Decisions to enjoy

Sometimes we seem to have far too many decisions to make and it can be confusing, unsettling. We long for black and white choices.

My mum, in her late 80s, ponders how she will give money to charities at Christmas time. But what decisions does she make among many good causes?

My niece and her husband are trying to make wise decisions about study and work – balancing the need for an income to provide for their young family, and their desire to prepare for church ministry.

And of course at Christmas, there are numerous opportunities to upset the relatives if we make the wrong decisions.

But actually, we are blessed to have choices.

For many hundreds of years, ordinary women and men didn’t have time for anything other than supporting their families, couldn’t have freedom to travel, could not choose to be single or who to marry, and did not have spare money to spend or give away.

I have been thinking of Joseph’s choice to love and protect Mary when he found out that she was pregnant. He could have cast her aside or he could have quietly broken off his commitment (as he was tempted to do) but he chose to stand by Mary and protected his family even though that meant exile.

God trusted Joseph to make the generous, kind and Godly decision. He asks us to make such decisions too, so that we counter the world’s selfishness with consistent generosity.

Philanthropist Deanne Weir puts it this way, “Pick something that interests you, take the time to get informed. Then just give what’s reasonable to you.”

So this Christmas, enjoy pondering how to give in a good way, just like my mum.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us,

“Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Hebrews 13:16

Have a wonderful Christmas doing good and sharing generously.

 

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Gender and locker room banter

This week saw the US Presidential race sink to new lows as Donald Trump’s appalling language about women and his alleged behaviour took up the media’s attention and serious policy slipped further down the agenda. What a sad election this is.

The fact that Trump has tried to excuse his language as locker room banter is an insult to most sports people in locker rooms, but also a reminder that macho behaviour can become misogynist very quickly. In the UK this week, another footballer accused of rape was cleared in very murky circumstances.

Gender inequality and injustice are still rampant. I see it daily in the work I do.

The debate about gender is about us! And the truth is that gender is still a big deal here in the UK, in the US and many other western nations, but especially in the developing world where being a girl means fewer opportunities and fewer resources.

We all need to have a view because we are all impacted by the lives of women and girls. We all have mothers. Many of us have daughters and sisters.

So let’s remind ourselves what gender injustice looks like around the world.

About 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence at some time in their lives.

Even before girls are born, they are at risk – there are 170 million ‘missing’ girls in Asia because of sex selective abortion.

Trafficking is a major industry – involving billions of $ and up to two million people a year. The majority are female and poor – abused as domestic servants, working in factories or brothels, intimidated, with no rights

Almost 700 million women globally were married before their 18th birthday. Around 250 million were married before 15. Although it’s hard to have accurate numbers because the issue is not considered important.

Girls of 13, even 12 sent to an uncertain and dangerous future of hard work, risky pregnancies and lack of love.

Of the 8 Millennium Development Goals, ambitiously set in 2000, and which ended last year, the one that had lowest success was No5 – to cut maternal mortality by ¾. Doesn’t that tell us something about the priorities of many developing country governments – money for guns or sports stadiums, but not for maternity clinics.

The World Heath Organisation says complications in pregnancy and childbirth are the 2nd highest cause of death in girls 15-19.

How do we respond to this tidal wave of gender injustice?

Do we say complacently, ‘Well things are slowly improving’ Do we get angry about all the things that are wrong?

Or do we decide to take positive action –

pray, give money for community projects, educate our own girls and boys about these injustices

Do we speak out?

We need actions that acknowledge that every life is valuable because God thinks we are all valuable – regardless of whether we live in Kensington or a Calais refugee camp or a one bed hut in Kenya.

Can I get a bit religious? In the days of the early church, Paul, one of the leaders, came across a slave girl who was trapped in exploitation as a fortune teller. He sets her free from an evil spirit, he frees her from economic exploitation (much to the annoyance of the slave owners) and gives her the chance to have a new life. And he gets thrown into jail for tackling injustice.

It’s a story that takes up just 4 sentences but it shows us what life can be like when we take the time to care for girls who are trapped. The girl had no choices when Paul met her – she was a slave in every sense. And she was set free in every sense.

We need to remind ourselves of the value of a spiritual underpinning to the practical support, help for the family, teaching and empowering that we can offer girls and women.

I want my daughter to have dreams and hopes and to be able to have choices about family and career or both or … without being judged, without having to shatter glass ceilings. I want girls living in economic and social poverty to see their dreams realized too.

God promised to give beauty in exchange for ashes, wherever they live and whatever restrictions society may impose.

Donald Trump’s sleaziness must not triumph.

 

 

 

Women, work and worth

I must admit that my literacy about aspects of the economy would not get me an A*.

I have my head around the difference between fiscal and monetary policy and could even define quantitative easing but details of the financial crash of 2008 just don’t stay in my brain.

And if you look at media aimed at women, you’d think money was only good for spending on personal indulgences. Saving? Wise management? Don’t worry your blonde-highlighted head about that.

But women and men need to be wise about money, so we can have enough for our needs, be content with all we have and give generously to those who have need.

We also need to understand how we can make the economic system fairer. Nations of the world have come up with goals that address some of the ‘unfairness’ of our world. But are their plans in line with God’s economics?

SDGsThe Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed a year ago by all nations at the UN. Behind the scenes, nations and researchers are busy working out how to tackle the mighty challenges of 17 goals and 169 targets (target 170 was not to have so many targets!) And technocrats want to see how they can collect accurate data to measure success and shortcomings.

The Goals are relevant to all nations because we ALL have to show we are meeting targets on poverty, environment, access to education and economic well-being. For us in the western world, this could be a challenge as we will have to admit that we have economic poverty and poverty of opportunity – that far too many people get left behind.

Some of the targets are interesting because they strongly encourage all men and women to have access to economic resources and meaningful paid work.

Christian charities and churches have been very good at providing education opportunities. The first Sunday Schools were set up to give children from very poor families who worked 6 days a week in a factory or mine or farm, the chance to learn to read and write. The teachers were motivated by twin desires – to improve the children’s life chances and to enable the children to read the Bible. Whether it’s a mums and toddlers group in the church hall, or a church primary school, or after school homework clubs, across the world, we still value learning.

We know that education is a route out of poverty but we haven’t concentrated so much on the quality of work those children are offered when they finish education.

We need to look at our attitudes to work and economic participation, make sure they align with Biblical values and then see how the values implicit in the SDGs measure up.

I’ve picked out some SDG targets that specifically mention women.

Target 1.4 says: By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance…

(And a linked target 5.5 asks for national laws to ensure this)

Ruth and Naomi would agree with this target. It is about giving equal access and opportunity to the vulnerable – widows in many places still can’t inherit land or property, and many women still need a man’s permission to access money or open a bank account.

Access to credit, and to land ownership will help women have economic security.

And maybe churches have a role in letting women and men know their rights. Naomi knew the laws about kinship redeemers and she used her knowledge to ensure security for Ruth and her.

Target 8.5 says: By 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value.

The capable and multi-tasking woman in Proverbs 31 would agree with this target. ‘Decent work’ is a wonderful term. We want to see all people use their talents to the full and be given fair pay. An interesting issue though, is the right of women (or men) to do unpaid work as a full time mother, or carer, or to volunteer her skills at church or in the community. In the desire to give women access to decent work, we need to make provisions for volunteering and caring. A first step is to appreciate in economic and social terms the contribution women (and it is still mainly women) make to families and communities.

Across the world, some women will be fighting to leave the home and get paid work, others will want p-t work and others will want a full-time career. And some women want to full-time mums.

It is dangerous to say one model is more Christian than another. We are all different and have different roles to fulfil at different times. Economically, we want to see women and men with the right to take up opportunities.

Target 8.7 says: Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.

These crimes against children should be the concern of all churches. We should be involved at a practical level, at a praying level and in our economic decisions.

Back to my first point. So much of our charity and care directed at helping women and children, ignores the economics of inequality and unfairness. But Boaz realised that charity to Ruth and Naomi at harvest time was not enough. He knew he had to follow God’s standards to restore Ruth’s inheritance. What a man of faith! And what a women of faith Naomi and Ruth were to behave honourably and boldly to receive blessing.

 

When sex is monstrous terror

Along the dusty roads in Bukavu Eastern Congo (DRC), tiny women walk huddled over with 30kg loads of firewood. They are human beasts of burden forced into this tough work because they are victims of poverty and violence. Many have been raped, some are widows, which means they face social rejection as well as pain.

Armed militia (and the army) have rampaged through eastern and northern DRC for a generation – they are themselves brutalised by the war and turn against anyone who is more vulnerable: women and girls have been raped, mutilated and forced to see their families killed; their crops are burnt and everything stolen. Even though the conflict is meant to be over, 40 women are raped every day around Bukavu and the actual figure is bound to be higher because there is strong stigma against women who tell their story.

Attacks against women are also common in Egypt. There is very little sex education in villages but girls understand that forced sex is a danger and that it is they who will be blamed, not the boys or men, if they get pregnant.

When sexual violence and religion are mixed together, my heart is crushed.

Last week, Soad, a 70 year old grandmother in a village in upper Egypt, was stripped naked and paraded around her village. Her ‘crime’? It was rumoured that her son, a Christian man, was having an affair with a Moslem woman. Seven homes of Christian families were burned down on the same day.

Different forms of violence and terror, all aimed at women and girls.

I am horrified by the extent of violence but I am also concerned about how we respond to these incidents of sexual violence.

There is a hierarchy of concern common in all media. To put it bluntly, young women or girls get more sympathy than older women. There was an outpouring of sympathy when 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria were abducted by Islamist militia. It was indeed a terrible crime but it also fitted with a narrative of Moslem terrorism so it received massive coverage and hashtag sympathy (#BringBackOurGirls). But over 2000 women have been abducted by Boko Haram since the Chibok girls went missing and there has been hardly a murmur in the West. Are we embarrassed that we have not defeated evil? Are we tired of the same stories? Or has ISIS taken over as the major story about Moslem extremism?

Our blinkered take on sexual violence shows up when we consider acid attacks against girls in India, often related to marriage or stalking. They do not attract mainstream outrage. According to the BBC, over 1,000 girls and women in India suffered acid attacks last year. And it is troubling that some people blame the victims and say their suffering came because they behaved badly!

There seems to be a limit to our compassion – we get fatigued by poverty, disaster and violence and care less than we ought. We want quick fixes – based on money and some prayers. We don’t want to acknowledge that healing and restoration can take many years of hard work and persistent prayer. The conflict in DRC has been going on for a generation, so the media and our hearts have moved on to the next disaster.

We also allow sex and sexual violence to pervade our screens and maybe that makes us de-sensitised to the reality of suffering that women and girls endure. Pornography is everywhere, often in the guise of drama. Detective shows seem to compete in a race to be more and more explicit about violence against young, naked female victims.

In Game of Thrones, a blockbuster TV series, rape and sexual violence are an almost casual part of the storyline, used to impose power, but also to titillate and improve ratings.

Apparently the author of the books on which Game of Thrones is based, says he was trying to “convey an accurately medieval sense of how the powerful prey upon the powerless, including men preying on women”. Even if that’s true, the TV show has gone further just for the sake of showing more violent sex, that has little to do with the original plot.

So are we complicit in promoting the very behaviour and attitudes that we say we abhor?

When sex is a monstrous terror used to frighten and destroy, we should be shocked and we should act.

We should be ‘innocent as doves’ so that our response to sexual violence is never dulled.

And to encourage us that women are responding to the issue, let me tell you about Nabila Nakhla, who heads up the work of women in evangelical churches in Egypt. She is a strong woman of faith. She and her husband could have left for a safer home many years ago, but they feel that God wants them in Cairo. She and her team work with teenage girls, educating them about sex, relationships and self worth. Now she is extending her work to widows and the first course begins this week on June 28th at a safe house outside Cairo.

Pray for this work that is done by churches in Egypt, for the work done in DRC and India – that those who refuse to give in to despair will have strength and hope.

 You can donate to Tearfund UK’s work in DRC with vulnerable women here

 You can donate to the work of the Women’s Commission in Egypt here. Please click on Women’s Commission in the dropdown menu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whatever happened to wearing Sunday best?

When I was a girl (OK, it was a fair while ago) we all wore our best clothes to church. My mum made me a Sunday-best-dress – one for summer and one for winter all through my childhood. As the youngest of three girls, I wore a lot of hand-me-downs so the Sunday dresses, which also served for birthday parties, were a real treat, made specially for me.

1960s Portrait Family Father Mother Two Daughters Son Standing Together Outdoors

My mother always looked smart for church – gloves, stockings and a hat were de rigueur. My parents’ generation saw their suits and frocks as an outward sign of respect for God and the church. It was also a show of respectability, that whatever your economic circumstances, you put on your best for the Lord’s day.

Clothes were made to last and be versatile (if a little formal). According to British Airways advice to women travellers in 1971, a woman should be able to go anywhere by packing:

3 dresses, 2 vests, 2 pairs gloves, a twin set, an evening dress with bag and shoes, a wool stole and a girdle[1].

How fashion has changed! And thankfully so, because it is more relaxed for both men and women. There is more choice and the rules are less strict.

But in some ways, clothes and fashion are more complicated. With that loss of meaning for ‘Sunday-best’, we have also lost respect for quality and we care not at all who makes our jeans, tops and trainers. My mum would update old clothes with a new hemline or added ribbon. She carefully darned and patched everything and passed on those skills to me. Clothes were worth mending because they were expensive to buy.

Women could not get access to credit cards until 1975 (that’s only a generation ago) so paying for clothes by ‘lay-by’ was popular. My mum and millions of other women would put down a deposit for a jumper or coat, which the store then set aside. And then week-by-week, women would pay off a bit more with no added interest. There was lots of anticipation and it taught families to see such purchases as special.

Now, at one end of the shopping mall or high street we have cheapened clothes so much that I can buy three t-shirts for $10 while at the other end of the mall, we aspire to own shoes and bags that cost a week’s wages. We buy on credit and don’t have to budget or save.

We think we have fashion freedom to define our own style but we are part of a globalised fashion industry that is worth a staggering US$1.5 trillion a year[2]. Just one brand, Zara produces 900 million garments annually.

So our ‘freedom’ or empowerment is a joke. We are part of an industry that entices women to buy clothes every month (stores like Primark, Forever 21 and H&M add new clothes every fortnight!)

IMG_5825We are told we ‘should’ wear high heels at work to look professional. And we face the sack if we complain as Nicola Thorpe found out in London last month. A temp receptionist, she was sent away from a London financial company for refusing to wear high heels. The dress code said she should wear 2-4 inch heels (5-10cm)[3]. So the question has to be, how does such a rule help her to do a better job? Or is it just a bit of sexism?

 

We may not wear girdles but we submit to high heels or botox or breast implants!

Blogger and academic, Professor Mary Kassian reminds us about being wise in the way we look after the things God has given us and that includes our clothes[4]. She quotes Luke 16, Whoever is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and whoever is unrighteous in very little is also unrighteous in much. So if you have not been faithful with the unrighteous money, who will trust you with what is genuine? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to someone else, who will give you what is your own?

 Kassian reminds us “to be intentional about putting some strategies in place to be a good steward of what God has given you.” Maybe the concept of Sunday-best can still be a good guideline if it means we are showing respect for God’s provision and those who grow and make our clothes.

[1] For anyone under about 50, a girdle was like today’s body shaper, designed to hold up stockings and hold in your tummy. It also made you hot and uncomfortable.

[2] https://www.penguin.com.au/products/9781863958356/wardrobe-crisis-how-we-went-sunday-best-fast-fashion

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/high-heels-receptionist-sent-home-pwc-nicola-thorp_uk_573324b4e4b0e6da49a72f9f

[4] http://girlsgonewise.com/dos-and-donts-for-your-next-wardrobe-crisis/

 

Stories make life richer

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”          Rudyard Kipling

So you’ll be pleased to know that I am going to tell you two stories about remarkable women that I heard at the weekend. That makes them ‘herstories’, not histories.

I had never heard of Isabella Tod till last weekend. She was a fierce defender of the rights of women in mid 19th century Ireland. Maybe it was the combination of a Scottish father and Irish mother, maybe it was the influence of her mum who educated Isabella at home and maybe it was her Christian (Presbyterian) faith that produced such a remarkable organiser, writer and campaigner.

For a period Tod earned her living as a writer and journalist in Belfast. She wrote and campaigned on a wide range of issues – social and moral – that impacted on women, always stressing women’s equality. She cleverly argued that women were “citizens of the state …..bound as much as men are bound to consider the good of the whole [nation]; and justified as much as men are justified in sharing the good of the whole”.

She spoke out for the rights of married women to keep control of their property: under law, all their property passed into the ownership of their husbands, which meant they lost financial independence.

isabella tod

She was a ‘respectable’ woman (she certainly looks respectable in her photo) but that did not stop her from standing up for prostitutes in Victorian Ireland – she wanted to change legislation that meant any woman suspected of being a prostitute could be arrested and forced to undergo medical examination for venereal disease. For Tod, it was a case of simple decency.

 

Tod was a strong advocate of temperance, knowing the impact of drink on family life and finances.

She advocated for girls to have access to secondary and tertiary education and was keen that middle class women get practical training so they could earn a living.

Tod organised the first suffrage society in the country and her speeches in favour of voting rights for women were widely reported in suffrage journals and daily newspapers. She addressed meetings in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and visited London annually during the parliamentary session to lobby politicians on both sides of politics.

Such a wide range of interests and causes – no wonder Isabella Tod is regarded as the most prominent feminist in 19th century Ireland. Perhaps a pity that her faith is not often mentioned as her inspiration.

And my second story was also unknown to me till last week. As many parts of the world celebrated Mother’s Day at the weekend, Irena Sendler is an amazing testament to mothers: she became surrogate ‘mother’ to 2500 Jewish children in the Warsaw ghetto.

irena sendlerIrena, a young Christian woman around 30 years old, got permission to work in the ghetto. This was the Jewish camp, only 2.6 square kms, where 400,000 Jews were herded in appalling conditions by the Nazi occupying force. She went in as a plumbing/sewer specialist. With a group of other volunteers, Irena smuggled Jewish infants out in the bottom of the tool box she carried, in a burlap sack in the back of her truck, or via the sewer network. There was also a church on the border of the ghetto, which was used as rescue route.

 

The story goes that Irena kept a dog in the back of her truck that she trained to bark when the Nazi soldiers let her in and out of the ghetto. The dog intimidated the soldiers and its barking covered the children’s noises.

After rescuing and hiding 2500 children from 1941 to 1943 using the Polish resistance network, she was caught. The Nazis broke her legs and feet, and beat her severely. But she escaped death and spent the next 18 months in hiding until Poland was liberated.

The story does not end there. She had kept the names of all her rescued children in a jar, which she buried in her garden. After the war, she tried to locate any parents that may have survived and tried to reunite the families. Most of the parents had been gassed in Treblinka concentration camp so the children got placed into foster family homes or adopted.

Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 (though she did not win). She died the next year, aged 98, in Warsaw.

My thanks to friends who told me these stories

– thanks Eliza for telling me about Isabella Tod around the dinner table. Eliza, like Tod, is a Christian woman from Northern Ireland and she also told me that Tod will be celebrated in a display in the UK Parliament celebrating 100 years of universal suffrage)

– thanks to Michael Frost, Australian theologian and author, for posting about Irena Sendler on his facebook page

Action: Please share these stories (and others you know) about women who act with courage and audacious faith to bring goodness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cast a net of caring

Looking out at me from the front page of the newspaper yesterday were the faces of eight women – all killed by their partners or boyfriends. Lovely women and teenagers from all backgrounds. And a little girl, Darcey, aged four who was thrown off a bridge by her father.

IMG_5599

Today, there was another story of a woman attacked by an ex-boyfriend. A man who was with the woman, died from stab wounds.

These tragedies are part of a terrible pattern of domestic violence across the world. In Australia, on average, one woman is killed every week as a result of intimate partner violence. A woman is most likely to be killed by her male partner in her home.

In England, two women are killed by a current or former partner every week. Globally, one in three women has experienced sexual or physical violence – in most cases from a partner or family member. And men and boys are victims as well – caught up in violence aimed at their girlfriend, daughter or sister; or sometimes victims of violent women.

And despite the horror of such figures and the grief for families that lies behind every incident, a recent Royal Commission on domestic violence in Victoria, Australia points to serious shortcomings in the way women are treated if they come forward for help and highlights that responses can be haphazard and delayed.

So it ends up that women have nowhere to go to escape from relationships that SHOULD offer security and love, but instead create fear, pain and guilt. Domestic and family violence is the principle cause of homelessness for women and their children in places like Australia.

The report had many stories from women in its 2000 pages. One struck me because it mentioned a church leader’s unhelpful response. Susan, who had been raped and beaten and kicked in the belly when she was pregnant, was told by her church leader to go home and improve her cooking and cleaning and be more “obliging”.

Jenifer Johnson from Barbados, who heads up the Women’s Commission of the Evangelical Churches in the Caribbean, still hears from women who have been told by their pastors to return to abusive marriages because it is right to submit. She operates the only refuge for women in Barbados and knows how hard it is for women to leave abusive relationships – there are emotional and economic barriers that keep women at home. She tells Christian leaders very forthrightly that they should not ignore the problem and they should not hold women responsible for the cruelty of men.

We should have a clear understanding that women and men are equal and have inherent value because we are designed in the image of God. And we need to proclaim that message to counter crimes excused on the grounds of tradition or culture.

Many violence issues facing women and girls take freakish cultural patterns.

In the UK, physical and verbal abuse can be used to keep wives in domestic servitude. A ground-breaking case that concluded this week, sent a man to jail for using “violence, intimidation, aggression and misery” to keep his wife as a slave for over two years.

In South Asia, brothers or fathers of girls who they think have disgraced the family’s honour, throw acid, set girls alight or beat them to deliberately disfigure or destroy life. To me it is shocking that a father who is meant to protect his daughter can see her as property to be abused. A recent murder case in India turned out to be vengeful punishment for a daughter who had secretly married into a lower caste. Her father and brothers and even her mother are implicated in the murder.

I think we tend to assume that Christians are not perpetrators or victims of domestic violence and we shy away from aggressive feminist narratives that deem all men to be guilty.

I celebrate the many men I know who are caring and protective sons, brothers and husbands. They are champions of women. But we need to acknowledge that women and children in our churches and families may be suffering and we should be open to talking. We need to model healthy relationships that do not condone any thought that violence is acceptable or that a woman is to blame when she is beaten.

Rather than casting stones of blame, we can cast a net of caring protection and restoration. Like Jenifer Johnson, we can make space to speak truth to men and women about their attitudes, we need to watch out for abuse and we can stand for equality.

If you have any questions about this issue, Restored has a useful FAQs page

Please pray for Jenifer Johnson as she supports women and challenges the church in the Caribbean to take domestic violence seriously.

You can donate to the work of the WEA Women’s Commission in the Caribbean here