"The moment the word 'why' crosses your lips, you are doing theology."
—When Life & Beliefs Collide                

Monday, July 28, 2014

Patriarchy's Patron Saint or a Woman's Best Friend?

Rembrandt's Apostle Paul
If any New Testament writer was inclined to drop F-Bombs, the obvious candidate would be the Apostle Paul. After all, he is the patron saint of patriarchy—right?

Not so fast!

Recall that Paul was minding his own business, following his strategically mapped out second missionary trek in Asia Minor, when the Holy Spirit dramatically and abruptly changed Paul's GPS settings and diverted him to Europe (Acts 16:6-40).

In the aftermath of that remarkable vision, apostolic expectations must have been riding high when Paul arrived in the city of Philippi. And what did he find there?  Women! No men. Only women!

Is this not the quintessential "feminized" church? It was hardly a recovering Jewish Pharisee's comfort zone.

Perfect moment for an F-Bomb.

Perhaps we could find it in our hearts to forgive the great apostle if he had muttered an objecting F-Bomb under his breath. But he didn't. If this meeting was a shocking disappointment or an unpromisingly weak beginning for a church, Paul never let on. Instead, he proceeded to plant the first church in Europe with a team of believing women. Turns out, this church was strong from day one, becoming an indispensable source of solidarity and strength for Paul.

What is more, the Philippian church came to hold a special place in Paul's heart. Far from lamenting over the "lack of men," Paul later mused over that first meeting in a letter that is oozing with with deep affection for the Philippian church's Founding Mothers and their ministry with him.
"I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3–5, emphasis added).
My post, "Dropping F-Bombs," opened an issue that needs further discussion. Why do women tend to outnumber men in the Christian church? What is it about Christianity that tends to draw more women than men? Why do some men stay away?

Eliminating offensive language from the discussion (words like "feminized" and "feminization") is a step in the right direction that opens the way for deeper, more thoughtful conversation about real issues that concern us all.

So to continue the conversation and turn the discussion in a more constructive direction, let me make some observations regarding women in the church.

First, from the beginning of Christianity, indeed from the ministry of Jesus himself, the Christian gospel has had what Margaret Manning describes as an "ineluctable pull" on women. (See her article, "Good News for Women").

This goes contrary to the fact that religion in general is under increasing criticism as an oppressor of women. Unfortunately, there's a good deal of truth in this perception with respect to the Christian church which has been and is still complicit in marginalizing women. But this is not the way it was supposed to be and it wasn't this way in the beginning. Historically, women have often been the first to respond to the gospel in many places around the globe and tend to be enfolded into the church in higher numbers than men.

This speaks to the unique nature of Christianity and most especially to the pattern Jesus himself established by his radically counter-cultural inclusion of women at the highest levels in his ministry.

It all began with his mother, who was first to put her life on the line for Jesus. She was the first of many to follow him. Jesus included women among his disciples, even among those who traveled with him (Luke 8:1-3). Women sat at his feet (in mixed company) as rabbinical students, engaged publicly with Jesus in deep theological discussions (e.g., the Samaritan woman and Martha of Bethany), stood with him during his crucifixion, witnessed his burial, were the first to proclaim his resurrection, and were crucial eye-witness sources of details about the most important events of Jesus' life (birth, death, burial, and resurrection) that ultimately were recorded in the gospels.

Jesus could not have been more counter-cutural to the first century patriarchal culture.

The sound of shattering glass as women break through gender barriers is not a modern phenomenon. Jesus was known for empowering women to break through gender barriers in a culture significantly more restrictive than our 21st Century America.

Little wonder women were and are still drawn to him.  

Second, shouldn't we be asking what God is up to when women (as Paul experienced in Philippi) are often the first to respond to the gospel? Could this possibly be a kingdom strategy instead of a problem? It is a total mystery to me that some of the loudest lamenters over the "feminization of the church" are staunchly Reformed—men like John Piper and Mark Driscoll. These pastors will go to the mat with anyone who challenges their flagship belief in God's sovereignty in salvation. Their own theology points to the fact that God's sovereign method of invading cultures and homes with the gospel is often by beginning with women. The evidence is overwhelming. You'd think they'd be the first to notice this and get behind what God is doing instead of demeaning women with F-Bombs and mocking men in the church as "chickified."

Several years ago, I encountered the male/female ratio imbalance when I spoke at women's conferences in Japan. At the time, the Japanese church was a mere 3% of the population. Within the 3%, 90% were women. I get why this means more work needs to be done to reach the men of Japan. But instead of recognizing this pattern as a divine strategy and marveling at how God is advancing his work in Japan by beginning with women, missionaries I consulted were wringing their hands over the shortage of men.

What would happen if we recognized this subversive kingdom strategy at work and instead of asking women to hold back, challenged them to live courageously into God's calling?

Third, women long for a more robust Christianity that not only challenges our minds, but that calls us to kingdom action. This hunger is driven because we know an anorexic spiritual diet will not sustain us in the kinds of battles God is calling us to engage.

My entire ministry has been built on the premise that women want and need to know God in deeper ways and that knowing him comes with kingdom responsibility. We don't want to play at our Christianity when the gospel calls us to arm ourselves and to stand firm against the Enemy. God doesn't call his daughters to be spectators, but active participants in his mission for the world. We don't want to be ill-equipped and added burdens for others who need us to be strong alongside them.

Here's what blogger Bronwyn Lea says in her post, "What Women Want from the Church":
"I want to hear about the Jesus who demanded loyalty, who commanded authority from storms, sinners and satanic forces, who said vexing and frustrating and wild things. I want to hear preaching which is not just faithful to His words but to His TONE: of comfort but also of rebuke, of welcome but also of warning. I want to hear His dares, His call to come and die, His challenge to make hard choices. I want the Jesus of the gospels who does not just meet our needs, but who calls us to bold and courageous adventure, to self-sacrifice, to taking risks. I want the Jesus who promises huge rewards for huge sacrifices, who embraces feisty Peter and wayward Mary and touchy-feely John.

I want the Jesus who welcomed the little children, but also the Jesus with eyes like a flame of fire, with feet of burnished bronze and a sharp two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. Whatever that wild imagery means, I want to grapple with it. I want the Jesus who inspires my awe and calls forth my worship: a gospel from The Gospels. That's the Jesus I want. That's the Jesus I need: the one who is worthy of the honor, adoration and allegiance of men and women alike."
What are your thoughts?

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Not Where You Might Expect to Find Me

Inside a flowered book jacket ... on a LifeWay bookstore shelf ... tucked snuggly into the Women of Faith Bible study series?

Yup. That's me.

And despite what you might think, Understanding Purpose is not out of step with the four other books I've written (which, by the way LifeWay also carries), but is perfectly aligned with everything else I've written.

Here's the backstory.

Right in the middle of writing Lost Women of the Bible, I got a call from Mary Graham, President of Women of Faith. She had heard about my work through a mutual friend, Judy Nelson Lewis, and wondered if I'd write a volume on a woman's purpose for their Bible study series. Well aware that the WOF audience is wildly diverse, she wanted a study that was inclusive of every woman and young girl their ministry touched.

She said she hadn't read my book (only When Life and Beliefs Collide was out at the time), but her best friend had read it. Mary had browsed parts her friend had highlighted, and that prompted the phone call.

This would be a rush project and would mean temporarily suspending progress on Lost Women of the Bible. But it opened the door for me to gets the ezer message and the Genesis vision to a whole new audience of women.

It was an opportunity I couldn't resist.

The study is designed for use in small groups. But occasionally I hear from someone who is using it differently.

For example, a mom wanted me to know that she and her teenage daughter who was away at college—just the two of them—were doing the study together long distance. The study was generating some very interesting phone conversations between them on topics they otherwise might not have discussed.

Then, just recently, I received the encouraging note below from a friend who is working through the study by herself after reading my four other books.  She wrote,

"I am going through your Understanding Purpose book right now. It is BRILLIANT! I feel like I’ve been able to learn and absorb in three different ways these ideas you’re communicating:
   1) reading your books
   2) hearing you speak
   3) and now as a personal Bible study through this book
I'm enjoying this time with the Lord as I reflect on all these verses in my time with Him and think about his purposes for me! And talk with him about it!! And the outline in the book is brilliantly helpful to me in sort of visualizing a framework of the whole idea of purpose.

So I am LOVING that. And what a fantastic study this book would be for a small group!"

—Libby Cannizzaro
Women's Ministry Coordinator
The Falls Church Anglican
Falls Church, Virginia

So if you're looking for a Bible study to do on your own, with a friend, or in a study group, I hope you'll consider Understanding Purpose.  The Table of Contents is below.

Introduction—Does One Size Really Fit All?

Finding My Purpose . . . 
     Chapter 1     In a Broken World
     Chapter 2     With a Little Help from Oprah
     Chapter 3     As A Daughter of Eve
     Chapter 4     On God’s A-Team

Pursuing My Purpose . . . 
     Chapter 5     At the Feet of Rabbi Jesus
     Chapter 6     In the Trenches
     Chapter 7     On the Frontlines
     Chapter 8     Behind the Scenes

Living My Purpose . . . 
     Chapter 9     In the Home
     Chapter 10   In the Church
     Chapter 11   In the World
     Chapter 12   Awakening the Warrior in Me

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Something to ponder ...

Fr. Richard Rohr
"Do not get rid of your hurts until you have learned all that they have to teach you. . . . trust [your] time in the belly of the whale, how to stay there without needing to fix, to control or even to fully understand it, and to wait until God spits you up on a new shore."

"The bottom line of the Gospel is that most of us have to hit some kind of bottom before we even start the real spiritual journey. Up to that point, it is mostly religion. At the bottom, there is little time or interest in being totally practical, efficient, or revenue generating. You just want to breathe fresh air. The true Gospel is always fresh air and spacious breathing room."

Monday, July 14, 2014

Dropping F-Bombs

This past week, I passed the three-month marker since my surgery and I'm back in fighting form.

During my recovery, (besides tracking baseball) I’ve been reading a lot. I’m in my second Richard Rohr book. The first was Falling Upward: A Spirituaity for the Two Halves of Life—a powerful read I recommend that was especially timely to be reading during my recovery from surgery.

I mostly like what Rohr has to say. In fact, at this point I probably qualify for a Richard Rohr Reader Fan Club membership.

However, as I was reading From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality, Rohr crossed a line that triggered a firestorm in me. He dropped an F-bomb, and I can’t let this pass without comment.

As Rohr laments the absence of fathers (especially as spiritual influences) in the lives of their sons, he writes,
“Religion in our culture has become the province of the female, and spirituality has become feminized. American Christianity is much more about belonging and consoling [alleged “feminine” traits] than doing, risking and confronting [aka “male” attributes]. Nor can Jesus even provide a real male model for [men], for we have become so used to seeing Jesus as God that we never truly see Jesus as a man. He even has blond hair and blue eyes…” [italics and bracketed comments are mine]
Rohr is not the first man I've known to use this kind of offensive language. I’ve had several candid “conversations” with Christian men I’ve heard talk about “the feminization of the church” when speaking publicly. They often appear surprised that women would find their language objectionable.

Well, we do!

I can understand and even appreciate Rohr’s larger point, but the use of the word “feminized” (or “feminization”) misses the mark. Such language disparages women—actually points the finger of blame at them for what is wrong with American Christianity and why some men avoid attending church. It misdiagnoses the problem and justifies promoting a testosterone-driven version of Christianity as a cure (as we are seeing in certain sectors of evangelicalism).

This just creates a whole new set of problems.

Ironically, at the very moment I came across Rohr's remark about a “feminized” American Christianity, seventy-two women from six countries were gathering in the Colorado Rocky Mountains for the purpose of summiting seven 14,000 foot mountains in four days.

Their previous climbs have included Mt Kilimanjaro and the Mt Everest Base Camp. None of these are recreational climbs. These women are testing their physical limits to raise awareness and funding to help stop slavery and human trafficking.

I’ve heard their stories. I was sore for days after doing one of their “moderate” climbs. These major climbs are not for sissies!

The Freedom Climbers (ranging in age from 18-72) are my heroes. They’re going way outside their comfort zones for the sake of others. Their actions define the meaning of “doing,” “risking,” and “confronting,” although these traits, as they’re discovering, are well within the attributes God intends for them as female.

I’m willing to give Rohr the benefit of the doubt (this one time anyway) because of what he says earlier in his book. There he rejects dividing human characteristics into masculine or feminine categories as “false-masculine” and “false-feminine.” He goes on to assert that “both of us are the losers” when we selectively choose some qualities while rejecting others that are equally essential to being fully human—qualities Jesus models for all of us.

Rohr proceeds to merge these falsely segregated categories.
“We are deprived of that healthy wholeness—and, I would even say, holiness—which comes from integrating both the masculine and feminine in our lives as men or women. . . . The spiritually whole person integrates within himself or herself both the masculine and the feminine dimensions of the human spirit.”
In the end, whatever Rohr meant by “feminized” with respect to the evangelical church and Christian spirituality is as disturbing, distasteful, and costly to women as it is to men. We all need a strong, deep, caring, and outwardly mobilized Christian spirituality. Women cannot be who God created us to be as ezer-warriors if we do not cultivate strength, decisiveness, and a readiness for action. And frankly, men will be stunted if they are duped into thinking their manhood is compromised if they are loving, sensitive, and gentle, or if they cry.

"Feminized" and "feminization" may not be four-letter words. But these F-bombs need to be dropped from this discussion nonetheless!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Reentry At Last!

Recovery is taking longer than I expected, but I'm starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Starting this week, I'm planning gradually to be more active locally—starting with speaking at a Symposium hosted by Biblical Seminary's Doctor of Ministry Program this Thursday.

The topic alone is enough to motivate me to get moving:  Gospel Subversion: How the Gospel Transforms Gender Dynamics in a Fallen World

It's open to the public and FREE.  I've been looking forward to this for weeks. If you're in the area, I hope you'll join us. Here's the information:

Date:  Thursday, May 29, 2014
Time:  4:00-6:00pm

Location:  Biblical Seminary | 200 N. Main St. | Hatfield, PA 19440

  • Paul Louis Metzger, Author/Professor at Multnomah Seminary (more about him below)
  • Carolyn Custis James, Author and Founder of WhitbyForum

Here's how Dr. Derek Cooper (Director, Doctor of Ministry Program) described this Symposium:
"The aim of the discussion is to offer a different approach as to how evangelical Christians can engage the debated issues related to gender differences. Are we reading our Bibles correctly? What does it mean that men and women are both created in God's image? How might the global church help us think about this subject? These and other questions will be addressed. All too often, the discussion of the roles of women and men has degenerated into harsh debates. Is there a way forward that honors Christ? We are convinced there is a better way.

Paul Louis Metzger is a professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Oregon and author of several books, including Connecting Christ, Consuming Jesus and Exploring Ecclesiology. He blogs at Uncommon God, Common Good.

  • Welcome by Frank James, President of BTS
  • Presentation by Paul Louis Metzger 
  • Presentation by Carolyn Custis James 
  • Question & Answer Session w/both Speakers 
  • Concluding Prayer by Frank James 
Registration:  Contact Bea Barkley (bbarkley@biblical.edu) or call 215-368-5000 x158.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Carolyn Update # 15 - It's an Ezer!

This will be the final of the updates as I continue on the road to recovery and back to my normal self. Back to blogging too.

The road to recovery has been bathed in God’s mercies, but none more precious than the birth of our little granddaughter, Arden Olivia James-Rodriguez. She was born this past Saturday night, May 17, at 11:24pm.

It was the second time Frank and I completely lost our hearts over a baby girl.

I was so afraid my surgery was going to make us miss being with our daughter Allison to support her when she gave birth—either because I was not well enough or because our timing was off. But by God’s grace we were there in plenty of time to support Alli and welcome Arden. I was with Alli when she delivered, and she was a total champ.

We think our little granddaughter is a beauty and that Alli and Tony will be great parents.

Thanks to Amy Lauger for posting our updates here on WhitbyForum and to Alli for posting the links on FaceBook through my surgery and the challenging weeks that followed. Frank and I are so thankful for your prayers and notes of encouragement. You’ll never know how much they have meant to us.

I still have a long way to go, so please do continue to pray!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Carolyn Update # 14

An update from Carolyn's husband, Frank:
Sisters and Brothers:

I am especially grateful today. Yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, Carolyn and I had our first post-operation appointment with her surgeon. We knew this was the point where the rubber met the road because we would be discussing the definitive pathology report. The news was wonderful—no chemo and no radiation follow up treatment. The pathology report confirmed that it was early stage cancer and that the surgeon got everything. The surgeon reassured us that the future is bright.

CCJ wept on the way home. She was overwhelmed that an inconvenient visit to the ER in Portland, Oregon late last year when she was on the road led to the discovery of the problem. If not for that inconvenient visit, we would never have known about the cancer. CCJ’s tears were tears of gratitude.

CCJ is still in recovery mode and is still battling pain. But this good news was healing in itself.

Thanks for your prayers.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Carolyn Update # 13

Just passed week three. Empathetic emails from two friends who have traveled this long post-surgery road to recovery reassured me that, as one of them put it, "Carolyn is normal."

Nice to know. But I'm really looking forward to a different kind of normal.

Frank is back stateside after his trip to South Korea. As I write this he's making his jet-lagged way from Kennedy Airport to me.

Heavy rains this past week flooded the Hobbit Hole. So next stop for both of us will be a hotel. Feels like we're still dipping into that unpredictable box of chocolates.

Please keep us in your prayers.


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Carolyn Update # 12

Wow! This is a lot harder than I expected. Medical professionals, my cousin, and friends are saying, "Listen to your body." Managing the pain, slowing the pace, and being patient with the process are the priorities. None of them are easy for me. But bodies can be effective communicators. So I'm listening.

News from South Korea is encouraging and fast-paced. I'm so glad Frank was able to make the trip. Although I'm thinking he's going to need to do some listening to his own body when he gets back on Saturday. I can't wait to have him home again.

In the meantime, I am blessed with the most incredibly loving care of family and friends.

Thanks again for praying!


Saturday, April 26, 2014

Carolyn Update # 11

Frank is safely in Seoul and moving forward with his schedule, which I have to keep reminding myself is one day ahead of us. I, on the other hand, just passed the 2-week milestone from the day of my surgery. I’m thankful to have that day two weeks behind me.

Frank and my cousin’s husband Tom Wilson were in seminary at the same time, and some of our favorite memories of those years are of the times the four of us spent together. No one (including Frank) anticipated the miracle Tommy and Karen pulled off when they talked my country-music loving husband into attending the full performance of Handel’s Messiah. It was something of a conversion experience for Frank who developed a strong affinity for classical music after that.

Karen and Tommy put down roots in Philly, so one of the big plusses of our move back to Philly was that it reunited our group. Of course, we never imagined how badly we would need them right away. Karen is is spoiling me while Frank’s away with her love and care. Among other things, Tommy and I have baseball in common. (He’s being very cool about my Red Sox loyalties, although that might change once I get better.)

Many thanks again for praying for Frank and me. We are encouraged by your thoughtful notes and support.