revelation or Spirit-defined expectation that God had promised to fulfill for her, and yet clearly she was anticipating something. Why else would she live a life of such intense self-denial and focused preparation?

So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.
1 Timothy 4:14

It wasn’t exactly the social norm of her day for young, childless widows to renounce the comforts of home and the hope of a family in order to dedicate themselves to temple service. In fact Paul would later encourage women in her position to remarry and live the domestic dream. But something compelled Anna to passionately pursue a very different sort of vision, whether or not the means were socially acceptable or the goal guaranteed.

There was something that she wanted so much that she was willing to give up food, sleep, and her very self in order to pursue. And sixty years later, she was still at it night and day. Hadn’t anyone introduced this old woman to the idea of retirement, to a realistic resetting of her expectations, or even to the importance of diversified interests and hobbies? Didn’t she ever wonder why she worked so hard to keep herself continuously in the Lord’s presence when she had so little to show for it?

And yet this humble servant of the Lord simply refused to stop getting up each day and doing it all over again. I have to believe that, as a frail human, her flesh grew weak and her soul grew weary. But God’s presence was not only the goal towards which she strained, it was also the power that fueled her flame.

Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:38

Anna’s major contribution to redemptive history comes almost as an accidental side-product of her daily lifestyle. Walking through the temple courts in a state of constant communion with the Spirit, she “chanced” upon a young couple bringing their baby in for the standard procedures. What to a human eye would have looked like more of the same, the Spirit enabled her to see the eternal significance of. Had she not spent a lifetime practicing for and anticipating this moment, she might just have missed it.

Instead, this holy woman raised her voice to confirm the identity of Jesus and to preach about Him to all those who were gathered in the temple, eagerly anticipating the redemption for which they had been waiting for millenia. Anna’s refusal to give in to external pressures or to internal exhaustion landed her this special role in God’s Kingdom story.

And so as I falter in my faith, wanting to keep expecting great things from God but weary from waiting for them, I raise my eyes to this member of that great host of witnesses who have gone before me. I have no guarantee of what God will do through my persevering faith, but I trust that this spark of desire that His Spirit continues to fan within me will one day spring into flame. And in the meantime, I will get up each day to stoke my soul’s anticipation all over again.

Messy Genealogy

family-treeSo much of life is colored by how we tell the story. Which bits get highlighted and which details get left out determine how we interpret the events being narrated. Each historian has the opportunity (and the power) to weave the themes they want their audience to be influenced by into their telling of the story.

So when Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy that highlights the roles of five women in the bringing of the Messiah, we can’t help but sit up and take notice. What to a modern reader might seem like yet another male-dominated list of names tracing the royal lineage of Jesus would have stood out to a first-century reader as a radical departure from Jewish tradition.

1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, 4 Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife…
Matthew 1:1-6

In this ancient patriarchal society, genealogical records only mentioned fathers’ names. To be fair, they didn’t necessarily even mention all of the men in the family line, often skipping over a few generations in an attempt to clean up and condense rather complicated family records. At first glance Matthew’s opening genealogy fits this pattern, presenting a tidied-up version of Jesus’ lineage such that it fits into three neat historical categories, each fourteen generations long.

But while Matthew opens his account with a traditional accounting for who Jesus was based on his lineage, he radically diverts from the normal way of doing it by including several of the significant women through whose wombs the seed was passed. Their names interrupt the tidy cadence of the genealogy like signposts popping up in a perfect line of garden vegetables. They simply can’t be missed.

This can be no accident. Far from tossing a bone to the ladies so they can feel somewhat included, Matthew is throwing the spotlight on these unusual women.
And unusual is too gentle a word to describe them. The first three were Gentiles and four out of five are recorded in the Old Testament as engaging in sexually scandalous behavior–not exactly the sort of women to be proud of in describing the purity of one’s pedigree.

So why would the opening lines of a gospel emphasize these particular woman as integral to the identity of Jesus? Is it merely, as some have hypothesized, to show that God can use anyone, even the lowliest and dirtiest of people, to bring about His good purposes?

While that may be true of all of us, settling so quickly on such a conclusion severely shortchanges the significance of these great women of the faith. They aren’t included simply as passive participants in the line of Christ. They are there because of their heroic feats of faith, their unique contributions something that God (and Matthew) considered worthy of honorable mention.

Just as Abraham expressed his faith in God by sticking with Sarah to produce the promised seed, Tamar expressed her faith by sticking with her unfaithful father-in-law Judah, seducing him into fulfilling the promise that he should have kept through his youngest son. And because of her (albeit unorthodox) initiative, Judah commended her as more righteous than he.

By faith both the prostitute Rahab and the penniless immigrant Ruth (stigmatized not only as childless but also as a widow) recognized the superiority of Yahweh over their own gods, forsaking their national identity, their cultural heritage, and their own lives to join themselves to Him, even when that meant throwing themselves under the bus for His less-than-perfect people.

And what do we say of Bathsheba? Actually, it almost seems that credit is being given to her jilted husband (who, by the way, was a Gentile). Uriah’s loyal service-to-the-death for Yahweh and His anointed, especially in the face of his king’s double betrayal, earned him an indirect role (and an honorable mention) in the lineage of Christ.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1-2

Despite the way our tellings of Christ’s story tend to ignore and overlook these messy members of His family, Matthew’s gospel places them front and center. Each of these women represents not only God’s grace to the sexually impure and the social outcaste, they also represent the value God places on faith-filled, whole-bodied devotion. These are the examples He holds up to us of the kind of faith that pleases Him: women (and men) who offered their bodies to God as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing in His sight.

…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.
Matthew 1:16

So when we get to Mary’s offer of her body to God to use as He pleased, we see how it stood in a long line of similar women. Her readiness to offer up her reputation, her womanhood, and her very heart to His purposes earned her the title “most blessed of women” and the painful privilege of nurturing the Son of God. Hers was the example her Son would follow as He, too, submitted His body to God’s good but painful plan.

As Matthew’s opening genealogy so beautifully portrays, the heritage into which Jesus took birth was one of faith-filled, godly mothers. This telling of Jesus’ story confronts our andro-centric assumptions concerning who we identify as the key figures in redemptive history. It also challenges us as men and women to step up to the heritage of sacrificial faith that is ours as adopted members of Christ’s family.

Holy Women Spoke From God

huldah-speaking“How can you teach and promote a book with texts in it that have been used for centuries to suppress and silence women?”

The question posed to me at the end of a recent informal talk captured a sentiment I rarely hear voiced in Christian circles, and yet which doesn’t fall too far from a feeling often repressed by devoted Christian women. We wouldn’t necessarily phrase it in such strong terms, largely because we cherish the Bible and the Lord who gave it to us. We want more than anything else to honor Him with our lives and to submit to His reign, no matter how counter-cultural or personally costly that may be.

And yet the way we are taught to interpret certain New Testament texts, namely 1Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, can leave faithful women feeling sidelined, if not confused. Is it true that the same Lord who protected, honored, and stood up for women would then turn around and tell us to be silent in church and to take only a submissive learner’s role in relationship to men? If that is what He is saying to us then we are willing to obey. But somehow these two isolated texts seem to go against the flow of the significance and freedom that belonging to Christ gives us.

So, as I have heard even the most educated and gifted of women admit, many of us quietly submit to a universally restrictive interpretation of these verses, preferring to be safe than sorry. After all, we reason, if we don’t have verses that specifically state otherwise, then the weight of evidence points to the conclusion that God doesn’t want women to be speaking or taking leadership over men in the church. (And even if we aren’t personally convinced this is the case, we don’t want to be seen as promoting ourselves or as undermining the authority and tradition of our churches.)

But playing it safe, as Jesus kept trying to convince the Pharisees, rarely leads us to accurate conclusions about what pleases God. In our well-intentioned attempt to stay within the parameters set out by Scripture, we have ignored the vast weight of evidence that Scripture itself gives us. Whether it comes from our tendency to ignore the Old Testament as less relevant to the Church or our preferential treatment of propositional over narrative texts, we fail to take into account the Bible’s many examples of godly women speaking to men on behalf of God.

Miriam gets a pass, because even though she is identified as a prophet, the people she led in assembled worship were women.

Deborah, also identified as a prophet and repeatedly used by God to speak to and lead His holy nation, gets explained away as an anomaly, the sad result of what happens when men fail to step and lead.

Abigail makes us squirm a bit, but we wiggle out of it by emphasizing what a fool her husband was and by picturing David as a renegade warrior, not the anointed king-to-be.

He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: “Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found…. Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Akbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophet Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the New Quarter.
2 Kings 22:12-14

But Huldah stops us in our tracks. Her story doesn’t make any sense in a paradigm that says God wants men, not women, to speak on His behalf to the church, particularly in the areas of interpreting and applying His Word. There was certainly no lack of qualified, committed male leadership in her time. King Josiah, surrounded by a band of strong, godly men, was leading the nation in a gutsy purge of its idolatrous practices and apathetic worship. Under the capable leadership of the high priest Hilkiah, the priesthood was well-established and organized. And even the prophet Jeremiah was on hand, faithfully speaking the words of God to the people.

So why would all these powerful men go to a woman to find out what God meant by what He had written in His Word? And why was a woman, married to a capable man from a well-known household, so seemingly comfortable with this role of prophet, interpreter of Scripture, and counsellor of the priests and the king?

She said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the LORD says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. …
Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people—that they would become a curse and be laid waste—and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. …’ ” So they took her answer back to the king.

Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of the LORD with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest.
2 Kings 22:15-23:2

Huldah’s voice rings loud and clear through the pages of the Bible, her Spirit-filled words recorded for leaders both then and now to listen to and learn from. Nothing in the way she spoke or in the way her story is told connotes that something is amiss with Israel’s leadership, other than the way the teachings of Yahweh had been ignored. Her prophetic role in this rare “how things are actually supposed to happen” story stands as a striking example of holy women speaking on behalf of God to both encourage and exhort His people, including their leaders.

In fact, this story as a whole stands out as one of the most ideal leadership scenarios in the Old Testament. Here prophet, priest, and king each take up their appropriate leadership roles, submitting to and cooperating with each other to guide the whole nation back into right relationship with God. God used the humility, strength, and voice of each of these leaders, both male and female, to call His people back and to present them to Himself, pure and holy in His sight.

And while this still does not directly address what God meant by the words He would later give us in the books of 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians, the Biblical examples of Huldah and her fellow prophetesses must form the backdrop for how we read these texts.

Holy women spoke from God of old. Should they not still today?

narrative theology for all kinds of people

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