Working on Women’s Day

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I returned to work after seven weeks of maternity leave on Thursday, March 8th, which also happened to be International Women’s Day. The juxtaposition of these two events felt poetic to me: after weeks of living into my womanhood at home in a way I never had before, I returned to work to live out my womanhood in a completely different sector.

A change took place within me seven weeks ago: birthing our daughter was the most miraculous and empowering experience. It gave me new perspective on why God named the first woman Eve, chavah, “life.” I watched as life emerged from within me, and in that moment I took on a new identity as a mother. That little life has since depended on me for nutrition, sustenance, and love, and I have given all of myself, all that I am, to her.

That’s why returning to work in some ways felt like a betrayal. Not so much that I was betraying my daughter; I knew she would have all she needed without me. It felt more like I was betraying my womanhood, which had become so tied into motherhood over the past weeks. How could I hold on to my new identity if I weren’t nurturing and holding and comforting my daughter continuously?

After a few hours at work, a woman came to my office seeking pastoral guidance. Inside, I wondered whether I even remembered how to pastor others. She told me about some of the ghosts that have been haunting her for the past few months, and described this feeling of being stuck in a rut, unable to get out and fearful that she never would. And during that conversation, I felt some familiar responses slowly coming back to me: I listened to her cries, I created space to hold her emotions, and we discussed some ways she could mend her wounds.

Nurturing. Holding. Comforting.

The reflexes that I so finely tuned over the past weeks sprang into action yet again.

These facets of motherhood that I felt I abandoned when I returned to work arose from the depths of me just hours after I reentered my office. They had been there all along. Because at its core, this is what ministry is: it is leading and nurturing, feeding and teaching, watching and tending to the wounds of those entrusted to our care.

Returning to work was not a betrayal of my womanhood. Not even close. In many ways, it was a fulfillment of my identity as a mother and a pastor and a woman, made in the image of God. And reentering ministry didn’t excise a facet of my identity, but rather brought to life the fullness of my calling first and foremost as a child of God.

Our God

Last night, one of my favorite shows depicted a heroic character preparing for battle. That character had been resurrected from the dead earlier in the season. At one point, he approaches a priest to discuss his uncertainty about whether he will win the battle, and he asks what kind of God would resurrect him only to have him die again. The priest responds, “The God we have.”

Earlier this week I read Genesis 39 and 40, and prepared to address the prevalent problem of what happens when we try to fit God into our own parameters rather than learning about the God we have in the Bible.

You can read the full text here, but this is a summary of Genesis 39: Pharaoh’s chief officer, Potiphar, buys Joseph from the slavers who took him in chapter 37. Joseph lives in the officer’s house and behaves so well that the officer eventually gives him command over almost every element of the home (Gen. 39:1-6). Potiphar’s wife then propositions Joseph, and when Joseph chooses the honorable route and denies the wife, she then finds another way to trap him and remove his garment. When Joseph runs out of the house naked, the wife accuses him of pursuing her (v. 7-18). The officer throws Joseph in prison, where Joseph again behaves very well and eventually takes over almost every element of the institution (v. 19-23).

So we have a rich kid-turned-slave who enters a house and chooses to act honorably. His faithfulness then pays off for a short while, as he gains some authority and respect within the household. And then we watch it all fall apart. 

Joseph ends up in prison, and all we know is that “While he was in jail, the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him. He caused the jail’s commander to think highly of Joseph” (v. 20-21). That’s it.

This is Jacob’s most beloved son, the one who had already been humbled for having grandiose dreams; it seems like his situation is improving, and then he ends up in prison after doing his best to act honorably. In these situations, it’s easy to ask, “What sort of God would allow this?”

I have heard many different pastoral responses to those “Why?” questions. In the religious world, we call them questions of “theodicy.”

When I worked as a hospital chaplain, many patients watched their TVs as pastors in the Prosperity Movement encouraged them to pray in a certain way for health and wealth. They suggested that if people only read their Bible enough, prayed correctly, and gave of their finances, then God would heal their suffering. 

But Joseph was righteous. He was faithful and honorable in his work, and we know that God was already with him. God didn’t send him to prison; Potiphar did. God made no requests for Joseph to change, and he also didn’t keep him out of prison or get him out of there promptly. God simply dwelt with Joseph and influenced the jail’s commander.

I have heard other, more progressive pastors reflect on suffering, and draw the conclusion that we cannot pray The Lord’s Prayer’s, “Give us this day our daily bread” if there are still people in our world who only eat every three days. Instead, we should move away from texts and prayers that don’t fix all of the suffering that we see in the world.

But God never promised to fix all of our suffering. He desires a more complex relationship than that, which means that bad things can happen, and He stays with us through them, and works with us to find a way to make things better. If praying, “Give us this day our daily bread” inspires us to find a way to get food to people abroad, or even to help a local ministry get food to underfunded families on weekends, that prayer was not in vain. And in the situations of the worst and most heartbreaking suffering, such as those who starve and never find the nourishment they need, there is no “best possible outcome.” Things simply end horribly and we are left grieving, but we know that God sits there and grieves alongside us.

The God who Christians have, the One we see in the Old Testament and the New, is a God who does not keep people from facing suffering. Rather, He promises to stay with us, and to “work all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28) in the midst of suffering. 

This is the God who heard the cries of Israel in the wilderness, and chose to offer manna, rather than scoop them up and drop them into the Promised Land (Exodus 16). This is also the God who was with Paul and Silas as men beat and imprisoned them, and then used their circumstances to save the jailer, rather than preventing them from suffering in the first place (Acts 16).

The lesson we learn from Joseph in Genesis 39 and 40 isn’t difficult to follow, and yet we can miss it when we try to make sense of suffering without looking at the Bible. In Joseph’s case, God doesn’t cause suffering, but He stays with him in it, and tries to work out the best possible outcome alongside him. 

At the end of Genesis, after Joseph endures a number of trials and receives the honor he originally envisioned, his brothers approach him to repent for their actions against him. Joseph responds, “You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today” (Gen. 50:20). God takes the difficult circumstances that Joseph faces, and manages to save the lives of the surrounding Gentile world through him.

May we feel encouraged today that God stays with us in the midst of suffering. May we turn to the Bible, where we most clearly learn about the God we worship, in order to find perspective on the roles He plays throughout our lives, and specifically during our most difficult moments. And may we honor the questions we ask about suffering, and at the end of the day, know that the God we have will stay faithfully at our side throughout every season of weeping and every season of joy.

On Grief, Justice, and Hope

I have been reeling and grieving over the past week. The Brock Turner rape case, the burning of Pakistani women, the shooting of Christina Grimmie, and the shooting of fifty LGBTQ people has weighed on my mind and shoulders and heart.

In the midst of grieving, I also read the story of Tamar last week, and felt a familiar sense of loss, but also some liberation.

Take a moment to think about Tamar. What do you recall about her? Before I studied for this post, I honestly knew more about Onan, a man who appears in only three verses of Tamar’s story, than I knew about her. I remember hearing pastors use the story of Tamar and Onan (the one who “spills his seed on the ground” in Gen. 38:9) to discuss Christian sexual ethics. Other than that, Tamar pretty much went by the wayside.

If you want to read Tamar’s full story, you can click here; otherwise, this is a summary of the incredible life she lived:  

Tamar married Judah’s eldest son Er, who died early and never impregnated Tamar (Gen. 38:1-7). That was a big issue in her cultural context, because sons provided what we now call insurance, social security, savings, and retirement. To protect childless widows, a cultural norm existed that instructed the brothers of the deceased man to impregnate the widow. The family and culture understood any of the children she then birthed to be the deceased brother’s children, rather than the brother who stepped in to create them.

So Judah instructed Onan, another of his sons, to have sex with Tamar in an effort to give her a son. Onan recognized that the children she would birth would not be his (which creates implications for the distribution of inheritance), and he therefore “spilled his seed on the ground” (v. 8-9). God watched him deny Tamar an heir, which angered God to the point that he killed Onan (v. 10).

That is literally the end of Onan’s story, and yet if we keep reading, we see the true import of Tamar’s:

After Onan’s death, Judah promised Tamar that she would marry his son Shelah when he was old enough. Over time, Tamar watched Shelah grow up, and realized that Judah wasn’t giving her to Shelah, and that she still had no heirs to offer the protection and security she needed (v. 11-12). So she took matters into her own hands.

She dressed as a prostitute and met Judah while he was shearing sheep. He propositioned her, and as payment she requested his signet ring, cord, and staff. In that time, those items were like his driver’s license, ATM card, Social Security card — she held the markers of his identity in her hands. When she returned home, she re-adorned her widow’s garb, and Judah’s servant couldn’t find the “prostitute” who had Judah’s ring, cord, and staff (v. 13-23).

After 3 months, people realized that Tamar was pregnant, and Judah suggested that they burn her because of her dishonorable pregnancy (a similar practice happened just this past week in Pakistan). In that moment, she carried out the ring, cord, and signet, and declared, “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant” (v. 25). Judah acknowledged that the items were his, and admitted, “She is more in the righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v. 26).

Tamar then birthed twin sons, thereby overcoming social and familial obstacles, and gaining the protection and security she required from the beginning. 

Tamar’s story is one of liberation and strength within her social context. She stands up to power, both within her family and within her society. She not only calls Judah out for not offering her the protection that he should have provided her, but also proves that she is the righteous one in the face of her culture trying to kill her. And ultimately, Judah humbles himself and accepts his part in Tamar’s subjection, and the society backs down from their intended punishment. In fact, they acknowledge that she is more righteous than the leader Judah who had proposed the punishment.

In light of the violence that our world has witnessed this week, and in light of the grief that all of us will continue to feel, perhaps we can see Tamar as one small light of hope: that even the stories that don’t get told often enough, the stories that get silenced, can offer strength and encouragement; that those who have gone before us, even in the ancient world, found ways to protect themselves and to stand up to power.

Genesis 38 offers us a perspective on how God feels about marginalization and accountability, and in this narrative we find justice. We find liberation for a childless widow, whose gender and lack of reproduction made her one of the most vulnerable individuals within society. And while we may not see justice today, while we may still feel the weight of violence and subjection, perhaps we can look to Tamar to find hope for a more just, empowered, and peaceful tomorrow.

The Cost Of Calling

Over the past week I had the privilege to attend the Great Plains Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. I met so many pastors and learned about the amazing ministry they’re doing within and beyond their communities.

Before I arrived at the conference I read Genesis 37, where we meet Joseph. We learn that he is Jacob’s favored son, and that Joseph’s brothers are jealous of him. Joseph then has some grandiose dreams in which his family bows down to him, and he chooses to tell his siblings about those dreams (v. 1-11).

As I read the passage, I thought, “Why did he tell them?!” He seems extremely braggadocios and haughty, and exacerbates his siblings’ jealousy. 

As we continue reading Genesis 37, we watch Joseph’s siblings turn against him. They sell him into slavery in reaction to Joseph’s boastfulness and their jealousy (v. 12-28). Joseph then moves from a place of favor with his father, and community in his family, to a place of servitude among strangers. I struggled to reconcile why God gave Joseph a vision of his calling, only to have him given into the hands of strangers and humbled as a servant.

Then I witnessed the ordination service at the Great Plains Annual Conference. During the service, a renowned bishop of the United Methodist Church offered the sermon. Before he began his homily, he asked one of the newly ordained ministers to come up on stage. The elder bishop proceeded to kneel down and wash the feet of the young ordinand.

The image of the distinguished bishop holding the feet of the young clergy reminded me that in our moments of greatest calling and vision, we often find ourselves bowing down in service.

At the beginning of Genesis 37, Joseph receives his calling. He sees the vision that God intends to fulfill in him. So he brags about it to his brothers, never imagining that in order to actualize God’s vision, he will have to submit to estrangement and servitude.

God shows us through Joseph’s story that all of us have a calling, and regardless of what that calling entails, we must first, foremost, and always find ourselves in a place of service in order to attain the vision God has given us. 

Knowing the trajectory of Joseph’s story heightens how we understand Jesus’ ministry as well. Before Jesus was betrayed, he gathered his disciples together and knelt down before them to wash their feet (John 13:1-17). They didn’t feel worthy, yet he took the posture of a servant in order to show what true calling and discipleship means.

When we kneel down to wash the feet of others, to humble ourselves and to give of ourselves in service, we follow in the footsteps of Joseph, Jesus, and so many of our ancestors. Because our God is a God who honors humility, and tells us through his Son that blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful, and blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:2-11)

So may we feel challenged by the story of Joseph today. May we know the calling that God has given us, and may we also willingly accept the servanthood that His calling requires. And at the end of the day, as we have served and worked and knelt, may we find ourselves faithfully embodying the vision to which God has called us.

The Other Half

Gloria Steinem recently created a docu-series called Woman that Viceland will release on May 10th. The series consists of videos of female correspondents interviewing women all over the world about their political statuses, and the ways that marginalization and violence impact them individually and socially (you can watch the trailer here). Regardless of your feelings about Gloria Steinem’s politics, this series taps into the deeply embedded patterns of violence against women that permeate our world. And I wish this weren’t true, but we find similar and horrific violence in the biblical text. 

Genesis 34 is a mess. It opens with Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, who we discussed previously. Over the course of the story, Shechem (the prince of the land where Jacob and his family currently reside) sees Dinah, and either sleeps with her before marriage, or rapes her (the word anah, translated “humiliate,” can imply both). Either way, he socially, and perhaps personally, defiles her, but the text says that he loves her, so he asks to marry her (Gen. 34:1-8).

Shechem offers for Jacob and his sons to live fully integrated in his land; they could buy property, marry, and travel freely. He also commits to paying a full bride price, even when that price is circumcising every male in the city (Gen. 34:9-24). At this point, Shechem and everyone in the city thinks that they have reconciled with Jacob and his sons. And that’s when Levi and Simeon, two of Dinah’s brothers, ransack the city, kill all of the men, loot their goods, and take Dinah with them (Gen. 34:25-31).

At the end of the chapter, Jacob complains to his sons about the amount of damage they’ve done, and their response is: “But didn’t he treat our sister like a prostitute?”

The notion that violence against women creates violence among society is not new. 

As with most situations of violence, Dinah remains silent throughout this text. We don’t hear her voice or know her thoughts, and before we fall into the trap of thinking that no women had agency in the biblical period, we must remember Rebekah and Sarah and Hagar, who had loud voices and big stories. Shechem’s tribe and, in retaliation, Dinah’s brothers, use Dinah’s body as a means of power brokering, and we lose her voice in the process.

If we read this chapter in context, we get a glimpse of how Jacob’s family sank to this level of violence. Yesterday we read the gorgeous story of Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation in Genesis 33, and watched as Esau rose above the revenge that Jacob anticipated. The end of the chapter provides some context for how we arrive in the chaos of Genesis 34.

Jacob and Esau have just embraced, wept, and kissed one another, which signifies their reunion and renewed relationship. After some conversation, Esau suggests that he will travel with Jacob. Jacob claims that his children and flocks are too tired to travel at Esau’s pace, so he sends Esau ahead of him to Seir, and promises to meet him there (Gen. 33:12-15). In the very next verse, we read: “That day Esau returned on the road to Seir, but Jacob traveled to Succoth” (v. 16-17).

Jacob lied! After the generous greeting that Esau offered him, Jacob lied to Esau’s face (despite having just equated Esau’s face with the face of God; Gen 33:10), and chose to travel to Succoth, and then on to Shechem’s city. And that’s where the violence of Genesis 34 begins. 

Before the events at Shechem, Jacob had begged God for a peaceful reception with Esau, and after God granted it, Jacob immediately lied and traveled further away from his family, and, arguably, from God. So when the violence settles in the first verse of Genesis 35, God speaks to Jacob and says, “Get up, go to Bethel, and live there. Build an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you ran away from your brother Esau” (Gen. 35:1).

Jacob first arrived in Bethel in Genesis 28. This is the sacred location where God blessed Jacob and promised him descendants, land, and protection. In Genesis 35, God meets with Jacob again and calls him back home. He sees the destruction that has taken place, the violence both inside and outside of his family, and He draws Jacob back to Him.

Jacob’s deceitfulness and lies led to the violation of Dinah’s body and personhood. And God sees that and speaks against it. 

We have violence all around us. In both subtle and extreme ways, women all over the world feel the crushing pressure of political power on their bodies and their minds every day. The calling of Scripture and the calling of God is to liberation. Some women may never feel that liberation in this lifetime, but all of us are called to know and to act within the realms we influence.

I know of churches in rural Indiana who send groups to Latvia to learn about and contribute to the fight against sex slavery. There are churches in Minneapolis that hold events to heighten awareness of and raise money for groups fighting modern slavery. I know of ministries like Timothy’s Gift that work in women’s prisons to embody God’s love to those women who so easily forget their belovedness. I know women who have devoted their careers to writing grants for domestic violence shelters, so that other women can find solace and protection when fleeing from those closest to them.

These women and organizations have listened to the call of God, have realized the gifts they have, and have engaged them in an effort to end violence and bring peace and reconciliation among all of God’s people and creation. And that’s our call today. 

If nothing else, the story of Dinah teaches us about how our actions impact those around us. And so may we pray today the prayer of Saint Francis, which calls us not only to God, but also to each other:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.”

May we find in ourselves today the attributes of love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy, and may we use those to come home to God, and to empower our world.

Finding The Prodigal In Genesis 33


The story of The Prodigal Son still brings tears to my eyes when I read it. It is a powerful story in and of itself, and I also have so many memories of retreats and camps that retold the story of the Prodigal Son in beautiful ways. It makes sense that we retell the story, because it provides such a clear picture of God’s grace, forgiveness, and enduring love for us.

We find the story in Luke 15:11-32. We first meet a man with two sons, the younger of whom feels dissatisfied so he asks for his portion of his father’s blessing. He leaves his father’s home, spends all of his inheritance, and ultimately hires himself out to a farmer who has him care for his pigs. While the son is estranged and starving, he decides to return to his father, and offer himself as a hired servant. However, when the son is still a long way away, his father sees him, runs to him, embraces and kisses him, and throws a banquet to celebrate his return; “for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (v. 24).

The story is so profound and moving, and for the longest time it seemed to me that we could only find a story with so much grace and forgiveness in the New Testament. But as I continue to learn time and time again, God demonstrated his love for us long before we arrive in Luke.

In Genesis 33 we meet Jacob, whose name recently became Israel after a wrestling match with God (see Gen. 32:24-32; feel free to leave questions about this in the comments section). Jacob knows that Esau is on his way to meet him, and as you can remember from our posts on their early relationship (see The Sacredness of Siblings and Birthrights and Blessings), Jacob fears that Esau will kill him.

Jacob responds two ways: first, he prays to God (Gen. 32:9-12) and he sends gifts ahead of him to meet Esau (Gen. 32:13-21). Jacob’s prayer is especially profound, and I believe it impacts the outcome of his encounter with Esau. He pleads, “I am not worthy of the least of all of the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps” (Gen. 32:10).

Jacob humbles himself. He admits that he does not deserve the blessings that God has lavished upon him, and then he asks for God to deliver him from the hand of Esau. 

So then we arrive in Genesis 33, and Jacob sees Esau coming. I can only imagine that Jacob is shaking in his boots (or sandals), as he watches his brother lead four hundred men into his camp. Jacob approaches and bows to greet his brother, and in a turn of events that Jacob never could have imagined, he watches his brother run toward him and embrace him. Esau falls onto Jacob’s neck, kisses him, and they weep (Gen. 33:1-4). Esau demonstrates the forgiveness and grace that surpasses what Jacob could ever have hoped for.

When we look closely at the language here, we see that it’s the same language of forgiveness and grace  in that Jesus uses in the parable of The Prodigal Son. Genesis 33:4 states, “But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Describing the prodigal son, Luke 15:20 states, “And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

The Greek in the New Testament, and the Greek in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) are very similar here: we watch Esau and the father of the prodigal son, “run” (from the Greek root trecho), “kiss” (from phileo), and “fall on” (pipto) the “neck”  (trachselos) of Jacob and the son, respectively. The moment of redemption in The Prodigal Son echoes the same reconciling moment between Jacob and Esau. More specifically, Jesus draws directly from Genesis in order to relate his own parable. 

God wanted us to know his grace and forgiveness all along. He wanted us to accept that if we pray to him (as Jacob did), he can release and redeem us from even the most frightening of circumstances. God’s love surpasses our weaknesses and frailties, and God celebrates when we return home to one another, and home to Him. Jesus knew this as he told his story of the Prodigal Son; he recalled what he knew of God’s work through Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau and repackaged it for his own audience.

May we feel refreshed and empowered today by the redemptive love that God offered us first in Genesis and every day since. May we come home to one another, and home to the God who has always wanted us with Him, just as we are. And may we, at the end of the day, know that our identity is found, not in our wandering or fleeing, but safely beside the One who created us and loves us always.