The Ain't I a Woman blog examines the many ways Christian culture lets women know exactly who they should be. We deconstruct those messages that we find troubling--and, in the process, construct a different message: one that allows Christian women to be all that God intended.

Mary, can you teach us to be courageous?

My stereo is always on overdrive in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. My favorite is anything by Mannheim Steamroller even after our German exchange student last year told me no one from Germany actually listens to them. That’s okay. I’m willing to be different.

Whatever our individual preferences, music adds a festive component to Christmas. Who doesn’t hum along with most any tune when touring the lights or wrapping gifts or making that special dessert you only have at Christmas?

As I recently looked over my Christmas selection, I was struck by a song that became popular a few years ago and continues to be one I frequently hear: Mary Did you Know. I appreciate the imaginative wondering about what Mary might have thought about the baby she brought into this world, especially because, at least as Protestants, we have given Mary short shrift. Oh sure, she figures into our manger scenes and we recognize her once or twice a year when we celebrate Christmas and Easter, but generally, I don’t think we take her very seriously.

In Luke’s gospel (and we have to focus on Luke because Matthew centers his account on Joseph while Mark and John don’t even mention Jesus’ birth), Gabriel, the angel, speaks to Mary forthrightly. This visit doesn’t take place in a dream or a vision, as often is the case in biblical narratives, but when Mary is wide awake and thinking clearly. The narrator suggests Mary was engaged when this conversation occurred, and that she was a “virgin.” While common understandings of the term “virgin” today mean someone who has not had vaginal sex, the original Greek is not as clear. The term could also mean young girl or woman. So, at best, there is ambiguity about Mary’s status.

At any rate, Mary did not immediately respond to Gabriel. It is easy to imagine her hesitancy. What does anyone say in response to “The Lord is with you?”  But when Mary heard the next statement, along with assertion that she would have a son who would be called the Son of the Most High and he would occupy the throne of David, she found her voice. How could this happen, she wanted to know, since she was not pregnant? And even though Gabriel avoided answering her question, instead saying the Holy Spirit would be present, Mary responded that she was willing to participate with God’s intention.

Such a decision involved autonomy often not recognized in Mary. Engaged to Joseph at the time, she was already considered his property. Before that she was owned by her father. That Mary did not seek permission from Joseph (or from her father, for that matter) conveys her independence. She apparently did not feel compelled to check with her fiancé or father in order to respond to Gabriel. Instead, she considered his claims and acceded to them without following appropriate social protocol.

Additionally, when she traveled to meet Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, Mary broke into song. Without priestly intervention or a male religious authority, Mary understood the spirit of God’s good news. Echoing Hannah’s song recorded in 1 Samuel 2, Mary must have been shaped not only by the gracious righteousness of God, but also by the women who went before her. Surely Mary knew by heart the ancient stories of Abraham and Moses, was familiar with leaders such as David and Solomon. Yet, when Mary spoke of her faith in God, revealing her understanding of God, she used the words of Hannah, another woman who played an integral part in God’s grand narrative by mothering Samuel.

Mary’s song, often called Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1, conveys the perspective underpinning Jesus’ actions in the gospels. It is a theology of reversals, where the strong are made weak, and the weak become strong, where the powerful are brought low and the hungry are filled. We can imagine Mary knew the lows all too well. She had been on the receiving end of social systems that disregarded groups of people: women, the poor, the sick, the hungry.

Her positive response to Gabriel surely was motivated by what she understood about God. From Hannah she knew God’s dream for humanity included freedom and liberation for all people, not just for a select few. She understood faith in God meant trusting that God would be faithful, working with God to make life more abundant for all. Mary, the lowly young woman, was the perfect person to give birth to God’s desire for humanity; in her risky decision, she showed the courage necessary to choose the better way. Mary had no idea what was in store for her as Jesus’ mother, and yet she was willing to take a chance on life with God. Her determination to cooperate without knowing the exact contours of the journey provide us today with an excellent example of what is required of us. Whatever the road entails, we can be sure it will be bumpy, because following Jesus means going into the potholes and crevices of social injustice in order to make the rough places smooth.

So maybe it is good to wonder what Mary may have known about Jesus, but it is more in tune with who she was to muster up our own courage; to join with her, creating God’s dream of love, hospitality, and especially, justice.

Perhaps we—as Christians in America—can start by re-evaluating our nationalism that has somehow meant endorsing torture as an acceptable practice. According to the Washington Post most Christians in the light of what we are learning about the CIA’s report on torture do not actually take exception to such inhumane acts, and instead think there are instances in which it is justified.

I suppose Mary—and Jesus, for that matter—have their own imaginative challenge trying to figure out how we could veer so far off course to have, in the words of Karen Armstrong, lost the entire plot. Maybe during this Christmas season, the Christ-child will birth in us a renewed heart of compassion: to love God and neighbor.

Get Busy, Mothers: It’s Your Job to Save Christmas!

The holidays are in peril again this year.

It’s true. The war on Christmas is once again raging, what with Target employees deciding to say “Happy Holidays!” rather than “Merry Christmas” when consumers plunk down serious cash for their Christmas crap. How can we really keep Christ in Christmas when even the folks over at Best Buy have decided to ignore Jesus’s birth, what with refusing to mention Christmas in their holiday circular?

Don’t get me started on those government officials who have decided to plant holiday trees in state houses. They’re Christmas trees, people. And President Obama, choosing to wish Americans a happy holiday season? Obviously, he’s forgotten that this is a Christian holiday, and that the White House needs to acknowledge our national fidelity to the one and true God.

Clearly, Christmas needs saving, else the holiday slip into complete oblivion. And who better to do the saving than Kirk Cameron.

Yes, that Kirk Cameron, erstwhile star of the 1980s sitcom “Growing Pains.” If you’ve been following Christian culture at all—and what fully dedicated person of faith hasn’t?—then you know that Mike Seaver has grown up into a painfully dogmatic evangelical who has produced such classic cinema hits like “Fireproof” and “Unstoppable.”

Cameron’s new film endeavor, “Saving Christmas,” promises to put the Christ back in Christmas, to show us the reason for the season, to make sure we all recognize why we are celebrating this holiday to begin with. And that our celebration has nothing to do with sugar cookies, even though: dang. There’s nothing better than Christmas cookie dough.cameron

There’s my problem, apparently, and every other Christian person, too, who has fixed her sights on something other than The True Meaning of Christmas.

According to Cameron, women have an extra special duty to make sure Christmas is awesomely Christ-like for their families. Except I think Cameron’s “special duty” is similar to those other special-but-different roles God has designed for women.

In a video published a few weeks ago on Cameron’s website, the savior of our culture’s certain slide into hell tells women that they bear the responsibility of making sure they are joy-filled, so that the Spirit of Christmas can be restored in their homes, and thus in the world.

According to Cameron, “If you are a mom, if you are a wife, if you are the keeper of your home, I want you to know that your joy is so important this Christmas. Because Christmas is about joy and if the joy of the Lord is your strength, remember the joy of the mom is her children’s strength.”

And now, I feel a little extra burden to be happy this Christmas: even when my kids fight over who gets to choose the Christmas tree, then disappear after decorating for only a few minutes. And when I have to step into a mall, the thought of which makes me feel hot and sweaty and impatient just thinking about it. And when I make Christmas cookies, and suddenly the boys show up, wanting a share of the dough I’ve set aside for myself.

Even then, I’m supposed to be joyful? Whew. Tall order.

Cameron tells us wives and mothers that we must sustain the joy in our home if we want Christmas to be saved at last. He says “Let your children, your family, see your joy in the way you that decorate your home this Christmas, in the food that you cook, the songs you sing, the stories you tell and the traditions that you keep.”

That seems like an overwhelming task, especially since my family rarely thinks “oh joy” when they taste the food I cook, if my sons’ faux barfing noises are any indication. (Interesting: it’s the same barfing noise they make when I try to sing along to the radio, too.)

In our home, at least, it’s not me who does the Christmas saving at any rate: I’m not the chief decorator, nor the keeper of holiday traditions. Those tasks fall to my husband, who revises and edits our attempts to decorate the Christmas tree once the boys and I go off to bed. He’s the one who has a particular way of handling Christmas morning, and has sustained the tradition of giving the kids pajamas every Christmas eve (even if, in our family lore, he gave his daughter the same ugly, itchy, tight-throated nightgown two years in a row: a tradition of its own kind, for sure!)

So I find Cameron’s message to mothers a little off-putting, as it seems so similar to other evangelical endeavors that burden mothers with the sole responsibility of nurturing their children’s spiritual well-being, of making amazing food, of sustaining a well-decorated home, of making sure everyone around them is joyful, even those for whom the holidays can be a less-than-joyful time.

Several years ago in The Oregonian, I wrote about the problematic premise of a “war on Christmas,” which suggests a cultural conflict where none should exist. Instead of berating stores and marketers for refusing to say “Merry Christmas” and insisting government offices display manger scenes, I argued that Christians should focus on what matters most in their Christmas celebrations: the birth of Jesus.

Cameron’s endeavor to “Save Christmas,” and his special exhortation to women sets our sights on something else entirely: On Cameron’s movie, certainly (coming soon to a theatre near you!); but also on the ways we continue to assume women should joyfully accept the roles delineated for them, rather than freely exploring what God calls them to be: at Christmas, and at any other time of the year.

Beth Moore, Bible Studies, and Obama

I am wading into dangerous waters.

For years I have been aware of the popularity and ubiquitous presence of Beth Moore among friends and family members of various churches. Beth Moore is, in fact, so commonplace I feel almost like a heretic as I write this post. Her Bible studies loom large in evangelical women’s groups and Sunday school classes. For goodness sake, is there anyone who can claim she doesn’t at least know who Beth Moore is, or more likely, has not studied at least one of her books?

Despite being a woman who believes she should not “preach” or teach men, few people are as well-known among contemporary Christians as Beth Moore. Even more than her omnipresence, it also is true she has made a positive contribution to many. Reading comments by people who have read her books and/or worked through her Bible studies, confirms how important she is to a lot of women (her primary audience).

Given these realities, that Beth Moore is not only wildly popular but also must have something good to say, one may wonder what exactly propels me to write about her, especially since a critique of her is likely filled with a thousand land-mines, many of them resulting a good old-fashioned Internet thrashing, I’m sure (can’t wait!). It may be that I relish too much my natural inclination to be contrary. Or (and I hope this is more right) that I think there is a reason for her popularity that has to do with reading the Bible in an “acceptable” way, one that does not challenge some of our most cherished aspects of American privilege.

For those who have any familiarity with Moore, they know to be prepared for her Bible study by having the corresponding materials and something to write with. Of course, this is in addition to utilizing their Bibles (kudos to Moore for this!). I am obviously a huge fan of taking notes, but this isn’t exactly what is expected of a Beth Moore Bible study.

Early in my education—elementary or middle school—I remember filling out worksheets; pages and pages of statements requiring me not to learn anything in particular but to find a word embedded in one place and transcribe it accurately to my worksheet. Locating the right word involved skimming texts searching for matching phrases. Such excises did not utilize my ability to think, only to recognize redundancy.

I don’t recall any of my peers clamoring for more worksheets, the desire to fill in the empty blanks a compelling task. And yet, this is the methodology Moore employs in her Bible studies. To my dismay, apparently adults have forgotten their previous disdain for such mind-numbing tasks now relishing instead the opportunity to be told which word fits the corresponding blank. Moore frequently stops speaking allowing time for her audience to fill in the blank or repeat a phrase after her.

What has changed, I wonder, to instigate such a shift? Why would we as children find filling in the blanks to be redundant and boring and yet thousands of adults flock to this kind of presentation, eagerly listening to someone, pen or pencil in hand ready to be told the correct answer to place in a worksheet?

My hunch is there is a comfort in being told what the Bible says and to accept it without question because raising questions is generally not encouraged by our churches. Perhaps for some of us we remember an early experience of questioning something in the Bible; maybe the virgin birth or perhaps the idea that God could not be known outside of Christianity. Despite these questions, more often than not Christians are encouraged to disregard questions and accept in their place a list of certainties. This approach is solidified by presenting the Bible as divine information. Our job is to collect the information into blanks and then commit it to memory.

Unfortunately, this unreflective method to the Bible not only incorrectly pits faith against religion (seen, for example in debates over evolution) it also fails to account for some of the major tenets we should understand about who God is and who we should be as people of God in the world.

If, on the other hand, we read our Bibles aware of the messiness created by a sacred document that is at once divinely inspired and also a product of human endeavor, we realize some things within it may not be as easy as stuff to fill in a blank.

One such theme is rather pointed in Deuteronomy although Moore ignores it in her current online study (at least all of the ones that have aired so far). Even though Moore frequently uses the catchy phrase “Deuteronomy-Economy” to refer to the social context of the Israelites after they have been led out of Egypt and before they enter the so-called Promised Land, she fails to take up a key point of who the Israelites are called to be. She mentions being grateful for food, praising God because that’s what we are supposed to do, and knowing our history. She leaves out the recognition that just as Jacob was an alien in Egypt so do the Israelites have aliens, orphans, and widows among them. And, as part of their worship of God, they were to care for these, the most vulnerable in their midst.

This insight is all the more troublesome for us. President Obama ignited a fire-storm of criticism this week for his decision to address immigration in more concrete ways than the Congress has done in the last several years. I can hear in the reverberations of the debate assumptions about rights as American citizens vs. rights of those from other places. What strikes me as missing from this conversation (I’m being polite to call this a conversation—practicing hospitality, you see!) is the Christian understanding that taking care of the most vulnerable among us is not only the heart of this “Deuteronomy-Economy” it is the essence of the gospel. I say this not to assume that we are a Christian nation and therefore should adopt this position but to suggest that Christians participating in this debate should recognize that part of what it means to follow the way of Jesus is to provide hospitality for the stranger.

It’s a lot easier to read Deuteronomy as the stuff that leads to Jesus’ death on the cross, the consistent theme Moore relies employs. And, maybe this is a good place for a person to start on her or his journey with the Bible. I just hope that people will not stop with such certitudes and easy answers and instead will dig deeper. Together I think we will find the Bible is not only more troublesome and problematic, but also that the way it calls us to is harder than we have imagined. But, maybe this is what Jesus meant about taking up our own crosses.

The Birth of the Pill

I’m a sucker for Terry Gross’ Fresh Air program on National Public Radio.

A couple of weeks ago I heard Gross interview author Jonathan Eig about his new book, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. Ordinarily I enjoy Gross’ interviews but seldom do I rush out and purchase the book involved, so I’m not sure exactly why this one grabbed me like it did. But as soon as I got home that night, I logged onto Amazon, made my purchase and for the next several days, watched intently for that coveted Amazon box waiting for me just outside my front door.

Honestly, I’ve been more than a little daunted by the book. Terry Gross failed to mention the hefty volume is well over 300 pages and entails a fair bit of science (not exactly the kind of thing I read for pleasure). Nevertheless, I have waded into this narrative seeking to understand a little more about how it is I arrived at my freedom. And even though I am only about one-third of the way through this detailed account of how four people in their own ways and for their own reasons ended up creating the pill, I already have a much greater appreciation for their work; for the chances they took and the sacrifices they made in order to me to have the opportunity to make my own reproductive decisions.

I vividly remember my first gynecological appointment when I asked my doctor to write a prescription for birth control. My wedding was just around the corner and much like all of the other details related to my upcoming marriage, birth control seemed to be my responsibility. In part, I think, because sex was not something we talked about in my family and also because I still had not realized the extent to which I had been shaped by patriarchal assumptions, including methods of birth control.

But there are other memories related to reproduction that loom in my memory in ways I’m sure are fundamentally different from my husband’s. During the first few years of my marriage, especially when I was in graduate school working toward my Master’s degree, I spent many nights wide awake worried that my random headache or stomach pain was a signal that I was pregnant. I carefully tracked my cycle; any variation was cause for immediate alarm.

Despite being irrational, my fear was real. Real, because I knew that even if by accident I became pregnant, it was my life—my career—that would change and not my husband’s. At least this was what I had internalized. And it fed my fear with a vengeance.

Fortunately, for me, the pill never let me down. However, as I am learning more about its development, it is clear I did not have an appropriate respect for the freedom it provided me.

Jonathan Eig’s narrative carefully spans the collaborative efforts of four intrepid people whose commitments to creating a practical and effective means of birth control resulted in the pill. Margaret Sanger played an integral role as she campaigned for the rights of women knowing that without reproductive autonomy, women would never be equal but instead would always be subject to the repercussions of sex in a way that men aren’t.

But, the pill’s development took more than a visionary, money was needed. Enter Katharine McCormick, whose experience taught her that there are circumstances in life where being able to avoid pregnancy could be beneficial. At the age of 75, McCormick contacted Sanger to see where her fortune would most benefit the National Birth Control movement. I’d say money was never so well spent.

Two others were also key. Gregory Pincus, a renegade scientist who was dismissed by Harvard University for his scientific work with in vitro fertilization, labored for many years in sub-par laboratories and with little financial support. And John Rock, a physician and Catholic whose practice and interactions with women enabled him to see the conflicts between his church’s stance regarding birth control and the real lives of women who suffered the devastating outcomes of male-centric theology, persuaded the general public that birth control was a positive development.

Even as I am still learning more details about these four trailblazers and what each of them accomplished, I continue to be astonished by how directly their work has affected my life. And mostly I feel immense gratitude.

But there is something else, something a little more gnawing that hasn’t quite let go of me. It is this: before the invention of the pill, few people thought seriously about the relationship between women’s rights and their reproductive options. Because so little consideration existed, women’s progress toward equality did not improve.

In our political discourse today, there continue to be echoes from an earlier era of those who call for restricting reproductive choices for women. And yet the relationship between women’s equality and their reproductive options is no less real now than it was in the early twentieth century. If I somehow became pregnant and didn’t discover it until my final trimester (ok; both of these are highly improbable, but give me at least the possibility of such a hypothetical situation), I would want the freedom to make the decision about what to do. And this hypothetical suggestion is much better than what many women actually face when they are raped or have no access to clinics with affordable reproductive care or for women who simply cannot afford a pregnancy let alone a birth.

Not everyone needs to agree about what constitutes a moral choice regarding reproduction: the use of the pill; the morning-after pill; other forms of birth control; or even abortion. But it seems to me disingenuous to suggest to women by our public policies that we fail to see the link between their equality and their full access to reproductive services. Ensuring that women are able to make choices about their bodies, their health, and their procreation is still a fundamental aspect of creating a society in which women are equal to men. And, as long as we fail to provide a real choice, women are not really free.

I’m pretty sure Sanger, McCormick, Pincus, and Rock would agree.

It’s a God Thing (or not) (Probably not)

Any student who has occupied space in my classroom quickly learns my writing pet peeves. Whether there is any logic behind my peevishness matters little: it is what it is.

Saying “it is what it is” captures two of my peeves in one blow:

  • I hate weak expletives (not words like shoot or darn, but those are stupid, too).
  • I hate the word “it.”

Hate might be too strong a word, I suppose. Despise, maybe? It’s not like I fail students who use “it” or “it is.” Tempting, God knows, but sometimes using “it is” seems necessary (see previous sentence).

A word even more despicable than “it” is “thing.” Thing means nothing to me: thing is a word so bereft of meaning, it could mean anything. Or something. Or everything.

So when people say that they have experienced a “God Thing,” I shudder. I know what they mean: whatever happened feels so serendipitous and providential, God must have played a role. Still, I dislike the use of “thing” in the phrase, one of the weakest words possible; and even more, I dislike the theology the phrase exemplifies: that when we experience serendipity, God must have played a role. When our lives are lousy—when our dog runs away, or our kids get the flu, or we lose our jobs/our families/our health—we don’t call that a “God thing” (except maybe the dog-running-away part).

Does God only give us a thing in serendipity?

Often, when we were in the process of adopting our two boys, people would proclaim that the adoptions were “a God Thing.” The phrase started to grate on me, much as I am grateful for these boys. I’m amazed that two kids, born in developing countries thousands of miles away, came to live in my home. I’m amazed that they survived difficult births and poor health, that they thrived, that somehow their files landed in my email. I’m amazed that I get to be their mother. I’m amazed, grateful, stunned by this gift, and by the circumstances that made this gift possible.

But I cannot see their adoption as a God Thing.

Because of this: I cannot imagine a God who would make a woman feel like she had to surrender her child to strangers, which is what my sons’ birth mothers had to do. Since their adoption, I’ve wondered often about the immense grief that could have accompanied that surrender, and the sense of loss these women might feel, and the life-long emptiness left by the departure of their babies. I wonder how they feel when they see other children the same age as my children; I wonder if they wonder about their kids. And I mourn the opportunity they’ve lost, to know these two amazing boys, who are smart and lively, fiercely noncompliant and loving all the same, and who are both wicked funny (especially when it comes to poop jokes, I might add).

That their birth moms cannot know them? Not in any way a “God Thing.”

Nor is it a “God Thing” that these women were compelled to relinquish their children, for whatever reason. Would God endorse the conditions that made this necessary? Is it God-blessed that people live in abject poverty, unable to feed their own progeny or provide them the medical care they need to survive? Does God carry disease to some people, so that they die young and cannot raise their families? Does God celebrate cultures that make it impossible for women to avoid the stigma of single motherhood?

That families cannot raise the children they bore: this is not a God Thing.

Some people will tell me that despite these awful circumstances, my sons’ adoptions are a “God Thing” because we saved them from another life: that God redeemed their difficult beginnings by compelling us to adopt them, allowing them to live a comfortable life in our Christian home.

Perhaps this idea, above all others, is hard for me to accept. I am not a savior, by virtue of my desire to have children, nor given my western privilege. My boys are not mission projects. They are autonomous beings, created in God’s own image and loved and cared for wholly by God, whether we adopted them or not. They were not taken from their home cultures and given to me by God so I could make them Christian, save them from some other religion, assure their happiness in an after life.

Several years ago, I wrote an essay to honor Mother’s Day in which I explore the complicated paradox that makes it hard for me to see adoption as a “God Thing.” Much as I love my boys, and am exceedingly grateful for their presence in my life, I know this: that my joy in being a mother comes because others, including my own sons and the mothers who bore them, have experienced a loss I cannot fathom.

In that essay, I concluded by turning to my favorite writer, Anne Lamott, who argues in Traveling Mercies that sometimes we want God to be a little less mysterious, to provide for us “permanence, a guarantee or two, the unconditional love we all long for” (p.168). Lamott says she demands assurance from God, but gets only silence. In that silence she realizes the only promise, the only thing in this life not shrouded by mystery, is “the moment, and the imperfect love of people” (168)

My sons’ adoptions remain a mystery to me. Why I was lucky enough to be their mother is also a mystery. Why I get to live where I do, with the community I have, doing work I love, surrounded by family and friends I adore: only mystery. And grace, I imagine, because I certainly didn’t do much to receive these gifts.

We can talk about serendipitous encounters as God Things, or finding a parking space near the mall entrance as a God Thing, or even adopting two of the cutest boys in Yamhill County as God Things, but such rhetoric seems to diminish the power and mystery of what a God Thing really is: this very moment, the imperfect but holy love of the people around us, and the perfect and holy love of God for us all. A God Thing can be nothing–and everything–more than that.

I’ve been thinking about God Things for awhile now, but must admit that this blog post was inspired, in part, by my need to make a shameless plug for a new book I’ve co-edited with Martha Diede and Jeremiah Webster, called The Spirit of Adoption: Writers on Religion, Adoption, Faith, and More. The book uses the stories of birthmothers, adoptees, and adoptive parents to explore the ways adoption has deepened, complicated, and reshaped the writers’ religious faith. My essay, “On (Not) Fearing God,” considers evangelical adoption ministries, my sons’ adoption into a Christian home, and how I’ve become a little (a lot?) more universalist in my worldview since becoming a mother. You can read more about the book here

 

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She Lives!

I have a friend whose courage I admire.

My great hope is that someday a tiny bit of her confidence will rub off on me. Because, you see, despite how confident I may (or may not) appear in my writing, in person I’m a complete flake. I’d rather eat bugs (you know about my cricket phobia, right?) than cause a stir. Heck, just this week I received the wrong order when I stopped for take-out at Panera. Instead of asking them to change it, I smiled and thanked them for my wrong food. And I went home and ate it; every last bite of what I did not want.

But this friend—Rev. Jann Aldredge-Clanton—knows how to say what is on her mind and instead of people being threatened by what she says, they respond positively.

Last summer a group of about ten women were eating at a restaurant close to our conference hotel. We had spent the day in meetings making numerous decisions that were both important to the continuing viability of our organization as well as in tune to what it means to practice justice in concrete situations. It had not been as easy day and we were exhausted.

Despite how we were feeling, there was ample laughter and conversation, the kind that happens only in the midst of deep trust and true friendship.

Into this dinner break walked our male waiter, a young and affable man. He welcomed us: “Hey, guys, we’re glad you are here for dinner. I will be your waiter this evening.” There was no way he could have anticipated the response he received. After all, who would guess a room full of women, mostly over fifty would be gutsy as well as gracious?

Jann Aldredge-Clanton with her sweet southern accent didn’t miss a beat. “We are not guys,” she said. “I’m from the South; perhaps you could address us with ‘y’all’ or ‘you all,’ but we would prefer not to be called guys because that is not who we are.”

All of us around the table feel the exclusion each time someone says “you guys,” but only Jann had the courage to make his greeting a teachable moment. Despite what you may imagine, there was no anger or animosity but rather good-natured encouragement to think more seriously about how our language is experienced by those around us and also how our language affects what we think…about ourselves and about God. The evening consisted of lots of humorous interactions with our waiter and throughout our meal, I’m sure he felt appreciated and we felt valued because he changed how he addressed us.

In the short two years that I’ve known Jann, she has taught me not only the importance of courage in our interactions with others but also the courage to embrace my convictions about God, a confidence that for years I did not have because I have learned the power of doubt much more often, especially doubt about the divine feminine.

Earlier this year I read Jann’s autobiography, Breaking Free: The Story of a Feminist Baptist Minister. At every turn in her career she was met by challenges that I think would have stopped me from forging ahead, would have kept me from doing what I thought was my calling. But Jann, slowly “began waking up to her own voice, and became one of the first women ever to be ordained as a Baptist minister in the South.”

She was almost fired by a Baptist university for refusing to sign their belief statement; she was labeled a heretic for recognizing the divine feminine; and because of her strong stance for women and for others who suffered injustices, she was called “Waco’s Give ‘Em Hell Minister.” Her memoir provides a glimpse of how Jann came to be such a strong advocate for gender justice.

In a brand new book—She Lives!: Sophia Wisdom Works in the World—Jann provides space for others to tell their stories. For anyone seeking to understand more fully the connection between language and faith, this is a must read. Within this collection of narratives, there is ample evidence that the church must change its sexist ways if it hopes to cooperate with the Spirit of God. Sophia–God’s Wisdom–is giving birth to new feminist worship communities utilizing feminine images and language.

Jann writes that as a child in the Baptist tradition she loved singing the hymn He Lives. She “had learned to worship a God who was named and imaged as male.” But while in seminary, she discovered the divine feminine. This discovery led Jann to wonder: “If God can include three persons, can’t God include two genders?” The answer, of course, is the reason for her courage and confidence.

Last week Jann and I met for lunch and to celebrate the publication of She Lives!. You can guess what happened: our waiter greeted us saying, “Hey, guys, how’s it going today?” Jann politely but firmly suggested he refer to us in another way, one that recognized we were not guys. And, this time, I didn’t find myself squirming or sinking into the booth.

I’ll take this as a small sign that Jann’s courage is beginning to rub off on me, even if it is still slightly so.

 

***Melanie and I are included in this collection. Melanie’s story—“Gathering Everyone Under Her Wings”—appears in the chapter on racial justice while mine—“Embracing our Mother”—appears in the chapter on gender justice.

Put Away That Razor: It’s Time to Man Up

The call to all smooth-faced men went out this morning via Twitter: Want to start a Christian revolution? Want to make a radical affirmation—via your face—that you are a child/man of God?

It’s time for you to man up and grow a beard.

I know, I know, it’s not even No-Shave November, so the proclamation here in the middle of October seems a little puzzling. But apparently R.C. Sproul, Jr., son of the well-known Calvinist theologian and radio broadcaster, has had a vision of Christian men taking a stand for Jesus via their chins.

Here’s the Tweet:

sproul

 

Ah yes. The beard is clearly further proof of God’s different plans for women and men, part of the biblical design determining that men are meant to be assertive leaders in the home and public sphere, more capable interpreters of scripture, strong and protective and true; and women, lacking the ability to grow beards, are designed for special—but different—roles, requiring essentially that they keep their beard-free pie holes shut.

My first thought upon reading Mr. Sproul’s tweet was this: Apparently, Mr. Sproul’s dearest bride has avoided letting her beloved spouse know what can often happen to women, especially as they grow older and chin hairs begin to sprout inexplicably overnight, so that in the span of a few hours and without extreme vigilance, a woman (say, for example, me) can discover a full mustache blooming on her lip.

Perhaps peri-menopausal women are more interchangeable than younger women who have not yet faced this blight. What say you, Mr. Sproul?

I wonder, too, about the young men inhabiting my classrooms, inspired to grow beards because of the bearded professors they admire (not me)(I don’t think), but who are only able to produce sparse patches of hair across their cheeks—reminiscent of my backyard in August, when only a few bright spots of grass remain alive.

Are these earnest folks aced out of their biblical manhood?

I suppose not, since Mr. Sproul does offer a caveat of sorts, suggesting that those who can, must; and the rest, too bad. The pitiful guys who cannot participate in this facial revolution? You may need to find other ways to make your radical affirmation of biblical manhood.

Might I suggest eating some barbeque? Holding a gun? Kicking the crap out of your enemy?

No?

Because It seems like doing these stereotypically “manly” activities as a way of asserting one’s biblical manhood makes just as much sense as growing a beard to establish the differences between men and women. We all know men and women are not interchangeable, but what Sproul et al. really mean is this: because God has designed men and women differently, women must be relegating women to the “special” roles men like Sproul have deigned for them.

More than growing a beard, calling bullshit on that claim is the kind of radical affirmation Christianity needs.

Killing Our Darlings: An Update on Our Book

I had a donut this morning, washed down by Diet Coke at 7 a.m. For lunch, I’ll probably have potato chips, alongside my second (or, let’s be honest, third) Diet Coke of the day. I haven’t planned dinner, but imagine there will be sugar and caffeine whatever pseudo-healthy fare I make for my family.

Cutting stuff out of my diet has never been easy. No matter how often I vow to stop drinking Diet Coke—or stop drinking it before 10 a.m.—I feel myself slipping back into the daily habit within moments of my vow. I know, I know: I’ve read the scary articles people post online about how Diet Coke will kill me, or how cutting sugar out of my diet will make me a more virtuous person; my husband has lectured me about how potato chips are empty calories and a bane on our household.

But, let’s face it, cutting out things that matter to us—to our happiness, if not our health—can be very difficult indeed.

The same applies to writing.

In August, a few weeks after submitting our manuscript to Chalice Press, our publisher, we received word that we needed to cut out almost a third of our book, and before the end of October if we wanted to meet our April 30 publication date.

Cut out several 100,000 characters? The task seemed impossible. Painful, at least.

But we trust Chalice Press, who has been publishing some great books. We knew they understood the market, and that they knew what was best. We began the hard work of cutting out our hard work.

Writers know about what it means to “kill your darlings,” to excise those sentences and paragraphs that seem profound, stirring, finely wrought.

We killed a lot of darlings in September.

The task is nearly completed, though, and we’ve reached our goal. One more read through and we will resubmit our much leaner manuscript. Leaner, but also much better: Turns out, killing your darlings can often be exactly what your writing needs. And the extra work we did in the last month has distilled our manuscript, until we are offering readers the best of what we’ve got.

I also know this experience will make me a better writing teacher, because I’ve gone through a process I often exhort my students to experience, too. Besides, I’ve kept all the superfluous material excised from our original manuscript. It’s in a file titled “Spanking for Jesus.” Sometimes, the really good stuff will have to wait.

This is all to say that our work, tentatively titled Meant to Be, is still on track to be published in the spring, and Kendra and I are thrilled. I might have another Diet Coke, just to celebrate. We can’t cut everything out of our lives all at once, right?