(We take a break from our regularly-scheduled poetry posting to bring you instead this lengthy response about women in ministry that took me ten years before I could sit down and write it.)
Recently when I was being interviewed on a local Christian radio program, the host asked me how I respond to people who say the Bible doesn’t allow women pastors. This is a question I generally avoid, but being on the radio and all, there was little space for dodging. I primarily avoid talking about this for three reasons: 1) As a general rule, I pathetically avoid all controversy because I am allergic to conflict, 2) I get completely frustrated that we are still having this conversation in the 21st century, and frustration saps my energy, which is already in low supply, and 3) defending women in ministry feels to me like a defense of my very existence on this planet, which gets a mite tiresome after awhile and instead of offering up the intelligent, caring reply I know I am capable of, my exhausted little spirit just wants to say, “Back off and leave me alone.” Fortunately the radio host was a supportive, encouraging figure, which gave me the morale boost to sit up straight and answer rather than ducking under the table and hiding, Please, not that question again.
Besides avoiding conflict, the other thing I run away from like the plague is anger. I hate feeling it, I hate having it, I hate being on the receiving end of it, I hate its being a force in the world and/or a force inside of me. I am very allergic. As a result, I have become an expert anger-stuffer. I’ve got crevices where I tuck that anger away so that no one, including me, could ever find it. I’ve recently been trying to get in touch with my anger, but even then, I take calculated, planned trips to visit it—a scheduled trek to the batting cages, an intentional run, a carefully crafted poem—like I am visiting a man in prison but I make sure that volatile thing stays behind the glass. No way am I letting it loose. I don’t even know where I’ve hidden the keys—my psyche has made sure of that.
I say all of that to say: it is a giant surprise in my life when I feel anger. I mean, I cuss when I stub my toe or lose my keys (why am I always losing my f*** keys?!) just like the rest of the world, but to feel anger over something that matters is rare, not because I’m heartless to injustice but because I am allergic to anger, remember? I can feel sorrow, frustration, passion, and all manner of appropriate emotions, just not-so-much the anger. I actually get jealous of people who can lose their temper, because I wouldn’t know where to begin to lose it I’m so enmeshed in my own tempered evenness, but when did this turn into a therapy session? Moving on . . .
So last Sunday I invited my friend Courtney to be a guest preacher at the church where I pastor. Saturday night I got violently sick and it became obvious there was no way I was going to make it to church on Sunday morning. This is the worst time of week for a pastor to be sick. By 6:30am I was on the phone, making arrangements for my impending absence. I was relieved I already had a guest preacher lined up, but still, my guilt complex kicked in, as well as my ego, both trying to convince me that I needed to be at church. My stomach promptly revolted against such nonsense, and it was perched unattractively on the bathroom tile by the toilet that I told my guilt and ego to shut the hell up and let me stay home.
It was almost a full week before I was able to sit down and listen to the recording of Courtney’s sermon that I missed while sick, and let me just tell you, it was awesome. It was soooo good, and I know because one of the annoyances of being a preacher is that it becomes almost impossible to listen to other sermons and enjoy them because you cannot turn off the critic in your head. There is so much bad preaching in our culture, and after the bad preaching there is all the mediocre preaching, and this is so nauseating it becomes difficult to listen. Courtney, however, was easy to listen to, because she was brilliant, passionate, and inspired. Courtney was challenging to listen to, only in that she was really preaching and real preaching splits you open. And then, then she started singing, and oh my, we hadn’t been friends long enough yet for me to know that she could sing, and so I was caught off guard by the haunting beauty of her singing voice and by the way the music wedged its way inside me. It brought tears to my eyes, and I am not, by nature, a crier.
The second thing that caught me off-guard, after the song and after the sermon was over, is that I got angry. I felt anger. Stoic me was feeling it.
Because I suddenly thought of anybody and everybody who has ever said women can’t or shouldn’t preach. I thought of anybody and everybody who may have ever told Courtney specifically that she couldn’t or shouldn’t preach. I thought of all the mediocre to downright-shitty preaching that gets consumed in our culture when we all could be listening to Courtney for crying-out-loud. I thought of all the folks in my generation leaving the church because of its bigoted, polarized rhetoric when there are preachers like Courtney who are saying and doing something wholly other than that nonsense but so few are stopping to listen.
Because I grew up in an environment that discouraged women from pastoral leadership and because I had never met a woman minister in my life until well into college, it took me years to discern and own my sense of call. I felt the tug, the divine pull, the beckoning and even the outpouring of giftedness from the Holy Spirit, but I was terrified, genuinely terrified of disobeying God or flouting Scripture by pursuing the call to preach and pastor.
Many people discouraged me away from this call as I tentatively and timidly began to voice my suspicions about where I was being led—they were also afraid that I would disobey God or flout Scripture by pursuing this call to preach and to pastor. But many other people bolstered and supported me, saw God at work in me, and pushed me forward. I privately wrestled, year after year. Here is what—or, I should say, who—changed things for me:
Brittany and Judy. Judy was a middle-aged woman who had come back to school later in life to study theology. Brittany was one of my new friends at the time, and she is still the person whose active faith in the world I admire most of all the Christians I have personally witnessed. It was Brittany, Judy, and me in a room of men for our first-ever preaching class. I learned in that class just how much I loved preaching—the preparation, the study, the writing and crafting, the delivering. But what I also learned, and what was far more crucial, was that Brittany and Judy were damn good preachers, even if we were all beginners. Of course, this was long before cursing had entered my vocabulary and even my inner thoughts were well-groomed and polite, so my reaction to their preaching was far more well-mannered and I thought this:
God is with them.
They are gifted.
It is obvious they are gifted and called.
It would be a tragedy if they weren’t allowed to preach.
Women can preach.
Women.Can.Preach. No doubt about it. Just listen to Brittany. Or to Judy. Or to Courtney. And your spirit will recognize Spirit and you will know that God does not discriminate, God does not withhold, God does not limit, God does not restrict, God does not silence, God does put you in a box. God does not build glass ceilings; God shatters them. God does not still the voices of women; God sings and God soars through the voice of women. God proclaims through the voice of women. God liberates through the voice of women. God instructs through the voice of women. God heals through the voice of women. God moves through the voice of women. God is embodied in the voice of women. God is being birthed into the world through the voice of women.
Men can preach too, and I grateful for the wonderful male preachers who have dramatically shaped and blessed my life, but no one is questioning their right to be here and to open their mouths, at least, never as a whole. We may question a certain man’s place in the pulpit due to his own theology, or moral failures, or lack of charisma, or whatever. But we never encounter a man doing a poor job in the pulpit or in the pastorate and conclude that men as a race of human beings should be banned from that role.
We women carry the weight of ALL women-struggling-to-have-voice every time we open our mouths and speak, because there are still people who want the whole of us shut down. There are still people who will find one fault in one of us and apply it to our entire gender. There are still people who tune us out because our voices are soft or because our manner is too “aggressive” and masculine for a woman, or whatever other fault they may find. (Interestingly, soft-spoken me has been accused of being too aggressive and of being too timid, so it’s pretty much a lose-lose situation for women, because however we choose to use our voices, someone will find fault.)
I guess what I am telling you is: I feel angry. I feel angry that we are still fighting this battle. We want to be peace-makers for Christ’s kingdom, but we are forced, time and time again into a posture of self-defense. It is difficult for me, because of my personality and aversion to conflict, to feel anger on my own behalf, but when I hear my sisters preach, I am angry because I know what they have endured just to be given a space to open their mouths and speak. I know what they still endure, what we still endure.
In one of my few feminist posts, written on a day when I was ignoring my allergies and speaking out, I wrote that I am a damn good preacher. I can’t tell you how good that felt to own that about myself. I got some grief from someone who found that line offensive and prideful, but I know that my fellow sisters know exactly what I mean. We aren’t being prideful in the bad sense, but prideful in the good sense. We are coming “unbent” and standing tall in the world, and this is good and important work, and it is forced and false humility that has kept us small and kept us from owning our giftedness and kept us from doing our work in the world, and kept us using our voices. I know I have a long ways to go before I am all I hope to be as a preacher and a pastor, but I have heard enough bad sermons to know that I am improving the quality of sermons in this country, not diminishing them, and sometimes it is this knowledge that keeps me going on the days when I wonder if anyone is listening, if it will ever make a difference at all that I am preaching.
I also got some grief for writing about anger and rage, and I think that may be because it is a little surprising when quiet, cool, calm, and collected Kyndall admits she has and feels and is even trying to embrace anger. That is understandable, because, like I said, it is a great surprise to me when I feel anger. So yeah, it might a be a little disconcerting when I let a four-letter word fly or when I write a graphic, violent poem about welcoming that murderous little devil rage into my life. The revelation for me is that the anger is there, whether I acknowledge it or not, whether I give it its voice or not. Anger at injustice is a healthy emotion, and when I actually feel it, something like relief hits me after the surprise dies down, and then it becomes energy. Positive energy with which I sing my song in the world, speak my words, write my poems, lift up my sisters, do my work, set captives free, tell the truth boldly, risk vulnerability, protect the downtrodden, and PREACH.
What do I say to people who tell me the Bible says women can’t preach? Listen to a woman first, and then you will hear the Bible differently. I’ve never said this before, but I am saying it now: You listen to a sister preach, then look me in the eye and tell me God isn’t in her. You open your Bible and I will open mine, but instead of squabbling with you, I’m gonna take this powerful Word out into the world, do the work of the Kingdom, and never, ever shut up. That is our argument, and we do not need another one.