As the new semester dawns, so do all my dreams about inviting students into the Holy Scriptures in ways that will stun and amaze them. The truth is, there is so much there to discover;courage and scandal, faith and mystery.
One of my favorite courses to teach has been the Introductory to the Bible seminar required for all non-majors at my confessional school. Every semester, some disinterested 18-22 year olds would register for my course; a number of whom were unsure of who Moses was, others who thought this a waste of their time because they’d been reading the bible since childhood, and still others who needed a nice nap before facing the rest of the day. To date, there are few thrills that compare to watching intrigue mount in the heart and eyes of a student who for the first time really engages the ancient text and finds out, there’s something powerful there.
As a way of beginning discussion, drawing from Barbara Brown Taylor a literary mentor of mine, I always ask them to start in the beginning and tell me the story of the fall. Most feel confident with the tenants of this epic universal narrative; a husband and wife in the Garden of Eden, the woman is seduced by Satan and in turn seduces her husband, they eat the forbidden apple and, sinning are cursed and cast out of the garden. I ask my students then, to go home and underline in their bibles or highlight on their iPads the words, husband and wife, apple, seduction, Satan and sin.
Inevitably they return, astonished because they didn’t find the words, they didn’t see what they thought had been there. In fact, Adam and Eve never have a wedding ceremony; the serpent is never called Satan and, seduction or sin-- never mentioned. I tell my students, they have a very important decision to make in studying scripture; they must decide that they will strip away all the layers of stuff they “thought” was in the text and instead, allow the text to stand as it is and to join me to struggle and grapple through centuries of context so we might glean the meaning of the words, the nuances, the gaps and the community understanding across the ages of texts that have instructed the faithful for millennia.
This is why study is imperative, this is why I love what I do; we must strip away preconceived notions and engage the text in an informed and open way. Otherwise, the result is an uneducated church who touts “biblical” imperatives without understanding the intent of the texts they breathe with red hot fire. The result is crazy notions of rules of submission between genders drawn from the original Empire itself and Roman household codes. The danger is that we apply modern paradigms to categories that did not exist in the ancient world.The danger is that we domesticate a text so we might apply it before we understand that it is wild and free and centered on the radical love of God.
How do we bridge this gap, how do we invite persons of faith into real and in-depth study of the texts they venerate. I wonder what would happen if we began to offer small group studies on life in Ancient Israel, if we spent time teaching the difference between Hebrew and Greek world view, understanding Latinisms and Roman household codes, oral tradition and the formation of the canon; if we decided we’d help people understand the texts they love so much. How about a Sunday School session on “What is not nor has ever been in the Bible?’ What if teaching context, time and space returned as work of the church rather than limited to the realm of the academy? Perhaps this is how we serve one another and resume the holy enterprise of building up the kingdom.
Looking forward to a new semester! Welcome back students!!
Follow this link for History and Literature of New Testament II Course syllabi
An excerpt from my book, "Stripped: A Theological Memoir"
I don’t know how it happened, maybe it’s because there aren’t enough women in the pulpit, maybe it’s because of the good old fashioned notion of American progress, but most of us have bought into the lie that we’re not good enough and that God’s love must be earned through achievement and piety, self-denial and aesthetic prayer. For most of my life I’ve been trying to earn God’s love just like another degree to hang on my wall...
Worth can be measured in a myriad of ways. For some women it’s finding a mate, raising perfect children, making the best most mouth watering pie, having the most beautiful home, writing the great American novel, becoming an ordained clergy, or running a Fortune 500 company. Whatever it is for you, most of us have bought into the same lie as my friends who work in the clubs; we’re afraid we’ll never be good enough; we believe we are unworthy of love.
Here's what I want to say that just maybe you haven't heard before; you ARE Worthy because you are God's. This is why Jesus came, not so much to purge us from sin as to demonstrate unrelenting, uncondintional, two hundred and twenty second chance divine love. That's the difference between the Jewish and subsequent Christian understanding of Jesus. In the Judeo understanding the Messiah was to rid the world of pain, suffering, disease, death. When people continued to die, when women continued to have menstrual cycles, when sickness did not relent many Jews were convinced Jesus of Nazareth was not the one. For those of us who have placed our faith in this Jesus, we find the one who came to take his place among us; to be with us in the suffering, to submit to the cross, to grieve in the garden, to walk through the hard stuff by our side, to hold us up in hospital rooms, to love us through the cold sting of death, to wipe our brow and rub our backs as we labor to birth forth new life; to remind us in our brokenness, in our battle scarred bodies, in our self destruction we are loved.
After all, it’s what all of us need to know isn’t it? To believe that right now in the midst of whatever circumstance, in the middle of our own self-created wreckage, no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done, God loves us. We are worthy because it’s not what we've done or failed to do but it is God’s love that makes the difference.
Very early in my childhood, I drew a scene snatched from the pages of the bible, the one my mother used to read from and out of which came the stories she regaled to us in our Wednesday night junior bible class.
Born and raised in East Tennessee, my mother had a way with words; she could spin a tale that would leave you, mouth gaping wide, mind whirling at the wonder of it all. Her faith a fusion of Missionary Baptist holiness, Cherokee mysticism and mountain magic all rolled into one.I would get lost in her stories just like in her red high heel shoes, they were too big, but I was fast growing into them.
Once after class, I drew what I saw in my infant imagination, put pen to paper and allowed the images to come to life. I drew reeds, tall and slender, spikey and bent; colored them in with the vibrant hues of the Nile delta, emerald, azure, magenta, as it existed in my mind. The papyrus reeds peeled back ever so slightly to reveal the babe in the basket afloat on the river deep and wide.
What I know now is that I heard the story, saw the scene unfold through the eyes of Miriam and looked on from some place of deep knowing as a young girl, the older sister called upon to care, watch over, yet surrender the baby to the God of the river. What I know now is I was exercising a hermeneutical lens, asking myself, “where do I stand in this text” so that I could find my way, move around in it, deep resonate with its meaning.
The story, clearly about Moses the one sent by God to deliver the Hebrew children from the bondage of Egypt, was experienced differently for me. As a woman, the story reverberated inside my own chest, I leaned into it and saw behind and up under it as I stretched into the skin of it and saw it all unfold from the banks of the Nile feet wet from standing too close to the edge, heart skipping beats.
The Holy Scripture has always called this out of me since the canon as we now have it is for the most part a collection of narratives recorded, copied, edited and compiled by men who live many centuries after those women and men whose stories they are trying to convey. And so, to find my own way I have needed to press beyond the text, delve deep into culture and context to find my imaginings real or renegade.
Studying Scripture as women then, requires much of us, we must know ourselves and the perspective, the pain, the hope, the needs we bring to the text, and we must, as much as we are able know of the time, the place, the culture and conditions of the women remembered forever in the ancient writ so that we might know them and remember we are not alone.
At the start of this New Year, on the blog we embark upon the study of women, written into history as harlots, remembered for the role they play in God’s redeeming plan. As we explore together, we’ll become aware at the prevailing theme it is to find women of scandal drawn right into God’s work of hope across the ages and perhaps we might find more grace for women driven to desperate measures in our own world.
As we come to the close of 2013, we are so happy to announce the birth of our new non-profit ministry, Stripped Love. Formerly a ministry of Madison Park Church known as Butterflies of Hope Outreach, we have served women in sex trade in Madison County since 2010. Today we work to help birth new ministries such as ours in central Indiana and across the U.S. to combat the bondage of human trafficking through the power of divine love.
Our purpose is to love women as they are, where they are. We have become friends with women in strip clubs because we believe God wants these women to know they are loved. We believe God’s love is transformational and we have witnessed how this love can change the lives of women caught in sex trade and the women who minister to them. Simply put, we believe #loveheals.
Human trafficking is a global epidemic and the humanitarian crisis of our day. We estimate some 100-300,000 underage women are trafficked in the United States each year. Central Indiana is considered a red zone of activity according to the National Trafficking Resource Center. 70% of female victims are trafficked into sex trade, these women work as strippers and prostitutes.
Our presence in these clubs is crucial because in us resides the power of God and God's love sets women free.
Here’s how you can help:
From the vault; a post from Christmas 2011
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be* a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ Luke 1. 39-45 (NRSV)
I have never liked hospitals. The way they smell like cleaning products and watered down gruel. I have never liked the way shoes squeak on the linoleum tile or that the hallways are cluttered with space age machines and gurneys and bed pans. Never mind the fact that the inhabitants of the hospital are sick folks, which makes the whole experience like descending into a universe of perpetual germs.
For my familiarity of hospitals, and for many other things, I blame my mother. A woman who was ever eager to visit hospitals and nursing homes and places where mentally handicapped kids lived, my mother spent most of her life loving old people or sick kids or needy friends. One year she told me why it was so important that we visit the sick and needy at Christmas.
She had married her first husband, Leonard, when they were both very young. He was in the service so they lived on the military base, away from her family and most of her friends.Not too many years into their marriage, they had learned Leonard had an inoperable brain tumor, and so, they spent many, many weeks in and out of the hospital. As if being far from family and friends at the holidays was not enough, my mother found herself preparing for widowhood, sitting over her husband who was in rapid decline when she received a call that their home had burned down and all their possessions had been lost. Broken, grieving, weary, my mother counted the hours by which her husband's life ebbed away and vowed she would never leave his side.
Difficult days to be sure, filled with darkness and the heaviness of loss, but my mother says at some point a beam of light shone into that dark hospital room where she felt so alone. She had first been aware of this light when she had been stirred by the sound of jingle bells down the hallway. She heard shoes squeaking on the linoleum and the rustle of coats and snow pants in the hallway and she heard the voices of singing children who were making their rounds to bring the good tidings of Christmas to the folks who were confined to the hospitals walls. My mother said that she had never heard voices so clear, seen faces so precious or felt an embrace that was more needed than those that the carolers offered that winter's night.
So. I grew up caroling in hospitals, taking Valentine's treats to kids in sick wards and adopting grandparents from the nursing home and therefore learning how important a visit, a song, a card, a moment of time can be to those who are in need.
Today I am a member of the clergy, and so, there are still a lot of hospitals in my life. The difference is now, I have a reserved parking space and get a free stamp on my parking ticket. What is the same is the reason I visit hospitals in the first place, I go because I believe in the gift of sharing life together, the good and glorious and the awful, unexpected and worst possible. I go because life is hard and God is near and we fellow creatures know this most profoundly as we share life together, hand in hand, through it all.
The same reason, I think, Mary visited Elizabeth, the truth of the human predicament…we need each other-- in good times and bad. We need each other to speak life into cold and lonely hearts, to sing hope into broken, weary souls. We need someone to wrap their heart and head around the dream that has come to us or the miracle for which we wait.
Expectancy isn’t a reality known only to pregnant women, though they feel this no doubt, expectancy lives in the heart of every person who is waiting, hoping, believing the dream of God for healing, wholeness, redemption or reconciliation. So go, put on your snow shoes and scarves and mittens, recruit some friends and pick up some fresh oranges at the market, and sing…sing a song of hope to the people while they wait.
From Christmas 2012
I scramble to find the Christmas lights in the garage that is still cluttered with boxes from our move, tripping over first one thing and stubbing my toe on another; I swear under my breath as the Silent Night plays in the other room.
For weeks I’ve been trying to beautify my home, to hang ornaments and Douglas fir swag’s, to fill the air with cinnamon and clove hoping the loveliness will cover the hurt and fear of this season.
As I make my usual preparations, I am acutely aware there are faces missing from the scene this year, loved ones who once filled the halls with laughter and warmth whose absence leaves us with an empty longing ache. There are relationships that are shattered and broken pieces of us lying on the floor, there are dreams that did not come true staring back at us from the holly covered kissing ball.
My cat, still unsettled in the new home has peed on my tree skirt twice so that I am afraid to wrap my gifts and seal them with bows for fear my loved ones will find more than what they hoped for in the box gilded with love.
‘Perfection is a myth’ I chant as I remember the words of my therapist from aeons ago. I drive to Starbucks in the drizzling rain of early December that should be fluffy white snowflakes the size of my hand and I think of her as I so often do this time of year.
If anyone had expectations of how things ‘should be,’ if ever a woman dreamed of how the miracle of Christmas might come to pass it was Mary. Had she and Joseph argued about the ill timed trip to Bethlehem, had she complained and asked him to walk faster so they might make it into the city in time to find a room? Was she driven to tears and exhaustion by the sorry excuse for lodging that was afforded them, was she angry when the uninvited guests arrived unannounced?
If any of this is true, we have no record of it; we only know these imperfect memories, this ramshackle scene, this inelegant birth was precious to her so that she thought about it often and treasured that night in her heart (Lk. 2.19).
It strikes me that her response is so different than mine. Faced with fear and uncertainty, I respond with a fierce furious need to control, dragging everyone with me, kicking and screaming doing what I can to force what ‘should be.’ Mary found the grace and sweet blessing of accepting what is.
I don’t know what things look like around your table this year, not sure if your traditions will endure or if life or hardships, natural disasters or economic woes threaten your long held ways. It is possible that your turkey will be dry and your relative will step out of line but remember this; the miracle of Christ often finds its way into the worst possible situations. The hope of Christmas is more than some preconceived notion or Norman Rockwell image, it is born in love, hewn in the rock of surrender, known in the acceptance of what is here and now.
May the peace of Mary and the wonder of her Son dwell with you this season and may you know the joy of living right where you are.
Last week I was in Baltimore for the annual, Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion meeting. Thanks to an invitation from my new BFF Joel Watts, I joined a small gathering of bible bloggers for an intimate conversation with N.T. Wright on his latest 1700 page tome, “Paul and the Faithfulness of God.”
In the two volume work, Wright sets forth to discuss Paul in terms of God, the people of God and the future of the people of God through the Jewish theological lenses of monotheism, election and eschatology. Throughout, Wright reminds us these are the central Jewish themes Paul is rethinking through Jesus and Spirit. To understand Paul’s worldview, Wright masterfully situates Paul within the three realms of his universe, Jewish, Greek and Roman Empire.
With a twinkle in his eye, sipping hot tea as he tries to recover from a brutal travel schedule, Wright reminds us that he is offering Paul as a “refreshed” Jewish thinker who is refocusing Jewish theology around Jesus and Spirit. We lean forward, hands feverishly typing his every word into our devices, he argues Paul did this thinking in the service of his mission, to plant communities of Jesus followers in Caesar’s world who would be shaped by the gospel and carry this gospel out to the world.
Though Paul is not a systematic theologian, for Wright, he is on league with Plato and Aristotle in his ability to take abstract concepts, argue with passion and understand these concepts in ways that pertain to faith. I am struck again at this original pastor/scholar who is able to communicate high ideals in practical ways to a given context for the good of God’s church. Wright leans back, hands folded like church and steeple and says, “Philosophy, religion and politics are all reconciled in Paul.”
My thumbs typing at a dizzying speed, I take notes on my i-phone, I do not want to miss a single syllable of this diatribe—this modern day pastor/scholar whom I have read through formative years, whose words helped me know Jesus. I am at once caught, head finds heart and my eyes flood with tears as Wright explains why he began the work with the letter to Philemon; tells us to listen for echoes of the Exodus in the short letter regarding Onesimus, slave and convert of Christ.
Slavery was a complicated and delicate social relationship in the ancient world, as was marriage, the role of women, the chasm of Jew and Gentile. As I read through this work, words dance off the page as Wright gives us Paul, arms stretched out in cross formation to master and slave and call them to be reconciled. Not only here but to the women of Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche, to Jews and Gentiles, this is the heart of Paul’s gospel; be reconciled in Christ Jesus.
I am reminded again why scholarship matters, why I have spent my life pouring over ancient manuscripts and why I am always captivated at the discovery of some stele or antiquated fragment. I remember why I have decided to occupy my days with Paul and Jesus and the women who served with them; it is-- all of it-- for the good of the church and the ministry of reconciliation.
Sometimes you just need to say “thanks.” Every now and again it is good and right to tip your hat or bow your head in gratitude to the one who stood up, spoke out and held steady. There are times when what is honorable is to acknowledge the valor of one who did what you could not; to recognize the gift of God that is a courageous heart.
I have been following Rachel Held Evans for about a year, not in a psycho stalker sort of way, rather as a distant admirer with my own set of reservations. I read her blog, bought her book on Biblical Womanhood and shared it with women in my church. I wonder where she studied and the origin of her passion for gender equality in the church and am dumbfounded by the precision and frequency of her posts.
I often take note of criticism cast her way, of jabs taken at her online persona, words wielded like swords that would reduce me to whimper and whine. I am humbled as she fights on. This past week Held Evans took on Catalyst’s online NINES Conference who offered 110 speakers in their line-up only four of whom were women. Held Evans objected via twitter to Nines organizer Todd Rhoades writing, “this is not what the church looks like.”
I read the twitter log back and forth a few days later and was once again, disappointed in church leaders who consistently make the error in lack of diversity and gender inclusion in events such as these and was disheartened by the venom cast Held Evans way by Christian men and conference organizers.
I thought about all the times I’ve returned home from attending some Christian conference, frustrated at the lack of female preaching presence, of all the countless instances when the male pronoun is the only one used or assumed when speaking of clergy, of every time I’ve avoided an event because of the numerous faces on the brochure, none of them looked like me. As a woman, a pastor and scholar I know this pain-this white hot anger-first hand but I have never, not once, publicly, forthrightly challenged a convener, denominational leader or conference organizer on these points. Instead, I go home, I wrap my frustration in a smile; practice my disappointment in detachment, return to my research, study harder, write better, preach more daringly, believing excellence is the path to overcome the obstacles before me.
Due to Held Evans persistence, the twitter battle led to some helpful dialogue about inclusion and we hope for good things to come. This post is not so much about my frustration or the short sided work of conveners of conferences such as The NINES as it is, a humble and heartfelt thanks to the woman who always raises the flag, who is ever taking the heat for the good of the church. This is a moment from one woman to another, to issue praise and thanksgiving for prophetic and provocative imagination, for dreaming the dream that we can be better than we are, that even on this side we can reflect the image of God in whose likeness we are, all of us, made.
To Rachel Held Evans, fierce heart, irreverent grace filled, blogging phenom, I raise my glass and say “thank you, I am with you and for you”