Advent reflection: The waiting is the hardest (and most important) part

Photo by Christopher Bulle on Flickr The lectionary readings for the third Sunday in Advent were all about deliverance, including this vision from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom…

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come…”

These words sustained a community in exile. But even though displaced sons and daughters of Jerusalem were allowed to return a generation or so after their forced departure, God didn’t show up as promised for another 500 years. The fulfillment of this oracle was a long way off for those who first heard these words.

Those who returned rebuilt their temple, but it was an empty shell of what it used to be. A vacant house waiting for an occupant. The presence of God, which departed the first temple before Jerusalem fell, had yet to return. It would not do so until one day, centuries later during the reign of the Caesars, when a month-old baby was brought to the temple for his redemption, causing an old man to declare that he’d seen God’s salvation for the world and an old woman to tell everyone she met about the child who would be Jerusalem’s redemption.

But for the exiles in Babylon, all that was still 500 years off. They would not live to see these words of hope fulfilled.

—//—

I grew up in the eschatological fervor of fundamentalism. We were convinced The End was just around the corner. The events depicted on all those prophecy charts that were periodically hung in our sanctuaries — the rapture, the tribulation, Christ’s Second Advent — we were confidently told they would take place in our lifetime.

We weren’t the first generation of Christians to see ourselves in such a privileged light. As Jesus prepared to ascend, his disciples asked if he was about to “restore the kingdom.” They wanted the payoff then and there.

We’re not so different. Too often, we prefer escape to rescue. We want Jesus to lay waste to creation and evacuate us from this world, when he promised the opposite: to come back and renew the world. More to the point, we want to escape the hard work of waiting for our deliverance, of waiting for a consummation we might not live to see ourselves. We want the payoff here and now.

We want God to operate on our timetable. We want eternal life without having to walk through death first. We want there to be a rapture and we want it to happen in our lifetime so we don’t have to contend with our mortality. We want Christmas without Advent, Easter without Lent.

Which, in the end, cheapens faith. It’s a shortcut, a bypass, a shadow of the real thing. Faith without the hard work of waiting isn’t faith.

Everyone wants to be part of John the Baptist’s generation, those who live to see the Messiah with their own eyes. (Though in John’s case, even that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.) No one wants to be part of the exiled generation who still has a long wait ahead in the wilderness.

But that’s why we need Advent: to remind us that waiting is the hardest — and most important — part of faith.

Why I don’t plan on “giving my daughter away”

Photo by Mance on Flickr

“Who gives this woman?”

I never really thought about this question until recently. Until I had a daughter.

It’s taken for granted as a normal part of a “traditional” wedding. It was part of mine. And if you were married in a Christian church, chances are it was a part of yours, too.

But of course, no one asked who gave me away to be married. Only my wife.

Maybe for most people this question is an innocent affirmation of the special bond that often exists between dads and their daughters. (I certainly hope to have that kind of bond with Elizabeth for the rest of my life.)

But what does it say to the woman about to be married?

“Who gives this woman?” implies ownership.

It suggests that I own my daughter. That she’s my property. That she is mine to give.

The ceremonial response — traditionally, the father says, “I do” — implies that I’m the authorized spokesperson for my family. Sometimes it’s broadened to “her mother and I do.” But still it’s the father, the male, the paterfamilias, speaking on behalf of his family.

Am I reading too much into it? It’s worth noting that “who gives this woman?” didn’t find its way into our wedding ceremonies by accident. In a more patriarchal era, marriage involved a transfer of ownership. The bride went from being under her father’s authority to that of her new husband. She did not spend a moment outside the authority, control, or headship of a man.

And for some Christians, that’s still the case. You only have to read the stories of women who grew up around Christian patriarchy, fundamentalism, or the Quiverfull movement to realize this notion of marriage is alive and well in many corners of the church today. This kind of thinking has a cost: abuse, exploitation, loss of faith. All stemming from modern-day patriarchy.

OK, but thankfully not everyone accepts fundamentalism or patriarchy. In which case, is “who gives this woman?” a harmless vestige of a bygone era? I’m not so sure. Because words don’t just express a worldview; they help shape it.

If men continue to use language characterizing women as objects or possessions, is it any wonder that women are treated like objects or possessions? Is our failure to respect women as people made equally in God’s image really that big of a surprise?

All of which is why I’m not going to “give my daughter away,” assuming she decides to get married someday. Because the truth is, I don’t own her to begin with.

For this short season of life, my wife and I are entrusted with our daughter’s care, nurture, and protection. But she is her own person. She is not a possession. She is not and never will be the property of anyone else.

If she decides to get married, I will give whatever blessing she wants to her and the person she weds. I will pledge my love and support to both of them. I will beam with pride and give thanks for the bond we’ve enjoyed — and for the new one she is forging.

But she is not mine to give away. And I’m starting to think that coming to terms with this reality is one of the most important things I can do for her.

What do you think? How does the idea of “giving our daughters away” affect our view of women?

Farewell, complementarianism (pt. 4)

I was sitting in the van with some colleagues from work. We were on the way back from a series of meetings in Chicago. I was newly engaged at the time; the big day was less than a year away.

Seeing as I was the only unmarried person in the van… and it was a three-hour drive back to Grand Rapids… and my coworkers had plenty of marriage advice to dispense, I was in for an earful, whether I wanted it or not.

One of my coworkers said to me, “Look, it’s fine if you want to believe all that stuff about husbands leading their wives. Just don’t try to make your marriage work like that — if you want your marriage to work, that is.”

The advice kept on coming.

Sitting behind me, characteristically quiet, was a man named Stan Gundry. Stan was no stranger to the gender roles debate. I was still in diapers when Stan was forced to resign from his teaching post at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute because of his wife’s egalitarian views.

I had heard of Stan long before we ever met. He’s a well-known biblical scholar, respected by even some of the most dedicated proponents of complementarianism. (It probably doesn’t hurt that he’s their publisher, but still.)

I knew Stan had been a complementarian at one point, and I was curious what had changed for him. But I was also a little intimidated by Stan. Or maybe I was just worried his answer might force me to rethink my views. Still, I asked.

As we broke free of the Chicago gridlock, Stan told me his story. I won’t repeat all of it here, because he’s already shared it at length in a post well worth reading, called From Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers to Woman Be Free.

(In case you’re wondering, the title is a reference to two books — one his fundamentalist father gave him and the other a book his wife wrote, which led to his dismissal from Moody.)

Stan told me how when he was a young pastor, his wife started asking questions about the Bible’s teaching on women. He confessed to being troubled by her questions at first — largely because he didn’t have very good answers.

Inspired by his wife (and by his own desire to read the Bible more holistically), Stan began reassessing his views. Gradually, they began to shift.

The final nail in the coffin came when Stan was researching American church history for his doctorate at Chicago’s Lutheran School of Theology.

He told me how one night, he was studying arguments used by 19th-century theologians to justify slavery…

  • They argued that slavery was sanctioned by Scripture.
  • They said that certain groups of people were intrinsically subordinate to others — by God’s design.
  • They accused abolitionists of capitulating to the worldly whims of a godless culture.
  • They insisted that to reject slavery was to reject the Word of God.

That night, as Stan was fighting his way home through the Chicago traffic, it dawned on him that he’d heard these arguments before. As Stan later wrote:

In fact, at one time I had used [these arguments] to defend hierarchicalism and argue against egalitarianism. By this time I was close to home and I still remember the exact spot on Manchester Road where it hit me like a flash: Someday Christians will be as embarrassed by the church’s biblical defense of patriarchal hierarchicalism as it is now of the nineteenth century biblical defenses of slavery.

By the time we pulled into Grand Rapids, I was an egalitarian. I came to realize that any theology which insists on subjugating an entire class of people cannot be reconciled with “in the image of God he created them.” It flies in the face of “neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.”

Using the same arguments once used to justify slavery should be a huge red flag that our theology isn’t merely flawed. It’s dangerous. It stands against everything the early church stood for: upending the social structures that kept some people down and creating an alternative community where all could stand on equal footing before the cross.

The next day, I told my fiancé about the conversation on the way home from Chicago, and how I felt that I was called to submit to her just as much as she was to me. Given that we attended a church where women were taught to unilaterally submit to their husbands, I wasn’t sure how this would go over with her.

I should’ve known.

She was already ahead of me.

After 10 wonderful years of marriage, I can say one thing: I’m glad I caught up to her.

___________________________

P.S. Matthew Paul Turner’s blog has a guest post on Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers by the great-grandson of the book’s fundamentalist author.