Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
– Dorothy Gale, Wizard of Oz
If you’ve never experienced women in the pulpit, it is my opinion that you have missed out on a great opportunity. Growing up in a Southern Baptist church, this was simply unheard of. We were taught that the Bible prohibits woman as ministers. Thankfully, I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to believe everything I was taught as a child. I can read and decide for myself. Looking back, it dawns on me that women have been at the very center of ministry for years, despite being denied their place in the pulpit in some places. In fact, it’s apparent women were some of Jesus’ most ardent followers and held a prominent place in the early church. My mother was part of the WMU (Women’s Missionary Union) her entire life and a very active church member. In the past few years and particularly at the end of her life, I came to realize the large, far-reaching ministry that was my mother. I have no way of knowing how many people she helped over the years, but what I’m aware of is staggering. And, today, I thank God for that. My intention, however, isn’t to get into a shouting match over what the Bible does or does not say. Today I know the grace of not having to be right – or to prove you wrong.
No, this is a story of a homecoming – an unintentional homecoming at best. It’s about a kid who walked away from the church around age 17 and pretended to never look back. Unfortunately, the reality is that I lived most of my angry life in the past. What much of it came down to, I realize now, was a deep and abiding distrust of men. I’ll discuss more of that later, but the important thing now is that I could not conceive of any circumstance in which I would willingly return to church. In his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Harper Collins), Philip Yancey relates this story:
“In my experience, rejoicing and gladness are not the first images that come to mind when people think of the church. They think of holier-than-thous. They think of church as a place to go after you have cleaned up your act, not before. They think of morality, not grace. ‘Church!’ said the prostitute, ‘Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.’ ”
Even the most dedicated church-goers should be able to relate to this in what they see all around them in our society. A Harris poll indicates that 26% of those surveyed attend services once a week or more often, while at the other end, 25% said they never attend services. No, churches were places filled to the brim and overflowing with hypocrites. Case closed, roll credits, the end.
And it was the end for a very long time. In 2008, however, events conspired to push me into therapy. I’d begun to wonder just how long I really thought I could hold out ignoring so many things in my past. I found a therapist through a friend in Austin and set to work. That probably sounds a little like I was ready to just get in there and “git ‘er done”. No, this seemed the most frightening thing I’ve ever done. But I was determined to follow through this time. I’d tried, sort of, too many times before, got scared, ran. Now, I just didn’t think I had another ounce of strength left to hide from myself.
About three months into therapy, a dear friend of mine mailed me a copy of William P. Young’s The Shack (Windblown Media), insisting I needed to read it. Very reluctantly, I read it. The book had a profound effect on me. A few cracks were appearing in my armor – and I wasn’t sure I liked that at all. Just about the time I was reading the book, my step-sister was dying of cancer. We hadn’t had a tremendous amount of contact over the years, but I was able to see her near the end when she was in hospice.
About a month after she died, it occurred to me one day that I really should be in better contact with my step-mother. She lived, after all, a couple of miles from me. I decided perhaps I could surprise her by showing up to sit with her in church. To be honest, I thought it would be a “safer” place to see her, despite my revulsion for churches. Perhaps I’ll go into that sometime.
The important thing here is that I showed up one Sunday morning in time for the service. I was nervous and looked around for my step-mother. What if she wasn’t even there that morning? What would I do? I mean, I couldn’t really just stay alone for the service. I might have, though, for the simple fact that I’m so caught up in what it looks like – what I look like. How would it look if I just turned around and walked back out? Thankfully, I didn’t have to make that decision because I spotted some red hair down near the front. I headed up the aisle. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that she didn’t recognize me even though I was standing directly in front of her. I had to speak before she was able to register that I was actually there. She seemed happy to see me. I was pretty sure that was a good sign.
But something was different here. I couldn’t quite place it at first. There were people walking around in robes, but I wasn’t sure I spotted the minister yet. And robes? This was a Baptist church, wasn’t it? I, of course, tried to look around as little as possible. I mean I was dressed okay – jacket, tie, polished shoes. Still, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. God help me if any of these people tried to talk to me – to convert me! Nope, wasn’t here for that. Surprise step-mother, sit with her a bit, make my escape. Escape, however, seemed a little problematic. After all, we were seated about three rows from the front. I’d just have to think about it. I’m a born problem-solver, except where it concerns me.
When it was time for the service to begin, all I could see at the front was the organist. Even the choir loft was empty. One of those people in a robe – I believe it was a woman — walked up to the podium and welcomed everyone. There were a few words, then she walked down and out the side door. As Alice would have said, it just got curiouser and curiouser. The organist began to play. It was a beautiful piece and I relaxed just a little. When the music was over, she began to play a hymn. From somewhere behind me, there was singing. There was probably some responsive reading after that, then the first hymn for the congregation. What a polite church! They had an asterisk next to the hymns or other readings where you were supposed to stand. According to the matching asterisk at the bottom of the worship notes, you were asked to stand “if you are able”. We stood. As we sang the hymn, people in black robes and the choir (gray robes) processed to the front. Not processed as in “processed cheese”, you understand. No, the accent is on the second half of the word. Like a procession. Choir first, black robes after.
Everyone arrived at the front, the choir filtered into the choir loft, the people in black robes sat at either side of the ambon. Seriously, look it up. That elevated platform at the front is the ambon. I didn’t know that at the time and the best I could bring to mind was “stage”. You may prefer dais, but I’m now particularly fond of ambon. I go to a church these days that also has a narthex. Gee, there’s so much to learn at church!
I was trying to follow the beautiful worship notes so I’d know where we were. I think these were called church bulletins when I was growing up. Anyway, I might have solved part of the mystery of the people in black robes had I read a little ahead in the notes. I wasn’t sure I was supposed to do that, though, so I just had to let it all unfold as it would. More reading. Standing up, sitting down. I should probably mention that I have Meneire’s disease. That’s the fancy term for nausea and dizziness caused by damage to the inner ear once it’s severe enough. I’d had these spells of dizziness for seventeen years at this point and it was now almost continuous. So, the up and down of the service threatened, literally, to topple me. But I had far worse things to worry about at the moment.
This church had something called Children’s Time. I’d noticed it in the notes, but had no idea what it meant. Shortly, I found out. It turns out one of those women in a black robe was the children’s minister – yes, minister. It said so right there in the notes. She sat on the steps of the ambon [see earlier definition] and the kids of the audience – I mean congregation – came and sat around her. My step-mother leaned over and said to me, “That was you once.” I thought I’d die. I certainly remembered nothing of the sort and didn’t want to remember. I’d already spent 40-plus years trying to forget all sorts of things. This would have been one of them for sure.
Be that as it may, the lesson for the children continued. I should probably mention that I was already pretty emotional. The hymns both terrified and comforted me at the same time. And I didn’t want to remember that hymns were capable of comforting me. I was okay with terror. The lesson was “sometimes we need help”. Pretty sure I started to lose it at that point. Memories of feeling like I couldn’t ask for help came flooding in. I wondered to myself why I wasn’t taught it was okay to ask for help. That thought, though, segued to the more important idea of “how wonderful these children are being taught this – and in church!”
Another woman in a black robe went up to the podium (should I be saying pulpit?) to say a prayer. Turns out she was the associate minister. Remember, I said curiouser and curiouser? Well, that wasn’t even the half of it. It wasn’t long before the last woman in a black robe walked up to give the sermon. You know, I was still holding out for the guy in a black robe up there on the ambon. Nope, turns out he was the youth minister. Oh, there was the guy who was the music director, too, but I’d already figured him out. Now I had more and more to ponder. It seemed my world was being turned upside-down.
Looking back, I believe it was the first Sunday in February when I showed up in church. That meant it was Communion Sunday. Here again, this was different from what I experienced as a child. We didn’t sit in a pew waiting for an usher to pass along an eighth-inch square of cracker, then a tiny vessel of grape juice. No, here you were expected to get up out of your seat (if you were able, naturally) and move to the front where the ministers and other lay people offered a large loaf of bread for you to pinch off a bit, then pass on to get the still-tiny vessel of grape juice. This was just too much.
The sermon had been thought-provoking, intelligent, warm. My mind tried to fight off the effects of a loving message, but I was losing ground. By the time we were to move to the front for communion, I panicked. I leaned over to my step-mother and said, “I’ll explain it later but I have to go right now.” On my left was a woman I’d known since I was six. I’d forgotten she also went to that church, but she’d slipped in next to me earlier in the service. I leaned over to her and said, “I’ll explain it later but I have to go right now.” I turned and fought my way through the communion traffic in the middle aisle while trying not to actually look at anyone, walked out of the sanctuary, walked out of the church, practically ran to my car. I was terrified and didn’t know any way to deal with it rather than to run – the story of my life.
Have I talked about women in ministry yet? Yes, I believe I have. It’s just that you may not have heard me say anything about it yet. That first Sunday had unleashed something I thought had died in me years before. There I was all stirred up and no way to know what to do. I tried to put it out of my mind. Instead, I ended up sitting down and writing a letter of apology and explanation to my friend and my step-mother. I told them things in that letter they did not know. I told them about abuse and a scared little boy. I hoped this explained my sudden departure and that could, please, be the end of it.
Problem is, it refused to be the end of it. I’d shared something I never expected to share. Had never wanted to share.
The following week, I found myself wanting to return. What, was I insane? Well, the jury’s probably still out on that one. But I knew I wanted to go. I had no idea why – at least no reasons I was willing to admit to myself. For perhaps the first time in my life, I decided not to question why. Yep, me, the “why guy”. Maybe I’d know later on, but for right then it simply didn’t matter. Of course, I make life far more difficult than it has to be on a very regular basis. I finally got up the courage to tell Tom I wanted to go back. His answer? “Okay.” Okay? We’re talking about world-ending decisions here. We’re talking I haven’t even remotely considered going to church in decades. Okay? Could it really be that simple?
Here’s the deal. I’ve known for a long time that I don’t trust men. In the company of women, I’ve often said, “Men are pigs, aren’t they?” Hey, you know who you are. I’d never stopped to realize how much of my life was affected by that distrust. I’d apparently not noticed there were a number of men over the years I had trusted completely. But I wasn’t out of those woods yet. I’d just shown up at church, for God’s sake!
Let’s review what we’ve learned so far. Black robes, gray robes. At least three women in black robes, two men in same. The predominant voices I heard that day were women’s. To my horror, I discovered I felt welcomed. I felt oddly like it just might be safe for me to be there. Even the problems I’d occasionally had with my step-mother over the years seemed suddenly less. It seemed a different brand of terror from my usual “let’s hide from the world and be safe.”
I’ve been in church every Sunday since then unless I was too sick to go and occasionally when I was sick enough I probably shouldn’t have been there. The Meniere’s was getting worse, but I no longer wanted to stay away. The difference had been the voices of women beckoning me to stay a while, inviting me to take the world off my shoulders and rest, briefly, with them. Not a single raised finger damning me to hell for being me. Not a single shrill voice demanding what I must do in order to save my soul. Instead there was an invitation to care for my soul, right here, right now. It was an invitation to the terrified little boy inside me to remember the God who’d loved him from even before my beginning.
That’s what you may have missed if you’ve not experienced women in ministry in every capacity in a church family. Thanks to their voices, I now find myself in a church with a male minister who has become a mentor and friend. I’m afraid I might never have set foot in this new church in a new town had it not been for women’s voices introducing me to men’s voices I now instinctively knew I could trust.
Roll credits. [Women’s voices speaking softly in the background.]
The Cast of Characters: Frightened runner: me; Tom: his annoyingly correct self; Youth minister: Charles Conkin; Music director: Daniel Farris; Step-mother: Charlene Eakin; Childhood friend: Myrl Luper; Organist: Janya Martin; Children’s minister: Rachel Sciretti; Associate minister: Sharlande Sledge; Senior minister: Dorisanne Cooper.
Supporting cast: the entire loving congregation of Lake Shore Baptist Church, Waco, Texas.
Fade to – what else? – black.