the paralytic and the poor girl: confronting disability in church

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Sunday morning, Claire and I were walking hand in hand up the steps to church. As I went through the door, a woman coming in behind us asked, “Is your daughter left handed?” “That’s a random question,” I thought, but I answered, “No?” “Oh, she leads with her left foot,” the woman said. “OH!” I said, “Yeah, she has spina bifida and her left foot is her strongest foot, so she tends to step first and step up with it.” And then she said it.

“Oh, you poor girl!”

To her credit, the look on her face as the words left her mouth was like she’d like to suck them back in unsaid if possible. I had kept moving toward the table where we make nametags, and she ended up writing her tag next to us. “I didn’t mean to say that like that,” she said. “You’re a beautiful girl.” I smiled at the woman. I don’t think she meant to say something hurtful, and she knew it came out wrong.

Claire and I went in, found seats, and sat down. I started to think about what I was going to say to her after church about what that woman had said.

And then guess what the lectionary text was on Sunday? The one where Jesus heals a paralyzed man after his friends lower him through a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus is speaking.

Little known fact: we parents of disabled kids who go to church are a little bit wary of Bible stories where disabled people are miraculously healed. We spend our time trying to convince ourselves, our kids, and the world that having a disability is just another way of being a person in the world, that people with disabilities are whole and complete, just the way they are, and then we go to church and hear retrograde terms like “crippled” thrown around and stories like that of the paralyzed man used to suggest that maybe people with disabilities are more in need of healing than the rest of us sinners, somehow.

To make matters more awkward, the children’s message was actually a play put on about the Bible story by some older kids. My little blonde piece of sassy perfection was sitting on the front row on the floor watching it. And while I’m sure they did it because slapstick humor is always funny, the play presented the “paralytic” as completely unconscious, constantly being dropped or otherwise accidentally injured by his friends attempting to carry him toward Jesus. It completely removed any agency or really humanity from the man, and made the only actors in the story the friends and Jesus.

Claire loved the singing and the big kids and declared it the “BEST. SHOW. EVER.”

After she went off to children’s church, I paid extra attention to the Bible reading of the story, Mark 2:1-12. And you know what I saw? Everyone but Jesus is focused on the man’s physical body, his disability. Four friends carry the man up to a rooftop, make a hole in it, and lower him down. But when Jesus sees the man, his first words are, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” And Jesus stops there. Jesus doesn’t immediately jump to healing that man’s body. He sees him as no different than anyone else: someone in need of grace and salvation, just like we all are, able-bodied or not. In fact, he doesn’t infantilize the man or take away his agency, but he reminds us that the man is a human actor with free will, responsible for his own sins, as in need of forgiveness as anyone else.

It’s only after some of the crowd starts grumbling and questioning, “who is this guy to forgive sins? This is blasphemy!” that Jesus decides he needs a way to show people that he has the power to give us all the wholeness we need. It’s like he goes, ok, fine, since you guys don’t believe I can heal the important, soul-level stuff, let me give you something you can see. And then he tells the man to take up his mat and walk.

Finally, an insight into this story that doesn’t leave me feeling frustrated with a Bible that reinforces a worldview that sees Claire as somehow less than whole in a way that able-bodied people aren’t. Instead, I see a Jesus who sees us all as equally in need of healing and wholeness. A Jesus who gently rebukes the people who might only look at the physical disability and reminds everyone that the place we’re all broken isn’t a place anyone else can see.

That night at the dinner table, I said to Claire, “I want to talk to you about what that woman said in church, how when I said you have spina bifida, she said, ‘poor girl.’ Do you think you’re a poor girl, or that she should feel sorry for you because you have spina bifida?” And Claire said, “I’m not poor! I’m just different!” We talked about how our bodies are not the reason we love and are loved, but that it’s our hearts and minds that make us who we are to people. We talked about how so many of us are different and need help sometimes. And we reminded her that we love her because of who she is, a funny, nurturing, hilarious little being who takes such great care of everyone around her. Thanks be to God.

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good friday

I won’t be making it to a Good Friday service this year, but I’m thinking a lot about what this day means. It’s a weird day if you’re a Jesus follower who doesn’t believe in what theologians call “penal substitutionary atonement.” In more normal terms, that’s the belief that the reason Jesus died on the cross is because God was angry at us for being sinners, and someone had to die for it, but instead of killing us and killing us forever, or damning us all to hell, God sent Jesus, God’s only Son, to die in our place as a sort of proxy stand-in recipient of God’s wrath, so that we could be forgiven and live forever with God. I don’t believe in this, because, to paraphrase Brian MacLaren, I believe in reading all of the Bible and in fact approaching God Himself, through the lens of Jesus. And in Jesus I do not come to know an angry God who demanded blood to satisfy his rage.  Continue reading “good friday”

Vegan for Lent: know when to fold ’em

ImageSo. I am a Vegan for Lent failure.

It’s just not working for us right now. I’m trying to study for my master’s comprehensive exam which takes place April 1&2, Jon is working like crazy this month (don’t even get me started on how much I hate the ER shift from 3-midnight that means he misses bedtime), and we just don’t have the time or energy or head space to think and plan as much about food as this whole project requires. We were both tired of feeling hungry all the time. I just want a damn grilled cheese sandwich.

I really considered hanging on, solely for the sake of the blog. It appears my readers like vegan food posts. I like happy readers. But I’ve already “cheated” on this thing a few times (currently eating red beans and rice with andouille sausage as I type), and I just have to come clean that it just isn’t happening anymore.

I don’t have any big spiritual insights about failing my Lenten devotion. I have some clarity now that being a vegan is harder than I thought it was, and that it’s most definitely not for me. I shall return to my usual “less meatarian” (per Mark Bittman) diet of largely lacto/ovo vegetarian eating with supplements of sustainably raised meats. I guess I am just really grateful for the bounty available to me, and the fact that the only deprivation I know is the kind I choose (and then fail to keep choosing).

One of my favorite Bible verses is from the Psalms: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” It seems petty, maybe, and possibly anti-Christian, but I think food is a great way to experience the goodness of God. Despite a sort of anti-fleshly strain in our faith, one that preaches denial of the body and being above bodily things, we are enfleshed, and we worship a God who became flesh. A God who, in Jesus, seemed to really love eating good food with people. One of the first things he really wanted after he rose from the dead? BREAKFAST. Sure, he chose fish where I might choose a runny-yolked egg, but I think in Jesus we see that while denial is good for a time, there’s nothing inherently sinful about enjoying good meals, good wine, and good company.

I also still believe that what we choose to eat is a spiritual issue, an opportunity to demonstrate our care (or in Christian lingo, stewardship) for our bodies, our neighbors, the poor, and the planet. And I will probably always be wrestling with how my diet reflects my values. But, for now, I won’t be doing it as a vegan. I need to focus on studying and taking care of my family in a way that I was not able to on this diet.

on tornadoes and the Jesus who calmed storms

Last year was a bad tornado season for those of us who live in Tornado Alley. Bad enough that we spent several nights in our “safe space” waiting for the sirens and the winds to stop. A friend had a tornado knock a tree onto her house. Other friends survived the tornadoes that blew through Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. It freaked me out enough that I finally made a FEMA-recommended tornado kit to keep in my safe space, which is small comfort when I know that if a tornado really does hit my house, no waterproof bag full of food and supplies can save me. Tornadoes are scary. They are unpredictable. They are deadly. And climate change seems to be making them worse.

This year has already seen several tornadoes. People have died. Communities have been destroyed. Others are just now starting to pick up the pieces.

And John Piper, not even a week after this latest bout of deadly tornadoes, would like to let those survivors know that God did this. Because that’s what the hurting and grieving need to hear right now, right?

Now, let me say right now that I believe in a powerful God who could cause tornadoes if God wanted to. But I also believe that sending these storms wouldn’t be in keeping with the nature of the God I have come to know and love.

I believe that the best way to learn about the nature of God is through the Person of Jesus Christ (as Brian McLaren called it at a talk I attended, you could say my hermeneutic is Jesus). And the God revealed through the person of Jesus is not someone who capriciously sends tornadoes that pick up babies and carry them for miles and kill them. The God revealed in Jesus is someone who wakes up in a boat in the middle of the storm and calms it. The God revealed in Jesus is someone who raises the dead and heals the sick and comforts the grieving and gets to know the outcast. God isn’t someone who breaks and destroys, but someone on a mission of healing and wholeness and reconciliation and redemption.

In the wake of deadly tornadoes, God is on the side of the folks wiping away tears and giving hugs and listening to the grieving and picking up the pieces. God’s drawing nearer to us through acts of love and healing. At least that’s what I believe.

Yes, we live in a world that does not work the way God designed it to. There were no deadly tornadoes, no death at all in fact, in God’s original plan. But all of creation was given the ability to turn from that design, and we did, and here we are. But God isn’t smiting us. God is working to fix it, and God invites us to be a part of the healing. At least that’s what I believe.

I’m praying for the people in Indiana and Kentucky who are dealing with devastation right now. I want them to know that God is on their side.

an earthy good friday

Today is Good Friday. Today is Earth Day.

I saw a tweet about how today you can choose to celebrate the Earth OR you can choose to celebrate the One who made it. As if that were an either/or proposition. I’d like to suggest that in taking care of the Earth, we serve and indeed worship our Creator.

In the past few years, my faith has sort of shifted directions. I feel like I’ve gotten to know Jesus better and been drawn closer to him. As this has been happening, my understanding of what is important about Jesus has shifted slightly. Rather than being focused solely on Jesus’ death and resurrection, I’ve broadened my focus to what Jesus said his mission was– to proclaim the gospel that the Kingdom of God is at hand (that is, available to us right here and right now), a kingdom characterized by resurrection, renewal, and the return of all of creation to the way things were meant to be. This means the saving work of Jesus, which was his life, death, AND resurrection, is not just for my soul, but for all of the earth. And that’s where Earth Day comes in.

Part of the beauty of the Creation story* is that we were placed in a beautiful garden in order to enjoy and care for it. As I mentioned in a post about faith and food that was inspired while listening to a Rob Bell sermon, God told Adam that he was put in the garden to work and to take care of the Garden.  Bell noted that the Hebrew words for “to work” and “to take care of” used to describe Adam’s (if I was going to get literary here I’d say that at this point Adam is a symbol for why all of us were created) role in the garden are usually used elsewhere to describe the act of serving and worshipping God.  Basically, to worship God was to TAKE CARE OF what God created in the garden (aka the world).

I believe a great window into just how far we have fallen from the ideal to which we were created is to see just how warped our relationship with creation has become. A relationship that was supposed to be characterized by reverence and care has become a relationship characterized by exploitation, destruction, and abuse. This is also reflected in our relationships toward our fellow creatures, human and nonhuman, and even in our relationship toward God. We cannot properly love the Creator while destroying the creation.

When Jesus put on human skin and lived with us, he preached the coming of the Kingdom. He modeled Kingdom life, a way of living characterized by right relationship: to God, to each other, and to creation. He taught us to live as children of God, that we might be a blessing to all of creation, as described in Romans 8:18:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

The saving work of Jesus, the liberating work of Jesus, is for us, and for creation itself.

So how does this tie in to Good Friday? On Good Friday, we remember a savior who came to teach us how to live as we were created to live, but who allowed us the freedom to refuse to live it out. He allowed us, rather than responding to him in the relationship that we should have, to reject him and subject him to violence. He modeled a love that, rather than lashing out against enemies, tells us to put away the sword and then reaches out to heal even the one who comes to kill us. He modeled a love that, even as it hung suffering and dying on the cross, was moved to forgiveness. He modeled a love that somehow is not destroyed by evil, violence, and death, but which submits to it, only to come back again. Through this love, we are enabled to transcend evil, violence, and death. Through this love, we become partners in first dying to the old ways, and then in rising to participate as partners in the resurrection and renewal of all things, which will culminate in the New Jerusalem, a place here on earth, in which everything works the way God planned it, and everything is made right.

So on Good Friday, we sit with the wrongness. We sit with the brokenness. We sit with the realization that we are fallen. Fallen so far that we would kill the one who came to save. And we marvel in the love that would let us. And this Sunday, we rejoice in the love that was not destroyed, but resurrected to bring renewal to us and to all things. The experience of Holy Week is very spiritual, but it should move us to very earthy action.

*I believe the creation stories in Genesis are less statements of fact than they are statements of purpose. They tell the “why” of creation rather than the “how.” Thus, I believe in evolution, even as I affirm a Creator God who made everything with divine purpose. As a literature student, I find the language-centered aspect of the story, that God literally spoke things into being, particularly fascinating, but that’s not particularly important for the scope of this post.

i am a christian because…

Rachel Held Evans, whose blog is really fantastic and which you should be reading, shared yesterday why she is a Christian, and asked her readers to do the same. I really relate to Rachel because she is often a doubter and a skeptic and writes a lot about her experiences living an examined, questioned faith. Her post was about how the major reason why she’s a Christian is because she was born where she was born, when she was born, into the family she has. And I think it’s a really great answer, because honestly, who knows where I’d be if I wasn’t born in the Bible belt to people who raised me in church, and who knows where I’d be if that church hadn’t been an awesome Presbyterian church which nurtured my curiosity, wasn’t afraid of my questions, and didn’t belittle me for who I am. But that’s not why I’m a Jesus-follower today (I don’t usually prefer the word Christian, but I’ll go with it for the sake of this post and because that’s how Rachel phrased the question).

I mean, if I had my way, I might not be a Christian today. Often I am frustrated with what feels like my own lack of belief, though in those moments, I always seem to end up praying to God to give me my faith back…

Anyway, this is how I answered Rachel’s question:

I am a Christian because, despite my doubts, despite the fact that my cerebral nature often keeps me from ever making a true leap of faith, despite my stunning capacity for existential crises in the middle of the night, despite my inability to believe every word of the bible or check every box in any creed…Jesus will just not let me go. He calls me back to his simple Way again and again, and I am unable to stop loving him or to stop believing that the way he lived is the most authentic, human, kind way to live. I am a Christian because I love Jesus. Not because I believe everything the church says about him.

Every time I walk away, something draws me back.

Image via Flickr user Megyarsh.

When I wanted to abandon my faith because I lost someone I really cared about; when I woke up with a frozen and panicked feeling in the middle of the night, night after night, terrified that nothing I believed in was real; when I felt my furthest from God…at that moment, this totally non-Charismatic Presbyterian girl was given a strange spiritual gift. I say strange, because this “gift” was the weird habit of sobbing, uncontrollably, whenever I thought about God, whenever I tried to pray, whenever others talked about God, whenever others around me sang songs to God. For a period of several months. (This was super awkward at a missionary conference where everyone talked about God for an entire weekend, and I was the strange girl sobbing the entire time.) And while at first I thought this sobbing was just grief, the way it kept coming up, only in connection to God, eventually clued me in. And the best I can explain it is, God gave me tears when I had no words to show me that I didn’t need words. Which is a big deal for someone as wordy as I am. God gave me tears so that God could wipe them away. So that God could surround me with arms to hold me that reminded me that God’s arms are always holding me. God gave me tears so that I might know God’s nearness.

And though I can say that I’m not charismatic, I had then, and have had since, strange, mystical, deeply emotional encounters with God. Moments when someone told me words I needed to hear. People who crossed my path at just the right time. Encounters that point the way to Jesus and remind me that God refuses to let me go. (A commenter told me this sounds a lot like Calvinists’ view of irresistible grace, to which I have two responses: 1. The Calvinists won’t take me because I can’t check all their boxes, and 2. I believe I am very much free to walk away from Jesus at any time. His love is a healthy kind of love. It gives me a say in the matter.) And so I keep coming back to my faith. Because somehow, that strange experience with the sobbing, the kindness I am moved to do for others, and the kindness others are moved to do for me are all bound up in this person of Jesus who makes broken things whole and then tells them to go and do the same.

People often try to pin me down, ask me if I really believe the Bible. Ask me if I really believe this or that doctrine. And I’ve just never been great at really wrapping my mind around any of it. Which is, on the one hand, entirely against my entirely analytical nature, and on the other, entirely of a piece with it. All I can say is, I love Jesus. I love the way he lived and loved and lives and loves. I want to be like him. And I want to be among people for whom that is enough.

I’m not particularly interested in proselytizing. But I do love to explore and question and wonder and discuss (and, I must admit, even argue!). So I ask: why are you [whatever word you would use to describe your faith]?

Beatitudes Part III: Hunger, Thirst, Righteousness, and Mercy

This is part III of a series of posts on the Beatitudes. Check out parts I and II if you missed them.

We’ve now reached “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” I have traditionally heard this preached as “God loves the goody two shoes,” as if it says “Blessed are those who want to be good little Christians all of the time.” The problem with this reading is that this is not a light yoke or an easy burden. Those who want to be good little Jews all the time would be the Pharisees. This is not our Jesus. He didn’t go around recruiting the goody-two-shoes. He picked the folks who don’t have it all together. It would not be good news. So there must be another way to read this.

To me, righteousness is when things go the way God planned and designed them to. When we exist in right relationship to God, to each other, and to all of creation. Some folks call this right relationship God’s “shalom” which means peace.

To hunger and thirst are downright visceral feelings. To me, to hunger and thirst for righteousness is like that sick at your stomach feeling you get when you encounter something that is just so not right with the world. Something that is so clearly not God’s plan for the world. To experience the tension between what God created the world to be, and what it is like right now. But in that tension, in that lack, in that fallenness, in our frustration, and heartbreak, and longing for things to be made right, God is with us. God’s sick at God’s stomach too. God’s heart is broken too. God longs for things to be made right too.

This verse in some ways reminded me of the Japanese earthquake. Though some like John Piper might claim that God caused the earthquakes in order to teach us a lesson or send us a message, ours is a God who hungers and thirsts for a world in which these things don’t happen. Not a God who causes these things to happen. God is with us when horrible things about the world break our hearts. Not when we get them all fixed, but when we struggle, when we wonder, when we question, when we feel the disconnect between the way things are and the way they should be. This is great news, because it’s easy for bleeding hearts like me to get overwhelmed and feel hopeless and powerless because we can’t fix it all or even do something about it all. But God is with us in that place.

God can handle it when we feel like Habakkuk (Ch. 1): “How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.” God can handle our anger, can handle our sorrow, can handle our concern. In fact, God is with us in that feeling. To me, that is good news.

God is also with us when we move from tension, anger, and sorrow into action. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” To me, this is where the Beatitudes begin to move from conditions (mourning, poverty of spirit, hunger and thirst) to action. To be merciful is to have compassion for another and to be moved to action to change that situation or express love and care. I don’t have much to say about this particular Beatitude, because it seems fairly straightforward, but I will point out that it seems rather interesting that Jesus seems to be advocating a salvation based on works if we look at this line alone. Do mercy, get mercy.

Beatitudes Part II: Blessed are the meek

A very "meek" looking Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount.

In case you missed it, I’m doing a blog series this week on the Beatitudes, based on a talk I gave at my church on Sunday. If you missed Part I, check it out, because it’s crucial to understanding how I’m going to look at the rest of this text.

I’m skipping “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” because Ryan covered that in a different talk.

So, moving on to “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” This one immediately made me wonder if my being asked to cover these verses was some kind of joke. I am so NOT meek, as it is usually defined, and everyone who has known me for even 5 minutes can attest. But, I was asked to speak on this text, and all I can think is, well, I guess they probably realized I wasn’t just going to say meek is being shy and pitiful and unobtrusive and that Jesus is telling us to be this way.

So I immediately set out to look for other places where the Bible uses the word “meek.” One clue as to what “meek” means can be found in Numbers 12:3, talking about Moses. My TNIV says “Now moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” Many other translations use “meek” here instead of humble. So perhaps meek can be understood as humble. I mean, Moses stood up to Pharaoh and liberated the Israelites. Obviously he wasn’t “meek and mild” as we usually think of it. But he was humble.

Another clue can be found in who Jesus is talking to. At this time, the world had been conquered by Rome. THEY had carved up the earth. They seemed to be the ones who inherited the earth– the ones with big swords and military might. And here Jesus is saying the MEEK are the ones who are blessed. The down and out. The oppressed. The have-nots. And while some might say, well, the powerful can have the earth, because we’ll have heaven, Jesus is saying, No. The EARTH. It goes to these folks. Because ooh, baby, heaven is a place on earth (more on that in a second). And, as with “blessed are the poor in spirit,” this blessing tells us more about the one doing the blessing than the one receiving it. And what that tells us is: God is not on the side of the powerful. God is not on the side of the oppressor. God is not on the side of the one with the giant army. God is on the side of the weak, the powerless, the oppressed, the slave, the orphan, the widow, the poor, the hungry, and the downtrodden.

Now that we’ve sort of clarified that “meek” can perhaps better be understood as “humble,” and that we’ve also connected it to the fact that he was speaking to a group of people whose land was occupied by a great military empire that already seemed to have inherited the earth, we can look at the fact that by even using the phrase “inherit the earth,” Jesus is referencing a long tradition, a concept with a context.

Giving Abraham and his descendents a land to inherit, possess, and own, was part of God’s covenant with Abraham. What at first was meant as possessing the land of Israel becomes expanded and enlarged through Jesus to mean possessing the kingdom of heaven, which will literally be on the earth. You see this in prophecy in other books of the Old Testament:

Isaiah 57:13 “Whoever takes refuge in me will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.”

Isaiah 60:21 “Then will all your people be righteous and they will possess the land forever.”

Psalm 25:8 “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful toward those who keep the demands of his covenant. For the sake of your name, Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great. Who, then, are those who fear the Lord? He will instruct them in the ways they should choose. They will spend their days in prosperity, and their descendants will inherit the land.”

And Psalm 37 is especially full of references to inheriting the earth:

“For those who do evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.” (v. 9)

“But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity” (v. 11)

“The blameless will spend their days under the LORD’s care, and their inheritance will endure forever.” (v. 18)

“Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever.” (v. 27)

“The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.” (v. 29)

Then there’s Psalm 69:35: “God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah. Then people will settle there and possess it; the children of his servants will inherit it, and those who love his name will dwell there.”

There are other references in Ezekiel 33 and Romans 4:13, but I think you get the point. Inheriting the earth is a big part of God’s covenant with God’s people in the Old Testament, a big part of the Old Testament prophecy about what God would later do, and now, in the Beatitudes, reappears as part of Jesus’ promise/announcement to the people who will be part of God’s kingdom on earth.

“Inheriting the earth” is about a future time and place in which heaven and earth, the place of God and the place of people, become one. A place in which everything works according to the Way of Christ and everything broken is made whole, and things are as God always intended them to be. The Bible calls this the New Jerusalem. It is not a place we fly away to when we die, but a reality that we can participate in during this life, on this earth. It is a place that we can live in now, and that we can participate in bringing about. Greed, exploitation of the environment, violence, oppression, betrayal will not be part of this New Jerusalem. This is why Jesus refers to Psalm 27. Some things will wither away. Others will survive. When we focus on the things that survive, things characterized first and foremost by love, we participate in eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven in the here and now, a way of living that will last forever.

a new series: The Beatitudes

Me giving my Beatitudes talk. No, I have no idea what is up with the claw hand.

My church, Eikon, is in the middle of a series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (starts in Matthew 5). We just got started, so it’s a great time to join us if you’re interested. This week, I was asked to speak on the Beatitudes, and I figured I’d turn my talk into a series of blog posts to share with folks who didn’t/couldn’t attend (or just folks who didn’t catch a word I said because I’m such a fast talker). I will say that I am not a pastor or theologian. I’m just an English literature scholar/grad student who likes Jesus.

Anyway, consider this Part I on the Beatitudes!

To start, I think the way I’ve often heard the Beatitudes preached makes them out to be some sort of checklist of things we must do to be blessed by God. I’m not sure that a checklist of to-dos in order to earn God’s favor would have been considered radical, crazy good news to a group of Jews and Gentiles, so I’m pretty sure this is not how Jesus intended us to take this text. Instead, I think the Beatitudes are a sort of radical manifesto about the nature of the kingdom of God.

This reading is greatly informed by the very first Beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Right away, you can’t read this as some sort of “to-do.” Why would you want to be poor in spirit? To be poor in spirit is to not get it, to doubt, to question, to feel far from God, to be, as The Message puts it “at the end of your rope.” This is not a desirable condition. Instead, this is a statement less about the one who is poor in spirit, and more a statement about the one handing out the blessing: God. It’s not a statement about earning or deserving God’s blessing, but a statement about a God of extravagant love who pours out blessings on even, and perhaps especially, those who do not deserve it. There is no why to the pouring out of God’s blessing. Ours is a God who likes to bless, choose, and use the people that we think don’t deserve it. This is good news. Our God loves to bless all the people who don’t deserve it, who screw up, who doubt, who don’t believe all the right things, who don’t do all the right things.

In this light, all the rest of these Beatitudes are not about what we must do to earn God’s blessing. The focus is not on the condition of the one being blessed, but on the nature of the one doing the blessing, and, by extension, the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus repeatedly announces is at hand. This might make us look at the rest of the list in a different way, and I’ll be going through all of them step by step, every day this week.

Jesus and Gender Part 5: But what about Paul?

Me teaching at Eikon. Image via my friend Kat, who noticed that none of the guys made it into the pic, so it looks like I was only speaking to women.

Today marks the fifth and final installment of my Jesus and Gender series.  If you missed any of the earlier posts, feel free to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 before reading the rest of this post.

As I said in my introduction in Part 1, when I set out to prepare for the talk at my church that led to this blog series, I was thinking I might end up just having to “chuck” some sections of the New Testament, particularly Paul’s letters.  I thought there was just no way I was going to build a case for the full inclusion of women without having to admit that I think, in some cases, parts of the Bible can just be plain outdated and inapplicable to modern life.  But, to my surprise, I discovered a rich tradition of women leaders in the early church, even in Paul’s writings!

Women were actively involved in the forming of the first church immediately after Jesus’ death.  From Acts 1:14: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”  Acts also speaks of a fairly remarkable set of sisters, though perhaps what is most remarkable about them is that Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t consider them remarkable at all. In Acts 21:9 “Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.” To prophesy is to preach, and Luke presents four unmarried women who preach, and deems it normal, unworthy of any particular comment or condemnation.

But what about Paul? Verses from Paul are often used to make the case that women are not to speak in church, women are not to teach men, and women are to be modest.  My argument is that, in light of what we know about Jesus’ radical interactions with women, we have to look at Paul again.  Is it possible that we have misunderstood Paul by failing to look at the entire context of his writings?

After all, it is Paul who has the beautiful vision of the kingdom of God described in Galatians 3:28-29: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.”  According to Woman in the World of Jesus, “The phrase ‘in Christ’ implies one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ; but it also implies one’s being in the family of Christ. To be in Christ is to be in the church, the body of Christ. For those ‘in Christ’ or in the church, the body of Christ, it is irrelevant to ask if one is Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.” (163)

Paul also establishes that the primary criteria for determining who should serve in what area of the body of Christ is whether or not an individual has been gifted by God in that area, not gender, or ethnic status, or any other human criteria.  This becomes apparent in Romans 12:4-8. If you have a gift, you are obligated to use it.

Even in the midst of the bizarre 1 Cor passage (11:2-16)* in which Paul demands that women in Corinth cover their heads in church, he affirms their role to pray and prophesy in public: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.”  At the time, “prophesy” was the preaching portion of their worship, and Paul does not call for women to be disallowed from prophesy or public prayer, just that they cover their head while doing so. His later instruction that women “should remain silent in the churches” and save their questions for their husbands for when they are at home, rather than interrupting those who are praying and prophesying cannot therefore undermine his support of women as the ones doing the praying and the prophesying. This is a section about maintaining order in the worship service, and his instruction is to keep silent while others are teaching and praying, not that women are not permitted to teach and pray.

And Paul was a man who had no problem with women as equal partners in ministry, as with Priscilla and her husband Aquila, and he has no problem calling women deacons and apostles, as he did with Phoebe and Junia.  Phoebe appears in Romans 16:1-2: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” Phoebe is described in Rom. 16:1 as what is sometimes translated “a servant,” but this word, “diakonon,” the root of our word “deacon,” was used for anyone engaged in any form of ministry, and is the same word that Paul uses to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25). According to McCabe**, the words used “points to a more recognized ministry” or “a position of responsibility within the congregation.” “Minister” would be an acceptable translation in this regard (99).  Other women were deacons: Pliny, writing during the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD), describes female deacons in Bethynia.  He also describes these same women as “ministers.” And, in his commentary on Romans 16:2, early Church Father Hatto of Vercelli stated “at that time not only men, but also women presided over churches.” (McCabe 109)

Another noteworthy woman was Priscilla, who appears in Romans 16:3. Significantly, she and her husband are listed as “Priscilla and Acquila” (the most important of a group was usually listed first, which is why we conclude Mary Magdalene was the leader of Jesus’ women disciples, because she was always listed first). BOTH are Paul’s “fellow workers in Christ.” Both “risked their necks” for Paul, and for them Paul and all the other Gentile churches give thanks.  A church meets in “their” house.  Priscilla and her husband are equal partners in ministry.  In Acts, Luke describes Priscilla and her husband teaching a man, a Jew named Apollos: “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:26)

This brings us to the apostle Junia, who appears in Romans 16:7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” There is some debate about whether or not this should be translated Junia or Junias, but many scholars support translating it Junia, and note that Junias is not a common Roman name, and has not been located elsewhere in other ancient texts, while Junia was a common name for Roman women at the time of Paul.  Despite this, for years, translators went with Junias instead of Junia, because of the word “apostle” next to her name. They reasoned that women can’t be apostles, so the text must be wrong to name her Junia.  My translation, the TNIV, names her as Junia, as does my English Standard Version. Most newer, more accurate translations go with Junia.  Early Church Father Chrysostom (344-407 AD) writes of Romans 16:7: “To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.” (McCabe 121)

Finally, I have to mention Euodia and Syntyche, who are found in Philippians 4:2-3 “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”  These are two women whom Paul calls his co-workers, his equals, his fellow ministers.

I have to admit, I had never heard of Junia, Phoebe, or Euodia or Syntyche. As I read and researched to prepare for this talk, and I came across these names of these great women of our faith, I even found myself getting angry that I had never been taught these pieces of our history—and I grew up in a faith tradition, Presbyterians, that had no problem with full inclusion of women in every aspect of church life—I just can’t believe we aren’t being taught this great history!

Just as there are many different women named in many different roles in the early church, just as Mary and Martha had very different ways of showing their faith in and love for Jesus, there are many different roles available to women and to everyone in the family of faith today.  I am not arguing that all pastors should be women or that all women should be pastors, but simply that women should be able to serve Jesus and work to advance his kingdom in any manner to which they feel called, just like anyone else in the church.  I am so glad that I can love and serve a Jesus who encountered men and women and treated them all as whole persons, worthy of dignity, love and respect. I am so glad to be able to be his disciple, like Mary Magdalene and Joanna.  I am so glad I can find my own way of serving in the Body of Christ, like Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia, and Syntyche.  And I am so glad to have found my particular family of faith, Eikon, where they’d let even a geeky, passionate, loudmouthed, feminist like me stand up and teach.  I am so encouraged by this church, so excited about the inclusive spirit this church tries to embody, and so blessed to be a part of it.

*Seriously, this is a bizarre passage. Paul tries to say that men having long hair is “unnatural.” Any men out there, stop cutting your hair and let nature take over and guess what will happen.  He also makes a strange allusion to angels, as if they are somehow tempted by women with uncovered heads.  As best I can tell, this is some sort of reference to accounts in Genesis where angels had sex with human women, producing giants and other heroic offspring.

**Women in the Biblical World: A survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives. Elizabeth A. McCabe, ed.