Depleted, I Pause: A Devotional for the Weary

It’s month three of a global pandemic, and I am depleted. Rusty, dark, creaky of soul and bone as a recently diagnosed (but not only recently experienced) autoimmune disorder slows my body while my heart and brain try to process fear of disease, fury at racial injustice not only for black people but for the brown people held in cages at my state’s border, and a tendency toward fatalistic distrust in my government’s leadership in the face of so much turmoil, injustice, and ache.

With my head lying on my arms, sobbing at my desk, I realize I will only survive with spirit intact if I stop relying on my own wisdom to replenish and sustain. That tactic, in isolation, is so much spraying bright paint on a rusty bike, hoping to just coat the battered frame underneath with a sparkle of glossy color.

And so I have been reading, listening, and observing while tucked into my tiny camper in the woods or sitting on my screened-in sunporch (ah, what privilege to even have such places). This week, I am not sharing my own deep thoughts, I am sharing from those whose work is enabling me to stay on the path of a beautiful, rich, magical life, though for the moment I am just plopped down in the dirt of it, not going anywhere. I don’t expect the wisdom of others to shine me up, in fact, I am no longer sure that’s even the goal. No, I hope rather for lubrication of my spiritual frame, a juicy-ness added to my soul. Perhaps part of growing older is accepting that the vehicle is showing signs of wear, but choosing to move forward anyway.

“In God, we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28, the New Testament

“We all get shit wrong…The question is: have you built the capacity to care more about others than you care about your own ego?” Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, to Brene Brown on her podcast “Unlocking Us.”

“Despair is the fear that tomorrow will be just like today.” Rob Bell, author of Love Wins

“I tried to imagine a church that did not support its country’s wars as a matter of patriotic course and instead stood against the devastation and suffering they caused in people’s lives.” Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter

“For the universe is full of radiant suggestion…Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.” Mary Oliver, Upstream

“I’ve got a dream!” Rapunzel, Tangled

“I’ve got these conditions—anxiety, depression, addiction—and they almost killed me. But they are also my superpowers. The sensitivity that led me to addiction is the same sensitivity that makes me a really good artist. The anxiety that makes it difficult to exist in my own skin also makes it difficult to exist in a world where so many people are in so much pain—and that makes me a relentless activist. The fire that burned me up for the first half of my life is the exact same fire I’m using now to light up the world.” Glennon Doyle, Untamed

“Da! Wow-wow! Thhhhhhh? Woooo!” Hazel Fernandez, 18-month Queen of our Household

And with those words that I am certain are full of the toddler wisdom that so thoroughly lives in the present moment, I say blessings and peace to all who read. May your day, filled with both light and shadow, be lavish in love. Namaste’.

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From Silenced by Church to Outspoken Advocate: A Feminine Journey

My eldest child, a woman of 31 years, is a rocking Social Justice Warrior, and I couldn’t be prouder. She is one aspect of the woman I wanted to be, a woman who had the courage to strike out on her own path early. Bravely. And with enough humility to learn what she didn’t know. She is learning daily to listen; she’s teaching me to listen, too. Her causes are civil rights. For People of Color. For the LGBTQ+ community. For women.

I was a kid during the Women’s Movement that championed the Equal Rights Amendment. To my young mind, the idea of a woman being paid less simply for being a woman was incomprehensible. I didn’t get it then. I don’t get it now. Because ours was not a political household, I didn’t get these radical ideas from my parents, so the only things I know to credit are Helen Reddy singing about roaring, and television. It never occurred to me that Mary Tyler Moore’s single reporter was revolutionary. She was just a young woman who was funny while doing a job she was good at. Neither Lieutenant Uhura’s color nor her gender made me question her placement on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Laverne and Shirley worked in a beer factory and had their own apartment. I guess I was too young to be aware of the radical new ideas that were being depicted. These were women who did not stay at home wearing petticoats and cooking, anxiously waiting for their men to get home so they could bring them a cocktail.

Then there was church. At church, women only got to talk in front of boys thirteen and younger, or a segregated group of just girls and women. Women could work in the nursery, teach Sunday School, wash the baptistery robes, or cook and clean up for potluck dinners.

Women could not pray aloud in a mixed-gender setting, they had to let the men be their conduits to God.

What does that do to a young girl who has deep thoughts and a gift for leadership but not so much for cooking?

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” (I Corinthians 14:34)

This is the scripture that has, more than any other, served to keep the women of Christianity silent. Now, I don’t have any desire to get into a deep theological debate about the inerrancy of scripture, because my own journey is probably not going to be enough to open the mind of a die-hard believer who is sure that the Christian Bible is the “holy, perfect, inspired word of God,” as though the writers were simply taking divine dictation while God spoke directly to them through a Dictaphone. Thus arguments of first-century cultural patriarchy and the historical passing around and editing of the gospel and epistolic writings before the scripture was codified in the third century C.E. may not matter to others. But those things matter to me.

Because, for all intents and purposes, my church put a gag in my mouth; my mouth, and the mouths of every wife, sister, mother, and daughter. And you know what? Most of us capitulated because we believed what we’d been taught. By the men. The men in our churches and the men in the Bible.

I attended a church college where I sang in a chorus that traveled all over the country to sing hymn arrangements. As young women, we were allowed to step forward and sing in solos or small ensembles, but only sing. We could not use our speaking voices. In daily chapel, women were allowed to talk if it was during a secular assembly, but the moment a church song was sung, it became worship and the women had to hush up.

My husband entered ministry after we graduated. To be a youth minister’s wife in this world was definitely a challenge for me. I chafed against the muzzle, I had things to say, experiences to share, a gift for words and presentation and I had to wait for a man’s permission to say them; in a literal sense, not a figurative one. My husband would have granted me every permission in the world, but his hands were tied by the conservative elderships who signed his salary checks.

Some of the churches we worked in were more progressive in their thinking- they were willing to talk about grace and even sing contemporary worship songs, perhaps even with a praise team! Even so, the women were mute. In one of the most puzzling examples of this subjugation, our tradition was to have a weekly communion service.

Usually, after the congregational singing but before the sermon, a group of six to eight men marched soberly to the front of the church and lined up behind the communion table, hands folded in front of them in that classic man-coach stance. One of them read a scripture, most likely from one of the gospel accounts, a prayer was recited, then they solemnly passed the little silver trays down the pews. There was a system: one man on each side, alternating rows, front to back. If the church was large, the B string of servers would come in the back and the same process would continue from rear to front until the men all met in the middle. You heard the “snap! snap!” of tiny little bites of matzo cracker being broken off as each church member took a portion. Then the whole process was repeated with grape juice.

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Women were utterly excluded from passing the crackers and juice because even though the only words spoken were by the scripture reader, it was still seen as an honor. A designation of leadership. Once, in the second church where my husband was a youth minister, I challenged an elder: Why were women prohibited from even this silent ritual? He mocked my question: “Sure, you’re willing to pass the communion, but are you willing to actually make the trays behind the scenes?” For the record- I was willing to do either. The subtext of this comment, made by one of the town’s wealthiest citizens, was made clear: Don’t ask questions if you want your family to make the mortgage. Woman, know thy place.

In a break between churches, we spent a semester in graduate studies at Abilene Christian University, and in this setting, I flourished. I was accepted as a student, right alongside my husband, and I reveled in ancient Greek declensions and Dr. S’s class in Church Leadership. Ensconced in an academic religious setting, my intelligence was encouraged, my ideas and observations given credence. We all understood that I was studying to work in a ministry for women, I was equipping myself for a task I would love to do. My professors created an environment where my reticence could be shed and my voice could be heard.

We eventually made our way to what would be our final church ministry, at a church that had been, on some issues, more forward-thinking and open than any congregation we had been in since we had left college. There was a co-ed worship team that sang on the stage, there was a children’s musical with instrumental accompaniment tracks, produced at every summer’s Vacation Bible School, there was even a female Children’s Minister. But…

I have to tell you about Bible contest, an event where thousands of Christian kids get together at a huge city convention center and try to win medals by showing each other up in events like memorization, preaching, and puppetry. I guess Jesus’ admonition to the mother of James and John about competition and prestige didn’t apply when gold Jesus medals were on the line.

My daughter decided to enter the traditionally male preaching competition. It threw the organizers for a loop, but there was not a rule specifically against it, so they let her compete. I guess they figured she could grow up and lead ladies’ Bible class. Now, my daughter is a gifted writer. No lie. She’s good. She’s also a skilled performer, she grew up to earn a theatre degree. Those kernels of talent were there in 1999 when she was ten years old. She won a gold medal.

At the following Sunday night worship service, all the students who had competed, not just those who won medals, but simply competed, got to read the sermons they had written and presented at competition. Well, not all of them. Not my daughter. She was relegated to reading in the gym after service. She stood at a podium with about ten listeners, and we strained to hear her over the several hundred people who were loading up their plates for the hot dog supper. Because she was a girl.

When I look back on it now, I know something in my faith, in my love for church, was irrevocably broken that night. If our very livelihood had not depended upon my compliance, I would have marched to that podium after H’s speech, and I would have told that group of oblivious, hot-dog-loving people to hush. I would have told them that they had, in that moment, the spirit of a young woman who was Divinely created and loved by God in their hands, and they discarded it. I didn’t say it then. I am saying it now.

In her book, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd describes a collective feminine wound, one that all women share, and its origins go all the way back. All the way:

“If she sees few women in places of real power, hears few female voices of strength, and witnesses little female creativity, then despite what is said to her about women’s equality, she experiences women (and herself) as absent and silent.”

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I vividly remember the day I read that the ancient Hebrews had a word for the feminine aspects of the Divine Creator, Shekhinah. I was sitting at my kitchen table, stunned, barely breathing, for about five minutes. Even better, do you know how Shekhinah is made manifest? Joy.

Joy.

The religion which lay the foundation for the faith I would grow up in acknowledged that when it comes to gender, the Divine One is neither and both. A lifetime of prayers to the Father were incomplete. All the years of being told “God is like your daddy,” only told half the story. All the questions about being less than were suddenly invalid. The Divine One’s own Chosen People understood that joy, sisterhood, Shekhinah, were all equally holy. If I were to find a church that prayed to the Goddess/Mother as often as to the God/Father, I might be able to feel safer. More valued. In tune.

“The feminine wound is created as we internalize all these experiences-the voices we hear at church, school, home, work, and within the culture at large suggesting (in ways both bold and subtle) that women and feminine experience are ‘less than.'” (Dance of the Dissident Daughter)

We carry the wounds of mothers and grandmothers. I carry my own wounds, too: being allowed only to listen, never to speak; all those times when I was banished to the four-year-old classroom, where my teaching voice was not a threat to the men of the congregation; repeatedly being shuffled to the back in praise team so that the worship leaders could sing or let their wives sing, and when I questioned it, being told by a man who barely knew me that I was ruining the group with my ego; and seven years of being expected to bake cookies when my real gifts of leadership and speaking were lying fallow and rusty.

I also carry the wounds of my daughter who, on that bright spring day, was shown how little she mattered to her church and to the God they proclaimed.

I am so grateful that her journey to the Divine Creator did not end in that gym packed with people who completely ignored her. I am glad that her heart was open. She made a few more trips to church camp, then set out on her own quest to meet God. She spends time with the Goddess daily, she marches and produces work that is inclusive and awakened. She leads. And she is not silent.

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The White Lie I Told Myself About Blackness

“It took him [Kunta] a long time, and a great many more parties, to realize that they [whites] didn’t live that way, that it was all strangely unreal, a kind of beautiful dream the white folks were having, a lie they were telling themselves: that goodness can come from badness, that it’s possible to be civilized with one another without treating as human beings those whose blood, sweat, and mother’s milk made possible the life of privilege they led.” Alex Haley, Roots: The Saga of an American Family

When I was thirteen years old, the miniseries Roots aired on television. Though I probably was old enough, and certainly would have let my own children watch it at that age, my parents would not let me watch. The saga of Kunta Kinte, portrayed by Levar Burton, unfolded in my family’s den while I hid in my room listening to records and wondering what story was being told.

Now I know. Strike that. Now I am learning. 

This week, we here in America have reached a boiling point. The long slow simmer of placid protest or blissful ambivalence has finally reached its tipping point. The death of George Floyd has ignited the earned frustration and justified fury of Blacks across the country. White allies, by turns broken-hearted and angry, walk alongside them in marches. My own daughter was one of them, she sent photos of black smoke rising from behind buildings, where police cars had been set afire.

I am not sure my elders would have understood.

My mother was a genteel racist, she voiced irritation when hearing Spanish spoken in public, she forbade me to have friends of color, going so far as to attempt grounding me from playing with a girl across the street whose name was Kathy Peters. She had dark hair, and my mother assumed she was a Mexican Catholic. I finally gained permission to enter Kathy’s home when I was able to provide the name of an acceptable evangelical church that the Peters family attended. Mom always and only spoke of people whose skin was a different color as “other.” As “wrong.” As “different.” Those for whom I worked as a teenager in retail trained me to follow Blacks who entered our stores so that I could thwart their assumed shoplifting. If a group of more than two Black people came in, I was to notify security, whether or not there had been any indication of intent to steal. When I was in college, a dear woman stated that our Black song leader should be worshiping at the church where his own people attended, “He would be happier with his own kind,” she said. I had not known that in 1986, it was unheard of for a white church in west Texas to allow a Black man to stand before the congregation to lead “It Is Well With My Soul”:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll,

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is no longer well with our collective soul here in America. It has never been, though we white folk may have been blindly, blissfully unaware. The truth will out as the smoke clears from the riots: who started what, who actually broke the windows, did the worst of the looters travel from afar, funded by extremists and anarchists with the intent of spreading strife and clouding the vital message, pitting Americans against one another? Where did the pallets of bricks, planted strategically in cities where protestors might turn to rioters, sending the handy bricks through windows, come from? Who ordered and paid for them? Will we begin to hold ourselves accountable? As a young woman, I said, “I never owned a slave, I don’t understand why today’s Black people, who never were slaves, are still so angry!” I cringe now to even think of it, there was so much I needed to learn about how roots affect the tree that grows, about how systemic, generational abuse can be borne so deeply in the soul that the bitter sorrow of admitted culpability and the mutual gift of radical love are needed to heal the wound.

I hope we will do both. Acknowledge and own our part as whites. Accept the blame, whether we understand and agree or not. Perhaps be granted grace by Blacks. For all my life, I have lied to myself, believing my inaction was enough. No longer. I know I intend to learn, read, ask, donate, phone call, letter write, and march. I will continue to do the terrifying work of confronting my own biases, because even at its most terrifying, it doesn’t hold a candle to the real physical terror that my Black fellow citizens face now and faced 200 years ago. I will seek forgiveness where I can. Most of all, I will learn to listen. Listen hard. Because other than recognizing the legacy of racism I inherited, other than acknowledging that as a white person in America I don’t have to overcome racial bias, I really don’t have much to add to the conversation. It’s time for me to hush up and learn.

The lie I told myself? That only bad people were guilty of racism. Now I know better. And as the wondrous Maya Angelou said, when we know better, we do better.

In this beautiful article, author Courtney Ariel lays out a list of ways white people can be effective allies. She calls this “holy work.”

https://sojo.net/articles/our-white-friends-desiring-be-allies?fbclid=IwAR3dRnGltvHQclba3DqVfvbOSSA9gyr3rWRsQS8a1FFXAYQ-YPgVYKAh9LE

 

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