Practicing the Presence of Women

I am the most competitive person I know (figures, right?).

In sixth grade, my class was supposed to compete against the fifth grade in flag football during halftime of the Friday night High school football game. There were try-outs for all positions, beginning with quarterback. To no one’s surprise, I went up against most of the boys in my class. To the shock of many, I suppose, who hadn’t watched me toss the football any chance I had, I won. I still remember it vividly. We were to take a hike from the center, step back in the pocket and pass—four times—to our teacher, a coach. My throws were the most accurate and thus I became our team’s quarterback.

In Jr. high school, our girls’ basketball team was full of talent. Everyone knew that compared with the boys’ team, we were better positioned to be a force within our Irquois league conference. Still, there was a problem looming as the school year began: we had no coach. The school board hastily decided to hire someone who had absolutely no coaching ability nor experience.

As a young competitor intensely interested in basketball and winning, it was immediately apparent the person hired was no coach. And, as our season began with no plan, no training, nothing even in the direction of physical fitness, we began losing games we should have won. And yet, no one said a thing as they kept watching our season slip by, our talent of no use without someone to coach us.

Here’s the thing that seldom is acknowledged and certainly wasn’t addressed then: the school board never would have allowed a boys’ team to enter a season under such a situation. In fact, they didn’t. The previous coach, who was outstanding, had responsibilities for both High school football and High school women’s basketball. Upon his leaving, the board worked diligently to find a sound replacement for the football team while they did little to locate someone appropriately qualified for women’s basketball. Heck, my dad, a member of the school board at the time and who played basketball all through school would have been a much better coach than who we had. But, no one valued this women’s team enough to step up and take responsibility.

I believe this experience represents not necessarily intent to jettison a girls’ team, but rather action stemming from blindness: failure to see female presence. And, while we may like to believe this sort of failure no longer exists, my experience an illustration of inattentiveness born of an earlier era, I’m convinced the problem still looms.

Even more, this problem of women’s absence is perpetuated by our churches and faith-based organizations in the ways in which women’s voices and narratives from Scripture are seldom brought into sustained focus. And, in the few times that they are, all too frequently it is in ways that highlight sin or doubt or simply as “flat” figures who provide background for the more important male figures who require more of our attention.

How often, for example, do we hear about the foremothers of Jesus: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba? Or, when was the last time you heard a sermon on the Lost Coin? Or, what about the woman who beat Jesus in an argument over his mission or the woman who transgressed Jewish law and cultural norms to meet Jesus and be healed?

And yet even if we begin to consider women in the Bible with more diligence, we face a further challenge: the patriarchal lens through which they are portrayed. While we may understand the Bible to be revelation, it nevertheless is given to us through the experiences of men who lived in time periods very different from our own. As such we need to admit, it seems to me, that the Bible can be life-giving in some ways and in other ways it is harmful.

But even as much as digging deeper into Scripture for female presence will help us overcome our blindness, additionally our collective spiritual insight is grounded primarily in male experience and perspective, the majority of pastors and church leaders being men. Overcoming this limited point of view may even be more challenging because in order to rectify it, the power imbalance embedded in the church must be changed.

These are daunting issues to be sure but I have hope that where God’s spirit is present there will be greater justice.

Just this morning at the United Methodist Church where I am a member the associate pastor spoke of her conviction that on this Pentecost Sunday we need to help the church remember its identity and mission. On that first Pentecost when people from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas were gathered together they experienced first-hand the remarkable unity of the Spirit’s power as everyone was included. She, a lesbian pastor speaking from the pulpit, reminded us of the harm created when people choose power over spirit, control over freedom, being right over being compassionate. In her proclamation she called the church to look again at the ways in which it extends pain and instead consider how to offer healing and hope.

It is in moments like these that I embrace the possibility of change, to dream of the potential the church can be. And to wonder how much fuller our faith perspectives would be if we practiced the presence of women.