Tag Archives: beauty

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.

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.

No Room for the Spirit

IMG_0766

“There’s just something missing at church. I can’t put my finger on it, but each week I come home feeling frustrated and empty.”

How often have I heard this sentiment expressed by Christians of all stripes (and felt it myself)! If often falls in the context of a fair critique of artificial fellowship, program-driven worship, or pre-packaged sermons. But perhaps, just perhaps, it is a symptom of a deeper issue, one which starts in us.

The “church” of Hannah’s time was experiencing an all-time low. The spiritual leaders who had been entrusted with the holy task of ministering before the Lord and of shepherding His people were instead using their powerful position to take advantage of vulnerable women and to embezzle the offerings of faithful worshippers. Their minds were so far from the Spirit around whom their service and their facility were oriented that they didn’t recognize His work when He showed up!

As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”

“Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. …

Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
1 Samuel 1:12-17

But that didn’t stop Hannah from encountering Him. Her desperation for a child and her deep faith that God was the only One who could give her one drove her into His presence. There, through the veil that separated her from the ark of the covenant, she communed with the Spirit in a powerful way, His prayers bubbling up on her lips and mingling with her own tearful longings. And despite Eli’s well-intentioned blunder, the Spirit spoke His blessing and assurance through His not-so-spiritually sensitive priest. Hannah left the tabernacle strengthened and encouraged, filled with the sweet satisfaction of having met with God.

Though Eli’s sons didn’t recognize it, God’s Spirit was living in their midst. He did respond to the prayers of the faithful who came seeking His face. He did take issue with their corrupt practices. And He wasn’t about to let them get away with using Him as an excuse to get what they wanted or a talisman to protect their own self-interests. So when they hauled the ark out of its holy home and put it on display before the eyes of pagan invaders, God let them lose, both the battle and the gift of His Spirit.

She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.”
1 Samuel 4:22; 5:7

But as He had done for Sarah when her husband devalued her glory in a similar way, God honored His Spirit’s abode in the eyes of its captors. He allowed no one to desecrate its holy form. He poured out plagues on the households of those who took it in. And He brought down in involuntary worship the idol-king who presumed to use it as a self-gratifying prop. By time He was finished with them, Dagon and his Philistine devotees were begging for the Spirit to depart from them. The care with which they sent off the ark and the gifts with which they surrounded it testified to their newfound awareness of the Spirit’s power and worth.

“I will not enter my house or go to my bed, I will allow no sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, till I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.”

We heard it in Ephrathah, we came upon it in the fields of Jaar: “Let us go to his dwelling place, let us worship at his footstool, saying, ‘Arise, LORD, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. May your priests be clothed with your righteousness; may your faithful people sing for joy.’ ”
Psalm 132:3-9

No wonder David prized the Spirit’s presence with him more than any other gift or accomplishment. No wonder he felt the incredible wrongness of the way the ark had been neglected, abandoned as it was in some shed in a farmer’s field. And no wonder zeal to build a proper house for the Spirit consumed him. The lack of a permanent building or organized worship hadn’t prevented David from meeting with God and enjoying the fellowship of His Spirit. But the value he placed on the Spirit drove him to honor It with the central-most space in his kingdom.

This is what I think we are too-often missing, both in our churches and in our hearts. We fail to recognize the presence and the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. We forget to honor Its holiness, to give It central place in our thoughts, our prayers, our service, and our worship. We go through the motions of doing the right things while missing the beauty and the power of the One who could fill them with meaning and satisfaction. In short, we take the Spirit for granted.

For the LORD has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling, saying, “This is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it. I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor I will satisfy with food. I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her faithful people will ever sing for joy.
Psalm 132:13-16

The Spirit may be the least-visible member of the Trinity, but It is certainly not the least precious. Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, the pouring out of the Spirit on us as individual believers and as a Church. This Gift is one to be treasured, adored, welcomed, and sought out. Whether our churches welcome the Spirit’s manifestations or not, whether they invoke It’s presence or not, the Spirit is with us. Both in private prayer and in corporate worship, the onus is on us to faithfully, zealously seek His face.

And as each heart prepares Him room, Heaven and nature will have cause to sing.

A Mighty Line of Mothers

Mama,

In you I meet Eve,
Embodiment of the Spirit’s glory
Bearer of the seed who will triumph over evil
Mother of all the living

In you I meet Sarah,
Personification of beauty and faith
Bearer of the long-awaited (and sometimes doubted) covenantal heir
Foremother of our faith

In you I meet Miriam,
Prophetess of the Most High
Guardian of the deliverer, worship leader of the delivered
Nurturer of a nation

In you I meet Deborah,
Spokeswoman of the King
Dispensing justice, raising up leaders
Mother of Israel

In you I meet Hannah,
Maidservant of God
Faith-filled in shame, faithful in devotion
Producer of a king-maker

In you I meet Abigail,
Voice of the Holy Spirit
Intelligent in intervention, beautiful in form
Savior of a king

In you I meet Ruth,
Humble bondservant to God
Faithful steward of little, honored with much
Noble woman

In you I meet the Queen of Proverbs,
Essence of feminine nobility
Teacher, manager, businesswoman, homemaker, fashion plate
Glory of her husband, Hero to her children

Happy Mother’s Day

Identity, Purpose, and a Reason to Get Up

IMG_0795“Name one thing worth getting out of bed for.” It was one of those rare mornings (for me, anyway) in which I just couldn’t summon the motivation to wake up.

Actually, this has been one of those unusual seasons in which the immediate is less pressing and the eternal has more space to come rushing in. I’m not generally happy with anything less than an overfull diary and the adrenaline-inducing challenge to clear hurdle after impossible hurdle, awakening each day with a sense of urgency to get up and accomplish some goal. But removing some of those roles on which I hang my sense of importance has allowed me to gaze deeper into the question of identity.

When I teach on identity formation, I begin by asking learners how they introduce themselves. Inevitably, the answers cluster around kinship and roles. A second glance at the surnames our ancestors adopted confirms this is not a new phenomenon: John-son and Jack-son, the Mac’s and the O’s (meaning descendant of), and our many occupational names like Smith, Hunter, Barber, and even Clark (derivative of clerk, variant of clergy).

I remember once being led through the helpful exercise of listing all the ways that I identify myself, the point, of course, being to guide me back to my relationship with God as the bedrock of my identity. While cognitively I found this concept very satisfying, it has really been in the times of losing or struggling in those roles and relationships that I have been compelled to clear away the rubble that obscures the ever-present bedrock of my identity.

What does it actually mean for my identity to be based on God? Is this simply a cliché way of stating that I am nothing apart from Him or that I find my worth in belonging to Him? While all that is beautifully true, it doesn’t actually give me a goal to pursue other than investing in our relationship (which is of central importance to who I am). But surely there is more to life than simply sitting alone with God, loving and being loved. Surely there is a role that this identity entails.

This is the story that I have been searching for. It begins with a man and a woman in a garden, commissioned to fill the earth with babies and plants. Of course that would take time and work, but their goal was clear and satisfying. And their role bore far greater significance than simply clocking in and out each day as gardeners and caretakers. They were functioning as priests in the garden-temple of God. Eden was His home on earth, the physical space where He came to meet with His people. Their work of filling, beautifying, and tending it was a sacred service to Him. They were His holy homemakers!

As the story too often goes, these original priests misallocated the temple resources, taking for themselves a portion that didn’t belong to them and disqualifying themselves from ministry in God’s presence. The garden temple was desecrated and decommissioned, but God didn’t abandon His plan to create a physical space where He could dwell with His people. If anything, their failure made way for a bigger, better floor plan.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 
The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. 
Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

Genesis 12:1-9

Abraham’s call to the priesthood came without a temple already provided. But he still understood his role as a mediator of God’s blessing to the rest of creation. He set about filling the land that God led him through with altars and worship, calling on God’s Spirit to come and inhabit that place. And he was meant to extend the presence and blessing of God into that sacred space, representing God in the way he cared for his family, his flocks, and the many “neighbors” with whom he came in contact. Though at times he failed to protect his wife or speak truthfully to neighboring kings, for the most part Abraham used his privileged position with God to intervene on behalf of his oppressed and even wayward neighbors.

And this is where I begin to catch a vision for the role we are playing, too. Though I am far from finished with tracing the themes of priesthood and temple through the Bible (shoot—I haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet), I already glimpse the significance of the seemingly mundane tasks that fill my day. That stack of essays I need to read and respond to, that neighbor I need to call, that mess in the closet I need to sort out—all of this is part of the high calling God has placed on me. As one of His priests living in the earth He has chosen to fill with His Spirit, the daily work that I do of tending, beautifying, and blessing my immediate surroundings is a sacred service to Him.

What finally got my identity-questioning, vision-lacking self out of bed the other morning was His gentle response to my search for purpose.

“Do it for Me.”

God: The Noble Mother

imagesIn a society embroiled with conflicting ideas about gender roles and sexual identity, writing about the feminine nature of a masculine God feels like gardening in a minefield. But to neglect or abandon this aspect of Scripture would be to deny a significant part of who God reveals Himself to be, effectively putting Him in the box of our own culturally conditioned “image.” As much as I shy away from the political and social agenda that drive similar conversations, Scripture itself compels me to take a deeper look at the maternal character of God.

A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

For years now I have read and reflected on Psalm 103 as an exposition on the fatherhood of God. It doesn’t take long to notice the judicial oversight and compassionate leadership of a father relating with his children in its underlying narrative. But only lately has it struck me that Psalm 104 is just as much an exposition of God’s motherhood, especially when laid side by side with Proverbs 31. The parallel imagery and language are so tight that I can’t help but think they were intended to be read comparatively.

…you are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, … they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them.
Psalm 104:1-8

Like the wife of noble character in Proverbs 31, God is described as a fastidious homemaker. He takes care to dress Himself gloriously and to decorate His home beautifully. Light is His favorite garment and sky-blue the color He chooses to paint His downstairs ceilings. He employs the elements (wind, fire, and water) as His domestic help. And although He initially carpeted the whole downstairs with water, He decided to rearrange the floor plan to include large patches of dry land, too.

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart…
You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away… Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening.
Psalm 104:10-23

Like that industrious Proverbs 31 woman, God’s lamp never goes out at night. He works all day watering His garden, feeding His household, and making sure that each member of His brood is well looked after in body and spirit. And while the rest of the family sleeps, He keeps vigil over the prowling “night owls” to make sure they get their tummy full, too. Around the clock He keeps up His work of tender nurture, creative provision, and loving care.

How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number–living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
Psalm 104:24-26

His motherly ingenuity and domain are anything but small in scope. Just as the woman of noble character engaged in global commerce, buying from and supplying ships that crisscrossed the seas, He fills the earth with His handiworks, too. In fact, He repurposes the oceans as playgrounds for His “little ones” and as sidewalks for His children to ride their boats around on.

These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104:27-30

But beyond being a cosmic homemaker, universal food supplier, and global nanny, God meets His offspring’s greatest need through the gift of His presence. He doesn’t simply bring them into the world and then abandon them. As long as He is nearby, His dependents learn and play and grow in peace, assured that all is well with their world. But the second they can’t see His face, they have every cause to panic. Their lives are utterly contingent on His.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Psalm 91:1, 4; 131:2

And so like the children of the Proverbs 31 woman, God’s children rise up with blessing and praise for all He is and all He does. We approach Him confidently when we need something, snuggle under His sheltering wings when we are scared or overwhelmed, and rest peacefully against His chest when we simply desire the reassuring comfort of His presence.

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:28-31

The point is that God is not only the perfect father: He is also unapologetically the ideal mother. This is no cause for confusing gender or reinterpreting the divine, but it does liberate us to relate to Him with the same intimacy and security we experience with a mother. It also sheds a new light on the significance of human mothers as image bearers of God’s maternal attributes. A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

In God’s Kitchen

IMG_0294If you would have told me five years ago that I would be professor and spiritual mentor to Christian leaders across the developing world, I probably would have groaned.

At the time I was firmly entrenched in my life in South Asia, up to my elbows in teaching responsibilities, counseling duties, prayer needs, and ministry demands. I was doing what I loved, but somehow my delight had turned into duty. I began to resent the knocks on the door and the requests at the church, feeling like I was overstretched and underappreciated. I was tired and wanted to be let off the hook.

Sadly, I got my wish.

I think I am not the only one who has struggled with self-important exhaustion. I hear it in those conversations at church when people one up each other with the lists of all they have to do. I read it between the lines of my students’ journal submissions describing how close they are to burn-out and yet how there is no one else whom they can trust to handle some of their ministry responsibilities.

At the heart of all these well-intentioned servants is the false assumption that we are the only ones capable of carrying out God’s all-important work. We feel that if we don’t do it, it won’t happen. Shouldering such an emotionally laden burden on our own leaves us exhausted and (dare I say it) just a bit resentful.

He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die.
“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
1 Kings 19:4

Two years ago, I began this blog with an article about Elijah needing some cave time after the intense demands that God had placed on him. Elijah’s condition connected deeply with my own at the time, as did God’s gracious provision of time and space to heal. But as I revisit his story in light of my own, I see a similar dynamic at work.

‪Then Elijah said to them, ‘I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets.‬
‪At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: ‘ Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. ‬
1 Kings 18:22, 36

Elijah had begun to believe that everything hinged on him. God had called him to perform some unbelievable feats: stopping up the heavens, confronting a hostile king, and taking on a high-powered, politically favored god along with its entourage of priests and devotees. Elijah’s special commission had also come with special provisions, but somewhere along the way he started believing that he was special, the only one willing and able to carry out these critical tasks.

‪He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.’‬
1 Kings 19:10

Elijah’s bold faith in God’s accomplishments through him began to carry a tinge of assertive self-importance, and with it a note of self-pity. This really came out in the exhausted, post-traumatic laments he made to God.

The Lord said to him, ‘Go back the way you came, … and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. … Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel – all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.’‬
1 Kings 19:15-18

God’s first response to him was provision, not exhortation. But with time, God called Elijah back out of the cave with a gentle reminder that he was not the only one, that there were plenty of other arrows in God’s quiver. He sent Elijah back to work, this time with the assignment to mobilize and mentor his successor. Long after Elijah’s ministry was over, Elisha would carry on the same work with an even greater portion of capacity and effectiveness than Elijah had ever had.

And this is where I now find myself. After taking me through a multi-year attitude adjustment, God has recommissioned me as a mentor to classrooms full of Elishas. I marvel at these African leaders’ insight, maturity, and commitment to the kingdom. I am humbled and delightfully surpassed by their accomplishments and their godliness. With people like them at the helm, there is great hope for the global Church.

I feel as if God has invited me back to help in His kitchen. I used to serve here as if I were doing Him a favor. Now I realize that, like I used to do with my own young children, He is doing me the favor. He is letting me be a part of what He is making of the world. He could do it a lot quicker and easier without me, but out of His great love He is sharing the pleasure.

My response used to be “Must I?” Now it is “Please, may I!”

In the Palace of the Sun King; or Why Sheep Stealing Isn’t the Problem

IMG_0002I experienced one of those “zoom in, zoom out—aha!” moments this weekend. I was wandering through the rooms of Louis XIV’s Palace at Versailles, so overwhelmed by the magnitude of its splendor that it was numbing me. The ache in my feet and the smell of the crowd became a more noticeable reality to me than the priceless works of art or the astonishingly sumptuous architecture. I left the Hall of Mirrors and veered off into a corner of the King’s Chambers, really just looking for a space to mentally regroup.

And there, with my back to the rest of the grandeur, my eyes fell on a small section of intricately carved wood paneling, slightly chipped and worn from centuries of being bumped against, but exquisite just the same. I marveled at its elaborate design and wondered about the long-gone hands that had carved it. And just as this tiny piece of golden beauty began to spark my wonderment, I noticed that it was only one of three strips of identically carved paneling arching over the same door. I turned around to see their overall effect, only to be awestruck by the vision of countless windows, doors, and an entire ceiling crisscrossed with the same carved panels, their golden patterns fading into a ribboned effect that draped the room in brilliance.

It struck me that the Church is much the same as this palace. We are the magnificent residence of our glorious King, developed and expanded over the centuries since His coronation. Each room, each section of paneling is a tiny but significant piece of its overall grandeur: no more, no less.

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.

They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan–the one you testified about–well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
John 1:35-37; 3:26

John the Baptist lived and expressed this tension in an incredibly admirable way, especially when his ministry began to rapidly dwindle as a result of the New Guy in town. Initially He had just shown up as a visitor in one of John’s services, but even then John’s public affirmation of Him resulted in two of his associate pastors walking out and joining this start-up ministry. When this Visitor set up a seemingly identical ministry just down-river, John’s remaining associates got really nervous. They felt threatened by all the people going over to Jesus, worried that His presence would put their leader “out of ministry”.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ”

“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
John 1:6-8, 23, 26-27

But John wasn’t threatened. From the beginning of his ministry he had known and proclaimed that he was merely the forerunner, the one who had been sent by God to get things ready for Jesus. This was no small role, and John knew that, too. He embraced his assignment with all the gusto of someone who recognizes its prophetic significance and its practical importance. But pouring his life blood (literally) into that particular ministry did not cause John to amplify its significance at the cost of valuing the bigger picture of which it was designed to be a contributing part.

To this John replied, “…You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.
John 3:27-30

When Jesus’ increase in fame and followers caused John to decrease, he welcomed it. John rejoiced that his overarching goal was being accomplished, even if that meant he was being made redundant. He gladly faded into the background of the grandest of structures, fulfilled in the knowledge that he had gotten to play a supporting part in something way bigger than he was. Jesus’ success was sweeter to him than his own. It had always been his highest goal.


Whose sheep are they?

The challenge for all Christian leaders is to maintain this big picture of Christ and His Church. Our tendency is to build our church, denomination, or organization to the exclusion of the whole, defining our “group” by its distinctives (what sets us apart from all the others) and seeking to draw and keep the greatest number of people within our particular fold. While we would insist that we are doing it all for Christ’s sake, the way that we cling to “our sheep” and zealously (or even jealously) promote “our group” betrays us. As John so wisely reminded his disciples, the church is not our Bride.

…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
Ephesians 5:25-27

When I step back and gaze at the Church from across the room of time and space, I see how all these segmented ministries are really tiny sections of paneling set side by side in a gloriously diverse, complex pattern that fills the walls of God’s temple. Each one has its distinctive place and particular role, but no one comprises the focal point of the structure. As one rises and another fades, we should all be able to celebrate the way they each contribute to the grandeur of the whole.

In light of the big picture, perhaps migrating sheep isn’t our big problem, after all. Possessive under-shepherds is.

In A People Garden

IMG_9140Would the world be a better place if it weren’t full of people? People, not things, perpetrate violence and atrocities on the earth. People pollute the ground with their waste and the air with their emissions. People overfill certain parts of the planet, cementing over its other inhabitants and upsetting their life-sustaining cycles and webs.

The narrative that rises from focusing in on these harsh realities can often cast people in the role of barbaric imposters, of foreign invaders whose very existence on the earth brings nothing but harm. But is this the picture that God sees? What story does He tell about how we fit in His global garden?

Last Sunday I encountered one of those a-ha moments in which my experience suddenly fleshed out my theology. Literally. I had spent the afternoon meandering quietly through a private walled-in garden. Blooming roses crept up ancient stone walls, weeping willows swayed beside a meandering stream, and birds, wind, and water mingled their voices together in peaceful song. That evening, as the garden began to fill with people coming in for an open-air concert, my mind cynically assumed that the perfection of the garden would be marred with their fabricated fashions, noisy chatter, and energetic gestures.

But to my surprise, I discovered that, far from messing up the beauty of the garden, the people completed it. Their vibrant colors, sounds, and movements filled the garden with a new element of life that I hadn’t even noticed was missing. In fact, as I looked around the by-then familiar green-scape and listened to French horns sounding across the distance, it struck me that the people were the most beautiful flowers in this garden. They were the crowning touch. Their creative accessories complimented the decorative designs on the plants. Their effervescent spirits animated the terrain. And their artistic composition filled the space with melodies that the birds quickly picked up and played back.

As I reflected further on this unexpected discovery, I realized that I was experiencing a foretaste of the garden-city, the new creation for which we long and towards which we proactively work as we wait for God to bring His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. This garden resonated with echoes of Eden, bringing human “progress” in harmony with natural development.

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.”
And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.”
So God created man in his own image… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
Genesis 1:11,20, 27-28

In the beginning the world was empty, the ground was bare. God planted grass and trees, animals and eventually people in His fertile garden, giving them all the same commission: Live. Grow. Blossom. Reproduce. Spread out. Fill the earth with your unique contribution to its vast array of textures and colors, functions and sounds. Testify in your own limited way to the presence and nature of your Creator. Echo back to Him the song of creation, imitating His innovative work in the world.

God … will uproot you from the land of the living. The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, “Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!”
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God…
Psalm 52:5-9

Of course the story goes on to show how we have abused our role in God’s garden, stealing the fruit that wasn’t ours to eat and oppressing our fellow inhabitants with our selfishness, greed, and outright contempt. And God has much to say about how He will come and tend His garden, uprooting the weed-like plants who defy their Gardener’s order and choke out His other plants.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted… to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes… They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
Isaiah 61:1-3

But God also intervenes in His garden to nourish and restore the plants that have been trodden underfoot or impeded from what they need to grow. Jesus came to walk among hillsides of tender shoots, watering weary souls, restoring withered limbs, and even raising dead branches. He cut off fruitless vines who were leeching life from those who needed it, and He grafted in foreign vines who longed to be included under His life-giving care.

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”
Psalm 92:12-15

God takes great delight in His people garden. He shines the light of His face on us in warming, life-giving relationship. He satisfies our parched hearts with streams of living love. He crowns us with beauty and fills our branches with fruit, the satisfaction of a project successfully accomplished or the fruition of a dream finally fulfilled.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. … No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face… They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.
Revelation 22:1-5

And best of all, God is in the process of planting us as near to Himself as it gets. He is gathering His vast array of plants into one garden-city, built out of organic stones and filled with the light of His presence. Even as we wait for the fulfillment of His story, we are already flourishing in His courtyard, rooted by His stream, and abiding in His Vine.

IMG_9033So who or what are we in the story of creation? Would the world be a better place without us? I am reminded that, according to God’s narrative, humans are the pinnacle of creation, the apple of His eye. Without us, His garden would be beautiful but incomplete. Our expansion is what He intended from the beginning; our advances are potential reflections of His image within. We are an integral part of His earth, planted here to thrive.

A Place for Pleasure

IMG_8283A post on pleasure in the middle of Lent? The irony has not escaped me. And yet as my husband has astutely pointed out, the very messiness of theology done at the crux of kingdom coming and kingdom come demands a degree of irony. Sweetness in the midst of sorrow. Pleasure in the midst of pain.

For years I have only valued these conflicting experiences the other way around. My mind would resonate in agreement with Wesley’s pithy statement to his Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” Moments of mirth or passing pleasures seemed to me just that: temporary, trivial experiences that had little value in the overall picture of things.

But in His perfect irony, God has chosen this season of Lent to be the time in which He is calling me to make space for pleasure in my life.

The very messiness of theology done at the
crux of kingdom coming and kingdom come
demands a degree of irony.

Since childhood I have been trained in hard work, self-discipline, and kingdom living. As a young adult, I was profoundly influenced by John Piper’s analogy of adopting a war-time mentality in prioritizing my time, efforts, and resources for the work of God’s kingdom. But because my understanding of that kingdom was largely limited to the heavenly realm, I was left with little cause to invest in earthly pleasures. An expensive dinner out with my husband. An indulgent pamper-treatment at home on my own. None of these seemed worth the time or expense in light of eternity.

Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits–…who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Psalm 103:2, 5

But God has been showing me that pleasure is not just bookended on the front and back end of eternity. He did not put it on a cosmic hold once the perfection of the Garden was broken. And He is not waiting for the golden streets of Heaven to finally roll it back out as a godly part of our experience.

He makes …plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.
When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.
Psalm 104:14-15, 28

Pleasure is a part of God’s plan for the here and now, even if it is intermixed with tears and toil. He has created in us desires that He then delights in satisfying. He weaves pleasure into the fabric of our everyday lives: food that is intended to taste good, wine that is meant to make us feel giddy, faces that are designed to look beautiful, and sensory experiences that are supposed to make us stop in our tracks out of sheer ecstasy.

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Matthew 6:31-33

Obviously God has much to say about not making a god out of earthly pleasures by overly indulging in or pursuing them before Him. But that does not negate their value in His estimation. If anything, His promise to add all these things to us when we seek first His kingdom reinforces the importance of their place in our lives. He gives us beautiful clothes and delicious food along with His kingdom and His righteousness.

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” …”My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. John 4:32-34
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” Matthew 4:4
“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” ‘
Matthew 11:19

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the example of Jesus. He was all about the kingdom: eating, sleeping, and preaching it day and night. He certainly wasn’t overly attached to creature comforts, voluntarily going without them for long periods of time in His pursuit of God. And yet He also had quite a reputation for enjoying Himself at parties.

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
Matthew 26:6-7

Even in the midst of the intensity and passion of holy week, Jesus made space for pleasure. In between passionate temple cleansings and intensive final instructions, He found the time to hang out at a banquet table, savoring fine food and wine with His friends. He didn’t get the meal to go. And He didn’t rush the perfumed head and foot massage that came with it. He simply enjoyed it as a gift from God.

Whether I eat or fast, party or abstain,
I do it all as an act of worship.

And that is the point. Physical pleasure is a gift from God. Far from being a distraction from God, it is meant to be enjoyed with God. My stripped down, productivity-driven lifestyle may make more room for ministry, but it has crowded out the ability to enjoy God and His good gifts. I need to take a lesson from Jesus, knowing when to push through hardship and when to stop for pleasure.

If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
I Corinthians 10:30-31

So even in the midst of Lent’s austerity, God is punctuating my sobriety with mirth, my fasts with indulgence, and my focus with frivolity. While it all seems a bit unorthodox, I am finding great pleasure in enjoying both ends of the spectrum in His presence. Whether I eat or fast, party or abstain, I do it all as an act of worship.

God’s pleasure is my own. My pleasure is His.