Thursday, March 20, 2014

What A Preacher Looks Like

by JaneAnn Kenney 

On the last night of February, I stood before my classmates. I shivered as I reminded myself once again, “A preacher looks exactly how I look tonight, because tonight I am a preacher.”

My divinity program requires an introductory preaching course for all its students. Since I intend to graduate, I decided to enroll this semester. It was as good a time as ever. Our final, crowning assignment was to deliver a ten-minute sermon to the class, our congregation for the night.

Our revered professor assigned us texts. Mine was Mark 4:1-20, the Parable of the Sower. What a bizarre story, especially if you read it from Mark without conflating it with Matthew. Jesus didn’t want us to understand. Well, maybe not us, but he didn’t want everyone to understand, at least initially, what it was he was saying about the kingdom of God. I preached on the last night of February, and I kept reminding myself that at least one preacher looks just like me—red hair and mascara, blue dress and heels.

That weekend, I began to imagine, for the very first time, that I could be a preacher when I grow up.

Now, I don’t know what psychologists would say (feel free to weigh in), but it seems to me that a person’s imagination is shaped early in life, for better or worse, bigger or smaller. The boundaries of what is possible at some point impinge upon imagination, such that a world of endless possibilities can result in an imagination without limits, whereas a world of few opportunities might yield only a ghost of imagination. This is not always true, but deviation does not disprove a pattern.

When I was a child, I imagined I was an architect, a doctor, a lawyer, and various combinations of these things. I was always a Christian—working with Habitat for Humanity, or doing medical missions, or pro-bono cases, or whatever was appropriate to my newest vocational fixation—but I was never working for a church. Why?

I rarely saw a woman working officially for the church until I was much older. My primary interaction with such women was with secretaries. My mother was one for a while, at the same church where my father preached. Shockingly enough, I did not aspire to becoming a secretary. And so, there was no place for me at church.

I did see a woman preach once, perhaps at an Episcopalian church, when I was young. I thought it odd, maybe sinful, but my parents had no comment on her, either good or bad, that I remember. Seems like it was nighttime, so perhaps I thought the congregation was a bit lax in their evening services. It seemed like an outlier, not a norm. We were on vacation at the time, so a woman preaching seemed like one of those bizarre things you do on vacation that you mightn’t try otherwise, like eating out every night or wearing only bathing suits and sunscreen for a week.

A myopic imagination does not realize that it has been shortsighted. The woman preaching could have broadened my view, but instead the strangeness of the situation distracted me from the revelation I had seen. The normalcy of this class many years later, however, of preparing to speak in front of classmates, of faith and scholarship meeting as they have throughout my graduate career, has finally allowed me to glimpse a new possibility for the future.

These skills I’m learning, these books I’m reading, I like it. I appreciate this kind of work, what happens before the sermon. The frustration proceeds from my expanding imagination: How am I to explore this possibility? Where is the place for a twenty-something woman to try preaching without accepting a pulpit? How does a potential woman preacher in the Church of Christ discern what may or may not be a call? What if my interest is mere curiosity or worse, contrariness, a simple desire to stick my tongue out and prove that I can?

Here I am in seminary; I am qualified to preach, but what is qualification to preach? I believe in calls to ministry, whether preaching, youth, campus, foreign missions, and all other creative options. This is why, when thinking about where I want my career to go, I might rather flippantly think about working as an editor or as a literacy advocate or things of like ilk, but ministry of any kind is not a mantle to be accepted lightly. Ministries do not seem the sort of thing to try on, so to speak, except perhaps in that intern-role that is so popular in both missions and youth ministry. Where is the internship for a young preacher, unsure of her own motivations? This is the exercise in futility—to learn that which cannot be used, to enjoy that which must not be enjoyed, and then not even understand what it means to have enjoyed it.

Having now delivered the sermon, I find that my mindset has changed. I cannot speak of a closed imagination. The doors have been sprung open. What if I was really doing this with my life?

The issue, sadly, stems from my very gender. Upon hearing me preach, some will be all the more impressed because I am a woman. Initial hesitance will be overcompensated for in over-exuberance. Others will not even hear me because I am a woman. These might stand up quietly and leave, their silence a judgment against the voice coming from the pulpit. Those in the first group will seek me out, set me as an example (if they find my sermonic voice even mildly adequate to the task), encourage me to continue to grow and preach, come and do; the second group will shun me, question my integrity, my commitment to scripture, to the Church, and even to God.

I don’t relish this role. My gender is not incidental to my being, but neither do I consider it a basic qualification or inadequacy for any task that is set before me. I should not become a professor of discrete mathematics, not because I am a woman, but because I haven’t studied anything past calculus, and that was nearly a decade ago. I’ve not done the necessary work. The same would go for piloting a plane, performing surgery, leading a corporation, even becoming part of an interpretive dance troupe, much as I would love it. There are many things I simply am not qualified for, not as a woman, but as an uneducated person. Yet, I could have become qualified for these things had I so chosen, and for some vocations the window is not yet closed (sadly, dancing is not one).

Preaching, on the other hand... I have studied the text closely and my background in reading poetry and literature in other contexts helps me in this task. I enjoy the discipline of reading the commentaries, considering the text in its original language, mulling over its difficulties, its historical context, and all sorts of other considerations. All of this must find outlet. Perhaps I will write, as I am doing on the book of Joshua and as I am doing at work. Perhaps I will teach, if I go on to a Ph.D., or perhaps in a Sunday school class somewhere if I do not. Then again, why shouldn’t I preach? Because in many circles, the mere fact of my gender will prevent me. I cannot qualify myself, and not even a call from God will change the hearts of men.

I say men, and some men are part of the problem, but women aren’t off the hook here either. I’m part of this problem. For years, I have accepted circumstances as they are, accepted some vague notion of not offending the weaker brother. I have to say, sometimes that weaker “brother” needs to be offended. Like when his or her weakness means we continue in systems which do not bring God’s kingdom closer as we have been taught to pray “on earth as it is in heaven.” There’s nothing we’re doing in the church which should not be striving to be more like the most realistic version of the kingdom if we take this prayer seriously.

My imagination for my future has changed, but my actuality has not. If I choose to explore the implications of this short class, then I choose a hard road, a path less traveled in my tradition. Yet, I imagine the day when manhood and womanhood are recognized and celebrated in each individual, as expressed in each individual, without becoming a restrictive idea of what either one means, what gender roles may lawfully be embraced or must be rejected.

The final question is not “Should a woman preach?” or even “Is it okay for women to lead?” because these questions are too small. The real question, the actual question, is “What does God’s kingdom look like?” If we continue to imagine a kingdom in which people are divided by nation and language, we know we are in error. Why then do we imagine the kingdom will be divided by the basic distinction: man or woman?

I imagine the day when all of God’s children are freed to serve God and one another as they have been gifted and called. I imagine a day when the church I see before me lives and loves as God’s kingdom here and now as we hope to see it in the great and terrible day of the Lord. Maranatha.

You can ask JaneAnn about: Nashville, theology, cats. Baseball. Glacial rivers. Her stance on the color purple, and then again the existence of the word "purple." General frivolity and terrible music (for the DANCING!!). Old Stephen King novels, time zones, and toll roads in Oklahoma. She will not, however, answer any questions about that thing living in her fridge. You can follow her on Twitter @JAKof3Ts. 

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