Friday, October 19, 2018

Jesus and Women: 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 (NIV)

     I'd 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 gallbladder 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 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 not 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. 

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

Friday, October 12, 2018

Jesus and Women: Faces in the Crowd

     A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, "If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed." Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
     At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who touched my clothes?”
     "You see the people crowding against you," his disciples answered, "and yet you can ask, 'Who touched me?’
     But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering." 
-Mark 5:24-34 (NIV)

     I'd love to know more about this women, wouldn't you – this woman who was so desperate to be healthy that she was willing to ignore social conventions and religious laws? For twelve years, she had lived with the bleeding. If it's the kind of bleeding it seems to be, then she had lived as well with the pronouncement of the Law that she was “unclean.” After so long, surely she had resigned herself to never being well, never joining in the joyful processions to the Temple for the festivals, never being a fully-participating part of the community. And, depending on how scrupulous her husband, family, and friends might have been, she might have resigned herself to missing much more than that. For at least some of the people around her, I imagine, any physical contact would have been out of the question.
     So it's a true indicator of her desperation – and I think of her alienation from people around her – that she slips through the crowd to try and touch Jesus unnoticed. There's no raising of the voice from her, like the leper or the blind man who cried out to Jesus for healing. She doesn't even come and kneel respectfully, like the synagogue leader who got to Jesus just before she did. “If I can just touch his cloak, I'll be healed,” she reasons. 
     She's quiet. Easy to overlook. She's OK with that, because that's just the way she wants it. If she can just “accidentally” brush against him in the crowd, then no one's the wiser. There will be no embarrassing confrontation, where she has to say publicly what's wrong with her and receive the censure and self-righteousness of her peers. If she can just brush against him in the press of the mob, she can go away well and no one will ever have to know why.
     I wonder how many women in our world are like her. 
     Thankfully, some women have found their voices. They’ve had opportunity, and people have supported them, and they’ve spoken out about the terrible things they’ve suffered. The victims of Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby are some. Others whose victimizers are sufficiently well-known have been deemed newsworthy enough to gain a hearing for their stories. It’s good that their stories are being heard, especially when they are believed and some degree of justice is done. 
     But even those stories are not always heard, or believed.
     And, for every one that is heard, I have to wonder how many women are lost in the crowd.
     Valli Forrister was. In 1989, when she was a student at Lipscomb University in Nashville, she agreed to help a man who said his car needed to be jump-started. She let him get in her car so he could direct her to where his car was supposedly parked. In an alley, he pulled a knife on her and raped her repeatedly.
     She refused to talk about what had been done to her. She worked at her job, lived her life, and told very few people. She suffered nightmares and panic attacks in silence. She was afraid of being judged, of people at school or church telling her what she had done wrong to bring what was done to her on herself. 
     Every year, on the anniversary of the rape, she would drive to that alley, all alone, just to prove that she could.
     Finally, on the tenth anniversary of the rape, she asked her pastor to go with her. They prayed, and sang songs and walked through the alley together. Eventually, Valli was able to tell her story to other people, and the nightmares and panic attacks stopped. 
     Two women, lost in the crowd. Unwilling — unable — to raise their voices and tell their stories.
     And it was Jesus and his people who finally gave them both the opportunity to speak.
     “Who touched my clothes?” It almost seems like Jesus puts this woman on the spot. Some well-meaning person might counsel him today to be a little more sensitive. But what actually happens is that he gives this woman a voice. She wasn’t going to speak out and tell what had happened to her and what had been done to her. She had every intention of slipping away after surreptitiously touching the hem of his clothing. Instead, she was able to stand in that crowd and tell her story. And she got to hear Jesus commend her faith and send her in peace to live a new life.
     And so I believe that his church should be the champions of women like her, like Valli Forrister, women who don’t know how to begin to tell their stories but who reach out their hands in desperation and hope and faith, believing that God will take notice and heal them. Valli wasn’t sure that she could find healing in the church. Maybe that uncertainty came from previous experience, maybe it didn’t. But I pray that churches will unfailingly be places where women can tell their stories and find listening people who will share their grief and offer love, support, and hope. I pray that among us, women who have been hurt and wronged can hear us commend their faith and offer them peace. We can’t heal them — only Jesus heals. But his people can help to make sure that reaching hands can come in contact with the hem of his garment.
     There are women in our churches, in our schools, at our offices, and in our neighborhoods whose stories are lost in the crowd. They’ve stopped even trying to tell them. The world as it is has not given them many reasons to believe that they’ll be heard. May we be people who, through loving and listening, give them back the voice that’s been taken from them.
     May we introduce them to the one who can offer them peace.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Jesus and Women: Better

     As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 
-Luke 10:38-40 (NIV)

     When my son was a kid, one morning he spilled something at the table. With orange juice or whatever it was running everywhere, Laura felt that this was a teachable moment. He was still little, but old enough to start taking some responsibility for his own messes, so instead of just cleaning it up for him she told him that he needed to help her. Less than excited about the possibility, Josh resisted a little. “When you grow up, your wife isn’t going to want to clean up your messes,” Laura told him.
     To which Josh shot back, in all seriousness, “Well, I’ll just get a wife who’s agreeable.”
     Josh cleaned up the mess. I tried my best not to laugh, and mostly failed.
     When I was a kid, the “traditional” roles for men and women still mostly proliferated. My sister and I were teenagers, or almost, when Mom took a part-time job as a church secretary. She still got home about the time we got home from school. I was in high school, or maybe even past high school, when she really restarted her career at a large hospital. Until then, Mom was the traditional mother and housewife. She’d drive us to things, cook meals, take care of the house, and, yes, clean up our messes. 
     Thinking back on it now, most of my friends grew up the same way. Their moms were home during the day, like my mom. Those who weren’t, as I remember it, were the ones whose husbands were no longer in the picture. They “had to work,” you see. It doesn’t seem that long ago, but in some ways it was light-years from the world we live in today. In a lot of families now, both parents have jobs outside the home. When a parent does choose to stay home, it isn’t always the mother anymore. Women can take maternity leave knowing their jobs will be there when they return. Traditional roles have changed. Expectations are different.
     To borrow Josh’s expression, “agreeable” wives don’t look the same as they used to.
     In the world Jesus lived in, the expectations for women revolved around the home to an even greater extent than the prevalent expectations of America 40 or 50 years ago. For women, care of the home and family was their sphere. Why would they be at public gatherings? What business did they have interacting with men who weren’t their husbands? Why would they need to learn a trade or get an education? None of that had to do with the raising of children and the handling of the business of the home. 
     In the case of Mary and Martha, you see those expectations made explicit. Martha is furious, and — from the point of view of the world in which she lived — justifiably so. To her way of thinking, Mary has no business sitting out there listening to Jesus teach like…like she thinks she’s one of his disciples. There’s work to be done. Food to be prepared. All these guys are going to want to eat soon. Dinner won’t make itself. 
     To our ears, her complaints sound unenlightened and sexist. “If those guys are hungry enough, they’ll find something to eat,” we’d say. But this is her world, not ours, and in her world her complaints are absolutely understandable. If there were 13 guys in that room with Mary, I guarantee you that 12 of them were thinking some version of the same thing.
     The one who isn’t thinking that, though, is the One whose opinion matters. 
     “Mary has chosen what’s better,” Jesus tells Martha. He gently chides her for being concerned about so many things, being so caught up in all that society expects women to be, that she’s lost sight of the one thing that does matter — the kingdom of God. Trying to be the woman her world says she should be has made it impossible for her acknowledge that her sister has made the right choice in sitting and listening to Jesus. 
     Jesus isn’t telling Martha, as we sometimes assume, that it’s wrong for her to do the things women traditionally did in her world. The problem is that her preoccupation with what women are supposed to be and do — not to mention her own stress and anxiety — doesn’t leave a lot of room for Mary’s desire to be a disciple. 
     It’s tempting for us to import our own assumptions about gender roles to any and all situations. Since I grew up with my mother at home with me, I might assume that mothers should be home with their kids. I might consider that better than the alternatives of two-career households and working mothers. But, of course, that’s insensitive to the many mothers who are forced by circumstances to work. It’s insulting to the mothers who choose to raise children and also find great satisfaction in their careers, and believe that having both makes them better mothers. It disregards all those women who have managed to do both. (And also the fact that no one ever asks fathers to choose between a career and fatherhood!)
     Jesus didn’t share the assumptions about women that ran unquestioned throughout the place and time he lived. If you want to talk about how Jesus treated women, you really have to start there. Luke — who mentions women pretty often in his gospel — tells us that several women traveled with him and helped to support him. They’re mentioned in the same breath as “the Twelve” — they’re disciples, just like those men whose names are better-known. If you wonder how common that was in his day, look again at how frustrated Martha gets at her sister sitting and learning from Jesus in her own house!
     Don’t let your assumptions about what women should be go unexamined — even if you’re a woman too. Those assumptions come from all kinds of places, from what we had or didn’t have growing up, from what we are or wish we could be, and streams from a thousand other sources. They come together in confluence and lead us to make pronouncements about what is “better” for women to do, to be, to aspire to, to value. Often, those assumptions have a lot to do with how women are treated in our world: whether they’re listened to, respected, seen as credible, and accepted, or whether they’re dismissed, ignored, overlooked, and patronized. Women are abused in our world for not being “better” wives. Women are told how it would be better for them to dress, to whom they should speak and how, where it’s safe for them to go. They feel tolerated, not welcomed, in many companies and organizations where they have to navigate a labyrinth of expectations in order to carve out some kind of a place for themselves. Let’s face it: even in churches women aren’t always welcomed as equals.
     If we follow Jesus, we’ll say with him that what’s “better” for women is the same thing that’s “better” for men. Instead of being concerned with the “many things” that society tells women they should be, we’ll all together, women and men, choose the better thing of sitting at his feet and learning from him.
     Surely we can all be agreeable about that.