Little Girl, Wake Up

My granddaughter Abby sometimes likes me to tell her stories about Jesus. She is four, so I keep them simple and steer away from the complex confrontations with the Pharisees. What Jesus did when he was on Earth makes for good stories.

One evening, Abby, her mother, and I were all piled on my bed, and she asked, “Nana, will you tell me a story about Jesus?” So I told her this one, and it turned out to be the one I needed to hear.

This story tells how Jesus feels about little girls:

Jesus was walking down the road when a man named Jairus came running up to him and said, “My daughter is very sick. Can you come see her and heal her?” Jesus told a couple of his friends to come with him, and he hurried toward her house. As he was approaching, a servant came out and told Jairus, “Don’t bother Jesus anymore. Your daughter has died.” Jesus said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid; she’s just sleeping.” Jesus entered the house, and the people who were there made fun of him. He went into the room where the little girl lay on her bed.

Jesus bent over the little girl, and he said to her, “Little girl, wake up.” She opened her eyes and sat up. It turns out that Jesus likes girls, and he wants them to wake up. He doesn’t want to hear that they are dying, he doesn’t want to see them dead; he wants them to wake up, get out of bed, and thrive.

When I tell this story from memory out loud, it makes me cry. I want to believe that Jesus cares that much about girls. I want my granddaughters, my daughters, my friends, my mother, and myself to know this kind of love—the love that wants women alive and awake. Jesus loved this little girl in a day in which Jewish men thanked God they were born neither Gentile nor female.

What I have to admit to myself, and to Jesus, is that many women in the church cannot be truly alive, truly awake, truly grateful for being women, because the church makes it so tough for them to be who God made them to be. It angers me to think of how the church has wasted the gifts and energy of women. God’s kingdom is smaller and narrower than it should be. Women are sickening and dying for lack of freedom to be their whole selves in the church.

I am part of the Friends (Quaker) denomination. Quakers have a history of equality for men and women in ministry— public, spoken witness to the power and love of God. First-generation Quaker women in the 1600s preached in public, journeyed overseas to preach to the unconverted, stood up for their freedom to practice religion as God revealed it to them, and, with many men, died in prison or were executed for their because I am also called to preach and am recorded as a minister. And yet, in my yearly meeting, there are only four women who are lead pastors of a church. The other 60-plus churches have either men as lead pastors or none.

My own home meeting has three full-time paid men, three paid part-time women, and one part-time man as pastors. The full-time men are the lead pastor, the pastor for spiritual health and care, and the pastor for youth ministries; the part-time man is the pastor for worship ministries; the part-time women are the pastor for women, children and families, the pastor for seniors, and the pastor for administration. I love them all, but there seems to be a hierarchy of significance in who is full-time and who is part-time, even though they are all graced with the name “pastor.” And I know of churches in my yearly meeting that do not allow women to carry the title pastor, even part-time.

What is wrong with the church, with my church? Why is the Quaker testimony on equality of the sexes not borne out in practice?

And why is the entire church not committed to equality? When we visited lovely cathedrals across Europe last spring, my husband would say to me, “You could be preaching from that pulpit.” He meant to be supportive, but I knew the impossibility of that ever happening. It made me sad and angry. Think of 2,000 years of little girls with gifts given to them for the church that they were never allowed to use. Think of how they were required to die inside in order to live faithfully as defined by the church. Think of how Jesus feels about that.

At least in the story about Jairus’s daughter, the house was filled with mourners because the little girl had died. There are few mourners in the church for all the dying little girls and comatose women whose gifts are refused and whose calls are denied. There is the hope offered by Jesus that these women and girls are just sleeping, and their whole selves can be raised from the dead by the word of God.

Where is the sin and who are the sinners? Who would dare call unclean what God has called clean? Men and women alike have resisted the clear teaching of Jesus and Paul that the kingdom of God needs women who are awakened, called, obedient ministers in private and in public. It is easy to blame men for perpetuating power structures of patriarchy that clearly violate the spirit and letter of the law of love; it is more difficult to understand why women themselves resist and even reject women who are called to public ministry. Are they afraid? And if so, of what? Of the love and calling of God? Most dismaying is the fact that the “emergent” movement in today’s church, with its missional emphasis and flexible structure, is again resisting the clear teaching of Jesus that both men and women are called to faithful stewardship of their gifts and will be held accountable for how they are used to build God’s kingdom, and that all are called to go into the world and preach the gospel. Women took to the road with Jesus, gave him their money and loyalty, listened to and understood his message, witnessed his resurrection and reported the good news to others, waited for the Holy Spirit and received the Spirit in all ways, hosted churches, preached, prophesied, and taught. Paul valued the women who were leaders in the church, including some among the apostles.

Every woman who remains loyal to the church (while knowing that her fellow Christians do not encourage her to acknowledge and use her gifts in the church) shows that God does indeed give grace to those who suffer. Women do suffer when they feel called and empowered and then rejected. The mission field, education, and non-profits have all benefited from women whose gifts have been thrust out of the church, but the church itself has been, and continues to be, diminished.

The parable of the three stewards is for women, too. When you read it remembering that, it seems that women are damned if they don’t and damned if they do. Even in my own denomination, the sexism of our society has ruined the good news that if God’s son sets you free, you are free indeed. Instead of noting the clear teaching of this parable—that if you do not use your God-given gifts to further the kingdom of God, you will be cast out of it, and thinking of those women with gifts of public ministry—my own denomination has congregations that will not place women as elders, will not call women as pastors, and will not recommend women for recording (which is analogous to ordination).

While Christians are happy to eat pork and shellfish (God said that pigs in a blanket are clean if God says so), Christians are not happy to say that God has declared women and men to be equal. Yet Paul writes that in Christ there is no male nor female. This is so clear it demands that we ask why it is so rarely visible in the church.

Undoubtedly, someone will blame the Bible for the perpetuation of patriarchal Christianity. I blame Bible readers who refuse to see. The message always comes to those with ears to hear, eyes to read, and hearts to follow, not to those looking for confirmation of the status quo and permission to resist change.

Rebecca Ankeny

Rebecca Ankeny has worked as an English professor and administrator since 1986, and at George Fox University since 1988. In January 2012, she will become the General Superintendent of Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends. She and her husband Mark have two daughters and sons-in-law and three granddaughters. She is a member of Newberg (Oregon) Friends Church and her interests include music, soccer, reading, preaching, and writing.