I Could Not Know

This is the testimony of a white woman, written primarily for other white people.

I did not know, I could not see. I had no idea. Now, years later, I’m frustrated that my not knowing, my not seeing, was hurting people. I’m finding ways to live with discovering the harm I’m causing without reducing myself to paralyzing shame. I’m slowly in a process of unlearning defensiveness. To do this, I need to know where I’ve come from and how different parts of my life and the system interact.

The place where I was first taught that white bodies mattered the most was in church. Before I could read, all the pictures of God and Jesus were white. All of the children sitting on the laps of the deity in the painting were white. All of the children in my Children’s Bible illustrations were white. This, despite the fact that Jesus was a brown Middle Eastern Jew, as the children in his company would have been, as well as his disciples.

This is what I mean when I say that I was taught to ignore some bodies and to value others from an early age through pictures. And I had no idea. Now, I wonder how black, brown, and indigenous children walking into our churches understand their place (or lack thereof) in the kingdom of God, when everyone pictured in it is usually white.

My school books were the same way: mostly white characters, mostly male characters. Some people are the main characters in stories (white males), while others are either nonexistent or there to support the main character.

The adults in my life, without intention, taught me to have stereotypes: People who don’t speak English are stupid, “colored people’s time” is about people being late because they are lazy, people who are unemployed just don’t want to get jobs. No one admitted that they were subtly teaching these things through offhand comments while reading the paper or watching the news. People said, “We’re nice to everyone and value them equally.” I could not see that simply saying and believing we can be nice causes harm, because the world does not treat people equally. This is not only about me being nice to people of different races; I also need to understand that the world does not treat them as equal and work toward changing that.

Thanks to Brene Brown, I am aware that my shame over being a racist will only paralyze me. Thinking of myself as a terrible person, or hearing that I’m a terrible person when someone calls me a racist or tells me to behave differently to cause less harm, does not help anyone. It only gets me stuck, and only serves to protect my ability to do harm, instead of helping me learn to do less harm.

So how do we not get wrapped up in the guilt and shame of understanding that to be white is to be participating in a racist system? Read more

Beyond Disney Royalty: A review of Queen of Katwe

The slums of Katwe, Uganda, are an unlikely place to find a Disney Princess. They’re an equally surprising setting for a movie about a chess prodigy. Yet, this is home to Phiona Mutesi. And her story—the remarkable journey of a young girl who struggles to survive on the streets with her family and finds chess as a path to a brighter future—creates the brilliant tension and inspiration that is Disney’s recent movie Queen of Katwe. This film follows Phiona as she overcomes impossible odds; its focus on tapping the unrealized potential in all people is a gift to viewers who experience Phiona’s story through the lens of the camera.

One of the strengths of the film lies in its ironic juxtapositions: the dusty, chaotic streets of Katwe, lined by the ramshackle shelters that are home to the poorest of the poor, are set as a backdrop for the strategy and precision often associated with the game of chess. Nakku Harriet (Phiona’s single mother played by Lupita Nyong’o) desperately tries–in a culture in which women have few rights and even fewer opportunities–to provide for Phiona and her siblings. Phiona, her sister, and brothers cannot afford to go to school. They spend each day selling corn, hoping they will have enough to eat and pay rent at the end of the day. The story begins to shift when one afternoon, Phiona finds herself outside a church mission that offers sports for children in the city. Seeing that Phiona is hungry, Coach Robert Katende (played by David Oyelowo) invites her inside for porridge. But porridge is not the only remedy for Phiona’s hunger. Inside the mission, Phiona discovers chess.

Katende quickly notices Phiona’s intelligence and innate skill for the game. Once Phiona has won chess matches with all the girls at the mission, she goes on to challenge (and win against) the boys as well. When Katende enrolls the children of Katwe in a chess tournament, Phiona takes the title. Her quick mastery of the game leads her to more tournaments at the local and international level, including the global tournament held in Russia. Plenty of setbacks and moments of conflict arise throughout the film, particularly regarding the clash of Phiona’s own culture with the privilege her success at chess affords. In light of this conflict, Phiona grapples with making difficult decisions. So, too, the viewer must sit with a story that illustrates the paradox that life is neither a magical fairy tale nor a hopeless case. Read more

Is Your Pastor Sexist? Is the New York Times Sexist? Are You Sexist?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched our Presbyterian colleagues protesting Princeton Theological School’s plan to honor Tim Keller, who in his long ministry has argued women should be subservient to their husbands, a point of view that is also interpreted to state women should not be ministers.

Before I go any further, let me be clear: CBP/Chalice Press strongly disagrees with that stance, or with any stance that espouses inequality in any form whatsoever. There are many, many, many1 women doing incredible ministry that should inspire us all to step up our game. We’re lucky to work with them.

Back to the story. Traci Smith, author of the recently released Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home and a Princeton alumna, blogged about this and caught the attention of both Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News (she declined their interview request) and the New York Times, which didn’t reach out to her but quoted her blog instead.

Is Your Pastor Sexist?, by Times contributor Julia Baird, referred to “Rev. Tim Keller” and “Dr. Keller.” It then referred to Traci as “Traci Smith, a former Princeton seminarian who is now a minister,” and noted Christian author Carol Howard Merritt as “a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” No Rev. before their names.

Surely this was a mistake, right? Copyediting gone awry? 2

Traci and Carol both mused about that on social media, and their connections jumped on the bandwagon. I’m not one to fire off Letters to the Editor, but this was clearly an instance where we could offer our opinion as a publisher regarding one of our writers, as well as share a view on the world of ministry with some folks who might not necessarily understand how things work in the professional field. So this morning, I sent off this missive:

Dear editor,

Julia Baird’s opinion piece, Is Your Pastor Sexist?, contains several unintentional but extremely ironic sexist errors. The male subject of the article is referred to as both Rev. Keller and Dr. Keller, indicating the Times uses honorific titles. Two female pastors, Traci Smith and Carol Howard Merritt, do not have Rev. attached to their references, indicating the Times does not use honorific titles. Which is it? Surely this decision isn’t driven by gender?

It’s likely bad copyediting is the culprit here, but this oversight epitomizes the everyday challenge female pastors face in their vocation — sexism undermines the equally challenging work they do in a workplace that is all too often hostile to them simply because of their chromosomal combinations.

I see one correction already in the online version. If a story about sexism is inherently sexist, that probably merits at least a correction as well, does it not?

Sincerely,
Brad Lyons

A few hours later, an email rolled in from Matt Seaton, Staff Editor in the Op-Ed Department:

Thank you for your letter regarding Julia Baird’s Op-Ed essay “Is Your Pastor Sexist?” I am responding because your letter was forwarded to me as the editor of this article.

Times style usually allows for use of the title “Rev.” (for Reverend) only on first mention, and this was applied to the Rev. Tim Keller in this case. (Thereafter, he appeared as Dr. Keller, given his doctorate of ministry.) But honorifics are applied as context allows, not as a rigid rule.

Our chief copy-editor explained to me that the “Rev.” title was not applied to the other two ministers in the piece, Traci Smith and Carol Howard Merritt, because they were introduced in ways that would have made the addition of “the Rev.” awkward and clumsy, and because, in each case, they were both clearly identified as minister or pastor.

On second use of each of those ministers’ names, “Ms.” was the correct honorific, since neither of them, to the best of our knowledge, has a doctorate of divinity or ministry.

Thank you for your attention to this matter and taking the trouble to communicate your view to us.

Best, Matt

So the honorifics were cut because it would make the writing clunky. That’s weak. Very, very weak. Just rewrite the sentence! You’re not going to wear out your computer or need Tommy John surgery to fix that.

But it’s more than weak — it’s offensive.

I understand we’re talking about a few letters, but those few letters make a world of difference. Though their choice was intentional, their choice also subliminally subjugates female pastors in their vocation and in our culture.

CBP/Chalice Press is a ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which has for decades ordained women, and our first female General Minister and President, Sharon Watkins, is about to be followed by our second female General Minister and President, Teresa Hord Owens. We’re darn proud of that. Beyond that, we work with women and men, ordained and non-ordained, from many denominations, because we believe everybody has gifts from God regardless of whether they’ve gone through school or the proper training.

What I hear from my female colleagues in ministry is that it’s getting better but that the gender gap we see across society still exists in ministry – in the lack of respect shown to female clergy, in disparate compensation packages, and in the opportunities to lead at vibrant congregations. It’s going to take a lot of work to fix this, but we must fix it, and all the other prejudices in our culture, if we are to live in the Beloved Community.

It falls to all of us in the ways we talk about each other, the ways we hold each other accountable for our biases, the way we work on ourselves to erase those biases. But the New York Times, bless its heart – I sure hope it comes to its senses soon.

Footnotes

1. Many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many… well, you get the gist.
2. Baird reached out to Traci and said she hadn’t used titles, that they were added later.

one set of silverware on a tablecloth

Come to the Table

one set of silverware on a tablecloth

Join the feast!

Many years ago, my friend had a young daughter with serious medical issues who had to be hospitalized for several weeks. Understandably, my friend was under enormous stress and she did not have the time, energy, or desire to cook. Her priority was being with her daughter in the hospital. So, for these weeks, she subsisted on rice cakes (this being the early 1990’s, rice cakes were ubiquitous in the low-fat, high carbohydrate craze). It was a quick way to eat, and it felt the appropriate food considering her circumstances. She was sad and fearful, and food had no taste: might as well eat something that tastes as wretched as she feels. It wasn’t just that the rice cakes were dry and flat; her spirit was dry and flat.

Thanks to God’s mercy, the daughter recovered and was released from the children’s hospital. But my friend continued to eat race cakes. Though her child was now well, she had developed a habit of eating them, and a habit is hard to break.

A couple of years passed, and the season of Lent was coming up, a season in which traditionally people give up something of value to them. My friend was surprised when, in prayer, the Holy Spirit nudged her with an invitation: “maybe you should give up rice cakes for Lent.” When my friend told family members, they teased her. After all, people normally fast from something desirable, like chocolate or coffee. Who gives up rice cakes for Lent? But my friend did, and, within days of giving it up, she lost her craving for them. At the conclusion of Lent, she didn’t resume her rice cake eating ways. It was God’s way of signaling to her that her previously dry and flat season was over.

I resonate with my friend’s experience. Too easily I have slipped into the habitual thought. “This is my lot in life: I just have to make do with eating crumbs and feeling crummy.” When I look around at the state of the world and the state of this county, I grow discouraged and overwhelmed: how long will the wicked prosper? In the face of these challenges, I need to be paying attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Seasons change, and there will come a time when this painful season is over. Sometimes I act as if subsisting on rice cakes is the only way forward. But as Ecclesiastes 3 says, “For everything there is a season…a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” There is a season for fasting, and there is a season for feasting. There is a time for us to give up something of value, and there is a time for us to reexamine what has become too valuable to us and why. There is a time to eat rice crackers beside a hospital bed, but there is also a time to come to the Lord’s banqueting table, and experience afresh the banner of love unfurled over our heads.

My hope is that we pay attention and heed God’s gracious invitations to us. When appropriate, God will invite us to mourn and to wear sackcloth, and, also God will eventually invite us to cast off those sackcloth and grave clothes that cling to us long after a season has ended. When the Lord nudges us, let us trade the dry and the tasteless for God’s extravagant banquet.

Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Ripples of Love

Sometimes our ministry drives us to create that which we most need to hear for ourselves.

Sitting at my studio table, I am renewed. As the light dapples through the open windows, I am surrounded by art and story. While I appear in solitude, I am never alone. The voices of those in my tribe echo, energy resides, the Spirit moves, and I am home. My heart is full.

I’ve been an ordained minister for 11 years. It began when I started volunteering and teaching classes in church as a teenager, and soon after I began working in the church. That was nearly 20 years ago. There’s no gauge. It’s a breath. It’s a heartbeat. Well, okay, maybe a few.

Even so, I find it hard to talk about how I interact with my art-as-ministry and ministry-as-art. I breathe who I am, aiming to show up and share myself with the world. Unlike many traditional vocations, artistic projects can take years to develop. Others are birthed quickly. On a few I have missed the mark and must to re-do the work. All of that is part of the process.

But I know this:
I am not perfect.
I am perceived as more confident than I often am.
I strive to be near-perfect, to be confident and to get it right the first time. 

But perfect is next to impossible. For most of last year, my life was marked by chronic illness, anxiety, and depression. I was so deep in it that I couldn’t see what was what. I had been sick for months and was grieving a friend’s death. I felt as though I was drowning. It wasn’t until I found myself on the other side of an anxious call to a beloved client that I hung up the call and made an appointment with a therapist to find care for myself. I share this because not everything is as we’d hope; sometimes it’s just what it is.

My art is a reflection of the care I place on myself and the care I put into things. If I haven’t rested well, my hands hurt and it’s hard to hold the paintbrush for long. In the same way, when I don’t practice yoga regularly, my body aches. It sounds simple because it is – you have to care for yourself. In my experience, it takes persistence and practice to develop a regular practice of self-care and soul-care.

But it is worth it, because you know what they say, right? Self-care is sexy! My loved ones notice how different I am when I’m caring for myself; it shows when I name what I need or take the long bike ride. I feel good, and that impacts everyone around me. It is a reminder to me that we know what we need and how to have what we need. We just need to be willing to ask.

I also know this:
I love myself as I am.

I hear so many stories when I show up with my art. I notice how folks interact and respond to my art as if we’re sharing space in the same room. The Spirit carries the intention of hope, healing, and delight into the world. It’s as though art becomes my church, where I find myself softened and strengthened hearing the stories of others as they interact with my creations. Over time, I’ve realized we are in that same congregation. We’re a wider community that builds upon spirituality, connection, service, and practice. We gather, share, create, and serve one another and alongside one another.

Over time, I have discerned that my call is to gather folks round the table. I feel called to minister especially to clergywomen, those who are grieving, and those who want to explore spirituality and soul care. In this work, I am also ministering to myself. And, thankfully, because I am not alone, that ministry expands to the world around me. Because I am showing up and sharing what I do as I minister to myself, I end up reaching the most people without even intending to.

Nicki Peasley interviewed me recently and spoke of my artwork and studio retreats in an article:

For Suzanne, gathering people around the table is art in its truest form, a creative banquet and dynamic process of exploring, healing, and appreciating–together. Suzanne holds a welcoming, sacred space for gatherers to lay down their burdens and fears and begin to engage in authentic self care. A sensitive and gracious facilitator, Suzanne utilizes guided meditation, visualization, mindful creative practice, poetry, body movement, and storytelling as primary tools to engage both the intellect and the human spirit.Suzanne helps to gently open the heart to empower, encourage, and feed the individual and collective soul.

“When we gather at the table, it’s a safe space with a focus on the state of our hearts, bodies, minds,” Suzanne says, “As witnesses to each other, we name what needs to be named, release what needs to be released, and we encounter new life and the possibilities within.”

“My desire is to spread love, hope, courage, and delight in small, generous artful acts, moments, and services. I am showing up with hands ready to move, an open heart, and trust that this whole enterprise makes ripples in this wide world.”

Nicki reminds me of the ripples that are unseen yet felt. So much of my ministry resides in the space of mystery. What I do is through contemplation and creation. Just as I write and create art, I hold space for those with whom I minister in my daily living.

While I miss ministering in a single church from time-to-time, art-as-ministry and ministry-as-art fills my cup. I know that I’m equally called to motherhood and to making good food for our family table. I also know my art reaches many more than I have the time or energy to meet and greet. I welcome those interactions and generous meetings. I welcome the partnership each time I am commissioned to create something, or each time someone shares my art with another. These are seeds of loving kindness and care. Some folks don’t know what to say or do in difficult moments, and, yet, they find a way through the art: a card attached to a jar of soup, art for the family displaced by a fire, words of wisdom before cancer treatments, art for the physicians who have journeyed alongside a patient.

I know this:
As Chaplain of the Arts, I am healed as I heal.

view of sheet music and choir

How Can I Keep From Singing?

view of sheet music and choir

Singing in choir

When I was growing up, my parents thought it was so important that their children learn to sing in a choir that we went to two churches. My Dad pastored a small congregation with decent music, but limited choral opportunities for children. And so, one or two weeks a month, we’d go to the 8:00 am service at our own church, and then scramble out to the car with my Mom, and hurry to the “big city” ten miles away to sing in the Treble choir at an Episcopal Church.

I was hooked. I do not sing solos: it’s singing as a group that thrills me. I went on to sing in an excellent high school choir, and then chose a college that just happened to have one of the best choral programs in the country. Even though I was never in any way a candidate for the premiere choir at that institution, I sang all four years of college, and continued to sing in my seminary choir. But, when I became a pastor, I figured that was likely the end of my choral singing. Aside from the occasional pinch-hit, I knew that very few pastors have time to join the church choir.

Then a few years ago, I followed my husband’s job across the country, and found myself in a new city with no church job. A few months after the move, I met up with a college friend who was living in the same city. He had recently founded a choir, devoted to singing a broad range of musical genres, from various traditions and cultures. It was, he said, the nicest group of people he’d ever sung with, and unusually diverse for a choral group. “You should sing with us,” he said. Read more

hand holding s'more in front of a fire on a firepit grill

Campfire Church

hand holding s'more in front of a fire on a firepit grill

S’mores

Q: What do you do when life gives you lemons?
A: You make s’mores.

For about a month, we smelled natural gas outside the sanctuary doors. But as it often happens with a group, everyone thought someone else would call. I finally took it upon myself to call Atlanta Gas one Thursday morning. Atlanta Gas responded within 30 minutes and determined that we had a significant leak in one of our pipes buried under ground. To be safe, they shut off our gas.

This was the beginning of February. Our new property chair immediately called the necessary repair companies. By Friday morning, he had discovered:

  1. There was a hole the size of a silver dollar in our pipe. We were blessed to be there.
  2. The leak was buried too deep for most companies to fix.
  3. The only company willing to do the repairs couldn’t get to it until after the weekend.

I got the phone call at 11:00 a.m. on Friday morning that we would not have heat in the church for worship. Temperatures were expected to be near freezing all weekend, so the property chair suggested we cancel worship.

“Give me an hour. I think we can have fun with this,” I told him. I had no idea what I was going to do; but as soon as I hung up the phone, I began to brainstorm. One hour later, I came up with a plan that I loved. Read more

Ask a YCW: Dating While Ordained Edition

Dear Askie,

I’m a young clergy woman, starting out in my first call. I’m single, and thinking about jumping back into the dating world now that I’m settled in my new location. I’m worried, though, that it might be a bit weird dating now that I’m a pastor. How will potential dates react when they find out? Should I say I’m a pastor in an online dating profile, or wait to tell people once we’ve actually met? Am I overthinking this?

Signed,
Solo Pastor Seeking to be Less Solo

Read more

Betrayal in Holy Week

In the Netherlands, the plant Judaspenning (coins of Judas) is so named as an allusion to the story of Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver he was paid to betray Jesus.

Spy Wednesday

This is “Spy Wednesday,” the day Judas betrayed Jesus. Orthodox Christians reserve Holy Wednesday for anointing and healing. I reserve it as a day for clergy self-care. What better way to anticipate bodily resurrection than with a Holy Week massage?

Today’s anointing, however, is actually a betrayal. The masseuse touches me inappropriately. As his hands move down my body, I freeze. Shouldn’t he know the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch?”

I struggle to say, “That’s too close for comfort.” Later, I berate myself for not being more forceful. But I’m in shock, with thirty years of “niceness” socialized into me.

He moves his hands. As soon as he leaves, my phone verifies that his actions are indeed illegal.

I feel more confident with clothes on, so before I leave I tell him that he crossed a line.

I’m not angry yet. I’m confused. I call my husband and best friend. I leave a message for the state board of investigations. I post in The Young Clergy Women Project facebook group: “…I feel an obligation to report, but I can’t help but feel awful about it. I worry that I’m going to cause this person to lose his livelihood.”

The clergywomen express their sorrow, their prayers, their anger, and their solidarity. They absolve me of guilt at reporting:

“It needs to be reported… A person who touches people in an illegal way should not be making his living as a massage therapist.”
“This is patriarchy and rape culture. He crossed the line.”
“He is the one who made this choice, he is the one doing the violating (not you in reporting it)…. I’m willing to guess you aren’t the first/last, as this could easily escalate. I hope you can let go of any guilt in reporting it. Prayers for you in this horrible, violating situation.”

Although I could have said these things to another woman, I can’t say them to myself. I need to hear them from my colleagues. Their clear articulation of appropriate boundaries helps me to sort through my own feelings. I am stunned at how my “niceness” translates into feeling sorry for the masseuse prior to being able to be truly angry with him. I imagine how awful it must be for folks who don’t have supportive communities with extensive sexual ethics and boundary trainings.

Maundy Thursday

I wake up early and can’t get back to sleep. “Stay with me. Pray with me,” Jesus says to the sleeping disciples. I suspect the perpetrator thought I was asleep when he touched me. But even assuming that he thought I was asleep, why would he do such a thing? I begin to find my anger. Read more

All of the Fun, None of the Work?

“All of the fun, none of the work.”

It’s the phrase I frequently hear from clergy when I tell them that I’m an Associate Rector. It’s the “truth-in-jest” description of associate clergy. You don’t have the highest level of responsibility and the buck doesn’t stop with you, so you don’t have to deal with the majority of the “work” or “business” of the church: personnel, conflict, roof repairs, fund raising, etc. I used to make this joke myself and laugh along with it, as if to say, “I know how good I have it – my job is the easy one!” I played along with the jab that being an associate pastor is like riding a bike with training wheels, a learning position where one prepares oneself to be able to handle the real responsibility of the “grown-up world” of ministry.

But you know what? This joke represents a highly problematic and diseased vision of church leadership, and I both resent and reject it. The claim that being an associate is “all of the fun, none of the work,” implies that a senior clergyperson does all of the work (and, perhaps, has none of the fun). It is “work” that one is supposed to aspire to do as one grows into positions of greater responsibility and scope  – and this “work” is generally non-pastoral. That is to say, it has little to do with the spiritual formation, nurture, and empowerment of the flock of Christians in one’s care. It’s all the stuff you “didn’t learn in seminary”- hiring and firing personnel, budgetary decisions, fund raising, reviewing proposals for roof repairs, approving the layout of the annual giving brochure. In contrast, associate clergy tend to have responsibilities that lean toward pastoral care, worship, outreach, advocacy, and Christian education – in other words, areas clergy are trained for in seminary. The unfortunate and unspoken belief this reveals begs a disturbing question: Does that mean that, deep down, churches (and the clergy who lead them) don’t view pastoral work as real work?

Many would immediately argue that “all of the fun, none of the work” simply means that associate clergy don’t bear the burden of the responsibility that falls on senior clergy, and this is mostly due to the hierarchical nature of the senior/associate clergy relationship. Indeed, many associate clergy would report that the majority of weddings, funerals, baptisms, and preaching falls on the senior clergy. Yet most associate clergy would probably also report being responsible for many areas that senior clergy don’t touch at all: youth ministry, Christian education, family ministry, outreach and advocacy.

This brings to light two major problems:

1)  Education, youth, advocacy, outreach, and pastoral care are often treated as too unimportant for the senior clergyperson to handle. Whenever “all of the fun, none of the work” means ministry to youth, families, the sick and homebound, the bereft, and those on the margins, it speaks volumes about how little the church values those people.

2) It falsely links specific skill sets with levels of importance in church leadership and administration. Overseeing Sunday School and Christian Education? The associate clergy, or a layperson with some sort of seminary or religious training, can do that. Clerical matters, like sacramental and pastoral ministry (weddings, funerals, baptisms, hospital visits, etc.)? Associates can do some of that. But when it comes to the real heavy lifting? Balancing budgets, hiring personnel, and running the business – well, that’s for the grown-ups. That’s for the senior clergy. Read more