From one of our bright young stars at St. Augustine’s. It’s a powerful testimony as to why there is no such thing as an isolate Christian for the love of Christ to be made fully known.
When I was first introduced to the idea of the “New Heaven and New Earth,” I was resistant. Hostile, even. A perfected creation where I would live with a physical body, in a physical world very like this one? Yeah, right.
My skepticism was partly born from what I now recognize as despair. I believed that the substance of this world was so deeply broken, so deeply wretched, so enslaved to corrupting forces of sin and death, that there was no way it could be made good again. My relationships were so shot through with the misery inherent in all flesh that there was no way to fix them. Heaven was, I was sure, an ethereal place untethered from bodily existence, with no past to remember and no future to look forward to. I couldn’t possibly imagine otherwise.
I think back to that way of believing with more than a little pity for my past self. Not only did I think that God was waiting to destroy the world with fire, I also had no hope for a better future. The fact was, the “heaven” that I was taught to await was not a nice place. Eternality in a fleshless life was no less terrifying than endless darkness of death. The teachings I had received in that other, Not-to-be-Identified church told me to fear sin and avoid it (that was the extent of the spiritual life I was taught to lead); and if I avoided sin successfully enough, and believed in Jesus under very particular doctrinal constraints, then I had a fleshless, unimaginable heaven to look forward to.
I called myself a Christian, and I desperately looked for Christ. But I lived inside of a theology that gave me no hope, no joy, and no guide for how to live in the world that Christ created. It had nothing to say about life, much less life-after-death.
You would think that when I heard Fr Kevin talking about the New Creation, where we would live for eternity in a perfected physical world with our loved ones, I would have leapt at the idea. It should have been the clear answer shining in the darkness. But I was incredibly resistant to it.
And that brings me to the second reason why I had trouble accepting this creation theology – because I didn’t want to be trapped in the body that I had been burdened with. It was bad enough, I thought, to be female in this life. But to be condemned to being female – and thus, in my mind, a lesser and derivative creature – for all of eternity? No way. That reeked of another male-centered theology that saw no reason why women shouldn’t want to be stuck as second-class citizens for all of time, a theology that saw no problem with telling women that their only value to God was their ability to bear children.
The only thing I thought I could hope for, back then in that spiritually dead life I had, was to die and have the chance to be on equal footing with God’s other creatures – men – when we all got to be non-gendered, disembodied blobs together.
How dare Fr Kevin tell me to believe in this New Creation with a “better” physical body that left me in the same position I was in before – the less loved creature? The one that God had only created to help Adam? It was well enough for him, I thought, and for all the other male theologians, to crow about a resurrection of the body, when they got to be men in the next life, and I got stuck being this. So I wasn’t having this misogynist bullshit about being created men and women, and how great marriage was (great for who? certainly not great for me), and the New Creation, and blah blah blah.
But what Fr Kevin couldn’t convince me of with words he convinced me of with actions. Because it was around then that I started attending St Augustine’s regularly. This was the summer of 2015, I think. I had met Carl, and we talked a lot about spiritual things. As you can already tell from reading this, I was dealing with a lot of spiritual baggage (so much more than I’ve let on with these short paragraphs). And when Carl told me about his church, and what they believed, I was drawn in like a fly to honey. What, you mean ANY baptized Christian can come to communion? You’re saying the vestry has WOMEN on it?? I couldn’t believe it, and I desperately wanted to believe it. These conversations happened at the same time that the Holy Spirit in his infinite wisdom “gave the boot” from the Not-To-Be-Named Church I was previously attending; and so out I went, into the cold day of unanswered questions: Who is God? And who am I to God?
I was troubled, deeply and painfully, for many years by a recurring thought that God had made me less by making me a female. I was told in my other church that I was not allowed to teach, not allowed to serve at the altar, not allowed preach, not allowed to read scripture or pray in front of the congregation. To do so was in violation of St Paul’s admonition that women were to be “silent in the church.” And yes, I was silent in the church, because I cry very quietly. “God loves you less,” the voice in my head told me. “God made you smart and opinionated and angry so that you could learn to tamp it down through true humility. God will love you better if you learn to be quiet; if you submit yourself to a husband; if you pop out a couple kids.”
But there was another voice, too. And that voice said, “You know the Holy Spirit kicked you out of the church that taught you that. Maybe He wants you to hear a new story, a new version of who He is and how he sees you. Follow that.”
So I followed Carl, and Fr Kevin, to St Augustine’s. I drank it in like person dying in the desert. Even when there were teachings that I wasn’t used to – Fr Kevin’s New Creation and the bodily resurrection; Fr Ric’s insistence that the “egoic mind” and its addiction to scarcity was the “flesh” that Paul talked about – I sucked it in and held it close. I was desperate for a new way of engaging with God, one that hurt less than what I’d had before.
And if you saw me crying in the pew those first few months during communion (or even now sometimes, when gratitude overcomes me, that God brought me here, to this place, to these people), it was because I saw women standing next to men at the altar before the rest of the congregation came up front for the bread and wine. I saw smart, kind, capable women in the altar guild standing in white robes next to men. I saw women who were prayer warriors. And there they stood, equal numbers of men and women, standing together in that sacred space, as equals.
In those early conversations with Fr Kevin, I couldn’t quite hold on to the words he gave me. The old stories about Creation and Resurrection couldn’t help me then. I couldn’t hear past the ringing in my ears that said “The Creation narrative tells you that you are only partially human, made from Adam’s rib.” But what moved me and changed me was seeing the actions: women standing next to men as equals.
As I’ve come to know how business works at St Augustine’s, I’ve had a chance to see how men and women work together for the Kingdom of God. I’ve watched women speak up and be heard in Vestry meetings and at parish meetings. I’ve watched women lead, and teach, and talk, and be taken seriously as equals in a congregation family. I’ve come to know these women, love and admire them, as powerful forces for good in the church and in their families and communities. I’ve come to know the men in our congregation who also admire and listen to the women. And I’ve never heard anything derogatory about a woman’s participation in the life of the Church, or the life of the Spirit. Seeing that, living in that, I slowly healed. I became the marvel of calm assurance that you see before you today (please read that with the sarcasm I intend).
I was given Special Dispensation to attend Thursday Night Men’s Group (thanks, Fr Kevin, for advocating for me), and I was treated like one of the guys. It was something I desperately wanted – just to be included with the men, as if I mattered, too – and it helped. A lot. Way more than you’d think for smoking a bunch of stinky cigars and shouting happily at each other across a noisy screened in porch.
I’m one of those people who thinks too much. As such, I’m one of those people who thinks you can solve all your problems by thinking, by logical decision-making. So I was a bit curious when I realized that the “believing I was created as an inferior being” problem didn’t go away when I DECIDED that I no longer logically assented to the theology. Where had that voice gone, I wondered? But more importantly, why didn’t it disappear as soon as I decided I no longer agreed with that belief?
Well, there’s the short answer and the long answer.
The short answer is this: the voice telling me God loved me less for being female was hounding me, and it began to sound less and less like “me” and more like some external force. One late night it became very pronounced, and so I exorcised it. No, not like the thing from The Exorcist. More like Alice in Wonderland, when she stamps her foot, and says “Go away!” to the Cheshire Cat. So I stamped my spiritual foot and said “Go away!” and recited some verses that state “Whatever you command in my name,” etc. etc. And it never came back to bother me again.
The longer answer is more compelling (more compelling than casting out a demon, you may well ask?). And that is, that I needed to live in a community that practiced what it preached. I needed to be part of a group of Christians who not only said “Be fed,” but who fed me. At St Augustine’s, I participated in every aspect of the life of the church that the men did: I read scripture and prayed; I served on altar guild; I smoked cigars; I joined vestry and spoke up and was heard. And when I was more confident that I wasn’t just being relegated to “women’s work,” I helped run Godly Play and volunteered to help cook and serve meals with Faith Mission. After years of being involved in every way I can with the church and the other members, I can say “God loves me just as much as anyone else” – not through logical assent, but because I’ve lived inside of that love, equality, and acceptance.
And this brings me to my final point: the importance of the messenger, not just the message. If we could learn everything we needed to learn from reading scriptures, then we wouldn’t need Christian community. But the fact is, God has specially ordained that the Good News of what God has done for us be spread through us. He has made us messengers. And we may not be the most eloquent, nor the most educated – Lord knows I’m neither – but he blesses our efforts to bring others into the fold. He blesses our conversations about spiritual things. He blesses our gatherings (virtual and physical). He blesses our services, our corporate prayer and worship. He blesses it when we invite a visitor to our church – however shy, awkward, and occasionally defensive or hostile she may be – into our homes, onto our porches, into the space at the altar.
This is the community of God. This beautiful, weird, imperfect, loving family is the first-fruits of the promises of God. I couldn’t believe in the physical resurrection until I experienced a church family that valued me, despite my being a woman. I couldn’t believe in the New Creation until I experienced a church family that showed me that altruistic relationships were possible (if still to be perfected) in the next life.
Back in the summer of 2015, I stood on a street corner – physically and metaphysically – and begged God for Christian friends and a Christian community. And the greatest evidence that I have that God loves me and gives good gifts is that he brought me to St Augustine’s. Thanks God. I love you weirdos.