18 April 2013

A letter to Rachel, after reading her book...

Dear Rachel,

We’ve never met and while I don’t feel like I know you, I do feel like, via your writings, you have given glimpses of real struggles and snapshots of what I think is a compassionate heart persistently seeking God. I have followed your blog for a few years now. Many days, I appreciate wholeheartedly what you share. I am generally grateful for how you challenge me to think critically and seek discernment even when, at the end of the day, I have a totally different perspective and disagree with your conclusions.

I am grateful for your transparency about your struggles, your willingness to ask hard questions and to relentlessly seek answers. I have similar intellectual, emotional and spiritual battles, so it is a huge encouragement to know that I am not alone and that God values those hard moments. On the other hand, I think there can be enormous temptation to let the struggle become an idol, to morph it into something more important than the very One with Whom you are wrestling. When that happens, it is easy alienate those who are different, who are blessed with a trusting, confident faith, and who simply rest in God and His goodness. Their resting can easily become less valuable or less valid in the eyes of those Jacob-personalities pursuing hand to hand combat with God.

Truly, though, I must describe my relationship with your blog as a love-hate one, for there are also those days… other days when it is easier to be frustrated or angry when I read your blog. It is usually not specifically because I disagree (that happens all the time), but more that I’m in a conundrum about how it's been said. I sense unfair assumptions  have been made, or I perceive unneeded confrontational controversy encouraged and seeping throughout. In those moments, it feels as though offending or trying to get a rise out of a particular group of people had become the goal.  I’d probably categorize myself as a member of that particular group… so if that was the case, you've often been very successful.  But in that success, people start defending and debating and stop listening,  resulting in a lesson “preached to the choir,” and missed opportunity to share the wisdom God has gifted you to those who just might most benefit from hearing... and REALLY listening.

I used to describe myself as an undercover feminist. While my husband probably still considers that label to somewhat fit, I don’t - so much. Over years and years, I have been convicted that my pride in self-sufficiency, independence and a “label” (any label, including conservative evangelical or baptist), was not a good thing; I needed to be more willing to follow Jesus than a label or an ideology. So honestly, it was with a bit of fear and trepidation that I ordered your Year of BiblicalWomanhood… (while at the same time dying to see what all the fuss was about), and probably why it sat in my Kindle for PC file for a couple of months before I finally gathered the gumption to read it.

And frankly? It did not begin well. 

Your first chapter, gentleness, is one that is, reluctantly, near and dear to my heart. In my experience, most "feminists" - even reformed undercover ones like myself - rebel within at ideas of stereotypical gentleness. The Almighty and I have been wrestling that battle for nearly 40 years now, and I believe He's brought me, mostly kicking, screaming and struggling, down a long path. At least now, I'm willing to walk that path beside Him, often scuffing my feet, dragging my heels and with a mopey expression on my face - but without the scenes of the past... I'm hoping that's because He's been in the process of gentling me. So, I did not want to read words where you (accidentally or intentionally) stomped all over an already tender place and made light of truths and principles I’ve adopted. Yes, I often value what you say, but I guess I don’t always trust you to say it in a way that does not cause needless heartache or contention or come across as snarky. 

There’s this general assumption that quiet and gentle means meek, mild, essentially silent and without valuable contribution or, in other words, a doormat to the men in one's life. Yet according to my studies of the original language (and I make no claim to qualified scholarship in this area), the original words give no such indication.  Peter (1.3) encourages women to have gentle, quiet spirits. Other verses elsewhere and throughout the Bible can and do support that exhortation. This same appeal is made to men - Timothy is told to pursue gentleness (1 Timothy 6.11), and all Jesus-followers are to be known for their gentleness – or moderation, as in lives characterized by equilibrium and balance (Philippians 4.6). Elijah hears the gentle, calming, quiet voice of God. Christ is described as the Gentle Shepherd and quiet like a lamb before the slaughter. 

As I understand it, biblical gentleness is a lot of things, but it is not “doormatting” for others because that implies that I have no choice. More accurately, it indicates great reserves of power the holder chooses to carefully control or restrain (i.e. the example of Christ in Philippians 2). Quietness refers to a tranquility and calmness of spirit resulting from a confidence in and emanating from God… not externally enforced silence born out of fear, oppression or lack of opportunity. I wish you had started with this biblical understanding of a gentle and quiet spirit (fully recognizing that a gentle and quiet spirit in my Zarma friend around the corner will look, sound and be different than it might for me), instead of the oft’ publicized mockery and stereotype of biblical gentleness.

I do understand that women have had the spineless person version rubbed in their faces… lots more than a lot. Many have accepted it. Maybe that is partly our collective responsibility.. even fault?  As a whole, have we chosen laziness, only listening to what others explained or made assumptions based on the past practice instead of digging into individual texts as well as the whole text of the Bible allowing God to speak directly into our own hearts. Western women today don’t have the excuses of extreme poverty and fatigue, no Bible available, unable to read and almost every educational opportunity denied that impede most women in this world… Still? The most common excuses I hear from women as to why they don’t personally engage with God through the medium of their Bible are:  “Too tired?” or “Not enough time,”  or “Not relevant,” or “It is just too much work to understand,” or... and that list could continue for a very long time. 

I guess I just don’t buy it. I know my own heart and my own self when I’m choosing not to regularly spend time with the Biblical text, and I also know the firsthand reality of working with illiterate, poorest of the poor, oppressed and abused women who still find a way. In these women I see quiet spirits and amazing gentle soul strength – mostly because they don’t overtly or covertly shake their fist at God and tell Him it’s their way or no way at all. They accept and give thanks for exactly where God has placed them and trust Him to teach them what they need, as they need it – even when not all makes sense. I wonder if the real reason isn't, however, that engaging with the sacred text will point out there really are only two responses: either change or deny.

These were the sorts of thoughts rambling around as I read through the first chapter. Then I get to the end where I was startled to read: 
“It occurred to me in that moment that perhaps ‘gentleness’ wasn’t the worst virtue with which to start my year of biblical womanhood after all. It forced me to confront some of my uglier tendencies and reminded me that the next eleven months would require the strength of a great tree. I found myself reacting less and listening more. I held back, chose my words more carefully, and protected people’s reputations by avoiding gossip. The change wasn’t dramatic, but I started handling others with just a little more gentleness, a little more care, keeping in mind that we all have fragile days from time to time.” (p. 18)

It was in that moment that I began to hope I’d be able to appreciate your book, even if I couldn't enjoy all of it.

I finished it last week and I did… appreciate your book. In fact, in my estimation, the value of your book continued to rise the further I read.

I still disagree with you on so many things. I still feel that you made provocative (as in provoking just to needle others or to garner a laugh at someone else's expense... noted that the someone else was sometimes yourself) and confrontational statements when there was no need. Truth? You don't need to do that. The inspired collection of ancient but still powerfully relevant texts confronts all on its own. It still impacts and changes lives today. It demands heart change or adamant denial of its worth. But I finished your book thinking that somehow, God had captivated your heart once again with the Word. It would seem that we stand in a similar place: the point of studying the Bible is not to try and mimic every detail of the lives of those biblical characters. The point of God’s Word is not to provide a comprehensive prescriptive or even descriptive, one-size-fits-all, across-the-board three or four or twelve step manual for exactly and precisely what to do, how to think, how to feel, etc., in every situation imaginable. It is to change readers, seekers, study-ers... but from the inside out.

Why do I continue to study God’s Word? Because I believe that somewhere within, I can find answers to life's riddles and heartaches, even when the answer is not what I was hoping for  (i.e. God saying something to the effect of: "I am I am, and the answer is not your story.") I scour those beautiful, powerful and terrifying words because there is no other text that helps me to encounter the Jesus I strive to follow in such a personal, powerful way. There are no other writings that always unabashedly confront the ugly inside me and robustly change how I think and how I act. I'm hoping that God uses His Word to mold and shape me into a someone, even more like His image. The Scriptures rise far above and beyond the constraints of any one culture or time or tradition - if and when readers, study-ers and followers allow it. The Bible is not dusty, dead and irrelevant to this day and age. If anything, I believe with all my being that it the best place where men and women can discover traces of Jesus, where they can seek out His footprints and follow them, and where they can encounter the gently overwhelming, lavish and enticing, beautiful while sometimes terrifying Presence of the Almighty God.

And while you probably wouldn’t write it out that way, that is, at least to some degree, part of the conclusion I found in the last chapter of your book. That’s the primary message I “heard” when I read these words:
“I figured I’d be so sick of the Bible after this project was over that I’d have to take a break and start reading the Bhagavad Gita for a while. But somewhere between the rooftop and the red tent, I’d learned to love the Bible again— for what it is, not what I want it to be. 
The Bible isn’t an answer book. It isn’t a self-help manual. It isn’t a flat, perspicuous list of rules and regulations that we can interpret objectively and apply unilaterally to our lives. The Bible is a sacred collection of letters and laws, poetry and proverbs, philosophy and prophecies, written and assembled over thousands of years in cultures and contexts and contexts very different from our own, that tells the complex, ever-unfolding story of God’s interaction with humanity. 
When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word (like manhood, womanhood, politics, economics, marriage, and even equality), we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t fit our tastes. In an attempt to simplify, we try to force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone, to turn a complicated and at times troubling holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says. 
So after twelve months of “biblical womanhood,” I’d arrived at the rather unconventional conclusion that that there is no such thing. The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman of faith is a myth. 
Among the women praised in Scripture are warriors, widows, slaves, sister wives, apostles, teachers, concubines, queens, foreigners, prostitutes, prophets, mothers, and martyrs. What makes these women’s stories leap from the page is not the fact that they all conform to some kind of universal ideal, but that, regardless of the culture or context in which they found themselves, they lived their lives with valor. They lived their lives with faith. As much as we may long for the simplicity of a single definition of “biblical womanhood,” there is no one right way to be a woman, no mold into which we must each cram ourselves— not if Deborah, Ruth, Rachel, Tamar, Vashti, Esther, Priscilla, Mary Magdalene, and Tabitha have anything to say about it. 
Far too many church leaders have glossed over these stories and attempted to define womanhood by a list of rigid roles. But roles are not fixed. They are not static. Roles come and go; they shift and they change. They are relative to our culture and subject to changing circumstances. It’s not our roles that define us, but our character. A calling, on the other hand, when rooted deep in the soil of one’s soul, transcends roles. And I believe that my calling, as a Christian, is the same as that of any other follower of Jesus. My calling is to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. Jesus himself said that the rest of Scripture can be rendered down into these two commands. If love was Jesus’ definition of “biblical,” then perhaps it should be mine.” (pp. 294-296)
It is pretty amazing to think that God is willing and able to speak to anyone willing to listen by seriously engaging in study of the Bible, and that this is true regardless of  culture, preconceived notions, traditional understandings, and human instead of divine thinking.

So, I guess I really just want to say, "Rachel, thank you for your book."

Thank you for sharing your seeking and searching and studying and silliness. I do recommend that others take the time to read your story as you've written it. Those who make the time and who are willing to overlook possible places of offense… will find their faith stretched and enriched, as well as their love and appreciation for the Bible and its potential to impact individual Christ-likeness enhanced.

God has blessed my husband and I with eight children… six of them are (or will be) becoming-young-women. I believe your book and your year-long journey will be a useful tool as I continue discipling and  mentoring my biggers this next year. And that may be one of the highest compliments I can give a book.

I am grateful you wrote the book; I'm very glad that I read it.

Many, many blessings upon you,

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