April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and once again this evening I will lead a meditation and candle service for students. Many of these students are living in the aftermath of sexual abuse and assault. Others will be present because this issue has affected people they love. Working with women who have been impacted by this pervasive problem is one of the most important parts of my ministry – and also one of the most challenging. I have lost sleep, filled with concern and pain for young women who have endured experiences no one should have to endure. I have found myself at a complete loss for words, when students have hoped I would know the right thing to say. I have learned over the years that the most important thing I can do is to be present – to show compassion. And as I am present, I also know I can offer a word of grace.
The church has so often failed women when it comes to sexual assault and abuse. How many sermons have we heard about King David being tempted by the lovely Bathsheba? This biblical story is truly about a king, taking a young married woman who had no power to reject his advances. And how many sermons have we heard about Esther, wrapping King Ahasuerus around her finger, when in fact she was a political prisoner who was kept with numerous other women in a harem?
As do so many of us clergy nowadays, I decided to do a quick Google search about prayers for sexual assault survivors, seeing if some words of grace might appear on my computer screen. A few helpful things popped up, but most were simple prayers that begin with the phrase “Father God.” I know from my many years of working with women that praying to a male deity is one of the last things most of them want.
Even in the shadow of #Metoo, the church still believes a male head can take care of everything.
The biblical understanding of God is that God is above and beyond gender, above and beyond human constraints and understanding. Yet, the church remains comfortable with allowing a patriarchal world to dictate how we understand the Divine, no matter who it might harm. When will the church get out of its own way and encourage a connection with the Divine that is truly life-giving, compassionate, and helpful? And for the people who reply that perhaps a loving heavenly Father can bring healing – I do agree – but that should be at the individual’s instigation. It should not be the primary way she is forced to engage with the deity.
A significant number of women sitting in churches understand sexual assault and abuse all too well. They keep their stories buttoned up, tucked away deep inside, and listen to the images of a male figure taking care of it all. Let’s open up these stories, these images, and allow the Spirit of the Divine to flow as She will.