I was reading the paper when the phone rang. The top half of the page, an article about conservative Christians, featured Phyllis Schlafly and Bay Buchanan, among others. Directly below, another article outlined the controversy surrounding placement of a statue in the US Capitol Building: Should it be moved not only out of the broom closet where it had been stored for 40 years, but up out of the basement “crypt” as well? The statue, “Woman’s Suffrage,” portrays Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott.
The phone call was an invitation to write “an article about women and worship,” with reference to the life of our synod. The prospect was daunting; the front page of the Tribune demonstrated the great diversity to be found just among politically active Anglo women.
How could I begin to address, in a couple of pages, the colorful spectrum not only of our synod’s women, but of their worship styles as well? The task being clearly impossible, I decided I might as well have fun with it.
I’ve been formed by worship at once warmly inviting and deeply reverent; “contemporary” in song and “traditional” in adherence to the ancient shape of the liturgy and life of prayer. I’ve had the privilege of being in communities where we were creative yet respectful of the forms we’d inherited and the logic of their structure. These experiences inform what I have to say, which is simple, basic, and perhaps obvious. It may surprise you less than it confirms what you already know. I hope that it, like good worship, will serve to invite further reflection and proclamation of the gospel.
“…And ain’t I a woman?” The question of “women’s experience”
In 1851, at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, one clergyman opposed women’s right to vote on the grounds that women were fragile, delicate creatures unsuited to politics. Another orator, freed from slavery and committed to human rights, rose to respond. Her words still ring with power:
That man…says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place–and ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arms! I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me–and ain’t I a woman?
Sojourner Truth reminds us that not all women have the same experience. Some of us ponder the shape of our retirement benefits; others worry whether our loved ones will fall to neighborhood gunfire. If we’re poor and want to stay at home with young children, we’re called lazy; if we’re middle class and want to work outside the home while our children are young, we’re called selfish. The color of our skin, our primary language, and our means or lack of employment all contribute to our identity. The place in history from which we start contributes significantly to our perception of the world and others’ perception of us. The lives of women demonstrate remarkable variation. Is there anything we can say with integrity and confidence about all women–other than that we come from Venus, and not Mars? Perhaps not in absolute terms; but we can venture a couple of valid and helpful generalizations.
Whether we get lyrical or clinical about it or prefer not to mention it at all in polite company, women’s bodies are capable of bearing and nurturing life. Our bodies are subject to rhythmic cycles set in motion by a delicate balance of dancing hormones. The balance may get thrown off and result in agony. We may never give birth. But the basic pattern–the capability–is there.
For the most part, in western civilization and the church, we women have tended to be identified with the body (vs. intellect), and all that goes with the body: sexuality, temptation, emotion, nurturance. Whoosh! Sweeping generalizations, to be sure! But remember, we’re in the realm of the broom closet.
And, not unlike the woman who swept her entire home in search of the lost coin, we know housework. Whether we view Martha Stewart as a role-model or a bad joke, we clean up and organize and create space for living. Even if we believe women shouldn’t be doing it–or doing it all alone–we keep house. Even if we elevate avoiding housework to an art form, we’ve still been socialized to consider a myriad of details that tend to go unnoticed by the majority of folks from Mars. And this labor we do is crucial, but not particularly valued. You can’t get paid for it, unless the house you’re cleaning belongs to somebody else. Even if you do get paid, it isn’t much. And it’s invisible. You certainly can’t put it on your resume. “What do you do?” “Nothing; I’m just a housewife.”
It’s no wonder that many of us struggle with self-esteem. Moreover, we live in a society which bombards women and girls with emphatic and sometimes conflicting messages: “You can never be too thin or too rich.” “Don’t act smarter than the boys; they won’t like you.” This society evaluates us disproportionately on our outward appearance. And according to the fashion, diet, and cosmetics industries, we can never, by definition, be sufficiently attractive. We are so strongly urged to appeal to others–to care physically and emotionally for others–that we can forget the need to care for ourselves. Sometimes we nurture so much it makes us sick. We can feel guilty for saying “no,” for claiming room for ourselves and insisting that there is something we need or want.
Thus we find ourselves, in both body and spirit, hungering and thirsting to be fed. We come to church seeking refreshment in the gathering of God’s holy people.
Worship: Embodied Proclamation
Trying to define worship in a few words is almost as amusing as trying to define womanhood. Sinning boldly, sweeping subtleties under the rug, off we go! It’s much more easily described than defined.
Lutheran worship in our synod is as brightly variegated as Lutheran worship across the globe. We are faithful little flocks in the city and large crowds by suburban lake shores. We pray in Spanish and Swedish. We love to tell the story in spirituals, and are transported by 16th century chorales. We express joy by clapping before the Lord, and are horrified at the thought of applause in church. We find release in surrendering to our emotions, and find solace in structure that’s not dependent on our feelings of the moment. We love incense, and we hate it. We praise God with electronic keyboards, hand bells, pipe organs, and drums; we listen, in silence, for the still, small voice. But we have some important things in common–notably, a set of patterns shared across the miles and carried down through the ages. One pattern is the basic order of service: bath, story, meal–the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the eucharist. We clean up, we share common memories, we give and receive food.
Another pattern is the now countercultural rhythm of the seasons of the church year. Still another is mapped out by the lectionary which guides our preaching and choice of music.
Woven through it all is the oral, communally-based pattern of call and response: now one speaks, now many. Now I call, and you answer. We call, eager for God to answer. Our participation presumes, creates, and enriches relationship with God and with one another.
Our heritage as God’s people includes the “ordinary” parts of the liturgy we can learn by heart, and the parts that change day in and day out. Together they serve as a common language; together they intersect with the events of our lives. Life and liturgy (“the work of the people”) give meaning to each other. Back and forth the Spirit sweeps.
Good liturgy makes us feel at home and “centers” us in the interior place where it’s safe enough to risk, and where we feel secure enough to open ourselves to transformation. Nurture and conversion, gospel and law, coincide. Sometimes the familiar parts of worship foster our sense of comfort, and we find the new disrupting. Other times it is the familiar parts that alienate, and a new element is a sign that our experience is recognized and we are accepted. And of course, alienation and disruption can be confused with each other initially. Let’s talk: How do we discern the difference?
The question of how we connect our own experience with the larger tradition is tricky, because worship is shared communal action, not reducible to the sum of individual experiences. Good worship both acknowledges our experience and stretches us beyond it–it both expresses and transcends who we are.
The whole point is the proclamation of the gospel through words and non-verbal elements that engage all our senses and invite our embodied response. The word takes flesh; we find the holy hidden in ordinary actions and things. With “embodiment” we find a natural connection with women’s lives. Does such a statement play into the prejudicial tendencies to reduce women to bodies? It need not. What had been despised may prove to be a source of revelation; as such, it is to be honored.
Word: Widening Grace
They had never known a man like this [Jesus]: a prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”
Dorothy L. Sayers’ classic essay from 1938 (“Are Women Human?” in Unpopular Opinions, 1948) still describes the preaching of the gospel at its purest. We will want to follow the example of Jesus by taking women seriously.
One way is to attend to the women in the Scriptures and church history. Biblical scholars and historians are recovering stories and contextual material about characters long overlooked. Our preaching and praying can be more complete by including this wealth of witnesses. As we include them, we’ll want to make sure that we don’t unwittingly perpetuate stereotypes. Do we cluck, patronizingly, over Martha, the preoccupied housewife? Confuse the woman who anointed Jesus for burial with the one “known as a sinner?” Identify Mary Magdalene as a prostitute? One way to check ourselves is to try a gender role-reversal on our draft. If what we say about a woman sounds outrageous when applied to a man, who knows, it might be a parable; and parables often are outrageous. But if it sounds simply ludicrous, we will want to re-write it.
The great ecumenical creeds provide us another helpful reference point. We’ll want our worship to reflect what we profess by being as fully trinitarian and incarnational as possible. We’ll want our sermons and intercessions not only to center in Jesus, but also to evoke the goodness of creation and our giftedness by the Spirit.
Granted, no one of us in the human family has escaped the tragic fall into sin. But we need to remember, in the words of one Easter Vigil prayer, that by God’s grace we are “wonderfully created and wonderfully restored”–and in the image of God, no less. Women and men.
With the image of God, we come to questions about language. In Dakota (1993), Kathleen Norris speaks of “the power of words to continually astonish and invigorate us, and even to surpass human understanding.” We need to be careful–not in the sense of walking on eggshells, but of caring well for one another–with our language. At the same time, we realize that even our most carefully chosen words will never capture the wondrous mystery we call God.
How do we faithfully call upon and speak of the God whose image we bear? Graceful words which are faithful to historical revelation and the insights of constructive feminist theology are still very much in the process of emerging. We are at a point where some of our discourse is sharply polarized, in part because we are in transitional labor, which childbirth experts say is the most difficult part. We need to have patience with one another and learn when to push and when to breathe.
Thoughtful theoretical discussions on the use of inclusive language can be found in God Beyond Gender (1995), where Gail Ramshaw welcomes “the widening of divine activity in Christian speech,” and urges a nuanced approach to our use of metaphor. An early article from Voices of Congregational Life (“Committed to Those Who Have Been There All Along”, Jan.-Feb. ‘89, published by the ELCA’s Division for Congregational Ministries) remains an excellent practical case study on introducing inclusive language in a sensitive and responsible way.
How do we speak effectively about redemption from sin? Taking into account the experience of women will mean our awareness of sin will expand, as will our grasp of what constitutes redemption. God not only pardons rebellion, but awakens us from passivity and collusion with messages of worthlessness. We’ll want to be thoughtful in addressing such time-honored symptoms of sin as pride, one-upping, and selfishness, which often manifest themselves differently for women than for men. For many of us, developing a sense of entitlement and anger over injustice can be a sign not of sin, but of the Spirit. Let’s talk: How do we discern?
Many women as well as men have not been free to choose the sacrifices imposed upon them. We’ll want to exercise care in speaking about sacrifice and the cross, lest our message function as an additional cross upon the already-burdened.
Created in God’s image, our lives redeemed from the grave, we have been gifted by the Spirit that we might spread the good news. How do we speak about grace? Does it always come down upon us from above, in opposition to our will; or might it also, like a spring of living water, well up from within? It is true: Our ways are not God’s ways. And yet we also believe that God works, suffers, loves through us.
How do we speak about power? Although it can be a force for dominating others, it can also flow among us in life-giving ways. For many women church is a significant place to contribute and use our gifts; yet we incessantly apologize for, and trivialize our accomplishments. We seem forever to be looking for reassurance from some outward authority. At the installation of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod staff last year, then-Bishop-elect Anderson said that we dare not deprive the world of our gifts. Let’s talk: How can we encourage women to claim the gifts and authority that are ours?
The Word who dwelt among us became incarnate flesh. How can our worship honor our own embodied experience? We have rich resources in our tradition, which provide us a seasonal rhythm as analog to the rhythms and cycles of our embodied lives. Our legacy of variation in colors, movement, and song pulls in all of our senses and brings them pleasure. Liturgy is a dance in slow motion, involving our whole body and sense of touch. Let’s talk: How does worship connect with our sexuality?
How is it that the identical set of movements and words can draw the congregation in or push it away, depending upon the presider’s leadership? How is it that some of us seem to find the structure of worship a gift that helps us to be more in touch with our own enfleshed goodness, while others of us seem to use the structure as a barrier to hide from emotion and physical need?
And how do we talk constructively about the place of need, feelings, and self in relation to the tradition? We must not surrender to the expectations driven by a consumer society, that the sole purpose of worship is to “meet my needs.” And yet there is definitely a theologically legitimate way of articulating human need in prayer, even beyond the concerns of illness and sin. There has to be a distinction between insisting upon a superficial “feel-good” high from worship, and an intuited sense that a given worship experience, in some profound way, “feels” wrong or right. And there has to be a distinction between worshipping and honoring our selves. Not all concern for the self is inevitably solipsistic or selfish.
Let’s talk: How do we recognize and draw these distinctions? This is of particular importance as we consider the desire on the part of many of us to incorporate female imagery into prayer–often, on the grounds of how it “feels.” Being able to identify in new ways with God doesn’t necessarily entail losing a sense of the radical otherness of the divine.
And how are we to conceive in healthy Christian ways of want, pleasure, and desire, which are essential to love, relationship, imagination, and joy? Surely these good gifts function in and through worship, which is designed to connect our bodies and souls, and to satisfy our longing for beauty and grace.
Sacrament: The Fundamental Things Apply
I will long remember the sermon preached by Pastor Kendra Nolde at Holy Family in Cabrini Green, for the 1987 MCS Professional Leaders’ Conference. She started with a passage from Gloria Naylor’s novel, The Women of Brewster Place (1982). Ciel’s partner is gone, her toddler daughter dead from an accident, and all she can do is slip numbly toward the grave. Old, powerful and wise, Mattie storms heaven with indignant prayers and picks Ciel up. For hours Mattie holds and rocks Ciel; then Mattie washes Ciel back into life. Kendra connected this story with the words of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The things Jesus specifically told us to do were the simplest, most basic of actions: wash one another, feed one another, hold on through the pain.
An indirect but nevertheless important thing we can do to draw together women and worship is recall our worship’s fundamental shape and intent. I remember wondering, half a lifetime ago, just what the Vatican thought was so intrinsically male about wearing long white dresses, washing babies, offering counsel, and spreading a meal? What we do in church to remember Jesus is not too different from what women have done over the centuries, without fanfare, in their homes.
Many of us feel as intimidated or annoyed by the details of worship as we do when visiting the auto mechanic or tax accountant. It doesn’t have to be that way. If we can recover the essential shape of what we’re doing, then the details will fall into place–just as they would if we were at home, setting the table for family or friends. If we’re sharing conversation, food, and drink with those we love, it doesn’t matter whether we offer them steaming hot chocolate in tin mugs on the back porch, or invite them to a formal dinner party. In either case we’ll want to set them at ease and make sure that our hospitality is gracious.
Whether the preparation involves a little or a lot, the main thing is our encounter with our guests. We’ll want to prepare appropriately, but won’t want our visit to be dominated by our own anxiety about the preparation. When the family assembles, they’re looking for something solid that tastes good. It’s great if the conversation turns out to be scintillating, but it doesn’t have to be. A new recipe might be appreciated, and a few times a year it’s right and salutary to go all out, but being bedazzled by gourmet fare isn’t the reason the family gathers. Nourishment in body and spirit is the point–and it happens in ordinary, often overlooked, ways.
What if we could apply to our worship life that finely-tuned sense of what’s necessary preparation? I’d like to see everyone get much more familiar with how the liturgy fits together, and why. Increased comfort need not mean a loss of respect. The more we learn, the more we can be astonished at its beauty and depth. We’ll be able to find ways of transforming and reforming what we have received in ways that gracefully connect present and past.
We have inherited a tradition of participatory worship; we can make fuller use of its potential. We can share a greater sense of “ownership,” and share leadership with greater numbers of laypersons.
How many who faithfully prepare and lead worship feel like the women who say, “Nothing; I’m just a housewife?” It is imperative that we acknowledge the importance of gathering week in and week out as God’s family around the font, pulpit, and table. It’s great if we’re offering ground-breaking, enthralling new programs that get people excited. But excitement and bedazzlement will pass away. Basic, wholesome nourishment will remain. We need protein, not Twinkies. What we offer in word and sacrament is far from “nothing.” Great power is revealed in the ordinary. Works of art, after all, can be hidden in broom closets.
Perhaps we can discover new respect for women who keep house, and for all those called to keep God’s oikos. What better way to observe this season of preparation? “Love, the guest, is on the way (With One Voice # 626).” As we decorate our homes and make room in our hearts, let us joyfully keep watch–“until he comes in beauty and in power to share with us the great and promised feast.”
(It all started for Julie Ryan when, having been amazed and evangelized by the liturgy, she was baptized at the age of 10 on the eve of Independence Day. She is now in an interim between interims, pursuing an artful combination of ministry of word and sacrament with step-parenting and marriage.)