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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.

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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.

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.

Redefining Greatness

attachment“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Driving through the Scottish countryside for an anniversary getaway last weekend, my husband and I laughingly but seriously asked each other the question that we occasionally revisit in our life together.

As a child there were all sorts of things that I dreamed of being: the prettiest girl in the school, the fastest runner on the field, the smartest student in the class. Those aspirations have taken different shapes over the years, but they all boil down to what my father proudly called a “vision for greatness.”

Greatness is being God’s shadow.

That deep internal drive to distinguish myself, to be the very best in each area of life has been with me for all long as I can remember. A fellow student in the honor’s program at college once gently criticized me for the way it pulled me away from simply enjoying my friends, asking me why I was always so “driven.” At the time his question didn’t make sense. Weren’t we all pursuing the same goal of excellence and success?

Of course I recognized that my definition of success was radically different from that of the world. I wasn’t seeking fame or fortune. I wanted to be great in the kingdom of God. But for me that was still a matter of individual achievement. I threw myself into being the best teacher, the best cross-cultural communicator, the best champion of the poor, the best homeschooling mother, the best hostess, the best counselor, etc.

I thought that by being great in the roles God called me to I would bring greater glory to Him. But without realizing it, my headlong pursuit of greatness was actually all about my performance, about my setting lofty goals and then being publicly recognized for having achieved them.

Over more recent years God has re-defined my vision for greatness.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; 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…
Genesis 1:27-28

And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
1 Corinthians 15:49

Greatness is being His shadow. It’s copycatting His character and His work on earth, mimicking in the seen world what He is constantly up to in the unseen world. It’s living as an interactive image of the Creator, fleshing out in each mundane detail of life what He is actually like. This happens each time I give ear to the complaint of my frustrated child, each time I forgive the offence of an insensitive stranger, each time I respond to the distress of a silently suffering friend.

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. …And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
Mark 10:13-16

One of the greatest moments in my life was the time I was accidentally mistaken for Jesus. There was a high-end market in the South Asian city where we lived that I tried to avoid, partially because of the aggressive crowd of street-urchins that would hound me from shop to shop. The rare occasions when I did visit there were usually times when I wanted a special treat, an escape from the usual slog of work and ministry. As much as I wanted to ignore the grimy hands tugging on my clothes, God’s Spirit would prick my conscience, reminding me that He never indulges in a hiatus from caring for my needs. And so, albeit begrudgingly, I would buy packs of roasted nuts and distribute them around, sometimes also taking the time to bless each child in Jesus’ name.

…Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet…
Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”
Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.
Matthew 20:26-34

On one occasion my husband and I, out on a special date, witnessed one of these beggar children chasing a potential benefactor across the street, right into the path of an oncoming car. We rushed over to the little body left lying in the street, pushing through the crowd of his buddies to check him over for injuries. As my husband scooped up the child to carry him to a hospital, he began to squirm and protest in terror, even more afraid of what this stranger might do with him than he was of the fact that he had just been hit by a car. His friends all reassured him that we could be trusted. “We know her. She’s helped us before. Remember? Her name is Jesus.”

At the time I was horrified to discover that I had failed in my repeated attempts to tell those children about Jesus, but in retrospect I realize that I had accidentally done something greater. I had shown them Jesus. This was the measure of my success: not that I had ended their poverty, not that I had founded a school or orphanage, but that I had faithfully lived as a reflection of Jesus in those seemingly insignificant, unintended encounters on the street.

“Her name is Jesus.”

Too often my big-picture focus and goal-oriented agenda cause me to miss the most obvious opportunities to achieve greatness in God’s kingdom. Thankfully God’s Spirit keeps drawing my attention to what my human way of thinking would otherwise miss.

Greatness isn’t distinguishing myself. It’s imitating God.

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1-2

Pretty for a Purpose

cartoon+makeup+girlWhen we first moved to South Asia, I was struck by the beauty of the women all around me. High caste or untouchable, pampered ladies of leisure or struggling servant girls, they all invested heavily in beautifying themselves. Exquisitely draped saris. Carefully combed hair. Bright colored bangles jingling on wrists. Decorative dots displayed on foreheads. Even the poorest of women found a way to beautify themselves with flowers in their hair and rings on their toes.

Next to them I felt plain and ugly, a stripped-down, functional version of womanhood that suddenly seemed less than appealing. Sadly, I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Kindhearted neighbors stepped in to adjust my clumsily wrapped sari, to slide a few of their bangles on my empty wrist, to stick one of their bindis on my bare forehead.

“Doesn’t your family feel disgraced that you don’t wear the costly gold jewelry they must have presented you at your marriage?”

“Doesn’t your husband mind that you don’t honor him by decorating yourself with lots of color and a bindi?“

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Proverbs 31:30
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, 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.
Peter 3:3-4

I had never stopped to think of my physical appearance in those terms before. My dualistic, platonic upbringing had taught me to view beauty as vain and fleeting, a pointless distraction from the things that really mattered. The only Scripture references to beauty that I had been taught to notice were ones which warned against putting too much stock in it. And my stunningly beautiful mother had trained me well that what mattered most to God was the beauty of my spirit, not of my body.

Physical beauty is a reflection of God’s glory.

Of course, none of that stopped me from spending time and money on physical beauty. I cared about dressing nicely and looking pretty (more than I would have liked to admit). But I always felt a bit guilty about it, as if this were an area that I was selfishly holding onto, as if God would probably like it better if I invested those resources in His kingdom rather than in my appearance.

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:18

But all these years later I realize that my South Asian neighbors understood something that I didn’t. My beauty was meant to be a reflection of someone else’s glory. Far from detracting from God, it is intended to display just how magnificent He is.

I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was fine flour, honey and olive oil. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen.
Ezekiel 16:9-13

No wonder He portrays Himself as the kingly husband, beautifying His new wife’s body in every way imaginable. Purifying skin treatments. Fine facial creams. Designer dresses. Stylish shoes. But He didn’t stop there. Fashion accessories. Over-the-top jewelry. An exclusive diet, carefully designed to bring out the best in her features. No expense or effort was spared in making this woman as beautiful as she could possibly be. And her Husband was delighted when other men noticed.

And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign LORD.
Ezekiel 16:14

But why would God care so much about physical beauty? Why would a husband invest so heavily in his wife’s external appearance, finding pleasure in a public display of her splendor?

But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute…
At the head of every street you built your lofty shrines and degraded your beauty, offering your body with increasing promiscuity to anyone who passed by.
Ezekiel 16:15, 25

Perhaps the answer lies in what went wrong with the beautified woman. The admiration of others turned her head. Instead of gazing on the Source of her beauty, she began to gaze on its product. The mirror became another opportunity to adore herself rather than to adore the One whose image she reflected. And the more she idolized her own beauty, the more sallow and tarnished it became.

Neglecting our beauty is no godlier
than obsessing over it.

As I reflect on my conflicted attitude towards my own physical appearance, I see that my problem is not spending too much time or effort on it. It is claiming its credit. Downplaying my beauty is just as wrong as obsessing over it, because ultimately it is not mine.

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:10

I am God’s masterpiece, His garden to be tended and beautified. The more radiant I look, the more clearly His beauty is seen. Part of the good work that I have been created to do is to cultivate both my spirit and my body. Both are made in His image. Both are the place where His glory dwells.

And so slowly, I am reclaiming my makeup for God. The time I spend in the mirror is an act of worship, not because I am captivated by the image that I see there, but because I am learning to delight in the Artist who designed it. I decorate and frame His artwork each day, reveling in the opportunity to put His beauty on display. Whether it is one of those ugly days when I need a little extra TLC or one of those happy days when I walk away feeling radiant, my appearance reflects God’s glory.

There’s no room for pride in that. It’s pretty for a higher purpose.

Maid in His Image

Photo on 11-19-14 at 12.00 PMIn the grand scope of eternity, what is the point of my cleaning this toilet?

To answer that painfully relevant question, I need to backtrack. Last summer my Ugandan students went around the classroom introducing themselves to me: pastors, bishops, government officials, development consultants, organizational leaders. But what they left out of their impressive list of jobs were the animals they tended, the ground they tilled, the buildings they cleaned, the meals they cooked, the household items they made and sold: all a daily part of making ends meet. The juxtaposition of such high-power social positions with what seemed to me to be low-level unskilled labor caught me off guard. And it pushed me to re-evaluate my attitude towards menial service.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit… Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:1-4

So when I came across a family in our area looking for a weekend house-cleaner, I took the job. Why should I consider myself socially above being someone else’s domestic help? Why would my advanced degrees and higher-level teaching position somehow “over-qualify” me for menial work? My family needed the income, and more than that, I needed the training.

My reactions to the experience would reveal how much I needed it.

This basin-and-towel ensemble isn’t gold-plated and it certainly isn’t easy on the back, but it is shaping me into the image of my Lord.

The first few weeks on the job I struggled with insecurity and self-pity, feeling a sudden, self-imposed separation from my church friends and social peers. Many of them hire house-help; now I was house-help. Though nothing had really changed, I suddenly felt very poor, begrudging each unnecessary expenditure my family made as if it were a personal statement on the value of my labor.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!
Philippians 2:5-8

The worst, though, was the irritability that came bubbling to my surface, revealing a deep sense of self-righteous entitlement that I hadn’t known was there. I wholeheartedly threw myself into the work, scrubbing someone else’s toilets and floors as a spiritual act of service. But having spent myself in sacrificial service there, I resented coming home to the mess and chaos of my own home. I grouchily barked out orders to my children, betraying my assumption that I deserved an exemption from going a third mile because I had already gone the second.

Week after week my eyes have been opened to the significance of Jesus’ decision to put on human clothes and become our “help.” Heavenly status laid aside. Immortality discarded. God made in our image, after our own likeness. Sore hands. Aching back. Wounded pride. Devalued labor.

Servanthood was an overflow of Jesus’ self-secure love:
fully compatible with His glorious position,
fully intermingled with His ongoing story.

But having spent Himself in serving the masses, He did not resent going the third mile, or the fourth, or the fifth. He had walked dusty miles, fed ungrateful crowds, washed stinky feet, and waited on disbelieving disciples. You would think that His ultimate act of service would finally be enough, that having His hands pierced and His body broken would earn Him an easy chair or at least some disability. But there He was the next weekend, glorified body and all, building a fire and cooking breakfast while His disciples were out fishing.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:9-11

I still shudder at the thought of sitting around that fire, watching the Lord of glory fix my breakfast, seeing the holes in His hands as He served my plate. It challenges my feelings about service and menial labor to the core. Hard work wasn’t just a means to glory for Him. It was a delight in and of itself. Servanthood was an overflow of God’s self-secure love, fully compatible with His glorious position, fully intermingled with His ongoing story.

And I have the weekly privilege of sharing in that story. I get to lay aside my pretty clothes and plunge my hands into someone else’s mop bucket. This basin-and-towel ensemble isn’t gold-plated and it certainly isn’t easy on the back, but it allows me to practice being like my Lord. Slowly, it is shaping me more into His image.

The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Matthew 23:11-12

I still struggle to live up to His example, to feel the rightness of becoming a domestic servant and to maintain a Christ-like attitude having done so. But God graciously gives me glimpses of how His social hierarchy works. A few Saturdays ago, a dear friend from church invited us to dinner. Exhausted from a hard afternoon’s work, I quickly cycled by home to swap my grubby jeans for a more polished skirt. Minutes later I relaxed by her blazing fire, surrounded by elegant paintings and sipping fine wine from crystal. As I watched this high-class woman’s hands serving me the lavish meal she had spent the day preparing, I fought back tears at the irony and the ecstasy of it all.

Exalted servants. Serving Lord.

Now that is an image for which I am gladly maid.

Taking My Theology to the Grocery Store

caged_hens3It’s time for me to eat some humble pie.

For years I have observed food fads from afar, marveling that people have the time and resources to make such a fuss over the labels on the foods that they buy. Organic grocery aisles and upscale health food stores have often struck me as marketing ploys, one more way for the wealthy to spend their excess resources while the poor have to make do with the overly processed, chemically polluted foods that they can actually afford.

Which value will win out: the well-being of the chickens who produce these eggs or the well-being of my children who need to eat them?

I often feel trapped between the responsibility to feed my family well and my meager resources to do so. I’m one of those who show up at closing time to snatch up the clearance foods that are too old to sell. I pick mold off of bread crusts and find creative ways to turn leftover scraps into another meal. And with a family that walks or cycles everywhere we go, I often feel at my wit’s end to keep up with our caloric needs, especially in light of how expensive most protein sources are.

So each time I examine the price labels on the egg aisle, I face a moral dilemma. Which value will win out: the well-being of the chickens who produce these eggs or the well-being of my children who need to eat them? I am ashamed to admit that I have intentionally buried my head in the sand, preferring to walk out of the store with my three affordable cartons of caged-hen eggs rather than to take seriously my responsibility to be a steward of God’s creation.

I tried to keep my theology conveniently contained at home. But God won’t stay in my cage.

He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field… The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.
The trees of the LORD are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. There the birds make their nests…
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.
Psalm 104:10-12, 16-17, 27-18

God loves all of His creation. For years I have savored His repeated declarations of loving care for His creatures, inevitably filling in the blank with mental images of myself and my family, or perhaps of oppressed women in South Asia and starving children in Africa. But when it comes to those bits that specifically talk about His tender care for the animals, I’m ashamed to admit that I have largely read them in terms of just how loving and compassionate He is, and then lumped them in with how much He cares about people.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
Psalm 8:3-8

How anthropocentric of me! The world doesn’t revolve around people. Yes, we are the crowning glory of physical creation, the bits of earth that have been fashioned into the image of God and infused with the Spirit of God. We are the ones whom He has raised up from the dust and entrusted with the responsibility of ruling over the rest of His earth, including its dogs and chickens, crops and ecosystems. He has given these things to us to provide for our needs, but with that privilege comes responsibility.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny ? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.
Matthew 6:26; 10:29

Jesus had strong words and an even stronger example about what it looks like to rule. Tender nurture. Sacrificial service. And embedded in His reminders of our Father’s loving care for us are powerful statements of God’s loving care for the rest of His creatures. Feeding the birds. Noticing their living conditions. Of course we are more valuable to Him than they are, but that doesn’t negate their worth. It confirms it.

After receiving all of God’s lavish provisions, can I really turn around and stingily refuse some chickens the dignity of a decent living space?

And so as I am faced with the question of how much I am willing to sacrifice for the living conditions of these out-of-sight, out-of-mind hens, I feel just a bit like that ungrateful servant who received much grace but refused to pass it on. My Father has lavished abundant resources on me. Those discounted items at the grocery store are His manna falling from heaven. And that gift-ordered turkey that I can’t fit into my tiny freezer is His extravagant provision, more bountiful than my storage capacity. After receiving all that, can I really turn around and stingily refuse some chickens the dignity of a decent living space?

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ …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

And lest I think that in looking out for the needs of the rest of creation my own needs will suffer, God puts my silly worries to rest. Will He who did not spare the turkey for our Thanksgiving dinner not along with it graciously give us all the ethically-sourced eggs we need to dress it?

Fleshy Theology

"Christ Child" St. Martins-in-the-Fields Trafalgar Square, London
“Christ Child”
St. Martins-in-the-Fields
Trafalgar Square, London
What’s the point of having a body?

As a college student, I remember finding my body an inconvenient obstruction to being in all the places I wanted to be at the same time. I had a hard time accepting that it wouldn’t allow me to work through the hours of the night and then stay awake in class the next day. Somehow physical limitations didn’t register as a valid reason to lower my ambitions. After all, wasn’t my body simply a temporary vehicle for my soul?

Years of motherhood, physical challenges, and the inevitable experience of aging have forced me to listen to my body (at least with one ear). But only recently have I encountered a compelling argument for why I should value it.

Sitting in an N.T. Wright lecture a few weeks ago, I was introduced to an entirely new perspective (no pun intended) on the physical realm. Far from being the messed-up, spiritually devoid location where our souls are temporarily housed as they await their true home in heaven, Tom Wright challenged me to think of the earth and everything in it as an integral, ongoing part of God’s redemptive plan. The imagery of a delighted God walking through His garden in Eden and the promise of new creation have sparked my imagination to see how infused this physical earth is with the presence of God. What’s more, taking seriously the fact that God manifested His glorious image in fleshy, human bodies has caused me to reconsider my former assumptions about the significance of my own body.

Is it merely a temporary shelter to be minimally maintained? Is it a side-point to my spirituality, a distracting, limiting necessity along my journey to Christ-likeness, or is it, in fact, an integral part of my being re-created in and conformed to His image?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ…
Colossians 1:15; 2:9–10

I suppose the starting point in answering these questions is to consider the significance of Christ’s body. It was the dwelling place of God, the physical space where God’s Spirit was located. But more than that, it was the visible manifestation of the invisible God. Looking at the face of Jesus was the same as looking at the face of God.

Looking at the face of Jesus was the same as looking at the face of God.

I admit I have to take a moment to let that sink in. I am accustomed to conceptualizing this in a spiritual sense but missing its physical reality. But if I have no trouble believing that God really was born of a woman and took a fleshly form, why do I get hung up on thinking of Jesus as a physical replica of God? Perhaps this is where I get caught with my dualist, Neoplatonic slip showing. Has my Western worldview really kept me from appreciating the full meaning of Christ’s incarnation?

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay…We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6–10

And yet there it is. Not only is Christ’s body a physical manifestation of God’s image—mine is too! My body is a visible representation of God, the eating, sleeping, moving, breathing, touching, seeing image of its Creator. But more than that, it has become a sacred space in which His Spirit lives. The eyes that I would prefer to be bluer and the wrinkles that are setting in despite my best effort are part of a face that is being transformed to look more and more like His.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
2 Corinthians 4:16

True, the image I see in the mirror is a far cry from the Original. Ugly expressions, dark circles, and sagging cells betray the fact that this face has been cursed. But there is hope! My body is going through the same process that Jesus’ body did. I can see its weakness, decay and eventual death setting in, but at the same time I experience a renewing force bringing light to my eyes and a smile to my lips. I treasure the fact that my mortal body is the place where Jesus’ life is being currently revealed. Better than that, I look forward to the day when this very body will be raised up from the dead, a new improved version of the same old me.

Our faces are being transformed to look more and more like His.

It may sound silly, but I think that is the beginnings of a theology of beauty, a little extra motivation to care for my body and make it as true an image of its glorious Lord as is possible this side of the new creation.

Godly makeup. Fleshy theology.

When Image Matters

I was rushing down the path to class the other morning, doing my best to stay dry. The tropical rain had turned the red dirt road into a flowing mud gulley, but I wasn’t worried. I had cleverly worn my flip-flops and tucked my more professional looking shoes up under my arm to put on when I arrived at the classroom. My mind focused on the extensive content and carefully crafted powerpoint that I was about to present.

I arrived just as the singing began: the rich, harmonized sound of a roomful of African voices raised in worship. Slipping into my seat among the professors at the back, it took me a moment to realize that one of the students was politely trying to get my attention. I followed her gaze down to my legs, and realized that the backs of them were streaked with the red, liquid earth. Mortified, I slipped out of the room and followed her directions to the outdoor cement structure that housed the toilets. I went to work wiping the dark lines off of my white legs, only to discover that the entire back of my dress was covered with mud.

We reflect an imperfect image of our glorious Creator.

My impulse was to wipe off what I could and simply carry on with a dirty dress, but one look at my student’s expression told me that was not an option. To stand before a class of mature, well-groomed master’s degree students looking like that would communicate profound disrespect, towards myself and towards them. As their teacher, my image was bound up with their honor.

As I charged back up the hill for a change of clothes and rushed back down to be in time for class, my mind went to one of the central points that I have been teaching in my Spiritual Formation class this week. If we are made in the image of God, then we are designed to display to a watching world what He looks like. To the extent that we reflect His nature accurately, we bring Him glory.

But what about when the reflection is muddied? What about when the image is marred, smeared with the grime of guilt and shame?

We are familiar with the idea of our own sinful choices corrupting the image of God in us. But we too often overlook the involuntary nature of shame. Despite our best efforts, shame has this way of splashing up and covering us in its degrading ugliness.
Like me standing there in my poor, mud-spattered dress, it redefines our image.

Sharing His image means sharing His glory.

But whatever the cause of our sullied image, the issue remains the same. We reflect an imperfect image of our glorious Creator. Despite how the saying goes, these mirrors do lie. And even though we would like to think that He is above being affected by our choices, the fact is that in entrusting His image to us, He has connected His reputation with ours. His honor is bound up in our image.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Ezekiel 36:25-26

That level of responsibility baffles me. If only I could wipe my image clean as easily as I wiped my legs and changed my clothes. And yet that is the precisely the language used to describe what God does for us. He washes the filth from our bodies and cleanses the impurity from our souls. He takes us through the long, intensive beauty treatment of a bride being prepared for her groom.

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:18

Nothing about this image make-over is convenient. Sometimes it hurts. Often we cry out in irritation or pain, wondering what He is up to and why He is so hard on us.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
Revelation 21:2

But He knows exactly what He is doing. He has already revealed it to us. God is preparing us to be His bride, to be bound to Him in a forever kind of love. When it’s finally time, He will unveil His finished product: a beautifully decked-out bride, a gloriously perfect counterpart of Himself.

…”Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”
Revelation 19:7-8

Now that is an image that I don’t mind going out of my way to cultivate. Bearing His image requires sacrificial devotion to living up to His reputation. But sharing His image also means sharing His glory.

I can’t wait.

Renovating Fatherhood

“I can’t call Him Father.”

God entrusts His image to frail human fathers.

I looked across the table at the emaciated young woman whose life had been destroyed by the double whammy of a manipulative, molesting father and a violent, abusive husband. For as far back as she could remember, the men in her life had treated her with anger and contempt, violence and disapproval. As I listened to her story, I marveled at the fact that she could still relate to God at all. After years of having Him so misrepresented to her by her father and her bridegroom, how did she now conceptualize Him?

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
Matthew 7:9-11

The Scriptures tell all kinds of stories about messy human fathers. Adam blew it. Noah got drunk and made a fool of himself. Abraham sent his son away empty-handed; Isaac got his kids mixed up; Jacob played favorites. Judah broke his promises. Eli spoiled his boys. Samuel did more with other people’s kids than his own. Saul was violent and verbally abusive. David was negligent and aloof. But the Scriptures also tell the story of the perfect Father whom human fathers were designed to represent.

Then the LORD came down in the cloud … And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Exodus 34:5-7

It amazes me that God would entrust His image to frail human fathers. No wonder He constantly has to come in behind them and set the record straight. When He explained to Moses what He was really like, He emphasized how much He loves all of His children, explaining that He prefers to treat them with grace and compassion, not anger and retribution. That being said, He also sets clear expectations for them, standards which He lovingly but firmly enforces.

…who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, … who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed…
He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:3-5, 9-14

Despite his shortcomings in demonstrating the Father’s love to his own children, David did an excellent job of describing it. Fixing our problems and satisfying our desires, this Father takes great delight in caring for His children. He doesn’t look down on us for our limitations or resent us for our neediness. He understands our genetic disposition and our emotional hardwiring, because He designed us that way. Rather than hold our weaknesses against us in anger, He compensates for them with His love.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. … Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.
John 14:8-10

Jesus took up the role of showing us what the Father is really like. His actions and His words perfectly reflected the heart of the Father. Welcoming the prodigal. Forgiving the delinquent. Challenging the self-satisfied. Empowering the weak through the gift of His Spirit. His Fatherly love does not lower His standards for His children; it compels Him to stoop down, take us by the hand, and help us up to meet them.

…go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. …your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Matthew 6:6, 8, 26

But it wasn’t enough to Jesus to merely mediate an accurate picture of the Father. He repeatedly prompted people to go directly to His Father and relate to Him as their own. Turn to Him. Talk to Him. Ask Him for anything. He’s already tuned in to you. He values you. He anticipates your needs. He delights in giving you good things. That’s the kind of Father He is. That’s the kind of Father He wants to be to you.

Our heavenly Father throws open His arms to His kids in a gesture of delighting, nurturing, all-consuming love.

For better or for worse, our experience of our human fathers informs our perception of our heavenly Father. Some of us have been blessed with fathers who beautifully portray the heart of God, enabling us to tangibly experience His unconditional love. Others of us have had our picture of God horribly distorted, wrinkled, twisted, or shredded by frail mortals who conveyed a very different message about who we are to the Father.

But despite the strength or weakness of the messenger, the message stays the same. God throws open His arms to us with a delighting, nurturing, all-consuming love.

And we get to call Him Father.