Just Mending | Thoughts on Women in Church Leadership

UNEXPECTED MESSAGE

Yesterday, while working my way through three different books about women in the Church, I needed a bookmark. Opening the drawer of our end table, I found a slip of 2” x 8.5” paper – something a neighbor dropped off to promote her sewing business. “Just Mending” it reads at the top. “Do you have clothes that need repair?”

I hesitated. It’s not really a bookmark. What if I lose this thing? I’ll never be able to replace that broken zipper on my Uggs. Does she even repair Uggs? Uggs aren’t clothes – they’re boots. Seriously, Nichole, are you ever going to call this lady anyway? But…

And then I read the title again, “Just Mending”. God speaks to us in the most unexpected ways, doesn’t He?

I folded the slip of paper in half and placed it in Chapter 1 of Jo Saxton’s More than Enchanting. Then I piled all the books together just so and took this lovely photo for you:Reading these books has been like walking along the ocean’s edge. Sometimes the waters lap at my toes and ankles. Other times, the waves crash into me, soaking my legs, knocking me off balance. I stumble as the sand sucks at my feet, and flail my arms to steady myself.

Anyone who’s spent a day at the beach knows that the sun, the sand and the waves work a sort of magic on your mind and body…leaving you somehow relaxed, revived and exhausted, all at once.

The words of these books, the stories, wisdom, reassurances and revelations, crash over me, wave after wave. Sometimes gentle. Sometimes startling

The emotions vary, ranging from joy to sadness to anger to regret to hope, but the feeling that most surprises me is what I can only describe as a sort of comfort. I’m not talking about a warm-hugs-fuzzy-blanket-hot-cup-of-tea kind of comfort. No. I’m talking about a heart-breaking-open, pain-spilling-out, poison-leaving-your-body, soothing-truth kind of comfort. I can literally feel the Lord’s truth rushing in…the lies, the hurt, the pain rushing out.

Thousands of years since the fall, thousands more since the resurrection of Christ, decades since I started following Him, and God is still flushing the poison from my veins.

The sensation, at times, overwhelms. I did not expect this.

AN ITCH I COULDN’T SCRATCH

Growing up, I had very little exposure to church or Christian culture. I became a believer as a teenager, simply because I was desperate for Jesus. I doubted so much – God’s goodness, the existence of heaven, the reliability of the Bible.

But there was one thing I knew for sure: Jesus.
When I could hardly breathe, Jesus.
When I was paralyzed with fear, Jesus.
When I was lonely, Jesus.
When I was condemned, Jesus.
When I was hopeless, Jesus.

“Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief,” became my daily prayer. He has answered faithfully.

By some blessed miracle, God revealed to me that understanding and even agreeing with everything in the Bible, are not prerequisites for following Jesus. So I entrusted my doubts to Him and have been walking in the dust of the Rabbi ever since.

I acclimated to Christian culture slowly, very slowly. (I think I’m still acclimating.) One thing I’ve wrestled with for a long time is the role of women in the Church.

I love our church. It has been, for many years, our home, our family. Our church’s people are my people, our hearts tethered to one another by the Spirit of God. And my church is filled with strong, gifted, Jesus-loving women who lead in more ways than I know.

Women are not, however, free to teach authoritatively at our house of worship. While many churches hold to that belief, they can each apply it differently. For us, it means that women cannot serve as elders (our governing board) or teach from the platform (pulpit). Seems simple but it gets a little weird when you think too hard about it. What is “teaching” exactly? Is it only when you “exegete”? Why can a woman share a brief message, a song she wrote or her testimony from the platform? What if a woman writes something that someone else reads from the platform? When, exactly, does God’s truth have less or no authority?

This confused me, but I saw the hearts of the people at this church, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit there, so I entrusted to the Lord my doubts about their position on women in the church. And just kept following Jesus.

Over the years, moving through various lay ministry and staff positions, I have not reached a place of peace about this issue. Even though I have never longed to be an elder or a pastor, even though I have never felt compelled to teach a congregation, it niggled at me, like an itch I could never quite scratch.

As a “strong” woman, with “strong” opinions and a “loud” voice, I have been known to upset an elder or two. I have asked tough questions and said hard things and been accused of being “disrespectful”. And I have wrestled with what this means. Am I wrong? Should I be meeker? Quieter? Is disagreeing with my brother, elder or not, disrespectful? Or is it a healthy conversation that may provide an alternative perspective for consideration? Does God want me to sit down and shut up?

Well, He wants all of us to sit down and shut up sometimes! But not always. I know because I find myself begging Him, Really God? Really? You want me to go and say that? Again? Isn’t there anyone else? And He answers, “Go.”

So I go. Remembering that I don’t have to understand every Biblical passage or agree with all-things-Christian-culture to follow Jesus. A little unsure and afraid, but holding Jesus’s hand, I go.

WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED

Then last year, everything changed. As my readers already know, my family was wounded by a conflict at church that deeply affected our daughters, my husband and me.

It pains me to say that some of our church’s male leadership played a significant role in this conflict. Pains me because these men are our brothers, our co-laborers, our friends. They love the Lord and want to do what’s right and good. We love them. And, I believe, they love us, too. I do not want you to worry about the who or what or why or how. Know this: as in any conflict, we all made mistakes, and those involved have exhibited good intentions, concern, accountability, humility and grace. If you must do something, do this: mourn with us, lament for what’s been lost, weep for the brokenness of Christ’s Church and the disunity of His people. And pray for God to restore what the locusts have eaten.

I am sharing our story so that you will more clearly see this: We desperately needed women leaders to help resolve this conflict and to address the consequences that followed. But this didn’t happen…at first…

The hearts of women were central to this conflict. And male leadership was a significant part of the conflict. Add to this the fact that I am on staff, and the circle of involvement gets a little funky. In following the steps for Biblical conflict resolution, when it came time to involve another individual, we couldn’t reach out to a friend or lay leader. To protect the church and all involved, we needed to go straight to the leadership. And all the leadership is male.

We underestimated just how insufficient that would be. After a few weeks, I observed that we had to really work to help men understand the problems, but if I said three sentences about the issue to my mother or our women’s ministry director, they understood instantly. Women did provide support briefly, for specific reasons, but any momentum was quickly lost when their part was finished. Still, I wasn’t ready to accept that male leadership alone was inadequate. So I continued to walk the exhausting, precarious tightrope between advocating and submitting.

We asked God to resolve the situation. He didn’t. We asked God to release us and let us walk away. He didn’t. After nine long months, the situation had grown, its tentacles far beyond our family’s reach. That was when God gave us permission to let go. Not to leave, but to lay it down.

A couple of weeks later, two women in the church picked it up. When I told one of them that I didn’t want her to think we were giving up, she said, “Maybe it’s time for you to let others do the heavy lifting for a while.”

With a strength only God could have provided, these women leaned into the heavy boulder of the consequences of this conflict and began to move forward.

Because of these women, some things began to change. Not because the men were unfit, but because, in this situation, they were incomplete. This issue involved the hearts, minds and lives of men and women. To address the issue completely, we needed men and women to lead.

My gratitude to these women is best described by the tears welling up as I write. Perhaps take a moment to thank God for them, for how they have worked diligently, faithfully and passionately for our church family to the glory of God.

JUST MENDING

This experience has caused me to actively seek answers to my nagging questions about the role of women in the Church. As I feast on books like Jesus Feminist, and How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership, and More than Enchanting, I find that, like Ruth Haley Burton, I have not changed my mind about women in leadership but instead “I finally let myself believe something I had always known.” (How I Changed my Mind About Women in Leadership, p35)

That women are fully equal to men and should be fully free to serve God however He calls them. The body of Christ, and the world we seek to reach for Jesus, will be better for it.

As I continue to be overcome with many emotions, I find myself anxiously asking, What has this done to my daughters? What kind of changes do I need to make in my life? Who do I tell? What should I do? And on and on…

But then I look at my makeshift bookmark that reads “Just Mending” and I’m reminded of the heart-breaking-open, pain-spilling-out, poison-leaving-my-body, soothing-truth comfort that feels a lot like healing.

And I hear God say, Don’t worry about that, Nichole. Right now, we’re just mending.

Unexpected Gifts

Sometimes, I read old blog entries and I’m like, “Wow, did I really write that?” It’s weird to hear a message from your five-years-ago-self. Super weird. But this came up in my Facebook memories today. And, I say this with as much surprise as you might: it’s good. Like really good. Hahahahaha. Merry Christmas my friends!

Lightning Bug

Photo by claritaPhoto by clarita

Do you remember that Christmas present you always wanted but never got? I found mine while reverently flipping through the Sears Wish Book, eyes wide, excitement bubbling through my veins. I circled the picture over and over, practically cutting a hole through the paper with the tip of my pen. Then, when I showed my parents, they promptly informed me that a Barbie Dream House was not in the budget nor would it fit in our two bedroom apartment. Even after a letter to Santa and some earnest prayers, come Christmas day, among all the presents under the tree, there was no Barbie Dream House. So goes life. Sometimes, we ask for one thing and get another.

Most of the time, such disappointments are small and quickly forgotten. But at other times, they hurt. Imagine the child who wants a set of paints or a guitar but…

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When Thanksgiving is More Than Sacrifice

When I wrote this post last November, I was deep in the throes of grief, mourning the loss of my youngest brother. Over the next year, I would find that, sometimes, God’s on a roll. It wasn’t enough for Him to shatter my physical family…He shattered my spiritual family, too.

This year, offering thanksgiving is more than a sacrifice. Offering thanksgiving terrifies me.  

You can’t know all He’s taken this past year because I can’t tell you. But know this…even a young, bright, blossoming tree may be, just under the surface, experiencing the ravages of an unwanted enemy…and if you could open up that tree and look inside, you would find a hollow, empty space that once was full of life and liquid sunshine.

He gives and takes away.

This summer, I was in a meeting where each person was asked to share something for which we were thankful. I figured that if I couldn’t thank God for the crap (Don’t like that word? Here are few alternatives. Feel free to mentally censor.) happening in our lives, I could at least thank Him for food, shelter and, well, air conditioning. So I did. Three days later, our air conditioner died. It’s like He was mocking me.

Thanksgiving doesn’t just hurt. Thanksgiving scares me.

He gives and takes away. And we are left to suffer.

Who is this God I worship? The One who asks for our gratitude and then snatches away the very things we thank Him for? The One who inflicts pain then wants to comfort us for the very pain He’s inflicted? That sounds like abuse, not love.

I can hear my pastor now: “No! God’s not abusive!” (Because he literally preached that last Sunday. I recommend a listen. Especially if reading about my experience is difficult for you or leaves you asking a lot of questions.)

Still I can’t help but ask: What happens when all around you God’s promises go unfulfilled?

We are not the only ones. I watch as friends and family cry out to Him for help, for intervention, for hope, and He is silent. I watch as they ask for bread, but He gives them a stone; as they ask for fish, but He sends the serpent.

Unfortunately, in these trials, even the most well-meaning people place the burden on the broken. “Do this. Say that. Pray more. Worry less. And you’ll see…God will work it out.”  We like that logic because, however subtle, that logic implies we have the power to fix the problem. And if we have the power to fix it, then we are in control. We so desperately want to be in control, that we fool ourselves into imagining God’s omnipotence is subject to our actions. 

I’ve had a lot of time to think about that this year. Now, when someone tells me “Do this. Say that. Pray more. Worry Less.” here’s how I respond:

Anytime God wants to show up, He can. We have prayed. We have begged and pleaded and wept and wailed. We have followed His systems. Trusted His people. Waited on Him to work. And everything He’s provided arrived tainted. Sure, He gave us bread…with stones baked into the dough. Yes, there were fish…stonefish laced with venom. We have asked. And He has answered as He has pleased. We’re waiting. Anytime He wants to restore what’s been plundered, He can. He’s God. It’s on Him.

He can mock me if He wants. Or He can bless me. He can withhold His promises. Or He can fulfill them. He can hand me a fish and watch as the poison leaches into my blood. Or He can bring us living water and food fit for a King. He’s God. He can do whatever He wants. And He will.

That is the black, breath-sucking, untethered truth: He gives and takes away. He is not tame. He is not safe. This is the God we struggle to face. All-powerful and unpredictable. He will not stay inside the lines. He answers to no one.

Last year, I could offer thanksgiving even though every blessing was tinged with pain. This year, I am simply too afraid.

I am no longer the “wounded, angry child” who climbs into her Father’s lap.

I am become the battered, fearful one who hides behind the couch, monitoring her Father’s every move. How can she trust the Father who helped others by causing harm to those she loves? No, she won’t hold out her hand for the gift of shiny gold because she fears the razor blades that lurk beneath the glittering paper.

Don’t judge her too harshly. She fought. A long time. Because she understands her heart…how quickly it slams shut when threatened. So with trembling arms and locked knees and feet slipping, she held back the massive door as it bore down on her. She battled longer than even she thought possible. But it’s a heavy door. And she is so very tired.

Before you blame her, or shame her, or think you know better, remember, He gives and He takes away. He is not tame. He is not safe. But they tell her He is good. And she is waiting.

© Nichole Q Perreault

Winter’s Coming but Spring is Here | Reprise

This is one of my favorite, dearest, most precious blog posts ever  –  for no other reason that the power of the revelation God gave to me that day. I try to share this every year and today, with the snow and rain and bitter cold, seems like the perfect day to remind us all that Winter is Coming but Spring is Here. 

Winter. A season of painful exchanges: flip-flops for bulky jackets, warm breezes for

cold floors, the sound of crickets for the hum of the furnace, which, let’s face it, is basically the sound of money burning.

But the exchange that weighs on my body like a wet, wool coat, is that of light for darkness. Each autumn day, the coming winter snatches another two or three minutes of sunlight, replacing it with night. We wake in the dark, go to work in the dark, come home in the dark, eat dinner in the dark….

As of today, there are 53 more days of sliding headfirst into the abyss.

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I Heard Him in a Song

Three bars. That’s about all it takes. Three bars of this popular song:

and I’m itching to turn off the radio. Sometimes I listen, but most days it’s too painful.

On my brother’s first night in the hospital, I stayed with him. I sat in the recliner, while he drifted in an out of consciousness. As I waited through the quiet parts of the night, fear dominated my emotions. I could barely complete a thought, much less utter a coherent prayer. Desperate, I googled “healing prayers” and prayed words I couldn’t string together on my own. I tried to remember scripture and scrolled through my Bible app. I was not comforted.

Then I remembered the advice of a friend, “Invite Jesus into your difficult places.” So I prayed and invited Jesus into the hospital room, into our presence, into Derek’s presence.

A bit later, I found myself humming a song, one I didn’t know very well:

Holy Spirit, You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for
to be overcome by Your presence, Lord

I didn’t know the name of the song. Couldn’t remember where I’d heard it before. And couldn’t remember any other lyrics. But there I was singing the chorus over and over again.

For the rest of the night, that song was my prayer. And I experienced a measure of peace. God was with us. I could feel His presence.

In the days and weeks that followed, I watched my brother teeter on the edge of death more times than I want to remember. I tried, on every occasion, to welcome the Holy Spirit’s presence. But some days, my faith was like sand running through my fingers. I couldn’t hold onto it and the harder I tried, the faster it ran out.

One day, after leaving the hospital, feeling completely bankrupt of spirit, I couldn’t bring myself to pray, let alone to hope.

What does God think, I wondered, when I don’t have any faith? What would he say to me now, when I can’t bring myself to speak to Him? Is He angry? Disappointed?

Then something broke through my thoughts – a song playing on the radio:

Holy Spirit, You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere…

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Part 3: I Hate God | An Ugly Truth

Well it took awhile for me to get to Part 3 of this series. Will there be a Part 4? Man, I hope not. 

Wow. What a winter.
If nothing else, it’s been real.

If you’ve been reading my blog you know I’ve been angry with God. Driving-around-in-my-car-from-midnight-to-2:00am-screaming-until-I-lose-my-voice angry. Yup. It’s been real, alright.

Just Show Up
In April, I attended a women’s retreat with our church, which wasn’t easy to do. The theme of the retreat was Love: Intentional, which made me laugh (maybe scoff is a better word) when it came across my desk for promotion. Just a few weeks earlier, when my pastor tried to remind me that, despite appearances, God loves me, I looked him in the eye and said: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

So what would 42 hours of chatter about God’s love be like? Not much different than the “wah wah wah wah” of Charlie Brown’s teacher, I figured.

Just show up, I kept telling myself. Just show up. Those were simple words God gave me decades ago, and they have served me well. Just show up. So I did.

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When Church Hurts Like Hell

To the weary one, who has gone to church hoping to feel encouraged, accepted, inspired, but instead came away wounded, beaten and bruised…you are not alone. And I am so sorry.

I wish that never happened to you. I wish that never happened to me. I wish that never happened to anyone. Unfortunately, it happens all the time.

Why? Because people. That’s why.

People hurt. And the church is people. And so, church hurts.

No, that’s not how it’s supposed to be. But nothing in this fallen world is how it’s supposed to be. Not even the church. Not even God’s people. Which is probably why the Bible teems with reminders, instructions and commands about how to get along, how to do this thing we call community, how to live broken and love the broken.

Have you ever seen someone create mosaic art by hand? They begin the long process by mixing earth and water to mold the tiles, which are then dried, cut and fired. The artist then breaks those tiles into smaller pieces – cutting and chipping, sanding edges or sharpening a point, pressing the pieces into a muddy sort of clay before washing them clean. Hundreds, thousands of broken pieces fit together to reveal one, complete, stunning master-piece.

When the sun is shining and I believe God is good and my spirit overflows with gratitude, that’s how I envision community: broken lives on broken lives – with all our imperfect shapes and sharp edges and rough surfaces – being fit together and made to shine. In the hands of the Master, we become a Master-piece.

That’s on a good day. And with spiritual eyes that see through the veil of a fallen world.

But on a bad day…oh, on the bad days, I am fractured glass sinking in mud. Like quicksand, it pulls me under. On every side I am pressed and scratched and pulled and scraped. I want nothing more than to escape. What beauty, I wonder, could ever come of this? Hopeless. On bad days, I am hopeless.

Because sometimes church hurts like hell.

Sometimes going to church feels like stepping onto a battlefied. You come armed and armored, like you’re bringing your fists to a pistol war. And if, like me, your church is not only your spiritual home and family, but your place of work, there’s no escape. Which has been both a challenge and a gift. When church hurts, it’s complicated.

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In the Rubble of Broken Hearts

Even writing hurts. This thing I sometimes love more than life…hurts.

I want to stop. To put it off. To wait until I can write about things that sparkle and bring light to your eyes. I want to wait until I can make you smile, make you laugh, make you remember why we’re even friends.

I don’t want to hurt. And I don’t want to be the girl who’s always hurting. And I don’t want to be the girl you roll your eyes at because she just. Won’t. Stop. Complaining.

I want God to give me shiny, happy words. Because I want to be shiny and happy.

But He’s called me to this: the right now…the ugly and real…the what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

And some days, I hate it. Today is one of those days…

In my last post, I referenced Isaiah 54:10:

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord who has compassion on you. (NIV)

That was just a few short weeks ago and even then, I couldn’t possibly imagine how much He’d be willing to shake, how much He’d be willing to remove.

My world’s a small world. And I have taken things like love and friendship and kindness and peace for granted.

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Part 2: I Hate God | An Ugly Truth

I figured that some day I would write a follow-up to I Hate God | An Ugly Truth – you know, something to resolve the tension, whenever God revealed it to me. But, well, I’m beginning to think I may need more than one follow-up. Maybe a Part II and a Part III? So for now, here’s Part II:

Have you ever hated someone you love? Been so angry with them that you seethe with rage? No? Are you sure?

What about your spouse after a terrible fight? A boyfriend or girlfriend? A friend? No?

Well, what about your parents? Surely, there’s a time in your life that you can remember hating your parents. When you stormed into your bedroom, slammed the door, threw yourself face down onto your bed and screamed into the pillow, “I hate them! I hate them! I hate them!”

That’s what’s happening with God and me. I’m angry – albeit rip-roaring angry – like a child toward her parents.

It’s not that I don’t love Him. Though what is my love compared to His? Like a child, my love is a selfish love.

I love Him simply because He first loved me. First – as in once upon a time I was just an idea in His mind, a thought, a dream. I love Him because He is my Creator, because I need Him, because without Him I am nothing.

He is the artist that sketches and sculpts me. The One who’s coloring me in. I love. And I love Him. But it’s a pale, thin love. Like gold leaf, precious but weak.

So when I say I hate God, it’s not because I don’t love Him. And I don’t think it’s heresy either. It’s not false to confess that I hate God for what He’s allowed. It’s just the truth about my feelings. If anything, it’s an indictment against me, not God. An indictment against my frail, transparent, brittle love.

I take comfort in remembering that God is bigger – so much bigger – than my hatred. His love conquered the rebellion of the world on the cross. Surely, He can conquer me.

And that’s really what my hatred is about. It’s a war between the Lord and me. It’s the remnant of the most epic battle of all time: the battle between the Creator of the Universe and anything and anyone that opposes Him, the battle between good and evil. And every day, that battle rages in the universe, the world, between nations, between people, in my heart, my soul and in every single cell and atom of my body.

We are on the battlefield. And we are the battlefield.

My hatred for God may make you uncomfortable. Heck, it makes me uncomfortable. But war wounds a person. And some wounds fester. This place I’m in – of admitting to you and to me and to God that I hate Him – it’s the best thing I’ve done in years. Because I have finally opened a deadly, poisonous wound. Actually, I should say that I have finally let God open that wound, because He is the one who revealed the hatred. He is the one who exposed the condition of my heart. He’s known all along. I needed Him to show me.

And when I finally gave in to the fear and the denial and the rage, when I finally wailed and railed and beat my fists against His chest, He stood there. Steady. Unchanging. Unmovable. My hatred can’t move the unmovable Rock. My emotions, no matter how overwhelming, can’t shake the unshakable God.

Because He is Real. He is Reality itself.

And His love is Real. It isn’t pale or thin or fragile. His love, like Him, is solid, unshakable, unmovable.

If I want to enter into the Real, into the Reality that is His love, then I need to go through the painful process of letting God make me real. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, I’ve found myself worn and tattered and ugly and lacking. But I am becoming real. And someday, my love, like His, will be real too.

Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. Isaiah 54:10

 

I Hate God | An Ugly Truth

This is the first in a three part series.

I hate God.

I would be terrified to type that out, except for one thing: He already knows.

I’m the one who’s just finding out. Or am I just finally able to admit the truth?

I hate Him. I hate Him. I hate Him.

Sure, part of me feels sorry…or at least wishes it wasn’t true. But it is true. I am overwhelmed with hatred toward an Almighty God. Gently, I remind myself that feelings are just feelings. You can’t reason your way out of them. They just are.

Feelings aren’t the problem, but rather the symptom of a greater problem. And feelings aren’t sins either. It’s what we do with our feelings that matters.

And I’m blogging mine. I guess I’ll let God be the judge of that.

I can only imagine what my believing friends are feeling right now: horror, indignation, worry for my soul.

The rest of you? I don’t know. Maybe you’re thinking “Yes. Finally. This girl’s got a clue!” Or maybe your just confused – wondering how a Christian can talk this way.

But I’m simply sharing the rhythm already beating through my heart:
I hate Him.
I hate Him.
I hate Him.

I hate Him for all the pain. For making me so achingly sensitive and then tossing me into the raging waters of life to flail and wail and splash and thrash to survive.

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