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Tonight, just across town, on the campus where my husband teaches, Indiana Senatorial Candidate Richard Mourdock said the following:

Life is a gift from God, and even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

My friends, Republican or Democrat, this post is not about politics, even though everything is political and I think this should impact how you think about your vote. This post is not about abortion, even though I strongly support access to safe and legal abortion as a fundamental aspect of securing women’s health and safety. This is a post about theology, and it is written from my pastoral heart, with care and concern for people hurt by misguided, dangerous theology. (Although, as always, posts here reflect my own views and do not stand for the views of my wonderfully diverse congregation.)

Hear this loud and clear:

GOD DOES NOT INTEND RAPE.
RAPE AND VIOLENCE ARE NEVER GOD’S WILL.
GOD DOES NOT DESIRE SUFFERING FOR SOME GREATER GOOD.

If you are a survivor, God did not send your rapist to hurt you or test you or teach you or punish you or improve you. God did not sacrifice your body and your safety and your security, even to bring the most wonderful child into the world. A human being acted out of violence, power, rage or some other sinful place to hurt you. God did not intend for you to be raped.

There can be no equivocation there. God does not afflict us. So where is God in suffering?

The heart of the Christian story deals with just this concern. The cross plays a central role in our faith, and it is a symbol of suffering caused by violence and power.  Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross showed us that God does not desire our pain to obtain salvation, that God does not require our blood sacrifice, that violence is not God’s way, and that God will pursue justice and peace even unto death.

Three days later, our faith proclaims that something miraculous happened—God took the tools of violence and destruction and transformed them into Easter resurrection and new life. To say that God made new life out of something horrible, whether a rape or a cross, is to proclaim that God can overcome anything. God can take the worst this world has to offer, and God can make hope and new life. God can take a murder on a cross and create resurrection. God can take a violent rape and create a beautiful child.

That does not mean that God intends murder and rape. God does not cause horrific things to happen to us in order to make miracles. That’s not sanctified, it’s sadistic.

That also does not mean that every pregnancy resulting from rape is a gift from God. Not even every non-violent conception is a gift from God. To declare that every pregnancy is intended by God conjures a cruel Master who shows only disdain for the suffering it inflicts.

  • Imagine a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape. Forced to carry an unwanted child to term, she is unable to begin her healing until the pregnancy is over. Even if she gives the baby up for adoption, she must live with the physical reminder of her violent trauma every day. Every kick, every contraction, every moment of labor causes her to relive the rape again in her mind. Instead of lasting for a night, her trauma lasts for nine months.
  • Imagine a woman who already has three children. Her fourth pregnancy puts her own life in danger. While her unborn child may or may not survive, she will not. Her older children will be left motherless. The children’s father will be unable to provide for them without her income, and they will likely be separated into foster care.
  • Imagine a woman trapped in a violent relationship. She has a plan to get out, but she discovers that the partner who abuses her has also conceived a child in her womb. She knows she cannot escape if she is pregnant, and that this violent man will have parental rights to the child even if she leaves him.

Some women would claim God’s new life in these pregnancies, no matter the circumstances. They will love and raise the child with joy and faithfulness. Others would claim God’s new life and possibility in the freedom to terminate a difficult pregnancy and claim the value of their own lives as God’s beloved. They will live their lives with purpose serving God in other ways. In neither case does God intend the suffering to get to the new life. In both circumstances, God can heal and redeem the suffering by bringing new life.

Deuteronomy 30:19-20 says:

“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, that you and your descendants might live! “

I believe that sometimes the choice to end a pregnancy is a way of choosing life—life for the mother, life for other children, life free from abuse. God can make new life out of terrible things, but we cannot always equate God’s new life with an unborn child. We cannot know how God will work in a woman’s heart, nor can we know the path of life in every situation. I stand firmly against the use of speculation about God’s intentions to legislate forced pregnancy.

Above all, this is clear: God does not intend violence. Rape is not part of God’s grand plan. Neither is forced pregnancy part of God’s will. God comes to us in Christ so that we “might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) The prayerful discernment about what it means to choose to “have life, and have it more abundantly” belongs to each woman, her own womb and her own conversation with God—not our legislators.

This has been a difficult week for my congregation. We have experienced the death of two beloved church members this week, as well as three unrelated deaths of family members (a mother, a father, a sister) of church leaders within the last two weeks. I have been responsible for officiating at four of the five funerals, including three in five days.

As a pastor, these difficult, exhausting times are just part of the job sometimes. It comes with the pastoral life. The middle of the night phone calls and trips to the hospital, the painful hours spent sitting with grieving families, the processing of lifetimes in writing homilies and prayers—this is the work of ministry. When the crises pile on, we get tired, but we keep putting one foot in front of the other and do the work that God has called us to do.

In my church, I am giving thanks this difficult week that I do not do this work alone. I am beyond exhausted by the sadness and heartbreak of it all, not to mention the scramble to prepare services and interrupted, sleepless nights. I have my own grief to manage as I say goodbye to people I have come to love dearly. But I am not the only one carrying this burden, or doing the work of caring for these families.

I am surrounded by so many faithful Christians who are also participating in the work of ministy to these grieving members of our community. The Women’s Fellowship has coordinated a funeral meal for four of the services. Several were very large families and groups, and they reached out to the rest of the congregation for help. I know that even as I am up late in the night writing another homily and formatting another bulletin, the church family is up late in their kitchens preparing casseroles and vegetable trays and chocolate cakes. When I arrive early to print out programs in my office, they appear just a few minutes later to start preparing the coffee and the lemonade.

During the meal, I watch them make their way to the grieving family members. I see the women who’ve lost husbands in recent years spending time with the newest widow, reassuring her that she will survive this heartbreak. I see caregivers who’ve supported each other in holding on now supporting one another in letting go. When my feet are aching and I just want to go home, I am not there alone—they are packing up the leftovers, washing the dishes, wiping the tables. We arrive together, we leave together. We grieve together, we serve together.

I am so blessed to serve in this community, where we are the church to one another. Each one of us is doing our part. I carry the pastoral load of emergency calls and funeral rites. They carry the load of food and friendship. My hours might be longer on weeks like this one, but I feel their ministry carrying mine when I am about to fall exhausted. I am so grateful.

Today is the opening of a new movie called For Colored Girls, directed by Tyler Perry. The script is an adaptation of a 1975 choreopoem-style play entitled For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange.

I first encountered Shange’s magnificent poetry when I was in college, when I was diving deep into both African-American poetry and feminist literature. Her words and images penetrated deep into my mind and heart, and they still grab me at my core. After hearing about the movie, I spent most of the evening yesterday combing through books looking for excerpts and watching clips from the stage play on YouTube.

The women of Shange’s creation radiate a kind of honesty, strength and vulnerability, a truth-telling and emotional exposure that is absolutely compelling. She creates compassion without pity. One of my favorite lines is: “i’m finally being real/no longer symmetrical/or impervious to pain.” The women Shange writes are real, almost more than real, rich and deep and profound and broken-bending-to-whole.

The poems speak of a deep need to be seen and known and loved, of heartbreak and hope. And, in the end of the play, they find that love—with God, with each other, within themselves. One of the most famous lines in the whole show comes at the end, when the women gather and repeat: “i found god in myself/and i loved her/i loved her fiercely.” That line has echoed through my theology ever since, imagining God dwelling inside me and inside every other person I meet, God embodied in female form, imagining God using my own self, a God whom I love absolutely fiercely. Ntozake Shange and her words have been a shaping influence and powerful point of spiritual connection for me for many years.

Here’s the problem: I don’t think I trust Tyler Perry with Ntozake Shange. As much as I want to see the movie, as much as I want to see any production of these amazing words, I can’t trust the creator of Medea to handle real women with depth and power and passion and compassion. The actors in the movie are phenomenal, and I would trust any of them to honor the depth and beauty of Ntozake Shange’s poetry. But Tyler Perry has made his name dealing in stereotypes, flat characters, slapstick, and witty repartee. I want to see the film, but I am nervous that he will not do justice to the writing, to the characters and the poetry that have come to mean so much to me. Perry has many talents, but can he do this?

I want the world to know about this play, these women, Ntozake Shange. I hope Tyler Perry can introduce them in a way that is as powerful and compelling as the original.

In Shange’s words: “this is for colored girls who have considered suicide/but are moving to the end of their own rainbows.”

What about you? Do you have a connection to Shange’s work? Have you seen the movie? Do you have an opinion?

Suffragettes, courtesy of allposters.com

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” (For the story of the amendment, click here. The vote passed on August 18, 1920. The amendment became law on August 26, 1920.)

This landmark ruling is less than 100 years old. It is less than a lifetime–there are women alive today who remember the time before women had the right to vote in this country. I recall my own great-grandmother sharing her memory of the first time she was ever allowed to vote.

Because we do not have the video evidence that we have of the civil rights movement or the feminist movement of the 1960’s, we tend to forget the hardship and struggle those women endured to earn rights for women. When I was growing up, the only image I had of what a suffragette looked was Mrs. Banks, the mother character in Mary Poppins, who was portrayed as so self-absorbed and wealthy and concerned for her own rights that her children were misbehaving terribly to get any attention at all. She was the contrasting foil to Mary Poppins, the woman who did not care for herself, her pay, her image—only for the poor, neglected children. Mrs. Banks’ image matched the photos I saw of the suffrage movement, pictures of wealthy women dressed in full Victorian attire, marching with signs and pausing to pose for photos. It gave me the impression that the suffrage movement was more like an outdoor ladies’ tea than a brutal struggle for equality under the law.

It is true that many of the participants and leaders of this movement were privileged white women. There is a legacy of prejudice within the feminist movement that persists today against working class women and women of color. Those of us who are passionate about the ongoing struggle for women’s civil and social equality must continue to fight against this prejudice with all our strength. But the status of early suffragette leaders as wealthy and white does not negate the difficulty of their struggle or the cost of their sacrifice. Their portrayal as indulgent flakes like Mrs. Banks is not only false, but it diminishes their intelligence, commitment and determination, along with the importance of their movement.

The struggle for women’s rights was intense, disruptive and even violent, just like any other civil rights movement. Women with no other source of income than their husbands were thrown out of their homes and separated from their children. Single, working women lost their jobs for attending a suffrage rally. Women were denied the right of free assembly and jailed for their protests. While in jail, they were abused. They staged hunger strikes and were force-fed. They sacrificed their families, their security, their bodily safety, their income and more. For a striking portrayal, I encourage you to watch Iron-Jawed Angels, a film made in 2004 about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.

And yet somehow we forget their sacrifice in the long litany of civil rights heroes. This erasure took place within a generation of the suffrage movement.  Robert Cooney, director of the Woman Suffrage Media Project, writes:

Suffrage leader Gertrude Foster Brown tells of interviewing one of the women who persuaded the Illinois legislature to grant presidential suffrage in 1913, a key breakthrough in the struggle for national suffrage. She ends her article with this anecdote:

“As I sat with Mrs. Booth and her husband some years ago and they told me the tale of the winning of Illinois, he, strangely enough, remembering better than she the details of the long struggle, it was the listening young people who marked for us how far the world has moved since then. Their son and daughter, then grown, sat round-eyed and enthralled by the story. They had never heard it. Did women, just because they were women, ever have to fight against such incredible odds? And was it their mother who had played the leading role on such a stage? Like most young people they had always taken her for granted–retiring, thoughtful, quiet and kind, just a mighty nice mother–and suddenly they saw her a general, a heroine in one of the great dramas of the world. For this Illinois victory was the turning point in the enfranchisement of twenty-five millions of women.”

So on this anniversary day, let us do three things.

Remember

Lucy Stone,  Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Stone Blackwell, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Frances Willard, Julia Ward Howe—these women and all their anonymous companions deserve a prominent place in our pantheon of justice heroes. Let us remember their sacrifice, courage and dedication, and the true cost of civil rights.

Give Thanks

My life today would not be possible without the women’s movements of days past. My ordination, my career choice, my family, my equal pay, my partnership with my spouse, my legal protection from rape and domestic violence, my reproductive freedom, my political activism, my hyphenated name, my degree in Women’s Studies, my protection from sexual harassment and so many more things that are an intimate part of my daily life and my identity would never have been possible even a generation or two ago. I give thanks to God and to those women who made my life possible.

Recommit

Even here in the United States, there is much work yet to be done for women to overcome discrimination and stand on an equal footing with men. Women still make only $.76 for every dollar a man earns. Domestic violence still takes the life of a woman every single day. Girls can grow up to be anything they want to be—but there is still a dearth of women in top leadership positions in the social, political and corporate sectors. The right to birth control and access to abortion are still hotly debated, and rights are being lost rather than won. Sexual harassment is still ridiculed and date rape is still rampant on college campuses. Women still fight enormous expectations about their bodies, their demeanor, their sexuality and their freedom.

Beyond the United States, many of the world’s women find an even harsher reality. There are still many countries where women do not have the right to vote, to divorce, to leave an abusive husband, to be heard in court, to drive, even to be seen in public without a male escort. Women across the world are poorer than men and more likely to be victims of violence.

We who benefit from the privilege of earlier generations of the women’s movement must recommit to standing together and continuing the struggle, for we still have a long way to go.

Those three acts—remembering, giving thanks and recommitting—are intertwined. Remembering the struggles of the suffragettes moves me to give thanks for the rights I have as a woman in 21st century America. Remembering their courage and sacrifice inspires me to courage and sacrifice of my own, that all women and girls of this earth might have a chance at life, health, self-determination, peace and justice.

But if this ever changin’ world
In which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say, “Live and let die, live and let die”

Ah, the wisdom of Paul and Linda McCartney! Have you heard it, church folk?

The world is an ever-changing place. Each generation displaces the one before. New technologies render yesterday’s marvels as obsolete junk. Taste, preference and popular culture shift constantly. People die, and other people are born. Old things sometimes want to die. New things want to grow.

Far too often, we in the church forget this cyclical rhythm of life. Programs and ministries of the church are a part of this same ebb and flow. New things grow, old things die. In spite of our fervent belief in resurrection, we seem unwilling to let go and trust that God can birth a new thing in place of the old. Instead, we exhaust ourselves in seeking every means of life support available to sustain a ministry that has no chance of long-term survival. It is not the dying of old ministries that makes us feel weak, exhausted and hopeless as the church—it is the fact that we are drowning in life support for them.

Just today, I was visiting an elderly member who said, “Oh, I hope the Women’s Fellowship keeps going.  It’s been such a good thing over the years.” I agree with her—our Women’s Fellowship has been a huge part of the growth and ministry and service of this congregation for over 75 years. They are currently down to less than 15 participants, the youngest of whom is approaching her 80th birthday. They are a shadow of their former selves, when women gathered 100+ strong and wielded significant political and financial power within the church.

However, the Women’s Fellowship is also still a vital and vibrant ministry. They gather once a month for a meeting and program, usually a study of a bible-based book. The group leads our ministry to homebound members, ensuring that everyone receives a visit and a card once a month. They sponsor the education of a girl in Sri Lanka, and make small contributions to various charities throughout the year. Their members are happy and engaged in leadership, and other than occasionally leading Bible study, they thrive without staff or pastoral support.

In spite of their continued vitality, they are still an aging ministry that will probably die out when its current members can no longer sustain it. Like its members, the Women’s Fellowship is nearing the end of its life cycle. Women’s roles in culture have changed. Most women now work outside the home and are not available for daytime meetings. Women are no longer barred from serving as officers and leaders in the church, and they find their opportunities for leadership throughout the congregation. Gender-based groups are giving way to affinity groups based on age, family status, hobbies, interests and time.

As the pastor, I will be there when the time comes to help the remaining members of the group to celebrate the life of the Women’s Fellowship and to grieve its passing. That time is not now, but it is in the foreseeable future. I will help the church to understand what it will mean to lose their ministry to homebound members, and determine how to find new ways to connect with these lonely souls. This work will be difficult and painful at times, but I do not expect it to be frustrating, exhausting and hopeless. I believe it will be holy.

What would be exhausting and defeating and depressing would be the tasks required to keep the Women’s Fellowship alive, the measures of life support. Begging younger women to attend. Moving the meetings to an evening in the hopes that working women will jump in. Investing hours of my time and energy to design flashy new programs and bible studies. Heaping guilt upon women who could attend but choose not to. Taking on the tasks of leadership myself, since there is no one else to do it in the group. We could do all of those things, and chances are that the Women’s Fellowship would still die, albeit maybe a year or two later. Chances are even better that we would all end up feeling bitter, exhausted, disappointed, guilty and hopeless about the future of the church. We would see the death of this aging program as a failure on our part.

McCartney’s words are good advice for the church: “But if this ever changin’ world/In which we live in/Makes you give in and cry/Say, ‘Live and let die.'” Letting something die is not a sign of failure, but a sign of faith—faith that the God of Resurrection can bring new life out of death. That new life will not likely be the victory we expect, the program we planned or the old body we once inhabited, but it will be holy, hopeful, alive and energized to meet the needs of the changing world we live in. And so will be the church that welcomes it.

Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant, Random House, 2009, 426 pp.

This is a novel about women’s relationships, set in the year 1570 inside a Benedictine convent in Italy. The drama unfolds between a skillful, powerful, political abbess; an independent sister who is a gifted healer with medicinal herbs; and a novice incarcerated against her will while her lover awaits on the outside. It is a great story set inside a fascinating context, well written, well researched and well told.

The main plot centers around the young novice, and how her despair inside the convent will be received and managed by various sisters. The future of this one young woman becomes battlefield on which the various conflicts over modernity are played out in the convent. The backdrop for the story is the tumultuous reality of the late Italian Renaissance, including the Council of Trent and its reactions to the Protestant Reformation. The world of patronage and isolation is falling apart, and the church is reacting by digging its heels deeper into practices of the past. The struggle inside the convent mirrors this external reality: is the path to salvation found in increased piety, or in adaptation and political cunning?

Dunant creates a world inside the convent. All the novel’s action takes place inside, and there are no male characters in the entire novel. It is a world broad and deep and thick with detail and action. She takes us behind the uniformity of veil and habit to introduce us to a diverse cast of characters with their own quirks, skills, motives and personalities. While the ending was satisfying, I did not want to bid farewell to the characters or the life-world Dunant had created for them. I wanted to keep inhabiting the convent, to dwell longer with these intriguing women.

I look forward to reading more from Dunant in the future.

Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World: Finding Intimacy with God in the Busyness of Life by Joanna Weaver, Waterbrook Press, 2000, 242 pp.

I read this book at the choosing of our Women’s Fellowship group, who asked me to help lead them in a discussion of a chapter every month at their meeting. To be honest, it is not a book or genre I would have chosen for myself. On the bookstore shelf you would likely find it under “spirituality,” but it could also be “Christian self-help.” I feared it would be shallow, poorly written, conservative in its ideas about God and women’s roles, and so filled with advice it would make someone’s head spin.

I am pleased to report that it was not. While I would not give it five stars for any of those categories, Weaver’s style and theology were basic, clear and filled with warmth and love. Using the basic conflict between Mary and Martha’s roles (one in the living room, one in the kitchen), and the wisdom of Jesus to come to the living room for time apart with God, Weaver takes a close look at the hectic nature of women’s lives. She names the tensions we feel between faith, friendship and faith, and our need to get Martha’s tasks done while taking Mary’s time with God. She gives practical insight and advice about these matters of the heart.

I read this book in short doses, and in conversation with the ladies of the Women’s Fellowship, a dedicated group of women aged 75+. My experience of the book was shaped by that conversation, and by the wonderful discussions it sparked among us. (Including this one.) While, for most of them, the busy time of their lives is over, they still felt the same pressures of care-taking in different ways. The book opened us to moments of conversation about the expectations men have of women’s roles and service, the portrayal of women in the Bible, the historic exclusion of women from church leadership, the tension between grace and works, and more.

These women connected to Weaver, because she wrote with such a sense of honesty and openness. She freely disclosed her struggles with everything from a messy house to a vacant prayer life. The women’s hearts responded to her honesty, and they responded with an honesty of their own. The book’s tone launched a frankness that is rarely seen in my church conversations, and it was a real space for the Spirit to work.

I would not have chosen this book for myself, but I took great delight in reading it alongside these women. Weaver’s faithfulness and earnestness let the Spirit speak through her, even though my perspective may be a bit different. It might do the same for the women’s group at your church.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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