Sipping on coffee, I was sitting in the café of a church in a Dallas suburb where I’d just spoken, when I noticed a man’s military boots in front of me. As I lifted my eyes, I saw the desert fatigues. And then my pupils met his. I knew this man! “Justin!”
The soldier standing in front of me was someone I had loved and mentored in my job as a seminary professor. He was one of my artistic geniuses, eating up every word I’d had to say about how to tell a story. I jumped up to greet him. What a wonderful surprise!
But what I had assumed was a random intersection of our lives was actually a planned meeting. He was headed out on his first tour of duty to Afghanistan, and he’d tracked me down to say goodbye. But first he had something additional to say. It went something like this:
“You believed in me from the start, nurturing my dreams, and modeling for me what a godly woman looks like. Like a spiritual mom. Thank you, ma’am.”
I had no words. It was too much.
“I didn’t want to deploy without first . . .” he stammered, “making sure I said those words to you.”
Isn’t that just like the body of Christ at its best—providing mothers and fathers for "kids" and children for the childless. Because who doesn’t need more love and support and nurturing to thrive?
* * *
I had not set out to be a seminary professor. In fact, I didn’t think seminary was a place for a woman….
I had always dreamed of having a large family—I’m the fourth of five kids. But seven early pregnancy losses and an ectopic pregnancy told my husband and me that we would never have biological children. So we pursued adoption.
Meanwhile, career doors kept opening for me, but all I wanted was motherhood. I had devoured the classic complementarian-on-the-traditionalist-end-of-the-spectrum manhood/womanhood book and quoted it frequently. The woman’s role was in the home caring for children, right? I had the gift of teaching—and wasn’t that what 1 Timothy 2 taught? That a woman’s teaching gifts should be directed not to helping mature the body of Christ but to strengthening her nuclear family?
So we pursued adoption. I took birthing classes with the birth mom we linked up with. But she changed her mind. And then another birth mom changed her mind. And another.
“Why, God?” I begged. “Why would you take a woman committed to what you value and keep her from becoming who you made her to be?”
Meanwhile, my husband—a seminary grad—and I took ministry trips abroad, and we saw for the first time how much our views of man and woman and what the Bible teaches about them had been shaped by American, white, middle-class culture. While people in churches back home were arguing over whether (mostly white) women had God’s permission to work outside of domestic space, women in less developed countries did not have the luxury of even raising such a question. They just wanted their children to go to bed with bellies at least half-full. And maybe own a pair of shoes. How could I reconcile these two worlds? Surprisingly, through Proverbs 31. A fresh look revealed a woman who contributed to the economics of her household in every way possible, enabling her husband to do work that did not appear to be income-producing but that was community-building. That chapter even had a bunch of war imagery applied to that strong woman (e.g., valor, prey, strength), as if women are supposed to engage in warfare or something.
Long story short, I ended up (somewhat kicking and screaming) in the job of a seminary professor. It took faith to believe this was a better way. Why would God close the womb of someone who wanted a family (wasn’t that the highest calling?) and direct her to “men’s work”?
Even once I was inside the academy, I kept assuming I needed to shove my gifts into a sex-segregated silo, but my colleagues and bosses kept urging me out of my separate sphere. “You have experience speaking,” they told me. “You’ve told stories for a living. Why can’t you share that info to help our speakers create more compelling messages?”
My male colleagues wanted me to help train our upcoming shepherds in ways they themselves would never be able to help…like telling what it’s like to be a female parishioner sitting under a male preacher. (“Don’t forget to quote less-represented voices once in a while.” And “that Father’s Day sermon—remember, fathers sometimes have daughters, too.” “Why are you skipping the Tamar story in your series on Genesis?”) And what it’s like to be a female fertility patient in need of pastoral care. And modeling how a sister can love brothers without hypocrisy or weirdness. And in mysterious ways we cannot even quantify.
Those in training to provide pastoral care need men and women helping to shape them. Because the church is not a single-parent family. When healthy, it is a two-parent family, with mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. Besides, pastors in training need to see that men and women in leadership can partner in the gospel and dearly love their colleagues with holy love (see Rom. 16). Because complementarity means we are not the same; and because we are not the same, we lack something when we go it alone. Because we were made to need each other, male and female imaging God together. So together we must image God fully as we seek to nurture this generation and the next, with none of us saying “I have no need of you.”
* * *
As for Justin, during his desert deployment, he saw violence no human should see. And because chaplains cannot carry weapons, he carried a video camera and accompanied his guys to the front lines. He ended up producing a movie about his battalion’s experience. And because the seminary where I teach is committed to the marriage of arts and theology, they sent me to attend the premiere at the Boston Film Festival—where Justin’s film won “Best Documentary.” I met some of the guys in his battalion on that trip, and I’m not gonna lie—a few were a complete mess (there might have been a fist fight in a hotel). But Justin told me, “They may be messed up guys, but they’re my guys.” They called him "Chappie," and they clearly loved their shepherd.
As I walked down the red carpet that night, that young Army-captain chaplain, a leader of men, got the crowd’s attention and pointed to this woman with grey in her hair and lines around her eyes. “My mentor,” he announced, like that was the thing that made him most proud. And I tasted salt.
Later he texted me these words: “When you’re shaping up into who you’re going to be, it sometimes takes teachers to tell you that you can fly.”
And sometimes those teachers are women.
Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too” (Rom. 16:13). Because even great male shepherds need females to help* them, in Christ, be all that they can be.
*See Gen. 2:18.