Thursday, May 8, 2014

Our Parent, Who Art in Heaven...

Only photo from that year I could find.
Four generations of Valentine women.
It's 8th grade. With braces, shoulder length hair, and a budding sense of fashion, I exist in that invisible social strata, sandwiched between the kids who attract most of the ridicule, and the kids who attract none of it. What happens in the classroom, like Vegas, stays there. The real jungle is the cafeteria. That cute guy who talked to you in class won't see you in the lunch line, and certainly never offer you a seat at his table.

The group I sit with at lunch has slipped a multi-colored, tightly folded note into my locker. "I really like you, but one of us thinks you laugh too loud, and wants me to tell you not to sit with us anymore."

... (breathe) ...

For the record, all the worst notes I ever received were multi-colored.

I was devastated. Couldn't breathe. Humiliated. And worst, I had no place to eat my lunch.

In the religious world I encountered most of my life, the Powerful conveyed this same message to me. You're invisible. You're too... whatever. Particularly, you're a woman. Lofty religious language excluded my experience, my talents, and any possible role other than mother or Sunday school teacher. I was relegated to the kiddie table.

It was a male-driven world. God the Father was a man's man. The preacher represented God. Women submitted to manly God, through God's men. I absorbed an anti-feminine message. I learned to cultivate my most masculine traits, trying to fit into a world that couldn't see past my sex. Let me add that I absorbed this message implicitly. My parents didn't tell me these things. I'm a big picture girl, and looking at the wider world of our religious environment, I put 2 & 2 together. Part of my resistance to motherhood for so long stems from this feeling of succumbing to powerlessness by doing something so thoroughly womanly.

Seminary was the height (or depth) of this experience for me. By then in my late 20s, I knew my capabilities. I knew what they said about my femaleness didn't add up. Over and over again, I was told my experience didn't matter because of what "Scripture" said. And, my religious framework gave me no retort.

Three things opened up new horizons for me: The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, historical/contextual research in to the "clobber passages," and a Nooma video called "She" by Rob Bell.

Ironically, that last one was assigned to be parsed and dismissed by a professor of Systematic Theology, my last semester. I was the only person in class who felt I'd been dunked in a cool wadi in the desert. For the first time I heard about the times God is described (by God!) in feminine terms. As creator. As one with a womb. As Rob talks, the video shows a mother and her daughter. Subtle glances, seemingly hours of effort to reach home, willingness to work past exhaustion; the wordless story tells of fierce, un-swaying mother-love. God is creator, sustainer, defender, and can only be best understood in the light of all the attributes of God, whether traditionally male or female.

Suddenly, the table I longed to join expanded. Not only was I welcomed, I was a representative. I was co-image-bearer with my male friends, brothers, and occasional antagonists. My sex is not an afterthought in creation, it is equal expression of God.

Valentine and I
Mother's Day is coming up. In leaving behind the messages about my limitations, I finally felt freedom to become a mother, and will be celebrating this day with daughter in tow. I'll also be preaching for the first time. The text, John 10:1-10, refers to Jesus as Shepherd, gate, and gatekeeper -- protecting, knowing, and calling his sheep by name. Jesus supplants the thieves and bandits who tried to keep me from the table. He offers me, and calls me to, abundant life.

I look at my love for my daughter. I built her in my womb. I labored to introduce her to the world. I sustain her by my breasts (one of God's names, El Shaddai, can be translated as "the breasted one."). My voice is her favorite. I call her, and she seeks my face. God describes God's self this way. This does not diminish the traditionally masculine attributes of God. It brings them into harmony and completion. In a very real way, I learn about God by observing myself and other women, as well as men.

God surprises us, when we're willing to look. We build systems to sustain power, God chose the humble, stinky image of shepherd. We push our message through debates and politics, God gently calls. We wash the table, and fussily check and double check who shouldn't be present, God welcomes. We look for a warrior, God sends a carpenter. We participate in patriarchy, God is both mother and father.

You, my sister, you are an expression of the divine. Whatever message you heard, cutting you from the table, muzzling you, dishonoring your talent/gift -- it was a lie.

You, my brother, you are an expression of the divine. Whatever message you heard that God could only be known through hyper-masculinity, that you could not express tenderness, or fully own your capacity to love -- it was a lie.

Welcome to the table. Go grab some friends. Our parent has prepared a great feast, and there are seats aplenty.


  1. Great message! I'm glad that I stopped by to read this. Will your sermon be recorded? I would love to hear it. Also, Happy (early) Mother's Day!

    1. Thank, Josh! Your opinion matters a lot to me. Jason did record the sermon. I'll be posting it on the blog today, or tomorrow. It's just a bare video, so not fancy. Thanks for the Mother's Day wishes!

  2. I can't help but think of the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus intentionally skipped His lunch so that He could be with & pour into one with whom no one would eat lunch. Once she received what He was offering, she then ran to town & became the bearer of His Message. Her evangelistic efforts resulted in record breaking fruit! With Christ involved, even her painful isolation became a beautiful part of her journey of purpose. God has created each of us uniquely, with gifts, pain & purpose, with which to beautifully carry out His purpose. I continue to cover you with my prayers & love as you pursue your journey of purpose. Love Mom

    1. I love the reference to purpose. It ended up fitting so nicely into the sermon today, too. Thanks for taking my thoughts a step further, Momma.

  3. Jessica, I was a seminarian in the era when it was first possible for women to be legally (by canon law) to be ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. We were fortunate enough to have a woman Systematics professor, Marianne Micks, who brought a feminist perspective to our study of theology. She had been a student of Tillich in the 1950s, and had had to fight for recognition in her profession for her entire life. My wife Lynn was one of the first generation of women to be allowed to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. She deferred her ordination, not being entirely certain of her vocation. She was a mother before she was a priest. The fact that she lived both of these callings, as I was able to walk with her through this journey, has immensely enriched my own priesthood.

    1. What a fascinating history you have. I love your expression that your wife "lived both of these callings." One, because I feel a mix of callings at the present moment. I'm more confident than ever that each step of living well will inevitably lead to the next step. Two, because it is so beautiful-gorgeous-lovely to hear you affirm that your wife's lived callings enrich your own. My Jason tells me frequently that my lived purpose brings meaning to his life.

      I grieve for women and men of talent and calling who cannot receive that level of love, affirmation, respect, and support, or even the chance to live out their calling.

  4. awesome! Happy Mothers' Day times 2!