February 1 is always a great day to celebrate great women of faith. Thank God for Brigid and for you!
Here are some pieces from the past that celebrate Brigid of Ireland and women like her of today.
2009 — Today Is Saint Brigid’s Day
One of the most maligned women in the Bible is actually a very interesting example of someone who dramatically overcame her past and pioneered a new direction for others to follow as she followed Jesus. I am talking about Mary of Magdala — Mary from a little town not far from Capernaum called Magdala, the Magdalene.
I approve of the new interpretation of Mary Magdalene seen in the picture above. I am happy for her to get reformed from all the nonsense that has been pasted on her over the years. For instance, long about the 600’s, the church in Europe went into a new phase of reinterpreting the Bible and women got a raw deal. This can especially be seen in the way the two most famous Marys in the New Testament were developed. Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene end up on the opposite ends of the stereotype of women: Mary as an untouchable, perpetually virgin saint and Mary Magdalene as the all-too-touched, perpetually repentant sinner. Instead of the saved people Jesus and Paul so obviously saw women to be, they end up stereotyped and back in oppression. I find that painful.
Mary Magdalene even ends up with a derogatory word attached to her stereotype: maudlin. You may have never used that word, but if you read English novels, you may have run into it. It means affectionate or sentimental in an effusive, tearful or foolish manner (especially when you’re drunk and self-pitying). It is a very British word. The ways Brits pronounce Magdalene is “maudlin.” So her name means weepy.
In church art, Mary has almost always been pictured as a loose women who is weeping, since her main scene in the Bible is one in which she is weeping: “Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying” (John 20:11). For some reason the church kept her weeping, even though in just a few more lines of John she recognizes the risen Jesus and becomes the apostle to the apostles.
We know just a little from the Bible about Mary Magdalene, although she is mentioned much more than most of the twelve disciples. Here is one of the places we get some details: “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means” (Luke 8:1-3).
Seven demons is having an extreme problem! But nobody knows what kind of life Mary Magdalene had been living before she met Jesus. When Luke says women followed along with Jesus who “had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities” he could be talking about a variety of things we regularly see: a person who is sick physically, relationally, mentally, or certainly spiritually. Later in church history, the legend of Mary Magdalene was used to discredit sex in general and to disempower women, so her “demons” were characterized as the torments that accompany someone who is promiscuous. She was tagged as a prostitute, for which there is no shred of evidence in the Bible or even in the extra-Biblical books from the early years in which she is mentioned. Regardless, she had been consumed by something horrible and Jesus freed her. His grace made her thankful and devoted. That we know. Just last week one of us told me they felt a spirit leave them when they gave up a sin. So we understand what Mary felt like and why she was so tied to Jesus.
She was not only tied to Jesus, she was important to Jesus. During the time of her life recorded in the Bible, Mary Magdalene’s name is one of the most frequently found. In Matthew, Mark and Luke the women who were with Jesus are listed. Each time, Mary Magdalene’s name appears first. In Luke the three main disciples are listed and Peter is listed first. I argue, with many, that Mary Magdalene must have held a very central position among the followers of Jesus. She could have been the lead woman like Peter was the lead man.
At the time of the crucifixion and resurrection Mary Magdalene comes to the fore. Uniquely among the followers of Jesus, she is specified by name as a witness to three key events: Jesus’ crucifixion, his burial, and the discovery that his tomb was empty. In Mark, Matthew, and John, Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the resurrection. She is the one to tell the disciples about the resurrection and to give them a message from the Lord. So Mary Magdalene was the “Apostle to the Apostles.” After her first report to the other disciples that Jesus was risen, Mary Magdalene disappears from the New Testament. She is not mentioned by name in the Acts of the Apostles, although she may be one of the women mentioned in Acts 1:14. Her next acts are undocumented.
In the time of Jesus himself, there is every reason to believe that, according to his teaching and who was in his circle, women were unusually empowered as fully equal. In the early church, when the norms and assumptions of the Jesus community were being written down, the equality of women is reflected in the letters of St. Paul (c. 50-60), who names women as full partners—his partners—in the Christian movement. In the Gospel accounts that were written later, evidence of Jesus’ own attitudes can be seen and women are highlighted as people who had courage and fidelity that stood in marked contrast to the men’s cowardice.
As the church was co-opted into the state and then when the church of Rome became the state after the Roman empire fell apart, Jesus’ rejection of the prevailing male dominance was eroded in the Christian community. In the books of the New Testament, the argument among Christians over the place of women in the community is already a regular feature. Mary Magdalene became the poster child for the argument as time went on. I say she was a leader, an apostle to the apostles. She became a weepy prostitute repenting of her sins.
Here’s an example of how her deformation happened. In the late 500’s Pope Pelagius II died of plague and one of the most influential popes ever succeeded him, Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604). When the disciplined and brilliant Gregory was elected pope he at once emphasized penitential forms of worship as a way of warding off plague, among other things. His reign was marked by the codification of spiritual disciplines and thought; it was a time of reform and invention. But it all occurred against the backdrop of the plague, a doom-laden circumstance in which the abjectly repentant Mary Magdalene, warding off the spiritual plague of damnation, was created. With Gregory’s help, she was transformed from leader among women to maudlin prostitute.
In about 591 Pope Gregory I gave a series of sermons that rewrote Mary’s history. He took a few of those Marys in the Bible, squashed them together and made them into a composite Mary Magdalene. He said that Mary’s seven demons were the seven deadly sins, heavy on the lust. He said that she was the same woman who poured ointment on Jesus — repurposed ointment that formerly made her a nice-smelling sex partner. She was the one who washed Jesus’s feet with tears and dried them with her wantonly uncovered hair. He said,”She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.”
Thus Mary of Magdala, who began as a powerful woman at Jesus’ side became the redeemed prostitute and Christianity’s model of repentance — a manageable, controllable figure, and an effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own gender. What most drove the anti-sexual sexualizing of Mary Magdalene was the male need to dominate women. In the Roman Catholic Church, as elsewhere, that need is still being met.
The church did her wrong. It may have done you wrong and may do you wrong again. But I pray that you maintain your own sense of how Jesus freed you and let you touch him and made you his messenger, even if someone tries to steal that from you. Mary Magdalene is a cautionary tale about how the story of redemption can be warped. But she is also an example of how the truth retold has a remarkable capacity to shake off the corrosion of the misguided. People overcome what loads them down and stride into their fullness when they follow Jesus.
I think it might be a nice tradition to honor Brigid on her day by honoring the kind of women who tend the fire of the gospel. If you read the original post, it is all about great Christian women throughout our history. You might like to add to the list by honoring one of your most recent inspirations! Leave a comment!
I want to add to my stories about good, faithful women, today.
This is a story about someone I know well, but I am not going to use her name. You don’t need to know to get the point. It is a story that needs to be told in several different ways and for different purposes. For today’s purpose, it is about truth-telling.
To begin with, Jesus is the truth. Whatever truth we aspire to know is summed up and disseminated by God-with-us, the risen Savior. Therefore, truth cannot be fully known without spiritual discernment. It is not factless, but the facts cannot present the truth unless the truth is related to God and is therefore concerned with love. My friend has had a difficult year trying to teach truth and tell it. She has been attacked by loveless truth purporting to be fact but without discernment.
She had a hellish year, actually, at the hands of ruthless colleagues and a feckless administration at a university. Years ago, she became a leader when things were falling apart. She not only righted the ship, she created something that was very effective and was regularly told that was so. She became respected and chaired faculty committees. She had a vision for student development and designed a curriculum to reflect Christian principles, coming up with something of a training model that was a unique combination of science and faith.
Just over a year ago, my friend came home from a trip to a funeral to find that two of her colleagues had engineered a “coup” of sorts, presenting a plan for the reorganization of the curriculum that purportedly conformed to “best practices.” They cut the heart out of the vision and justified lowering the level of training to one they could teach. Their plan amounted to truth without discernment, discernment being the hallmark of my friend’s approach. The coup was hard enough to handle. But what made it worse was that they would not talk about their reasons, their process, or the now-broken trust they caused. They demanded conversation in group under carefully scripted, circumstances. The situation was so bitter that the dean was brought in to mediate and my friend was subjected to a barrage of projection and invective like she had never experienced in her whole life. Obviously, the conflict never went through any personal process like Matthew 18 insists it should; it went directly to character assassination and tribunal. So the supposed truth was accompanied by no love.
It was worse than loveless, it was abusive. The leadership of the university did not stand with their leader; instead they made promises, fiddled, and left her hung out to dry. They not only wasted the results of her talents and devotion, they diminished all her work in a department that was one of the most successful on campus (and profitable!). At one point the provost brought in a professional mediator, with whom the rebels refused to meet except under choreographed circumstances. The mediator let them dominate the hour and afterwards actually suggested privately that my friend leave the university rather than expect the situation would ever resolve. The mediator later suggested she bring cookies to a future meeting, something like Beaver’s mother solving a sitcom crisis.
What might have solved my friend’s problem would have been not telling the truth in the first place. She had created a program that was serious about people and demanded serious professors to train students. The professors did not want to do the personal work; they diminished the program down to the little they were willing and able to do and called it “best practices.” Unfortunately, we need people to be trained by a good program; we need Christians who can deal in truth.
What’s more, my friend could have fought fire with fire. Instead of fighting for her leadership, she resigned in a show of humility. Instead of putting letters of protest in the files of her colleagues, or filing a lawsuit, she tried to make space for reconciliation to happen. Instead of organizing her appalled friends into a league supporters, she relied on the institution to follow its rules and protect its standards. She could (and still could) tell her story and let the truth stand. Instead, she has gone through an excruciating process of figuring out how to speak the truth in love when she has no partners with which to do that.
I expect Christians, certainly teachers, to do better. It is discouraging when they seem even meaner than the “world.” My friend expected her friends to do better than this — these were people she had housed in her home, travelled with, for whom she had fought for promotions and raises, and had provided for in so many ways. What’s more, we should be able to expect leaders to work for what is best — these were so befuddled and limp that they were afraid to tell the truth about their own stated vision and standards and just left a valuable leader to fend for herself. Granted, my friend was not an experienced or even willing political player; she didn’t want to be an infighter and that got her eliminated through her own audacious trust. But one would hope that there are still shepherds around who know the truth and tell it. Unfortunately it is often like Isaiah 56:10 His watchmen are all blind, they are all ignorant: dumb dogs not able to bark, seeing vain things, sleeping and loving dreams.
My friend is hurting, but she will be fine. She trusts God. She knows the truth and Jesus knows her. But will the truth be OK? Ruthless people wield pseudo-science around without discernment and ruin our schools. People who do not receive discernment from their spiritual directors or wise leaders are let loose in a so-called democratic atmosphere to steal and destroy. It is a very old story, but these days it is objectified by science and depersonalized by the spirit of self-actualization and tolerance.
I can’t solve this big mess of a problem by describing it. But I can continue to protest to whoever will listen. We need to do the best we can to tell the truth. If you are a leader you are required to have the courage to tell the truth for Jesus’ sake, as best you can. You’ll need to risk the conflict and not just ride out the problem until it settles at the lowest common denominator.
All of us, if we have a dream or if we have a problem, need to tell the truth. That means we’ll have to understand where our dreams and problems come from, and understand how we impact others. We’ll need to have a purpose for the common good, not just our own, when we go for what we think is best or try to solve a problem. Our truth will have to include love like the Lord’s.
Most difficult of all, when I am a victim of bad science and worse leadership like my friend has been, I will have to suffer for telling the truth and still attempt to love my enemies. I can’t remember when I last saw discernment rewarded in public. We’re all consumed by politics of the least relational kind. It is painful.
But don’t let go. You will probably be accused of grandiosity (and aren’t we all subject to it?), but let’s follow Paul’s exhortation: Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. (Philippians 2:14-16)
I have been meaning to tell this little story about Kristen for a few weeks. The Monday after resurrection Sunday seems like a good time to tell it. Our good feeling of new life is going to meet up with our schedules. The resolve we honed with our Lent disciplines is going to meet up with opposition. The week after Easter can be such a let-down because we get tested and we don’t meet the test as well as we would like. So I thought I would offer you a story about how Kristen got tested met the test. I think of her up on her soap box quite often, making herself heard among the big loud men speaking for the empire. I appreciate her example, because I also need the courage to open my mouth and speak my heart. Like her, I am also confronted with a world that desperately needs what has been lavished on me in Jesus.
She was doing a summer internship last summer at a farm in Massachusetts. It was some, wonderful organic farm that invites the kids up to do some work, get themselves dirty and get reconverted to humanity. One of the farm’s outlets for their produce was the farmer’s market in a village nearby. Kristen went along to help sell the kale and whatnot.
It happened that the village had a good Massachusetts tradition of having a “speaker’s corner.” When there was a farmer’s market, they set up a place where people could exercise their right of free speech. Since it was near the Fourth of July, speakers were feeling especially patriotic and quite a few people were getting up to say something. The rhetoric was tending to lean Tea Partyish.
One man got up and read a familiar paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. — That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it…”
He thought that the government was doing a relatively admirable job of securing our rights with its various wars. He exhorted the crowd to support the troops. Kristin was not having it. She had been reading Wendell Berry. She was about ready to join Shalom House for a couple of years (at least). So she decided to get up on the soapbox and speak back with poetry. She whipped out the sword of Wendell Berry and said:
The year begins with war.
Our bombs fall day and night,
Hour after hour, by death
Abroad appeasing wrath,
Folly, and greed at home.
Upon our giddy tower
We’d oversway the world.
Our hate comes down to kill
Those whom we do not see,
For we have given up
Our sight to those in power
And to machines, and now
Are blind to all the world.
This is a nation where
No lovely thing can last.
We trample, gouge, and blast;
The people leave the land;
The land flows to the sea.
Fine men and women die,
The fine old houses fall,
The fine old trees come down:
Highway and shopping mall
Still guarantee the right
And liberty to be
A peaceful murderer,
A murderous worshipper,
A slender glutton, Forgiving
No enemy, forgiven
By none, we live the death
Of liberty, become
What we have feared to be. — 1991 – I
Her new friends at the farm we a bit concerned. Not only were her listeners the prospective buyers of farm-fresh organic tomatoes, they later told her that they were not entirely convinced that the villagers would not do her harm if she kept reading her poetry. But sometimes when Kristen gets going she needs to complete her thoughts. So she kept going and closed with this:
Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,
for I know you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know
there is no answer
but loving one another
even our enemies, and this is hard.
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine
though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.
You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you have the courage for love,
you may walk in light. It will be
the light of those who have suffered
for peace. It will be
1995 – V To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzak Rabin, November 6th 1995.
Thank God for people with the courage to share their heart for peace! Jesus died on the cross for reconciliation with God and others. Jesus pointedly did not raise an army to achieve his ends. Jesus rose again and continues to rise in people who have the courage to be the light. The light comes from being at peace with God. But peace with God that does not make peace on earth doesn’t really have much to get up on the box and say, does it? Let’s meet our tests this week with audacity and hope.
February 1 is Ibolc. It marks the first stirrings of spring in Ireland. St. Brigid’s Day is attached to it. Candlemas is also attached to it, marking the 40 days after Christmas when Mary went to the Temple, with baby Jesus in tow, to honor the rules for being ritually purified after giving birth, and thus meeting Simeon and Anna. It’s the Candle Mass in the old days because everyone in Ireland brought their special, home-use beeswax candle to the meeting for a blessing. As with all the big days of the Christian year, Brigid’s Day is all mixed up with legend, the seasons of paganism, and arguments over what is the best way to observe the day.
I’m not bothering with the controversies too much. I feel free to strain out good things from not-so-good things whenever I can. I’m into “testing everything and holding on to what is good” as Paul instructs the Thessalonians to do. Using Jesus’ metaphor another way, I think we should strain out the gnat of good and not swallow the camel of nonsense when we need to.
I like to remember the Brigids of my own era on Brigid’s Day. As the church was first forming, brilliantly, in Ireland, Brigid was a great leader (see last year’s blog about it, if you like). At the site of the community she founded and lead in Kildare, we visited the enclosure for the perpetual flame that Brigid tended and which burned for over a thousand years before Protestants doused it. The flame was a sign of the presence of Jesus in the heart of Ireland. The guide told us that the flame’s keepers were on a twenty-day cycle. Nineteen women were selected to keep the fire going and on the twentieth night Brigid kept it herself.
I like the idea of nineteen women keeping the flame of faith going. I know several sets of those kind of women, and so do you. They are keeping faith alive in a time when there are a lot more than Protestants trying to douse it! I collected my own roster, just to celebrate the idea that women are still courageously tending the flame. I listed the first nineteen who randomly came to my mind, below, and resisted listing nineteen more. I know many women who keep the flame burning among the Circle of Hope. I thought you might like to add one or two to the list, as well.
Brigid’s Day is a good day to celebrate what burns with the fire of Jesus. It is a good day to celebrate faithful women who tend the flame and to imagine all the good they are causing to stir like springtime in the winter of the world. By selecting nineteen I did not mean to deselect all the rest, of course — this is not the Grammy Awards of spirituality! I just want us all to look around on Brigid’s Day and note the spark of the perpetual flame in each one, celebrate what God has done, and anticipate what God might do.
Here’s my random nineteen.
Gwen – spiritual director, promoter of mental health, flame-builder in children
Sarah – leader of cells and cell leaders and network builder
Rachel – pastor to many and group leader for those in need
Marquita – homemaker, daring leader, student
Aubrey –vision keeper, compassionate teacher
Jen – risk taker, church planter
Martha – business maker, fearless leader
Tracey – tenacious servant, overcomer
Megan – hardworking environment maker
Katie – hospitable faith builder
Christina – business builder, evangelist, mother to many
Kelly – ambitious talent user, seeker of the deep
Angie – teacher in song, empath
Missy – missional organizer, persistent servant
Mimi – peacemaker, missional educator and fire builder
Emily – visionary organizer, risk taker, networker
Melissa – consistent caregiver, safety net sewer
Brittney – visionary outreacher, passionate leader
Courtney – multi-talented creator, brave life developer
If you feel like contributing to the formation of another nineteen flame-tenders (or more!), add a comment!
I bought a best-selling children’s book the other day called Bubble Trouble. It has an intricate rhyme that entertains me. Upon first-reading, it proved to be a bit over Josiah’s head. He had trouble figuring out the plot. The first question upon turning a page, several times, was “Where is the baby’s mother?” We needed to establish that, because, I discovered, this was sort of a scary book about a baby who floats away in a bubble until the townfolk rescue him. When we were finished, Josiah’s first comment was, “I am too big for a bubble to take me,” followed by a hopeful look at my face.
How do we ever learn to deal with our fears? I am still learning. It helped that I had a grandmother who read to me. I got to experience some of the scary things about the big world while snuggled in her rocking chair. It also helped that I was sent to church as a little child to snuggle up with Jesus.
For some reason, a song that was 80 years old by the time my Sunday school teachers taught it to me as a child has kept rising to the surface lately. I think it has always helped me walk with God and resist fear.
Can a little child like me
Thank the Father fittingly?
Yes, oh yes! be good and true,
Faithful, kind, in all you do;
Love the Lord, and do your part;
Learn to say with all your heart,
Father, we thank Thee,
Father, we thank Thee,
Father in Heaven, we thank Thee.
If you want to hear it, try this link.
The fact that I, through some great blessing, retained that song through the onslaught of all the info that started piling up in my lifetime seems kind of miraculous. Every verse is a winner. They all take children seriously and respect them for who they are, according to their capacity. Each calls us to be honorable and good. “Don’t be afraid! You can do it!” I think Monster’s Inc. is trying to do something like that. But there is an awful lot of plot that muddles up the teaching these days.
Mary Mapes Dodge (1831-1905), who is buried up the road just south of Newark, included “Can a Little Child Like Me” in her book Baby Days: A Selection of Songs, Stories, and Pictures, for Very Little Folks in 1877. It was a follow-up to her best seller Hans Brinker (which you can still enjoy on Disney reruns). When people write about Mary Mapes Dodge, she receives the treatment so many Christians of her era receive these days. Her faith is extracted and her work is treated like she was not a Christian. She becomes one more purveyor of plot lines for the plot machines churning out material. But I am pretty sure that in her mind Jesus and Han Brinker went together. Hans had learned to be like Jesus. She most likely hoped children would learn to love the Lord by sitting in a chair with her or singing her song in church. She had had to face her own fears, along with her children, after her husband killed himself and left her a widow. Her faith fueled her second life as an author and editor.
You’ve probably got a child in your life somewhere. They are undoubtedly facing the same fears you are still facing. Take a good look at them and love them. It is better that they learn from you than they are left alone with their fears to extract whatever random thing they latch on to from the tsunami of info that keeps washing over them, and which will keep flooding them the rest of their days, no doubt.
I think my meditation today should center on retrieving the good things God has given me via all the good people who loved and spoke for him throughout my childhood – and thank him. The visions we shared in various rocking chairs and song times during my baby days opened my mind and heart to imagine fearlessly walking with God.
Last night the president had some uphill sledding to do with his speech to the cadets at West Point. I admit I did not listen very well to every word, since I was also reading a magazine and writing our Christmas letter (sorry Barack). But I did notice that the poor man could not get any applause for the longest time! And, if nothing else, he is a good applause-getter! He finally loosened them up with the sheer power of a great speech. But the cadets didn’t get their hands moving until he complimented them! It was glaring. They were either feeling reticent about showing too much emotion (they were apparently instructed not to smile until the end – attenshun!) or they were reticent about him. But they finally got clapping when they were essentially clapping for themselves!
Am I making too much of this? I doubt it. I think we have been raising people to be aggressively self-centered and amazingly entitled for twenty years, now. Of course the cadets applauded for themselves! I wouldn’t be surprised if the line was purposely inserted in the speech to make sure they would get what they wanted. Why wouldn’t the president be a deliveryman for one’s self-interest?
It may have been more interesting than that. There was a lot of politicking going on in that speech. Obama talks to the cadets, then he turns to the camera and talks to the nation. He turns back and talks to the military in general, then he turns to the camera and talks to the world. He’s good. Plus, he was doing some slight variations on the stock, “We’ve got to pull out the stops and keep the war going” speech that people will be talking about today. The pundits were already being amazed that he was saying “We’ve got to build up so we can pull out.” And John McCain was already doubting that ever having an end point to a war is a good thing. I think his point is, “Even if it bankrupts us and we can’t really hope to dominate them, we need to try.”
It is quite jarring to think about all that when I go to bed and then wake up and realize it is Jean Donovan Day. She was martyred by a Salvadoran death squad on Dec. 2, 1980, when she was twenty-seven years old on a two-year mission with the Maryknoll sisters. She was supposed to be advancing literacy among the campesinos and ended up a disciple of Oscar Romero burying people caught in the crossfire of the government’s attacks on “subversives.” Her famous note to a friend, a few weeks before she was raped and murdered, said: “The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave… Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”
Yes, I do want the cadets to care about the children and do unreasonable things to serve peasants. They will certainly find enough of them in Afghanistan! Honestly, I think a lot of the cadets would like to do that, too. So I want the president to help them change the world in the Jean Donovan way. Honestly, I think he might like to do that. So I want Jesus to keep defeating evil for us so we are not so foolish and controlled by self-destruction and the president gets to do what he must really want to do. In the meantime, I hope each of us will honor Jean Donovan today because she knew how to be in league with Jesus in a very practical way.
[In honor of Hild Day, Nov. 17, and in honor of the good women leaders among the Circle of Hope, I thought I’d re-do a piece written in 2008 and share it with you]
Leadership makes a difference
When I say that, a good 90% of us probably automatically tune out. As far as the organizations we understand and the church as it is, we already have a lot of leaders over us and we don’t see room for many more, certainly not ME.
We don’t imagine Jesus calling us to lead any time soon, either.
When Jesus talks about his claim to lead the people of God he pictures himself as a good shepherd, as opposed to all those false shepherds that lead everyone into misery. Very few of us would sign up to be a shepherd like that, good or false.
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” John 10:27-30.
Most of us don’t feel like we need to be in the shepherd role. I call that leadership on the “macro level,” sometimes. Not everyone is given that role. And I think that makes sense, since we don’t really need that many of those catalysts and guides.
But all of us are leading, in one way or another on what we might call the “micro level.” God has given each of us the capacity to make a difference. You count. You are in the father’s hand. You are carrying eternal life. So what you do means something. What you do leads me. You are like an undershepherd looking out for my interests.
I was arguing this out with a person the other day and telling him that his immoral life was leading me. He was presenting me a direction for how I should follow Jesus. I had to think, “Should I do it his way, or another way?” He wasn’t happy to hear me thinking about this. He wanted to make no difference. He said, “I live my life and you live yours.” But I told him that was impossible. We get a common life from Jesus, that doesn’t belong to either of us exclusively. We are tied together — if you just live whatever you think your life is, doesn’t that lead me to exercise the same illusion? Besides, we are tied by love. I love you. I cannot make you not make a difference to me. Where you are going, in some way, is where I am going too. The question is, “Where are you leading me?”
In some major ways you can tell where a people is going by where their macro leaders are going. But that is not the whole story. Especially in the church, you can tell where the church is going by what the preponderance of the individuals are doing, where the microleaders are going. If we are mostly passionate, visionary, loving, faithful people, things will go that direction. If we are not responsive to the Spirit of God’s leadership, nothing I or another macroleader tries to catalyze will get too far.
I know this is not true of quite a few people who read this blog, but I would say that many of us probably take ourselves much too lightly. You are not leading us where you think we should be going. As a result, you are more like one of the thieves or hired hands that Jesus is fighting than you might like to think.
Hild can help us think this through. In the era in which the New Testament was written, and in the era that saw the flowering of the Celtic Church, our spiritual ancestors had the very same challenges we do. The work of Jesus always faces challenges to find its place and find a voice in every culture. And it always takes Spirit-empowered people to lead the way. Leadership makes a difference. There are always the thieves and the hired hands, and we pray that there are always the undershepherds listening to Jesus, the good shepherd, and following.
So I want to re-tell the story about how it worked out a long time ago with Hild. I think this makes sense because we are a lot like the Celtic church. They were planting the church in a place like Center City Philadelphia, where so many people do not have faith and do not have a clear picture of Jesus at all. Our cells and our congregations are remarkably like the communities that the Celts formed to help people work out a way to live the abundant life Jesus promises and be a part of calling people who can hear the voice of Jesus into the fold to share that life.
Hild’s story center’s on Whitby, on the East coast of Northumbria. She became the famous leader of the Whitby Community about the year 650. That’s nearly 300 years after Patrick’s pioneering work in Ireland. A vibrant faith had spread from there to Scotland and down to Northumbria, and it had also moved up from Kent in the south. At this point the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northern England were the most vibrant on the islands. And Hilda was in the middle of it.
The story of Hilda’s leadership in the church begins with King Oswald, who became a follower of Jesus. King Oswald decided to help his people know the Lord so he sent off to the great community on Iona, where he had once lived in exile, to recruit a person who could help people come to faith.
The history of Oswald’s recruiting looks a bit like the last U.S. presidential election. The first man Iona sent was too hot and people did not like him. Oswald sent him back. The next man sent was Aidan, who was gentler and more politically savvy. Aidan found a lot of success.
It was Aidan who spotted Hilda. Hilda was a distant member of a royal family who decided to become part of an intentional community at age 33. There were no communities exclusively for women in Northumbria at the time, so she was about ready to leave for France to join one there when Aidan persuaded her to stay. He trained her himself and gave her leadership of a household. She eventually moved to Whitby and founded a community where she was the leader for the last 23 years of her life. Unlike many of the Christian communities at the time, there were men and women at Whitby — Hild lead them all. They began what became a famous school. The community had a lot of influence in the surrounding area for hundreds of years. Hilda became so well-known that many people came to her for practical counsel and spiritual direction. If you have recently gotten close to the age when Jesus began his ministry and are feeling a little nervous about what is next, Hild demonstrates that the best is probably yet to come. If forty was the new thirty for you, don’t fret.
Unlike many of the women of her time, Hilda ended up a macroleader. Aidan noticed her gifts and she responded to the call. There is a great picture of her at a present-day community near Whitby where she is seated at a round table leading, as she did in the tense and foundational discussion that happened at the Council of Whitby. We are still feeling the after-effects of that meeting.
I think Hilda followed the example of Jesus well. A good macroleader sees herself as a gate – an opportunity for people to enter into life, a way in to the community of faith. They are also a protector — they lay their lives down for the people and the cause. They are the servants lifting up the enterprise. They see the wolves circling. The also see who and what is next — like how Jesus talks about the sheep not of the present fold. The macroleader works at maintaining a vision that is beyond the present to help us get where we are going.
Our Cell Leaders, Cell Leader Coordinators, team leaders, and pastors are all doing their best to exercise this kind of transforming leadership. We are blessed with an astounding number of sincere, teachable and faithful leaders! Either they gain and exercise the audacity of Jesus and Hilda, or we make less of a difference, as a people, than we hope to make. When I made a speech at a conference of the BIC last year, I was surprised to find out that they look to us, as a body, to provide some leadership for the whole denomination! They asked, “What have you learned in Philly that we could all apply? How do we live out the gospel these days?” I think I felt a bit like Hilda might have felt when she was being recruited by Aidan — I had a much smaller idea of who I was. We have something to bring; we need to bring it.
Hilda was also a notable microleader. Not that all women do this, but they are often better at not missing the trees for the forest. So many men cut down all the trees and pave things over so they can build something new in the name of their domination which they then call “safety!” Women can often lead with better empathy that starts with the trees there are and nurtures the true forest out of them.
This is well represented in the most famous story about Hilda that has to do with the cowherd named Caedmon, one of the workmen on Whitby’s large landholdings. Caedmon was at the opposite end of the social scale from Hilda. He was an illiterate farmhand. He seems to have been content with his lot except for one thing. Whenever the guys passed around the harp at the end of the day before bed, Caedmon headed for the door if he saw it coming his way. Songs and stories were valued and he was a tone-deaf guy. He wanted to get into the mix but soon everyone knew how embarrassed he was about his lack of ability.
One night he felt especially ashamed of himself and went back out to the cows, lonely and miserable. He ended up sleeping in the barn. There he had a dream. A man came to him and called him by name,
“Caedmon, sing me a song.”
“I can’t.” he said. “It is because I can’t sing that I am out here instead of with everyone else at table.“
”Can’t sing?” the voice said. “You can and you must.” ‘
“What must I sing about?”
“Sing about the creation of all things.” And Caedmon composed and song, right there in his dream — a poem of praise of Creation. When he woke up, he discovered the dream was true. He sang his song to the cows. In the morning, he told his boss what happened. The boss thought the story was weird enough to tell Hilda. .
Hilda got excited. She and the senior brothers and sisters gave Caedmon a little test. They chose a passage from the Bible and read it to him. He was to go make it a song. He took a whole day, but came back with an excellent song. At that Hilda invited him into the community. They didn’t bother to teach him to read Latin, they wanted him to make songs in English for people to sing as they ploughed and did their spinning. Caedmon is the first known English Christian poet.
In this Hilda was encouraging microleadership like Jesus also describes in the passage about being the good shepherd. Obviously Caedmon becomes the good cowherd in a whole new way. Each of us are encouraged, I think, to see ourselves as someone with something to give. We get fed in the fold so we can grow into who we are meant to be. We count. Jesus knows us, Hilda knows Caedmon. We are not inconsequential. As it often goes, the least are often given the most because God loves using the least. He likes being the least.
Again, what you do good or bad, is going to cause something. It is sort of a sin to think of yourself as having no responsibility and leaving it all to Hilda. It is not Hilda’s job to be you! Caedmon heard God’s call directly. The leaders didn’t even know who he was. The sheep hear the voice of Jesus and follow. The following makes a difference. The one flock is people of all sorts following Jesus, and that gives it its beauty and power.
Hilda was ready to go to France. She ended up at home leading a community. Before long she was engaged in one of the leading communities of her area, hosting a synod that included people from Ireland, Scotland, and the South of England. Jesus is always looking for leaders like that who expand his fold and nurture and protect those in it. I’m not sure how Hilda felt about her responsibility. I know our president wondered how he got into his responsibility. Someone was testing him when he got started and asked him if he felt ready to be the leader of the free world. He said, “Who would?” I think many of us feel the same awe, like we just got an unusual song to sing, when Jesus calls us to make a difference.
Every one of us, whether we just entered the circle or not, has an opportunity to make a difference by what God has made us and given us to do. I don’t care if you are a big sinner right now, or if you are a women, or if you can sing or not. What you do starts good things and unlocks God’s capacity to transform.
We need our macro leaders to have energy, or like Oswald, we’ll have to go looking for someone who has some.
We need our microleaders to listen to their dreams. Sometimes the movement of God starts with your disappointment about what you can’t do. Please don’t give in to the disappointment and think you are useless. Please don’t let the wolf get you. The Good Shepherd is on our side and will keep working for us to have an abundant life – each of us and all of us.
Tomorrow is the day we remember Teresa of Avila (1515-1582).
The famous Teresa was a reformer from the center of Spain, along with her protégé, St. John of the Cross. In response to the radicals of the protestant reformation, which was like an earthquake in the Church of their time, they wanted to return their order to the ways to the hermits that founded it near Elijah’s well in Palestine, on Mt. Carmel (see 1 Kings 18). They ended up with an offshoot of the Carmelites called the “barefoot” or “discalced” Carmelites. [As a total aside, we stayed in Aylesford Abbey last year when in Kent, the site of the first convocation of Carmelites in England in 1240. They had a yard full of elementary kids when we arrived, befitting the order’s traditional love of children.].
When we were in Avila a few years ago, Gwen and I went to the house where Teresa got started on her remarkable, influential ministry. For some reason we were the only pilgrims at the site and had a great museum all to ourselves. On the stairs there was a mannequin of a little boy, replicating one of the moments of ecstasy that popped up in Teresa’s prayer. One day, as she was preparing to ascend stairs leading to the upper rooms of the convent she met a beautiful child. He asked her “Who are you?” She replied, “I am Teresa of Jesus, and who are you?” To which the child responded, “I am Jesus of Teresa.”
Biographers say that encounter with the Lord, as a child, affected her so deeply that whenever Teresa set out to found a new house (she founded eighteen in all) she always brought a statue of the Child Jesus with her. She did a lot of teaching on contemplative prayer and encouraged everyone to leave their hearts open to visions and mysterious connections with God. But she didn’t want people to seek them or to rely on them.
In Carmelite spirituality there is an ancient custom of choosing a name which uniquely expresses a member’s personal relationship to the mysteries of the faith. Thus there are people like Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross, and Elizabeth of the Trinity. In honor of these ancestors in the faith, I have been pondering what name I should have.
If the risen Lord were to ask you today, “Who are you?” How would you answer? If you were a Discalced (or other kind of) Carmelite, what new name would you choose for yourself? What mystery of the faith has been central to your life-journey in Christ?
When I pondered this in Teresa’s honor, I realized I have been blessed with so many ways to connect with God that it is hard to choose something central (and Teresa cobbled together another name for herself, as well, since she couldn’t quite decide either). Rod of Jesus works for me, too. Rod of the Silence. Rod of the Pioneers. But mainly, I think, Rod of the church. The mystery of the body of Christ in action: restoring people to their rightful place, redeeming the creation, fulfilling what is left of the Lord’s suffering as a living organism of many diverse parts – I have never been diverted from my passion for it. Maybe that is why I have a hard time figuring out a name – I would prefer to be named, by my brothers and sisters, as they recognized Jesus in me, Jesus living through me to contribute what I have been given to share.
“Who are you?” How would you answer?
And Caleb said, “I will give my daughter Acsah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher.” Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Acsah to him in marriage.
One day when she came to Othniel, she urged him to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, “What can I do for you?”
She replied, “Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water.” So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs. Joshua 15:16-19
I have a special fondness for young couples starting out together; so this little bit of history in the book of Joshua is kind of irresistible to me. Othniel went on to be the first judge of the judges of Israel. But at this point, he and Acsah (name your daughter that!) are just setting up their own household. They seem to have been a visionary, ambitious pair. That is what I think, at least, when I envision Acsah and Othniel going back to Caleb’s house to get a better deal on her inheritance. All she had was desert and no water — but she had irrigation plans! It appears that she was pushing Othniel, “Go ask my dad for more!” But as soon as they got there, she jumped off her donkey and asked herself! Caleb undoubtedly knew he had a special daughter; he may have seen “that look” in her eye as soon as she rode up and immediately asked, “What?”
She got her water.
You may think it is too much to make a lot out of these little snippets of the Bible. That’s OK. But see if this moment doesn’t make a good prayer for you, anyway. Here is how it works.
We go to our Father and he sees us just as we are. He says, “What can I do for you?”
We say, “Do me a favor, since you know I’ve been given desert. I need springs of water. Give me also springs of water.”
He gives them.
It is something like that. Try praying it. Should I say, “Get off your ass and ask?” Probably not.
But we need to ask because we have some desert! Should we just take what we appear to have been given and make the most of the desert?
Jesus said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” John 7:37-8
Being one woman, going to her father for what she needs and ending up with living water flowing from her in the middle of desert places – that seems to me like the best result of all. Taking her husband with her and irrigating as much territory as she can touch seems to be a life worth living. Acsah couldn’t help but ask. Do you do that anymore?
Maybe you think coming to Jesus and asking for living water is entirely too easy. Snippety. You are into much more complicated things. That’s OK. I have nothing for you. I think I get tinier all the time — just a child going to my Father in the place I know to find him and trusting him to give me what he has for me.
We were in St. Brigid’s home place, Kildare, on the first day we left Dublin last summer. It is a beautiful, green, country town where people go to see the horse races. But there is definitely a sense of spiritual mystery about the place, whose name means “the church of the oak.” When Brigid became a Christian in the 400’s the ancient earth-religion had a watch-fire keeping spring alive on the special hill and a feeling for the spirit in the oak tree. Brigid claimed it all for Jesus and identified the fire’s true source. 1600 years later I could still feel her influence.
I am happy to honor the memory of a great leader among the faithful today — especially because she is a woman. I have three reasons.
1) Some flame keepers will be in my dining room in a little while planning the women’s retreat. Circle of Hope is blessed with some strong leaders who, like Brigid, don’t mind taking responsibility for their gifts.
2) At our spectacular Love Feast last night (265 attending! 30 making a covenant!), I had to murmur a bit when “Holy Holy Holy” had us sing “though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see.” I tried to get “sinful ones” in the archive a long time ago, and the original keeps getting back in. This is not the most egregious example of patriarchal language, since it obviously means “humankind,” and it might be just as well to sing “sinful men” if you were a woman. Nevertheless, I think not making the women (and men) who are sensitive to language-that-doesn’t-include-everyone sing things that leave people out is the leader’s responsibility (and it is just the right thing to do).
3) The prayer book I use (Celtic Daily Prayer) included a great poem about Brigid, today, which matches the spirit of our own great feast, last night. Perhaps we should have acknowledged her as our spiritual host when we met, since she was so famous for her hospitality and it was St. Brigid’s Eve!
I should like a great lake of the finest ale
for the King of Kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food
for the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith
and the food be forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast
for they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast
for they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus in the highest place
and the sick dance with the angels.
God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
God bless the human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink;
All homes, O God, embrace.
(Yes, I know it is Superbowl Sunday, too. Please do not kick me out of mankind).