Aimee Byrd

Inside the word. Outside the box.

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It’s been a week. I accepted an invitation to preach on the Song of Songs to a wonderful Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregation. I was met with much hospitality, encouragement, and engagement there. And for that, I am also met with much vitriol on the internet. It’s a lot to hold together in your heart and in your head.

I wrote a response to the first wave of accusations after accepting an invitation, and CBMW published a piece about me, hoping that those who disagreed with me would at least see where I am with things and move on with their lives. But that is a pipe dream. On top of the vitriol, there is the subtle shaming. It is surreal to read a backhanded subtweet and then learn from the comments and retweets that it’s about you:

Certain people’s theological or spiritual declension should be less a cause for a sense of vindication than sorrow and shame for any whose unchristian behaviour played a part in pushing them from the truth. We can challenge people without giving orthodoxy a toxic reputation.

While he seems to be addressing toxic behavior, do you see the toxic framing there? Whomever he is speaking of…she which shant be named…is in theological and spiritual declension, pushed from the truth. So I just want to clarify that I am confident that I have been pushed, but God catches his own and I am closer to the truth even as I have much, much more to learn.

The theological and spiritual declension I see going on in the church is not because a woman gave an invitation to beauty based on Song of Songs 3:11.

Despite the accusations, I didn’t have an ambition to preach. I just wanted to have some conversations with the preacher. Because I was so moved by the gospel. And what that meant for reality and life. I wanted in—where it mattered. Into the beautiful. Into the magic of it all. Oh, the questions I had! Who else shared in these inquiries? And this draw into the invitation? I didn’t see myself as a leader, but merely a responder.

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A Meditation on Song of Songs 2:15-17

Everything was beautiful in the real life that we meditated on last. We ended with the man beckoning the woman’s voice and wanting to gaze face to face. All that goodness may make her response to him curious.

Catch the foxes for us—

the little foxes that ruin

the vineyards—

for our vineyards are in bloom.

Song 2:15

Here, we experience the tension between the already of this true invitation with the reality of the Bridegroom breaking in, and the not-yet of our consummation. The woman teaches us that reality is complex. Think of what a gift this is: here we are in the holy of holies of Scripture, where we can experience the presence of Christ with us in the most intimate place in his Word. Here we are getting behind the veil, our senses aroused to his love with a taste of what is to come. And yet, it’s all empty sentimental platitudes if we let ourselves pervert it into fantasy.

It’s real.

And so is the fact that our preparation to get there can be filled with conflict and agony. In speaking of a Jewish Hasidic Master, Elie Wiesel, says something similar. “The beauty of Rebbe Barukh [of Medzebozh] is that he could speak of faith not as opposed to anguish but as being part of it. ‘Faith and the abyss are next to one another,’ he told his disciple. ‘I would even say: one within the other. True faith lies beyond questions; true faith comes after it has been challenged.’”[1] Can you resonate with this? So many have testified, feeling a bit of shame for it, that when things are going well, they often don’t feel as close to God. What have been the greatest trials in your life? This is when our faith is exposed. And trained. The writer to the Hebrews says it like this: “No discipline seems joyful at the time[2], but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). Our faith goes through training in the hard times. Real life training. Disappointments and losses in life can disorient us. They cause us to ask what is real. Things are often not as they seem.

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A Mediation on Song of Songs 2:8-14

Sometimes Christianity doesn’t seem real. We can say something profound about it like, God is preparing our souls for love. But it doesn’t feel like it most of the time. It feels like I am a mediocre friend, at best, and that I am not doing enough for the church. Or for my family. I look at my young adult daughters and son and think I haven’t taught them or shown them enough about the wonder of who God is and his love for us and focused too much on how Christians behave. I catch myself being critical of my husband. I miss him when he’s not with me, and then I pick at him when he is. That’s not loving. And it feels like I’m always failing in my prayer life.

Not good enough. That seems like real life sometimes. A lot of the time.

I know all the right things to speak into this. Because I really am a Christian. But we each have the winters of our souls to deal with. What I just shared is both embarrassing and dismal. But it is not the worst of my winters. This is the polished confession version.

At this point in the Song of Songs, the woman just adjured us not to stir up or awaken love until the proper time. Sometimes we try too hard to force things, and others we are just dreary and languishing in winter. Our senses are dulled. There’s no grass or blooms to smell. We don’t hear the birds singing or the voice of children playing outside. We don’t feel the sun on our skin. Everything we taste is canned or imported. Likewise, the promises of God can seem so far off or disconnected from real life. They sound great, but right now you are trying to finish your education and start your career before your car breaks down again. Or maybe you are too overwhelmed by the loss of a relationship to sense anything hopeful. Whether we are caring for loved ones, aching in loneliness, coping and fighting an illness, just slogging through the mundanity of everyday stresses, or striving to make a record of all our accomplishments and “living” on social media, real life can rob us of our curiosity and imaginations.

But what if it is exactly our curiosity and imaginations that need to be awakened to see and sense real life? Here is something curious: the woman gives this adjuration not to stir up love or awaken it until the proper time three times in the Song, and each occasion it is immediately followed with a change of scenery, awakening, and rising up! What if we need reminding to listen and look because spring is rolling in? Here comes the sun!

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In the summer of 2020, a website pulled the veil back on what many church officers in Reformed denominations were saying about women (and also other minorities, but I’m focusing on women in this post). Its administrators were officers in the OPC. They were particularly consumed with the release of Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and how dangerous it is for the church.

One of their favorite Puritans to recommend was William Gouge. So naturally, they look to him for a possible argument against women going to college, as the image captured above shows.

Two years later, we can still wonder how the views of these church officers have been challenged. Yesterday, a soon to be released book was brought to my attention that an OPC church officer who is also a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary cowrote with his wife. It’s titled Gospel-Shaped Marriage. This is part of the description on Amazon:

Drawing from Scripture and the writings of Puritan minister William Gouge, their advice also prepares churches, friends, and others to support married couples in their lives.

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The largest protestant denomination in the United States is in the news after the Guidepost report of an independent investigation into The Southern Baptist Convention’s handling of sexual abuse.* The Washington Post headlines it as “a portrait of brutal misogyny.” And it is. Russell Moore is not exaggerating as he describes it:

The conclusions of the report are so massive as to almost defy summation. It corroborates and details charges of deception, stonewalling, and intimidation of victims and those calling for reform. It includes written conversations among top Executive Committee staff and their lawyers that display the sort of inhumanity one could hardly have scripted for villains in a television crime drama. It documents callous cover-ups by some SBC leaders and credible allegations of sexually predatory behavior by some leaders themselves, including former SBC president Johnny Hunt (who was one of the only figures in SBC life who seemed to be respected across all of the typical divides).

How did we get here? How do this many people let this happen? Is it just the SBC?

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After I spoke with a group of church leaders once on the topic of discipling men and women in the church, one pastor took me aside. He didn’t want to make this comment during the Q&A session we just finished. He told me that my message had merit, but he was concerned about the feminization of the church and he wanted my thoughts on that. Wasn’t I worried that investing in more women would lead to this? Anecdotally, he said that he’s noticed that women were eager to learn; and the more churches invest in them, the more they will rise in leadership over the men. Or in influencing the men. Which feminizes the church.

Have you heard something like this before? I’m guessing so, because I hear it often. When someone starts talking about the feminization of the church, it is an instant red flag for me. I talk about this some in The Sexual Reformation. Here is an excerpt:

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It’s been two years since Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood published. I know because it popped up in my “memories.” It made me pause and think about how long and impactful these last two years have been. A lot has changed in my life. I’ve changed. Peeling yellow wallpaper is painful stuff. When writing my book, I didn’t realize how much of it was all over myself.

For those of you who haven’t read Recovering, I am referring to the infamous 19th century novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s a brilliant and disturbing exploration of the effects patriarchal attitudes and constrictions have on female psychosynthesis.[1] Being forced into “rest therapy” for a bogus diagnosis of neurasthenia, the narrator of the book becomes completely fixated on the disturbing yellow wallpaper of the run-down estate she is made to stay in and becomes convinced that there is a woman trapped inside of its smothering pattern. She must peel it back to set her free. You see, the yellow wallpaper in this confined room of which she is made to stay is a symbol of the traditional patriarchal structures of family, medicine, and society. Following the stream-of-consciousness writing of the narrator’s journal-like entries, the reader joins her downward spiral from sanity. At the end, her voice changes to that of the woman in the wallpaper whom she’s set out to free.

In the Introduction of my book, I ask the question:

Is the woman in this story crazy for what she saw in the yellow wallpaper, or is everyone else crazy for not seeing it?

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I’m in a church that ascribes to the brand of complementarianism your book is troubled by and I am a woman so I don’t get a lot of weight when it comes to how my church discusses these questions. What does seeking a sexual reformation look like for me?

This one of the questions submitted for tonight’s Sexual Reformation Conversation Series live Q&A. There are so many ways to answer it, right? I didn’t realize it then, but I wrote my first book Housewife Theologian because of the need for sexual reformation in the church. I wrote it because in many ways I felt uninitiated as a disciple in the church. The answer to the question seems to be in the question itself: I am a woman so I don’t get a lot of weight when it comes to how my church discusses these questions.

There it is. Weight. Value. Contribution. Reciprocity. Dignity. Personhood. It looks like being seen, having a voice, and being asked to use it because it is gift.

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Did you know that the Jewish tradition is to read the Song of Songs at Passover? While the Song is placed right smack in the middle of our Bibles, in the Hebrew Bible it had a significant placement as the first of the five scrolls, or the five megillot. These “writings” were read at the major festivals, the Song being read at Passover.

The Song is also a great text for Holy Week. The beloved disciple himself was a singer of the Song in his account of the anointing at Bethany and the resurrection. Here is small excerpt from The Sexual Reformation on John’s cover of the Song:

It is fitting that we see reverberations of the Song in the beloved disciple’s, John’s, gospel. Ann Roberts Winsor wrote a fascinating book on the allusions to the Song of Songs in the fourth gospel.[1] The book begins with a chapter on John 12:1–8, noting the allusions to the Song, including hair, a king reclining, precious nard ointment, feet, and scent, in the account of Mary of Bethany using her hair to anoint Jesus’s feet with expensive oil.

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I wrote this article a little while after signing my first book contract. It was originally published on March 13, 2013. It was probably the first article of mine that was widely read. From other writers, there was a sense of “Aimee, we don’t talk about this part of Christian publishing out loud.” But readers were curious. About a year after it was published, a friend asked me if I regret writing the article. I didn’t understand why that was even a question. Reading it again 9 years later, I stand behind it even more. I’ve seen the effects of following the brand. And we’ve seen how much of a monster tribalism has become. Sure, I participate in marketing and think others should as well. But it’s good to struggle with our methods, not take ourselves too seriously, and always remember we are human beings and so are the people reading our books.

Carrying this conviction with me for the last 9 years that I am not a brand gave me the freedom to ask my own questions and write what I am passionate about. I didn’t always follow it well. That is a regret. There are times where I have to reevaluate and remind myself of this. It’s so easy to even turn our convictions into brands to package, sell, and defend at all costs. Branding is necessary, but needs put in its proper place. Convictions are not brands. People are not brands. Christ does not exploit his people.

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