Linnea Peterson, Minneapolis, MN

Warm-up Questions

  • Have you ever tried to talk about something that happened to you and had someone refuse to believe you? 
  • Do you think some people are believed more than others when they talk about their experiences? What do you think leads to that difference? 

Believe Me

A couple of months ago, pop star Britney Spears released a memoir, The Woman in Me, bringing her back into the national spotlight. Though her most popular songs came out over 20 years ago, Spears has received attention in recent years with the #FreeBritney movement, which was an effort by Spears and her supporters to end the conservatorship that gave Spears’ father, Jamie Spears, legal control over Britney Spears’ life, medical options, and finances. 

As with movements such as #MeToo, the #FreeBritney movement had at its heart a commitment to believing women. In this context, the title of Spears’ memoir seems deliberate, particularly the use of the word woman. She could have titled the book something like The Adult in Me or The Grownup in Me to signal that she is no longer a teen sensation and has matured. Focusing on her womanhood, rather than just her adulthood, indicates not only that she is now an adult but also that her gender is important to her. Perhaps it serves to remind readers that her gender has played a significant role in how others treat her, as well. 

As with many societies around the world and throughout history, our society has an unfortunate tendency to discount or dismiss women’s stories, even when those stories are true. In the case of Britney Spears, it took a long time and a lot of public pressure for the legal system to take seriously that she was competent to make her own decisions and that her father was misusing his control over her. 

Through the efforts and belief of many of Britney Spears’ supporters, as well as Spears’ advocacy for herself, the conservatorship was finally ended. In the time since, Spears has been able to reclaim her voice enough to write and publish a memoir. 

Yet Spears is far from the only woman who has been disregarded and disbelieved.  Many situations, from small interpersonal discussions or disagreements, to group projects and business strategy, to large, complex global conflicts, would benefit from paying more attention to the perspectives of women.  That only happens if women speak up and men create space and listen well. 

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever felt like your gender has affected the way other people treat you? What about other aspects of your identity? 
  • Have you ever noticed yourself treating someone else differently based on something about their identity? 
  • In many ways, a conservatorship locks an adult into the legal status of a minor. What might justify such an arrangement?  When should it be terminated?
  • Do parents and guardians currently have too much control over the lives of their children or other minors in their care? If you think there should be changes to the balance of power between parents/guardians and minors, what should those changes look like? What is the ideal balance of freedom versus safety for those under 18? 

Fourth Sunday of Advent

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Romans 16:25-27

Luke 1:26-38

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

What stands out to me in this gospel reading is that Luke does not in any way question or cast doubt upon Mary’s insistence that she is a virgin. Surely people who knew Mary during her pregnancy or during the early years of Jesus’ life must have wondered whether he was Joseph’s son, since he was born during Mary and Joseph’s betrothal. This would likely have been a topic that some people found scandalous and gossiped about, but Luke does not engage in any such speculation. 

Matthew reports that Joseph had a dream where an angel told him that Mary was still a virgin, that her child was of the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph should marry Mary, even though she was pregnant with a child that was not his. Luke does not contain this story. In Luke, the only testimony we have that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus is Mary’s own testimony. It is significant that Luke chooses to believe Mary about her virginity at the time of Jesus’ conception. 

While Christianity sometimes fails to live up to this standard of believing women, we would have a very different religion if we did not believe Mary’s account of how she became pregnant with Jesus. The story of Jesus and our theology about him are influenced by the fact that we view Jesus to be of divine origin, something that we believe, in part, because of Mary’s account of how she became pregnant. 

The church has too often silenced women, a tradition that began with some of the New Testament epistles forbidding women from speaking in church. Such a prohibition, along with many of the ideas about what constitutes Christian behavior found in the epistles, was an effort to appear blameless to the rest of Roman society, a strategy now known as “respectability politics.” 

The ELCA and its predecessor Lutheran denominations have been ordaining women for 53 years. This is something to celebrate, and I am deeply grateful for the many female pastors I have had throughout my life. It is, however, worth noting that the first American Lutheran woman of color was ordained just 43 years ago, 10 years later than the first white American Lutheran woman, and also that women in same-sex relationships have only been eligible for ordination in the ELCA since 2009. Both LGBTQ+ women and women of color wait significantly longer, on average, for calls in the ELCA than their white, straight, male counterparts. There is still plenty of ground to cover as we strive to listen to more women in the church. 

Discussion Questions

  • How do you think Christianity would look different if we chose not to believe Mary about Jesus being of divine origin? 
  • Would Jesus still be special if he had been conceived in the conventional way?
  • Have you heard of “respectability politics”? Can you think of other behaviors that the letters in the New Testament mandate or ban that you think fit into this pattern? 

Activity Suggestions

  • The United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists have created a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum called Our Whole Lives, which some ELCA congregations have also started to participate. Look up the Our Whole Lives curriculum and see if there is anything in it that you think would be beneficial to your congregation. 
  • Gather supplies to donate to a local women’s shelter. Hygiene and menstrual products are often greatly appreciated. 
  • Listen to the Britney Spears song “Stronger” and discuss how the lyrics relate to or differ from the gospel passage for today. 

Closing Prayer

Gracious God, you created us in your male and female image. You know the truth, and you believe us when we tell you or others about what we have experienced. Guide us to believe others when they share the truth of their lives with us. Remind us to listen to those who might otherwise be disbelieved or ignored.  Strengthen us to keep speaking up when we are the ones in that situation. Amen.