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Before the #metoo movement became defined with a hashtag, I found myself in the throws of an intense sexual abuse investigation. With an open letter to the Board of Trustees at our high school, my childhood friend, Liza, and I forced our alma mater to look deep into its past and its current culture regarding sexual abuse. The incident we brought to their attention occurred over twenty years prior to our letter, but it was as raw to us as when we were 17 year old girl-women. Although I was not the abused, but rather the “defender” of my abused friend, Liza and I share this story intimately. Our roles and experiences are different, but we were both victims of a culture that ignored sexual abuse. The investigation we triggered was simultaneously healing and difficult. You can read the blog I wrote about this almost cliche sexual abuse story of institutional preservation, male power, and female silencing.
When the news broke this week about Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s story of survival and courage, my experience confronting my alma mater came crashing back. Each news story, each detailed article incessantly picked at my #metoo wound. I was pleased to discover that my wound is mostly healed, but I could not ignore the connections. I could not ignore the anger that rose from deep within. I also could not ignore how defeated I felt. How many times will I have to listen to commentators ask, “Why is she telling her story now?” or “It happened 30 years ago. How can she be sure?”
Let me offer “you” some answers, “you” being the emotionally-bankrupt-head-in-the-sand politicians who ask such ignorant questions! Or as the Hawaii Sen Mazie Hirono said, “Shut up and Step Up!” But in my case I want you to Shut Up and Listen Up. Professor Ford is confronting a country. I only confronted a school. Imagine her courage. She has nothing to gain! Nor did I.
Why is she telling her story now?
Um, isn’t that obvious? Because Brett Kavanaugh has been nominated to the Supreme Court. Professor Ford is a patriot for sacrificing her privacy for the good of our country.
If you need a more nuanced answer: Christine Blasely Ford did tell her story earlier to her husband, therapist and probably many others. Women have been telling our stories of sexual abuse for centuries, but we have been silenced. For many of us our silencing has been covert. We’ve been silenced by our culture everytime we hear, “Boys will be boys” or my personal favorite, “It was just locker room talk.” We’ve been silenced when our mothers told us never to find ourselves in a room alone with a boy, because whatever happens after would be our fault. We’ve been silenced by our fellow classmates who heard the rumors about what happened and lowered their heads in shame, unable to look at us . . . as if we were at fault. We’ve been silenced by every comment that insinuates the way we dress, the way we act, the way we look, “asks for it.” We have been silenced by our sexual partners who didn’t want the past to inconveniently interrupt their pleasure.
I am confident that Professor Ford told a handful of people her story about the bathing suit that saved her. In fact, I am positive everytime she found herself struggling to take off a one piece bathing suit in a bathroom stall, she murmured a silent thanks. I can imagine the telling of her story, piece by piece, that has moved her from a place of shame and fear to a new place of survival and healing.
She has told her story. Now she is telling it again.
We have all told our stories before.
YOU HAVEN’T LISTENED!
I told my my headmaster twice that my friend was being abused by a teacher. He didn’t listen and worse, he didn’t care. I then told my dean and she told me to be quiet. Her words, “Abby, we already know what you think. Be quiet!” echo in my psyche.
Stop asking why we’ve never spoken up before. We have. You haven’t listened. And just to be clear, we get to share our stories of abuse and survival whenever we want. They belong to us. Not you.
How can she be sure what happened 30 years ago?
Scientists have proven that traumatic experiences leave a signature in the brain that is hard to erase. I can attest to this truth.
I can tell you where all my classrooms were located in my high school, my teachers’ names, and more. I have a very good memory. I could not tell you, however, the color of the walls, where each teacher placed book shelves or desks. I could only guess.
But I can tell you every detail of my dean’s office. I can tell you every detail of the meeting, where a group of other students and I went to seek help for our classmate who was being abused. I can tell you where I sat in that small room and where the dean first sat, and then stood, leaning against her desk. I can remember the hesitant, almost stalling voices of my classmates, too afraid to say the word, “sex.” I know now that my memory is so clear because the experience was traumatic. I’ve carried this moment with me for years in technicolor, and I can hear my dean’s voice, “Abby, we already know what you think. Be quiet!”
I am not surprised that Professor Ford can remember the sequence of events during that particular high school party: the two drunks boys pushing her into a deserted room, the struggle, the bathing suit, the hand over her mouth, the tumble, and her escape.
Years do not erase the memory of trauma. If only they did. When such memories are buried by the psyche so the victim can survive, they always return to haunt their hosts. In my work as a pastor I can’t tell you the number of times I have borne witness to women in the throws of terrible depressions who discover they have buried memories of sexual abuse. I have seen the scars on teenage girls’ arms after they have cut themselves because it was the only way they could dull the repressed memory-pain of sexual abuse. I have listened to a 60 year old woman tell of her father’s daily rape that she had blocked from her memory until she finally felt safe after his death.
Professor Ford has a story to tell. She remembers this story too vividly. Sexual abuse will never stop until we listen and believe. She is telling this story again with clarity and courage because it matters to the future of our country. It also matters to the many women who are still hiding their #metoo stories. Telling and listening is the only way as a nation we can heal and move forward into a new way of living as sexual beings of all gendered identities who never accept abuse as the norm.
#MeToo #UsToo #AllofUs
It's the New Year. A fresh start. We make resolutions. We feel empowered to change our lives. We can create new selves. But what kind of new selves do we want to be?
With the coming of the new year we are bombarded with conflicting advice about just what new path we should take. On one hand our news feeds are filled with ways to become more spiritually centered and balanced. Yet in one click the next newsfeed entices us with promises of sleek bodies, corporate success, and filled closets. (If your closets are already filled, there is another new year’s promise regarding organization and simplification. Or a new home with a bigger closet.)
These seductive promises are schizophrenic and also incredibly ironic. We are living in a moment of history with the lowest participation in faith community and the largest waist lines. Ours newsfeeds know for what we yearn: spirituality and healthier bodies.
A year ago I saved an advertisement I received in the mail. It was a glossy invitation to attend the “Ultimate Wealth Summit.” Tom Brady was a featured speaker. Just what is an ultimate wealth summit? And why is it a summit instead of a conference? My guess is that summit sounds bigger or more important somehow. It made me laugh. And sorry Patriots fans, but what does Tom Brady have to teach me? I can't throw a football and I don’t want to. Sure he’s got some self-discipline, but from my vantage point, a man with an incredibly abnormal talent does not have much to teach me about success.
But I digress.
Here’s the best part about this SUMMIT. They had a congress of “National Achievers.” I couldn’t figure out from their website just what made the members of this congress national achievers, but I was pretty certain it had something to do with their bank accounts. They promised to teach attendees how to raise “the essential capital to fund your passion,” “multiply their income,” and create “a systemised wealth plan.” These were only steps to the ultimate goal: enjoying life. Which is apparently impossible without gobs of money.
I need to stop writing here so I can gag.
As I was pursuing pinterest, searching the best advice on just how to obtain that sleek body I most intensely yearn for after my Christmas butter consumption, somehow the wealth summit snuck into my feed. It promised a new year. A new path to wealth. Prestige. Esteem. Everything I had sought after achieved. Maybe if I attended, I too could be a member of the congress of national achievers.
Clearly, the pin didn’t seduce me, even if I would love to be wealthy and a nationally recognized achiever. Yet this string of thoughts made me question our national obsession with New Year’s itself and collective dreams of being more spiritually centered, successful, balanced, organized, skinnier, wealthier . . . What if instead this year I didn’t seek after any promise? What if this year instead I gathered with regular old folks at a home, not a summit, and we decided we would be community? What if we decided we didn’t need to create a congress of national achievers, or a seven point plan on how to become that thing--wealthier, skinnier, better-- and instead we supported one another in our earnest, faith-filled, stumbling endeavors to be kinder? And then I remembered: I already do that! My New Year’s resolution is complete. I just need to continue to gather with the folks at Grace and Stratford Street. They expect nothing of me. They just desire my company, as I desire theirs.
New Year’s can be a good time for assessment--where we are in life, where we’re going, where we would like to go. It can also be an opportunity to assess where all those little voices in our head come from, the voices that tell us we’re not good enough, but that this product can make us better. But wouldn’t it be best, wouldn’t we thrive more, if instead we joined a community that told us we were already good enough? That we were already better than we could possibly imagine, that we were already beloved--by God? That’s what faith communities do. Now, if we can only listen to them, and tune out all the voices that tell us we’re not good enough. Because we are good enough, because God delights in us, right now, as we are.
Please read this if you are a gun owner.
Please read this if you believe nothing can be done to stop the mass shootings in America.
Please read this if you are afraid your child will not return from school one day.
Please read this if you have become overwhelmed by the gun debate in our country.
Please read this if you are afraid.
Please read this if you are a Christian.
The United States has a sever gun problem.
Please do not rationalize away the above stats. Guns are killing American citizens at a horrifying rate. We cannot ignore the recent back to back shootings in Las Vegas or Sutherland Springs, Texas. Thoughts and prayers are empty platitudes. As a Christian minister, I believe America needs policy changes, not prayer.
Americans are obsessed with safety. If a child falls out of a crib because of a faulty railing, every crib is recalled. Americans are obsessed with health. If we are told that pomegranates are good for us, all of a sudden our supermarkets are filled with pomegranate snacks, juice, treats, infused coffee. So why do we continue to do nothing about guns which are one of the greatest safety and health concerns of this century? Why are we the only western country that watches, inert, as our fellow citizens are slaughtered around us?
There are a number of false rationalizations & complicated rhetoric whirling around gun control, which as of late, have left our country immobile:
Renee Graham, argued in the Boston Globe (October 8, 2017) that the United States is a state sponsor of terrorism, “Our government is complicit in at least 58 murders and more than 500 injuries at a country music festival in Las Vegas. By failing to consider even common sense gun control policies after previous mass shootings, legislatures are supporting those who terrorise and kill people.”
I would take Graham’s argument further. As a follower of Jesus, I believe the American Christian Church is a sponsor of terrorism for remaining deafeningly quiet on gun control. The Christian Church has loudly declared its concerns over unborn fetuses and led a successful campaign to limit women’s access to safe and affordable abortions. I am confident that the Church could lead as a successful campaign to mandate common sense gun control, but it hasn’t. In remaining quiet, the Christian Church has made it clear that the deaths of thousands are unimportant. Domestic terrorism is acceptable. And in doing so they embraced the irony that elementary students in Sandy Hook, CT matter less than unwanted fetuses.
The common Christian response to another mass shooting, "thoughts and prayers," without the will to change policy or practice, is the very definition of "faith without works." As a progressive Christian I’m not praying anymore. As a wise clergy friend said, “...right now I don't have it in me to overwhelm this great empty space with hope-filled murmuring about God’s love and abiding presence in the midst of tragedy.” Instead, I’m acting. I’m speaking the uncomfortable things many do not want to hear. I am voting. And I am pleading with you, if you claim to follow Jesus, to join me in fighting for gun control, and at minimum common sense gun laws.
Read this again: Over the past 50 years more Americans have been killed by guns that in all the wars in our nation’s history.
As Christians, we cannot stay quiet any longer. We must mobilize, less we become the church of guns.
As citizens, we cannot remain inactive any longer. We must enact real change and policy, less we become a nation of guns.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories.” -Anne Lamott
#MeToo. Yes, me too.
I might not have shared #MeToo on my facebook wall with as much confidence last year. I thought my story of survival didn’t count. In fact, I thought it wasn’t my story, but the story of my childhood friend, Liza. Thanks to her courage and her insight, I have come to understand this is my story, her story, and most powerfully our story.
The story from my point of view is fairly predictable. It is a story of willful institutional preservation and denial, sexual abuse and power, and silencing.
In the fall of my high school senior year it became apparent to me that my longtime friend, Liza, was in an “abnormal” relationship with a male teacher. I was too young and inexperienced to know what made me uncomfortable about their unusual closeness. I did what I was told to do; I spoke to the head of our school. I told him in detail my concerns, even sharing with him that Liza was spending weekends at the teacher’s home. I heard nothing more. Two weeks later I followed up with the headmaster, still deeply worried for Liza. The headmaster asked me to be patient. Now I understand that asking for patience was his way of telling me to be quiet.
My patience wore out in the late winter. A group of fellow classmates often discussed our growing concern for Liza. We whispered, never naming out loud what we most feared. I was tired of inaction, tired of being “patient” with institutional power. I organized a group of female classmates who shared my concerns and we went to speak to our dean. We were ignored and I was silenced. When my classmates spoke of our concerns, they were afraid to speak their worst suspicion: sexual abuse. At one point in the conversation, I said, “Mrs. X, what we are trying to say is . . . ,” but before I could finish my sentence, I was silenced. Her exact words were: “We already know what you think, Abby. Please be quiet.”
I remember this meeting like it was yesterday; the office, the hesitant voices of my classmates, and the dismissal. I know now that my memory is so clear because the experience was traumatic. Scientists have proven that traumatic experiences leave a signature in the brain that is hard to erase. I’ve carried this moment with me for years in technicolor, the words, “Be QUIET. We know what you think,” echoing in my psyche.
This institutional silencing was effective. I shut down there and then in that dean’s office. Until this year, I have avoided the school like a childhood nightmare. Today, I understand that I was silenced because I spoke the truth.
The story, however, does not end with my silencing, or even with my graduation from the elite prep school. It did not end when Liza detangled herself from the lengthy abuse she suffered at the hands of a protected predator. Instead our particular story is unfolding now in hope-filled and unanticipated ways, beyond survival to a place of healing and insight.
A few years back I wrote a blog on forgiveness (10/19/2014). I vaguely mentioned the above story, referencing things I had been unable to forgive. Liza read the blog and contacted me. Are you writing about me? I was concerned I might have hurt her, but instead I discovered she had no idea anyone tried to help her. What followed were lengthy, honest, and healing messages back and forth.
This spring the news story about Choate-Rosemary Hall’s sexual abuse culture broke. The story was too much. Neither Liza nor I could remain silent. Each of us, on our own, came to the conclusion we must speak up. Together, we decided to act. We wrote letters. We created a community of support. We forced our alma mater to investigate its past. With shock and gratitude, it is significant to note we have been treated with respect and kindness. Our story has not been dismissed but listened to with attention and care.
This is where our story becomes uncommon. This is where our story becomes transformative.
As we were preparing to break our silence, Liza and I had many lengthy conversations. Out of respect for the abuse she had suffered, I often deferred to Liza with statements like, “You lead,” “This is your story,” and “I’m here to support you.” Finally Liza, after numerous reminders that I was also a victim, said point blank, “This is your story too Abby. You were affected just as deeply as I was.”
Liza had to help me understand that it was my story too: I had been victimized by sexual violence and I was a survivor. I all of a sudden understood that there was a reason I was depressed in high school my senior year. There was a reason I didn’t trust institutions. There was a reason I didn’t trust male teachers. There was a reason when I received the latest alumni news in the mail I could barely touch the glossy pages. Recently when I asked her if I could use her name for this blog, her response was clear, “Yes. I am part of your story and you are a part of mine.”
The breadth of our story came crashing in on me when I was interviewed by the two lawyers retained by my alma mater. The three hours I spent with these deeply present and intelligent women were holy. Have you ever heard the words holy and lawyer in the same sentence? It was. They listened and created enough room for me to tell my entire story from beginning to end. Through their questions, the edges of our story became more clearly defined. Through their attention, our story became more real.
After the long interview, and then subsequent meeting with the board of trustees, Liza and I had hot cocoa and coffee. We were weary and unready to return home to our children and spouses. We needed time to settle. It was then, as if carried on some wave beyond my control, I knew in my bones this was our story. Our story must be told. We were silenced once. We would not be silenced again.
In the months that have followed, I have reflected on the enormity of our story. Paradoxically, it was only when Liza helped me claim this story as not only her story, but also our story, that healing began. In telling this story again and again I have made new emotional memories. I have begun to finally grieve for the many young women, including Liza and myself, who learned that we mattered less than the institution. In telling our story, Liza and I have made space for others in our alma mater to tell their stories of survival, abuse, and even shameful complicity. There is hope in telling and listening.
The legal team’s investigation is coming to a close. Yesterday I ended a conversation with the lead lawyer by thanking her. I couldn’t help but to be a pastor; I asked how she was. How exhausting it must be to live with these stories as a professional, I commented. Her response was disarming, “It is. I live and breathe this story,” she remarked. “But this is good and important work. You and Liza are remarkable women. I have never known a story of two women with such courage and insight.”
Before I write any further I want to make it clear that I am uncomfortable calling myself remarkable. In fact, I have been taught all my life, like most women, to downplay compliments, to underestimate my abilities, and to always defer to others. Part of telling this story is to shake myself of this proclivity.
I thought that our story was just one of many stories and it is. But it is also a story of two remarkable women. It is a story of a feisty teenage girl who refused to be patient. A girl who grew to continue her outspoken work in the world as a minister and advocate for the least and last. It is the story of another seventeen year old girl who survived and then found healing and built a life full of love. A girl who is now an emotionally insightful feminist who speaks her story with courage and acuity.
I want to share this story not only because remaining silent about sexual abuse only strengthens the culture of abuse, but also because I want to shout to the rooftops that two remarkable women survived and share a powerful story together. I want the world to know that we are tough and emotionally perceptive, determined and sensitive, full of old hurt and new beginnings, angry and hopeful. We survived apart, but together we are thriving and hopeful. Perhaps our story will change a long-standing culture of institutional preservation and sexual abuse in an elite school that has a terrible past. I want to share our story loudly because in sharing it, I claim my space among legions of women who have fought and survived. I share our story because I want my daughter to one day read this and be filled with pride and move forward into her own story with fierce courage.
#MeToo #UsToo #AllofUs
Few. have escaped the distorting culture of sexual abuse. Yet together we can share our stories. And in the sharing there is powerful healing to be discovered. Today, I pray for the real hard work of transformation.
Want to do something constructive is response to this story. Consider giving to Equality Now.
"Thoughts and prayers," without the will to change policy or practice, is the very definition of "faith without works." How much longer can we wait for the mass killings to end? It seems like not long ago, Grace Community Boston gathered heartbroken, during Advent, shocked at the news of Sandy Hook. In response we wrote letters, plastered bumper stickers on our cars that read, “If not now, when? Ban assault weapons!” with the date of the Sandy Hook tragedy. As a church we joined the Everytown for Gun Safety movement. The following year we collected the same number of mittens and gloves as the children senselessly murdered in Sandy Hook and donated them to a shelter. We have done much more than pray, we have acted. But still, the killing goes on. Guns are idolized in our culture.
Here’s a little perspective: 54 Americans were killed and 425 were wounded during the main phase of 2nd Fallujah, in November 2004. This was the biggest battle of the Iraq War. In Las Vegas, 59 were killed and over 500 wounded.
What are we to do?
In this moment, perhaps the only truly Christian response is lament. Action next week. But this week, lament.
A good and wise clergy friend posted the following lament to her wall. It has rung true for me this week:
“I'm not 'praying for Las Vegas' today. I'm not praying for anything or anywhere or anyone right now. I'm on strike. Not sure when God and I will be back on speaking terms. Right now I don't have it in me to overwhelm this great empty space with hope-filled murmuring about God’s love and abiding presence in the midst of tragedy. I don't rule it out for later, but right now I can't even bear the thought of 'God.' I'm not looking for reassurances or encouraging words. I won't be rushed to Easter. I'm sitting still with this crucified absurdity for however long it takes.”
Raise an angry fist to God. She won’t mind. In fact, maybe she is raising a fist too. Lament is the faithful response. We will act later.
Sabbath. Remember? It’s one of the ten commandments. God is pretty clear when God commands us to take a sabbath. There is much in the scriptures that is very unclear. Sabbath is not one of them. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter” (Exodus 20.8).
No excuses: we are to take a sabbath for a full day. Yet few of us do. If ever. Not even for half a day.
People used to take the sabbath more seriously. Was it because they were more religious? Or was it because their bodies would have fallen apart if they did not rest from the exhausting toil of physical labor? I’m not sure. But I know that sabbath is important and elusive. For me, too elusive.
I have discovered recently how essential sabbath is to our spirits. It was certainly essential to my family on our eighty-five day out west trip. Our entire family would reset after keeping sabbath on the road, ready for the next adventure, filled with gratitude for what we had seen, and grounded in the present. I was eager to remember this learning when we returned from our blessed sabbatical adventure a few weeks ago. (Yes, it is not lost on me that sabbatical and sabbath are related.) I wanted to hold on to sabbath. I made sure every week my calendar reserved a time for our family to have sabbath together--Friday night movie nights, Saturday campfires. I wanted to somehow hold onto the new internal clock our family had developed. But I forgot about myself. I ignored my own need to keep sabbath.
Over the past three weeks, upon returning from my sabbatical, I’ve worked too much. This was to be expected. There was much to catch up on. Not to mention, I wanted to catch up, I was eager to be back at work. But then things spun out of control. For a nine day stretch I didn’t take a day off, or an evening off, or anything. I became grumpy and weary. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit seems to have an interesting and humourous way of doing her own thing. On Monday I had an eye doctor appointment, the usual see-how-much-vision-Abby-has-lost-this-year sort of appointment. The doctor informed me I was overdue for an eye dilation in order to check the health of my eyes. The doctor warned me I wouldn’t be able to read for at least two to three hours. Okay, I thought, I’ll be able to start work around 1:00. That’s fine. There were plenty of other things I could do.
For some reason my eyes did not recover quickly. I wasn’t able to do any computer work or writing until late Monday evening. Really late. I tried and I couldn’t. The Holy Spirit had her way. Instead, I enjoyed a full life giving day of forced sabbath. I cooked and listened to a book and enjoyed my daughter. That night I fell peacefully asleep and did not wake in the middle of the night with racing thoughts. On Tuesday I didn’t feel frantic, wondering just how I would accomplish all the tasks before me. Instead I moved forward with my work gratefully. And it felt like overnight, somehow, my work list shrunk, as if someone else had edited it.
I wonder how it would change our culture as a whole, not just on an individual level, if everyone took a day of rest? How can we in this postmodern world, where all of us carry our work around on our phones, carve out sabbath in our lives? We can’t inist our eye doctors dilate our eyes once a week, although I think that might help . . . .
We have to change. We have to figure this out. We shouldn’t feel guilty when we’re being unproductive. We have to value our lives and our relationships more than success, more than our task lists, more than our wasteful busyness. The good news is that sabbath works, and keeping sabbath can change us and change the world. The challenge is to keep sabbath in a frenetic world. We need rest. We need sabbath.
On Facebook someone recently encouraged me to pray. This encouragement was in response to one of my many enraged posts about a policy change that would affect the poor. Pray? Did you say PRAY!? The comment sent me into orbit.
Full disclosure: anything can send me into orbit these days. Like many progressive Christians, I am enraged by the current administration's rhetoric about the other, be they poor, Muslim, minorities, transgendered, et al. While commuting in my trusted mini van, angry rebuttals are shouted as I listen to NPR-- as if the commentator can hear me on the other side of the radio. Spiritually centered? Nope. Not these days. Concerned deeply for justice? Got that covered.
Let us return to prayer before I digress into a debate about health care reform.
After I calmed down, just a little, I wondered why this well meaning person’s post suggesting I pray made me so angry. Could it be that I found prayer anemic in the face of millions of Americans losing their health care? Martin Luther King Jr reminded his white colleagues, who often encouraged patience and prayer, that he took prayer too seriously to use it as an excuse for avoiding responsibility. Prayer is not going to ensure that millions of Americans keep health care.
It occurred to me in that moment that prayer is a tool, not an objective. As one who follows Jesus, my ultimate objective is not for a more prayerful world, but a more just and equitable world. Prayer, along with activism and community organizing, are tools Christians are called to employ to seek the kingdom of God here on Earth.
My Facebook friend was not wrong to suggest I pray. I admire great Christian activists, like Dorothy Day, who were committed to daily prayer. Too often, however, prayer is mistaken as the only Christian resource, or worse, the end goal of spiritual life. The American evangelical movement has been overly concerned with personal piety. As long as someone has a prayer life, it doesn’t seem to matter, for example, if they pay their employees a living wage. (The Walton Family, owners of Walmart, are a case in point.) Just a perusal of a Christian book store will confirm this: so many books on prayer, so few on justice.
This singular attention to prayer misrepresents Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry--his very work-- was to turn the social order upside down. He sought justice for the poor, healing for the sick, protection for the most vulnerable, and inclusion for the excluded. He prayed in private more than in public. Mostly he stirred the pot. His sermons were like protest marches, his healing subversive. At his first public appearance in his hometown synagogue (Luke 4) he reads from the prophet Isaiah:
[God] has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners. (Isaiah 61:1)
In this moment, Jesus makes clear the objectives of his ministry. His “stump speech” makes no mention of prayer; it’s all about hope, and mercy, and liberation.
Personal piety was not a prerequisite for Jesus’ disciples, or for Jesus. More often than not, Jesus prayed alone, away from the crowds, for the courage and energy to continue. In this way, Jesus used prayer as a tool. In a rare moment when Jesus speaks of prayer, he describes it as a private affair: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others . . . But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” (Matthew 6:5-6). Jesus never admonishes his followers to pray without ceasing. Paul does, not Jesus.
Activism--phone calls, protesting, marching, writing letters, meeting with legislators, voting--and prayer, but not prayer alone-- will help ensure that an elderly person in Iowa has the medication they need and that a young mother in Texas can take her feverish newborn to the hospital. As one who follows Jesus, my goal is the kingdom-- a kingdom in which all people have health care, not just those who can afford it. Prayer is a tool for achieving God’s kingdom. Jesus sought after this kingdom, working hard to to create it, and he prayed along the way, but he did much more. So shall we.
My year began on January 21st when I gathered with over 500,000 citizens (well 500 thousand plus if you embrace facts opposed to alternative facts) in Washington, DC. I stood beside my 13 year old and 10 year old boys and a dozen other members of my faith community. We listened, cheered, held up signs, waited in line for the port-a-potties, marched, laughed, and cried. Since that day I have been trying to process what I learned, what it felt like to be in a moment of history with my two beloved boys, and just what this movement means now and for the future of our country.
This will not shock you if you have read any of my previous blogs: I am a progressive Christian feminist. What has happened since since Donald Trump moved into the West Wing is very concerning to me. But I am not a policy wonk or political organizer. I am a pastor, a mother of two boys and a girl, a woman, a feminist, a community leader. I haven’t had anything to add to the conversation until I preached this Sunday.
Long before I headed to DC, I planned my Jan-February preaching schedule. I decided before Lent began that it would be a good idea (yes my thinking was no deeper than “this seems like a good idea”) to spend time in the Hebrew Scriptures. I like Exodus. I chose my scriptures. The first Sunday we would start at the very beginning, Exodus 1, with the midwives. Sounded like a “good plan.” I then went to DC.
When I returned the story found in Exodus 1 took on new meaning. I discovered it was a story not just of faith, but of resistance. The beginning of Exodus, chapters 1 & 2, is about a group of women who cooperate, communicate, and work together across social divides to thwart a genocide. Central to this resistance movement are two midwives who, like Rosa Parks, spark the wider resistance. Their names have been forgotten as Sunday school classes learn of Moses and Aaron and their violent successor Joshua, but never of Shiphrah and Puah.
We know very little about the midwives Shiphrah and Puah. But they must have enjoyed a certain level of privilege and power to be meeting with Pharaoh face to face. We can only assume they were well respected, so well respected that the Pharaoh needed them on his side. The Pharaoh orders them to kill, with their very own experienced hands, every Hebrew boy they usher into the world. They resist, knowing full well that resistance in Pharaoh's land can only mean death.
Learning of their refusal, the enraged Pharaoh calls them back, wondering what has happened, “Why aren’t you killing the Hebrew babies!?” he demands. Their response traps the Pharaoh in his own ignorance and prejudice. Capitalizing on his conviction that the Hebrew people are less than human, they explain that the Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women, “they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (Exodus 1:19) The word translated vigorous has a possible second meaning in Hebrew--animal like. The Pharaoh thinks that Jews are animal like. But the two midwives know better--perhaps they know that we are all human? Certainly, they know race and class have no bearing on how long women labor. So they refuse to side with the Pharaoh and refuse to accept the Empire’s “truth”. Their subversion exposes the Pharaoh’s plan and his malevolence. Soon many women become involved, including Moses’ mother and sister, and Pharaoh's daughter. Together, these women save the children.
There are many things about the midwives’ story that are radically different than mine.They acted in secret; my demonstration was public. They endangered their lives; I was protected by the US Constitution and a large police presence. And I’m not nearly as famous or influential as they were. The Pharaoh met with them, but Trump won’t meet with me! (And I think we’re better off that way.)
Yet I do have a few things in common with the midwives. First, as a pastor, I find myself aligned with the work of a midwife, as one who welcomes life. Much of my work is about protecting, nurturing, and celebrating life in all of its varied forms, whether that life be a transgender youth, a Muslim refugee, a homeless veteran, a hungry family, or a spiritually abused adult. Second, like the midwives, I enjoy a certain level of protective privilege. The midwives lives were never endangered; Pharaoh wasn’t after their own offspring. As a well educated straight white woman living in Massachusetts with great health care, I’m fine. Yet like the midwives, I believe that people of privilege can be a part of God’s liberating work, that we must be a part of the resistance.
Finally like the midwives, I am a woman of faith. In just the few short verses in which we learn of the midwives’ stories we are told twice that they “fear God.” Although the phrase “fear God” echos uncomfortably in our modern ears, it describes someone who respected God and God’s ways. I marched in Washington because I am a feminist, because I value progressive social policies, because I am rearing a girl, but mostly I marched because as a Christian I have been called to honor God’s ways. God values life-- all life. God values the life of newborn Hebrews and crotchety old Egyptians. God values the life of Mexican immigrants and angry American nativists. God values the life of women making difficult choices about their future. She values the life of LGBTQ+ folks, straights, Muslims, Christians, refugees, and everyone who lacks power.
In Shiphrah and Puah we encounter ordinary women who act courageously to defy authority, to do what they believe to be right. Their story is but one of many accounts in the Hebrew Bible of people whose faith confronted the intimidating power of oppressive authority. Let us, as people of faith, not grow complacent. Let us as people of faith, especially if we are in positions of privilege, resist. Let our courage speak louder than the fearmongering lies that power foists on us today.
If you are looking for faithful prayer, please read my colleague Mary Luti’s blog entitled, And Love is Everything: A Newtown Carol.
Poetry often expresses what prose cannot. I am grateful for her words:
Love is a sea of sorrow,
love is a broken wing;
love has no guns, no forces,
love cannot win a battle:
And love is everything.
If you are willing to be present to the empty, please continue to read.
Sandy Hook. December 14, 2012. Adam Lanza. 20 children between ages 6 and 7. Six adult staff. The deadliest mass shooting at a school in US history. The third deadliest mass shooting in US history.
On December 14, 2012, my sweet freckle faced boy was a first grader across the street at our public elementary school. Now my daughter is a first grader at the same school. Today she is probably doing any of the following things at school-- mastering her pencil grip, learning short vowel sounds, working on her addition and subtraction facts, listening to her teacher read from their latest chapter book, absorbing what it takes to be a positive member of a community, and daydreaming, because 1st graders still have permission to daydream.
I walked her to school this morning like normal. I watched the bounce of her ponytail and kissed her goodbye before she ran happily into school, eager to begin her day. I am deeply grateful that my daughter is seven and totally oblivious to this day’s history. Totally oblivious that some mom just like me walked their child just like her to school, confident that elementary school is a safe place.
The shooting prompted renewed debate about gun control. I was certain the death of twenty small children would finally tip the balance. Nothing changed. Our culture's obsession with guns persists. Most political leaders remain cowards, more willing to talk about the death of an aborted fetus than innocent kindergarteners and first graders. If we had paid as much attention to Sandy Hook as Benghazi, would that have helped?
Nothing has changed around gun laws, but I will tell you what has changed. Twenty families have one less stocking to hang this Christmas. Countless other families still wonder why their child was spared. First responders still wake in the middle of the night from ceaseless nightmares. A new school has replaced the site of the killing and a memorial garden has been planted over the rubble of the classrooms where 20 kindergartners and 1st graders were shot dead.
But has anything changed outside of Newtown, CT? I can still keep December 14th at arms length even if my heart aches for the families of the victims. I know viscerally what it is like to love a first grader, yet I am still confident that my first grader is safe. For me, little has changed. That is the shameful truth I must confess.
What are we to make of this senseless violence, knowing that their deaths didn’t at least prompt change? What should we do this day as faithful people? One thing we can do is lament.
The Biblical book, Lamentations, means how in Hebrew. To actively lament means to let out anger and grief, to cry out “Enough!” and ask “How God, how?” I learned in my pastoral education that lamenting is essential to the healing process. We were told to honor the lamentations of those we serve and that in doing so healing would eventually come. We were told that faithful lamentation makes our grief holy.
Today, as I returned home from walking my daughter to school, I decided that what I learned in seminary was a crock of shit. Lament isn’t sacred. Yes, it should be spoken and heard. Yes, I do believe God bears witness to the cries of those keening with grief. But I know that lament isn’t always followed by healing. I refuse to say the “comforting theology” I was trained to speak, that lament transforms grief into something holy. There is nothing holy or sacred about 20 small bloody bodies. Nothing. No lament can make it so.
My one offering on this horrid day--lament-- has come up empty. The lament I offer beside the lament of the mother who cannot get out of bed today, remembering the way her beloved child looked before she dropped her off at school, is feeble.
Empty. Futile. Feeble. Guns still proliferate. Our nation still bleeds. And twenty children are still gone.
How long O Lord, how long must we wait for guns to be banished from our nation? How long until the abominable violence stops? How long?
My seven year old and I decorated our home with nativity scenes from all over the world. As a child I loved to carefully set up the creche in my mother’s recently emptied hutch. I had just a way to place the angels and shepherds. I often attached Jesus’ widespread arms to Mary for it made sense to me that Mary would be holding her newborn babe. My Lydia is as attentive as I was, but her preoccupations are different.
To this day, I always place each nativity piece turned outward, last-supper-like, so that the onlooker can see each figure. Mary is always near Jesus and over her shoulder the others look. Lydia’s scene is different. Mary and Joseph are tightly huddled around Jesus. The other pieces encircle the new parents and babe, often their backs turned to the viewer. I have restrained myself this Advent; I haven’t rearranged Lydia’s presentation. They were hers to set up and she visits them daily.
I asked her about one scene, “You can barely see Jesus, he’s tucked inside so.” She responded with clarity and exasperation, “You want him out of the rain, don’t you?!”
Those who heard the angels’ choir and followed a star were fully immersed in the scene before them. They beheld a perfectly normal infant who promised to change everything. He was born, as Mary tells us in her revolutionary song, to turn the world upside down. The child in the manger will show his strength by scattering the bluffing braggarts. He will knock tyrants off their high horses and pull victims out of the mud. He will invite the starving poor to a banquet and leave the callous rich out in the cold (Luke 1, Eugene Peterson’s translation). The shepherds and visitors from the east came to see the child of Mary’s song. They did not come so they could be remembered years later as small wooden and clay figures. They did not come to establish a cozy quaint holiday. They came to behold. Lydia seems to know this. Her figures all look at Jesus, gathered around, urgently waiting for what would happen next.
This Advent season, I am looking in with Lydia, and with the shepherds, angels, and wise men. My neck is stretched, my feet are arched, so I too might catch a glimpse of the child who will change the world. I am watching intently even though outside the manger the world spins out of control: hate has become ordinary public discourse, threats are effective communication. I keep my eyes steady in hope that once again the world will be turned upside down, that once again the bluffing braggarts will be scattered, the tyrants knocked down from seats of power, and the callous rich left out in the cold.
Perhaps I’m looking in because I can’t bear to look out. Or maybe I’m looking in because I hope. Some might call my hope naive, but this is the same hope that has sustained all the saints I revere--Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jane Addams, Cesar Chavez. They persevered through the Wilderness, their eyes set on the Promised Land, leading America into God’s imagination. I choose to hope like they did. And I join an earnest seven year old who knows--intuitively and intimately--that something powerful happened in a manger 2,000 years ago, something worthy of hope.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.