how to be compassionate

I've only listened to "On Being" with Krista Tippet for American Public Media a few times, but it's well on its way to becoming one of my favorite podcasts. (Incidentally, my brother-in-law is working as a graphic designer for the podcast right now!)

This week on the "On Being" blog, Trent Gilliss shared some listener responses to last week's episode about compassion and compassion fatigue. One listener, Ed Brenegar, wrote:

"I agree the issue isn't compassion fatigue. Instead it is the disconnection that we have from the contexts of pain, suffering, grief, and death that others experience.
When we see images on television that move us to either compassion or sorrow, we are not doing so in the context where we are wholly given to a process where our feelings can have an outlet that brings some kind of resolution.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, at the beginning of No Man Is An Island wrote, 'The gift of love is the gift of the power and the capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.'
"When we emotionally connect with global situations like Darfur or Newtown, there is a disconnection that can add to our own sense of sorrow.
It is important to remember that we are whole beings who need whole relationships, and the possibilities of mutuality to be present to be fully able to care. This is one of our great human challenges that I see."

This strikes me as so profound. When I wrote last month about my own difficulty responding to tragedy, I concluded that being open to the world- its pain, beauty, darkness, or light- rather than being closed-off in self-protection, was essential to being able to practice resurrection.  But I think this is an essential perspective, too -- that true empathy with a hurting world requires reciprocity, relationships of mutuality. It requires that I not be strong on the information and weak on the relationships, which is all too often my natural inclination.

a twitter conversation

Yesterday morning I had a twitter conversation with a girl I don't know.  I'm still thinking about it because the question we ended with is an important one.  Here's how it went: 

(spoiler, yes, we're all still talking about the Year of Biblical Womanhood, but c'mon, stay with me, this is important - if you're a woman or a Christian, you have a stake in how this plays out)

I've put Hannah in plain text, and my replies in italics.

Hannah: How would your view of YBW and the ongoing conversation change if what says is true?  

Me: I think she makes some strong points (I noted the straw woman complaint in my review, too). But today I've been thinking: Doesn't Mary do the same thing to feminists that Rachel does to complementarians? In this video, she says "When Betty Friedan started the feminist movement in America in the 1960s..." selectively defining feminism as 2nd wave feminism to make it easier to condemn?  

Here's to reductionism all round! So how do we elevate the conversation? How do we move past simplistic egal and comp answers? Looking for a way forward. 

Amen to that. reading w/ hermeneutic of love is a good start, & cultivating humility...But we need more to find the way forward, I think. 

Biggest concern: YBW is just as easy, just as provincial as the problem. We need better, more robust answers.Need expression of Xian womanhood that transcends 1950s AND the post-feminist West. 

So you and I had better start writing :-) 

Absolutely. I'm on it. 

 I actually think that most of the time, the True Woman ladies do a lovely job at keeping Christ the center. 

Agreed. Disconnect is often in what is taught and what is practiced. Great perspective here:  

And this is the other major flaw in argument- what critiques may not be party line comp.-  but it is real and it is widespread and it is usually called complementarianism. 

Agree. And comps need to speak against it as strongly as they speak against any other abuses.

Today @ShaneyIrene made a similar point to Mary Kassian:
...There seems to be a disconnect between the "leaders" of complementarianism and what actually gets taught in churches. For example, you can call yourself "core" and Ms Pearl "fringe," but that doesn't take into account how much her teachings get recommended at a lay level. 

What do you think?  Do we need a whole new vocabulary? (I know neither the egalitarian nor the complementarian expression seems exactly right to me.) Why is it so important to us to be right?  Why is this conversation so emotional and tense and fiercely fought? Is there a way to talk about important theological points without just denying each other?

culture and context in corinthians

I am a student of cultures.

Or, to put it bluntly, I have a Master's Degree in Intercultural Studies, y'all. I've lived in four countries, Asian, European, American; I've visited nine others. I've been working cross-culturally in one way or another for eight years. Cultures require a lifetime of study, but I'm on my way. One thing I've learned is that what seems obviously good in one cultural context can be obviously bad in another.

Here's an example: in an American classroom, if one student lets another copy her homework, this is bad. We are individualists, and we believe work must be done independently for it to be honest. In Vietnam, though, if a student allows her friend to copy her homework, she has done a good thing. Vietnamese are community-oriented, and the "class" of students is a tightly-knit group of people who take every class together for four years. Their success or failure is as a class, and to deny help to a member of your in-group is not only offensive, but selfish and wrong.

Or take saying thank you. When a friend invites me over for dinner, after eating, I thank her and compliment the food. In Vietnam, if a friend cooks for you, and you say thank you, you have insulted her! Saying thank you is like saying, "We are not really intimate friends; I will formally thank you because it is my duty to do so."

I could go on and on about how right and wrong are contextual (if you want more, try Adeney's Strange Virtues). Cultural context is vital to understanding our relationships with people; but it's also vital in understanding the Bible.

One of my favorite guides in understanding the cultural context of the Bible is Ken Bailey, who has a PhD in New Testament and has spent forty years living and teaching in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus. He writes in both English and Arabic, and has a strong understanding of Middle-Eastern historical context, contemporary context, and literary style. (I've written about his insight into the nativity story here.) Today I want to share what he says about 1 Corinthians 11-14, especially the passages that are sometimes used to argue that women should not teach in church.

The Literary Structure of 1 Corinthians

Understanding the literary structure of 1 Corinthians is a must. Bailey argues that the book is carefully composed in the structure of Hebrew parallelism:

I. The Cross and Christian Unity (1:5-4:16)
  II. Men and Women in the Human Family (4:17-7:40)
    III. Food Offered to Idols (Christian and pagan) (8:1-11:1)
  IV. Men and Women in Worship (11:2-14:40)
V. The Resurrection (15)

The section we're looking at is section IV, which is structured thus:

1. Men and Women Leading in Worship: Prophets and How They Dress (11:2-16)
  2. Order in Worship : Sacrament - The Lord's Supper (11:17-34)
    3. Gifts and the Nature of the Body (12:1-30)
      4.The Hymn to Love (12:31-14:1)
    5.Spiritual Gifts and the Upbuilding of the Body (14:1-25)
  6. Order in worship: Word - Prophets and Speakers in Tongues (14:26-33)
7. Men and Women Worshipping: No chatting in church (14:3b-40)

See how carefully constructed that is, with 1 and 7 paralleling each other in topic, as 2&6 and 3&5 do?

Chapter 11 - Women Can Pray and Prophesy (but should dress appropriately)

In chapter 11, Paul has already noted that both men and women were leading in the church services in public prayer and prophecy. And apparently women in the church had understood "all things are lawful to me" to give them to freedom to lead the services without covering their heads. When they exercised this right, problems emerged.

Christian women from a Jewish background came from a culture that affirmed that self-respecting women would cover their heads in public. Prostitutes, however, did not cover their heads in public. For a woman to be in front of the church without her head covered was distracting in the same way that to have a scantily-clad church leader on stage would be distracting today. Paul's response - and this is important! - is not to say, "Women, get off the stage and stop prophesying!" It is to say, "Women, cover your head so you don't distract others from God's word!"

If, then, Paul has already affirmed women in church leadership in chapter 11, why does he in chapter 14 tell women to be silent in church? This too, requires understanding the context.

Chapter 14: A Chatty Congregation (language, accent, attention span, oral learners)

Corinth was the largest city in Greece and undoubtedly the most diverse. Greek was the only common language, and while most men had at least enough Greek to function on the job, women who worked mostly at home were less fluent. The languages spoken at home would have been numerous.

"Added to this," Bailey writes, "was the problem of accent. Often when a public speaker is functioning in a second language, even when the speaker is fluent, there can be great difficulty in communication due to the accent. When a speaker's words and phrases are not understood, a low buzz can break out as listeners ask each other, "what did she say? What was that word?"

The short attention span for simple people (like modern television addicts) was most certainly another problem...

I have preached in village churches in Egypt where the women were seated on one side of the church and the men on the other. There was a wooden partition about six feet high separating the two sections. I preached in simple colloquial Arabic, but the women were often illiterate and the preacher was expected to preach for at least an hour -- and we had problems. The women quickly passed the limit of their attention span. The children were seated with them and chatting inevitably broke out among the women. The chatting would at times become so loud that no one could hear the preacher. (These villages had no electricity and no sound amplification.) One of the senior elders would stand up and in a desperate voice shout, "Let the women be silent in the church!" and we would proceed."

Can you imagine, then, what the church in Corinth must have been like?

"Paul had just affirmed that the Corinthians were getting drunk at the Lord's Supper and that the prophets and tongues speakers were all talking at once! It seems that some of the women gave up and started chatting. Who could blame them? Yet all needed to work together to create the required decency and order necessary for meaningful worship."

Let me share one last cultural insight Bailey offers.

"Middle Eastern society is predominantly an oral culture...People process information by talking more than by sitting quietly and reflecting. This can be observed at many levels of society. A university professor will have the attention of the class and turn to write something on the blackboard. The moment he or she pauses to write, the entire class breaks out talking. They are not inattentive or rude, they are simply turning to a fellow student and chatting about the subject...They are simply verbalizing the information they have heard in order to better absorb and retain it."


Paul is concerned with order in worship. The prophets are told to speak one at a time, or to be silent. The speakers in tongues are told to be silent unless there is an interpreter. And the women are told not to chat in church, but to save their questions for later.

Paul, whose friendship with and respect for women like Junia, Phoebe, and Priscilla is well-documented, is not teaching that women must always be silent in the church. Instead, women leaders are to lead appropriately, and women in the congregation are to participate appropriately, all for the building up of the Body.

Understanding the cultural context is vital. You can tell those teenagers in the balcony to put away their cellphones and stop giggling - to be silent in church! - but that woman on the mic? Let her speak. Today I'm linking up with Rachel Held Evans in her Week of Mutuality, dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender. The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, Church, and society.

my journey towards mutuality

Today I'm linking up with Rachel Held Evans in her Week of Mutuality, dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender. The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, Church, and society. Rather than digging into debate, I simply want to share the story of my journey towards egalitarianism. Later this week, I hope to post on 1 Corinthians 11 and on how I define feminism.

My parents have a beautiful, loving marriage of thirty-three years. Despite fairly significant differences in the way they approach life (Mom’s a vegetarian, for example, while Dad’s as red-blooded a carnivore as they come), they are loyal to each other in every way. They love and serve God. They make decisions together, and they treat each other with kindness and respect.

They are also pretty fierce complementarians. They believe that God designed different, but equally valuable, roles for men and women in the home and at church, that these roles are hierarchical, and that the truth about God and his church is best displayed in a marriage where the husband is a servant-leader and the wife submits to him as his helpmate. They taught me how to defend this position, and they taught me that it was the only legitimate interpretation of Scripture.


Buckled in the eighties minivan, we pass a church marquee. The pastor’s name, printed right there on the sign, in front of God and everybody, is a woman’s name. I mock it, the same way I mock Michael Dukakis with the neighbor kids in the backyard – that is to say, I mock it out of total ignorance. A female pastor?! Well, they clearly don’t believe that Scripture is God-breathed! Hope somebody leads them to Christ!

At Walnut Valley Christian Academy, we have a four-year class called Worldview. Spring semester, freshman year, we read Expository Preaching by Haddon Robinson. For final projects we prepare sermons. I am nervous, and overcome stage fright by imagining myself as Hilary Clinton (true story). I preach, to my co-ed class of ten, on Daniel, and Mrs. Fuqua gives me an A+.

Sophomore year I self-identify as a feminist. We study How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart, and we write in-depth papers on small portions of Scripture. I don’t want to be bored with the project. So I choose “that passage” from 1 Timothy 2. You know the one. “I do not permit a woman to teach, or to have authority.” I read the commentaries we have at home. I conclude that while some of Paul’s principles did seem to be cultural rather than timeless, the fact that he referred to pre-fall Creation order (“for Adam was formed first, then Eve”) to make his case seemed to indicate that these were in fact guidelines for all time. However, I decide that the way he combined “teaching” and “exercising authority” meant that the only role specifically barred from women was that of head teaching pastor. I feel my conclusion is a little arbitrary.

Meanwhile, I take on about every leadership position open to me in the church. I lead small groups of junior high girls every Tuesday night. I am a counselor on retreats. I exhort the whole youth group, boys and girls, about our besetting sin of materialism. I testify in front of the church (the mega-church) about the value of community. In college I join a similar church, but almost immediately I find the college group oppressive. There is a clear ladder of spiritual superiority, a clear moral mold. I ditch, and help lead the youth group instead. The first time I lead a small group Bible study for girls, my co-teacher looks at me amazed. “I think you have the gift of teaching,” she says.

I go to southeast Asia, and I see God do miraculous things. I begin to wonder if the gift of apostleship (church-planting) is open to women, because a new church is being born around me, in the middle of a spiritual desert.

Then a church from my hometown asks if I’ll send a video message for the Father-Daughter Banquet in February. It’s not my church, and I’m not sure why they’ve asked me, but I agree, and carve out time to record. I speak about the things I appreciate in the way my dad raised me, connecting his parenting to appropriate Scriptures, and encouraging the fathers at the banquet to imitate my dad’s example. I send the video off and forget about it.

Until a few weeks later, when I hear that things didn’t go so well. In fact, some men in the audience, some male leaders in the church, think my video was wrong. Not that what I said was wrong: but that I, as woman, said it to men.

I thought that's what they had asked me to do.

A little bit heartbroken, I kind of go, “to hell with it,” and keep doing the work God has put in front of me.


Despite all this, I never really explored egalitarianism until this year. Perhaps I was hesitant to make a fuss. But I’ve grown increasingly ecumenical in my theology, and a solid half of the people who mentored me spiritually in my twenties were egalitarian. We rarely spoke of it, this belief that hierarchy was a result of the fall, and that embracing the kingdom of God included embracing the mutuality of pre-fall creation, but it was clear in the way they lived. When we joined an Episcopal church, I felt I should be conversant with the theological arguments for women in leadership. I read How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership, and it was interesting. When I read Finally Feminist, though, my jaw dropped, because this was an honest, compelling way to understand Scripture, and one I had never heard.

Though I’ve always been a feminist, a part of me did not want the egalitarian case to be so convincing. I didn’t want to disagree theologically with my parents, especially on a subject that is pretty foundational for them, and for most of the Christians I grew up with. Beyond that, for me the freedom and fullness and possibility of egalitarianism is scarier, and harder, than the clearly defined roles in complementarianism.

But what interpretation is easiest for me to live with isn’t the best evaluative question. Which one is the truest to Scripture?

This is how I lean, now. I lean towards mutuality. I know, like any good student of expository preaching, that you can’t make a watertight case either way. Intellectually, though, I think Finally Feminist is the best interpretation of these scriptures that I’ve found, and it makes sense in my life experience, too. I’m wondering if it might be time to make a fuss about it.