Making Pathways for Women in the Church

I grew up in an evangelical denomination that limited its female members to a narrow list of roles in congregational life. Women could run the community preschool, oversee and teach Sunday school, VBS and Awana, and organize potlucks and special events. Don’t get me wrong, these are all important ways to serve, but when I left for college and joined a different denomination, I began to see my heritage through a different lens. I wondered, were these few roles fulfilling to all women? Was every woman able to use her spiritual gifts? (And for that matter, was anyone encouraging the women to discover and use their spiritual gifts?) How many of the women realized that their gifts were better suited to roles other than the nurturing and teaching of children or event planning? And how did those women handle the tension between their gifts and the roles they were allowed to fill?

During the 9 to 5, the women I looked up to were nurses, bank VPs, teachers, attorneys, artists, sales reps and accountants. They were devoted followers of Christ, competent and respected leaders in the community and corporate world, educated, well-spoken, talented and creative, yet at church they were not permitted to lead any part of the worship service, serve communion, usher, receive the tithes and offerings or speak in any way from the stage or pulpit. The only exception was during our biannual missionary week when one of our many female missionaries would testify from the pulpit about the ministry she was doing abroad. No one ever spoke about the great contradiction we embodied by commissioning women missionaries to lead abroad even as we limited the mission of the women in our local churches.

The truth is that God calls women to a wide array of roles in the church and the world, roles that include, but are not limited to, the teaching of children and fellowship ministries. Many of us can testify that the Spirit has sent gifted women to competently and wisely lead our churches. And few of us would dispute that all Christians are equally charged to carry out the great commission. While not all women will be called to be pastors, every woman in our churches should regularly hear of her worth as a child of God and disciple of Christ. I believe that it’s the responsibility of pastors, elders and lay-leaders to ensure that the women and girls in our congregations are seen, valued and heard, nurtured in their gifts and call, and given opportunities to serve among us as their gifts direct – all to the glory of God. To our detriment, this does not always happen in our churches.

If you are looking for ways to encourage and better integrate women in the life and leadership of your congregation, here’s a shortlist of ideas.

  1. Connect to the heritage of women – You’ll only value the gifts of women more when you tap into the rich history of our contributions to the life of the church. Check out any number of church history books, but especially those from your own tradition that catalog prominent women in your history. In the ECC, we have this great book called The Unfolding Mystery of Yes: Women Who Were Forces for Change from www.covbooks.com. I’ve used many of these inspiring biographies as sermon illustrations and to frame meetings and events.
  2. Make women visible to your congregation – Sometimes a girl’s vision for her future is limited by what she sees. Churches can make a big impact on the lives of women by making sure the contribution of women is visible and affirmed. Did a woman do something significant behind the scenes? Thank her from the pulpit. During your services, invite women to share their testimonies, read the weekly scripture, lead communion or prayer, or give the benediction.
  3. Create mentorship pathways for girls and young women in your congregation – I’ve noticed that mentoring happens more naturally for males in the church because so many youth pastors and youth leaders are male. We must be intentional and strategic about coming alongside our girls and young women.  How can we nurture their faith and help them discern their spiritual gifts and their unique call to live out the great commission? Whatever your discipleship strategy or system, there’s a vast amount of research and history that tells us that women grow best in relationship.
  4. Diversify your staff – For many churches, staff is one man or a group of men. Both your staff and your congregation would be enriched if you added a woman to your staff. If you anticipate a staff opening, expansion or reorganization, why not pursue one of the many gifted, competent, experienced and educated women clergy actively seeking positions in your denomination?
  5. Ask a woman to fill your pulpit – Every pastor takes the occasional vacation and needs someone to preach in their absence. Recruit a gifted lay-woman from your congregation, a female colleague, or a woman pastor from a neighboring church. My denomination provides a list of women available for pulpit supply: http://www.covchurch.org/resources/bge-preaching-list/. If your denomination doesn’t, maybe you can get one started!
  6. Supervise your staff consistently – As an advocate for women clergy, I hear many stories of struggle from my sisters. I know of churches that pay their male and female pastors differently even when responsibilities, education, experience level and hours are equal. Some male senior pastors weekly meet one on one with their male staff, but inconsistently meet with their female staff. I’ve had male supervisors call me “sweetie” while they addressed my male colleagues by their names or by “pastor.” While you may believe that women and men are equally called and gifted as pastors, you should also treat us as equals and as professionals. There may be ways in which bias has leaked into your practice as a supervisor. Noticing inconsistent habits is an important step in living and leading justly.

I’m sure there are many more ways to encourage and empower the women in our churches. I look forward to seeing your suggestions in the comments section!

Why I’m Getting Ordained

ordination 1

Next Saturday I will be Ordained to Word and Sacrament by the Evangelical Covenant Church. This is an event for which I’ve hoped, worked, prayed and prepared for years. As I’ve shared my news with family and friends, a few have asked why a pastor needs to be ordained and why I am choosing to do so. These are good questions and I want to write my answers here so that you may understand why this is so important to me.

While many pastors talk about ordination as the natural result of spiritual gifting and call, I think that identity – one’s personal story and its intersection with God’s story – is fundamental to the journey toward ordination. So here are some snapshots of my story.

I was raised by two parents who had such genuine love of God that it naturally flowed into our family life. God’s love was clearly explained to me. I was taught about the love and sacrifice of Jesus each week – and I cherished those lessons – but there was a sense in which I didn’t need to be taught. I already knew. As my friend Meg likes to say, I knew in my knower. I knew that God was real, that God loved me and that my life was, and would always be, full of meaning and purpose. At a very young age I felt what I can only call the joy of the Lord. I wouldn’t have said that exactly at age five, but I knew it deep within. I always felt like my joy would someday burst through my chest like rays of sunshine break through clouds.

Things were not always so light for me. From sixth through eighth grade, I was abused by a group of boys at school. I don’t share the details of those experiences with many because some have minimized what happened to me and that is almost as painful as the abuse itself. I’ll simply say that what I experienced those three years had a profound impact on my soul. I constantly received mixed messages about my worth. Filtering for the truth and battling the lies left me emotionally exhausted. Loneliness became a physical force leeching much of the joy out of me. I withdrew socially, read a ton of books and hid my pain from everyone, even my family. But late at night in the quiet of my bedroom I would pour out my fear, my pain and my desperation to God.

God was there with me. He met me in the pages of the Psalms where ancient people cried out against things that should not be. God sat with me in the dirt at the foot of the cross. God heard me and saw me when I felt like no one else did. God was with me every day doling out love and compassion and strength and by this grace, I got through and gradually healed.

A few years ago I worked with a counselor who asked if I had an image that would represent my life for those years. Quickly, I pictured myself surrounded by huge piles of manure taller than any man and so stinky it would make you retch. But here’s the thing I’ve learned about manure – it’s the best fertilizer around. During my years of pain and loneliness, a tremendous root system of compassion was developing in me and God would use that for good.

Flash forward to my junior year of college when I served as a resident assistant, or RA, in my dorm. Being a RA is like being a peer mentor. You plan events and build relationships and try to set a good example for others. There were 24 women on my floor. They were fun, creative, talented women but within two months I discovered profound suffering among them. They smiled through their days and pushed themselves toward academic excellence but behind closed doors they were falling apart. One woman attempted suicide and was hospitalized several times, only to check herself out and return to campus and class as though nothing was wrong. Another woman collapsed in the shower and was too exhausted to get up. Three others had to carry her to her bed but she refused to seek help. I found out that she was starving herself but running many miles every morning. Clinical depression, drug and alcohol abuse, abusive relationships, eating disorders, sexual promiscuity – these women were suffocating from brokenness. Standing in the middle of this cloud of emotional debris, wide-eyed and overwhelmed, God said to me –

Corrie, this is what I have for you. Care for them.

God’s call on my life was like a lightning bolt at midnight. It was suddenly clear; I knew it in my knower. And I panicked. At that point I was still mostly in denial of my past pain, so I thought I was inadequate to the task. Who was I to step in? What did I know about suffering? But God’s call was clear and I knew it would be scariest but best to obey, so I jumped in the muck with both feet. I sat with woman after woman and listened to her story. I offered the simplest of things – a silent, (outwardly) calm presence and words of support. There was no judgment, no trite sayings stretched from scripture, no platitudes, no easy answers. I was very clear about not having many, if any, answers, but I did have a ton of love to offer. That year I tapped into that deep root system of compassion God had grown in me. I also understood that this call to care for the suffering was not temporary; it was God’s call for my entire life, as well as my call to professional ministry.

So I went on to pursue a Master of Divinity, gained mentored ministry experience and have expanded my skills and knowledge on a wide range of pastoral care topics. Over the past 14 years I’ve seen God do some pretty incredible stuff. God brought me to several people at just the right time so I could intervene and prevent suicide. God brings to me despairing people, desperate people, and those who are in so much pain they can’t even think straight. I don’t heal them – I can’t – but for many I am the first person who takes the time to listen well, to see them, to hear their pain, and to help them find a way back from the darkest places. It doesn’t seem to matter what my title or job description is; this is always the substance of my ministry.

So how does this story lead to ordination? Certainly I don’t need to be ordained or even have the title pastor to live out this calling. But here’s what clinches it for me. Here’s why I’ve spent thousands of dollars over the past four years and why I’m flying thousands of miles from Hawaii to Chicago next week to speak the ordination vows – the church is a pain machine.

Churches cause pain in their communities and across the globe through action and inaction. Pastors disappoint their parishioners and parishioners lash out at their pastors. Zealousness for truth or “right” theology has made us rigid and callous and we ostracize the people who so desperately need the good news that Jesus called us to proclaim. Sure, we Christians do a lot of important work in the world – we plant urban gardens, rescue women and children from sexual slavery, develop clean water projects, run soup kitchens and thrift stores – but even as we dig into these good works we aren’t loving or caring for each other well.

The church is busy denying abuse and protecting abusers. Christians are in pain but we aren’t mature or courageous enough to lovingly confront the person or persons who hurt us. We’re fighting theology and worship wars and our main opponents are people within the church, our spiritual sisters and brothers! We’re letting bitterness cement walls between us. And even as we are embroiled in all of this terrible infighting, we scratch our heads and wonder why the church is shrinking in North America, why most denominations are splitting or dying, and why we’re accused of being hypocrites by those outside our walls. When I look around, I see a church that has sacrificed the greatest commandment for the great commission.

The church has a wellness problem. Our attempts at loving neighbor and self are diseased and dysfunctional at best. This is where I hope to intervene as both a person and a pastor. Because of my experiences of pain, because I experienced God’s love and healing through the church and because, though imperfect, the church still expands my love for God, I won’t give up on the church. Instead, I’m choosing to take vows to lead and serve it well.

The church needs all kinds of pastors. I want to be the kind of pastor who tries to right the balance between our expression of the greatest commandment and the great commission. I absolutely want churches and Christians to be biblically literate and intentionally missional in their communities, but first I really, really want them to know God’s love intimately – a love that shatters abuse, overcomes shame, and brings joy to the frayed human spirit. I want churches and Christians to feed and hydrate themselves with this love until it heals and matures us to the point that we can wisely and widely extend love and shalom to our neighbors. I want the church to be known as a healing machine rather than a pain machine. I want the church to be praised as a place for grace seekers and grace givers, a safe place for the suffering to gather and find rest and renewal. I want the church to be a place that values emotional maturity as much as (but preferably more than) it does attendance numbers, small groups programming and pleasing music.

This is what I’m about as a person and it is what I hope for the church as a pastor. Next Saturday, along with 66 other women and men, I will take a series of vows and commit my life to the service and leadership of the church. I don’t know how most pastors feel as they approach their ordination day. I am humbled by the honor and responsibility it is to be called and gifted to lead the church. I feel both inadequate and empowered. After all, I’m just me, a woman with a story. A woman who loves God and cares for the church and thinks the world desperately needs the hope we can give. A woman who knows that I can only be a pastor through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I’m also a woman who knows that the support of family, friends, churches and even a denomination will be vital to my health and longevity as a pastor. So I ask you to pray for me this week just as you would for a loved one approaching her wedding day. In the days and years to come I will need your affirmation and accountability like I need food and water.

My sincere thanks to each of you who have shepherded me to this day – to El Roi, the God who sees, to my parents and extended family, my mentors, professors, pastors, counselors, confidantes, elders, and especially my soul-sisters – you know who you are.

Life without a Bow

Every life is a story. In the weeks since I announced my new job and my rapidly approaching move to Hawaii countless people have dreamed up epilogues for the next chapter of my life. Many believe this temporary position will somehow become permanent. Others predict that I won’t come back, that another job on the island will line itself up as this one concludes. One man thinks God may be calling me to plant a church on the islands. But the most common epilogue is a romance with a Hawaiian man which will be followed by marriage and cute Hawaiian babies. As I listen to person after person predict what will happen next, I fill with mixed emotions. On one hand, I’ve got a lot of grace; clearly I am well loved and people are excited for me. Meanwhile, the jaded side of me thinks – get real people, this is my life, not a novel!

bow box

Maxine, my creative writing professor in grad school, encouraged us students to resist tying up our pieces in a bow. Using countless examples, she showed us that often the most compelling stories don’t have anything close to fairy tale endings. Yes, great stories always have conflicts that need resolution, but often the conclusions of these stories are messy. Not every tale gets straightened out and wrapped up by the final page. And not every story needs a fairy tale ending – the unexpected return of a hero, rags to riches, marriage and babies – to be great. Sometimes a few tangles and lingering questions make the best ending because real life is messy.

After four years of relentless job searching, the stress of underemployment and an income too small to warrant a budget, the certainty of six months of full-time employment is epilogue enough for me. I’m luxuriating in the freedom from having to look for work for a few months. I get time to reconnect with some dear friends and to make new ones. And let’s be real, the fact that I get to live in Hawaii is a big, shiny bow. God has provided respite. I’m relieved and elated and ready to play in the ocean. I feel satisfied and more whole and hopeful than I have felt in years. So why does everyone else feel compelled to write an epilogue and turn my life into a fairy tale? People are speaking over my life like Simeon prophesied over baby Jesus. But if six months in Hawaii is enough for me, why is it not enough for others? And when I sit back and reflect on this epilogue phenomenon there is one, overarching theme – more. Everyone wants to know more and for me to get more. It’s like there has to be something even better than this.

I’ve learned many valuable lessons over the last four years. To me, the difference between need and want is now as glaring as a glass of water sitting next to a peanut butter milkshake. I know how to stretch money through lean times. Thanks to some early system failures, I’m better able to pace myself emotionally and spiritually in the midst of trial. As I shed some nasty layers off my sense of entitlement, I bulked up with perseverance. Simple nourishment, slowing down, shedding excess: these are the survival skills I learned in the spiritual desert. God wanted me to know that discipleship is about holding on to essentials.

It’s about less, not more.

Trust over certainty.

Waiting rather than self-indulgence.

These are the complexities that make up the Christian life. They are, in and of themselves, both conflict and resolution enough for any story, any life. And here is the most important lesson I’ve learned – the grandest exchange between a human being and God is love expressed through faithfulness.

The most compelling story my life can tell is one of daily faithfulness to God. I’m not talking about big gestures but simple things – apologizing when I speak unkindly to someone I love, extending warmth and welcome to strangers, nurturing friendships, keeping an eye out for others who are struggling, and offering help where I am able.

There has never been a time in my life when God was not faithful to me but his faithfulness has not always meant the provision of things I thought I needed. As days of struggle stretched into weeks, months and years, God’s faithfulness was to abide with me, to console and comfort me, and to give me hope that I could live today and today and today with purpose.

I’ve told many people that my job these last four years has not been to get a job. I discovered that my job is to be faithful. If I can wake up today and invite God in to the rain or shine of my day and make it to evening having loved God, others and myself with any sincerity, then this is a good day, a great story, and a true comedy. This is life without a fairy tale ending or a big crimson bow and it is enough.

 

Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; abide in my love. John 15:9

GrapeVines-72Res

Lent 2014: The Fiction Fast

I do strange things for Lent. The first time I observed Lent I was 24 and an earnest seminarian. I decided to fast from exaggeration and sarcasm. Yes, you read that correctly. If you know me, you realize the irony – I speak fluent Sarcasm. Hyperbole is part of my charm. My friend Courtney, a Presbyterian minister and a veteran practitioner of Lent, questioned if this would be too much for my first time. I thought and prayed about it but I was resolved. I’d always liked a challenge. Plus I’d recently been convicted by a sermon on Matthew 5:33-37. I was all in.

My first Lent was a sometimes funny, always challenging experiment. I found myself offering the world more pauses, lots of apologies and much shorter stories. All of the new empty moments in my life created space for more introspection. I thought a lot about truth, chaffed against a deep-seated insecurity to be heard, learned about the risks white lies and half-truths pose to my soul and my relationships, and through it all I grew closer to Jesus, which for me, is the whole point.

It’s uncommon for Evangelicals to anchor themselves to the church calendar. I imagine there is a modest group of us who do extra devotional reading between Ash Wednesday and Easter but only a small subset who participate in Lent by fasting. Few of my fellow Evangelicals seem to understand why I observe Lent by fasting. Even my formerly Catholic sister-in-law is curious and confused by my practice. Sometimes I’m not even quite sure why I do this. Maybe it’s the artist in me craving sacred time when I can imaginatively enter into the life of Christ.

Every year I get to choose whether I observe Lent. I don’t have to do this. No one expects me to fast and certainly no one is judging me if I don’t. This is something I do for myself, for freedom. My attitude going in is always a strange blend of eagerness, seriousness and curiosity, with a shot of playfulness. Lent is a truly mystical choice in our get-the-next-best-thing-because-you-can culture. For me it’s 40 days when I willingly sacrifice something of my life, something I love or need, or think I need, because Jesus spent some time in the desert without a survival pack and without attempting to escape what was surely desolate.

The most unleashed thing about a Lenten fast is that there is no clear goal. There’s not a single anticipated outcome that I can project with any certainty. It’s just me creating space with the hope that this sacrifice will make me more attentive to Jesus. I think of it like a sugar detox. Once your body is stripped of artificial and added sugars, the flavors in natural foods begin to zip and zing along your taste buds like Pop Rocks. So I guess I could call Lent my “Quest for the Organic Jesus.”

book-stack

This year I fasted from fiction. Before you roll your eyes and think this lacked bite, know that I read several hours a day – probably the equivalent of time you spend watching TV– often finishing several books a week. Stories are like food to me; they feed my spirit and soak my always-thirsty imagination. I confess – non-fiction puts me to sleep faster than Ambien would crushed in warm milk. I’ll take David Baldacci over C.S. Lewis any day. (I know, I know. Please don’t judge.) Fiction captures me. It takes me on adventures, welcomes me into foreign cultures and families and then confronts me with new questions and challenges. In some ways, reading fiction has better prepared me to be a thoughtful pastor than most theology books and seminary classes ever did. Fiction lets me engage deeply in others’ stories without worrying about myself – what to do with my hands, what my face should conceal or reveal, and when to speak or keep quiet. Each book is someone else’s world, a life unlike my own. The more foreign the story, the more I can learn, particularly how to have compassion for a life so different from my own and how to welcome a stranger. I owe so much of my ability to love the world’s outcasts and the suffering because books have opened my eyes to complexities in the human experience that I didn’t know existed.

So now you see that my fiction fast of 2014 wasn’t just a trifle. It opened up hours of time in each day, some of which I intentionally replaced with gospel reading. Like those magnifying vanity mirrors that allow us to zero in on wrinkles and stray hairs, my fast revealed some major flaws in my spiritual life. For most of the 40 days, my yearning to read fiction dwarfed my yearning to read the Bible. That was intensely humbling, especially as a pastor. Many prayers spun out from there. I also grappled with the fact that too often my reading becomes a buffer from allowing myself to feel, to process my feelings and to pour out my day before God.

Ministry, like life, is not something we pastors can control. Because our work centers around people and their connection to God and to others, what is a smoking ember on Monday can cause a blazing firestorm on Tuesday – all it takes is a little wind. During Lent this year life gusted and ministry blazed. Miscarriages, crumbling marriages, career disappointments, painful perseverance, major life changes: all of this was swirling around me and within me. And each night as I retreated to the quiet of my bedroom, when I would normally pick up a book and dive into a fictional life, the silence and my empty hands stripped away my buffer. I catalogued my cares and fears before God and I cried enough tears to turn any book into slimy paper mache. And every time, I felt better. More connected to God. Heard and loved. Companioned by a Savior who endured much more than 40 days in a desert. A Savior who knew solitude and hunger, and who understood the need to stay connected to the Creator of all good things. Those tears and those prayers cleansed me and prepared me for another day.

This is what I learned by fasting from fiction – even the things we enjoy, things that are not inherently harmful, can become liabilities to our spiritual lives. We can lose ourselves in the things we love. If mismanaged, our hobbies can diminish our vital connection to God. Even healthy habits can become a buffer, an escape, a way to hide from God, ourselves and the world. I suspect that we are all masters at twisting good, happy, fun and fruitful things into barriers, numbing agents and knots. I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to love myself better than this. I want my relationship with God to thrive in and for itself, but also so compassion and mercy can continue to flow in my ministry.

Lent 2014 – I gave up fiction. I wept with Jesus. God restored me. I’m ready for more. More life and more ministry. And yes, more fiction. I’m reading again, but I hope with greater maturity, using fiction as a tool for fun and relaxation and not a buffer against my life, my feelings and my God.

A Holy Week

On Palm Sunday I preached the good news about God’s unexpected salvation – salvation from sin, salvation for all, and salvation from circumstances. I said this –

If God’s power can conquer sin and death, then he can certainly free us from everything that enslaves us. He can remove every roadblock and work miracles through our limitations. But often God doesn’t intercede the way we expect…

Friends, too often we make ourselves prisoners of hope, looking for salvation from circumstances to come in a particular package or follow a particular pattern. As greatly as God loves you, he wants to set you free! But are you coming to God with clenched fists, holding tightly to your expected outcomes? What if God knows that there is something better, something you need more than what you are asking for?

My last blog post was a raw expulsion of feeling. I compared myself to an unraveling sweater. I had reached a breaking point emotionally, spiritually and physically. I could not think of another month of job searching without crying.

What a difference a week makes.

Within days of writing Unraveling Sweater, good news rolled into my life like a 4th of July parade. My father, who was laid off a year ago, received a wonderful job offer. Beginning May 1st he will raise money for a non-profit that serves some of the poorest children in Phoenix. God heard our prayers and came to save.

A few days later I received a job offer of my own. From June thru December I will be serving as a chaplain at the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii. I will lead chapels for students from Kindergarten through 5th grade and offer pastoral care and counseling to students and their families. Though I love spending time with children and prize my role as aunt as much as I do my role as pastor, I’ve never imagined myself working with kids. Clearly God had other ideas. He heard my cries and he came to save.

After 4 years relentlessly pursuing a full-time job, this new opportunity feels like a Jubilee, a real trumpet-blast of liberation. I will have a new challenge to feed my brain and an island getaway free from job-searching to feed my soul. I’m embracing my own lesson. God has given me unexpected salvation, a gift in an unusual package, but I’m welcoming it with joy and anticipation.

The desert has been a significant metaphor for my inner life and experiences the past four years that I’ve lived in Phoenix. It’s not lost on me that I’m moving from the desert to what many people consider paradise on earth. Most people only dream of places like Hawaii and only a privileged few vacation there. I will soon live and work there. I will leave behind the dry, dusty, marrow-sucking heat of the desert for the lush greens, fragrant blooms and warm breezes of a tropical island. I can’t find adequate words to describe my sense of gratitude to God and the renewal of hope that is happening in my spirit.

And in the middle of all of this good news, pain and loss continue to shade my life. A friend is experiencing the miscarriage of her first baby. Another is newly devastated by infidelity. Two others have said their final goodbyes, one to a mother, the other to a sister. A homebound widow begs for a visit and prayers – her roommate returned to a life of addiction and is now hospitalized after attempting suicide. People I love are hurting and so even as I rejoice, I shout – Hosanna! Save, now! Save, I pray!

This has been a holy week. A week of contrasts inhabiting the same moment. I rejoice in my circumstances even as I weep with others. Hope sprouts with new dreams for my future while circumstances crush the spirit of those around me. Joy mixes with sorrow and makes its own kind of liturgy.

As a Christian, Holy Week is the strangest week we live. We do our best to step into time with Jesus, to participate in the iconic moments of his last days. On Sunday we celebrate his arrival as king. He’s come to do his most sacred work, to redeem God’s people and take the throne. We dazzle and sometimes disturb visitors to our churches with waving palm branches, cute children’s plays and shouts of hosanna. By Friday everything has changed. We have lost our joy. We are full of confusion, pain and fear. We turn down the volume and the lights and soak in the fact that our savior has been betrayed, arrested, tortured, humiliated and nailed to a cross. On Saturday we weep. Some give up and walk away. In all of us there is an inner stillness; we’re waiting for something, but we don’t know what. And then it’s Sunday again and we experience the deepest possible joy as Jesus appears before us alive and victorious!

It’s a week full of contrasts that inhabit the same moment. Light and darkness. Life and death. Waiting, seeking and finding. Unprecedented despair followed by unparalleled rejoicing. Holy Week is the pattern of life, at least for now. And it’s only the knowledge that painful things lead to unexpectedly good things, that keeps me living.

Scripture Most Evangelicals Don’t Believe

“The board could not reach unity about hiring a single woman to do family ministries.” This sentence was the culmination of a five month interview process with a church. The main components of the position I applied for were adult spiritual formation and pastoral care to families. The search team spoke at length with six of my references to hear stories of my ministry and they grilled me with tough questions for hours. They unanimously recommended me to their board as the candidate called to this position. And then, in a completely unexpected turn of events (for the search team, pastor and me), the elder board rejected their recommendation. The pastor had the unfortunate burden of calling to tell me why I would not be called to serve their church. He told me that, for the elders, it wasn’t so much that I am a woman as it was the fact that I am single.

None of the board members met or interviewed me. Their decision was not based on the Lord’s presence in my life, the fruit of my ministry, my character or my professional qualifications, though I am sure the search team and the pastor gave witness to all of these. They based their decision, it seems, on the belief that there is an incompatibility between the role of pastor and singleness.

This decision reveals an implicit bias widely ingrained in the evangelical community – that being married is best. I believe that because Paul uses a marriage metaphor in an attempt to describe the depth of Christ’s love for the church (see Ephesians 5:21-33; 2 Corinthians 11:1-3), and because as we interpret and apply scripture we have not understood that there are limits to metaphor, we evangelicals have allowed the Christ/Church marriage metaphor to transform our understanding of human marriage into the quintessential symbol of relational health, wholeness and joy.

The belief in the greatness of marriage has so saturated evangelical culture that our beliefs about singleness are shaped almost entirely by default. Because we see marriage as such a beautiful and whole expression of love, singleness has becomes a less-than, not-to-be-envied, even suspect, way of living. This bias reveals itself every time I visit a new church or meet a new group of believers who, when they discover that I am single, start telling me about their unmarried friends, brothers, cousins and coworkers like eager sales associates for eHarmony. It waves its banner annually when our pastors preach a multi-week sermon series promoting healthy marriage while offering (maybe) one sermon or a two-minute aside about living faithfully in singleness. (This trend is even more problematic when we consider the reality that, according to the 2012 census, singles make up 47% of the adult population in the United States.) We see the slimy underbelly of the evangelical bias toward marriage when believers speculate together about the sexual orientation of friends and family who remain single in their late twenties and thirties and beyond. (Is there a more unchristian practice than this?) And it is our unchecked, unbalanced bias toward marriage that leads even our elders to believe that single people and childless people cannot empathize with and minister to couples and parents.

I can’t help but notice that all of these beliefs and assumptions about marriage and singleness exist in riotous tension with another of Paul’s letters. In my opinion, 1 Corinthians 7 is perhaps the single-most ignored, if not disbelieved, passage of scripture by evangelicals today. I encourage you to grab your Bible and take an hour to listen to, pray through and study this passage, but for the sake of our current topic, I’ll quote only highlights:

7I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 8Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do…17Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them…25Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.32I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.39A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

Paul talks about singleness and marriage in a balanced way, not denigrating either lifestyle, calling them both gifts from God. How many evangelicals do you know, married or single, who really view singleness as a gift?

It doesn’t take an exegetical contortionist to pick up on Paul’s inclination toward singleness. He actually recommends that believers remain unmarried because it allows them to focus solely on pleasing the Lord. He says, “it is good” or kalos to remain unmarried. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says that kalos was a word “applied by the Greeks to everything so distinguished in form, excellence, goodness, usefulness, as to be pleasing; hence [to be kalos was to be] beautiful, excellent, eminent, choice, surpassing, precious…”

What I love so much about this passage is that it reminds us that to marry or to remain single is a choice, and to choose to remain single is a beautiful, admirable thing. By Paul’s testimony, those of us who are unmarried have the advantage of space within our hearts and lives to devote ourselves first and foremost to Christ. The word devoted (verse 34) can be literally translated “sitting constantly by.” What a beautiful image, that being single allows us to sit constantly by Jesus. What a wonderful, perhaps even ideal, context in which to minister to the church.

I know many naysayers would ask me how I reconcile this with Paul’s teaching about overseers in 1 Timothy 3 –“the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife…he must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him…” People often read this passage as a job description for pastors and consequently believe that overseers must be men who are married and have children. I believe that Paul writes descriptively from within the culture and context of the early church, not to indicate that he sees gender, marital status and parenthood as prescribed conditions every potential overseer must meet. It seems that the main point of Paul’s instructions to Timothy is that overseers must be people of integrity and proven character. If marital status and parenthood were ‘must haves’ in leading the church, then Paul himself would not have been respected by the early church as the wise apostle and advisor that he was.

A woman recently asked me to be her mentor. She is older than I am, married and has a child. Her husband asked her why she would approach me when I am not married. She told him that she chose me because I am wise. She believes I can help her unpack the message of scripture and help her weave it into her daily life. With a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit, I can and will.

Every day I minister to men, to married people and to parents. Our congregants respect me and seek me out for counsel not because I share the same life experiences they do (in most cases I don’t); they seek me out because they have seen consistent evidence of my character, they know my devotion to God and his Word, and they have seen me live what I preach. Bottom line – they trust me – not because of my age, gender, marital status or how many child I have or have not birthed, but because I am a faithful servant of our God.

Singleness is a good gift from God. It is a way of life that should be respected in the church, if nowhere else. It could be approached as a significant life choice to be prayerfully discerned by young adults and by those following a call to ministry. How many evangelicals believe this? How many single Christians believe this? Unfortunately, we seem to have shaped our regard for marriage and singleness based on cultural influences and our personal experiences rather than the teaching of scripture.

It’s Valentine’s Day, church. I want you to hear and believe this message, as I do: there is nothing deficient in me or my ministry because I am single. With God’s strength, mercy and love, I can do all things. I cheerfully celebrate Valentines Day and every day because I am fearfully and wonderfully made by a God whose love for me is whole and fulfilling. I wholeheartedly support and work for healthy marriages and families. Would you do the same for me in my singleness?

Barrenness and the Birth of Hope

The third gospel begins with the story of a barren woman. When you take a moment to think about that, it’s pretty shocking.

Two thousand years ago a man named Luke wrote down an eyewitness account about a man named Jesus and then gave it to a man named Theophilus. A story about a man, from a man, to a man – It’s surprising that such a narrative would begin with the story of a woman, and a barren one at that!

Luke determined to “investigate everything from the beginning” and to write “an orderly account” for his friend Theo (Luke 1:3). He knew Jesus was the greatest man to ever live, and not just a man, the Son of Man, which meant GOD. So why didn’t Luke start his gospel with a dramatic Jesus-as-God moment like Jesus’ baptism or one of his miracles? Why begin with a woman? And what exactly are we supposed to learn about Jesus from a barren woman?

In those days, I’m sure a woman’s reproductive status was something everyone knew about (since pregnancy is a three-dimensional experience and you can’t hide resulting children), everyone thought about (because children, especially male children, meant an apprentice for your trade, security in your old age and continued heritage for your family name), but few spoke of. Talk of reproduction was probably reserved for the company of women. But Luke wanted an orderly account of Jesus’ life and that orderly account, in his opinion, had to start with a barren woman named Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and her husband were not people to sneeze at. They were both descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses and a great leader of Israel in his own right. Zechariah was a priest, a highly esteemed position among their people which came with a stable, life-long income. Though born into privilege, Elizabeth and Zechariah didn’t just coast on their good fortune, they lived with integrity. They were “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (1:5). Everything sounds great for Elizabeth and Zechariah until Luke begins a sentence with the word but.

“But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (v 7)

Three bald clauses equal one devastating reality that shredded the couple’s contentment. Elizabeth was barren. So they had no children. And their happiness was incomplete.

woman alone in the desert

Who can translate “well along in years” to an age? Was Elizabeth 35, the maternal age at which, today, we consider pregnancies high risk? Was she 45 and skirting close menopause? And Zechariah, who may have been a decade or more older than his wife, was he concerned about decreasing virility? Our curiosity about numbers and conditions doesn’t really matter. Luke simply indicates that the couple was old enough to know that their chances of conceiving were as miniscule as a mustard seed.

It is a beautiful and profound privilege to be life-bearers. But then, how utterly painful to have the womb and the cycle and the spouse – and the yearning – only to have your body wash away all that potential life each month. For years, Elizabeth and Zechariah lived, and Elizabeth embodied, this tension. Like discordant notes buzzing, knowing they needed only a slight tweak to create a beautiful harmony, Elizabeth and Zechariah wanted and waited.

But here is the thing about this couple, which to me seems both wild and wonderful: despite all the years of riding the reproductive seesaw, despite the pain, disappointment and exhaustion they must have felt, Elizabeth and Zechariah kept asking God for a child. This is hope, and in my opinion a rather robust version of it – despite overwhelmingly improbable odds, they looked to God and continued believing that life could come to them.

Where do people get such inner resources? Surely Elizabeth’s faith was a deep well, drained by disappointments, but always having enough water to scoop up and drink. Maybe she was able to temporarily quench her soul-thirst for a baby by pondering the story of her ancestor Sarah, another barren women who, in her old age, became both the mother of Isaac and the mother of nations (Genesis 17:16).

If this hope for life was about righteousness then Sarah, who deceived kings and doubted God, should have remained childless and Elizabeth, who stood tall and blameless before God, should have had a pack of little priests following after her by the time Luke writes. Reading the story closely, I see no indications that Elizabeth felt entitled to a baby because of her lineage, her advantageous marriage or her blameless life. She didn’t do any bargaining with God or rage at him in her long disappointment. The way Luke tells the story, Elizabeth simply waits, quietly buzzing with hope, believing life can begin in her.

This kind of hope is marvelous to me, and by that I mean, I marvel. I read about Elizabeth and admire her but I struggle to identify with her deep yearning for a baby. If you know me, you know that I love children, but I seem to be missing the female gene that makes you want to get pregnant and birth a child. If I were like Elizabeth and faced the same challenges, would I be strong enough or faithful enough to live like Elizabeth, to embody and abide with such an improbable hope?

As a hospital chaplain, I once worked in antepartum, the unit that is home for women with high-risk pregnancies. Most of our patients spent weeks, if not months, nesting on their plastic-covered hospital mattresses, slowly transforming the bland walls of their rooms into bright collages of family photos, crayon drawings from expectant cousins, amateur but heartfelt poetry and handwritten prayers. It seemed that our patients all followed an unspoken ritual passed down from the mothers who had come before them – if they surrounded themselves with a still-life of smiling faces, loving words and colorful doodles, they would somehow knit their wombs into plush receiving blankets and their babies would arrive safely. The place was equal parts wishes and fear, friendly yet hushed, scented with Elmer’s glue and tears.

That’s where I met Kelly. She and I were the same age but she married young. For the past eleven years Kelly and her husband had been trying to have a baby. By the time I met her, she was in the very early days of her ninth pregnancy. She’d had something like five miscarriages and three stillbirths. They’d done every fertility test, procedure and drug available. IVF failed. Donor eggs failed. Though there were no diagnosable issues, Kelly was told her womb was a hostile environment. The most recent squeeze of fate? The couple who contracted to be their surrogates accidentally got pregnant with their fifth child a month before the scheduled implantation.

For over an hour Kelly told me about the breathless babies she got to hold, only to carry to the cemetery. She chronicled her grief by making a full chapter of each miscarriage and lost opportunity. It was a stunning story, so painful that it almost felt exaggerated, like a made-for-TV movie that is “based on a true story” but you know the producers made everything more dramatic than it really was. But Kelly’s story was real.

I expected a woman who knew such loss to be woeful. I looked for the desperation that haunts the women in antepartum. I listened for secret pains to leak out in common phrases like I wish and my fault. No matter how well I listened or how closely I looked, Kelly’s story was bound with smooth skin, dry eyes and frank talk. I’d been a chaplain and pastor long enough to identify denial. Kelly sat before me somehow very healthy. Her serenity was palpable; it was so clear and bright that I had trouble maintaining eye contact (a difficulty I seldom have). Kelly’s story sent me inward; I had a hundred questions and a jumble of feelings. At the end of my visit, I asked Kelly the one question that burned in me the entire hour:

“What is it in you that keeps you from giving up?”

Without pausing, she said simply, “I’ve always known that God created me to be a mother.”

People might argue with Kelly’s words but the lesson here is not in our opinions, but in Kelly’s spirit. What I initially identified as serenity, I suddenly knew as a living, pulsing, Spirit-breathed hope. A hope like Elizabeth’s. Hope that said a baby may be improbable, but with God it is possible. Hope that stood tall through the second-guessing and disapproval of friends and neighbors, that endured big things like disappointment and grief, and that sneezed at little things like advancing years and hostile wombs. For both of these barren women, the hope for life didn’t hinge on personal qualifications, track records or wishful thinking; their hope rested solely on God, the Creator of all life.

So I come back to one of my original questions, why did Luke begin his orderly account of Jesus’ life with the story of a barren woman? Barrenness, this no life within the place of potential life, is the soil of hope. The absence of life, the yearning for life, like a womb or a fallow field – they whisper and shout, I was made for more than this; I was made for life!

It doesn’t take a long look around to know there has to be more than this. Just as Elizabeth and Kelly and millions of other barren women have cried out for life to begin in them, our souls cry out for life to come and set the empty caverns of our hearts pumping. We were made for life, for abundant life, but this world is a hostile womb.

Elizabeth is just one person in the midst of a centuries-long story; people might assume that her part is insignificant. Well, take notice, world! Elizabeth’s barrenness shows us just how wide and long and high and deep was our need for God to come and fill us with new life, a hope which Jesus would fulfill.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to [Zechariah]…and said…“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John…And he will go on before the Lord…to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

She who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.

Soil-Fertilizer