Their stories litter the pages of Scripture, sometimes as main characters in the story of God and sometimes as more peripheral ones. Yet even in churches that affirm women in ministry, too often we overlook these women. We fail to acknowledge, let alone teach their stories (unless of course we're leading a women's Bible study and then suddenly, as if by magic, their stories become relevant.)
Though I'm embarrassed to admit this even I, a woman in ministry, often overlook their stories... At least until I receive a subtle reminder of their importance. This year, that reminder came in the form of students who asked (or perhaps more accurately demanded) we discuss them. So I put together a list of women whose stories I wanted to share with my students: Noah's wife, Sarah, Hagar, Hannah, & Lydia.
For a variety of reasons, I was excited to dig into each of these women's stories with my students. Even so, the woman I was most excited to discuss was Hagar. This woman is someone who our worship liturgy alludes to in its baptismal affirmation. As a result, hers was a name my students were familiar with. Yet, hers was a story with which they were completely unfamiliar.
So we discussed it. As we did, I discovered a story that should be required teaching for high school youth ministries.
We discussed how Hagar was an Egyptian slave girl who was the property of Abram and Sarai. We discussed what that would have meant for her – how she was forcefully separated from her family and homeland and taken to a foreign land where she was treated as property; As someone with no rights.
We discussed how her identity as a slave would have made her invisible and how as a slave, she became the victim of what now seems like an absurd plan (though at the time it was likely culturally and even legally acceptable) to give Abram a child. We discussed how, after being forced to sleep with Abram, she fled into the wilderness.
We discussed how in the wilderness, Hagar met God.
Finally, we discussed how in the wilderness, Hagar becomes the only person in Scripture to name God. And the name this seemingly invisible slave girl gives God is “El-Roi”, which means “the God who sees.”
In my preparation for this discussion, this was the part of Hagar's story that most captivated me.
It was also, without a doubt, the part that most captivated my students. And why wouldn't it?
After all, they, too, often feel invisible, not all that different from Hagar.
Teens today feel invisible when
- Their presence at an event goes unacknowledged
- They walk down the halls of their school without anyone ever saying 'Hi'
- Their best friends have dates to prom and they don't
- Everyone has plans on Friday night... Except them
- The kid who sits next to them in Spanish still doesn't know their name
- Their teacher still calls them by the name of their older sibling - that kid who, unlike them, always did everything right
- Their friend request gets ignored on Facebook
- They comment on their friends wall but never receive a response
- Their phone call or text never gets returned
- They walk into their house and their parents barely look up from their screens.
Of course, in a society that values significance and contribution, often teens don't readily admit the fact that so often they feel as though they're wearing an invisibility cloak. Instead, they reassure themselves, day after day, that surely someday, someone will see them; Surely they won't remain invisible forever.
No wonder Hagar's story captivated my teens.
As we concluded our discussion on Hagar, one of my students asked, “So can we call God El-Roi?”
Of course I said “yes”.
That night, as we closed in prayer, she addressed God as El-Roi.
The following week, I asked students to write out their prayers. With a smile on her face, a different student promptly told me she began hers with “El-Roi.”
Dare I suggest this girl's smile was there because she got it?
She understood that to invisible people everywhere, the name, “El-Roi” is Gospel truth. It's the good news that as El-Roi, our God is a God who sees us – even when no one else does.