This past April my family gathered in Oregon to celebrate my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. While we were together, my brothers and I produced a list of statistics from 65 years of marriage that sound a little like stanzas from The Twelve Days of Christmas—4 kids, 8 grandkids, 9 great-grandkids, 12 moves, 4 pastorates, 5 dogs, 1 cat, 3 goldfish, countless hamsters, and a parakeet (but no pear tree as I recall).
None of these statistics surprised us. But what did surprise me at least was to see on paper the fact that of their 65 years together only 33 were with kids at home (and that’s almost certainly well above the average). For 32 years and counting it has just been the two of them.
If we include the years from the day my mother was born until she married my dad, she’s been on active duty as a mom for less than half of her life. What is more, 10 years ago debilitating pain took my mother out of the traditional role of a wife she so beautifully fulfilled for most of her adult life and sent my dad to the kitchen. Here’s another statistic to ponder: 9 out of 10 wives end up spending some portion of their lives alone, a staggering number that doesn’t include women who never marry.
Looking at the numbers and the real lives they represent, shouldn’t we be asking some pretty penetrating questions about God’s calling for women?
For example, do the answers we embrace fully address the many changing seasons and circumstances of our lives? Is it possible for some women to finish the job God created them to do long before their lives are over or, even worse, to miss entirely God’s main purpose for creating them? Are we putting little girls and young women on hold until they marry and have children? Is it possible that at any moment some unexpected tragedy or misstep can downshift our lives from significant and purposeful, to marginal and no longer vital? Are God’s purposes for women that fragile? Was an older divorced friend of mine right when she murmured dismally, “I had my chance”?
If my mother’s story didn’t raise questions for me, the women I’ve encountered during the past five months would have done the job. In the first few months of this year, my path has crossed with those of gifted women in ministry and in seminary. I met courageous women at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas—wives of U.S. servicemen who are single-handedly managing the home front in an atmosphere of daily uncertainty, as they track and support husbands stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were others—a group of remarkable business women in Orlando who are making a difference for the kingdom in the corporate world; Hispanic women in South Florida who have emigrated to this country and are coping with seismic alterations as they try to restart their lives; even an online community of several hundred heartbroken but faith-filled women battling for the souls of children who have turned prodigal.
Anyone attempting to define a common demographic among these various groups of Christian women would have to give up in frustration after checking off “female.” The demographics don’t line up. Neither do their circumstances. Their lives are not all the same. And in this broken world, change is an ever present reality, if not an outright threat as it certainly is for the women of Fort Bliss. If a woman’s highest calling is to be a wife and mother, as we in Christian circles so often assert, then a lot of us are having to settle for something less, often through no choice of our own. And even for women like my mother who marry and raise children, large chunks of their lives fall outside the scope of God’s calling for women. Can it be possible that in planning for us God failed to take into account the myriad of contingencies we inevitably encounter?
All of this leads me to look again at the strong military Hebrew word ezer (pronounced āzer)—the label God gave His daughters when He created the first woman. Is ezer a part-time job for women that we take up for a season and lay down when the nest empties or if we land among the high percentage of women who end up on their own? Or do marriage and motherhood come under a much larger umbrella of God’s purposes for us that encompass the whole of every woman’s life and drench every day of our lives with kingdom purpose?
If ezer is this all-encompassing, then my mother is still deployed and has been since her birth. She is still a warrior on active duty, still fully engaged in advancing God’s kingdom right where He has stationed her. My divorced friend hasn’t run out of chances either. And my new friends at Fort Bliss were speaking for all of us when they said, “Our calling as ezer-warriors for God’s purposes is exactly what we need to march us forward through our lives.”