STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/22/2014
August 2006 found biblical studies professor Elaine Phillips 8,500 miles from home—at Kithu Sevana, a church in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Its pastor, Adrian De Visser, is the father of Prashan De Visser ’08, and Prashan had invited Dr. Phillips to journey to Sri Lanka with Gordon students he’d recruited to volunteer in ministries linked to the church, including a widows’ home and a home for boys and girls. She told Prashan she would be delighted to go—as long as she could find some way to be useful.
So on a hot and humid day just 18 months after the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated Sri Lanka’s coastal regions, the scholar of Old Testament and rabbinic literature delivered the first of several sessions for a group of about 100 women. As children milled about, she narrated familiar stories of women in the Bible, assisted by a translator.
Though the venue was new, her subject matter was familiar territory. As an evangelical woman working for decades in biblical studies, she had developed a special interest in how women fit into the picture of God’s Kingdom. “As the sole woman in the Bible department at Gordon for quite a long time (until Sharon Ketcham joined our ranks in Christian Ministries), I was often asked to address the role of women in leadership and, of course, the foundations of that in the biblical text,” Phillips says. Over the years she built up a lot of material—and writing up notes to speak to the women of Kithu Sevana was a catalyst. “Having done that amount of work,” she says, “it seemed a waste not to try to use it further.” She rearranged and shortened additional existing lectures on biblical geography when she returned to Sri Lanka, three years later. This time, Prashan was her translator.
Phillips has integrated ideas from the first seminar into a 14-chapter devotional, With God, Nothing Is Impossible, which was released in February by Deep River Books. In it she highlights exemplary women in the Bible who faced trials with faith. Each chapter examines portions of Scripture and concludes with further reflections.
The book is “more personal than the scholarly writing I’ve done over the past 35 years,” she says, “and yet I wanted to challenge readers with a devotional of substance. Though it’s not academic, it does study these women in the context of culture and geography, which modern readers may not always consider.”
Years ago, when Phillips and her husband, Perry, were in seminary, they were youth group leaders for their local church in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. “Teaching in that context,” she says, “was wonderfully challenging in terms of being biblically founded, accessible, and (by the Spirit’s working) life transforming.”
Later, she taught a women’s Sunday School class on the life of Christ—a “rich experience.” During that time (1979 to 1992), she was teaching Bible at Pinebrook Junior College, a two-year Christian college. After joining the Gordon faculty, she taught a number of Christian formation classes—including a survey of Bible geography—at Park Street Church in Boston.
With God, Nothing Is Impossible is about women of the Bible, but the takeaways are not exclusive to women, she says. “I’d love both women and men to be more engaged with the Bible and with understanding that God’s word is indeed living, acting, and transformative. The way he worked in these peoples’ lives is the way he still works for us.”
Among the women whose stories she tells: Mary, the mother of Jesus, who “followed Jesus all the way to the foot of the cross”; Sarah and Hagar, who “challenge us to transcend the ever-present impulses that arise when jealousy rears its ugly head”; Deborah, the judge, whose life “reminds us of the responsibilities of leadership.” Samson’s mother, who watched her son reject every aspect of his God-ordained Nazirite vow, is an example of grace in times of discouragement. Naomi’s sorrow and bitterness “turned to hope when she experienced the faithful and loyal love of Ruth, her sole traveling companion.” Hannah’s life story “inspires us to take a sober look, daily and moment by moment, at the things we want most. Are they the kind of things we would vow to give back to God?” Abigail’s life with a heartless man “reminds us that God uses everything to accomplish his sovereign purposes. We see, again and again, that the impossible is indeed possible with God.” Esther, from the margins of society, was brought by God “to an astonishingly influential position in order to be ready ‘for such a time as this.’”
“It’s kind of hard to come to grips with the fact that nothing is impossible with God,” Phillips says, “when things feel really impossible. I have to preach my message to myself again and again.”
Elaine Phillips has taught biblical studies at Gordon since 1993. Since 1995 she and her husband, Perry, have frequently taken Gordon students on summer study trips to Jerusalem University College. They lived in Israel for three years as graduate students. Her book-length commentary on Esther appears in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Tremper Longman III and David Garland.
To receive an autographed copy of With God, Nothing Is Impossible ($10), contact collegecommgordon.edu