February 10, 2011

A Woman's Role - Here and Hereafter

A friend of mine recently lost his wife to cancer. He's a few years older than me. Well, about 16 years older. Not just for that reason, but also for that reason, he sees the world a little bit differently than I do. Still, he's a smart guy and I respect him for his faith and his values and for his business knowledge and what he has done in his life. In family, in business, in charitable works and the life of the church he has accomplished great things. Together with his wife of nearly 50 years, they accomplished great things.

So this morning, over coffee with another mutual friend, he inquired what we thought our relationships with our loved ones will be like when we get to "the other side." ("The other side" is my term for "heaven" or "the afterlife.") In the course of a wide-ranging discussion it became clearer that he had a simple agenda for his question: he missed his recently-departed wife and he hoped to be with her again someday.

However, the can of worms had been opened and spilled, and could not be recontained. Myriad questions came of this first, innocent inquiry. How will we recongnize each other on the other side? Will we experience emotions on the other side like we do here? Will there be such things as anger over wrongs never righted, forgiveness not yet given or received, and feelings of love? What if we had more than one wife in this lifetime and all of us make it to the other side? Who will we be with in the hereafter? What about those people who stayed married in this life but who hated their spouses? Would they be forever stuck together in the hereafter? What about people who died as infants, or too young. What will they look like? What about someone who, like my wife, died at 53. What if I live to be 80? Will she look 53 and I'll look 80?

Somehow this conversation segued to the roles that women serve in the here-and-now versus the roles that women might play in the hereafter. Will there be marriages on the other side? Will there be sex on the other side? Or will those things be irrelevant? Will there even be any gender differentiation on the other side?

I am not really qualified to answer these questions, but I do have some experience with women, and I have opinions about the role of women. I grew up with a stay-at-home mother in the day and age when being a stay-at-home mom wasn't yet seen as being somehow inferior. I had four sisters (and a brother). I had a few girlfriends way back when, and then, at age 22, got married and was married to the same woman for 29 years. My wife died of complications from cancer about a year ago, and I am confident that, like my friend's recently-departed wife, she is already on the other side. I have two daughters, ages 22 and 23. As my daughters forge into and through young adulthood without their mother, and as they yet grieve for the loss of her, I have had the temerity to get a new girlfriend and to, gasp, propose marriage to her.

So I have already given a fair amount of mental and emotional energy and thought to these questions about the role of women in the here and the hereafter. Now having had this recent meandering conversation with friends, and having further contemplated these questions, here are some of my underdeveloped thoughts, from one man's perspective, on the roles a woman plays now, and later.

Woman Child - The Birth of Innocence.

There really is something pure and completely innocent about a newborn baby. Even as young girls my daughters were unbridled in their joy and laughter, and it always delighted and amused me the way they would come running and throw themselves at me when I would come home from work. I don't really know if there is any difference between boys and girls at birth, because my wife and I only had girls. But it is my observation that very soon after birth there are differentiations of behavior between boys and girls.

The Teenage Girl - The Birth of Guile and Charm

Somewhere along the road of growing up we all learn behaviors that are less than innocent. I remember telling my teenage girls that they couldn't wear certain revealing clothing in public. They'd leave the house in perfectly acceptable modest clothing, but unbeknownst to me they had the revealing stuff on underneath. As soon as I was out of sight, well, you know how that works. And this very behavior is part of the not-completely-understood powerful attraction between boys and girls. What is the role of women in the world? Why did God wire girls and boys this way?

Young Woman - The Birth of Beauty, Strength, and Love

In thinking about beauty I tend to contrast the typical woman from the typical man. In general I think of women as beautiful and men as, well, rugged. Oh sure, there are some rugged women and some beautiful men. Not that I don't think rugged is beautiful, too. I love the rugged mountains and think of them as some of God's most beautiful creation. Still, I tend to think about women as softer and men as harder -- more hard-edged and hard-headed. That softness that women have translates to a different kind of beauty than mere physical beauty and a different kind of strength than mere physical strength -- sort of like a strength of moral character.

A woman's softness also translates into differences in how women and men relate to each other and to others. And these differences between women and men create a mutual attraction. Like they have something we men lack and which we need, and we have something they need and which they lack. Why is that?

Wife - The Birth of Relationship and Companionship

We are not made to be alone. That's why. When God created Adam and Adam was all alone on Earth he was lonesome. Duh! God, Himself, said: "It is not good for a man to be alone." (Gen. 2:18) So God created Eve to be Adam's Earthly companion. According to the creation story in Genesis Eve was created by taking a part of man from the man, and so, for a man to be complete he has to be in relationship with a woman. For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife. (Gen. 2:24) Presumably there is a symbiotic sense in which, to be complete a woman must be united with a man.

Mother - The Birth of Babies

It is the most obvious thing, and still it has to be said. Without a woman there are no babies. Of course, the same is true about men, but, while important, the role a man plays in the birth of babies is, well, miniscule compared to that of a woman.
If you have ever experienced the birth of a child, particularly your own child, then you might have experienced the compelling and profound awe of birth, and the compelling feeling that God really does exist. The birth of a child really is one of God's great miracles. That experience may be the closest we can come in this lifetime to understanding the awesome creative power of God. Something from nothing. Something new and as-yet untainted by any human experience.

The Mother Parent - Birth of Nurturing

Since my wife's passing a year ago my daughters and I have really experienced how much their mother was a relational buffer -- sort of a relational softener -- between them and me. There's a certain compassion and depth of love and nurturing and caring and care-taking that a woman brings to the child-rearing table and which most men lack.

There is a real, if not slightly muddy, delineation between the role of men and the role of women in the parenting world. There is a real-ness to the idea that a father plays a different role than a mother in the rearing of children, and that, in the same way that a man needs a woman to be complete and a woman needs a man to be complete, a child needs both a father and a mother to experience completeness; That without one or the other, the child will be lacking.

Why, then, is there only a heavenly father, and not also a heavenly mother? In the realm of spirituality don't we also need both the aspects of father and mother, man and woman? There are some who argue that God has all the elements of both man and woman; that in saying that we are created in God's image, the reality is that, even though we are different, both men and women are created in God's image. Separately we are incomplete in reflecting the image of God, but jointly we have all the elements.

The Biblical parable of the prodigal son, as told by Jesus (see Luke 15), seems to depict the prodigal's father in the role of God, welcoming back the son who had rejected him and sinned against him but who had come home to seek forgiveness and to be restored to the family. Interestingly, in Jesus' parable there is no mention of the mother of the lost son. But when the lost son returns the father "is filled with compassion" and he does things which, in the culture of the time, only a woman would have done. For example hiking up his robes and running to greet his returning son and falling on the son and kissing him.
Rembrandt's painting, Return of the Prodigal Son, picks up on this issue. In Rembrandt's painting it appears that the right hand of the father, placed on the left shoulder of the kneeling son, is a woman's hand while the other hand is clearly a man's hand. The painting depicts the father embracing a kneeling son in a very motherish sort of way. The implication is that God is both father and mother; both male and female; both masculine and feminine.
I have a sense that gender roles may be unimportant in the hereafter. I am thinking we will be more unigender on the other side. I don't think we will be called upon to procreate and populate the heavens. I don't think there will be girls and boys and women and men as we think of them on the other side. I think we will recognize each other, and that we will experience emotions such as joy (and sadness about those we loved who didn't make it to the good place), but our relationships will be more like platonic friendships than familial in the earthly sense. But really, I don't know. I am hoping to get there someday and to find out.
The Sick and Dying Woman - Birth to The Other Side

One of the questions my friend asked at our recent breakfast is "why does God let sick people suffer before taking them home?" In asking the question, he was expressing some frustration that his wife had to suffer from her illness for as long as she did. I experienced some of the same emotions about my dying wife.

There are a few times in life where God, and our thoughts about God, are brought into sharp focus. Births and deaths are two of those times where our thoughts of God are acute. Let's be real, when people we care about die, or are dying, we wonder where they will go. What does the other side look like? How will God deal with them? How will God deal with us -- with me -- when our time is up?

And those who are right with God and who go bravely are witnesses. There is a God. There is another life. There is another place, and what we think of as dying might really be just the beginning of a new life on the other side. People who are right with God get to go to the good place on the other side. Get right with God so you can go there too.
So it makes a little sense that, if someone other than the dying person -- but who is close to the dying person -- needs to get right with God, God might let the dying and suffering go on a little longer than he needs to. Not so that the one dying will suffer more, but so that the one not yet saved will suffer less.
I don't know why, but I still clearly remember a Paul Harvey radio show where Harvey discussed the topic of death and dying. At the end of the show, Harvey said something like this: "If all the fetuses in all the wombs of all the pregnant mothers in the world could get together, and if one of them should then be born, they might all say, 'Poor old Jane has passed away.'"
Pastor Larry Martens emailed these Bible references to me:
Luke 20: 27-40 - "The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like angels. They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection." - Jesus
Mark 12: 18-27 - "When the dead rise, they shall neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven." - Jesus

1 comment:

  1. I believe it is true, that we are not meant to be single, alone, un-partnered, hauling our stuff around in a cart with a harness meant for two... but how do we connect with the 'right' individual when there are so many combinations? It's like going into a shoe store where there has been a big sale and there are tons of shoes, but none are paired up. One has to walk up and down the aisle with a shoe that fits, looking for the other one... some people give up and take one that is close, but not exactly right; others give up and walk out without a match; still others are hopefully digging through the piles.

    I wish you a good future with the new woman in your life and pray for kindness and honesty to be mixed with love in your future.