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

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Blessed Alliance

A conservative pastor of a denomination that does not believe in ordaining women once asked me point blank: “What do you think of women pastors?”

I thought I knew where this was heading. Groaning silently, I was sure his question was probably another attempt to locate me on the map of opinions on the role of women in ministry. So I dodged his question by answering with a question of my own. “Why do you ask?”

His answer couldn’t have surprised me more. “Because I want to hire one!”

What came out in the conversation that followed was neither a plot to subvert his denomination nor a private confession that he had switched camps in the debate over women. Instead, he expressed his heart for the pastoral needs of his congregation and his growing conviction that he needed a woman to help him address the diverse pastoral concerns within his congregation.

The issue he raised transcends the question of women’s ordination and goes to the heart of the foundational statement God made when He created the first woman: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). This pastor was experiencing first-hand the problem God diagnosed when Eden was male-only territory and offering his hearty “Amen!” to God’s solution.

At creation, God created his image bearers—male and female—to serve Him together as a Blessed Alliance in every sphere of life. The scope of their mission encompassed “all the earth” (Genesis 1:26). Therefore God’s special blessing rests uniquely on this male/female partnership both in marriage and everywhere else (Genesis 1:28).

This divine mission is much deeper than deciding which view we hold on the role of women in ministry. It goes beyond logistical issues or efforts to figure out better ways of dividing the workload and getting along. The mission is bound up in how well we represent God to our fractured world.

According to God’s design, male/female relationships are focal points of His plan to reveal Himself in this world. A lot is riding on the quality of these relationships and on how well we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, band together in common cause. This Blessed Alliance between men and women is a crucial kingdom strategy, then and now.

God’s original vision—a vision He has never abandoned but revives in the work of His Son—was for relationships between men and women to be dazzling points of light on this spinning globe. Dynamics between men and women were never intended to be a battle of the sexes or a heated debate within Christian circles. Male/female relationships in Christ are to be a glowing testament to the fact that we are followers of Jesus. This is where God means to put on display a gospel-powered love. This is where the world is supposed to see men and women laying down their lives for others, offering strength and wisdom to each other, and investing ourselves fully for God’s kingdom.

The whiplash I got from that conservative pastor’s comment has stayed with me as a reminder that kingdom work is handicapped when men or women move forward alone. Neither males nor females can do the job God has called us to do or be the people He created us to be if we divide up kingdom work by gender. God has called us to be a Blessed Alliance!

The Blue Parakeet

When I first heard the title of Professor Scot McKnight's latest book—The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible—I must admit I was both baffled and intrigued. What on earth does a blue parakeet have to do with reading the Bible?

The professor who (along with his wife) is an avid birdwatcher, found an illustration for some of our worst Bible reading habits in his own back yard when a blue parakeet suddenly appeared in the midst of his sparrow-dominated property.

At first, the strange little flat-beaked blue newcomer terrified the flock of sparrows. Bird psychologists would have been taking notes as they observed the sparrows' nervous behavior. In time, however, the sparrows adjusted. Even though the blue parakeet remained—blue as ever—the sparrows carried on as though nothing odd or unusual was among them.

The Bible, according to Dr. McKnight, is full of blue parakeet passages—texts that disturb a first-time reader, but to which we grow accustomed over time, learn to ignore, and eventually don't even see. Instead of allowing these blue parakeets to fly as they were meant to do, we domesticate them with methods that relieve our discomfort and put these awkward, disturbing, and seemingly disjointed passages to sleep. Instead of wrestling with what we’re reading, we grow comfortable with portions of Scripture that should jar us into asking hard questions and so we forfeit important opportunities intended to challenge our thinking and help us learn. In the process we're muting the message God means for His Word to speak into our lives.

Dr. McKnight exposes the rampant tendency among believers to “pick and choose” verses they embrace and those they push aside. Everyone is doing this. He identifies five widely-accepted parakeet taming methods that keep us from digging deeply into God’s word and points us to reading the Bible as story—the grand story God is weaving, composed of “wiki-stories” told by the writers and characters of the biblical narrative.

He takes for a case study verses relating to the role of women. Given the fact that leading evangelical scholars can’t agree on how to interpret these passages, it is difficult to argue with the professor’s assertion that the subject of women in the Bible is classic parakeet territory. I must say it warmed my heart to read his sincere apology to the women of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for not standing up for them when he was a professor at that seminary. You may or may not agree with his conclusions about these texts, but don’t let that stand in your way of reading this excellent book. He’ll make you think about how you read the Bible and guide you into a richer reading of God's word.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Pain in the Neck

A child once asked Queen Elizabeth II if her crown was heavy. With the wisdom of a sage the Queen replied, "It's supposed to be heavy."

In the late 1800's, Queen Victoria commissioned the design of a smaller crown to spare her aching neck. Among other reasons for her request, she found the Imperial Crown heavy and uncomfortable. According to Queen Elizabeth, her royal predecessor was removing a important reminder of the burdens that come with leadership, burdens capable of bringing leaders to their knees with a profound awareness of their need for God's help and wisdom.

Sometimes a pain in the neck can be a healthy thing.

No crown comes with the office of U.S. president. But the one who takes the oath of office is bearing a heavy load nonetheless. Before and after photos of former presidents reveal how the aging process accelerates under the pressures that weigh on the occupant of the Oval Office. Those burdens now rest on President Obama's shoulders. It wouldn't surprise me at all to learn he's already feeling an ache in his neck . According to the Queen, the responsibilities of leadership are "supposed to be heavy."

Now that the celebrating is over and our new president is already hard at work on a staggering list of problems and crises, maybe our own burdens and aching necks will remind us to pray for President Obama and for the ezer at his side. As we pray for our president and for others in government, we are, as one pastor put it, "seeking to be prayerful partners of God's shalom that comes, at least in part, through governments, civic leaders, and even presidents."

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Something to ponder . . .

"The narrative mode is neither incidental nor accidental to Christian belief. There is no more fundamental way to talk about God than in a story. . . . We know who we are only when we can place our selves—locate our stories—within God's story."

-Stanley Hauerwas

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Silence of God

This morning I received an email from a friend who wrote,

I find myself in a place I do not like which is feeling so distant from God and not having the confidence that I am hearing from Him; and I am on autopilot just going through the motions (which is scary to me). I know that God is at work but it seems like He is at work everywhere else but within me. (That is the first time I have had that thought!)

Her words speak to a deep place in me which so often in Christian circles we are not free to share with others. The struggle she describes is not only familiar territory for God's people, it's an important part of our journey with God. Sooner or later, most of us will know first-hand what she is talking about. Still, when you're going through it, there's always the fear of being viewed as a spiritual failure or hearing some quick-fix Bible verse or theological platitude that some well-meaning person thinks will snap us out of it.

Frank came across this YouTube by Andrew Peterson from his album, Love & Thunder, which we posted on the Mt. Hood Climbers blog. But since not all of you visit that blog, I wanted to post it here. If you want to read the lyrics, go here

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Surge

As I glanced over the last Dallas Theological Seminary alumni newsletter, my eye caught the announcement that the seminary had reached a significant milestone: 1500 female alumni on their roster. As one of the first women to set foot on the DTS campus as a student, I admit my heart skipped a beat when I saw that number. The fact that DTS was celebrating this was even more satisfying.

Rock on DTS!

Here are more encouraging statistics: The latest Association of Theological Seminaries study (2007-08) reported 34% of seminary students are women. Interestingly enough, the same report indicates a significant rise in the numbers of women students between the ages of 40-64—underscoring the happy notion that it’s never too late to get started! Furthermore, women now comprise 23% of fulltime seminary faculty.

This growing trend is one of the biggest success stories of the modern church, and we should be making a lot of noise about it. I know there are still some who question (or flat out oppose) the decision to offer theological education to women and still some seminaries that refuse to admit them. Opinions divide over how far women can go with their theological training and whether or not seminaries are capitulating to the culture (and more specifically to feminist influence) by opening their doors to women. But there is strong biblical warrant for what is happening.

The subject matter alone is reason enough for women to be part of the seminary community at every level. After all, theology is the study of God and no one (not even women) can get too much of that! Hopefully, the presence of women in theological seminaries will correct the misperception that theology is for men only and women should just learn from them.

Let us not forget that Jesus defended Mary’s desire to “sit at his feet” and learn along with His male disciples—a description that identifies her as a rabbinical student. As I noted in my book, When Life and Beliefs Collide, Mary was the first real NT theologian to grasp the meaning of His atonement and the hope of his resurrection. Even Mary’s sister Martha began theologizing as she conversed with Jesus after the death of her brother Lazarus. Then there are His challenging interactions with the Samaritan and Syrophoenician women, as well as His choice of Mary Magdalene and the other women from Galilee to be the first witnesses and proclaimers of the resurrected Jesus. All this in a culture that rarely if ever offered formal education to women, where men avoided public conversation with women, and where a woman’s testimony was inadmissible in a court of law.

I have hard time believing Jesus isn’t rejoicing in the swelling numbers of women pursuing theological studies today.

It is indeed a good thing that more women are walking the hallowed halls of seminaries. What is more, there is a growing recognition that the seminary community needs women. My latest book, The Gospel of Ruth, reinforced this conviction, as I studied the conversations between Ruth and Boaz—discussions over Mosaic Law where Ruth’s insights expanded Boaz’s understanding and subsequent actions. Likewise today, the involvement of women in theological seminaries is changing things for the better. Suddenly a new pair of eyes falls upon the biblical text. A new perspective that has for centuries been missing is now enriching the discussion of God and His Word. And men—both fellow seminary students and professors—are the better for it.

And isn’t this the way things are supposed to be? When God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” what part of life did He exclude? Even in seminary—maybe especially in seminary—men and women need each other.

So, I’m celebrating the numbers! It is glorious to see them surging.

And now a word to women seminarians—students, alumni, and professors (yes, this is a commercial): If you’re feeling isolated, alone, or unwelcome, if you’ve hit a wall in your job search, or you simply want to connect with other like-minded women who believe in you and want to see you flourish in your academic and ministry pursuits—Synergy2009 is for you!

Come join us MARCH 6-8, 2009, and let us cheer you on!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Welcoming 2009!

I have mixed feelings every time I crack open a new journal or start a new year. There’s something irresistibly hopeful about that brand new calendar and those pristine journal pages.

Maybe this time around, all my journal entries will be upbeat accounts of how well my life is going, instead of those late night wrestlings with God over things that have gone wrong. To quote the optimistic Miss Stacy from Anne of Green Gables, “Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it.”

Then again, I can’t help feeling a sense of apprehension over what I might encounter as the year rolls on, especially with 2008 ending on such a turbulent note and so much of the past moving seamlessly with us into 2009.

What will I be writing on those pages?

In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, England’s King George VI borrowed the words of poet Minnie Louise Haskins to reassure a worried nation in his annual Christmas broadcast. Words which remain reassuring to us today.

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, "Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown."

And he replied, "Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!"

God's blessings to you in 2009!