God’s Kind of Woman

img_1998Reading Peter’s description of the model Christian woman used to send me onto yet another personality diet. Desperately wanting to be the sort of woman who was beautiful in God’s sight, I would attempt to reduce the number of opinionated words I spoke, subdue my boisterous spirit, and lower the level of leadership I naturally took. But try as I might to fit my rotund personality into the tiny box that this passage seemed to construct for me, it was only a matter of time until I would come bursting back out.

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
1 Peter 3:1-4

Discouraged and defeated, I prayed that God would re-create me as a more passive, demure version of myself. My picture of His ideal was a soft-voiced woman, listening intently to the men around her and unobtrusively serving their physical needs so they could go on doing the significant spiritual work God had called them to. Next to women who were naturally endowed with quiet natures and gifts of service, I felt less godly. If God wanted me to be a mild, behind-the-scenes woman, then why did He curse me with a sharp mind, pastoral heart, and assertive nature?

Obviously many of my jagged edges were in dire need of sanding down, as God saw fit do through painful but purifying life experiences. As any young leader has to learn, my tongue did need some reigning in, my Tiggerish traits did need more self-restraint to prevent me from bouncing all over others, and my will needed to be trained in submission before it could be qualified for leadership.

For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
1 Peter 3:5-6

But coming out the other side of all that, the question still remained: what kind of woman does God like best? I wish I would have read that 1 Peter passage more carefully years ago, because through more recent study I finally noticed the hearty clue it drops at the end. Who were these holy women of old who were being held up as examples for first-century Christian women to imitate? What was it that God commended these Old Testament women for in their own lifetimes? By examining their life stories, especially the way they used their voices, did or did not assert leadership, and related to the men in their lives, I hoped to better interpret what Peter had in mind when he what he wrote what he did.

And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.
Hebrews 11:11

Starting with Sarah, the matriarch of our faith, I see a woman who heroically spoke up before kings to protect her husband by offering her own body in place of his. Far from being a passive pushover, she proactively embraced the promise God had made to her husband, travelling homelessly with him at her own peril and (albeit abusively) seeking to produce a descendent for him through her own servant. In honor of her faith, God insisted on establishing His holy nation through her, not just her husband. He also named her in the Hebrews hall of faith.

By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
Hebrews 11:31
Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse…
Matthew 1:5

The Hebrew midwives stood up to the King of Egypt, using their voices to protect the unborn. Likewise Rahab stood up to her male authorities, covering for the foreign men who had come to her brothel for shelter. These women were expressly commended by God for the proactive leadership they took, not giving in to fear but by faith entrusting themselves to God. And, as He did for Sarah, God established their lines in reward for their faithful service, even naming Rahab in His own Son’s genealogy.

God’s kind of women are those who do what is right and don’t give in to fear.

Deborah completely turns my docile picture on its head. Though appropriately reticent to take leadership of the army, she had no qualms about judging the Israelites who voluntarily came to her for wisdom, justice, and a word from God. Her voice was one that God expected these men to heed, not to silence. General Barak got seriously shamed for ignoring her words. And contrary to how we often hear her story interpreted, the author of Judges presents her position as prophetess and judge as perfectly normal, even for a married woman. It wasn’t through her husband that God chose to speak to His people—it was through her. The victorious outcome of her story stands as testimony to God’s delight in this godly woman’s bold leadership and outspoken faith.

“The LORD bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. …you are a woman of noble character.
Ruth 3:10-11
David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day…
1 Samuel 25:32-33

Abigail overrode her foolish husband, going behind his back to save it. Ruth no longer had a husband to save but instead dedicated her initiative-taking, competent self to saving her dead husband’s mother. Both of these women took leadership through their bold words and their heroic deeds, gently shaming great men into doing what was right (or in David’s case, stopping him in his tracks from doing something horribly wrong). And both the landed-gentry Boaz and his warlord great-grandson David thanked these unexpected leaders for their kindness and considered themselves blessed beyond rubies to get such noble women as lifelong-allies.

My goal as a woman is to blossom within the full range of beautiful role models God has given me to imitate.

This will have to suffice for now as a representative sampling of the holy women of old. But what stands out to me is that these women were a far cry from the silent, second-string players that I had assumed God likes His women to be. They raised their voices, engaged their minds, and asserted their strength for the good of those around them, even when that meant functioning outside of cultural norms and established authority.

The point is to rightly divide God’s word so that we don’t squeeze it into our own culturally preconceived box.

If these are the sorts of examples that Peter was holding up for us in his call to a feminine, unflappable faith, then there is room for my personality in God’s definition of beauty, too. The point isn’t to change God’s Word to adapt to all shapes and sizes, but it is to rightly divide God’s word so that we don’t squeeze it into our own culturally preconceived box. My goal as a woman is no longer to conform to the objectified ideal of the Sunday school magazines, but rather to blossom within the full range of beautiful models God has given me to imitate.

After all, as the passage in 1 Peter concludes, God’s kind of women are those who do what is right and don’t give in to fear.

Reverse the Curse

debateRecently released footage of Donald Trump boastfully describing his sexual domination of women has prompted many Christians to revoke their support of his candidacy for president of the United States. But his remarks, as well as the public outrage they have provoked, beg the question: why is it so wrong for a man to speak of (or treat) women as objects to grab, use, and dominate at his leisure? Is this simply an embarrassing case of “boys being boys,” or is it indicative of a fundamentally flawed attitude towards women and towards power?

Amidst the shrill manipulative posturing of women and the boastful objectifying comments of men, God’s Word calls us back to an other-honoring submission.

But among Christians, the same people who would decry such sexual exploitation of women, a not-altogether-different attitude often comes to the surface. Men are often assumed to be right in exerting dominance over women, particularly husbands over their wives. Though the church would teach against abuse of this power, the necessary call for men to step up to leadership in their families is sometimes mistaken for an encouragement for men to treat women in controlling ways.

Laying the whole question of male headship aside for a later post, the problem I would like to highlight here is the competitive, controlling approach that has infected our relationships ever since the fall. Genesis 2 paints a beautifully cooperative and harmonious picture of the relationship between the first man and the first woman, in which the woman gloriously fulfilled the man and the man honored and gave himself to the woman. Just like the Trinity in whose image they were made, man and woman found their satisfaction in using their personal power and position to promote the cause of the other.

Then another sign appeared in heaven …The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.
Rev. 12:3-4
…But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Genesis 4:7

Into the garden slithered another creature who had already traded in service for competition. Satan’s goal was to break up everything good that God had created, pitting humans vs. God, women vs. men, and man vs. earth. Poised in ambush awaiting the birth of a new creation, the serpent played the babe-like humans off of each other and off of God, successfully injecting his poison into all their relationships.

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
Genesis 3:15-16

Worse than the scam pulled off against the man and woman, the serpent’s poison effectively turned his victims into perpetrators. He no longer had to strike at the woman’s glory—the man would subdue her under his thumb. And he no longer had to undermine the man’s strength—the woman would reallocate her power to compete with him rather than to complete him. She would start behaving towards her husband with all the mastering attempts that sin uses to control weakened human flesh. And her husband would start using his strength, properly directed against sin, to overpower and dominate her instead. (Note the identical language of desire and rule used both in Genesis 3:16 of husband and wife in Genesis 4:7 of Cain and sin.)

Far from being a prescriptive statement of God’s new intent for husband-wife relationships, Genesis 3:16 describes the painfully devastating effects of the fall. It stands in sharp contrast to the joyfully abandoned marital bliss of Genesis 2 (which is found again in the garden-songs of mutual delight and empowering love in the Song of Songs). What some Christians use to substantiate their claim that God has given husbands dominion over their wives should stand out to us as a clarion call to resist the curse, not to perpetrate it.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands…
Husbands, love your wives…
Ephesians 5:21-22, 25

As Christians, we don’t hesitate to fight back against weeds and drought or to overcome the dangers and pains of childbirth. If anything, we consider these efforts an extension of our faith in God’s resolute commitment to restore a broken world. And yet we fail to see the importance of resisting the human tendency to dominate and control each other. Is this not the very essence of Jesus’ teaching on servant leadership and of Paul’s teaching on mutual submission? God’s statement to Eve should jolt us into resisting the urge to exert our power over each other, not give in to it as our new normal.

Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.

Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”
Genesis 3:20; 4:1

And amazingly, this is exactly the effect God’s statement had on Adam and Eve. Adam took up his power and used it to bless his wife with a noble name. And Eve exerted her God-given power to give life to another man. Hand in hand they faced down the curse, taking the first steps in overcoming their common enemy by surrendering themselves to each other.

Amidst the shrill manipulative posturing of women and the boastful objectifying comments of men, God’s Word calls us back to an other-honoring submission. Each time we empower and promote each other, we deal one more blow to the serpent’s scheme. As counterintuitive as it may seem, women empowering men and husbands submitting to wives is a crucial part of our Christian task to reverse the curse.

Asset or Ally?

married-handsIn our early years of marriage, my husband and I faced a mish-mash of assumptions and theories about what our relationship was supposed to look like, especially in regard to my role as his wife. Before marriage we had been classmates, peers, and debate partners, enjoying the freedom of a relationship built on mutual admiration for each other’s opinions, abilities, and unique contributions to the world. But having said “I do,” I suddenly felt a nagging theological pressure to change the way I related to the same man.

Intruding into our easy friendship came the idea that I should drop a step back and start following him, that I should lay aside my goals and dreams and replace them with his, and that I should suppress my natural tendency towards critical thought and assertive action in order to make sure that he always came out on top. While introducing the element of hierarchy into our heretofore cooperative partnership seemed unnatural, I felt that it was the right thing for me to embrace as a Christian wife. Despite my husband’s protests that this is not why he had married me, I felt that I should live out my created purpose as a woman to be his “helper.”

Much of my confusion came from the way I had always heard the story told of why God made Eve. Looking back on the story from this side of the fall, I assumed that a “helper” is someone of inferior social status who exists for the purposes of someone higher up a chain of command. In a world of hierarchical pecking-orders, it was hard to imagine a working relationship without clearly delineated and regularly exerted indicators of who is in charge. But leaving behind these social assumptions and looking with fresh eyes at how Genesis 2 tells the story of husband and wife, I now see a refreshingly different sort of relationship from the one I had pictured.

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. 5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Long before the lack of a helper suitable for the man comes up in our story, the Bible points out that there was no helper suitable for the ground. God had created the earth and the heavens, but without someone capable of taking care of the ground, there wasn’t much point in planting a garden. So out of the substance that was in need of help, God created a man. From within this telling of the story (which obviously does not encompass the whole range of God’s purposes for humanity), the man’s primary created purpose in being made was to meet the earth’s need for a “helper,” someone who would enable it to fulfill its created purpose and to maximize its full creative potential.

18 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” 19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh.

Similarly, within this telling of the story, the woman’s created purpose was to meet the man’s need for a “helper.” Though the nature of the man’s need was quite different from that of the earth’s, God’s manner of meeting it was surprisingly similar. First He took the man through an interactive learning task to help him discover his need for himself. The man exercised his authority over the animals by determining what they would be called, in a sense assigning them an identity. But as he set about his work, a realization about himself began to dawn. All these other creatures formed from the earth had two versions of themselves. In fact, it was through this diversity that they were each able to fulfill their calling to be fruitful and multiply. Where was his “other?”

So just as God had done for the earth, He completed what was lacking in the man by creating a helper from the very substance that needed help. From the man’s wounded side emerged a version of him more beautifully capable than anything he could have imagined. The word used to describe what she would be to her husband (ezer) is the same word used throughout the Old Testament to describe what God is to His people: a helper or ally (for more on this see Carolyn Custis James’ insightful book Half the Church). She would come to his aid in shouldering along with him the enormous task of governing the rest of creation and of filling the earth with more little images of themselves (and of God).

23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” 24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Genesis 2:4-25

And waking from his death-like sleep, Adam recognized just what a gift he had been given. This wasn’t another animal to rule or govern—her being was of the same substance and nature as his. He acknowledged her equality with himself in what he called her, embracing her as a treasure worth letting go of everything else (including parents) to gain.

Far from the picture of subservience and inferiority that I had assumed, Genesis 2 paints a picture of loving partnership and empowering mutuality between husband and wife. My role as helper to my husband doesn’t lower my status any more than God’s role as our Helper or man’s role as the earth’s helper lowers their positions. If anything, it emphasizes my God-given power, capacity, and responsibility in working alongside my husband to lead and to serve our shared corner of the earth. Yes, it will involve laying aside my “rights” and my independence just as much as God’s service to us required His sacrificial death-to-self, but it does not make me the second-class citizen or the passive follower that I had assumed. Rather, being the kind of wife God made me to be calls me forward to throw the full weight of my gifts, aspirations, and man-power into our shared calling as servant-leaders of God’s creation, whether in our home or out in the world.

And it’s about time I sorted that out–my poor husband has been waiting long enough!

The Worth of a Woman

img_1675Where does the idea of female inferiority come from? Why, when we survey the atrocities taking place around the world, do so many of them involve attacks on womanhood? Sex trafficking, rape, female genital mutilation, female feticide and infanticide, acid attacks, honor killings, and domestic violence just begin the list of far-too-common practices designed to degrade and destroy the essence of femininity (for more on this, see Darrow Miller’s excellent book Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women in Building Healthy Cultures).

Sadly, the problem doesn’t just exist in headlines and far-off places. The lie of female inferiority springs up in our homes, our church gatherings, our light-hearted jokes, and our social interactions. Of course we would vehemently deny it, affirming that as Christians we believe all humans are created equally in the image of God. We might even go so far as to remember to include women when we cite our belief in the priesthood of all believers.

But our actions betray us. And they speak louder than our words. Why are feminine intuitions laughed at as if they were silly or baseless? Why is an investment in beauty put down as an unspiritual waste of resources? Why is work typically done by women less socially or economically valued than that done by men? And where in the world do we get the idea that men should play leadership roles and women should stick to support ones?

I wince to even raise these questions as I can already mentally hear the defensive reactions that I myself used to respond with. But the questions are valid, and they deserve a biblical response. Rather than raise fear, they should increase our faith in the ability of God’s Word to speak for itself. So rather than continue to dodge the inevitable bullet by avoiding this issue, I am stepping out in faith, hoping that doing this on a public forum will open the way for some healthy, edifying interaction.

My goal over the next several posts is to explore what the Bible actually says about women, with no other agenda but to (attempt to) leave behind my cultural assumptions and examine the Bible through fresh eyes. And I want to avoid the trap of skipping over the first 900 pages in my Bible and running straight to the last few that include the Epistles. As my childhood pastor used to repeatedly emphasize, Scripture should be interpreted with Scripture.

So my question is this: In the overarching narrative of the Bible, what is God’s purpose for women? Why did He create two versions of His image: male and female? What are our shared features and roles and what about us is meant to be different?

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Genesis 1:26-28

Genesis 1, which lays the foundation for our whole story, paints a surprisingly undifferentiated picture of the nature and roles of male and female. Of course there is much more to follow from there, but allowing the full weight of this portion of Scripture to sink in begins already to form a different picture than what I had formerly imagined.

Somehow I suppose I have always inserted my own assumptions about the division of labor in the commission God gave to these first two image-bearers, as if He were implying that the man should take up the bit about ruling and subduing while the woman should stick to being fruitful and multiplying. Or perhaps the man’s area of dominion was the whole earth while the woman’s was contained within the walls of her home. But when I look more honestly at this text, the man’s mandate and the woman’s mandate are identical, because, in fact, there is only one mandate. Men are called to be fruitful just as much as women are. And women are called to rule and subdue the earth just as much as men are.

While the rest of the Bible will offer us plenty of opportunities to unpack what that might look like for each of the sexes, Genesis 1 drives a deep stake into the ground from which all other texts proceed. Male and female are equally embodiments of God’s very nature. And male and female are both called to be leaders, wisely governing the rest of creation as His representatives on earth.

As those foundational truths take their rightful place at the forefront of my thinking on this issue, I am increasingly appalled by the subtle but pervasive ways that we deny them. I am embarrassed to admit that the attitude towards women as inferior beings has found way too much space in my own values and thinking, to the point that I have avoided writing about women’s issues and have spent most of my life secretly wishing I were a man.

But if I, in my feminine form and intuitive responses, am a full-fledged likeness of my Lord, then I’m honored to be a woman. And if I, as a co-recipient of the creation mandate, have been charged with a leadership role over the earth, then I sure need to figure out how God is calling me to faithfully fulfill my commission.

Caught Between Mercy and Need

photo-on-9-7-16-at-12-20-pm-3-1“I’ve already blown it with you, and yet I need your help. How can I ask for another favor?”

For those of us with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, one of the hardest situations to be put in is that of needing help that we don’t feel we have the right to ask for. In a human economy, we intuitively know that relationships work on a system of give and take. And most of us prefer to remain primarily on the giving side, maintaining a healthy balance in our relational bank account so that we don’t have to worry about someday running in the red.

Call it pride, call it pragmatism, but deep down we know that there is a limit to how many times we can come back with the same empty cup asking for more, especially if our track record has little to show for improvement.

And though we know that things are different with God, somehow it’s hard to escape the same nagging sense that we have used up all our wishes. If we’d just won some spiritual victory we might feel more confident to ask for His help, but what about those long dry seasons when all we can look back and see is one failure after another? On what basis can we approach His throne and boldly make another request?

Once again, the Psalms show us the way forward. Compiled in exile by a nation of people who had blown it more times than they could recount, they give us prayers to pray in our moments of triumph and our moments of despair, our moments of life “as it should be” and our moments of “oh my goodness how can I even pray to you?”

Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD or fully declare his praise? Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right.

Remember me, LORD, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them…
Psalm 106:2-5

Psalm 106 falls firmly in the last category. After its initial statements of thanks and praise, it jumps right into the dilemma the psalmist is facing. Who is worthy to pray before God, whether in accolades of thanks and praise or (more relevantly to the psalmist’s current exilic condition) in indebting petitions for help and deliverance?

We have sinned, even as our ancestors did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly….
Psalm 106:6

At least the Psalmist is honest enough to go back and tell the story as bad as it really was. Most of his prayer involves detailing just how horribly he and his people have responded to God’s repeated gracious interventions in past. Listing forgetfulness, ingratitude, uncontrolled urges, envy, arrogance, breach of contract, rebellion, and downright laziness on the application form hardly seems the way to win favor from a loan officer, but this is precisely the approach the psalmist takes with God. In fact, it seems to be his strategy in convincing himself that he can again ask for help and in encouraging God to give it.

Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. Yet he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented. He caused all who held them captive to show them mercy.
Psalm 106:43-46

After all, the record showed that no matter how many times (or how badly) they had blown it, God always listened to their cry for mercy. Though their performance was consistently lousy, His response was consistently gracious. That didn’t mean He hadn’t taken them through some pretty tough consequences, but it did mean that He had always relented and restored them in the end. Why would this time be any different?

Where human love runs dry from repeatedly being imposed on, God’s love endures forever.

But in addition to bolstering the psalmist’s confidence in God’s track record, praying through the history of their relationship enabled the Psalmist to remind God of what it had always been based on: God’s unfailing love, not His people’s unfailing performance. This was the leg he could stand on when all others crumbled away. This was the firm foundation on which he could base his plea for yet another miraculous intervention.

Praise the LORD.Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.
Psalm 106:1

Where human love would have long before run dry from repeatedly being imposed on, God’s love endures forever. If anything, the more we draw on it, the more it replenishes. I don’t know how long it will take for this simple reality to finally permeate the way I approach Him in prayer. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to my fully believing it is my own pride, insisting that our relationship include my merit as at least part of its basis.

Save us, LORD our God, and gather us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.
Psalm 106:47

But when merit fails and need overwhelms me, I am driven back to my knees as the Psalmist was. Going silent or going shallow in my prayers won’t cut it. Only a full-disclosure of my failings will clear the accounts, making space for God’s amazing grace to once again give me something to sing about.

And it never fails.

Releasing Arrows

(c) Marvel. Available at Marvel Images

This week marks a major transition in our household. Not only are we preparing to dismantle our idyllic home here in the wee town by the North Sea to launch into the great unknown of a new chapter in South Asia, but we are also releasing two children from our family nest—one flying east to begin boarding school and the other going west to grow for a season under the mentorship of his uncle.

Even as I write a lump rises in my throat at the thought of it. These are my babies. How can I care for and protect them if they are on the other side of the world from me? These are my babies. Through all the terrifying transitions of our life of faith, the constancy of their presence under my sheltering arms has provided sweet security. I can’t count in how many different places my husband and I have met each other’s gaze over their sleeping heads and whispered to each other, “At least we still have them.”

Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.
Psalm 127:3-5

But the point of parenthood has never been to have or to hold them. During one of the heated debates of our courtship, I remember laying out my vision for wanting loads of children (which, my wise husband-to-be pointed out, was a wild impracticality considering the pilgrim life we knew God was calling us to). Our children would be arrows, gifts from God for us to hold near for a time but for the purpose of preparing them to be shot out into the world. If we did our job well, they would one day be equipped to go places where we were not and to fight battles that we could not. Their presence and their work in the world would be an extension of our own, just as our presence and work in the world are an extension of God’s.

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
Luke 1:46-49

While the Lord painfully blocked my ambitious dreams of a baker’s dozen, the longing, the waiting, the losing, and the miraculously gaining taught me to receive each of these gifts by faith. My heart found words in the prayers of Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary, who overflowed with gratitude in the kindness of God to remember His promise to His daughters and grant them seed. The ability to bear children went from simply being a given to being a gift.

They may be leaving my home, but they are merely spreading out into His.

And then the realities of parenting kicked in. Toddler tantrums and teenaged silence rattled my confidence, leading to despair that these arrows would ever fly straight. In fact, they seemed more bent on piercing my heart than putting a dent in the darkness of the world around. At the end of another seemingly fruitless day of teaching, disciplining, nurturing, and downright pleading, I have often unloaded my bedtime discouragement to my husband. But his steady voice repeatedly calls me back from reacting in fear to raising these children in faith. They are God’s from start to finish. He entrusts them to us for the process but at the same time calls us to trust them to Him for the product.

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Matthew 12:46-50

So now I find myself embarking on a new challenge of faith. Having received them by faith and raised them by faith, God is now leading me to release my children by faith. Far from the profound relief I imagined I would one day feel when they were finally ready to launch into the world, I find myself wanting to cling to them, selfishly unready to give up the joy of having them near and (dare I admit it?) the sense of worth that comes of their needing me. At a time when so much of my world is uncertain and in transition, I feel the urge to hold them back as a personal security measure. I could take comfort in the fact that I will always be their mother and that the time will come again when they fly home to me. But that misses the point.

When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Luke 2:48-49

Like Mary with her Son, I need to remember who their real Father is. How quickly I forget and try to exert my rights over them as if they were my own! They belong to Him; of course they need to be about His business! They may be leaving my home, but they are merely spreading out into His.

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman,here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
John 19:26-27

Releasing my children is not a denial of their significance to me. Rather, it is an affirmation of my faith in our Father—faith that He who started a good work in them will be faithful to complete it, and faith that He who is doing His needed work in me will hold me to the finish.

The Infertility Gospel

Again, Lord?

My heart breaks each time I hear news of a couple losing another unborn child. One loss is enough, but as the death toll rises, grief stacks on grief until hope reaches its breaking point.

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Genesis 3:16

What happened to the promise you made to our first parents? I know that sin didn’t make childbearing easy, but you set our hopes on the fact that we would eventually succeed. After all, isn’t fruitfulness what you created us for?

So God created mankind in his own image… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.
Genesis 1:28

Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
Psalm 8:2

For Christian men and women, the desire to have children is so much more than just starry-eyed dreams of tiny toes and baby announcements. It is the fulfillment of our God-given commission to reproduce little images of ourselves, to love and nurture them as He does us, and to fill the earth with their serving hands and worshiping voices. Our bodies and our hearts long for this like a sculptor’s fingers long for a bit of clay or a writer longs for pen and paper.

So when we give childbearing our best shot, when we once more risk the pain of failure or loss, what are we to think when God doesn’t bless us with a living child? What hope can we cling to for the woman whose womb won’t carry or for the couple who simply can’t conceive?

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
Acts 8:33-35

Strangely, I think this is exactly the issue the Ethiopian eunuch was wrestling with as he pored over Isaiah’s words on the road out of Jerusalem. In them he found a kindred spirit—another Servant whose “life” had been humiliatingly cut off and who found Himself without the honor or joy of offspring. And yet this Man’s story didn’t dead end there. If there was hope for Him, perhaps there was also a way forward for this infertile man.

And somehow the good news about Jesus that Philip was able to explain to the eunuch satisfied that quest. Was the good news simply that Jesus had died to take away his sins, or is there something in the gospel that also addressed the pain and disgrace of his infertility?

…and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. 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…
Isaiah 53:10-12

Looking further in the passage he had been reading, the answer begins to dawn. After the anguish of His suffering and the dark night of the grave, the Servant would somehow find Himself with more children than any one body could produce. Because of His self-sacrificing investment in the lives of many, He would be honored among the great patriarchs who normally only achieved that status through their impressive numbers of children.

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
Luke 11:27-28

The good news about infertility is that, in Christ, family and childbearing have been redefined. Mothers and brothers are now those who have been brought near through His blood and who share in the work of nurturing and teaching the rest of God’s children. Fathers are those who mentor and shape those who are younger in the faith (or not yet in the faith.) And children are those whom we have the pleasure of watching as they grow in faith and fruitbearing.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus… To Timothy my true son in the faith…
1 Timothy 1:2
Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.
Romans 16:13

Yes, our hearts and our bodies still long to produce biological children to hold and to love. And of course we ache and grieve when we are unable to do so. But that is not the only way to go about fulfilling our created purpose. The joy of all believers, both those with and without babies of their own, is that the Great Commission redefines the Creation Mandate. We get to spread our tents wider than we could have ever imagined, loving children that were not born to us and investing ourselves in the nurture of people with whom we would not otherwise have shared a bond.

“Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back…
Isaiah 54:1-2

I have witnessed this joy in the face of the Nigerian man who told me that though none of his biological children are still living, he is the father of more children than he can count (including three of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram whom he took in after their rescue). I feel this joy as God brings to me exponentially more spiritual children to counsel and mentor than the four unborn children I lost. And I cling to this joy for the sake of those whose wombs are bare and whose cradles remain empty.

The gospel for the eunuch is the good news for you. In God’s family, you can have more kids than the rest of us.

Overcoming Evil

distressed fatherPolice brutality. Race riots. Brexit angst. Political upheaval. Refugee crises. ISIS bombs. Global terror.

Our land is shaken and torn open, O Lord! Mend its fractures, for it is quaking. (Psalm 60:2)

I begin my day with prayer, not knowing how to pray. My heart churns with the overwhelming tide of global unrest, seeking a stabilizing point on which I can plant my feet.

From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint: lead me to the rock that is higher than I. (Psalm 61:2)

And He offers just that, fixing my gaze on Himself as the one who is big enough to handle it. Because He governs men and nations, I don’t need to fret or despair.

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone: my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock… I will not be shaken. (Psalm 62:5)

Though I don’t see it in the headlines, though I don’t feel it in the heated discussions, He reminds me that He is still reigning, still in the process of putting all things under His pierced feet.

One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done. (Psalm 62:11-12)

In the end, He will make all things right, judging each of us for what we have or have not done.

Our confidence in Christ’s lordship calls us to an overcomer’s mentality of proactive love.

And that is where He turns my prayers around and puts the burden back on me. What have I done to bring peace in my time? What have I done to offer refuge to the refugee? What have I done to encourage those who govern or protect us, to speak up for those who are vulnerable to discrimination and unjust treatment, or to break down walls of hostility and mistrust? I too will be judged.

But what can I do? The overwhelming nature of the problems tempts me to a victim’s mentality of helplessness. But the all-powerful nature of God calls me to an overcomer’s mentality of proactive love.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

I can use my everyday actions to show acts of kindness to those who least expect it. Like the black doctor who worked to save the lives of white police officers, I can go out of my way to show love to those who fall into opposing political camps or racial groups from me. Look an immigrant in the eye and ask him how he is doing. Invite black acquaintances over for dinner and ask them how they are really feeling (and then listen empathetically). Buy a police officer a coffee and thank him for his service. Write a constructive letter to a politician from the “other side,” encouraging her to consider my cause.

As I meditated on Romans 12 this morning with our current global contexts in mind, it spoke deeply and practically to how we as Christians should live out our confidence that Jesus is Lord. Because we trust that He is actively reigning in our world, we don’t need to react in terror, erect boundaries in fear, re-enforce divisions in distrust, write scathing criticisms in alarm, or retreat in despair. Rather, with our feet firmly rooted on rock of His rule, we are free to love those we would otherwise hate, or fear.

This is what it means to be a Christian in our world. As you pray through the following verses, I would love to hear how God is speaking to you about what we can do to stop fretting over the problems and start being a part of the solution.

1 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. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12






Warts and All: On Why I Love the Church

853664e3b6e531ef7a9fc711013888ddI hear a growing chorus of frustration with Christianity and the “the church.” It pops up in blog posts, surfaces in individual conversations, and seeps through the cracks of our decaying religious moral. And for the most part, I would add my voice to the critiques.

Sadly, the church rarely lives up to its noble calling. In far too many cases truth has been wielded with all the tenderness of a baseball bat, authority structures have abused and suppressed the very sheep they were entrusted to nurture and empower, and programs, systems, and corporate culture have squeezed the very soul out of those who come seeking God.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

I have seen (and smelled) the underbelly of too many Christian organizations and churches to be naïve to the painful realities involved in any human community. There isn’t a group that I have been part of that doesn’t have its casualties. At this point I’m not sure any story of Christian abuse, neglect, insensitivity, or betrayal can shock me. My own experiences have trained me in just how damaging the church can be.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

An ecclesiology which sees the church primarily as a filling station for our individual spirituality will lead us to easily and quickly quit on it when it does not scratch where we itch. We have bought in to a consumerist paradigm which uses marketing strategies to grow churches and business models to run them. No wonder we are inclined to take our business elsewhere when their services no longer suit us!

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4:2-6

But despite all its toxic boils and cancerous perversions, the church is still the Church. It is the body of Christ, the family of our Heavenly Father. That’s not just a nice metaphor designed to give us all a warm fuzzy at the end of a special service. It’s the reality that the Trinity set in motion when the Father sacrificed His Firstborn to bring many more sons and daughters into the family. It’s the reality that we breathe in and out as we enjoy the benefits of the Spirit’s presence with each of us.

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
I Corinthians 12:13-14, 24-27

God doesn’t offer us individual package deals. As much as we like to think about how much He loves each of us as His special child, the implications of that relationship are that we are now stuck with each other as a family. More than that, we are actually one huge, living organism, bound together by the same life-giving Spirit and topped off with the same life-directing Head. No one of us can belong to God without belonging to the others. No one of us can quit on the rest without also quitting on God (and ourselves, while we are at it).

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to church.

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to the church.

Years ago a wise Indian pastor knocked the bluster out of me. In response to my self-important criticism of the theological limpness and evangelistic anemia of the mainline church, he quietly replied that he found it easier to stand outside of something and throw rocks at it rather than to remain doggedly within it and work for change. His comment made its mark, influencing me from then on to choose my church based not on its vitality but rather on its need.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away….
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:8, 11-12

The longer I have practiced being part of the solution rather than a harbinger of the problem, the more I have come to love the church. What started as a theological commitment to unity has become a part of my spiritual DNA. The more I love God, the more I can’t help but love His body. The more I invest in His family, the more I mature in sharing His own heart.

As frustrating as I still find certain people to be, as infuriating as lousy theology, damaging relationships, and distancing structures still are, I honestly cannot conceptualize of being a Christian apart from the church. It’s my family! Wherever I go in the world, I find my kin. Whether the songs are unfamiliar or the language incomprehensible, these are my people. I have no choice but to bear with them in love.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:15-16

So when we raise our voices in critique of the church, we had better recognize that we do it as insiders. Whatever each of us points out as a problem we then have the responsibility to proactively engage. This warty body’s only hope of eventually matching up to its glorious Head lies with each of us, its members, doing our bit.

This is the only Body we’ve got. We may not always like it, but how can we not love it?

When the Spirit Doesn’t Come


I can think of few experiences more disheartening than seeking God’s face and not finding it. We struggle enough to remember Him in our busy daily lives, to hunger for Him in the midst of so many competing attractions. But when we finally say no to everything else and discipline ourselves to tune in to His voice, it can feel like the ultimate betrayal when He doesn’t immediately reward our efforts with a blissful mountaintop experience.

We want spiritual climax without the amorous preliminaries. We want a relational harvest without the months of weeding, planting, watering, and waiting. Underlying our efforts at holiness and our attempts at devotion, we have this absurd assumption that God should feel honored by our intentions and be standing at attention, ready to jump whenever we feel like spending some time with Him.

Somewhere between the extremes of slavish groveling and childish petulance, we struggle to know exactly what we should expect of God relationally. Is He the sovereign, almighty King into whose holy presence we are unfit to ascend, or is He the compassionate Father who stands with arms ever spread just waiting for us to come home?

Looking back over the course of history, He is a good deal of both. The Spirit comes when His people call, but not always on cue.

When the slaves in Egypt cried out for God to come, He kept them waiting awhile. After their deliverance (and according to His instructions), they worked hard and long to prepare a place where they could continue to meet with Him. And when the tabernacle was built, the people purified, and the priests consecrated, God’s glory cloud visibly descended and filled that space, providing a very real experience of His presence among His people.

Similarly, when David took proactive steps to create a dwelling place where the Spirit could come in all His glory, he received a promise for the future rather than the immediate answer he was looking for. His son Solomon picked up where he left off, clearing the ground, laying the foundation, and building a magnificent structure faithful to its heavenly counterpart and worthy of its divine Tenant. And when the temple was finally built, the sacrifices offered, and the prayers lifted up, God’s Spirit once again came in an overwhelmingly tangible form, His presence gloriously visible to all who had gathered to partake of it.

Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. For the dedication of this house of God they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred male lambs and, as a sin offering for all Israel… And they installed the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their groups for the service of God at Jerusalem, according to what is written in the Book of Moses.
…The priests and Levites had purified themselves and were all ceremonially clean. The Levites slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the exiles, for their relatives the priests and for themselves. So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the LORD, the God of Israel.
Ezra 6:16-21

Perhaps the most perplexing wait was the one the worshippers experienced in the post-exilic temple. After years of crying out in exile, risking life and limb to trickle back into the land, building walls with sword in one hand and trowel in another, and finally managing to erect a slightly diminished but nonetheless glorious temple, the Spirit didn’t show up. The people had assembled, the sacrifices had been offered, and the priests installed, but the glory cloud never came. No smoke. No fire. No filling.

Though they couldn’t have understood it at the time, the Spirit was planning to return differently than they had expected, and much later in history than they had in mind. In the meantime, how were they to feel? As though they hadn’t tried hard enough, or maybe they had missed some prerequisite that God had intended of them? Or perhaps it was God’s fault. Maybe He had quit on them or no longer cared. In moments of faith they could see His presence through the small favors He sent their way, but the long waiting with little visible evidence of His coming made it hard to keep seeking His face.

The tiny bundle of flesh carried into that temple in his mother’s arms hundreds of years later would contain the longed-for Spirit, but only those who hadn’t quit watching for it would recognize His coming.

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Acts 1:4, 2:1-4

He would be the one to pour out the same Spirit on another group of waiting worshippers who had gathered, been purified, and were faithfully offering up sacrifices of praise. Who knows what the disciples were expecting or even if they were expecting at that time, but when fire and wind descended from heaven to fill their house, I think they all knew that the Spirit had come. The wait had been worth it.

Thankfully we don’t have to wait for centuries to experience the Spirit’s presence with us now. Each ray of sun touches us with His warmth; each meal on our table fills us with His provision. And more than that, God’s Spirit testifies directly with ours that we are securely loved, not abandoned. At times He meets with us in powerfully tangible ways, speaking into our minds and moving in our hearts in a manner indescribable but no less real. At other times He seems silent and inactive, provoking us to frustration and longing.

But even this desire for Him to come is the fruit of His presence already at work in us. It is the wind behind the faith that keeps us walking and waiting, preparing our hearts and creating space in our lives for the Spirit to move. He may not come when or how we expect. But when He comes, the soul feels its worth.

narrative theology for broken people

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