Does “Bossy” = Leadership?

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BanBossyHoldBackHave you heard about Ban Bossy—a campaign initiated by the Girls Scouts and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit organization LeanIn.org? If you haven’t, here’s the core message of the campaign in a nutshell:

“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead. Pledge to Ban Bossy.”

I totally agree with this message. Parents, educators, and youth leaders need to pay attention to, and change, the way we talk to girls.

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The words we use reveal the messages we live by.

Do I tend to think of men and boys as leaders? How often do I use the word “leader” to describe a woman or a girl? Am I more put off by qualities of assertiveness and directness when I experience them in women than in men?

By asking us to think about the words we choose, Ban Bossy is causing us to think about deep-seated myths about gender.

I’m grateful to LeanIn.org and the Girl Scouts for challenging us to recognize that leadership is not bound by gender. I’d like to add that it’s not bound by temperament either.

Several years ago, my kids were playing with a little boy who had an assertive personality. He was speaking louder than the other kids, doing the majority of the talking, and telling the other kids what he wanted them to do. His mom, somewhat apologetically, said, “We’re working on trying to help him be a little less bossy.” After a brief pause, his dad said, “Or we’re just going to start calling him a leader.”

I laughed along with the other parents, but I remember being annoyed that this person was equating “bossy” with “leadership.”

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Having an assertive personality doesn’t automatically make a person a good leader.  Unhealthy assertive types can make particularly bad leaders when their assertiveness disintegrates into aggression, dominance, control, and abuse of power. We rightly refer to these people as dictators rather than leaders.

Assertive personality types can be great leaders, of course, especially as they learn to listen well and often, welcome other people’s ideas, and share power.

But people with more withdrawn personality types can also be great leaders. They naturally tend to listen well and share power, and they can learn to assert themselves and exhibit confidence through their body language and the vocal volume.

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Spiritual Direction Tip: Parents, pay attention to what bothers you most in your child or what you are most worried about for your child. Are you worried that your son will be seen as weak and called a “wimp?” Are you worried that your daughter will be seen as overbearing and be called a “bitch?”

Do you tend to judge a quality as bad or good? Can you see the value of sensitivity, or do you tend to judge it as “over-sensitivity.” Can you see the value of assertiveness, or do you tend to judge it as “pushy.”

We often try to shut down in our children the things that we haven’t come to terms with in ourselves.

Christians look to Jesus as our flagship example of a great leader. Jesus embraced and exhibited both lion and lamb-like qualities. He turned over tables and held young children. He challenged the religious establishment and wept over the city of Jerusalem. He was decisive about healing people on the Sabbath and he hesitated in the Garden of Gethsemane, questioning whether there might be another way.

To follow Jesus’s example of leadership is to integrate both the lion and the lamb within us.

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If a father hasn’t learned to embrace both the lion and the lamb within himself, and over identifies as a lion—believing that this is what makes him a man—he will shame his son when his son exhibits lamb-like qualities.

A mother can also over-identify as a lion, believing her lion qualities are what make her a strong woman. She may shame her daughter for exhibiting lamb-like qualities out of fear that her daughter will one day be taken advantage or abused by a man if she doesn’t become strong enough.

A mother may also over-identify as a lamb, believing this is what make her “feminine” or “a good Christian woman.” She may shame her daughter when she exhibits lion-like qualities, fearing that her daughter will not fit into the narrow view of “Biblical womanhood” that she lives by.

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Words matter. Collectively they make up the messages by which we think and act.

We are not immune to cultural messages and neither are our kids. If we think certain messages are hurting our kids, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to change them.

So notice the next time you use the word “bossy,” or almost use it. Is there a better word? Better yet, is there a better way to think about and engage with the assertive person before you that both values the way God designed her, and at the same time values the other person with whom she is relating.

(A special thanks to Catherine Skurja for her work on the lion/lamb concept as it relates to spirituality and personality. Read more in her book Paradox Lost. Thanks also to Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert for their insight on Jesus and personality in their book The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective.)

 

Bellies, Bikinis & True Love

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My short article “Bellies, Bikinis & True Love” was published on the Mothers of Preschoolers International (MOPS) blog on Valentine’s Day, but their server was overloaded for a couple of weeks and access was limited. It’s up and running now. For those who dislike Valentine’s Day, perhaps this will sit better with you on an ordinary day like today. Although today is Ash Wednesday, so it’s not really an ordinary day. 

bellies-bikinis-and-true-loveA bikini is no longer an option for me. After two pregnancies, my stretched out bellybutton turns down on both ends like it’s frowning. These days I want to be fully clothed when doing push ups or holding the plank position. Otherwise, my loose tummy skin hangs down like a wrinkly elongated bagel made of Jell-O.

It’s not totally hideous. I still walk around in my bra and underwear in front of my kids. But I’ve been tempted on more than one occasion to ask Siri, “How much is the cheapest tummy tuck in Portland, Oregon?”

When my husband, Andy, and I were lying in bed a few months ago, I said, “I’m just going to cover up my wrinkly tummy,” then pulled the sheet up over my stomach. Andy moved the sheet aside, kissed my stomach and said, “I love your wrinkly tummy and what it represents.”

No one else can say that to me, and mean it, but Andy.

3-stages-of-womans-belly-300x100I remember him touching and kissing my growing belly during my pregnancies, expressing his love for both our yet-to-be-born children and me. He’s continued to touch and kiss my tummy since then, sending me a beautiful, counter-cultural message: You are as beautiful at 40 as you were at 22.

When Andy and I were talking recently, we realized that we both think the other is more physically attractive now than when we were dating. We agreed that we were both more critical of each other back then. We didn’t criticize each other out loud, but we remember noticing things about each other’s appearance that we thought could use some improvement. I think that must have been part of immature love.

Today we see each other more clearly. We know each other more deeply. We’ve gone through hard times. We’ve asked each other for forgiveness. We’ve grown through failure and disappointment. Seventeen years of life shared together has adjusted our vision. We see clearly, now more than ever, that what we have is beautiful.

(Black and white 3-stages-of-a-woman’s-belly photos by photographers Sarah Sampedro and Savannah.)

Reclaiming Eve

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ReclaimingEveBlogTourSuzanne Cross Burden, MA in Theological Studies, is one of the co-authors of the newly released book Reclaiming Eve: The Identity and Calling of Women in the Kingdom of God (Beacon Hill Press). I know Suzanne through Redbud Writers Guild, an organization that amplifies the voices of Christian women in the church, community and culture, and am excited to share this Q&A about her new book with you.

Suzanne Cross Burden-thumbIn your book Reclaiming Eve, you encourage women to find their true identity and calling in the Kingdom of God. Why did you want to write a book like this?

My coauthors and I were separately studying Scripture and had become convinced that women need to own their identity as God’s image-bearers and the “strong power/strong helper” we see Eve to be in the biblical Creation account. It’s less about us wanting to write a book about this and more that we believe God compelled us to do so.

In fact, we were somewhat reluctant, wishing we didn’t need to have this conversation about women being freed up to be full participants in God’s Kingdom. But the fact is, we do. For me, it was personal at first: Would I step in to all God has for me, my marriage and other relationships and my calling? Or would I take my usual, safer, back-row seat? I couldn’t say no to God.

What is the purpose of the book and who is your ideal reader?

The book answers the question “What does the gospel make possible for women?” Essentially, it takes a straight look at who God created Eve—and every woman after her—to be. It causes women to look at long-held assumptions and evaluate them in light of God’s mission in the world. It leads an individual or group into a holistic understanding of the identity and calling of women in the Kingdom of God.

There are two stories of Eve. One says she is man’s inferior assistant, easily deceived and dangerous. The other says she is made in God’s own image, a strong power designed to partner with men to work in God’s Kingdom on earth. Unfortunately, the world and the Church have often parked their theology and practice with the first story. As a result, we have often taught and modeled that there is something lacking in women. This is deeply tragic, and it is why we must reclaim Eve.

Genesis says God created Eve to be a helper for Adam. What did you find when you looked into the meaning of “helper”?

I am sad that the English word “helper” is so inadequate to describe the Hebrew word God used when he introduced Eve. He called her an “ezer.” For centuries we’ve diminished Eve and painted her as inferior to Adam. But the word “ezer” calls our bluff. Tucked right into the Creation story, we see a word for God used 16 times in the Old Testament to describe how he comes through for his people in times of desperate need! God is our agent of rescue, a strong helper. And, according to God, so is Eve.

When we looked a little more deeply into what Old Testament experts have discovered, we were blown away, surprised and relieved. The word “ezer” connotes strength and power, so it would also be accurate to call Eve a “strong power.”

ReclaimingEve2How is the definition of the Hebrew word “ezer,” used when God created Eve, transformational for women?

I can tell you how it is transforming me. For years, I found ways to be content with taking a back row seat to men at Church, at work and in my closest relationships. But we don’t get an “opt out” button, friends.

God is calling us to rise up as “ezers,” which can be translated as a “strong power” or “an agent of rescue,” because he created each one of us to be a strong advocate for his love and justice. And the beauty of this discovery is that we can be agents of rescue and redemption in any life stage or circumstance: as a homeschooling mother of five, as a teenager in your high school or youth group, as a professional working woman or a full-time single missionary. Even poor health does not disqualify us. One 80+ year-old woman heard the ezer message and said this: I’m glad to know I am still worth something in God’s Kingdom.

For centuries the church has taught that women cannot be leaders in the church. Is this because they did not understand God’s reason for creating Eve?

Following the Resurrection of Jesus, it appears that believers did begin to realize God’s reason for creating Eve. They were still a product of their times to some extent, but there was a leaning toward mutuality between males and females that actually made women want to become a part of the Christian church.

However, in the 4th century, the church united with the Roman Empire and things went downhill, slowly adopting the ways of the world and erasing women from Church history. To this day, [some] scholars still point to the fall and the curse of humanity and declare Eve to be subordinate to men. This would mean that while humanity’s relationship to God can be restored, Eve would remain in her fallen relationship with Adam, serving Adam instead of serving God directly.

If you believe this, it is easy to point out New Testament passages that say women are to be restricted in teaching within a particular context and then project them onto the creation story. But this approach negates the full redemptive power of the gospel. We must take another look at God’s intentions in Genesis if we are to effectively represent his interests on this earth.

What does it look like when a woman becomes an “ezer,” and when “adams” and “ezers” are partners?

Quite simply, a woman becomes who she was created to be from the beginning, a strong power designed to serve with her brothers as a powerful ally. We are so much stronger together than apart. Rather than separating men’s and women’s ministries or making up committees or teams of one sex or the other, there is literal power in strengthening a project or a ministry by involving both men and women. It’s not rocket science—it was God’s best plan in the beginning. Imagine what we could accomplish together as full partners!

What does “mutual submission” mean to you? How can it be possible in our relationships?

Submitting to one another is not an option for those who follow Jesus—it is a command. In Ephesians 5:21, Paul says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is only possible if we follow the example of Jesus and empty ourselves.

To see this practiced perfectly, we will have to wait until Jesus returns. But the Holy Spirit enables those who follow Christ to graciously accept and submit to one another. We seek to do this in all of our relationships, including marriage. And each time we submit to another in the healthy, Spirit-led way that God intends, we rejoice that we are following in the footsteps of our Savior.

You talk about “curse modification” in the book. Explain what that means.

The curse we write of is found in Genesis 3:16, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (NIV 2011). The effects of sin entering into the world were vast, and so some sad predictions were made about toil in daily work, bearing children, and in men ruling over women. If we’re technical, relationships weren’t cursed but the ground was. Still, in popular Christian culture we think of all of this as part of “the curse” of sin.

As a result, many Christians (myself included) have practiced “curse modification.” We won’t completely agree with the notion of women being inferior and dominated by men; we’ll allow them to do some things, as long as they don’t go too far for our personal comfort. My views, however, changed dramatically as I embraced the power of the gospel and the example set by Jesus. I believe the curse was reversed through His life, death, and Resurrection. In Jesus the restoration of women is a done deal.

In chapter four, coauthor Carla Sunberg writes about the world being filled with wounded women. Do you believe the cause of gender-based violence (including the high incidence of abuse happening toward girls and women in the US) is related to what we believe about the role of women in the Church and home? And if so, how?

There is a global epidemic of mistreatment and violence against women, and it is happening in our homes, our backyards, even in our churches. Some of these women are sitting next to you in church—even closer. Maybe you are a victim of violence.

Christian leaders are called to speak out publicly, defending women and calling men to account for their brutalization. And although women are so often the ones experiencing the mistreatment, I believe they are also part of the solution. Get women involved by using their voice or exercising leadership at home, work and Church, and you will see justice rise up. Even better, get men and women engaged in this mission together, and the power unleashed will be amazing. As God’s imagebearers, we are his representatives for justice and righteousness.

ReclaimingEve3AdHow can spiritual disciplines help a woman fulfill her calling?

In Reclaiming Eve, Jamie writes, “When we are intentionally seeking to be formed into the likeness of Christ, believers often turn to the spiritual disciplines for help.” In whatever God calls us to do, he wants us to do that thing in the way Jesus would. Jesus regularly practiced these ways of staying close to his heavenly Father: prayer, solitude, fasting, worship, study and service.

We pursue these means of becoming like Jesus because they transform us. When we meet with Jesus in the morning, we reset ourselves to see people and things and work his way. When we wait on God in solitude and fasting, he reveals things to us about what we should be doing or how we should approach our work or family or ministry. When we worship, study or serve, our hearts soar and we develop a God-confidence that cannot be shaken. We need a firm foundation. The spiritual disciplines are there to anchor us.

What are some things women can do if they feel certain doors are closed to them?

It is essential that we find a way not to be discouraged in who God has called us to be. Please receive this encouragement: You are a female imagebearer of the living God. It pleased God to create you this way on purpose, and you play a valuable part in building His Kingdom on this earth.

For some of us, this may mean prayerfully seeking out a church where we can fully use our voices and our gifts. For others, it’s finding a network of relationships where we are valued and appreciated, even if we are limited within our church context. But always we pray that our heavenly Father would give light to our path, that he would help us to process emotions of discouragement and find healing, and that when he calls us to step out and step up, we would do so with a mix of humility and boldness.

What is the most important change the Church as a whole needs to make in raising up women to freely use their gifts in God’s Kingdom?

The most important change is this: Stop identifying women as primarily fallen and defined by the effects of sin. Begin to see girls and women as restored through the power of the gospel. When women are defined by how Jesus sees us, we are set free to be all God has created us to be.

What is your greatest hope for every woman who reads this book?

To be set free. To know she was created on purpose to be a strong power and imagebearer in God’s Kingdom. Women are essential to God’s plan, and he delights in seeing us flourish.

“A woman’s biblical identity is broad enough to apply to the mother of five who home schools her children, to the 15-year-old worshipping the Lord in the church praise band, the professional working woman, the full-time single missionary, and any woman who feels limited by her health or social status . . . what the real Eve of Eden teaches us is this: In God’s Kingdom, every woman—no matter her circumstance—can be reclaimed.” – Reclaiming Eve

You say that women often tear each other down. How can they lift each other up instead?

In Jesus, we can say no to trying to compete with one another. It is not about not letting your light shine; it’s about shining together. Jesus has shown us what it means to love well and to love long—to love like he does. We can pray for discernment to see other women’s strengths or gifts and to praise and seek to develop them. We can provide opportunities for other women to flourish.

The Bible says younger women should learn from older women. How does this kind of mentoring work?

This is mentioned in Titus 2 and entire ministries have been created from this concept. But be careful: the passage referred to is set in the Greco-Roman culture where the only respectable option for a woman was to be married and have children. Mentoring and discipleship certainly cannot be limited to older women teaching younger women how to be good wives and mothers. If so, we will eliminate 40-50% of the women who desperately need to be mentored, too!

By taking a broader look at the New Testament, we see that each one of us is called to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves—regardless of age. We are also called to make disciples of Jesus Christ, setting up relationships with one another that foster spiritual growth.

How did this group of authors come together for this project?

Truth be told, I think it was a man’s encouragement of a woman’s idea! During my coauthor Carla’s years in seminary, she read and studied about woman as ezer. The concept so touched her that she had theological materials on the topic translated into Russian during her time as a missionary. Back in America, Carla pastored alongside her husband, Chuck, in Indiana. As senior pastor, Chuck supported the idea of us writing this Bible study. About 40 women attended, and many of them grasped new facets of their identity in Christ for the first time. It was thrilling!

The process of coauthoring a book, however, was much harder than writing a simple Bible study. We plunged into it together and formed a multigenerational team with varied perspectives and experiences. We cried together, laughed together and supported each other through trying times. Is it possible for sisters to truly support each other without competing against one another? We say yes.

Is it best to read this book individually or in community?

Yes! The book starts with the individual, but it is also designed for small group study. Three to four questions are available at the end of each chapter for reflection. And in July 2014, our publisher, Beacon Hill Press, will release a DVD discussion piece that offers a ten-minute weekly video discussion among the authors for each chapter, leading into a downloadable Bible study to complement each week’s reading. We had a blast recording the video! We pray it starts a movement that gets women talking and sharing about their identity in Jesus, then living that identity out in their day-to-day lives.

Why This Year’s Super Bowl Ads Were Less Sexist

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My article “Why This Year’s Super Bowl Ads Were Less Sexist” was published by Red Letter Christians today. Here it is:

If you’re a regular Super Bowl watcher, you probably noticed that this year’s commercials were different from those of past years—they were notably less sexist. While a few ads still sank to Mad Men lows, overall, fewer ads contained hyper-sexualized, objectifying depictions of women. And some ads were distinctively empowering.

What caused this departure in Super Bowl advertising? Why did some of last year’s worst offenders like web hosting company Go Daddy take a decidedly different approach this year?

3% ConferenceKat Gordon, advertising veteran and founder of The 3% Conference, believes that much of the credit goes to groups like The Representation Project and Miss Representation whose #NotBuyingIt and #MediaWeLike campaigns have empowerd people to call-out sexist misrepresentations of women and girls in the media and to praise advertisers when they get it right.

“I believe [The Representation Project and Miss Representation] are absolutely a force that has gotten on the radar of brands,” Gordon said in a live Google chat Wednesday about this year’s Super Bowl ads. Speaking to a member of The Representation Project, Gordon said, “I really love what you have mobilized and [that you’ve] given people a way to talk back; giving brands a way to listen in and respond. I really credit you for being the force that has changed the flavor and temperature of the ads this year.”

“More than 80% of all purchases are made by women,” Gordon says on the conference website. “Yet most women say they don’t like the way they’re marketed to.” Gordon gave The 3% Conference its name because women make up only three percent of the Creative Directors in advertising agencies.

As followers of Jesus, we’re called to align our passions with God’s passions and “to promote justice” (Micah 6:8 NET). We live in a culture that habitually devalues women, subtly and overtly. Much has changed since Jesus walked the earth two thousands years ago, yet women and girls continue to be objectified and marginalized.

miss representationThe movement sparked by the Miss Representation documentary and The Representation Project reminds me of Jesus’ knack for speaking truth to power (think Pharisees and Sadducees). Will the church take the opportunity to live into her prophetic tradition and live out Jesus’s values by participating in these types of movements? Is it time for some streams of the church to put the protest back in Protestant, as author and activist Shane Claiborne has said? Catholics, Protestants, Contemplatives, and Calvinists, our voices make a difference.

“Advertising is broken due to a failure of imagination” Gordon said in a recent TEDxTalk. The next time you see an ad that undermines the value of women, seize the moment and employ your prophetic imagination; wield your phone and tell the power brokers of Madison Avenue and Corporate America what you think. Why? Because changing the messages we live by, changes the world.

Why We Need to Read More Women

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My article “Why We Need to Read More Women: Our book choices reveal whose influence we value and whose we don’t” was published by Relevant magazine today.

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“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that, although women read more than men, and books by female authors are published in roughly the same numbers, they are more easily overlooked,” Joanna Walsh wrote in a column in The Guardian last week.

And it seems she’s right. Though we can all think of a few women authors we love, most of our bookshelves seem to be laden with material mostly from male authors.

There’s more evidence of this beyond our own bookshelves. Vida, an organization that counts the number of times women and men are published in many of the world’s “most respected literary outlets,” publishes an annual “Count” with pie charts and reports of gender imbalance in the writing world. The numbers are sobering.

But does it matter? Does it matter if men only read books by male authors? Does it matter if women mostly read books by male authors? Yes. Because who we choose to read is who we allow and invite to influence us. Our book choices reveal whose influence we value and whose we don’t.

Blogger Rob Carmack recently lamented the fact that many Christians, especially Christian men, miss out on the powerful voices of women because they refuse to read what they refer to as “girl books” (books by women authors). Carmack believes part of the problem lies with Christian publishers that market books authored by women almost exclusively to women, in cover design and promotion. But Carmack has chosen, quite literally, not to judge a book by its floral or pastel cover in order to read more books by women. In doing so, he’s encountered compelling and insightful voices such as Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, Shauna Niequist, Sarah Cunningham, Susan Isaacs, Lauren Winner, Nadia Bolz-Weber and more.

In his post, Carmack specifically challenges Christian men to read more women authors. “It’s not just about equality or fairness—it’s about being part of a vibrant, relevant conversation,” he said. “If you want to miss it, that’s your choice, I suppose. As for me—not only for myself, but for my wife, my daughter and my son—I will listen to these great voices, and I will continue learning from what they have to say.”

I wanted to stand up and cheer when I read those words, but I also felt compelled to examine the male/female author ratio of the books I had recently read to see if I too needed to take up his challenge to read more women authors. Women’s bookshelves are certainly not immune to gender imbalance, since Christian women are as likely as men to hear messages that devalue the voices and influence of women, both within the Church and in the culture at large.

That’s why voices like Carmack’s, which acknowledge they have much to learn from those whom their culture (and Christian subculture) has marginalized, are so important. There’s a beautiful Kingdom-of-God quality to voices that question the status quo and confront culturally ingrained systems of power and privilege.

And giving equal weight to male and female voices is important in all areas of life, not just literature. Marriage researcher John Gottman found that husbands who are willing to be influenced by their wives experience happier marriages than men who resist their wives’ influence. His research revealed that the happiest, most stable marriages were those in which the husband respected his wife and willingly shared power and decision making with her.

This research isn’t surprising, and its implications seem to extend beyond the realm of marriage relationships. Even a cursory glance of the Gospels reveal that Jesus was a man who treated women with respect. Have you noticed that the healthiest and strongest men, the most whole men, the men who most resemble Jesus are the ones who respect, befriend, learn from and empower women?

These men see through counterfeit perceptions of masculinity that equate maleness with dominance. They refuse to be gatekeepers of male privilege and the “good ol’ boy” network, and if that means having to endure insults and attacks on their “manhood,” they do so.

The hope for the Church is that men and women will relate to each other from a posture of love rather than fear, realizing that God’s Kingdom is not a Kingdom of scarcity, but abundance. God’s table is big enough for all of us and all our voices.

The author of Genesis said that God created us—male and female—in God’s own image. When we intentionally or unintentionally cut ourselves off from listening to half of the world’s population, we miss out on the fullness of God.

The next time you’re on Amazon, notice the authors of the books in your browsing history. Notice the books that Amazon is recommending to you based on your history. If there are few or no women on your lists, you’ll face a decision: You can react defensively and try to convince yourself that your predominantly male library is in no need of change. Or you can see it as an opportunity to grow your library and yourself, and experience more of God as you embrace all the bearers of God’s image.

Rachel Held Evans recently posted a list of 101 Christian Women Speakers, many of whom are also writers, authors and bloggers. If you need a place to start, this is a good one.

Light and Love in the Darkness of Christmas

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candlight in the darknessI’ve been pondering the sadness of the season today. Perhaps “the sadness of the season” sounds as odd to your ears as it does mine.

As I’ve passed a particular street on my walks this month, I’ve been mindful of a family who lost one of their sons around this time last year. I don’t know the family, but I say a prayer for them as I walk by their street, and I imagine the dissonance they must be experiencing as they feel their pain in a season when retail holiday tracks sound, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

A family I know is currently unemployed. I don’t know the details of their financial situation, but I’ve imagined myself and my family in their shoes. I think of how hard it would be to try to celebrate Christmas in the way that we’re used to, with a dwindling bank account and the uncertainty of not knowing when we’re going to see the next paycheck. Would I welcome the generosity of others toward me and my family or would I go into a kind of hiding, finding it too humbling and too difficult to be on the receiving end of giving.

On one hand I imagine the difficulty of telling our kids that we’re not going to be able to buy any gifts this Christmas. On the other hand, I find myself envying the simplicity of that kind of Christmas. I could send out an email saying, “You know our situation. We won’t be able to buy any presents this year, and we know you won’t hold it against us. Thanks for your love and understanding.” No shopping, no rushing around, no worrying about whether people will like my gifts or find them lacking.

I don’t have any personal wounds that are triggered by the holidays, but I’m sensitive to the pain of others. This morning as the fourth Advent candle, the candle of “peace,” was lit in my church, I couldn’t help but think of the violence that exists around the world. I couldn’t help but think of victims of injustice who are not experiencing peace right now.

During our worship gathering, one of our pastors asked us to consider how we have experienced the good news of Christmas recently. I had to think about that question for awhile before I came to an answer that resonated as true for me.

What I appreciate most about Christmas is the season of Advent. I’m grateful that our foremothers and forefathers chose to set aside a month-long season leading up to Christmas to focus on waiting, to sit with the longings of their hearts, and to ponder darkness and light.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5

The good news that I’ve experienced about Christmas is not that it’s “the most wonderful time of the year.” The good news of Christmas is that God came and continues to come into the deepest longing, sorrow, and darkness of our world. God is not far off, removed and immune to our pain. God is near. God is here, with us. God is with those who suffer, mourning with those who mourn, grieving with those who grieve.

I trust that God is comforting the mother, father, and sibling of that young man who died last year, whose street I pass on my walks. I trust that God is providing for my friends who are between jobs, and that God is giving their family a special joy this Christmas that has nothing to do with gifts or financial security. I trust that God is with the girl trapped in the sex trade, holding her close and counting her tears.

“You keep track of all my sorrows.
You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
You have recorded each one in your book.” Psalm 56:8

This trust compels me to accept God’s invitation to be a part of the work of Light. One of the greatest comforts to me at Christmastime is realizing that my family and I can be bearers of Light in our dark world. Through partnering and giving to organizations like International Justice Mission, Grace Ministries Thailand, and others, we get to push back the darkness by adding to the light. 

If you feel like crying this Christmas, please do. Allow yourself to grieve your own losses and to grieve with others who are grieving. Thank God for the empathy and sensitivity that exists in your heart. Then ask God how you might add to the light in some way for others. If you are going through a particularly dark season yourself, ask for the grace and the ability to receive from God more of God’s light and love for you.

“Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us.’” Matthew 1:23

May you experience the Light, the Hope and the Peace of Christmas, even as you experience the pain of the darkness. And may you know that you are not alone. Immanuel, God, is with you.

Christmas Gifts You Don’t Have to Shop For

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My article “Christmas Gifts You Don’t Have to Shop For” was published by Relevant Magazine today.

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I remember the first year my husband and I decided not to give our friends and loved ones stuff for Christmas. Instead of giving tangible, wrap-able things, we gave “relational” gifts.

We gave my brother- and sister-in-law a homemade gift certificate for an evening out together, just the four of us. My sister-in-law is an artist and they both enjoy good food, so we made the gift certificate for something called the Alberta Street Art Walk and dinner at a restaurant of their choosing.

As Christmas Eve approached, I got nervous about the gift. What if they think it’s lame? What if they don’t want to spend time with us? What if they’d rather have a traditional thing to open and take home with them? Doubts and second guessing persisted. But on Christmas Eve, they unwrapped our gift certificate and genuinely liked it.

We enjoyed two family members whom we’d never spent time with outside of extended family gatherings, and they seemed to enjoy spending time with us, too.

I was first introduced to relational gifts five years ago by Advent Conspiracy. Taking their cue from the first Christmas—God giving himself relationally by coming to be with us—relational gifts are rooted in the gift of presence.

For most relational gifts, it makes sense to create your own gift certificate describing the relational outing that you and the receiver will experience together at a later date. Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing:

For the Theater Buff

Go to a play together. Buy tickets in advance or let your theater friend choose the play. Print out show listings from local theaters and include them with a homemade gift certificate.

Tip: Community theater companies, acting schools, community colleges, colleges and universities all offer good shows at lower prices.

For the Music Lover

Go to a concert together. Buy tickets in advance or make a homemade gift certificate that’s good for going to a 2014 concert together. You can print out concert schedules from local venues and include them with your gift certificate.

Tip: Many cities have a free outdoor summer concert series. Make a gift certificate for an outdoor summer concert including a picnic dinner. Make the dinner yourself or order it. Be sure to bring a nice blanket, drinks and tableware (the real stuff, not paper or plastic).

For the Foodie:

Going to a restaurant is sort of a no-brainer, but maybe think a little beyond that. Take a one-time cooking class together. These popular classes usually have 8-12 participants and end with everyone eating the meal they prepared. Do an Internet search or call a specialty cooking store to find classes. Cook up more fun by adding more friends or family to the mix.

For the Art Lover:

Go to an art show, art walk or art museum. Or take a one-time art class together. Community centers often offer one-time art classes on Saturdays or Sundays.

Tip: Many cities have a free once-a-month art walk where local art galleries stay open late and sometimes offer complimentary appetizers or wine.

For the Dancer (or wannabe dancer):

Totally impress your significant other by signing up for a multi-week group or private dance class (6-8 weeks is typical). Consider the type of dance—swing, salsa, ballroom, etc. Ask a subtle question (or get someone else to) to find out which style your partner would most enjoy.

Tip: Do some research to find a venue with live music and dancing, as well as a dance class at the beginning. The cover charge is usually low and the dance lesson is often free.

For the Book Worm:

Go to the best bookstore in town together on a weekend night when they offer something special like a reading by a featured author. Take your time meandering the aisles together with no timeline or agenda. Part of your gift might include buying a book for your bookworm. Add lunch, dinner or dessert to round out the experience.

For the Sports Nut:

Sports fans are used to getting jerseys, new footballs and memorabilia, but nothing rivals the best and most obvious gift for any sports nut: go to a game. If your sports nut is game, dress in goofy team color outfits and cover as much skin as possible in face paint.

For the Outdoor Adventurer:

Plan a half-day, all-day or overnight trip. Go hiking, snow shoeing, rock climbing, snow mobiling, horse back riding, skiing, ice skating (outdoors), snowboarding, or cycling. Make the trip even better by purchasing or preparing some really good food.

For the Kids:

Consider going on a special date with your child, godchild, niece or nephew doing something that fits her or his unique interests—Swimming, go-carting, trampolining, zoo, paint-your-own pottery, sporting event, bowling, movie, skating, etc. Go out for cupcakes, ice cream or dessert of any kind afterwards and you’ll be golden.

If the thought of spending evenings and weekends Christmas shopping depresses you, or you’d like to help debunk the myth that Christmas is about getting and giving stuff, try giving relational gifts this year, even just one, and see what happens.

5 Ways to Celebrate Nelson Mandela With Your Child (and Instill a Passion for Justice)

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Mandela book coverToday or anytime this week is a perfect opportunity to help instill a passion for justice in your child by talking about Nelson Mandela’s life and impact.

1. If you watch the news on TV, call them over to watch the coverage of today’s memorial service in Soweto, South Africa. Or show them an online news video of highlights from today’s service.

Or watch this 4-minute tribute poem by Maya Angelou together.

2. If you’re a turn-up-the-music-and-dance-in-the-living-room kind of family, find a South African song on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube and celebrate freedom and justice through dance. A few song suggestions: “Lion in a Cage (Nelson Mandela)” by Dolores Keane, “Freedom is Coming,” or “Siyahamba” (We are Marching). Dance is a powerful, embodied way to celebrate and educate. (This morning I danced to “Lion in a Cage” with a small group of women in an African dance class. It was awesome!)

3. Check out a children’s book about Nelson Mandela from your local or school library this week and read it with your child.

4. Share with your child in your own words why you are grateful for Nelson Mandela’s life. You could also share this video of a song tribute to Mandela by the Soweto Gospel Choir in a Woolworths store in Johannesburg. (With English translation.)

5. If you come from a Christian tradition, tell your child that God is passionate about justice–that justice is part of God’s character–and share a verse like Micah 6:8: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Or Isaiah 1:17:

“Learn to do good.
Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows.”

Any day is a good day to seek to instill a heart for justice in your child. But days and weeks like this one are particularly excellent opportunities.

Christmas Doesn’t Have to Be This Way!

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My article “Christmas Doesn’t Have to be This Way!” (below) was published online this week by Today’s Christian Woman in their Parenting section. You can find it on their website here

Chistmas woman 2Christmas Day 2004 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was the Christmas where the proverbial poop hit the fan—when I finally said to my husband what I’d been stuffing down for the eight years we’d been married:

“I hate Christmas!”

Taking my cue from some of the psalmists, I decided to vent. I grabbed a pencil and paper and scribbled down everything I hated about Christmas.

I despised traveling at Christmas—the stress of packing, crowded airports, and traveling with kids. I disliked the lack of physical and mental space I experienced when we stayed in someone else’s house with two other families. I love my extended family, but living under one roof with them for 10 days does not foster “peace on earth and goodwill to men,” moms, or nephews.

Trying to come up with gift ideas for 19 relatives who already had everything they needed exhausted me. I was bitter about spending my evenings and weekends shopping. The facial expressions of the strung out shoppers around me all seemed to ask the same rhetorical question: Why are we doing this?

When our kids unwrapped gift upon gift from loving, well-meaning relatives, my husband and I pictured our house piling up with more toys than our kids could possibly play with. After we’d loaded all of the gifts into our van, we stared in shock at the snapshot of excess and consumerism before us.

Chistmas womanThe final item on my list was the pressure I felt to try to fulfill the expectations of my parents, in-laws, grandparents, husband, and children, and the stress I experienced when one person’s expectations conflicted with another’s. Trying to make everyone happy was emotionally exhausting and impossible.

When I put my pencil down, I felt a deep sadness that the Christmas season, which was supposed to be a time of worship and meaningful reflection, was instead a season of strain and stress. I sat with this sadness for several minutes in a silent prayer of lament.

Then I had an epiphany: Christmas doesn’t have to be this way! I awakened to the reality that I could choose to say “no” to excess, people pleasing, and the things that, for me, crowd Jesus out of Christmas. I realized that in saying “no” to these things I could say “yes” to a more peaceful Advent season that gives my family and me the space to ponder the mystery and miracle of Christmas.

Since my “a-ha” moment, our Christmases have gotten progressively better. We’ve stopped traveling at Christmas, and instead travel to see extended family during the summer. We gently encourage our parents to give our children fewer gifts, and we spend less time shopping by giving relational gifts of quality time. (We make and give gift certificates that are for spending time together, doing something we know they’ll enjoy—taking my parents to a play, for example.)

My husband has released himself from the pressure to spend two cold, miserable Saturdays on a ladder hanging up and taking down Christmas lights. I’ve released myself from the pressure to send out a Christmas card with a shiny happy photo of our family. I’ve also finally rejected two culturally ingrained mother myths—one, that there’s such a thing as a perfect Christmas, and two, that it’s my job to make everyone happy.

Is God nudging you to re-think the way you approach the Christmas season? Trust the Spirit’s promptings and enjoy the freedom and space to worship Jesus fully this Advent season.

“You’re Playing Like a Bunch of Girls!” Parents and coaches need to rethink the way we talk

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volleyball spike 2I wrote this article for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog. It’s featured on Christianity Today’s homepage today by the title “You Play Ball Like a…Sexist.”

Last week NFL offensive lineman Jonathan Martin left the Miami Dolphins because of alleged bullying and racial threats from his teammate Richie Incognito.

The story caught my attention because it’s about sports and justice—two things I’m passionate about. As a coach and parent, I’ve become increasingly concerned about another form of injustice taking place in locker rooms, living rooms, and around water coolers across the country.

A frustrated middle school boys’ coach calls a time out and yells at his players, “You look like a bunch of girls out there! Come on ladies, get your heads in the game!” A dad says to his five-year-old son, “You’re throwing like a girl. Let me show you the right way to throw a baseball.” A high school football kicker misses a field goal that costs his team the game. The next day, he opens his locker and finds it full of tampons.

There’s a common message in all of these scenarios. Femaleness is equated with being weak, passive, and a loser. The accompanying message associates maleness with strength, aggression, and victory.

Sadly, kids and adults are as likely to hear this message at home and at the church picnic, as they are to hear it on the school playground or the local youth sports league. It’s the same kind of language we’ve heard for decades, kids calling each other “sissies” and men calling each other “pussies.” But in 2013, we can do better.

Coaches and parents, please ask yourselves the following questions:

  • Is denigrating women in order to motivate male athletes the best I can offer as a coach? What kind of character am I modeling and developing in my athletes when I demean their mothers, sisters, and fellow athletes?
  • Does belittling women align with God’s heart toward women? Did Jesus make disparaging remarks about women in order to motivate men or otherwise?
  • As a Christian, am I called by God to love all children—male and female? If so, how can I love girls as wells as boys with the words I choose?

In his book Setting the Captives Free, pastor and domestic violence educator Ron Clark says “labeling feelings and behavior as male or female” keeps men from becoming like Jesus. We stunt the social and spiritual development of boys and men in our churches when we offer a narrow, impoverished view of masculinity. Similarly, we constrain the development of girls and women when we offer constricting ideas about what it means to be feminine.

“The NFL has a masculinity problem,” said Michael Geertsma in a recent article on the Dolphins incident. “The same could be said of the church.”

If we want to raise boys and girls to become healthy, whole men and women who live and love like Jesus, we must release our gender stereotypes and embrace the complexity and paradox of being human. As image-bearers of God we are all strong and vulnerable; brave and fearful; aggressive and peacemaking.

People have told me that I’m “ballsy.” One of my mom’s friends once said that he imagined her strapping on her cojones(Spanish for “balls”) each morning before going out to take on the world. Isn’t it interesting that we choose to name a sex organ, even one a person does not possess, rather than choosing to name the character quality we see in that person? Courage, boldness, strength and tenacity are gifts of character that come from God, not from a pair of testicles.

When male athletes aren’t giving their best in practice, don’t say they’re playing like girls; tell them they’re playing sloppy or lazy. Be precise with your language. Then find a way to inspire them to work harder that doesn’t involve throwing half of humanity under the bus. As your athletes observe your on-going love and respect for women, they’ll gain a role model they can truly respect and emulate.

Speaking of “the tongue,” Jesus’ brother James said, “Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God” (James 3:9 NLT). Think about the cumulative effect that sexist language will have on a girl over the course of her life. The words we choose matter; they have the power to bless or to curse.

Some Christians write off all discussions of language as “political correctness” or “language policing.” In doing so they excuse themselves from the hard work of empathy, self-awareness and theological reflection. My hope is that many more followers of Jesus will take seriously our responsibility to use the power of our words to make our culture, particularly our youth sports culture, an empowering place for all young women and men.

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