During a class conversation Bob tells us how much he is an ally for women in ministry. He lists the lengths and depths he has gone to in order to support women’s leadership in his context. This has angered and frustrated some who do not believe as he does, but he continues to sacrifice and support women. And now Bob makes his point to the room: when he hears things like “white men in power are the problem”* he just shuts down and stops listening. Because he is an ally, he is not part of the problem. Listen, he tells us, we’ve got to find another way of talking about the problem if we want men like him to listen.
The thing is, when white men like Bob hear a critique of a system from which they inherently and especially benefit, as a personal attack, their defenses go up and their empathy shuts down. I have seen it in men I am close to, I have seen it in my own home.
But the reality is this: the system in this country is uniquely set up to benefit white men. This is painfully true for the women and people of color who live in it every day.
*Note: no one actually said this to Bob. This was Bob’s interpretation of an event we’d been to the night before that included two speakers on the topic of race.
Man #2 – this guy we’ll call Larry
Sits across the table from me at dinner and asks me one simple and earnest question: “What advice do you have for me?”
So I gave him my two best pieces:
First, follow and read and learn from more women of color. We take out his phone and start adding to his twitter feed right away. I suggest a blog post with books by indigenous authors. I tell him to listen a lot, and when he is tempted to chime in to sit on his hands and close his mouth.
Second, don’t be like Bob. When you feel personally attacked, see that as a red flag, a warning sign, yes, a trigger. Ask yourself if the critique is about you as a guy, or if the critique is for a system from which you benefit. If it is indeed the latter, be humble and listen. Don’t “not all men.”
My interaction with Bob triggered and deeply upset me and it took me a bit longer than I wanted to before I realized why. Because class was dismissed I never got to tell him that he needs thicker skin, that it is a position of privilege to dictate how a critique comes before he’s wiling to hear it, that when he shuts down because he feels personally attacked he is only perpetuating a very real problem.
But my interaction with Larry blessed me and encouraged me so deeply. I cannot recall another instance where a person (man or woman) has just trusted my experience and wisdom enough to just simply ask for life advice. What if we did more of this kind of listening?
Moral of the story for all of us: be like Larry.
Maybe we need to hear more about sin than forgiveness. And maybe we need to hear this from women.
One of the biggest news headlines this week is the sentencing of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor. If you may not have heard, Rosemarie Aquilina, the judge who presided over the case had some strong words for Nassar as she handed down his sentence. Aquilina appeared as a victim’s advocate all week as she responded with words of comfort and courage to each survivor who appeared in her court with an impact statement. “She called them “sister survivors.” She told them to push away nightmares. She thanked them and said their voices were heard. That they were not alone” (source). And as the proceedings wrapped up, Judge Aquilina told the media she would not be doing any interviews, “It’s just not my story” (source).
While Aquilina has garnered much praise for her approach to this case, she is not without criticism. Many say her words to Nassar at sentencing were too harsh, crossed a line, and showed favoritism. In this #metoo reckoning our country is undergoing, I can’t help but wonder at what would have happened in that courtroom had another judge presided. I have read countless testimonies (this is a good primer) on victim-blaming that occurs at all levels of our justice system and is a primary reason why many victims do not come forward in the first place. The courage the gymnasts presented, and the support they received from the bench, will likely prove another wave in this turning tide.
One of the early tweets I read as Aquilina’s comments were being made public stuck out to me saying, “We need more women in positions of power. Everywhere.” Of course the first few responses were reminding the tweeter that several people complicit in Nassar’s abuse were women, but the heart of the comment still stood. Representation matters.
I am still learning the nuance of the conversation around #metoo, and I am putting my foot in my mouth time and time again as I learn. Trust me, it hasn’t been pretty. But in my humble opinion, women who have the back of other women are to be championed. And I want to be a champion.
The other big news headline catching my eye this week was the continuing evangelical support for President Trump, despite new allegations of an affair with Stormy Daniels. In particular, in an interview with CNN, Jerry Falwell Jr. proclaims the faith of evangelicals is based on the idea of forgiveness and “that is why evangelicals are so quick to forgive when he asks for forgiveness for things that happened 10-15 years ago.” First off, I’m not convinced Mr. Trump asked for forgiveness, but secondly, I think our obsession with forgiveness may just be the reason we prop up abusive leaders and dismiss the pain and trauma of victims.
Can you imagine if Aquilina had looked at every survivor and reminded them that Nassar had apologized and their job now was to forgive? That the only way for them to move forward was to forgive? Yet this is what pastor after pastor has done to women who sit in their offices exposing the truth and asking for help.
It usually goes something like this, “Well, the Bible says that we are all sinners and that while we were in our sin Christ died for us. Christ died to forgive all of us. Out of your gratitude for Christ’s forgiveness of your own sin, now you are asked to forgive others. We pray it in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And then the victim and abuser are brought together for a time of reconciliation. And we hear the stories and decide to stay silent.
The damaging thing here is, as Rachel Held Evans notes, there is a grain of truth to this theology. “Central to the Christian message of salvation is the scandalous good news that Jesus Christ sets both the oppressed and their oppressors free, that there is grace enough for both of them. Christians are indeed called to forgive, even when it is costly and undeserved, and Christians are indeed called to work toward healing and reconciliation even when its hard.” But there is an equal truth to be addressed: sin is a destructive and pernicious force that only grows stronger when swept under the rug. We need to boldly speak the language of sin, or the power of grace means nothing.
So I ask again, what would it look like if we had more women in positions of power?
And what would it look like if our preachers spent more time on sin and repentance than on forgiveness? What if we learned the old art of penance? As Barbara Brown Taylor notes, we dispelled of the notion of penance in the reformation because it had become a box to check and it smacked of works righteousness. But, “penance was not punishment. Penance was repair. Penance was a way back into relationship” (source). When we sin there are consequences that are far reaching. And we must acknowledge and work to repair those harms as acts of true repentance. Again, Brown says, “repentance is not complete until confession and pardon lead to penance that allows community to be restored.”
We teach our children that an apology isn’t enough to restore the relationship. They must show that they are repentant. They must work extra hard to act in a kind or generous or loving way to make up for the hurt their sin caused. They have to do their sister’s chores for a week to make up for the sinful way they responded when they were angry.
Why do we not ask the same of adults? Why is it that an admission of guilt and an apology is enough? It isn’t. It shouldn’t be.
So yes, we need more women leading our churches and preaching to our communities. Calling us to account and pushing us towards the hard and painful work of self-awareness. Prophesying what we do not want to hear: sin runs deep here and it must be named and atoned for. And we need to hear again and again and again, in the powerful words of John the Baptist: “REPENT, for the Kingdom of heaven is near.”
I see it in myself and I see it in my children: the need to hoard, to hide, to keep for myself. For me it’s the fancy bar of toasted coconut dark chocolate. For them it’s been a piece of gum or the oven-bake clay received in an Easter basket. It is this attitude of this belongs to me, there is not enough to share, if I share with you I will have less for myself.
I have never been one of those mothers that has forced my child to share with other kids. There is a lot of good chatter here on the interwebs that this is not the best policy because it teaches children that they can just demand their way and another child will be forced to give in. Instead at playdates I tried to encourage my children to be aware, to take turns, and to be sure they tracked down the child who wanted the toy when they were done with it to pass it along. I taught them to ask politely to “please can I have a turn when you are done with that” instead of demanding another child share.
And I walk that fine line of sharing when it comes to parenting siblings as well. (Let it be known I did not have siblings at home with me growing up so often I look to my husband for extra help in this area. Sibling stuff is so foreign to me!) If one of my daughters has received a gift that her sister is interested in, we have a lot of conversations about respecting that it is her new thing, and I’m sure she will let you have a turn soon when the novelty wears off, and down the road when your sister has a new toy you want to check out she’ll probably remember today and how you responded to her desire to check out your new thing. In general I am really proud of how my girls have taken this to heart and regularly share with one another and with other friends too.
But it is a bit trickier when they have consumable items like gum or clay. Because the reality of sharing a toy is really different than something that will actually get used up and mean there is less for her. For years I have taken the approach that selfishness breeds selfishness and generosity breaks that cycle. “Remember,” I tell them, “you don’t have to share your gum. But next time your sister has a pack of gum and you want a piece I can almost guarantee that she’ll think back to today and refuse to share because you didn’t share with her. But you can break that cycle today by deciding to be generous. I’m not forcing you, this is your decision. I’m just letting you know my experience of how this will play out…generosity tends to encourage generosity,”
That’s the thing about this world isn’t it? Our human nature is to hoard, to keep, to protect because we fear there is not enough to go around. If I don’t protect my own interests, no one else is going to. I am not immune to this! I am not at all interested in sharing my $9 bar of gourmet chocolate with a daughter who thinks Hershey’s bars are the best chocolate on the planet. And if I give a square of fancy chocolate to this sweet girl, who certainly won’t appreciate it like I do, there is one less square for me.
But then there’s Jesus, and in his topsy-turvey, upside-down, Kingdom-world we are told that God is a God of abundance. Just look at the way Jesus turned the offering of a few loaves and fish into a meal to feed a crowd with 10 baskets full of leftovers. And in Luke 6 Jesus promised us that generosity will be met with generosity: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap…” A measuring cup filled, pressed, shaken, and topped off to running over: that is abundance.
I think a lot of challenges facing our church today are rooted in a genuine fear that there is not enough. Not enough money, not enough parishioners, not enough love and grace to go around. So we put up walls and rules to keep us safe and guarantee we have enough to survive. Meanwhile people are starving just outside our doors.
Friends, I write this to myself more than I write it to you. I preach a good “abundance” sermon but I don’t practice it too well. I stress about my savings account and my fancy chocolate bar and my comfort and security regularly. Generosity does not come naturally to me, selfishness does.
And yet selfishness does not yield good measures.
Just the other day my youngest daughter proudly recalled how she had shared her penultimate stick of gum with a classmate. “Mom,” she told me, “my friend knows how gum helps her concentrate when she is taking a test but she didn’t have any. She asked me for one but I only had two pieces left. At first I wanted to tell her no, but then I remembered what you keep telling us about that…you know…that thing where there will be enough…”
“Abundance?” I ask.
“Yeah, abundance,” she says. “And so I gave her a piece of gum and she was so happy and thankful that I just felt happy all the rest of the day. I was really proud of myself and had good feelings about what I had done.”
If that isn’t a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, I don’t know what is. May we truly live in such a way that we believe in a God of abundance and give generously.
This world is God’s good creation; yet all is not well. We are a broken people. As the year descends into darkness and winter approaches, we feel in our bones the coldness and need of the human family. Evil abounds. Cruelty is policy. Injustice reigns. Racism, greed and sexual violence crowd the news. Hope flickers among dark shadows. We cry to God with Isaiah, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isa. 64.1).
But in our longing we do not just gaze at the sky. We get ourselves ready. We don’t just wish; we prepare. We trust God is at work in the midst of the mess with a transforming, life-giving power. Like Mary, we say Yes to that power unfolding within and among us. We become the change we want to see in the world. We become people of peace and gentleness, of love and courage. We become candles shining confidently in the darkness.
2017 for the Gemmer family has been a year of living faithfully right where God has placed us: daily ministry at Camp Indianola, piano lessons, church volunteering, honest dinner table conversations, theater tickets, camping trips, mountain hikes, playing at the beach, trick-or-treating, kitchen remodels, buckets of homework. And this Seminary season for me has become an Advent season: a journey of waiting, of trusting, of hoping, of doing preparatory work even though I don’t know exactly what I’m preparing for. There are some hints being slowly revealed. There are confident prayers and there are desperate prayers. There is hope and there is trust, but there is worry around the edges. There are dreams whispered in fear and in faith. There is an expectation of being surprised because so far it seems God likes to work that way with me. So as I sit in the darkness of Advent and light my one small candle, as I marvel at the God of the Universe entering into our darkness with his own Light, as I hug my family tighter and whisper to them the wonder of the miracle in the manger come to show us just how much love God has, I wait with hope.
These words hang on my wall this Christmas season and challenge me anew each time I see them: “a weary world rejoices.” This world feels weary, it hangs heavy with darkness, but Christmas shows us that God is here. God is not afraid of the dark—even the darkest of human hearts. Jesus, the Light of the World, entered into this darkness and by his presence, as a friend recently reminded me, redefined what darkness is, redefined how we are to experience darkness. May we rest in the light of God’s embrace, and may we soak up enough of that light to join Christ in his incarnational work of bringing hope to our weary world, of redefining darkness. Rest, wait, hope, and bring light. It is simple and it is full of mystery.
This is a collection of things that have caught my eye out there in the vast internets recently. Perhaps something here will catch your eye as well…
Disney Newsies: The Broadway Musical I have a long history with the musical Newsies, and have many fond memories of HOURS watching the original movie version with my girlfriends in middle and high school. So yeah, I was thrilled when Disney created this amazing Broadway version, and even happier to hear it was being filmed to experience in movie theaters nation-wide earlier this year. I went by myself to the theater when I was in Portland last February and the whole experience had me grinning from ear to ear like a lovesick girl. The music, the dancing, the acting, the dancing. Oh man, the dancing. Now you can purchase this show and watch it in the comfort of your living room. And if you’re anything like me, make your family sit down and watch it with you. And expect profound levels of gratitude to come your way upon completion. Man, I love theater. I love art.
to put on a wishlist:
Hamilton: The Revolution
If you are a Hamilton mega-fan like your’s truly, this gorgeous book should definitely be on your wishlist. I don’t have a copy for myself yet, but browsing through it at my local store had me drooling with desire. The photos from the original cast are gorgeous, the stories and behind-the-scenes information is such a treat, and the whole feel of the book is just lovely. Here’s to hoping it’ll be wrapped up under the Christmas tree for me this year.
to listen to:
Dear Meby Nichole Nordeman undoes me every single time I hear it. She is singing my story. And maybe it’s your story too? If you have wrestled with faith, with Jesus, with church, with “magic words,” with what it really means to love…give this a listen. But be prepared with a box of tissues and a space to really surrender. It is healing music here friends.
I have been searching for more vegetarian meals to add to our collection and this one was a HUGE hit with all the members of the family. We don’t need Gluten Free, so just used regular whole-wheat rotini pasta. And served with a dollop of sour cream on the side. Super delish.
Your turn: What caught your eye this week on the web? Share a link in the comments.
The Pharisees, Jesus, and Drawing Lines in the Sand
Growing up in the church it was always pretty clear to me who the bad guys of Scripture were. I knew that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were not down with Jesus and tried repeatedly to fool and shame him. But Jesus was too smart for them, instead skillfully and compassionately evading their traps: refusing to condemn a woman they wanted to stone, challenging them to study what is meant by God’s declaration “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and using a story of a beaten and bloody man cared for by the lowest of low to teach what is meant by love your neighbor. Jesus’ harshest words were always for these “whitewashed tombs” who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4) My childhood world was pretty black and white, divided into good guys and bad guys, and when it came to Jesus and his enemies, all was crystal clear.
But it turns out the world isn’t so black and white, and neither is Scripture. The more I learn and lean in, the more I see nuance, both/and, now/not yet and I am not as eager to fit things into neat dichotomous categories. A few years ago when I studied the book of Matthew in Bible Study Fellowship I found myself strangely empathetic to the Pharisees. As I began to put myself in their shoes I started to see how threatening the teaching of Jesus were to their understanding of God, of their holy book Torah, of righteousness, of their fundamental understanding of who they were as God’s chosen people. Jesus was upending everything they thought they understood. Now you can argue that Jesus was simply returning to the original intention, revealing to them who God had always been, showing them how they had missed the mark over the years. But change is hard, especially when the change is predicated on the fact that you were wrong. So often when confronted with our failures and offered a right perspective, instead of accepting new information we double-down, hold tighter and dig in our heels. I am speaking from years of personal experience here; humility is not my strength.
I started to get where the Pharisees were coming from. For Jews of the first-century, their framework for self-understanding was found in Torah, in the sacred writings of Israel. Torah gave Jews an identity as God’s chosen people and the responsibilities that came with this election. Jews viewed Torah as the eternal word of God, unchanging and normative in all times and contexts. But since life is ever changing, Pharisaic tradition was created to help Jews “continue to live in the present world but seek to discover in Torah itself the principles that would allow them to maintain its integrity as an absolute norm, yet relate it to the real circumstances of their lives.” The invention of this interpretive practice called midrash kept Torah alive, present, and authoritative.
Christians have continued such a practice with our sacred texts found in The Holy Bible (which includes the Jewish texts). We may not call it midrash, but the work of theologians and pastors to interpret these ancient texts in light of our lives and contexts certainly feels like this practice. For example, obviously Scripture doesn’t speak directly to my use/abuse of technology, but I can find principles for caring for others, the wise use of my time, honoring resources, etc. that help me develop a healthy ethic around this modern invention. I have noticed a trend of Evangelicals to happily camp out in the Epistles because these letters of Paul, James, and others tend to spell things out more clearly than a story from the Old Testament or life of Jesus might. And yet we still must wrestle. Was Paul’s admonition against women preaching towards a specific context, or for all time and place? Did Jesus really mean we should turn the other cheek if abused? Like the Jews with Torah, Christians believe our holy text is alive and relevant and has as much to say to us modern people as it did to early believers.
You may already assume where I’m headed with these thoughts, but here is where I spell them out for you. A few weeks ago a group of Evangelical leaders, with (what I’m asking God to help me see) the best of intentions, wrote out a sort of midrash on sexuality they called the Nashville Statement. This, they declared, is the proper way to view human sexuality from a scriptural viewpoint, and this, they were clear to note, is the only way for followers of Jesus to do so. A line in the sand was drawn. Insiders and outsiders were declared.
As I read and wept in anger and grief, not only at the tone-deaf timing of the statement, but also to the damage it would inevitably cause in the lives of sincere Christ-following LGBTQ people and their friends, family members, and allies, I couldn’t help think of Matthew 23 and the weeping Jesus did over the Pharisees. “Woe to you,” he cried again and again. “You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.” “You tithe mint, dill, and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy.” “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” “You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of fish.” Jesus’ harshest words were always for these religious leaders and it is no wonder why my childhood-self vilified them too.
When Jesus walked the earth he declared that he had come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He told us that he was the embodiment of the law, the personification of it. If we wanted to know what God was up to, sure we could look to Scripture, but we should first and foremost look to Jesus. Scripture is an important, living gift. But it is not central, not a fourth member of the Trinity. To understand any of our holy texts, old and new testament alike, they must be filtered through the lens of Jesus. Scripture is not Jesus.
And neither is the Nashville Statement.
 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 50.
My Baby is Having a Birthday and I’m Feeling the Ache
Note: This post originally appeared on my personal blog July 2014. I am sharing it three years later, this day my baby is turning 8. The ache is raw again today.
Once more it has happened, another year has gone by. And here it is: that ache that seems to be ever-present in my Mama-heart. An ache I am learning to live with, but that becomes almost palpable on these dates that mark the changing of a number. From four, or even four-and-a-half, to five.
And dear Dani, I think you feel it too. We are not together on this momentous day as you are off at Gran camp with your sister and your cousin, but last night on the phone when I asked you about your last day as a four-year-old, you cried because of that ache in your heart knowing something is past. Something you loved and treasured and aren’t quite ready to say goodbye to, is over.
You cried for the year that was over.
You cried for the knowledge that you were done with preschool, done with dear Miss Cindy and your carefree hours and your precious friends.
Your heart is tender dear girl.
Your heart is fierce.
Your heart is generous and loyal and kind.
And your heart knows the ache.
But here’s the thing I’m learning about this ache of ours: we can mourn over our loss but we can also rejoice at what is to come. So I do my best to take a few moments to be sad, to miss the little baby and toddler and preschooler you were. To look through a few pictures, and laugh at your antics in some home videos.
And then I say a prayer of thanks, step back from the nostalgia, and dream of what’s ahead. Knowing the ache will be there in the background, I have to choose to wonder with joy and amazement at what is next.
And this, your year of being 5, I’m pretty sure is going to be awesome.
So I won’t let the ache overwhelm my heart today if you promise to do the same.