Image-bearing when not child-bearing

For the past 10 years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Mother’s Day. Ever since my brother died it’s become a very bittersweet day for my mom and our whole family, and it’s made me increasingly aware of how many women in my life experience some kind of struggle in regards to motherhood. I’ve recently written two pieces (Created #LikeAGirl and Periods, EW!) about women bearing the image of God in our ability to create life, and I also want to talk about the other side of this aspect of womanhood. Many women do not have children or are unable to have as many children as they desire. I know several dear friends who have grieved miscarriages, who struggle with fertility, who are unmarried, or who don’t have the heart’s desire to have children at all. There are many reasons why women may not be mothers, and I want those sisters to rest assured that they are equally loved and equally entrusted with the image of their Creator regardless of their parental status.

There are several barren women in scripture, and many of whom go on to have miraculous children. Sarah (Gen 21), Hannah (1 Sam. 1), the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4), and of course Elizabeth and Mary (Luke 1 and 2) are among the top examples. These women show us that God is merciful to His daughters who are without children and does not treat them as broken or inferior. Rather, they are vessels for God’s power to be shown more fully and to show that God is the one who calls forth life, it is not a product of human effort.

 

Lest we think that God’s ultimate purpose is for every woman to have children, let’s look at some other passages on this topic. In the Old Testament, Esther’s story does not involve motherhood as she intercedes to save the Jews from genocide (the book of Esther). We see no mention of her going on to have children, the point of the story is her actions as a woman and leader, not as a mother. Ruth eventually has children and is an important figure in the lineage of Jesus (book of Ruth and Matt. 1) but her story revolves around her chapter as a childless widow whom God receives into His covenant community and eventually restores her to a family. Again, the focus is on her faith and life, her worth is not contingent on child-bearing.

In the New Testament, Anna the prophetess in Luke 2:36-38 is one of my favorite biblical figures. The text doesn’t give us absolute confirmation that she was childless, but it focuses on the fact that she serves in the temple full-time. The fact that Luke doesn’t mention her parental status at all but only talks about her ministry at least shows us that women have valuable roles and gifts to offer to God outside of bearing children. While we know that she had been a widow for decades and must have struggled with that loss, we see God calling her into vocational ministry and blessing her faithfulness with being one of the first people to meet and recognize the Christ child.

anna

Priscilla is another woman whose motherhood is not mentioned and who is also active in ministry. We see Paul meeting Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, in Acts 18 and they are greeted in 3 subsequent epistles (Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Timothy.) It is certainly possible that they had children, but Paul focuses on their work of church leadership and hospitality and always names them together as a team. Whether or not they are parents seems irrelevant to what they brought to the Body of Christ. Paul also talks about singleness (and by implication childlessness) as ideal in 1 Corinthians 7 and recommends it to both men and women as the best state in which to serve God. A clear implication for women is that they can fully reflect and serve Christ without having children.

My hope in all of this is to encourage the Church to affirm and value all of our sisters and to shield from shame or despair those that are not mothers or for whom this is a complex experience. While child-bearing is a unique office given only to women, we see that God endows us with creativity and productivity that extends beyond reproduction. Childbirth is a gift, not a right or conditional command. All women are daughters that glorify and honor the Triune God, which includes women who are single, full-time mothers, those that have dealt with struggle and disappointment, and those that nurture and create in other areas of the creation. Each has a valuable role to play in the Kingdom, and a glimpse of God to show to the world.

My dear friend and co-laborer, Rev. Karen Stevenson

Periods, “Ew!”

 Ew 2

Most women remember when they first got their period. More often than not, it was an embarrassing and mildly traumatizing experience. I remember asking my mom how long I would have to deal with this and thinking that menopause sounded awfully far away. “You mean I have to experience this for DECADES???” The average woman feels inconvenienced by and sometimes plagued by menstruation. It can be painful, uncomfortable and inconvenient, and we are often embarrassed and ashamed of it. Culturally we are taught to hide it. Feminine products base their marketing campaigns around how their brands will help women be discreet and act as if their period isn’t even happening. In many ways we believe that it’s gross and something that we have to overcome.

dearperiod_1.2_905-1_905   dearperiod_2.2_905_905

But what does God think about it? In Leviticus 15 we find God’s laws for both men and women on how to respond to bodily discharges. If you’ve ever doubted whether God does indeed care about everything, read this chapter. God is so closely involved with His children that He even gives us guidelines for how to handle our bodies when they do weird and unpredictable things. God isn’t ashamed or embarrassed by us, He created us to be physical beings and equips us for life on earth. When we read through this chapter, especially with our 21st century lens, it’s easy for women to feel a renewed sense of shame about menstruation.

19 “When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. 20 And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean. 21 And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 22 And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 23 Whether it is the bed or anything on which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. 24 And if any man lies with her and her menstrual impurity comes upon him, he shall be unclean seven days, and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean.

On the surface this feels like women are to be shunned from the community during their periods and are contaminated in some way. We should first note that there was more than one form of uncleanness. In this case women were ceremonially unclean but that did not mean they were sinning against God. They could not participate in religious ceremonies but that did not imply that they were morally unclean in God’s eyes.

If we continue reading through Leviticus, chapter 17 sheds more light on this conversation. The passage centers on eating animal blood, which God forbids.

14 For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.

This command is about eating practices, but reveals a profound truth. Blood is a sacred thing because it represents the life that only God can give. To consume animal blood is to act in the place of God and to take ownership of a gift that belongs solely to the Creator. Blood is not gross, it is our very life.

If animal blood holds these sacred properties, how much more so does menstrual blood? This is the substance that brings new life into the world and which contains incredible power to nurture and sustain. It is the representation of the way that women bear God’s image in our unique ability to create life and bring something new into the world that has never been before. (For more on this, see my post “Created #LikedAGirl”) Rather than God commanding the Israelites to abhor women’s menstruation, I think God is commanding a reverence for blood that is sacred. God is the one that brings life into the world, and menstrual blood is evidence of the power and value of life. Women were to be set apart during their periods because something special was taking place as their bodies mirrored God’s image.

As Satan is threatened by women and the way they are like God, I think he is behind our struggle to view menstruation positively. He wins when we are angry and annoyed at the way in which God has set us apart. Think about how many women loath their periods, how many times women say out loud, “I hate my period.” When we are ashamed and embarrassed about our bodies in this way, we are experiencing shame over God’s image within us. Take some time to reread Luke 8:40-48 and watch how Jesus does not withdraw or rebuke the woman with the flow of blood who touches Him (making Him and anyone that she touched in the crowd unclean), but heals her and publicly restores her to community. The Lord draws near to His daughters, equipping us to handle the hard aspects of reproduction and blessing us with His creativity. Let’s stop believing the lie that we are gross and rejected, and encourage one another to believe the truth that we are called and loved. For both men and women, let’s affirm the sacred gift that God has placed inside women’s bodies, and rejoice in the beauty and power of life.

Menstrual cycle

“Belle”: Race and Gender in 18th Century England and Everywhere Today

This week the 87th Academy Awards were celebrated, though, I am beginning a new series with this post assuming that some artists and performers left the ceremony feeling less than celebrated. So I offer to the conversation a celebration of some films from this year that you should see and probably didn’t. This is my celebration of films that were important, complex, emotional, and told the story of our current world through their unique narratives. They also, all happen to be directed by black artists (black female directors in two of the films) and starred black performers. I refuse to categorize them as “black cinema” because their perspective and talent should be seen as a part of and representative of the entire art of cinema. If you make it to the end of this article you will also find a challenge and a gesture that I pray will show even more how much I believe in these films as influential entries into the art I am so passionate about.

Belle

Up first in this series, is “Belle,” a period piece based on the true story of Dido, a mixed race daughter of an 18th century British Royal Navy captain, who is raised by her aristocratic grandparents in the tensions of race, family, status, and tradition. As Dr. Chistena Cleveland, a social psychologist, author, speaker, and professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN, recently said in a panel discussion on racial reconciliation, “If you have grown up in an oppressed group then the image of God in you has been dishonored. There is no group where this is more accurate than black women.” I normally watch a period piece and scoff at how ridiculous and uncomfortable the outfits and customs are. With “Belle,” what is most uncomfortable may be that, even though Dido has escaped an impoverished life lacking all privilege because of her race, she cannot escape the dishonoring of her image of God due to her gender.

I would love to watch this movie from a place where the short-sighted, ignorant social status Dido finds herself in would be laughably ridiculous. Rather, we watch this movie through the quotes and experiences of millennial, black women still fighting against the lie that their position as God’s image-bearers are somehow less than that of their male peers. There is a striking conversation in the film between Dido and her white cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, where Elizabeth is faced with the potential of a hopeless life because she has no inheritance and may not marry into money.

“Aren’t you quietly relieved that you shan’t be at the caprice of some silly sir and his fortune? The rest of us haven’t a choice. Not a chance of inheritance if we have brothers, and forbidden from any activity that allows us to support ourselves. We are but their property.”

Read that quote again. This is the heartbreaking lie. So much of “Belle” revolves around the value of a person and should raise questions for how we look at any of the people in our lives. Do you see your peers as image-bearers? Because Dido and Elizabeth and my wife and my mom and my sister and my female colleagues and the female college students I interact with every day are reflections of their own significant part of the image of God they deserve to live a life of value that is not based on the achievements of men. They deserve relationships that are based on a God-honoring love, love that is not measured by how much they offer up. Their worth is not counted in sexual favors but their position in the eyes of our generous Creator, which is an extravagant and significant sum.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw Sarah Gadon

My prayer is that this was enough to raise questions for you, to inspire a curiosity to visit this film. I want you to watch this film and the others I will be celebrating in the coming weeks.  I want you to gather friends to watch it with you, to start valuable conversations, and to see the value of yourselves and the work of these artists.

Upcoming posts: “Beyond the Lights” and “Dear White People”

Created #LikeAGirl

Eve

I once asked a male friend, “Do you think you’re more in the image of God than me because you’re a male?”  He seemed unsure of himself and uneasy, but his kneejerk reaction was, “Yes. God is male and so am I.”  I spent several years wrestling with whether or not that was true, and trying desperately to see myself reflected in the Trinity and in the Church.  Did God want me to be a vibrant part of His body?  Are women meant to be equal co-laborers with men or are we really just the runners-up behind the MVP?

In an attempt to help a male loved one understand what I was struggling with, I asked him to consider a role reversal.  Imagine that God has always described herself as “God the Mother”, and Eve was created first and then Adam as her helper.  Imagine that it was Adam who ate the fruit and tempted Eve to join him in his sin.  Then God chose the matriarchs and made a covenant with Sarah to make her descendents more numerous than the stars.  The Old Testament is predominantly about women with occasional references to their husbands.  There is a period of great prosperity under the monarchy of the queens, and God speaks through the prophetesses.  The Messiah comes in the form of a woman and she has 12 female disciples.  The apostle Pauline writes the majority of the New Testament and instructs that men are to be silent in church and she permits no man to have authority over a woman, but they will be saved through procreation.  How do you as a man feel in that world?  Do you feel like you are an important and desired member of that community?

After wondering for a long time whether God really did want women to be subservient and silent, a friend said something that changed everything.  “I think Satan hates the Gospel first, and he hates women second.”  What if it isn’t God that hates me, but Satan?

Martin_PL_Satan_spying

According to the ESV study Bible, contemporary Ancient Near Eastern creation myths only tell of the creation of man, not woman.  The Bible is the only sacred manuscript that spends time telling the origin story of woman.  In Satan’s retelling of how the world came to be, he attempts to erase Eve from the narrative. God on the other hand, makes sure His daughters know where they came from and that He created them on purpose.

When we think about Satan deciding to tempt Eve first, historically Eve has been blamed and maligned for being weak and foolish.  He went after her because she was easily swayed and an easy target.  First of all, it’s important to note that the text makes it clear that Adam and Eve were together at the time (Gen. 3:6), both were part of the conversation and shared equal responsibility for the decision that they made.  Then if we think about a basic strategy for influencing a group, one would not start by attacking the weakest link.  If one takes out the weak link, the strong one that is left would be unaffected.  (“So what? I didn’t care what that person thought anyway.”)  I think that instead, Satan targeted Eve because he knew that she had influence with Adam.  He rightly knew that if he could get her, he could get both of them.  Eve wasn’t weak, she was important.

wisdom2-e1281804850921 Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly

I think we can find this idea reinforced in the book of Proverbs.  Solomon talks about two kinds of women, Lady Wisdom (Prov. 1:20-33) and Lady Folly (Prov. 9:13-18).  They are described metaphorically as well as literally.  They each show that women have crucial influence with men and in the world.  The kind of woman that a man aligns himself with will strongly impact the kind of life he lives.  Unfortunately we know that Eve encompassed both sides of these women.  She began as Lady Wisdom, and exerted her influence towards a path of folly.  I think the message we see is not that women are silly and empty-headed.  The message is that women need to take care to pursue wisdom from the Lord because our actions have power in God’s world.

There are several points I can make on this topic.  For now I’ll conclude with the idea that Satan is threatened by Eve in a unique way and he thrives whenever she is silent and powerless.  God endowed Eve with half of his image when He made her able to create life.  God is the creator of all things, and women reflect God’s loving creativity in our ability to bring new life into the world.  Satan is extremely uncreative and can’t generate anything original; he can only twist something that God already made.  All of his lies are distortions of the truth and are based on something that already exists.  One of several examples of this can be seen when Satan is tempting Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-14).  The best he can do is to misapply God’s words from scripture, he has no original thoughts.  Eve therefore can do the one thing that Satan cannot: bring something into the world that has never been before.  And that drives Satan nuts.

In cultures where women thrive and have a meaningful role in society, those communities enjoy innovation and prosperity.  In cultures where women are most oppressed and voiceless, the whole community is impaired and progress is minimal.  I do not wish to say that women are better than men or inherently less sinful than men.  I think we share equal depravity along with an equal measure of God’s image.  My hope is to put this forth as a corrective to centuries of blame and shame placed on women to justify mistreatment as their “punishment” for causing the Fall.  I hope that we will seize opportunities to see women reflected in God’s Word and in the Church, and together will mirror our wonderful Creator for the flourishing of all things.