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This morning, trying to choke down some watery oatmeal in the Courtyard Bistro, enough to sustain me through the 12th sweaty move of a “child” into or out of a college dwelling (more on that another day), two televisions and a giant digital screen flash the dark stories of these hard days. When I was growing up, Robin Williams was a delightfully happy guy playing the beloved alien “Mork” on TV every week. One year my best friend and I went to a halloween party as Shazam and Isis.

Harsh depression, deep terror, and cruel death now mix with these innocent memories. In these chaotic and sorrowful days, I need — I daresay we all need to be reminded of the good news — there is a powerful, all-sustaining God ruling over evil and pain. Yesterday, I read Charles Spurgeon’s Morning Meditation, which was on just that subject — today I offer portions of it with visuals. I hope these words and pictures (taken with an Iphone 5s at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens) will flash in your mind even when one more piece of sad news scrolls across the screen. (The full-text of the hymn he quotes can be found here). Spurgeonquote GodLivethForever1 GodLivethEver2 GodLiveth3

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BrokenSisterhoodGraphic

Kelly Valen, in her compelling 2010 study of female relationships,Twisted Sisterhood discovered through poll that 97 percent of women “believe it is crucial that we improve the female culture in this country.”

In the last post, I told a story of being attacked by a fellow Christian and how a sister-friend loved me well in the aftermath. Why do women treat other women so harshly, and what can be done to improve female culture? When we think about what happened to women in the fall, broken sisterhood might make more sense. Since Adam and Eve sinned, all women have these things in common:

  1. know we are naked.
  2. feel shame.
  3. want to hide.
  4. make pitiful attempts to cover ourselves.
  5. blame others for our sin and sorrow, including God.
  6. feel pain in childbirth — I’ve always wondered — does this include the pain of monthly cycles?
  7. desire to dominate men.
  8. or, as some people interpret it, desire men so much we’ll do anything to get and keep them.
  9. demand control over our worlds.

How do these sins play out in women’s relationships with other women?

Mean Girls, a 2004 comedy, satirized the cliques and bullying that are commonplace occurrences in high schools. Any woman who has suffered being shunned on a playground as a child or being cyberbullied as a teen knows that the dark terror and shame of female bullying holds no humor.

The culture of female aggression does not end when we grow up, though — new studies find women sabotaging other women in every arena of life:

  • In the workplace, women will deliberately make a co-worker look incompetent.
  • In the area of motherhood, the phrase “Mommy wars” has been coined to describe the friction between moms who stay-at-home full-time and those who work full-time.
  • In the competition for scarce resources of “good” available men, women demean and manipulate other women.

Sadly, the fallen reality of women’s relationships is not limited to the broader culture but plays out regularly among Christians as well. The Bible recounts the earliest true and tragic stories of female aggression:

  • Sarah, the mother of all nations, abuses her slave Hagar — and Hagar is no saint either.
  • The terrible story of Rachel and Leah is the first account of “sister-wives” and leaves no illusions about dark conflict between women vying for a man who isn’t the catch he might have seemed to be.
  • Martha complains to no less than the Savior himself about her sister’s laziness.
  • The apostle Paul calls out two devoted ministers of the gospel, Euodia and Synteche, regarding their ministry quarrels.

If competition, condemnation, and irritation exist in women’s relationships in the Bible, it should come as no surprise that these and other sins continue to affect Christian women’s community:

  • Some women labor to look good physically and spiritually at Bible study; others hate the pretense and refuse to attend.
  • Moms beat one another up over things like how babies and children should be fed, how they should be educated, and how they behave.
  • Gossip is veiled as prayer requests or “concern,” and some women create laws where the Bible offers gospel-freedom.
  • Worst of all, cliquishness still exists, and some women feel more isolated or rejected at church than they ever did in a high school cafeteria.

Thankfully, as my earlier story suggests, the dark side is not the whole story about women’s relationships, either in or outside the church. Now that we know why our community is so broken, we can see how the gospel brings hope for true sisterhood. Stay tuned for posts that look at the redemption of relationships. If you want to make sure you receive blog posts, sign up now — you’ll only get one email a week with any recent posts.

What do you think? Have you had experiences with broken sisterhood that have made you shy away from women’s community?

What redemptive stories do you have of women’s relationships? Please comment.

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If you’ve been around here for long, I hope you’ve recognized my passion for gospel-cultivated women’s community. A sad reality of the fallen world is that women learn to attack each other from the time they are young girls. In the new book I am writing, I am looking for the hope of redemption in the midst of broken sisterhood stories. here’s one such story:

Sammie, regular attendee at the women’s group for about a year, invited me to lunch. I had been wanting to get to know her better, and I was looking forward to it. When the waitress arrived, Sammie didn’t order anything. That seemed a little odd, since she had invited me to lunch. It should have tipped me off to what was to come.

We exchanged small talk until my salad arrived, but as I took my first bite, she spoke in a serious tone, “I’ve been wanting to talk with you about the group.” Not waiting for me to respond, she launched into a litany of accusations. In summary, I was authoritarian in my leadership, I had steered the accusations away from her attempts to be “real,” and I was stealing women’s voices.

The gospel brings women of all kinds together.


Copyright: omgimages / 123RF Stock Photo
The gospel brings women of all kinds together.


Wow. She blind-sided me. I knew enough not to engage her bitter stream of condemnation, but at the time, I was so roughed up that I couldn’t speak the gospel into it. I remember little about the next 20 minutes. I think I tried to do some of the things you’re supposed to do when someone offers critique, like nod and affirm and listen. I am sure at some point I caved into self-defense that she utterly demolished. Finally, the excruciating encounter ended with her departure. I quickly paid my check, rushed to the safety of my car, and burst into tears.

I drove down the road for a few minutes, still reeling from the blow, then realized (thanks to the Holy Spirit I’m sure) what I needed to do. I pulled over, grabbed my phone, and called a friend. A longtime sister in Christ, my friend listened to my pain and humiliation, then finally spoke soft words. She reminded me of the gospel I believed and taught regularly to others. Without slandering my accuser, she told me the story of how Christ died so I could love my enemies. She helped me see the slivers of truth embedded in the harsh words; she showed me where the words were wrapped in misperception and manipulation.

This story of sorrow and redemption reveals two powerful realities about women’s relationships: we can be one another’s cruelest saboteurs or one another’s most faithful supporters. Women desperately need healthy, thriving community, what I am calling here, “sisterhood.” Yes, we are sinners (Romans 3:23), but as Christians, we are also saints (Romans 1:7). In the gospel, there is not only hope for a sisterhood of sinner-saints, but a calling for it. Christ has redeemed us as a chosen people and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9); in order to live fully into our new creation, we must love other women as our sisters. The gospel is the story of hope that such a community can exist.
Copyright for little sisters’ image: Martin Novak: www.123rf.com

 

Photo by Marc Cornelis; words added from Chris Tomlin

In the first post in this series, we explored the deeper meaning of the word shalom — completeness, fulfillment, flourishing, and wholeness. We looked at the fall, Adam and Eve’s rebellion, and the wrecked shalom that ensued — shame, division, alienation, demand, frustration, among them. Finally, we talked about how shalom and broken shalom relate to eating disorders as well as body image issues, idolatry, and addictions of all kinds.

Today, we focus on the good news of how Jesus, our Redeemer, brought hope for all who struggle with sin and the effects of living in a fallen world. We’ll frame it in terms of four re’s of redemption.

1. Redemption: the very word redemption refers to God paying a price to liberate his people from bondage to sin. That ridiculously high price was his only Son, Jesus, and no, we didn’t deserve it. This means that when you’ve “done it again,” whether you’ve performed yourself into a frenzied fatigue, or drunk yourself to the bottom of the barrel, and the self-condemnation begins, you can agree with yourself — no, I’m not worthy of love and healing. But then you take it a step farther — “And the bizarre news of redemption is that God loved me right in this very place. ‘There is now no condemnation in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).This gospel reality — that God came to save sinners, to heal our shame, is what sets our sin-addicted hearts free from the sham shalom we seek.

2. Reconciliation: The amazing story of redemption is that the holy God is reconciled to his people through Christ’s sacrifice. If we have to get on our knees seventy times seven times seven million times and ask forgiveness for hating or harming the body he claims to be his temple, he will never say, “You did it again?! This time I can’t forgive you.” It’s already done. Finished. You are completely loved, at peace, at rest In Christ — shalomed — and nothing can change God’s mind. You might not believe it, but you can never change his mind about you.

God transforms our brokenness into a glimpse of his glory.

God transforms our brokenness into a glimpse of his glory.

3. Recreation: God has not only reconciled us — he has made us ministers of his reconciliation. If the news of forgiveness and finished work is unbelievable, this one is just plain preposterous. “If anyone is in Christ — new creation! The old has passed away; the new has come.” (2 Cor. 5:17) “For our sake, he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

Remember the naked and ashamed part? We are no longer. We are clothed in flowing robes of righteousness, and God sends us as his ambassadors to minister to the world (2 Cor. 5:18-20). In the garden, shalom included fulfillment in calling and work — being fruitful and multiplying, ruling and resting. In Christ, our very marred redeemed presence is his fruit, the taste of which draws others to him. So, we can never say, “I’m too screwed up for God to call me as his ambassador.” God transforms our sin and sorrow, making it a megaphone for his message.

4. Remembering: Because I’ve tossed and turned in the muck of shame, I know how this good news could sound to some of you: of how some of you might respond to this good news. “Yes, I know it’s true intellectually, but I struggle to believe I am a new creation.” This is why we must gather with others to remember redemption. Alone, we will hear the lies as Eve once did, and perhaps we will succumb. God has made us members of one body. We need to gather with this body to hear the old, old story preached. We need to be with people who will tell us our stories of redemption when we’ve forgotten them. We need to feast on the bread of Christ’s body broken for us and drink of the wine of his new covenant sealed by his blood.

Shalom has been restored — not fully, yet — we still struggle with sin, and the cosmos still aches for the final day, but Christ has made the empty full, set the prisoner free, brought rest to the weary and heavy-laden. That is the hope that completes us.

Photo by Jan McLaughlin, Flicker Creative Commons

Today I have the wonderful opportunity to talk about our Christ-calling to be restorers of shalom for a Lasting Freedom webinar. The closed group is for people who want to know “lasting freedom” in regard to eating disorders and body image issues. The reality is that we all struggle with some sort of compulsion to fill ourselves with substances or behaviors that will never satisfy the longings of our heart (think Isaiah 44; John 4). Since the webinar is available to group members only, I thought I’d share with you all some thoughts on the story of shalom and its relationship to idolatry and addiction.

Let’s start with the word shalom. You may know it as a fancy Hebrew way of saying “hello,” or a cute bumper sticker: “Shalom Y’all!” The biblical concept encompasses something much fuller, really the deepest longings God gave us.

Here’s a little word study:-): The Hebrew word shalom and its variants are most often translated “peace” in the Old Testament, but the words convey a concept much broader and deeper than peace. According to the the TWOT, “completeness, wholeness, harmony, fulfillment,” are states shalom encompasses. It also refers to “unimpaired relationships with others and fulfillment in one’s undertakings.” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament).

Now that we know a little more about shalom, let’s think about how it relates to self-contempt as well as attachments to substances, people, behaviors.

God created the world to be a place of flourishing for all of creation. He created the water, the earth, the stars, the fish, the animals, a cosmos teeming with life, and more, calling his creation “good” six different times in Genesis 1. Then he created male and female, man and woman — in his relational, glorious image, gave them a powerful calling — to reign over all of that wild life he had called “good.” He pronounced his ultimate creation, “very good.”

According to Genesis 2, the first man and woman were naked and unashamed. They related to one another and God, enjoying and being enjoyed. They worked and they rested; they were fruitful and multiplied; they filled the earth and subdued it. And they did it all, every day, all the time, in the powerful and loving presence of their Creative, Redeeming, Sustaining, Everpresent Three-in-One God.

That is shalom. That is what we were made for. Can you even imagine it for one moment?

In the beginning, fruitfulness and delight and work all flourish.

In the beginning, fruitfulness and delight and work all flourish.

But then— the deceitful serpent arrived and tempted Eve to believe that God was holding out on them. She looked at the fruit of the only tree in the garden God had declared off-limits, saw it to be delightful and desirable (in a cosmos overflowing with delightful and desirable!), believed the lie, and ate. Adam, the man created and called to name, stood there as a silent witness, failing to intervene, then happily complied when his wife offered him the fruit.

The word “disobedience” conjures up pictures of school kids writing, “I will not shoot paper-wads” 100 times on the blackboard. (Okay, I know they probably use a whiteboard now:-). We need to understand Adam and Eve’s disobedience as outright rebellion, a fist in the face of God, disbelief in his unyielding love. It is arrogant defiance of the command God has given them, a bold move to do life their own way. Shalom: the flourishing, harmony, wholeness, and fulfillment in God’s creation is destroyed.

Here is where we see connections to our idolatry and addictions. What do we want to do when shalom has been shredded? When we feel naked and ashamed, frightened and full of longing for the way things ought to be? Many of us do what Adam and Eve did — we try to restore shalom — on our own terms.

Indeed, as Satan promised, Adam and Eve gained knowledge, and here we see the first moment in history of body-contempt. “Their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked, so they sewed together fig leaves and made loincloths” (Gen. 3:7). Have you ever constructed frail coverings of frail fig leaves in an attempt to deal with your shame? I have.

Adam and Eve knew their leaf-loincloths were flimsy, insufficient to cover their shame, so when the God whose constant presence they have enjoyed comes walking through the garden, they hid. Then they confessed their fear, then they blamed. Their disastrous attempts at restoring shalom, of regaining the joy and fulfillment of their lives, result in further alienation from God, His creation, and one another.

And finally, there are consequences to their sin. Both the man and the woman will struggle to bear fruit in the areas most unique to them. Dominion will be distorted into domination for the man; healthy desire will be distorted into controlling demand for the woman. For their own protection, they are sent from the garden. Forever their descendants will live “East of Eden.”

Sin, idolatry, and addiction all bear the components of broken shalom. They are all about healthy longing for whole relationships with God and others that has gone awry. We are naked and ashamed, and we try to cover ourselves — with clothes, work, ice cream, relationships, alchohol, volunteering — something, anything, that will make us “enough.” We don’t want God to see us, so we try to hide from him, isolating ourselves from any of his agents of reconciliation who might recognize the longing in our hearts and our desperate attempts to fill them. But at the same time, somewhere inside us is the sense that this is God’s fault. After all, Adam and Eve sinned, not us. Why do we have to suffer the consequences? We throw our fist in his face and indulge our desires, because we’ll just do whatever we want. We are left starving, thirsty, in the deep darkness of a broken well of our own making.

Thankfully, the story doesn’t end here, but this post does. Stay tuned till tomorrow, when I’ll post the next installment. You really don’t want to miss it, because it’s the good news that follows the bad.

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