For as long as I can remember I have wanted to do anything that a boy could, continuously looking for the chance to prove myself as a girl and eventually as a woman. That theme has circled throughout my life, drumming in the background incessantly— even to the point of becoming what felt like a blasphemy. As Christian women our destinies, our dreams for our lives aren’t large and hopeful, but small and inconsequential.
Something inside me has pushed back at those ideas, the invisible barriers. As I shut out what felt demeaning and battled with personal doubt, what persisted was a powerful belief that the universal ideas about women in the church might be wrong.
It is only by God’s grace that I have become resolute, and eventually open, about my belief in the biblical equality of men and women in the church. This had become central to my identity, and I believe God gave me that understanding — but things quite beyond my control converged to make it highly unlikely that I would ever become the woman that I am today.
My formative years were spent in the southern United States one of four daughters of missionaries. I came to love God early and enthusiastically studied scripture. That knowledge of scripture has been important, even as I wrestled internally with what I was taught. I have been the kind of person that responded to God with an unequivocal “yes” even as I saw how the conventional understanding limited the dreams of girls and women.
My youth pastor led a camping survival trip for boys. When I asked if I could go, to his credit my pastor didn’t say no, he asked me “Why would you want to go? It’ll be hard.” I suppose it never occurred to my pastor that girls would want that sort of physical pain and mental challenge because most didn’t. That trip, which was very difficult, taught me that I am strong, tenacious and hard-working. Those are things I did not know and may never have learned if I hadn’t pushed to go. I have always been inquisitive and contrary by nature. My youth pastor encouraged it as strength, even while I must have driven him crazy with my never-ending interrogations about the Bible. At that point in my life, I was ready, open and willing to do anything God wanted of me.
Although I felt encouraged by my youth pastor, it was the subtler messages growing up that hurt me. My home life was not healthy. My father constantly berated me for things I could not control, and I watched my mother stifled in the expression of her gifts. This led to depressive thoughts throughout high school and college. I was afraid to open my mouth—I wouldn’t even pray out loud. I suppose I was afraid of messing up, of being wrong, of not knowing something. I still wrestle with that. I can remember coming home from a prayer meeting and praying under my covers, only imagining myself saying it out loud. I wanted to believe that one day I would have the confidence and peace to say what I believed.
Even from those formative childhood years and on into adulthood, I had been driven by fear and need to be perfect. I recall being yelled at for grades that were below my potential. Roared at to stop stammering, because I had a small lisp. It only took a look from my father to shatter me, tears slowly leaking out of my eyes, fearful he would be angry for the tears but not being able to control them. I learned to control them and to this day find it hard to cry. I remember gazing at my bitten & bleeding fingernails under the microscope in high school biology, wondering if I would ever feel good about myself. Somehow, my hands came to symbolize my pain and the ugliness I saw in myself. Spacing out was one way I coped with the unpredictable nature of my father’s anger which could be triggered by anything—a slip of the tongue, a comment coming out a too sarcastically or being considered disrespectful. Of course having ideas other than his enraged him and though he was never physically punishing to us, he verbally hounded us long into adulthood.
Shortly after graduating I moved back home, which was now in the Midwest, and started working for my father who was by now at a different ministry organization. My mom and my older sister were both working for my father. On some level we all longed for his approval, still. I started doing clerical work part-time and was soon promoted. Suddenly I was receiving affirmation from my father and acclaim from others. As I worked, I began to remember things that I had completely lost track of – I was naturally gifted as a leader, a critical thinker, and an artist, a passionate and gifted communicator. Though I nearly threw up each time, I even became an effective public speaker. After all those years, I had come a long way from the timid and shy girl that hid under her covers, too afraid to pray out loud.
But deep down, I was full of self-loathing which came, I believe, from the incessant yelling and shaming of my father. I was unsure about what God really thought of me—I had never understood the grace Jesus offers. I was extraordinarily insecure and wasn’t able to fully access my spiritual gifts. I became rigid, caught up in petty competition, critical of others. I became a workaholic as I needed to prove to everyone that I was “good enough.” Though I was promoted quickly up the organization — even with all of the “success” — deep down I was terrified of it all shattering. I was utterly lost. I longed for a mentor or spiritual director or a boss to give me insight into my own despair, but it wasn’t offered to me and I didn’t know enough to ask for it.
I walked away from work burned out and cynical. Only then, by losing that aspect of my identity, did I finally face who I had become. Whether I was conscious of it or not, I had lost my way, my spiritual center, in many ways becoming just like my father. Over the years my true voice had become silent. I shut down. I learned the safe thing was to not speak out loud. I forfeited living for peace. I lost my way.
The church and its teachings, my father’s influence, and my internal journey all converged into great confusion, when in my forties I learned that my spiritual gifts were leadership, teaching, wisdom and mercy. I didn’t know how to reconcile that. I obviously had been misusing my talents. I was afraid of my “spiritual gifts.” I had not been mentored or helped to become a Godly leader—to be gentle, peaceful, generous, patient and kind. This is something I learned is crucial for all young leaders, to have another wiser elder come alongside and guide them. Was it because I was a woman that I didn’t receive it? I’ll never know. When I left work to be a stay-at-home mom, I set that entire part of me aside refusing any leadership capacity or take any responsibilities at our new church. I was afraid of my gifts and unsure how to use them well, or if I even should. So I became silent, again.
I have spent these years at-home personally inventorying my heart – crying out to God. I know that I have a strong and powerful voice. If God made me a leader, with heart care for others; if he made me a critical thinker; if he breaks my heart over injustice; what does he want from me? And if God wants me to do something, how do I figure out how that fits into my church? I have felt like a misfit, disobedient not using my spiritual gifts. I’ve been made a certain way and yet I’m stubbornly withholding out of fear. Fr. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan monk, says that the typical trajectory of our life is that our hurts, disappointments and betrayals will embitter us. Unless we allow God to heal and transform our pain we will transmit it. This I have most certainly done. Even as I’m still learning discernment I know that I cannot remain silent. The challenge for me now is finding a place and a way to speak that is worth the risk.
All of my life, I got the message that the person that God made me—tough, opinionated and full of questions, capable and yet bullheaded—was somehow wrong. Though I have seen the ways that these qualities have hurt others I am figuring out how to be that person God made, not bitter and destructive but transformed. I long to be useful. As I wrestle every day with the tension between my earthly father, now dead, who raised me and what scripture says about our heavenly father, I have to admit that this part of my story is not complete. My ideas about a Father God are not yet redeemed. No matter what I have learned, there are some days that God is still mean, angry, and out of control, railing at me in my head. And that’s going to take a miracle to heal. Still, I’m confident at this point that I am worthwhile, because God loves me and made me in his image.
I strive ahead, hoping to be useful to the faith community that I am a part of, though it is at times uncomfortable and frustrating! Will I always struggle with the feeling that I have to prove myself? Probably. If this life is merely a process of becoming, I welcome it. Like the old hymn says, “I want to be ready.” Not afraid to speak.
Jesus met the Samaritan woman the poorest and most broken of women in the gospels. She had made her share of mistakes, was rejected and marginalized. When Jesus meets her, he doesn’t ask her to get her act together rather he exposes to her his own need. He said “Give me a drink.” I am quite sure that she did not believe she had anything to offer Jesus, and yet he revealed to her the truth. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could accept that truth? I would no longer need to be grasping for proof of my worth or working and competing for my value. I have always wanted to be great in the world’s and in God’s eyes, with little understanding of this truth.
We are called to a life of love, justice and hope to the “least of these.” Each one of us is made in God’s image and as we are being transformed, we can know our value to Him. No, I am not yet perfected, nor am I perfect but that too is adequate as I ponder the greater question of what it means to be an empowered woman of faith. I will always remember what I came from, even while seeking the path of greatest usefulness, even today responding unequivocally yes to God.