Saturday, February 27, 2010

Feeling Like an Impostor

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (Romans 15:5-6)

I was reading an article at Sojourners Blog this week. Julie Clawson wrote about women and “Impostor Syndrome” – the secret fear that women have that they’re not as intelligent, capable, and professional than their peers. Clawson suggests anecdotally that this fear is even subconscious – she relates a dream in which she’s talking with Michelle Obama and is worried that she sounds like “a complete idiot” to the First Lady.

I found myself pretty interested in what Clawson calls “Impostor Syndrome” – especially when she suggested that the church actually encourages this feeling in women. Actually, she didn’t suggest it as much as stated it explicitly as fact. “Impostor syndrome,” she writes, “causes women to dismiss praise, add disclaimers to their statements, and constantly feel less intelligent or mature than their peers. In short, to mirror the qualities and virtues of a nice and humble Christian girl.”

A couple of things struck me as I read. The first was that, if we’ve somehow managed to equate the biblical virtue of humility with a lack of confidence and self-esteem, we’ve missed the boat. Humility, as I understand it, is about seeking God and others above our own interests. It isn’t feeling inadequate; it’s knowing you’re more than adequate, giving praise to God, and not taking inordinate pride in it. Humility is recognizing that God is God and I’m not, and that because I’m not I’m of no more – or less – intrinsic worth than anyone else.

But a humble surgeon doesn’t, because he’s humble, think that an accountant is as qualified to remove a gall bladder as he is.

The second thing to strike me was to consider the ways the church has contributed to this thinking among women. Among churches that distinguish between “ordained” and “non-ordained,” and that generally don’t include women as potentially among the ordained – or that ordain men and women for different functions – has there perhaps been more value placed on the ordained? Have women been taught in that way – unintentionally, surely, but no less genuinely – that they are somehow second-class citizens in God’s kingdom? That they should sit and be quiet and mind the children and kitchen while those who are more capable than they are lead the church?

Then it struck me that in churches that don’t explicitly “ordain” – like mine – this could be even more of a problem.

In churches like mine, the people who seem important, the decision-makers, are the people who are in front of the church on Sunday mornings. The people who are on the “ministry staff.” The people who are elders and deacons and ministry leaders. In churches like mine, these people are, almost without exception, male. It’s no wonder that women might struggle with feelings of inferiority when they have no personal stake in what is a very important part of their lives. And for the women who know they have more to offer and say so, churches like mine might sometimes tell them, in effect, that good Christian girls know to sit quietly and demurely while the men make the important decisions.

Not that we intend to do that. Oh, sometimes we might, but I think by and large it’s an unintended consequence of the way we read the Bible and the way our churches are built from the ground up to resist change.

But the fact that it might be unintended doesn’t make it any less destructive.

I know that churches that get their identity from Scripture have real struggles with some of the biblical passages that are regarded as limiting the roles available to women. But earlier generations of believers came to decisions about slavery, for instance, that at the time were regarded by some as running counter to biblical teaching. Those believers came to their conclusions because the gospel taught them that all people were equally loved and valued by God. Their convictions motivated them to stand against slavery, and in time the church vindicated their stand.

In any case, any application of Scripture that causes the church to give any of their members the impression that they’re second-class citizens is wrong. Period. It may be well-intentioned, but it’s just wrong.

So churches like mine need to take a long look at whether we’re reading the Bible well, and behaving toward one another in ways that take the gospel seriously. To take texts that may limit what women are asked to do in public worship and use them to shut them out of decision-making and direction-setting, or make it difficult for them to find ways to use the gifts God has given them, is mistaken.

We need to listen to each other. I’m glad Clawson wrote about this, because it made me realize that sometimes in the church we don’t hear each other very well. We focus on defending territory and accurately interpreting Scripture, without noting the irony that when we devalue people in any way we violate some of the most central and consistent truths of Scripture. I’m glad to have had the chance to hear what Clawson said.

But I also want to say something that might surprise her. I have Impostor Syndrome too.

There are times when I’m not sure I’m capable or intelligent or talented enough to carry the responsibilities I have. I’ve sat through conversations where I’ve tried to say as little as possible so the other person wouldn’t know what a moron I felt like I was. I’ve felt like my critics are more accurate than my supporters, and I’ve sometimes chosen no to try something because I didn’t think I was up to it. (I'm already worrying about how people will respond to what I've written here.)

If I had a conversation with Michelle Obama, Julie – even in a dream – I would probably feel idiotic too.

I don’t mean to take anything away from Julie, there, or to suggest that her concerns aren’t valid. I’m saying I understand them. I understand them first-hand, and that should help me be aware that others in my church might be feeling that way too. It should help us to realize that we're not as different as we might think we are. It should help us find ways together to glorify God “with one mind and one voice” – and yet make sure that all our voices can be heard. It should help us learn to accept one another as we learn more and more about the totality of acceptance that Jesus has shown us. And God will be praised. God will be praised.

And maybe no one among us will have to feel like an impostor anymore.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery…
She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:11, 13)

According to Forbes magazine, Chicago is one of the ten most miserable cities in America. (We just made the list at number 10.)

Now, I live in Chicago. I’ve called it home for nearly twenty years, in fact. It’s colder and snowier in the winter than I’d like. The cost of living is higher than some places. Traffic can be bad, and don’t get me started on the Cubs. (They’re now counting the time between World Series championships in centuries, not years.) I do miss mountains and southern accents, and I have to make do with Big Ten football.

But miserable?

If I may, there’s a lot to love about this city. There are museums, art, and culture. Pro sports. Great restaurants. Neighborhoods with cultural flavor. There’s one of the most beautiful lakefronts in the country, and several of the tallest buildings in the world. It’s not a perfect city, of course. But I certainly wouldn’t call it miserable.

So I started looking at the list. Several cities made it because unemployment was particularly high there. (Where is it not?) Others had high crime rates. For some, it was home foreclosures that got them on the list. The reasons for including Chicago, according to Forbes, were our long commutes and sales tax (the highest in the nation, thank you very much).

I don’t know; I don’t call that misery, exactly.

One city, believe it or not, made the list because their football team is 6-42 over the last three years. It strikes me that maybe, just maybe, the editors at Forbes are a little fuzzy on the concept of misery.

Where did we get the idea that we’re entitled to a certain amount of luxury, comfort, and affluence, and that we should call its absence something like “misery”? Forbes’ list could be more accurately called “The Ten Most Inconvenient Cities in the Country” or “The Ten Most Annoying Cities” or the “Ten Most Difficult Cities.” Misery, though – that’s a different thing. Misery is Port-au-Prince after the earthquake. Misery is the Ninth Ward after Katrina. Misery is children orphaned by war. Misery is crushing poverty, hunger, and disease.

Few of us have ever actually experienced true misery. At least, not for very long.

Hagar understood misery. She was the servant girl chosen by her mistress, Sarai, to bear a child with her husband, Abraham, in her name. Predictably, when she became pregnant Sarai decided that it wasn’t such a good idea. She treated Hagar badly, and Hagar decided she couldn’t live with it any longer. She ran away into the desert, carrying her unborn son.

God found her out there, though. His angel came to Hagar to tell her she was heading in the wrong direction. “Go back to your mistress and submit to her,” God told her. Sounds kind of cold, to be sure, but it wasn’t that God didn’t care about her situation. Just the opposite, in fact; the angel told Hagar to name her son “Ishmael” – “God Hears” – because the LORD had indeed heard of her misery. And that’s enough for Hagar. She goes back to Sarai with her son as a reminder that when people have to live through misery, God knows. When they cry out in pain, God hears. “You are the God who sees me,” she says. And that’s enough for her.

As people who maybe feel that misery – or even discomfort or inconvenience – is unendurable, we need to discover again what Hagar discovered. A person can live with misery – real misery, now – if she knows that her God hears and sees.

We believe, not that God promises to keep us from any kind of unpleasantness, but that he walks with us through misery. God’s people have not historically expected to suffer less than others. In fact, in many times and places in history, the faithful have found themselves suffering more – and sometimes even because of their faith. And while God’s people might complain and cry out, like anyone else, we follow in a long line of people who have trusted in God in their suffering. We follow in a long line of people who believe and find comfort in the conviction that God sees and hears, that he doesn’t ignore the suffering of the faithful. We follow in a long line of people who believe that he loves his people, rewards their faithfulness, and will in his time vindicate their trust and redeem their pain.

That’s the essence of the gospel, isn’t it? That God sees and hears, that he can’t ignore the misery of the people he made and loves, and that he’ll move heaven and earth to rescue us. He gave his Son, in fact – another Son who reminds us that God has heard of our misery and chooses to step into it, even endure a share of it, to save us.

We need to hear that, who label snarled traffic, poor sports teams, and high sales tax “misery.” We need to know that wherever we live, whether it’s in a city on the “most miserable” list or even in real misery, that our God hears and sees and that nothing will come between us and his love for us. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, he has given us hope of life, peace, and glory – and insured that, for those who trust him, misery will not last and joy will be eternal.

So, wherever you live, listen for the voice of that angel who spoke to Hagar. Remember that God hears and sees what you’re going through. Remember the cross, remember the empty tomb, and know that he loves you and that he will one day take away misery and wipe away tears forever. Until then, trust him, be faithful to him, and live as a witness to his grace.

Especially if your city’s on the list. That’ll confuse the people at Forbes.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


No longer will they call you Deserted,
or name your land Desolate.
But you will be called [“My Delight is in Her”],
and your land [“Married”];
for the LORD will take delight in you,
and your land will be married.
As a young man marries a young woman,
so will your Builder marry you;
as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
so will your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:4-5)

A 21-year-old woman in Shanghai has made news this week for deciding that her best chance to win back her ex-boyfriend is to be someone else. Or at least to look like someone else.

The young woman has made the decision to have multiple plastic surgeries designed to make her look like actress Jessica Alba. It seems that throughout their year and a half relationship, her boyfriend has been obsessed with the actress. He hung pictures of Alba all over the apartment the two shared and talked about her constantly. He even bought his girlfriend a blonde wig to wear, though she says he never came out and told her that he wanted her to look more like Alba.

Well, no. Because that would be creepy.

The young woman actually showed quite a lot of sense when she broke up with the guy over his obsession. Now, though, she says she misses him and wants him back. “My friends…suggested I do plastic surgery to look like her,” she told reporters at a Plastic Surgery Hospital in Shanghai. The hospital has agreed to do the multiple surgeries that will be necessary without charge, “to showcase their surgery skills.” (See the story at

In fairness, the director of the hospital has encouraged the young woman to think seriously about the procedure, but she seems to think there’s something empowering in it. “As a member of the younger generation in this country,” she says, “I have a choice to decide what I want in life.”

That’s true, I suppose. It’s just sad that what she thinks she wants is to be someone else.

I’m pretty sure she’s not alone, though. Our society is full of messages telling us that who we are isn’t good enough. We’re supposed to lose weight, get fitter, have better skin and hair and whiter teeth. We have to look younger, for goodness’ sake. We’re supposed to be wealthier so people will think we’re successful, or at least dress and drive and travel and play and live like we are. Our sex lives are supposed to be more exciting, and there’s even a pill for that. We’re supposed to be better educated, our houses are supposed to be cleaner, our clothes are supposed to be nicer, our children are supposed to be more precocious.

Name something about yourself or your life, and there’s probably someone somewhere who will sell you something “guaranteed” to make it better. Or a fantasy to make you forget that it isn’t better. Advertising depends on it. Political campaigns stand or fall on it. The credit industry relies on it. Retailers cash in on it. Drugs and alcohol and pornography thrive on it.

To quote singer/songwriter Steve Earle: “It’s called snake oil, y’all; it’s been around for a long, long time.”

But among all those messages telling you that you aren’t good enough, telling you all the ways you need to be different, it’s easy to miss the one telling you that you’re loved, valued, appreciated, and accepted. Right now. Today. Just as you are.

Sometimes the church, intentionally or otherwise, communicates a picture of God as vengeful, judgmental, and stern. That’s the danger in trying to take seriously God’s holiness, and the high purpose to which he calls his people. It can almost sound, sometimes, as if we’re just proclaiming another way in which people aren’t good enough – that they need spiritual plastic surgery in order for God to love them.

But look again. Listen again. The Bible is full of passages like the one in Isaiah that affirms God’s “delight” in the people that he made, and his determination to live in happiness with them “as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride.” Don’t read that as some kind of mushy, vapid, puffy romance-novel love. God knows full well what it will take to have that kind of relationship with human beings. He knows that we aren’t movie-star material, spiritually speaking. He knows our sin, and has always known the price forgiveness and grace would demand. And he paid that price on a cross in the Middle East, two thousand years ago. Paid it for everyone who lived before, and everyone who will ever live since. And in paying it, he spoke one message, clearly and plainly: you and I matter to him. We don’t have to be different to earn his love. He values and appreciates us as we are, spiritual warts and blemishes and all. He delights in us, rejoices over us, and chooses to live with us and call us his.

Pass that message on to the children in your life who feel that they don’t measure up. Pass it on the friend battling a weight problem, or your colleague at work who’s struggling with alcoholism. Pass it on to the friend who can’t find the self-esteem in her to get out of an abusive relationship, and to the neighbor who can’t find a job, and to the sibling who’s going through a divorce, and to the single parent who can’t quite imagine another day of raising a child alone. Pass it on to the person stuck in a dead-end job at a business you frequent, and pass it on to a friend’s son who can’t seem to pass his GED. And pass it on to that brother or sister you sit near at church, struggling over and over with the same sin.

But if you pass it on, make sure you reinforce it with your actions. Because telling them that God loves them and accepts them just as they are means that you have to, as well. Why would they believe it otherwise? But if you show them that you love and value them, then they might just start to believe it when you tell them that God does, too.

Oh, and please – pass it on to the person in the mirror from time to time. Because we all have days when we have a hard time believing in our worth. And we all need reminding from time to time that there’s no way that God can love us anymore than he already does.

Consider this your reminder.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 1, 2010


I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13)

I blew it.

I wrote last week about being “more thoughtful and more prayerful about how we handle difficult, inconvenience, and injustice.” I said – what was it? – oh, yes: “When we take the difficulties of life and the misunderstandings of others on our shoulders with love, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness, the world must take notice.” I insisted that it’s not enough that we be willing to suffer for Jesus, but that “we’re called to suffer like him, as well.” (I have to be honest; I was especially proud of that turn of phrase.) I even got a little preachy about Christians who don’t handle inconvenience well – like, say, a diverted or cancelled airline flight.

So this week I got the chance to practice what I preach.

Specifically, I got stuck in Little Rock, Arkansas.

I’m writing this while a snowstorm blows outside, laying down a few inches of the white stuff on top of some sleet and freezing rain. By Chicago standards, it’s really not much of a snowstorm. By Little Rock standards, it’s off the charts. Nothing’s coming in to the airport, nothing’s going out. (As the nice lady at the counter explained to me – “We’re out of planes, honey.” They call everyone “honey” in Little Rock.) Unless anyone knows a place where I can rent a dog sled and pack of dogs in Little Rock, I’m out of luck.

I’m OK with that, though. I’d like to be home with Josh and Laura, but I’m warm and dry and comfortable. It was last night that I blew it, with the lady at the car-rental company. After my first flight got cancelled, I thought about driving home. The snow hadn’t really started yet, the roads were fine, and I thought about just taking the rental car I had back to Chicago. I called the company, and was informed that the particular agency I had rented from “wasn’t corporate”. That meant that there was no place in Chicago I could leave the car. In fairness to me, she wasn’t very helpful or nice. I told her that I understood the problem, and I hoped that she could understand mine. The best she could do was tell me that I could drop the car at an agency in Indianapolis. Which didn’t help at all. Finally, I asked what would happen if I just left the car at my hotel and rented from another agency to drive back to Chicago.

She shouted at me: “I don’t know! That’s never happened before!”

I found that hard to believe, and told her so. Loudly. Never? Really? No one’s ever rented a car from you and then had to change their plans? I was not nice. Indignant, that’s the word. Did she not care about her customers? Couldn’t she work with me in an unusual situation, instead of insisting on her policy?

In short, I didn’t do exactly what I said we Christians should. I didn’t handle this particular difficulty with love, kindness, generosity, or forgiveness.

I realized it, eventually. When I did, I went back and read Philippians 4 again, where Paul says he’s “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” If you know anything at all about Paul, then you know that he found himself in some fairly hair-raising situations. He was hungry sometimes, near the point of literal starvation. He spent some considerable time in jail. He narrowly escaped lynch mobs more than once. He had health problems, relational problems, and he was even shipwrecked once. And that doesn’t even include the stress of travelling all the time, dealing with church problems, and putting up with people who went out of their way to sabotage everything he tried to do.

So when Paul says he’s learned to be content, I tend to want to pay attention.

The secret, though, is a little tough to hear. Paul says that his ability to be content whatever the situation comes out of replacing himself as the one around whom the world revolves. That’s my problem, I guess. In some way, I feel that I’m entitled to be home with my family when I want to be. I feel I’m entitled to have others bend over backward to help me with my problems (especially when I’m paying them!) But with his believe that Jesus had risen from the dead and his decision to let Jesus call the shots in his life, the center of gravity in Paul’s life changed. What happened to him mattered not nearly as much as whether or not he lived a life that was faithful to his new calling. And with that perspective, things that he once would likely have considered crises became non-events.

And the serendipity of this change, for Paul, was that Jesus became not just Lord but “Him Who Gives Me Strength.” By choosing to trust the Lord and not hit the panic button when things seemed to go off the rails in his life, Paul discovered a source of strength to endure and overcome that he never would have known otherwise. He discovered that he could not only survive in difficult situations, but that he could thrive – because where his strength ended, there Jesus’ began.

When we hit the panic button too early, we invariably lurch into crisis mode and try to come up with our own solutions to our problems. Trouble is that our own solutions are almost always about finding a quick way out, with as little personal discomfort as possible. And sometimes, when we’re in crisis mode, we don’t care who we hurt.

Worst of all, when we chase our own solutions, we miss out on what the Lord would do for us.

So here’s what we do, I think. First, we tell God that, with his help, we’re going to find our contentment in him. We’re going to trust in his goodness and generosity, and when times are lean we’re going to believe that in him we’ll have all the strength to endure whatever we have to endure.

Secondly, we tell someone else. We tell other believers that we’re working on being more content in God’s power instead of our own schemes. We ask them to pray with us and for us, and we ask if we can talk to them about the things we learn about God and ourselves.

Finally, we resist the urge to hit the panic button when things seem to go bad. When we feel like lashing out at someone, we pray instead. When you feel like compensating for sadness or anger with sundaes or substances or sex or shopping, we sing worship songs or read Scripture. When we feel like hiding or sulking, we seek out people who will bless us, or who we can bless.

And when we’re weak, we’ll seek him out and discover, with Paul, that God is “Him Who Gives Us Strength.”

Sometimes there’s no better way to learn that than to have your plans changed for you.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.