The Weakness of Men, the Power of Women

The Weakness of Men, the Power of Women

An Atlantic article from over a year ago has been recirculating in the wake of what feels like a Spirit-lead reckoning of the SBC over institutionalized failures to protect and affirm women. The article considers the case of the now departed Wells Fargo CEO’s brazenly un-self-aware congressional testimony about dishonest business practices to ask a prescient question:

“What is it about power that makes powerful people abuse it without seeming to know that they’re abusing it?

As Christians, we know the Sunday School answer – sin – as surely as we know the secular answer – science. Or more specifically – biology. This is the angle the Atlantic article pursues, as it reviews various behavioral and neurological studies that explore the effects of power on the brain and the behavior it drives.

Notable among the results is the observation that one of the most negatively influential consequences of power is the development of what’s described as an “empathy deficit”. As people with power interact with others, those in their charge will “mirror” their attitudes or words (as a way to signal acquiescence), but the people in power will not do the same with their subordinates. This impulse might be rooted in good intentions – a desire to filter what feels like extraneous data to focus on the end goal. But when other people’s feelings or perspectives, particularly differing ones, are put into that “extraneous” data bucket, lack of empathy and awareness ensues. According to the research described in the article, that response is traceable to specific neural pathways that deteriorate over time the longer a power differential persists.

TLDR – Unchecked power can literally damage your brain.

I’m not the biggest fan of  “science proves what the Bible says about X” arguments. Too many Christians have a tendency to embrace the scientific assertions that affirm their beliefs (rock music is demonic) but dismiss the ones that don’t (climate change is a deep state conspiracy). Not to mention – as could be the case here – there’s a swift and predictable rhetorical progression from “power causes brain damage” to “brain damage absolves abusers of authority of accountability for their actions.”

I read several valid objections to the scope of the research, and particularly to the hyperbolic framing of the results as literal “brain damage”. As the article itself goes on to lay out, the “damage” to the brain caused by power isn’t necessarily permanent and is in itself a corollary of the person’s self-awareness of the problem. It can be resisted. And that’s why what really grabbed my attention wasn’t the description of the theoretical causes of the problem, but an anecdote offered as an example of an effective strategy for mitigating it.

On June 29, 1940,  as Hitler and his troops were marching down the streets of Paris, Winston Churchill received a letter from his wife. In the letter, Clementine. Churchill lovingly confronts her Prime Minister for what she has observed, and others have reported to her, concerning his deteriorating attitude towards some of his subordinates. It’s a classic case study in how a leader’s unkind or even abusive behavior demoralizes those in his charge. After Mrs. Churchill clearly and unapologetically exhorts him about his need to change, she wisely concludes with the most compelling of reasons why – that his behavior won’t yield the outcome he desires.

We don’t know what the Prime Minister’s immediate reaction was to his wife’s letter, but we certainly know what Churchill eventually accomplished. And it’s not hard to see the role the loving, yet honest, words of a trusted woman played in helping him do it.

As I read Mrs. Churchill’s letter,  I couldn’t help think of the way her interaction with one of the most powerful men in Britain (who just happened to be her husband) mirrored that of so many women in the Bible with powerful men –

Abigail with King David

The slave girl with Naaman

Esther (and Vashti) with Ahasuerus

Pilate’s wife with Pilate

The women at the resurrection with the apostles

In each incident, a man (or men) in power stands at a fork in the road of redemptive history. The women they encounter give them specific direction about the path they should take. The men who heed their wisdom become woven into the stories of all the others who furthered God’s plan. The men who don’t become commemorative object lessons in folly.

Several months ago, when John Piper was asked about his perspective on the #MeToo movement, he replied that it was the logical consequence of egalitarianism – specifically, the rejection of the notion that men have a particular call to protect women.

Piper described this call as  “…not merely mutual honor; this is a special honor flowing from the stronger to the weaker. This is an honor of a man toward a woman precisely because he’s a man and, in general, men are in the position of physical power and strength over women. God inserts between them in that relationship a special duty, a special responsibility that a man has.”

Piper’s appeal to the power differential between men and women is the one that is commonly deployed in conversations about gender. A man’s physical size and strength is symbolic of greater power, while a women’s smaller size is symbolic of her lesser power. This same argument often extends to men’s larger brain symbolizing greater intellectual power,  or the “power” of reasoning vs. the “weakness” of emotions.

The one time the power differential conversation is reversed is in the area of sexuality. Whenever the conversation focuses on sexual attraction, men are described as inordinately vulnerable, by virtue of their libidos and their positions of power. Only here are women in possession of greater power – in particular, to stumble a man into moral compromise, or to take out a man’s ministry or his livelihood with false accusations.

This is the power differential that drives the Pence rule, that attempts to protect a man from the power of women by limiting his proximity to them.

But what the Biblical stories like David’s and Naaman’s and Pilate’s, and historical anecdotes like Winston Churchill’s, and the stories of the last several years, months and weeks from evangelical institutions teach us,

is that there is a particular masculine vulnerability to power that can be mitigated by the particular power of a woman’s influential wisdom. But the taller and thicker the hedges are against it, the less capacity men will have to receive it, and the more vulnerable they will actually become.

This is a strength worth protecting.

What the Bible repeatedly shows is that man’s particular calling to protect women is not simply because he is stronger, but because he is weaker as well.  He is as in need of a woman’s complementary strength to protect him, as she needs his to protect her.

It is not good for man to be alone.

That Atlantic article concludes on a decidedly pessimistic note – that the “…malady seen too commonly in boardrooms and executive suites is unlikely to soon find a cure.” From the perspective of secular research studies, that’s certainly true.

I wonder what conclusions the writer might have drawn if he’d also studied the Bible.

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Men Need Women’s Words

Men Need Women’s Words

Several weeks ago, a well-intentioned senior writer at Relevant named Tyler Daswick published an article confessing the sin of not reading women writers by describing the six weeks he spent trying to atone for it. It was a valiant attempt, but far better in its intent than in its execution, and he eventually took it down with another apology.

In her characteristically wise yet unflinching fashion, Jen Michel called out Daswick’s ignorance of his ignorance as symptomatic of a wider problem – that in general, Christian men don’t read books by women as often as they should, to their spiritual detriment. Michel offered up a few possible reasons for this – theological frameworks that view women’s voice on a printed page as too close for comfort to their voice from a pulpit, or content that is either too light and fluffy, or too experientially unfamiliar to seem relevant.

Yesterday, Tim Challies, one of the most respected veterans of Christian book review writing, weighed in with his own list of questions behind Michel’s questions, as well as answers. Challies centered the conversation on women writing for women – on the reasons women make that choice and how that might potentially limit a male audience who isn’t comfortable with or interested in parsing books through an exclusively feminine lens.

Hannah Anderson was just one of the women writers who weighed in with a laundry list of influences that shape a woman’s decision to write primarily for other women. What was clear is that some of them are ones a woman author chooses, as a matter of calling; others are not. Often, agents and publisher, driven by firm conviction about “what sells”, push women into Hobbs-ian choices – over topics, over tone, over marketing, and over their target audience.

Publishers know that when it comes to certain kinds of writing, certain kinds of ideas, the general public (meaning men as well as women) is only inclined to buy them when they’re offered by a man.

A casual perusal through the New York Times bestseller list bears this out – at least anecdotally. This week’s nonfiction book list features eight men writing about everything from astrophysics to true crime to Leonardo DaVinci, with only two women – a divinity professor writing about her personal experience fighting late-stage cancer, and a journalist exploring the causes of depression and anxiety. Its monthly list of business best sellers is a clean sweep – ten men writing about everything from mentorship to decision making to success through self-discipline.

Many men express nostalgia about the women who teach them when they’re young – their saintly elementary teachers, their tough but caring high school teachers or even college professors, and of course, their mothers. But if the popular bestseller lists are any indicator, there’s a point when many men ‘s ongoing learning trajectory largely excludes women, other than perhaps those with whom they have personal relationships. Sometimes not even them.

For Christians, this trend reflexively calls to mind Paul’s oft eisegeted words about women being silent in church, and not teaching or holding authority over men. Many will perhaps hear the echoes of the Fall and God’s curse on Adam, who “listened to the voice of His wife”, and root their presumptions and prejudices in the belief that a consequence of the Curse is that the voices of women are necessarily suspect.

I’ve read almost nothing engaging that text in relation to its actual context. When Eve was speaking, she wasn’t speaking to Adam, but to the serpent. She wasn’t speaking God’s words as she’d been given them – she was speaking with her own distorted and dangerous spin. Adam’s sin was in not discerning what was happening and intervening on their behalf. His sin was not in listening to Eve at all, but in listening to her when she didn’t speak the truth.

Her words run counter to the words of the Woman of Wisdom in Proverbs 8.
She takes her stand at the city gates and cries out to women and to men as they pass (8:1-4), beseeching them to listen to her words full of truth, righteousness, and knowledge (6-8).
She speaks the words by which kings rule and princes, nobles and righteous judges lead (15-16).
Made at the beginning of creation, formed before the earth began, she promises blessings for all who keep her ways, and harm if she is missed (32-36).

That kind of speech, idealized by the woman of wisdom, is exemplified by a host of Biblical women like Deborah, Abigail, Ruth, Esther, Hannah, Mary, and the women of the resurrection.

The words the women of the Bible speak aren’t always about comfort or maintaining the status quo – they’re frequently the opposite! But they are wise. And right. And life-giving.

When we step back and look at the Scriptures holistically, suddenly the question of why men don’t read women’s’ words is an actual problem, but an eminently solvable one.

It’s a matter of recognizing that women gifted with words are a positive asset for the entire kingdom of God and the world, not just one half of it.

We need more ways to make that truth a reality.

How Necessary Are Women?

 

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Last week, I caught glimpses of the latest firestorm John Piper ignited over his assertions that women shouldn’t be seminary professors via my iPhone as I sat in the back of a conference room near the Venture Capital district of Palo Alto. I was helping lead a sales training workshop for an up and coming Silicon Valley startup. There were 75 salesmen in the room, and 3 saleswomen.

When I say I was “helping lead” the training, what I mean is that I had written the digital sales playbook that comprised the curriculum, while my partner, a man about ten years my senior, lead the actual training. My partner is brilliant, with decades of experience under his belt. I’m apprenticing with him because I’m a good writer, but I’m a really good teacher, and I know I can make a significant and particular contribution to the companies we serve when I move into that role.

But Piper’s comments, and the dynamics I observed in that room so dominated by male presence, had me wondering whether I’ll ever be at the place where I’ll get the chance to.


I watched the way my partner lead the group through different exercises with great skill, even as occasionally he missed things that I would have handled differently. But then I put myself in his position. I thought about the sum total of all the things I would have to do and say differently from my partner, and *not* do and say differently, to be viewed as someone worthy of learning anything from.

Not because I’m not as experienced as my partner, although that’s true.

But because I’m a woman.

With Dr. Piper’s belief about the invalidity of women as seminary professors in the back of my mind, I found myself meditating, for the gazillionth time, on Genesis 1 and 2. I wasn’t thinking just about the nature of women’s calling – to be necessary allies alongside men in the collective filling and subduing of the world. I was thinking about all the boundaries that get built around that calling, that determine all the ways we’re deemed *un*necessary to a man’s flourishing.

And I found myself asking – just how necessary are women to men, as women?
We’re necessary for shaping men’s bodies, of course.

Every man who has ever walked the earth has spent the first nine months of his earthly existence having his entire physical being, the vehicle in which his mind and soul reside, shaped and nourished by a woman. And usually months and years after that.

And we’re necessary for serving those same bodies after they’re grown. (We hear that way too often, for too many of the wrong reasons, but that’s a post for another day.)

But while we’re necessary for the shaping and serving of a man’s body, does the necessity of women to men, as women, extend to the shaping of their minds – their intellect, their skills, their gifts?

How about their souls?

At what point does my calling as a necessary ally to a man reach its God-ordained  limit?

Is the limit his age? That mix of biological and cultural transition from boyhood to manhood that has no concrete date, and a myriad of different cultural prescriptions?

Is the limit his vocation? Is it my place only to cheer him on in his work? Do I have nothing to contribute,  as a woman,  to a man’s ability to sell software, or give a speech, or make a decision?

Is the limit full time ministry? Is that the realm of influence and help where women are divinely rendered unnecessary?

Or maybe the boundaries should be around me as a woman, and not around men?

Is it a matter of my motives? What if I’m not setting myself up as a spiritual authority, but simply want to be a godly spiritual influence on him – is that still a step too far?

 

Or is it a merely the boundaries of my covenant?  Am I precluded from any kind of spiritual influence or guidance of a man unless I’m married to him, or unless I’m his mother, (until he reaches that indeterminate age where my identity as his mother is superseded by his identity as a man?)?

For those who fight so relentlessly to uphold the distinctive beauty of manhood and womanhood, why is it that the only time it’s permissible, or required to diminish the beauty of my womanhood, and declare it safely mediated behind words on page or a screen,

is when I’m teaching something to a man? (1)

And if those are legitimate boundaries around the ways women are called to influence and inform the thoughts and actions of men, as women, what should the world look like where those dynamics hold true?


It can’t look like the world of Bible – of Abigail, or Esther, or the woman of wisdom in Proverbs 8, or the Samaritan woman, or the women of the resurrection, or Priscilla.
What it does look like is the world I live and work in. Like Silicon Valley. And it looks like some parts of the church, too.

If I didn’t take God at His Word, I’d, frankly, I’d rather discouraged. And maybe looking for a different line of work.

But I do, so I’m not. So I’ll keep going – asking God to help me be helpful in whatever He calling He gives me, and for more opportunities to do the same.

And maybe my calling, at this stage, is just to keep thinking through these things, and asking these things, out loud. And asking God to give us the answers, and for the grace and strength and humility to live them out, as men and women, together.

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  1. “There is this interposition of the phenomenon called book and writing that puts the woman as author out of the reader’s sight and, in a sense, takes away the dimension of her female personhood.” From  https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/do-you-use-bible-commentaries-written-by-women

A Prescription For Our Roy Moore Problem

A Prescription For Our Roy Moore Problem

For  Christians who’ve read Genesis 3:15 at least once, the problem of men sinfully exploiting their power over women shouldn’t really be news. The fact that the world is beginning to recognize the problem is something that should give us hope.  But before we race to write various prescriptions to heal America’s institutional sickness – the eradication of pornography, a return to marriage and traditional sexual ethics and, of course, the gospel, we should stop to ask what it is that has finally opened the world’s eyes, even as so many in the church remain blind to the ways it manifests the identical symptoms, because it is suffering from the same disease.

One of the hermeneutical rules I strived to follow as I was writing about Ruth and Boaz last month was to focus far more on what the text says than on what it doesn’t. I tried not to argue from silence. When Ruth 2 describes Boaz’ unequivocal instructions to his men that Ruth wasn’t to be harassed in any way, nothing in the text suggests anything other than that they obeyed him. So we should assume that they did and believe what the text implies – that Ruth was left to work in peace, and was never sexually assaulted or harassed.

But the question I’ve been asking myself repeatedly of late is – what if she had been?
What if a man ignored Boaz’s warning, looked for a window of opportunity, and took it? What if Ruth told Boaz what happened? How would he have responded?

Would Ruth have been believed?

Until recently in contemporary America, women’s reports of sexual assault would follow a predictable pattern:

  • Cycles of insider whispers would circulate.
  • Isolated stories would bubble up onto a tabloid or gossipy website.
  • Salacious reporting about the alleged victim would emerge on the same channels, mitigating the charges by challenging the accuser’s credibility, motives, and character.
  • Friends would rally to the accused’s defense, testifying loudly to his character, and appealing to civic precedents about innocence until being proven guilty.
  • The accused would embark on a media campaign of denial and moral outrage over his own victimization.
  • Occasionally, news of a financial settlement with accompanying NDA would emerge, and the accused’s PR team would declare the matter closed.

Then the Internet was invented, with its ability to aggregate and amplify women’s voices.

One story on social media became two, and then four, then forty. Patterns emerged – in the methods of grooming, in the bait and switch tactics, in the grotesque specifics of the behavior.

Like the famous Magic Eye pictures from the 1980s, a myriad of data points once hidden in silos of secrecy melded together to reveal the truth that had been there all along.

And so the truth about Bill Cosby has come to light. And Roger Ailes. And Bill O’Reily, and Harvey Weinstein, and John Besh, and Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K. and…and..and….

Amplified by the digital megaphone of the Internet, the aggregated, harmonized voices of women have become so numerous, so loud, and so unified, that they are finally being believed.

At least, in most places.

Whenever sexual assault stories bubble up within a Christian context (involving either a prominent Christian ministry leader, or an influential man whose outspoken Christian faith has been an essential part of his platform), they’ve followed a similar pattern:

  • Cycles of insider whispers begin to circulate.
  • A story bubbles up onto a gossipy discernment blogger website, or through one of the mistrusted channels of the demonized “mainstream media”.
  • Friends of the accused race to accused’s defense, testifying to his deep Christian faith, character, title, and good works, appealing to American civic precedents about innocence until guilt is proven in a court of law, and throwing in biblical proof texts about “two or three witnesses” for good measure.

The accuser’s treatment varies, depending on who she, or he, is. If it’s a child in single digits – the default defense is “innocent until proven guilty”. If she is a woman with any kind of perceived character defect – a sexual history, a divorce, a bankruptcy, a perceived pattern of emotional instability- any and all are deployed to dilute her credibility and dismiss the allegations

Occasionally, the “digital witness” of the accused’s own words in the form of emails or text messages find their way into the light. Then the naysayers and defenders go silent.

But when the witness is a woman, not even when their number is multiple orders of magnitude beyond the Biblical standard are they believed.

And so men like Roy Moore hide in plain sight behind a wall of defense built and guarded by professing Christians. They double down on denials, dial-up conspiracy theories, and drape themselves in American legal precedents and blasphemous Biblical allusions to persecution.

Jesus is not pleased.

While the women of Jesus’ day enjoyed a measure of greater cultural stability than those of his ancestor Boaz, they still suffered numerous societal disadvantages because of their gender. I wrote about one of the most significant ones last year. Jewish tradition held that where civil and legal matters were concerned, a woman’s testimony was unreliable and inferior to that of a man, and thus invalid in court.  But the gospels repeatedly depict Jesus turning that precedent on its head- as  revival breaks out through the testimony of a disenfranchised Samaritan woman (John 4:39), as a powerful politician’s wife publicly warns her husband not to execute a righteous man (Matt 27:19), and as a group of women proclaim the good news of the Resurrection to the apostles, men who rightly, they believe, follow prevailing civic tradition in dismissing their report as idle gossip (Luke 24:1-11).

Jesus dismantled the cultural scaffolding of man-centered prescriptions built around the law that privileged and protected groups with social power against those with less. He recalibrated the scales of justice and power by actively lifting the marginalized, and their voices, up and into the work of His kingdom.

In Jesus’ economy, the voices of those lacking societal power were amplified and elevated, and the call of the powerful was to not so much lean in, as to lean down and listen to them.

In Jesus’ economy, a woman’s testimony had evidentiary value in and of itself.  When a woman in Jesus’ day spoke up, Jesus expected her to be heard, and to be believed.

There are important caveats about this conviction that are worthy of their own discussion. Arguing from the Scriptures that God wants women’s voices to be amplified is not the same as arguing that He wants them treated as absolute. The stories of Potiphar’s wife in the Old Testament (Gen. 39:1-20) and Sapphira in the New Testament (Acts 5:1-11), descriptively and prescriptively warn women of the grievous sin of bearing false witness against a man. In fact, there could be room to argue that those stories are the exceptions that prove the rule – that in an economy where a woman’s word is given special weight, a woman who presumes upon or exploits the power inherent in her words is guilty of the same egregious sin that a man commits when he exploits the power inherent in his position or physical strength.

American cultural institutions are finally waking up to the historical imbalance of power it has enabled by dismissing the testimony of women, and is beginning to recalibrate its scales.

The church should do the same, not because it is responding to the example of the culture, but because the culture is subconsciously responding to the example of Christ. 

 

Between Heartache and Hope (or, How Hermeneutics Done Well Is Good For Your Soul)

I recently finished the fourth week of the hermeneutics class that my pastor, Josh, has been leading for a small group of women at my church, and it’s been the bomb-diggity. (Josh once commented in passing that “Paul was straight up gangster”, so I’m just following his lead with the hipster speak.)

Part of the reason I’m loving this class so much is its structure. Josh is walking us through a book of the Bible (Ruth), and teaching us one or two hermeneutical principles with each section we study. We then compare our own study with a someone else’s (in this case, Paul Miller’s solid work “A Loving Life”), to strengthen our ability to test an outside author’s examination of a text against the hermeneutical principles we’re learning. The final step is a discussion about a discipleship relationship we’re accountable to pursue, to apply what we’re learning in our shepherding of other women.between-heartache-and-hope-e1499990129737.jpg

Like I said, bomb to the digitty.

Truth be told, I didn’t drive to last week’s study last night brimming with hope over what God was going to teach us. God had been walking me through some trials that had me identifying with Naomi way more than I had anticipated. I was emotionally drained and spiritually empty. This was a humbling irony given I that was the one who had been asking for and praying for this class to happen for a solid six months. I was dragging myself to the study on commitment autopilot, with my mind and heart overfull with the cares and disappointments of the last several months, and it all felt wrong.

The exercise we’d been assigned that week was one of fitting micro and macro together. We were to read through Ruth in its entirety several times, asking ourselves how the last four verses in chapter 1 fit into the arc of the entire narrative. I had been immediately drawn to the way this final set of verses passage acted as the completion of the circle begun in the first verses. In the first five verses of chapter one, Naomi had left famine-stricken Bethlehem with a husband and two sons. In the last four verses, she was returning with none of them.

“She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:20-21 ESV)

Naomi’s words summarized her interpretation of all that had transpired up to that point; she had left Bethlehem full and was returning empty, all at the hands of the LORD. But the author’s closing comment about the barley harvest gives us a window into what Naomi could not yet see, and what would unfold in the next chapter. I thought this was the insight Josh was wanting us to see.

It took about twenty minutes of discussion and guidance from Josh to unpack how much deeper this section really goes.

The book of Ruth concludes with a group of women speaking over Naomi words that stand in contrast to Naomi’s words at the end of chapter 1. The blessings the women describe extend far beyond Naomi personally. What the LORD did for and through Naomi was something that had begun long before her, through the line of her new son-in law’s ancestor Perez, who himself was born out of the aftermath of a whole-scale family collapse. And it would continue long after her, through the lineage of her grandson to David, and from David to Jesus. And from Jesus to the entire world.

“Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4:14-17 ESV)

All of this was foreshadowed in the last verse of chapter 1.


Naomi believed she was coming home bereft of everything that signified God’s blessing and care for her. What she couldn’t see was how God was already preparing her, and the generations who would follow her, for blessings that were even greater than the ones she had lost. The seeds of the blessings God was preparing to pour out on and through Naomi, had been planted in the soil of her present trials, and were already beginning to grow. She just couldn’t see them yet.

In many ways, Naomi was looking at her circumstances the way her ancestor Eve had looked at hers. Naomi was focussing on what she had lost, and not what she had. But unlike Eve, Naomi chose not to turn her heart away from God. She turned towards Him as best as she was able – to His land and His people. And in doing so, she placed herself exactly where she needed to be for God to do abundantly beyond what she could have asked or thought.

God had been at work for Naomi’s good, and our good, all along.  The hard things of chapter 1 and the blessings of chapter 4 were inextricably linked. They always are.

There is no resurrection without death.

You would have had to be there to witness the way Josh let us sit with our various initial impressions and thoughts, before leading us to, and through, the words of Naomi’s friends in chapter 4. He took his time. There were uncomfortable silences. If brains could sweat, ours surely were.

As Josh finally lead us through the parallelisms between Naomi’s words in chapter 1, and the words of the women in chapter 4, it was as though the Holy Spirit superimposed my name onto Naomi’s. I could see the trajectory of my heart, and I could see how God was calling me to respond.  I could see Him – His trustworthiness, His mercy, and His deep, deep love.

And so my thoughts on my drive away from the study were entirely different from the ones I had had on the way there.

Beyond the way God had worked in my own heart, I was struck afresh by the process God had followed to do it, and what that meant when it comes to the discipline of Bible study and principles of hermeneutics. I’ve read the book of Ruth countless times. I’m familiar with the way it is often taught to women, with all of its drama and romance and relatable characters. I’ve heard the “Waiting for Your Boaz” and the “Living Like Ruth” sermons, and rolled my eyes through most of them. Shallow wading through the surface of the book of Ruth yields shallow, and narrow, insights. But weeks spent in deep, directed study, grounded in tried and true principles of biblical exposition, that reveal the character and the work of God, has yielded fruit that has been nourishing and strengthening my soul, and changing the way I think and act.

I was raised in a tradition that valued training in doctrine and hermeneutics as ends in themselves, and I’ve got the scars to show for it. But this week I was reminded anew of how hermeneutics done right, as a means to the highest and best end of knowing God in a way that changes you, is truly good for the soul.

*Since so many of you had asked,  my pastor gladly permitted me to share the syllabus and notes from the initial session he wrote. From scratch.

Seriously – Bomb.Dig.Git.Ty.

If you end up using/leveraging them, and they’re a blessing to you or your church, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to let him know in as many ways as possible how much this ministry is a needed blessing.

Womens Equipping Syllabus

Women_s Equipping Session 1

When Trials Come, Then Go, Then Come Back (Hannah – Part Two)

When Trials Come, Then Go, Then Come Back (Hannah – Part Two)

I’ve read a lot of pastoral and scholarly treatments on 1 Samuel 2 that dive directly into the depths of Hannah’s prayer; I haven’t read so many that consider the significance of its timing. Hannah’s words of prayerful exultation don’t occur when she first finds out she’s pregnant, as with Mary’s. Nor do they happen just after she’s given birth, like Eve. Hannah’s prayer occurs several years after God has answered her previous prayer in giving her a son, when she’s preparing to honor her vow to God and give her son back.

In “Through His Eyes – God’s Perspective on Women in the Bible”, Jerram Barrs asserts that, through Hannah’s words, “we come to believe that Hannah gives up Samuel to Eli joyfully” (165). Later, he characterizes it, in contrast to her earlier prayer,  as a “song of happiness” (166), a notion at which I arched one highly skeptical, perfectly sculpted lady eyebrow when I first read it.

Two years after I had cried myself to sleep over my singleness after my best friend’s wedding, I had finally walked down the aisle at my own, and  was now laying in a hospital bed in the maternity ward, gazing at my new  baby girl as she slept in a warm, padded crib next to me.

For the first nine months of her life, my daughter had lived under my heart, her body literally tethered to mine. For 24 hours a day, my body had given itself over completely to nourishing, strengthening, and protecting hers. Then the day came when my body pushed hers out into the world and away from mine. Now she slept, in peaceful vulnerability, all by herself.

My daughter was barely six inches away from me, but it felt like sixty miles. It was as though a piece of my heart had been torn from me and was clinging stubbornly to hers, still beating. The feeling faded with time, but has never entirely disappeared.

With each milestone of separation and independence that followed (for her and the two sisters who came after her) – the first night at home in her own crib,  the first morning at preschool, the first sleepover, the first boy-girl party, the first driving lesson – it would return. If you ask most women with children, they’ll describe something similar –  that whenever our children are out of the protective reach of our eyes and our arms, a piece of our heart goes with them.

The environment in which Hannah was leaving her barely preschool aged son was not one that was exactly primed for being raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Samuel  was being handed over to the custody of a passive old man with failing eyesight, and his two grown sons who treated the house of God like their personal party palace. Aspirational models of biblical manhood they most certainly weren’t.

And let’s not forget the situation to which Hannah would be returning, after she pried her beloved son’s arms from her neck and and travelled back home to Ramah without him. We can hope that Peninah’s taunting might have abated in the wake of Samuel’s birth. But the noisy presence of her children would have served as a continual reminder of the son Hannah could see and hold only once a year. And Elkanah, the husband who could have intervened but didn’t, would probably have continued in his clueless confusion over why his wife was still crying.

It’s no wonder modern Bible translators go back and forth on whether Hannah says she is really giving her son back to God, or if he’s just on loan.

However much joy Hannah expresses in the opening lines of her prayer, it was most certainly a joy mixed with tears. But in this way, Hannah’s prayer models the attitude Paul exhorts the Corinthians to pursue in 2 Corinthians 6:2-10 of rejoicing in the midst of sorrow.  Hannah’s words are the words of a woman who has learned through experience how to bear up under the trials and tribulations of life, not by pretending they don’t exist, nor by giving in to despair, but by leaning fully and continually on the One who has been sovereign over them.

The LORD is wiser and stronger than any adversary. (1 Sam. 2:1,3,10)

All the world’s resources in avoiding or overcoming adversity – strength, riches, power – are His. He grants them, and withholds them, as He sees fit. (1 Sam. 2:4-8)

The power over life and death is His. (1 Sam. 2:6)

All He requires is our faithfulness. (1 Sam. 2:9)

God had proven Himself faithful to Hannah in the trials of her past. He would be equally faithful to her, and to her son, in the future.

Hannah’s prayer is the prayer any of us can pray whenever we are standing in between God’s deliverance from adversity or trials in our past, and the prospect of adversity overshadowing our future.

When the job offer finally comes, or the abusive boss moves on.

When the medical report reads“negative”, or the pregnancy test reads “positive”.

When an LEO husband comes home safely from his shift.

Or an African American son comes home safely from a party.

When the job offer hasn’t come, and the abusive boss is still there.

When the medical report reads “positive”, or the next pregnancy test reads “negative”.

When your husband is deployed into combat, or your wife is being wheeled into brain surgery.

When your child starts preschool, or public school, or college on the other side of the country.

As you drive away from the rehab center, the prison, or the cemetery.

As a white woman hugs her husband or son goodbye before he drives to work.

As an African American woman does the same.

Through Hannah’s prayers, and what God both before and after them, we see how God was working to do abundantly beyond what Hannah could ever ask or think. In time, God blessed Hannah with other sons and daughters. But He did so much more than that.

The  son Hannah had given to God, grew up to anoint the king through which an even greater King, the promised Messiah, would come. In his incarnation, life, death and resurrection, Jesus experienced everything to which Hannah testified. He suffered weakness, poverty, hunger, and persecution.  He lived a fully human life of perfect faithfulness to God.  He laid his life down and subjected himself to death. And now He sits, exalted, at God’s right hand, preparing to return to judge the earth and make all things new.

Hannah’s prayer models a way of praying over, singing about, and talking about God’s sovereignty and care in the midst of all of our circumstances –  past, present, and future – because of the One who reigns over them all.

 

When Words Fail (Hannah – Part 1)

Awake, O Sleepers

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I was sitting in an air-conditioned hotel room in Little Rock, Arkansas, as Philando Castile sat bleeding to death in his car. I was getting ready for an important day of meetings, and I’d put myself on strict social-media lockdown to stay focussed. So it wasn’t until the following afternoon, when my meetings were over and I was in the back of an Uber car, driving through the thick Arkansas humidity back to the cool comfort of my hotel, that I finally read the news.

Being away from home meant I was free to read longer, and more in depth than I otherwise would have that night. I had spent part of my travel time out to Little Rock reading about the death of Alton Sterling, which had happened just one day earlier. The customary cycle of commentating and social media back and forthing about Sterling’s death between my longtime white community of friends, and my growing community of African American friends, had barely abated. Now a new cycle was starting before the previous one had even slowed down. It was almost too much for my mind to process, or my soul to bear.

The next day, I had  three hours before I needed to be at Clinton Airport for my flight back to San Jose. I noticed that my route to the airport would take me past a high school that was designated as a National Historic Landmark. My curiosity was piqued – could anything historically significant come out of Arkansas? A couple of clicks laid my ignorance bare. With all the questions swirling in my mind in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s death, it seemed providential that I just happened to be four miles away from one place that might offer some answers. I decided I should visit.

Little Rock Central High School was the school of the “Little Rock Nine” – the three African American boys and six African American girls who were the first black students to attend one of the largest and most highly regarded all-white schools in America, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. That ruling declared that “separate but equal” segregated education was a violation of the 14th amendment of the Constitution. But Arkansas civic leaders were determined to ignore the ruling, and maintain the racially segregated status quo.

When the NAACP helped register the nine students before the beginning of the 1957 school year, Arkansas Governor Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to forcibly prevent the students from entering the school on the first day of class. President Eisenhower then sent in the 101st Airborne Division to force the Arkansas National Guard to stand down, and ensure that the nine students would be escorted in safely.

For nine months, the Little Rock Nine attended classes under the presumably protective watch of the 101st Airborne Division. But the reality of what they experienced was almost unimaginable. They suffered relentless psychological torture and physical abuse by students. Teachers and administrators ignored their pleas for help. The soldiers and other law enforcement agencies who were their security detail did little beyond what they had been forcibly ordered by the Federal government to keep them physically protected.

Several of them finished high school elsewhere, but the majority endured, and eventually graduated. Little Rock Central High School was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1982. In 1999, the Little Rock Nine were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor, the highest offer given to civilian American citizens, in recognition of how their courage and  determination, in spite of their youth, catalyzed a nation toward greater awareness and action in the fight for civil rights for African Americans.

I walked into the Visitors’ Center having never heard one word of this chapter in America’s civil rights story.  I had spent my high school years overseas, and my college years at a conservative Christian liberal arts school. Over the past several years, I had grown increasingly uncertain about the scope, and especially the slant, of my understanding of American history, let alone the church’s role in it all. But I didn’t know yet how much I didn’t know.

The LRCHS Visitors’ Center sits diagonally across from the still-operating school. A collection of exhibits are positioned strategically near large windows, so you can see the school and its sidewalks in the near distance, and envision the dramatic events unfolding as you learn about them.

The entire center is riveting, but it was the moments I spent standing in front of this picture of Elizabeth Eckford  that I’ll never forget.

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She is walking away from her new school after being turned away from the entrance by the Arkansas National Guard. The picture stands in the exact middle of the center. On a wall to its left are quotes from judges and politicians, referencing landmark rulings and arguments in the years leading up to that day, some of them referencing God or the Bible.  To its right, only slightly further away,  is another enlarged photograph, this one of Emmett Till’s mother gazing at the mutilated face of her son as he lays in an open coffin. Also close by is an exhibit dedicated to the role of the  new media of television in bringing this event directly into the living rooms of ordinary Americans.

The tapestry of thoughts that ran through my mind as I took in that scene were woven from the innumerable threads of providence that brought me to stand in front of it. My oldest daughter was the same age that Elizabeth Eckford was then. My middle daughter was the same age as Emmett Till was when he was lynched.  The white woman with the face contorted in rage resembled any number of the women at my youngest daughter’s private Christian school (including me).  I gazed at the passive faces of the military officers in the background, and at the adjacent pictures of television newscasters delivering live commentary from nearby sidewalk corners. With the morning media coverage of Diamond Reynold’s horrifying commentary recorded on her iPhone and posted on Facebook so fresh on my mind, it suddenly became crystal clear how the same confluence of factors at work in America in 1957, were working themselves out in identical ways in America in (then) 2016.

Before I headed to the airport, I stopped at the gift shop and bought books for each of my daughters, and one for myself titled “Warriors Don’t Cry”. An autobiography of another of the Little Rock Nine named Melba Beals, it reads like the memoir of a survivor of a POW camp. Tears streamed down my face, unchecked, as I read it from cover to cover on the flight home.

All of the same themes I had observed  in the Visitors’ Center as I stood in front of Elizabeth Eckford’s picture, repeated themselves in Melba Beals’ story:

  • The institutional entrenchment of unjust laws and abusive authority structures, buttressed by Biblical language and ideological blackmail
    In the aftermath of the Civil War, the battle for the segregated South shifted to America’s institutions – law courts, schools, police forces, and churches.
  • The prophetic power of visual media
    Mamie Mobley insistence that her son’s casket be left open so that as many people as possible would be confronted by the horror of his death lead to the picture that was the visual spark that ignited the Civil Rights movement in earnest.
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    Two years later, ordinary citizens watched history unfold via the televisions in their living rooms, as the Little Rock Nine made their way home through an epithet- spewing mob via the new media of live television.
  • The unfathomable courage and resolve of black women (many of them Christians)
    From the mothers and grandmothers of the Little Rock Nine and their advocates like NAACP chapter president Daisy Bates, to women like Mamie Till, Rosa Parks, JoAnn Robinson and others, black women both endured and resisted immense political and personal pressure to push forward the work of racial equality and justice for African Americans
  • The passive (and active) complicity of white Christians
    Judges, politicians and pastors deployed Biblical language and theological arguments as offensive weapons against integration. Professing Christians absorbed them, and embraced entrenched racism and segregation as “biblical”. Christian dissenters and desegregation advocates were marginalized, labelled as liberals or heretics, so that many ordinary Christians capitulated to pressure to remain silent in the name of keeping peace.

Those themes have emerged yet again this past week in the aftermath of Officer Jeronimo Yanez’s acquittal in Philando Castile’s death, as new video and still images of the incident and its aftermath, and commentary on it, are rolling through social media.*

Whatever thinking, reading, writing, and social media interacting I’ve done on topic of the gospel and racial reconciliation since then was birthed from what God did in my mind and heart over those two days in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The term some groups use to describe my experience is being “woke”: the scales of ignorance have permanently fallen from my eyes so that I now see what African Americans have been testifying to for so long. It’s not a term I’m comfortable using. Wobbly grammar aside, I don’t know that it’s the most appropriate term culturally for a forty-something white lady from Silicon Valley to adopt for herself.  But beyond that, it’s the way many people treat “wokeness” as a binary state – one in which you live completely, or not at all –  that prevents me from embracing it, at least for myself.

My evolving understanding, and awkward, imperfect attempts to speak and act consistently with the gospel in all this feels more akin to how Neo felt in the famous red pill/blue pill scene in The Matrix. 

I’m barely beyond the disorientation of waking up, covered in the slime of my ignorance, surrounded by a legion of others still unconscious. Gracious new friends are helping me build muscles atrophied from lack of use. My eyes hurt, because I’ve never used them before. And that’s about as far as it feels like I’ve come.  

As I’ve lurched and stumbled through dialog about race and the gospel in the digital world of social media, and the personal world of my local church contexts (both the one I’m in now and well as ones from previous seasons of life), I’ve found myself in the same place as other white Christians in times past.  I’ve experienced the subtle, and unsubtle, criticism and distancing by other white Christians, and heard the suggestions that I’ve “gone liberal” and fallen in with the so-called gospel-diluting “SJW”s. I’ve felt the tiny stings of  social media unfollowing and mutings, when I’ve shared stories in the hopes others might finally be persuaded in the same way that stories persuaded me. Remembering the immeasurably worse my black sisters have endured, and continue to endure, convicts me when I’m tempted to silence, and simply spurs me to ask God to increase my faith and give me courage like theirs.

A different hurt comes from a place my reading hadn’t lead me to expect.  When white Christians like me take a step forward in advocating for racial reconciliation or restitution, whether a small one on social media, or a slightly bigger one involving collective action, our attempts are sometimes met by some black Christians with cynicism, judgement, or a barrage of “so what are you going to do right now”s and “not enough”s. When you’ve discovered that some of the pillars of your understanding of the gospel are rotten, and you’re doing your uneducated best to replace them, the extra burden of law and guilt we’re given to wear weighs us down,  and tempts us to quit. Remembering the far worse burdens my black brothers and sisters have borne for centuries without quitting, and the gospel of grace which gives all of our burdens to Jesus, spurs me to keep going anyway.

The lament over the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer was the biggest and loudest by Christians I’ve yet observed. It gives me hope that we may be living in what future generations of Christians might look back on as the real Great Awakening of the American church.

But it will require many more Christians to embrace the gospel in asking for God to reveal our blindness, to take the sins He reveals of our collective indifference, willful ignorance, and complicitness to the foot of the cross and leave them there,

and then ask Him to give us the grace to speak, and to act,  precisely because so many generations of our forefathers and mothers would not.

“The LORD loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.” (Psalm 33:5)

“The LORD stands at the right hand of the needy one,
to save him from those who condemn his soul to death.” (Psalm 109:31)

 

*I’ve declined to include the video or still images of Philando Castile’s death, to respect both the African American community who are so constantly traumatized by these images, and the LEO community struggling to work under the dark shadow the unrighteous acts by some cast over the honorable and sacrificial service of the rest.