Sunday, July 12, 2009

by JRB

The question is, “What's your first memory of realizing that being female meant something different in terms of opportunities or expectations?” I am male, so I can speak to this question but not as well to the others. I am a “Hebrew among Hebrews” with good COC lineage and degrees, and I was always a very good church kid and still am. I rocked Bible Bowl, was baptized at 11, led singing at 12, preached by 13 at the latest, helped lead the youth group, was a youth ministry intern and a ministry major in college at a “brotherhood school.” My grandparents are missionaries, and I have been speaking in church for a long, long time. I have always been a member of a Church of Christ, or rather, the Church of Christ.

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.

1 comment:

TKP said...

Please tell me your daughter had an awesome matching John the Baptist costume too!

I've already mentioned this to your wife, but have you heard of the "Throwing Plates" relay race? It's quite thrilling; you should try it at your next VBS. ;)