“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.

I am a bigot.

I believe that everyone should see a good counselor, because sometimes they tell you things about yourself that you never realized. And most of the time, they’re simultaneously the things you didn’t want to see in yourself yet need to know.

Last Wednesday, I sat across from my counselor Anne as I do twice a month. In the homey comfort of her office, with her comfy couch and peaceful silence, with the space heater turned on to prevent us from freezing, I unpacked the events that had happened in my life between our meetings and turned them over in my hands for her, hoping she could find some hope and growth within their depths. I even brought up the topic of a paper I will be writing in the next month for my Christian Tradition class. I had come across two topics about which I felt pretty excited but was torn over which one to choose. One was about a black female pastor named Jarena Lee, who, in the late 1700s/early 1800s, had a life-altering conversion experience which empowered her to blaze a path to the male-dominated pulpit.

My second choice was John Calvin and how his doctrine of predestination has been used as a source of elitism to control society, in a way that named clear distinctions between those who were “in” and those who were “out”.

If you couldn’t already tell by how I described the topic, this is something I have some strong and conflicted feelings about, and I sensed that I had some deconstructing to do with Anne regarding this.

Here’s the thing: I have wrestled with many ideologies, theologies, doctrines, and other big fancy concepts throughout my faith journey. And in my years of wrestling, I have made peace with, among other things, women in leadership and even the doctrine of predestination. While I have strong convictions that God is all-embracing, all-loving, and all-empowering,  I have come to a tentative state of peace with the fact that opposing doctrines exist in the world, and I have generally tried to look the other way when these arguments come up to “maintain the peace,” so to speak.

Here’s the other thing, though: While I’ve made peace with the doctrine, I have not yet made peace with the people who embrace it. The cold, painful truth is I still hate Calvinists (and others who hold tightly to the doctrine of predestination).

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite qualities about Anne is the way she pushes and challenges me to take an honest yet graceful look at myself instead of patting me on the head and saying “There, there, you poor thing.” So, in traditional Anne-fashion, instead of shaking her head and agreeing that I had every right to hate such backwards people with such an awful theology, she smiled after I made my confession and said, “I see. You’re bigoted towards them.”

Which was not exactly the answer I was expecting to hear.

Of course, this was news to my perfectionist ego, and my mind immediately flipped to defense mode. Who was she to say I was the bigot? I was in seminary. I was learning more about white privilege in two semesters than I had in my entire 23 years of life. I was part of a congregation that did its best to live by its creed, “Everyone means everyone.” I coordinated a mentoring program that worked to build relationships with the “at-risk” kids, the ones everyone else looked at with disdain and suspicion but I looked at with love and hope. Didn’t she realize that these people were the ones who were bigoted against me, against the people they didn’t believe were elect? How dare she lump me in the same category as them? How could she get this twisted?

But then the examples of the times I’ve lumped people into groups of “us” versus “them” computed. When I remembered the times as a child that I stuck with those I called “friends” and avoided those I deemed “not friends,” when I was a part of youth group but still labeled “the Super Christians” and “the backsliders,” when I went to seminary and started labeling those who held my convictions as “the progressives” and “the ones who love everyone” and those who opposed me as “the bigots” and “the ones full of hatred,” my own bigotry reared its ugly head at me.

I knew Anne brought this to my attention for good reasons. But I want to be perfect. And I couldn’t get over the fact that I never will be perfect, because the whole facade of me not being hateful had imploded in her cozy office.

My perfectionist tendencies and the cold, hard truth of my humanity have always been at war. I’ve tried to make myself think better and be better, thinking that if I can just fix myself, I won’t be full of hatred anymore. Then my humanity knocks me down a few pegs when I read another article by John Piper or someone at Bed Bath and Beyond gives me a hard time because their As Seen on TV product didn’t perform as expected. I feel the tension and weariness of battle in my body from trying to be saint over sinner.

Another awesome quality about Anne is that the minute she calls me out on my own shortcomings, she calls out her own. After she reminded me of my bigotry, she followed it up by explaining, “Everyone is a bigot to someone. I have my bigotry, you have yours, everyone else has theirs. But the way to growth is by admitting it.” She told me how she tenses up when people call her to set up appointments but say they need “a Christian counselor.” She knows this about herself, she catches herself doing it, she accepts that she does it. She also accepts that while she can’t fix her attitude, she can control how she responds. And she does her best to choose openness over exclusivity.

So I guess I’m not alone in this battle, and I guess that’s what makes all the difference.

I realized that Anne called me out on my bigotry, not so I could beat myself up about it, or even try to make me “better.” She told me this crucial information about myself, and humanity in general, so I could learn to be gracious, first to myself, and then to others, the ones I love who will inevitably fall off of the pretty little pedestals I built for them, and the ones who outright piss me off. She told me because like me, she is also on a journey, one that involves joy and despair, steps forward and steps backward, one that no one can take alone.

She was reminding me that I need to believe that the God who has grace enough for me and my story has grace enough for the people for whom I don’t show enough grace and their stories.

Maybe if we, hell, maybe if I, truly believed in a God of grace, maybe if we truly accepted this grace, it wouldn’t seem so difficult to give it away.

So I guess since I’m not alone, I’ll continue to unpack this, with Anne, with my friends, with my family, with my professors, with my church, with anyone willing to listen to me yammer on for a few minutes.

But first, I’ll try to show myself a little grace sometime this week, and try to show it to someone else, too. Because Anne has taught me, as have many others who have gone before me, that all I can really do is pray for Grace to inspire me to continue to choose love over fear and hatred, for Grace to continue to catch me when I fall, and for Grace to point out the imago Dei in me and the person in front of me.