Jesus and Gender Part 3: Jesus’ friends

Probably my favorite thing that I learned about Martha is that, according to her saint's legend, she killed a dragon. Yep. She's not just a Martha Stewart type, she's also a badass dragon killer.

Welcome to Part 3 of my series on Jesus and Gender! If you missed the introduction, check out Part I, and if you’d like to read about how radical even Jesus’ most passing interactions with women were for his day, check out Part 2. Part 3 will be devoted to the deep friendships Jesus had with women.

Two of Jesus’ best friends were two women, Mary and Martha. I will mostly refer to this Mary as Mary of Bethany so we don’t get her confused with his mother or Mary Magdalene. We first encounter Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42: Jesus is in the home of Mary of Bethany and Martha. Martha is mad because her sister isn’t being a good woman and working to entertain the guests, but instead is at Jesus’ feet, listening to him, and she asks Jesus to make her sister help her. Jesus says, “Martha, Martha…you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed, only one. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”

A great rabbi’s students were always at his feet, learning to become rabbis themselves (In Acts 22:3, Paul describes himself as having been ‘brought up at the feet of Gamaliel,’ his way of saying who his rabbinical teacher was). According to Woman in the World of Jesus*: “Jewish women were not permitted to touch the Scriptures; and they were not taught the Torah itself, although they were instructed in accordance with it for the proper regulation of their lives. A rabbi did not instruct a woman in the Torah…but Jesus related to [Mary] in a teacher-disciple relationship He admitted her into “the study” and commended her for the choice.” (118) Jesus sees Mary as his student, although she is a woman, and when her sister tries to get her to go back to the “woman’s work” in the kitchen, Jesus defends Mary’s place as his student, at his feet.  I love the way Evelyn and Frank Stagg sum this up in Woman in the World of Jesus:

The story vindicates Mary’s rights to be her own person. It vindicates her right to be Mary and not Martha. It vindicated a woman’s right to opt for the study and not be compelled to be in the kitchen. It would go beyond the story’s intention to deny Martha the right to opt for the hostess or homemaker role, even though Jesus accorded a higher value to Mary’s choice of ‘the word’ than Martha’s choice of the meal. Jesus did not make the two exclusive. (118)

I think this is important– so often when you hear this story (and if you are a woman and you’ve ever been in a women’s Bible study, you have surely heard this story presented this way), it’s all about how you don’t need to be a Martha, you need to be a Mary. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was saying to Martha.  I think he was affirming Mary’s choice and telling her sister, you know, your sister isn’t like you, and that’s OK.  Soon we will see that even though she was often in the kitchen, Martha was still listening to Jesus teachings (ha, maybe like me she liked to listen to podcasts while she cooked?) and had great faith in him, just a different way of showing it.

The next episode featuring Jesus and his friends Mary and Martha is John 11:1-43: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The text says “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Also, “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Jesus had close, deep relationships with women, and when they hurt, he hurt.

One of the most significant aspects of this text is Jesus’ interaction with Martha.  Despite her being rebuked by Jesus for her criticism of her sister in the Luke story about these sisters, Martha demonstrates in this story that even though she was busy in the kitchen in that instance, she has not been ignoring Jesus’ teaching: “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him but Mary stayed at home.” This time it’s Mary who sticks to the world of the domestic and Martha who goes out to meet Jesus.

From The Women Around Jesus by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel:

In the packed house of mourning, Martha hears of his coming, takes the initiative, and leaves the house to meet Jesus by herself.  She rushes up to Jesus with a remark containing all the grief, all the anger, and all the disappointment of the last few days…For Martha, this remark is a springboard, the introduction to a passionate conversation about faith.  Martha is not ‘a woman’ who ‘keeps silence’ in the community.  She does not leave theology to the theologians.  She carries on a vigorous debate.  She does not cry, she does not cast herself at Jesus’ feet, she does not give in.  She struggles with God as Job did.  She charges Jesus with failure.  She does not give up, just as Jacob did not give up at the Jabbok when he was wrestling with God. (24)

Then, Martha makes an impressive confession of her faith in Jesus. Again from The Women Around Jesus:

Martha responds with a confession of Christ which stands out as a special climax in the New Testament: ‘You are Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world.’ At most this can be compared with Peter’s confession of Christ in Matthew 16:16.  Thus John placed the confession of Christ on the lips of a woman, a woman who was known for her openness, her strength, and her practical nature.  This is a confession of Christ which takes similar form only once more in the other Gospels, where it is uttered by Peter.  For the early church, to confess Christ in this way was the mark of an apostle.  The church was built up on Peter’s confession, and to this day, the Popes understand themselves as Peter’s successors. (24)

I think this shows that Martha has learned from her encounter with Jesus, in which he said Mary was the one who chose rightly.  Martha has learned and has now become the sister with the greater faith.

However, in the next chapter, Martha’s sister Mary will demonstrate her faith not with a great confession, but with an act of great love. In John 12:1-8, Mary of Bethany, anoints Jesus’ feet while he dines at Lazarus’ house. Judas objects, but Jesus defends Mary. It should be noted that nowhere in this account does it say that Mary was a prostitute. Also: this is Mary of Bethany, NOT Mary of Magdala, aka Mary Magdalene.  I’m on a mission to disabuse the world of the notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, which is not stated anywhere in the Bible, but that’s a story for tomorrow’s post!

I’m just going to post a ginormously long quote here because it just sums the whole scene up so well: From The Women Around Jesus: “There is a supper. Martha is serving, and now, Mary is the protagonist.  Again, she is not helping, but what she does comes from the very depths of her personality.  She takes a flask of very expensive perfume and pours it over the feet of Jesus, who is reclining beside her on the cushions round the table.  She may not be good at words, but what she does without speaking and yet with great self-confidence has a spontaneous effect: the whole house becomes filled with the fragrance.  The sweetness of her action is evident everywhere.  This time she did not have Martha to urge her on. This time she is completely herself, and in doing so transcends herself.  All the elemental ways in which she was accustomed to express her spontaneous love for Jesus, her respect, her affection, her tenderness – the tears, the concern to be near him and to have his support, the spontaneous silence – are now released with the fragrant oil she has poured on the tired and dusty feet of her friend.  And even that is not enough: with her hair she wipes away the dust and oil from his feet and dries them.  That was the task of the lowliest slave: the master at the table used to wipe his dirty hands on the slave’s hair.  Mary performs this servile task in a way incomprehensible to many women today.  She does what no man would have done – it would have been inconceivable even to Martha…But what she does, she does of her own accord and in the light of her personality.  It is her idea, her way of showing love. It is her ‘revolution’. Perhaps Martha stood there transfixed and dumbfounded at such independence…Mary came out of the shadows to become totally herself: the clumsy, loving, independent, tender, restrained, and yet spontaneous woman.” (55-56)

Mary’s actions are as much a statement of faith as her sister Martha’s earlier words—she is anointing Jesus to prepare him for his burial, and in this is affirming her belief that he is the Messiah, and that he has been sent to die.  To me, these two sisters, with their different ways of loving Jesus and showing their faith demonstrate that Jesus wants us to be who we are and serve and love him in ways that are natural to us, in ways that we are gifted.

Tomorrow I’ll be tackling the topic of Jesus’ women disciples!

Jesus and Gender Part 2: From Invisible to Visible

This is Part 2 of a week-long series about Jesus and gender equality. If you missed Part 1, check it out first.

Before we can understand just how radically inclusive Jesus was for his time, we have to understand just how invisible women were in his culture.  Think about one of the most famous stories of Jesus: “Jesus feeds the five thousand.”  We all know it—Jesus had been teaching a huge crowd, and dinnertime comes, and Jesus miraculously multiples five loaves of bread and two fish and feeds the whole bunch with leftovers beside.  Except that it wasn’t 5,000 people.  It was “about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:21).  At the time of Jesus, women literally did not count.  Even though it would be a much cooler story to say “Jesus feeds the twelve thousand” or whatever, the writer of Matthew only counts the men.

From my research, I’ve decided we can basically imagine Jesus in Saudi Arabia.  Women were veiled and kept segregated from men as much as possible.  They were controlled by their fathers until that control was transferred to their husbands.  It was very rare for them to control property– basically they’d have to have no brothers in order to inherit from their fathers, and then they’d have to be widowed with no male children in order to control the inheritance themselves. Men and women were not supposed to talk to one another in public.  From the Mishnah (the oral law): “Talk not with womankind. The sages going back to Moses said this of a man’s own wife, how much more of his fellow’s wife. Hence the sages have said: He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the law and at the last will inherit Gehenna.”  (Gehenna is another word for hell.)  It was even debated as to whether or not a man should instruct his daughter in the Law (the Torah), and women were not obligated to follow the laws regarding calendar feasts such as Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles—in other words, women were excluded from the heart of religious life, from the most important observances.

And yet, in this context in which women were marginalized, subordinated, and excluded, Jesus seems to notice and reach out to them everywhere he goes.  Often to the consternation of his own disciples, he insists on treating them with dignity and kindness, seeing them as whole persons, first and foremost.  My first major point is: Jesus affirmed women as people.

One of the most noteworthy examples of Jesus encountering a woman and affirming her as a person, first and foremost, is his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (found in John 4).  She’s doubly an outcast, as a Samaritan and a woman, and it is unusual for Jesus to address her, as men were not supposed to speak to women, especially not about theology, and Jews were not supposed to speak to Samaritans.  Moreover, he could not drink from the vessel of a non-Jew, as it would have made him ritually unclean, but he asks her for a drink. Despite all these prohibitions Jesus honors her by telling her that he is the Messiah, giving her the good news of the gospel.  When Jesus’ disciples return, the text says they were very surprised to find him talking with a woman—it was that shocking and unusual for a man to speak to a woman alone in public.  According to the book Woman in the World of Jesus*: “Here, the key to Jesus’ stance is found in his perceiving persons as persons. In the stranger at the well, he saw a person primarily—not primarily a Samaritan, a woman, or a sinner. She was not required to cease to be a woman or a Samaritan, but she was by the very manner of Jesus challenged to become a person first of all.” (117)

Meanwhile, the woman goes back to her village and tells everyone about her encounter with Jesus.  John 14:39 says “Many of the Samaritans believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’”  As I’ll mention again later, at this time, women were considered such unreliable witnesses, they were not even permitted to testify in court, and yet Jesus chooses this woman, a sinner at that, to be the one to share the gospel with her entire town.  He broke cultural boundaries, to the shock of his own disciples, in order to use a woman as his evangelist, the first evangelist mentioned in John’s gospel.

Another example is when Jesus refused to stone the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). Legally, a woman caught in adultery could not be stoned without also stoning the man caught with her—this is the sin those wanting to stone her are committing, the one Jesus is referring to when he says “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.  It is possible those wanting to stone her were attempting to hold the woman more accountable for the sin than a man, perpetuating a double standard, so to speak, similar to the way in which our culture punishes and shames “sluts” but does not do the same for men who sleep around.  According to Woman in the World of Jesus, “Jesus did not condone adultery. He did not indulge her sin. In directing her to sin no longer, he acknowledged that she had sinned and turned her in a new direction. Her accusers probably could only make her bitter and defiant. The one who did not accuse her provided her with the only real encouragement to own her sin and turn from it. In this story, Jesus rejected the double standard and turned the judgment upon the male accusers. His manner with this sinful woman was such that she found herself challenged to a new self-understanding and a new life.” (113)

Next we’ll look at Mark 14:1-9. An unknown woman comes to Simon the Leper’s house where Jesus is having dinner and begins to anoint his head with very expensive perfume.  While all the other men think Jesus should rebuke her, he welcomes her act of devotion, and calls her a hero of the faith: “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (v. 9)  Why anointing?  Anointing was performed for a number of reasons– a host would anoint guests to refresh them, dead bodies were anointed to prepare them for burial, sick people were anointed as a cure, and kings were anointed as a mark of their kingship.

I think this particular anointing (there are at least 3 anointings of Jesus mentioned in the gospels) can be seen in two ways: one, this woman is anointing Jesus because she knows he will soon be killed (at this point his arrest was imminent), but also that she was anointing him because she was acknowledging him as king.  In this way, this woman is stepping into the role of the priests and prophets, like Samuel who anointed King David.  From The Women Around Jesus: “Thus the unknown woman is at the same time a prophet who anoints the Messiah, consecrates him and equips him for his task.  This is a twofold break with tradition: the king is a candidate for death and Israel is under foreign rule, and an anonymous woman takes on the role of the ‘men of Judah’ (II Sam. 2.4). Here is the proclamation of a new age in which old values will be turned upside down.” (98)

In our last look at Jesus affirming the worth of women as whole persons, we’ll examine Luke 13:10-17: Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath, to the Pharisees’ dismay. From Woman in the World of Jesus: “[This story] may well serve to dramatize what Jesus more than any other has done for woman. He saw a woman bent over and unable to stand erect. He freed her from her infirmity, enabling her to stand up right. This story has to do with a physical restoration, but it may well point to something far more significant than the immediate reference. In a real sense, Jesus has enabled woman to stand up with a proper sense of dignity, freedom, and worth.  It is striking that Jesus referred to this woman as ‘a daughter of Abraham’ (v. 16). Elsewhere we hear of ‘children of Abraham’, ‘seed of Abraham’, and ‘sons of Abraham’, but here only in the New Testament do we hear of ‘a daughter of Abraham.’ Jesus not only enabled the woman to stand erect, but he spoke of her as though she belonged to the family of Abraham, just as did the ‘sons’ of Abraham.” (106)  Even his language with her is unusually inclusive, adding her, as a woman, to a tradition, an understanding of our relationship to God, that had prior to that point been exclusive of women.

This is, obviously, not an exhaustive account of Jesus’ interactions with women.  I’m leaving out the woman healed of the hemorrhage, to name a major example, but also many passing interactions in which Jesus took notice of women, reached out to them (often against the disciples’ protests), healed them, and sent them on their way as whole persons worthy of dignity and kindness.  In this way, he was a radical for his time, transgressing boundaries that kept women separate and subordinate in order to be inclusive and compassionate.

Come back tomorrow, when I’ll discuss Jesus’ more intimate relationships with the women who were his close and beloved friends.

*Woman in the World of Jesus, by Evelyn & Frank Stagg.

Jesus and Gender Equality: a new series

 

I tend to talk with my hands and make funny faces, so that's what's going on here. Image via @ryanbyrd.

 

Long time no blog, I know, but let’s just pretend I haven’t been goofing off with nothing to say and just jump right back in, shall we?

I wrote not too long ago about how we’d finally found a church to call our own here in Little Rock, a strange and awesome group of people called Eikon Church.  You know they’re strange and awesome, because they asked a loud, academic, outspoken, feminist like me to teach about Jesus and gender equality at our weekly gathering last night.  And I, being a diligent little grad student, set out to research and write the best talk ever. I think I ended up with 13 pages, and I even had MLA citations.  I’m a serious dork!  And yet they love me anyway!

I have to say, even though I grew up in a tradition (Presbyterian Church USA) in which women are full participants in every aspect of church life, I was still very ignorant of much of the biblical basis for that theology.  I thought I’d basically have to throw out aspects of the Bible, particularly Paul, in order to make the case for my belief in gender equality. And, though I’m one of those heathens who believes that the Bible was written in a specific time period to a specific group of people with a specific understanding of the world and can, thus, be outdated or trumped by more modern understandings of the world, it turns out I don’t actually have to ignore parts of the Bible in order to support egalitarianism.  In fact, there’s a rich pattern of inclusiveness right there in the Bible, even in Paul.

So, I thought I’d share with you, the Internets, what I learned and shared with my friends at Eikon.  Each day this week, I’ll share a part of the story, from the reason this matters to me, to the historic context Jesus lived and taught in, to even the most passing interactions he had with women, in which he always treated women as persons of worth, first and foremost.  I’ll share how he had close personal friendships with women, and I’ll talk about the women who were his disciples.  I’ll even talk about the women who were leaders in the early church, as acknowledged, named, and lauded by the apostle Paul.  I’m really excited by all I’ve learned and so happy to share it!

So, let’s kick it off.  To start:

Why is gender equality so important to me as a Christian?

We, as followers of Jesus, are proclaimers of freedom. We are all about forgiveness, and freedom from bondage, and renewal and restoration. And yet, for many women, the message of the gospel comes to them with a message of a new kind of bondage.  To many women, the message of faith has also been a message that they are inferior. That they are to keep silent. That they alone are to submit. That they are to obey. That they are to be quiet and gentle and meek.

I can’t tell you how much this has hurt me personally.  This may shock some of you, but I have never been quiet or gentle or meek.  And I have often wondered if I could love and serve a Jesus, who, I was told, wanted me to basically change who I am in order to be accepted and loved and used in furtherance of the kingdom. I felt this most acutely during the three years we lived in Charleston.  We never did find a church to really belong to there, but I did find myself in a Bible Study with a group of women who, like me, were married to medical residents and doctors.  I was desperate to fit in with these women, because moving halfway across the country, where I had no friends and knew no one was a very hard and depressing time for me.  And yet I always got the feeling that these women didn’t actually like me very much.  I felt like they thought I was too loud, too passionate, too independent, too strong.  I always felt like I was on my best behavior around them, and this made me feel even worse—if they didn’t like “me on my best behavior,” they would NEVER like the real me, me on a bad day, or me in a vulnerable moment.  At one point, I confessed to a fellow member of the group, a woman a few years older than I who already had three kids, that I felt like I didn’t fit in.  She invited me over for lunch, and I was so relieved. Finally, someone was going to reach out to me, love, and accept me! And yet when I went over to her house, she basically told me she thought Jesus wanted to give me a lobotomy. That Jesus wanted to make me quiet and gentle and meek, the way she felt a godly woman should be.  I quit the group after that.  I don’t want to be part of a group that wants me to be someone else because they think Jesus wants me to be someone other than who I am.

And the thing is, I don’t think Jesus wants any of us to be anyone other than who we were created to be.  I think Jesus wants each and every one of us to love and serve him and work to make his kingdom a reality here on earth in ways that are appropriate to our personalities, our interests, and our gifts, talents, and skills.  And in order to really believe that, I have to believe that women (and people of other races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic status) are allowed full participation in every aspect of church life.

So, this is what I’ll be blogging about for the next week.  Tomorrow, look for some historical context on the world in which Jesus lived, preached, died, and rose again, as a way to set up just how radically inclusive his interactions with women truly were.  I’m excited to be sharing this with you!

love and like

because i hate posts without pictures, here's a picture of my dog, olive. she likes me. chances are she'd like you too.

I’ve always known that God loves me, but, and this might shock you, it’s a relatively new thing for me to realize that God actually likes me, actually enjoys me, as well.  Maybe this is a revelation for you too?

Though I grew up in a wonderful church family, for the past few years, I have struggled to find a community of faith to call my own.  In our three years in Charleston, we never really did find a church to belong to.  For over a year, we thought we had– we loved the “contemporary” service at an Episcopalian congregation that blended the liturgy I love with the music that touches Jon’s heart.  And the people there were friendly enough.  But we couldn’t find places to “plug in.”  We weren’t interested in leading the youth group, though we’ve both been active in ministry to teens in the past.  We were too old for the college kids, but too young for most of the “young marrieds” activities, and we just didn’t fit in with the people who already had kids.  We were in church programming limbo.  So, after about a year, we realized it was time to try to find a place where we wouldn’t still be treated like “visitors” after a year of attendance.  We church hopped ever after.

I also tried to find a community of faith outside the church.  I joined a bible study for medical wives, but, as I’ve written, I didn’t exactly fit in there as an outspoken, feminist, liberal, doubter.  I always felt like they didn’t really know me, didn’t really like me, and REALLY wouldn’t like me if they knew the real me.  Like: if you can’t handle “Sarah on her best behavior,” you’re really not going to do so well with “Sarah in a vulnerable moment.”

And, though I didn’t really realize it until last night, I think that my time in that group (and another community group which Jon and I both belonged to and ultimately left) left me feeling like yes, God loves me, but maybe God, or at the very least God’s people, doesn’t like me very much.

I wrote about our churchless time in Charleston and said I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.  Now that I’m back in Little Rock, I really feel that I should follow up and say that for now, we have, praise God, found a community of believers where we feel at home, and I found it through Twitter of all places.

Our new church is small, but I’ll take quality over quantity any day.  We meet in a converted house near our neighborhood every Sunday night, and, like the very first Christian churches, share a common meal and enjoy each other’s company.  We try to keep to a flattened style of leadership, so we take turns leading in a conversation about Jesus, trying to get to know Him very well so that we can live like He did. And we have a great time.

Perhaps the biggest revelation for me lately isn’t just that we found a group of people who don’t make us feel like heretics, though that’s a big plus.  It’s that we really LIKE these people.  We want to hang out with them, have cook-outs with them, go on random weekday bike rides with them, share our lives with them.  And with that revelation comes the realization that they like us too!

Last night, during our “talk time,” the leader was talking about Matthew 25 and what we do for the “least of these.”  We had some conversation about dealing with “the least of these,” and the fact that sometimes, the least of these are downright annoying, ungrateful, and unpleasant.  He pointed out that so often, when we deal with “the least of these” we have a super secret agenda, be it that they will leave things that hold them in bondage, or that they will accept Christ, or that they will say “thank you.”  He noted that “the least of these” know we have this agenda, and that this hurts them– it hurts people to feel like we’re only tolerating them because we see them as a project.  He said that perhaps the “least of these” in these situations are really being the better friend, because they’re putting up with us, despite our not-so-secret agendas.  And, even more mind-blowingly, he said that WE are “the least of these” to God.  We’re annoying, and unpleasant, and ungrateful, and yet God doesn’t just love us, God LIKES us.  God wants to spend time with us, delights in us, and, in the form of Jesus, reclines at the table with us, sharing a meal, drinking some wine, and just enjoying a conversation.

Does that maybe blow your mind a little bit? It does mine! After a few years in which I felt like Christians I knew didn’t really like me, and in which I’d begun to get the idea that maybe God didn’t either, this message is downright liberating.  It makes me want to pull a Sally Field and scream “You like me! You really like me!”  And it also reminds me that I have a lot of work to do toward becoming more like Jesus.  In our society, we seem to think that loving someone doesn’t mean we have to like them.  I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “I love you, but I just don’t like you very much right now.”  I’ve definitely felt that.  But “loving” someone without enjoying them is not the way of Jesus.  And that’s a lesson I need to learn with humility, thankful for God’s grace, and love, and LIKE.

eating, praying, and loving myself

One of the new and exciting developments in my new life in Little Rock is that I’ve joined a book club.  I’ve wanted to join a book club for years, and I’m so excited to have finally found one.  As I discovered taking my free grad classes in English while working at The College, I believe sitting around talking about books is one of my most favorite activities in all the world.

The first book I’m reading with this book club is Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  To be honest, I did not expect to like this book.  I’m not even really sure why, because, as you can tell by the subject matter I most often write about, Eating and Prayer (or God) are two of my favorite things to think about, talk about, and write about.  I think I maybe expected Elizabeth Gilbert to be more insufferable? I mean, someone who gets paid an advance to travel around the world eating amazing food in Italy and studying Yoga in India has to be a little insufferable, right?

But, just like my discovery with Julie and Julia, namely, that I AM Julie, I’m finding I really identify with Elizabeth Gilbert.  I feel like her neuroses are my neuroses, like her passions are my passions, like her search is my search.  And then I got to Chapter 64, and I literally read the whole thing out loud to Jon, asking him if, perhaps, it sounded familiar to him.

Gilbert, like many writers, is a talker.  And at this point in the story, several weeks into her time studying Yoga at an Ashram in India, she’s decided that maybe she should try to be That Quiet Girl, because obviously, the truly spiritual and devout are the mystically silent types.

Oh boy, oh boy, have I been here.  In the beginning of my time in Charleston, I found myself part of a Christian Bible study group made up of women married to doctors and residents and medical students.  And, with a few exceptions, I did NOT fit in with these women.  For one thing, they were all a good 5 years older than I, and most were stay-at-home moms with multiple children whom they often got together for play-groups.  Even if I hadn’t had a day-job, what was I going to do, bring my dog and have her lick their children in the face?  How was I ever going to make it to their book club on weekday afternoons, either?

For another, they were Good Christian Wives of the Proverbs 31 Woman variety.  I, on the other hand, am clearly a crazed Feminist harpy who must, to their minds, make her man miserable.  I remember quite vividly one exchange, in which another member of the group confessed that her husband had taken to making strange statements like, “You know, WE should really clean these floors” or “You know, WE should really clean up the kitchen.”  This young wife was worried about these statements, and unsure of what to do.  The general consensus from the rest of the group was that, obviously, she should clean the floors and tidy up the kitchen, because these things were bothering her husband, and she should serve him by taking care of these things.  My response? “Have you asked him what he means when he says these things? Does he know where you keep the broom? Did you hide the cleaning supplies? This all sounds awfully passive aggressive of him and you should tell him so! If the floor really bugs him, maybe he should clean it!” They looked at me like I’d sprouted a second head.  Apparently, my usual approach of asking my husband what he means when he says strange things and then sharing with him how those things make me feel is considered un-Proverbs-31 or something.

I’m not even sure what it was that caused me to leave Bible Study in tears another night and come home and sob to Jon about how maybe I was just the wrong kind of person for that group.  I’m pretty sure it had something to do with another member of the group riding me really hard about wanting to reschedule an event when I’d just lost my job that week.  But I did, I came home and sobbed and told Jon how I felt like none of these women liked me, and how I felt like I couldn’t be myself around them, and how I felt like I was constantly judged.  I asked him if he thought I needed to be some sort of Good Christian Wife.  He hugged me and held me and assured me that I am loved for who I am, and that he’d really be upset if I turned into some sort of subservient wifebot.

Later, I confessed to a fellow member of the group that I was thinking of leaving the group because I just didn’t fit in.  She invited me over to her house for lunch.  Little did I know that this lunch was a pretext for giving me a speech about how Jesus wanted to make me a quieter, gentler, meeker, more wifely sort of person.  Basically, she thought Jesus wanted to give me a lobotomy.  I’m pretty sure I was quiet and meek that day, but it’s because I was stunned into silence.  Here I was hoping this woman had invited me over to let me know I am liked for who I am, and she basically tells me I need to completely change my personality in order to really be a Christian.  I didn’t go back to the group after that.

So, back to Elizabeth Gilbert in India—she’s decided that she needs to try to become That Quiet Girl, but on the very day she makes this decision, she receives a new assignment at her Ashram to be a kind of hostess for visiting groups, a job that actually requires her to be a regular Chatty Cathy.  In fact, she realizes, her personality is basically required for this job.  Gilbert writes:

“If there is one holy truth of this Yoga [it is that] God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.  God isn’t interested in watching you enact some performance of personality in order to comply with some crackpot notion you have about how a spiritual person behaves.  We all seem to get this idea that, in order to be sacred, we have to make some massive, dramatic change of character, that we have to renounce our individuality…To know God, you need only to renounce one thing—your sense of division from God.  Otherwise, just stay as you were made, within your natural character.” (192)

Yes! My personality is not some sort of flaw. Neither is yours!  God, if God’s creation is any indication, is a fan of variety.  I can only imagine that there are so many species of birds and plants and animals and even varieties of people because our creative God delighted in creating them.  God desires an intimate relationship with ME, as I was made to be, not as I imagine God might like me better, because the truth is, God couldn’t love me any deeper.  And rather than break my back (and my heart) trying to conform to some narrow idea of what a godly woman looks like, I should instead look for ways my unique traits can be used in the service and blessing of others and the world, just like Gilbert found a role as a hostess at the Ashram.

Still, Gilbert does point out that there are ways to grow into a better, more spiritual person while still being accepting of who she was created to be.  Part of it rang especially true to me:

“Or here’s a radical concept—maybe I can stop interrupting others when they are speaking.  Because no matter how creatively I try to look at my habit of interrupting, I can’t find another way to see it than this: ‘I believe that what I am saying is more important than what you are saying.’ And I can’t find another way to see that than: ‘I believe that I am more important than you.’ And that must end.” (193)

Not interrupting others is something I’ve been working on for a while.  It’s something I’ll likely be working on for a long while to come.  It’s a way I can hone the shape of me while still respecting the basic outlines of my design.  It’s like sanding my rougher edges without obliterating the sculpture altogether, because I’m a work of divine art.

I look forward to finishing Gilbert’s book, and I can’t wait to discuss it in book club next week.  Here’s hoping they like me the way I am.  I’ll do my best not to interrupt anyone during the discussion.

we of little faith

Image: BBC Cross, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ihar's photostream

This week, my latest issue of Relevant Magazine came in the mail.  I took it out to the beach on Saturday, and when I turned to the Deeper Walk column written by Jason Boyett, I felt I could have written his piece word for word.  It was called “O Me of Little Faith” (that’s a link to the piece in the digital edition of the magazine, just zoom in and read!), and in the very first line, Boyett confesses:

I am a Christian. I have been a Christian for most of my life. But there are times when I’m not sure I believe in God.

Me too.

In many ways, the same things that drive me toward a life of faith often also pull me in the opposite direction, particularly my curiosity and my questioning nature. I’ve been known to practically give myself panic attacks thinking too hard about whether or not what I say I believe is really true.  I’m prone to many dark nights of the soul.  I’m prone to praying, “Lord, I believe, please help my unbelief.” And yet, something always pulls me back to God. You could probably say God always pulls me back to God. No matter how deep my doubts, it’s always to God that I pray, begging God to please just give me my faith back.

And yet, I’m often jealous of those for whom faith seems to come easily, even as I’m frustrated that what so often seems obvious and unshakable to them comes so hard to me. Continue reading “we of little faith”

for i know the plans i have for you?

Image: freedom, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from bexross's photostream.

When I was a teen, had you asked me my favorite Bible verse, I would have rattled it off for you immediately. Jeremiah 29:11-13. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will come to me and you will pray to me and you will find me. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.'” (That’s a paraphrase based on what I remember.)

As I’ve grown older, my understanding of that verse has seriously changed. For one thing, I’ve learned the danger of pulling a Bible verse out of its context and attempting to apply it to my life as if it was written to me as an individual in the modern world. In the case of this verse, I have to remember that this is from a piece of prophesy to the Israelites, and the “yous” in it are all plural. It’s about a plan for a nation, a people, who at the time were in exile and suffering, letting them know that even though they, themselves, might not live to see it, one day their people would be back in their land, back into the relationship with God that they craved. It’s not a promise about my individual prosperity, but a promise that even in the darkest times, we can trust that God wants good things for and a right relationship with God’s people, and is always at work to bring them, as a group, back where they were created to be.  You can read more about understanding this verse in context in this piece, The Most Misused Verse in the Bible, over at Relevant. Continue reading “for i know the plans i have for you?”

this i used to believe? goalposts, grief, God, and Godwin’s Law

Image via thisamericanlife.org
Image via thisamericanlife.org

As I was cleaning my house Sunday morning, sweeping floors, vacuuming up dog hair, doing loads of laundry, unloading dishes, dusting, I was catching up on listening to several of my favorite podcasts.  In particular, I listened to an episode of “This American Life” called “This I Used to Believe.”  It’s a take-off from the NPR series “This I believe” about people who used to believe strongly in something, but no longer do so.  You can listen to this episode at this website.

The part that made me hit pause, walk away from my chores, and sit down to blog was the second segment of the show called “Team Spirit in the Sky”.  It was about a woman who saw a story on the news about a Texas football coach (I can’t help but picture Coach Taylor from “Friday Night Lights”) from a Christian school who touched the lives of an opposing team from a juvenile lock-up by having fans from HIS team learn their opponents’ names, cheer for them, form “spirit lines” for them, and root for them when his team played them.  For many of the lock-up’s players, it was a unique experience to finally be rooted for in any sense of the word, and for the coach, a chance to live out in some small way the biblical idea of loving one’s enemies.

The woman telling the “This I Used to Believe” story was a woman wrote to the coach after seeing the news story to tell him that though she was a lapsed Catholic who became an agnostic following the death of a close friend to cancer, she is glad that he is living out an authentic Christian faith for his players and everyone else in his community.  And at first, the coach responds, and I, the listener was thinking, “YEAH! This guy is getting it right!” The coach says he feels that God is speaking to him about this woman who has emailed him, and they begin a correspondence.  She even agrees to talk on the phone with him, intrigued that God has been waking him up many nights in a row, bothering him about what he needs to say to this woman who has lost her faith because of one of the most classic questions in theology: why do bad things happen to good people?

But then the coach totally drops the ball. Continue reading “this i used to believe? goalposts, grief, God, and Godwin’s Law”

some thoughts on the state of church (and state)

This started out as a bullet point in today’s “bufflo tips,” but then I realized I had a whole lot more to say on the subject than could be tied up nicely in a sentence or two.

If you ask me, the Church needs to do some turning.  Via Afroswede @Flickr.
If you ask me, the Church needs to do some turning. (This picture is actually of a church in a town I consider one of my homes, Little Rock, AR) Via Afroswede @Flickr.

This post by Courtney E. Martin at The American Prospect about the much-hyped Pew study on Americans’ religiosity or lack thereof, was very interesting to me as a Christian.  In particular, this portion of the report on why so many people have recently left the faith:

About half … became unaffiliated, at least in part, because they think of religious people as hypocritical, judgmental or insincere. Large numbers also say they became unaffiliated because they think that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality, or that religious leaders are too focused on money and power rather than truth and spirituality.

In particular the bit about rules over spirituality speaks to me in ways similar to the kinds of things I have been reading and thinking lately. How have we, who claim to follow a Savior who told us that his yoke (his list of rules, each rabbi had one) is easy and his burden is light, become known for our Pharisaical emphasis on rules rather than for echoing our Savior’s emphasis that following him leads to a right heart from which right actions automatically flow? Again I’m going to pimp Dallas Willard, who argues against our petty gospels of “sin management.” We should be known for freeing people of their burdens, not for adding to them with lists of rules, because without the life-transformation that comes from being a disciple of Jesus in the truest sense (not merely an intellectual agreement with the idea that Jesus is Lord and died for our sins, but truly a modeling of one’s life to be like Christ), following the rules is impossible.

Also, Martin writes:

The report, which indicates that one-fourth of adult Americans have changed their religious affiliation from what they were raised with, also explains, “The unaffiliated population is a very diverse group. Not all those who are unaffiliated lack spiritual beliefs or religious behaviors; in fact, roughly four-in-ten unaffiliated individuals say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives.”

I would say this is definitely true for me.  If you asked me today, I’d probably claim “unaffiliated.”  I grew up in a Presbyterian, PC(USA), church in which I was very active, and for which I am very thankful.  I was encouraged to ask questions, to learn about theology and church history, and even to doubt.  I attended PC(USA) churches in college, and now that we have moved far far far from home, we sporadically attend an Episcopal church and go to a small group hosted by a Baptist church.  Even though I’m not attending church services as regularly as I did growing up, I’m reading my Bible more than ever and also reading books about theology and Christian living.  In particular, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Dallas Willard have been topping my reading lists.  For the time being, I’m experiencing remarkable spiritual growth also remarkable because it’s taking place outside of a church. Continue reading “some thoughts on the state of church (and state)”