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Call to Action: A Review of Women Rise Up: Sacred Stories of Resistance for Today’s Revolution by Katey Zeh

I first met Rev. Katey Zeh before either of us were ordained, at a training around sexual health and reproductive freedom on college campuses. We continued to run into each other through our organizing work. I reached out to her when trying to figure out if there was a way my annual conference of The United Methodist Church could support the organization she was on the board of at the time (and now serves as the interim executive of), Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, in the wake of a misinformation campaign in the denomination against RCRC.

Because of the connections we had made previously, the conversation turned to my personal life when she offered me support in the wake of my second miscarriage. She was one of the first people who was able to articulate to me the deep grief not just of the loss of a loved one but the grief of an incomplete family, or a family that looks nothing like the one for which you had hoped. From this woman whose activism and pastoral care has touched my life comes a book called Women Rise Up: Sacred Stories of Resistance for Today’s Revolution, in which her activism continues to inspire me and her writing offers me care I didn’t realize I needed.

Women Rise Up is an exploration of ten different stories of Biblical women in conversation with current realities of women’s experiences and struggles, from human trafficking to purity culture, from immigration to entrepreneurialism. Zeh explains: “I yearn for stories of resilience, of women overcoming systems of oppression who found ways to survive and even thrive despite the constant threats to their bodies, their humanity, and their livelihood.” She did not hear many of those stories preached when she was growing up in church, but she has seen them in her organizing work and in her own life.

Unlike some celebrations of Biblical women, Zeh is clear that even when she celebrates their bravery, these women are complicated. Sarah is celebrated as a mother of faith in many churches traditionally, but she perpetuates the abuse she received from her husband on her slave Hagar. Rachel also abuses her handmaid, and Zeh reminds us that Rachel does not name her son Benjamin but rather Ben-Oni, “Son of My Sorrows.” Moses’ mother, she reminds us, is a clever hero, but one who still underwent a devastating reproductive loss even if it was to save her child. Rev. Zeh strives to read the stories of these women in new ways, ones faithful to scripture itself and to our own complicated lives. Read more

tree roots of a large tree, with moss growing on them

The Language of Trees

tree roots of a large tree, with moss growing on them

I learned a few weeks ago that trees talk to one another. They develop this network—nutrients sent and received in an underground web. When a tree is dying, it starts to send its signals out to the rest so that they both know what danger is lurking near – and so that they have the extra fortification to fight it off.

Watch and listen, the poet[1] says- your ancestors are behind you – You are the result of the love of thousands.

Am I the result of nutrients sent – an underground rush of fortification, sent by the sisterhood of those who came before?

Did those nutrients, that came through the words and embraces and knowing glances of sister-trees—did those nutrients try to warn me about the brotherhood of mediocrity that is male privilege? Did those vitamins in the roots try to infuse me with a deep and abiding sense that my instincts are something I can’t afford to neglect? Because that’s what it feels like… the wisdom I get through the sister-roots is not wisdom that comes from a lot of triumphs—but rather wisdom that comes from a lot of savvy maneuvering, a lifetime of learning how to say no while in high heels and a full face of makeup. A lifetime of learning how to nurture the inner voice and then present it in such a way so that everyone can receive it.

Is that what it means to be the result of the love of thousands… or is that what it means to be the result of feminism amidst patriarchy?

But even as that bitter seed takes its place, the sister-roots are sending their signals again. Sister, they say, the love of thousands are the root signs that told you that the construct was wrong and that your heart was right. The love of thousands are the root signs that whispered to you under the moss that you are worthy and enough. You come from the roots, Sister, you come from the deep, you come from the wet earth that is soaked with our insight, that is bound up with our braids. Don’t you see, sister, they say, you are the tree? Don’t you see, sister, that the root signals have thrust you up, pushed you from this earth, prodded you up so that you are reaching, reaching, reaching- stretching towards this inevitable peak where your branch arms reach out and touch the heavens so that there too, you can be reminded, youare worthy and youare enough. You are the tree, sister. You are the result.

Do not worry that your roots aren’t strong enough, or that your trunk is not sturdy, or that your branches can’t sustain the wind. Your sister roots will remind you, your sister roots will send you the signal. And as you stand there, proud and worthy, swaying in your strength—look around—you’re in the forest- with the other sister-trees. They too the result of the love of thousands.

Remember to send your signal, sisters. There are thousands more to come.

[1]Hogan, Linda. Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/23701

Shiphrah, Puah, Grandpa, and Me: After Charlottesville

This sermon on Exodus 1:8–2:10 was preached on August 27, 2017 at St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Menlo Park, California.

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The author (left) and Rev. Erica Schemper (right) protesting in San Francisco.

My grandfather, Captain William Eigel, Jr., served in Patton’s Third Army during the Second World War. He landed in Normandy only a few days after D-Day and joined the long, hard push eastward towards Berlin. It was troops from Patton’s army who stumbled across Buchenwald, the first Nazi death camp liberated by the Americans.

Grandpa was not one of the liberators of that camp, but Eisenhower sent a number of American units to see it. He wanted the soldiers to know what they were fighting against. So it’s quite possible that Grandpa saw the camp, the stacks of bodies, the mass graves, the emaciated survivors. He was stationed in Germany for several months after V-E Day, trying to bring some order to the postwar chaos as evidence of Nazi crimes mounted.

Grandpa was horrified by what he witnessed in that year and a half in Germany. He saw what happens when one group of people decides they are inherently superior to everyone else. What made it worse was that he was of German heritage himself. The people who had done this were related to him. He never talked about it, but he never forgot. Twenty years later, my mom asked to go to West Germany as an exchange student, and he absolutely refused to consider it. He couldn’t stand the thought of his child going to the place that had done those horrible things, and living among the people who had done it and allowed it to happen.

We turned a corner this morning in our Old Testament readings. All summer we have been in the book of Genesis; we’ve been hearing the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel. We ended last week with Jacob’s son Joseph making a life in Egypt, and his brothers and their families joining him there during a famine. Today we have jumped ahead four hundred years to the time of Moses in the book of Exodus. And the story of Moses begins in Egypt in the reign of Pharaoh.

In the days before Moses is born, there’s a new king in town, a new Pharaoh, who doesn’t know the Israelites or their history in Egypt. He’s nervous about having such a large, powerful group on the borders of his territory, they might ally with the enemies of Egypt, and Pharaoh’s worried about the Israelites outnumbering the Egyptians. Four hundred years the descendants of Jacob have been in Egypt, and still they are foreigners, untrustworthy, not one of us. So out of ignorance and fear, Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites. Read more

Not What You Meant: The Bible and the Gospel in The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, the new Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, needs a trigger warning. It’s “intended for mature audiences,” but it’s hard to watch if you’ve ever been in a relationship with a total imbalance of power, if you’ve ever been pregnant or nursed an infant, or had a child die, or been sexually assaulted. It took me four tries to get through one scene: I kept pausing and switching windows in my browser, so great was my anxiety about what was coming next.

When I first picked up the novel, I was a freshman in college – a preacher’s kid in an interdisciplinary program in Boston. I’d grown up in Midwestern churches, the words of Psalm 19 and the words of institution and my father’s preferred baptismal covenant and benediction etched on my heart. I could recite them from memory years before I entered ministry myself. But when I read Atwood’s novel, which depicts a dystopian future theocracy where women are not allowed to read, much less own anything, work, or maintain bodily autonomy, I did not recognize the ideological roots of the regime as Christian. Atwood’s world-building is incredible; and though I got references to “Loaves and Fishes” and “Milk and Honey,” I felt certain she’d also made up most of the cited religious language. At the Prayvaganza, as a handful of girls are offered in arranged marriage to returned soldiers, the Commander in charge says, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection… [For] Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”

I grew up in churches, but my dad had taken Old Testament with Phyllis Trible in the 1970s. I had no idea what 1 Timothy was about. I was sheltered.

I reread the novel last fall, when #repealthe19th was trending on Twitter. The Nineteenth Amendment, you’ll recall, is the one which grants women the right to vote. The hashtag gained popularity after statistician Nate Silver suggested that if only women voted in the presidential election, Hillary Clinton would win hands down. I’m no stranger now to the realities of misogyny, the ubiquitous evidence of rape culture, even as a privileged white woman, but the threat, however far-fetched, of disenfranchisement seemed to raise the stakes.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, both the show and the novel, a violent act that takes out Congress precipitates the imposition of martial law and ushers in the theocratic, totalitarian regime known as Gilead. Facing cultural upheaval and global infertility, fertile women are assigned to marriages, to serve as handmaids to the wives of powerful men in the manner of the biblical Rachel and her slave Bilhah. These handmaids are infantilized and treated alternately as holy vessels and sluts; they are covered in billowing red dresses and starched white veils; they are stripped of their names, known only in relation to the man they serve, Of-Fred, Of-Stephen, Of-Glen.

After November, it feels all the more timely. Read more

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

I Take the Saints With Me

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Worshippers at Holy Angel Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side

Growing up, church was… interminably slow. Not bad, just slow. Like the waving of a cardboard fan in the hands of a church mother, it was steady and sure, and time just sort of “hung” in church. So there was lots of time to people-watch. The people I especially loved were the old saints, these mahogany/ tan/ebony/cream-with-just-a-hint-of-coffee ladies and gentlemen who occupied the prime seats in the church, who nodded knowingly when the preacher was especially inspired, who sang in the senior choir, and whose hands lifted to the air meant church was going to last an extra five, ten, twenty-five minutes.

I was not a regular (my parents weren’t church goers), but I was a regular visitor to two churches in particular, because my extended family were every-Sunday church folks. Even before I had ever heard of the “communion of saints,” in which we profess our faith each week in my own Episcopal church, I believed in it because I witnessed and experienced it. When we sang the old hymns and spirituals, I felt myself lifted up, beyond. I would imagine Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Frederick Douglass sitting in a church just like that one, singing those very songs. Their pictures, and those of other “Heroes and Heroines of Our Faith and People” were hung along the church’s hallways and on the walls of its fellowship hall, and their solemn, noble faces told stories of faith in Jesus as my people have lived it, of sojourning and thriving in this harsh and wondrous America we call home.

This has been a bloody, bloody summer to be Black in America. In this wearying time, I take with me the saints of my beloved Black church. Read more