Sometimes Topics Choose Us. Period.

bleeding women & menstrual hygiene

Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be a writer. I just never imagined I would write about rape. Instead, I imagined traveling the world to research “The 25 Most Adventurous Vacations,” or maybe I’d create a brightly colored board book about baby hippos who wear polkadot tutus. I thought writing would be full of excitement, fun and whimsy!

But sometimes our life’s journey makes other choices for us. Choosing to be happy means choosing to embrace the unchosen topics that come our way. So here’s another unchosen topic that has grabbed ahold of me recently: menstrual hygiene in Africa.

My involvement came about because of my memoir. One of the biblical texts that helped me recover from rape was the story of Jesus healing the woman with an issue of blood (Mark 5:21-43). I wrote a devotional about this passage for Christianity Today in April. Then, a couple of weeks ago I preached on this text at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany, NY. During the sermon I mentioned that bleeding women (i.e. menstruating women) still suffer stigma in many parts of the world, especially Africa. This is the reason girls so often quit school at puberty. It’s not just that they can’t attend class the five or so days of their flow — the fear of bleeding, and lack of products to manage the bleeding, creates intense shame.

Yes, I have developed a sensitive Shame thermometer! But I want to be more than a thermometer, measuring the temperature that our culture sets for women. I want to become a thermostat. I want to lower the temperature of Shame.

Fortunately, there are a number of organizations working to make a difference in Africa. Most often they help villagers sew reusable menstrual products. They often involve the whole community, including the men, which greatly reduces the shame and stigma of menstruation. This is important work.

Here are two organizations I am becoming acquainted with:

The MoonCatcher Project based in Schenectady, NY. This organization makes and teachers others to make MoonCatchers — reusable, durable menstrual pads with highly absorbent inserts. The Project delivers the pads to poor communities throughout the world, often along with health and hygiene classes.

Days for Girls I love their slogan: “Every Girl. Everywhere. Period.?” They are working around the globe to provide sustainable feminine hygiene solutions and health education, because when girls and women have health, education, and opportunity,
communities and our world are stronger.

Have you been involved with these projects or others? The women at Westminster in Albany NY are extending their web through Presbyterian Women. This is exactly how women change the world!

I would love to hear from you. Let’s network.

Share This:

“Thirsty? A sermon on the Samaritan Woman at the Well”
by Rev. Ruth Everhart

 

The text is John 4:5-42, the story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman at the well in Sychar.

Thirst is real, and water is a justice issue. When Jesus spoke with the woman at the well, he implicitly challenged every cultural assumption about who is worthy of his time and conversation. But this shift has been slow to percolate through the cultural layers of church and society. Rev. Ruth Everhart considers the Samaritan woman’s story in tandem with her own, because gender still shapes a woman’s world. How did living water trickle through the layers of an oppressive church system and the horror of rape at gunpoint? Because the living water is still available, and still ever-fresh. (Year A, Lent 3)

Confronting Contempt

Blood & Flab & Lactation, Oh My!

This nasty political season has gone on so long that I am embracing nastiness. Ever since Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton “nasty” during the third presidential debate, many feminists have embraced the word. I get it. As a member of a group that’s both feisty and downtrodden, I appreciate the strategy of “steering into the insult.” I laughed at the meme that said, “That’s Reverend Nasty Woman to you!”

Yet I see dangers in trivializing “nasty” and ignoring what the insult represents. “Nasty” encapsulates Trump’s attitude toward women in particular, along with other “disgusting” categories of humans— notably immigrants, Muslims, news media, Mexicans, other politicians.

Disgust is Trump’s favorite flavor. We’ve seen him sprinkle it everywhere. And why not? Disgust is an all-purpose seasoning, It packs a punch. Plus, it pairs well with Trump’s favorite wine — anger. The combination of the two is contempt. We all know contempt when we see it — a curled lip.

Contempt is powerful. And convenient. And common. You could almost forget that it’s fundamentally unChristian. To regard another person with contempt is to refuse to see the image of God in them. A curled lip indicates the belief that the Other is worth less. Yet the Bible teaches us to look on the Other with love. We are to gaze upon the face of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned — and see Jesus.

contempt

(more…)

Share This:

I Believe You from Diva Communications on Vimeo.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Faith communities should be a primary resource for fighting the scourge of sexual violence, but too often they have been complicit, advancing messages of purity, obedience, and gender-based hierarchies. Often times this is unconscious, and could be stopped. You can help break the silence. The trailer above is for “I Believe You,” a video resource. Click on “more” to learn about this interfaith project.

(more…)

Re-engaging the World that Shaped Me

and an article in Spark, the Calvin Alumni magazine

I chose not to disguise the identity of my college in my memoir, so I was curious as to how the Calvin College community would react.

In 1983 I intentionally stepped out of the (Dutch) Christian Reformed world and entered a different one. My new tent was Presbyterian, and it was bigger. I got used to feeling anonymous, and a bit like an outsider. This was strangely comforting. Now that the memoir is out, I’ve shed my anonymity! As more than one person has told me: “I know a lot more about you than you know about me!” It’s quite an adjustment.

As I launch the book, I’ve been re-engaging my old world. I sense that some things have changed in the past 30+ years. For instance, I’ve heard people voice words like “rape” and acknowledge that sexual violence does happen. And there’s been some movement regarding the role of women in church leadership. On the other hand, that movement is certainly not shared across the denomination. Some aspects of church life seem rather stuck and fearful. The word “feminism,” for instance, seems to easily open a can of worms, a debate, an argument.

Maybe you’re thinking that the “women’s issue” (i.e. the church leadership debate) is entirely different from how a church responds to violence against women. But I believe there are connecting ligaments. Both issues are deeply concerned with the role and worth of females, and what it means to live in a woman’s body.

It’s been good for me to reclaim my heritage. I still live in the same skin I was born in. And I like to think that I have something to offer the community that formed me.

I look forward to speaking at the “Safe Church Ministry” Conference on November 4, an arm of the church that has been wide open and generous to me and my story. Check the sidebar for more info if you’re in the Grand Rapids area — I would love to connect with you there! The event is free and open to the public.

I was also pleased to be interviewed by Lynn Rosendale for an article in the September issue of Spark, the magazine for Calvin alums. There’s an accompanying article with input from Jane Hendriksma, who coordinates “Safer Spaces” on campus and Rev. Mary Hulst, the Chaplain.

Do you know what it’s like to be born into one world, and choose to live in another?

Share This:

I’ve Always Wanted to Be Normal

RevGals coverI’m a woman and have spent a good portion of my career occupying pulpits. In some circles a preaching woman is seen as a problem. Now comes a book that normalizes my life: “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.” What a gift! I’ve always wanted to feel normal.

There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor (SkyLight Paths Publishing).

Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

My guess is that you know someone who would love to receive this book as a gift.

More than 50 clergywomen have written this anthology. I contributed an essay, which ended up first in the book. It leads off a section called “Fierce & Fabulous for Jesus.”

(more…)

Share This:

50 Shades of Preaching

Why do church leaders so rarely talk about sex? Did Mark Driscoll ruin the subject for all preachers?

Most churches ignore Valentine’s Day, except for a nod during Children’s Time — use those red paper hearts, maybe, or some candy — but then back to business because Valentines Day is non-liturgical and we’ve got a Transfiguration, folks!

But have you noticed that people talk about sex everywhere except in church? When the church talks about sex, it’s usually to debate homosexuality or abortion, or some spin-off of those. Those may be important topics for the church to address (though I wish we could stop legislating them). The topic of sexual violence is also important — and that subject is too frequently silenced in faith communities despite an abundance of resources in our texts.

As for 50 Shades of Grey, I’ll admit I was unable to read past the first chapter because it so badly needs an editor. I keep editing as I read and it’s no fun. So I don’t have a position as to whether the work is harmless erotica or a sign of the degradation of America. But because the topic of sexual violence is important to me, I do intend to cycle back to this phenom after I see the movie (which won’t be until the DVD is available, because I’m not giving them my money). [ETA: This review has convinced me that the movie is a disturbing portrayal of domestic violence. Nothing funny or sexy about that! In a sense it strengthens my position. The church needs to present a healthy view of sexuality to a world that thinks domestic violence is sexy.]

But even Target is selling the merchandise! My grocery store has a sign up: “50 Shades of Love” by their flower display.

All this interest makes me wonder: Can a church simply celebrate the gift of healthy sexuality within a loving relationship?

What would that look like? Is it even possible? I’ve written about this before. Nothing about this is easy. But I continue to believe that it’s important.

I’m curious. As a preacher, what would you like to say to your congregation about love and sexuality, and what keeps you from saying it?

Share This:

Is He Hitting On Me? A Clergywoman & Bereaved Guy

RevGalBlogPalsClergywomen face unique challenges. Today’s “Ask the Matriarch” column at RevGalBlogPals addresses a question about enforcing boundaries with a person who is hurting:

Dear Matriarchs,
What’s a gal chaplain to do? I work in hospice and I try hard to be professional and do my job well. What does one do when a bereaved male claims he has “felt a connection” and asks where you “do services” or looks at you very intently in the eye and says he gets “lonely”. So far I’m just taking the professional route and ignoring the hint. Should I call him out and name it in regards to me, risking breaking the “connection” or trust? Or just continue the professional, empathic way? Does “compassionate, pastoral, good listener” equate with “possible hookup” to these guys? I am solidly married with kids and love my work.

Many Matriarchs responded, including me.

Share This:

In Celebration of Clergywomen

October 14, 2014 is my 24th Anniversary of Ordination to the Ministry of Word & Sacrament. What a privilege to live this life! For the past three years I haven’t been serving a church full time, and so I have a bit of distance from my vocation. More than ever, I love rubbing elbows with other clergywomen. I thought I’d list some of the reasons I’m grateful to still be counted among the ranks of clergywomen:

1. Clergywomen laugh at the humor in life. They are intimately involved with people’s lives — and life is funny. If you don’t think so, invite your favorite clergywoman over for a glass of wine and ask her if anything ridiculous happened in the past week.

2. Clergywomen don’t hide their eyes from the pathos in life. When they get the call, they get in the car and drive to the hospital, the nursing home, the morgue. They may cry but they also pray and bring a message of hope.

3. Clergywomen are beautiful in their robes and stoles. Have you seen the light in her eyes when a clergywoman is preaching the gospel and is totally un-self-conscious?

4. Clergywomen are down and dirty in their “I Love My Church” T-shirt. Also while hoisting that Habitat for Humanity paintbrush, or wearing a hairnet while making sandwiches to hand out to homeless people, or dripping in the dunk tank at the local street fair where they raised money for mission.

5. Clergywomen are leaders. They know how to put together an agenda and make decisions and delegate the next steps. (Please include that in the minutes and the church newsletter, thanks.)

6. Clergywomen are servants. Because Jesus.

7. Clergywomen are smart. They graduated from seminary. They earned a Master of Divinity degree. They passed ordination exams.

8. Clergywomen are foolish. They spent all that time and money and effort to get a degree that won’t buy them much earning power. Why? Because they felt called by God.

Clergywomen are a sisterhood and if you are lucky enough to be one, I don’t have to explain a word of this. But please pull up a chair, pour a glass of wine or cup of tea, and tell me what you’d add to my list!

Share This:

Praise or Blame, All the Same: Handling Criticism

A recent article in the NYT, Learning to Love Criticism, discusses a Fortune.com study of performance reviews, which shows that women are criticized more severely, and in more personal ways, than are men. In other words: It’s not our imagination!

I am familiar with the dynamic described. As a clergywoman, my work requires me to make decisions, talk frankly to people, and speak the truth. At the same time, I deal with people at vulnerable moments, and am heavily invested in communicating the love of God at all times. That is already a difficult dance to manage. Add the gender piece and now the dance floor is littered with holes that can grab your (figurative) high heels and pitch you to the floor.

Women who speak frankly are called strident. Women who are decisive are called aggressive. Women who exert their authority are called control freaks.

How can we do our job without paying a price? Perhaps the answer is: we can’t. So we must calculate the price and count it against the cost of not doing the work.

The NTY articles speaks about the “impossible tightrope” women must walk to do “substantive work.” The tightrope referred to is: how to be professional and make tough decisions while at the same time be seen as nice.

I am familiar with that tightrope. As an Associate Pastor in my first church, I was told that I too frequently used “I” language. This puzzled me. I had just spent a great deal of time and energy learning about family systems theory, and was committed to using healthy communication patterns. I thought that using “I” language was a good thing, not a problem. Even the committee members giving me the criticism were unable to further explain what the problem was, or how I should change to please them. One said: “They just think you should let the group make all the decisions, I guess.”

In that same group, we routinely ended our meetings with a time of open prayer. After everyone had prayed and the silence stretched for some moments, I would bring the prayer to a close. As soon as I said Amen, one particular person would invariably say “I was just going to pray but you ended!” So the next time I would wait longer. Still the person would not offer a prayer. So I would close and the person would protest. The pattern continued, with constantly lengthening periods of silence until it was ridiculous — a full two minutes of silence.

Finally, one of the older members pulled me aside and said: Don’t you see? It’s the perfect complaint. No matter how long you wait, it will never have been long enough. I am grateful for that wise elder, whose comment freed me from the need to try to please someone who was determined to not be pleased with me. A criticism that is a perpetual Gotcha! is not worth heeding.

I would like to think that this story is hopelessly outdated and that things have changed since the early 1990s. But I doubt it. Just as I was finishing this blogpost, my friend Carol Howard Merritt wrote about a similar dynamic. I know that I over-learned the practice of back-seating my own opinions. I became too enamored of a consensus model of leadership. I under-valued my own ability to help a group discern its next steps.

Now I am trying to learn new behaviors.

What we professional women must do is not easy. But we can feel empowered. Rather than waiting for the tightrope to disappear, we can change how we receive criticism. We can hear whatever bits are helpful, but not let any mean-spiritedness impair our ability to do the work. The work is what matters. The work is always what matters.

As Richard Carlson so memorably said: Praise or blame — is all the same.

Share This: