Remembering the unnamed women who inspired and encouraged

By Rev. Melissa Meyers

I am a woman in ministry.  That should not be such an earth-shattering statement.  For most of my life, it wasn’t.  See, I grew up always knowing that women could be pastors.  From as far back as I can remember, there had always been a women clergyperson in my life or leading my church.  It wasn’t until I was in college when I encountered for the first time the sentiment that, “women can’t be pastors…” and it wasn’t until seminary that I realized just how unusual it was among my classmates that I had always had a woman pastor.  For me, that was just normal life.

As I was cataloging the women who have made an impact on me, my faith journey, and my journey towards ordination, I was struck by how many women were included…And I was also surprised at how many whose names I had forgotten.  It was kind of like the “unnamed women” throughout scripture… These were women who showed me what it meant to be in ministry, but for the life of me, I can’t remember their names and part of me wonders if I ever knew them in the first place.

I am grateful for the women whose names I can remember and those that I still communicate with regularly.  I probably still need to send out a few thank you notes or messages to some to thank them for just how much they impacted me and my life… And as grateful as I am to them (which I seriously am),  I can’t get my mind off the unnamed women.  So, this is a post in thanks for all of those whose names have been forgotten or have never even been known.

I’ve often been frustrated by the times that a woman appears in scripture and is not given a name.  Maybe it’s my own need at times to feel recognition…I think for most people at some point in our lives, we want to be recognized for something, whether it’s something that we’ve done or are doing or just being recognized for existing!  I’ll admit that some days I need it more than others and there are times when I’m surprised at what I need recognition for (and often times when I really think about it, it’s almost always something else and  not the need that I get recognized for throwing my aluminum cans in the recycling bin rather than the garbage…).  Especially when I read some of the things that these women in scripture have done, I want to just scream, “WHY DON’T YOU KNOW THEIR NAMES!?!?”  I get it…it’s a different time….different place…different culture… But that still doesn’t stop me from wanting recognition for them.

So, when I started to think about these unnamed women in my own life, I started to feel a little bit frustrated with myself… Why can’t I remember the name of the first woman I heard preach?  (Granted, I was basically in kindergarten…but still!)… Why can’t I remember the name of the woman who led a small group when I was in high school?  Why didn’t I ask the name of the first woman who I saw wearing a clergy collar?  Why don’t I remember the name of the woman who let a college student teach Sunday school whenever I was able to drop in?

I don’t know why I can’t remember their names…And I don’t know why I never thought to ask them their names…But I know that they impacted my life more than I might even know.  As much as some days I just need recognition, I hope that someday I might be someone else’s unnamed woman: That something I said or did helped to affirm them in some way, shape, or form.  To all of the unnamed women, thank you.  You have been recognized.

 

melissameyerRev. Melissa Meyers serves as the lead pastor of Faith United Methodist Church in Genoa, IL.  She earned her Associates in Arts Degree from Rock Valley Community College, BA in Religious Studies & Communication from the University of Dubuque (Dubuque, IA) and Masters of Divinity from United Theological Seminary (Dayton, OH). Melissa is passionate about ministry in the 21st century, connecting generations together, and pop culture.  It is her not-so-secret desire to have her own reality show someday.  You can find her blogging at pastormelissa.blogspot.com or on twitter @pastormelissa.

Enjoying renewal and rejuvenation at UM Clergywomen’s gathering

By Rev. Diane Kenaston, GCSRW board member

As I dashed through the airport, I was already tired. Why had I agreed to attend a three-day conference hundreds of miles away a mere six weeks before I moved? My calendar had looked so wonderfully open when I agreed to represent GCSRW at the 2014 UM Clergywomen Leadership Seminar. Then it was Holy Week and Easter and appointment season, and I found myself running around with my checklist, trying to get everything in place for a few days away. At the last minute, I threw a swimsuit and gym clothes into my suitcase. I hadn’t worked out in weeks—too busy to exercise—but maybe we’d get an afternoon off.

Diane Kenaston

Diane Kenaston

I was nervous about going to a conference where I only knew one other person. She wasn’t arriving until midnight the first day, so I’d have to do that awkward dance of “where do I sit—do these people look friendly?” as we gathered.

Fortunately, folks were friendly. I began to make connections with new people. I met people from the city, conference, and jurisdiction where I’m moving. And it turned out I did know two or three people—the Connection is smaller than I thought! There were women from seminary, and there were leaders in the United Methodist Church who I had seen from afar or read on their blogs (UM geek-out moment!). A colleague from seminary and I raced across the room to say hi. One young clergywoman gave the devotion the closing morning. An ad hoc group that had met for dinner the night before held up signs to cheer her on. None of us had known each other before that week.

We spent time playing in the waves at the beach. We shared stories of strength and courage. We gave comfort where it was needed. We went to a sushi restaurant for dinner. And when this intergenerational “free time” was over at 10 p.m., one woman gave the highest compliment she could: “For my introverted self, it’s been 7 hours with ‘strangers’ and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

The clergywomen’s gathering moved us from being strangers to colleagues to friends. We facilitated deep conversations in the short time we were together. As one of the two GCSRW representatives, I heard stories in the listening session that highlighted the joys, challenges, and opportunities of being women in ministry. We asked the women who gathered over lunch to write messages for GCSRW on 3×5 cards, and we got 100+ cards back, some in very tiny print, front-and-back, with ideas, suggestions, and encouragement.

Later that evening, we held a health forum. The diverse leaders encouraged us to create intentional physical, emotional, and spiritual health plans. I sat there and thought of how tired I had been before coming. When I’m the most stressed, I am the least likely to exercise and the most likely to pick up a fast food smoothie (it has fruit, right?!) instead of sitting down for dinner. And the less I exercise and eat well, the worse I sleep. The worse I sleep, the less productive I get, and the more I bury myself in my to-do list rather than eating, sleeping, exercising, and socializing my way back to full health.

After the evening health session, I took the elevator up six floors to my room. I took off my high heels. I put on a T-shirt, shorts, and running shoes. I walked down to the ground-floor fitness center and found an entire roomful of clergywomen. All of the treadmills, ellipticals, and bicycles were taken by women who were talking, giggling, and sweating. I joined another woman in doing sit-ups while we waited for our turn. A few men came in and promptly turned back around. When a treadmill opened up, I got on and jogged for 30 minutes. I drank water and gave thanks to God for this time of renewal and rejuvenation. Then I returned to the sixth floor—taking the steps up two at a time.

Click here for more news from the convention by Susan Green of the Florida Conference Connection.

#YesAllWomen: Some resources for considering the massacre in California

By Audrey J. Krumbach, GCSRW Director of Gender Justice and Education

We struggle to understand the massacre in California last week even though the young gunman left us what he considered an explanation – a videotaped screed and a rage-filled manifesto  proclaiming his hatred of women and  his warped perspective on masculinity. We pray for the families of all the victims and for all those who struggle with gender or self-identity issues.

As Christians, we believe that men and women are made in the image of God, and this grants us a particular responsibility to treat one another with respect, regardless of gender, race, ability, class, etc.  This is a challenging theology in a world struggling with violence and unrest, for we can see no person as unredeemable, being called to pray even for our “enemies.”

In llight of this challenge, I offer you a few good articles resources to inspire conversations and guide our reflection upon our call to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world:

Click to read #YesAllWomen on Twitter.

The best of the listed articles, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Gibbs makes connections between the cultural and institutional realities and our individual experiences, helping us envision a positive response and more holy world.

This 45-minuute conversation from On Point and Boston Public Radio explores some of the sources and reactions to the “Pick Up Artists” and other online movements which Rodger referenced in his video message.  A thoughtful analysis of responsibility and practical recommendations for difficult conversations conclude this feature.

This long-form article discusses another element to the question of self-image and internalized hatred based upon race or gender.  For readers unfamiliar with the concept of “internalized oppression,” consider reading this Wikipedia definition.

Rev. Bromleigh McClenegham,  who has blogged in this space previously, writes in Christian Century that the hashtag trend is not a call for hand-wringing or a claiming of victim status, but a call to action.

A gentle, positive blog article describing this author’s approach to understanding and addressing his male privilege.

Too often, a woman’s perspective is challenged or viewed as less trustworthy by mass media or individuals, because we are insufficiently prepared to hear the disturbing or jarring reality she has experienced.   This article reveals just a few common ways in which this marginalizing of women’s voices takes places in conversations.

What have you been reading?

Join in the conversation by taking part in #yesallwomen on Twitter and Facebook.

Two medieval saints who model Christian womanhood

By Audrey J. Krumbach, GCSRW Director of Gender Justice and Education

When we first dreamed up a Women’s History Month Blogging Project, I knew I would want to write a post to participate in the project. Today is March 26 and my post is not yet written.   I have been busy with other projects, but that is not why I have waiting so long. I have waited because every time I think of a woman or group of women I would like to thank and honor, I am flooded with awareness of the dozens of other vital women who mentored and formed me to become who I am. That list is hundreds of names long, and I refuse to publish it because I would never remember each one, and no woman’s contribution should ever be overlooked. So rather than write about a personal friend, mentor or role model, I’m going to retell the story of two Christian saints whose combined influence radically altered the shape of my life.

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich

In my second year of college, I took a British literature class that included Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. Julian was an anchorite (anchoress) — a set apart lay person who withdraws from secular society to an ascetic life of prayer. Julian’s theology includes God’s mother-like love for all, Jesus’ compassion and grace, and, most unusual for her time, a steadfast faith that God’s will for the universe would bring all things to good in the end.

Julian’s theology absolutely resonated with my understanding of the Bible and God; however, it was her life and being itself that inspired. Julian was a woman who wrote a book in a time when teaching even the most wealthy woman to read was almost unimaginable. Julian dared to express theology that was more optimistic, graceful and inclusive of feminine images during a century when inquisitions often tortured and executed heretics. This was a woman who submitted wholeheartedly to God, but did so in a way that was radical and unique. Women did not withdraw for a life of prayer in those days; marriage and children was the standard. But by choosing something uncommon, Julian became one of the earliest women writers in English, a powerful spiritual mentor to another English writer – Margery Kempe – a theologian and saint.

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

The second woman is actually another medieval saint: Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard was a Benedictine nun and abbess who prioritized God and charity over obedience to her ecclesial superiors. As an Abbess, Hildegard would have had a tremendous amount of authority over the daily and spiritual running of the women under her care, and would have also born the responsibility for caring for those townspeople and individuals in her area. However, she was also merely a woman, and thus subject to the authority of the local priests.   Late in Hildegard’s life, a man died and was buried in the churchyard — a step considered necessary at the time if he were to be admitted into heaven. However, the church officials soon found out and reported that he had been previously excommunicated and his body should be exhumed and moved to unconsecrated ground.

Hildegard refused, and for a time she and all the nuns in her abbey were not permitted to receive the sacraments (in other words, their salvation was in question). Considering that Abbess Hildegard was in her eighties at the time, this was a major decision that she understood to have the ability to put her eternal salvation into jeopardy. Regardless, Hildegard remained steadfast and appealed the decision, suggesting that because the man had confessed his sins before his death, he had died reconciled to the church. Eventually, church officials decided to both leave the man in peace and to lift the ban against her abbey.

This act of direct defiance contrasts sharply with some of Hildegard’s writings, which not only support a vision of the universe with a strong hierarchy led by God through church officials, but also described herself as only a woman and of the weaker sex.

Both Julian and Hildegard’s writings possess this fascinating dichotomy: women who refused to accept the standard roles and expectations of their community identifying as primarily obedient and subservient to God. Julian and Hildegard were pious, obedient, gentle women who served God humbly through prayer, writing and service.   Julian and Hildegard were revolutionary, powerful, brilliant women who served God humbly as faithful role models, leaders and theologians.

Sometimes, I feel torn between two extremes: will I be loud, brash, passionate and assertive in my calling to advocacy and service, or will I be quiet, gentle, peacemaking and nurturing? But this is a false dichotomy. The answer is not that I will be one OR the other, but that I will seek to embody each of these virtues. I will be empathetic and powerful, passionate and nurturing, loud and gentle.   Julian and Hildegard model such powerful lives for us as Christian women – lives which are not limited to that once demanded by a sexist society, but guided by the instruction to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace” (2 Timothy 2:22).

To learn more about Julian of Norwich, the Penguin Books translation of Revelations of Diving Love (Short Text and Long Text) includes an introduction chapter which offers a good deal of information about her life story and context. ISBN: 0140446737

For Hildegard of Bingen, a number of books are available, but a fairly comprehensive study can be found in Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias (Classics of Western Spirituality) ISBN: 0809131307

Additional resources exist; feel free to email Audrey J. Krumbach, director of gender justice and education, at akrumbach@gcsrw.org with questions or to identify additional resources.

Two seamstresses

By Bishop Linda Lee

As I thought about the theme for Women’s History Month 2014 — “Women of Character, Courage and Commitment” — two women came to mind. One is Tabitha (also known as Dorcas, Acts 9:36-43). She was a successful businesswoman of her time and a disciple of Jesus known for her good works. A seamstress or garment maker by trade she was so loved and respected by her community that her name was known in both Aramaic and Greek. This was a testimony of her ability to relate to and care for people across language and culture and — as the grief of the widows attested after her death — across class. As I remembered Tabitha, another woman I know who was a seamstress came to mind.

Her name was Lillie. She was born to a sharecropper and a school teacher in Mississippi in 1922. She was a lively and hard-working young woman on the family farm. She taught herself to sew because the family didn’t have extra money to buy pretty dresses for her or her younger sister, Ida, or ‘fancy’ shirts for their four brothers. The first dress Lillie made was from a flour sack that she transformed into a beautiful garment. Lillie took this gift and skill of garment making with her as she finished high school, married and had two children. She worked in clothing factories and was an active member of the Garment Workers Union, becoming one of the negotiators for workers rights at the factories where she worked. But Lillie also made garments for women in the community. Like, Tabitha, women from all walks of life came to Lillie for beautiful garments. But they also came to confide, to pray and to dream. I realized these two women, one then and one now, were not too different. Both were followers of Jesus, known for their good works. Both of them had character, courage and commitment. Some of the women who came to each of them were not otherwise able to buy new dresses. Some of them had families, husbands, children. Some were widows or childless. Others just needed someone to listen to them , to pray with them or to remind them that if they kept their trust in God, everything would be all right. All of them were marginalized by the context in which they lived, socially and economically oppressed.

I didn’t know Tabitha. But when I read her story and how the widows wept when she died I thought about Lillie and the women who mourned when she died. And though Lillie was not brought back to life like Tabitha was, her memory and witness live on in the people whose lives she touched – like me. Her witness and courage, her teaching and advocacy for African American women and for others inspired and uplifted many.

Lillie Williams Lee was my mother (1922-2003).

I write today as a tribute to her and other unnamed women of character, courage and commitment in our congregations and communities, who minister to the souls of other women and men as they live out their faith in day to day tasks. This is a tribute to those who share their God given gifts and their faith so that others can have hope and find God for themselves.

God bless those who are with us and those who have passed on to the other side. Let us remember them this Women’s History Month and go and do likewise.
lee

Bishop Linda Lee is Bishop in Residence and Student Life Pastoral Care Team member at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She is an affiliate member of the Church Relations and Vocational Formation Committee of the Board of Trustees. Lee made history in 2000 when she was the first African American woman to be elected bishop in the North Central Jurisdiction. She is editor of the book “A New Dawn in Beloved Community: Stories with the Power to Transform Us.”

A Woman of Words, Poetry and Power

Rev. Kennetha J. Bigham-Tsai

My mother taught me how to preach. She did not give me lectures on homiletics, and she never entered a pulpit herself. But she taught me how to preach by teaching me a love for words.

It began with poetry. My mother would read poetry to my siblings and me. We read Emily Dickinson together and Langston Hughes, Longfellow and Whitman. And much of what we read we memorized.

It was from memorizing poetry that I learned the cadences of speech, the rhythms of oral expression—rhythms and cadences that quite naturally flowed into my preaching.

One of my mother’s favorite poets was Walt Whitman. One Mother’s Day, when I was about ten years old, I wrote out on parchment all 16 stanzas of Whitman’s “When the Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Then, I memorized the poem and recited it for my mother.

The poem is Whitman’s haunting and lyrical elegy to President Lincoln. It mourns his death and the death of those killed in the Civil War even as it welcomes death as rest. A central image in the poem is a sprig of lilac which the poet imagines casting upon the coffin of Lincoln. My mother loved lilacs, and she loved the words of that poem.

Today, this woman who loved lilacs and words sits in a nursing home–her once beautiful brain paralyzed by Alzheimer’s and dementia. She does not know where she is or who she is most of the time. She no longer recognizes me. And my mother, who so loved words, sometimes cannot make them make sense.

And so when I visited her some time ago, I did not know what to say to her. So I started to recite poetry. And, my mother, who could not remember my name, or that my father had died, or who she was, or how to put words together into sentences, began to finish my sentences. And we recited together, from memory, the poem I had given her in recitation so many years ago.

“When the lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed,” I began.

“And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night, I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever returning spring,” said my mother.

That poem, which Whitman penned in 1865, was about the death of a president assassinated for setting free people like my mother and me. That poem was about a war that ripped a country apart yet set it upon a road to justice and liberty. That poem was about all of these things, but at that moment when I was with my mother, it was about none of these things. Instead, in that moment, it was about a mother and a daughter performing a dance of words—a dance that was beyond memory, and Alzheimer’s, and loss.

“O powerful western fallen star,
O shades of night,” said my mother.

“O moody tearful night! “ I continued.

“O great star disappeared—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless
O helpless soul of me….”

The final stanza that we remembered together was this one:

“In the dooryard fronting an old farmhouse, near the white-washed palings stands the lilac bush tall-growing with heart–shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard…
A sprig from its flower I break.” *

A sprig from the flower of a lilac bush, I imagine breaking now in memory of my mother. With every leaf a miracle, I celebrate now the miracle of that day with her. She is the woman who taught me poetry and a love for words. She is the woman who taught me how to preach.

This reflection is in honor of Kennetha’s mother, Bobbie Jo Sneed Bigham, a woman of great faith, intelligence and creativity who currently resides in Austin, Texas.

*”When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” by Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Bantam Dell, Division of Random House, New York: 2004, p. 274.

BighamTsaiRev. Kennetha J. Bigham-Tsai serves as Superintendent of the Lansing District in the West Michigan Annual Conference. She is a member of the Conference Leadership Team and is the cabinet representative for the Conference Trustees and other annual conference bodies. Before entering pastoral ministry, Kennetha served at Grand Rapids Trinity UMC as director of Christian Education and as the director of the Grand Rapids District Peace With Justice Community. She also has served on the West Michigan Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, as the chair of the Conference Board of Church and Society, and on the board of Worship Arts magazine.