Thursday, July 2, 2020

Helpmeet

It can be difficult as a woman in theology to know exactly how to use my voice, whatever the context. It's tempting in women's ministry to want to embody that gentle, optimistic, graceful beauty that I despise so much about women's ministry because I have been so conditioned to believe that is what is at the heart of it. If I do not embrace this sort of approach, I often hear that my theology is too harsh; that I do theology "like a man."

But if I do theology the way that I want to, even the men are prone to not listen because they think that I, as a woman, have nothing to offer to their theology. Either I'm a poser, trying to copy their voice in theology by adding my own to it, or I am still but a woman, and men are resistant to the idea of adding a 'gentleness' to their theology of power and decisiveness.

What if my theology offered them both simply a strength?

When I was working as a chaplain for the first time, I was blessed to have an amazing group of mentors and advisers around me. And as I presented one of my case studies, a wonderful woman of God simply asked me why I was letting my female voice be pushed aside simply because the patient was male. Was I talking to him differently, not out of my own authentic voice?

She said that women have a unique perspective in the world, and that's the way that God made them. It is necessary for us, then, to draw on our perspective and our voice to help broaden what men are able to see on their own. We don't have to simply slide in beside them and try to see the world through their eyes; we are designed to help them to see more.

So I went back to Genesis, and she was right. God created the world, and it was good, but it wasn't very good until man was not alone; until man had a helpmeet in woman. It wasn't very good until the man had someone alongside him who saw things differently and invited him to move beyond his own understanding into something that he couldn't relate to quite as well.

That means that from the very beginning, men and women were created to make each other better, and we do that by being the male or female that God created us to be. We do that by listening to one another and learning those things about God and the world that our own creation keeps us from seeing with our own eyes.

We have for too long accepted and perpetuated the myth that men lead and women follow, particularly in light of the fact that Paul talks about a mutuality in our relationships with and love for one another and Genesis clearly presents a 'walking beside' between men and women. We have too long pushed women's voices into the recesses of theology called 'women's ministry' because men don't think the woman's voice is what they are looking for in their theology.

Maybe it's not what they're looking for, but what if it is what they need? Would you really be willing to miss out on some beautiful truth about God that you could never see on your own just because a woman happened to say it?

Women were designed as helpmeets, and we have something in our unique voice to offer to the men in our world if they're listening.

You might even say it would be 'very good.'

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

A Female Theologian

One of the challenges that women's ministry has created for women in the church is that it's painted this very narrow picture not just of what it means to be a woman of God, but of what it means to be a woman in theology. Women's ministries are filled with high-energy, intractably positive and upbeat, "you have to get excited about your life" speakers who flourish a little curtsy at the end of even what should be their most heartbreaking stories. It's like the whole thing has been whitewashed with optimism because for some reason, we think that being a woman of God means life just isn't hard - or shouldn't be - and that our beauty (which is, you know by now, so important) is somehow diminished if we are dynamic individuals with a whole range of emotions and understanding.

And this is why we don't see female theologians breaking into the mainstream. It's why whenever a woman speaks up at all, no matter her voice, she is immediately boxed into a women's ministry. It's why when a woman has a theological thought, she's directed toward other women who might need to hear it, but never toward men.

Recently, I was interacting with a major publisher of Bibles after they announced yet another project featuring a prominent male theologian who already has, I don't know, a few dozen Bible projects published. I mentioned how lovely it would be to see a Bible project centered on a female theologian, and although some men in Christian leadership showed support for the idea, there were not a lot of names readily available to recommend. Just a few. And then, within a day or so, a new project was announced featuring a Bible "by women for women."

Because when I suggested a female theologian, it was assumed that I was suggesting a women's project. When, actually, the Bible company fully expects women to pick up their new project featuring the male theologian. It will most likely, as all of the other projects before it, be marketed as a "Bible for everyone," everyone who is looking for the specific type of theology or inspiration that they are emphasizing in the project. They just don't expect men to pick up a "women's" Bible.

You can't really blame them. Men in this world have long not known the broad array of women's interests and understandings. There's still this pervasive myth that when women get together, we just sit around talking about periods and afterbirths and drinking wine while we pretend to have a book club. The media has not helped in dismantling this stereotype. Now, add into that the overall culture of women's ministry and the few clips of such that most men in the church have probably seen from time to time, and you can't blame them for not wanting to be a part of 'women's ministry' culture. It just doesn't appeal to them.

But you want to know a secret, men? It just doesn't appeal to a lot of us, either.

If you look at a women's ministry speaker and think the whole thing is just a little too upbeat, too detached from the complex reality of actually being human in this world, more than a little shallow as to the real needs of the human heart, and far too "cheerleader-y"...we agree with you. If you don't like your Bibles with little hearts under the exclamation points, it may surprise you to know....we don't, either. If something inside you cringes when you turn the page and find a full-size graphic with flowers all around and hand-lettering that has pulled some nice-sounding verse completely out of context...we're cringing, too.

We would love to get into the messier side of faith. There are some of us who are invested in the real work of theology, of understanding God's word as He's given it to us instead of trying to put it in a beautiful little box full of dainty things. We have a lot to say about who God is, how we discover Him in the world, what it means to our broken, wounded hearts ...

...and that's another thing. When you do hear about brokenness from women's ministry speakers, you often hear about the sins of others that have broken us. All the things we've had to endure at the hands of others. Abuse, abandonment, adultery, whatever. That's women's ministry. We're not responsible for our ugly things.

But a female theologian? A female theologian has a deep understanding of human brokenness that includes the things we do to ourselves. It embraces the narrative that we all, including women, have fallen short of the glory of God and desperately need Jesus. It doesn't pass the buck and blame everyone else for our fallenness. We are, after all, the ones who plucked the fig to begin with. A real female theologian isn't afraid of our story and doesn't spend her ministry trying to pretty it up or pass it off. We are ready to dive deep into God's grace and let it wash over our wanderlust, getting real about who we are so that we can be real about who He is.

A female theologian has a lot to say, not just to women of God, but to men of God, too. And it's not all flowers and frills and rah-rah optimism; it's real, raw, gritty, and messy with a humble heart and a powerful vision and a solid understanding of both the written Word and the Word as Flesh. A female theologian discussing the love and grace of God or the brokenness and sin of humanity is not a theologian for women; she's a theologian for the church.

And it's time we let her out of her box to share her wisdom, insight, and understanding with all of us.

(More tomorrow on why we should all be listening.) 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Jael

If you want a glimpse into the general angle that women's ministry has taken, you need look no further than its usual suspects. That is, which biblical women does women's ministry choose to emphasize and who are the women you almost never hear about?

The first question is pretty easy. Women's ministry certainly has a 'type' of biblical woman it chooses to prioritize. These women include Ruth, Esther, Mary (but not Martha), and the 'Proverbs 31' woman. Ruth is a woman who was taught to play the damsel and found her family's kinsman-redeemer. She served meekly, quietly, and faithfully and did as she was instructed to do, and because of this, she has permanent place in the lineage of Jesus. Esther spent months beautifying herself and became queen of the whole empire because of her beauty, which allowed her to eventually curtsy before the king and save her people. Mary listened at the feet of Jesus instead of busying herself with a bunch of chores; she chose quiet listening over busy noise. And of course, the Proverbs 31 woman is both beautiful, taking care of herself well, and a masterful manager over her household.

In other words, if you want to be a woman of God, be quiet, meek, service-oriented, and, well, beautiful. Be that 1950s housewife that God always designed you to be, take good care of yourself, take good care of your family, and above all else, be quiet and obedient and unassuming.

How many women's ministry weekends have been spent studying the likes of...Lydia, a woman who made her own name in her community and established a business for herself? Or what about Deborah, a fierce judge of Israel at a time when they were looking for leadership? How many flowery Bible journals do you have for Jael?

Oh, who is Jael? Jael is the quiet, unassuming, nearly-anonymous woman of Israel who invited the enemy general into her tent for a drink, poured him a glass of warm milk, and then drove a tent peg through his temple while he slept on her floor. How many women's ministry studies have encouraged us to be fierce and decisive like Jael?

I imagine if a study on such a woman was written in today's women's ministry environment, it would focus on being hospitable. "This woman invited an enemy into her home. Not only did she invite him into her home when he needed a bit of shelter, but she gave him something to drink! And not only something to drink, but warm milk! You could all use to be a little more of a gracious hostess like Jael."

But didn't she...she was a gracious hostess. Be more like Jael. Get warm milk for tired soldiers. That's your God-given duty.

Or here's one: when was the last time a women's ministry invited you to dive into the story of the woman at the well? Has anyone ever handed you a journal that simply instructs, "Write down everything you've ever done"? That was her story, right? Jesus told her everything she'd ever done and then redeemed her. How many retreat weekends give you the space to write down and even confess your sin and be set free from it?

Nah, we're too busy designing dresses to clothe ourselves for the big ol' wedding we're about to have. Never mind those five husbands and some sixth man we're living with. (Not necessarily literal men, of course, but those things that court our lives for the love and attention that we ought to be giving to Jesus.)

Women's ministry just doesn't encourage us to be dynamic, complete women. It doesn't inspire us to be self-sufficient, but always to be bonded. It doesn't teach us to find our own way, but to follow those who lead us. It doesn't invite us to engage our own story, but only to plan the ending (or new beginning) of it. It doesn't honor our ugliness; it just tries to hone our beauty. It doesn't want us to be fierce; it wants us to be quiet. Not strong, but dainty. Like Ruth's story, so much of women's ministry is set up to make us play the damsel.

And I don't know about you, but sometimes, I need to be able to drive a tent peg through someone's temple and claim a real victory. Sometimes, I need to run into town unashamed and tell a whole people who think they already know my story everything I've ever done so that I can tell them about a Jesus who came to redeem me. Sometimes, I need to stop designing dresses and stand naked in the public square, honest about who I am and my failures and my brokenness the way the woman caught in adultery stood among the Pharisees.

Sometimes - okay, all the time - I need my story to be something more than beautiful. I need it to be real.

Only then will it ever truly be holy. 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Women's Ministry

This week (yes, all week), I want to talk about women. And ministry. And women's ministry. And let me say right up front that this is not an invitation or an excuse for male readers of this blog to tune out. There are some things coming up that you need to hear...maybe all of them.

But let's start with women's ministry as a touchpoint for this greater discussion.

Women's ministry has become its own thing in the past several decades, formalized into programs and events centered around making sure that the women in the church are having a true Christian experience in community and so forth. Some of this came as a reaction to understanding how women have been marginalized in the Western church. Some of it is a reaction to understanding how male preachers tend to masculinize everything (not intentionally, of course, but just as a product of being male themselves). Some of it as a concession to the outcry of women who have refused to be silent in their churches for very long. And listen, women's ministry is an important outreach.

But it is so very, very shallow most of the time.

Women's ministry is centered on a feminizing of the Christian experience, rather than on a theology that is specific to the needs of the feminine creation. Oh, for sure, many have attempted to wrap theology around it, but at its core, it's all about beauty and gentleness and flowers and frilly stuff. Women's Bibles are printed with pretty pink covers and swirly writing on the cover, even though the content inside is largely the same - maybe with a few inset 'inspirations' about beauty or motherhood or 'the Proverbs 31 woman.'

When I was coming of age as a woman, I was part of a number of Bible studies for women about being the bride of Christ, complete with planning our weddings and designing our dresses. Yes, really. At my undergraduate college, the girls in the dorm chose a semester-long study of what it means to be a lady in waiting, which was all about trusting in your own beauty even if there wasn't a man in your life yet to tell you how beautiful you are. I listened to a number of female preachers and read a number of female authors who wanted me to know that I am beautiful because God made me beautiful, and that that should be enough for me.

Following on the footsteps of books attempting to get at the heart of men's theology by declaring all the things that make men who they are and what they desire from God, more than one book came out about the creation of women and guess what? The main argument of every one of these books that I read is that God created women to want to be beautiful and to want to be desired. And then, of course, spent the entire book explaining why it's good if you want to be beautiful and desired and even have chapters on how to dress and how to apply your 'spiritual' make-up.

You know what women's ministry doesn't talk about? Women's ministry doesn't talk about our sin. Women's ministry doesn't talk about our need for Jesus. Women's ministry doesn't talk about that ache in our heart that remembers Eden and longs for Heaven. Women's ministry doesn't talk about single women - women in women's ministry are always in relationship, either with a husband or with Jesus. They are never on their own. Women's ministry...is never actually about women. Take that in for a second. It's never about women. It's about women in connection with something else, whatever that something else is, and it is very seldom, if ever, her own heart, her own sin, her own brokenness, her own need for redemption, her own longing for home, her own hurt, her own crying out from the side of the road for a chance to meet Jesus. It's very seldom, if ever, actually Jesus. What is sadly, sadly missing from most women's 'ministry' is the heart of the Gospel itself, the real Gospel.

Oh, silly Christian women. You don't need Jesus. Here, let me polish your nails while we talk about the church for a bit.

Yes, really. Women's ministry is designed to make you feel better about being a woman in the church, but it stops painfully short of helping you understand yourself at all as a woman of God. As a woman who wants to know more, learn more, understand more, live more, love more. As a woman who wants to bear God's name into the world and not just bear children to take to church with you.

And this is one of the reasons that many women's ministries go through cycles of engagement. Women come, hoping for something of substance, and then they leave, having not found it. We can only hear we're beautiful so many times before we realize that our hearts long for more, that there is an entire story of God woven through the very fabric of creation that is unfathomably deeper and more fulfilling than how beautiful we are. And yet, a few years later, we'll sign up for the women's ministry again, hoping it will be different this time, but finding that we're still just beautiful and well, isn't that most deeply what God wants for us?

Not once in all of Scripture does God say that His deepest desire for us - for any of us - is to know how beautiful we are. His deepest desire for us, for all of us, is to know how loved we are. By Him. And that requires us knowing Him. And God loves us for so many thousands of other reasons than that we are beautiful.

Perhaps we would know that if we studied more of Him and less of us.

So women's ministry has been a good start in recognizing that there are needs of women in the church that must be identified and addressed, but the execution is far from where it needs to be to actually meet and matter to the hearts of Christian women.

Stay tuned this week. We have much more to talk about. 

Friday, June 26, 2020

Questions from Jonah

The book of Jonah raises a lot of questions for most of us, and they are questions worth asking. After all, if we don't ask the questions, how will we ever know the answers? (Spoiler alert: sometimes, we don't get to know the answers anyway.) 

Here's a question this little book of the Bible raises for me: on what basis did Jonah so certainly believe that God was going to redeem and restore Nineveh? The Israelites have spent much of their history marching through the Promised Land and destroying the nations that lived in the land. They have been cautioned again and again against adopting the wicked ways of any of these peoples. And not once did God say to them, "You know what? Maybe we ought to give these Amalekites a second chance. I bet the Canaanites would repent if you told them about Me." The army of Israel doesn't stop outside of Jericho as God says, "Let's give them a chance to repent." No. The people march around the city and the walls fall and the people are defeated. 

Yet Jonah sits on the hill and grumbles that he knew this is exactly what would happen to Nineveh - they would hear the word of the Lord, turn from their wicked ways, and be redeemed. Whose story is this? How did Jonah think this was not only possible, but probable? Remember, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a kingdom that defeated and enslaved and ruled the Israelites. It's just plain weird to see Jonah so sure that God wants to save the enemy of His people. 

Here's another question Jonah raises for me: why did the prophet think he had to run away? When God tells him to go to Nineveh, he doesn't want to go. He probably said no. And he was already not in Nineveh. It's not as if he would magically find himself in the city he doesn't want to go to if he just stayed where he was, but for some reason, he thinks the best plan is to hop on a ship and sail somewhere in the other direction. I can just imagine him saying, "Gee, God, you know, I'd love to go to Nineveh for you, but I already have this ticket to Tarshish and well, golly, the boat is leaving right now. Gotta go. Bye!" I'm very busy, Lord. Very busy. 

But seriously - what is it that makes us unafraid to run when we are, it seems, very afraid to stay? Jonah no doubt thought that if he stayed where he was, God was going to keep hounding him about this Nineveh thing. He wouldn't be able to keep saying no. He wouldn't be able to stay in not Nineveh for long. But he thinks that somehow, if he's not home, God will just keep knocking on his door and not notice that he's gone? I have questions. 

Here's yet another question I have: does Jonah not know his own heart? Jonah is a man who cares deeply about others. He has a heart that recognizes trouble and does what it can to resolve the situation. Just look at him on the ship. The storms are raging and a bunch of innocent lives are in danger, and Jonah not only recognizes this, but he is willing to sacrifice his own life to save theirs. He is not a selfish man. He's not someone who thinks only of himself. He gave up himself to save them...how is he not the right guy to go to Nineveh? He doesn't know what will happen to him, but he knows what can happen to the sailors if he confesses or if he doesn't, and he chooses for their good. He doesn't know what will happen to him in Nineveh, but he knows what can happen to the people there. 

This is one of those very human things about Jonah that we can relate to all too well. He loves others; he truly does. But there are some he just doesn't love. There are some persons he doesn't want to touch. Some he thinks detestable. He has his out-group, just like we have ours. But still, does he not know why God has chosen him? Does he not see his own heart? Even on his way away from Nineveh, he's exactly the guy that Nineveh needs.

And finally (for today's list), how does Jonah not have any questions of his own? He doesn't ask God a single thing about this giant fish that has come up and swallowed him and spit him out on the shore. Not one. Sorry, but put me in the belly of a beast, and I'm going to have questions. Jonah never mentions it again. He's talking with God about a skinny little plant that grows and withers, talking to God about mercy, but not talking to God about a giant fish. Not even to say, "Thanks for that one, God." It looks to us like probably the biggest thing in Jonah's life, but for Jonah, it doesn't even seem to register. Perhaps he realized it was not, in fact, the biggest thing after all. Who knows? I'm just curious. 

There are all kinds of questions that come out of Jonah, some more pressing than others. Some about our human nature, some about our faith. Some about who God is and some about who we are and still some about other peoples or those we are tempted to not love as much. It's okay - in fact, it is good - to read the testimony of the Scripture and to think there must be more to the story. In the case of Jonah, we know for certain that there is. Remember, his story starts with, "And then...." But no written word can capture every little detail, and that's why we need our sanctified imaginations to help us wonder about the rest. What we don't know may just illuminate in a new light what God is trying to show us.