Mary, Joseph, and #MeToo

Mary Joseph and MeTooHave you ever wondered what enabled Mary, the mother of Jesus, to say “yes” to God? Her pregnancy outside of wedlock brought good news to us, but it was bad news for Mary. To conceive outside of marriage broke the religious and cultural laws of her time; the punishment was death by stoning. Joseph would be expected to break their engagement, as any self-respecting first century Palestinian Jew would. Her family would disown her; if they let her live, which was unlikely, she would be ostracized and alone. A virgin made pregnant by the Holy Spirit? No one would believe that. The visit of the angel Gabriel to this young teenage girl, already betrothed, must have felt like the kiss of death.

This Scripture story sounds different to me this Christmas, after a season of #MeToo stories coming out weekly in the news. Why have women waited so long in silence before telling their truth? Perhaps because telling their stories would have felt like the kiss of death; they could lose everything—their careers, their credibility, maybe even the support of their families. They could be ostracized and left alone.

It would be easy to spiritualize Mary’s response and believe she said “yes” because she had a deep faith and connection to God. I think this was true in part. But perhaps there was also a more practical, human, relational reason Mary was able to step into this precarious and dangerous role. What if Mary said “yes” to God because she trusted that no matter how unlikely her story sounded, Joseph, her fiancé, would believe her?

To believe her, Joseph would have to let go of his power and privilege and risk everything with Mary. He also would have to physically protect her. Joseph could have gone to Bethlehem alone to register for the census, but instead, Mary traveled with him in the ninth month of her pregnancy. Perhaps it was the only way Joseph could keep her alive.

Today, women don’t need men to protect them physically in the same way, but women do need Josephs who will believe their stories of harassment and abuse. Women need colleagues, friends and family members — male and female — to listen to the truth of their experiences, even and especially when it puts at risk their own power and privilege, even and especially when that story is radically different from the hearer’s own experience. We need men to hold each other accountable for appropriate behavior in all arenas of society. We need men who, recognizing their own past failings as they listen to #MeToo reports, make amends by shifting their behavior, and by advocating for necessary changes in cultural attitudes and in workplace policies and practice.

Of course, this is what all marginalized people need: to have the advocacy and support of those with greater access to power. People of color need Caucasians fighting racism; gay and lesbian people need straight people promoting equal treatment; transgendered people need cisgendered people creating equal access; poor people need wealthy people fighting for their economic opportunity; immigrants need citizens supporting DACA.

When we seek the good of the whole community, we enable more and more people to say “yes” with Mary, to all of whom God calls them to be.

Image: LDS Media Library

 

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My #MeToo Story

My MeToo StoryWith powerful men in diverse industries finally being held accountable for sexual assault and harassment, it should be no surprise that the ministry is another workplace where women are vulnerable. Here, too, we are subjected to unwanted, intimidating, and confusing sexually charged advances ranging from innuendo to outright assault. My experiences were not unique, but for a very young woman in a religious environment, they were unexpected, extremely upsetting, and for a long time, career-altering.

My first experience occurred in the early 1980s. As an undergraduate, I was meeting with a science professor to plan a campus ministry event when he abruptly said, “excuse me, Linda, I’m just going to kiss you.” With no other context or reason, he leaned forward and kissed me. Startled, I looked at him in shock and confusion, causing him to apologize. Our planning session ended, and I avoided campus ministry events where he was present.

In the late 1980s, as an intern pastor in my third year of seminary, I frequently served church members living in a local nursing home. On one such visit, I encountered a newly appointed chaplaincy supervisor, an older man whom I looked up to. His wife and children had not yet joined him in their new home, and so I offered him an evening meal. In my mind, he personified pastoral wisdom, and this was an opportunity to learn. I also harbored some idealistic assumptions about married clergymen. (I know, naive, right? Blind to the potential for trouble!) Thank God, the events of that evening were upsetting, but not tragic. I may have been confused and off-balance inside, but I found the words to decline his offer to smoke pot and, somewhat later, to haltingly direct this senior member of my profession to put his shirt back on and leave my apartment.

Not long after, at a time when female pastors were still a novelty, I was interviewed by phone for my first congregational call. Without warning, a male member of the interview committee asked me, “So when does the swimsuit competition begin?” I had no words; the silence was deafening. Eventually, another interviewer stepped in with the next question. The call was offered, and I accepted. Soon after I arrived, this same man came to the office to continue where he’d left off. Politely rebuffed, he responded, “You better be careful. My wife is a cop and she has a gun.” Perhaps a half-joking suggestion that I keep my mouth shut…? I wouldn’t have mentioned the incidents to my immediate superior, anyway. Shortly after I’d arrived, he had given me a ride to an event, and when we ran into a family from his children’s school, he introduced me as his “new wife.”

How did I respond to these incidents, and others? In the early ‘80s, as an undergrad, I took the encounter with the professor to my campus pastor, who asked why I wasn’t flattered by the professor’s attentions—end of story. In the late ‘80s, as an intern, I sought help from my supervisor, an ordained pastor; after he discussed the matter with my dinner guest’s supervisor, I was told that I had “misunderstood” the situation. End of story again—except that I couldn’t serve at the nursing home, for fear of running into that chaplain again.

In the years following, as a chaplain and a pastor I continued to face similarly uncomfortable encounters, but I didn’t reveal them to anyone in leadership. I did not want to be told again that I should be flattered or that I had “misunderstood.” I confronted one person face to face, and he ceased making suggestive remarks. I handled another with a letter detailing how uncomfortable he had made me with his explicit comments, as my term as an on-call hospital chaplain ended. I came to believe that male pastors, unprepared for and uncomfortable with their early experiences with female colleagues, were sexualizing the relationship to “put me in my place,” to assert their superiority, even to manipulate my behavior. I stopped trusting male leadership, including the Bishop and his staff.

And then I moved on—more or less, anyway. I have never before reflected on the possibility that the cumulative effect of those sexist, belittling encounters has been shaping my pastoral career. Now, listening to so many other voices telling their stories, I realize what a profound impact they have had. Most senior pastors are still male, and although I didn’t ever put this into words, I learned to deeply mistrust that I would be treated well in their company, and if I did experience harassment or worse again, that it would be dealt with appropriately. I have always joked that I like to be the one in charge, but recognize now that such comments masked my fear of laying myself open for more pain and humiliation. As a result, I’ve never pursued team ministry, thereby avoiding working closely with male colleagues. Until my recent interim call, I have sought only solo positions.

I recently concluded serving for 21 months as Interim Associate Pastor at a large congregation. It turns out that I enjoy and am good at team ministry, and I was blessed by the healing experience of serving with a gifted male senior pastor who, by the way, has great boundaries. As I write this, I feel such sadness at the role fear has played in limiting the ministries I have allowed myself to consider. My experiences repeatedly taught me that such fear can be justified, and I don’t judge my actions or decisions (or those of others), but sorrow remains. Now that I have named the fear, however, I can grow from it and beyond it.

Harassment and abuse still exist throughout society, and many still accept the silence of victims, the bullying of perpetrators, and the feigned ignorance and impotence of our institutions. The stories coming out daily in the news bring us another reality, however: Silence and avoidance create so much more pain for survivors and for those who become new victims of unchecked sexual predators.

Freedom lies in releasing fear, shame and pain, and in claiming the truth of our own experiences and how they have shaped our lives and choices. I’m older and wiser now. I increasingly trust myself and my strength. Thankfully, women pastors are more numerous; many male colleagues are more aware and appropriate, often welcoming us as equal partners in the mission field. The institutional church is becoming accountable. Telling our truth can be uncomfortable at best, and re-traumatizing at worst, but I believe that what Jesus says is true: “you shall know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).

And a few last words—please, if you are experiencing pain, shame, anger, hurt, guilt, or fear because of your own “me too” experiences, or you’re ready to share your truth with a safe person, please email me (@ soulstorywriter.net) so I can assist you in finding support near you.

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After All I've Done for You ...

 

After All Ive DoneAfter all I’ve done for you…

Have you ever had that thought? Most women I know have. We are trained by culture, church and family to give, give, give and not take care of ourselves in equal measure. It seems ludicrous to bring up the topic of self-care at the beginning of December—a time when our to-do lists have grown exponentially—or maybe this is the perfect time.

Over-giving, over-doing, over-helping, over-planning, and over-achieving of any kind usually ends up in exhaustion and resentment. Makes you wonder why we’re raised to behave this way, and then why we internalize it, and expect ourselves to live up to it, doesn’t it?

Sisters, and all over-givers—we’ve been snookered! Most of us know this already, yet, we have self-care amnesia, and need to be reminded repeatedly that we cannot pour from an empty cup (case in point: didn't I just write about self-care three weeks ago?!). I am working on a Certificate of Spiritual Direction and met with my supervisor via Zoom this morning. It almost took my breath away when she shared, “not to care for ourselves is irresponsible.” Seven words snapped me back from my self-care amnesia.

My over-responsibility toward others makes me irresponsible toward myself. Ouch. Then she said, “if you lived out of love and patience for yourself, rather than out of fear right now, what would you do after our conversation today?” Hmmm. I still have a bad headache from a migraine on Tuesday, so I told her I would ice my neck, and then go on a leisurely walk for fresh air (ice is on my neck as I write—fresh air to follow!).

It’s a great question as the holiday season begins. What would you do differently this month if you were to live out of loving, patient self-care? What giving, planning, baking,and sharing brings you abundant life? Of what can you let go? It’s a question to ponder on my upcoming walk. Energized and freed from the thought, after all I’ve done...makes a lovely self-gift to begin 2018.

 

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Give Thanks in All Circumstances

Gratitude for the Donut and the HoleIt’s easy to be grateful for blessings—the good stuff of life. Most of us are grateful for family and friends, for food and shelter, for talents and work, for opportunities and health, when these are present in our lives.

The challenge of Thanksgiving, and of gratitude as a year-round spiritual practice, is to be grateful for the hard times, the valleys, the shadows, the failures, and the difficulties. In The First Principle and Foundation of his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola challenges us with these words:

We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God. Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me.

This is the challenge of our spiritual journey—to become our True Self in God. Can I be grateful for the hurts, failings, and difficulties I encounter because each has something to teach me? Can I detach enough from a present experience of misery to search and seek how God will use this hardship to shape, heal, teach, mold, and mature me, as God draws me more deeply into love?

In the Children’s Message at church last Sunday, the leader* (complete with donut-decorated leggings!) talked about donuts. Donuts have holes, she said, but at Thanksgiving, we want to be grateful for the donut, rather than complaining about what’s missing in the hole. One girl raised her hand and shared, “I know the reason why donuts have holes in the middle! It's because they cook better that way.” Aha! The hot oil can cook from the inside out as well as the outside in.

What a great image for our relationship with God! When we turn to God as we experience the holes in our lives, God can reach us more deeply from the inside out as well as from the outside in. The recent uncomfortable move from my past home in St. Louis to my new home in Frisco, Texas has been God’s invitation to me. I have left a life I loved to respond to God’s steady, unrelenting nudge into an uncertain future. I slid off the donut into the hole. Gratitude, even laced with loss, resistance and anxiety, becomes an act of faith that helps me move forward toward who God calls me to be. Today, we closed on our new house (pictured)—part of a beautiful new donut in the making!

In 1 Thessalonians 5, we are encouraged to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” No matter where we are in life, God can use what’s happening to make us more than we are right now. This Thanksgiving, you may be on the donut, full of good things, giving thanks from the outside in. Or you may be in the hole, needing God’s presence and love to enter the struggle and to touch you from the inside out. Either way, may you let gratitude deepen your life in God, trusting that She will use all of these experiences to bring you more closely to your True Self.

*With thanks to Emily Mackey Melton Harris for the great Children's Time at Legacy Presbyterian Church!

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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