Until Sunday

Last month, when this video appeared on Facebook, I was amused.

I laughed out loud but it didn’t feel like my story. Not anymore. There was a time in my ministry when I heard these comments said every single day. There was a time when I felt like I needed to fight for the rights of women to lead in the church with every good bit of exegesis that I could muster from Paul’s would-be mandate that women should be silent. But, it hasn’t felt like my fight anymore. That is, until Sunday.

I had heard that this little church had had some hesitancy about hiring a female pastor. It was said in passing once or twice before. Even if it hadn’t been voiced, I could see in their history. They had been blessed by countless women who have preached and presided in the years since their beloved pastor died but they had never, ever hired a woman to lead them. Until Sunday, I hadn’t thought much of this. There could be a thousand reasons of this. After all, in the United Church of Christ, according to the 2015 statistical report47.9% of all active, non-retired authorized ministers are female. 

Until Sunday, I wasn’t especially worried about the majority of men holding that 52.1%. It was on Sunday that I heard both the fear and the welcome of women in ministry. It wasn’t the focus of the conversation. But, somewhere in the middle of discussing John Dorhaurer’s Beyond Resistance, we got onto inclusive language. That was when the dear 90 year old woman seated beside me told me that she didn’t think that women should ever lead. She didn’t think that women should be pastor and she didn’t think that a woman should be president. It was then that I heard every hesitation about women in leadership that had bubbled under the surface.

So, I asked this dear 90 year old woman why she felt this way and she struggled for an answer. She told me that that was how it had always been and she didn’t understand why it needed to change. Even so, she saw that it was changing. Everything around her is changing so much so that she kept repeating the question, “Why can’t I change?”

On the third or fourth repetition of this question, the conversation within that small group turned to my leadership. It wasn’t about women’s leadership but what I brought to this group of people. I get up each Sunday to preach but I do not like being the center of attention. I hid under my book as they started listing off my strengths. I didn’t want this to be all about me but I heard every word.

 

They were ready to not like me. They were ready to reject me on the fact that I was a woman. And yet, there is something different about the way that I lead. They’ve noticed that only in these few months that I have been their interim pastor. I preach differently. I ask more questions. I want to know what they think. I don’t assume that I have all of the answers.

When that dear old lady asked again, “Why can’t I change?” I told her she didn’t have to because it is enough that she loves me. There is some truth in that but it is not enough to love only those that you can see. It is not enough to celebrate the strengths of those that God puts in your way. Until Sunday, I did not realize how comfortable I had become with my own privilege.

In that same 2015 statistical report, it states that over half of co-pastors (51.5%) and interim / supply pastors (53.4%) were female, and over two-thirds (70.3%) were associate / assistant pastors. Next year, I will be counted in this percentage. I am so grateful to have meaningful work but that is not true for every woman. There are women that can’t bust through the stained glass ceiling because the local church refuses to celebrate the strengths of women in ministry or the gifts of people of color or the gifts of LGBT pastors.

In his book, the same one that was supposed to be the focus of our conversation that Sunday, John Dorhauer makes the point that autonomy is what will kill us. Autonomy is what allows every congregation to dismiss women’s leadership. There is no hierarchy to insist that God might be up to something. There is no one to hint at the strength of women because the “basic unit of the life and organization” in the United Church of Christ is the local church. Nothing in the denomination’s Constitution and the Bylaws “shall destroy or limit the right of each Local Church to continue to operate in the way customary to” the local church. Until Sunday, I had ignored that this is still my fight. It’s still my struggle. It’s still my task to push through the stained glass ceiling (and every other ceiling) by reminding myself and everyone else that yes, yes, you really do need to change.

Our Theology Must Change: A Reading List

Since horrible things have transpired — yet again — I’ve seen a series of reading lists appear. I am an avid reader and it is usually my gut reaction to understand world events. When the twin towers fell in New York City, I started reading up on Islam. I wanted to understand what didn’t make any sense. I admit that I never finished the first book I picked up all those many years ago. It was a book written about the religion and practice of Islam rather than it being an active expression from one of the faithful. I got frustrated because the author couldn’t understand that this thing he was writing about was part a belief system. It was part of worldview. It was something that many people — not just in the Arab world — put into practice every day.

Because I am such an avid reader — even if I read incredibly slow and don’t always finish the books I begin — I am ever curious about the book lists that are gathered in the midst of tragedy. There was a reading list after Ferguson. There was another I found when horrible things happened in Baltimore. (This isn’t the Baltimore reading list I remember but so be it.) And yesterday, after the horrible things that happened in Charleston, there was this reading list.

The last of these lists was gathered from Twitter. People tweeted titles and it was all gathered together in one official list which is all good and well except that the religion section is terrible. I’m relived that Dr. James H. Cone made the list but there are so many more that should be on this list. Our theology must change because James Cone was right. I was uncomfortable in seminary when I heard him lecture. I squirmed and struggled with my own whiteness. I felt blamed and responsible because I am. Our theology must change so that we become accountable for the sins of racism.

I was blessed to attend Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York where the very first thing that we did as new students was confront our racism. It was the first part of orientation. It was how we began our work as pastors and faith leaders. We began with ant-racism training before we encountered the most amazing scholars in lectures and conversation. Among those books that I read in seminary, I’d like to highlight a few that we should all re-read.

Though he wrote many other wonderful books, including his newest book which is hanging out on my to-read list, this is the book that really hit home for me. This is the book that opened my eyes and changed my worldview. James Cone’s God of the Oppressed is the book that I think everyone should read to begin to talk about what black theology means — and how our theology must change. It is a theology that emerged from the liberation theology movement that began with Gustavo Gutierrez.

 

 

 
It was only a few days after the terrible news in Charleston that a friend from seminary commented on Facebook about how uncomfortable it is to be Sarah, rather than Hagar. It’s a reference to this particular work from the amazing Delores S. Williams. Her response to James Cone was that his black theology didn’t make room for black women. To include black women in this liberation theology, she wrote Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk which delves into the story of Sarah, Hagar and Abraham. I loved this book.  It was perhaps my most favorite book of all of my seminary reading. It is one that I think everyone should read especially as people of faith trying to understand this really difficult story in Genesis.

 

 

 

Seminary involved a lot of heavy lifting for me as I tried to understand and make sense of my own atonement theology. It turns out I still don’t quite have a satisfying answer but there is one book that I flip through every year — usually in the midst of Lent – as I try to understand what it means to claim the death of Christ. JoAnne Marie Terrell’s Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience is a must read for how our theology must change to consider the brutality and violence of the cross.

 

 

There was a lot of reading in seminary and this list feels woefully incomplete. Among the books that I read too few pages of while in seminary is Katie G. Cannon’s Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community. It’s one that I hope to return to very soon — as soon as I can find my copy!

 

What would you add to this reading list? What should we read to challenge the evolution of our theology at such a time as this?

A National Emergency

Tomorrow I’ll attempt to preach good news at this lovely little church. Most of the people in the pews on Sunday morning are African American. It’s a town with a predominately African American community. 72% of the residents of this town are African American. Tomorrow it’ll be me that tries to speak things that I don’t really understand. Me with my with blonde hair and blue eyes will try to offer good news that I don’t really know how to claim. (Don’t even try to tell me I’m not blonde anymore.) Me. I’ll be the one to be the pastor tomorrow morning.

Me.

It won’t just be tomorrow morning that I’m there pastor. Earlier this week, I signed a covenant with this lovely little church and the local judicatory of our denomination to offer emergency pastoral care while their pastor is on medical leave. My local judicatory wanted to be very clear that this was emergency care. I am only to offer care in the event of an emergency — which required trying to figure out how to define such a thing. As the covenant reads: emergency pastoral needs shall be understood to include any unforeseen or sudden occurrence, including hospitalization, accidents, trauma and death.

635703226195334597-999There was nothing foreseen about what happened in Charleston last week. It was a sudden occurrence at Mother Emanuel AME Church.

So, I find myself wondering: How can this not be an emergency too?

I can’t stop thinking about this photo that appeared in my Instagram feed two days ago. Because it’s an emergency to this woman.

I can’t imagine what she’s feeling. I can see her grief and perhaps even the frustration she might be feeling as she clenches her hands. I can see how her head has fallen. I know something about these things from my own grief. I know more about what she might be feeling from my years of being a pastor — but I’ve never known an emergency like this. And IT IS an emergency that we are facing. Not just a time of national lament. But a time when we sound all of the alarms to triage the mess we’ve made. I don’t even know all of the metaphors to use. Because I’m a pastor. I’m not an EMT. I’d be a terrible EMT. I’m a pastor. I don’t have the words but I know we have to do something in this state of emergency. We can’t talk about it anymore. We can’t analyze it. We have to actually do something.

I know I have to do something — as an ally, as someone who believes in a better world, as someone who believes that these are our sisters and brothers that are being killed for no reason whatsoever. I can no longer be silent.

What scares me is that I only have my words.