Friday, July 31, 2009
I can't say there was any one moment when I realized that being a girl in my church was significant. In New Orleans things like that are handled differently. That city just doesn't dance to the drum beat of the rest of the South. Women in my childhood church said what they felt like saying and sometimes it helped and sometimes it didn't. This was an urban church and though I'm mostly white and technically middle-class that's not the culture I identified with. In that culture to be female was to be vocal and opinionated and strong because men were just not around. Besides all that... I knew early that I was very much like my father. I had deep convictions at 10 that I wish I could feel as deeply now, a deep passion for justice and those that are suffering. Then we moved.
I arrived in Canada angry and angsty about moving from everything that I held familiar. It didn't help that I was 13 at the time. Even at this point I don't remember ever feeling disappointed by the church or frustrated. But the Church of Christ in Western Canada struggles with conservative legalism at the expense of the gospel about as much as the churches of the Bible Belt. Needless to say...though I had not felt hurt by the church before that point I certainly do now. The CofC in such a post-Christian country is small and interrelated but even though the church I went to was full of men who were overworked and drained they wouldn't let me serve communion. I was having severe culture shock and they refused to incorporate me. I went from being a strong leader in my old circle of friends to someone everyone acknowledged was intelligent but no one would follow.
I graduated from a Church of Christ affiliated high school as the salutatorian. I took a year of bible college at the same institution where my dad was the Academic Dean. He got to teach me my first year of Greek; it made him very proud. I think if I had never taken those classes that first year I would have no idea what God is about. Intro to the OT and Theology refreshed all those things I intrinsically knew as a child; all those things that ostracism and self-doubt had melted away. I haven't gotten everything back yet. I've since transferred to OC as a History/Bible double-major and I'm going into ministry... I'm just not comfortable saying that when I meet new people.
OC doesn't enjoy the scholastic freedom that ACU does. Earlier this summer I sat in awe at the Graduate school of Bible's worship service before my father graduated with his DMin. There were women in this graduating class! They led singing and read scripture. I can honestly say that was the first time I'd heard a woman lead singing from a pulpit (we all know women usually lead singing from the pews!) I felt inspired but somehow small. Somewhere along my journey I've been told that I'm not quite good enough, that I would have something to say if I just worked a little harder. It didn't come in the form of blatant comments or rebukes... just from my own head and the fact that no one in church ever asks for my opinion anymore.
One Sunday a few months ago my father was invited to preach at a tiny congregation of the United Church of Canada and I decided to go along to experience their worship. During the potluck following the service I had three older members ask me point blank if I was going to become a minister. No baggage. No whispering. Just "So are you going to be a minister?" I knew from the beginning that ministry was a way of life and there are moments when I'm so excited to go to grad school and learn and debate but there are some moments, like right now where it seems I'll be forever stuck. To be at a university where people are unwilling to talk about women's roles in public, where bible professors only encourage behind closed doors, at a church (out of lack of transportation) that would never dare to point out that maybe they might be doing something wrong... I'm the only female Bible major that I know of at OC, though they tried to encourage me to take a Vocational Ministry major instead. I'm so discouraged and plagued with doubt. I wonder why God didn't send me to ACU, why he would make me sit through sunday night services that always leave me flustered and teary eyed. I know there are moments to speak and moments to keep silent but for some reason all mine are for silence. I thought coming back to America would be like homecoming but its more like a second exile.
I will never let any of my students read this post. Their eyes are banned as it is a common frustration among them that I refuse to allow wikipedia as a source for any of their work. Thankfully, I am supported fully by my English department on said issue. However, I recently found that wiki sometimes gets it right. I am wrestling with an issue of faith and went last night to do some research. I googled the “role of women in the
The second hit I got was for a wiki site on the gender justice movement. I will quote briefly.
“The Great Commission, Mark 16:15, "Preach the Gospel," is to all believers, and to all the
. The command to "preach the Gospel" is to both male and female.The prescription that women are to be silent in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is not to be taken as a prohibition against women preaching the Gospel: if Paul intended this verse as a general rule to bar all women from speaking in church, then they cannot teach Sunday School, testify, pray, prophesy, sing, or even reach the state of salvation (since the confession of faith of necessity involves speech). This strict interpretation, to which many congregations admittedly do not adhere, is seen by the gender justice congregations to contradict the rest of the Bible (Acts 2:4; Acts 16-18).Further, Gen 1:27 states "So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.". It is illogical to postulate that male and female can both be created by God and "in the image of God" yet one is less equal than the other. Since both are created in God's image, this faulty logic would imply that part of God is less equal than another part.” churchof Jesus Christ
How does Wiki get it right and the church get it wrong?
The knot in my stomach comes from this dilemma. Do I choose theology or community? I have grown up in the
I think about my girls. I think about the faith I want them to have, to witness and to practice. I realize where this path is leading me and it is scary as change always is but the call for justice is too strong. If the denial of equality permeates our churches, it will continue to be the rule of our societal experience as well. If I can’t find justice here, in my home, in the heritage of my faith, I will have to begin the search for the place that will accept all as created in the image of God. The place that will allow for all voices to be heard and welcomed. The place that will appreciate and expect that all experiences of faith help us to encounter God more authentically.
I am not the only member of the
I finally reorganized the thing, and now my three chapter dissertation is 7 chapters, not counting intro and conclusion. It makes things a lot more readable. "Chapter two" was nearly 200 pages on its own, even after taking out a whole section (which will go in the intro instead), and that's just dumb. So now it's four chapters, and things are a lot more even, all chapters being 30-40 pages or so.
I'm halfway done with my last substantive chapter. When I finish it, I will have only an intro and conclusion to write, and a general overhaul of filling in weak spots and proofing and finalizing. The plan is to send off a complete draft to all committee members by the beginning of September. This means finishing this current chapter and sending it off to my advisor ASAP, so that he can give it a read through, hopefully sign off on it, and then the whole thing can go to my second and third readers. That gives them plenty of time to read it (and love it! and find that there are no necessary major revisions!) and schedule a fall defense date before W leaves on his sabbatical in January. (I need to start finding out about this part of the process, and also get on top of getting my dossier in order before AAR interviews...sigh. I hate it that just when you have to be singleminded about finishing a writing project, the imminent prospect of finishing means at the same time you have to start thinking pragmatically, a multitasking situation I find hard to juggle.)
To help make this happen, Brent and Clare are taking a Clare-and-Daddy-trip to Grandmom and Grandad's in TX for three weeks in August. I am grateful, and totally dreading it. I don't say this to people often, but please, seriously, pray for me. Endurance, stamina, focus, basic sanity. Me and the dissertation alone in a big ol' house for three weeks with no relief...this could be a sort of horror movie scenario. And if you're local, consider it a Christian duty to give me a call if you realize I'm not online for, say, a period of 24 hours. Probably something dreadful has occurred, like my brain finally exploded, and intervention of some sort is necessary.
(Page count to date: 284, though this is a little inflated due to the way Endnote generates bibliographies.)
Thursday, July 30, 2009
I am a 65 year old woman, and I was “raised in the church.” I graduated from Lipscomb. We took our children to church three times a week. I belong to a conservative congregation of about 1000. When we placed membership there I promised God that I would not leave unless they kicked me out.
I must say that I am disappointed in the way my daughters were taught as they grew up, but anti-feminism was just part of it. When my daughter was struggling with questions involving drugs, alcoholism, sexual identity, and abortion, she was being taught at church that it was immodest for a boy to take off his shirt in public, and that “no instrumental music” was the most important belief in Christianity. It was an almost complete disconnect with the real world.
I don’t think that anti-feminism will keep anybody out of heaven, though. If I leave my congregation, I’m removing the help that I’ve been to them and depriving myself of the help they’ve given me. There is no lack of work for me, and I feel my gifts are adequately recognized. I do constantly harass the “establishment” every time I get a chance. If they’re complaining about not having enough people to serve communion, I remind them that they’ve disqualified half the congregation.
I used to care more about the gender inequalities, but as I’ve gotten older I find that they matter less to me. My congregation has given me encouragement, prayer, casseroles, and honey-baked hams to help me weather personal storms which are still raging. They can help me because they’ve known me for 37 years. I can help them for the same reason. Somebody once told me that a congregation should be like a huge family reunion where everybody knows that Uncle Phil will get drunk, but he’s still got a place at the table. Joe and Ed will bore everyone to death discussing politics, and Bill and Lois haven’t spoken to Marion and Ruth for years, but everybody’s still part of the family, and they all have a place set for them at the table.
I do recognize that the conservative church is driving away many Christians. The Church of Christ is losing women who would otherwise be preachers, counselors, leaders, and workers because they are repulsed by the discrimination. It’s a loss, but not one I feel personally called to correct. I think God will keep His church intact, and His Christians are going to be found in many denominations. Christians only, not the only Christians.
Somebody once said that it is easy to confuse theological insight with spiritual growth. In the past I have delighted in theological insight, but I now find myself forced to deal with spiritual growth. The theology was more fun.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
from K's blog: "Dr. Aronson recounts the numerous phone calls and emails that she has received from families whose adopted children have merely seen the trailer for this movie. One child asked her parent, ‘Is this what I am? Is this what other people think about me?’ and that kid was 5 years old."
Check out the rest of K's thoughts here, and follow the link to the NPR story as well.
Monday, July 27, 2009
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Friday, July 24, 2009
Our email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org Let us know if you’d like to participate.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Let me share a piece of my childhood with you. When I was a teenager, the Church of Christ I attended had no formal youth group. We hung out with each other after church on Sunday nights and mostly went to watch R-rated movies and hang out in the parking lot afterwards. But there was an older, single guy who kind of gumped his way into being our mentor of sorts, and sometimes he even helped us make better decisions. I started thinking that if we only had a formal youth group and youth minister, perhaps we could be guided into more spiritual endeavors. (Yeah, I was that kid. But I still wanted to work within the "system" at that point in my life.)
So I thought, hey, why not see if anyone else feels like this? So I just started a little survey/petition to see if there was an actual need or interest in starting a youth group. Well, that's what I get for thinking. Soon enough an elder found out about it (not that I was hiding it from them) and took it out of circulation for me. So at 16 yrs old or so, I was summoned to the preacher's office after church (without my parents present or consulted) to find our three elders sitting there (them sitting, me standing) ready to set me right. I was first interrogated then told, in no uncertain terms, that the survey was over. I was to let them handle church matters. How dare I think I had the authority to do such a thing? And I'm pretty sure I remember (though I've been quite successful at suppressing painful memories) they laughed at me when I tried to defend my opinion and the petition. It was a scoff really. I know, scoffed? Surely not! But that's exactly how I felt--scoffed at. Like why did a teenager, much less a GIRL, think she had the right to express an opinion on a church/religious matter?!
That event left such deep wounds in me that the scars have never gone away. But I thank God for Mr. Carter's article because it's a salve to my soul. A salve to a hurt little girl's soul. Salve to a woman's soul who seldom gets to see someone like her in the front of her auditorium full of believers. Who never gets to hear a woman pray in her public worship assembly. Who rarely hears a girl's voice reading the Word of God. Who gets excluded BEFORE the Holy Spirit is is publicly invoked to guide people to come forward and lead a prayer or share a thought. Who's never asked to lead a prayer in Bible class, praise team practice, small group, etc. A woman who keeps being called a "man" and a "son of God" over and over and over until SHE wants to scream.
The reason why this article has been so healing for me is that it was written by a man. It's nothing that many women haven't been saying for years. But if change is ever going to happen in the Churches of Christ, it will need to be helped along by the current leadership. And we all know who that is. Because of that, I'm so thankful for a small handful of men who have dared to let me whisper these feelings over the last few years, because there are so many more who don't get it at all. Who think my thoughts are from Satan himself. Who don't realize that the NIV sounds less unnecessarily man-centered and therefore excludes me far too often. Who don't realize what decades of male omnipresence in worship assemblies has done subconsciously to the spiritual lives of many women. Who don't realize that hearing a woman pray is beautiful and needed. Who think that I'm just trying to usurp their authority by thinking it would be okay for my daughter to pass a communion tray. And the list goes on and on. But thank God for those few men who have allowed me the freedom to read a scripture or share a testimony from "behind the mic." They'll probably never realize how much that meant to me.
So I just wanted to share this in case there's another girl or woman out there who thinks she's second rate in God's eyes. (And don't give me the whole different but equal crap. It rings hollow, and you know it.) You, we, are not second rate. We shouldn't be treated as the "seen and not heards" of the church world. I don't care what some man wrote to one specific church like a billion and a half years ago. God loves us all the same and calls us all to the same calling. When I die I want Galatians 3:28 on my grave marker. (My girlfriends will see to it, won't you?)
So thank you, Mr. Carter, from the bottom of this woman's heart.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Still, after all these years, it takes one phone call from a Congregational minister--a man who seems nice enough on the phone--to unhinge me over the prospect of stepping into a pulpit. Certainly, I tell him, a religion as large and diverse as Congregationalism can do better for a Sunday-morning speaker. Surely there is someone better qualified to address the topic of the day, whatever that is. But the minister is gently insistent. He has been reading my stuff for years, he says. He thinks I have something to say from the pulpit. I hang up after telling him I will think about it, although I have no intention of doing any such thing.
I go home to talk to my husband about it, but he's no help...A pulpit is just like a lectern, only bigger. What's the big deal?
And I find I can't explain it to him. There is a vast divide between a lectern and a pulpit. The symbolism of one--authority based on one's own autonomy--in no way compares to the symbolism of the other--authority as granted to the speaker by God.
OK. I know I sound like a nut, trying to explain that because the way was barred for me so long ago, I told myself I didn't want to be in a pulpit anyway. And now an opportunity presents itself for me to climb into the pulpit, and I didn't even work for it, and certainly I didn't ask for it. Like with my earlier vow of virginity, I have, on some level, promised myself I will never want this (preaching or sex)...
I am thinking about this far too much, and what if it turns out that I do want to be in a pulpit? The upheaval in my life will be immeasurable. I will have to quit my job, go back to the seminary--only this time with a real and defined purpose. I will have to become holy. I will have to give up cursing and talking bad about people.
Over the next few days, I find myself picking at a scab I didn't even know I had.
But you've never expressed any interest in being a minister before, my husband reminds me. You went through six years of part-time studies at the seminary and never once heard that still, small voice.
I have a dream that night that lightning splits the roof of that old Congregational church and strikes the good people as I talk. I am hardwired to understand that I don't belong in the pulpit. As big a feminist as I am, I have on some level embraced the limitations set before me. And I fear bucking them. And that makes me both sad and angry.
...As far as I'm concerned, I resolve nothing, but the next time the minister e-mails me, I say yes. I don't know why. The answer falls out, unbidden. I think I am tired of being a chicken. I think it is best that I just go ahead and do this and get it out of my system, whatever the outcome, however big the lightning strike and great the number of casualties.
...I can hear my heart pounding in my head and I honestly think I might faint. I don't have this reaction, as a rule, to public speaking. In general, give me a microphone and I am very happy, but here I am, standing before God and all the members of the Congregational church, preparing to fall face-forward onto the nice carpet.
And then I am sitting at the front in one of those chairs that looks like a throne facing the congregation, waiting for my turn to start. By now I've sweated through my pants as well as my jacket. I have written a speech, I remind myself. Or, at least, I have a lot of good leads on one. I sit berating myself that I didn't type out precisely every word I wanted to say, that I honestly thought the Holy Spirit would be interested in the likes of me. Why after all these years would the Holy Spirit make an appearance? I no longer trust myself to wing it but I have left myself no other option. Ha, ha. Silly me. If I had a script--and I desperately want one right about now--I wouldn't trust myself to stay on it. This is going to end badly, I think, and then I run through the scenarios that would be most displeasing, starting with me running off, unable to go on, and progressing to my being overcome with some kind of syndrome that makes me say curse words in public--Tourette's, is it? I wonder what I'll do if someone heckles me. I do not worry about having a comeback. I worry about having a comeback that is clean enough for church people...
This is church, I remind myself. Hecklers rarely visit church.
...The service is going on around me and I need to pay attention--I am trying, I promise--but the voices in my head are getting increasingly loud. This is going to end badly. This is going to end badly--
...And then a quartet quietly stands--all men--and the kind-faced bass singer smiles at me and they sing, for my benefit, "I'll Fly Away." The ministers had asked me earlier if I had a favorite song, and I believe I thought of that one because I like the theme of escape--which I very much want now to do.
The others in the church don't know the words and they're scrambling to find it in their songbooks, but it isn't in there, I bet, because their songbooks look pretty new...A few of the older people are singing along as best as they can on the chorus, but I know every verse, and I am adding my faulty alto to the mix. I am calling up the words of a song I literally have not sung in two decades, and I am remembering every word.
And suddenly, right there in front of the whole church, my heart opens up and I am crying. I am flat-dab crying and I realize with horror that this is something I didn't think to include in my ending-badly list, sobbing in front of the whole congregation before I even get started...
It wasn't an act of God--at least, not like one I'd have expected after all my cogitating. It was just a phone call. So the journey wasn't that difficult, anyway. And what, I think, nearly hiccupping, if this is my still, small voice? I'd been like Elijah, up on the mountaintop looking for God in the wind, the earthquake, the fire. And God just picked up the phone? I fashion a quick prayer: Oh God, let me stop crying and let it be soon...Just let me get a grip here...
...the quartet ends, the man singing bass looks at me with another smile, and I take a deep breath and stand up. This is my cue. This is my chance to say all those things that have weighed on me since that long-ago Sunday school class when I asked, in the vernacular,
"Why cain't a woman be a preacher?"
Monday, July 20, 2009
"Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status ..." (Article 2, Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)
I have been a practising Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world.
So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when th e convention's leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be "subservient" to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service. This was in conflict with my belief - confirmed in the holy scriptures - that we are all equal in the eyes of God.
This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. It is widespread. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths.
Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women's equal rights across the world for centuries. The male interpretations of religious texts and the way they interact with, and reinforce, traditional practices justify some of the most pervasive, persistent, flagrant and damaging examples of human rights abuses.
At their most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.
The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.
In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.
The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in Britain and the United States. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for everyone in society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.
It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and out-dated attitudes and practices - as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.
I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive area to challenge.
But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy - and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.
The Elders have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights. We have recently published a statement that declares: "The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable."
We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world's major faiths share.
Although not having training in religion or theology, I understand that the carefully selected verses found in the holy scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place - and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence - than eternal truths. Similar Biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.
At the same time, I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn't until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted holy scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.
I know, too, that Billy Graham, one of the most widely respected and revered Christians during my lifetime, did not understand why women were prevented from being priests and preachers. He said: "Women preach all over the world. It doesn't bother me from my study of the scriptures."
The truth is that male religious leaders have had - and still have - an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.
Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions - all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.
• Jimmy Carter was US president from 1977-81. The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.
article originally published in The Observer, Sunday 12 July 2009
(Who knew that former President Jimmy Carter was a rudetruth lurker?)
While I'm not surprised that the initial momentum has slowed, I'm pretty sure that there are a lot of "lurkers" out there I'd like to encourage to de-lurk. (And there are a couple readers out there I'm going to start nagging, 'cause I've heard you're working on a post.)
And I'm even more sure that there are large numbers of people who don't waste their time on my little blog, who share the perspectives and pain of these stories express here.
Because there is more to say. I've said my piece, told my story, at least as well as I can manage it at the moment. And these stories collected so far on this blog have enriched that narrative, added to it, contrasted and complemented it, and in so doing have added to my understanding of our collective ecclesial reality.
But there is more to say. We need the voices of our grandmothers and moms and aunts and Sunday school teachers and VBS organizers and missionaries, we need the voices of elders' wives and preachers' wives and missionaries' wives. These are the missing voices.
These missing voices may tell us things we are tired of hearing. They may tell us we should get over ourselves, or that we're wasting valuable time with this pity-party. They may quote us scripture and say that's that. They may quote their husbands or their fathers and use the phrase "male spiritual leadership." They may even use the word, submission.
We don't know, because these are the missing voices.
I don't know what these MIA women might want to say here. But I want to hear them say it.
I don't want their voices to remain missing.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Thursday, July 16, 2009
The "excellent women," to whom the title refers, are the backbone of Mildred's little Anglican church: the women who polish the brass and organize the rummage sales and make endless cups of tea for all occasions. I must admit that the book improves upon a deeper and more personal acquaintance with the Anglican tradition (the inside jokes about Cardinal Newman are now hilarious to me), but the excellent women themselves seem to transcend denominational specificity. Excellent women are to be found in all churches: silent, hardworking, dependable , and underappreciated. Easily ignored, and easily maligned.
As an ACU student attending Highland, I found myself one Sunday in a small group discussion on the role of women, an adult bible study which was part of the larger process of Highland's study on the topic. In this intimate setting I remember being astonished to realize, at the end of the discussion, the woman sitting across from me in our informal circle was openly weeping. How, I thought, how could this liberating possibility that she might use her voice, act in ways she never could before in her church, how could this cause grief? And then she spoke, haltingly, about how she had, her whole life, conformed to the roles she had been taught were biblical and godly for women; how this shift in perspective brought not a sense of freedom, but condemnation, on the submission of her whole life. That weeping, excellent woman.
Like JW, I too am one of the blessed ones. I come from a long line of excellent women. I know their names, their contributions. Very few others do. They are the excellent women, the backbone of our churches: silent, hardworking, dependable, underappreciated. Unrecognized.
Perhaps I wish that they had not been quite so excellent, that instead they had been a little more discontent, a little quicker to express themselves, a little louder, a little more out-of-order. Shall I malign them, because they chose differently than I wish to? These women, who have, in their excellence, made it possible for me to see and to value women's work, women's wisdom, women's voices. Made it possible for me to see that the excellence with which they fulfilled expectations were the very ways they exceeded and challenged expectations. Made it possible for me to see that everyone should value them, the excellent, and the not-so-excellent, women of our churches.
My mother, who taught me that Jesus told us to be salt, not sugar.
My grandmother, for whom I am named, who not only learned Chinese but taught herself biblical Hebrew (to the enduring astonishment of a certain Harding professor who, years later during roll call for freshman OT survey, would greet me with delight as her granddaughter, and regale my whole class with the story of how this crazy woman, some missionary's wife, walked into his office and floored him with a flawlessly read and translated random passage from the Tanakh for her final exam--the only reason I even know this story).
My great-grandmother, who raised a son whose faithfulness would mean a lifetime in the mission field, and who wrote a whole book of her own hymns, and painted biblical scenes of Christ and his disciples.
I come from a long line of excellent women.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
My doula told me beforehand that I would find it spiritually empowering. I thought that was just goofy talk, so I nodded politely as she described how that sense of empowerment would spill over into all other dimensions of personal and professional life. I couldn't see how giving birth would make me a better theologian.
That was beforeI gave birth.
Many people have written and remarked on the role of their children or grandchildren in bringing them to a realization of the arbitrary limitations of gender within our churches. But that's not what I want to write about. Giving birth didn't teach me the absurdity of gender injustice within the kingdom of God--I was already aware. Giving birth taught me how to love being a woman, a lesson I didn't yet know I hadn't actually learned.
It's not that I ever wanted to be a man. It's just that, till then, being a woman was somehow always framed in the negative. And it was so normal that I didn't even realize it. I--still--didn't think of myself primarily as a woman, except for those instances when I was forced to, in recognition of the limitations of my gender. I still on some level thought of myself as a person, or a student, something generic--"man" in that grammatical universal sense supposedly divorced from actual gender. Female embodiment was sort of accidental, a historical and genetic contingency, and sort of irrelevant. I did, after all, spend a lot of time living in my head.
Pregnancy rewrote my concepts of woman and embodiment. Being a woman was suddenly revelatory, life-giving, positive, superlative, something other but also more than generic "man." I loved my body in a way I never had before; I bought tubs and tubs of cocoa butter not so much out of fear of stretch marks but for the sheer joy of rubbing my growing belly. I reveled in the compliments, which seemed to grow in proportion to my midsection. I had never before felt so beautiful, so at home in my own skin.
Birth rewrote my concepts of spirituality and materiality: who could have known that the most holy moment of my life would occur amid water and blood and shit? Or rather, how could I have missed that messy, bodily, out-of-bounds birthing is at the very center of Christian faith? That birth and rebirth are a privileged metaphor of the spiritual life within Christianity?
Maria was right: it has made me a better theologian.
I don't want to claim that this experience is necessary for a "true" understanding of Christian faith. Not everyone gets to have this experience of birthing: obviously, men do not, but neither do all women. But this is my story. This was my road to wholeness: the birth of my daughter, which rebirthed me, not as the false generic "man," but as a woman. Finally.
Monday, July 13, 2009
It begins, who knows
when it begins or how.
It does not begin
with the tears no one notices,
the ones that well-up
in the middle of the sermon—
not the ones that lead you
down the aisle at altar call,
not the ones that change
from shame to relief—
but the ones that do not
roll down your cheeks,
the ones you hold back
until ensconced in the safety
of your car you sob;
sob until you are as dry
as the Wilderness of Sin—
the barren land
you’ve been condemned
by no fault of your own.
Even Miriam led God’s people
in song and dance
but there is no place for you.
Something has been said,
the same thing has been said
that has been said
for thirty years,
for forty years,
since your grandmother
was a child sitting silently
in church with a funeral parlor fan,
since the last woman preacher
in the fields of Kentucky
or Missouri or Ohio,
sometime back in the 19th Century,
like the good Robert Lewis Dabney,
a Presbyterian—then again
so were the Campbells and Stone,
at one time—
and Confederate chaplain—
but we’ve moved so far beyond
slavery and Jim Crow—
proclaimed from the pulpit
and in print that
“women’s preaching was simply pagan.”
No, this was not said;
not this time.
But it has been said.
You were in chapel
when the preacher praised
his corn-fed wife
and then expounded on
and broken hermeneutic limbs,
before explaining away
the case of Deborah
as exceptio probat regulam,
did not God use her song
to shame cowardly men.
You’ve heard the Bible boys
whisper such things
you’ve heard their girlfriends
come back from prayer sessions
on white swings
repeating such things—
but you do not know
if their muttering
is the grateful prayer
of the believer
or the desperate one
of a girl trying to pray
herself into believing
what she’s always been told,
knows in her bones,
is not right.
the mother’s day sermons,
you know that the preacher,
owes all he is
and ever hopes to be
to his angel Mother,
and that all you
should ever hope to be
is a silent elder’s wife
and mother to preachers.
The tears began much earlier
than this well-worded
sermon on reconciliation
with some misogynistic
and racialized joke
the fact that a praise team
was sitting mic’d
among the members—
“do not worry,” he said,
“a praise team does not mean
that Janet Reno”—
the embattled and censured,
the ridiculed by sketch
comedy Janet Reno—
“will be here,”
pointing to where he stood,
"in a sequined robe leading
a full Gospel choir.”
Was it what he said…
or the casual manner
in which he tossed
the statement out
on to his message:
“We are called to live
lives of reconciliation…
to forgive and be forgiven.”?
Indeed, seventy times seven.
You do the math
adding up the countless
elder’s wives whose husbands
were appointed so
that the aura of power
would lure them back
into the pew on Sunday—
God, after all, in infinite wisdom,
knew that man was weaker
than woman in every way,
knew that man was not
as naturally spiritual as woman,
knew that man
has a natural antipathy
to female leadership,
so God appointed man
head of home, church and state—
to those thousands
you add the Sunday school
from their third grade class
because a nine year old boy
and you add the wives
who never learned to pray
and you add
the number of times
it’s been said
that casseroles and cookies
are the true ministry of women
and you add
and you add
and you add…
must you hear men
daily disown your worth?
will they offer you
the bitter cup
of your trampled gifts
expecting you to drink
from it as if it were
the cup of forgiveness?
before you cross the sea
and dance with Miriam
on the shore
because now you can sing,
sing words written by women
and not have to wonder
why Fanny J Crosby
gets a voice
but not you,
not your sister poet,
not your mother
whose closed-door prayers
have brought you
to the very gates of heaven?
JTB wrote recently that she went to China and became a feminist. I feel like I went to ACU and became a bitch. I don’t say that out loud (okay, maybe twice), but it’s what I think. I hope you’ll stay with me to see what I mean. Everyone who knew me as a kid and as a teenager will tell you that I am a sweet, quiet girl. People who know me now will tell you that I’m opinionated and some will even say I have a “strong personality.”
Have you heard of the six word memoirs? I wrote one. Here it is:
Didn’t know I had a voice.
The very first turning point for me didn’t happen in church. I was driving (so I was about 17) down 34th listening to FM90 and “Silent All These Years” by Tori Amos came on. I was overcome, it was an epiphany for me.
I’m a word girl. I’ve always loved stories. I love listening to them, I love reading them, I love telling them. If you look at my flair board on my facebook page, you’ll see things like, “Because pointless stories are my thing” and “People who don’t know me think I’m quiet, people who do wish I was.” You’ll also see comments from my friends laughing about how true those statements are.
I had always been full of words, but they were getting blocked up in my throat. I didn’t have a voice to speak my words.
It would be almost 10 years between “Silent All These Years” and my last pissed Sunday, with ACU being pretty much right in the middle. It was a LONG road.
Two things happened while I was at ACU, and these two stories are the part where I’m not reluctant. These are the stories that I love and that have carried me through from a time of questions to a time of answers.
I was taking an outrageous load to finish up my requirements since I couldn’t afford to stay in school any longer. Because it was the end of the degree, the classes were upper-level, small and intense.
I had to do a guided study for one class, because that was the only way I could fit everything in. I would meet one-on-one with the professor and discuss the reading material. One book was about learning styles. He asked me what I thought, and I said, “I think the author is this type, and I think her husband is this other type, and I don’t think she values his type very much.” It seemed like an obvious observation to me. The professor’s jaw dropped. He said, “I can’t believe you picked up on that. I know this couple personally, and they’ve had conflict in their marriage over that.” I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. I felt a sort of pleased satisfaction about it, like guessing the outcome of a movie before the end. I didn’t think too much about it then, but I’ve thought a lot about it since. It has turned out to be a major turning point for me. I see young people who don’t know what they’re good at. They take “spiritual gifts quizzes” to find out. This experience was one thing that helped me see what I’m good at. Once I had this experience, I wasn’t able to be still and quiet, hiding behind the “not knowing.” Still and quiet seems humble, and confident seems bitchy.
I had the same professor for another small, upper-level ministry majors class, about 10-12 students. I was the only girl. We were talking about a hypothetical case-study. It was some situation about a congregation having a church-splitting conflict over something to do with building a kitchen and a fellowship room and something about a parking lot. There was one woman in the example who was especially problematic. I wish I could remember the whole thing better, but anyway. Everyone in the class discussed possibilities for why the people in the story felt the way they did and what might be done to resolve the conflict. I sat there and listened to what all was being said and racked my brain for what might be this woman’s problem. I thought, “What have we learned from all these classes we’ve been taking? They keep talking to us in counseling classes and family systems classes about how the presenting issue usually isn’t the true underlying issue. After awhile, I spoke up and said, “I don’t think the parking lot is really this woman’s problem, I think what she’s really having a problem with is…” I don’t remember now what I said, but I just threw my ideas out there. The professor spoke after me. He said, “Guys, I just want to stop here for a minute and tell you that this is what you’re missing when you exclude women from your elders’ meetings and your staff meetings. Women offer insights that you won’t get without them.” They kind of nodded, and we continued. But for me, in that moment between the professor’s words and the class continuing, I felt like the sky opened up and a light flooded over me that allowed me to see my value for the first time. The hand that had been covering my mouth my whole life let go at ACU. Ever since that moment, I’ve always had the feeling that once I experienced that kind of validation, I cannot go back to trying to tell myself that for some, unknown reason I am supposed to not speak.
How does one revisit ACU, knowing that women aren’t allowed to speak publically during chapel unless a statement is made, prior to her speaking, that chapel is technically over? How does one revisit ACU knowing they’re sending ministry majors to churches where they know women aren’t allowed to teach boys who’ve been baptized? This place where the goal is to train students for Christian leadership throughout the world (except for women in ministry). This place where women are expected to become corporate CEOs but not church leaders. I’ll tell you. One revisits it feeling like a bitch. Like an ungrateful, traitor who received a world-class education only to turn around and leave it. One does it with fear and grief. Fear of being rebuked, fear of being found out. With grief that this place, these people, these halls and rooms, helped give me something valuable that I’m doing nothing to reciprocate.
If you’ve stayed with me this far, then you know from my response to questions 3 & 4, that I have found a home with peace and relief. It is a house of inclusion. If I’m going to say anything, I want it to be that. But this is a conversation about where we’ve come from. And in that conversation I have to tell a story about living in a house of silence.
This is going to be offensive, please excuse me or stop reading this or whatever you need to do. I’m not apologetic anymore.
So I use “Church of Christ” because the way I see it, “church of Christ” is used as a way of insisting that it is not a denomination, and I cannot participate in that thinking. I do believe that the Church of Christ is a denomination. I have to say all of this, because I can’t begin a written conversation about the church where I come from without defending why I punctuate the way I do. I know I’m being unfair, because after having said all that, I’m not willing to talk about it any further.
1. What’s your first memory of realizing that being female meant something different in terms of opportunities or expectations?
If you’re a fish, when do you discover water? I grew up in the CoC. I knew the answers before I knew the questions. I don’t remember exactly when I began asking, but by the time I was in high school I had been asking a lot of questions for a long time and getting very polite, unsatisfying answers. All of my questions seemed to me to be best represented by this one question: “How come if I wrote a book everyone would read it and love it and say, ‘Wow! This stuff is great!’ but if I spoke those exact same words, the same people would say, ‘This is wrong.’?”
I started asking everyone everywhere this question. Mostly the answer I got was,
“That’s a good question.”
I wanted to say, “Are you kidding me?! That’s your answer?!”
Sometimes people said, “Well, probably a lot of people wouldn’t read your book.”
I knew that was true, too.
2. How did being female in CoC affect you as a teenager, in college, in your dating relationships?
I never really dated as a teenager. I think being female in CoC as a teenager was only one of many ways that I was “out of sorts” or “out of my element” or “not at home in my own life.” Probably typical for most teenagers. However in college, I think it did directly factor into my not dating. I was a Youth & Family Ministry major at ACU. In my class, there were only two or three female Y&FM majors. Every year while I was there, there were more and more new incoming female Y&FM majors, but I was rare during my time. One day, I was walking through the campus center with a close friend. He was like a brother to me. He was a psychology major. We were having a conversation about dating, and he casually said, “I don’t think I’d date a female Bible major. I think I’d be intimidated.” He said it so matter-of-fact-ly. I felt like there was no reason to be upset about it. I realized that my major was probably going to be a hindrance to dating, to say nothing of the chances of getting married. Another time I was walking with a male Y&FM major, and we were talking about how I felt discriminated against as a female. He said, “I never really thought about it before.” I said, “You wouldn’t—it doesn’t affect you.” Then he said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
3. How has being female in CoC affected you as an adult? 4. How has being female affected your church life?
To me, being female and the issue of women’s role is part of a bigger conflict I have with the Church of Christ (which I’ll write about later if JTB wants it). At the last Church of Christ I went to regularly, I constantly found myself thinking, “I’m so glad I didn’t invite anyone to come with me today!” Then I would think, “Something is very wrong if I don’t want to invite people to come to church with me.” The sermons made me angry, and I constantly wanted to stand up and walk out. At the time, I had a demanding social work job, and I was constantly getting paged and having to leave church to talk to clients on the phone. Between the job and the church, I found myself on Sunday mornings thinking to myself, “Maybe I’ll just stay home today. I’ll go next week.” My job was with a CoC agency, and it required that I be CoC, so I didn’t feel free to visit other denominations. I was already at the most liberal, progressive CoC in town, so I knew it was pointless to visit other CoC congregations. Before I knew it, I hadn’t been to church in about a year. Then the friend from the “Big C little c” conversation invited me to visit his Methodist church. I decided that as long as I was forsaking the requirements of my job, I might as well do whatever I wanted. I wanted to go to church, I just didn’t want to be pissed the whole time I was there. It has been such a relief to find a home where things that are non-issues to me are non-issues in the church. I feel like now I can focus on the issues that are important to me. I’ve been on social justice and environmental task forces in my Methodist congregations. I’ve gotten to do what I’m good at, and no one thinks twice about it, except to tell me thanks. I’ve moved a couple of times since I started going to a Methodist church, and I’ve always found the same, serving, welcoming types of churches. I understand why people stay who feel like it is their calling in life to help change things, but for me, I feel like I had a different calling and it wasn’t possible to follow my calling in the CoC.
6. How has being female in CoC affected your interaction with children (yours and others’ children)?
When I moved from Texas to DC, I moved in with some friends who grew up CoC but who have been going to an Episcopal church after going to a Disciples of Christ church. They have the same views about women as I do. Now they’re getting ready to move out of state and thinking about where they will go to church. They expect to go to a Disciples of Christ or Episcopal church again, but there’s a local CoC church in their soon-to-be town, that they’ve heard great things about. They also now have a daughter. They asked me what I think about it. They’ve said that they don’t want to raise their daughter in the environment of the CoC because they don’t want her to be influenced by the ideas about women, so I felt comfortable answering their question honestly. I told them that I can only speak for myself and I don’t want to tell them what’s right for them, but I said that I wouldn’t go to a CoC regularly under any circumstances. I don’t have children of my own, but where I do have influence on the experience of children, I won’t promote the CoC. I say these things reluctantly. I am so grateful for so much, but it isn’t enough.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
A few years later, I hesitantly came out of the closet. After many tears and arguments, my parents and I reached an uneasy peace that has held more or less steady for the last five years. But a funny thing happened in 2003 after I came out: I was no longer asked to pray at the dinner table. These days, when my family gathers, either my brother or my father blesses the food. The prayers I did not want to say are now the prayers I am not allowed to say. My mother and sister have always been silent. And now I am, too.
It was this experience, this loss of status, more than any other in my life, that taught me about the silence of women in the Church of Christ. I am not a woman, and the experiences of Church of Christ women are different than this gay man's, though I think our experiences run parallel. But I understand now what it is like to be told your voice is not welcome. I understand the power of exclusion.
I have never heard my sister pray. I hope one day I will.
I love the Church of Christ. It is my people, my family, my tribe, my best friends, and now in many ways, my employer and calling.
As for this question of “women’s roles,” I have been aware of the question for all my life, being the son and grandson of women who had much, much to offer, service to render and wisdom to share but who bumped up against Women’s Roles in the Church all their lives. In my youth, given to accept what I was taught as all youths are, I questioned how this inequity could be. Pointed to I Cor. 14, of course, I saw the example and necessary inference, but I either cobbled together or heard someone give an apology that, although there are not “male and female in Christ,” this does not mean that they are the same or have the same roles. In other words, this is not a question of power or subjugation, of course, but just different roles. Separate but equal roles. I bought it and sold it, too.
At my beloved alma mater, I began to learn otherwise from wise people and to suspect that we had gotten this wrong. My thinking continued to evolve in law school where I served alongside very talented, articulate, visionary, faithful women in our fruitful campus ministry. This was the first time for me to be in an ecumenical Christian ministry, outside the Brotherhood, and gender inequity at our national law school would have been fatal to our ministry, not to mention foolish for the squander of talent and contrary to the gospel we proclaimed.
The gospel truth of gender justice came home to me when I married my partner, best friend and love. She was not from my tribe, a Christian but not a Member of The Church, although she would become one and become bewildered and wounded, stronger and wiser as a result. The most desperate moment came in our first year of marriage when she and I were the de facto youth ministers in a small congregation in the throes of an identity crisis. In a youth group of about 20, only 2 or 3 boys would ever lead prayer, but a few of the girls were more than willing. As the girls castigated the boys for not appreciating their privilege, we told them that we did not have a problem with girls leading prayers for the youth group but that we would wait a week for any of them to ask questions, lodge objections, talk to their parents, etc. When the day arrived without comment, we asked a sure girl to pray, but she demurred. My wife took up the ministry of prayer and led us to the Lord, and then it all hit the fan. Soon enough, I was sitting in the middle of a semi-circle of brethren in a Men’s Business Meeting, with my back against an actual wall. We did not have Elders, but Men’s Business Meetings apparently were some sort of exigency derived from necessary inference. There we parsed I Corinthians and other passages, while I answered an inquisition into my wife’s prayer, in her imposed absence. Theirs was not an angry reaction but the tired answers of stumbling blocks, patience and the need for more study, especially about women praying and prophesying with their heads covered and Gal. 3:28, which none of them had before considered in this context. She cried out to seek a new congregation, and as we visited a local Denominational Service, where she wept during communion, I told her that I wasn’t sure I could leave because I wasn’t sure the Denomination would let me teach, and I needed to teach for my spiritual well-being, apparently without any self-awareness of my hypocrisy. We were in a moment of crisis but were delivered by escape. Blessedly, we dodged the bullet of disaffiliation when we moved to a town with better prospects.
We found a much more confident congregation at our next home, and we love them still. Even so, our beloved preacher once told a story, with boys and girls on the stage beside him, of being discouraged as a boy in church. He had been leading singing in his small church as a lad of 8 or 9 and loved it, although he had not yet reached the age of accountability and had not been baptized. A new preacher came and told him to cut it out until he “became a Christian,” and this crushed and alienated the young boy’s spirit for years to come. Our preacher then exhorted us to empower and encourage our kids because of our profound responsibility to lift them up and strengthen their faith. He then handed the microphone to a girl, a yet-unbaptized girl on stage with other yet-unbaptized kids, who led them all in song. It was beautiful, but I was struck by the dissonance, because even in our congregation, once that very girl was baptized, there would be no more song leading for her. When she “became a Christian,” we would silence the voice we were then celebrating and empowering.
Now we are at a church where women read scripture in service, give their own announcements facing the church, from the pulpit, with a microphone, sing solos, testify, work as ministry leaders and are overcoming generations of discrimination. I even got to crash the Ladies Class, and they prayed in my presence. My wife and I were ordained together to lead a ministry, and in that capacity, she led classes with men and women and even led our elders in prayer as we considered our work together. Our elders encouraged her and blessed her voice. Strangely enough, however, she still cannot pass communion trays vertically because she is a woman, which, in light of all the women reading, praying, singing, leading and serving during our services, is incoherent and tough to explain to eager daughters who want to “throw the plates.”
All in all, our congregation is making sure headway toward manifesting the gospel truth that, in Christ, there are not male and female, making deliberate speed as we learn that there is no such thing as separate but equal, and that separate almost always is about power and subjugation, while equal is almost always about submission. Our pastor has guided us to let our daughters help me pass the collection plate (but not communion, yet), in their desire to help, and we pray that this holds the promise that when they reach their own age of accountability, that they will be welcomed as full citizens into the kingdom of God, equipped and encouraged to seek out the calling the Lord gives to them.
This is important, because we have two daughters who dream. They pretend to be astronauts and ballerinas. They love to play dinosaurs and princesses. They play with legos and babydolls. They play soccer, climb trees and change clothes, all the time. They play hard in the mud, love the zoo, cherish books, run like mad, twirl and leap, color and write, want to be pretty, sing all the time, tell stories and give to their friends.
When our older daughter was two-and a half, she was playing with her little sister in their bedroom. They were laughing, dancing and running around. Then, the little one started complaining and protesting while her big sister pulled and prodded on her.
Momma responded to their cries and insistence, to find big sister with her arms around little sister’s shoulders, pulling and tugging, trying to get her up on the toddler bed, under protest.
Momma said, “What are you doing? Don’t pull on K like that!.”
B replied, “I’m John the Baptist!”
“I’m pretend John the Baptist, and K is Jesus, and we’re going to the water!”
Amen, little girl. Prophesy.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
As a sophomore at Harding, I dated a guy taking preaching. We spent all evening once in the lobby of Cathcart dorm, he wrestling with writing a sermon for the next day that would meet the established criteria, I trying to, well, help write it. It wasn't quite "three points and a poem," but it was old-school. Particularly onerous was the requirement of an illustration for each point. Finally, for lack of a better (and original) idea for a needed illustration, one of my suggestions was adopted--it was close to curfew, time was running out. The next day I attended the preaching class, as moral support. I was invited to fill out a peer-critique form, but asked not to speak. The peer critiques from the other would-be preachers were pretty harsh--but pretty much uniformly, regarded the bright spot in that sermon to be my illustration. We didn't let on.
(It's an interesting historical footnote that the other would-be preacher in that class who preached that day did a good job, even without my help. Brent preaches an even better sermon today--with or without my help.)
The next year, as a junior, I took "religious speaking for women." We couldn't call it preaching, but our text was Tom Long's The Witness of Preaching. We learned about exegesis and commentaries. We learned about the different styles of preaching. And we preached--if only to each other, in that small crowded room full of eager females. I worked hard on my first sermon, writing, re-writing, feeling stupid while reading aloud but in the process discovering the utter necessity of that discipline, timing it just at the limit. I don't know what went wrong there, because I was a good 10 minutes over. But no one stopped me; I don't think anyone could have.
One of the girls in that class began the semester wearing a headscarf as part of her daily dress. She chose as her text 1 Corinthians 11. The day of her sermon, she arrived without it.
I didn't preach again until 2004, at the West Islip Church of Christ, where Lance Pape and Katie Hays were then the ministers. They were away; Brent and I stayed at their house that Saturday night. I think I remember leaving flowers on their table as a thank you. What else can you do to thank people who've given you, not just a place to stay the night, but that place to go you'd always needed?
I was nervous. Terribly, terribly nervous. It had, after all, been years since my "religious speaking for women" class. And this was the real thing. I would have to walk up to an honest to God pulpit.
And the preparation for this, my inaugural sermon, was done in the aftermath of what I can only describe as a homiletical ambush. Just the week before, visiting the home church of a dear, dear friend, I listened to a sermon which went beyond simply the assertion of Church of Christ orthodoxy on the role of women into slanderous territory, naming names: Lance Pape and Dale Pauls and gal328.org, impugning motives: selfish, willful misrepresentation of the Word, to a chorus of amens and laughter at the mocking punchlines. It was like taking a soccer ball in the stomach, that awful sick prolonged moment when you can't draw a breath, when I realized it was all for my benefit. I'd been asked by the preacher if I was going to be there; at the time, googling my name brought as the top result gal328.org/forum. I sat and listened to that sermon, the whole damn thing, with my friends beside me, apparently insensible to my trembling, my near-hyperventilation. It was impossible to discipline my body's outrage even while I disciplined my mind to listen, consider, analyze, evaluate. After, I went and cried in the bathroom. After that, I went and ate sandwiches at the sandwich supper. I cried again till 2:00 am in my friends' living room, never able to say in how many different ways I felt betrayed by both the words and the silence. I cried again on the airplane home, writing and rewriting a letter which I never sent, and remains on my hard drive even now. For years I would cry in the shower, that sacred place where no one can bother you or see you, remembering it, thinking about it. Last year, I cried while blogging about it.
(Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi was onto something when he, perhaps apocryphally, said, "preach the gospel. use words if necessary." In our churches, a woman might preach effectively just by placing her female body behind the pulpit, and saying nothing at all. Just stand there. Let them see you there. Let them wonder, what's this about. Let them ask, why don't we see this more often. Shall we stage a protest, a silent pulpit stand-in?)
A week after that first sermon I received a card from Katie, telling me she'd heard the sermon tape (which, I have to say, I still have not, despite David Fritz's prompt supply of one for each sermon I have preached there) and that I'd done good. I still have that card. Of course.
Still later, I preached my first sermon at CCfB. I discovered how different it is to preach to people you know well. Not that there isn't honor in the hometown--just that the communication is weighted with so much more personal knowledge and intimacy and nuance. My weakness as a preacher is also my strength as a theologian: my sermons tend to be all about ideas. But preaching to CCfB has taught me that playing with ideas is not enough in a sermon.
A sermon has to communicate the basic truth that God loves. You. Me. Messed-up people, and with-it people. Know-it-alls and dumb-asses. Straight, gay. Needy, secure. Party people, lonely people. Moms, dads, babies, people orphaned or disowned from their own families.
Men who do what's expected of them. And women who don't.
God loves. God loves us all.
Friday, July 10, 2009
Mary Lou Hutson
Floyd E. Rose
When I left for school, even though I chose a non-religious college, I still pictured myself in the life I had been told was for me. I would go to school, and be successful because I’m smart, but I would also meet someone and marry right after graduation (or maybe even before). I would teach high school English, and sing as part of the makeshift chorus at weddings and funerals. I would run VBS, and maybe some sort of ministry for the homeless, if I had time, what with my kids and husband and job. I say all of this in sort of a mocking tone, not to mock people who live this life happily, but in mockery of myself, because this was never me. I swear like a trucker, cry without exception at all weddings and funerals, I am not good with any more than one child at a time (and then only for about an hour), and I am possibly the most undomestic person you have ever met, my only talent really being arts & crafts. But it has taken me many years to discover this. Up until this point, I have felt at many moments like a failure for not having achieved this ideal. And I know I am not alone here.
I see this in women I know who remain single into their 30s, despite their best efforts to find and keep a nice Christian man. I see this in my friends who married early and then discovered that this is not what they wanted out of life at all, but having made the commitment and stoically staying put, hoping to make it work or that the next 60 years will go by quickly. In my friends who decided not to stick it out, and who are demonized by the church for their decision to end an unhappy, at times abusive, marriage. In my friends who are blamed by the church for their husbands’ acts of infidelity, and are told that it is their wifely duty to make him want to stay. Or in people like myself, who struggle for so long to be the ideal, hoping that someone will come along who is okay with the fact that we are not. Someone who can forgive us for having slipped up, or being too quick to speak, or to act, or too selfish to see that our careers are not more important than the potential of a family that we do not really want to have.
The greatest blessing of my life was the day I set foot on the campus of the University of Texas. It was for me the opportunity to be seen for who I am, and to be appreciated for my voice. To meet people who would teach me so much and change me in profound ways, leading me to do more than I ever thought possible. Instead of meeting a husband there, I met a best friend with whom I have walked through the last decade or so. He had a journey very similar to mine up to that point, and has had his own journey since. Like all of us, having to learn that God does not make imperfect things and loves us wholly for who we wholly are.
We ate our lunch.
And suddenly, from across my tiny little table, she looked up at me and said, out of the blue, "Brother _____ sometimes just talks a lot of nonsense, doesn't he?"
I nearly choked. And then I laughed. I couldn't help it.
And then I praised God for this beautiful reversal of my all-too-human assumptions and expectations, and for the divine symmetry of our friendship. As she had once said to me, "God has answered my prayers in your words," this was true again.
It wasn't that she agreed with me. It was that in that moment I knew that she was okay, more okay than I was, even. She was not a baby who needed looking after. She was a woman, a woman made in the image of God and more mature in the image of Christ than I myself was. She was, in that moment, my angel, my divine messenger, sitting across the table, teaching me. Teaching me that our distortions of the gospel were just a lot of nonsense. Teaching me that such nonsense has no power, unless we grant it such. Teaching me that I too could mature into the image of Christ as she had, resilient, patient, forbearing and fearless.
She is okay now, I know. And so am I.
And the strange thing was it happened so fast. Just two years ago we (my wife, son, and I) were part of a vibrant active progressive congregation. We moved away due to a new job. We looked for another congregation and found that, in the area we moved to our choices were extremely limited. We chose the best of the bad and settled in. I knew the congregation was going to be much more conservative than our last and an order of magnitude more conservative than me. But I thought I was ready. We had feasted on spiritual food so richly at our previous congregation that I thought I could survive some lean times. In fact the Elders came over one evening very early on in our tenure here and we talked for a long time. I told them that I was very likely going to disagree with a lot of things and was never afraid to share my opinions. They didn't seem to have a problem with that. But now, after being a member of a congregation who has no interest in being the hands and feet of Christ but rather are just interested in behind his wagging disapproving finger, I'm done.
I didn't want to be angry or frustrated on Sunday's anymore so I just stopped caring. I would walk away from the C of C but my wife isn't ready and I'm not going to be the husband that sends the wife and kids to church while he sleeps in on Sunday. Perhaps I should, for all the good attending is doing me or anyone else. I've lost the will to care about my congregation and my brotherhood and I am ever so slowly losing the will to care about the Kingdom at all. I pray with and over my son with fervor and that's about it anymore. I don't deny Him (or Her as J so eloquently put it). I still love Him. But I don't think I've got anything for Him, at least not now. That probably doesn't make Him very happy. But damn it, I'm not even sure if I care about that all that much either.
In the back of my mind. In the recesses of my soul. I want to care. I want to feel my spirit stir. I want to engage my intellect. I want to serve. But I don't. I don't do any of those things.
I am unwhole. I am broken. I feel these things. I know these things. They torment me some nights as I try to sleep. But apathy is a damn powerful thing.
[JTB editor's note: you can find Kile's original comment here, as a response to J's post. I asked for permission to re-post his words as a stand-alone blog post, and I am grateful that he consented.]
Thursday, July 09, 2009
When I was a teenager, my mother began working on her master’s degree and, eventually, her doctorate in ministry. She did this on top of her full-time job, balancing these responsibilities with her marriage, children, and ministry at home. Again, I didn’t find this particularly remarkable at the time—it was just our life. But I do remember beginning to understand that my mother was unique. There were not many other women in her classes and sometimes the men didn’t know how to respond to her. I won’t try to tell any of these stories here because they are hers to tell, not mine. Plus, I don’t know if I really know any of them. I just remember beginning to develop a sense of otherness around this time. I knew that the way I understood myself as a female was not maybe how other people understood me.
My feelings of frustration about my gender didn’t begin until I was in late-high school. In those days, the youth group kids would sit near the back of the auditorium on the far lefthand side. Many Sunday mornings, a slightly frantic, sweaty deacon would come rushing over and would ask one or two of the guys to help serve communion. At first, it didn’t really bother me that I was never asked, nor were other great girls from the youth group. But one Sunday I looked up and saw that I was being served on each side by two guys who had JUST been talking about the party they had attended over the weekend. While they had both baptized in the previous months, neither one was resisting the temptation to party with their friends. Not that I was sinless or expected that the people serving communion would be any more righteous than any of the rest of us. But I felt the first painful pangs of frustration that my ability to serve at church was not evaluated based on spiritual maturity, desire, or willingness. Even though I had been a baptized Christian for seven years, I was not considered able to walk down the aisles with a tray because I lacked the important “spiritual gift” of the phallus.
Despite that frustration, I continued to serve in leadership roles in my youth group and was asked to deliver a public response to the church on Senior Sunday—one of two times I have ever spoken publicly during worship.
When I entered my freshman year of college, I still didn’t have much of an idea about the restrictions women faced in Churches of Christ. I had been sheltered and empowered by my family and, in many ways, by my home congregation. I quickly became involved with like-minded friends and we organized a devotional for freshmen—attended by probably 50 students. During one of the first devotionals, I volunteered to “give the talk.” You know, to use Scripture and my personal experience to edify and challenge the assembled group. After we sang a few songs, my (male) friend who was leading worship introduced me. And he said that I would be “giving my testimony.” Which was true, in a way. But what I was doing was no different than what my male cohorts had done in previous devotionals, only their talks weren’t specified as “testimonies.” He had chosen that word to describe my talk so as not to offend anyone. I remember feeling conflicted and a little hurt by that distinction, though I wasn’t wholly surprised by it. I didn’t want my gender to be the focus of my talk, I wanted the Lord to be the focus.
At the end of my talk that evening, I prayed for all of us. I don’t remember anything specific or remarkable about the prayer at all. And I didn’t think twice about doing it—after all, I had been able to pray, read scripture, and lead discussions in my youth group just months before. But after the devotional, a male friend of mine came up to me and told me that he had covered his ears while I had prayed because he didn’t want to participate in a sin: being led in prayer by a woman. I was absolutely floored. And hurt. And angered. This was the first time (and, thank the Lord, I think the only time) I have ever been so directly attacked for my spiritual leadership.
I attended college in my hometown, and my home congregation was undergoing an extensive study of women’s roles in public leadership. I was invited to be part of a discussion group one afternoon, to share my views with other members of the church as well as the elders. I shared my previous experience about feeling frustration when the boys in the youth group were invited to serve communion and the girls were excluded…and a man in the discussion group responded with the following sentiment: “It’s probably a good thing that young women don’t serve communion. What if a woman wore something sexy that made the men in the congregation lust after her. That would be detrimental to the spiritual state of the men during communion. Therefore, women shouldn’t serve communion.” Again, I was floored. I couldn’t believe his willingness to disenfranchise women based on some men’s inability to control their sexual desires (not to mention the total lack of trust that women are able to dress modestly and appropriately!).
When my husband and I started dating, he was working on his Master’s of Divinity and was ministering at a tiny rural church outside of town. I joined him in that work, and, though the church was conservative, I witnessed beautiful female servant leadership by Audrey and Mildred, the octogenarian matriarchs of the church. Each week, they would arrive at the building early to prepare for worship. One had a good right arm, the other had a good left arm. So they would stand, bad shoulder to bad shoulder each week, preparing the communion trays—Audrey on the right, using her good right hand, Mildred on the left, using her good left hand. And even then, in my early twenties, I didn’t miss the significance of this image: two women devoted to the service of the church working side by side, taking up the other one’s slack to the glory of the Lord. My husband and I learned a lot at this tiny church—our first ministry together. But the witness of Audrey and Mildred is the primary image that remains for us.
And I think of so many other women, both in progressive and conservative churches, who have blazed trails or have quietly made strides in their service of the Lord—their curious exploration of the Word. And I am grateful. Because I know that my way, though frustrating, is easier because of their work, their pain, their humiliation.
I am blessed to have a husband with whom I have an equal partnership in our marriage and in our ministry. He actively supports all of my gifts—both spiritual and otherwise. I think this may be the heart of the blessing I feel from the Lord when it relates to women in public leadership: I do not feel the desire to have full-time or public ministry in the church. At least not right now. I am a theater artist and I feel fully empowered to explore and utilize those gifts in my career. Most of the frustrations I have felt with my congregation in the last three years have had nothing to do with my gender. I have been blessed to be part of a young professionals group that has accepted me (and other women) as full teachers and leaders. I am still baffled by the silly little semantic acrobatics we go through to be sure not to offend more conservative members (women in my church are allowed to read scripture during the worship service, but they do it from a seated position; to “justify” this, men who read scripture also do it from their seat). But the last three years have been encouraging to me because, in that time, I haven’t really had any arguments about whether or not women are able or gifted to lead in the church—the conversations have been focused on how quickly the church can adapt to female leadership and what the appropriate next steps are…
And this is where I find hope, as a strong, gifted woman in Churches of Christ. I think churches will either change their views on this central issue, or they’ll further isolate themselves from the rest of the world, will lose their young, dynamic members, and will eventually either shrivel up and die or implode on themselves. I feel churches of all stripes reorienting their focus to be more concerned with justice and peace. A few Churches of Christ are joining this movement. And this gives me hope and excitement. I can see that the road will be long as women have to continue to fight for a voice and an equal share in the gospel mission. But I am encouraged that there is hope within Churches of Christ. I am committed to sticking around and doing what I can to help in the journey, knowing that if—after years of struggle and attempts at reconciliation within the C of C—my husband and I can’t make it work, we will move on to another group that recognizes my voice as equally as important as his.
Until then, I join with so many other witnesses—male and female, silent and outspoken—in testifying to the goodness of our God, even (or perhaps especially) in the face of frustration, suffering, and doubt. To Him be the glory forever and ever.