Pick of the Clicks (5/30/2015)

This week my blog turned TWO YEARS OLD! Happy Bloggity Birthday!! Can’t believe it’s been two years since this little post started it all: I had no idea it would lead where it has. Have a piece of cake to celebrate with me, won’t you?

cake

But now, on to the important business of excellent things I READ and wanted to share with you!

Last week I came across two stellar examples of how to disagree well. Would that more of our public discourse took this tone:

First, Derek Rimshawy’s review of Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday: gracious and so well done.

Second, sisters Elizabeth Campbell and Mary Cory’s Two Sisters, Two View of Gay Marriage.

(and, in the same spirit, let me commend Lesley Sebek Miller’s excellent essay What I Want You To Know About My Gay Neighbors. Really, it’s SO GOOD.)

This comic, from Toby Morris, will forever change the way you look at privilege. Simple, subtle, and a zinger.

Lesa Engelthaler’s article on The Poverty Fighter’s Bible is worth noting: six years after When Helping Hurts was published (on how, in our efforts to alleviate poverty, sometimes the West makes it worse), and we still have so many lessons to learn.

Sarah del Rio’s What Wakes Me From Sleep? It’s Not What You’d Expect was a hilarious read. If you’ve woken up with a kid in your bed, enjoy this.

One of my new favorites on Facebook to follow is Arch20.com, which posts incredible art and architecture. I am usually on the extreme end of the non-artsy side of things, so it is SAYING SOMETHING that this caught my attention. I particularly love this collection of 25 of the most creative statues and scuptures from around the world. This was one of my favorites:

breaking free

Video this week is from SuzelleDIY, a real little slice of South African spoof. Tim Noakes, the guest on this show, is a famous South African Sports Nutritionist and advocate of a whole3-/paleo type diet with zero carbs and high protein and fat. I have a few family members who follow this diet, so this made this extra funny: how to make a pizza using cauliflower (“instead of regular flower”, says Suzette):

On the blog:

What Should You Pay The Speaker At Your Women’s Ministry Event? – I was amazed by how widely this was read. What a hot topic!

I also shared an old post from the Ask Me Anything series: on Grace and The Flake, where a reader asked how they should respond if someone keeps flaking on their commitments. Does “grace abound”, or should we insist that people let their “yes” be “yes”?

What caught your attention online this week? I’d love to hear what you saw, and loved!

What I Want You To Know About My Gay Neighbors – {Lesley Miller}

I am so very proud to call Lesley Miller my real-life friend. But even if I weren’t her friend and Redbud retreat roommate, I would be dancing on the ceiling with excitement to introduce her. And when you read this, you’ll understand why…

neighborsfence

Would you call me your friend if you knew how I felt about gay marriage? 

I never set out to make gay friends, just like I didn’t set out to not have gay friends, but growing up in a conservative area of California and then going to school at a conservative Christian college meant that in my worldview, gay people only existed on Hollywood TV shows and in places like San Francisco. All of that changed when my husband and I moved to Sacramento in 2006.

I figured my boss was gay the moment I met him. I also knew I liked him the moment I met him, which is why I signed a contract for a position at his company with no reservations. He was sharp, friendly, and believed I could do anything.

After a few weeks in my new position, it became obvious that my boss wasn’t my only gay co-worker. A few other women in the office were lesbians, and quite a few of our clients. I went from not knowing any gay or lesbian people to being surrounded by them. And it was fine. Better than fine. My co-workers were some of the nicest people I’d ever worked with. We went out to lunch together and grabbed occasional happy hour cocktails. One woman opened her home each December for a holiday party and another gave us a few pieces of free furniture when she moved homes. Together we created award-winning campaigns for our clients, and rode the waves of the economic recession.

But, there was one thing about my co-workers that terrified me. They knew I was a Christian, just like I knew they were gay, but none of them realized how I felt about same-sex relationships. They never asked, and I never brought it up, and it was better this way. Less complicated.

But then Proposition 8 (a statewide proposition to eliminate the rights of same-sex couples to marry) came up on the 2008 ballot. Around my passionately liberal office, people were plastering NO signs on their cubicle walls, attending evening marches at the Capitol, and discussing the latest polling numbers while microwaving their Lean Cuisine lunches. Gulp.

I worried that if they knew my biblical convictions about homosexuality they would question our friendship or feel unloved. I worried people in the community would call me a bigot. I wondered if I was a bigot. I fretted. I analyzed. I prayed. And I dreaded that stupid 2008 election day with all soul.

They saw me as a friend, but would they still do so if they knew my biblical convictions about homosexuality?

A few years later, my husband and I moved into our first home. It was a tiny 1948 bungalow in a charming neighborhood not far from downtown. Soon after we moved in many of our neighbors dropped by to welcome us. Imagine our surprise when we realized that the four homes closest to ours were all gay or lesbian couples.

Karen and Nancy, our direct next-door neighbors, were the kind everyone wants to have. We got to know them over Saturdays exchanging gardening tips—they were always quick to lend us their tools—and we occasionally passed platters of barbecued food over the fence for each other to try. When my husband was sick they fretted over the best dish to bring us, finally landing on a spicy chili that we devoured. Occasionally they brought by little gifts for our daughter, things found around the house or given to them by one of their students.

One winter we didn’t see much of Karen and Nancy. Karen was taking an additional teaching course and Nancy was dealing with some health issues, plus the cold weather kept us all inside so there were few opportunities to talk. They left their house in the early dark hours and weeks passed with occasional, short greetings. When the first spring weekend arrived, Karen emerged from their house with shocking news. After 11 years together they’d split up. Nancy was seeing someone else and Karen would move out within a few weeks. “I didn’t see this coming,” Karen said in tears.

Something I didn’t see coming was my own response. Me, the girl who didn’t believe in same-sex relationships, was angry and sad about their break-up.

I was sad for Karen in the same way I was sad for my friend’s parents when they divorced after 22 years of marriage. Never mind the specifics about length of time. Never mind the specifics about homosexuality. Human heartache is human heartache.

After that day, I struggled with what my emotions meant. I think a lot of people might argue my sadness was proof that my biblical convictions are wrong. I believe that my emotions are confirmation that you really can love a person even if you don’t agree with their choices.

I’ve tried to write this essay for years, but I’ve worried about what people will think or say. My former co-workers still don’t know my feelings about same-sex marriage, and neither do my neighbors. I’ve never told them my story but I’m forever grateful they told me theirs. Not only has their friendship changed my life, their bravery in sharing their convictions is giving me a similar, growing strength to tell my own. Not because I want to shove my beliefs down people’s throats, but because it’s only in telling our stories that we can love each other better.

In a nation that is growing more accepting of same-sex marriage, and less accepting of colleges, churches and non-profits who don’t believe in same-sex marriage, I wonder if we’ll ever find a middle ground. Is it even possible? I think it is. It starts at the water cooler at work and the swings on our front porches. It starts with holding our tongue sometimes and opening our ears instead. It starts with food shared across a fence and it starts with remembering that friends don’t always have to agree.

Lesley-2Lesley Miller lives in Santa Barbara, CA with her husband Jonathan and two children, Anna and Owen. She is the writer behind Barefooton45th.com and has been published on such sites as the Hello Darling blog, Her.meneutics, and InCourage.com. Lesley loves the beach (with a good book), date nights (with a Moscow Mule) and skiing (preferably on a sunny day). She hopes that her experiences and words will be an encouragement to others, and reminder they are known and loved.
Photo credit: Neighbor’s Fence, by Nikki. (Flickr Creative Commons) / image edited by Bronwyn Lea

How Much Should You Pay a Speaker at Your Women’s Ministry Event?

Money talks in the form of many large bills and a headset

image courtesy of morguefile.com/edited on picmonkey.com

I have been on both sides of this question: both as the speaker, as well as the organizer of brunches, spring teas and women’s retreats; and it has been my experience that the topic of paying the speaker is often a tricky one. More and more I am realizing that I am not alone in feeling anxious about this.

We often in feel squirrelly and insecure about conversations where the higher good of ministry rubs shoulders with the worldly reality of money. Organizers are concerned about tight budgets and making the event as affordable as possible so that money doesn’t keep women from coming, and speakers are aware that giving a talk is costly to them: it is a sacrifice of time, energy, and in the case of speakers like myself with young children, sometimes money of my own to arrange childcare and find the necessary resources needed to prepare for the topic.

But none of us wants to talk about money.

For the purposes of this post, I am assuming that both the organizers and speakers are women acting in good faith: wanting to serve God, do ministry, and do right. I am assuming that neither are greedy, opportunistic, nor miserly. I am assuming, too, that it is their delight to serve God and His daughters by participating in this way. I am, finally, also assuming that—whether big or small—your ministry event does have a budget. This was the case when I was at a teeny church organizing a college women’s brunch for 15, or at a large church with a retreat for hundreds.

Having said all that, it still doesn’t get us out of talking about the issue of money. God has much to say about stewardship of money, both personally and in ministry, and it is time we talked faithfully and biblically about how to handle this topic in women’s ministry rather than feeling swamped by feelings of guilt and pressure when we feel that the money question is the elephant in the room.

Laying the groundwork

Scripture says that a worker is worth their wages (1 Timothy 5:18), a principle clearly stated in both the Old and New Testaments. This is true in the business world, as an excellent recent article in Christianity Today made clear, and it is true in the church, where we are told that double honor is due to elders who lead well, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17).

The Apostle Paul, who wrote the most about money and ministry, did “volunteer” ministry (supporting himself through tent-making), but was also clear that it was appropriate and right for him and others to accept payment for ministry. He writes in 1 Corinthians 9:

Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?

Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10 Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. 11 If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?

That we honor—both in esteem and in money—our spiritual teachers is a well-grounded Scriptural principle. It is not a matter of greed or awkwardness: it is a matter of honor and sustainability. Just as no soldier can continue to serve for a long time at their own expense, and no farmer can continue to farm if they never eat; so, too, no-one can continue to give vast amounts of time to the ministry of the Word long-term without being sustained.

Ministry costs: it costs the minister, and it should thus cost the community. To say this plainly is not meant to be crude – but to point out that when we say that ministers are valuable we aren’t just using valuable sentimentally. Their work literally needs to be valued, too.

In as much as we believe that women are able and gifted to teach God’s word well to other women, and that they should do so with skill, attention, faithfulness and prayer—all of the above applies, too. We are, after all, talking about women’s ministry events.

How much?

How much to pay a speaker will obviously depend greatly on circumstances and context. However, both speakers and ministry organizers might gain some helpful guidance on what an appropriate honorarium might be for their context by asking the following questions:

  • What does the men’s ministry (or youth ministry etc) pay their speakers for leading retreats or giving talks? What does the church pay guest preachers? In my experience, I have seldom met a woman who has any idea what the “going rate” for retreats are among other ministries within her same church.
  • Work out how many hours are involved in preparing for, traveling to, and attending the event. Most 40 minute talks take a speaker somewhere between eight and twenty hours to prepare (again, ask your pastors how long it takes them to prepare a sermon). Speaking at a women’s brunch might, for example, take me 10 hours in preparation and 3 hours on the day of the event. Speaking at a retreat where there are three talks takes me about forty hours in preparation, and then I am away from my family for 24-36 hours. Does your honorarium recognize that the speaker has spent a minimum of 15 hours for a short talk? Or 76 hours on your retreat? When you think about the hours involved, a note of thanks and a $20 gift card doesn’t seem quite right.

What if it’s your home church?

Speaking at one’s home church is a little different, particularly since the speaker is part of a whole community of women who are volunteering their hours to make the event happen. Why should the speaker be paid, but not the decorator of tables or the designer of the beautiful invitations for the event?

I want to suggest that even if the speaker is from within one’s home church, the organizers should budget for an honorarium. I say this for the following reasons:

  1. While everyone in the body is to serve in some way, Scripture does set a precedent for paying teachers.

  2. From a practical point of view, budgets for events often carry forward from one year to another. If you have a “cheap retreat” one year because you didn’t pay the speaker, it makes it hard the following year to offer the retreat at the same price if you then want to perhaps invite a guest speaker. Keeping it as a line item sets a precedent that your ministry always values their speakers, no matter where they come from.

  3. It’s theologically important. My pastor used to say “if you want to know what people’s priorities are, take a look at their check book.” There is some truth in this for budgeting for ministry events: if we are willing to set aside money for flowers, craft activities, goody bags, decorations, invitations and other things (which are nice, but dispensable), then we should be willing to set aside money for the ministry of the Word (without which our event would not be ministry but a community tea.)

This distinction between speaking ministry vs. other volunteer ministries becomes a little clearer if you are invited to speak at another church, or if your church is inviting a guest speaker – because while speakers often serve other believing communities, it is a rare thing to volunteer your time to decorate or cook for a church in a neighboring town.

I believe ministries should pay their in-house speakers: it shows honor to them, shows priority to Word ministry, sets a good example to others, and lays a precedent for future generations. If the speaker chooses to donate her time and talents to her home church, she is free to tithe the honorarium back to the church, or even specifically to the women’s ministry. But I don’t believe the organizers of an event should presume on this: it should be the speaker’s decision.

In a Nutshell: Thoughts for Organizers of Events

  • When you working out all the needs and costs for your event, consider what you are asking in terms of time and preparation from your speaker, and allocate an amount for your speaker.
  • If you’re on a shoestring budget (which, in truth, is most of us), don’t just nix the speaker fees. Keep it a line item, commensurate with money you are spending on other things like decor and food. No matter how big or little your budget is, let it reflect that you value good teaching at least as much as you value the place looking pretty.
  • When you invite your speaker, tell them you have budgeted for an honorarium. Be upfront and ask them what they charge. If they say nothing, give them the honorarium anyway, because it sets an example of honoring those who teach faithfully.
  • If the speaker charges more than you have allocated for, tell them what your budget is. In my experience, every women’s ministry speaker I know desires first and foremost to honor God and serve His people. They will be able to tell you whether they can make it work for you.

In a Nutshell: Thoughts for Speakers

  • Work out how much time it takes you to prepare and teach for an event. Write that time down and prayerfully consider its value.
  • Ask some trusted people (other speakers, or pastors) if they’d be willing to share how long preparation takes them, and what a reasonable scale of fees is. I strongly encourage women to ask some men in ministry these questions, since men are often far more practical in their application of theology here, and far less guilt-ridden.
  • Come up with a list of fees for different types of events (a MOPS talk, a once-off Spring or Christmas event, a mini-retreat, a full-weekend retreat). Put this into a document which you keep on file so that you don’t feel you have to “invent” a number any time somebody asks.
  • The best examples I have seen of this are where speakers say they have an “honorarium policy upon request.” On asking, they send the document with their schedule of fees, but include something like this:

“It is my great joy and honor to spend time with women in God’s word. My heart is to encourage women in their faith and wholeness. As a speaker for ten years, and as a contributor to supporting my family, I have landed on these honorarium for various types of events: 

  • MOPS: $xxx
  • One-talk women’s event: $xxx
  • Weekend women’s retreat: $xxx

As a former Women’s Ministry Coordinator and as a woman with a heart to minister as much as God allows, I vowed to myself years ago that I would never pass on a speaking engagement request because of budget constraints. So if my rates are out of reach, please let me know what you are able to offer and we’ll see what we can do.”

  • If you are an author and have books to take to the event, DON’T offer your books for free. Research confirm that people value what they buy more than what they are given. Offer them your author discount, if you’d like.
  • If you are asked to speak at an event, ask them if they have a budget for a speaker. If you are talking about expectations and planning for how many talks and how long they might be, and what the topic might be – it is also the appropriate time to ask what the expectations and planning for their budget is. I know it’s awkward, but it gets more awkward with time rather than less so. 
  • If this remains a very emotionally-laden topic for you, spend some time in prayer and talking with trusted confidantes about valuing your time. This has become a little easier for me over the years because now I see that speaking at an event is not just costing me my time, but also takes a toll on my husband and children. Your time and skills are valuable. They are given by God, and need to be stewarded with as much diligence as money is.

I hope this post is helpful to those who feel squirmy about this topic. I believe that God would have us talk about money and ministry in an honest and shame-free way: it is my hope to have offered some practical pointers to help us walk that path.

Got any helpful thoughts to add for speakers or organizers? What have you appreciated in dealing with this topic? Join the conversation in the comments section.

 

Pick of the Clicks (05/22/2015)

Happy Weekend, and if you’re in the US – Happy Memorial Day Weekend! (speaking of which, I have a piece up at the Huffington Post this week if you’re interested: A Letter To My Children on Memorial Day)

This was my favorite picture of the week:

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In this case, you absolutely can judge a book by its cover :)

The most important thing to read this week is this, from Ann Voskamp: Into Iraq#2: What the News Isn’t Telling You & Why We Can’t Afford To Pretend It’s Not Happening (Sozan’s Impossible Choice—And Our Very Possible One). Please, please: read this.

And while you have the kleenex out, grab another one for this: Does Your Garden Grow? from Michaela Evanow. Michaela is my editor at the wonderful SheLoves magazine, and wrote this piece of her daughter’s diagnosis with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Between the time of writing, and the time of publishing, little Florence Marigold passed away. Michaela’s reflections on love and grief in the hands of a Sovereign God brought me to my knees. I’m joining hundreds in planting Marigolds this Spring to honor her. #FlorenceMarigoldInBloom.

Anna Jordan’s reflection on motherhood and “having it all”, or “wearing many hats” over at the lovely Coffee and Crumbs blog is one of the best I’ve read: Caps For Sale. SO good.

Jenni Allen’s post Why (I Think ) Everyone should have a counselor is so wise and healthy. I agree with her. Counseling is not for those on the brink of divorce. It’s for all of us who want to live healthier, better lives: maturing and dealing with our “stuff” so that we can grow up and lean in towards the things God has for us.

Heather Caliri wrote a guest post here this week, but the post I want to direct your attention to this week is this: Abusers are people too. In the wake of the news about Josh Duggar, eldest of TLC’s Nineteen and Counting fame, admitting to molesting girls in his teens, there is a fresh wave of grief and outrage at this long-silenced and all too pervasive issue. Heather’s words are SO IMPORTANT in understanding why this is such a tricky topic for us to identify and accept:

Oh, the badness of abusive people isn’t what prevents justice from being served.

It’s their humanity, likability, and their friends.

This, heartbreaking and beautiful piece from Jamie Calloway-Hanauer, in which sobbing and jazz hands can coexist: A Theological (Mis)Treatment of Hello Dolly. This is the week, which comes around every year with its waves of sadness, and in the midst of it – there was such hope and truth in the words of a beloved musical.

These 22 Cartoons of How Smartphones Take Over Our Lives was SO funny, and so convicting. Ouch.

This guy asked the internet for Photoshop help (Can you put the Eiffel Tower under my finger?) The results made me wheeze with laughter.

This was my favorite moment on Twitter this week: a little Presidential exchange…. #hilarious

CFUUNoEWAAALfup

On the topic of excellence in politics, I so appreciated this post from Juliet Vedral on her experience as a progressive Christian seeking to work with conservative Christians on social justice issues: When We Surveyed The Wondrous Cross:

“…the longer that I am a Christian, the more I am surprised that both political parties continue to court the “faith vote” in general and the evangelical vote in particular. Surveys taking the temperature of these so-called values voters abound, either offering hope or despair to aspirant politicians and their platforms. But Christ’s followers are called to be like him, and a group of people who are ready to divest themselves of power, a group of people whose fundamental value is sacrificial love should be the most dangerous, unpredictable voters out there.”

I LOVED this: 24 Pictures That Will Make You Feel Better About the World. (Especially #24).

Maybe you already saw this, but if you didn’t – this is precious:

 

From me this week:

My first feature post at iBelieve.com: How to Support a Friend Who Has Been Hurt by the Church.

Over at Ungrind: When Love Looks Like Think Geek and The Big Bang Theory.

On the blog:

Ask Me Anything- Why did God allow both Wives and Concubines?

Why I’m Glad I Broke His Favorite Coffee Mug

That’s all for this week, friends. Happy clicking!

 

Why I’m Glad I Broke His Favorite Coffee Mug

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This morning I woke up hungover from life and late night reading. I thumped downstairs and, amid the din of chatter, started to scramble through the morning routine. Reaching into the overhead cupboard to retrieve the life-giving coffee ingredients, my hand caught on something, sending half a dozen coffee mugs  crashing down on me like ceramic lemmings. I caught two. Three landed safely. But one, The One, didn’t survive the fall. Of all the mugs in the closet to break this morning, the one which shattered was my husband’s favorite mug of nearly twenty years: a Dilbert classic—the perfect combination of nerdy and hilarious.

Usually I am quick to clean up broken shards, but I left the remains of coffee mug out so that I could confess when he appeared at breakfast. “I’m sorry,” I said a few minutes later, “I broke your favorite coffee mug.”

“Oh no!” he said in surprise, “Oh well, everything is just trash waiting to happen anyway.”

I looked over at our kids, bent over bowls of granola, and in that moment my sadness was replaced by a tremendous gratitude that not only had my kids seen me break something, but they’d seen their Dad’s theology in action. We spend a lot of time talking about possessions in our house: trying to temper the wants generated by advertising and peers with conversations about stewardship and generosity. Our kids have heard us ask our one question we always ask when wondering “should we buy this?”, and have seen us try to put this into action.

And, again and again, they have come to their Dad in tears about a lost toy, a broken truck, a misplaced whatchamacallit; asking if we can please buy a replacement. The answer is almost always no, with this gentle explanation given: “I’m so glad you got to enjoy that for a while, but everything on this earth is just trash waiting to become trash.”

This morning I broke my husband’s favorite coffee mug, and our kids got to see him respond: first in disappointment, and then with truth. The things that really matter—every spiritual blessing which is his in Christ, and ten thousand more besides—will never perish, spoil and fade.

I’m sorry I broke his mug, but I’m so grateful my kids got to see what happened next. As great as it is for us to be positive role models of hard work, kindness, academic rigor and politeness, it’s important for them to see us make mistakes, burn dinner, experience rejection, lose our tempers and break other people’s favorite things… because it’s in the moments after everything comes crashing down, that character shines through.

Coffee Mug

 

Photo Credit: In Pieces (An Auditory Experiment) – Dusk Photography (Flickr Creative Commons)

 

Grieving the Bible (Heather Caliri)

I love Heather Caliri’s heart and words, and am so glad to welcome her back to the blog today with this post.

bible heather caliri

I read the Bible all the way through for the first time when I was thirteen.

I picked it up every Sunday after the first service at our new church in San Diego, waiting for my parents to finish with choir. I’d pull the volume off the shelf in the church library, get a chunk of leftover communion bread, and curl up in one of the grey plastic chairs, eager to read where I left off.

I read every Sunday for weeks, hardly breathing. The story was a page-turner.

After about a half hour, the sanctuary door would open; choir members filed in. Quick, so no one would see, I’d slip the book back onto the shelf, brush off a few crumbs and go find my parents.

We’d just started coming to the church after a five-year hiatus. I almost didn’t remember life with church, but everything spiritual and Christian fascinated me. I felt drawn church and the Bible as if by a magnetic force.

Our family was torn apart during the years we didn’t attend church.

I wanted to know about faith because God was rumored to make everything better. He would stop my pain, and put me back together with all my insides intact.

Months before, I’d figured out how to become a Christian by reading a book my born-again sister gave me. I prayed the sinner’s prayer with a terrible urgency and relief.

Alone in my room, I finally thought God could hear my prayers.

Not long after, without knowing of my conversion, my dad suggested we start going back to church.

And now I was reading the Bible: God’s story of redemption.

Surely God, church and the Bible would fix everything wrong with me.

The last Sunday of reading, I met John on Patmos. When he finished chanting, I set the book down and breathed out.

It was the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Literally.

See, I didn’t actually read the Bible. I’d read Fulton Oursler’s three-book retelling: The Greatest Book Ever Written, The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Greatest Faith Ever Known.

Let’s just say Oursler’s plotting was more straightforward than Scripture’s.

That year, I gobbled up a narrative clear as a screenplay, with all the darkness, perplexity and mystery edited out.

Don’t get me wrong—Oursler’s story wasn’t a terrible introduction for someone who’d missed most of Sunday school.

But was also unrealistic.

That first encounter with God’s Word made me think the Bible was unambiguous. That it was something I’d read like an Agatha Christie mystery. That nothing in it could ever be used against me.

That moment in my church’s library was the last time I felt that way about God’s Word.

To be sure, the real thing is better than the storified version I gobbled up as a kid. It’s more human and bewildering, and thus more life-giving and real.

The other gifts I got that year, church and faith in Christ? They were more bewildering and wonderful too.

Oh, Christianity wasn’t at all what I’d expected. It was a different gift altogether.

Oursler’s book was easy. Jesus was not.

In the past year, I’ve finally gotten honest with myself about my childhood. I’m finally coming to terms with the horrible muddle of my family and taking a fierce accounting of everything we lost. I’m rejoicing about all the ways that faith saved me when my insides were falling apart.

But I’m also grieving what faith wasn’t. What the Bible wasn’t.

Because I was so desperate to be saved right then. I did not understand that inhabiting God’s Kingdom is a long journey.

Back in that church library, I didn’t want a book that made me the slightest bit uneasy or doubtful or unsure. No, I wanted to read about people made so whole they no longer felt pain.

I wanted a Swiss Army knife, and instead I got a lion with sharp claws and no leash.

I would not want the knife now. But I still mourn the bewilderment I experienced as I tried to live with a wildcat.

I’m trying to come to terms, finally, with what the Bible actually is, what church actually is, and how much more awesome and unknowable God is than the petite deity I longed for as an adolescent.

It’s a difficult joy to accept God’s Word whole and unedited. It is a wild feeling to jump on its back, heart thumping, and let it run with my fingers twined through its mane.

h bio pic_june 2014 edits-1Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego. She started saying yes to joy in her faith and was surprised to find that joy led straight to Jesus. Her new journal for people anxious about the Bible is called Unquiet Time: A devotional for the rest of us. She blogs at heathercaliri.com, or you can find her on Twitter (@heathercaliri) or on Facebook

Ask Me: Why Did God Allow Wives AND Concubines?

What's The Deal With-3

Dear Bronwyn, 

What are your thoughts on what seems like God allowing men to take concubines in the Old Testament? I’ve thought about this before but it’s been in my mind again lately especially thinking about how sex trafficking is horribly wrong and cruel, as well as God’s view of women and our significance in His redemption story. I’m having trouble reconciling these ideas that seem to conflict to me.

 Help? 

Confused about Concubines

Dear CAC,

This is SUCH an interesting question, and one I’d never really looked into – so I sent out a query to some friends online and asked them if they could point me to some resources. One friend from Twitter, Holly Munson, got excited about researching this. Holly is a writer and a wife, and she is also a Mormon – so she felt with polygamy being a high stakes issue for her, she also wanted to do some research. I was really curious what Holly might come with, and very grateful for her research and thoughts. So you get a TWOFER on this one: both my reply and Holly’s!

Bronwyn’s Thoughts:

Before we consider the issue of why God might allow men to take concubines, I needed to do some research on what the difference between a concubine and a wife were. Both wives and concubines were women who were officially married (conjugally united, if you want the bible dictionary definition) to a man. It is instructive that in the (awful, horrible, no good) story of the concubine in Judges 19, the man is referred to as her husband (v3), and the relationship between the man and the woman’s father is described as son-in-law and daughter-in-law (verses 4-7).

There are some laws in the Old Testament that regulate how concubines were to be treated. Interestingly, the provisions in Exodus 21:7-10 which stipulate that a husband “may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights,” and it was these three components of marital care which, over time, became the bedrock of our marital vows between husbands and wives to “love, nourish and cherish” one another. These were not originally marital promises to feel all the feelings: they were promises to provide love, shelter, food and sex regardless of how you were feeling. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 has further provisions on protecting concubines: if a husband became displeased with her, he couldn’t just dispose of her, sell her or neglect her.

So: this is what a wife and concubine had in common: the man was their husband (not just their owner), and there were rights and obligations for protection and care extending to the women.

But what, then, were the differences?

It seems clear from context that a concubine was an inferior wife of some sort: they had less (or no) authority in the family and did not participate in the household government. A novel I was recently reading about ancient China mentioned wives and concubines, and the novel described the difference between the two as being largely economic: wives brought dowries, while concubines did not. This seems congruent with some of the accounts of concubines in the Old Testament: some were slaves who caught their master’s eye, but since there weren’t to be any “family negotiations” to make the woman his wife, she could be taken as a concubine and “promoted” to being a family member, even if of a lesser status.

A little sleuthing in Anglican history records that, whereas a husband vowed to worship and honor his wife, he made no such promise to his half-wife, or concubine. So: less status, less honor in the family.

So why did God allow this? And what does this have to do with sex trafficking today?

Well, I don’t know why God allowed this, but I can only surmise that—like with divorce which is clearly less than his will for men and women— He allowed it because of people’s hardness of heart. If there was to be slavery and unfaithfulness and meanness (as human choice inevitably drifts towards), then God made provision for the protection of the most vulnerable in those situations. Allowing Moses to give a decree of divorce to acknowledge that someone truly had broken their marriage covenant (rather than keep a person bound to an abusive/adulterous/neglectful covenant-breaking spouse indefinitely) is a concession to human weakness, not an endorsement of human wiles. I can only imagine that the rules for concubines (like the rules about Levirate marriage) had to do with protecting women in vulnerable situations, rather than seeking to promote the situation. For sure, when Jesus was asked to comment on marriage – he maintained that God’s ideal was always the one man-one woman unit as being the knots from which the human net-work is wrought.

Even though concubines were sometimes taken from among female slaves, I don’t know that this equates to modern day sex trafficking. For one thing, slavery as a socio-economic system differs substantially from slavery as we know it today. For another thing, I don’t know that choice was a factor for ANY woman in getting married in the Ancient Near East. Marriages were arranged, discussed among men, regulated by law (e.g. Levirate marriage: if your husband died and you were childless, your brother in law had to take you as a wife—even as a second wife—and “do the family duty” to give you children to continue his brothers’ name. Zero choice there.) So yes, these women were perhaps slaves and being married without choice, but I don’t think that quite translates to the horror of sex trafficking as we know it. For sure: Scripture has very, very strong things to say about rape being utterly abhorrent to God. I think those verses are far more apropos to sex trafficking than the question of concubines.

Thanks for a great question. I hope these thoughts help a little. But if they don’t: fear not – Holly has some great thoughts ahead!

-Bronwyn

holly2From Holly: 

(Holly Munson is a mom of a one-year-old and a writer/editor. She blogs at hollymunson.com about parenthood, faith, creativity, girl power, and other matters.)

Dear CAC,

I am right there with you in trying to figure out this seeming paradox.

For me, the question about concubines in the Bible prompts additional, larger questions such as what it means to be a woman and how God views patriarchy in the church and society. Plus, I am a Mormon (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), so I am also dealing with questions about what the heck was the deal with nineteenth-century Mormon polygamy. So many existential questions, so little time!

I can’t promise a tidy (or concise) answer to any of these questions, but I’d love to work through it together. Let’s dive right in and consider the possibilities:

The Good

Perhaps God really views women and men as equal, and concubines are not an ideal part of marriage, but there was a benevolent reason to allow concubinage in the context of ancient patriarchal society.

Many Bible commentaries I’ve seen take this line of reasoning: Becoming a concubine grants a woman (and her future children) a higher socioeconomic status than if she were only a servant or a slave. Therefore, God was working within the imperfect cultural context to improve the woman’s quality of life.

Also, in the cases of both Sarah and Rachel, the wife presented her husband with her handmaiden because they were not (yet) able to have children. You could say that these wives joined with their husbands and handmaidens in what they knew would be a challenging relationship because they felt it was important enough to provide a posterity.

Cultural context somewhat improves in the early Christian church—there are no concubines to be found, at least, but patriarchy is still present, as reflected in the “household codes” that advise on husband/wife, parent/child, and master/slave relationships. (For example, Colossians 3:18–19: “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.”)

Rachel Held Evans offers this interpretation on her blog: “The most important question we have to ask when reading the New Testament household codes is this—is their purpose to reinforce the importance of preserving the hierarchy of the typical Greco-Roman household or is their purpose to reinforce the importance of imitating Christ in interpersonal relationships, regardless of cultural familial structures? Are these passages meant to point us to Rome or to Jesus, to hierarchy or to humility?” 

This pattern of God making the most of any given social context seems to be universal. In the excellent book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Karen Armstrong writes that religious people throughout history “could not radically change their societies; the most they could do was propose a different path to demonstrate kinder and more empathic ways for people to live together.”

The Not-So-Good

Perhaps God begrudgingly permitted Abraham and other Old Testament prophets to take additional wives and concubines, or perhaps they were mistaken in their interpretation of God’s will.

This is less inspiring, but it’s also possible, and could be partly true alongside the previous possibility. God lets people make poor choices all the time! And he deals with imperfect people (including prophets) all the time!

There’s the time the Israelites demand to have a king, “such as all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5–6). God mourns that the people have “rejected me as their king” and tells Samuel the prophet to accede to their demand, but to “warn them solemnly” that they will be giving up their rights to the new king. (Surprise: The whole king thing doesn’t turn out so hot for them.) There’s the time Abraham tries to talk God down from destroying Sodom (“What if there are one hundred righteous people? Fifty? Twenty? Ten?”). There’s the time Moses is initially supposed to get water out of a rock by talking to it, but is allowed to get water out by striking it. There’s the time Jesus reprimands the Pharisees on their misunderstanding of the law of divorce, saying that “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).

There are so many times when we ask the wrong things of the Lord or do what he’d rather we didn’t do because our hearts are hard and our flesh is weak. He permits us to choose the wrong things, and by doing so we learn from our mistakes. We can even learn from the mistakes of our leaders; we are all refined in the process.

As Mormon Jeffrey R. Holland, one of my favorite thinkers, has said, “Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we.”

The Bad

Perhaps God doesn’t exist, and prophets and religious leaders have just been making this stuff up to suit their whims. Even worse, perhaps there is a God who isn’t as benevolent as we think he is, a God who is indifferent to equality and has no problem assigning women an inferior status in marriage or in the eternities.

When you grapple with difficult questions like the one you posed, it can shake you to your core, most taken-for-granted beliefs. And it can be terrifying.

C.S. Lewis once said: “Not that I am I think in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”

I choose to believe there is a loving God, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the possibility that there isn’t one. To acknowledge the multitude of possibilities—the multitude of things we do not know or cannot prove—is to acknowledge the full weight of faith that is required in the face of difficult questions. As Terryl and Fiona Givens write in The God Who Weeps, “The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is, and knowing that a thing is not.”

How I Choose

The twentieth-century philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” I think the Bible is no exception. Even though I view it as an inspired and inspiring document, it is inseparable from the unequal social structures that have been around since the Fall.

I love the words of Mormon scholar Lavina Fielding Anderson:

“The church neither invented the mechanisms of patriarchy nor shaped the grammar of inequity. The mechanisms of patriarchy are embedded deep in our culture and our language. I have long been dismayed at what the church ‘does’ to women, but the sources of oppression seep through the bedrock of our culture itself. That insight has brought me feelings of understanding and even forgiveness which are very healing.”

Knowing that oppression runs wide and deep, and that the church and the scriptures are not immune from oppression, is hard to swallow. But I also find it reassuring. If the church were a shiny, perfect pillar of equality compared to the rest of the world, what real choice would there be? No faith would be required of us. We need ambiguity and messiness and mistake-making to reveal the desires of our hearts, and to have our hearts refined. And we have Christ at our side, healing the pain of those mistakes along the way.

Thanks for Holly for her thoughtful and helpful insight! Got a question you’re itching to ask? Send it my way!