My hometown is in West Texas. I grew up surrounded by barrenness. But I guess I never really thought of it as barren. I mean, it was full of stuff. Like rattlesnakes, catcus, stickers (the kind that get stuck in your feet, not on papers), Black Widow spiders, well, all kinds of spiders, including a few tarantulas, snakes, scorpions (itty bitty ones), mesquite (I once had a mesquite thorn puncture my car tire!) coyotes, bobcats, horses, cows, cotton fields, pump jacks, skunks, jackrabbits, prairie dogs, horny toads....
Hey, you could actually fit quite a lot in that barrenness.
I actually found it beautiful most of the time. The open sky, the straight roads, the sunsets.
Of course you had to tolerate the brownness of everything.
Actually, as a child, I did a report one year about Texas Wildflowers and grasses. I remember trying to illustrate my report and being confused if I should color the grasses green or brown. Because they don't actually stay green for long in West Texas. Everything just seemed to grow in various stages of brown.
While I loved my Texas, and the big, big sky... I dreamed of places that were green. Like bright vibrant green. Ireland for example. In fact, one of the things I was really looking forward to when I came to Japan was... greenness.
My friend shared with me a Bible passage today, and I quoted the first verse above.
This passage always seems to make me cringe lately. It's like pouring hydrogen peroxide on a flesh wound. I can just feel ugly parts of myself bubbling up and reacting to those words.
O Barren Woman.
Wait, that felt more like a knife than anything else.
The more I ponder it, the more painful those words become.
O Barren Woman.
I am a barren woman. I come from a barren land.
Doesn't it kinda feel like the word echos around deep in the caverns of your soul?
Well, maybe it's just me.
When I was a child, around 6th grade I believe, I tested into the Gifted and Talented group in my school. Of course I was proud of my Gifted and Talentedness, but what really made me happy was for that one year I was the only girl in the program for my grade.
I was special.
I guess many girls hate being the only girl, but I loved it. Somewhere I guess, being the only girl somehow made it more apparent that I was in fact a girl. I became more feminine by default.
I loved it.
But the next year there were 3 girls and I wasn't special anymore.
But I never forgot how that felt.
I guess it was part of my search for womanhood. What does it mean to be a woman? What is my identity?
John Eldridge examines masculinity and femininity in his books. He talks about how Eve was created in the image of God: the image of beauty and life. This is what she brings to the world.
Eve is given to Adam as his ezer kenegdo-or as many translations have it, his "help meet" or "helper." Doesn't sound like much, does it? It makes me think of Hamburger Helper. But Robert Alter says this is "a notoriously difficult word to translate." It means something far more powerful than just "helper"; it means "lifesaver." The phrase is only used elsewhere of God, when you need him to come through for you desperately. "There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you" (Deut. 33:26). Eve is a life giver; she is Adam's ally. It is to both of them that the charter for adventure is given. It will take both of them to sustain life. And they will both need to fight together.
Eve is deceived . . . and rather easily, as my friend Jan Meyers points out. In The Allure of Hope, Jan says, "Eve was convinced that God was withholding something from her." Not even the extravagance of Eden could convince her that God's heart is good. "When Eve was [deceived], the artistry of being a woman took a fateful dive into the barren places of control and loneliness." Now every daughter of Eve wants to "control her surroundings, her relationships, her God." No longer is she vulnerable; now she will be grasping. No longer does she want simply to share in the adventure; now she wants to control it. And as for her beauty, she either hides it in fear and anger, or she uses it to secure her place in the world. "In our fear that no one will speak on our behalf or protect us or fight for us, we start to recreate both ourselves and our role in the story. We manipulate our surroundings so we don't feel so defenseless." Fallen Eve either becomes rigid or clingy. Put simply, Eve is no longer simply inviting. She is either hiding in busyness or demanding that Adam come through for her; usually, an odd combination of both.
In Ancient times a Barren woman was considered to be a failure as a woman. Fortunately society has changed, and women aren't as shamed by barrenness (although the shame is still there, just less obvious. It comes out at family gatherings when well meaning family members wonder why you aren't married yet, or when you watch your group of single friends grow smaller and younger while the rest of your friends families grow larger and the children grow older.)
But if you think about what a woman's unique gift to the world is, the ability to bring life, and what barrenness is - the absence of life...
Is it any wonder I feel that the term O Barren Woman is a declaration of failure as a woman?
Those feelings shake and echo in my heart, like banshees - angry and accusing, whipping around out of control on the wings of a tornado that threatens to pick me up, body and soul, to deposit me in a hell of shame and brokenness and defeat.
And in the middle of that, God is telling me to rejoice? And sing? Burst into song? Shout for joy?
The concept is shocking enough that the banshees stop their howling - shocked into silence by the absurdness of it. I mean, seriously, how are you supposed to react to that?
In the shocked silence, I have a little time to ponder these things. The numbness helps me deal with the facts.
Yes, I am a barren woman. Not because my body is broken. I've had a good friend who struggled over a year with infertility and the fears and the tears and frustrations. It's hard for me to empathize, but I know it was a huge emotional and spiritual trial for her. In the end, God granted her prayers and her time of barrenness has been filled with life.
But my barrenness is different. I think I could bear it better if my body was broken. That is something out of my control, and doesn't have anything to do with my identity or value as a woman.
No, my barrenness is because... I am alone. A woman cannot give life alone. A woman is carried and filled and delivers life, but a woman cannot produce life alone.
She needs to be filled by someone else.
This is a much harder reality for me to bear. This feels like I am a failure as a woman. Because I am not wanted, I am not needed, therefore I cannot give life. I have no husband.
I am empty.
It's scary, and lonely.
And I have to face the possibility that it may be permanent.
Yet, I am told rejoice.
Break into song.
Shout for joy.
My cold heart reacts like Sarai, with a disbelieving laugh.
Hah. That's funny.
I, the Barren Woman, should rejoice in my barrenness.
But who can stand against God? Is there anything that God cannot do?
I have a long way to go. I am not calm and accepting like Mary. I am old and bitter like Sarai. But I think that very bitterness is what is causing my true barrenness. Barrenness of my heart.
Because if I allowed myself to be filled with Jesus, like Mary, life would pour out of me, because I would not be alone. I would give birth to joy and song and dancing. In my heart, there would be Life and Light.
But if I stay in my barrenness, then the only things that will grow are the bitterness and shame that want to consume me.
But on the up side, my barren heart is very empty right now. So that means Jesus has plenty of room to grow in. He doesn't have to compete with a husband or children or even love of my job. I have even let go of my dearest dreams, returning empty handed like the prodigal son after chasing empty things.
So my prayer for the new year is a year filled with Jesus growing in me, taking over my barren spaces, and filling me with joy and song.
I hope to go from being a Barren Woman, to being a Blessed Woman.
Happy New Year.