Check out my latest blog post on Convergence on Campus about what I do as a college chaplain!
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.
My Wandering Uterus is officially in print! I am excited that my chapter, “The Threshold of the Sheela,” is part of this collection. The book shares stories of women and their travels, and all the challenges, insights, and gifts such journeys entail.
I saw the call for submissions a number of months ago on the Facebook page of Byron Ballard. I first met Byron when she was a bookseller at my favorite bookstore in Asheville. The store had the best spirituality section in town, and I was a young minister who loved books. I often entered the store with an energetic toddler in tow. Byron would entertain him while I leisurely browsed. Once my son was old enough that he was not always with me, Byron would always ask after him and share how much she loved his little jean baseball cap he always wore. (I actually still have that cap in storage – it’s a fond memory of my journey of motherhood.)
When Bryon wrote about the concept for the book, I immediately knew my pilgrimage to Iona several years ago was a story I needed to share. My chapter tells of this pilgrimage, exile, a Sheela-na-gig, and my ongoing irritation with St. Augustine and his view on women. I hope you will purchase a copy!
A blessing for 2018:
Women-mothers are made of fire. We hold the potential to both burn and balm, harm and heal, inearth and illuminate, exhaust and embrace. It is this same fire that can mold fear into double-edged weapons with the intention to protect against the violence of darkness. This darkness will choose to harm you, like others have, attempting to destroy your light. But it will fail.
Daughters, your fire holds the potential to either burn or balm the cracks between your broken heart, to harm or heal the darkened skin across your arms, to inearth or illuminate hopeful visions of your future self, to exhaust or embrace the woman you ar e becoming.
May we women realize that we are fire. We must remember, more often, to feel its warmth.
There are a number of women saints who have intrigued me over the years. At this time of year, I tend to recall fondly stories of St. Brigid. She, along with St. Patrick, are the two patron saints of Ireland. Now it’s hard to pin down what is historically accurate about a woman named Brigid who lived 1500 years ago and what are mythical stories that developed.
And it really doesn’t matter. The Celtic imagination knows that truth and inspiration can be found in these stories, no matter what may have factually occurred.
One story about Brigid is that she was the midwife during the birth of Jesus. Now we know that Brigid lived about 450 years after Jesus, but that’s beside the point. The story of Brigid helping Mary give birth to the Prince of Peace provides real truth. The figure of Brigid herself is all about new life, giving birth, transitioning to a new way of existing.
Throughout most of history, wise women were midwives. These were women who understood nature and creation. They used the gifts of creation to help mothers as they endured the traumatic physical event of giving birth. Then they made certain this new little baby transitioned from the safety of the womb to a new existence in this world.
The message for this season of the year is about giving birth, symbolically transitioning to a new life. For each person here, we have all experienced transitions to a new life – a new birth.
Our first transition was a physical birth, just like the baby Jesus.
We had new births when we started school, and were students.
We had new births if younger siblings came along – and we birthed a new identity as an older sibling.
We have new births with celebration of birthdays – becoming a teen, a legal adult, a person of middle age, a retired individual.
We have births with new jobs and vocational opportunities.
We have new births when we enter into deep relationships which transform us and enable us to grow.
We have new births when we discover our calling in life, and take steps towards on that journey.
And at each point with the new births in our lives, there have been midwives – people who have used their gifts to ease the pain of transition and to help us be healthy and strong as we encounter our new lives.
During this Christmas season, I encourage everyone to think about how you can be a midwife. How can we be like St. Brigid, helping birth a new world?
We can seek to ease pain and suffering – whether it’s physical, emotional, or spiritual. We can offer words and actions of kindness and grace. As we celebrate the Prince of Peace today, we can share peace with others – and especially others who may not bring peace to us.
We can offer hope. We live in days when we are constantly bombarded by images and actions of violence, hatred, divisiveness, and fear. Hope can keep us moving forward on days when the awfulness around us can paralyze us. A midwife recognizes hope, encourages it, and helps others live in hope – no matter what we might encounter.
St. Brigid – whether she was a real woman, simply a legend which developed, or a combination of the two – inspires us to be midwives – to move forward to a new life, a new birth, a new way of being filled with peace, love, compassion, and hope. Let each one of us seek to be like St. Brigid – a midwife. Let us seek to help birth a new life, a new world, around us.
Today, as we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, I would like to close with the hearth prayer of St. Brigid.
Brigid of the Mantle, encompass us,
Lady of the Lambs, protect us,
Keeper of the Hearth, kindle us.
Beneath your mantle, gather us,
And restore us to memory.
Mothers of our mother, Foremothers strong.
Guide our hands in yours,
Remind us how to kindle the hearth.
To keep it bright, to preserve the flame.
Your hands upon ours, Our hands within yours,
To kindle the light, Both day and night.
The Mantle of Brigid about us,
The Memory of Brigid within us,
The Protection of Brigid keeping us
From harm, from ignorance, from heartlessness.
This day and night,
From dawn till dark, From dark till dawn. Amen.
As a young teenager, I began to realize that life was not always fair. That moment of realization is never easy for anyone, but my Mom offered the wise words of Robert Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I have not been so eloquent in helping my children navigate the difficult days of life. I’ve normally told them that life really sucked sometimes. (Sorry Mom – I know you taught me better.)
A few weeks ago, I learned that my friend, Merrill, was in her last days of life due to breast cancer. I met Merrill one year ago, when she was assigned as my mentor with the Haden Institute, where I had enrolled for the two year Spiritual Directors Training. I specifically remember when I first laid eyes on her. I recall what she wore (she was a cool dresser), and the way she tilted her head. I knew during those first moments that she was the perfect mentor for me.
Merrill and I had a couple really great conversations during that first long weekend training. There were numerous points of connection with our lives, and she just really “got” where I was in my life. From the very beginning, I knew I could be 100% me with Merrill, warts and all. I could do that because Merrill was always 100% Merrill. She was one of the most authentic people I have ever known. And that authenticity empowered me to be the most me I could be. In thinking about her life and spirit in recent days, The Velveteen Rabbit came to mind. The children’s book tells of a stuffed animal who became “real” because it was loved. Merrill loved life – she loved creation – she loved to dance and art and poetry – she loved people – and she was as real as they come. And this vibrant person empowered others to be “real” because of who she was.
Merrill died while our mentee group was assembled. We were together when we heard the news, and after tears and words, we chose to go to the stone labyrinth and journey its path. Merrill was a lover of the labyrinth, and especially encouraged others to dance along the walkway. As our group followed the path to our destination, a pileated woodpecker appeared on the ground just before us. After a few moments – just long enough for all of us to have a good look – it took flight, and then began making the cawing racket only this bird can make.
Merrill’s voice and presence were real, inspiring, and loud (symbolically!). She was far too young to leave us, but all of us who loved her know her presence will remain with us. She was the real thing, and I know many of us have been inspired and encouraged by her to be the realest we can be, too.
Here’s to the real – here’s to Merrill.
I was obviously not the only person anxiously awaiting the new Wonder Woman movie this past weekend. The long anticipated movie has been record breaking in numerous ways, but as I sat in the darkened theater with my teenage daughter, I could only think that the current state of political and societal affairs led to an even greater positive response to this female centered movie.
Diana is an Amazon, shielded from the world until a WWI soldier appears, and she decides to leave her home forever so she can protect the millions of innocents losing their lives. Her mother, Queen Hippolyta, gives these parting words, “Those men don’t deserve you.” Diana quickly finds herself in London, a city representative of a world where women are constrained by politics, society, and even fashion. She is thrown out of a room where the white men in power make decisions that impact the world, a woman who is only seen as distractingly pretty with a limited mental capacity for the big decisions of the world. The visual of Diana circling a room of men in power is far too similar 100 years later to the real images which have emerged from Trump’s White House of white men making decisions which directly impact countless people not represented in that space.
Diana’s strength and power are amazing and awe-inspiring. Yet, what truly makes this movie so good is her heart. We see it breaking when she witnesses women and children living in terrible conditions, being enslaved, and dying due to the war raging around them. Again, modern images burst through my internal vision as I placed the fictional faces side by side the real children from Syria and Mosul. The climactic scene of the movie is a battle with Ares, the God of War. As he tries to convince Diana that humans have chosen the atrocities, he echoes the words of her mother about what people deserve for the decisions. She responds, “It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.”
The age of Trump is about believing that those in power deserve that power. They deserve the money, the finer things of life, the best health care, the autonomy to believe that no circumstances of birth or assistance from countless people along the way led them to their place in life. It is the false ideology of the Christian prosperity gospel – that we get the rewards in life we truly deserve.
Diana, as Wonder Woman, is a hero we need today. She knows people do not always get what they deserve, and innocents suffer daily for the hubris and narcissism of the men (and I intentionally use this word) in power. The movie concludes with her in the current day, declaring that she stays and fights for love. She loves humanity and works towards a better day.
In a society where women are gravely underrepresented politically, where women and people of color and children suffer disproportionately, where the President sows seeds of fear and lies – we need a beacon of hope and love. Wonder Woman is fictional, but director Patty Jenkins is not. And sometimes our greatest truths can be inspired by mythical stories. Women and men, and people of all colors, can partner together to create a world where everyone has a seat at the table. We can rid ourselves of the language of who might deserve this or who might deserve that, and know that love means everyone deserves a better life. This is the spirituality we need in today’s world.
“I just love women. I put them on a pedestal.” A well-known author spoke those words to me the other night. We were at a social gathering, and I found myself the only woman in a circle of men. The author is someone who has presented insightful information about egalitarianism and the prominent role women have in creation, theology, and mythology. His writings and teachings are ones I appreciate. Yet, given the current status of women in this country, those words rankled.
“Women don’t want to be placed on a pedestal! They want to be equal partners!” Our discussion continued until it took a different direction, but the image of a pedestal remained with me. While we have a President who only wants women under him (literally and figuratively), we have a Vice-President who wants to place women on a pedestal. I am not surprised by the recent news highlighting Mike Pence’s refusal to dine or work with a woman without a man present, including business functions. (As a woman in the male dominated field of ministry, I would be essentially isolated if I followed such a rule in regards to my male colleagues.) Anyone who followed the election process should well comprehend his view of a “Christian theocracy,” a place presided over by very conservative men who have a narrow understanding of the Bible and Christian faith, and wish to impose this legally on the rest of the nation. It is this view that propagates placing women on a pedestal – supposedly raising them up to a place where they are honored, adored, and treasured. People who follow this viewpoint use specific passages from the Bible to support their ideas, namely Proverbs 31. They claim it’s the greatest way to respect a woman.
Yet, when one is placed on a pedestal, it’s too easy to be knocked off. A woman is either the saint, residing just out of reach of ordinary mortals – or she is the whore, the fallen woman who tempts good men and leads them to destruction.
This idea of placing a woman on a pedestal took root in the early 1800s in the American South. It coincided with the view that a “real man” was a tough guy, aggressive, competitive, and master of all he surveyed. This included not just his land, wife, and children, but also his slaves. Placing women on a pedestal was a way to keep them caged so that a man could maintain control and power.
I don’t want to be on a pedestal. I want to be an equal with men, whether it is in personal or business relationships. Neither of the two men who are representing us in Washington have any concept what that means. While it’s more obvious in the President’s case, it is perhaps more dangerous in the case of the Vice-President. Claiming to honor and protect women (and supposedly his own virtue) is code for saying he doesn’t really trust them, and he certainly can’t trust himself. People who are not on the same level can never truly be equals. A pedestal is simply a jail.
On an overcast Sunday afternoon, filled with sporadically spitting rain, a friend and I explored a private labyrinth which was created from a metaphysical perspective. Labyrinths speak to me, as they have for countless people for numerous centuries. As to why, I normally can only answer with a favorite response from Divinity School – “It’s a mystery.” (And yes, that was a typical response when we had absolutely no idea as to the answer.)
Labyrinths aren’t a maze – they have a set path towards the center, and back out again. Normally circular in nature, these pre-Christian structures symbolize the universe, the womb, the heart of life. Christians co-opted these paths during the Medieval period in Europe, and recent years have seen a resurgence in interest, from both Christians and non-Christians alike. The primary manner of walking a labyrinth is to let go of whatever weighs on us as we journey to the center. The time in the core is one of illumination, and then the journey outward is one of union with the Divine or whatever guiding power is present in one’s life.
But really – one can walk, dance, skip, or crawl a labyrinth any way one pleases. What is important is connecting with the transformative energy. This particular labyrinth was built around the idea of connecting with the earth’s energy. Now, I am certainly not a scientist. When one mentions energy, I normally think “wish I had more,” or “equals mc squared.” But my friend is a scientist, and his thoughts were focused on the definition of energy. He suggested that “essence” might be a better word.
I think he might be right. While the power of walking a labyrinth is a mystical mystery, I know that I am connected with essence when I engage my body, heart, and mind with such a journey. It might be the essence of the Divine. It might be my own essence. It definitely incorporates the essence of creation and nature. And even though it is a solitary walk, it connects me with the essence of others, like my friend on the same path, or friends who have walked other labyrinths on other days.
The labyrinth certainly reflects our life journeys. We wander, weave, stumble, fall, run, and just when it seems like we won’t ever find our way – we have arrived in the heart of the walk. We touch base with the core of our lives, our essence, and then continue once again to place one foot in front of the other as the sojourn moves forward. And each time we connect with the essence, a new understanding is revealed to us, and empowers us to continue our pilgrimage. We might never comprehend the meaning of life, but a glimmer of this essence can guide us quite some way until the next glimmer reveals itself.
I have driven along Highway 29 in the heart of Virginia several times in recent years, but somehow that exit sign to a place named “Hurt” had eluded me. As I drove past in recent days, I tried to remember the circumstances of the times I would have driven by previously. The last time had been with a good friend and co-worker, and she and I were probably talking energetically. Before that, I had been in a van with my parents and family, so it makes sense that I would have missed the road sign. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if it were my state of mind, and not the fact of being by myself in the car, that allowed me to see and remember the exit clearly.
I was in the process of contemplating what it was like to be hurt when the sign suddenly loomed before me. I don’t mean physically hurt, but emotionally. As a college chaplain, I work with students continually who are hurting and in pain from what life has to offer. We all wish to avoid hurt, and I was wondering how I might do that myself, but it was a fruitless line of thought. Life would offer more hurt, and pain, and grief, and I would once again have to figure out how to meet it.
And I will, when it comes, and it inevitably will.
It doesn’t mean I will like it, or that I will calmly believe this is a part of life and look for the good that can always come out of our hurt. I will cry, have a drink, talk to my closest friends, watch a couple bad movies – and then put one foot in front of the other and keep walking.
I will say that the past few decades have given me more perspective on how to encounter Hurt. I vividly recall my mother stating – in the midst of my junior high pain – that the best laid plans of mice and men are often gone awry. (A phrase adapted from the beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns, and incorporated in the novel Of Mice and Men written by one of my favorite authors, John Steinbeck.) That didn’t keep me from trying to make plans to avoid hurt. If anything, it intensified my desire to arrange my life so that it would be the best life imaginable. I had already known great pain in the loss of my grandfather when I was age 10, a man who was essentially my spiritual father. Even while there were some things I knew I couldn’t avoid, I was ready to tackle life head on. I refused to make a pit stop in Hurt – I would barrel right past that exit as fast as I could.
But the best laid plans…
I have had great joy in life, especially with my children, my dear friends, my parents, and my vocation. Yet, there have also been many days when the hurt was so much that it physically made me ill, and close friends had to prop me up so I could go through the motions of life. Sometimes life had forced me off that exit, and sometimes I drove myself there.
One thing I have learned is that no one has to stay in Hurt permanently. It’s a stopping place. Sometimes the visit is longer than we would want, but we need to turn the key in the ignition and take the unknown path to a different town. It might be Joy, Peace, Fun, or just Good Enough. But that stay in Hurt will help us appreciate the next town all the more. No one ever wants to stay in Hurt (of if they do, then they really need to work with a good therapist), but good can always come out of the visit – even if it takes days or weeks of more driving.