I remember the day as if it were yesterday. I was on my way to the Fisk Memorial Chapel one late Saturday afternoon to prepare for the next day’s worship service. It was fall of my junior year — and the university was broke, and unfortunately stuck with me as a makeshift student chaplain. If there was to be leadership for Sunday worship, if there was to be an effort to make ready a space for students to gather to give praises to God — if there was to be someone to choose the morning’s hymns and to figure out how to transpose the keys on the opening and closing hymns and play them on the broken carillon with its keyboard full of stuck and missing keys (and to do that without cussing!), then I needed to get my butt in gear.
As I headed to the Chapel, two brothers (as in dudes — don’t know if they were related!) approached me. I vaguely heard their attempts at getting my attention, but my mind was focused on the task at hand (i.e., what is the deal with tomorrow’s worship — and where are You, God — do YOU really think this is funny?!?!?!? At least keep me from abusing the campus with wrongly transposed hymns on this broken carillon because everybody’s got enough ISSUES and who needs to hear a weirded out version of “O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”!!!!).
I did not hear the brothers call out to me. Bad mistake. Rude dudes do not like to be ignored. They stopped a few other classmates and asked questions about me — probably something on the order of, “who does she think she is, ignoring all of this double good Mack-daddy-ness?!” From what I understand, these brothers were assured — “she’s not ignoring you, she’s not like that — she just focused on the ultimate challenge for tomorrow.”
And, that did not sit well with the dudes.
Later, they came knocking on the door.
Them: “We’d like to talk to you. We heard that you are studying to be a “minister”.
Them: “Well, let’s talk about that. We are seminary students here in Nashville — and we know that God doesn’t call women to preach. In fact, it’s ridiculous for a woman to serve as a minister of the Gospel in any capacity.”
Me: Okay. (But really thinking…ridiculous? Dang, that’s deep!)
Them: “Can we come in?”
(I would like to say that I was being open-minded about this and just wanted to debate with them. The truth is, nobody told me that God did not call women to preach. This bit of info was relatively new “news” to me. Even though I did not meet a woman minister (the Rev. Dr. Karen Y. Collier) until I landed at Fisk University, it did not occur to me that folks had real issues with this until long after I had accepted my call and preached that first sermon at the age of 17. My role model for ridiculousness was James Snodgrass. I grew up watching him walk the Jericho roads in my hometown of Newark, NJ. He invited me and others to walk with him. I watched him challenge the conditions that produced Jericho roads for so many people. It was not glamorous work! Who would volunteer for that? Who would do that outside of being compelled by God? So, I’m thinking the unglamorous work of deconstructing and constructing roads is what ministers do –it just never occurred to me that there were folks who cared that the Jericho Road deconstruction crew be “manned.”
I really wanted to hear why these students thought it was ridiculous for a woman to serve as a minister of the gospel in any capacity. I mean, we were standing on the campus of Fisk University, whose heartbeat was life for formerly enslaved ancestors who proved that God often calls the least expected to do ridiculous things.
Ridiculous? Maybe, I was. Yet even so, here I stood listening to fragments of this conversation. A “first generation” college student standing here because of the whispering dreams of the enslaved – people who dared to hope that their dreams for me would not be too ridiculous for God to honor.
Anyway, I digress….I wanted to hear the arguments so I listened more intently to their conversation, and they were more than happy to share.
Them: (Actually, Dude No. 1) — “it’s really about Eve. She brought sin into the world through her weakness.”
Me: Wow. You really think that? (But, I’m really thinking…dude, if you think that, my preaching is really the least of your problems, buddy. Just who is your momma?)
Them: (Actually, Dude No. 2) — “no, it’s really about the Apostles admonitions for women to be quiet in the church. We need discipline and order. Going against a direct command like that is a sin.”
Me. Oh. (I’m really thinking…what about all the other commands and admonitions? Shellfish, pork, relieving yourself within the confines of the camp, differentials in time for “uncleanliness” after the birth of a son or a daughter, slaves obeying masters….gosh, if faith and obedience was really that simple, just who has been in charge of making it so hard???? Get them to stop it!”)
Them: Literally, them — they started arguing back and forth between each other about the real reasons God’s call to me was ridiculous. God prefers men. Black people need strong men in the American context. Women?! The Bible says, the Bible says…..
There was no agreement among them, no consensus on anything except “no women.” But, who knows why? Naturally? Inherently and uniquely sinful? Or, because it was the command of the Apostles, the command of God?
My head swung back and forth as if I were at a tennis match. Pretty soon, They forgot all about Me and argued and debated with Each Other as if I were not in the room. And then it hit me –I experienced a phenomenal moment of grace as this “discussion” was raging on – grace that ushered in a watershed moment for me with respect to understanding myself as God’s own and understanding.
Their discussion shifted from sharing their scriptural “proof-texts” to arguing among themselves about the real reasons God does not call women to lead. As I was registering the disagreements they were having among themselves – and the range of scriptural texts they were throwing around to prove God’s propensity to steer away from women — something happened to me that changed my life forever. By now, these guys had forgotten all about me in the room and were totally focused on their own argument.
I knew that I was where I was, not because of scriptural texts. I was standing in the fullness of who I was – poor, black, female, maybe ridiculous, but called — standing on the campus of Fisk University because of the whole God-story. At that moment, by the grace of God, I saw it: they were arguing about something that God had settled long ago. I am made in the image of God. I could get lost in the “verses,” over which we will argue until the end-times, or I could find my life in the God-story.
I am still choosing the Big God-Story.
It is a big, big, simple story: God traveled down through generations and interrupted the flow of time and history to wrap God’s self in flesh and to move into our neighborhood. God did this so that God could walk with us, turn us around, grace us with freedom and liberty, show us how much we are loved and teach us how to love one another. That love was not conquered by Calvary and that same love raised Jesus up on the third day for God’s sake, but also so that we would know that our lives — our hopes, our ridiculous dreams, and our spirits — did not have to end in a borrowed tomb. There will never be dead ends with God’s love. For those who pursue that love, there is a charge and challenge for today and a resting place for tomorrow. Tomorrow’s rest is not sleep. It is an exit from weariness, slavery, brokenness and travail. It is entry into the greatest choir of Singers of all time. These Singers never stop singing in harmony — incredible voices of an untold number! (You need voices of all kinds to sing this kind of harmony — the songs of the redeemed!)
It is an awesome responsibility to faithfully extend — every day — the invitation to all of God’s people to find themselves in this big, big, simple story. It is a huge effort to witness to God’s desire for all people, not just some, to be caught up in this story…especially when power prioritizes a few verses of incomplete stories here and there.
Because those dudes really liked to hear themselves talking, their argument raged on without my input. Most arguments do not need my input, hence the conviction that my energy will be spent elsewhere, namely, picking up people (with my hand and with a Word) who have been beaten down on the Jericho Road, and witnessing against the power of that old enemy – slavery. I will be doing the ridiculous work of challenging the conditions that create Jericho Roads in a world where God intends the beloved to flourish.
I thanked God for the grace of the moment. Then I served them popcorn as I worked out in my head the order of Chapel Service for the next day and prayed that I could settle on a simple call to worship in the key of C, the only truly working key on the carillon!
Here is a prayer for anyone who finds themselves on a bench at a world-class tennis match where the ultimate goal is to be overcome and worn out by an argument that is not yours, and not God’s:
“God, send us Your Grace that we might not get lost in anything except the incredibly Big Story of your amazing love. That’s it. That’s the prayer, God. Help us not get sidetracked and lost in texts and arguments. We need our carillons tuned to play your songs in the many keys of a thriving world.”