I Am Woman, Hear Me . . . . Say Really Nice Things About God and Not So Nice Things About Men

So a friend of mine, a young woman who is entering ministry, has sent me interview questions about women in church leadership — and about my sense of myself as a church leader — for her studies in seminary. The timing of her interview request is uncanny: I’ve been having many similar and related conversations in recent weeks! Consider just a few of the chats and discussions that I’ve had in the past five days:

— On board a Chicago-to-Harrisburg flight, I had a conversation with an eagerly-Christian young man. He told me of his recent mission adventures to share testimony and teach Jesus songs in a so-called third world country. Then he asked what I was reading: a 1989 Semeia issue from the Society of Biblical Literature with a collection of primarily womanist essays. None of those words made sense to him (his admission, not my assumption). So to explain — in an admittedly limited and simple way — the book in my hand, I told him that I am a writer and a church pastor, and described my denomination by its reputation as the liberal branch within the Protestant spectrum. . . . And there ended our conversation.

— In another random encounter of the weekend, I met a couple in the lobby of a Chicago hotel (we were all stranded by our flights for the night); the husband was traveling to promote his book on the biblical theology of women preaching, the primary audience being those in his conservative white Pentecostal tradition. I had the professional sense that I should ask more questions about his book; in practicality, I was exhausted from delays and missed flights, and I couldn’t pull myself together to hear an outline of his theology that “allows” me to do what I already do. (An assessment of our conversation and an assumption of his perspective that may be unfair, I realize; I plead “too tired.”)

— There were also conversations over the weekend with my colleague, whose church I was visiting, and our comparison of notes about well-meaning congregants who like to remark about female pastors’ attire, earrings, haircuts, house cleanliness (or lack thereof), etc. And while we both really do accept those comments for their good intentions, we asked each other the rhetorical question of whether our male colleagues field similar remarks. My favorite “there’s-no-way-someone-would-say-this-to-a-male-preacher” comment received this month, after guest preaching and leading worship for a local congregation, came from a woman (not the older male I would stereotypically pin this comment upon) who told me sincerely, “You’re adorable!” . . . Um, thank you. I attended seminary and I put my kids through late night church meetings and I write & deliver sermons to be adorable. But thank you.

Let me not only “dump” on others for their perceptions, remarks, opinions, and theologies. In truth, I have taken to saying “I am a pastor” (when asked) with a degree of caution and a tone of apology, because identifying myself as a pastor inevitably shifts the most casual conversation, and sometimes I would prefer to have a basically casual and friendly conversation! (So far those predictable “shifts” include: bringing conversation to a screeching halt; turning the conversation into a pastoral session; or — at the very least — causing an uncomfortable pause.) Anticipating an awkward reaction when the question “What do you do?” arises, I try to couch my ministry (and therefore my person) into a palatable & simplified package for others to receive. That’s on me.

But sitting on the airplane this weekend, in conversation with a young man whose Christian tradition left no room for “social circumstance” to impact theology, or for women preachers to defy the writings of Paul, but rather stressed & spent its time on the importance of saving the eternal souls of post-genocide Rwandan orphans (among others), I had no interest in defending my call to someone who didn’t believe it anyway. So I let the post-“I’m a pastor” awkwardness be his, not mine this time, and went back to my book about the multiplicity of power dynamics in historic & modern white Eurocentric patriarchal biblical interpretation. In my own way, it was akin to saying “Screw you and your Colorado Springs education.” Except that I wouldn’t actually say that. But I’m secretly hoping for the day when God finally puts in Her two cents and turns Colorado Springs upside down.

Which reminds me to say to the Colorado Springs myth-makers, and to my governor, and to my local and state representatives and senators: Keep your moral-sounding-but-Truth-lacking laws off of my reproductive system, and stop using your patriarchal, power-anxious, it’s-what-the-people-want, pro-life lies to ignore the fact that I already have a life — this God-given and God-called life & ministry — but you want to prioritize the single-celled “life” of my eggs over my health, my career choices, and my access to doctors who will treat me like a person and talk to me honestly about my own uterus (seriously, that’s harder to find in south-central PA than I could have guessed), not to mention you want to limit the health options of women who choose comprehensive clinics like Planned Parenthood when caring for their bodies and their reproductive choices and their families. Have the decency to forgo your bribed self-righteous ethics long enough to look at the women who already have lives, and stop obsessing over our ovaries. Really.

Or, to say it another (equally cranky) way: “Hello. I’m a pastor. I’m a woman. I like to wear rockin’ heels. I can work a full day and take care of my kids even when menstruating, thank you very much. I can be trusted to make decisions about my body, my kids, and my own organs that could bear — if I choose — more children. Don’t be shocked, but I might even consult God (not your masquerade of morality) as I make those decisions. I have no problem looking you in the eye even when you think that I can’t or shouldn’t or am not allowed to, and I have a strong enough sense of ministerial authority that I will look you in the eye with a little bit of God in my spine. Lay off.”

Happy Women’s History Month, especially to my women friends & colleagues in ministry!

What God is Like

When people ask me, “What is God like?”

I often answer
God is like a shepherd
tending to the flock
leading me to still waters

Or I say that
God is like a rock
grounding all being
securing me through storm and sun alike

But lately I’ve come to think that
God is like a mother’s womb
birthing in pain a new creation
bleeding to give life with the cycles of the moon

Perhaps I should elaborate:
God is like a mother’s womb
stretching to hold a crying world and
feeding the hungry with divine placenta

In our scriptures, I hear how
God is like a mother’s womb
delivering people from and through blood
bearing justice for the sake of God’s name

In this world’s stories, I know that
God is like a mother’s womb
carrying the indignation of creation’s rape
braving to bear life to the weak

In my own life, I see how
God is like a mother’s womb
shaping my name and my ability to live
pushing me through the canal to be an agent of life

Finally and foremost, I believe that
God is like a mother’s womb
protecting jealously all of God’s children and
loving life above all pain.

(You can also read this poem within a longer post — entitled “Statement of Faith” — on my blog in July 2008.)

HerStory (on John 7:53 – 8:11)

The subheading in my Bible says, “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” but it seems more appropriate to title her story “The Woman Accused of Adultery,” because she is only ever accused. The case of adultery is never proven against her, and her alleged affair is not even the point of this encounter between the scribes & Pharisees and Jesus. The point of the confrontation is to test Jesus, so that they might arrest him as a false teacher or a heretical prophet.

They arrest her in an attempt to arrest him.

They accuse her so that they might accuse him.

They spy on her, pull her from the home, stand her in front of all the men who have come to temple that day. They tell everyone to look at her and to secretly imagine how and why she might be sneaking off to have an affair. They make Peeping Toms out of every man in the temple. Then they accuse her without letting her respond … just to trap Jesus.

“Just look at this betraying woman, Jesus. If you know the laws of Moses well enough to teach in the temple, then tell us what consequence she should face.

“If you are indeed a prophet, one who has come from God to correct the deviant ways of God’s chosen people, then start with this woman. We’ve told you her crime, now prophesy how we should punish her deviance.

“If you are the Christ, the Anointed One, the Son of God come to begin a new kingdom where all are healed and fed and satisfied, then tell us if we should not ‘heal’ the kingdom by cleansing it of all women such as this.

“Tell us, Jesus, what do you say?”

And Jesus bends down, writes on the ground with his finger.

I wonder if he writes down Leviticus 20:10, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” Or Deuteronomy 22:22, “If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge evil from Israel.” I wonder if he writes these verses down, not to convict the woman of adultery, but to convict the scribes & Pharisees of applying the law of Moses inconsistently in their attempt to trap Jesus.

Maybe that’s not what Jesus writes on the ground, because they continue questioning him and pressing him to make a judgment against the woman. “Come on, Teacher, tell us what you would do in this case!” Finally Jesus stands up and says so famously, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

The woman was merely an object to the scribes & Pharisees, a tool in their attempt to trap and arrest Jesus. She was eye candy for the imagination in the midst of an all-male political scheme. The accusation, the way they brought her out in public, was entirely impersonal and indifferent toward her.

(In contrast, consider how Joseph — while engaged to Mary — chooses to handle Mary’s pregnancy and assumed affair very personally and privately, with a plan to “dismiss her quietly” per Matthew 1:19.)

But Jesus takes their impersonal and public accusation, flips it, and makes the conversation suddenly very personal to the scribes and Pharisees themselves: “Assess your own life first! If you are faultless, then you can throw a stone.” Some versions of this passage say that when Jesus bends down to the ground and begins writing again, he lists the sins of each of the accusers in the dirt!

Either way, his tone is clear: “What have you done? And you? And you? Is your life pure and clean, that you feel you’re in a position to judge this woman?! Are you really so determined to trap me, that you can humiliate this woman and not see in her the faces of your own wives or daughters or sisters? How are you able to disconnect yourself from this woman so completely that you feel wholly righteous as you publicly manipulate her life?

“You might as well put her on your TV screen: make her sing for her supper on American Idol, or watch her raise her children on TLC. Hold her up as an item for debate in Congress or as a faceless statistic to discuss in newspaper editorials, because she relies on welfare to get from day to day or she teaches her children to speak her native language as well as the language taught in school. Call her loose if she has more children than you would choose; raise your eyebrows if she chooses not to get married or have kids at all. Ogle at her because she doesn’t fit your standards of beauty; ogle at her because she does.

“What is the state of your life,” Jesus asks, “that you feel qualified to judge her? To judge him? To turn a critical eye toward someone you don’t understand and conclude that your life & your method is better? To objectify the person on the news or the person across the counter or the person you pass on the street?”

We are always judging, always assessing: who is like us and who is not; who fits with us and who does not; who should get our vote on American Idol for their singing talent; who is worth our tax dollars and our government programs; who should be allowed to be a citizen; whose affairs and personal business should make headline news.

We are constantly making value judgments — perhaps not intentionally or cruelly — but are we mindful of how often we judge persons and situations each day? Are we paying attention to the many, many ways in which we constantly objectify and cast stones?

But imagine: a world in which Jesus’ writing on the ground causes us all to pause and to walk away from our judgments!

Imagine a world in which we stop continually testing Jesus and testing one another to see who is worthy, who is acceptable!

Imagine, a world in which the accused and the stereotyped can walk away in freedom, in which we do not make someone else’s road harder to travel, in which we do not humiliate and objectify one another!

Imagine a world in which we accept that Jesus says to us, and to all people, “I do not condemn you. Go your way and live in peace.”

Just imagine! Leaving judgment behind and living in peace with the accused, with the accusers. Releasing others from our judgment, and walking in Jesus’ grace.

Imagine it!

(From my 7/25/10 sermon at Grace UCC, part of this summer’s “HerStory” sermon series.)

My name is Rahab.

I once owned a house in the city of Jericho, a modest place with a view of the countryside and a rooftop patio that was ideal for sleeping outside on warm nights. My home was hardly the best of Jericho’s real estate, but it was much more than most women could afford.

I had the good fortune to own this home in Jericho because I am a proficient woman in what is called “the world’s oldest profession.” There are those who scorn the way that I make money; they tell me that I am guilty of perpetuating original sin. Perhaps. But what really is the first original sin? Nakedness? Sexual desire? Thirst for divine knowledge? Whatever you might understand original sin to be, it seems to me that the result of original sin is loneliness. So I don’t think that I continue original sin; my job is to meet the need of sin’s consequence. I provide a service to the lonely.

Life has been good to me, as much as it can be. I am a woman with prestige, although you wouldn’t know it if you saw me walking down the streets of Jericho. I knew many men there, although they couldn’t acknowledge me publicly. I lived comfortably in the city — not the lap of luxury by any means — but I was pleased to be able to provide for my father and mother, for my sisters and brothers, and for their families. I consider myself to be a fortunate woman.

I have come to accept the words, the slurs, the innuendos, that people say about me. Do you know that not even my name is my own? Those who will someday write my story have given me this nickname — Rahab — which means “wide” or “broad.” I am a shapely woman, but that’s not the intended nuance of my name. My name is a sexual pun, although I’ll save you the embarrassment of an explanation. But when the scribes someday write my story for generations to read, understand that their story is about “a broad.” To them, I will always be defined by my prostitution.

Yet there was a day in my life when my profession did not define my essence. There was a day in my life when “laying on the roof” and “tying crimson cords to my window” were not the only activities that historians would record with veiled innuendo. That was the day that two foreigners entered Jericho, and entered my house.

Their business was typical and their money was good, so I was surprised when the king of the city identified them as spies and demanded their extradition from my home. As a businesswoman, the anonymity of my male customers is a vital tool of my trade — whether dignitary or commoner, spy or servant. So I hid the two foreigners on my roof for the remainder of the night.

A woman’s intuition and perception are two of her greatest assets (among others), and I take pride in how I play the game of survival among men. In those days, our city of Jericho was increasingly the object of siege and attack, and although it was good for my business, clearly our city’s age of independence was waning. The two spies in my house came from an army that had a reputation of having a strong god on their side. Rumor had it that their god had rescued them from slavery, and moved the waters of a sea for their safe passage. So if this god Yahweh conquered pharaohs and commanded the seas…and the two men in my house were in allegiance with this god…then they were men to negotiate with.

Although I was asking them for a significant favor for myself and my family, a woman in my trade actually holds quite a bit of power with her customers. These two men — men who could rescue me when Jericho finally fell, men who would not preserve my real name in their storytelling, men who left me at risk of being discovered by my king and charged with treason — these men and their mission were actually at my disposal. They were men working for their god, yet at that moment, you might say that I was the one working for their god, that I was helping and rescuing those two men on behalf of their god.

You might say that. Or you might just call me “a broad.”

And so, with an oath between us, I helped the spies escape from Jericho through my window, with directions for their safe travel through the countryside. When the time came, the army of Yahweh surrounded our city. They marched and blew their horns, and the great Jericho was reduced to rubble and dust. My family was rescued according to the promise of the spies. My father and mother, my sisters and brothers, and their families, were relieved to be saved…from Jericho and ultimately from me, from the shame of my business. They could — and did — move on with their lives and settle among the Israelites.

I, on the other hand, disappeared. Survival, after all, is an art in which I am well-trained. Someone once said, “God’s women are shrewd. God’s women are compassionate. God’s women are community-minded. God’s women are miracle workers. God’s women are creative. God’s bodacious wise women are committed. God’s bodacious women are wise, especially in times of war.”1 I’d like to think that that author was talking about me. Historians might call me a prostitute, but I call myself wise. I am a wise woman whose family survived because of her creativity and shrewdness.

Nowadays, there are those who consider me a matriarch, believe it or not. I have to laugh! They have taken my description and my profession, and turned them into a sanitized name, “Rahab The Prostitute”: first name, middle initial, last name. Matthew 1:1-16 considers me a matriarch in the grand lineage of King David and Jesus the Christ. Perhaps I am. Perhaps I “settled down” after my wild days in Jericho, became obedient to a husband, and gave birth to bright-eyed children…who in turn grew up and had their own bright-eyed children who I bounced on my knee and hugged like the best of grandmothers. Or perhaps I am a matriarch of faith, as they say in Hebrews 11, a woman who was so impressed by two men and their army’s power that I converted to a belief in their god.

Perhaps you could call me a matriarch. Or you might just call me “a broad.”

“I’m not impressed, however, by all this good and posthumous publicity, in fact, religious propaganda. First they make fun of me by nicknaming me ‘The Broad’; then they forget about me, only to domesticate me in the service of their ideologies.”2 In actuality, my story is like the stories of many women of both biblical times and modern times —

women who are unnamed, mocked, soiled,
and then resurrected as converts, matriarchs and saints.

Women who fit into history only as
the vehicles of sexual sin or the bearers of strong sons.

Women who accompany men,
women who are raped by men,
women who lie to men.

Women who survive.

Women who teach survival to their daughters.

Shiphrah and Puah.
Zipporah and Abigail.
Ruth and Naomi.
Dinah and Tamar.

Women on the street corners and women beside picket fences.
Women who flee and women who fight.
Women behind burkahs and women behind make-up.
Women you might never look twice at.

Women who build and gather for tomorrow.

Women who are working for God
in unexpected ways, in unexpected places.

You might say that.

Or you might just call them “broads.”

My sermon at Grace UCC on 7/11/10, part of the “HerStory” sermon series.

1. Hollies, Linda H. Bodacious Womanist Wisdom. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2003.
2. Brenner, Athalya. I am… Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

Between Us Girls

O Holy Sophia,
Come, sit with me in the silence
and keep vigil with me through the night.
Let’s watch the stars rise
and marvel at the shadows;
And when night reaches its deepest moment,
I may ask you to light a candle to encourage me
as I face my fears, face myself.
I’ll appreciate your company and comfort
as the wick slowly burns and
sleep evades me,
because I know that you have witnessed silence
at its gentlest (when you hovered over still waters)
and its most fearsome (after the mountains quaked
and the thunder rolled with God’s nearness).
O Holy Wisdom Sophia,
teach me your lesson
for meeting silence
without fear.