Beth Stewart Bowers
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Note: I will admit, right from the beginning, that telling this story is difficult. It feels risky and vulnerable. My prayer is that my words are seasoned with grace and love. I will be honest. I will be real. And it may be uncomfortable at times, but I think the risk is worth it. I am deeply committed to the belief that we all have stories to share, and that our stories matter. We are all part of this narrative of God’s kingdom, and we are all on this journey of faith together. I love the church, and I love her people. This is my story as a woman in Churches of Christ called to ministry.
I grew up in the Church of Christ, born in 1980. As a child the implied narrative was that only men preached, taught adults, or spoke and participated in worship gatherings. Women taught kids and worked in dozens of other different ways, but if it involved passing a communion tray, leading prayers, or teaching the word of God to all the people of God – that was only a role for men. This was starkly highlighted when I (loosely) participated in the Lads to Leaders and Leaderettes program. Just the name – “Leaderettes,” speaks volumes about the Church of Christ ethic regarding women. When I was a little older, in youth group, I was always a bit of a Bible nerd – I really liked studying the Bible, being in class, and learning. I was the one who took notes as a 13-year-old and asked for Max Lucado books for Christmas. And I was a pretty avid Bible reader. I probably read the whole Bible at least a couple of times throughout high school. And so it was confusing to read texts like Genesis 1 in which both male and female were created in the image of God, and Galatians 3 where “there is no male and female” in Christ, and I Corinthians 11 where it is presumed that women are praying and prophesying in public, and then to read I Timothy 2 and the instruction that women are to be silent and not teach or have authority over men. But we didn’t really talk about these texts in church, what they meant, or how to interpret them. It was, always, just the “way things were:” male leadership in all areas of teaching/preaching/leading in any way publicly. I had zero examples of women doing any of those things in public spaces in which men were around, and honestly, I had no imagination for it being any other way.
In high school, I attended an ecumenical Christian school, which still had a strong view of male leadership, but was also very open to women leading in public spaces (worship leading, prayer, testimony, and preaching – although they didn’t necessarily call it preaching). But again, all of my Bible teachers were men. This began opening my eyes and my heart to the nudge of the Holy Spirit in realizing that maybe things aren’t as black and white as they seem. There was a much wider Christian world out there that I didn’t know existed.
I entered college an elementary ed major. I am not sure what led me down that road, but I very quickly discovered that it wasn’t my elementary ed classes that sparked life in me, it was my Bible classes, a required piece of my Christian college experience. I didn’t know what I was going to do long term, but I knew this was the space I wanted to spend the next four years in. I changed my major to Bible and Communication, and I often received the question: what are you going to do with that, which simply emphasized the point that women don’t “belong” in this space. I can guarantee you that all of my male-Bible-major counterparts did not receive that question asked in that way. I began answering (deferring) the question by saying, “Go to grad school.” It was in college, through my own study and reading, that I began exploring the various ways the texts about women in the Bible are interpreted, and I realized that there was a whole conversation out there that I didn’t even know existed. I held those things in my heart, and pressed forward, not knowing or fully understanding where God might be leading me.
I met and married my husband, Brian, while in college, and he was a fellow Bible major – we were super Bible nerds together. We kicked around dreams of church planting and mission work, and ended up in Petoskey for three years doing youth ministry together. We moved back to Rochester so that Brian could begin grad school, and I began working in the church office, mostly assisting in ministry related projects. We moved to Lansing shortly after, and I also began grad school, studying New Testament and Theology, which is what I always intended to do, eventually. It was during my first semester of grad work that I took my first preaching class, a requirement of the program. That was a watershed moment for me – to sit in a room of all men and hear things like: “that was a beautiful sermon; you are really gifted,” and to explore the possibility that maybe I do actually have a voice. It became evident that I had to figure out what it meant that my real, lived experience spoke a different story than the narrative I had lived in up until that point. I knew, during my Master’s Program, that I would eventually land back in school for a terminal degree. Why? Because the academy is my safe space – it is a space in which I am affirmed and encouraged to explore my gifts. And, I had a hunch that teaching (not kids, adults!) might be in my future.
I began to understand that this isn’t a conversation about “roles;” it is a conversation about justice – I am not a “problem” to be solved. I am a real, living, human person, created in the image of God, with a story and a calling and a promise that the Spirit of God has been poured out in and on me too. My eyes were opened to the wide vistas of biblical interpretation, and the even wider vistas of theological possibility. My thoughts and questions, during that time, looked like this:
Our stint in Lansing only lasted two years, but in that two years, my daughter, Sophie, was born. I will tell you that all of a sudden, this question of gender and the church became even more real and urgent. Would my daughter grow up the way I did? In a church in which the implied (and sometimes quite explicit) narrative is that your gender determines which gifts you are given and which gifts are practiced?
In the years I was away in Lansing, a lot of conversations happened in my home church – hard conversations. By the time we moved back to Rochester in 2008, the doors had cracked open. I was invited to be on an adult teaching team for the first time in 2009 – ten years ago, now. I spent four weeks and at least 30 hours in study and preparation for that 45-minute class. I remember Brian (my husband) telling me about his first sermon when he was 14 or 15 – an hour long sermon entitled “25 reasons why you should read the Bible,” and I can recall so many other preacher friends citing similar tales of their “early days” preaching and teaching in which they roll their eyes and talk about how “bad” they were. You see, when you are a woman in a Church of Christ, you haven’t been given opportunities to “fail” graciously in front of a group of people. I was a 29-year-old woman; graduate degree educated, having never so much as read a scripture in public at church. It’s a lot of pressure, especially when the church is used to college professors (from next door at Rochester College). I wasn’t the first woman to speak publicly at Rochester Church, but I was well aware of the wounds of others who had come before me. All I could think was, “Better not screw this up or I will screw it up for us all – all the women.” Ironically, the class was on Judges, and the assigned text for that day was the story of Deborah and Jael. I was walking alongside some pretty incredible, systems-subverting women.
Here’s what I discovered: teaching gave me LIFE. I felt fully alive in a classroom, and there was no denying that this was part of my vocation – my calling. I graduated with my Master’s shortly after, and began teaching Intro to Biblical Literature classes at Rochester College. I remember teaching once at church, seven years ago, in the auditorium, 7 months pregnant, fully mic’d, no denying my female-ness or my voice fully present for all to hear, and feeling like, “okay, we’ve gotten somewhere.”
Since then, in the middle of raising babies, journeying with my husband in his ministry, and contributing to our family’s living by working a variety of jobs, I ignored all of the ways women are still not offered a seat at the table in the same ways men are. I’ve ignored the systems of power that make decisions for and about women without including the voices of women. I’ve tried to be at peace with an all-male “ministry” staff and an all-female “office” staff when truthfully, the messy work of ministry eclipses all of our defined boundaries and titles. I sighed and moved on each time I submitted a woman’s name for the eldership hoping that at least it would open the long-buried conversation about gender justice, and I did my best to move and work in a church system I didn’t agree with, but in which I was choosing to submit.
I became comfortable in my role as occasional teacher until a moment two years ago when what I thought would be a given (a request to preach at a Holy Week Service at my church) was a rejection. This was another watershed moment for me. I don’t know if I was more hurt that the answer was no, or that I thought the answer would be yes. That experience stirred up a lot of deeply buried emotions, and I felt raw and exposed. For several weeks after that “no,” I wrestled with God. I had a renewed angst about the place of women in the church – specifically my church, that I had buried for several years. I felt like I had two choices: bury it for good or pursue my calling more deeply.
There was a moment, when visiting friends later that spring, that I attended their church, and a woman happened to be preaching that day. I cried through the entire service. She read this quote, from Sarah Bessey, who says: “I often say that when I preach, I’m preaching two messages: there is the one I prepared and prayed and laboured to deliver and then there is the one I’m preaching by simply preaching it as a woman. So when I minister from a pulpit, absolutely there is the sermon I prepared but there is also the sermon of my presence. The sermon of my presence is sub-text declaring that God calls women to preach the resurrection, too, that God honours [God’s] daughters, that we aren’t disqualified in the Kingdom of God, that no one is “more equal” than anyone else. Sometimes that second sermon is the one that disrupts the most: it requires people to grapple with their presuppositions and prejudices at times.” I decided that it was the time to go back to school, my safe space, to try and figure out what God is up to with me.
Last July, as I shared my journey with my new grad school cohort and the woman who would become my spiritual director, I began to understand my journey as a woman called into ministry as the “uphill climb.” God has been tugging for 30 years, offering an arm to cling to on this journey upward. Kilimanjaro, a literal mountain I climbed in early 2017, became a beautiful metaphor for me. Just this past February, I preached for my grad cohort in the quiet, peaceful chapel on Lipscomb’s campus. One of my fellow students, who is a preacher in a church that has ordained women for over 100 years, but who still faces massive resistance because of her gender, through tears spoke the words over me: “Beth, you are a preacher.” And friends, as affirming as those words are, they are simultaneously painful because it doesn’t feel like that will ever be a reality for me. Because, you see, another thing I have been called to, at least for now, is that I am to “remain in this house, eating what is set before you.” So many women, called into ministry, have to make the choice to lean in or lean out; both are important, God-centered choices. I have chosen for now, to lean in – lean into the tradition that raised me. So, for now, this is my choice to submit, not because someone told me I have too, — that’s not biblical submission – but because I am choosing to follow the way of Christ, who did not consider equality with God something to use to his own advantage. And submission doesn’t look like laying low and hoping things just work out. It means actively seeking, serving, listening, and being available to the movement and Spirit of God who I believe is working in the church for the good of the kingdom. And my choice to submit looks different than others’ choices to submit. For some of my friends in ministry submission to their calling looks like moving out of the environments that restrict them and into new spaces that more fully welcome them. God is working in it all.
I believe with every breath in me that all of our freedom in Christ is wrapped up in my freedom as a woman in Christ, with the freedom of all marginalized people. We will never experience the fullness of the kingdom until the barriers are torn down and buried. This isn’t just about me; this is about women everywhere in the world. It’s about God’s dream for humanity. Carolyn Custis James talks about how Gen 1:26-28 is God’s “vision casting” for the world – humanity created in the image of God to care for and tend the whole earth, and how the rest of scripture must be understood in light of the vision God is casting here. Our identity is as image bearers and partners in mission in the world with God. We’ve somehow missed this, and de-emphasized this vision, this visionary calling for all of us to partner with God, in the ways God has called and gifted each one of us. We need everyone – we need everyone’s gifts, talents, passions, and abilities. And here’s the thing: there is no hierarchy of gifts – it all matters; it all belongs. I have been in spaces and have suspected that women can feel like because I want to teach or preach or lead worship that I devalue the gifts and ways women have traditionally served in the church. May it never be so! A kingdom of inclusivity looks like men and women serving together in ALL areas of church ministry. It gives me LIFE to see men teaching in the children’s ministry. It gives me LIFE to see men working alongside women behind the scenes. Because you know what, not all men are passionate or gifted in serving “up front.” Their gifts are discovered behind the scenes. An ethic of full equality means that we are all freer to discover who God has uniquely created us to be. Where would any of us be if it weren’t for the dedicated women who have served God in the church for hundreds of years, baking cookies, rocking babies, and teaching littles to sing “Jesus loves me.” God honors those gifts. And my desire to teach and preach doesn’t negate that – it’s simply widening the possibilities for the kingdom. There is space at the table for us all.
I came across an excerpt from a sermon by Vincent VanGogh (yes, the painter) a couple of years ago, and it has become sacred to me as a way to understand my journey:
“I once saw a beautiful picture: it was a landscape, in the evening. Far in the distance, on the right, hills, blue in the evening mist. Above the hills, a glorious sunset, with the grey clouds edged with silver and gold and purple. The landscape is flatland or heath, covered with grass; the grass-stalks are yellow because it was autumn. A road crosses the landscape, leading to a high mountain far, far away; on the summit of the mountain, a city, lit by the glow of the setting sun. Along the road goes a pilgrim, his staff in his hand. He has been on his way for a very long time and is very tired. And then he encounters a woman, or a figure in black, reminiscent of St. Paul’s phrase: ‘in sorrow, yet ever joyful’. This angel of God has been stationed there to keep up the spirits of the pilgrims and answer their questions. And the pilgrim asks: ‘Does the road wind uphill all the way?’ To which comes the reply: ‘Yes, to the very end.’ And he asks another question: ‘Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?’ And the reply is: ’From morn to night, my friend.’ And the pilgrim goes on, in sorrow, yet ever joyful.”
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.” Consider the pace at which we tend to do life. The temptation is to plow through – make lists for the things, do the things, stress about all the things, and then go to bed and do it all again the next day. Taylor continues, “While many of [Jesus’] present-day admirers pay close attention to what he said and did, they pay less attention to the pace at which he did it.” Jesus did a lot of walking. He had a lot of time to pay attention. Every day we are running past altars – sacred moments in which we encounter the divine. I am discovering that the door into spiritual rhythm, for me, is the practice of paying attention – particularly, paying attention with my feet.
Sometimes the call to “pay attention” hits hard and fast. George Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, famously replied, “Because it’s there.” I will not soon forget standing in my kitchen, talking to my friend, Katy, while she and her family were on furlough from their mission base in Tanzania. My husband and I were planning to visit them in Tanzania a year or so from that kitchen conversation, when she drops this one on me: “When you guys come, are you going to climb Kilimanjaro, too, or is it just Brian who wants to do it? Because I would climb if you would climb.” I might have actually unleashed a minor emergency word, along with a laugh, and then realizing that she was serious, said, “Wait, what?”
For many years, thanks to John Barton, my husband, Brian, dreamed of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and when our friends moved to Tanzania, he immediately began dreaming and planning a visit and a climb. He grew up in the mountains of West Virginia, cut his teeth on an adventurous expedition to the Sierra Nevada’s in high school, and regularly went on weekend rock climbing trips during college.
I read a lot of books and watch a lot of Netflix. But when Katy asked me that fateful question, something deep inside my bones stirred a bit. Knowing that we needed to choose dates for our trip soon, I did what I know best – become well informed: I ordered two books about Kilimanjaro, explored mountaineering blogs, and began researching equipment. Like Hermione Granger, the over-achieving-know-it-all companion of Harry Potter who, when nervously anticipating her first flying lesson, quickly found out, “This was something you couldn’t learn by heart, out of a book, not that she hadn’t tried,” I practically memorized a detailed guidebook aptly named, Climbing Kilimanjaro. And I made the decision: I’m going to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. Maybe George Mallory was on to something, and feeling particularly brave, bearing in mind that Mallory died on Everest during his third attempt to climb, hopefully our fate would turn out differently than his. We spent the next year preparing, saving, and hiking…lots and lots of hiking.
Backpacks loaded, water bottles filled, hiking boots broken-in, we loaded into a dusty land rover to make the 4-hour drive around the base of the mountain to the starting point of our 8-day journey. Said land rover consisted of Brian and I – American Christians, Katy – Tanzanian-resident missionary, our guide Abdi Shirazy – native Tanzanian Muslim, our assistant guide Godfrey – native Tanzanian Catholic, and Sjoerd – the randomly placed Dutch atheist who was thrown into our group last minute along with his guide, Dullah – a native Tanzanian Muslim. We had the makings of Pentecost in that bumpy car ride – 3 languages, 3 religions, 7 varied worldviews. And even more so in our camps each night where tents of yellow, orange, and red licked the earth like tongues of fire from all over the world – we met hikers from Japan, South Africa, Korea, Canada, the UK, China, Australia, India, Germany. And there she loomed before us, Kilimanjaro – that 19,341 foot altar holding space for hundreds of seekers.
For days we walked. We began in rain forest, the sounds of birds and colobus monkeys providing our soundtrack. Each day, waking with the sun and sleeping with the moon, the rhythms of the mountain demanding our utter respect and fidelity. By days three and four, the landscapes changed, and the mountain got lonelier – less vegetation, less wildlife, more silence. We walked slowly, each step deliberate, each breath labored as the elevation rose. We hiked through rocks, sat still while clouds literally brushed our faces with cold damp, and settled in each night to warm soup and warmer company. Sjoerd taught us a Dutch card game, we laughed, we talked, and each night I read to our tiny cohort of climbers from my Climbing Kilimanjaro guidebook about what to expect the next day, exactly how many kilometers we would be hiking, and what kind of elevation shifts to expect. Truthfully, nothing written could prepare us for what lay ahead each day – it could only be learned through walking.
By day 6, we were preparing for our summit bid—temperatures hovering around 15 degrees. Abdi woke us up at 10 p.m. and by 10:30 we were walking, the first group to leave the Barafu base camp. Walking this time, in the dark, the path before us lit only by our headlamps. Our rhythm: walk for 45, break for 5…over and over again for hours. I remember looking out, at one point, and watching a lightning storm several hundred feet below us. And as the night loomed on, a thin line of tiny lights in a switchback pattern making their way toward us. The only thing in front of me was Abdi’s boots and his pace, crunching white snow, leading the way forward. With my hands frozen, nose runny, breath coming hard, spirit at the breaking point, Godfrey, like a mother hen tending her chicks, unzipped my pack and applied chapstick to my numb lips, wiped my nose, and helped me take sips of water muttering soft encouragement in a mixture of broken English and Swahili.
Step – God.
Step – Help.
Step – Me.
…became my sacred refrain that night. I repeated it for hours in the dark, entering a sacred rhythm of prayerful groundedness –bumping into an altar of snow and scree with each step. Up we climbed, hundreds of searchers. We crested Kilimanjaro just as the sun was rising, and made it to the summit with tears and laughter, me clinging to Abdi’s strong arm for the last 100 yards.
St Augustine said, “solviture ambulando, – It is solved by walking.” I think I understand what he was getting at. As I walked the earth, the real, lived experience of a common humanity moving toward something more expansive and at the same time beautifully particular woke me up to the divine.
During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King led a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel participated in the Selma-Mongomery march, and when Rabbi Heschel returned from Selma, he was asked by someone how he found time to pray while marching. Rabbi Heschel responded, ‘I prayed with my feet.’ As we consider what it means to practice sacred rhythms, may we learn to pay attention. May we learn to notice what gives us life and opens our eyes to the sacred. It may be a quiet time of Bible reading and prayer journaling, but it may be a walk through the woods or a march for justice – a prayer with our feet.
May God open our
eyes, open our hands, and ready our feet.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 15.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 66.
Sophie is six and Sawyer is two. This year, since Sawyer is old enough to sit still for roughly five minutes (sometimes), we have started a new tradition with our kids. Each night during this Advent season, we read from Sally Lloyd Jones’ brilliant Jesus Storybook Bible. It begins “in the beginning”….much like John’s gospel. And it will take us through God’s story as it unfolds in Israel to the time of Christ’s birth. After our reading, the kids punch out that day’s block of the Lego Advent calendar and they build the piece for that day—so far we have a mail carrier, a mailbox, and a faceless snowman which Sophie thinks looks creepy.
I love Christmas – my kids love Christmas. I enjoy giving gifts. I enjoy even more that most of said gifts can be purchased from the comfort of my computer. There is joy and fun in the so-called “secular” parts of Christmas. Even if Jesus was taken completely out of the picture (as was/is the case for so many in our CofC tribe), what we “do” during Christmas whispers his name. As kids, we wait with expectation and joy at the coming of Christmas day—Santa is coming to town, after all. Our hearts seem to be built for hope. So, when Sophie asks, “Momma, what does ‘Advent’ mean?” we get to tell her the story. We get to revel in the wide-eyed expectation and hope of who’s coming–Jesus. Jesus is coming! The world hears the songs of hope…
Oh holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
This is a powerful season for me–it has been in recent years. Especially this year. I cannot escape the thoughts and feelings that have surrounded our world the last few weeks: Ferguson, Eric Garner…and the Social Media malady which has made my heart groan.
How do God’s people respond to the hurt? The pain? The brokenness? I have seen a lot of venom. I have seen a lot of rants. I have seen a lot of writers suggesting “truth” and “justice.” What I haven’t seen is a lot of grace.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Our world is weary. So very weary. We need hope. We need to see grace—experience grace. I have been part of a teaching team going through the gospel of John in our adult Bible classes at church on Sundays. As I have journeyed though John’s gospel, I can’t get away from this singular thought: if we want to know God, we have to take a good, hard look at Jesus. No matter what we think we know, what we struggle with…or cling to, in the Old Testament’s witness of God –the one thing we can know without a doubt is the fullness of who God is, is made manifest in Christ. And John tells us that if we know Christ, we will obey his commandments–and he tells us exactly what that means: Love. Selfless, cruciform love. Love that makes itself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant, putting others before itself.
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
That is where I cling to hope. Always in Jesus. Only in Jesus. And I anticipate Christ’s coming–both in the Advent season and in our already/not yet kingdom mindset–more and more every year. And so we sing of hope. For our world of hurt, pain, injustice, suffering and brokenness we sing our defiant songs of love, hope and anticipation of Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus, come!
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord, O praise his name forever!