Awake, O Sleepers

Awake, O Sleepers

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.

220px-Little_Rock_Desegregation_1957

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.
    REAL_CHICAGO_1950_S_3519509
    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.

When Words Fail (Hannah -Part 1)

 

 

I was never one of those girls who dreamt of becoming a mother. I had had a difficult childhood, and I was afraid of duplicating some of what I’d experienced. But the day my Dad told me he thought I’d be a good mom was the day I changed my mind. Verbal affirmation had never been high on my Dad’s list of love languages. That’s probably why the memory of him telling me that is so vivid, some thirty years after he said it. I had never longed to be a mom, but I had always longed for my father’s approval. So from that day forward, motherhood became a much more important goal.

That desire only intensified after I enrolled at a Christian college. The ethos of my college placed marriage and motherhood at the pinnacle of God’s calling for women, so we were steered toward and away from fields of study accordingly. Sonstead of pursuing the Business degree I had initially wanted to complete, I majored in English. That was considered a far more relevant field for women who would inevitably be marrying and then staying home to raise their children.

But after I graduated, a series of providences (and serious lack of marriage prospects) lead me into the world of business anyway. I was surprised by how much I loved my work, and how much it “loved” me back in the form of affirmations, promotions, and a generous salary. But endless rounds of bridal showers and wedding invitations, marriage and singleness sermon series, and what I know now was the nagging voice of Satan, drained my heart of contentment and filled it with insecurity.

I had been taught that women who God loved the most, the ones with whom He was most pleased, were the ones to whom He gave husbands and children. I wanted my Heavenly Father’s approval even more than my earthly father’s. With every wedding I attended, as I watched each bride stroll down the aisle past me towards her groom and her new life, the weight of feeling unloved grew steadily heavier. I would come home from the celebrations to the quiet of my apartment, and cry myself to sleep on the twin bed I had slept on since my freshman year, the one I didn’t have the will to replace.

That’s why the Old Testament story of Hannah is one of my favorites.

To the women of Hannah’s day, the “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage” playground rhyme of my childhood would have sounded even more unusual back then. In the Old Testament era, love didn’t come first – family did.

Marriages were arranged by fathers (albeit sometimes with a daughter’s consent), with the goal to strengthening family ties and extending the family line. A wife’s greatest contribution to her family was the production of children, and especially sons. The firstborn son was raised with the expectation that he would inherit the largest portion of his father’s wealth, and with that inheritance he would provide for his mother and the rest of the family after his father died. Thus, sons represented long term security and provision for families, and for wives in particular. They were an Old Testament form of life insurance in an era when women were precluded from providing for themselves.

Women who produced many children, and sons in particular, were believed to be favored by God; women who were infertile were considered to be under God’s judgement.

Husbands whose wives were suffering from infertility usually chose one of two paths – both culturally permissible, but inherently problematic. Husband could have children by one of their wive’s servants, whose offspring would be considered the legal progeny of the infertile wife. The second option was to marry a second wife and hope to have children by her.

Women who were married solely for their procreative potential would have been vulnerable to mistreatment, so the law of Moses made particular provision for them. It required that if a man had children by multiple wives, he was to recognize his firstborn son as his heir, regardless of his feelings for the woman who bore him.

These were the dynamics in which Hannah found herself. Hannah’s protracted infertility was the probable reason Elkanah had married his second wife, Peninnah. Peninnah had given Elkanah the sons and daughters Hannah could not, but that had done nothing to elevate her standing in Elkanah’s eyes, at least in comparison with Hannah.

If the common translation of 1 Sam. 1:5 is accurate, Elkanah’s insistence on giving childless Hannah a double portion of the sacrifice, instead of Peninnah’s son, telegraphed his favoritism loud and clear. Anyone who’s ever experienced the heartbreak of a lack of affection from a spouse, or the righteous indignation of a son or daughter being denied something they’re rightfully owed, (let alone both at the same time!) can understand how Peninnah was stumbled into bitterness over her “rival’s” place in her husband’s affections, and why she succumbed to the temptation to fight back.

Conventional wisdom argues that men are the sex more prone to fighting and aggression. I’ve got one sister, and four years of experience attending a private girls’ high school as a charity case amongst the daughters of the rich and powerful that argues otherwise. Peninah’s behavior reminds us that men may fight with their fists, but women fight with words. Ask me, or any of the girls I grew up around, which hurts more, and  which scars last longer.

Peninnah perhaps wept privately over her position as the unloved wife. But in public, she could surround herself with tiny towheaded symbols of God’s love and provision for her, and wage war on her rival’s heart. Hannah was having her day now, but one day, when Elkanah died, Peninnah would have hers. Peninnah wasn’t going to let Hannah forget it.

That Peninnah times her verbal assaults to coincide with family’s annual pilgrimage to Shiloh to worship and offer sacrifices to God, speaks to how determined she is to blister her rival’s heart with the blowtorch of her tongue. Hannah’s response show how well she succeeded. The language of 1 Samuel 1, especially when read in multiple translations, depicts a woman who is wrestling in both body and soul to bear up under the weight of deep emotional pain.

There is a tragic irony in the fact that the two men most accountable to God for Hannah’s welfare, demonstrate an inability to see or understand her distress, let alone seek to mitigate it.

Elkanah’s leading his family to the temple regularly to offer sacrifices indicates a measure of spiritual faithfulness, and his expressions of love for Hannah seem sincere. But both are belied by his obliviousness to the legal and cultural dynamics which are both the reason for Hannah’s distress, and the means by which it could be alleviated. Elkanah has apparently declined to try to have children with one of Hannah’s servants, children who would have been considered her own. He flouts the spirit of inheritance laws (and escalates the friction between the two women) by giving a double portion of sacrifice to Hannah instead of to Peninnah’s son. And when God finally does give Hannah a son, and Hannah tells Elkanah about her vow, Elkanah fails to avail himself of his legal right as her husband to nullify it, so that Hannah could keep her son with her- a visible, symbolic assurance of God’s favor and promise of provision.

Elkanah may have loved Hannah, but his love didn’t extend far beyond himself.

Eli’s regard seems similarly shallow.

Eli’s sons were the kind of PKs that give PKs a bad name – literal good for nothings who spent their days misappropriating temple sacrifices and messing around with women. Eli had voiced his disapproval, but other passages make clear his words weren’t much more than spiritual lip service. Eli’s sons’ wickedness warranted swift intervention, not just words.

There are parallels in his conversation with Hannah. Eli observes the impassioned manner of Hannah’s prayer and decides that she’s been drinking too much. (This is hardly the first time he’s observed worshippers behaving badly in God’s house of worship!) Hannah gives him an explanation, but a notably incomplete one. She describes with poignant eloquence the troubled state of her heart, but she doesn’t disclose the reason.

Eli doesn’t apologize for his mistake. He doesn’t ask any probing questions about the cause of Hannah’s “great anxiety and vexation”. He doesn’t offer her any tangible help. He simply wishes her well and invokes God’s generic name to offer what reads like a “good for all occasions” blessing.

For years, Hannah has borne up under the weight of circumstantial suffering and abuse alone, with her sorrow exacerbated as those God has given for her care and protection observe her pain, but do nothing to alleviate it.

What then, of Hannah’s response?

1 Samuel 1 records no returning of verbal evil for Peninnah’s evil, no words of reproach to her husband. And when she leaves Eli’s presence, she’s at peace.

Why?

The answer begins in the first verse of 1 Samuel 2.


 

Previous posts:
Women, Words, and the Word of God

Proverbs, Women, and Words

Women and Words: Eve, the First Woman

Women Are Not Footnotes in God’s Story

For the last few months, the binding on my ten year old ESV has been slowly giving up maps and index pages one by one, signalling that it was nearing the end of its life. I’ve been a loyal reader of the ESV since its inception in 2001. The recent controversy over its latest revision strategy had me questioning my loyalty, and considering at least looking into other translations, but a sixteen year habit is hard to break.  

On my desk amongst the many books I acquired at TGC has been a shiny new copy of the updated Christian Standard Bible inviting me to take and read. When I recently started the book of Hebrews in my morning devotions, I decided to accept the invitation. Yesterday, my morning reading brought one of the distinguishing features of the CSB into sharp relief, in way that moved me to worshipful tears of thanks.

The introduction of the print version of the CSB uses the helpful term “optimal equivalence” to represent its general translation strategy. It also provides a short summary of its approach to gendered language. A more complete explanation of this approach is on their website. I had read the introduction on the plane ride back from TGC, but not the lengthier explanation. Consequently, when I came to yesterday’s reading in Hebrews 2 and 3, I was  both generally expectant about how the CSB would tackle the passage, but startled at the impact as I read.

Two of the most commonly used Greek words in the New Testament to connote Christian family relationships are “adelphos” and “adelphoi” . Together, they’re used over 500 times throughout the New Testament, and five times in Hebrews 2 and 3 alone. For centuries, these words have been translated as “brothers” or “brethren”,  to represent the English usage that was most common at the time. As with other words like “man” or “mankind”, various strategies have been employed to communicate that these terms are representative of people as a whole –  men and women, brothers and sisters. In many Bible translations, the terms have been translated “as is”, with the onus on the reader to presume that the terms are inclusive of women. Some translations, including the ESV, place the traditional language of “brothers” in the text, and add a footnote that indicates they can be read/interpreted as “brothers and sisters”.

In the CSB, in accordance with their translation philosophy, they put the more inclusive translation of “adelphos/adelphoi” as “brothers and sisters”  into the text directly, with no footnotes. 

Consequently, as I read Hebrews 2 and 3 yesterday, this is what I read (see ironic footnote below):

“That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim Your name to My brothers and sisters.” Heb. 2:11-12a

“Therefore, he had to be like his brothers and sisters in every way so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in matters pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people.” Heb. 2:17

“Therefore, holy brothers and sisters who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.” Heb. 3:1

“Watch out, brothers and sisters, so that there won’t be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” Heb. 3:12

 

The CSB translation of Hebrews 2 and 3 reveals with beautiful clarity the way Jesus’ redemptive work has always been for, and on behalf of women, as much as it has been for men.

Jesus is not ashamed to call us sisters. (Heb. 2:11-12a)

In his humanity, Jesus had to be like us, his sisters, to become our merciful and faithful high priest.  (Heb. 2:17)

Women share in the heavenly calling. (Heb. 3:1)

Women share in that calling’s warnings, and its accountabilities. (Heb. 3:12-13)

In the CSB, women are not footnotes in God’s redemptive plan; we’re an integral part of it. Our union with Christ makes us His sisters, and thus sisters to all those, men and women, who are united to Him as well.

It’s not hard to see the positive impact this translation strategy could have on Bible teaching and discipleship, especially in this era of ever-cycling conversation and controversy over complementarianism, transgenderism, the Mike Pence rule, and how to best encourage and steward womens’ voices toward speaking God’s truth in the age of the Internet(2).

That’s why I’ve decided embrace the CSB as the translation I’ll use to study for myself, and for sharing with others, especially with other women. It’s deepened my understanding of the implications of my identity in Christ, not just as a person, but as a woman, and as a sister.

That’s worthy of more than footnoting – it’s worthy of celebration, and worship.


(Footnote – the current online CSB is, well, not nearly as much of a blessing as the translation itself. Rather than be confusing and link to another translation, I’ve just noted the verses as they are in the CSB.)

(2) Added Thursday, April 27, in light of today’s…..spirited….conversation about women in informal ministry, ecclesiology, authority, and orthodoxy.

Women and Words: Eve, the First Woman

If I’m being honest, Eve’s first recorded words in Genesis 3 are painful for me to read. When Adam’s first words are so beautiful and quite literally perfect, why, I ask myself, aren’t Eve’s the same?

I think part of the answer lies with the one to whom Eve is talking.

It’s easy to read Genesis 3 through 21st century lenses and raise a skeptical eyebrow at the Dr. Doolittle-esque idea of a snake talking to a woman. But when God has just called the whole universe into existence with his words, it seems completely consistent that the creatures He made for His glory might possess some echo of this attribute of their Maker.

The more significant detail in this passage isn’t so much a snake talking to Eve; it’s how, and why, Eve is talking back to the snake.

Genesis 2:4-23 reads like the opening scene in a Disney musical, with its once upon a time beginning, and its lush descriptions of gardens, rivers and gold to set the scene. Moses describes the beautiful way in which God makes Adam his necessary ally- someone who is both like him and not. Adam responds to God’s work with poetic exultation. You can almost hear the music begin to swell into the opening notes of a duet.

But then a third character suddenly breaks into the scene, and the music stops abruptly.

Moses introduces the serpent by calling out what makes him unique, but not in a way that negates the essential truth of what he is. He’s just a beast of the field. His wits may set him apart, but in all other respects he’s just one of the many creatures who move over the earth, over which God called Adam and Eve to rule, together.  So how is Eve drawn so unquestioningly into talking with him as if he’s an equal?  Why aren’t Eve’s first words directed at Adam, about who on God’s green earth this creature is to presume to strike up a conversation with her, uninvited and unintroduced?

The answer lies in his crafty, conversational strategy.

True to Moses’ description, the serpent engages Eve by framing his question in terms that presume upon the things they share in common, even spiritual things.  Both of them were made by God. Both of them have a role to play in God’s creation mandate. What could be more natural, even fruitful, than clarifying conversation between two of God’s creatures about His commands, just to make sure they were both on the same page?

Eve unquestioningly follows the lead of the serpent’s questions. Her answers stretch, and shape, and smooth God’s words until He looks like someone altogether different than who He actually is.

With her words, Eve:

  • puts herself and Adam in front of God, sidestepping His authority.
  • reduces the scope of God’s provision, reducing His generosity.
  • redraws the lines of God’s protection, exaggerating His boundaries.
  • diminishes the scope of God’s transcendence, diluting His glory

all in the space of a single sentence.

The god Eve’s words depict is a god Satan knows how to work with.

Eve’s words form the fatal framework for the lies Satan feeds her, and Adam, and all of us.

That’s why my heart aches when I read Eve’s words in Genesis 3. Because in her words I hear echoes of my own – in every time I’ve put my will ahead of God’s, in every complaint I’ve made over what it seems God has withheld, in every chafing at His protection, in my lust for glory that robs God of His.

The bitter consequences of Eve’s words, and all of ours like them, are what makes Jesus’ words in Luke 4:1-13 all the sweeter.

Several thousand years after Satan meets Eve in a garden, he meets Jesus in the wilderness. He deploys the very same strategies he used with Eve (Satan may be crafty, but he’s hardly creative), questioning authority, testing God’s boundaries, proffering power he doesn’t possess in exchange for the worship he continually craves.

But where Eve succumbed, Jesus prevails.

In the wilderness, Jesus, the Living Word, speaks over Eve’s words with the word of the living God.

  • Where Eve’s words set aside God’s authority, Jesus’ words submitted to it.
  • Where Eve’s words dismissed God’s provision, Jesus’ words rests in it.
  • Where Eve’s words rebelled against God’s boundaries, Jesus’ words revered them.

Eve’s words were the beginning of humanity’s undoing; Jesus’ words were the beginning of its rescue.

With His words, the second Adam spoke with perfection where Eve, and I, have not. And with His words, He modeled for me, and for all of us, the kind of speech that crushes the crafty serpent into the dust – speech that centers itself on the words of God, and the worship of God, all for the glory of God.

Proverbs, Women, and Words

In the aftermath of President Trump’s election, news about women and their words was everywhere. From the Women’s March to the Walk for Life, to demonstrations in airports and public squares supporting immigration and protesting the Trump travel ban, American women chanted,  waved signs, and wore pink hats inspired by the President’s infamously blue language, all in the name of making their voices heard.

Not everyone was a fan.

Several days after the Women’s March, Anne Graham Lotz wrote a widely shared piece deploying the two most commonly referenced women of Proverbs – the woman of Folly in Proverbs 9, to criticize the women’s advocacy, and pray for their repentance. Given the dominant themes of the march, and the nature of much of the women’s speech, Lotz’ reaction was entirely understandable. But while she used the oft-referenced woman Folly to condemn the women’s speech, she declined to note that the surest way to keep safe from Folly’s fatal charms is devotion to a different kind of woman, one whose voice is just as loud, but whose words are very different.

The feminine character Solomon names “Folly” in Proverbs 9 is not an isolated one; she serves as the negative complement of another such character who first appears in Proverbs 1. Like twin sisters, the  two characters share many traits. They frequent the same kinds of places (Prov. 1:20-21, Prov. 7:12). They’re hospitable (Prov. 9:1-5, Prov. 7:16-17/ They have strong voices they employ in public with great intention (Prov. 1:20-21, Prov. 9:13-17).

And it’s the intention in their words, and in their actions, that reveal the stark contrast between them.

The woman introduced in Proverbs 7:5 is wickedly self-centered, but her tactics are powerful. She entices a foolish young man with every sensual trick in the book – her appearance (7:10), her surroundings (7:16-17), and especially, her words (7:21), with the promise of delight. The young man falls into her trap and meets his inevitable end, just like many have before him (7:22-27).

Solomon’s counsel to his son about her reminds me of the title of Thomas Chalmer’s sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”. The best way for a man to protect himself from the dangers of a evil-intentioned woman with a smooth tongue is to bind himself to one who speaks, and acts, differently. What keeps a man’s heart safe from Lady Folly, is an intimate relationship with Lady Wisdom.

Wisdom’s voice is every bit as loud as her sister’s; it’s her motives that are different. Her words serve, not herself, but all those who hear her, because they’re full of truth and righteousness (Prov. 8:7-8). The powerful rule justly with her help (Prov. 8:15-16), and rewards of those who heed her are riches, and honor, and a wealthy inheritance (Prov. 8:18-21).

 If there is any danger associated with her words, it is not in heeding them, but in ignoring them (Prov. 8: 35-36).

Why?


Because all of her words are grounded in the fear and knowledge of the LORD (Prov. 9:10). If you ignore her words, you’re really ignoring His.

Lady Folly’s words are sound and fury, signifying nothing; they summon all those who follow them to a swift death. Lady Wisdom’s words are full of  truth; they bring life to all who heed them.

This is the kind of womanly speech God affirms, not just in the book of Proverbs, but in the whole Bible – the speech of Abigail and Deborah, of Hannah and Mary, of the Samaritan woman and the women at the resurrection.

 

Women have spoken (and written, and sung) in this way in every age of Church history, and God has blessed their efforts, by blessing all those who heed them.

Women have spoken in the opposite way in every age as well, of course, and they’re doing so today.

But the answer to not being swayed by Lady Folly-like speech isn’t to put our fingers in our ears, or our hands over women’s mouths, any  time a woman speaks. Rather, the answer is to listen for those who speak as  Lady Wisdom does, and when you hear them, listen to them, and live.
And the admonition to myself, and to all women who want to bless the world with their words, is to ask God to so fill us with Himself, and with His Word, that He is the one with Whom our words are filled, so that all who hear our words hear His, and are blessed.

Women, Words, and the Word of God

When you’re gifted with words, and you make your living by using them, you feel the sting of the moments when you’ve said something wrong and hurt someone, or said something right and been ignored, more than the average person.

Or is that just me?

For a long time I viewed my gift with words the way some people view their gift of singleness. I couldn’t deny I had it;  I just wanted God to take it back. I was raised in a complementarian context that equated  womanliness with being quiet. Being a woman with  gifts that have anything to do with being heard make you feel like you live with a giant 1 Peter 3 penalty flag perpetually flapping over your head. Or like you have a genetic condition.

In my case, that’s entirely possible. Because having a strong voice, and the compulsion to use it to help people, seems to be literally codified in my DNA.

The  branches of my family tree are laden with pastors, writers, published authors, and even heralds (my maiden name is Horner).  I followed in my ancestors’ footsteps  by earning an English degree at a Christian liberal arts college. For more than twenty years, I’ve put my gifts to work in the technology industry, helping people improve the way they communicate so they can make gazillions of dollars building the technologies on which all of the the Internet runs.

(Please choose from any of the following options: A. I’m sorry. B. You’re welcome. C. Both)

I’ve been a front row observer of the digital revolution’s transformation of the way people communicate, and have been part of the work to shape that transformation, so that people are helped more than they’re harmed by it.

Home decorating projects give me panic attacks, and the time I spend volunteering in my daughter’s fifth grade classroom is the hardest 45 minutes of my month.  But I can string sentences together, and nothing makes me happier than when I learn that a collection of them has been helpful to someone.

So when my words fail me, by being unhelpful, unkind, or just plain stupid, the weight of that failure feels particularly heavy.

A while ago, my words failed me (or rather, they failed God)  twice in the space of a month. So I sat under the weight of the Holy Spirit’s conviction over it in an intentional way.

There was one time in my Christian life when my conclusion would have been that my two-footed stumble was a sign I  wasn’t actually gifted with words at all – that the fruit I should bear in keeping with repentance was the fruit of learning to sit down and shut up. But in my womens’  Bible Study on the Gospel of John this year, Jesus’ words in John 15 have caused me to think otherwise.  I’m learning to see that God grants these moments of stumbling as a means of pruning, to make me more fruitful in my gifts, not to mention more humble in acknowledging the true Source for that fruit as it comes.

The questions I began to ask of the Holy Spirit was what shape this pruning should  take. The bad fruit had been of a particular varietal – speech that was injudicious. How did God want me to produce better fruit that was the opposite? Not just me as a Christian, but me as a Christian woman?

So much of the messaging targeted at Christian women focusses on the Bible’s words about the pruning of our speech and being silent; I haven’t read nearly as much focussed on what the Bible says about when women are to speak, and when we should know we’re meant to listen.

So I’ve spent the last several months digging into that topic.  I’ve studied the words of the women of the Old Testament, the women of Proverbs 7, 8 and 9, and the women who followed Jesus. I’ve studied the context for their words, and the consequences, for the women who spoke them, for the people who listened to them, and for the people who refused to listen as well.

What God has been teaching me has been startling and strengthening, convicting and emboldening.

There’s no question that the Bible contains strong warnings against certain types of womanly speech, speech that endangers the soul of anyone who heeds it. But the Bible is equally clear that there is a kind of womanly speech that brings life, and it’s every bit as dangerous to our souls when we ignore it.

As I’ve sought to replicate the patterns of speech God affirms in Scripture, and put off the ungodly ones, God has graciously produced the fruit in my life, in encouraging and unexpected ways. That fruit has come not just from speaking differently, and, yes, in saying less in certain circumstances; it’s also come from speaking differently and saying more in others.
I’m  posting some of the results of that study here in the coming days. I hope it will bear fruit in your life as well, whether you’re a woman wanting to be a better steward of your words,

or you’re a woman, or a man, wanting to be a wiser listener when a woman speaks.