Saturday, July 11, 2009

part 4: lady-preacher

And then, somehow, I turned into a preacher, or lady-preacher, as my BFF once called me.

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, 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 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.


JRB said...

Last year, my grandparents, missionaries, brought a group from their (conservative, traditional, gender non-inclusive) church through town on their way on a domestic mission effort to give school supplies, food and a VBS to one of the churches in an impoverished Southern community. This is a very worthy effort.

Among the group were a couple of teenage girls who loved to play with our little girls. We hosted the team for dinner at our church building on a Friday night, and at the time, all of our communal meals happened in the sanctuary. We would push back the chairs, set up tables and eat.

Our little girls love to play "on stage" which is a great place to run around and holler when appropriate, and we encouraged it that night, keeping them out of our hair.

One of the traveling teenage girls playing with our girls walked up on the stage, to chase the girls. With a backward, awkward, questioning glance at her parents, she stopped behind the pulpit, surveyed the empty, darkened sanctuary, and my wife heard her say,

"This feels like power."

Justin Burton said...

Oh man, I'm so sorry you had to endure that. My heart's racing right now; it's not hard to imagine the vaccuum in your lungs as you sat there. Reading about it now, I have my indignant face on: Seriously, you're messing with JTB and Dale Pauls in the same breath? Seriously? Where'd I put my stoning rocks?

I guess it's not betrayal unless you don't expect it.

I like the silent sit-in. Reminds me of John Cage's 4'33", which could be summarized as "Make good music. Use sounds if necessary."

TKP said...

But the real question about your sermon is: what were you wearing and how was your makeup?

JTB said...

I think I have a picture of a slightly sleep deprived short-haired me in front of the house before the service...hmmm...may stick it in the sidebar just for fun.

More Hillary than SP that morning for sure: black suit, minimal makeup. :)

Actually Micki Pulleyking's comments re that in the Sat morning CSC session were really she started out preaching never wearing feminine skirts or lots of makeup, perhaps subconsciously trying to look less female and less threatening...

Seriously, it makes you long for a big goofy and universally unflattering robe to thrown on over whatever, just so you don't have to bother with it...

Carolyn said...

When you blogged about that terrible experience last year, I had no idea that you actually had to endure a sermon attacking gender equality...along with a chorus of amens and laughter. I'm sickened to read that, and even more impressed now with what you wrote in your posted letter. I look forward to hearing you preach one day.

stan said...

As to the comments on a preacher's clothing and appearance... in the legend of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla is a devoted co-worker of the apostle Paul; heroic in the trials she faces; but her beauty attracts unwanted attention in her travels; she suffers for following in Paul's footsteps. At the end of the story, she preaches as she goes about and even cuts her hair short and wears men's clothing.