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.

When We Are Angela Merkel

Way back in the early years of my career at George Fox University, a colleague (from another department) approached me at a faculty gathering, exchanged a few niceties, and then offered to help me develop my scholarship. He wanted to give me advice about how I might get my first book published, and how I could begin getting my work into academic journals. Given his success as an author, he said, he knew he could help me get going on my own writing.

When we had that conversation, I had already published my first book.

Along with several other articles, in fairly prominent periodicals.

Because I was a young faculty member, and because I wasn’t yet tenured, and because he believed himself the Man About Campus, I thanked him for his gracious offer, and told him I’d connect with him at some point for his advice.

Which is why, when Angela Merkel eye-rolled Vladimir Putin’s mansplaining at a G20 summit meeting several weeks ago, I felt immediate kinship. Just in case you haven’t watched the beauty of that moment 100 times, as I have, here it is:

 

 

Most women have been Angela Merkel at one time or another. We may not be the chancellor of Germany, or the leader of the free world, or have a doctorate in physical chemistry, or be conversant in European politics, but we’ve had to stand by while an entitled man—perhaps even an entitled man without our qualifications and experience—explained in detail something we already know.

I can think of several instances, even in the last year, when the Merkel eye roll should have been employed:

  • When, on numerous occasions, a fellow runner in town stopped me on my own training runs to share with me details of an awesome marathon he finished years ago, what his time was, how hard he trained for the only marathon he’s completed, never once asking me about my running history or about the marathons I’ve run. (I’ve done 49.)
  • When a student discounted my authority as an English professor because I hadn’t read Milton since I was an undergraduate, and my interest in contemporary literature and memoir meant I was not adequately trained in the greats of the western canon, despite my doctorate in English.
  • When one of my beloved sons explains to me the plot of an 80s rom-com that I’ve already watched a thousand times, or tells me I don’t know anything about a sport I’ve been doing for 35 years now. (Okay, so maybe all teenagers believe their parents are stupid, but still . . .)

In each of these instances, I simply accepted the lengthy mansplaining, because I am kind and hate confrontation, and because my culture has taught me to listen politely to the male people in my life, even on the occasions when they are patronizing me. Because I am passive-aggressive, though, my internal monologue is far less kind, and I’m often eye-rolling hard in my mind, my serene countenance covering a broiling white-hot rage.

If only I could be like Merkel, though, eye-rolling for all the world to see at the G20 Summit. This was not some kind of mainstream media fake news event, but a prominent leader, telling us—in essence—that after several decades in politics, she has had enough of the mansplaining, and despises being patronized by leaders who lack her credentials and her experience but still treat her as a little woman to be coddled.

Or ignored, as Donald Trump did earlier this spring when, during a visit to the White House, he refused to shake her hand or look her in the eye. That moment, replayed again and again on (Fake!) mainstream media, made me proud.

Proud to be a woman, that is. Not proud to be an American. But I’m sure someone will see fit to explain why I shouldn’t adore Angela Merkel after all. I’ll be waiting, and will have a perfect response.

Namely

 

 

 

Do Ten-Year-Old Girls Need Empowerment?

By design, my husband and I chose raising boys over raising girls. When we decided to adopt, we were asked to state a gender preference, and chose boys, because 1) We discovered that the waiting lists for boys were far shorter than the list for girls and 2) Having tortured my mother from about ages 12-19, I didn’t think I could stand the same kind of treatment from my own girl child.

So we adopted Benjamin and, three years later, Samuel. I don’t regret for one moment the choice we made. My sons are the best part of my life, even on days when I have to tell them, for the millionth time, to brush their teeth already and please stop drinking my Diet Cokes.

Lately, though, there are moments when I wish I’d had a daughter, too, especially when I see other mothers having close relationships with their daughters. Living with only boys and men has been great, but I’d love for someone else at home to even things up a bit, gender-wise—and Nellie, my dog, can only provide a little female solidarity. I’ve also borrowed my friends’ daughters once in awhile, just to get a taste of what being with girls might be like, and it’s definitely a different kind of fun than with my boys, in all the best ways.

The first weekend in June, I participated in a girls-only event called Girls on the Run, a nationwide-program for girls in 3rd to 5th grade. The girls train two times a week for ten weeks, but also build skills in leadership, communication, and friendship. The program culminates in a 5K run, and I was partnered with a 10-year-old girl as a “running buddy” for the final event, plus one practice event in May.

The experience was amazing: Getting to race with my new ten-year-old friend was fun. Running with several thousand girls and their mentors, often parents, was a thrill. Seeing girls feel strong and healthy and capable was inspiring.

But when I told my own sons where I was going, what I was doing, one said to me “What 10-year-old girl needs to feel empowered?”

I told him, that question alone answers the question. But then, I told him that he should know better, asking me a question like that, especially after hearing me lecture (both at home and in actual lecture halls) about gender inequity. And then, I gave him a lecture anyway, because apparently it hadn’t sunk in the first hundred times I talked to him about misogyny and the unfair treatment of women.

Ten-year-old girls need to be empowered, I said, because they hear from a very young age that they are not as worthy as boys, that their achievements—athletic or otherwise—are not as important as boys’ achievements.

When they go to movies or read books, and see that most of the protagonists are boys, they learn that boys are always heroes, and that the endeavors of boys always supersede that of girls.

When they go clothes shopping, and see that a great deal of what passes for girls’ clothes highlights their budding sexuality, they learn that their sexuality will define them, will be their source of power to allure. (If they are in Christian culture, they will also learn that their sexuality is to be sublimated, and that they will be at fault when boys lust after them.)

When they are at school, they will learn that girls are bad at math, and by the time they turn six, they will assume that boys are naturally smarter than girls. Popular culture will reinforce this belief in them, with its shirts and Barbie dolls proclaiming girls are bad at math.

When they take part in religious communities, they will hear that God is our Almighty Father, and—by extension—that boys are image-bearers of God in ways that girls are not. They will also hear that God has designed boys to lead, to have strength and power and discernment, and girls are designed for submission, to quiet their voices and prepare for the “special” roles God has created for them.

They will learn, eventually, that the world can be a hostile place for girls, that one in four girls will be victims of sexual assault, that nearly 80 percent of teen girls worry about being too heavy, that more than nine out of 10 adult women wish they could change some aspect of their appearance.

On an early Saturday morning, when I was running the 5K with my new friend, though, we were focused on finishing. On having fun. On celebrating strength and community and the joy that can come from accomplishing something new. And, in the process, perhaps we learned a bit more about what it means to be a strong and capable girl—one who, in the near future, might change the world. I’m banking on my running buddy to lead this transformation, and on other 10-year-old girls who may not need to be empowered right now, but will someday soon.

Women Who Blog (And the Pastors Who Let Them)

In the last month or so, a few faithful readers have noted that this blog has not been as active lately. I’m grateful that readers have noticed our relative absence; but also, thanks for making us feel bad.

No, but really. There are a few potential reasons why we haven’t written much:

  • We are completely overwhelmed by the many ways misogyny continues to be part of the Christian experience in America. Where do we even start?
  • We have both run out of words, given our busy and fractured lives.
  • Both Kendra and I lack any ecclesial structure to hold us accountable for our work, and lack the proper authority to write on religious biblical things. Thus, we have wisely chosen silence.

Maybe you didn’t see the article in Christianity Today? The one wondering about the rise of women’s blogging in evangelicalism, and whether that has created a “crisis of authority”? The one suggesting that maybe women bloggers (okay, maybe all bloggers, but this isn’t clear) should have more accountability? The one that called out Jen Hatmaker especially, because she’s recently come out as supportive of LGBT folks, and therefore here theology is somehow suspect and needs to be kept in check?

Perhaps you missed the vividI would love to blog and write freely about my ideas. But first, I will ask for my husband's permission.  discussion that broke out on Twitter, with even heavy-hitters like Rachel Held Evans responding, pointing out the deep flaws in the article, especially because the “crisis of authority” has never really been an issue until women also found their voices in cyberspace.

Did people wonder what kind of “ecclesial structure” superstar male bloggers like Matt Walsh are beholden to? Wring their hands when Bryan Fischer made claims about Jesus that seemed theological suspect? Of course not. Because in all things Christian, women must be held to some Higher Standard, especially if they have ideas that might make people think (differently).

Watching the discussion unspool on Twitter, I started to wonder what manner of authority I have to write at all. I do have some credentials, including a PhD in English, with specialties in composition and rhetoric. Twenty years of teaching writing. A master’s degree earned by writing a thesis on C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. That’s got to matter for something, right? I mean, c’mon, writing on Lewis and Tolkien should give me some cred with religious folks!

Maybe it’s okay for me to write about writing, but not about religious stuff? Or maybe, I can write about religious things, but only with the endorsement of a pastor?

So here’s the thing: perhaps I should also demand that those who write for publications also have some credentialing in writing. Because we all know there’s some pretty bad writing getting published these days, all in the name of “Christian truth.” Hear that Mark Driscoll? Time to sign up for my college writing class—maybe then, you’d understand why you can’t simply plagiarize when you are publishing books.

A few years ago (yes, back when we were more actively blogging), we highlighted an article written about a woman blogger, wondering if she should even have a platform, because that meant she might have male readers, who might (gasp!) learn something from what she’d written. The advice was wonderfully sexist. One idea was that she could have her husband read the posts before they went live, thereby offering her the authority she sought.

This seemed entirely ridiculous at the time, as it robbed the woman of any agency, any sense that her thoughts were valid without a man’s endorsement. But the Christianity Today article strikes me as more of the same impulse, in a bigger forum, written by an ordained pastor. I guess, at least, the ordination makes the CT article legit. And also, shows that there is plenty of sexism left in the church for us to address.

Running as a Feminist Expression

Today’s running of the Boston Marathon marks the 50th anniversary of Kathrine Switzer’s historic effort to defy expectations about what women could and could not do. In 1967, Switzer became the first woman to finish the Boston race with an official number, having been given entry because her registration under the name K.V. Switzer allowed her to pass as a man.

Those familiar with Switzer’s story know the iconic image of that race. A marathon official, Jock Semple, was riding on the press truck, saw Switzer in early miles on the course, jumped into the crowd of runners, and tried to push her from the field while also attempting to rip off her race bib. Switzer’s then-boyfriend, running alongside her, pushed back, and Switzer continued running, finishing the race in four hours, 20 minutes.

In other words, after being assaulted by a powerful man, after being yelled at by members of the press, after other runners on the course shouted obscenities at her because she had entered a male-only space: after all these things, she persisted. And in doing so, she opened the door for countless other women to experience the wonders of running.

Including me, of course. But when I started running in 1982, not even twenty years after a woman finished the Boston marathon for the first time, I knew nothing about Switzer’s amazing courage nor about the limitations placed on female athletes. (Nor did I know, in 1984, that Joan Benoit Samuelson’s Olympic marathon win was also ground-breaking, the first time women had run longer than 800 meters in an Olympics.)

On a run this weekend, I listened to an interview with Switzer on my favorite podcast, Another Mother Runner. There, Switzer talked about what running has given her over the last fifty years, how it has been a source of empowerment for her and for countless other women, who have discovered that the simple act of running can transform them completely.

I thought about the ways running has enriched my life: it has made me feel strong and capable; it has given me a sense of accomplishment; it has carried me through the loneliness of graduate school and the stress of being a new mother; it has sustained me as my kids have grown into teenagers, which has introduced all kinds of new stressors. But most significantly, my 35 years of running has given me my best friends and confidantes, a tribe of like-minded women whose strength, courage, humor, good-will, and downright bad-assness makes me want to be a better person, too.

In a lot of ways, running is a selfish endeavor. (Maybe in all ways.) I run for my own enjoyment, for the social time with friends, because I know it makes me healthy and strong. I have spent countless dollars on this hobby of mine, and countless hours. I am generally more tired, more grumpy, and also more gimpy because of running.

And, I have never run for a charity, and don’t plan to, because I don’t want to obfuscate the real reason I run: for me. Admitting this is hard, especially because Christian woman are so often told that self-sacrifice is the highest, best goal to which we should aspire. So much so, in fact, that we often sublimate our own needs for the good of everyone else.

Perhaps this is why I think running can be a feminist expression, an acknowledgment that women have agency over their bodies, their time, their resources—or should have agency, at any rate—and that running can be one way we push back against those expectations that say we don’t matter quite as much. That more women than men now finish races in the U.S. (9.7 million women to 7.3 million men in 2016) suggests that running, at least, is one place where women are finding power and strength.

While this kind of feminist expression might seem privileged, something only wealthy westerners can do, Switzer’s new endeavor, 261Fearless, is hoping to foster multi-cultural running communities for women of all abilities, across the globe, so that women can discover their own strength as well as their own tribes. Named after the number she wore at the 1967 Boston Marathon, 261Fearless seems like a promising next step to giving the women’s running boom even more traction.

Of course, when I’m out running with my best running friend, I’m not really thinking about time on the road as a feminist expression or about my own agency as a woman. Not all the time, at least. Much more often, I feel immense gratitude for how this amazing sport has connected me with so many amazing women. And today, I’m especially grateful for Kathrine Switzer, whose entry in the 1967 Boston Marathon defied the expectations of men, like Jock Semple, who said woman couldn’t do what men could. Her successful finish that year—as well as the 9.7 million women who raced in 2016—offers an important rejoinder: Hell yes, we can.

My favorite running picture ever, because it shows my strength and joy, even though I was running alone.

Mike Pence and His (Lack of) Dinner Dates

A social media eruption has recently occurred over Mike Pence’s dinner dates, specifically that his spouse, Karen, reportedly told The Washington Post that Mike never eats alone with another woman or attends a function without her where alcohol is served.

I imagine when Karen revealed this insight about Mike she saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate what an upstanding man her husband is. My guess is that she is surprised that many find this behavior misguided, bizarre, or even misogynistic. And here is where one of our religious fault lines in America raises its head, again.

When I went to seminary in the early 1990s, I entered the evangelical world that Pence in his female-avoidance represents. I remember sitting in a classroom listening to one of my professors (all of them were men) extol his virtuous character because he refused to meet with women behind closed doors. In great detail he explained how he had windows installed in his office so that someone could always corroborate his professional interactions with women. Too, since he could readily be observed, an important safeguard firmly in place, he had successfully eliminated any sexual temptation he might experience being alone with a woman.

While there certainly are important considerations involved in a professor-student relationship, it is the unexamined implications in such a male-centric perspective that deserve more sustained attention.

And so, Pence’s behavior provides us an opportunity to explore this cultural divide where most evangelicals are probably lauding Pence’s dining practice at the same time everyone else who isn’t part of the evangelical culture is wondering what 1950s Leave it to Beaver world has sudden been unleashed on the American public as a whole.

As some have pointed out, Pence’s practice echoes what has often been called the Billy Graham Rule. Originating during a conversation between Graham, the well-known evangelist, and three of his male ministerial friends, they decided the things that tempted them the most were money and sexual immorality. Because they wanted to avoid falling into temptation, they decided to avoid situations where they might succumb to the latter. Hence, don’t eat alone with women.

The reason evangelicals are surprised by the pushback over this revelation is that chivalry toward women is regularly confused with treating women with respect. Many evangelicals think that “protecting” women from the harsh realities of the world demonstrates how much they value women. Of course underlying this assumption is that this is entirely a male perspective. Much like the meeting between Graham and his friends, they extrapolate from their experience, a rule that in their minds applies to all people, regardless of the fact that women are not included except as people to be acted upon. In other words, women are objects, mostly sexual ones. Additionally, in such perspectives, men are sexual animals who cannot be trusted to act appropriately when their male gaze moves to action.

Nevertheless, some evangelicals never acknowledge this important challenge to the culture of chivalry in part because within this world, the comfort of gender roles has been promoted as God’s design for relationships. Such so-called design enables opening of doors and a gentle guiding hand on one’s back, to substitute for the more diligent and difficult work of true equality; equality where sexist structures are identified and addressed.

This is the reason Karen Pence can believe her husband to be a morally impeccable man in how he personally treats women while at the same time disregard that he is serving a president who daily parades his misogyny and who most likely has sexually violated scores of women. Mike is praised because he intentionally avoids the temptation of un-chaperoned mingling with women while at the very same time he is commended for maintaining sexist structures. It is—rightly—a man’s world.

Post-Election Ruminating

I am a distracted yogi.

Recently while I was sweating my way through a 60 minute hot yoga class appropriately called Fire I realized just un-centered I am. There we were too many of us crammed into the small room because the large room is out of order (they say this should only be a short term inconvenience, but I’m a habitual doubter these days so I imagine this to be more like a long-term tactic to get us acclimated to accepting inferior facilities). We were only a few poses into our standing sequence when I felt a drop of sweat land on my right foot. It was not mine. Now, how was I to maintain my focus on breathing when someone else had violated my space? It took me at least three subsequent poses to regain calm serenity when it happened again, this time on my arm despite my earnest efforts to stay squarely on my mat.

Well, that was the end of my positive attitude—and the beginning of my epiphany that I need to do a fair bit of mental recalibrating in order to overcome my selfish desire for unencumbered yoga.

Truthfully, though, yoga is hardly my biggest problem right now.

trump-with-bible

Like many, I am devastated by the election of Donald Trump as our president-elect and even a week removed from Terrible Tuesday, I am struggling to find even the smallest ray of hope. Heck, I’d even settle for a momentary glimpse of something good. Now, I have no intention of speaking on behalf of all followers of Jesus (of which I strive to be one). All I can do is try to examine and share why I feel like someone has ripped my heart out and hung it around my neck as an albatross.

If there is any recurring theme in the Bible it is that I am my neighbor’s keeper, that we are called to be in solidarity with others. Jesus showed us what this means in how he treated people, especially those on the margins of society. Too, when the early Jesus followers gathered together, they shared all they had, looking out most intentionally for those in their midst who had the least. You see, the Roman Empire at the time had gained its wealth through oppressive systems that fed the coffers of the rich while disregarding the lives of the poor. Those who aligned themselves with Jesus were willing to live differently, to stand against the ruling elite and in solidarity with each other. Sometimes this cost them a lot, even death.

When Donald Trump was elected as our next president—supported in large part by well-meaning Christians who take their faith seriously—it indicated that we have lost this plot.

We cannot explain away someone whose words and actions are racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and downright cruel toward those with disabilities. The Bible says that we know the commitments of someone by the fruit they bear. What fruit has Donald Trump produced that is anything but self-serving and motivated by power and wealth?

The contrast between these worldviews could not be more stark.

I guess we just weren’t ready to share each other’s sweat yet. I can only hope it was just a momentary lack of focus.

Why We All Need Good Christian Sex (A Review)

good-christian-sex-coverI want to start this post by naming my bias I have against books in the Christian marketplace; I recognize the problematic nature of this bias, since I am a writer who has always worked with Christian publishers, and have read many excellent books by other authors who identify as Christian. But when Bromleigh McCleneghan’s agent wrote, asking if our blog would consider doing a review of her book, Good Christian Sex, my initial thought was “oh boy, this promises to be all kinds of horrible.”

Maybe it was mid-summer optimism that made me say yes to writing a review. Or maybe it was the book’s subtitle, Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says about Sex. Whatever the case, I am grateful for the opportunity to read what is, in my mind, the best book I’ve encountered about Christianity and sex, and I’m hopeful that her ideas can begin to shift the ways Christians talk about sex and sexuality.

McCleneghan uses her own observations as a pastor, as well as her personal experiences, to develop a sexual ethic that especially resonates with me because it doesn’t turn immediately to the polar extremes with which too many Christians tend to view sex. Instead, she explores the nuances of sex and sexuality, hoping that, fundamentally and in all things, “we know love, joy, holiness, and pleasure in these lives God has given us.”

Good Christian Sex begins to dismantle some of the deeply entrenched views Christians tend to have about sex, including the contradictory notions that sex outside of marriage is deeply shameful, but sex within the bounds of marriage will always be amazing, pleasurable, mind-blowing. We tend to swim through a stew of mixed messages about sex, not even aware of how pervasive shame and confusion about sex and sexuality cloud our worldview.

Case in point: I realized that having a book titled Good Christian Sex seemed a bit embarrassing to me, especially given the cover image of two hands seemingly on the cusp of intimacy. I found myself obscuring the book’s title while I read, not really wanting others to know I was reading a book about S-E-X, even if it was the good Christian kind. (And oh, the mortification: here I am, writing a review about a sex book!)

Clearly, I need an author like McCleneghan to help me untangle my many complex and contradictory thoughts about good Christian sex, and gratefully, she delivers. McCleneghan wades into difficult territory, with chapters on masturbation, vulnerability, desire, intimacy, and fidelity, among other topics. But instead of providing quick prohibitions against such acts as self-pleasure and sex outside of marriage, the author takes time to consider what the Bible says, what church tradition has said, and how Christians can live rightly in a sexual ethic that recognizes and loves, rather than objectifies, the Other.

Indeed, the central claim around which she builds her case is compelling; McCleneghan suggests a theology of sexuality should focus on a “single norm”: “Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.” She considers Martin Buber’s I and Thou, noting that the world is structured by two relational dynamics: I-It and I-Thou. When we relate as “I-It,” we are relating to something as an object, to be used; when we relate as “I-Thou,” we relate to the other as someone who we value and, she writes, we “understand them as we would ourselves: as subjects, as actors and agents; people, complicated, living people, just like us.” Because God is the “Eternal Thou,” both the Other and God can only be known through a moving, changing, dynamic relationship, unlike our connection to an object, to be used for our purposes.

Seen through this lens, good Christian sex is not about prohibition and limitation, and is not a list of rigid rules through which we see and relate to the other, because in that rigidity, the other ceases to be a complex person, but merely an object by which we measure our own righteousness. Instead, McCleneghan challenges readers to check their motives to assure that every encounter with another is based on justice: on doing what is fair and right for and desired by the Other. This is hard work, she reminds us, and sometimes a list of sexual do’s and don’ts is far easier to navigate.

Perhaps this is one of the many reasons I like McCleneghan’s book so much. Rather than resorting to the easy catalogue of what monogamous Christians should or should not do during intimacy (or even, whether only heterosexual people can have good Christian sex), McCleneghan does the important work of calling us to consider the value of sex, and also the significant ways we are created for relationship. She argues well that sex can be holy and sacramental, fun and pleasurable, capable of healing and of destroying.

Good Christian Sex challenges me to consider intimate relationships in different ways; perhaps more significantly, McCleneghan has helped me to consider how I will talk about sex and sexuality with my boys, now only minutes away from adulthood and from learning what it means to love another person, wholly, completely, intimately. McCleneghan says loving another in this way is “terribly simple; it’s harder than it sounds.”

“Everything Happens for a Reason” Sucks as Theology

One prominent adoption narrative I reject completely is that God always planned for me to parent my sons: that somehow, even though Benjamin and Samuel were born thousands of miles from Oregon, God pulled some strings, engineered some circumstances, and gave me two of the best kids in the world.

Here’s why I reject this ideology of “God’s Plan” for adoption: Because I refuse to believe that God caused suffering and loss just so that I could be a mother. God did not manufacture difficult life events for mothers in India and Vietnam, compelling them to relinquish their children to me. God also did not want my sons to lose familial relationships and cultural ties in their birth countries so I could raise them. If God’s plan is for women to suffer the loss of their babies, and children the loss of their birth mothers, then I’m not sure that God is someone, or something, I want to worship.

The idea of God’s plan in the midst of loss has been on mind a lot lately, because it seems like so many people in my life are suffering immense pain. People I know are struggling with the serious illnesses and deaths of parents, of spouses, of life-long friends, of children. Some are contending with the difficult work of raising teenagers. Others are facing the dissolution of marriages. Violence seems ubiquitous, both at the world-wide level, where a terrorist’s murder of children at a wedding no longer fazes us as it once did; and at the local level, as Kendra wrote about last week, mourning a friend, a victim of domestic violence.

Many people choose to believe God has a greater plan in mind for those who suffer, and Christian culture is good at providing ready-made clichés in the midst of loss: That Everything Happens For A Reason, and God is trying to teach us something when bad things happen. Or that God believes we have a lesson to learn, and is allowing us to suffer for our own moral education. Or that because God’s plan is greater than we understand, we should accept suffering, rejoicing in the mystery of God’s beautiful design.

I am grateful that people are beginning to call bullshit on this ideology of “God’s Plan” in the face of suffering. In the last few months especially, I’ve found several resources incredibly helpful in reshaping my own understanding of loss.

The first is Jessica Kelley’s book, Lord Willing? Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death, which has transformed both my understanding of God’s role in suffering and has given me new language to use in thinking about suffering. Kelley’s book is emotionally challenging, and I cried through much of it, especially in the detailed story of her son’s death at age four from aggressive cancer. Kelley deconstructs what she calls the Christian “blueprint worldview,” which says that her son’s death was part of God’s great plan, or that God allowed her son to die so that we might see God’s glory. She also challenges the idea that God used Henry’s death for educative purposes. Who needed a lesson, she asks: a four-year-old boy who underwent immense pain? Parents who were trying to live a righteous life? Kelley’s book offers a different understanding of God, one that posits a God whose very essence is love, and who cries alongside us when we suffer. (Last spring, I wrote a more complete review of the book here, for Mennonite World Review; you can find more of Kelley’s story here.)

Several recent posts by Benjamin Corey at his Patheos blog have echoed what Kelley posits in Lord Willing? Writing about his family’s heartbreaking adoption loss, Corey shares his deep grief and his acknowledgment that sometimes, shitty stuff happens, and not because God plans it to. In a subsequent post, titled “If God’s the Cause of Our Suffering, He’s Kinda a Jerk (Just Sayin’),” Corey outlines an understanding of God and suffering that is similar to Kelley’s: If God’s very essence is love and goodness, as the Bible tells us, then God will not cause us to suffer; if God allows suffering to happen so that we can learn something, God is perpetuating evil, and that is against God’s essence.

At the church I attend, Newberg Friends, our pastor Gregg Koskela has been doing a sermon series on suffering. You can read the transcripts here, on Gregg’s blog. Though we are only two sermons into the series, I already appreciate so much Gregg’s ability to acknowledge the problematic nature of a theology that says if we do everything good and right, God rewards us and we will live happily ever after; if we stumble, God will teach us a lesson and bad stuff will happen. I’ve lived under the weight of that theology for my entire adult life, certain that if I fail as a believer, God will smack me down. Gregg reminds us that God doesn’t operate that way, but that God promises to walk with us, even through darkness, especially through darkness. Often, God works through the love, comfort, and presence of others, holding space with us through suffering.

One important point these writers and thinkers make again and again is that, when we experience great loss, God is with us, mourning as we mourn. Because God’s essence is love and goodness, we are also called to bring love and goodness to the world. If we believe in a deity that allows suffering, or who hopes to teach us through suffering, we are stripped of our agency. In what Kelley calls a “warfare worldview,” though, God longs for us to fight for good alongside God.

Although it’s easy to be paralyzed by the suffering of others, or of ourselves, we are called to work with God to fight evil with love and goodness. One of my dearest friends is bearing witness to this idea as her father faces complications from ALS, a debilitating and terminal illness. Two years ago she couldn’t have imagined doing the “ice bucket challenge” to raise money for ALS research; this year, she is actively advocating to fund research that might someday lead to a cure. You can read more of her family’s story(and contribute to an ALS fundraising walk, if you are willing) here.

I am confident that God is walking alongside this beautiful family, and I have learned a lot from them about grace, mercy, patience, and love; but God did not cause their suffering, nor did God allow an ALS diagnosis to happen for God’s glorification or to teach anyone a lesson. That kind of theology sucks, as does that kind of God. Of this, at least, I am certain.