Yes, this one is personal.

It is a typical Wednesday night bible study. A guest arrives and everyone opens their hearts to make certain this stranger feels welcomed and embraced. Present at the bible study were four members of the pastoral staff, the elderly church sexton, a young man who had recently graduated from college, a matriarch of the church, a librarian who had spent her life opening up the world through books, and an Episcopal Vicar’s wife. After an hour of scripture and prayer, the guest declares his intent, pulls out a gun and begins shooting.

I am not of African descent. My ancestors arrived from Scotland, England, and France sometime in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They settled in Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia and eventually moved their way to Arkansas. They fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World Wars I & II. They owned slaves and married Native Americans. As a child, I remember seeing remnants of participation in the Klu Klux Klan. My grandfather’s wholesale house had a bathroom and a drinking fountain for “Coloreds.” I heard the word “nigger” on a regular basis and started my education in segregated schools. And yet, my parents, in spite of their own prejudices, insisted that my brothers and I treat all people with respect and equality. Desegregation began timidly with “freedom of choice” when I was in the fourth grade. My mom made sure that my birthday parties included every little girl in my class regardless of color.

The courts required full integration in the eighth grade so my district closed all the black schools in town and we were forced to find a way to navigate our way in a new world. It was not easy. The black schools gave up their rich heritage as Washington Hornets to become Rogers Rams, Barton Wildkittens, and El Dorado Wildcats. There was racial tension that sometimes overflowed into fights and walkouts but we moved through it. Occasionally, we got the courage to talk about it but most the time we muddled through it, allowing our common enthusiasm in sports, band, choir, and other school activities to help us move past our differences and experience our common humanity. While I wish it had been more, it was enough to bind us together so decades later as we gather for class reunions, we are able to celebrate our lives as parents, grandparents, and humans beings who share the same hopes and dreams for our world. I am and always have been a gun owner who believes that hunters are some of our best conservationists and that if we were able to put aside the commercialization of gun ownership, responsible gun owners would be capable of writing effective gun laws. After full disclosure, my heart is broken and my determination to strive for God’s justice and mercy is without hesitation.

I grieve today for the families of Emanuel AME. We are all a part of a rich heritage of Methodism. The AME and CME churches are a reminder of the bigotry of early Methodists; a bigotry that remains even today in a mutual heritage that actively seeks reconciliation in the name of our God whose very nature is defined by a love that is unearned and is without labels. I grieve for my country that lacks the moral courage to repent of the subtle and obvious ways we draw lines and make judgments about people who we perceive are “not like us.”

But today, what pierces my heart and drives me to my knees is the bond I share with three of the victims. Yes, I identify with the others in the room – the senior pastor, the older associate pastor, the church staff, the matriarch. and the librarian – but it is my sisters in ministry that make this truly personal. The victims include two female pastors and a preacher’s wife. These were women who, like me, have given their lives to vocational ministry. They have struggled with the balance of family and ministry and they have struggled with the traditional expectations and condemnations of those who still believe all women are second class citizens as a consequence of the actions of the first Eve. They were faithful to a call that required them to take a stand against a narrow religious culture that devalues what God has chosen to use to further God’s Kingdom. They gave their lives to serve and it turned out to be costly in a way they could not have anticipated. They are my sisters and their lives mattered as women, as mothers, and as witnesses of the Good News. I pray for their churches, I pray for their children, and I pray that we will all stop for a moment, take out our rakes, and begin to remove the lines we have drawn in the sand against one another.

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In the Beginning

My faith understanding is paradoxical.  Who am I today speaks against the faith tradition in which I was raised and still cherish.  Although one might assume that my faith starting point is with tradition, it is not.  My faith starting point is with Scripture.  My evangelical Southern Baptist heritage emphasized Scripture over tradition, reason and experience.  Scripture was woven into my understanding of God and also into my own sense of self.  Scripture is as integral a part of who I am as my blood vessels – it is the music of my heart.  This is a difficult concept for many because they think of Scripture in quotes – John 3:16 says or I Corinthians 13 means, etc.  Scripture is a holistic experience for me.  As a child, I learned Scripture along with my ABC’s and musical notes.  At age twelve, I became the substitute organist for my church.  My theology, my understanding of music, and my Scriptural understanding are so interconnected, I cannot tell you where one starts and the next begins.  My personal theology reflects the term used by Frances Young in her analogy of Scriptural interpretation – virtuoso theology.

My Southern Baptist faith tradition supports the subordination of women, the permanent stigma of divorce, the silence of women in the church, and the belief that only men (non-divorced) can be ordained for ministry or even serve as deacons.  I am a working divorced mother with three children, a student pastor who preaches every Sunday morning, and a certified candidate for ordained ministry in the United Methodist tradition.  My own faith journey has been the transformation of one who believed all the right doctrine, did all the right things, but when faced with the heights and depths of the human condition, missed the whole point of the gospel.   I could not reconcile the inconsistencies between the covenantal God of my music and the deontological God of my faith.

Experience and reason kept this tension at a bearable level.  Paradigms for understanding Scripture and therefore understanding God can be changed but only by applying other criteria.  The questions of truth, authenticity, and fittingness redirected my paradigm of Scripture allowing me to rise above the bonds of my rigid moralistic understanding of God.  The God of my music is now the God of my faith.   Scripture is not about a deontological judgment but a witness to the salvation history of a covenantal God.  In accepting the understanding of any theological resource, the questions of truth, authenticity, and fittingness have now become paramount. In my theological studies, I, like Mozart, seek the “opportunities, materials, and tasks” necessary for composing a consistent credo.

The above paragraphs were written in the Prolegomena of my Credo, a requirement of the required course of Systematic Theology at Perkins School of Theology.  My call came on a Sunday evening in 1970 as I was playing the organ for the evening service at Second Baptist Church in El Dorado, Arkansas.  I assumed as a female teenager in an evangelical church that I was being called to be a church musician and I pursued my assumption at Baylor University.  Severe tendinitis while preparing for my junior recital stopped that path and eventually, I returned to being practical and completed my undergraduate degree in Music Theory and Masters of Business degree in Management and Finance.

I met my first female pastor in 1987 in Piedmont, California at Piedmont Community Church.  When I met Rev. Charlotte Russell, the realization of what my calling might have meant briefly dashed through my thoughts but by then, I was the mother of three with my oldest child being three years old so there was little time to think about what might have been. My life was set, or though I thought it was.  Fast forward to 1997.  I am still the mother of three but now, I am in provincial Little Rock, Arkansas, divorced, and broken.  And that was exactly where God wanted me to be.

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