“Awake, O Sleeper, and rise from the dead, for Christ will be your Light…”
The spring of 2003 was another roller-coaster of emotion. A season of extremes. highs and lows. Joy and sorrow. It was the end of my fourth year in Lake Winola/Falls. I loved them deeply. They’d given me a place to heal. They’d allowed me to be their pastor. I got to do everything I imagined a pastor would do: I visited them in the hospital, sat by the bed of the dying, led funerals, fed them communion, dreamed up new ideas for worship, endured 9/11 with them and grieved together, taught them in Bible Studies, and there were a few whom I felt that I had the privilege to disciple. There were a couple of men and women who I watched grow spiritually, come alive in their faith, step out and take chances and become leaders in the church. I felt like I’d been a part of that!
This was what I thought pastoral ministry was all along. But something was also happening in me that seemed to disrupt everything I assumed. I read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. I’d read Kidd’s books from my mother’s shelf as a teen, when she was very involved with Guideposts magazine. I was in a small bookstore in Clarks Summit, PA when I saw she’d written her first novel. I was intrigued.
It was like an earthquake.
I unexpectedly resonated with Lily immediately. Her sense of longing for mothering. Her serendipitous journey from her father’s abuse to the Pink House, where she was mothered, nurtured, cared for. Where she saw the ugliness of prejudice and the power of standing up for what you believe– when you know you’re loved.
I fell in love with their faith community. The Black Madonna. The strength of mother-love, feminine strength, sisterhood, finding strength as a young woman. Something ached in me, deep deep down. I love my mother. I always tried to be what I thought she wanted, but it never seemed to work. My father came first. My father was the center of our universe. His needs came first, above all else. The Church was wound up in there too. We knew early on that us children were not as important as the Church, and certainly not as important as my father. We had to make him look good. We couldn’t embarrass them.
By the time I was in middle school and high school, I felt adrift. My hunger for Mothering was met in my relationship with Sandie. One poignant memory is of me, my mother and Sandie, sitting in the back seat of the Allens’ car, riding back to their house after a fun day of sledding. I leaned my head on Sandie’s shoulder. I felt safe, sheltered, loved for who I was. I just always wanted to be in the same room with her. I was enough.
Of course I felt guilty for loving her so much and wishing I could live at her house. I felt guilty for feeling like a constant disappointment to my mother. But the longing was real.
I cried when I read The Secret Life of Bees. I so wanted to go to the Pink House and live among those women. To feel the power of the Black Madonna, the Divine Feminine, Sophia-Wisdom as she is named in the Bible. That book opened up something powerful in me. I couldn’t relate to Father God at all– He was too perfectionistic. He was never happy with me. He always analyzed me and found me pitiful. Weak. Disappointing. He was distant, heady, emotionless. I could not imagine Father God delighting in me as His child, much less loving me for who I was.
I found comfort in Jesus, yes. Jesus was more than a man. He was open, “liberal” with his love, seeing the invisible ones like me, embracing those who others ignored. I could relate to Jesus, but not “Father.” Not the white-bearded old man in the sky– who looked oddly like my father in temperament.
That spring I spent a lot of time at Border’s bookstore in Dickson City. I read Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter. That deepened my hunger for more learning about the image of Sophia-Wisdom in the Bible, the strong and nameless women in the Bible, the images of Mother and Divine Feminine scattered throughout. God as mother eagle pushing her babies out of the nest to fly. The God who goes through labor pains with God’s people, giving new birth. God has the mother hen brooding over her chicks. Wisdom at the beginning of time, co-creating with God. Wisdom… Sophia in the Greek. Feminine. God as Comforter. I read some of the Apocrypha, the “rejected” books of the Bible. Rejected by whom? Male bishops in the early church, of course.
I was haunted by the women of the Pink House. At Border’s I stumbled upon a book called “The Wisdom of Daughters: Two Decades of the Voice of Christian Feminism.” It was like water in the desert. It was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. As I stood in Border’s reading the Introduction, I realized that one of the editors of this collaboration was a woman named Reta Finger; who happened to be teaching at Messiah College.
I almost dropped the book right there. A feminist theologian at Messiah College?? What were the chances? I bought the book, went home and got on Messiah’s website. I wrote Reta an email and told her what was going on in me; about Kidd, about my spiritual search, about my experiences at Messiah, etc. And the unlikely discovery of her, a feminist of all things, at Messiah College.
Almost immediately I got an email back from her that was lengthy and gracious. She was so astonished and appreciative of my reaching out to her, and of my story. She was also astonished that her book was at Border’s for me to discover! (Just one copy!) We made an appointment to meet soon at Messiah.
Meanwhile, there was Holy Week, my favorite week of the Christian Year. A time that was the most poignant, the most relevant and powerful time of year. To me, it spoke of the relevance of the Christ Story; dying and living, sorrow and joy, injustice and justice, despair and coming alive. I always poured so much of my heart and soul into Holy Week. I wanted others to “get” that significance of pouring all our sorrow into God’s hands to be redeemed into healing and joy. To offer the world, in all its madness, to the God of New Beginnings.
That year, my parents came for Easter, as they often did. My father was being more himself than usual that weekend, or maybe I’d just grown more intolerant. He, as always, tried to keep me as his captive audience, spouting his esoteric psychology/theology that was unconnected to real life, but (he thought) made him sound so brilliant that he was smarter than anyone else. He, as always, wanted to impress me with his lofty words. So many times over the years, I sat, his captive audience, listening and growing tense and angry. It was no use arguing with him, I learned. He believed he was the Brilliant One and no one understood him because he was so above us all.
Something happened. Maybe it was the earthquake in my soul that erupted that spring, uncovering years of pain, trying to deny my own experiences as a woman and mold myself into male theology and experiences. Maybe it was that I felt like a hole in the ceiling opened and there was light shining in as I wrestled with and began healing the depression that was so much a part of me. But I was Fed Up.
Something burst open in me. I told him off. I told him everything I kept pent up inside of me all those years of sitting at his feet, listening to him pour his Great Wisdom over me, enlightening me. I was angry, finally, that I’d been so invisible to him all these years. That I was “just a woman.” “You’re just like your mother,” he often said when he was angry with me, as if it was an insult. I was tired of him always taking whatever he wanted because he felt entitled. He took and took and took. He always came first. Before me, before all three of my brothers. Before my mother. I was Fed Up.
I told him I was tired of his psychology. I was tired of swallowing everything he shoved down my throat and never speaking up. I told him I was tired of being analyzed like a specimen all my life, his special personal project. I was tired of his arrogance, his refusal to ever listen to my “inferior” thoughts and ideas.
He lost it. He exploded. I’d never seen my father get angry before that night. I heard stories of him throwing iced tea in Don’s face when Don was a teen, or Mom slapping Don’s face. I’d heard of Rollo’s temper when it came to Don and Mark. I’d never seen it. Till then. It was alarming.
“How dare you! I am an important person!” He yelled. “How dare you think you know anything! How dare you think you know better than me!” He didn’t know that the rage he felt in that moment was nothing compared to the rage building up in me all my life– rage I’d swallowed back like bile until Easter Eve 2003.
My mother sobbed and ran outside, locking herself in the car. Dad went back to his bedroom and shut the door. I felt like a scolded child. Truth was always forbidden in my family. You smile when you feel like screaming. You laugh when you feel like crying.
I felt shaken to the core. But also liberated.
Easter morning I went ahead with worship, and we all pretended the night before had never happened. We never spoke of it. But I was different. It was a beginning for me– the first step in standing up, telling the truth, refusing to be ignored.
It was terrifying.
In May I drove down to Messiah College and met Reta. We spoke for a few hours. Talk was easy and good. She felt the stirrings of something holy having brought us together too. She suggested things for me to read. She told me about the magazine that she’d been a part of for many years, the “greatest hits” of which was in the book that I’d discovered at Border’s. She loaded me down with many, many issues which I would read hungrily.
I had no idea that a bigger explosion was about to happen. I had no idea that a challenge that I could never have imagined was about to fall into our lives that would further disrupt our hearts and souls. Everything felt brand new, liberating, exciting. But I could not have realized that it was also the beginning of the end of my pastoral ministry.