Monday, November 02, 2015

To My Daughters

Dear Sweet Girls,

There's so much I want (and need) to tell you about life. There are so many lessons, so many ways I want you to know Jesus and grow up happy, healthy and stable. I won't get into a discussion on helicopter parenting right now, and I'll narrow my focus to one thing that the three of us share in common: being girls. That is, females, women, ladies, etc. Your chromosomes, your inner female parts--as well as the outward signs of them--are significant parts of who you are as people. And they will continue to be so. Your femaleness will affect you for your entire lives because it is the context from which you will encounter the world. The physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual ramifications of your two X chromosomes are so many. Your womanhood will matter, and it will shape the way you relate to the world in general and to your loved ones in particular.

Physically, you are more vulnerable than men. I hate to even type these words, and it makes me see red (which quickly fades to black) to think that according to statistics, you have around a 20% chance of being sexually assaulted (and apparently it's higher because you are multi-ethnic) in your lifetime. At best, you will be ogled, fantasized about, and demeaned by some of the men around you. At worst, your bodies will be physically violated in a way that makes me feel rage and helplessness and nausea all swirled together. I wish I could protect you from the world. But I can't. I can (hopefully) help you discover a sense of self and joy in your physical selves.  To help you appreciate your bodies, to care for them, and to learn about how your physicalness and femininity are imaging God in all his glory and creativity.  My wish for you is that you will find your own way in understanding the line between modesty and prudishness, between fear and the wielding of your bodies as a weapon. And added to the journey is this complexity of being "multi-ethnic," of having a difference to your appearance that can be alternately intriguing and alienating.

Emotionally, things get a little more complicated. Depending on who you talk to, being a woman has either no ramifications on your emotional state, all the way along the spectrum to having disastrous consequences for your feelings. I stand (as I do in most things) somewhere in the middle in this. I do feel (ha!) that women tend to think and feel differently, and that this is a beautiful and valuable thing. Some will tell you this is merely a matter of biology and chemistry. Some will claim that the idea of women's emotions is a mere societal construct. I can see the points made in both camps. It seems to me that rather than the challenge of having uniquely female emotions, the issue is really the challenge of having human emotions. Yes, PMS is a thing. A not-much-fun thing. And you have both seen how pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, and post-pregnancy hormones can be powerful, frightening, and consuming. But the reality is that both men and women have emotions, and those emotions can either be used to hurt or to heal, to encourage mercy or to promote selfishness. I hope you both will figure out, early on in life, where God calls you as individuals to serve and love and rejoice and grieve with others. I hope your emotions won't control you, but that you also won't try to wholly control them. I hope that your brain chemistry will be balanced. I pray that your community will encourage openness and honesty. And I trust that you'll remember (as more than just a youth group party trick) the shortest of the Bible verses: "Jesus wept."

Yes, Jesus wept, and he was sometimes angry, and sometimes happy, sometimes sad, and sometimes content, and sometimes fearful, and a multitude of other human emotions. Dear daughters, rebuke the lies of Satan that will tell you that the emotional aspects of you are merely manipulative and untrustworthy. Instead, see the ways that you can thoughtfully and carefully cultivate relationships for good. Rejoice in the gift you've been given for loving others, and trust your instincts as they are guided by the Holy Spirit. Some people--women even--are just naturally less openly emotional than others. That's okay, too. Lean into your personality and your God-given emotions, offer them up as gifts to the Lord, and rejoice in all the ways he will use them for your good and his glory.

Mentally, there are both truths and stereotypes that you will encounter. I long for a day when different learning styles are equally valued, when "street smarts" count for as much value as "book learnin'" in the dominant culture, and when IQ is truly a spectrum upon which all of humanity falls (and not a hierarchy of value assessed). I know that something like that will exist someday, in the new heavens and the new earth. I know that someday brothers and sisters who have IQs which are several standard deviations below normal (i.e. "mentally handicapped") will be perhaps, far beyond even being seen as equals, actually be the most honored among us. Until then, intelligence is defined in Western culture by mostly white males.

This intelligence--scholarship, academic leaning, leadership potential (call it what you will)--is something I simultaneously long for and hate. I'd like to think that I used to be able to hang with the scholars, and that the reason I'm not getting all As in graduate school is less a product of my innate ability and more a perfect storm of exhaustion, over-commitments, and relational entanglements (i.e. ministry and family). The sad thing is that I acknowledge that what intelligence I have is innate, meaning: God-given. I have done nothing to earn it, nor can I claim any credit for it. Yet I revel in it, and use it to place myself above others, both men and women. And the heartbreaking truth is that when I feel less than smart, I try to say that my "EQ" (Emotional Intelligence) or "CQ" (Cultural Intelligence), or any other number of "xQ"s, more than makes up for what I may be lacking in IQ. The point that I so often miss is that it's not about competition or ranking to begin with.

Dear daughters of mine, it's already clear that you are both quite smart, and in more ways than one. You are both bright, cheerful, people-persons who think and feel deeply. My prayer for you is that you will rejoice in the intelligence you've been given and not let it rule you. My hope is that you will defy stereotypes--and that if you perhaps become engineers, lawyers, or doctors it will be because that is your calling, and not merely to prove something to someone. My wish for you is that you will find jobs that fully utilize your gifts, calling, and intelligence, but that you won't become arrogant or prideful. I pray that you will never see yourself as above things like cooking, cleaning, or other domestic/service jobs, even if you are oh-so-important career women who hire those jobs out. Let the praise of your intelligence wash over you, boast in Christ alone for it, and cling to what really matters--praising God for your ability to think at all.

Annabel, you once told us that you wanted to be a garbage truck driver when you got older. I love that phase of toddlerhood. I hope you'll always remember what we told you: that it's a valuable, much needed, important job. If that is where God wants you, may you thrive in it. But we had to also tell you the truth that it is very hard work, pays poorly, and engenders little of the respect due to it. I have to be honest that I want more for you. But I don't want you to simply have an easy life as an academic or other white-collar worker. I want you to use your brain to fight for others, to extend your privilege and opportunities where there are none, to stand up and say, very eloquently, "Garbage truck drivers deserve our respect and kindness because in addition to their hard work, they are made in the image of God."

Spiritually, this aspect of being a woman may be the most complicated one of all.  Annabel, you also said once, "Mama, I want to do what you do when I grow up.  What is it you do again?"  Ah, yes.  What is it I do.  Why have I chosen to pursue my MDiv at a very conservative seminary?  Why do I work for a more progressive campus ministry?  Why does our family worship at a multiethnic church in Jackson, MS?  What does it mean, and what does it do to my physical, emotional, and mental state to not really fit in spiritually no matter where I go?  Is this discomfort, this otherness, this loneliness what I am hoping you can avoid?  Or am I hoping you will be able to survive in such a sense of disjointedness?  Dare I even hope and pray that you might thrive in it in a way that most days, I don't really see myself doing?

Far beyond the complementarian/egalitarian debate, quite past the practical questions of what roles women should and can have, is the question of why do women matter to God, and how do we know that? It broke my heart to hear a friend say that her little daughter asked why there weren't any women in the Bible. Have mercy, O Lord. Such women as there are in the Bible! Lost women, found women, sinners and saints, leaders, followers, mourners, and joyful evangelists. Women who worshiped, who were the first to know of the impending arrival of the Christ, as well as the first to know of his resurrection. Without getting into a deep exegesis of the scriptures, suffice it to say (for now) that the ways in which the covenant God YHWH treated women (along with children and other minorities/outcasts) is telling of his care for his children. He loves you, dearest girls. Because when you trust in Christ, you are both his daughters, but also his sons who inherit, co-heirs with Jesus, even. That is a beautiful thing, and a holy mystery.

I don't really have answers for you in all this. I very rarely do, if I'm honest with myself (and with the two of you). I can train you in the catechism, read the Bible and pray with you before bed every night, and let you see me trying to work all this theory out into practice as your dad and I walk this road together. I can try to see the people that you really are becoming, and not traffic in stereotypes or broker in prejudices, but try to frame reality as I see it, and trust that God is big enough to hold you. My biggest fear certainly isn't that you become a woman preacher or a missionary in some hostile country or even that you come to me one day as a teenager and tell me that you're pregnant, or gay, or any of the other things that complicate an otherwise simple existence. (Please hear my sense of irony, there.) My worst nightmare is that you won't have anyone you can really to talk to, that you'll spend your years alone, locked in your own thoughts, drowning in questions and doubts, and thinking that you're all alone in having them.

I can tell you that especially when it comes to seminary, I certainly wasn't planning on being this ground-breaking radical, racking up firsts and pushing boundaries and making people (at best) very uncomfortable and (at worst) pretty angry. I just wanted to learn how to care for graduate students and faculty better. Seminary (like most things) seemed like a good idea at the time.

I can tell you that there are times when it is very very lonely both there and in my work. There are times when the only thing I'm more aware of than the discomfort and pain I cause others is my own discomfort and pain. Times when I wonder if it's worth it to try to co-exist in two very different spheres.

I can tell you that your dad and I don't have it all figured out, that many of our arguments or intense conversations are all about what it means to see each other as equally valuable, but intrinsically different. I can tell you that it would be so much easier to just pick a side and stick with it. I can tell you that especially right now, I'm weary from asking these questions and hearing no answers.

This dissonance is not something I want for you. And yet, I don't know if trying to spare you from it is such a good idea, either.

So what am I hoping for each of you? There is definitely a part of me that wants you to have a comfortable, stable life. To have a husband that loves and respects and nurtures and sacrifices for you as your dad does for me. To have a job--either out in the world or secure in your work at home--that is gratifying to you. Daily work that challenges and strengthens and grows you in patience. A job that you can mirror God in, being creative and bringing order from chaos and finding a little bit of eternity in the day-to-day tasks of life. I want you to have family. Whether that looks traditional and picket fence-y is not the point. I just want you to have people that really know you, and get you, and walk with you and make you more of who you really are, of who God has made you to be. That might be a husband. It might be children. I hope it will, at least in part, be each other, sweet sisters. Your family may be your church family, or your neighbors, or coworkers. People who love you unconditionally and yet don't just leave you to stagnate. People who God uses to show you a physical manifestation of his transformative love for you.

But I recognize that whether or not you have those things, there will still be lonely times. Times where you don't fit in, where miscommunication swallows up friendship until it seems like there is no way out. Whether you are down the street or across the world, I am trying to sit with the knowledge that comfort and stability are good places from which to grow, but that the real growth happens in the griefs and disappointments and violations that the world throws at us. Those are the times when we learn the most about God and his mercy for us.

So what does it mean to be women? I think it means vulnerability mixed with strength. I think it means the ability to both laugh and cry. I think it means asking questions, and learning to trust what few answers we get in life. I think it means loving others, not just because you're women, and that's what women are supposed to do. It means loving others because you're human, and that's what Christ has freed us to do. I think it does mean loving others in your own unique ways, because you're women, and part Asian, and being raised in the South, and all the other special things that make up the beautiful, hilarious, precious, precocious, and wonderful women that you're growing up to be. I love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and so I'm able to love you.

With Much, Much Love,