Grace


The gym bleachers never become more comfortable to sit on. For five years of college I sat on them twice a week and now, as a staff member, I shifted to find a comfortable position as the Gospel Choir exited the stage on the gym floor. I turned my attention to the speaker being welcomed to the position of authority: behind the podium. A White male with multiple graduate degrees and a terminal degree, he represented the most common type of speaker to be seen in chapel. The epitome of knowledge and power, the hope of the future for championing conservative family values, this man was here to challenge university students to become godlier.

As they often do, the speaker opened his talk with a joke. …Except this was a joke about abusive husbands. Laughter immediately filled the gym but trailed off as the words sunk in and students paused – “Wait, was that…okay to say?”

I sat on that wooden bleacher – knees twisted, back aching – seething. Students I knew looked at me with shocked expressions; shaking their heads they whispered to each other. I think I croaked out “Not. Appropriate.” loud enough for several rows of people around me to hear. Hardly an adequate or appropriate response. But I was mad.

How often do we idolize those with Ph.D’s and decades of work experience as having all the answers? Of being the most valuable in our communities? Of being the most like Jesus?

My mind was with the students in the room that had experienced or were currently experiencing abuse. Their stories, their lives, their pain had been trivialized and reduced to a sound bite for entertainment value.

As chapel progressed I fought back my anger and resentment towards well-educated White men that seem to be championed as the future of the Church. I can’t say that I was very successful in doing so. But I was very aware that all that simmering ugly-junk was very much boiling in me, and that it was keeping me from listening to everything else the speaker was saying.

I had a choice. To write this man off as not having anything worthwhile to say, or to acknowledge that God may still speak through him despite his massive ignorance and lack of compassion. I wrestled with myself the remainder of the chapel.

Until I could see myself in him, I didn’t want to listen. Until I could acknowledge that I’m just as broken, I tuned him out. Until I could believe that God chooses to still speak through humans the moment after we wrong him and others around us, my ears were closed and my heart was cold.

Every day we choose who to listen to, and how to listen to them. We can write others off as not being experts, as not being eloquent, and as not having common ground with us. We can give into mockery and disregard of those who aren’t adept socially. We can choose to listen more readily and give more weight to the words of those who are wealthy, White, male, extroverted, and able-bodied.

Or we can believe that God can speak truth through anyone. Even those who are offensive to us, those who have no alphabet soup behind their name, and those who we disagree with. Those who stutter, those who don’t speak up, and those who are so different than us we don’t even know how to begin to get to know them. Those who smell, those whose physical disability makes us uncomfortable, and those who can’t quite seem to read the cues that we have somewhere else to be.

The image of God is in everyone – but we can choose to treat others with dignity or not. We can choose to take uncomfortable or angering situations and humanize all who are involved. We can choose to listen for God’s voice in the voice of others.

When I saw myself as that man, my ears cracked. When I remembered all the times I’ve offended and angered others, my heart thawed. When I owned the grace God gave and gives me, I began to hear him.

When we listen, we can know. When we know, we can understand. And when we understand, we can begin to love.

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” – Jesus (Matthew 5:43-48)

Jesus teaches that loving our enemies brings life. Perhaps a step in this direction is to begin to listen to those we struggle with wanting to hear.

 

Hallelujah by MaMuse

Every time I feel this way
This, old familiar sinking
I will lay my troubles
Down by the water
Where the river
Will never run dry

Hallelujah Hallelujah (I’m gonna let myself be lifted, I’m gonna let myself be lifted)
Hallelujah (I’m gonna let myself be lifted)
Bye and bye
I will lay my troubles down by the water
Where the river will never run dry

It’s been said and I do believe
As you ask so shall you receive
So take from me these troubles
Bring me sweet release
Where the river will never run dry

Hallelujah Hallelujah (I’m gonna let myself be lifted, I’m gonna let myself be lifted)
Hallelujah (I’m gonna let myself be lifted)
Bye and bye
I will lay my troubles down by the water
Where the river will never run dry

There is a river
In this heart of hearts
With a knowingness
Of my highest good
I am willing
I will do my part
Where the river
Will never run dry

Hallelujah Hallelujah (I’m gonna let myself be lifted, I’m gonna let myself be lifted)
Hallelujah (I’m gonna let myself be lifted)
Bye and bye
I will lay my troubles down by the water
Where the river will never run dry

Where the river
Will never run dry
This river
Will never run dry

As I was driving home from work today, various men on the street and in nearby cars at three separate times yelled “hii!”, whistled, and made lewd noises at me – all in a matter of 30 minutes.

As a child I was taught that it’s rude to stare at, point at, or talk loudly about other people. Even if you are pointing out something you like about that person, you just don’t it. It’s rude.

So why is it that some men feel that they have the right, the permission, and the authority to comment on, point out, judge, and – the absolute worst, to me – assert publicly what they want to do to my body – to my face?

Now, I know there are differences culturally when it comes to some of this. Some women feel affirmed by being whistled at. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with this, but I’m also concerned that, as women, we don’t attempt to empower ourselves with the tools that are being used to oppress us. We are not objects; we are beings with a soul. We are not for anyone’s viewing pleasure and we are not for anyone’s consumption.

Not to mention the fear that is perpetuated by every comment or whistle. “How close is he?” “Where’s the nearest store I could duck into?” “Are there enough cars driving past that someone would notice if he grabbed me?”

A whistle may be just that – an acknowledgement, an affirmation. Or it could mean more. One can usually tell by the pitch, intonation, and length of the whistle.

A “hii!” seems simple enough but in my experience, this is usually a distraction technique so that once you look over, blatant vulgarity is expressed.

I don’t think I need to, or care to, define lewd noises.

Most of the time I ignore the comments. Sometimes I’m caught off guard and I do look – and then berate myself for doing so. Occasionally I stare them down. Most rarely do I actually say anything in response.

A few months ago as I was driving home from my Life Group, I was stopped at a stop light and a man in the car next to mine started yelling “Hey! HEEY!!” over and over at me. I put on my “death face” and stared straight ahead pretending not to hear him. Eventually I realized that I recognized the voice – it was one of the men from my Life Group. I rolled down the window and yelled, “Now you know what I do when men yell at me from their cars!” Even after I realized it was him, I was still shaken up from tornado of emotion inside of me. We had a good laugh afterwards, but it was a rare moment in which he was able to experience the toll that these sorts of occurrences have on me as a woman.

Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany

I’ve had quite a few conversations with Christian men who express their frustration that Christian women aren’t able to take a compliment. I definitely have problems in this area. But I don’t think it stems from insecurity of self or distrust of that specific man as much as it does from building a fortress around myself so that anything a man says about my body or my appearance is unable to penetrate its thick walls.

Because usually, the comments that are made towards me should have been checked long  before they made their way out of a man’s mouth. It’s a necessary fortress. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be sensitive to when I should let the drawbridge down (and maybe stop the archers from shooting). I’m thankful for the grace men have offered me after giving me a compliment and I shoot them a funny look or there’s an awkward pause before I say “thank you”. It’s challenging to let moments like that sink in and take the men at their word.

So what can we do to change this?

Men, you can talk amongst yourselves about making comments or whistling in public. You need to be having these conversations. You should be as outraged as some women are at this reality. Discuss the attitudes men hold toward women. Explore why men feel they are justified in letting their opinion about our appearance be known publicly. Educate yourself on concepts of privilege, power, and internalized superiority. Keep each other accountable. Confront men who do this. And continue to give compliments and the needed grace to accompany them.

Women, I’m afraid I have no simple answer. Be willing to consider that there may be cultural differences at play. Sometimes responding to men in the moment only incites them more. Most of the time I want to flip them off or yell a profanity or “would you say that to your sister?!” back at them. It’s more complex to think of a gracious response that takes the higher road, stripping them of the power they’re wielding. Sometimes a long stare might be enough. Other times there may be opportunity to start a conversation. We need to work harder at receiving compliments well too. Be slow in your response. Be willing to take the complimenter at his word. I think practicing giving compliments to men may also assist in the process.

“With [the tongue] we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing from the same mouth. My brothers and sister, it just shouldn’t be this way! […] Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. […] What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.” James 3:9-10, 13, 17 (Common English Bible)

The Kingdom of God is:

– not feeling in competition with other women or as if I’m only a potential mate for men

– seeing women (younger and older) comfortable with their gifts of speaking and preaching

– hearing prayers in many languages and global perspectives

– being inspired and convicted by men and women who have traveled the journey of gender equality ahead of me

– being hugged by a professor who’s class was integral in building my foundation of gender equality

– listening to the pain of people of color who were deeply wounded by racism on a campus like Biola

– being affirmed as a White woman in the job I hold

– being asked by a much older, and much more well-educated man what books I would recommend

– much discussion and relating with a passionate, intelligent woman my age

– watching memorial slideshows of competent women who dedicated their lives to go where God called them, regardless of what society would allow

– elevators rides that aren’t awkward

– the grace for being late to a workshop on creating safe spaces

– the process of recognizing the extent to which I have been socialized

– combating the racism, sexism and myths of superiority, inferiority, and meritocracy in my own heart

– having someone I just met share a poem they wrote out with me

– conversations with people of all different races and ethnic backgrounds, in their 20’s and in their 70’s, first-time attendees and founders and board members, experts and beginners, those who paid their own way and those on scholarships…

…this is the Kingdom.

I was determined to make this trip my “vacation” even though I would be having a lot of intellectual stimulation, emotional expression, and very little time to relax. After I arrived at the hotel and explored my room, it hit me.

I’m an adult. I’m a woman. I’m an adult woman.

During life group a few weeks ago I had a conversation with a Sister about why the small group for the high school girls is called “Women’s Group”. Are these teenage girls women? What does it mean if we call them that? It made me realize that I have very specific (and different) ideas about what it means to be a woman. In the adult, “grown-up” sense, “woman” carries a strong connotation of responsibility to me. In fact, I don’t think of much else… Growing up I went from a “child” to a “young woman”. While I was in high school, my parents didn’t like to call us “teenagers” because of rebelliousness, you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do-ness, and out-of-control-ness that is generally associated with the teenage years. Instead, we were “young women” or “young men” who took responsibility for our actions, controlled our impulses, and were respectful to authority. Lack of “teen years” does create issues but it did make us responsible.

So while I imagine that calling teenagers “women” will inspire them to responsibility and healthy adult life, my Sister pointed out that she doesn’t want her young daughter to think she has the advantages of being an adult woman. An excellent and very valid point! But it really made me think about what those advantages are. I’m still thinking, to be honest. Not because there is a lack of advantages, but because I have such a heavily ingrained mentality that “adult woman” = “responsibility” that it’s harder for me to acknowledge them.

Today as I was sitting in a conference room waiting for the first plenary session to start of the Christians for Biblical Equality Conference, I closed my eyes and took a quick spirit assessment. I immediately became choked up. Being the atypical, unemotional woman that I am, it really surprised me.

There was something powerful going on that I’m still not sure I have an understanding of. But I think it has something to do with feeling safe, feeling relief, feeling seen, valued and affirmed as a woman, and feeling the process of my soul healing from internalized inferiority*.

I felt safe because I was in the presence of like-minded community.
I felt relief because I could be real and honest about my beliefs without being told it’s “unbiblical” or “sinful”.
I felt seen, valued and affirmed as a woman not because of what I do or do not do as a living but because others in the room believe that women are full partners in the Kingdom of God – and not just in a spiritual sense.
I felt my soul healing from the damage I have perpetrated against myself that keeps me from believing life-giving truths about myself and from using the gifts God gave me to their full extent.
I felt more alive.

I told myself that on this trip I want to be present. Present with myself, present with others, present with God. No tuning out, no checking out, no skipping out. Fully present. Relaxing, yes. Mind-numbing, no. Fully present.

So far, so good. I realized that while I had been looking forward to the cable, this means that I won’t be turning on the TV while I’m here. And there are TWO of them in my room (??). I intentionally brought only one book with me, a novel. Purposed to be opened in long periods of transition (aka on flights). I thought my computer might be a distraction, but I hope to use it for times of process, like this one.

I praise God that his Kingdom is so wholly other. It’s so outside of what I can comprehend. There is so much freedom and so much affirmation and so much purpose and so much grace. The boundaries that he does give us provide us with health, life, and ironically, even more freedom.

I love being a part of creation that is being reconciled back to the Creator. Back to the way things were intended. Back to being fully woman, fully human.

——

*internalized inferiority: a deep psychological belief that one is inferior to a privileged group; subscribing to the value system created by those in power who deem themselves superior and others (you) inferior. This can happen to people of color because of the system of racism, as with women because of the system of sexism (and so forth). As I struggle with internalized inferiority as a woman, I also struggle with internalized superiority as a White woman.

This 4th of July my heart is heavy as I thank God for the freedoms that I enjoy, knowing full well that I benefit from these freedoms because of the past and current oppression and exploitation of the marginalized, the poor, and people of color.

I hope to never forget what my (white, American, able-bodied, heterosexual, upper-middle class, English-speaking) privilege costs other people, and ultimately, myself.

Earlier this week I snagged a few Christianity Today magazines from Student Development. One had a cover story with a couple in suit and white dress, riding a tandem bike – bride in the back 😉 – while the title read “The Case for Early Marriage: Settling Down Sooner Than Later Has Never Made More Sense”.

Needless to say, I thought “Is that so…”, mentally rolled my eyes, and hid it under the other magazines. I love reading this kind of stuff. I didn’t find the article particularly good but I appreciate the words of wisdom of David Gushee, who wrote a short response to the article.

In his response Gushee writes, “Mark Regnerus helps us to face certain unwelcome facts: Evangelical abstinence messaging is not stopping most young evangelicals from having sex; it is creating distorted expectations among Christians about the mind-blowing quality of marital sex.”

So true, right? I know I’m not the only one who knows a young couple who has bumped their wedding date up… and not because they had too much time to plan it. We were designed for sex; it’s a good thing. But it’s not the culmination or completion of life. As a single woman, this challenges me to look closer at other elements of life that may be more satisfying and life-enriching that I may have initially perceived them to be.

But the article that spoke to me the most was about the upside-down, life-giving nature of the Gospel. In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, I picked up The Upside-Down Kingdom, a gift from my boss this Christmas, and read the chapter on “loveable enemies”. I’ve been dwelling on this concept – that the Gospel surprises us by being simultaneously irrational and paradoxical while also filling a deep place within in us that we somehow did and didn’t know existed. It touches us in a way that calls to the origins of history, the way things were intended to be, while also calling us to act and react to the reality we know in ways that may seem weak, illogical, and unable to cause change.

I’ve copied the article below, for your reading pleasure.

What I’ve learned as life has taken a turn for what most people think is the worst.
by William J. Stuntz

“Survivors of some horrible plague or battle often find themselves wracked with guilt: Why did I live while so many died? Though I had no battle scars, I used to feel a similar sense of guilt. I married the only woman I’ve ever loved. We have three terrific children. I have a secure job that I love and that pays well. Sometimes I would ask God: Why have you been so kind to me? Why have I gotten such an easy life?

I don’t ask those questions anymore.

A little over nine years ago, while driving home from a family vacation, my car got a flat tire. When I started to change it, something nasty happened at the base of my back. Ever since, my lower back and the top half of my right leg have hurt. After two operations, dozens of injections, physical therapy, psychotherapy, and thousands of pills, my back and right leg hurt every waking moment, and most of those moments, they hurt a lot. Living with chronic pain is like having an alarm clock taped to your ear with the volume turned up—and you can’t turn it down. You can’t run from it; the pain goes where you go and stays where you stay. Chronic pain is the unwelcome guest who will not leave when the party is over.

A few months after my back turned south, my family and I moved when I accepted a job at Harvard Law School. Our family began to unravel. One of our children suffered a life-threatening disease, and my marriage fell apart.

Those crises faded with time but left deep scars. Early last year, in February 2008, another piece of bad news struck me: Doctors found a large tumor in my colon; a month later, films turned up tumors in both of my lungs. In the past year, I’ve had two cancer surgeries and six months of intensive chemotherapy. I’ve been off chemo for a few months, but I’m still nauseous much of the time and exhausted most of the time. Cancer kills, but cancer treatment takes a large bite out of one’s pre-diseased life, as though one were dying in stages. Some of that stolen life returns when the treatment stops. But only some.

Today, my back and especially my right leg hurt as much as they ever have, and the odds are overwhelming that they will hurt for as long as this life lasts. Cancer will very probably kill me within the next two years. I’m 50 years old.

Such stories are common, yet widely misunderstood. Two misunderstandings are worth noting here. First, illness does not beget virtue. Cancer and chronic pain make me sick; they don’t make me good. I am who I was, only more diseased. Second, though I deserve every bad thing that has ever happened to me, those things didn’t happen because I deserve them. Life in a fallen world is more arbitrary than that. Plenty of people deserve better from life than I do, but get much worse. Some deserve worse and get much better. Something important follows: The question we are most prone to ask when hardship strikes—why me?—makes no sense. That question presupposes that pain, disease, and death are distributed according to moral merit. They aren’t. We live in a world in which innocent children starve while moral monsters prosper. We may see justice in the next life, but we see little of it in this one.

Thankfully, God gives better and more surprising gifts to those living in hard times. Three gifts are especially sweet.

Redeeming Curses

First, God usually doesn’t remove life’s curses. Instead, he redeems them.

Joseph’s story makes this point. Joseph was victimized by two horrible injustices: one at the hands of his brothers who sold him into slavery, the other thanks to Potiphar’s wife, who falsely accused him of attempted rape. God did not undo these injustices; they remained real and awful. Instead, God used those wrongs to prevent a much worse one: mass starvation. When Joseph later met with his brothers, he said this about the transaction that started the train rolling: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” That doesn’t mean that slavery and unjust imprisonment are good; rather, the point is that they produced good, and the good they produced was larger than the wickedness that was visited upon Joseph. Evil was twisted back on itself, like a gun barrel turned so that it aims at the would-be murderer firing the weapon.

Joseph’s story foreshadows the central story of the Gospels. The worst day in human history was the day of Christ’s crucifixion, which saw the worst possible punishment inflicted on the One who, in all history, least deserved it. Two more sunrises and the Son rose: the best day in human history, the day God turned death itself against itself—and because he did so, each one of us has the opportunity to share in death’s defeat.

That is our God’s trademark. Down to go up, life from death, beauty from ugliness: the pattern is everywhere.

That familiar pattern is also a great gift to those who suffer disease and loss—the loss may remain, but good will come from it, and the good will be larger than the suffering it redeems. Our pain is not empty; we do not suffer in vain. When life strikes hard blows, what we do has value. Our God sees it.

A change in suffering’s character

The second gift is often missed, because it lives in salvation’s shadow. Amazing as the greatest of all gifts is, God the Son does more than save sinners. Jesus’ life and death also change the character of suffering, give it dignity and weight and even, sometimes, a measure of beauty. Cancer and chronic pain remain ugly things, but the enterprise of living with them is not an ugly thing. God’s Son so decreed it when he gave himself up to torture and death.

Two facts give rise to that conclusion. First, Jesus is beautiful as well as good. Second, suffering is ugly as well as painful. Talk to those who suffer medical conditions like mine and you’ll hear this refrain: Even the best-hidden forms of pain and disease have a reality that is almost tactile, as though one could touch or taste them. And those conditions are foul, like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard or the smell of a cornered skunk. Some days, I feel as if I were wearing clothes soaked in sewage.

Some days—but not most days, thanks to the manner of Jesus’ life and death. Imagine Barack Obama putting on a bad suit or Angelina Jolie wearing an ugly dress. The suit wouldn’t look bad, and that dress wouldn’t be ugly. These are incredibly attractive people whose attractiveness spills over onto their clothing, changing its meaning and the way other people respond to it. If Obama or Jolie wear it, it’s a good-looking outfit. If they wear it often enough, it becomes a good-looking outfit even when you or I wear it. God’s Son did something similar by taking physical pain on his divine yet still-human person. He did not render pain itself beautiful. But his suffering made the enterprise of living with pain and illness larger and better than it had been before. He elevates all he touches. Just as his years of carpentry in Joseph’s shop lend dignity and value to all honest work, so too the pain he bore lends dignity and value to every pain-filled day human beings live.

The Shawshank Redemption is about a prisoner convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. That prisoner escapes by crawling through a sewer line until he’s outside the prison’s walls. The narrator describes the transaction this way: “He crawled through a river of [dung] and came out clean on the other side.” God the Son did that, and he did it for the likes of me—so that I, too, and many more like me, might come out clean on the other side. That truth doesn’t just change my life after I die. It changes my life here, now.

The God Who Remembers

The third gift is the most remarkable. Our God remembers even his most forgettable children. But that memory is not the dry, lifeless thing we feel when one or another old friend comes to mind. More like the passion one feels at the sight of a lover. When Jesus was dying, one of the two convicts crucified with him said this: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Jesus responded by telling him that he would be in paradise that very day. As we use the word remember, that story sounds off, as though the thief on the cross and the Son of God were talking past each other.

The story sounds off because to us, remembrance merely means “recall”—I remember when I connect a student’s name to her face, or when I can summon up some fact or the image of some past event. That kind of remembrance is a sterile enterprise, lacking both action and commitment.

In the Bible, remembrance usually combines two meanings: first, holding the one who is remembered close in the heart, and second, acting on the memory. When God repeatedly tells the people of Israel to remember that he brought them out of Egypt, he is saying much more than “get your history right.” A better paraphrase would go like this: “Remember that I have loved you passionately. Remember that I have acted on that love. Hold tight to that memory, and act on it too.”

Job understood the concept. Speaking with God about what would follow his own death, Job utters these words: “You will call and I will answer you; you will long for the creature your hands have made. Surely then you will count my steps but not keep track of my sin” (14:15-16). Notice how memory and longing are fused. Job longs to be free of his many pains, which occupy his mind like a sea of unwanted memories. God longs for relationship with Job, and Job knows it: hence, his belief that the Lord of the universe remembers each of his steps. He is the Lover who will not rest until his arms enfold the beloved. To Job, the curses Satan has sent his way are a mighty mountain that cannot be climbed, an enemy army that cannot be beaten. In the shadow of God’s love, those curses are at once puny and powerless.

Philosophers and scientists and law professors (my line of work) are not in the best position to understand the Christian story. Musicians and painters and writers of fiction are much better situated—because the Christian story is a story, not a theory or an argument, and definitely not a moral or legal code. Our faith is, to use C. S. Lewis’s apt words, the myth that became fact. Our faith is a painting so captivating that you cannot take your eyes off it. Our faith is a love song so achingly beautiful that you weep each time you hear it. At the center of that true myth, that painting, that song stands a God who does vastly more than remember his image in us. He pursues us as lovers pursue one another. It sounds too good to be true, and yet it is true. So I have found, in the midst of pain and heartache and cancer.”

William J. Stuntz, criminal justice professor at Harvard Law School, died March 15, 2011. He wrote this piece on suffering as an article for Christianity Today in 2009.


My favorite line? That is our God’s trademark. Down to go up, life from death, beauty from ugliness: the pattern is everywhere.

How is it that something so crazy can be so comforting? Somehow, it is.

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