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Life, Spirit and Pentecost

Pentecost by Jim Whalen
Jim Whalen, Pentecost, 2013 | via Fine Art America

I have a confession: I’m still not quite sure what to do with the Holy Spirit.

I mean, I believe in the Holy Spirit. I’m just not quite sure how this third person of the Trinity fits into my paradigm of faith. The branch of evangelicalism that shaped my childhood was cessationist, and cessationism holds that the gifts of the Holy Spirit — and particularly miracles, tongues and prophecy — were limited to the apostolic age and do not continue in the church today.

Although cessationists are fully orthodox and affirm the Trinity, in my experience this theology tends to diminish the role and importance of the Holy Spirit. The spirit becomes the odd member out of the Trinity, not embodied like Jesus or clearly defined like God the Father and, without the spiritual gifts, seemingly mostly unnecessary.

I haven’t been cessationist for a long time; the Anglican Church in North America, my faith tradition for more than a decade now, has strong connections to charismatic movements and fully affirms the presence of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

And yet I still am uncomfortable with the Spirit. However, the great thing about liturgy is that, like it or not, we encounter the basic doctrines of the church over the course of the lectionary and the church year.

Yesterday was the feast of Pentecost, the culmination of the liturgical season of Eastertide and the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Churchgoers wear red, orange and yellow while the altar and vestments change from celebratory white to fiery red to symbolize the flames dancing over the heads of the disciples.

Weird, right? Rushing wind, dancing flames, speaking in tongues: it’s like something out of a fantasy novel.

But as my priest preached on the Holy Spirit, he focused on the Spirit as the guarantee and foretaste of our coming resurrection life in Christ. Over at least the last decade, I’ve grown to see the beauty of the resurrection and the glory of the promise that all will one day be made whole in Christ. But I’d never made the connection between the Holy Spirit and this work before.

My priest’s sermon dovetailed with the book I’ve been reading by Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life. In this book, Moltmann talks about the Holy Spirit as the spirit of life, the spirit through whom we have life in all its forms, from creation to new life in Christ. And if the Spirit is creating new life in us, then part of that new life may involve the gifts and promptings and even miraculous interventions of the Spirit.

I’m still figuring out how to relate to the Spirit myself. I’ve had a couple of undeniable encounters with the Spirit in the last year that I’m still working to understand, and that I’m still uncomfortable with on some level. But this framework of the Spirit as a spirit of life, as a guarantee and preview of the already-but-not-yet kingdom of heaven, creates a space for the spirit to work.

As long as I don’t have to speak in tongues.

Women in Christianity: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Sor Juana by Miguel Cabrera
Miguel Cabrera, Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, c. 1750 | via Wikipedia | public domain

Ungrateful, she who does not love you,

yet she who does you judge unchaste.

You men are such a foolish breed,

appraising with a faulty rule,

the first you charge with being cruel,

the second, easy, you decree.

These lines could have been written today, especially in the aftermath of the recent violent attack of a Canadian man furious over “ungrateful” women who wouldn’t date him. But they were written by a Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, in the late seventeenth century.

Sor Juana is a well-known figure in Mexico, but I hadn’t even heard of her until a colleague recommended that we add her to the syllabus in the humanities course that I used to teach. She certainly deserves wider recognition in the English-speaking world, both for her literary works and for her engagement in theology.

Sor Juana was a child prodigy who learned to read at the age of 3 and, at 12, begged her mother to allow her to dress as a boy and travel to Mexico City to study (her mother refused). She did end up in Mexico City, however, as a lady-in-waiting in a noble Spanish family. There, she continued her education and quickly gained admiration for her intelligence. Although she received several marriage offers, she chose instead to join a convent.

Becoming a nun meant that Sor Juana could pursue her studies without the obligations of running a household or the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. In the seventeenth century, a convent was the best option for a woman who wanted to engage in academic and intellectual pursuits.

And yet entering holy orders brought Sor Juana a whole new set of challenges: those who did not believe that women should engage in theological study.

(As much as I wish this had changed, in just the last six months John Piper has sparked controversy by claiming that women should not teach seminary and Beth Moore has recounted the hostility she faced during her brief stint in seminary. Much of the same resistance to women in theology remains today.)

This is where Sor Juana becomes an important figure in Christian history, and not just a brilliant young woman whose contributions to Spanish Golden Age literature earned her the title “The Tenth Muse.”

In 1690, Sor Juana waded into a decades-long theological debate about divine acts of love towards humanity. At the request of a bishop, Sor Juana wrote down her critique of a particular Spanish theologian; this text, the Athenagoric Letter, circulated privately for a while, but soon the bishop published the essay without Sor Juana’s knowledge or consent.

A brief side note on publishing while female is necessary to understand the reaction that ensued: in the seventeenth century, notions of decorum and propriety barred women from engaging in the public sphere. These ideas excluded women from politics and also made women’s participation in any sort of public debate difficult — and publication was viewed as participation in public debates. Although Sor Juana did not choose to publish her essay, its publication meant that she nevertheless faced public censure as a woman who inappropriately and publicly critiqued a man.

The harshest criticism, lambasting Sor Juana for even entering the theological conversation, was written by the same bishop who published the Athenagoric Letter. He wrote under a female pseudonym, Sor Filotea de la Cruz, and urged Sor Juana in the strongest terms to give up her academic studies and instead devote herself to prayer — the proper work of a nun.

Sor Juana wrote a densely argued but passionate response to “Sor Filotea” (Sor Juana certainly knew the real identity of the author, although she plays along with the pseudonym). In her response, she argues cogently for educating women, even in theology, and for allowing them to write and teach. At one point, she asks the crucial question: “My reason, such as it is, is it not as unfettered as his [the theologian who she argued against], as both issue from the same source?” Although Sor Juana writes deferentially, she is keenly aware that many of her critics would, indeed, see her as less capable of reason than a man.

But in her argument, she marshals support for educating women from a wide variety of authorities while building a rhetorical case that knowledge and love of God is best served by the wide-ranging knowledge gained through academic study. Sor Juana argues that understanding history, for example, helps everyone — including women — to better understand the bible.

Sadly, however, Sor Juana’s response did not alleviate the mounting pressure to step away from public life and intellectual pursuits. Around 1693, she seems to have stopped writing and to have sold or given away her impressively large library, although it is unclear how willingly she did so. She spent the last years of her life in prayer and service, finally dying of the plague while caring for other sick nuns.

Sor Juana’s life reminds us that, despite the many obstacles thrown in their path by patriarchy, women still know themselves to be created with the same reason as a man and still desire to turn this reason towards understanding the world and understanding God. But her death demonstrates that patriarchy can finally wear down even the most brilliant and passionate women.

Women in the western world today undoubtedly face fewer obstacles than Sor Juana. But the church in particular should take sober note of her story and work to encourage the gifts of all people, including women.

Life Update: New Spaces and New Starts

The Bookworm's Table by Claude Raguet Hirst
Claude Raguet Hirst, The Bookworm’s Table, c. 1890 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

I’m back!

In January, I chose a word for the year: space. I promised to give myself space to process, space to be in progress, space to be messy and imperfect and uncertain. Even space to take two weeks off blogging while I move to a new house.

I do have an actual space in my new house, though: an office just for me. Even though half the house is still a mess, my books are lined up behind me and I have my own desk and my own cozy chair and my own window. A room of my own, which is making me very happy.

Moving may be the worst — I hate the total chaos and disruption — but I’m also very happy to be in a place where we’ll stay for a while. I want to put down roots and grow into this space, instead of feeling like I can’t take up too much space because it belongs to someone else.

Because, of course, giving myself space also means taking space, acknowledging that I can have the room to take deep breaths and to be honest about what I need and want. I’ve spent too long giving space to others without asking for space myself. An office may be a small start (and to be honest, my husband had to push me to take it), but it’s a wonderful start so far.

And thinking of starts and spaces, I also started a part-time job at my church as Coordinator of Children’s Ministries. Anyone who knows me may be slightly puzzled, and it’s certainly true that children’s ministry has never been my passion. But as I’m taking space to figure out my life post-academia, this opportunity for ministry has dropped into my lap, and I’m excited to move from informal and volunteer service in my church to actually being on church staff.

(As a side note: I’ve been bothered for quite a while that the only position for women on many church staffs is in children’s ministry, so it’s pretty ironic that this is where I’m starting. But I’m blessed to be in a church with women in a variety of leadership positions, including assistant rector; this job is far more likely to be a starting point in ministry than an ending one for me.)

I’m also just happy to be working again, even if it’s only a few hours a week. Writing is great, and I’ve been happy to be around more for my girls, but I’ve missed being part of a bigger organization. I miss sharing ideas with and being challenged by others who share my passions, and I’m looking forward to having that type of work community once again.

Springtime has finally arrived, with a new house and a new job, with literal and metaphorical space to explore new directions and to grow in my family, community and church. I’m excited to see where this growth will take me even as I practice giving myself the space to grow.

Tagged: personal | ministry

Guest Post on CBE: Response to Paige Patterson

CBE Logo
CBE International

I’m back! I’ll have a short life update on Thursday, but today I have a guest post up at CBE International responding to Paige Patterson’s recent remarks about abuse and marriage:


Last week, an audio tape from 2000 resurfaced in which Paige Patterson, currently the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a prominent leader in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), described counseling women to remain in abusive marriages.

The unfolding reckoning within the SBC is, on the surface, about a man who was moved by the suffering of a woman—in that Patterson likely does want to see abuse end. But sadly, his advice and his theology only perpetuate the devaluation of women and further endanger them. His response falls far short because it focuses only on the man and sidelines the needs, health, and safety of the woman.

In Patterson’s official statement about this tape, and in his interview with Baptist Press News, he claims that he condemns abuse. But his words in his interview demonstrate a profound lack of concern about the suffering of women; he says, “‘minor non-injurious abuse which happens in so many marriages’—and which does not make the wife fear for her safety—might spur a woman to ‘pray [her husband] through this’ rather than leave.”

To be crystal clear, Patterson is suggesting that women should endure abuse because if they stay and suffer, they may be able to help their husbands become better people… .

Read the rest at CBE’s blog, Arise.

On Not Being Superhuman

Ambition by Dana Naser
Dana Naser, Ambition | image via World Art Dubai

So I tend to be a tiny bit over ambitious at times.

I also indulge in ironic understatements. I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to consider how the two may be related.

Anyway. I have been trying to convince myself for the last few weeks that I actually can feed, clothe and occasionally bathe three small people; do a freelance project; apply and interview for a job at my church; lead a Girl Scout troop; move into a new house; and write two blog posts per week while also at least occasionally saying hello to my husband and, if I’m lucky, sleeping.

But I’m once again getting my periodic reminder that I am not, in fact, either superhuman or in possession of a time turner. And since this blog neither whines at me, pays me, or operates on a definite timeline, I think it’s the thing that has to go for the next two weeks. I’m disappointed that I don’t get to write about Sor Juana and Tamar until next month, but unlike my truck rental they can wait.

I will be back to my normal posting schedule on May 7. I have it on good authority that the internet will still be around when I come back.

(Also? I’m writing this on my phone while waiting for one of my daughters to finish ballet, and I thoroughly hate it. I feel old now.)

Tagged: personal

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