Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review: Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey

There are a lot of books advocating for gender equality in Christian life. I don’t pretend to have read all of them, but I have read some.

I’ve never read another book like Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey (Howard Books, 2013).

image source: SarahBessey.com
Jesus Feminist begins with an invitation to relax – to sit by the fire and look at the stars; to lay down our sharp words and critical hearts; to stop trying to push in at “the Table” of gatekeepers and policymakers (p.3); to realize, once and for all, that “there is room for all of us” (p. 4). She invites us to take a deep breath of life and then “get on with it” (p. 4).

In explaining what she means by “Jesus feminist,” Sarah (may I call you Sarah?) doesn’t shy away from the “baggage” that the word feminism carries (p. 11), but reminds us that feminism and Christianity have a long history together. She defines feminism as “the radical notion that women are people, too” (p. 13) and explains that Jesus’s respect for and inclusion of women, as evidenced in the gospels, is what inspired her to call herself a “Jesus feminist.”

From there, Sarah weaves her experiences and her understanding together in a way that’s almost more poetry than pose. A careful examination of women in the letters of Paul flows into stories from her own marriage of mutuality, which flows into the etymology of the Hebrew phrase “ezer kenegdo.” She gives equal weight to the stories of famous Christian women and women who remain anonymous. Sarah bravely tells us of her own heartbreaking losses and reminds us of the pressing pains our world is waiting for someone to heal.

The last chapter, “The Commissioning,” brings us back around to where we began: with an invitation. “Stop waiting for someone else to say that you count, that you matter, that you have worth, that you have a voice, a place, that you are called,” Sarah writes. “Stop waiting for someone else to validate your created self: that is done… Now go. And do.” (p. 192-193)

More than anything else, it’s the invitation that sets this book apart for me. If you are looking for a book that makes a reasonable, well-researched, scripturally sensitive appeal on behalf of women in the Church, you will find that here. If you are looking (with either hope or fear) for a book that chips at the cracks in patriarchy, you will find that here. To be honest, I suspect that you will find whatever it is you’re looking for – for good or ill – in this book. I hope in your looking that you will not miss the invitation to “get on with it” and serve God and God’s people in whatever ways your gifts and circumstances provide.

I could fill up pages and pages with lines I’ve underlined and starred, but here are a few:

"I want you to wrestle with the Bible. Do it. Wrestle until, Jacob-like, you walk with a limp ever after, and you receive the blessing of the Lord." (p. 22) 
“We are the people of God, and we are moving forward, always, prophetically embodying and moving toward God’s shalom.” (p. 31) 
“We are not living biblically by stuffing our true gifts and callings and passions into worn-out clich├ęs, turning scriptural encouragement and invitations into new rules.” (p. 100) 
“Thanks be to God who moves mountains. And thanks be to God for men and women who pick up the stones, one after another, after another, until the mountain moves.” (p. 140) 
“In the Kingdom of God, there is no such thing as an outsider.” (p. 166) 
“…if you are given a voice for dozens or only one other soul, you are a minister.” (p. 197)
image source: SarahBessey.com
(If you missed my post about why I’m a Jesus Feminist, check it out here!)

Full disclosure: I received a copy of Jesus Feminist from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

I'm an Incidental Blogger, and That's Okay

As I was cleaning off my bedside table this morning, I found the program for Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond’s 2014 graduation ceremony. Six weeks ago, Big Boy graduated from BTSR – fourteen years after he started. We returned to the city where we met so that the whole family could collectively cheer and sigh as he walked across the stage.

Among the benefits we received in exchange for driving over 1600 miles in one long weekend was the commencement address, given by Rev. Dr. Amy Butler. If you are a person who pays attention to such things, you may know Dr. Butler as the woman who will soon become the first female senior minister of New York’s historic Riverside Church. I am, in fact, a church nerd and a person who pays attention to such things – and who has followed “@PastorAmyDC” on Twitter for quite some time - so I was as excited to hear her in person (and get my picture taken with her – like I said, church nerd) as I was about seeing some of my favorite former professors.

I took notes all over my program, of course, so I paused to re-read them in the midst of today’s chores.

Dr. Butler’s speech was titled “Incidental,” and one of her first points was a reminder to the graduates that “You have chosen a profession which achieves its best expression when it’s not about you.”

Wow. What a good reminder to a minister – and to a writer.

It’s stating the obvious to say that I am an incidental blogger. I don’t get a lot of comments or shares or likes. I don’t write every day or even every week like the “big” bloggers do, especially since I started working outside the home. I've never had a post go viral. Almost all of my 118 Facebook followers are my family and friends.

And so, I often find myself wondering what to do with this here blog. Should I try to change it? Refocus it? Rename it? Promote it more? Somehow manage to write more frequently? Or should I just abandon it, since it is, after all, so very incidental?

Those hastily scribbled notes reminded me why I really write – to make my life NOT about myself.

That sounds crazy. A blog is almost always about its author. ALL ABOUT. This blog is no exception, because my stories and my insights are what I tell here from my wee virtual pulpit. But the reason I tell my stories and insights is to let them go, to offer them up for whatever purposes God may have for them.  Dr. Butler told the graduates, “Your little lights join the lights of so many who are working to dispel the darkness.” This blog is one of the places where my little light can shine some darkness away.

If my light doesn’t shine as brightly as some others, if “Meeting God in Memphis” is never a household name like “Momastery” or “Rage Against the Minivan,” that’s fine. In fact, it’s probably for the best.

As Dr. Butler pointed out, the day’s scripture text from 1 Peter 3:13-22 mentions courage, gentleness, humility, and the like, not “funny hats” (i.e. academic regalia); I would add that it doesn’t mention page views or search engine optimization, either.

But being incidental isn’t an excuse for giving up. The last note I scrawled onto the graduation program is this: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. It enables us to do something, and do it well.”

Wow. What a great reminder to a minister – and to a writer. And to every single person out there.  


You can read more about Dr. Butler’s commencement address here.

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Message to My Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Friends

Image source: CBF Facebook page
Right now, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is holding its annual General Assembly. A bunch of my friends and friends-of-friends are there. I’d love to be there myself – and I almost am, just up the road in the metro Atlanta area. My trip, however, was planned around Boy 1’s tenth(!!!) birthday and the Atlanta stop for LEGO® KidsFest rather than the General Assembly.

In between the birthday and family activities, I’m enjoying all the CBF updates and messages via Twitter, Facebook, and live stream; it’s almost as good as being there.  I say “almost” because I’m missing out on the hugs and free pens. What I’m not missing out on, thanks to the wonderful world of social media, is the chance to give you all a message back.

The message is inspired by my latest TV series addiction, the Victorian-era drama “Lark Rise to Candleford” (I really don’t watch TV all the time, I promise…). In Season 3, Episode 2, Dorcas stops Thomas from doing something drastic. She reminds him how he once saved her from making a terrible mistake, and he humbly realizes that she is now saving him. It’s then that Dorcas says,

“Isn’t that how life works? We take turns in saving one another. I think they call it ‘fellowship.’”

CBF friends, whether you want to call us a “fellowship” or a “denominetwork” or whatever else we’ve been called, I think Dorcas’s definition is spot-on. We are here to take turns in saving one another - lifting each other out of ruts and scrapes, equipping and encouraging each other in following our callings, praying for one another, telling and listening to each other's stories, celebrating achievements and forgiving mistakes. And y’all, that is why I love CBF. That is why, each time we move to a new city, we look for a CBF church first. That is why, when I got to participate in a bit of last year’s General Assembly, I felt so very at home. We are not about hierarchy or self-preservation; we are about taking turns.

Isn’t that how life works? Isn’t that how the Kingdom of God works?

Before I sign off, I have one last thing to say: Who is really CBF Grump?

Oh, and if you don’t have anything to do Saturday afternoon when the General Assembly is over, you can come play Legos with us!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Maya Angelou, Joan of Arc, and Hearing Divine Voices

If you’re on the Internet enough to be reading this blog, you most likely know that Dr. Maya Angelou passed away yesterday at the age of 86. As a student at Wake Forest, I saw Dr. Angelou in person a few times, most notably sitting directly in front of her as she orated Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” during a MLK Day observance, and again sitting nearly in front of her (it helped in this case to have a last name that started with an “A”) as she presented Andrew Young with an honorary doctorate as part of the 1999 graduation festivities. In what I consider one of the best uses of social media yet to be invented, numerous social media outlets were filled with pictures of her iconic smile accompanied by some of her most inspirational quotes. Among them was this, her last Tweet, posted just a few days ago: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

Source: Twitter

These words instantly reminded me of another "phenomenal woman:" Joan of Arc. Not long ago, while doing research for something else entirely, my interest in Joan of Arc was (re-) piqued. (Exactly how that happened is a story for another day.) Poking around for more information about her, I watched an episode of the TV show “The Mystery Files” devoted to her. What particularly grabbed my attention was the possible explanation that the show, and the psychologist it featured, gave for the “voices” Joan heard: “From a purely psychological point of view, we can think that she had the kind of personality disposition which allowed her to perceive things from unconscious which she interpreted as voices.” In other words, she tapped into thoughts that were buried so deep within her unconscious mind that they seemed to come from someplace other than herself. As an uneducated teenage girl in 15th century France, it’s logical that she would understand these to be divine voices. (Watch the clip in which this theory is discussed here.)

"Joan of Arc" by Jules Bastien-Lepage.
image source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
If you ever get the chance to see this painting in person, do.
It may just blow your mind (it did mine).

What made this idea stand out to me was that I, too, “hear voices.” Streams of thought, often at odds with each other, flow through my head constantly. A lot of them I can easily recognize as “self-talk,” but there are occasional times when  they seem to come out of nowhere, and they may go as suddenly as they came. Every once in a while in prayer, I “hear” things that I think God would say to me. Sometimes I doubt, wondering, “but is that what God really is saying to me?” It’s a valid question, but the answer doesn’t have to be “no” just because it came from inside my head. (As Dumbledore pointed out in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, “Of course this is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”)

A few months ago, I shared on the blog about a time when I heard a voice deep within me tell me to “be brave.” Over the course of this past semester (as I’ve spent more time writing things other than my blog than I have at all during the last ten years), my co-sojourners in the “Fear, Courage, and Faithfulness” class at MSSL helped me reflect more on “be brave” as my calling. Surprisingly, I’m finding that learning about Joan of Arc is helping me continue in my understanding. That voice… it was in my head, yet it was as if it was not spoken by me. Or was it? “Be brave” is certainly not something any of my usual streams of consciousness would have chosen at that moment of anxious, distressed, tired prayer. Did I tap into my unconscious? Or did I hear a divine voice?

Why not both?

I’m neither a psychology expert nor a theology expert, but it makes sense to me that God would speak to us through our true selves, the parts of our beings that lie far beneath the surface of our usual thoughts. It is our true selves that God created and it is to be those true selves that God calls each and every one of us.

All that is to say pretty much the same thing that Dr. Angelou expressed so eloquently in 140 characters or less: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

Rest in peace, Maya Angelou. Thank you for inspiring me in many ways. Enjoy your eternal place in the cloud of phenomenal women witnesses.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Silence

Well hello there! Happy 2014! (It’s not too late to say that, right?) You know, I never mean for these months-long “blog absences” to happen… they just somehow do. So tell me, what’s new with you this year?

One thing that’s new for me is that I am taking two classes from the Memphis School of Servant Leadership this semester. One is called “Finding God in the Music of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” and the other is “Fear, Courage, and Faithfulness.” Both involve some deep reflection and soul-searching, as well as working on the disciplines of faith – prayer, silence, Bible study, Sabbath, stewardship, relationship – which I admit I struggle with during this season of my life. Oh, who am I kidding? I’ve always struggled with consistency in my daily faith disciplines. Maybe someday it won’t be such a struggle. Until then, I pray for God’s grace and understanding as I do, at least, keep trying.

Among those disciplines, silence might be the hardest. Unless I either have the apartment to myself or everyone else is asleep (and not snoring or having night terrors), there simply will not be silence in my home. Even now, when I am the only one here, I cannot help but notice the sounds of my upstairs neighbors walking around, vacuuming, and running their washing machine. And aside from these external noises, it seems there are always clangings and bangings going on inside my own mind.

My classes and classmates are helping me learn that the faith practice of silence does not mean eliminating these noises. Rather, it involves moving past them to a place deep within where we don’t even notice them.

image source: Brock & Co.
About a month ago, I got to see the Museum of Biblical Art’s traveling exhibit, “Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery,” when it was at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens here in Memphis. All of the art was fascinating, and it challenged and inspired me to see the biblical stories I grew up with in new ways. But by far my favorite piece in the exhibit was “Virgin Mary in Meditation” by Henry Ossawa Tanner. If I could, I would have pulled up a chair and stared at this masterpiece all day. (Mr. Tanner is one of my most favorite painters – though I confess I am in awe over anyone who can paint anything and make it look like what it actually is – and seeing his “Annunciation” in person at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is on my bucket list.)

Mary’s life was undoubtedly noisy, but in this painting she has found that deep place beyond noise. Although her face betrays no particular emotion, she looks completely content. Her cloak begins to melt into her surroundings, as if she is becoming one with something beyond the physical world. She doesn’t need to speak; I don’t think she even needs God to speak. She is simply being – being in the presence of God that is being with her.

As I head into a time of silence today – or at least trying – this image of Mary is going with me. I’m imagining my edges blurring and fading until there’s no discernible difference between my being and the presence of God that is with me. I may not get to that place where I don’t hear the vacuum and the washing machine, but I thank Mr. Tanner – and the “Ashe to Amen” exhibit – for helping me get a little closer.