What does hope mean for the hopeless?
For me in my cozy Americana life, it's easy to feel like “hope” is attainable.
Yet if I'm honest, hope for me is more like anticipation.
I anticipate Christmas.
I anticipate road trips, meeting career goals and the next fun outing.
A few days ago, I tuned in to an NPR special on slavery and Ghana.
Did you know this year, 2019, marks exactly 400 years since the first boat of approximately 20 enslaved people from Africa was brought to American shores?
The NPR program focused on Ghana as a center of the slave trade.
It traced the history of the slave trade, pointing to the deep-rooted guilt many Ghanaians carry because of their ancestor’s part in helping to capture their fellow Africans to sell to greedy foreigners.
During the program, one woman, an archaeologist, mentioned that at her dig, an old castle used as a holding cell for slaves, people refuse to work at night because they can hear screams and cries for help.
At another point in the program, a woman shared what it means for African Americans from Ghana to return there and see both where their ancestors came from and the horror they went through.
She shared that many Ghanaians are holding ceremonies in which they apologize for their part in the slave trade.
In the process, these African Americans are finding peace with their heritage by tracing their roots and realizing their ancestors were people of enormous strength and courage.
When the archaeologist shared how her slave-castle dig was haunted with screaming pleas for help, I choked back tears, for momentarily I too heard the hollow anguished screams piercing the stench and the darkness, screams that would never ever be answered.
My heart ached for the women who were raped repeatedly and then, instead of rescue, healing and hope, gifted a lifetime of ravaging dehumanizing slavery.
I felt an inner tormented crazy-making helplessness at the mental image of children screaming for their mothers whilst being sold and shipped far far away, robbed of identity, heritage, home, safety, belonging.
I pictured the men, beaten and humiliated, translated as cattle, their very human dignity violated, lost.
How the hell did these people have anything even remotely like hope? Even a glimmer of freedom-light was assuredly snuffed out within a week or two of capture.
Yet, somehow, miraculously, as they heard tidbits of the word preached by their persecutors, they absorbed ideas like salvation, and rescue.
The stories of Daniel and of Moses were written for them, to them, weren't they? God was on their side.
God would rescue.
They wrote songs and they sang: https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197495/.
And their spiritual songs paradoxically displayed both torment and impossible HOPE.
Isn't that theme, after all, of salvation, of deliverance, all over the pages of the word?
Save me, rescue me, deliver me, we cry out...
And I am left spinning, dizzy, wondering if I've gotten hope all wrong.
I search for it and reach for it.
Sometimes, I try to manufacture it from the empty stores of my own cavernous interior.
And when I can’t find it or feel it, I do what I can to forget about it, the thought of its un-attainability impossible to hold.
What if we are living in the upside-down of Stranger Things, seeing hope all warped and wonky, ever-reaching, stretching, grasping, clawing?
What if the very nature of hope, though, is that it is always there, regardless of our striving?
What if hope isn’t something we attain or create?
What if it isn’t something we discover or buy?
What if, instead, hope is simply "The Thing That Is".
What if, like the slaves of old who wrote the spirituals and sang them jubilantly as they plodded through endless days full of torment, we simply acknowledged hope's existence as longing's perfect parallel?
What if hope has always been about the seeing rather than the grabbing, the holding, and the hoarding?
Light a candle, friends, right now, in the darkness, right there in the middle of the cancer diagnosis, the uncertainties, the insurmountable injustices.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
I remember as a young mom being flooded with fear when my oldest child yelled, “No, mommy!”, and ran.
I wasn’t going to spank or otherwise punish him, so what was I going to do? And was I making a mistake? Was my son turning into a rebellious child?
Fast forward ten years, and now I don’t flinch when I hear, “No, I won’t!” or “Why?!”.
To be honest, I rarely hear those words.
If I do hear them, though, I know it is time to dig deeper because there is something going on in my child’s life, some unspoken stress or frustration or unmet need.
You see, I have learned through experience that children want to please parents with whom they have a good relationship. Children want to feel at peace in their worlds; they do not want to cause chaos or distress.
I have learned through experience, and also through memory.
I remember being a child.
I remember my point of view.
I remember making wrong choices, and I remember why I made those choices, and it certainly wasn’t because I was evil to the core.
I was simply a child making precocious, not-always-wise decisions. After all, isn’t childhood about experimenting, failing, retrying and learning, over and over and over again?
Parenting author and speaker Barbara Coloroso gives the following guidelines in her excellent book Kids Are Worth It:
“The Golden Rule, as it is called, can serve us well when applied to our relations with our children. If we are not sure whether what we are doing with children is right, we need only put ourselves in their place and ask if we would want it done to us— not was it done to us, but would we want it done to us? If the answer is no, then we have to ask ourselves why we would ever want to do it to our children.”
I wholeheartedly agree. I would not want to be hit, punished or verbally shamed when I make mistakes. So why would I do these things to my children?
And yet, as young parents we are fed so many messages which fill us with fear.
Incidentally, fear isn’t a great baseline from which to parent.
I remember all the confusing, fear-inducing messages I once received.
One was, “always win your battles”.
The idea behind this way of thinking was that children come into this world armed and ready to go to war with their parents; it is therefore the parents’ job to show their children who is boss.
Another was, “teach your children to fear you, because fear is the beginning of wisdom, and fear will lead them to God”.
Again, at the root of this idea was the thought that children were born far from God and desirous of sinning, and it was a parent’s job to send them running toward God.
When I was a teenager, I overheard our next door neighbor brag about spanking his daughter.
He mentioned that even at six months of age, she was rebellious. And so he began to spank her. By the time she was a few years old, he claimed, he had bred an obedient daughter.
Later, when I was a teacher (and before I had kids), I would think to myself, “I’ll never allow my children to be as disrespectful as xyz students. No matter what it takes, I will train them to behave better than that.”
I was assuming that parenting was simple; it was all about control and forcing children to behave.
I once heard child-rearing compared to nurturing a weed-free garden. Children were fertile, producing verdant greenery, but their gardens also invited weeds.
It was therefore a parent’s job to pull weeds, prune plants and drive stakes to bind and straighten the unruly plants. I shudder at the implications of this analogy.
I also inherited a tangible fear of parents who didn’t punish their children.
The implication I received was that parents who didn’t punish really didn’t care about their children.
I often overheard people say they didn’t know how they would control their children if they didn’t spank or punish.
And yet, I could not, just could not, ignore that question: How would I want to be treated?
I could not ignore my heart’s answer either: I would want to be approached with wisdom, insight and opportunities for restoration and repair, not with some wielded implement designed to fill me with pain, shame and fear.
Discipline vs. Punishment
I’ve read many parenting experts who equate spanking with discipline. I heartily disagree.
The way I see it, you can either discipline your child or you can punish your child.
And what is punishment?
Punishment is basically a system of correcting misbehavior which involves making a child pay for their wrongdoing in some way. It may be by spanking or hitting the child, but it could also be shaming a child or portraying a strong disapproval of them until they have sufficiently made up for what they did.
I believe punishment is overall a culturally acceptable way to deal with children.
I have often seen people post on social media: “I was spanked, and it did me good”.
I have seen other people lauded as good parents for publicly shaming their “rebellious” teenagers.
There is another way to teach children, however. It is called discipline.
Discipline has the smaller word “disciple” in it and implies being proactive, relationship-oriented, and restorative rather than reactive and punishment-oriented.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard many folks blame behavior problems in schools on teachers no longer being able to wield the “rod”.
I have heard it said that if more parents were spanking their children, then children “today” would behave better.
This makes me sad.
I want to tell people that treating children with dignity and respect isn’t the source of “behavior problems”.
If children are ignored by their parents, then yes, they may struggle to know how to behave “appropriately” in this world.
If they are raised permissively, then yes, they may “rebel”. It is frustrating for children never to know what the boundaries are, just as it would be frustrating for adults if their GPS systems regularly led them in the wrong direction.
It is possible, though, to raise children without shaming, punishing or inflicting pain on them. Trust me, life will deal enough of this to them. We as parents ought to be the safe haven, the shore for their beaten-down ships.
If Punishment Isn’t The Only Way To Raise Children, Why Is It Preached As "The Best Method" In So Many Circles?
Let’s go back to those confusing messages I received as a young parent.
Woven through all of them were some common themes:
These ideas had to come from somewhere, right?
Philip Greven is a history professor at Rutgers University. He wrote an excellent book entitled Spare the Child in which he examines “The religious roots of punishment and the psychological impact of physical abuse.”
I highly recommend the book, especially if you are a parent wrestling with these issues.
In Spare the Child, Greven outlines both religious and secular rationales for punishment.
I was sickened by some of his words in regard to Christians, though I personally know them to be true, “For centuries, Protestant Christians have been among the most ardent advocates of corporal punishment.”
Why is this?
It makes me angry.
Christians, who claim to be all about love and forgiveness, have for so long advocated for violence against children (and so many others seen as "inferior") as “God’s way.” Many still do.
This is not to say that if you spank or punish your children, I am angry with you.
I have no right to judge you.
But I do ask that you take some time to ponder your own thinking on this matter.
I urge you to explore history and culture and ask yourself if this is the best way to raise a child.
And please do not tell me that spanking your child is any different than hitting your child.
How would you feel if someone bent you over a bed and used a belt, a rod, a stick or even a hand to inflict pain on you?
Since this is a blog about faith questions, I would like to examine the reasons Christians advocate spanking. I will be using many ideas from Greven’s book and some thoughts from my own experience.
Deep-Rooted Cultural and Religious Beliefs Affect Our Parenting Paradigms
Punishing children is nothing new. It has been the chosen method of child-rearing and guidance for centuries: http://www.localhistories.org/corporal.html, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/corporal_punishment.
Since ancient times, corporal punishment was the norm in most cultures; it was in fact considered an equitable method to correct children; it was also a chosen method of correction for criminals and slaves.
Are you as horrified as I am that children in their innocence and incomplete understanding of life would be treated in the same way as hardened criminals (and no, I’m not saying beating criminals is a good idea either)?
There are many reasons Christians site in defense of the corporal punishment of children. Here are a few:
Then there are those themes I mentioned earlier which were woven throughout the cultural parenting messages I received. I’d like to review those briefly:
I posit that this view of children and childhood, combined with the afore-mentioned “Christian” points of view, have led to the belief that not only is corporal punishment mandated by God but it is also the best way to teach children.
The way we think matters.
If we think children are at war with us and born filled with sin, if we are terrified children will “go to hell”, then we can see why parents might take desperate measures.
Not only does the way we think matter, but our way of thinking, or paradigm, comes from somewhere.
Once we trace the roots of our thinking, we can examine it.
We can ask ourselves if there are other ways to think about children.
Next week, I will delve into more of the roots of our cultural thinking about punishment, both Christian and non-Christian.
Meanwhile, I ask you to spend some time imagining your spouse or best friend approaching you with a corrective voice and then inflicting pain on you or publicly shaming you.
What if this favorite trusted person of yours were to proceed to tell you that what she was doing was mandated by God?
What if he told you that what he was doing was because he loves you?
Would it be difficult to look this person in the eye with the same level of trust and devotion you once had? Would you be unsure whether to fight, flee or hide? Which would you pick?
I've been there, and I wouldn't be surprised if you have too.
You know, that chilling place where you're at the end of your rope, your patience thin thin ice.
Have you been there, with children? With your very own little ones?
Every time I arrive at that place, I am overwhelmed with gratitude I don't use any form of punishment with my littles. I shudder at the picture of myself angry and out of control.
In the next few weeks, I am tackling the concept of punishment.
I'm going to chat especially about what we communicate with children when we punish them, how a punishment mentality affects us as adults and how not punishing can change our attitudes and outlooks in many areas of life.
As an intro to the topic, I'm going to share some poems I have written on the subject of how children are treated.
Her name was Mercy
Her name was Mercy and she was in her daddy's arms, golden hair, silk, climbing over his shoulders.
Her name was Mercy and she was sobbing,
Not even two years old.
Her name was Mercy,
And she was lamenting.
She was loudly lamenting the loss of her position in the racecar cart,
Now elder brother's trophy.
Oh, how she loved being the lone motorist!
Her name was Mercy and she was shrill with loss,
She was squawking and trilling the forfeiture
Daddy gripped Mercy, Mercy clung to daddy
He growled in Mercy's ear,
"You're okay now. Quit yer cryin' or I'll give ya something to cry about."
Little monkey, planted her face in Daddy's neck,
Shrieks morphing to sobs,
Sobs to sniffles,
Sniffles to silence.
She's in training,
Yes, she is.
Mercy is conditional,
Love's voice carries fear.
Mercy is learning,
Yes, she is,
What her name really means.
Who weeps for the children who
wept alone in dank closets while
the rest of the house slumbers?
It's easy to assume
A child's cries are
I know it pains,
The witching-hour when,
You were tired,
So you squealed and, and,
The day Doc said,
"This won't hurt,"
And when it did,
Denied it, since,
It didn't hurt him...
The Tuesday when tiny-you
Thought money was magic:
Went shopping, saw
Row upon row
Of rainbowed sugar-candies, then
In desirous-delight and received a, a,
Fan remembrance, momma:
It is empathy's
Friends, do you remember being children?
Do you remember times when the adults around you assigned motives to your behavior that weren't even in the ballpark of True?
How do you wish you had been treated?
More on this topic next week...
I am sitting here at my desk gazing out the window at our oak trees as they drip-drop leaves, the only noticeable movement under today’s cloud-encrusted sky.
In the background, the Cranberries aptly croon: “In your head, in your he-ead, zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie.”
The day, the music, it all plays perfectly to my melancholy mood.
This has certainly been a week of insight and melodrama.
I don’t know if you are like me, but I am addicted to joy. I love feeling happy.
And when I don’t feel happy, I worry something is wrong with me; I feel as though I am losing myself.
I attribute this to being an Enneagram 7.
Enneagram 7’s have this ability to put a pretty frame around every circumstance, to “look on the bright side,” if you will.
This is actually not always healthy. I used to become frustrated with my husband when he was down, assuming I was a better person since I didn’t ever allow myself to feel despair.
It took me a long time to learn that, not only was I shutting my husband down, but I was also terrified of my own negative emotions.
In controlling my husband’s feelings, I was covering up my own anxiety.
I am learning to notice myself reframing difficult circumstances. When I do, I stop and listen to what’s really going on inside of me.
I am learning that negative, even dark, feelings don’t mean the world is collapsing.
Understanding more about myself through the lens of the Enneagram has been so good for me.
And understanding my husband’s Enneagram number, and how his number interacts with mine, has been incredibly helpful in our marriage.
So, What is the Enneagram?
The Enneagram is a personality typing system. It is unique in that it not only points out your attributes and strengths, it also shines a light on your weaknesses and areas of improvement.
It shows you what you look like when you are unhealthy and what you look like when you are healthy.
One profound insight I had when I first began learning about the Enneagram was how much each Enneagram type draws strength and wisdom from the others; in other words, we humans need each other.
The Enneagram Institute describes the equality of the types in this way:
“No type is inherently better or worse than any other. While all the personality types have unique assets and liabilities, some types are often considered to be more desirable than others in any given culture or group. Furthermore, for one reason or another, you may not be happy being a particular type. You may feel that your type is “handicapped” in some way. As you learn more about all the types, you will see that just as each has unique capacities, each has different limitations. If some types are more esteemed in Western society than others, it is because of the qualities that society rewards, not because of any superior value of those types. The ideal is to become your best self, not to imitate the assets of another type.”
I think this is one reason why all the diagrams of the Enneagram look like circles with nine points. Each point stands for one Enneagram type.
According to Don Riso and Russ Hudson in their book The Wisdom of the Enneagram, “The Enneagram is a geometric figure that maps out the nine fundamental personality types of human nature and their complex interrelationships. It is a development of modern psychology that has roots in spiritual wisdom from many different ancient traditions.”
I am fascinated by human behavior, so from the moment I heard about the Enneagram, I was hooked.
Unfortunately, I have noticed that as the Enneagram is becoming popular, some people are embracing generalizations about the numbers.
An example is my number, type 7. We are often stereotyped as shallow people who like to party and have a good time.
While this is certainly true of some type 7’s, it is not true of me. I am a quieter type 7. I actually have many traits which make me look like an Enneagram 2.
A Brief Summary of the Nine Types From The Wisdom of the Enneagram
You can find information about the Enneagram just about anywhere on the internet.
I typed out some information from the book here for you because I heard an Enneagram teacher say once that the best way to discover your type is to ask what your greatest fear is and what your greatest desire is, rather than only taking a test or relying on general descriptions.
So without further ado, here are the nine types:
How Knowing My Number Has Helped Me
Most Enneagram teachers show what each number looks like in health or in stress.
Each Enneagram number actually behaves like a specific other number when it is moving towards either health or crisis.
Again, read this article to understand this better: https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/how-the-enneagram-system-works.
Acknowledging my “7-ness” has helped me to see that it is okay not to feel happy all the time.
It has helped me realize that under my “togetherness”, I struggle with darker emotions.
For example, when I am stressed, I act like an unhealthy Enneagram 1.
This means that I will suddenly be pissed off at how messy the house is. I’ll run around like a crazy person trying to clean and be very down on myself for not being perfect or having it all together.
I will also bury myself in busyness.
I’ll buy a myriad of books and read a little bit of every one of them without finishing any.
I’ll refuse to have silence around me: music or podcasts on at all times.
I’ll feel antsy, go on shopping sprees and spend too much money.
I’ll avoid people.
I used to just give in to these sudden feelings. Now I realize that when I do that I am struggling with emotions, and I need to spend some time in quietude, meditating or writing to get in touch with what is actually bothering me.
I highly recommend discovering your Enneagram number. Here are some resources to guide you:
The Wisdom of the Enneagram
The Road Back to You
Enneagram and Coffee
What Does All This Have To Do With My Current Mood?
I am at the cusp of some life changes, and I am overcome with a myriad of emotions.
I have been feeling anxious and acting out on that anxiety. Luckily, I recognize anxious behavior for what it is, and I’m working on meditating and writing.
I have had this lie in my head for so long: I can’t be a mom and anything else. The lie tells me that if I pursue something like education or a career or business, I am rejecting my family.
This lie has kept me trapped and in pain for quite some time.
I’m very committed to homeschooling my children. I see the fruit of it in their lives. They are receiving a stress-free childhood in which they can grow at their own pace and pursue their passions.
On the flip side, my youngest is now six, and I know my kiddos won’t be at home forever. And when they move out, I want to be doing a job I love.
As I dream and begin to pursue my passions, I struggle.
I struggle with anxiety my son’s cancer will return. Because of the shock of cancer, I feel like our family is catastrophe’s playground; if cancer doesn’t strike again, I have this awful foreboding that something else horrid will happen.
So, my anxiety queries, why should I pursue anything or get excited?
I struggle with fear that pursuing my dreams will take me too far away from my little ones, and I will miss out on their childhoods.
I struggle with terror that I will pick the wrong career and live the rest of my life trapped by debt and unhappiness.
I struggle with my unfair advantage and privilege. So many women don’t have the time to pursue a new career at my age.
I know I will only be truly happy if I am making a difference in this world for the better. I see so many possibilities to do this...But, how do I choose only one??
And yet I know that if I sit around and do nothing to develop myself and grow and change, I will implode.
So it is time to move and make decisions and let the chips fall where they may.
The time has come for me to take a deep breath and step into the unknown, to use what I have been given and multiply it, to pick up those loose threads and see where they take me.
Have you ever made big changes and struggled with grieving the past or fear of the future? How did you deal with ALL THE BIG FEELINGS, especially if you’re not a fan of feeling all the feels?
To finish up, I will leave myself and you with the magical wisdom of Anne Lamott, “Bird by bird buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Sometimes, when I post a photo of my family on Instagram, I consider being brutally honest and writing about all the chaotic “things” which happened before and after the peaceful pic was snapped.
(You know, like how someone had just finished crying because of a stubbed toe or how someone subsequently got angry about something her sibling did…)
One of my daughters has been suffering anxiety of late. She was enthusiastic about people and all things new, but in the past few weeks, she cries and begs not to go to places where there will be large crowds.
My son just went through a year of cancer treatments, and while we are finally finished, there is no guarantee the cancer won’t return.
At night, he breaks down. He wonders why life is so hard, and why the doctors’ appointments and surgeries never end and, and, what if he got sick tomorrow?
And I feel as though I am always trying on new hats, looking into this career then that like a frenzied bird, never alighting to say, “Aha! This is me. Now I can simmer down.”
Perhaps these struggles are common to most people, or maybe they are unique to my family.
I do believe that suffering and hardship are an integral part of the human experience.
You know what makes everything harder than it should be?
Fear’s messages sound something like this:
You should have…
Why did you....
What’s wrong with your child?!...
I could/would never have done that…
Just trust God…
Well, look on the bright side…
At least it’s not xyz…
Have you ever heard these mantras, friends? Have they been directed at you?
Have you ever said them yourself?
It's all right if you have. I know I've certainly said my share.
On Why My Family Really Doesn’t Fit The Proverbial Mold...
Have you heard the term “neurodiverse”?
According to Google, neurodiverse means “displaying or characterized by autistic or other neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behavior; not neurotypical.”
I love using this term because instead of labeling people whose brains are wired differently as “bad” or “disabled”, I get to use a descriptive term which implies that “normal” is a spectrum.
The neurodiverse are just more “diverse” in how their minds work.
Using “neurodiverse” also puts the onus on those of us who are more like the majority of people (neurotypical) to learn, learn, learn how the neurodiverse person thinks and moves through this world.
Having a family with members who are neurodiverse will sometimes make you stand out like an annoying sore thumb, especially in the standard places where people gather to socialize.
Church can be overwhelming for a child with sensory sensitivity: loud noises, crowds, weird smells, etc.
This makes church extremely painful for neurodiverse kids.
And most churches and church classes are structured to cater to neurotypical folks.
I’ve read stories about moms with neurodiverse children being told their littles cannot attend Sunday School or being asked to leave a church service because their kiddos were being too noisy or “disruptive”.
Then there are social groups, parties and functions.
Parties are so so fun for most children, yet for some children, they are torturous.
How This All Plays Out For Us In Everyday Situations
For us parents of the neurodiverse, we are always “on call”.
Our kids will appear to be clingy and whiny while your kids are skipping around and having fun.
We may not really get to visit with you much, though we are longing to.
We experience every stare and every question at 100% magnification.
It is as though folks are standing on boulders screaming through megaphones into our ears.
Yes, we know we seem strange.
Yes, we know our kids aren’t enjoying themselves like most of the other children are.
Yes, yes, yes, we wish our kids were having fun like yours. Of course we do.
No, we are not more overprotective than the average parent.
If our littles wanted to run and play and galavant, we would be thrilled.
Yet, It’s All Really A Gift...
Do you have an idiosyncrasy or quirk? Do you have any pet peeves no one really gets?
Do you hide these things so as to “fit in”?
Hiding is a luxury the neurodiverse do not have. Their struggles are always on display.
In spite of the constant hand-wringing and book-reading involved in the parenting of the neurodiverse, I am so incredibly grateful for my children.
They are truly a gift.
They are a gift because they have handed me empathy and compassion on a platter.
When I see another mother whose child is "unreasonably" clingy or who is having to rush home earlier than all the other moms, my heart goes out to her. I know how she feels.
When I read why many parents of neurodiverse children do not attend church, I get it.
My babes are a gift because they have taught me that true freedom is not found in “fitting in”; it is found in loving what I have been given.
They have taught me to look inward when I feel pangs of envy upon seeing families easily enjoying themselves in this world.
What does my sudden jealousy reveal about me?
My children have taught me that it is okay to dance to the proverbial beat of a different drum.
My decision-making thought-process often goes something like this:
“Everyone says we should be like xyz; but so what? We’re not everyone”.
My diverse family has given me the gift of stopping and resting when I have wanted to go, go, go.
The Myth Of The Lonely Sufferer
As you know, I’ve been reading The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr. I feel as though I am having an ongoing dialogue with everything in the book.
In one chapter, Rohr points out the universality of grief: all grief is really one grief.
Like, you know when you are sad about something and it builds up to a breaking point? And then, while you are crying, you think of more and more and more sad shit and the floodgates open? And soon you are weeping about the problems of the whole wide world?
I used to think it was wrong to weep that way.
Like, come on lady, you’re being too dramatic.
But now I see that weeping for the weight of the world is my participation in universal suffering.
And this connects me with Christ.
Grief and pain and heartache, loneliness and isolation and being misunderstood are opportunities to experience Christ's suffering, which in turn is an opportunity to connect with all of humanity’s suffering throughout all of history.
I still say, fuck cancer and fuck mental illness. All this needless suffering is devastating and shitty, and we should not paint it pretty.
There’s a reason God wept at the tomb of her friend.
So what is my point?
My point is that wherever you park while reading this post, however you are currently feeling, I hope you know that when you most taste your brokenness, you are indeed less alone than you've ever been.
You are in the sweaty grimy company of the hurting multitudes. You are in the blood gushing, nail-pierced, rejected and scorned company of the Suffering Christ.
“A Crucified God is the dramatic symbol of the one suffering that God fully enters into with us— much more than just for us [...].” (The Universal Christ, 162)
And so, dear one,
Weep all you need.
Do you hear the multitudes weeping with you?
Then,on the next clear star-studded night, drive out into some open field .
Turn off your car so's you can step, step, pitter-patter, naked-feet-to-spongy-soil, kiss, kiss.
Listen to the chirruping crickets and the breeze that's tousling that tall grass, snap, crackle, pop.
Let the glorious night air gulp up your exhale: out, out, out.
Do you hear it?
That rhythm, that beat, that cacaphonous melody of your one and only, uniquely-you drum?
Go ahead, crank up that beautiful music, dear, dance all crazy-like.
And when you pause to choke up some air, open your eyes.
You might glimpse me there, cavorting, snorting holy-night-air, caught up in my own hullabaloo, me being me...
Can you see it? The truth?
You're always, always, free to be you.
International news headlines always come to me in full color and with surround sound.
I attribute this to the fact that I grew up in another country.
I hear on the news about Syria, and I see a child, half-clothed, running, lost and scared, mouth wide with fear, eyes wild, confused, choking down snot, dripping tears, tripping ‘cross potholes dotting dusty streets, and wondering.
Where’s mommy? Where is she? Where did she go?
The child’s fear of abandonment having indeed become his reality.
I see mother’s rocking dead children, cradling them desperately, wrestling time itself.
If only. If only. I would have protected you with my very body, my own life, little one. If only.
I see spouses helplessly seething, beholding in agonized helplessness their beloved’s beautiful bodies being pillaged, plundered.
I am yours and you are mine. I, me, you, us. It isn’t enough. It’s. Not. Enough!!!!
I see family’s leaving homes which once felt cozy and safe in great haste, wondering whether they will ever again find such an abode, knowing that if, in the off chance they do, their deepest selves have been uprooted so as to never rest, really rest, again.
Home is gone. Rest is gone. I am displaced, alone.
I tell my children bits and pieces. They must know. They must know this world is not safe, easy or just for so many. They must know the privilege they have been born into. They must be inspired and moved and indeed unsettled.
To whom much is given, children.
And the questions come. What can we do?
Indeed, friends, what can we do?
We can refuse to live in fear. We can step outside of our pet politics and our favored political parties and SEE the real people behind every press release. We can let our hearts break.
We can refuse to remain ignorant. Research, friends. Read articles from a variety of news outlets. Do not let your hearts harden. Keep an open mind.
We can enlighten those around us.
We can volunteer and give.
I won’t even pretend I’m an expert on world events or humanitarian crises. I won’t pretend I’ve done a great job of giving or volunteering.
But I refuse to let my own faults and shortcomings keep me from writing my heart. Every little bit of good we do is worth it.
Love matters. Compassion matters.
I’ve been convicted of late as a light has been shone on my desire, indeed lust for, safety, security and peace.
Have a listen to these podcasts:
Looking Through A Lens of Compassion
It’s deeply ingrained within my crusty American heart to store up wealth for my future, for those “just in case” moments.
Not to mention that I just love a good shopping trip; the feeling of carrying armfuls of bountiful plenty home is intoxicating and as good as any drug.
But, am I called to love money and security? Is my spirituality to be measured in how much I have, in how good a steward I’ve been whilst doling out my monthly 10%?
Long have I pondered the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14-30), because upon first reading it, it made no sense.
I could not understand why the servant who had been given one talent and then buried it (in order to save it for his Master) would be so harshly condemned.
Hadn’t he been careful with the money he was given? At least he did not go out and squander it, right?
And why were the servants who took risks with the money they’d been given praised?
Why does the parable describe the Master in this way: “[...] a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed [...]”, considering the Master seems to be a depiction of Jesus?
The parable indicates that it was right to take risks with the money because of the qualities of the Master (mentioned above).
I’m sure there are a myriad of deep meanings to this parable, and that I am only skimming the surface, but here’s what occurs to me as I ponder it:
I’m pretty sure this means I need to step out of the way and let my heart soften. I need to let go of the fear which encourages me to hoard safety and security, abundance and fun.
I can do this because I am part of a kingdom that doesn’t value wealth or power or hoarding. It values growth and giving, risk-taking and fearlessness.
I confess that even writing these words terrifies me. I know them to be true. I know it, deep in my bones. But I’m afraid.
If I let my heart soften, what will God ask of me?
In the stillness and dust which settles in the wake of that messy question, there hangs this portrait of abundance, multiplication.
And I’m simply sure I’m supposed to show up every day, whatever that means, with a soft and tender heart, unafraid.
In the wise words of Anne Lamott, “If you give freely, there will always be more.”
Have you ever made an agreement with someone who has then broken that agreement without so much as a word?
I’ve certainly been the person who forgot about an agreement or cancelled at the last minute.
Let’s take this question a step further.
What if you confronted the agreement-breaker and she acted like she had no idea what you were talking about?
What if she went on to treat you like something was wrong with you for imagining you had ever made an agreement with her?
When incidents like this happen, it puts you in a tight spot.
First of all, it places all the blame for the broken agreement on you.
Secondly, it moves you from an offensive position to a defensive one.
And thirdly, it leaves you in a lose-lose battle of “my word against hers”.
I have had companies I bought products from treat me this way. It is very difficult to get a refund when this happens.
A good term to describe the above situation is “gaslighting”. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation which causes you to question your own sanity.
Watching someone you love being “gaslighted” is infuriating. Especially when the person doing the manipulation is a close family member.
Often, manipulators who gaslight go out of their way to turn the people closest to you against you.
They subtly discredit you.
They may tell your friends, “Did you know Carissa lied to me yesterday??” or they may ask them, “Have you ever wondered if everything Carissa says is true?”
If a person like this is in your life, chances are that when your friends and family members are around, they will take the opportunity to make sarcastic comments or jokes aimed to mock you.
(Check out this enlightening article to help you spot more signs of manipulation: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/communication-success/201510/14-signs-psychological-and-emotional-manipulation.)
Then, if you act hurt or defensive, they will criticize you for being too sensitive.
To make matters worse, a gaslighter will engage in a vicious cycle with you in which they treat you kindly when you hit your lowest point. They may even show you “grace” when you mess up.
Once you run back into their embrace, however, they will begin the process of subtly and not-so-subtly discrediting you, criticizing you, and lying to you all over again.
Pretty soon, the real you will disappear, replaced with someone who is confused and out-of-sorts, someone who needs the gaslighter to tell her what to do, someone other than Real-you.
I’m willing to bet that at some point in your life you’ve come across this sort of toxic manipulation.
The only solution I’ve found?
Refuse to let this person into your life.
If the person is already in your life, draw some very big boundaries around yourself:
Here are some excellent tips in addition to the thoughts I shared above: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/communication-success/201406/how-spot-and-stop-manipulators.
Unfortunately, I believe many “Christian” churches use manipulation as a tactic to control people.
When our oldest child was preschool age, he came to us after Sunday School claiming that another kid in his class had put his hands around his neck.
Horrified, we asked our son whether or not he had told the teacher what happened.
He said he did, but the teacher didn’t do anything about it.
We decided it was time to speak with the pastor of the church. Ironically, his wife was the Sunday School teacher.
In our meeting, we simply asked the pastor that the teachers be made aware of what had transpired so it would not happen again.
We said we did not want to reveal the teacher’s name, afraid the pastor would think we were criticizing his wife.
The pastor, however, pressed us for the teacher’s name, and we finally revealed who it was.
He then mentioned he would look into the matter.
He also cautioned us not to be “too overprotective” of our son.
Do you hear the subtle shaming message here?
“Don’t be too overprotective”...
Already, we were not to be taken seriously, since we were “protective parents”.
The following Sunday, the pastor informed us that his wife had no memory of the incident or of our son bringing it up during class.
Now we were in the awkward position of wondering who to believe: our son, or his teacher.
Foolishly and naively, we ignored the red flags, and, bearing some shame and doubt upon our shoulders, dropped the matter.
A few Sundays later, my husband happened to be looking out a church window when all the Sunday school students and teachers went outside to play games. To his utter astonishment, a group of children formed a circle around our little boy and began to push him back and forth, in full view of the church.
That did it.
We decided to leave the church.
My husband had some obligations he had to fulfill there, but I never brought my children back.
Years later, I shared what had happened with my therapist. I still blamed myself for the whole incident, and wondered if I was indeed too overprotective.
The therapist helped me to see that what had really been going on was spiritual manipulation.
While this is one way a church may manipulate its members, by not believing them when they have critiques or complaints, there are multiple other ways churches manipulate.
If you are never allowed to ask questions, this is a red flag.
If the leader or leaders of the church seem to have all the answers and are never wrong, that is also a red flag.
If you are compared to others, whether individually or corporately, say, for how much money you give, that is a red flag.
Here is a useful article outlining the warning signs that a church is engaged in spiritual manipulation: https://relevantmagazine.com/god/spiritual-manipulation-how-spot-it-and-what-do-about-it/.
It is never bad to trust your instincts, my friend. You and your family do not deserve to be ignored or put down.
Everyone agrees that the theater of politics often involves manipulation.
I’m not going to get into critiquing one political party over another, as I think both parties engage in varying levels of manipulation.
I do believe manipulation is subtle and occurs slowly over time. For this reason, being aware of the warning signs can go a long way towards keeping you from being sucked under someone’s control.
Here is an excellent resource to use as a litmus test: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-flux/201610/9-classic-traits-manipulative-people.
Some of the questions I ask in regard to politics are:
There are so many more excellent questions we could ask. It’s worth googling for resources on how to spot manipulators/manipulation.
If you recognize the qualities of a manipulator in someone you either know or are in a relationship with, it’s worth seeking therapy so you can learn how to spot the deception and set up boundaries.
About two years ago, I found myself looking for therapists in my area.
The therapy I went through was enlightening and healing.
I learned to set boundaries and not feel guilty for doing so.
I learned to love and value myself.
I learned coping strategies to deal with certain trauma which lingered inside of me.
I have grown so much through the process of being hurt and then healing.
It gives me a glimpse of the beauty in that ol' death-to-life paradox.
I feel her.
Her whispers tickle my ear,
Breath, holy zephyr,
“There is no hope without despair, honey
No risen without dead
Darling, love never says
When I laid this banquet
I invited the least and the lost,
The broken and confused
Your Belief-castle’s brittle,
Without bending it will break
Come closer, child,
Forage, find out,
A secret revealed holds no allure,
Can there be passion without desire?
Cry out, darling,
There is no succor without want.
True joy is paired with mourning
Hunt for me, honey,
There’s no seeking
What’s been found
For only she who loses her life
Will find it.”
"God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so we should not waste too much time protecting the boxes." -Richard Rohr
I used to worry that if I asked too many questions about my faith, God would punish me.
I grew up hearing how illness in a Christian was God’s discipline: depending on a person’s “walk with God”, illness was either punishment for wrongdoing or a trial-like test of faith.
How can we know whether our suffering is a punishment or a trial, I wondered?
My son was born premature and had to remain in the hospital for six weeks. One night, the doctors were concerned about him. Not to be dramatic, but we spent that night terrified our son was going to die.
I searched my heart.
Was I not trusting God enough?
Had I sinned in a big way recently?
How could I know which types of behavior constituted punishment and what sort of faith warranted trial?
I heard many cautionary tales over the years: so and so was gay, and they died in a car wreck; someone was filled with faith-questions, and they were diagnosed with cancer; such and such a city was carnal, didn't care about God, and was hit with a hurricane.
I was taught fear was a good thing:
First, because fear of hell forced me to see I needed a savior. Fear was an excellent tactic for rescuing people.
Second, because fear kept me on the “straight and narrow”. It encouraged me to obey God without question.
What the people who instilled a healthy faith-fear in me failed to realize was that fear gave me a skewed view of God which kept me from fully experiencing God’s love and acceptance.
It also gave me a judgmental stance toward “others” who weren’t "walking with God".
Then I had children.
I vividly remember when my oldest child, a son, reached 18 months of age, the prescribed spanking age a la Focus on the Family.
I recall gazing into that little boy's clear blue eyes and imagining the pain, betrayal and hurt I’d see there if I spanked him.
I stepped into his little world and pictured life from his point of view.
Here was his mommy, who he ran to when he was in pain, or hungry, or tired, or anxious. His safety net.
What if one day, Mommy hit his hand because he became curious or distracted and touched something mommy said not to touch.
He would snap to attention, smarting, stung, and look into mommy’s eyes, wondering why she hurt him, wouldn’t he?
He would still love mommy, but he would feel a teensy bit scared of her.
Over time, and multiple repetitions, he would either become terrified of accidentally not hearing his mommy’s commands and therefore getting punished, or angry and vicious and ready to fight in his own defense.
Fight, flight, freeze would become the rhythm of his childhood.
And though perhaps his mommy would tell him she always loved him, unconditionally, he would know experientially that unconditional love did not, could not, in fact, exist in the face of Perfect Justice.
Therefore, he would never feel 100% safe with mommy.
He would never fully rest.
Additionally, when he messed up, he would wonder if he needed to be punished first (or even punish himself??) in order to be welcomed back to his mother’s arms.
While I pondered my son’s emotional reaction to corporal punishment, a verse went ‘round and ‘round my head, a veritable ping pong ball spouting truth:
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4: 18)
So I chose not to spank my son.
Over the years, I was touched again and again by the vast profundity and power of God’s love as I parented my children without wielding fear as a parenting tool.
But some things still confused me.
Though I believed God’s grace was wrapped around me tightly and that God loved me unconditionally, God still scared me:
You see, I believed in a punitive God who demanded death as payment for my sins.
Yes, I believed Jesus paid for those sins by offering his life on my behalf, and that I was forgiven. It's just that some things didn't add up.
Why did Jesus have to hide me from God?
As I understood it, if Jesus ever so much as stepped out of the way, God’s wrath would be pouring like hot lava all over me, right?
This is the reason we sang songs every Sunday thanking and thanking and thanking God for saving us, wretched wriggling bottom-feeding worms that we were.
I couldn't wrap my mind around a Trinity seemingly at odds with itself, wrapped in a vortex of wrath and appeasement, bloodthirst and forgiveness.
Why were God and Jesus so different in their attitudes towards people?
The Punisher and The Martyr.
I felt as though I was in the middle of some ancient Greek myth.
Must I, should I, ought I be afraid of God?
When I was repentant and weary, I ran to the forgiving arms of Jesus, while simultaneously wondering where the punishing blow would land.
Was God really this punitive and bloodthirsty?
Did God demand my death in recompense for my sins?
Some scriptures seemed pretty clear on this subject.
Yet, what about this verse (John 3:17):
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him?”
This verse sounded like God and Jesus were about doing the same thing: saving the world, not condemning it.
In fact, if God was about redemption, renewal and restoration, and not about insatiable wrath, then I needn’t fear.
But how could I reconcile God’s wrath, which never stopped pouring out, with God’s redemption?
Not that long ago, I discovered there were multiple theories of atonement (aka why did Jesus die?).
The theory which I had always held to was called Penal Substitution, but that was not the oldest theory.
As it turns out, there were several other theories which were even older than Penal Substitution.
The most ancient theory is called Christus Victor. This theory depicts Jesus and God working together to defeat the powers of Satan, sin and death.
Here is a brief summary of the main atonement theories across the history of the church: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/29-march/features/features/is-there-one-doctrine-of-the-atonement-ransom-substitute-scapegoat-god.
I urge you to study these theories and ask these questions (as well as others):
How were these theories influenced by the culture of their times?
What do they have to offer? What do they tell us about God? What do they say about us as humans?
What are their drawbacks?
When all is said and done and the dust of your queries settles, what is left?
For me, what was left was this: Jesus crucified and risen; the Godhead working to redeem me from sin, evil and death.
The more I read those New Testament books, the more convinced I became that the focus ought to be on resurrection, not death, on peace, not wrath, and on restoration, not judgment.
When all was said and done, what did the risen Jesus mean for this whole wide universe?
What did God want, ultimately? I'm still pondering this one.
Sometimes, while I was wondering about God, asking if there were things I had gotten wrong, I would have the strangest experience.
I would be thinking, and my muscles would all tense in anxiety. My stomach would ache. Fear would grip me so tightly, I’d lose my breath.
What was I so afraid of?
I could not put my finger on it.
I was talking about this fear with my husband one day when he said, “If God does not allow God’s people to question God, then God is a fearful God and not really all that powerful in the end. God should be able to handle our questioning.”
I sat with the questions.
I began to embrace the inevitable mystery that comes with “I don’t know” answers.
Meanwhile, I imagined God, holding all those answers.
I let go.
It was not my job to know everything, to have it all fit neatly into a box.
After all, if God could be perfectly explained, why should I pursue knowing her? Why should I ask her hard questions?
Didn’t God invite and encourage a yearning after him?
“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
The truth was, I yearned after God more when I was questioning then when I was holding on to a God I could explain.
I realized my version of God had become a sort of idol.
For so long, I stood at the ready, armed with arguments to defend this god in case anyone tried to attack it.
I had forgotten that the true God was so much bigger than me.
God didn’t need my apologetics.
God needed me.
I decided it was time to let go of the god I had fashioned from my own limited understanding: the god who threatened me and scared me, the god who would be out for my blood if I went too far off the beaten path.
If God said God was love, it was time for me to embrace that.
If the Bible seemed to be wrestling with an issue, it was time to acknowledge that, to realize that faith involves struggle and dissonance, that there aren't always easy answers, but that the questions can lead us to wisdom.
There is this story about Jacob, who received a blessing and a new name after he struggled with God.
“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
What if God didn’t ever want to be fully defined, other than with the fullness alluded to in the phrase, “I am who I am”?
What if God wanted endless quest, endless wonder, endless relationship-desire?
I had to let my version of god die.
Then I stepped back and gazed in awe at the shadow, the enigma, the great loving mystery before me.
Of late, I have been reading The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr. I have been in awe of the many ways God steps into our world to be known by us:
“Most of us understandably start the journey assuming that God is “up there,” and our job is to transcend this world to find ‘him’. We spend so much time trying to get “up there,” we miss that God’s big leap in Jesus was to come ‘down here’. So much of our worship and religious effort is the spiritual equivalent of trying to go up what has become the down escalator. I suspect that the 'up there’ mentality is the way most people’s spiritual search has to start. But once the real inner journey begins—once you come to know that in Christ, God is forever overcoming the gap between human and divine—the Christian path becomes less about climbing and performance, and more about descending, letting go, and unlearning. Knowing and loving Jesus is largely about becoming fully human, wounds and all, instead of ascending spiritually or thinking we can remain unwounded.”
One day soon, I will write a post about everything this book is teaching me, but for now, that is an excellent intro.
I no longer live in fear of what God will do to me because of all the faith-questions I have. I do not worry that if I’m wrong about something I believe, God will strike me with some sort of punishment.
God’s love has to be love in its purest form if it is really love. And I believe it is.
Breathe in, breathe out,
Focus on your breath as it enters and leaves
Allow distraction to flow past you like water
I am in a barren brown-dirt land
A peace rests in me and around me,
It sits in the air,
Mouth-watering and tangible
I watch as
Leafless gray vines knit a dome over me
Leaving gaps for the light
I feel warm,
So safe and secure,
My body tingles in anticipation
Then I hear it,
All my secrets,
All the hidden doubt and insecurity,
And the myriad things I haven’t yet discovered
The voice speaks.
Is it deep?
It is a well filled with water…
Is it soft?
Oh yes, yes it is,
Tender on my ears,
Mother with newborn babe,
“I know you,
I know everything about you,”
And though I understand The Voice sees my awful ugly
And all the hurt I’ve ever caused
I feel no shame
I swim in the ecstasy of
And I know something too:
This is what Love tastes like.
The best pastors I know have this uncanny ability to speak words which directly apply to what you are going through in life. It is as though they have insight into your soul.
This, I believe, is one way God’s spirit moves.
And when it happens, you are left reeling, open, vulnerable... seen.
I haven’t shared much about this on my blog, but my son was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago.
Throughout the grueling treatment process, a few wonderful pastors walked by our side.
When our son first received his diagnosis, one of the pastors sent us the following message:
“The main thing we’re going to do for now is: we’re going to keep getting together [...] on Sunday nights to sing and pray and listen to Jesus. We’re going to keep refilling our reserves of faith, hope, and love. And you will know, whatever is going on in your family life, in the hospital or elsewhere, that there is this little group of people clinging stubbornly to faith, singing in the dark, even if you can’t on any particular day.”
Somehow, these were the exact words we needed to hear.
After our son’s cancer treatments ended, we began attending this church. The pastor regularly greeted us with hugs and tear-filled eyes.
Throughout our time there, we have been blessed, nourished, filled and challenged by every message preached.
This pastor is a Reverend and a a Doctor, and I can honestly say she is a wise, intelligent and eloquent pastor who listens to the spirit’s voice.
If I believed women shouldn’t be pastors I would be missing out on so many blessings.
This leads to my first big thought...
Perhaps you are “happily” settled within your own personal belief framework, confident women shouldn’t preach, happy with your male pastor.
You may be wondering, “What’s the big deal?”
Why should we spend our precious time trying to figure out whether or not women can preach?
Why Is It So Important To Figure Out What Women’s Roles In The Church Ought To Be?
Well, for me, the answer is obvious: it matters to me because I’m a woman.
I remember a time in my life when I thought women should not preach. An elder in my church (a man) asked whether or not it bothered me that God was always referred to as a man and never as a woman, though God is not gendered.
At the time, I had no answer. I never seriously considered the question. But the query stuck, and I am so glad it did.
Because God says these things about godself:
“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Hosea 11:3-4
“Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…” Hosea 13:8
“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Isaiah 66:13
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Isaiah 49:15
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Matthew 23:37
Who better to help us understand the heart of God portrayed by these metaphors than a woman?
Men (and women) are missing out if they do not hear women interpret the Bible through their unique lens.
As evangelist, feminist and abolitionist Sojourner Truth famously wrote in her speech “Ain’t I A Woman?”:
“Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him! If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn this world upside down all alone [sic] together women ought to be able to turn it rightside up again. And now they are asking to do it, and the men better let ‘em.”
The issue of a woman’s role in the church— Can she lead? Can she preach? Can she pastor? — is so so important, friends.
It is important to our full understanding of God.
It is important because the church is missing out on so many wise and powerful voices in not hearing from women: https://carolyncustisjames.com/half-the-church/.
It is important because women are equal to men in every way.
It is important because many women experience a pastoral calling, and ought to be leaning into that calling.
Now, before anyone stops me with some choice Bible verses claiming, “But the Bible says women can’t preach!!!”, let me point out some incredible women the Bible extols.
Wise, Strong, Brave: Women In The Bible…
These are just a few of the many women the Bible extols.
Of course, I have heard alternate interpretations for these stories.
I have heard Deborah led because there were no men available to lead.
I’ve heard that Junia was really a guy named Junius.
In the end, we all bring our own point of view to the biblical text.
If we are certain the Bible has a patriarchal agenda and that women should not teach men, then we will be quick to explain away the stories of Deborah and Mary (at Jesus’ feet).
If we believe God created men and women as equals, then we will see in these texts an incredible precedent for women in spiritual leadership.
After you read the Bible and read who God is throughout, what do you think is the best interpretation?
I see God as loving.
I see God as a God who rejects any kind of human hierarchy, whether based on gender, wealth or intelligence.
Therefore, I believe God wants women to lead in the church if they are so called.
10 Reasons I Disagree With The “Women Can’t Pastor” Interpretation Of The Bible.
As I was pondering women in the church, a thought took my breath away: when God told Mary she would have a child out of wedlock, God appeared to her, not to her father or even her future husband.
God wanted to know if Mary was willing to bear a child out of wedlock and carry the shame which would accompany such an affair.
God gave Mary choice over her own body.
God spoke DIRECTLY TO MARY.
And this was at a time when the entire world (it seems) was patriarchal.
If there is any doubt God communicates directly with women, look no further than the story of Mary.
God did not tell Mary, “your future husband will protect you” or “your dad will protect you”.
Instead, God let Mary stand on her own two feet. This communicates a confidence in Mary, in her strength, her dignity, her courage and wit.
After God spoke to Mary and Mary said "Yes!" to God's request, she penned the following words:
My soul lifts up the Lord!
My spirit celebrates God, my Liberator!
For though I’m God’s humble servant,
God has noticed me.
Now and forever,
I will be considered blessed by all generations.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
holy is God’s name!
From generation to generation,
God’s lovingkindness endures
for those who revere Him.
God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds.
The proud in mind and heart,
God has sent away in disarray.
The rulers from their high positions of power,
God has brought down low.
And those who were humble and lowly,
God has elevated with dignity.
The hungry—God has filled with fine food.
The rich—God has dismissed with nothing in their hands.
To Israel, God’s servant,
God has given help,
As promised to our ancestors,
remembering Abraham and his descendants in mercy forever.
As I read the final stanza of Mary's poem, I cannot help but see prophecy in her words.
Mary responded to God's call upon her and heard God's voice. She was filled with gratitude and words of spiritual wisdom and insight.
Now it is time for us women of faith to do likewise: listen to God's voice, follow God's call upon our lives, do God's work with courage and dignity.
"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."
It was 1996, and I was a fourteen year old living in South America.
The sordid story of Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton took a few extra weeks to reach my ears, but its scandalous nature did not fail to impress me.
My mom has since shared with me that when she had conversations about this topic with her Venezuelan friends, they couldn’t understand why Americans were so shocked their president would have an affair.
You see, In Venezuelan culture, politicians engaging in extra-marital affairs is nothing scandalous; in fact, it is to be expected.
We are all influenced by our cultures, aren’t we?
We are scandalized by what our culture says is taboo.
We accept that which our culture says is acceptable.
And as a whole, our American society frowns upon promiscuous behavior, especially that of leaders. They are expected to live by the highest of standards.
At the same time, our society also seems pretty obsessed with sex (just look at the magazine headlines in the checkout line).
Christianity, which forms a fairly large subculture in our country, also elevates sex, with the stipulation that sex should only be engaged in within the confines of marriage.
I went to a small Christian college. I remember discussing sex with my girlfriends at length, and I remember dreaming about one day being married and having sex.
I remember how my wedding felt like the ticket I needed to finally have sex.
I remember feeling like life was ironic… how could one little ceremony make something which was SO NOT OKAY suddenly be good?
Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers summarizes our cultural issues with sexuality well:
“On one side, we have the religious right that espouses abstinence only ‘education’ (which in essence means no human sexuality education-- only a message of ‘no sex before marriage’).
On the other side, we have the world’s largest grossing porn industry and perhaps one of the most promiscuous recreational sex cultures in the western world.
Ours is a confused sexual culture. One minute we say sex is a sacred act and the next minute we say for the right price, sex and people are for sale – no strings attached.
No wonder I hear so many people speak of feeling isolated when they are caught in between these extremes! They long to be deeply touched-- known.”
Last week, I looked at the evangelical purity movement, both its causes and its effects.
I finished my post with a few questions:
As I pondered these questions, it struck me how much we are what we believe.
And what we believe about sex and sexuality affects both the way we experience sex and our attitudes about sex.
The first question I ended my last post with was, “Could feminism’s emphasis on sexual equality and Christianity’s focus on loving others as you love yourself be good bedfellows?”
Love Others as You Love Yourself: How Feminism’s Emphasis on Sex Positivity Fits with Faith
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”
And what do feminists say?
A term used by some feminists to describe a feminist’s attitude towards sex is “sex positivity”.
The Colorado State University's Women and Gender Advocacy Center describes sex positivity this way: “As a broad ideology and world view, sex positivity is simply the idea that all sex, as long as it is healthy and explicitly consensual, is a positive thing.”
Some folks claim sex positivity frees people to go out and have sex all the time, with whomever they wish, even children or, or, animals.
However, a closer look at the definition of sex positivity reveals a sexual boundary: “[...] as long as it is healthy and explicitly consensual [...].”
The Cambridge Dictionary defines consensual as meaning, “with the willing agreement of all the people involved”.
Synonyms and words related to consensual include “accord”, “allow”, “go along with”, and “informed consent”.
You really can’t go wrong with advocating for sex positivity while including the caveat that sex should be both consensual and about “loving your neighbor as you love yourself”.
What a great “check” for us to use when exploring our own sexuality.
Rachel Held Evans wrote a thought-provoking article called "Sex and the Path of Holiness". In it, she challenged us to think more about doing justice for people than about judging ourselves or others for "losing our purity".
She included an important exhortation in her post:
“But I want folks to know that abandoning the painful and destructive narrative that a single sexual encounter can ‘ruin’ a person or make her unworthy of love doesn’t mean swinging to the opposite extreme to endorse an anything-goes sexual ethic.”
Again, what a wonderful moral compass we have in the mandate to love others as we love ourselves.
Later in the same article, Held Evans shares quotes from a blog post on the topic of purity by blogger Jamie Wright.
In the post, Wright shares how both the shame-inducing purity movement and the “anything goes” attitude are destructive.
She tells how, in her younger years, she believed sex was a tool she could wield to get what she wanted:
“I believed that sex was the best thing I had to offer the world. It was the only thing about me worth loving. And I learned, too young, that I could leverage sex to get what I wanted. My female parts had become my greatest asset.”
Going back to those proverbial magazines-by-the-checkout...aren’t so many of them selling men and women that very message?
Wright goes on to share an equally harmful message she received from her church: because she had engaged in sex before marriage, she was irrevocably damaged.
She summarizes the two messages she believed with these words:
“The first comes from our culture, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage isn’t a big deal.
The second is from the Church, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage is the biggest deal of all the deals ever.
One allowed me to give it away freely, convinced I would carry no burden. The other forced me to carry a spirit crushing load.”
Wright finished her article, which was ultimately about what she wanted her teenage sons to know about sex, thus:
“Do I want my boys to wait? Absolutely. And they know it! But I refuse to tie their value as a human being to their junk like a shiny red balloon.
I want them to know that sex is sacred. And I want them to believe that it matters. I hope they will esteem the bodies of the girls in their lives, as they hold their own bodies to the same high standard.
But I also want them to understand that the kind of sexual purity the Bible calls us to doesn’t begin or end with Virginity – It’s way bigger than that. It’s way more significant. And it’s way harder to hold on to.”
In conclusion, let’s combine sex positivity with one of our highest mandates as people of faith, “Love others as you love yourself”.
Then, let’s take it one step further, remembering our highest mandate:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
What if we embraced the feminist notion that both our bodies and sex are good?
What if we refused to worship “having sex” as the god which would solve all our loneliness/emptiness/shame problems?
What if we approached sex with thankfulness to God?
What if loving others was just as important as loving ourselves?
We may not end up with any stringent sexual rules; instead, we’d have something better. We’d have wisdom guiding our decision making .
In the end, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, would it?
Since Sex is Good, How Do We, As Feminists Of Faith, Develop A Healthy Sexual Ethic?
When Christians who promote the purity movement harp on purity (no sex until marriage) as “God’s way”, I chuckle.
The Bible seems to be at odds with its own self on this topic.
Pastor and scholar Jennifer Wright Knust wrote an article entitled, “Five Things the Church Gets Wrong About Sex” for the blog “news and pews”.
In the article, she stated, “It is simply not the case that the Bible speaks with one voice about anything, let alone sex, and to say that it does is disingenuous at best.”
You have probably heard many of the Bible verses which are used to support sex within marriage only.
Here are a few: Hebrews 13: 4, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, Proverbs 5:8-9,1 Cor. 6:18-20.
As you read them, you may be surprised to see that while these verses address adultery and lust, they do not directly say, “no sex until marriage”.
Here are a few examples of why the topic of sex and the Bible is complicated:
Where do these very different Bible mandates and stories leave us, then?
As Knust points out, “[...] I have discovered, the Bible is a treasure trove of fascinating stories and teachings about sexuality and desire. It is not, however, a moral guidebook.”
The Bible leaves us with very few explicit commands. Instead, it gives us both freedom and wisdom.
So throw out the purity movement’s fear-inducing shame-message, and embrace the ethic of loving God and loving others as you love yourself.
And if you are wondering where to go from there, Dr. Schermer Sellers offers an excellent list of 12 beliefs essential to a healthy sexual ethic at the end of this post: https://www.tinaschermersellers.com/post/testing-the-title.
To sum it all up, in Dr. Schermer Seller’s words:
“Well, this might sound too simplistic, but the way I like to think about it is that the way that we are in relationship with our sexuality with our desire, it needs to honor us. It needs to first it needs to honor us. It needs to honor God if we have a relationship with God and that’s important to us. Then, if we are in relationship with another, it needs to honor the other. If it’s not doing that, then it’s not serving love. That’s really the purpose. It to serve love. That’s where it becomes generative. That’s where it grows. If it’s self serving, it’s going to fall flat at the least and be hurtful at the most, right?”
(Read the full podcast/interview transcript here: http://shamelessthebook.com/tina-schermer-sellers/)
When I first began to breathe the fresh air of freedom from shame and fear, I felt happy, but I also wondered how I could truly become free?
You can’t just tell yourself, “Ok, you’re free. Enjoy sex. No more shame.”
Our bodies aren’t wired that way.
Even when our mind changes about something, our bodies and emotions can still be triggered by shaming messages.
Which leads to the question:
How Do Those Of Us Who Have Been Hurt By The Purity Movement Recover Our Sexuality?
As I’ve shared, I have slowly been gaining sexual freedom.
I no longer feel ashamed of “fun sex”.
I have begun to embrace myself as a sexual being. I now see that BOTH my husband and I should be enjoying pleasure.
I see sex as a gift and not as a chore.
And hugely instrumental in my sexual freedom-fest was the book, Come As You Are.
This interview transcript provides an excellent overview of the key concepts in the book, which will, I hope, whet your appetite: https://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2015/03/12/emily-nagoski.
If you read the book in its entirety, I genuinely believe it will revolutionize your sex life.
Here are a few key ways it has helped me:
So what are you waiting for, friend? Go out and buy the book!
In so many ways, writing is the best therapy.
I have been learning and learning through my study of faith and feminism and all that good shit in between. Thanks, friends, for coming on this journey with me.
So far, we have examined women’s freedom in every sector except one: a woman’s role in the church!
Tune in next week for an exploration of this incredibly important facet of faith and feminism as I wrap up the series.
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I'm a busy mom of three asking hard questions about my faith.