Saturday, April 23, 2011

Broken Body Made Whole

I never will forget the first Anglican service I attended, when someone looked me squarely in the eye, handed me the bread, and spoke these powerfully personal words: "This is the Body of Christ which was broken for you."

I thought my legs were going to buckle.

But a whole body, not a broken one, was the trajectory of Jesus' ministry.  Even before he was broken, he envisioned his body restored, healthy, and whole, where his male and female image bearers—young and old, rich and poor, from every tongue and tribe and nation—coalesce into one healthy, vigorous, fully functioning, interdependent Body of Christ.

The brand of oneness Jesus restores among his male and female image bearers doesn't depend on sameness—which is what most of us in the Body of Christ keep thinking and why oneness seems perpetually beyond our reach.
"The oneness God envisions doesn’t erase individuality, but actually benefits from and is enriched by their differences. But the oneness for which they are created doesn’t leave God out; rather, it finds its center in him. What unleashes the kingdom potency and the enormous good of this male/female oneness is when, like an astronomical syzygy where gravity pulls three celestial bodies into a straight line, the two of them align with God.
Half the Church
Jesus' body was broken to end hostility, division, estrangement, injustice, and violence within the human race.  His body is not supposed to remain broken, but to be restored—interconnected into an other-worldly oneness that captures the world's attention leaves them marveling, "See how they love one another!"

Jesus' body was broken so that his body might be made whole and that the world might know he has come. That was his prayer for us—
"that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." 
—John 17:21

Friday, April 22, 2011

Is God Good for Women?

Last week, in a well-known Christian college, a Bible professor stated unequivocally to his class that “Men are created in the image of God, but women are created in the image of man.” His assertion is a flat denial of what is stated plainly on page one of the Bible, but unfortunately has long roots that can be traced back to early church fathers, including the revered St. Augustine, and has done enormous damage. I remember the first time I heard anyone say, “God created both women and men in his image.” I was in my twenties, had grown up in the church, and this was news to me.

The comment made by former President Jimmy Carter (a Bible-believing Christian) linking religion to the global epidemic of discrimination against women (posted here), coupled with the boatload of criticisms former Christian Paula Kirby unloads against Christianity in her article “Religion lies about women” (posted here) confronts the church with questions that are neither unfair nor manufactured.

To the contrary, both are raising legitimate questions about biblical texts, traditional interpretations, and widespread practices, and they are not the only ones who are asking. Historically, and still today, the church’s teachings and practices have opened the door, if not directly contributed, to discrimination against women. We need to be honest about that. Countless women and men both outside and inside the church know this to be true, including many former Christians who, like Kirby, have vacated the church.

Kirby’s article will (and should) make Christians squirm. But this is not a moment for dismissive remarks or clever counterattack. The offenses bundled up in the phrase “discrimination against women” are real and range from polite to sinister. Globally they encompass unspeakable suffering, violent atrocities, and deadly consequences for countless women and girls. If you want to put things in perspective, read Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s bestselling book, Half the Sky. In fact, Half the Sky challenged me to examine the relevance of the Bible’s message for women and girls in this century, and my findings resulted in Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women.

Kirby is raising important questions and deserves to be taken seriously. At a minimum, the church loses credibility in the world and squanders vital human resources God designed to bless the world when we embrace a weak, guarded, and small message for women within our ranks. This alone is reason enough to engage the issues Kirby is raising. Her article opens a window of opportunity the church has responsibility to engage. Her honest questions are not sidebars to the Christian faith, but central to the gospel we embrace. Nothing quite outrages God and his prophets like abuse of power and injustices against women, the poor, and the foreigner. Christians today should be on the forefront in addressing the slightest hint of oppression both inside and outside the church. Kirby’s questions challenge the church’s ability to speak into the lives of women in the twenty-first century with relevance and a message that empowers women to live fully and that promotes their flourishing in today’s world. It’s a fair question: Is the good news of the gospel truly good news for women too?

I have been asking these questions for years, not as an outsider, but as a committed Christian woman. This discussion isn’t academic for me. These issues touch down in my life and in the lives of women and girls globally in deeply personal, everyday practical ways. They shape our choices, limit or expand our horizons, and impact how we see ourselves and our place in God’s world. They have a profound effect on our marriages and on our interactions with men.

Difficult and debated texts in the Bible are not peripheral to this discussion. But the search for answers must also include examining the big picture of Scripture—God’s vision for us in the beginning that Jesus came to restore. Rather than build our understanding of God’s calling for his daughters solely on disputed Scripture passages, it is important to examine the lives of women in Scripture to see what God actually calls women to do and how they join their believing brothers in recovering God’s kingdom vision for the world and to consider how consistently Jesus went against the culture in his interactions with women.

Stories of women in the Bible must be viewed within their cultural context, for they occur within an ancient patriarchal culture—a world that is foreign to Western American culture, but has more in common with countries in today’s Middle East. In patriarchy, sons are prized and daughters don’t count. Kirby is correct in noting how few women appear on the pages of the Bible—in all, approximately ten percent of the characters in the Bible are female. Female names rarely appear in genealogies. Daughters are married off and leave to build another man’s house. But a man is nothing and his line is cut off if he is without sons. The Bible’s message is cast in sharp relief against that cultural backdrop, making the stories of women in the Bible leap off the pages with surprising twenty-first century relevance.

What follows here is just the tip of the iceberg. But these biblical texts are as authoritative as the disputed texts and need to be included in this discussion.

In the Genesis creation narrative, I read that God created “male and female in his image and likeness.” Every woman born is God’s image bearer—an identity that confers enormous dignity and purpose on every woman and girl and comes with heavy leadership responsibility to speak and act as God’s representatives in the world. In fact, there is no higher view of women possible than the call to be like God. We are called to embrace God’s heart for the world and to be active agents of justice, compassion, and good for others. This is indisputable.

From creation, I learn that when God created his male and female image bearers “he blessed them,” then spread before them the whole earth, commanding them to “be fruitful and multiply,” to “rule and subdue.” These commands point beyond merely populating the earth to live fruitful, productive lives, not to ruling and subduing each other, but to governing the whole earth together for their mutual flourishing. Male and female are God’s A-Team—called to forge a Blessed Alliance to reclaim territory and people the Enemy holds captive, to push back the darkness, and to build God’s kingdom together. Even Wall Street is seeing the wisdom of men and women working together, as they wonder if we’d be in the current financial crisis if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Brothers and Sisters. God created male and female to cultivate, utilize, and steward earth’s vast resources for the good of all and to do it together. This is indisputable.

Naomi is a childless post-menopausal widow—a female Job figure who in the patriarchal culture lives at the bottom of the social ladder. Yet God recruits Naomi to become the wise mentor of the king’s grandfather. She draws deep wisdom about God from the school of suffering and teaches us that no matter what shape our lives are in or how little others may think of us, God never counts us out. Kingdom building is a lifelong occupation, and sometimes God is advancing his kingdom in big ways through the efforts of the least among us. This is indisputable.

Through Naomi’s gentile daughter-in-law Ruth, God call his daughters to take responsibility for the needs around us, to live boldly, take risks, fearlessly initiate solutions, and advocate for others even when it means moving out of our comfort zone to engage and challenge the thinking of those in positions of authority over us. This is indisputable.

God raises up Deborah, Hannah, Esther, and countless others as role models for all women, reminding us that he is accomplishing great things through his daughters—shaping nations, instructing kings, and enriching the church with the theology, wisdom, and strength of women both in the past and also today. These women also remind our brothers that they can’t build God’s kingdom without us. This is indisputable.

Add Jesus to these stories. A distinctive of Jesus’ ministry was a radical counter-cultural activism for women. As a rabbi, he violated the status quo that frowned on teaching women by publicly defending their right to learn, openly teaching them himself, and giving them strategic leadership responsibilities as his disciples. He was proactive on behalf of widows, gave top priority to daughters in a patriarchal culture that favored sons, turned the finger of blame away from a woman caught in adultery to confront her self-righteous male accusers, and entrusted women as witnesses and spokespersons for his gospel in a culture that refused to admit female testimony in a court of law. This is indisputable.

Jesus sobers me with his parable of the talents. It’s a serious matter to Jesus when we bury our gifts and talents in the ground instead of employing and investing them for his kingdom. This is indisputable.

Even the Apostle Paul corroborates Jesus’ message by employing the language of anatomy to underscore the fact that women are vital members of the body of Christ, that the whole body needs our gifts and ministries, and that it is hindered if we withhold them. This is indisputable.

Although none of this settles the questions posed by President Carter and Paula Kirby, I want to invite the conversation they provoke by adding more fodder to a discussion I welcome and am convinced the church needs to engage. Women make up half the church and in many places more than half. A lot is at stake in the issues being raised.

So let’s have that conversation.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Headin' for "Big D"

Just back from an amazing packed five days in Chicago and, next week, I'm back on the road again—this time in Dallas for another packed week of events.

See information and links below and learn about more freebies. If you live anywhere near Dallas, I hope you'll think seriously about coming to one or more of these events.

Christian Leadership Alliance Conference 
Tuesday-Thursday, April 26-28

FullFill is partnering with CLA to present this year's conference.

I'll be speaking 2 times, plus a workshop. You can learn more about the conference here.

Sign up with the code FFCLA11, and you'll receive FREE copies of Elisa Morgan's book, She Did What She Could and the study guide that goes with it.

And by the way, if you aren't already subscribed to FullFill's online magazine, you should. It's FREE too. It includes lots of thoughtful articles, including my column called { Think }.

Check out the latest issue (and subscribe) here.

Life Today television interview with James Robison
Tuesday, April 26, 7:00 p.m.

If you're free Tuesday evening and you live in the Dallas area, I'd really love to see some friends in the audience. They're offering FREE tickets to attend.  The following invitation is from LIFE Today:

"You're invited to be in the studio audience for the appearance of Carolyn Custis James on the LIFE Today show with James Robison, Tuesday, April 26 at 7 p.m. For your FREE tickets email or call 817-354-3655."

Location:  1801 West Euless Boulevard
                 Euless, Texas 76040

Half the Church Book Launch Hosted by Women's Ministries
Park Cities Presbyterian Church
Thursday, April 28, 7-8:00 p.m.

I'm looking forward to talking about my new book, Half the Church. This gathering is open to the public. No reservations are required.

For more information, go here, or contact Laurie Butterfield, 214-224-2722.

Location:  4124 Oak Lawn Avenue
                 Dallas, TX 75219

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

News Updates!

The FREE download of The Gospel of Ruth, Kindle edition, is still on. If you don't have a Kindle, download the FREE version of Kindle PC and read books on your computer.

Also the Kindle editions of When Life and Beliefs Collide and Lost Women of the Bible are both still available at $3.99 each. 

The Midday Connection interview series on Half the Church, hosted by Anita Lustrea and Melinda Schmidt, has been expanded from nine to ten weeks. Today, we only got through the introduction, "Seeing Beyond Ourselves." Anita and Melinda generate a lively discussion and really get into the subject matter. I love working with them!

I've added Wheaton College to my "Windy City" itinerary. On Tuesday, April 12, I'll be participating in a couple of classes and possibly a "Fireside Chat" with students.

9-Week Half the Church Series Starts Today!

Today, Anita Lustrea, with co-host Melinda Schmidt, is launching a nine-week series about Half the Church on Midday Connection.  We're going to discuss our way through the book, chapter-by-chapter.

Live broadcast is 1:00 ET/noon CT each week. Listen online or check their website for local listings.  If you missed the first broadcast, you can listen here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Windy City

This weekend, I'm heading to Chicago with a full agenda and the chance to catch up with a lot of friends.

Friday-Sunday, Mary Whelchel is hosting The Christian Working Woman's 23rd Annual Weekend Getaway where I'll be one of the speakers. Registration is still open if you're in the area and can come for all or part of the weekend.

Monday, I'm meeting twice with the women of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School—9-11am with students and 6-8pm with the TEDS Wives Fellowship.

Between those Monday meetings, is an in-studio taping at Moody Radio of the second in a nine-week Midday Connection series Anita Lustrea is hosting on Half the Church. Instead of the usual telephone interview, I'll be seeing Anita live and in action!  Starting tomorrow (Wednesday, April 6), she and I will discussing our way through every chapter of Half the Church.  If you've ever heard Anita's interviews, you'll understand why I'm looking forward to this nine-week series!  Audios are posted online for those who can't catch the live broadcast.

Tuesday morning, I'm a guest on The Harvest Show in South Bend, Indiana. Once again, Half the Church will be the topic of discussion. 

It's a packed schedule, and no doubt I will feel wind-blown by the time I head home. But I'm looking forward to conversations about Half the Church and to hearing from women in the Chicago area.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Shepherd's Heart

As little kids, most of us experienced at least once that horrible panicky feeling of being lost in the grocery store and the huge sense of relief that sweeps over you when mom or dad shows up to claim their missing child. When I recall my childhood, I associate that feeling with Sunday after church. As a P.K., I was often the last child to get picked up from the nursery.

Last October, when I was in Cape Town for Lausanne 2010, that panicky feeling returned. I was on a long-awaited field trip with the Reconciliation as the Mission of God group on the one free afternoon during the conference. I'd been looking forward to it all week long. But at the very first stop, I got separated from my group. By the time I realized my mistake, the whole group had moved on without me. I dashed out of the museum door to the street and looked in every direction. They were nowhere in sight. No one saw them leave or knew which way they had gone. I had a suspenseful several minutes until, to my great relief, I saw the leader of our group, Chris Rice, heading my way.

In today's Lenten reading, Jesus asks the disproving Pharisees and ultimately every one of us to move beyond merely contemplating lost sheep to contemplate the heart of the shepherd.
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose someone among you had a hundred sheep and lost one of them. Wouldn’t he leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one until he finds it? And when he finds it, he is thrilled and places it on his shoulders. When he arrives home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Celebrate with me because I’ve found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to change their hearts and lives.
—Luke 15:1-7, CEB
The Pharisees were revolted by the company Jesus was keeping. Their attitudes mirror a young man in Khaleo Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns who "spoke quickly and with emphatic, arrogant confidence . . . the sort of quarrelsome young man who relished his authority, who saw offenses everywhere, thought it his birthright to pass judgment."

In jarring contrast, Jesus doesn’t show the slightest flicker of revulsion and is, in fact, patently unapologetic about hanging out with society’s outcasts. Much to the astonishment of the Pharisees, and no doubt to his disciples, Jesus reinforces his regard for the outcasts by telling a story of a shepherd’s relentless pursuit of that one lost sheep and his unconcealed joy at finding it. And there is dancing in the streets of heaven over just one repentant sinner Jesus restores to the fold.

So here’s the kicker both for the Pharisees and for us. Jesus isn’t merely explaining himself to his critics. He’s raising the bar for how his followers are to live. When God created male and female in his image and likeness, he wasn’t merely establishing our superiority to plants and animals. He was also defining our exalted mission as human beings, namely, to represent God in this world. To speak and act for him.

The only way we know how this is to be done is by making Jesus—God's perfect image bearer—our study and then by practicing what he preaches. For God’s image bearers, both male and female, Jesus is our role model. In his habit of dining with the outcasts of society and his story of a determined shepherd in pursuit of his lost sheep, Jesus is modeling what it means to live according to the image of God. If that doesn’t get through to us, then at the very least, when we pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we should ponder heaven’s thunderous endorsement of Jesus’ value system and actions and begin imitating what heaven joyously approves.

The question N.T. Wright raises about this parable reveals the fact that there is kingdom potency in how closely our relationships with others resemble the pattern Jesus established. “What would we have to do, in the visible public world, if we were to make people ask the questions today to which [this story is] the answer?”

Lent is for me, a sober reminder of the disturbing gap between who I am now and who God created me to be. We may feel better about ourselves in comparison to others. But honest comparisons with Jesus—who calls for a radically different gospel way of thinking and living—will bring us to our knees in broken heartfelt repentance. And when that happens, the celebrating begins in heaven.

* * * * * * *
This post is part of the Lenten Blog Tour, in which 41 bloggers offer reflections on Lent using the new Common English Bible. Check in each day from Ash Wednesday to Easter Monday for more.

Read more about image bearer living in Half the Church. There's more to this than we realize!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Identity Theft

"Every 79 seconds, a thief steals someone’s identity …"    —

Identity theft is skyrocketing. Horror stories abound. Shredders are becoming as commonplace in households as toasters. Theft insurance is in demand. According to CBS news projections, “This year alone more than 500,000 Americans will be robbed of their identities… with more than $4 billion stolen in their names.” It can take years to recover.

An even bigger identity theft is happening today—targeting every woman and girl, robbing us of the labels that define us and give us meaning.

After years of being known as the wife of a successful businessman, my widowed grandmother was visibly shaken when someone addressed her on paper by her first name instead of his. Her identity had been stolen. Times do change. Three generations later, my daughter (seven at the time) thought it was hilarious when a letter arrived at our house addressed to “Mrs. Frank James.” She couldn’t believe anyone would address her Papa as “Mrs.” But Millennials have their own identity struggles.

A close friend who spent years building a strong career in church ministry was laid off, with no job prospect in sight. Another friend, after thirty years of raising kids, just entered the empty nest phase and feels lost. Their identities have been stolen.

Identity theft is a deeply personal issue for all of us. As leaders, we are not immune to the events that have us standing on solid ground one day and in quicksand the next. It only takes a phone call, a diagnosis, or a plummeting economy for our identities to be snatched away. Identity theft is also a leadership issue, for as leaders we must think through these issues for the women and girls who count on us to help them survive an identity crisis.

God has a thing or two to say about the subject of a woman’s identity. On page one of the Bible God issues a theft-proof identity card that travels with us—perfectly intact—from birth through the many seasons, demographic changes, and episodes of our stories.

When God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26) he moved a woman’s identity beyond the reach of thieves. Enormous benefits come to us from those few words. Here are a few I find life giving.

Being God’s image bearer means my highest calling as a woman is to know him. I may do a lot of other things, but this one tops the list. I can’t know who I am or why I’m here without knowing the God who created me to be like himself. My mission in life is to know the God who made me and to imitate what I see in him. Nothing can take this away from me.

Being God’s image bearer means I represent God in this world. I am
his eyes, his ears, his hands, his feet, his voice. Wherever I go, whatever I do—I speak and act on his behalf. People are supposed to get a sense of what God is like by rubbing shoulders with me. Everything I do matters. Nothing can take this away from me.

Being God’s image bearer means it is not possible for me to live an insignificant life. God’s image bearers are kingdom builders. He strategically stations each of us where we have kingdom work to do. Even a cup of water taken to a small child in the dead of night carries kingdom significance in God’s eyes. Nothing can take this away from me.

It may still be wise to buy a shredder and check my credit occasionally. But I never need to fear the loss of my identity, for I am God’s image bearer and my identity is grounded in him. And nothing can take that away from me.

[This article was originally published in FullFill ezine. Reprinted with permission.]

For more—much more (!)—about what God has to say about his daughters, read Half the Church This is an important global issue that impacts both women and men.