Archive for March 2010
Our church’s Women’s Fellowship is a small band of 10-15 women ranging in age from 75 to 90. They meet once a month for a business meeting, program and refreshments. The Women’s Fellowship is the descendant of a once-thriving and prominent Women’s Guild, which attracted hundreds of women who had no other opportunity for leadership or employment and wielded enormous financial and influential power in the life of the church. The evolving nature of gender relationships, the inclusion of women as officers and leaders in the church, and the reality that most women now work full-time outside the home has diminished the need and authority of these kinds of women’s groups over the years. The Women’s Fellowship no longer wields such power, but they are still a mighty cool bunch of ladies who contribute a great deal to the ministry of the church.
I have been leading a book discussion with them every month for their program, and this month the chapter focused on the story of the woman with the alabaster jar, particularly the Johannine account which identifies her as Mary of Bethany. We had already giggled and tittered about the sexual nature of this encounter, and talked about the intimacy of that moment. We wondered together at the woman’s motivations, at her feelings for Jesus. Then I asked, “Well, what about Jesus? Why do you think he accepted such an intimate gesture, such a show of affection? Why did he just sit there and let her wash his feet with her hair?”
“Because he’s a man. They just expect you to serve them,” blurted an 80-something former farm girl, tough as nails and as loyal to her church as anyone can be. And the whole room erupted in the honest, raucous laughter of recognition—for a moment, until we realized she had just made a man-joke about the ego of Jesus Christ. The laughter reverted to nervous giggles followed by awkward silence, as they looked to their pastor to see how she would react.
I have to admit I didn’t know where to start. I wanted to affirm the truth-telling nature of her comment. It opened a powerful connection and shared experience in women’s lives, a feminist consciousness-raising moment. I wanted to name and unpack the reality she described, that men have been trained to expect women to serve and to sacrifice, and they tend to overlook and underappreciate the real cost of women’s gifts and service.
I also felt the need and desire to defend Jesus from being a typical man. I want him to be my feminist hero. I think there is some justification for this in the Gospel. Jesus did talk to women without prejudice, engaged them fully in his ministry, bent gender roles, spoke up in defense of women and adopted a posture of service and sacrifice that is not so different from women’s traditional roles.
I did both of those things, and the conversation progressed. But the original comment still pricks at me, because it reminded me of the uncomfortable reality that Jesus was still a first-century man. He may have been a good man, a forward-thinking, radically inclusive, woman-affirming man—but he was still a man. He probably did not overcome all the prejudices of his day around the expectations of women’s servitude.
It renewed my yearning for a female Messiah, a woman of spiritual and moral consequence, who breaks through gender stereotypes to establish a model of the faithful life as a woman. Jesus sets the model for what a God-dedicated life looks like for a man—serving others, humbling yourself, giving up home and family for the sake of spiritual pursuit, standing up to power and working for peace and justice. What does it look like for a woman to live that kind of life? Jesus’ model life was made possible by the women supporting him, providing food and shelter and clothing to him. I refuse to believe that supporting male spiritual leaders is as good as it gets for women, so what does it look like for a woman to live a model faithful life?
When society already demands humility and servitude and trains us up to practice compassion and reconciliation, what does spiritual leadership in those areas demand? It requires extra courage and fortitude for women to stand up to power and speak out against injustice, so perhaps that is where our spiritual leadership comes forward. But what about giving up home and family? Who’s going to feed the children if women start following Jesus’ model of leaving those tasks to someone else?
This yearning for a female Messiah is not new to me. I believe many women share the aching desire for role models, spiritual and otherwise, that show how to overcome the gender stereotypes of service and humility while continuing to be serving and humble, how to stand up to power and speak for justice while still practicing justice and care in our family relationships, how to lead and give and serve across the multiple, challenging roles and stereotypes women face. Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, the Syro-Phoenician woman, Dorcas, Lydia—these are important examples, but their stories have been so filtered through gender stereotypes that it is impossible to look on their lives without filters.
Jesus is still a feminist hero. But sometimes I still want more.
It’s amazing what a kid learns in church. Today, in addition to learning about Palm Sunday, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” , even singing along with the refrain to “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” B informed me that he learned that lemonade comes in two colors: pink and yellow. Usually, we have yellow, but today we had pink, and he decided pink is much better.
In every conversation about what we did on Palm Sunday, the pink lemonade featured as prominently as the palms.
B used a pacifier from the time he was about three weeks old until about three weeks ago. From the first time we gave it to him (choosing to ignore the threatening warnings about the ill effects on breastfeeding) until we negotiated to remove it from his life (long past the age deemed appropriate by the experts), we were always aware that the pacifier was as much for us as it was for him, if not more so.
B’s pacifier enabled us to get some much needed sleep in those first few months of his life, when he would only sleep with a breast or a finger in his mouth. Before we conceded to the pacifier, we had both spent back-twisting hours leaning over the side of the crib with a pinkie finger awkwardly angled between his gums while he sucked at it sleepily. Removing the pinkie-paci shot B into dramatic alertness, causing us to insert the pinkie again. The pacifier was just what we needed.
As he grew from a newborn to a plumb and happy baby, the pacifier continued to provide much needed sleep. Leaving him at daycare every day, I felt like it might keep him from crying when he couldn’t be held all the time. He was a nightmare at naptime, all the way into toddlerhood. The pacifier helped.
We weaned him off it gradually. Shortly after his first birthday, we limited it to sleep times and car times. Then it whittled down to just sleep times. Then it was just nighttime. We have known for awhile (ok, six or seven months) that we could probably let it go. But we thought it just made life so much easier. For us and for him. The big danger that the experts talk about is that the pacifier can inhibit verbal development. Believe me, this is not a factor with B. He talks constantly. So we just let it go, and go, and go. It just didn’t seem like a big deal, and we didn’t want to lose a week’s sleep when he woke up fussing for it in the night.
Until about a month ago, when we got down to the last one. He kept losing that one in the night, and it fell down behind the bed. The only way to retrieve it was by turning on the light, getting B and all his stuffed friends (and there are many) up and out of the bed, peeling back the mattress, fishing it out and washing it off in the bathroom. Every once in awhile, this was feasible. But then it started happening several times a night. If we were losing sleep anyway fetching the darn thing from under the bed, we might as well lose sleep getting rid of it. It was no longer convenient for anyone.
We gave him a couple of days warning, and visited the toy department at Target to advise him that he could choose a new toy if he went a whole week without his pacifier. B was amenable to this agreement, and pre-chose a box of Hot Wheels as his prize. (We encouraged him to look for something else, since he already has dozens of Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, but he was rigid in his opinion. We said he could have whatever he wanted—if a $5.00 box of race cars is what he wanted, so be it.)
We put him to bed that first night, bracing ourselves for a night filled with panicked sleep interruptions, extra songs, time in the rocking chair and the likely result of having him in our bed for a week. I was bracing myself to say goodbye to this last vestige of his babyhood.
And then nothing happened. Nothing. He slept soundly through until the next morning. B had been waking up once or twice in the night searching for his pacifier and crying out for help. We took it away completely, and he’s been sleeping peacefully all night long ever since. We returned to Target, bought the exact same box of $5.00 Hot Wheels he chose the week before, and he’s been happy as can be.
Apparently, the crutch we had been using to make life easier had actually been making life more complicated. The change we had long dreaded and postponed turned out to bring a greater rest and relief than the old way of doing things. The pacifier no longer pacified—it disrupted. We were just too fearful of change to let it go.
You can see where this is going, right?
How often do we hold on to a pacifier that has long outlived its usefulness, just because we fear change? How many people and churches and communities cling to crutches they think make life more convenient, when in reality the work of maintaining the crutch is far more difficult than living without it? Ever since B gave up his paci, I feel like I’ve been digging under the mattress of my life, trying to identify those pacifiers that are long overdue to head to the garbage. Yet still I keep washing them off one more time. Why can’t I trust that I’ll be happier with something new? Maybe because changes in adulthood are not as simple as a $5.00 box of Hot Wheels.
Earlier this week, we found another of B’s old pacifiers hiding in a dusty corner under the bed. He picked it up and said, “hey, look at this yucky old paci! What’s that doing here?” and without hesitation walked to the trash can and threw it away. I think if I let go, I’d quickly see the old pacifiers the same way. I just have to risk that first restless night.
Appetites: On the Search for True Nourishment by Geneen Roth, Dutton Books, 1996.
I’ve never talked or written openly about my struggles with eating. I don’t usually read self-help books, or anything that could be found on those shelves in the bookstore. I ardently refuse to consider any materials on dieting, and I loathe the culture of thinness that prizes an impossibly unhealthy body type for women.
But the truth is that I don’t have a good relationship with food, and I am trying to work on that relationship, for the sake of my physical and mental health. And this book doesn’t talk about how to get thin, or why we should want to eat healthy food, or an eight-step program to a better you, or BMI or exercise or clothing size or body image or even addiction. If it had, I probably would not have continued reading it.
This book talks about exactly what I am working on—a relationship with food, which is about a relationship with ourselves and with our bodies. Geneen Roth chronicles her own difficult relationship with food in a voice that is so raw and honest that it almost feels like you are reading someone’s well-written personal journal. Her brokenness and craziness and twisted thinking and self-doubt are right there, exposed to the light and thoughtfully captured in language. But so are the words of forgiveness and healing and rationality and sympathy and advocacy. They are right next to each other—brokenness paired with healing, good thinking intertwined with continued bad choices, reasonable perspective mingled with crazy old tapes full of negative self-talk.
Which is exactly my experience of my relationship with food. Ah, companionship! (Ironically, a word derived from sharing food—com, with; pan, bread; companion, one you break bread with.)
Roth’s raw honesty and good writing are the great gifts of this book. She captures my experience and that of so many other women, and somehow just seeing your thoughts and feelings reflected on the page, organized and articulated, helps sort through them and even let go of some of them.
The other great gift is Roth’s own brokenness. For me, my relationship with food cycles through good and bad. I keep thinking I have found healing, only to end up right back where I started in a bad place. Roth, in spite of having written bestselling books and held thousands of seminars, does the same thing. And she doesn’t just say, “Now, I still struggle sometimes,” and cover it over with slick presentations of the way forward—she takes us right with her to the crazy place that still lives on in spite of books, seminars and success.
There were particular moments of crazy—and accompanying insights of healing—that especially touched me, but I feel vulnerable enough already without exposing my particular crazies. I wish I could be as honest as Roth is. Daylight in itself is healing. But for now, I will continue my search for true nourishment with the gift of companionship, and a reminder that healing in relationships is not a once-and-for-all, one-and-done experience. Just like healing in relationships with people, finding healing in my relationship with food is an ongoing journey, fraught with obstacles and setbacks, yet still a journey well worth taking.
One small, crazy step at a time.
Boy noises have arrived in our house. B is three years, three months old, and apparently that’s how long it takes. Race cars now go “rrrrrrrr” when they drive. Dinosaurs “aaawwp” and squeal. Trucks beep when they back up and “vrrrrooom” when they go forward. Monsters growl and hiss and roar. Toys talk with funny voices–deep and gravelly, high-pitched and shrill, low and even.
I call these “boy noises” because I’ve never been good at making them, nor have I ever really seen the point. I always played with boys as a kid, and I loved my Hot Wheels and Star Wars and even a little G.I. Joe. But I could never do the noises the way the boys could. It always made my throat tickle and my mouth dry and my voice tired, and making noises with my mouth did not seem to make the play more fun. So I never bothered.
J can do the noises without a hitch, and with a great flair and variety much broader than mine ever was. Now B can too. It’s a lot louder in his room these days, with both of them grrrring and vrrroooming. Boy noises are here to stay.
It must be genetic, on the Y chromosome.
Why do women always blame the other woman? I do not usually go for celebrity scandal stories, but the headline quotation I saw drew me in. Rielle Hunter, mistress to John Edwards and mother of his child, had an interview with GQ magazine this week, complete with risque photos surrounded by her child’s toys.
In the interview, she blames all of John Edwards’ problems, all his unhappiness and his need for the affair on Elizabeth Edwards. Here’s the quote that drew my ire:
Most of his mistakes or errors in judgment were because of his fear of the wrath of Elizabeth. He’s allowed himself to be pushed into a lot of things that he wouldn’t normally do because of Elizabeth’s story line. And the spin that she wants to put out there. He was emasculated. And you know, the wrath of Elizabeth is a mighty wrath.
Poor John Edwards. He is not responsible for his own actions, for his unfaithfulness, for his decision to cover it up, for his denial of his own daughter, for his decision to renew his wedding vows even as he was involved in an affair. It’s not his fault, she says—he’s a good man. That shrew Elizabeth made him do it.
This is all too familiar. There is a very long, very ugly history of women blaming women for the misdeeds of men. It makes me sad that more than 40 years after the modern feminist movement, we still live in a world where women blame other women for the bad decisions made by men.
Elizabeth Edwards (or at least her supporters) have engaged in the same practice—blaming Rielle Hunter for tempting, flirting, seducing and beguiling John. Why aren’t both women targeting the real offender, John? Why do we, as women, attack each other, compete with each other, destroy each other for the attention of a man?
As long as women continue blaming women for the pain men inflict on them, we cannot examine the broader male power at work—the culture that sees the other woman, not the man who strayed, as a homewrecker; the culture that judges women’s worth based solely on her beauty and gives men permission to reject a woman who does not live up to those standards; the culture that pits women against other women to keep women’s power at bay.
I feel sad for all those involved in this ugly episode—Elizabeth, Rielle, all their children. I feel even sadder that we still find it reasonable and acceptable to debate whether Elizabeth or Rielle was more at fault, and ignore the schmuck behavior of the man at the center of the story.
Let’s stop blaming women for men’s bad behavior, start holding men accountable for their actions and work together on building up women and girls rather than tearing them down.
I’ve only seen two episodes, but I am already hooked on the new NBC show Parenthood. At first it was just my love of Lauren Graham and Peter Krause, but now it’s bigger than that.
I realized in the first five minutes that I was exactly the target demographic for the show—an educated, thirty-something parent passionately concerned about my child’s future, filled with anxiety about my ability to balance my work and family life, wanting my child to have the best of everything and fearful of my ability to offer it. The show is even set in Berkeley, where I went to seminary. It’s like someone took an idealized version of what I might like my life to be and turned it into a show.
Except it’s not completely idealized. The writers and actors manage to capture on the screen the anxiety and competitiveness and floundering of contemporary parenting, along with the heart-wrenching love we all feel for our children. Most of the television I watch is an escape from my life. Parenthood hooks me because it draws me toward my life, in all its angst and foolishness and ego and even the beauty and honesty I yearn for.
I watched tonight after a long and exhausting day. Throughout the episode, I felt my tension rise with the tension of the show. Will the child get into the right school? Oh no, she’s having a bad mom moment in public! How can even the best-intentioned parents still blow it sometimes? After a few minutes I considered turning it off, because I feared it would keep me awake and tense about my own life. When a particularly tense and poignant moment broke into a commercial, I expected the show to be over until the next week. It was an ideal cliffhanger—relationships strained, events incomplete, tension intact to hook the viewer for the next episode. But I looked at my watch and there were eight minutes left.
Then I realized what was coming. The same thing as the week before. I thought it was just something for the pilot, but now I see it will likely be a weekly trope. A closing scene with the whole extended family together, enjoying each other’s company, playing or eating or laughing or working together as though their problems have all resolved, or at least been set aside for a temporary reprieve. Showing us, the audience at home, that everything is okay as long as we love each other, no matter how many mistakes we make or how impossibly imperfect life is.
And I cried. Just like I did last week. I cried because I felt all the tension of the show, of my day and of my own family wash away. I cried because it gave me just what I wanted—a camera shot of the whole mess of family and relationships with a wide enough angle to see the big picture of love, and music that makes everything beautiful and whole again.
It’s easy to make those moments happen in the last eight minutes of a television episode. Sometimes those vicarious, created moments can wash over into feelings of peace and contentment in our own lives. It’s much harder to find those moments in real life, but they do happen. The lighting is not perfect, the houses are not designer, the people are not slim and fantastic, but the beauty is even more amazing, and the warmth and laughter and love are real.
And on the days when the real-life moments seem impossible, I’ll take eight minutes of television to remind me.
Thanks for taking us back, Nomar. Red Sox Nation never stopped loving you. We mourned when you got traded. We wanted you to get a World Series ring. We followed your career, injury after injury, and wished life was different. Yet in the end, in spite of being let go and left out by the owners and GM, you still love us, and love the Red Sox life and lore as much as we do. And today, I’m sure I’m not the only one who cried tears of joy to see you come home, to stay.
I wish I was following the lectionary in my preaching this week, because the Gospel story is about the prodigal son. I think there’s something in the Nomar story that connects somehow. He’s the father, not the son—the one whose love persists in spite of rejection, scorn and abuse; in spite of seeing his fortunes lost and his prosperity ended; in spite of harsh judgment by youth who acted as though his hard work and contributions no longer mattered. Yet still he loves, practices grace and forgiveness for past hurts, and yearns for reconciliation and to be a part of the family again.
Ok, it’s not a perfect allegory, but there’s still something there. And #5 is back in the family, reunited with us, so we can all enjoy the party.
We love you, No-mah Gah-cia-pah. You belong in Boston, in a Red Sox uniform, at Fenway Park.
That’s the question B asked in the middle of dinner last night: “Does God come to church?”
Me: I hope so.
B: But is God at church? If God is everywhere, is God at church?
Me: Yes. I think God goes wherever people are, and there are lots of people at church, and they are all talking about God, so I think God would be there.
B: Oh. Okay.
Part of me wants to say more, to draw deep implications from his question, to turn this into a diatribe on the petty concerns that can preoccupy congregations, or to bemoan the rhetoric of hate that seems to chase the holy out the door, or to lift up just the faith-filled hope that we all bring every time we gather in church for worship, that God will show up. But really, B’s question says it all, and my first response is the only one.
Does God come to church? I sure hope so. What else can I say?
This year the Catholic church is hosting our town’s ecumenical Lenten services. This particular group of 5-7 churches collaborates on many projects, and we know each other well. It’s a collection of brand-name Protestants of similar stripes, and one Catholic parish that blends right in. For these services, various clergy take turns offering the sermon, and the host congregation prepares and leads the liturgy. Since the Catholic priest is overburdened with two parishes, the deacon has been in charge.
Last week, the deacon was unexpectedly unable to attend. At our clergy meeting the day before, he asked a colleague to fill in, but he couldn’t do it. Without a thought, I opened my mouth to volunteer, and the deacon said yes, again without a thought. How hard could it be, right? All I had to do was lead the service he had prepared.
It wasn’t until I stepped into the front of that beautiful Catholic church, in charge, that I realized what I had done. I, in my female body, was running a service in a Catholic church—introducing the male preacher, announcing, praying, pardoning, benedicting. I was acting as substitute host, as though I owned the place. Knowing both priest and deacon, they are quite open-minded and neither would be troubled by this, nor were the members of the various churches gathered. But on the wall was a picture of Pope Benedict, and I swear he was scowling at me the whole time.
I must confess it was exhilarating. I felt like I was really getting away with something naughty. I looked right back at Benedict and stuck out my tongue.
Ok, I didn’t really do that. But just standing up there in leadership felt like the same thing.