I’m excited to be teaching at this training weekend for ministry leaders in the Memphis area on February 28-29, 2020. If this is close to you, I hope you can come.
For many, the shock of Rachel Held Evan’s death has begun to wear off. Yet, it still remains something I have a hard time getting my head around. She was larger than life in the evangelical Twitter community, willing to stay engaged in conversations unlike many evangelical celebrities. It reminds me of the death of Princess Diana. She died around the same age as Rachel, and it was hard to get my head around that death as well.
I am processing Rachel’s life and death in this post purely in terms of how she affected and influenced me and possibly those of you who read this blog. I only met her once in person and communicated with her some on Twitter. So I want to be clear what this post IS and IS NOT. I pray for her family who is experiencing a wholly different set of feelings than mine, who knew her in an entirely different way. I can’t imagine their gut wrenching pain, and I pray for supernatural comfort that is beyond human understanding. My experience with Rachel, of course, is much different, and I want to reflect on that here.
I remember well the day it dawned on me that challenging questions were not received fondly when they came from young girls. I was in 4th grade at my private school. My teacher returned a matching test she had graded. She had marked wrong the problem in which I had chosen option “h” because I had written my “h” too much like an “n”. I brought my test up to her to show her that all of the options were used only once, and my “n” was clearly marked in another place as correct. So by process of elimination, this answer must be the “h”. I would have a 100 on the test then. I was a fairly smart kid, and my grades were important to me. The logic was clear in my 4th grade head. And I was right.
I’ll never forget the essence of her reply to me. “You are always arguing about something.”
My logic was correct on this test. I had evidence on the test itself to back me up. But, in her eyes, I was just an impetuous child always looking for something to argue about. I’d argue with a power pole, at least that was the sentiment reflected back to me when I showed my teacher my test.
So many young women in my generation, particularly in the south, were taught to keep quiet with our questions. If the authority figure does something wrong, males who question seem viewed as future leaders. Females who question are troublemakers.
I was both a young female who questioned things who also HATED to make people uncomfortable. This created a running background of mental friction in my head for most of my life. This struggle followed me into adulthood, particularly after writing my post on the New Wave of Complementarians that got the conversation started on realigning with Scripture against patriarchy in conservative circles. One denominational leader actually called me on the phone. He had the character to figure out if I really was a troublemaker or not. We had a great conversation, and I have continued respect for him today. But other leaders questioned my motives. I was likely a troublemaker, in their eyes, seeking to sow dissension. I have felt the weight of the label, too sensitive to wear it proudly, but too innately questioning to be able to free myself of it.
Rachel Held Evans came to my attention when I was internally questioning things at Mars Hill without the courage to verbalize it. Mark Driscoll had a low bar for labeling a questioning woman as contentious. And I didn’t have the emotional confidence to bear up under such a label. If he had labeled me contentious in the early years (as he later did), I would have believed him.
Rachel began pointing out problems with Mark Driscoll’s language, and not that he “cussed” (which has always been a ridiculous distraction for those who don’t realize how much they are like Mark in his misogyny and malice toward others). Rachel pointed out Mark’s sinful misogyny long before the folks that propped him up did. She was the young boy in the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the one with the courage to first say, “He’s not wearing any clothes.” As a questioner without the courage to verbalize my concerns, I will forever be grateful to RHE for leading the way. Like a Coastguard ice-breaker, she cut a path that made the way for others who followed.
But as Rachel began pointing out legitimate problems with the Neo-Reformed figurehead that was Mark Driscoll at the time, she used these problems to justify questioning the authority of Scripture. Because so many folks misused Scripture, and other well meaning folks disagreed on how to live it out in practice, the bottom line must be simply to love God and love your neighbor. Instead of other laws and instructions in Scripture hanging on that foundation, laws and instructions in Rachel’s paradigm lost their binding quality. In particular, explicit instructions concerning biological sex and sex in marriage were not binding today if they did not seem “loving” by a modern definition of love, one that often doesn’t involve self sacrifice. While Rachel gave me courage to voice my questions and concerns, she also inadvertently gave me clarity that the answer to these concerns was IN Scripture, not opposed to it. The answer was found by BETTER understanding how Scripture presents its Laws and instructions, not by writing them off as no longer relevant.
I wrote Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence through a Jesus-centered Understanding of Scripture specifically because of Rachel Held Evans. Rachel asked the questions that needed answering. She was right to question. I am in her debt that she led the way. But her answers (or lack of answers) taught many that Scripture was unknowable, without clear or binding instructions. And I remain deeply troubled by that outcome of her ministry.
Ecclesia semper reformanda est.
The Reformed Church is always reforming. I have loved that saying since the day I first heard it. It speaks deeply to my soul. I am a questioner. And hopefully my questions help myself and those around me realign ourselves back to Scripture. We should all be examining ourselves and the groups with whom we identify denominationally. We should be sharpening each other. We should be questioning each other, and we should be examining Scripture when the questions don’t have easy answers. This is inherent to reformed theology.
Such questioning and self-examination have long felt unsafe for reformed women.
Those of us who are a part of the reformed resurgence owe Rachel a debt of gratitude. When Mark Driscoll and James McDonald were the celebrity leaders in our movement and major figures at The Gospel Coalition, she pushed us to see our own problems and reform. We may disagree with her theological conclusions, but she was right to ask the questions she asked. I am grateful. Our movement is now stronger because she was willing to point out its flaws.
I don’t get to post much here any more. This guest post at the PCA’s enCourage blog gives some insight why.
“I no longer have time or mental energy to research the types of commentaries or online theological discussions I used to find intriguing and informative. Yet, my need to live in light of the deep truths of the Word of God is as strong as ever. Now more than ever, I need to use the Scriptures accurately and understand correct theology. My lack of margin for reading and deeper study of the Scriptures has done nothing to eliminate my need of them.”
Read more here.
I also had the privilege of sitting down with Karen Hodge for the enCourage podcast, where I was able to talk about my first love–teaching theology to women in accessible ways. You can listen here.
There’s nothing like sitting in a hospital waiting room to remind you of the fragility of life. Before the Fall, life wasn’t fragile. Imagine that. But now, it is so very easily broken, maimed, and extinguished. The hope of the resurrection is that God has conquered death. Yet, we have not yet seen everything submit to Him (Hebrews 2:8). I’ve faced this truth again and again the last few years, as many readers have.
My family has sat vigil for me in hospital waiting rooms multiple times over the last 2 years. But today, I sit waiting on my son, in the OR having his ear drum replaced. It’s same day surgery. We should go home this evening. But his ear has a problem that we realize now will be chronic. He will need more surgeries over the next few years, and we have the chance of all of this recurring in his 20s, and again in his 30s, and so forth. His ears have a problem men can not yet permanently solve.
Loved ones pray. Friends tell me God will heal him. But I know that he’s actually quite likely to have lifelong problems with his ears and hearing. I sit here wearing an insulin pump, on daily medicine to keep cancer at bay. I understand chronic illness, limping along, not in hope of earthly healing but heavenly one. Maybe I’ll get a new pancreas. Maybe my cancer will never reoccur. But, most likely, I’ll die with, or from, these diseases.
It’s sobering to watch my son face chronic illness too.
I have hope beyond my own life. I pray now the same for my son. He’s a great kid with a sincere personal faith. And now he begins that great life-long lesson – this world is not your home. The end goal of life isn’t healing on earth. This life is work. Heaven is our retreat. Heaven is our reward. God’s story for my son (or myself) doesn’t stop making sense when we have issues from which we are not healed. The one whose life ends early isn’t taken too soon. The one who lives longer doesn’t necessarily have a more important impact in the Kingdom. Both Betsie’s and Corrie Ten Boom’s lives played a role in God’s longer story. As did Jim Elliot’s and Billy Graham’s. The final sum of the impact of short or long lives is not necessarily the one we recognize on earth. It’s the one that resonates in heaven.
I heard that someone asked Edith Schaeffer (wife of Francis Schaeffer) who, in her opinion, was the godliest woman alive. Her reply was that she didn’t know, as that woman was quietly worshiping God as she dies of cancer in a third world country. Her point was that great godliness and purpose in God’s kingdom is lived out in daily, quiet faithfulness–in perseverance in the faith in the long, hard slog of life, not with the accolades for or resolutions to suffering for which we often long.
Where do you see yourself in God’s long story? Is it your story or God’s? Do you feel forgotten when situations remain unresolved on earth? When you pray for yes and God says no? When you pray against but God moves for? Rahab and Ruth didn’t know they were in the line of the Messiah. They didn’t know their great and great great grandson would be King of Israel. Anna’s parents and late husband didn’t know she’d see the Messiah face to face. We too don’t know where we sit in the ending pages of the story of Scripture that culminates with Christ’s return. But wherever our lives do play out in that very long, multi-generational story, the ins and outs of our daily lives matter. They matter because of a larger context, one that transcends your family, your house, your job, your friends, and your years. It gives perspective to all of that too. Read your own story in the context of the larger story.
If there is one hope I have for my sons and the women to whom I minister, it’s that they will lean into their place in the story that is bigger than their lives. That they won’t be constrained by the small mindedness that makes verses like Jeremiah 29:11 about that car they need to buy, house they want to live, or medical diagnosis they are facing.
Jeremiah 29:11 CSB For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your well-being, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.
Jeremiah 29 was written to God’s children, enslaved for 70 years in Babylon because of their idolatry and disobedience. It was not written to us. Don’t read such verses egotistically, making them about you, not God’s larger story. But once you get the context, you can rightly insert yourself back into it. The God who disciplines His children also watches over them in captivity, never stops loving them, and right on time, brings them back home. That God is your God. Through the entire captivity, God kept the line of Christ, the line of King David, intact so that the Messiah would come just as the Prophets had said. And, now, that God has called us to Himself, as we wait on Jesus’s return. He guides our walk in His longer story just as He guarded His children in Babylon. With or without unresolved suffering, this eternal perspective is the lens through which to view our earthly lives.
Open the eyes of our heart, Lord, that we may live our place in Your larger story to the fullest, putting off the anxieties and vain pursuits a small perspective brings .
I haven’t written here for a long time. Life has gotten in the way. Frankly, I’ve felt overwhelmed with struggle. Divorce, single parenting, breast cancer, diabetes, juvenile arthritis, 4 surgeries, numerous other medical procedures, etc. Life has financially funneled me down to taking a full time job teaching math at our local community college. It’s not ideal for a single parent, but it is a blessing in many ways. And then, one week before I was to start my first full time job in eighteen years, I tore my retina in my left eye.
Thankfully, the retina didn’t totally detach. However, it did leave me temporarily blind in my left eye as I started my new job and finished a second round of edits on a manuscript. The only restriction given me by my doctor? Don’t read.
I still chuckle at the irony.
Two weeks after the tear, I began to regain some vision in my left eye. I remember the moment, crying out to God for help, when the words on the TV cleared up for the first time, and I could finally make out what was happening on the screen. It seemed a clear miracle after seeing virtually nothing out of the eye for two weeks. Yet, a bloody haze still clouds my vision as yet another week has passed. I have walked the loop around my farmhouse crying out to God.
“Why another struggle on top of all of my other ones, Lord? Make it stop now!”
As I walked, the Spirit strongly convicted me that I needed to, yes, read the Word. I was sneaking reading in on my cell phone anyway. I needed to read the Scriptures even more so. I desperately needed God’s help through His Word. So I broke open a book in the New Testament that I picked because it had the least amount of highlighting in my new Bible. It was James.
I had forgotten how James began, but if you’ve read it lately, you know. It opens with a message about trials and maturity, and the Spirit spoke clearly to me through it.
2 Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.
LET ENDURANCE HAVE ITS FULL EFFECT.
The Spirit spoke loud and clear to me, and this phrase has echoed in my head ever since. I want this trial over. I want to see clearly. I want to see my computer at work which is integral to my job. I want to see clearly to finish editing my book. I want to see clearly to take care of my children, clean my house, and pay my bills. It makes sense that I kick and scream wanting this particular physical struggle over right now.
But God whispers to me to let this trial do what its going to do in my life. Don’t rush it. Endure it. And let the full effects of enduring manifest themselves in my life. Let endurance have its full effect.
effect: A change which is a result or consequence of an action or other cause.
Managing the day in and day out compensations I must make to fulfill my obligations while my vision is compromised will have some effect in my life. It will cause a change. My divorce has. My cancer has. My diabetes and arthritis have as well. The implication in James is this change is for my good, and it is worth the journey so that the full benefit of these changes manifests in my life. The expectation of very real (and good) effects is why we can count it all JOY. Note, it isn’t that we feel joy. Counting it joy is a mental discipline, not a feeling. The expectation of beneficial effects enables us to put our trials in the JOY column when they seem only misery. This exercise gives us hope.
I know the sum of my struggles has brought real change for good in my life. One of the primary changes is that I’m a more patient parent. I’m also a more patient teacher. I’m a more patient daughter, sister, and friend. And friends, patience is a very good thing in life. Patience benefits me as much as it benefits those with whom I interact.
I don’t know what trials you are facing, but I encourage you that, submitted to God, they can bring a change in your life that is good. That blesses you and your loved ones. So, with the Scriptures, I encourage that as you work wisely for their end, you also, as you endure them, let the time of enduring have its full effect in your life. Look for the effect. Wait for the effect. Believe that there is a purpose that will bless you. That’s when joy can start to infiltrate something that has previously only been frustrating or full of grief.
Let endurance have its full effect. James 1:4
Both in my embodied life and my online life, I have been struck by the disconnect between love and truth in many arenas. Paul teaches in Ephesians 4:15 that the church grows by “speaking the truth with love.” In my youth, fundamentalist pastors preached truth dogmatically, but they did so in angry, demeaning ways. “Just preaching the truth IS loving,” many would say. The problem with that line of reasoning is that the Bible explicitly says it is not. The Bible explicitly says that growth in the church relies on the addition of love to the speaking of truth. Furthermore, the Bible goes on to describe in detail exactly what it means when it uses that word love.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, 5 is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. 6 Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
I Cor. 13 CSB
Speak the truth with patience, the Bible tells us. Speak the truth with kindness. Do not speak the truth arrogantly. Do not speak the truth rudely. Do not speak the truth irritably. Speak the truth while bearing with and hoping for those to whom you speak. Speak the truth with love.
I have found in adulthood that the flip side of the problem exists as well, among those who speak “lovingly” disconnected from solid truth. Truth becomes relative as long as you are personally affirming. But there is no kindness in downplaying the importance of God’s instructions. God’s truth is good. His laws in Scripture, particularly around covenant faithfulness and sexual restraint, protect us.
Over the years, I’ve noticed and, by the kind providence of God, become friends with a number of women who have similar convictions about both the truth of God and the love of God. We grieve together both when truth is diminished and when love is tossed aside in the defending of that truth. We are also convicted that we are not the final deciders of what is and is not Christian truth, but that we can lean into the teachings from the early church as they worked through the creeds and confessions that have guided the church in the centuries since Christ’s ascension to heaven.
We have been talking for a few years now, and we finally launched our initiative this week at thepelicanproject.com. We aren’t planning big conferences. We aren’t building each others platforms. We are simply existing. We are being. But we are doing so in cohort with one another, because it helps to find others who share similar values so that you do not feel alone in your own corner of the world. We are more committed to our real-life embodied relationships than to our online ones. Our ministries are in person more than over social media. But we also have found encouragement toward and resources for embodied discipleship within our cohort, and we hope to help others find it as well.
There are 19 founding members, and we expect to add more down the road. But anyone who can sign off on our Mission and Commitments can right now join our Facebook discussion group called The Clutch. Check out our website, read through our Mission and Commitments, and hit the link at Join the Conversation (which leads to a google form to fill out) if you think you’d benefit from such encouragement as well.
A covenant is a binding agreement. Our world acknowledges a myriad of secular covenants, particularly in the financial realm. Financial covenants, like a mortgage or business partnership, aren’t to be entered lightly, and it is good that there are serious consequences to those who break such financially binding agreements. Economies can fail when parties default on such agreements, particularly en masse.
Secular covenants give us a tiny glimpse of the importance of spiritual covenants. The covenant vows of Christian marriage are a serious thing. We stand before God, friends and family as our witnesses, and repeat vows to another person. In sickness and in health. For richer and for poorer. Til death do us part. The ordained minister of the gospel speaks a final word of blessing and warning, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
But in the 1970’s California became the first state to pass no fault divorce laws. What God had joined together became much easier for man to put asunder without Biblical cause or process. Soon, believers who benefit from God’s faithful covenant with themselves began taking advantage as much as unbelievers of the government’s easy path to undo such covenant vows.
Marriage vows are not the only covenants we make with another. My denomination takes the vow of church membership quite seriously. I covenant with pastors, elders, and other church members to pursue the purity and peace of my church. I covenant with them that they can count on me, and they in return covenant that I can count on them.
I’ve made covenant vows to my children as well. When I chose to bring them into this world and not give them up for adoption, I committed, at least in God’s and the government’s sight, to protect and provide for them. My commitment to my children feels a lot like God’s to Abraham in Genesis 12-17. God took both sides of the vow with Abraham. He would fulfill His covenant with Abraham because God was faithful, not because Abraham was. Similarly, I bear the heaviest weight of my covenant with my children. They may rebel, but I will remain their mother. They may run from me, but I will pursue them nonetheless. To do less would be to abdicate my responsibilities in their lives.
We tend to make covenant vows, particularly the marriage kind, in the filtered sunlight of a warm (but not hot) spring day. We make them as the sun shines and the flowers bloom. Loved ones smile warmly around us. And the ones with whom we are entering covenant welcome us toward them.
But the shining starts of our covenants aren’t the point of these covenants. They aren’t the reason for these covenants. The vows we make in front of God and family in our white dresses and tuxes, with filtered spring sunlight illuminating our pictures, aren’t for these days. The sweet days of filtered sunlight and happy smiles don’t require binding agreements to keep folks together. No one has to twist your arm to love your spouse, care for your child, or persevere with your church on such beautiful days glowing with the warmth of new hope and promise for the future. No, covenants aren’t for those days at all.
Covenants are for storms.
Covenants are for deserts.
Covenants are for drought.
Covenants are for prison.
Covenants are for pain.
I had a medical procedure recently that eventually required morphine. I tried to be strong. I wanted to avoid narcotics and the side effects they cause me. But, I couldn’t endure the pain of the procedure. I kept physically moving away from the pain, a natural response. I needed something to help me endure.
It is natural to move away from pain, be it physical pain from a medical procedure, or spiritual/emotional pain from a relationship. The role of covenant vows is to keep us from breaking faith when pain threatens our relationships, when we are naturally tempted to move away and avoid. Societies can not function with the breaking of vows. Neither can our churches or homes. This is why our government has laws for defaulting on a contract. Our economy would fail if folks could default on mortgages or break agreements in a business without consequences. When the going gets rough, we need incentive for following through with our commitments.
In Christian relationships, particularly in the home and church, covenant vows serve a serious, necessary purpose. They call us to stay engaged, work through problems, persevere, and look for solutions. They call us to do it not just for a week or a month, but for a lifetime. Moving away from pain is natural. Writing others off who cause such pain is the easy way out. For a season. But such avoidance is devastating to societies, it’s devastating to homes, and it’s devastating to churches.
In a society that tells you to take the path that leads you away from pain, I want to encourage you that if you’ve made a covenant vow to someone, you, your family, and your church will be better off if you can stay engaged. During my medical procedure, the issue causing the pain had to be addressed. Avoidance of pain was possible. But avoidance of pain without dealing with the underlying issues that caused the pain would have led to far worse consequences.
Doing the hard work of staying engaged in a painful relationship isn’t easy.1 It requires perseverance. It requires spiritual nourishment. It requires confidence in a worthy finish line despite the dehydration, painful blisters, and debilitating muscle cramps along the way of the marathon to get there. It requires hope in something better that gives perspective to the pain of current days. God instituted binding covenant vows to help us stay engaged in such times.
If a man or woman’s word is their bond, then vows made to others before God, friends, and family become the safety net keeping us from breaking faith when pain and struggle leave us weary, without energy to persevere. In those moments, don’t look longingly for escape from the vows. Remember that faithfulness to vows are how successful societies function. Others may break their vows to us, but by God’s grace, we won’t break ours to them. We pursue the good of the community over what seems the good of self. And you know why that works in the Christian community? Because ultimately, individuals flourish when communities flourish. Satan whispers that there is peace in freedom from hard relationships with others. And in some sense there is–for a season. But Satan doesn’t also whisper to you the caveats, the consequences that follow the temporary refreshment of freedom. Breaking faith with others comes with deep, harmful consequences – to societies, to churches, to families, and to you the individual.
Persevering in covenant vows has upfront costs. It requires death to self and endurance through pain. But it has long term rewards, for our children and grandchildren, for our churches and those who come after it in our pews. And know it has long term rewards for you as well. When your family, church, and society flourish, you will too!
We were made in the image of our God, a God who makes covenants and follows through on them every last time. Paul tells Timothy in 2 Tim. 2:13, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” We were created in His image, and it is worth meditating on what His faithfulness in hard relationships means for our own. Apart from Him, we can do nothing.
1 I am not dealing here with issues of domestic violence or abuse. If you or your children are not safe, no relationship can flourish. Your first priority is getting to a safe place. If you need help getting out of a physically abusive situation, I recommend contacting the folks at giveherwings.com.