Singular Women

Proverbs 31:10-31 – The 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for September 23, 2012

“She opens her mouth with wisdom, and teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” Proverbs 31:26

Women made me who I am.

Which is likely the case for you unless you’re a test-tube baby! So, thanks Mom. And I have two sisters, one older, one younger. Growing up, I got it coming and going as the middle child and only boy.

In hundreds, if not thousands, of church meetings I’ve attended, often only one male participated . . . me. Once, as a new pastor serving a rural congregation in Wisconsin, we needed money—now!—to replace a furnace. Near the swishing tail of a Holstein hooked to a milking apparatus, a taciturn dairy farmer suggested, “Better talk to the women. They’ve got the money.” He meant the United Methodist Women in that isolated church. The frugal farm wives had raised and saved money for where it was needed:  overseas missions, projects to help the local needy and, on occasion, a large chunk of change for an expensive furnace.

In a paean to a wife and women, the Old Testament book of Proverbs (31:26-27) extols . . .

She opens her mouth with wisdom, and teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Generally speaking, in our sacred scripture, women weren’t highlighted. Old or New Testament, women were property, second-class citizens. (Or maybe third class, if compared to a mob of sheep or crop of wheat as part of your “manly” wealth.)

After reading Proverb 31’s ode to a “capable wife,” I dredged up faded, fractured childhood Sunday school memories about Biblical women. Old Testament-wise, I might’ve only identified Eve and Delilah. Eve—because she appeared early in the story, and railroaded gullible Adam into nibbling fruit. (See, fractured memories.). And Delilah—darn clever for that sneaky babe to trim Samson’s hair and scissor him down to size. (And I’d seen the movie!) Only later in seminary, would I ponder the theological gifts of a Sarah, Ruth, Hagar and others.

As a tyke or a seminarian, I knew the New Testament women better. And yet, even in the much briefer and later Christian scriptures, the exploits of men far outnumbered women. In any list of Jesus’ disciples it’s all men, all the time.

But on my path to and through ministry, women mattered.

Back in the 1970s, the room of a Bay Area church filled with pastors, all members of a United Methodist Board of Ordained Ministry. They gathered to evaluate candidates for ordination:  on faith, fitness for ministry and our denomination’s traditions. I arrived, one of several young candidates. For over an hour, clergy hammered me with questions and follow-up comments. A few times a minister—someone who’d decide my fate—would blather ad nauseum about an issue only important to him, spouting his opinions about this or that.

Only one pastor mentioned anything positive to or about me during the entire session. Just before I staggered out, Mary said, “Thank you so much for coming. You did a good job.” Her comment was the singular light in an hour of dark, demanding questions. Without her You did a good job, I would’ve felt completely miserable. In that room, Mary had been the sole female clergy.

About five years later, Joanna stood before fellow clergy—the vast majority of them male—to seek approval for a crucial final step toward my ordination. As the chair, and as one of my mentors, Joanna harbored a truth about me few knew. I’d mishandled submitting a form. She also knew the form had been received and approved by the necessary people . . . but, still, I’d bungled a key deadline.

When Joanna put my name before the group for the formal vote, she carefully phrased my situation. Because she trusted me, and because she’d verified everything was in order (though late), she didn’t hesitate to encourage her colleagues to approve my ordination. Without approval, I’d have to wait at least another year.

All ministers in attendance could ask whatever they wanted about me. Because of how Joanna shared my story, no one raised a question. She affirmed my ministry with a few careful, honest phrases.

Finally, Susanna. As my bishop for four years, I didn’t know her well, but she provided me—and many others—with leadership and inspiration. In 1984, she became the first female African-American elected as a United Methodist Bishop. In one of her sermons, she quoted . . . The will of God will never lead you where the grace of God cannot keep you. How did she know I needed those words at that exact moment in my life? Could a man have said the same and touched my soul? Of course! But it was her, and it was another moment where a singular woman, with a particular “wisdom” and “kindness” (thank you, Proverbs), influenced my path of faith.

If you know the Bible, you may have realized I borrowed names from Luke 8:1-3. In that passage, three specific women provided for Jesus’ ministry “out of their resources.” I wonder why only Luke’s gospel highlighted the generosity of Mary, Joanna and Susanna?

Until recently, men far outnumbered women as authority figures and decision-makers. Though a glass ceiling remains, positive changes have occurred. Indeed, my account of Mary as the lone female on a committee will seem quaint and antiquated to most readers. Good!

I’ll never forget how radical it was for the Bible to include any women. Nor will I forget how Christianity has been—and continues to be—at the forefront of stifling equality for women.

I’m thankful to be an ordained pastor during a time when parity between the genders is closer to reality. In my life, the women I’ve dubbed Mary, Joanna and Susanna helped make me who I am.

Proverbs was right. Strength and dignity are her clothing . . .  

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