This month’s guest post is written by another one from the Zoom group I wrote about in the intro to last month’s guest post, Undiluted.
Debby Smith was the initiator of the continued Zoom meetings. I am better for knowing her, and have a feeling our friendship will grow long after our Zoom meetings end. We share some of the same experiences and feel less alone with our questions. Debby lives in Yucaipa, CA. She is receiving training in spiritual direction from Center Quest, an ecumenical hub for the study and practice of Christian spirituality. She blogs on Medium and WordPress.
by Debby Smith
Since entering slowly and a bit reluctantly into the world of social media, I have discovered the voices of multitudes of women, young women, clamoring to be heard, saying “enough already” to the status quo. These are articulate and educated women, women who are sometimes angry, always courageous. I admire them, sometimes secretly wish I were them with presumably decades of life ahead. Some of them are white; some are women of color who carry the extra burden of racial inequities. All of them have emerged in an American society steeped in patriarchy (in this country, white patriarchy) viewed as God-ordained, the root of all the major religions, and deeply believed to be beyond challenge at sometimes unconscious depths. Ours is a culture with different rules for men and women, even in 2020. Men can be direct and forceful in their passion, even angry, wildly waving their metaphorical swords. A woman’s body bearing that kind of energy is anathema. Just ask Hillary Clinton.
You Have No Idea
Young women are challenging that kind of hypocritical double standard in many arenas, including political, religious, and sexual. And I applaud that they are writing about it. What I haven’t seen much of are stories from older women, women who in their youth could not have imagined a world where female voices challenged the established order, where women really mattered and were clawing their way to visibility, insisting on being taken seriously, insisting that exploitation and objectification stop. Sometimes when I read Twitter posts from young women, even though I am empathetic and don’t want to negate anyone’s experience, my mind involuntarily whispers, “You have no idea.”
I am a 62-year-old, white woman. My story is certainly not as dramatic as some, but even to myself, it seems odd and archaic at this point in time. I shake my head in disbelief even as I jostle my inner being trying to dislodge the barnacles of falsehood that are attached to my soul. Setting is important, and in another place, I might have been untouched, or at least not as touched, by some of the concentrated distortions that my mind drank in. I grew up in rural Maine, a state known even today for people with strong work ethics, minds of their own, and stoical views of life. The influence of the broader world was only lightly felt. It was a provincial place with clearly defined values and norms. It was common knowledge that we were a decade behind the rest of the country. Feminist ideas came late to the far north. That in itself might not have been harmful; however, added to that was a subculture of religion.
From around the age of eight, I was engulfed in a religious environment that was fundamentalist Christian with subjugation of women being one of the cardinal doctrines, even if it wasn’t explicit in the statement of faith. This idea of women’s roles and place was backed up with passages of Scripture, mostly St. Paul’s letters, taken with little context or nuance. My little girl self remembers powerful and angry men, men who shouted and threatened, men who promised punishment and condemnation if I erred from their list of do’s and don’ts, men who were in absolute control of my world. From seventh grade through the remainder of my schooling, including college, I was removed from the public educational sphere and told that it was dangerous and Godless. I received an education that was tailored to fit particular sectarian views and that scorned any material that included cursing, sexual behavior, or evolutionary scientific thinking. It was an education that failed to tell me that I could be anything other than wife and mother, secretary, teacher, or nurse. I absorbed concepts of self-denial and self-sacrifice. I privately blamed women for any dysfunction or disharmony I witnessed.
There was really no separation between the religious or church realm and the rest of life. Almost all of the activities of my life were connected to the church or the church school. I had no friends or acquaintances outside of that context, no studies or influences that were not generated from that space, very little outside media that made it into my awareness, no family vacations to other parts of the country, no exposure to an expansive world. To say my realm of existence was small is an understatement. What I was exposed to was an extreme patriarchy that allowed only men to make decisions, to be in leadership, to have a voice, to be important. As a sensitive and fearful child, I even despaired of being enfolded into God’s embrace because I couldn’t find feminine pronouns in my King James Bible.
My feisty, passionate inner being collided with teaching of feminine submission, feminine modesty, feminine responsibility. Nevertheless, as a child eager to please and be loved, I accepted this catechism. I learned that a woman’s tears are manipulative at worst, a sign of weakness at best; that women are nagging if they repeat something more than twice, even if they didn’t get a response the first two times; that women “hen-peck” if they ask their husbands to do things around the house (think of the euphemistic “honey-do lists”) or have too much influence on their husbands decisions; that I must tiptoe around a man’s anger. Somehow, I developed very early a shame about my developing body. The female body was dangerous and must be hidden, cloaked in “appropriate” clothing. Sexual expression was evil, and every effort must be made to deny it.
All of this created malformations in my soul, malformations that have affected my entire life, that I am really just beginning to unravel and strip, an unlearning process, the most serious being a misunderstanding of my inherent value as a beloved daughter of God. I know that many people struggle with believing and receiving the love of God, people of all genders, but for me, that lack of realization was complicated by being a girl. There are ubiquitous voices in my head that counter the voice of my Divine Shepherd, that seek to drown out his murmurs of love, but his language is becoming more familiar to me, his adoring gaze more clearly recognized.
I am not a theologian or Biblical scholar. I am not able to parse Paul or give an exegetical explanation of Genesis, but I’m learning about the evolution of theology, the importance of historical context, and the depths of Christian spirituality. I am getting to know Jesus more and more through the gospels, particularly through his interactions with women. The imaginative portrayal of the life of Jesus in The Chosen video series is helping, also. It has given me a way to visualize how Jesus might have actually interacted with people, and when I see the dramatic representation of Jesus’s communication with women, it has a visceral effect. The gospel accounts are filled with stories of women and their encounters with Jesus: the response to his mother’s request to solve the problem of wine at the wedding in Cana, the compassion for the widow of Nain, the deliverance of Mary Magdalene and her subsequent devotion to Jesus and his reciprocal love and honor, the forgiveness and acceptance offered to the woman taken in an adulterous act by haughty religious leaders and the Samaritan woman at the well, the healing and gentleness for the woman who had a bleeding disorder, the care and new life for the little girl who died before he reached her bedside, his bonds of friendship with sisters Mary and Martha, the inclusion and naming of women throughout the gospel story, the acknowledgement of the steadfast devotion of the women who remained at the scene of the crucifixion (presumably without the support of the men called to accompany Jesus), the honor given to women after the resurrection, especially Mary Magdalene, as the first to witness and proclaim the good news. The Son of God upended the state of society and ushered in a kingdom unlike any previously seen on earth. The dignity and worth he gave to women are one way he did it. And it helps me to see it, to read the gospels through this lens.
Good New For All
Another way that I am being repaired is in spiritual direction. My spiritual director reinforces the truth of God’s love and care for me, God’s delight and satisfaction in me, God’s approving gaze. In a recent meeting, my director clapped her hands as she spoke words of God’s affirmation over me. Breath caught in my throat and tears filled my eyes that God might clap for me. Might say, “well done, my darling.”
It’s a slow process, this reimagining, this relearning. Though I am fully in favor of women in ministry, for which so many women are advocating, I’m not looking for a position or even a platform. For me the issue is much more basic. I have had to nurse the belief in my own equal value before God. The belief that I am not second-class, not an addendum. That my femininity equally mirrors the Divine image. That my presence is an asset. That I’m essential to the world in ways that are equally important to a man’s. That my voice should be heard. And this is not good news just for me, but for all.
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