Sexual Assault and a Male God

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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.

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My Wandering Uterus

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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!

 

Words for International Women’s Day

From Nikole Lim (@nikole_lim) Co-Founder and International Director of Freely In Hope

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.

The Feminist Advent of St. Brigid

Brigid-jpg-740x986the following is the message I gave at a Christmas Lessons & Carols last week…

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.

 

I’m not surprised – Me, too

The news has been inundated this past week about Harvey Weinstein and his decades of sexual harassment and assault of women. When the story first broke, I wasn’t surprised. I know a great many women who were not surprised. This is par for the course in living life as a woman. (Yes, there are men who deal with this as well, but it is a pervasive issue for women.) John Oliver rightly chided the Academy for congratulating itself on getting rid of seemingly the one man who does this kind of thing in Hollywood.

Sunday evening brought forth a different way to highlight the pervasive nature of sexual harassment and assault in our society. This message filled social media –

Me, too.

Copied: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

 

It is really difficult to find a woman who has not dealt with this at some point in her life, and oftentimes on multiple occasions. It doesn’t matter how we are dressed, where we are, or what jobs we have (yes, women clergy deal with this all the time). And if we choose to report this, we know everything about us and our lives will be questioned as if it were our fault. We know people will doubt our stories, or think perhaps we just took things the wrong way. We know others will look at us with pity, instead of us as an autonomous individual who is competent and capable. And all that doesn’t even begin to touch on the nightmares or flashbacks – all the times we have to overcome fear or anxiety and attempt to trust ourselves or another person.

When I saw all the “Me, too” posts on FB, I continually tapped the anger emoticon. I’m angry. I’m mad as hell. The media keeps talking about being shocked, but this is a country who elected a serial assaulter as President, and wrote off his bragging as locker-room talk. This is a society that tells women they should dress in sexy and attractive ways, and then completely tears apart her clothing choices when she deals with harassment or assault. This is a society that encourages boys to be tough and powerful, and shames them when they are sensitive or cry.

The focus needs to be removed from the women, and placed on the men. What makes men think this is okay or acceptable? Certainly our legal system makes it easy to act in this way, and the falling back of Title IX (by a woman selected by Trump) does not help in the least. Men need to give other men loud and clear messages about what is appropriate and respectful behavior to women. And while I despise the men who say “since I have daughters I speak out about this topic,” we need to think seriously about the messages we give our children – whether or not they are our legal children. I have reared both a boy and a girl. It wasn’t easy talking about these things, but we did it. And we continue talking about these things. One of my goals for my son was to make him the best male feminist around. I knew it was critical to counteract the messages he received from society about how boys should treat girls, and what it meant to be a real man. As a mother to a son, I know I can do a great deal to help change this culture, one man at a time.

I hope people don’t just say they are shocked, or feel bad about the situation. I hope they get angry – angry enough to change our culture and our legal system.

Me, too.

 

Here’s to the “Real”

 

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Merrill Farnsworth

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.

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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.

The Spirituality of Wonder Woman in the age of Trump

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drawing by demsey satya nagara

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.

The Idolatry of Motherhood

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My two babies from a long ago vacation…

“Being a mother is the greatest thing a woman could do.” Kathie Lee Gifford uttered these words some 25 years ago to Regis Philbin, while I watched the tv with an older friend, who had a house filled with children. “I don’t think that’s always true,” I responded, but was quickly reprimanded by my friend. I responded by saying that it certainly was true for some women – perhaps many women – but not every woman. I decided (wisely, I thought) to let the subject drop.

I was not yet a mother, but knew I wanted to adopt children who needed homes. I had always wanted to be a mom one day, but didn’t feel the drive for pregnancy that many women experience. A graduate student at the time, preparing for a career, I also was not blind to the fact that professional mothers had much more challenging lives than professional fathers (and that unfortunately has not changed over the years). And even though I very much wanted to be a parent, I knew there were women who did not feel that calling in their lives.

Being a mom is a core part of who I am. Yet, not every woman is able to be a mom or is called to be one. This might be a choice, or imposed on a woman by circumstances. It also might be a woman who has biological children but is either unwilling or unable to be the parent a child deserves, offering support, love, and a home.

Yet, one thing remains true in our society. Being a mother is seen as the highest ideal for a woman in our society. Every little girl is expected to want children, and every newly wed woman is asked about the time plan for starting a family. New moms have to make choices about employment and child-care. Young women who aren’t even married wonder how they might balance children and a career one day, while that thought rarely crosses a young man’s mind.

And if a young woman doesn’t want children, or is not planning for them, disdain often is reigned down upon her. She is seen as selfish, uncaring, egocentric.

All this occurs because we have made motherhood an idol. It goes along with the ideals of placing women on a pedestal. Either women conform to the patriarchal notion as saints in the household, sacrificing all for their children, or they are knocked off the pedestal to be trampled by others’ judgments. Motherhood is a gift, not a requirement. For me personally, I wanted both my children. They are the most wonderful part of my life, but also sometimes the most challenging. I worry, celebrate, offer guidance and sometimes judgment, and have spent more time and money on them than I could count. As much as they fill my life with joy and love, I know that motherhood is an ongoing journey which has occasionally been smooth and other times been filled with rocks and potholes. I know I have failed miserably at times. The one consistent thing I can offer is my never-ending love to them.

Yet, choosing to be a mother does not make me a saint. It is simply part of my journey. As Mother’s Day approaches, I pray that our society will find better ways to honor mothers. We can see them as real human beings, who are fallible and have dreams and desires apart from their children. We can also honor women who have other callings in their lives, and do not have biological or legal children. Let us step away from thinking of them as less than because of their life circumstances or decisions. I know numerous women who have no legal children who have been instrumental in helping me rear my own, and in offering support to me when I often most needed it. I also feel I have a number of other “children” who are not legally related to me. Their presence in my life fills my heart.

Some Native American tribes pray to the Great Mother. A mother is someone who gives birth – and this might be a physical birth, but it also can be giving birth to love, hope, compassion, kindness, peace, and joy. For Mother’s Day, instead of focusing on a biological act, I hope we can focus on giving birth to these qualities in our society.

Don’t put me on a pedestal…

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“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.

Adulting – For Real

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with my boy in 2005

Young adults today have created a new word – “adulting.” In the age of helicopter parents, we should have known it was only a matter of time until college students coined a word which represented what it was like to learn the skills needed to be an adult. I’ve seen students offering programs on Adulting, with topics ranging from doing laundry, basic cooking, to balancing a bank account. I always thought one should have those skills prior to leaving home (even if it’s just for college), but helicopter parents like to be needed. In a society where our self-worth is so shaky that we don’t even want to communicate respectfully with people of differing opinions, it makes sense that self-worth can be found in having another human being think they can’t do anything without you.

I by no means want to set myself up as the perfect parent. Both my kids practically kicked me out of their kindergarten classes their first days of school, and I begrudgingly went, thinking they could have offered just a couple tears to help ease my pain. But they didn’t. And that’s a good thing. The fact remains that every child needs to grow up, and parents can either make that easy or hard (or somewhere in between).

I’ve been a college minister for over 18 years. The one phrase my children hated was, “You will not go off to college and not know how to  …” One can fill in the blanks – do laundry, manage money, earn some money, cook, handle conflict, put appropriate things on social media, etc. As my own mother told me, the best parent gives the child the tools s/he needs to be a competent, healthy, independent adult.

That’s always the goal.

And then it finally happens. My boy is doing what he’s supposed to do. It’s been the goal the past 22 years that he would discover his unique passion and talents in life, and embark on the world of being an adult. He moved to Colorado this week – a state I have never visited, and one that is a 24 hour drive from my home. He is actually adulting – for real. He’s already called a couple times. I have received a few texts. It’s not to ask advice – but just to share his excitement at this new adventure. I am so grateful for technology which will allow me to continue to be part of his life beyond the occasional letter or brief long-distance phone call. He is no longer a kid, or a college student, but a young adult starting his adult life. He couldn’t be more thrilled. And that’s the way it should be.

I’ve always known I was more than Caleb’s mom. I have plenty to keep me busy in my own life. And I don’t intend to smother the one child who is still “at home” even though she’s off at college and Cornhuskin (anyone with a connection to Meredith College will totally understand that). I’ve shed a few tears, and some kind friends have listened patiently to my meandering reminiscing. Grief, worry, excitement – my heart is filled with each one of these emotions and so much more I can’t even describe.

But I do know one thing for certain – the boy will always be my baby. And I’ll always be his mom. Adulting – for real.