Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“SLOW CHURCH ZONE”

“Speak softly and carry a big stick,” goes the African proverb.  I think of it every time I jog past this sign near my house.  Because if there were ever a place where many of us have felt like we must “speak softly” and “carry a big stick,” it is in of all places “church.”

Sunday mornings can quickly become our “church zone” days.  In the “church zone,” we are careful to self-edit.  We put on nice clothes to look good for others even if we don’t feel good inside.  We put on pleasant expressions to hide the brokenness underneath.  We use “Christian” language even when it sounds awkward or forced.  We follow all of the religious cues.  We pretend to ourselves and those around us that because we’re in here, “in church,” we are somehow different or better than the world outside our doors.

If truth be told, many of us who have tried to be more transparent in the “church zone” have often been hurt. When we have honestly sought to live into the biblical notion that we, the church, really are “brothers and sisters” in Christ, we have been shafted.  When we have been real about our struggles, we have been ganged up on.

Then there are those who, in seeking privacy during their times of deepest affliction, are shocked to read about themselves on the front page of the church newsletter, or become against their will the juicy subject of the next prayer meeting.  All in the name of so-called “Christian” love.  No wonder that many of us instinctively look for the “big stick,” whatever that may be: we are looking to protect ourselves from further violations.

Sometimes I meet Christians who while fully aware of the church’s brokenness would prefer to treat it as if it were a big, family secret. “We wouldn’t want non-Christians to hear these things” goes this line of reasoning, as if once a Christian, all of the mess of our lives, our sin, our imperfections, and our “issues,” should no longer exist.  As if once we step through the doors of a church building or join a Bible study, we are somehow only saints and no longer sinners.  Maybe the fear is that if we let the cat out of the bag, our lives won’t adequately witness to the transforming Good News that Jesus loves us and gave Himself for us.

This is a natural fear.  We want to believe that our relationship with Christ has really changed us.  Has meant something. And we’re afraid to look at all of those places where it has yet to.

And this fear comes from a place of good intentions.  Those of us who love Jesus want the world to know how great He is. We want our lives to reflect the difference he makes.  We don’t want the world to see how Christians, when we get together, are often just messed-up, broken people with issues.  Just another batch of shared humanity.  No more.  No less.

But the reality is that church is chock-full of sinners.  Messed-up people all of us.  Sorely in need of God’s grace each of us.  And telling ourselves or others otherwise and keeping the cat in the bag as if it were a shameful secret, is not just unhelpful.  It is bad theology.

So, while telling the truth about this reality can be hard, I suspect that in the end it is a whole lot more life-saving than the alternative. One theologian who told the truth was the fourth-century theologian, St. Augustine:  “The man who enters [church] is bound to see drunkards, misers, tricksters, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators, people wearing amulets, assiduous clients of sorcerers, astrologers.  He must be warned that the same crowds that press into the churches on Christian festivals also fill the theaters on pagan holidays,” Malcolm Muggeridge, in A Third Testament:  A Modern Pilgrim Explores the Spiritual Wanderings of Augustine, Blake, Pascal, Tolstoy, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, quotes Augustine as saying.  (The one thing lacking about this wonderful book is that it does not include citations, so if any of you can recall which of Augustine’s works this comes from, I’d be appreciative.)

When we tell the truth, we become free- or at least freer.  We become free to see ourselves not as Christians but as human beings desperately in need of God’s grace.  Grace embodied not just in that one moment when we accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and thought everything would change, but every day. Every moment.  And we free ourselves to share with others the unvarnished gift of the Good News: that Christ loved us while we were yet still sinners.  Not after we got our lives in order- because then He would have been waiting around for, literally, forever. But before then.  And always.  This is Good News.  For the very reason that it tears down our “church zones.”

 

If you’re up for a good laugh and some provocative theology, you can find other strange, funny and intriguing church signs here: www.beliefnet.com/JesusDaily/Features/Church-Signs-Across-America.aspx and http://www.beliefnet.com/JesusDaily/Features/Fun-Chuch-Signs.aspx.

 

 

Confession of a Yard Sale Junkie

I confess I’m a yard sale junkie.  On most any Saturday the signs in the neighborhood trigger those irrepressible hunter-gatherer instincts. In no time I am digging through other people’s junk looking for treasure.

It is amazing, too, what turns up, and what I convince myself I can use.  Clothes, jewelry, books, CD’s, weird gadgets, ceiling fans, the occasional birthday or Christmas present even.  (If you’re reading this, be assured that you have never received one of these.)

To find that great deal that no one would ever guess I bought at a yard sale is a rush.  I love those moments when a girlfriend exclaims, “I love your skirt!  Where did you get it?”  Then I can answer matter-of-factly, “At a yard sale…for a buck.”  Which typically elicits a mix of surprise and feigned envy.

Of course there are those times when even a yard sale purchase becomes regrettable.  Regrettable because once you’ve bought it you can’t take it back. There was the carpet that we later discovered smelled like a whole litter of big, hairy dogs had slept and peed on it over the course of a lifetime.  Or, the never-worn, boutique dress that looked stunning on a hanger but that neither I nor every girlfriend on whom I subsequently pawned it off could wear without feeling like her chest was concave- hence, “never-worn.”

There can be something mildly voyeuristic in the whole enterprise of complete strangers investigating other people’s old stuff.  At various times when I have stumbled upon something of interest that is now of no value to their owner and have made an innocent inquiry, it has felt as if I have unknowingly overstepped a hidden boundary in our brief acquaintance.  The other day I was poring through a treasure trove of theological literature at a moving sale.  I had exclaimed, “What a great library you have!  These are books that we ministers love to read!”  The woman selling the books in a moment of self-conscious admission then shared that she at one time long ago had been a member and elder of a nearby Presbyterian church.  Apparently these books had belonged to that “phase.”  It was clear she felt a bit uncomfortable with the direction the conversation might take.  I didn’t ask questions, but she gave up those books willingly, 50 cents a piece, and I was glad to give them a home.

Lately, I have been struck by the fact that much of life is a process that involves weeding through our metaphorical “junk”- and we all have “junk” if we’re honest.  There’s all of the baggage we’ve collected through the years.  Or, the stuff that others pawn off on us, a bit like dresses that don’t fit right but that now we’re stuck with.  Sometimes it is hard to find a place for it all.  (Have you ever had the experience of your stuff being turned away by the Salvation Army?  I have, once.)

But when we can’t find a place for the wrongs we’ve done or that others have done to us, or the hang-ups, inadequacies, or shameful secrets, or the sudden losses that rock our world and leave us wondering how to make sense of them, Jesus can.  When we can’t find a rhyme or rhythm to the various and sundry items that we’ve laid out on our lawn in hopes that someone will find a use for them, or see their intrinsic value, Jesus can.  He specializes in making a home for “lost” people and things.  “For the Son of Man came to see and save the lost,”  He says (Luke 19:10).  All we need to do is surrender.

Jesus Walks On Water

Remember the crazy story about Peter and Jesus walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33)?  To refresh our memories…Peter and the disciples are out in a boat in the middle of the night when Jesus appears, taking a little stroll on the lake and looking a bit, well, ghostly.  (Who wouldn’t, after all, in such circumstances and at such an hour?)  So Peter calls out, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”  Jesus’ answer in the affirmative provides Peter with just enough courage to step out of the boat and onto the water.

What follows has inspired many a sermon on the need for faith- Peter’s faith, our faith, you catch the drift- with the implication being that if we all only had a bit more faith, we all might walk on water.  The problem with this, of course, is that it isn’t really good news for most of us. Most of us do not have that kind of faith, and frankly never will.

The really good news here is that Jesus walks on water, and comes to us when we call out in our faltering moments of fear, distrust and despair.

Nadia Bolz-Weber articulates this truth winningly in a recent sermon delivered to her congregation in Denver, Colorado and I commend it to you:  http://sarcasticlutheran.typepad.com/sarcastic_lutheran/2011/08/jesus-walking-on-the-water-a-sermon-sarcastic-and-serious.html.

Mess Happens

Painting by Paolo Veronese, c. 1550

A friend likes to say, “Small people, small messes.  Big people, big messes!”

Have you ever wondered where God is in all of it?

One of my favorite stories from Scripture is of the woman at the well (John 4).  If there were anyone who walked around with a great big sign on her forehead that reads, “My life is a mess,” she would qualify.  She has been through a string of dead-end relationships, each of them a failed experiment in so-called “love.”  When she comes to the well at midday all by herself, she is hot, tired, sweaty, and very much alone in her mess.  She is probably one of many people, regardless of their circumstances, who walk around in a low-grade depression, disappointed by the way life has turned out.

Yet Jesus meets her there.  Right in the middle of her mess he meets her.  He doesn’t offer a magic wand to make the mess go away or promise that he will be the one to clean it all up.  He doesn’t shrug off the mess as if it doesn’t matter.  He doesn’t pretend that the mess is not there. (Have you ever been in a long conversation with someone only to discover in the mirror later that part of your lunch had been stuck to your face the whole time?)

If anything, Jesus may actually be the first person to tell this woman that she has a great, big sign on her forehead that reads “My life is a mess.” Only, thankfully, he doesn’t use those words.  Instead he simply tells her the truth that no stranger just passing through could ever guess without a direct connection to the soul: “You’ve had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.”

And then, if this woman with five husbands and a live-in lover is willing to try one more time, Jesus offers her Himself.  “Living Water,” he calls it- as opposed to the same old, dreary water she has been drinking from other so-called “wells,” which always leaves her emptier than before.  This time Jesus invites her to try her luck on a Love that can actually save.

Does this woman’s mess disappear after she meets Jesus?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  The text leaves us free to speculate.

What changes is the woman’s ability to tell the truth about her mess.  In the new-found light of how God sees her she can share her story freely and without shame.   She can acknowledge the mess that is there and the One who helped her see it while loving her all the same.

I used to think that the best indication as to whether Jesus had really “met” a person is how neat and tidy their lives appeared and how well they told their story about how Jesus had cleaned up their life  (helped them get sober, healed them from sickness, turned their whole life around, etc.).

This story tells me otherwise:  “The woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.  Could this be the Christ?””

No slick testimonies.  No dogmatic apologetics.  No pretenses, even, that the stranger at the well is beyond doubt God Himself.

Why?  Maybe because the person who has met Jesus is often the one with the spaghetti on her face and the red sauce running down her bib, who now knows it and can laugh- all because of the One who knew her through and through and loved her all the same.

Damaris Who?

Her name was Damaris.  Ever wondered about her?  She appears in the form of an afterthought, (one of Luke’s “oh, by the way” comments), as one of the “few” who believed upon hearing Paul’s speech in the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-34).  Some biblical commentators guess that to have been mentioned as a woman she could only have been of high social status.  This might accord with the fact that Christian tradition also identifies her as the wife of Dionysius the Areopagite (the one other person who is named among the “few” who believed and who later went on to become the Bishop of Athens’ fledgling church).  The Eastern Orthodox church actually sets aside a day for Saint Damaris, but for Reformed Protestants like myself, Damaris takes her place in a long line of forgotten saints and sinners, many of them women whose contributions to the church and the world will remain shrouded in mystery and known (with the exception of a small collection of biblical scholars) only to God.

Yet that anonymity does not make Damaris’ contributions any less meaningful, or her commitment to building God’s people up with the love of God any less a compelling witness.  Often our best mentors and role models are those whose presence is easily taken for granted.  (I suspect any parent who sacrifices their professional aspirations to rear children can appreciate this truth.)  Such persons may dwell inconspicuously “in the margins” of a life’s main plot line, but the imprint they make is unquestionable.

Recently, I was reminded of this truth as it often plays out in our churches when standing in the International Museum of the Reformation in John Calvin’s Geneva, Switzerland.  There, a panoply of male Reformers and their writings, from Calvin and Luther to the lesser known, bedecks the many exhibit rooms, each representing a century-long “chapter” in the story of the Reformation from the sixteenth century to the present.  Women theologians and philosophers only make their debut by name in the very last room devoted to the twentieth century, and I was surprised and a bit rueful to think that I only now was making acquaintance with most of them.  Amy Plantinga Pauw makes a similar observation about women’s representation in mainline ministry settings: they “remain heavily concentrated in associate positions, in small and struggling churches and in alternative ministry settings,” she writes in the most recent issue of The Christian Century.

The other day at the grocery store my two-year-old daughter, Sam, was introducing herself very loudly in the latest dialect of English (if you could even call it that) to anyone in the dairy section who might listen. “She’s making herself known- and that’s a good thing!,” someone exclaimed- and yes, I had to agree, it was a good thing.

But Damaris’ legacy is not ultimately about making herself known.  It is about making known, in her own unique “dialect,” the God she has encountered in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ .  I only hope that more and more women in the church will, like Damaris, find their voice wherever they are called to minister.

Surprised by Grief

Not too long ago 29,000 Somali children were reported to have died from starvation, the crackdown in Syria and bombings in Libya continued, and the unemployment epidemic in our own country persisted in the face of debilitating squabbles in Washington. And, in a car driving north on I-75, half-listening to the headlines on NPR, I was blinking back tears over the loss of a loved one.

Grief catches us unawares- a bit like a blow to the stomach that leaves a gnawing, gaping hole in our gut.  When the pain of loss, whatever it may be, may seem small and even trivial against a vast backdrop of human suffering, it still can overwhelm us, sometimes in the form of an unexpected, bewildering deluge of feelings, other times as a palpably present  “thorn in the flesh.”  It can leave us thinking that somehow “this- whatever ‘this’ is- wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.”  So much so that we find ourselves clinging to the very attachment that has to go, like a child with her security blanket, even when in some cases we know the thing we have to release is not good for us or prevents us from growing up.

As a minister I have sat at the bedside of many a dying person and their family and witnessed the sacred process of letting go of a loved one.  At times I have been asked to facilitate that process, always as a kind professional with a job to do.  A distanced, sympathetic observer with the right words.  Words of relief and consolation.  Reassurances of God’s love and promises of new life.

But a grief partaken, a grief lived and living, is a whole different experience.  All of our best defenses suddenly fail: there are no words, or they are hard to come by and fall flat; and there is no manual, despite what Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and her tidy five “stages” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) might claim.  My own grief has been messy, explosive, and unruly, so that at times the inclination is to stuff it, pretending it is not there, or to find some form of escape.  Maybe this is because the act of grieving requires coming to terms with the reality of my own death, for which each of life’s successive losses is mere preparation.

Whatever the case, grief follows no cookie-cutter pattern, as Thomas Long observes in his critique of Kübler-Ross (the June 28, 2011 issue of The Christian Century).  “The idea that people sail across the stygian stream towards some tranquil stage of acceptance is not an empirical observation.  It is bad theology, a product of Kübler-Ross’ smuggled Neoplatonism, which stands in tension with Christian eschatology and the biblical concept of death as the final enemy.”

Grief can strike whenever we lose someone or something that has come to define who we are or how we see ourselves, so that in their absence, “the plot threads unravel, the narrative shatters, and those of us who are part of the story ‘go to pieces.’”  The hard work of grief is, as Long writes, “to gather the fragments and to rewrite the narrative, this time minus a treasured presence.”  Yet how do we rewrite a story when our grief has left us without words?  How do we fashion redemptive meaning from tragedy?

Perhaps the start of an answer is that we cannot alone.  We need the help of Someone who meets us where we are, in the wilderness of our suffering, and offers just enough sustenance to get us through when we cannot see the path ahead through our tears.  And, in that space where words no longer suffice, and our prayers are more like silent cries, the Spirit “intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).  Here, maybe, is where the reshaping begins.  Here is where we begin to gather the fragments and rewrite a narrative that is without “closure” (something that the bereaved often seek but rarely find). Thankfully, for Christians, when all such elusive and illusory attempts to domesticate our grief fail, there is still the God-breathed prayer that, as Long so wonderfully puts it, “all of our lost loves will be gathered into that great unending story fashioned by God’s grace.”

What Jesus Really Said at the Last Supper…

according to artist Sister Louisa, whose irreverent humor I encountered the other day in my favorite greasy-breakfast joint:

“Imperfection,” a.k.a. “Perpetual Progress”?

 

Gregory of Nyssa

Epektasis: it may sound like a venereal disease, but it is actually Latin for “perpetual progress;” and it has been around since the fourth century whenGregory of Nyssa coined the term as a way to explain his understanding of true perfection in the spiritual life.  True perfection, for Gregory, consisted not in reaching some elusive, Platonic destination of total “stasis”- as if “to arrive” in the spiritual journey meant an end to the adventure of learning and discovery.  This would be virtual condemnation to an endless state of being a couch potato eating bon bons. Give me Traveler’s diarrhea in exchange for the rush of new people, places, and of course, new food, any day over that!

Instead, perfection takes shape in the journey itself- a journey into the life of God that continues incessantly after death- so that “imperfection” becomes a positive, life-affirming space in which to receive God’s grace, rather than an Achilles’ heel. Those prickly imperfections we brush up against in ourselves and others?  They become, when infused by God’s Spirit, vehicles of our progress in the spiritual life- progress that, thankfully, is perpetually incomplete.

The take-home point?  We’re imperfect (duh!), thanks be to God!

For a more extensive, scholarly treatment of epektasis, especially its contemporary applications for worship, ethics, ecclesiology and mission, see my article, “Gregory of Nyssa’s ‘Perpetual Progress,’” in the July 2008 issue ofTheology Today.

The Gift of Failing

Garrison Keillor read this poem by Wendell Berry on yesterday’s “The Writer’s Almanac”:

IX.

I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.

There is something profoundly reassuring in the truth that when we fail, the trees still come back.  With the healing passage of time God’s vegetation gradually fills in all of those places in our lives where we have sown where we cannot reap.  A law of nature, maybe- or of grace?

(As an aside, if only this law also applied to the piles of laundry sitting on my couch for the last two days waiting to be folded! If a forest can grow without my help, why can’t laundry find its way into drawers, too?)

I am re-reading Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30)- this time in a new light, thanks to Berry.  Do you remember the story?  A master entrusts each of his servants with a certain number of “talents” (a money denomination in the ancient world).  The first leaves with five and comes back with five more.  The second leaves with two and comes back with two more.  The last servant hides his one talent in the ground.  When the master comes back, he has nothing but praise to shower upon the first two servants, but the third servant meets a sorry fate:  “take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents,” his master demands.  “And throw that worthless servant outside into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vv.28-30).

I used to assume that the first two servants were just shrewd portfolio managers: that they by sheer effort, wise decision-making and innate giftedness earn the master’s admiration.  But the text actually makes no suggestion of the sort.  There is no indication that the doubling of the two servants’ talents has anything to do with how they go about choosing to invest.  All we really know from the text is that they do invest- how, with whom, or where remains unknown. For all we know, they could have been cultivating “a few poor crops” on a field that ended up overrun by trees.

And then we come to the third servant.  His failure is not that he invested his money and came back empty-handed, or that he planted a crop only to have it fail.  His failure is that he never tried in the first place.

The question, then, is why?  Why did he not try?  Why did he not stake out his own little plot of land and begin planting, or at the very least put his one talent in the bank to accrue interest?

One compelling explanation is that he misread the character of the Master (v. 24), so that it was the servant’s own distorted picture of God as a hard-driving, unfair manager that made him afraid to try and ultimately cost him everything.  When he comes to the Master, the servant says,  “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground.  See, here is what belongs to you (vv.24,25).”

But there is another way to answer this question.  Maybe the servant had discovered a bit of who God really was and decided that he did not want to have any part in Him.  Maybe he had decided it would be too “hard” to take what this God was giving at face value.  Maybe his words to the Master were not a misreading at all but, rather, the truth that when unveiled unlocks the whole point of this parable.

Because there is something “hard” about the grace of God: it really is not about how well we do based on any of our own merit.  We could even go out tomorrow and plant “a few poor crops” that fail.  God’s trees will still come back.  God really does harvest where God has not sown.  All we need to do is give our best college try with what we have been given.

Beyond the Genesis Curse: Lessons from Childbirth

An ultrasound taken at 8 weeks

Tucked away in the apostle Paul’s first letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 2:15) is the strange declaration that “women will be saved through childbirth.”  The New Revised Standard translation puts it this way:  “Yet [she, the woman] will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”

Scholars have virtually tripped over themselves to do various interpretive acrobatics here.  N.T. Wright, whose interpretation seems most palatable, places the verse in its larger context:  Paul is making the case in the preceding verses (vv.8-15) that women should be allowed to learn freely in submission to God and, as Wright puts it, “not be kept in unlettered, uneducated boredom and drudgery.”  (Amen to that!)  As for the perplexing statement in verse 15, Wright prefers to translate it with only two slight variations: “she will be kept safe through the process of childbirth, if she continues in faith, love and holiness with prudence;” here “kept safe” replaces “saved” and “prudence,” “modesty.”  The overall gist, while perhaps unavoidable, still has the potential both to misconstrue childbirth as somehow salvific in and of itself and to distort the hard reality of childbearing, both in Paul’s time and ours in much of the world.

Just the other day this cruel reality thrust itself into the weekly moms’ Bible study I attend.  These conversations about biblical theology between over-educated, under-paid, mostly middle-class, first-world women are never dull, and our discussion this day was no different.  By the time we had arrived at a sharing of prayer requests and closing prayer, we had undertaken in loud, spirited discourse to make sense of God’s sovereignty, free will, and the Trinity.

The tenor of our meeting changed during the closing prayer time when a woman who had been silent throughout the preceding conversation spoke up.  She is a Hindu from Nepal.  She is also 36 weeks pregnant, and we were to put on a baby shower for her the following evening.  When she speaks, she chooses her words carefully, so that her words seem to attain greater significance.

What do women in Nepal do to celebrate when a mother gives birth, I had asked her.  Do they do anything that resembles our so-called “baby showers,” I had inquired.

At this, she paused and solemnly nodded “no.”  Then she went on to explain that in Nepal, especially rural areas, many women and children die in childbirth, often due to poverty, lack of access to health care, poor education and illiteracy.

To be sure, Nepal has some of the worst maternal health statistics in the world, with one woman dying in childbirth every four hours.  But Nepal is only one of many places where the marvelous miracle of birth is fraught with great risk, pain and tragedy.  Every minute of every day a woman dies of pregnancy-related causes in our world today.  In Paul’s time, the statistics would have been far grimmer.

In this context, pregnancy, labor and delivery do not bring mainly joyful expectation and the anticipation of new life.  They are more frequently an occasion for great fear and unspeakable grief and suffering.  “Let’s pray for women and babies in Nepal then,” one of us had volunteered, and so we had bowed our heads in prayer.  The reminder of this reality, in a group of happily chattering, first-world, middle-class women, had ushered in a sort of hushed reverence for the plight of our sisters and their babies in a very different part of the world.

A pregnant woman sits by a tree trunk at a refugee camp outside Dadaab, eastern Kenya, 60 miles from the Somali border. (Credit: AP, Jerome Delay)

Yet the effect of the curse in Genesis is far-reaching.  Even in Western countries where epidurals and pre-scheduled C-sections abound and a whole cottage industry of doulas and birthing classes promises “beautiful,” “planned” and even “pain-free” natural births, pregnancy, labor and delivery are rarely beautiful, pain-free or go according to plan.  (My favorite was a woman’s soothing voice put to the tune of some light, feathery New Age music on a hypno-birthing CD used to prepare for the birth of my daughter: “Some hypno-birthing mothers say that their labor feels like nothing more than a bowel movement,” she had said in her mesmerizing voice.)

Of course the reality with only a very few exceptions is anything but this.  When a woman is on her second epidural after 26 hours of labor only to be told that she will require a C-section, or when she finds herself on all fours in a hospital parking lot breathing through contractions, she discovers that her body and her child do not ultimately belong to her but to God and to Nature’s unfeeling, unstoppable rhythms.  She finds herself swept off her feet- caught up in and surrendering to an ages-old, primordial dance.

Just where the dance will end is never really clear at the outset, so that this act of childbirth and all that precedes it is ultimately a demonstration of faith.  “By faith Abraham…obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).   Similarly, a woman preparing for birth embarks on a journey that takes her to a place she knows not where.  All she can do is trust. Maybe she trusts in her body, that it will do what it was meant to do, maybe in her doctors, that they will do what they were trained to do; often, when bodies and doctors falter, the very best she can do is surrender to a much-greater Force that remains there, whether known or unknown, named or unknown.

Some commentators, by claiming that the apostle Paul is not referring to physical deliverance or rescue,  have tried to ameliorate the shock of his statement that a woman will be “saved” or “kept safe” through childbirth.  This line of reasoning by default concludes that the salvation Paul has in mind here is purely spiritual in nature.  A kind of gnosis or “higher knowledge” for those schooled in suffering? Maybe.  A liberation of the spirit from the transient values of this world, followed by a blissful eternity for the soul in heaven?  Possibly. But, does salvation of the soul alone adequately redeem the tragic impacts of the Genesis curse? Is Paul really saying that even when a woman’s body does not just falter but fails in childbirth,  her soul will live on in eternity so long as she perseveres in holiness- and if so, is this good news?

Maybe just barely for some of us.  Maybe just good enough for First-World women like me, whose pregnancies, while laced with enough drama to make them exciting, from morning sickness and uterine blood clots to hemorrhoids and back pain, result in a happy, healthy outcome for mother and child.

But, what about the rest of us?  What about those of us in the Majority World?  Imagine quoting verse 15 to the under-nourished Somali mother whose twins are starving to death because she cannot produce enough milk, or the woman in remote Pakistan who could not reach the hospital in time to deliver her still-born son and is now fighting for her own life.  Imagine telling that to the woman whose many miscarriages have cost her a husband and family and made her an outsider to her village.

The unavoidable fact is that the “pains” of childbirth that constituted Eve’s punishment (Genesis 3:16) were as much bodily, physical ones as they were manifestations of spiritual brokenness.   In this sense they cry out for a redemption that is also as fleshy as it is spiritual.  Anything less is the shabby news of a used car salesman.

I suspect that the apostle Paul knew this when he wrote these words to Timothy.  Not long before his letter to Timothy he had written another letter to the church in Corinth. There he spells out in no uncertain terms his hope in a bodily resurrection for which the resurrection of Jesus Christ is “but the first fruits” (1 Cor. 15:20), so that just as in Adam all human beings die in sin, in Christ all live in resurrected life.

"Don't do it, Eve!"

“The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power,” he writes (vv.42,43).  In this context he can go on to encourage his “brothers” to”stand firm.”  Let nothing move you,” he writes.  “Give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (v. 58).

Paul seems to be issuing similar words of consolation and assurance to women in 1 Timothy.  Our labor, in the biological sense, will not be in vain. The travails and tragedy of Eve’s curse will not ultimately be the full summation of our experience.  In the resurrection, they along with death itself will be “swallowed up in victory” (v. 54), so “hang on” and “don’t give up,” are the message, with a view to the bodily resurrection that awaits us.

And this message really is good news on which to stake a lifetime of “holiness.”  What might it look like for women in Nepal, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere, for whom the childbearing experience has been nothing but travail and tragedy?  Some day, in the kingdom of God, I would like to think that they in the flesh will be reunited with their long-lost children, who will finally feast at their mothers’ dripping breasts, skin to skin, all aglow with the warmth of a mother’s love.  And, there will be no sore nipples.

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