For Mother’s Day this year, a group of Christian theologians and musicians created an alternative liturgy honoring the motherly aspects of God. The central piece of this motherly worship was an apophatic meditation – an ancient form of prayer meant to … Continue reading
“To what extent are we all afraid of angering people?” She was talking about the fear to broach the race question in church. Fears that when white pastors tell their old white parishioners (who give a collection-tin full of money) that … Continue reading
It’s been a little quiet on the blog recently because … We got married! On an unseasonably cool day in North-Carolina-August, in the midst of the most torrential downpour, we finally, finally got married. Encompassed by the love of all our … Continue reading
The essay is an adaptation from Courageous Conversations: Christian Women Unearthing the Unspeakable (RCWMS Press, 2013). Volumed edited by elizabeth mcmanus. You can purchase your very own copy here!
I have a birthmark on my left ankle that vaguely resembles the state of Mississippi.
I started calling myself a feminist sometime in the tenth grade but really, i’ve been one since i flopped out into the doctor’s hands during my mother’s C-section. I was actually born again – literally. The doctor’s hands slipped and i plopped right back in, all squiggly and screaming and not ready for the cleanliness and paralyzing order of the real world. In precisely 26 days, i’ll be twenty-two. Twenty-two whole years since being born, and then born again.
And in precisely 14 days, i’ll be getting married. To a dude. Who wants to be a Methodist pastor.
Of all the interesting things there are to say about me – and, believe me, i find them all very interesting – it seems my impending nuptials are the most important to everyone else. Which is, to put it mildly, pretty frustrating.
(And i don’t meen the googly-eyed, what-does-your-dress-look-like? squeals. I love those. Like, i can’t-stop-gushing love those kind of comments).
It happens over tea, when i think i’m talking about an insight into ministry and i slip the noun fiancé in between MY and IDEA. Heads retract, voices ascend to peer down at small, stupidly blinded-by-love me. “You know, your cerebral cortex isn’t even finished forming,” or, “You barely look like you’re 16! Is this because you’re Southern?” and, “Oh, but you’ll be the pastor’s wife! You’re better than that!” and, my favorite: “Divorce rates are highest among couples who marry young!” All affixed with a friendly pat and mushy eyes that say: “it’s okay, you can tell me how secretly he’s knocked you up and this is all a cover story.”
I find myself wanting to respond in the most extreme ways possible. Snapping back that gee, i had no idea i was so young and stupid and unaware of the weight of my decisions. Like i need to cuttingly clarify that he mops our floors and cooks most of our meals, thanks for your concern.
And then – in this robustly colorful conversation i’m now almost entirely having inside my head – i want to shout back: BUT WHAT IF I WAS KNOCKED UP, HUH? WHAT HAVE YOU GOT AGAINST MOTHERHOOD OR YOUTH? FEMINISM HAS EMPOWERED ME TO CHOOSE TO BE A ROCKET SCIENTIST OR THE MOST CRAFT-TASTIC STAY-AT-HOME-MOM.
It’s frustrating that most of these reactions are from other womyn. Womyn expressing their concern for the cliff my career is throwing itself over with a doughy-eyed “I do.” Like four years at a womyn’s college in New England studying gender and religion has somehow made me want nothing more in the world than to submit to my husband. Or ten years of being a pastor’s daughter has taught me nothing about the need for boundaries between congregations and clergy.
On some level, i appreciate their concern. Not for their eyebrow-wiggling, but for the shift in our cultural paradigm. I’m grateful that people of any gender value that i retain independence in what has historically been a patriarchal institution.
In a very real way, i prefer the concern for my unwritten dissertation to the lectures i’ve received about how much women have to sacrifice for male needs in marriage, or the shock i felt when a close family friend asked if i would drop out of school to get married sooner.
I’m grateful, then, that other people can see my love for academics. I’m grateful that they express hope for me, as a human with a vagina and a cohort of gender-normative-smashing-tendencies, to continue to write and study.
I just wish people didn’t negate my feminism because of my decision to share my life with a man.
Not everyone has something condescending to say; there have been the fair share of empathetic sighs from fellow feminists who also wed wet-behind-the ears. Our immediate families are ecstatic, which is a tremendous blessing and, honestly, far more important than the off-hand comment made by acquaintances.
But it still hurts when one part of my life – my romantic life – suddenly is more important than the sum of all my parts together. It hurts in a deeper way when criticism comes from womyn. And it seems to me this judgment is still fundamentally sexist – even coming from feminists – because it says my decision to marry a man trumps all other life decisions i have made.
I feel like they’re calling me a fraud, a closeted complimentarian whose bookshelves fat with Audre Lorde and Mary Daly and Delores Williams mean nothing. And these “concerns” are frankly insulting to my hubby-to-be. He is the first person with whom i could with one breath whisper a prayer, and in the exhale deconstruct Sunday’s liturgy. His dream of being a minister apparently undermines the multiple womyn’s studies classes he has taken to be both an educated feminist and supportive spouse.
And wasn’t this the whole point of feminism/womanism as a movement? To confront structures that had been degrading and disempowering to women, salvage the good and pile dumpsters high with the bad?
Of course marriage can be shitty – in deeply evil ways, like domestic violence, or in the run-of-the-mill human ways, like when people stop loving each other and the whole undercarriage caves in.
But i’ve chosen the person, not the institution.
I’m hesitant to criticize feminism in spaces that are not definitively feminist, because i don’t want “the f-word” to endure more hate than it already does.
But i need to. I need to tell the church that there will be no Ephesians 5 submission crap in our ceremony. And i need to ask the gender-conscious community to believe me when i say i’m still a feminist, this time with an also-feminsit fiancé.
We want to wed in the eyes of God because we believe, in the bones encasing our hearts, that God has given us each other. Not in any predestined, one-soul-mate kind of way, but in a Ruth 1:16-17 kind of way. A defiant claim, against the odds of our youth and our pasts and our selfishness, that “your people shall be my people […] your God my God.” We are partners who choose, daily, to love for our pruning and for our growth, the way Jesus asks his friends to love in John 15:5.
Our commitment to one another is the space wherein i feel the least tension between being a Christian and a woman. My fiancé embraces me for the fullness of my gender identity – and for my Mississippi-shaped birthmark and extensive collection of pink stilettos.
And if no one else in the world understood our commitment it wouldn’t matter, because we do.
It was the #1 reason why i held off on dating Jonathan as long as i did.
He was called to be a pastor. That was unmistakable – not just because of his gentleness and his ability to be present and yet unobtrusive.
Jonathan has termed it playing theological pick-up basketball: when we’re planted in our seatbelts or on the couch inevitably we end up debating Hauerwas or arguing over Pauline ethics. His otherwise hospital-bare bachelor pad had a Walmart bookshelf spilling over with theology- half of which he would just read for fun.
I knew what i was in for. My mother answered her childhood convictions at 40. Her first day at Duke Divinity School was my first day of sixth grade. I’m not sure who sported more acne that year from stress. She is a woman in a hostile man’s world, and she is a mother in a profession that has decidedly privileged congregational needs above the health of pastors and their families.
I knew the toll such a career could exact.
But in the narcissism part and parcel of my teenage years, all i really saw was the pressure on me. Old ladies in their Belk dresses scolding me for not attending church every Sunday (when i’d switched to the evening service instead of their preferred 11 am). Cutting comments about the audacity i had to wear a strapless dress. I’ve written about my frustrations with the homophobic and sexist sexual ethics taught in my youth group, but that was only the half of it. When my parents split, men who hardly knew my name took it upon themselves to tell me my mother worked too much – the implication being womyn shouldn’t have careers at all whilst also expecting my family to be the picture of piety.
College had afforded me the luxury of selfish time. I hid in the pews of an Episcopal church where no one knew my name and no one, out of New England propriety or Episcopalian aloofness, really bothered to find out more. I was relieved.
And then, stubbornly, there was Jonathan. He worked for my mother – hell, we met at church standing by the baptismal font. I was burying myself in a Sociology major, picking apart the social structures that upheld the oppression in the church that i so abhorred.
But as i began to fall for Jonathan, so too i began to fall back in love with God.
We’d been on a terse break, one where i went to Uganda to meet my Great Perhaps and came home still reeling from a bacterial infection. Where i’d hid in the pews of my Episcopal church, thinking that i was just going out of a need for community and finding a longing to be in the pulpit (and my once-though-to-be-distant community beautifully open and supportive to this call). What really snared me was Jane, my feminist theologies professor and Mount Holyoke mother.
On the first day of class, she’d asked us to define religion. Newly re-declared as a religion major, sociology minor, i was eager to break out my Clifford Geetz. But our fumbling as a class was met with Jane’s hand sweeping for silence.
“Religion,” Jane said, “is trying to answer the question: why the fuck are we here?“
And i was home.
There’s no turning back when you find freedom. My mother gave me a Gloria Steinhem magnet for Christmas this year with this quote: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” The blend of holy and hellion, Gospel of Matthew and a prophet of feminism, is where i meet Jesus.
I told Jonathan in the first weeks of dating that i would probably not attend his church. At the time, it was mostly because of the scars being the pastor’s kid had left. But as the Methodist church has failed, again, to even begin addressing the homophobia that plagues the church – as i start to learn the even thicker sexist expectations placed on being a pastor’s wife – i don’t want to try and worship in a place that leaves me spiritually dehydrated instead of full. He has to willpower to stand up for the LGBTQIA Methodists whose voices are being silenced by a white cis-male perceived majority. He can navigate those microaggressions against queer people by using his male privilege.
He is called to work with patience, and he is called to call me out when i fail to see the dignity and worth of people i don’t agree with.
But i fight enough to assert my own imago dei as a woman in this world. I don’t need to do so at church.
People in the churches where he works – even some of our own family – find our mutual decision to attend and work at separate congregations baffling. They wonder what we’ll do with our kids (i answer: what makes you assume we want children?) they worry about our impending marriage being faith-less (hello, we both go to Divinity school), they fret that we can’t coexist practicing “different” religions (what happened to One Body?).
We began a friendship over theological pick-up basketball – we’re hardly putting on the brakes now. It’s not that i feel the need to explain our tender inner life to the world. It’s that i see these “concerns” are laced with unrealistic expectations of me as a woman, him as a pastor, and the church as the ultimate and end-all center of a Christian world.
Like so many prejudices, like breaking most all taboos, the concern people pose about our “difference” is actually related, i think, to the fear that what is normal to them is not adequate. I’m totally guilty of this, too. I’m one of the most unfairly judgmental people i know, and it’s a flaw i am constantly working on. Hauerwas might argue that it is rooted in our human tendency toward insecurity, and the desire to control others so that we might feel (a false, but believable) sense of security in ourselves.
Challenging the idea that the church – its potlucks and its steeple – are the end-all be-all of a spiritual life asks the question of what we do to meet God the other 167 hours in the week.
No church can answer all your questions about why the fuck you are here.
No church can grapple theologically with tough scriptures so that you do not have to.
No church should be the exclusive center of a Christian community.
No church should be given the power to ratify socially constructed norms about intimacy, marriage, and sex as God-ordained.
Being apart on Sunday morning doesn’t prevent my partner and i from sharing a spiritual life. And besides, if he was a mechanic or a teacher or a CEO, i don’t think his coworkers would expect me to tag along for every board meeting.
Part of this double-standard comes from the unique expectations that pastors be super-human, and super-pious. And these expectations leads to a constant sense of failure among so many clergy.
Clergy are twice as likely to be Depressed than the average person, a struggle that crosses denominations.* This microscope on pastors – which is both internally and externally generated – is part of why i don’t want to attend the same church as my (almost) husband.
Relationships are hard enough as is. Add in a congregational dose of nosiness and entitlement to your personal life, and you’ve put that messy work under a hundred microscopes.
To me, the connection between sexism and the pressures placed on pastors that drive up the rates of Depression are linked. While men struggle with Depression too – and i’m not writing that off – womyn must constantly assert our right to be in the pulpit, our right to be ordained. (This isn’t just a Christian issue). Coupling this with all the very human struggles of maintaining a relationship with God when pouring yourself out to the people of your congregation makes for a toxic mess of self-doubt.
I wrote in Talking Taboo that intimacy – sex, yes, but also emotional fragility and friendship and all those messy things that come with being vulnerable – is more complicated than following a list of rules. Intimacy is a dance of sharing and taking space, of loving deeply and holding accountable and breathing in and out of sync.
And one of the rules J and i break is the pastor-pastor’s wife trope.
The way that i know to support and love my almost-husband and pastor-to-be is to take a step back from his workplace. To cultivate community beyond the fishbowl, to allow breathing space for both of us, and to remind ourselves daily that while attending a potluck can of course be an act of Christian community and worship, it is also important to find those sacred spaces outside the church walls.
* I’d also like to note that Depression is an immeasurably complex thing (having dealt with it for many years) and no “one” reason is going to clarify an intensely personal struggle. But gender is so often neglected in these studies that focus on anxiety in clergypeople, and i would like to see more discourse that is intersectional when discussion mental and physical health.
Maybe it’s the fuel in the gaslights, or maybe my if-i-had-a-dime jar has just cracked from the weight of the coins. You know, the jar for every time i have to endure “Well, I am not a feminist but I believe in equality.” Followed by how womyn who care about dismantling oppression inherently hate all men, and fuss too much, and really, what’s with the armpit hair?
I’m done with “equality.”
I’m done with people thinking a woman for Bishop means sexism isn’t still real in the church, that the apple cart shouldn’t be rocked so the church can grow (and get whiter and richer), done with the idea that in our post-racial society talking about prison and the new Jim Crow is bad dinner manners.
I really don’t like bashing other womyn, especially when i’m venting to a keyboard and not to breathing bones. But Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In phenomena (however passé that is in summer reads) just doesn’t cut it for me.
At first glance, the rise of Lean In on bestseller lists seemed to be a cause of feminist celebration.[i] But one deeper look into her mantra reveals a sad sight: Sandberg is no feminist revolutionary. As bell hooks wrote on The Feminist Wire, “Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system.”[ii] Sandberg does not acknowledge her own racial privileges in working her way to the corporate top, nor does she in any way acknowledge her considerable wealth informing her ability to “lean in.” As hooks illuminates:
“From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.”
Fundamentally, Sandberg, and the folks cracking my if-i-had-a-dime jar, are not doing that messy work, the work of realizing that “merely” ordaining womyn (or enabling womyn to be COOs or CEOs of major corporations) does little to confront the underlying structures of inequality, because it makes the claim that feminism begins and ends with a first-order change. And first-order changes alone do little to acknowledge the intersectionality of oppressive structures in race, gender, education access, nationality, and class.
The sad fact remained for me: feminism had been mottled in the mainstream media under the guise of “equality.”
And in my life, the people i hear the most say they support “equality” (while shying away from the f-bomb) slap around womyn-in-the-kitchen jokes like they’re harmless. Tell me i’m overreacting when i say such jokes are offensive.
Claim a little sexist joke is not, in fact, part of a wider social structure that privileges their amusement over my worth, words, and work.
Feminism, for me, was never “just” about equality – equal access to healthcare, equal pay, equal treatment under the law (though, let me be clear: we still don’t have those things). Feminism was, as bell hooks wrote, “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.”[iii]
Focusing on equality within a patriarchal framework is hardly the ultimate goal – the ultimate goal of feminism, womanism, and movements against systemetic and normative oppression is rebuilding society so that we do not have inequalities.
I think it is seductive to think that feminism is as simple as Sandberg claims. Seductive, because it erases the messiness of all that second-order change that has to come after “we” lean in. But her ideas are also seductive because she is not entirely off-base: womyn do have to participate in our own liberation.
Sandberg’s movement has come part and parcel with a wave of similar “faux feminist” literature. Wonder Women: Sex Power and the Quest for Perfection by Debora L. Spar is a more complicated take on the modern woman, though Spar fundamentally ends up in the same white privilege camp as Sandberg. Spar argues against two aspects of modern society: that womyn are expected to “have it all,” and that we are expected to do so without male help. She calls this the “Charlie myth” after an advertisement she grew up with in the 1980s.[iv]
Womyn now have to be brilliant enough to beat out all their male competition, sexy enough to win male attention, and, apparently, still be interested in dating/marrying/mothering children with [cisgendered] men. The engine that drives high-achieving women has fostered a culture of confidence in our abilities to “do anything” without, often, pausing to ask why we have to want everything. But living this kind of “Charlie myth” requires male participation.
On this argument, i agree with Spar. Cisgendered men, and people of all gender identities, must be invited to the table of feminist deconstruction because feminism is about eradicating oppression. The oppressors and oppressed alike have to work to eradicate sexism. Assuming womyn are the only ones who can care about feminism implies womyn are the only ones capable of confronting sexism, and therefore places all the burden of dismantling oppression and privilege on the shoulders of people marginalized by the system.
Expecting womyn to do all the grunt work is still a patriarchal assumption, one of capitalistic feminine individualism rather than feminist collectivism. Besides, hyper-masculine gender norms are constrictive for men as well, denying men access to the traditionally feminine traits like being emotional, vulnerable, and tender.
And if all we want to talk about is “equality,” then the conversation becomes limited to how womyn can act more like men. “Equality” can imply gender binaries, “equality” does not explore how the crisis of white masculinity is destructive to men and relationships and emotional health, and “equality” doesn’t take a step back to ask that million-dime question:
But what, exactly, do we want a just society to look like?
This is an adapted excerpt from my senior thesis, Feminism, Womanism, and the Christian Liturgical Year: A Trinity of Spiritual Memoir, Exegesis, and Theology advised by the brilliant Jane Crosthwaite. No reprinting, in any form, is permitted without my express written permission. Thanks!
[i] Sheryl Sanberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. (New York: Knopf, 2013).
[ii] bell hooks, “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In,” The Feminist Wire, October 28, 2013.
[iii] hooks, “Dig Deep.”
[iv] Debora Spar, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013).
I can’t remember the last time i had so much table space, so many empty hours.
Summer is always painted a shade of allure: no readings to finish, sweet treats all the sweeter in the Carolinian heat. I graduated. I finished my Bachelor’s Degree, and with finishing came the flurry of packing and cleaning and thesis defending and family hosting and saying goodbye to beloved Mount Holyoke.
I’ve been so lazy since then. There are so many summer plans i’d made, and even after only a few days of crafting and working part-time i still find my 9 AM cup of coffee listless, quiet. I am trying to enjoy the quiet but the anxious tick of the academic in me won’t shut up. Won’t let me think i really can just breathe. Like i’m coming uncoiled, but there’s a catch in the spring that keeps reeling me back in.
That’s the funny thing about taking sabbath, with me at least. Carving out those hours, fat with nothingness, are daunting. Too quiet. I can be still in pieces, in the extra hour i give myself sometimes after i wake up and before i crack open the laptop. Or really, the more frequent five minutes i take still buckled in, the car in the parking space earlier than expected.
I can take my sabbath in slices.
But learning to really seep into it, seep into the rest and the quiet so much that my anxious heart keels out for something wider and calmer? No thanks. I’ll spread my seventh day evenly over the other six.
One of my favorite religion professors often said the way we conceive of God, write about God, is how we ultimately conceive of ourselves. In the broad sense, like society; in the narcissistic sense, like the best of who we want to be; and in the longing sense, the presence we need when nothing else is enough. So maybe my struggle with Sabbath is my struggle to look cleanly in the mirror.
Maybe too much quiet means listening more than talking.
It began with a trip visiting my aunties in some place called Amherst, Massachusetts, and my father speaking sternly to me over the formica kitchen counter.
“While we’re up North visiting them,” he said, “I want you to look at Mount Holyoke College.”
“Mount Holyoke? What is that?”
“It’s a women’s college,” my father replied. I think he even braced himself for my reply.
“A women’s college?” I spat. “Over my dead body!”
Famous last words.
A week later I stood ankle-deep in Massachusetts rain looking out at a campus that I had arrived at, determined to dislike. And yet, something about that iron-wrought gate, something about the clock tower lit even in the downpour, something about it began to change my mind. I’m not sure what sealed the deal for me: if it was the cultural, racial, and religious diversity I saw in the student body, or the kindness with which people helped my father and I navigate what then felt like the impossibility of ordering food in Blanchard, or the lecture I attended entitled “Harry Potter and the Power of Critical Social Thought.”
All I knew was that when I called my mother that night, I had to convince her that no, I really wasn’t kidding when I said Mount Holyoke was now my first choice school.
Every one of us who chose this school has our own story of why we chose this quirky, Hogwartsian oasis nestled in the Pioneer Valley. We came, some of us from just down the road and others, like myself, from thousands of miles away. We all came with suitcases full of wonder and trepidation. We brought with us the multitude of stories that were our childhoods.
We came by way of planes and cars and trains, four years ago, to grow into our adulthood.
We were promised a place that would challenge us as much as it would comfort. For comfort, we were given milk and cookies – though, let’s be real, I swear I’ve had more carrots than chocolate chips these last four years – but we were given treats at 9:30 as small comforts for the insurmountable work each night promised. For challenge our peers and our professors pushed us to rethink and unpack and deconstruct our assumptions about gender, race, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, politics, science. And as much as our professors have given us, I think I have learned more from dinners and student-led campaigns than I ever could have in the classroom.
I have often thought the greatest thing about Mount Holyoke – however much it may bite us in the butt during finals – is how seriously we take ourselves. The stories we unpacked as we tucked our clothes into our bureaus for the first time, the thoughts we wrote out with those first papers became the verses and lines of the people we were becoming. Those dinners that changed my life were the dinners when we all sat down, alight by something that had been brought up in class or clamoring for news headlines.
We took each other, and the world around us, with a gravity that said we are, we matter, and you do too.
Mount Holyoke has given us permission to be fiercely, unapologetically passionate. We have been taught, over and over again, that our voices matter simply because they are our voices. Whether it was by slathering red paint on our faces for a scream-your-trachea-out convocation or by learning to radically listen to each other in the classroom, life at MHC demands you live with a full-bodied love of living. This passion is not the passive admiring of silent appreciation.
This passion has broken us open, it has driven us through these four years of menial jobs and incredible internships and more papers than I ever thought possible to write in a lifetime.
Passion, though, is not always perfect.
But when we honor our authentic selves, passion is always real.
As beautiful as these four years have been, they too, have not been perfect. Some of us have come to know loss for the first time, others of us have come to know loss again as an old, unwanted friend. We have endured painful ends to relationships, we have grappled with maintaining a sense of mental and physical well-being, we have learned that seemingly endless lesson that we can be very, very wrong. Living with such passion means we have the ability to feel all things – the good and the bad – deep in our bones.
But, hopefully, we have also learned that we are capable of continuing to live fiercely, regardless.
You see, this passion that swims in Mount Holyoke water is infectious. But as much as this passion, this valuing of who we are and what we have to say has cocooned us, we know this Hogwartsian place is not all that lies beyond those iron-wrought gates.
Mount Holyoke has prepared us for a world unprepared for us.
Mount Holyoke is not a community that invites the meek to stay meek. Mount Holyoke is not a community that invites those of us afraid to speak out in the classroom to stay silent. Mount Holyoke is not a community that gives a pass on prejudice without pushing back. Mount Holyoke is not a community that says you cannot have love and reason. Mount Holyoke is not a community that placidly accepts the status quo as gospel.
Mount Holyoke has given us permission to be riotous in the face of injustice.
Mount Holyoke has taught us to sing boldly when we are taught to be silent.
Mount Holyoke has taught us that saying we cannot is really just a dare for us to prove you wrong.
And the world out there is not ready for the hell we can raise.
All of us are going to challenge the world beyond those iron gates with the same richly diverse fabric with which our stories were woven. Some of us will continue to shout loudly while others may seem to be working quietly, under the radar. But if we can all remember the passion Mount Holyoke has taught us we will, all of us, disrupt the status quo.
We will combat the idea that a woman or non-binary gender-identifying person is secondary to a cisgendered man. We will challenge assumptions about womyn in the sciences, in ministry, in theatre, in social work, in education, in politics, in nonprofits, in international law, in journalism, in business, and in the home.
We will not apologize for being assertive. Nor will we apologize when we are vulnerable, when we allow that passionate core to move us to tears. We will not apologize for containing multitudes. We will continue to be broken open, by challenges we face and the comfort we receive.
We will be surprised by what this unprepared world can teach us, too, if we retain that Mount Holyoke spirit of being open to daunting change.
I may have spluttered and spat at my father’s suggestion to attend a womyn’s college all those years ago. But I can say now it was one of the greatest decisions I could have ever made. Because as unprepared as that outside world may be, we have been readied to face every day authentically, bravely, vulnerably, and passionately.
We are readying to leave now, by planes and cars and trains, having entered into our adulthood, prepared to face a world unprepared. Remember the sisterhood we have found here. Remember the value of using your voice and remember the value in listening to voices that challenge you.
Remember Mount Holyoke, and Mount Holyoke forever shall be.
“Son of God”
“Of Zebulun, fifty thousand seasoned troops,
equipped for battle with all the weapons of war,
to help David with singleness of purpose”
– 1 Chronicles 12:33 –
Zebulun, North Carolina, is the town that Israel forgot; the Wal-Mart parking lot stretches fatter than cars can fill, styrofoam cups piled beside crusting waste bins. There is not a truck without a Confederate flag or a church without a fire-and-brimstone mantle.
Nothing good could ever come out of Zebulun.
Joshua was about to turn eleven and, for his birthday, had asked for another My Little Pony doll. He imagined his own hair turning the same shade as the lilac hair that sprouted from her mane. He knew every song and every line from the DVD collection of the show his parents had first purchased for his sister some four years earlier.
His mother had taken him shopping for presents the Wednesday before his birthday. They were not of much money, nor of many options, so to the overflowing parking spots of Wal-Mart they went.
Joshua made a beeline for the toys section. His father had warned his mother that, being in middle school, Joshua had no business asking for toys anymore. But Joshua paid his father no mind, and so neither did his mother.
The cardboard sign for the Ponies had peeled, tight rows of brown corrugation interrupting the magenta and purple promises that “Friendship is the Best Magic of All!” A February birthday always meant the shelves were lean with all that had been pulled from deep storage after the holidays. None of the toys corresponded with the price tags and there were dents in the plastic casing.
Joshua, however, did not notice the desolation. With glee, he fingered the edge of the princess pony. The packaging was particularly damaged, which was probably why the doll was left in the wake of Christmas. Joshua looked expectantly at his mother. He lifted his eyebrows, a smile tucked in the corner of his face.
Joshua’s mother gave him a gentle grin in return, lifting the toy off the rack and leading him back to the checkout. The man running the register shot a questioning look at the doll, and then at Joshua, but he bagged it anyway.
[SPOILER ALERT: the following author's note contains details from the full story!]
I don’t think it is my best work.
But it is the story i have tried to write all semester.
The assignment was to write a story inspired by a newspaper article. I was home for Jonathan’s birthday and the Durham Herald was unfurled on our kitchen table. I combed through, looking for something to supplement my usual off-beat attempted-humor. Instead, i read “When Reality isn’t Magical for Youth,” an op-ed by Lydia Lavelle. She was writing about an eleven-year-old boy who had attempted suicide after being bullied for loving My Little Pony.
I wept. He was only eleven years old. He was only eleven years old.
The story was born then, with only a few of the fact of Michael’s reality before me: he was eleven, he was bullied for liking “girl’s toys” and he had tried to kill himself. I know now, from following his facebook page, that his youth group and church community has surrounded him and his family with true Christian love. I am so glad my story is not what really happened.
I want to make one thing very, very clear: my short story is fictional. It is not Michael’s story, i am not telling it for him, and you can follow his story and make a donation to support his recovery on MichaelMorones.org.
I wrote my story based on what i have seen and known growing up in North Carolina, growing up as someone who chooses Jesus and chooses love without seeing these choices as conflicting.
And as glad as i am that my story is fictional, i do believe the truth in it is, tragically, very real.
I crafted the story intentionally to sound almost Biblical, littering it with so many references it clobbers any Biblical scholar over the head with symbolism. I did this because i think Jesus condemns hypocrisy as much as God loves all of us.
It fascinates me that people who read this story often assume Joshua, the little boy inspired by Michael, is gay. Though i am of the John Green bent that books/stories belong to their readers, i do want to say i never wrote this story with Joshua’s sexuality in mind. I wanted to dip into a deeper critique: that we associate gender so inextricably with sexuality, that we think feminine things are so degrading that boys liking pink things must immediately be of a “lesser” or “deviant” sexuality, that humans have the ability to so shame a little boy for loving something that he thinks his life is no longer worth living.
Of course the narrative of gay kids being forced in the closet by conservative Christian communities is a real thing. But what scares me so much is that the very idea of being gay – of being a feminine boy, of liking something designed for girls, God forbid – is so repulsive, so pervasive, that it drives children to suicide. At that point, though sexuality is important, the reality of a person’s sexuality becomes almost a moot point because the taboo has more power than reality.
I didn’t write this story exclusively to show how queer people ought to be loved by Christians the way queer people are loved by Christ. I wrote it to show what a culture of hatred, of homophobia and of exclusion, can do.
Because if we call ourselves Christians, we all have to remember that which Mother Theresa taught us: Every one of them is Jesus in disguise.
Sermon, April 27th, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, South Hadley, MA.
Text: John 20: 19 – 31
Resurrection happens while it is still dark.*
Our text this morning picks up immediately after last week. It is evening of the same day, the same day when earlier that morning Mary Magdalene had found the empty tomb. She had run to tell the disciples – and though Peter and the Beloved Disciple saw the tomb, they returned home. Jesus appeared to Mary, calling her by name. But the disciples, we are told as this story unfurls, are gathered in a locked room, afraid.
Resurrection happens while it is still dark.
Even though the disciples have heard the good news, even though some have seen for themselves the miracle of the empty tomb – they are gathered in a locked room, filled with fear. Fear of what has happened to Jesus, fear of the Pharisees, yes.
But what if the disciples were also afraid of the empty tomb? What if they were afraid of what the resurrection meant?
And then, in the midst of the locked room clouded with fear, Jesus appears. Jesus shows the disciples the wound in his side and his hands and feet. And it is only then, only after the disciples can see that his new body is the same broken one laid in the tomb, it is only then that we are told all believe. Jesus breathes on them, wishing peace upon them.
This had to be a bizarre encounter for the disciples. They have already been through so much. As bright and lily-filled as our Easter is now, as full of resounding joy, that first Easter was filled with trepidatious wonder.
A pastor once told me that there are only two reasons why people come to church. And these are two, simple, questions:
“Is it true? Can God be trusted?”
“Is it true? Can God be trusted?”
I think these questions have existed long before our resounding trumpets and lily-filled services. I think on that day, the day that Mary Magdalene saw our Lord at the empty tomb, the day that the disciples gathered in fear in a locked room – i think on that day, they were asking the same questions.
Is it true? Can God be trusted?
Jesus leaves the disciples, who are filled with wonder.
But Thomas, called the twin, was not there. We are not told why, but we are told that Thomas’ absence is what leads Thomas to doubt the disciples’ story. Thomas does not believe that the risen Jesus walked with his friends.
I think “Doubting Thomas” gets a bad name. It’s almost as if Thomas has become his surname, like he is known first and foremost by the nickname doubting. But to me, Thomas has always been where i find myself in this story. Resurrection is a wild and wondrous event. Resurrection is the promise that death is not final, that God can be trusted.
But resurrection also happens while it is still dark. And in the dark it can be hard to choose to believe.
Thomas had watched his friend, the man he believed to be the son of God, brutally killed. He knew the reality of death and the incredulity of life after death. I think his doubts are completely understandable. He is a man who has suffered much and who has been promised that which seems impossible.
And yet, Jesus re-appears to the disciples a week later – and this time, Thomas is among them.
Jesus invites Thomas to touch him in the side, to see the wounds in his hands.
Jesus tells Thomas “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” So often i think we hear this as a reprimand, as Jesus shaming Thomas for needing tactile evidence in order to believe in the risen Christ.
But i see this as a commission. Jesus appeared to Thomas while Thomas was still doubting. He did not wait for Thomas to believe. Jesus invited Thomas to touch him, beckoned Thomas to step from doubt into faith.
And though Thomas doubted Jesus, Jesus never doubted Thomas.
Jesus blesses Thomas as he blesses us all.
Nadia Bolz-Weber writes that “Easter isn’t about making us perfect; it is about making us new.”
And newness, new life, doesn’t heal the wound in Jesus’ side. New life does not free Thomas of his doubts, does not free the disciples of their fear. But like Mary Magdalene, we are called to believe anyway. Believe when we are full of doubt, believe when we are terrified, believe when all we want to do is lock ourselves away from the world.
For the wildness, the wonder of resurrection is with us, even while it is still dark.
* Barbra Brown Taylor, “Learning to Wait in the Dark“