(3) Notes and Quotes from “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” by Beth Allison Barr: Chapters 5-6

Chapter 5: Writing Women Out of the English Bible

… all biblical translations are written by human hands.

A conveniently forgotten truth, that translations are written by fallible humans. This truth is one to hold onto, my friends.

By fall 1997, the battle lines were drawn. Secular culture, especially the feminist movement, was changing Scripture in a dangerous way, and it was time for Christians to fight back.

The exact note I have in my book for this quote is, “Oh, GAG.” And this “battle”? Gender inclusive language in the Bible, something that from Barr’s historian point of view is more accurate than the male dominated language. Barr says the following:

Yet, as a medieval historian, I know that Christians translated Scripture in gender-inclusive ways long before the feminist movement. I’ll admit that the debate also scares me. It scares me for the same reason that it amuses me: because gender-inclusive language has a long history in the church, the debate shows how much modern evangelical Christians have forgotten church history.

This is just a funny little tidbit here. These Christians in 1997 thought the feminist movement was so dangerous, that it was such a big deal, when in reality the gender debate was nothing new. Do they even know church history? Seems not.

The Protestant Reformation changed how the Bible was used by Christians, but it didn’t introduce the Bible to Christians. English translations of biblical text existed long before the Reformation.

Just a little reminder for everyone that the Reformation wasn’t the beginning of it all. It wasn’t the beginning of Christianity, and it certainly wasn’t the beginning of the Bible. The Bible published as a single bound book happened in the 1500s, but the Bible did exist before it was a single bound book.

I was struck by how the SBC leaders harped on 1 Timothy 3:2, that overseers should be husband of one wife. They used this as ironclad proof that senior pastors had to be men. Yet Lucy Peppiatt shows us how 1 Timothy 3, the chapter so often cited by the male leaders of the conservative resurgence as articulating why only men can preach, was shaped by English-language translations to look more masculine than it actually is. We assume 1 Timothy 3:1-13 is referencing men in leadership roles (overseer/bishop and deacon). But is this because of how our English Bibles translate the text? Whereas the Greek text uses the words whoever and anyone, with the only specific reference to man appearing in verse 12 (a literal Greek translation of the phrase is “one woman man,” referencing the married state of deacons), modern English Bibles have introduced eight to ten male pronouns within the verses. None of those male pronouns in our English Bibles are in the Greek text. Peppiatt concludes that the problem with female leadership is not actually the biblical text; it is the “relentless and dominant narrative of male bias” in translations.

“Whoever” and “anyone,” you say? Interesting. Those original pronouns sure do seem gender neutral. I wonder why they were changed? A head-scratcher, for sure. Here’s just 1 Timothy 3:4-7 (NIV) with all the male pronouns in bold:

He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

Please don’t ever think that pronouns are insignificant.

From this perspective, gender-inclusive language isn’t distorting Scripture. Gender-inclusive language is restoring Scripture from the influence of certain English Bible translations.

Well, what a refreshing shift in perspective. And from a historian, no less.

The English Bible makes it clear that Genesis 2:22-24 sanctifies marriage. Yet neither the word marriage nor the word wife appear in the Hebrew text.

Genesis 2:22-24 (KJV), often under the heading “Institution of Marriage”: “And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”

Funny side-note: Several years ago, I and my husband were actually a part of a Bible study called “Leave and Cleave.” It was … not our favorite.

Chapter 6: Sanctifying Subordination

Medieval women moved closest to equality with men when they were furthest from the married state.

Well that’s just not Christian. Come on now. Moving along…

After the Reformation, the spiritual economy flipped, so wives received the highest honors, followed by widows. This time, virgins — now demeaned as spinsters instead of celebrated as saints — brought up the rear.

This is sounding more Christian. Phew!

To be a Christian woman was to be under the authority of men.

This is definitely the Christianity I know. Huzzah!

During the nineteenth century, a similar fixation with female purity emerged — stemming from a new ideology about women, work, and family life — which historians call the cult of domesticity.

OK, back to reality. I don’t want to be part of a cult. Do you?

Purity culture thus shamed women in the nineteenth century as it continues to shame women today.

(Because that’s what Jesus came to do: shame women. Among other things, of course.) Barr goes on in this section to chronicle many of the times that people broke the “rules” and Jesus responded with love. So if a girl let her bra strap show at Bible camp, Jesus wouldn’t condemn her.

Once again, the world in which we live oppresses women, fighting to control their bodies from their “natural” fallenness. … Once again, the God we serve has always done the opposite. Jesus has always set women free.

And to this I say as genuinely as it gets, “Thank you, Jesus.”

Perhaps the most famous early proponent of complementarity was the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his famous text Emile, he expounded his philosophy of education for women, arguing that “the search for abstract and speculative truths, for principles and axioms in science, for all that tends to wide generalization, is beyond a woman’s grasp; their studies should be thoroughly practical.”

“Quit being so selfish, Jean,” and give the women some credit. And speaking of practical, Jean, I’d like to see where we’d be today if it weren’t for women.

What evangelicals have failed to realize, explains Randall Balmer, is that the “traditional concept of femininity” that we believe to be from the Bible is nothing more than “a nineteenth-century construct.”

Christians, oh CHRISTIANS, did you hear that? Certainly we can believe that we are above adhering to a nineteenth-century human-made construct, right? Right. Good. Moving on.

History matters, and for modern evangelical women, nineteenth-century history has mattered far more than it ever should have.

Yep.

See you next time for chapters 7-8.

(2) Notes and Quotes from “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” by Beth Allison Barr: Chapters 3-4

Chapter 3: Our Selective Medieval Memory

“Blessed God, may you be praised, who, among the other infinite boons and favors which You have bestowed upon the feminine sex, desired that woman carry such lofty and worthy news.”

Let’s goooooo. Here, Barr is quoting Christine de Pizan — “a professional writer who lived in the late fourteenth century France and was employed by the French court.” Jesus, by authorizing Mary Magdalene the right to speak with authority, gave women “the freedom to speak.” Go, Jesus! Way to be a contrarian.

So, for medieval Christians, Mary of Bethany was not just a woman who sat quietly at the feet of Jesus; she was a repentant prostitute and former demoniac. She was the apostle of the apostles — the first apostle who carried the good news of the resurrection. She was a missionary of Christ, affirmed by Peter. She preached openly, performed miracles that paralleled those of the apostles, and converted a new land to the Christian faith.

Dang, Mary! You are a total rock star. Well, for medieval Christians, that is. Why is that, though? Why don’t modern Christians talk about you? Preach about you? Regard you as the apostle of the apostles? Sad.

In a world that didn’t accept the word of a woman as a valid witness, Jesus chose women as witnesses for his resurrection. In a world that gave husbands power over the very lives of their wives, Paul told husbands to do the opposite — to give up their lives for their wives. In a world that saw women as biologically deformed men, monstrous even, Paul declared that men were just like women in Christ.

People. This is big. REALLY big. (That’s what she said.) But seriously, Jesus comes in and completely upends tradition, cultural norms, rules. Reminds me of a one of my favorite quotes from good ol’ Walt Whitman: “Resist much, obey little.” Jesus seems to understand that there are times to break the rules. I’d agree.

No, the problem wasn’t a lack of biblical and historical evidence for women to serve as leaders along with men in the church. The problem was male clergy who undermined the evidence.

But good Christian men wouldn’t do that, would they? Are you alive? Have you seen all the crap “good Christian men” have gotten up to in the church? It’s embarrassing. It’s inexcusable. It’s a mess. Sexual abuse, affairs, stealing church funds, narcissism, lies — not to mention gross justification for private jets, mansions, extravagantly expensive sneakers, etc. I could go on; you know this. So are modern Christian men so very different than the men who contributed to the different translations of the Bible? Barr goes on to quote New Testament scholar Ben Witherington:

“No, the problem in the church is not strong women, but rather weak men who feel threatened by strong women, and have tried various means, even by dubious exegesis, to prohibit them from exercising their gifts and graces in the church.”

How are feeling right now? A little threatened? First, let me ask: are you a man? If yes, then read the entirety of this book. Next, are you a woman? If yes, then read the entirety of this book. Then we’ll talk. Because if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable, GOOD. Dig into that. (By reading Barr’s book.)

… “women have been preaching in the Christian tradition from the earliest historical moments, perhaps only days after Jesus Christ was crucified and his resurrection announced” …

Barr uses Elaine Lawless’s words here, and do you know why? Because writers know that sometimes someone else writes something so clearly, so eloquently, that they couldn’t possibly re-word it. This is an example of this. Lawless makes it pretty clear that women have been in the preaching game for a long time, preaching after and about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Boom, done. Up next is another one, this time by a guy named Abelard who is thought to have given the “last defense” for women’s ordination:

Abelard argued that female ordination “was established by Jesus himself and not by the apostles, specifically rejecting the teaching that only the male priesthood and diaconate were part of the original church.”

Seems reasonable. Logical, even. But female ordination went the way of all things, and soon enough, the church became full of male priests being ordained by male clergy. What the heck?

Could it be that another building block for modern biblical womanhood is simply that evangelicals have rewritten Christian history?

Could it be, indeed. Sigh.

Chapter 4: The Cost of the Reformation for Evangelical Women

While it could have affirmed women’s spiritual equality with men, the Reformation instead ushered in a “renewed patriarchalism” that placed married women firmly under the headship of their husbands.

Well that’s depressing.

Reformation theology might have removed the priest, but it replaced him with the husband. . . . In an eerie echo of the ancient Roman paterfamilias, the orderly household once again became the barometer for both the state and the church, and the waning power of the Catholic priest was balanced by the waxing power of the Protestant husband.

We sure do have a way of taking a good thing and messing it up, don’t we?

1 Timothy 2:15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing.” In one of only two medieval sermons to discuss this verse, the sermon casts the woman (the “she” in the verse) as an example for all Christians, who must go through the pain (like childbirth) of cleansing themselves of sin before experiencing the joy of salvation (the child itself).

This verse is wacky, and I’ve heard different interpretations. One is that these particular women Paul is talking to are recent followers of Artemis, their “mother goddess,” and that when they give birth without Artemis’s help or blessing, they know they’ve been saved by Jesus. But this medieval sermon Barr shares is fascinating, too. For all the women out there who have given birth, you know it’s painful. But the joy of that newborn baby is unrivalled. So a cleansing of sin and joy of salvation is a neat analogy.

In other words, a shift occurred across the Reformation era in how preachers used Paul.

Just before this, Barr brought up an example of a sermon by a man named Lancelot Andrews that used the childbearing verses as some kind of divine ordination of women as homemakers. And then Isaac Marlow published a tract that argued “Women ought neither to teach nor pray vocally in the Church of Christ.” He goes on to argue that singing is considered teaching and since women clearly should not teach, they should not sing. As someone who has sung most days of her life, I am offended.

Paul had less impact on attitudes toward women within late medieval English sermons. In the aftermath of the Reformation, however, Paul came to define Christian womanhood. . . . The question is, of course, why? Why the shift in how Pauline texts were used in regard to women?

Yeah, I think that’s exactly the question I had reading through this chapter. So here we go:

The medieval reality was that most men would never be priests, placing them — strangely enough — on more spiritually equal footing with women. The spiritual headship of a husband didn’t matter so much in a patriarchal world where both husbands and wives had to go as individuals through a priest for the necessary sacraments. But it did matter in a world in which patriarchy was already the norm and women potentially had as much spiritual power as men did. Patriarchy had to shapeshift to adapt to the new Reformation world.

So there needed to be action. Patriarchy wasn’t going to shapeshift on its own. It needed help. Early modern reformers most likely did the easiest thing:

The emphasis on Pauline texts by early modern reformers was born into a secular world already supported by a gender hierarchy.

I imagine the conversation went like this: “OK, so gender hierarchy is already a thing? Cool, cool cool cool. Yeah, that sounds good. Let’s do that. Men, sound good to everyone? Yeah. K cool lez do ittt.”

Rather than Protestant reformers reviving a biblical model, they were simply mapping Scripture onto a preceding secular structure. Instead of Scripture transforming society, Paul’s writings were used to prop up the patriarchal practices already developing in the early modern world.

One word here: UGH. Now brace yourself for this next quote:

Women’s identities were now subsumed within the family. . . . As the role of wife expanded, the opportunities for women outside of marriage shrank. The family became not only the center of a woman’s world but her primary identity as a good Christian.

This just makes me think of the little blurb Christian women put on their social media bios. The descriptor “wife” is almost always on there. But do men include “husband” on their bios? I don’t see that as much…

Instead of Scripture transforming society, society transformed how early modern Christians interpreted the Bible — and this was compounded (as we will see in the next chapter) by the proliferation of the English Bible.

Well fantastic. See you next time for the next couple of chapters.

And, again, if you’re itching for something to do in the interim, check out my and my husband’s podcast: Red Weather Christians.

Becoming Red Weather Christians

I have one life and one chance to make it count for something. . . . My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.

Jimmy Carter

If you’ve been following along with my life, you’ll know that Steve and I started a podcast called “Red Weather Christians.” It’s a big deal for us. And it’s nerve-racking.

Because it’s about our journey growing up in the Christian faith . . .

And then growing out of the Christian faith.

(Spoiler alert: We are still Christians.)

So we wrestle with how to reconcile still being Christians with lots of questions and doubts. With questions and doubts are we even Christians? Are we Christian enough? Steve and I think we are.

But we do wonder what other people — other Christians — might think.

Listen, there’s a problem in the Christian community: If we ask the hard questions or express doubt, we’re often met with dismissal, eyebrow raises, and defensiveness. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Steve and I are two simple people who would like to change the narrative. We’d like to normalize questions and doubts and embrace an incomplete understanding of our own faith (which, if you’re a Christian, I’d challenge you to think about that: can you say you have a complete understanding of your own faith?).

After all, we have only this one life. With one chance to make it count for something. So we’re going to do whatever we can, wherever we are, whenever we can, for as long as we can with whatever we have to try to make a difference.

And we’d like for you to come along with us, asking questions, expressing doubt, and opening yourself up to healthy dialogue. You might have questions for us. You might express doubt towards us. We welcome that.

So I encourage you to join us as we chronicle our disillusionment and analyze our commitment to the complicated faith called Christianity.

We are Red Weather Christians.

Episode 1: If Those Idiots Call Themselves Christians, What Are We?

Episode 2: Sometimes God Moves You. Literally.

Episode 3: Navigating the Missionary Position

That’s what we have so far. Stick around, and the sound quality gets better, I promise. Thanks for giving us grace on that. This is all completely new to us, and we’re learning a lot along the way.

Peace be with you.

Notes and Quotes from “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” by Beth Allison Barr

One: The Beginning of Patriarchy

Let me show you, from the world history sources I have been teaching for more than two decades, how much Christian patriarchy mimics the patriarchy of the non-Christian world.

Here we go! I love this sentence from the first chapter because it sets up Barr’s ethos (credibility) as an author. She is a historian. She has studied this stuff for decades. She has taught this stuff for decades. So let’s pay attention when she says that Christians are like non-Christians when it comes to patriarchy. This is a problem, my Christian friends. We are supposed to be set apart, remember?

It was okay to hire a woman to answer the phone, but the job would be demeaning to a man.

She tells the story of her qualified male friend who applied for the church secretary position. He was denied, even though he was in financial need. The pastor assumed he wouldn’t want to answer the phone. Think about what this is saying: “the job would be demeaning to a man.” Hmm.

This example of a man being deemed above the work suitable for a woman fits into a larger social pattern in which men’s work is more highly valued than women’s.

Sounds like the secular world, amiright?

Shouldn’t Christians, who are called to be different from the world, treat women differently? What if patriarchy isn’t divinely ordained but is a result of human sin?

Barr talks about how “Babylonian law allowed husbands to drown their wives for alleged adultery” but also how her students live in a state (Texas) in which “women make up 94 percent of the victims in domestic partner murder-suicides.” Ick. Call it what it is (patriarchy), and stop considering it a point of pride in Christianity. Let’s treat women better.

Instead of looking different in how we treated women, Christians looked just like everyone else.

What happened to Christians being radically different from the world?

The first human sin built the first human hierarchy.

So what if hierarchy wasn’t God’s plan for humans? What if when Adam and Eve ate of that darned fruit, their consequence was that the ground was to be master over the man, and the man was to be master over the woman?

Patriarchy wasn’t what God wanted; patriarchy was a result of human sin.

Oof.

As Du Mez explains, “For Bushnell, male authority over women contradicted God’s will and perpetuated man’s original rebellion against God.” Women thus “continued to commit the sin of Eve when they submitted to men, rather than to God.” Adam’s rebellion was claiming God’s authority for himself, and Eve’s rebellion was submitting to Adam in place of God.

So what you’re saying here, Barr (and Du Mez and Bushnell), is that if we women have been submitting to our husbands as the authority figure in our lives, we’ve been sinning? Wow. That sure does change things.

Patriarchy walks with structural racism and systemic oppression, and it has done so consistently throughout history.

Well this is uncomfortable.

Clarice J. Martin asks a provocative question: “How can black male preachers and theologians use a liberated hermeneutic while preaching and theologizing about slaves, but a literalist hermeneutic with reference to women?” I would like to ask the same question of white preachers and theologians. When we rightly understand that biblical passages discussing slavery must be framed within their historical context and that, through the lens of this historical context, we can better see slavery as an ungodly system that stands contrary to the gospel of Christ, how can we not then apply the same standards to biblical texts about women?

How can we not, indeed. This picking and choosing of what is liberated hermeneutic or literalist hermeneutic has always baffled me. How to choose? Who gets to choose? Can I choose? Could be fun…

Patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world. Historically speaking, there is nothing surprising about biblical stories and passages riddled with patriarchal attitudes and actions. What is surprising is how many biblical passages and stories undermine, rather than support, patriarchy.

OK, Barr, you’ve pretty well established your ethos (not only does she have loads of experience studying women in history, but she also has quite the erudite writing style), but now — on to the logos, the evidence. Can’t wait to dig into this!

The most difficult passages in the Bible to explain, historically speaking, are those like Galatians 3:26-28: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This is what is radical. This is what makes Christianity so different from the rest of human history.

Preach, Sister.

Isn’t it ironic (not to mention tiresome) that we spend so much time fighting to make Christianity look like the world around us instead of fighting to make it look like Jesus Christ?

Hittin’ us with that pathos — that emotional appeal. This makes me want to stand up on a soapbox with a megaphone (and I can’t stand those people). But it gets me pumped up! And Alanis Morissette would have definitely added this to her song had she read this book first. It’s that ironic.

Two: What If Biblical Womanhood Doesn’t Come from Paul?

Paul frames every aspect of complementarian teachings. Evangelicals read Pauline texts as designating permanent and divinely ordained role distinctions between the sexes. Men wield authority that women cannot. Men lead, women follow. Paul tells us so.

Barr goes on to explain why so many of her students hate Paul. I can say there was a period of time for me when I thought I hated Paul as well. But what Barr continues explaining in this chapter is that perhaps we’ve been “reading Paul wrong.” Oh, suspense!

The evangelical church fears that recognizing women’s leadership will mean bowing to cultural peer pressure. But what if the church is bowing to cultural peer pressure by denying women’s leadership?

I like where this is going. I like it a lot!

The truth — the evangelical reality — is that we have focused so much on adapting Paul to be like us that we have forgotten to adapt ourselves to what Paul is calling us to be: one in Christ.

BOOM goes the dynamite. Yeah, I resonate with this. And don’t worry: Barr provides tons of verses in this chapter to support her statements.

By allowing a woman to anoint him with oil, Jesus overturns male headship — allowing a woman to do what only men had been able to do until that moment: anoint the king.

Jesus was a radical guy, what can I say. He’s like, “IN YO’ FACE, MEN!” (Probably.)

Pope John Paul II’s stance: using Paul’s writings in Ephesians 5 to justify male headship and female subordination in marriage would be the equivalent of using those passages to justify slavery.

Again, I’m uncomfortable. And that’s a good thing.

Rather than New Testament “texts of terror” for women, what if the household codes can be read as resistance narratives to Roman patriarchy?

DOWN WITH THE (Roman) PATRIARCHY!

The Christian structure of the house church resists the patriarchal world of the Roman Empire.

Well, as it should. Now what happened between then and now to bring patriarchy back into the Christian community? (I am hearing in my head a reimagining of Justin Timberlake’s lyrics “I’m Bringing Sexy Back,” but instead of “sexy,” it’s “patriarchy” and instead of being sexy, it’s just pitifully sad.)

“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) Yes, wives are to submit, but so are husbands. Instead of making Christians just another part of the Roman crowd (emphasizing female submission), the mutual submission in verse 21 is “characteristic of a way of life that sets believers apart from the nonbelieving world.”

Isn’t it strange (and alarming) that it seems Christians have become more like the ancient Roman crowd than radically different?

The subjection of women is highlighted in the ESV translation of Ephesians 5, and the call for husbands to submit is minimized — not because Paul meant it that way but because the complementarian translators of the ESV wanted it that way.

And now, for a quick music break: “I Want It That Way,” by the ever-popular Backstreet Boys.

Seven times throughout his letters, as Beverly Roberts Gaventa has found, Paul uses maternal imagery to describe his ongoing relationship with the church congregations he helped found. … What made female bodies weak in the Roman world made them strong in the writings of Paul. … Just because modern evangelicals overlook Paul’s radical use of maternal imagery doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It just means that, once again, we have gotten Paul wrong.

I used to despise Paul because I thought he was the main guy who taught female submission. But now I’m realizing that maybe we’ve simply been missing his point. This gives me hope.

Not only did early Christians place women in leadership roles; they met together on equal footing — men, women, children, and slaves — in the privacy of the home, a traditionally female space. Christianity was deviant and immoral because it was perceived as undermining ideals of Roman masculinity. Christianity was repugnant … because it didn’t follow the Roman household codes — not because it followed them.

Well, I’ve always liked to be a bit of a rule-breaker. You know, to keep life interesting. It’s probably why I married Steve.

What if instead of replicating an ancient gender hierarchy, Paul was showing us how the Christian gospel sets even the Roman household free?

Yes. I choose that.

Paul was an educated Roman citizen. He would have been familiar with contemporary rhetorical practices that corrected faulty understanding by quoting the faulty understanding and then refuting it. … When Corinthians 14:34-35 is read as a quotation representing a Corinthian practice, Paul’s purpose seems clear: to distinguish what the Corinthians were doing (“women be silent”), and to clarify that Christians should not be following the Corinthian practice (“What!”).

“What!” is right! That completely flips the narrative that I’ve been hearing from the pulpit most of my life, that women should be silent. Perhaps Paul is saying the complete opposite. That’s some fascinating stuff right there, gals.

Could it be that, instead of telling women to be silent like the Roman world did, Paul was actually telling men that, in the world of Jesus, women were allowed to speak? … Instead of heeding his rebuke and freeing women to speak, are we continuing the very patriarchal practices that Paul was condemning?

Well if that’s not something important for all of us mere mortals to mull over, I don’t know what it. So go ahead: mull.

Women really did lead and teach in the early church, even as deacons and apostles. Junia was accepted as an apostle until nearly modern times, when her name began to be translated as a man’s name: Junias. … Junia became Junias because modern Christians assumed that only a man could be an apostle.

And here I will simply transcribe what I wrote in the margin of my book: “messed up!”

Seminary textbooks are often written by pastors — not by historians (and especially not by women historians).

That’s juuuuust a little friendly reminder for everyone.

That’s it for Chapters 1 and 2. We’ll see you next time for the next couple of chapters. (I need to take a nap; I’m exhausted.)

Looking for something to do in the interim? Check out my and my husband’s new podcast, “Red Weather Christians.”

Grief and Miscarriage — in Quito, Ecuador

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Robert Frost

One of my first little class activities for my students is to use cut-out lines of this poem (one per student, in groups depending on the size of the class) to try to put the poem back together based on content, rhyme, and chronology. Sometimes the students vaguely remember this poem from the book The Outsiders, and it’s fun to see when that lightbulb turns on. It’s gratifying to see the students working together to figure things out like, “Oh my gosh, these lines rhyme!” or, “Maybe because this line says ‘first,’ it should be the first line!” Then we get to discuss their choices and, ultimately, the poem itself.

As I begin prep work to tutor a student this year (as I am not full-time teaching anymore), I came across the activity and poem again. Wonderful memories of first days of school flooded back. What a joy it was to teach. What a joy it was to get to know the students and form real relationships with them.

I read this poem again, and my heart is flooded with something else, too.

Grief.

One of the very beautiful things about poems is that you go into them with your own life experiences: your burdens, your hurts, your joys, your worries, your faith, yourself. To a fourteen-year-old, this poem might mean a loss of a friendship, a loss of a love interest, a loss of closeness with parents, a loss of parents’ marriage, a loss of “childhood” and the time that came with it, or even a loss of identity.

I empathize with my students. It is not easy being a teenager and navigating the relationships, the friendships, the politics, the parents, the social media. It’s completely overwhelming, and I’m glad I made it through. But I’ll never forget how hard it was.

But for me in this season of life, I think of the golden excitement of being pregnant . . .
and then not being pregnant anymore.

~

Trigger warning: Miscarriage description. Graphic.

~

Two Thursdays ago, I peed and noticed some pink color. I had just gotten home from a particularly rough city-streets-and-sidewalks bike ride, so I thought there was a chance I had exercised a little too hard. And when it was just the one instance of pink over the course of the next few days, I exhaled a huge sigh of relief. The following Sunday I went to get my blood drawn to “prove” to the insurance company here in Ecuador that I was, indeed, pregnant. My HCG levels were in the 7-week range, even though I was 10 weeks. I was a little concerned, but I knew worrying wouldn’t help anything. I tried to put it out of my mind. Then on Wednesday there was that pink color again, but more. And then the pink turned a little more red. But it was really slow, and I had zero pain. I thought maybe I had twins and I was losing one of them. I googled it, and I had all the symptoms: I was older, I had lower HCB levels, the pain was on par with a mild period.

I had hope.

Thursday came, and I was still bleeding, slowly but steadily. I decided to make an appointment with an OBGYN. I got on the phone with him directly, and he told me to go ahead and come in that evening, that he’d make room for me. My kind-hearted neighbor offered to take me, my other neighbors offered to watch my kids, and, because Steve was still at school and somewhat unreachable, I accepted the help. (I am learning to accept help. It is a work in progress. But I was incredibly thankful for the kindness of my neighbors. I will bake them bread in the near future.)

The ultrasound clearly showed an egg sac.

But it was empty. And it was an irregular shape (not perfectly round). My kind doctor told me that the baby was not in the sac and that the sac had started detaching from the uterine wall. There was a teeny tiny little shape just below the sac, and my doctor said that it might be the baby.

Such a sad little gray lump on the screen.

He measured the sac and told me it measured about 7 weeks. He drew a line to show me how big a 7-week baby would be. He then drew a line about quadruple that, and way beyond the size of the sac, to show me how big an 11-week baby would be (which on that Thursday was the size baby I was supposed to have). I learned that something had gone awry around 6 or 7 weeks and that it was just now physically manifesting in my body.

We finished up with the ultrasound, sat back down at his desk, and discussed options: pills to expedite the process, a D&C (dilation and curettage — basically a scraping of the uterine lining to get everything out), or waiting it out. I chose to wait. I had done this three times already, so I felt I knew what to expect. I knew the worst was coming. I could brace for that.

I walked back out to the waiting room and cried as I hugged my neighbor. She drove me home. Steve was then at soccer with the boys, so I texted him “Miscarriage.”

I ordered Sushi on UberEats. I enjoyed what I wanted before anyone else got home.

My 9- and 6-year-olds were very sad about the news. My two-year-old was sad because he could see that I was crying; he opened his eyes wide and said, “Awww.” It was cute, in the most devastating way.

After reading a chapter of Christopher Mouse to the boys and tucking them in, I went out to watch some Netflix with Steve.

And wait.

I didn’t have to wait long. The blood started flowing heavier and heavier. Oftentimes, shuffling back from the bathroom to watch a few more minutes of our show, I didn’t even get to the couch before I had to turn around and head back to the bathroom.

Here’s my experience with miscarriage: when it comes, you know. The bleeding becomes very heavy and there are blood clots, ranging in size from very small to two inches in diameter. It’s terrifying.

And you know that one of those clots is the fetus.

This miscarriage was so sudden, I had a difficult time managing it. And in Ecuador, the plumbing is such that you are not supposed to flush toilet paper or the toilet will clog. So all the bloody toilet paper started piling up in the little wastebasket that sits next to the toilet. Clots splashed. Blood splattered onto the toilet bowl and somehow onto the bathroom floor and wall. Blood dripped down my legs.

The word that came to mind was “massacre.”

I decided to move to the shower to clean myself up. But the simple act of taking off my clothes and walking one foot over to the shower proved difficult. More blood dripped onto the floor, but I made it to the shower. In the shower, though, the blood was flowing so heavily, I started to worry I was losing too much too quickly. Clots stubbornly got caught in the drain. I felt dizzy. I decided to get out of the shower and try to just lie down. I grabbed a big bath towel, squished it between my legs, and waddled out to try to find a place to lie down and get warm. I ended up on the cold wood floor with Steve trying to get blankets and pillows to keep me warm and make it more comfortable. I didn’t have a fever, so I figured it was safe to try to rest, even as the blood flowed. At a couple points, I thought I was going to throw up, so a trash can was my sleeping partner for the night. Eventually, I felt able to get into bed. With a new bath towel acting as a the world’s biggest pad, I was able to get some sleep in a bed.

In the morning, I felt like I had given birth that night: sore, tired, mentally exhausted, and dizzy at times.

But there was no newborn sleeping next to me. Just a trash can on the floor and lots of blood in the bathroom.

It is Saturday today, and I am taking breaks from writing this to go change my pad. But the blood is very slow now, just a drizzle to remind me of the massacre that’s taken place.

When I posted about my miscarriage on Instagram, several people reached out to offer condolences and to thank me for sharing.

Several of those several people were former students. It makes me well up just thinking about the fact that my students care about me. Teaching is a job that is so much more than a job. It is the potential for life-long friendships. It is the potential to make a lasting difference in lives — both teacher to student and student to teacher (Students, do you realize you make a difference in your teachers’ lives? You do. You matter, so much.) Maybe a poem like “Nothing Gold Can Stay” resonates with a student and stays with her for the rest of her life. Maybe the poem makes her realize that happiness is fleeting and that’s OK. Maybe she realizes that trying to prolong happiness with people and things is an act in futility but on some level it’s still worth it.

Life is not simply long stretches of happiness. And it’s the big lie if you think it is supposed to be. There are massacres along the way. And they suck every ounce of happiness right out of your body — maybe for a day or three or 58.

So we move on as humans, beaten in spirit and body, but not broken. When I am beaten, I look at my kids and soak in the love. I hug my husband hard and know he cares about me on a deeper level than any human alive. I accept help from kind neighbors who have become like family to me. I pray to God and know that there are better things to come. I talk to my parents and know that they love me on an ethereal level, whatever that means exactly.

Perhaps it’s true that nothing gold can stay. And that’s OK. It’s a good reminder to appreciate what we have. So go hug your people. Call your mom. Tell your teachers thanks. And do your best in this life to be the kind of human that makes a positive difference in other people’s lives.

Sending you all the love.

J.

The Summer of COVID: 5 Questions To Ask To Protect Our Kids

Each second we live in a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and will never be again.

Pau Casals, by way of Brainpickings

Listen 7:44

Having kids is the best reminder of this. When they’re little, so much for them is new and exciting and marvelous. Just a simple ladybug on a leaf is cause for wide eyes and glee and shouts of “Mommy, COME!” The little humans want to share in their excitement, and who better than with someone they love.

The most lovely thing is that you find yourself actually getting excited to see something as mundane as a ladybug on a leaf — because you know how incredible it is to your littles. And something incredible to the littles is something incredible to the parents and everyone else who loves those littles. It truly is a marvelous thing. Kids are a lot of work, yes, but, man, do they make the mundane marvelous.

Pau Casals was a child once and later became a famous cellist who had the opportunity to play in the White House for John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy and guests in 1961. A marvel to behold — for both Casals and the Kennedys. And not a mundane marvel. There is something transporting about good music, and to say that Casals produced good music would be an understatement. The President was so taken with Casals and his music that two years later, he awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award not often given to foreigners. But days before the ceremony, Kennedy was assassinated.

Casals was devastated. As was much of the world.

I think sometimes when you find a good friend, a kindred spirit, you are transported to the childhood wonder of the ladybug on the leaf. Interestingly, after Kennedy’s assassination, Casals felt compelled to write about . . . children:

Each second we live in a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and will never be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two makes four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all of the world there is no other child exactly like you. In the millions of years that have passed there has never been another child like you. And look at your body — what a wonder it is! Your legs, your arms, your cunning fingers, the way you move! You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must cherish one another. You must work — we all must work — to make this world worthy of its children.

Joy and Sorrows

Two and two makes four, and I want my kids to know that. But I need to remind myself that learning is so much more than that. I want my kids to learn about who they are — that they are a marvel, that they are unique, that there is no child in the world like them. I want my kids to learn to cherish one another (a lesson they force upon themselves every day as they seem to always default to fighting with each other). I want them to grow up doing everything in their power not to harm one another.

So what message are we communicating to our most cherished children when we are in a pandemic, there are no vaccines for the young kids, and yet everything seems to be life as normal? My kids got COVID from going to church, a place where you wouldn’t even know there was a pandemic still happening — no masks, crowds of kids, and, come to find out afterward, unvaccinated adult leaders. But in the States, this seems to be pretty normal. Kids church and sleepaway summer camp and indoor trampoline parks and indoor birthday parties (because it’s too hot outside, of course) and various other crowded events.

The message I most often see these days is that if kids get COVID, they will either be asymptomatic or their symptoms will be super mild.

My kids’ symptoms were not mild: they experienced fevers, lethargy, body aches, coughs, general discomfort, and trouble sleeping at night. My nine-year-old spiked to 104.9o F a couple of times. It was scary, and I wouldn’t wish it on any kid. Two full days of sickness and then the lingering cough that persists as I write this (over two weeks later) — no, this was not “mild.” And my kids (ages 9, 6 this Sunday, and 2) are healthy and active.

What audacity we adults have to live life as normal during these very much not normal times. Just because we can get vaccinated, we think “Oh, the kids will be fine.” And for the adults who haven’t gotten COVID, choose not to get vaccinated, then work closely with kids without wearing a mask, and then give kids COVID, I say this: you are negligent and reckless.

So how can we live a full life and attend events in a world where kids aren’t vaccinated? My advice is to be keenly observant and ask questions:

  1. The of-vaccinated-age humans who will be working with the kids: are they required to be vaccinated? Will they be required to wear masks?
  2. How much of the event will be indoors? Will we know the vaccinated status of the people who will be in attendance?
  3. Will the guests be asked and advised to remain home if they have symptoms, even if they think it’s just a cold?
  4. If someone from the event does contract COVID, how will I be notified?
  5. What, if any, extra precautions will be taken for the kids to prevent their contracting COVID?

And don’t forget to be observant. I wish I had been that fateful day at church. If anything feels off to you, just leave. Remember: the world is still experiencing a pandemic. You are absolutely justified to work in the best interests of your kids. And the preceding questions are reasonable. If you are met with hostility when asking any of these, just remind yourself: You love your kids — period.

Let’s treat our children with respect. They are marvels. They are unique. They are to be cherished.

And to my sesame seed baby: I love you already. You are a fighter, sticking around through my having COVID. I am hoping that you’ll stick around all the way until March. Sesame seeds may be mundane, but you are anything but.

Let’s work to make this world worthwhile for our children. That may start with protecting them from COVID.

Church in the Time of COVID

The evangelical church fears that recognizing women’s leadership will mean bowing to cultural peer pressure. But what if the church is bowing to cultural peer pressure by denying women’s leadership?

Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth

And in other words: what if we’ve gotten it wrong? Barr acknowledges that in her work as a historian and as a teacher, asking the question, “What if I’m wrong?” has enabled her to be a better listener and to keep her humble.

If only we all could ask that question.

And while this particular book is about how we got it wrong in terms of women submitting to men, I can’t help but relate it to so many things I grew up believing about what it means to be a Christian. It is humbling. It is enabling me to be a better listener to people of other faiths and to people who are, simply put, different than I. And while I am moving in this direction, I feel an undercurrent of hostility towards me from The Church. No, not anything direct. Not any particular person. But hostility nonetheless. I sometimes think that if The Church knew what I really believed, they wouldn’t think I was a true Christian.

But I am not renouncing my faith. I hold firm to identifying myself as a Christian, but man it’s been a rough year to be a Christian. I have been embarrassed and ashamed of so many things The Christians have been up to. And when I get embarrassed and ashamed of a group of people I somewhat associate myself with, I start asking them questions.

I’ve always had a problem with getting shut down when I question things, whether it be as a member of a Bible study or as a teacher in a meeting. Have you experienced this? It’s frustrating. I like to discuss, challenge, and disagree with popular opinion. But when my questions or comments are seen as undermining The Faith or threatening the powers that be, they don’t go over well.

I remember being stuck in yet another English department meeting, slogging through the meeting to-do list. One item was to go through these gosh-awful, beastly, 3-ring binders and talk about how what we’re doing in the classroom is meeting blah blah blah particular standards. Listen: Standards are good. They can keep people accountable. But when you teach at a small school where department and division heads actually do visit your classroom and students do fill out teacher evaluation forms and in general The People do know what you’re doing in the classroom, taking 15 minutes for each teacher in the meeting to turn pages in a binder and describe what, in my opinion, was a very contrived, rule-following-robots type of classroom was a colossal waste of time. The first teacher finished her Goldilocks just-right curriculum, then the second, and then I couldn’t take it any more. I spoke up.

And that has always been my problem.

But its being my problem is The Problem. Why can’t I politely make a comment that perhaps this isn’t the most productive use of our time? Why is questioning the meeting to-do list met with such hostility?

Because it was. My department chair was MAD.

During a Bible study at The Church on a Wednesday night a couple years ago, I challenged the pastor’s take on a passage in Hosea. After I asked some “why” questions, the pastor said that Max Lucado says that it’s OK to ask “what, God,” but it’s not OK to ask “why, God.” I tried to look this quote up, to no avail. So I’m not sure if it’s even accurate, but there it was, stated to me from the pulpit. I shouldn’t ask why. Another elder spoke up to say that I was just struggling with my faith right now.

Well, what? (I can ask that, right?)

So when it comes to our being in a pandemic and things getting political about *all the things* and The Church having to vote on a president based on a single issue (why?), I can’t help but ask if we’ve gotten it wrong about some things.

When Steve and I went to church on Sunday, hardly a soul wore a mask. In our neon green ones, we felt like swamp monsters. None of the kids or kids’ leaders (that we saw) wore masks. We (naively? stupidly?) assumed that the adults working closely with the kids had been vaccinated.

When we got a text on Tuesday that someone who had worked with our kids that Sunday was unvaccinated and had tested positive, our first thought was “Wow, that was reckless.” But we thought we’d be fine. We had gone a year and a half without getting COVID, and Steve and I were just a few weeks out from being fully vaccinated (we got our first shot literally the first day we got to the States, which happened to be the day before church).

SPOILER ALERT: We all got COVID.

And I’m writing this in my COVID fog because I want to capture how my brain is working right now. I hope my writing is bearable. I hope I’m getting my points across. But I’m hazy, I’ll tell ya.

I’m disappointed in The Church. I’m disappointed that we can’t ask why. That doing something to protect others is seen as a political statement that comes with its own judgments.

And I have my personal regrets as well. When we got to church and saw the dearth of masks, why didn’t we hightail it outta there? I don’t know. But that’s our fault. We take full ownership of that.

Coming full circle, I think it’s time for The Christians to start taking a little look inward, asking some “why” questions, and definitely asking if maybe they’ve gotten it wrong on some things. As I am a Christian, I will be doing this as well. To take it one step further, I think it’s what God would want us to do. On the podcast The Faith Angle, Kirsten Powers and Jonathan Merritt talk about how doubting things about God and the Bible and religion means that your faith is alive. What an interesting perspective.

So maybe you fear wearing a mask or getting a vaccine will communicate to people that you are a Biden-idolizing, abortion-loving liberal.* But what if wearing a mask or getting a vaccine is how you can show Jesus’ love — by communicating that even though you might not want to do this, you’re doing it on the off chance that it might help others.

Because my understanding of Christianity is that it’s about others.

*To those people who choose not to get vaccinated and live a stay-relatively-at-home-or-around-a-few-designated-people kind of life, I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the people who are living life in a pandemic as “life as normal,” or treating life in a pandemic as some political thing, or treating life in a pandemic as a way the secular world is trying to undermine God.

And another note: if anyone from this particular church reads this, please contact me directly and let’s chat. I’m not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I felt I should be candid in relaying my experience.