A dream: Mister and I are hosting a party in our home. Not our old home back in Chicago, nor our new place in Cambridge. This place is like places we’ve been, familiar, but unusual: wide curved entries from living room to dining room, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that are full but not bursting, comfy chairs and our own blue sofa; warm, inviting, neat but lived-in. Andrew Reilly is there, and so is Nick Ward, and some other of our friends. There is music and wine and easy conversation.
I pull out my phone and begin swiping through Instagram. On the screen is a friend, a black woman I love and admire and respect deeply for what she is making in the world and what she is making the world with her work. She is in three pictures where she is literally showing her ass. Photo one features her lying on top of her partner. The two of them are perched on the top edge of their own couch, he has lifted her dress up near her hips, and the closest hip to the camera is bear. His hand holds her butt cheek lovingly, but his face is turned away from the lens. She is smiling at the viewer and laughing, one knee bent, playful and carefree. Showing off. In photo two, she’s bent over at the hips, pointing her butt right at the camera and pulling her cheeks apart. This is too intimate a shot for me, and I keep scrolling and ultimately clatter the phone down to a table nearby, never finding out what the third picture was in the trio of ass shots.
“Now see,” I say aloud to the party, “this is why I can never put pics of my ass on Instagram. Because I want to be a minister. You can’t put pictures of your ass on social media if you want to be a minister, it just won’t work!”
“What do you mean?” someone asks, and I try to start explaining about how ministers don’t show their ass.
On the first day that I encountered him—an orientation parade of faculty hawking their classes to incoming students—my Intro to Ministry Studies professor, Matthew Potts, invoked Lizzo’s performance at the VMAs. Is there a clearer, stronger, more vocal or more evocative preacher or minister (he didn’t use these words but maybe oracle? priestess?) in our popular American culture, he asks. He says we’ll unpack this word and this concept, of ministering, and all of the beauty and the struggle, the good and the bad, of it. We’ll look at what we mean when we use the word: what do we talk about when we talk about ministry? What are the different ways it’s shaped, etc. etc.
It’s a compelling idea, and as a first-year MDiv, I can’t avoid taking it anyway, it’s required.
But invoking Lizzo is what put my butt in a chair in his class.
Some of you know, I’ve written before about what I think about when I hear the phrase, “woman of God.“ When I continue to think about it, I remember that passage from The Bluest Eye that we all read over and over again in Fiction I as one of Morrison’s countless and pristine examples of a model telling: those young women who are from Mobile and Aiken and Nacogdoches, who don’t sway their hips when they walk and who don’t put lipstick to the edges of their lips and who worry worry worry about the ends of their hair. The model of a black female pastor (or preacher, somehow minister means something different) is as evocative, the same model only more so, is as clear for me. I lay in bed thinking about this dream. What’s clear is that I don’t really have a desire to take semi-nude photos of myself and put them on social media, but that there’s something I feel like I’m not able to do or be if I step into the role of Pastor. Preacher. Minister.
I’ve been reading articles about what “religion” and how we (mis)define it, and the harm that comes when we use language without deeply reflecting on its history and consequence, and so now I’m hung up on defining what words mean. “Preacher” in the lexicon between my ears, is very clearly a black man, who sweats and shouts at the front of his congregation, who is mopped and hydrated and attended by the ladies’ auxiliary like groupies attending to some hot, bare-chested R&B artist that I don’t know the name of (I imagine D’Angelo or Usher, but that’s just showing my age), who are”baptized by the Holy Spirit” and who convey the Word of God with such urgency and vehemence that I sometimes worry over their heart health and blood pressure. Preacher is a noun. Pastor is both a noun and a verb: the noun by which you refer to your Preacher when you speak to him or about him—”Good Morning, Pastor Daniel,”—or the act of leading and guiding members of one’s flock (parish). Minister… minister is often a verb. You minister to someone by bringing food, or visiting when they’re in the hospital, or praying with someone when they’re in a low point. Minister as a noun is… the head of a congregation, a white man in a collar with a soft voice, sincere and unassuming, the American equivalent of the Anglicans’ vicar.
See all the pronouns up there? See the absence of my own reflection in all that?
There is a Lot of baggage for me to shed.
If the lexicon between my ears is flexible, then there’s a chance that my work at HDS and elsewhere will allow me to practice embodying any one, or all, of these roles. I was thinking that the role of spiritual leader was initially something that one stepped into, and then shed, like the vestments that are part of so many communal, organized ceremonies. But maybe it’s not that at all; maybe it’s more like a ritual, like an experience that changes me, not a thing I can put on and take off again, but a part of myself that I open up to and become. Whatever the case, a thing I’m clearly wrestling with is that there’s some version of being me that equates to “showing my ass.” Being playful, loudmouthed, vulnerable, vulgar, being sexual, being angry, being frightened, being overcome, being overwhelmed, being saturated by delight and feeling: so much of this feels like how I move through the world, and evidently I still don’t believe I can be this and be of service in spaces where I’d be perceived as a spiritual leader. So much of my personal perspective on the New Testament is colored by Paul and his tortured relationship with his own body, and how we have to subjugate ours to pursue and access closeness with the Divine. So much of Tantra that created a doorway for me back into divine spaces and experiences was the idea that having a body is a most marvelous means by which we relate to and with the Divine. Evidently I’m too human to be of service to God and to others; some part of me is afraid this study and this work is going to require that I rein myself in, that I quiet down, smooth it out, that I become some version of myself I don’t recognize or like. I’m already grieving her loss in my dreams.
(I can also feel some past behaviors showing up within me, now that I’m back in school, that I thought I’d retired literally decades ago: that over-eager, insecure desire to please; the submission of my will to folks I perceive as people with more power and wisdom than I have, who nevertheless aren’t living my life or my education; that voice that says, “you didn’t give us homework”—which I’m certain won’t be expressed because there is NO SHORTAGE of work to be done here, but still, I’m all juiced about assignments. I mean, I make no apology for how excited I am to be learning in a context and structure like this, flawed and challenging and sometimes downright lonely as it is. But I want to remember the confidence and experience and wisdom that I have. As the most active participant in my own education, I get to decide how this goes. I don’t have to revert to childish ways of navigating a big, scary world.)
Bringing your whole self has to be part of this work. Folks can tell when we’re being inauthentic, sometimes even when we can’t. So the honesty that it takes to be vulnerable, mistaken, disappointed, out of reach—shadowed—is a real part of the human experience, especially right now, with a planet on fire and world leaders determined to dismantle, disassemble, and destroy any chance we have for connection and understanding across our difference. There’s something real in the willingness to let the discouragement touch you, and not feel like you have to float away in the bliss and the ether. And, I’m constantly humbled and encouraged by my sibs who remind me of the power of joy, delight, pleasure, and care: as a means of appreciation, as an act of resistance, as maybe even an act of worship. I delight in the power of my lungs when I sing or chant (or scream); I am grateful for the meaningful mirror of friendship when I email my brother from another mother and dwell with him in his deep sensitivity of his manic experience; I marvel in the perfect blue of the October sky just after sunset; I am grateful for the practice of union every time I touch my husband. I can’t be any less delighted, or angry, or moved, and hope to share with others their own human experience.
Isn’t there something that I need, something that I’m supposed to know that they don’t know, in order to function as a leader? Isn’t there a thought or a comfort that I’m supposed to have that they need? What am I actually even giving anybody? It’s not a ton of words to distance themselves from their feelings or experience? So what is it?
So what does minister, or pastor, or preacher even mean? I don’t know yet. Writing sermons is a part of my homework assignments, maybe. I’ve never written a sermon before. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever written a sermon: I’ve never taken a passage of the Bible and used it as inspiration for a point I want to make about how we walk through the world and how we can do so with a teeny bit more kindness or courage or patience. I can tell stories and write blog posts, I can be thoughtful and vulnerable and generous, and maybe even humorous. But I don’t know if I can minister. I don’t know if I can preach.
I try to remember that there is no Before and After, there is only during. That, like you, like all of us, I am in a state of both Being and Becoming, and though there might be a day when someone stamps or signs a form and says I’m ready and I go and do The Work, that it’s a kind of extension of the work I’m doing now, and have been doing since before I got to Cambridge, maybe even before the words “divinity school” were a part of my narrative. It’s easy to forget that when you take ideas like presence and compassion and generosity, like embodiment, ritual, love, joy, grief, and wrap them in theory and then read page after page after page, only to write paper after paper after paper. Maybe that’s why I have this space: to practice remembering that there’s only a certain point to which the mystery and the relationship of where spirit and matter intersect can be theorized or made academic. After that, it’s all about showing up.
I looked up the definition of the word “minister” today, and it read, “to attend to the needs (of someone.)” In French, the verb attendre means “to wait.” I read this and think about ministering like waiting. Waiting on. Waiting for. Waiting with. Lingering. Dwelling. Tarrying. Maybe ditch the preposition entirely. Just wait. Just sit with me a minute and let our bellies rise and fall with the movement of our breath and see what happens. Everything. Nothing. Let’s just wait.