Women of the Gospels Series: The Widow of Nain by Julie Clawson

'Roman Beggar' photo (c) 2009, Sarah Moody - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Our Women of the Gospels Series continues today with a creative and beautiful retelling of the story of the Widow of Nain from the talented Julie Clawson. Julie is one of those women who never fails to challenge me with her wisdom and insight. The author of Everyday Justice and The Hunger Games and the Gospel, she blogs at JulieClawson.com, and will be speaking at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina  this week.  Enjoy!

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Transient

"Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.  As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.  When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, 'Do not weep.'  Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, 'Young man, I say to you, rise!'  The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, 'A great prophet has risen among us!' and 'God has looked favorably on his people!' This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country."  -  Luke 7:11-17

At first I thought it was strange that the town gathered to mourn my son. All these years later and I still feel like an outsider, not really one of them. Granted, I grew up just down the road from here in Endor. I saw the same solitary dome of Mount Tabor looming in the distance when I would go to fetch water from the well there as I do here in Nain, but still it is different.

It was a difference I felt sharply when my husband first brought me here as his young bride. What I had always thought was a short walk to the neighboring town when I would accompany my father on the journey, suddenly became the other side of the world. Not that my husband mistreated me or that I protested our marriage, just that I knew I was no longer home. The other women in town knew each other already. They would walk to the well together or spend the morning pleasantly chatting as they gathered to do the wash. I was the inept young bride who didn’t even know how to fashion a new needle when my old one splintered. Oh, the mending I had to do once I finally got a new one!

It wasn’t until my belly started to swell with child that I began to feel a part of the community. It’s hard for the women not to get involved when they see that one in their midst is expecting – especially when it is her first. At first it was casual – someone dropping by with a handful of herbs she had happened upon that were supposed to help with the incessant nausea or backaches. Soon it became long chats as each and every one of them felt it was her duty to tell me the gory details of her birthing experiences. Goodness knows why any woman would ever want to have children after hearing all those stories, but somewhere in the midst of hearing Miriam confessing that she thought she was giving birth to a demon instead of baby and Hannah warning me for the fourth or fifth time to make sure the child suckles on both sides if I didn’t want to be crippled with pain – I became one of them. In the camaraderie of women’s shared experience Nain finally accepted me as one of their own.

It was that acceptance that later allowed me to survive. My son was a healthy young lad, a blessing to our house, but the two daughters I bore since never made it through their first winters.  It was that long winter that took our second daughter that claimed my husband as well. And once again I felt utterly alone. The horror stories of childbirth were nothing compared to this. The very act of putting food on the table became a near insurmountable task. As the bitter winter raged on and death surrounded us all, for the first time I understood why those women with the ragged clothes and hollow eyes would dare defile themselves with man after man. Yet somehow it never came to that for me. I don’t doubt that I would have done anything to feed my son, but the women of Nain wouldn’t let one of their own starve.

Granted, nothing was ever again the same. I wasn’t like them anymore. Instead I was the one to be pitied – but at least we survived. My son, young as he was, always found there was a stable to be cleaned for a coin. And the women who I once would laugh and share stories with were always willing to pass on their mending to me in exchange for the occasional jar of oil or loaf of bread. Once again I was an outsider of sorts, but it mattered far less that it had before. Making it through each day became my goal.

When my son was finally old enough to learn a trade, I began to breathe a little easier. Once he could earn a living, we wouldn’t have to live in constant fear wondering where our next meal would come from. I say I trust in the Lord to provide, but despite the generosity of Nain, the question always remained as to when that well too would dry up. It is hard to have faith when despite the pity and the charity, you feel so alone. So it wasn’t until my son was able to work that I dared have hope again. It was more than just knowing we would survive. With his support, I wouldn’t be just a widow anymore, but perhaps could spend time with the other women instead of just taking in their mending. 

So when he too was taken from me my world came to an abrupt end. Now I was completely alone. I think I might have laughed when some of the women once again stopped by with herbs for his body and they told me to muster up the courage of Jael to face the difficult road ahead. If only survival was as easy as driving a tent peg through the head of the enemy commander fleeing down neighboring Mount Tabor.  Perhaps the women who have never had to question if they belong here can find strength in the tales of old, but I doubted even faith could sustain me now.

So when the town gathered to help me bury my son it felt odd to be surrounded by those to whom I must now entrust my life. We had managed to survive before, but now without the boy to feed I wondered if they would be so eager to provide for me alone. The loss of my beloved son compounded by these fears consumed me with grief. As his body was carried out of town for burial, I could not help but wail in despair and angry.  How could God forget me so? Was I as much of an outsider to God as I was in Nain?

Yet even as my faith crumbled in the face of my grief, something amazing happened.

We had just carried my son’s body outside of the town gate when we encountered a traveling teacher and his disciples. I doubt I would have noticed them, but this teacher came right up to us, halting our progress. And then he commented on my grief. Someone must have told him I was a widow who had just lost her only son, for he seemed to genuinely care about my plight. I half expected him to offer some hollow words of comfort or press a coin into my palm without quite looking me in the eye like a few others had done.Instead he looked at me and seemed to understand – not just my loss but it almost seemed like he knew how utterly alone I felt. And then with deep compassion that went far beyond awkward pity, he told me not to weep and he walked over to my son’s bier and touched it.

A few people gasped at how seemingly oblivious he was to the purity laws, but their concern was quickly dwarfed by what happened next: For the moment he touched the bier, my son sat up and started talking to him!

I was too stunned to speak, my sobs caught in my throat. One of the bearers nearly dropped his side of the bier breaking the tension of the moment. The teacher, laughing, then helped my son down and brought him over to me. All I could do was embrace my son, weeping all over again - this time with tears of relief and joy. Everyone was in awe of this teacher, calling him a prophet and proclaiming that he had brought God’s favor among us. But no one understood the magnitude of that favor more than I. My son and my ability to survive were restored to me – surely I had been blessed.

Like Hagar cast off into the wilderness, God saw me in my isolation and looked with favor on the lowliness of even one like me. I wasn’t forgotten or merely treated with pity, God accepted me even in my grief and despair. I finally felt like I belonged.

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Influential Christian Women?

So earlier this week on twitter I asked, “Who are some female evangelical leaders you admire?”

I received so many responses that several of you asked for a complete list. Below are (most of) the names I received via tweets, but I’d certainly like to add more. 

I’d also like to get rid of the word “evangelical” since that seems to confuse a lot of people…(myself included). 

So my question for today is: Who are some influential Christian women you admire?

 Think contemporary. 

Let’s expand this list! 

Twitter Responses: 
Nancy Beech 
Nadia Bolz-Weber 
Christine Caine 
Dawn Carter 
Jenni Catron
Julie Clawson 
Pam Durso 
Elisabeth Elliot 
Kathy Escobar 
Margaret Feinberg 
Mimi Haddad 
Jen Hatmaker 
Bobbie Houston 
Carolyn Custis James 
Juliet Kilpin 
Anne Lamott 
Laura Lasky 
Anne Graham Lotz 
Elsie Anne McKee
Kathleen Norris 
Beth Moore 
Nancy Ortberg 
Christine Pohl 
Sarah Jackson Shelton 
Priscilla Shirer 
Angie Smith 
Elaine Storkey 
Barbara Brown Taylor 
Phyllis Tickle 
Pat Took 
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen 
Ann Voskamp 
Lori Wilhite 
Brandi Wilson
Lauren Winner

(If I forgot your suggestion, I promise it wasn't on purpose! Feel free to add it again in the comment section.)

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7 Reasons There Are No Women Speaking at Your Conference

July 24 - See No / Hear No / Speak No Evilphoto © 2006 Rob Gallop | more info (via: Wylio)

The other day the keynote lineup for an exciting Christian conference popped up on my Google Reader revealing six black-and-white headshots of men.  I lost interest immediately—not because I’m a raging feminist with a vendetta against white males, but because my mind automatically filed the conference away into the category of “same ole, same ole.” 

The absence of women in Christian leadership is a widely-discussed phenomenon and one that has recently become more relevant to me as a young author and speaker trying to make her mark in the world.

My limited experience in the industry has revealed at least seven trends that might explain why that speaker lineup lacked diversity: 

1. Women have their own category.  

The Christian subculture abounds with women’s conferences, women’s books, women’s ministries, and women’s studies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this of course, but it can restrict a woman’s sphere of influence to that of her female peers rather than the broader culture. Like it or not, men hold the positions of power in Christian publishing and leadership, and you can’t rub shoulders with power when power is in the other room.  

2. Women hold fewer seminary degrees.  

Although women earn 58 percent of college degrees, they only earn about 30 percent of seminary degrees. This restricts our ability to speak with authority on certain theological topics and also limits our ability to network with influential Christian leaders (i.e., “seminary buddies”).  Fortunately, more women are enrolling in seminary than ever before, so this trend looks to change dramatically over the next 20 years. 

3. Women are expected to speak with a certain voice.

A writer friend of mine recently confessed that she floundered a bit in writing her memoir because she felt pressure from her girlfriends to write with an inspirational tone more characteristic of Beth Moore or Stasi Eldredge than Donald Miller.  I could relate to her predicament, for even I—the self-proclaimed sacred cow tipper—wondered for a time if I should share my story chic-lit-style because I am a woman. (I’m glad I didn’t!)  Too many strong female leaders are losing their unique voices in an attempt to fit a perceived mold. 

4. Women hold fewer pastoral positions.

 For better or worse, it’s the superstar pastors signing the book deals and speaking at Christian conferences these days.  Due to historical disparities and continued debates over female ordination, the majority of these superstar pastors are men. 

5. Women are expected to be submissive.

As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recently explained in an intriguing TED talk, this is true of the wider culture, not just the Christian culture. Perception analyses show that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.  For whatever reason, women are less liked when they succeed. Apply this disadvantage in the context of a religious environment where women’s roles in the home, church, and society continue to be hotly contested, and the mere appearance of a woman on a keynote lineup can elicit a negative response. This may sound cynical, but as a Christian woman I approach every board room and podium with the full knowledge that there’s probably at least one man present who thinks I shouldn’t be there.  

6. Women expect themselves to be submissive.

According to Sanberg, women systematically underestimate their own abilities, often attributing success to either luck or help.  Last week I nearly broke into a nervous rash because I asked the coordinator of a conference to let me in on a more high-profile panel discussion.  I was afraid of coming across as too aggressive, too confident, too entitled. Of course he agreed, and now I get to join a group of respected theologians to talk about a topic I’m passionate about.  I couldn’t help but think of similar opportunities that I’ve missed because I was too afraid to ask. 

7. Women are complaining about this phenomenon rather than changing it.

Several months ago I went out for beers with six of my fellow conference speakers, all of them male. The name of a female writer came up and a couple of the guys groaned, noting that she constantly complained about the lack of women speakers at Christian conferences. I had to laugh at the irony, but they had a point. Nagging our way to the top won’t leave us there for very long. Instead we’ve got to do it the old fashioned way— by being as good as (or better than) the boys. 

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What else contributes to the lack of female leadership in evangelical circles? In what ways are the trends described by Sandberg exaggerated in a religious environment?

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How NOT to respond to the Church’s “masculinity crisis”

Transient

Let's talk about this so-called "masculinity crisis" in the Church.

In recent years, it has become popular for evangelicals to lament the noticeable absence of men in the pews. Citing a mountain of statistical data that shows women are more inclined than men to remain faithful to their religious affiliation and participate regularly in communities of faith, some folks—like controversial West Coast pastor Mark Driscoll—have declared the situation a "crisis," concluding that the Church has failed men by projecting a "Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ" instead of the true, “Ultimate Fighting Jesus.”

[For Driscoll’s full quote and an excellent evaluation of the “masculinity movement,” check out Brandon O’Brien’s 2008 article in Christianity Today.]

According to Driscoll, “Sixty percent of Christians are chicks, and the forty percent that are dudes are still sort of chicks."  Driscoll blames the” masculinity crisis,” in part, on women, who he believes have been given too much power in the Church.

I believe that Driscoll’s response to these statistics is not only impractical but also unbiblical and irresponsible.  

Here’s why: 

First of all, the discrepancy between male and female religious fervor is not a new thing, but has shown up for as long as Pew and Gallup and other research institutions have been collecting data.  If this is a “crisis,” then it’s certainly not a new one. In fact, some would argue that it’s existed for as long as we’ve recorded history! So to blame the “masculinity crisis” on the few women who have managed to ascend to significant leadership positions in the Church in recent years, especially when men continue to dominate the field, grossly overstates the amount of power women have over the institution and turns them into unnecessary scapegoats. 

Second, most analysts agree that the numbers have as much to do with societal roles than anything else. For example, mothers tend to spend more time raising and nurturing children, which includes overseeing their participation in church activities. Women tend to have more flexible schedules than men, allowing them more opportunities to get involved in church life and to build close relationships with others in their congregations. Driscoll and other complementarians can’t have it both ways. If women remain at home raising children, they will simply have more time, more opportunities, and more incentives to become a part of a church community, and the stats will continue to be a little lopsided. (For more info on the stats, check out this article from Gallup, this piece by Lauren Sandler, and this from Thaindian.com.)

Third—and perhaps most importantly—Driscoll and other leaders in the “masculinity movement” have made a terrible mistake in combating the perceived “crisis” with an image of Jesus that conforms to the world’s view of masculinity, rather than the image of Jesus we actually find in Scripture. 

According to Driscoll, "Jesus was not a long-haired … effeminate-looking dude,” but rather an “ultimate fighter” with “callused hands and big biceps.” According to Driscoll "real men"—like Jesus, Paul, and John the Baptist— are "dudes: heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose dudes." According to Driscoll,“I cannot worship the hippie, diaper halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”

The problem, of course, is that there is no record of Jesus, John the Baptist, or a post-conversion Paul, punching people in the nose. The problem is that Jesus, John the Baptist, and Paul were all martyred, all “beat up,” if you will. The problem is that Jesus did not teach his followers to conform to the image of masculinity and power presented by the world, but instead explicitly taught the opposite— “Blessed are the meek,” “Blessed are the merciful,” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” “Blessed are those who are persecuted.” The problem is that Jesus did not teach us to take revenge, but instead declared:

You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles…You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven…If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Perhaps Dirscoll is ashamed of the Gospel and embarrassed by the message of the cross, but that is no excuse to ignore it, or worse, to belittle those who try to follow it. (It's wrong for me to judge Driscoll's motives here.) I think it's important that we consider both the theological and practical implications of the cross before belittling those who try to imitate Christ through non-violence.

Dan and I were talking about this yesterday, and he said to me, “The truth is, as a guy, it is more natural for me to want to take vengeance on people, to respond with violence and anger when I’ve been wronged. It’s easy to buy into the culture’s view of masculinity, which glorifies power and payback. It’s so much harder to take Jesus at his word and forgive as I have been forgiven and serve the way that He served. It’s harder, and it takes a different kind of strength.”

We do ourselves a disservice when, in response an excess of women in the church, we fill the pews with men who have been drawn to the message that following Jesus is easy.

What do you think? Is there a “masculinity crisis” in the Church? What does it look like for a man to faithfully follow Jesus?

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