[Note: Jeff Mallinson has invited his wife Stacie to take the wheel this week, and reflect on what she encountered at the recent Christ Hold Fast conference.]
This past weekend, while attending the Christ Hold Fast conference, I found myself sitting in a small, no-frills side room of a church. I never thought that would be the beginning of one of the most transformative moments of my life. Our close friend, Dan van Voorhis spoke publicly for the first time about his battle with addiction to a room full of people, on the six-year anniversary (to the date) of his sobriety. At the end of his message, there was hardly a dry eye in the room. You can hear more about his story on this week’s episode of Virtue in the Wasteland.
What was so powerful about this message was that Dan had the courage to be vulnerable, to remove the fig leaves that we typically use to hide our shame, and give expression to the raw reality of his sin and suffering. We need Christian communities—the church—where we experience graciousness in which we can be honest in this way. I must admit that sometimes when I’m at my darkest moments in the thick of my sin, the last place I want to turn to is the church, but it should be the first place I turn. What I witnessed in Dan’s classroom was a glimmer of what the church can be at its best. It was encouraging to see that nobody scoffed at Dan. Instead, those who heard his story embraced him with love and acceptance. There was healing: the kind of healing that only the Gospel can bring. Many who witnessed this began to sense that they too could begin to let their guards down.
With the safety and freedom of the Gospel as our conference’s backdrop, the Law was ironically able to do its proper surgery on me. I had the space to take a long hard look at my own life and behaviors. I don’t have the same struggles as Dan. No, my sin was more deeply hidden, beneath the appearance of righteousness, and this made it more insidious. Through the words of keynote presenter David Zahl, I learned about another type of sin. See, I was going about life with my “correct” and “only” way of doing life, and when everybody else does it “wrong,” I felt justified in my judgment. After all, I was doing it “right.” I learned about the sin of self-righteous indignation and how hurtful and destructive that sin can be to those around me.
During this past weekend, I wasn’t left alone with the Law and the painful experience of recovering from its surgery. That would have kept me in the same spot where I’d started, trying to be righteous through my own self-reflective effort. Instead, I needed to be reminded yet again of the forgiveness that Christ achieved on the cross for this sin, too! I was fortunate to have this echoed in a very real way through the love and forgiveness that my husband extended to me. Through this, I discovered the healing power of a pattern of Gospel—Law—Gospel. I’ll leave it to pastors to consider whether this has any bearing on a sermon, but it seems to be important for the general way in which Christians relate to one another. Perhaps one has to be able to feel safe enough to remove the fig leaves, allow oneself to be naked before God and our brothers and sisters in Christ, and then, when others freely tell us about forgiveness, allow the Gospel to mend us anew.
All of this helped me to better understand something that occurred through The Jagged Word during the week before the conference. It seems that a good bit of anger was stirred up by a recent post Dan wrote about our need to be respectful of women in conservative Christian communities. Since I know him well and knew his heart, I understood that he was trying to continue a process of self-reflection. This has been a theme of his podcast during this Lenten season. At first, I wondered why his ideas didn’t come across as liberating to some, but rather as an attack on our shared values. But later, I had the privilege of having two powerful conversations that helped me to process what might be at work here.
The first conversation was with a dear female friend of mine in reflection on a presentation by Elyse Fitzpatrick, saying that “women’s ministry” is too often about “how to fold the perfect napkin.” My friend explained that there is often excessive law in women’s ministry—how to keep the perfect house, how to make the perfect recipes, how to be a perfect mother, and a great volunteer. Such talk can feel suffocating, especially when it looks like other upstanding women in the church seem to be able to do it all. This made me wonder whether some women might have thought Dan was suggesting yet one more area in which women need to be perfect (I’m not trying to rehash that past debate, just trying to provide my own reflection). Some might have heard him saying that, in addition to your vocation as a wife and mother, you too can be a career woman, which would become just one more thing to add to an already exhausting list of duties, without anything or anyone being freed. But what if we women apply Luther’s paradox about the freedom of the Christian man in this way:
“A Christian woman is a perfectly free queen of all, subject to none. A Christian woman is a perfectly dutiful maidservant of all, subject to all.”
In other words, what if we are freed by the Gospel to be the women we’re called to be? What if we can do this according to our unique vocations, which may change during different stages of life? In my case, this liberty meant I was free to set aside my career for a season in order to enjoy enriching time with my growing children. This was true even when my husband’s female colleagues might dismiss me as insufficiently self-actualized. But I was and still am free to discover ways in which to follow other callings, as I’m now able to work part-time with a nonprofit that I love dearly.
The second remarkable conversation that helped me make sense of things was one I had with a complete stranger. She approached me out of the blue to talk about Christ while my husband and I were at a public musical event. This is something that almost never happens to me. She told me her story of how she recently left her physically abusive husband and the guilt she is wrestling with, but she knew she had to for her own safety. She explained that she wrestles with something else as well: She wants to be a godly woman. She wants to fulfill her calling to pattern her life after biblical teaching. Yet, she needed to know she was free to get out of a dangerous situation. Moreover, she struggles because she has always wanted to be a mechanic, and that desire to work with her hands has not left her. It would be inappropriate to ignore the various ways in which an individual’s unique situation requires a pastoral response. Nevertheless, as we all discuss gender roles, we would do well to remember that we aren’t dealing with abstractions, but with real—and sometimes quite complex—human lives. In the case of this young woman I met, I realized that she didn’t need to stay in a situation where her husband knocked her teeth out so that she could earn points with God. Others need to hear that they are also free to be mothers and wives without feeling inferior to other women in professions outside the home. The message needs to keep each audience and individual in mind.
When our conversations about the tricky matters in life start with the freedom of the Gospel, we can then begin the process of learning what that means in our various vocations. In this light, our vocations don’t become burdensome but are joyful. Maybe I’ve got this all wrong. I often do, but one thing I do know is that, through the grace of God, I have been afforded the space to identify and expose my own debilitating sin, and subsequently been reminded of the healing power of the Gospel. The whole process allowed me to experience the joy of sharing that same love with my neighbors.
We are forgiven. The Law continues to perform surgery on us. We begin to recover from that surgery when we are reminded of the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ. The blood of Christ, as it turns out, is sufficient to cover even the sins of self-righteously indignant wives and mothers. Thank God!
–Mrs. Wayfaring Stranger
Stacie Mallinson is Director of Constituent Relations at 1517 The Legacy Project.