“You Have Stept Out of Your Place!”

I never thought I’d experience empowerment while doing a research paper for class. Then again, I’d never written a paper about a trail-blazing woman like Jarena Lee, the first female African-American preacher in the States.

Imagehttp://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2012/02/jarena-lee-the-pioneering-female-preacher-you-never-heard-about/

Her story is incredibly powerful to me. A woman who spent most of her young life struggling with guilt, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, Jarena Lee had a powerful conversion experience at the age of 20 that inspired her to embrace the call of God to preach the Gospel. With great fear and trembling, she approached her pastor, the Rev. Richard Allen of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a denomination born of a desire to flee oppression, with the news of her calling from God. Unfortunately, Allen told her that the denomination knew nothing of ordaining women as preachers.

God didn’t let that stop her, though. As years went by, during which she married a pastor, bore six children, lost all but two of them, and then lost her husband, Jarena felt the call to preach burn fiercely within her. Eventually, Rev. Allen gave her permission to preach, and she became a widely popular traveling preacher throughout the 13 colonies and even in parts of Canada. Although she was never ordained, it is safe to say that Jarena Lee made a path for women in leadership in a strongly patriarchal and racist society, and she used her conversion story to validate her message along the way.

And then suddenly, as with the stories of so many other women in the church, she vanished. Neither I nor many of my Methodist friends had ever heard of her, despite her influence in and beyond her time. And I cannot help but ask, as I have many times before, why? Why has the voice of Jarena Lee, and the voices of so many other passionate women in Church history, been silenced?

While doing further research on Jarena Lee, I found a book at  the EMU library called “You Have Stept Out of Your Place:” A History of Women and Religion in America by Susan Hill Lindley. The quote from the title comes from an indictment made by a Puritan minister to Anne Huthinson, a woman who had the audacity to believe that God could reveal God’s self personally to anyone, even a woman, without the mediation of another.

Imagehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Hutchinson

This incident happened centuries ago, but the minister’s message is still alive and well today.

I heard the message when Ephesians 5:22-33 was first preached to me and, at the age of 18, I was taught that this female submission was ordained by God. I heard that message when I looked at my church bulletin one Sunday, and the only names and contact information listed under the various ministry opportunities were those of men, not including their wives or other women in the ministry. I heard the message at Campus Crusade for Christ “Men’s/Women’s Time,” in which the men learned about discipleship and leadership, while I and my female companions were lectured on how to maintain our physical and spiritual purity as we prepared to (inevitably) get married to adventurous, Godly, authoritative men. I heard the message very loudly and clearly in the absence of women’s voices behind the pulpit.

But the most consistent, and the most heartbreaking, voices who spoke this message to me were the women of faith around me, the ones who told me that my desire to preach and lead was beyond my proper, God-ordained place. The women I revered and looked up to, who simultaneously told me I could be anything I wanted to be yet told me to squelch the fire within me, did more damage than any man behind the pulpit ever could.

This faith community that had provided me with spaces to experience and grow more aware of God’s love also told me to sit quietly behind the barriers that kept me from fully pursuing God’s calling. I, like Jarena Lee and Anne Hutchinson before me, felt empowered by God, Christ, the Gospels, and the Church but had the doors to leadership slammed right in my face. The same community that propelled me forward in my faith journey hung millstones on my neck that dragged my eyes and heart from heaven.

And so throughout my college years, I wrestled with these two contradictory experiences and messages. I wrestled with tradition and dogma, conservatives and liberals, culture wars and calls for ceasefire, all in the hope of better discerning God’s call for me as a woman. There were days of encouragement and hope, and days of exhaustion and despair. There were days I remembered why I fell in love with the Church, and there were days that I wanted to pack my bags and move to greener pastures.

But I did not wrestle alone.

I had many mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers, before and with me, who journeyed with me and spoke love, life, and strength into me, and fanned the flames of my passion until they could no longer be contained.

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 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/12/review-of-rachel-held-evans-a-year-of-biblical-womanhood.html

Because the truth they have helped me realize is, I have not stepped out of my place. I have stepped into it. I have been called into this place and embraced it like a lover. My place and I are one, just as the God who called me to this place is one with me. My place is wherever I go. My place burns within me. How, then, can I step out of my place?

You may call me into my place. You may call my place out from within me and draw it out like water until it runneth over. You may help me give birth to the place within me until the Love of God expressed through my calling is born into the world.

But you cannot call me out of my place. You cannot take my place from me, nor can you kill the flames that burn within my soul and course through the blood in my veins. You cannot tell me I have stepped out of my place. Because you cannot tell me to step out of my skin. God has given me this. And neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor demons, neither the past, present, nor future, nor the powers that be can steal from me what God has given. 

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 So, like the women who have gone before me, from my spiritual grandmothers and mothers like Anne Hutchinson and Jarena Lee, and my biological grandmother and mother pictured above, I will continue to blaze the paths ahead of me, claim my birthright from God, and proclaim God’s love, grace, mercy, and justice from the mountaintops.

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 And I will share the journey with some amazing sisters in Christ, like my good friend Michaela, who was one of the first women in my life to share in and embrace the calling from God.

ImageAnd I will continue to forge the paths for the women who will come after me, like this beautiful, spunky child. God has not given up on me, nor shall I give up on you, my mothers, sisters, and daughters.

And just as God has not given up on me, neither shall I give up on you, Church, the Bride of Christ. I will not give up on you who have hurt me, although you may continue to stifle my voice and try to put me back in my place. No, I will not give up on you, even though you may want to give up on me. I cannot abandon my own self, and my own self is inevitably drawn up in you, this big, beautiful, broken body of Christ. And what God has joined together, I pray God will continue to hold together, in a way that only God can bind that which is broken, in love.

Unexpected Lessons: My Journey with Sister2Sister Mentoring

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Tonight at Sister2Sister, we will continue diving into our  theme “You Are Made in the Image of God.” Tonight, the middle and high school girls will make collages of the “perfect woman,” and together, we will take those perceptions of beauty apart and see the differences between what our culture and the God who created us and called us “good” say about being human.

This couldn’t be better timing. Because on Tuesday night, during a routine chat with Bryce over Facetime, I realized that maybe I need to learn this lesson more than they do.

Because as we chatted through our iPhone and iPad cameras, I noticed my face. Specifically, I noticed my nose. The nose I never really liked because of its largeness and how it hooks like a beak at the end. The nose that is so different from the ones of my classmates and friends and family. The nose I apparently still don’t like. And I noticed how uncomfortable I still feel in my own body. And I felt ashamed and incompetent.

Because until then, I had been operating under the illusion that I had this all together. I thought I was confident and comfortable enough to lead this lesson. I thought I could lead these girls without having to work on my own stuff. Once again, I was proven wrong.

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When I first started my work with Sister2Sister, I expected to grow in my ability to discipline, maintain control and order, and teach life lessons. But I never expected to become more humble, more comfortable in chaos, and learn more than I taught. I expected to hear the girls open up about their struggles. But I never expected those stories to challenge me to confront my own life of pain and privilege.

You see, I expected to change lives when I became a mentor. But I never expected my life to change in the process..

But that is exactly what has happened. Because these girls have taught me that I can’t expect people to open up without opening up myself. I can’t expect people to grow without growing. And I can’t expect to lead and teach without others leading and teaching me. I can’t live in relationship with others if I’m simply seeking them out to make myself look and feel better.

If this experience has taught me anything, it’s that some of my greatest teachers have been the “high-risk” kids, the kids from the areas in town you’re “not supposed to go to,” the ones we’re supposed to “fix” and “save.”

When am I, and when are we, going to realize that maybe we all need saved from our own Savior complexes?

Because these girls continue to teach me, time and again, that I am not here to fix or save them, or to have it all together, or to be their best friends, or to have all the answers.

No. These girls have taught me that I am here to journey with them, to be with them as I am, to be their leader and companion, and sometimes to even say “I don’t know.”

And these girls have taught me that in so many ways, they are wiser than me, and they have so much to teach me, about love, community, and being a Christian who acts out of love, not out of a shallow need to validate myself in the eyes of God.

So yesterday, as I finally took time to work on my prayer life, I thought about my girls and all they have taught me and all the things they have challenged me to confront. I thought about this project we will be undertaking together, and I hoped and prayed that it would be every bit as transforming for me and my mentors as I hoped it would be for my girls.

And this is the prayer I prayed for them:

Thank you for my girls, for the ones that love me and challenge me, the ones that trust me and are uncertain of me. Thank you for teaching me through them, about grace, love, mercy, my own prejudices, my own ignorance, my own pain, my own weakness, and also my own gifts, my own strengths, my own leadership.

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Help me grow in community with them. Help me be quick to listen and hear. Help me be quick to embrace and be patient. Help me to open my arms wider. Help my heart to break more and be healed. Help me to keep my mind, heart, eyes, and ears open, and make my feet swift in action and my hands open, calming, and healing.

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You have given me a great gift in this community. Forgive me for taking it for granted, for seeking validation from my own Savior complex instead of through your Love. Thank you for your grace and love, patience and rebuke, strength and humility.

Thank you for reminding me that I learn and love through what I have and what I’m willing to let go. Thank you for showing me that leading is as much about humility as it is about being firm. And continue to fill me with love so that instead of seeking validation through them, I may instead seek to love them all the more, as they are and where they are. Help me to keep seeing and finding you.

Thank you for healing my blindness, making beauty from the ashes of the pain of my soul. Help me to heal from the inside out.

Help. Thanks. Wow. Amen.