Someone in my online community is thinking of writing a post about witnessing. In a biblical culture that relegates women to nothing more than chattel and twice as dispensable, it’s a curious and wonderful thing that Jesus chose women to be his first witnesses of his resurrection.
I mean, what a crazy, counter-intuitive, inefficient way of getting something as earth-and-heaven-shattering as the news of your Undeadness out to the public! If the miracle of Jesus conquering death isn’t already a strain to believe, why would he have chosen unbelievable witnesses on top of it?
Because he sees women differently. Because even within a society that heavily discounted the value and veracity of women, Jesus says, “I know better. I see who you really are. I choose you to proclaim what just went down, and who I am.”
“When the wise men saw the star, they were filled with joy. They came to the house where the child was and saw him with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. They opened their gifts and gave him treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Until the sermon on Sunday, I’d never really wondered about the significance of the gifts that the Wise Men brought.
(Growing up in a Fundy church, we seemed more focused on the number of Wise Men than the reason behind their gifts. The thinking went that traditional and commercial imagery usually depicts three wise men on donkeys when in actual fact, the gospels are silent on the actual number of men who showed up. When brought up, it was a lesson in my church about not presuming or adding to Scripture what God is silent about. I’d argue that there are more interesting lessons to glean from these ancient baby gifts, honestly.)
Interestingly, there are several possibilities for the three gifts. It could just be the “done thing” at the time — you meet a new baby, you give money and spices. Other reasons include the medicinal properties behind the spices as a symbolic and practical gift for the longevity of both mother and child, and the practical thing of giving money to a pair of refugees on the run from Mad King Herod. (Note to self: best to steer clear of Herod as a baby name.) Yet another interpretation is that the three were standard gifts for kings and deities in the ancient world.
In fact, these same three items were apparently among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E. The Book of Isaiah, when describing Jerusalem’s glorious restoration, tells of nations and kings who will come and “bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).
On a separate but related note, hearing a reflection on the birth of Christ from a woman brings a slightly different flavour, I thought. As women, and particularly women who’ve been through childbirth, there is a kind of empathy in the retelling. Coincidentally (or not), there was a dedication on the day where a family brought their very smiley baby to the front, and the church pledged in unison to support this family as they bring up this child in the Lord.
It was wonderful to see both men and women contributing to the service, something they probably take for granted by now, and yet so empowering for someone like me to watch. Yes, there really is a sense of completeness when there are literally different voices heard from the front — men, women, and children. As grand as the building was (it’s a historical building with the stained glass windows and the vaulted high ceiling), somehow the fellowship was cosy, the music and singing loud and sincere (oh the lyrics! some of them were just breathtaking), their minds set on higher things. Of course, every church will have its problems and I am coming in cold as an observer, newly burnt and bruised from current troubles. “Anything but this, anywhere but here” is almost my desperate plea for a better 2019.
So I went ahead and created a Facebook page and had all these great intentions to write daily and purposefully when suddenly, Other Stuff Hit.
And then suddenly, I realised I couldn’t publish anymore. Not in my actual name anyway. It’s one thing to have a stream of consciousness documented in the public domain when the most scandalous thing to report is our uphill battle with toilet training The Younger.
It’s quite another when it’s about a very personal journey that involves your former truths crumbling to dust and the utterly bewildering and lonely experience of figuring out where your next steps should be.
That’s cryptic. Even as I type now, I’m wondering how much to divulge. The last two years have been a marathon that’s continually tested my stamina, my optimism, my thick skin and my courage. Meanwhile, my most entrenched ideas of what it means to be a Christian and a woman have been repeatedly called into question — along with my motives, my attitudes, my faith in God, and my character. I now swear more than I ever have in my life. I’ve lost a lot of friends. (That’s unrelated to the swearing but it probably doesn’t help.) Then again, I’ve found new ones in the unlikeliest corners of my life. If anything, the last few years have crystallised who my truest friends are. And while it’s been spiritually, mentally, and emotionally bruising to find out that the set of people I’ve relied upon don’t actually fully overlap with the set of kindred who continue to come through for me, the new relationships and the depths of honesty and authenticity I’ve found in brand new quarters have renewed my faith in God’s humanity.
Church is bigger than church, y’all. And God is the biggest of all.
There’s a lot of sound and fury lately in Australia about Same-Sex Marriage, Safe Schools, and gender education. On a personal front, it’s been an especially sobering year as I reflect on my own relationship with God, and contemplate deeply how God designed humankind and what that means for me, a woman made in His image. I took a deep dive into Genesis and I’m still confronted by the overarching narrative of how God and Christ treat women. Growing up, I thought I understood His design but the closer I’ve been looking at this, the more troubled I am by what I’m finding.
And I’ve been equal parts unsettled and unbelievably excited.
Thing is, I’m now looking at my daughter and my son, and the responsibility of what lies ahead looms ever larger. Do I want my daughter to grow up learning what I learnt about womanhood? Or my son, for that matter? I thought I believed in the equality of the sexes, but now I’m wondering if I didn’t grow up buying into a form of second-class citizenship in this world that isn’t just wrong, but heretical.
And I don’t want that for my daughter. And I don’t want that for my son.
Words have power, and our words matter because they articulate ideas, and all ideas have consequences. I spoke very briefly — and perhaps not articulately enough — yesterday about how words frame issues. We know that instinctively, and we’re confronted by examples every time. Someone I was chatting to online yesterday gave a common example. When a woman is out front organising people in an assertive way, is she being bossy? Is she behaving like a man? Or is she leading people? How we use words shape attitudes, and they teach both our young men and women a lot about what is “allowed” and what “isn’t” for each of them.
And we often clip both their wings in the process.
This stuff matters. It goes right to the core of things. And I want the right things for my children.
In my new job, I now find myself part of a community that is both deeply and wonderfully familiar, and a little foreign around the fringes. My Christian roots are decidedly “post-Evangelical”, although I now balk at using too many labels to define my faith in God, except to say that I’m still learning and I’ve recently had a hermeneutic breakthrough.
All this to say that I come from a tradition with a flat and patriarchal hierarchy (no elders with collars or hats or robes, but still all male), and I’m getting used to being referred to as laity (not directly, but that is the bucket to which I now belong.)
I am loving the differences. I am loving learning about the differences, even as I am enjoying the security and natural ease that comes from being among the like-minded. Until recent years, I hadn’t realised how I’ve been holding my breath in the workplace, or
“reining my Christianity in”. Mainstream sentiment in Australia already seems hostile towards religion, but especially towards Islam and Christianity. It’s been the biggest culture shock for me, coming from a country that celebrates and emphasises distinct cultures and religions. To be “overtly Christian” — especially in the workplace — therefore seems like an open invitation for questions on my fairness, motives, and tolerance; an open season for potential discrimination suits and assumptions about my intellect.
In recent weeks, the topic of a more “overt Christianity” has cropped up several times in various forms at work and at home. At bible class recently for instance, I wondered if my decade-old approach of trying to Live By Example rather than Talking the Salvation Message has actually been a giant cop-out that I’ve justified to myself after living in Australia this long.
Since migrating here, I’ve come to realise (to my huge surprise) that on most policy issues, I am decidedly left-leaning (even if Labor leadership right now seems about as impressive as wet lettuce), but I also care deeply about issues supported by the Right. Just yesterday, I admitted in a public forum to a long-time friend that I am a Pro-life Feminist. To some circles, this sounds as paradoxical as a Thinking Christian. To other circles, the bemusing paradox is the fact that I am a Christian Feminist.
And then a couple days ago, I was asking about the collars that clergy wear and the origin of the collar, and we ended up digressing to how modern clergy go without the collar nowadays. Yet if every ordained priest wore their collar in the street, said Emma, there would be hundreds of them just walking about doing their own thing – and society at large might suddenly realise that there are actually more Christians in their midst than they thought. Than even we might think.
In this age, the war-cry on social issues has been for greater tolerance – and by tolerance, it increasingly seems to mean the suppression of even personal convictions, judgements, and lifestyles. “The intolerance of the intolerant” has been used to suppress differences of opinion by characterising dissent as hate, and to elevate (left-leaning) neutrality – rather than dialogue – as the greatest good.
But it’s a fallacy – no one can please everybody. Even among the tolerant, there is no One True Correct in political correctness. We all believe nuances of different things across the board – which means at any given time, someone is going to get royally pissed off with you if they ever got to hear what you really believe and think.
Which brings me back to collars and overt Christianity.
I don’t have a collar, and I don’t even own a pendant of the Cross. And maybe it’s the mellowing of age, but I no longer feel the imperative to jump into the fray on parenting forums about seatbelt laws, let alone hot button issues like same-sex marriage and that plebiscite. But I want to be authentic about who I am, what I believe, and why. And that takes more courage than I currently feel, all the more so when Christians seem to be lying so low in our community that the national narrative about us is that we’re nothing more than a hypocritical, whiny, fun-killing gay-hating hick minority taking our sermons from fire-brimstone pedophiles, instead of a sizeable population that is just as conflicted about lots of issues,that doesn’t profess to have all the answers, but that is earnest about community and being a champion of the downtrodden – “the widows and orphans in distress”.
If you’re a Christian reading this, please help me by “putting on your collar” – not just in your home and church, but in the streets, in your workplaces, in areas of life where we’re assumed to be intolerant until proven “not that kind of Christian”. It helps me recognise I have a compadre. If we all shine a little beacon to say “I’m here, just doing my thing”, it makes the way clearer and the journey less lonely.
I’ve been blogging semi-regularly since I came to Canberra 13 years ago. To me, it has always been about keeping in touch with family and friends in Singapore and around the globe – an extension of my Facebook profile, really. A means of chronicling our moments and milestones, of keeping a loose scrapbook of my life in general and my children’s lives in particular.
And I dare say that for the most part, my blog will continue in that vein. I think having the children has sharpened the focus of my writing, and has in turn brought me a small but loyal following of readers within my family and friends. Thank you for keeping in touch all these years and for delighting in my delights. I love writing these open letters to you.