I used to love the Bible. It was always on my tongue, in my thoughts. Its words surrounded me with their beauty and insight and images. Its stories were my stories. Stories about an old man and his wife starting a nation. About Jesus finding a coin in a fish’s mouth. About the blindness falling from Paul’s eyes like scales. About the world starting in a garden with two people, two trees and a snake, then ending in tribulation and judgment, fire and brimstone.
Every morning for much of high school, I would sit down at my computer and carefully choose a verse—a string of words, precious like pearls, which delighted me that day—and send it out to encourage a long list of people.
But at some point in college, what had been life-giving cool water to me, what had been my greatest treasure, well, it became sawdust and ashes and desert sand. It’s hard to describe what made that happen because it was probably a lot of things and some of them were my fault. I became over-exposed. I took it for granted. I learned the original languages and started looking always behind the words instead of at them.
But I also began to feel my treasure snatched away from me specifically because I was a woman. I approached the Holy of Holies, but my toe on the threshold I was told: come no further, you are not invited here. I don’t think that anyone ever told me that the Bible was for men, but it was guarded like water in a tower and carefully measured out. A few times when I was thirsty, people said “let the men drink first” and handed me only the sandy dregs at the bottom of the cup. When I wanted to share the water, they told me that wasn’t my business.
I wrote a sermon once for a high school theology class, fully knowing the whole time that I’d never be able to share it with my church. Of course, I never asked. I don’t even think I ever admitted my audacity to anyone at the church. But I knew what their answer would have been. It would have been honestly felt and kindly meant, it would have caused everyone pain, so I didn’t ask.
My sermon was about Jesus’ love for his disciples in John 13, when he stripped off his clothes, got down on his knees and washed their feet. Oh, how that love broke my heart!
But my passion for the Word didn’t seem needed, or wanted. It was unseemly.
So I let it go. I watched it slowly blur with misinterpretation, forceful exegesis, rose-colored glasses. Until it seemed so out of focus it was painful to look at. I just had to turn my face away.
But at night, when I couldn’t sleep, words would still slip over my tongue… “I shall not want… You anoint my head… surely goodness and mercy…” “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels… bears all things, believes all things… never fails… I see in a mirror dimly… these three remain…”
I became invisible in church. I never quit, but I had nothing more to give. The scriptures too bright for my aching eyes, too hot for my weary touch, too holy for my sinful body, I whispered the words in the dark, and kept my face turned away.
I put the screens of the prayer book and academic study between me and the holiness. To protect me from the burning. They held me up when I would have fainted from thirst and they provided a slow, small trickle.
But still, I couldn’t look.
Last spring our parish priest approached me. He told me that he had been reading this blog. I had sent him the link so hecould see my book reviews of Charles Williams. But he had read on. He said he thought I had an important voice. And he asked me to preach. To preach. A sermon. In church. To remove the veil, look at the scriptures, let the brightness shine full on my face and reflect it to the people of our church.
It’s the moment when you’ve been stumbling along a hot, dusty road and finally turn in at the garden gate, into the welcoming cool and green. And you know you are home. It may or may not be the home you started from, but it is yours to rest in for a while.
While I sat in J.J. Bean, the hippest coffee shop on earth, writing a sermon, tears flowed freely down my face.
God’s love still breaks my heart.
[[[The (partial) audio of my sermon this summer can be found on the St. John’s Richmond website.]]]