“So what was the sermon about?” my husband asks as he navigates our little car through a sea of minivans and SUVs out of the church parking lot. He missed it — today was his day to take our daughter for a walk when she got restless during the service.
“I don’t know,” I reply, prying my swelling feet out of my dress sandals and propping them on the dashboard. My husband frowns. He doesn’t think my feet belong on the dashboard, and says if we were ever in a crash I’d break my legs. I point out that if we were ever in a crash, statistically speaking, we’d be completely bowled over by whatever minivan/SUV/Humvee did us in, and whether or not my legs were broken would probably be the least of our worries. I wriggle my toes and shoot my husband a challenging look.
He sighs, but doesn’t say anything. He knows that when I’m pregnant, hungry, and cranky, it’s best not to.
“You don’t know what the sermon was about?” he says instead, signaling right and turning. I usually launch into a point-by-point description of the sermon the second the car doors click shut, complete with my own observations and comments sprinkled throughout. Sometimes I can barely wait until we make it to the car, rushing my husband across the parking lot before everything I want to say bursts out of my mouth. But not today.
“It was on Ephesians,” I say. “I tuned it out. I hate Ephesians.”
“You hate Ephesians,” my husband says.
“Yup.” I reach around my belly and my propped-up legs for the diaper bag and the Goldfish that I know my daughter is going to clamor for in a matter of moments, and pop a handful in my mouth. As my pregnancy progresses it seems increasingly unfair that she gets to snack her way through Sunday morning, while I sit there, ravenous, and wait for the paper-thin wafer and sip of wine at Communion. The Body and Blood may be nourishing my soul, but it certainly doesn’t do much for my stomach.
“So why do you hate Ephesians?” my husband finally asks.
“Because,” I say, munching my Goldfish, “every child-beating, wife-oppressing, misogynist male jerk out there spouts Ephesians. ‘Wives, submit to your husbands. Children, obey your parents. Here’s my God-given right to treat you like dirt, neatly spelled out in black and white.’ I hate the whole book.”
“Cwa-cwa?” my daughter calls from the back seat, seeing the crackers in my hand. I pass her back some Goldfish, and flash my husband a grin.
“You knew what you were getting into when you married me,” I say.
“Yes,” he answers, “yes I did.”
“Submission” is a tricky word in my vocabulary. I’ve grown up listening to these verses from Ephesians, and before we were married I told my husband-then-boyfriend that as his wife, I would submit to him, in a pinch, if I absolutely had to. Despite it being contrary to my nature. If it ever came to a point where we’d talked and reasoned and compromised ourselves blue in the face and we were still at an impasse, I would submit because the Bible says I should. At least I think I would. Probably. But my reading of the text also takes into account the part that exhorts husbands to “love their wives as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her.” If a husband truly loves his wife, I argued, he wouldn’t put her in a position where she must submit against her reason and conscience. If you really love me, I said, you won’t ask for that kind of submission.
My soon-to-be husband didn’t think it was going to be much of an issue. “I sincerely doubt two intelligent people like us can’t find some way to figure things out,” he assured me, and for the most part, he’s been right. On the few occasions that he’s actually told me to do something, directly and without room for compromise, I’ve listened. I trust his judgment; I trust that he’s not being a jerk simply because he wields the Y-chromosome in our relationship. Perhaps he’s right, perhaps standing on the very top step of the ladder — the one above the one that says “do not stand on or above this step” — trying to change a light bulb in our vaulted-ceiling hallway in the last trimester of pregnancy isn’t such a good idea. In situations like that, when I hear him say “Get down right now,” I do. I submit.
Then again, I don’t know if that is truly submission of the wives-submit-to-your-husbands variety. I’d like to think that, should the situation be reversed, my husband would listen to me and climb down off the ladder as well. Of course, the situation never would be reversed, because my rule-following husband wouldn’t stand on or above a step that says not to stand on or above it. But that’s not the point. I like to think that both of us would listen to the other, trusting that s/he is outside of us just enough to see that what we are doing is possibly dangerous, or stupid or just plain wrong.
Perhaps this isn’t a question of submission so much as trust. Then again, perhaps that’s what submission really should be all about.
The question of submission becomes even more tricky when a feminist Christian mother is raising a daughter. I wonder what I am passing on to her, both through what I say and through what she sees me do. I’ve probably already ruined her chances of marrying the sort of man who expects his wife to submit in all things, immediately and without question. But when I read Ephesians, there’s always a moment of uncertainty, of wondering if the way I’ve figured things out in my head is really correct, or if I’m slicing and dicing away at the text to come up with an interpretation I find palatable.
Long before I was dating or mothering or pondering all the ramifications of submission, I trained in classical ballet. I remember one performance where, underrehearsed and overtired, I completely forgot the sequence of steps in the middle of a piece. I came out of a soutenou turn and my mind went blank: I didn’t know where I was, didn’t know what to do next, what I’d thought I’d known, I hadn’t. Reading Ephesians is like that for me — that sudden feeling of being completely wrong-footed, of coming out of a turn and suddenly not knowing anything anymore, of staring into a bright light while everyone watches me and waits to see what I’m going to do next. But the stakes even are higher, because life is so much more than just a performance. And I can’t shake the feeling that if I mess this up, I really mess up.
Reading Ephesians makes me want to sit down and think for a year or two or twelve, put the rest of my life on hold while I go and devour every text that’s ever been written on the subject of submission. But I can’t stop living my life, can’t stop being my husband’s wife or my daughter’s mother while I go and figure everything out.
A car runs a red light in front of us, and my husband’s eyes flick over to my feet, still propped up on the dashboard. I take them down.
“I’m not taking my feet off of the dashboard because you want me to,” I say. “Just so you know. I happen to be tired of having them up there.”
“Of course,” he says, his face as straight as a poker.
I think back to that time on the stage, blinking into the bright lights and trying to get my bearings. I remember hearing the soft swish of swirling skirts and realizing I was still dancing — perhaps not to the original choreography, but moving just the same, my lifelong training kicking in even when my brain was checking out. I did a pique arabesque and smiled my best smile and most of the people in the audience were probably never the wiser that I hadn’t a clue what I was doing.
I’d like to think that my life is like that, too. I won’t always know where I’m going, or be able to see the next sequence in my faith. I don’t even know if the dance I’m teaching my daughter is the best one for her to learn, or if my steps are the right ones to take. But I don’t get to choose to bow out. I have to take what I believe, and what I think I know, and synthesize them the best I can as I keep on moving.