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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Ryerse

______ the Patriarchy

A Sermon for Vintage Fellowship

This week, so many of us interacted with news stories about racism, violence, and corporate greed. My social media feed was a wail of lament over the lack of equality in our country for black people and people of color. Another trans woman was killed for trying to just be herself. The people of Ireland sent money to help the Navajo and other tribes to get desperately needed PPE to prevent their deaths, because long ago, the Navajo people sent money to help the Irish during the Potato Famine. Our own government has failed them again and again. The Latinx and Marshallese people in our own neighborhoods struggle under the weight of unfair immigration laws that keep them from receiving the help they need while they work in higher numbers in meat packing, farm work and construction that keeps our economy strong here in NWA. We live in a world full of injustices. It’s nearly overwhelming at times. Because what can we do? 

This week we begin a 6 week series that I hope - dream maybe - will make a difference. We have devoted this year to the topic of justice … what has often been translated in the Gospels as Righteousness. And we remind ourselves that Jesus asked us to seek it first. It is the way we love God and love our neighbor and therefore fulfill all of the law and the prophets.   

For all of the life of Vintage Fellowship, we have thought of the Good News as creating ever widening circles of inclusion: from the time of Jesus in Jerusalem, Samaria and all Judea, to all the world, every tribe, tongue and nation, neither jew nor greek, neither male nor female. We have experimented our way into more inclusivity for our LGBTQ siblings, and while we haven’t arrived, we gave that conversation focus for seasons of the life of our community, clearing up our stance in our language and doctrine. What we have never attempted, ironically, is a fully focussed discussion on gender equality. It is, of course, more than implied by your female identifying pastor, but a simple look at our headlines tells me that we are a world, a nation, still very much divided into gendered hierarchies. We learned them from the time we were small, impressionable humans, and it will take more than simply mentally acknowledging that equality should happen to really eradicate our unconscious bent toward arranging ourselves, listening and responding to one another as if we belong in tiers, levels, standings, ranks. Don’t believe me? Just ask a child close to you to draw a picture of who is in charge. They are likely to tell you that Daddy is the biggest, then Mommy is over the kids. That is gender hierarchy. And unless we really observe ourselves and our behavior, we are most likely simply acting out the roles we learned as children, to various degrees of success in growing up. We rank ourselves constantly by the shapes and colors of our bodies, our abilities in how well those bodies work or how quick we are at utilizing information or how easily we can acquire money, power or influence. And when we feel uncertain, we often simply can’t help ourselves from denigrating our own personhood, putting ourselves down in a backwards plea to those closest to us to please tell us we are a pretty or smart or good enough.  

My friend Monica likes to say “What gets revealed gets healed” in her work as a life coach. We cannot heal the injustice of hierarchies in our world until we take a look at them in our own lives, in the context of our closest relationships. Our worlds have grown tiny in quarantine. I urge us to use it as an opportunity to start in that space at home to examine the ways we might live more closely aligned with the values of the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore, have more peace within and without.  

To begin this series … I speak, not as an expert from high above you, who has figured it all out. I am leading from within. And I am leading with my story. In the coming weeks, we’ll hear other people’s stories … we’d like to have three weeks of panel discussions of various perspectives on the hierarchies we create around the construct of gender. Collectively, we’re exploring what has been named The Patriarchy. That is, "a social system in which power is held by men, through cultural norms and customs that favor men and withhold opportunity from women," and more specifically to the church context, the systemic ordering of our world according to the idea that God ordained men to be over women and children.   

Before I start, a disclaimer. I am telling my story as an invitation to explore what felt the same, and what was different for you. It’s just a jumping off point to look at your own story. This is mine. I speak of my impressions, not necessarily what was intended to be conveyed to me. I am a random sample. Not the worst case scenario or the best. My cultural identity is a white woman, from a lower to middle class family in a rural town in Pennsylvania with eastern European ancestors, Christian, cisgender, heterosexual, in other words, somewhat privileged. The way it is understood currently, the more privileged you are, the less likely you are interested in changing the hierarchy in place. As a pastor, I am asking to what extent you are willing to love your neighbor as yourself.  

So how did the patriarchy form me and so many of you?  

I came from a military family. Rank meant order and order was highly valued. I have an older brother and two younger sisters. I wanted to keep up with my brother, to compete with him, to be equal to him, but he grew tall and excelled in sports, and I couldn’t keep up. I remember how on basketball nights, when we both had games, I could point to my two or three buckets and he lost track of his points until they were published in the newspaper the next day.  

Men were central in our home. When dad came home, we all stopped what we were doing to greet him at the door. As little ones, we were excited about what he might bring us or if he might play with us, as big kids, it was the cue to begin the evening activities at home. That was when dinner would be served and the choice of what to watch on tv was decided. Dad got first dibs on seconds, which he always shared if our plates were emptied quickly, but his portion was always the biggest. My mother’s plate was always filled last. She always cooked the meals. She did all the cleaning, all the laundry. She canned and froze food from the garden. She sewed most of our clothes. She sourced our textbooks for school. She planned doctors and dentist appointments. She planned our gifts for birthdays and holidays. She got us dressed for church and got us into the car to wait for Dad to come out last, locking the door behind him. She sewed for extra money but never worked outside the home in my growing up years. He was the breadwinner. He drove us to school and home from late night sports and activities. Mom never drove the car if Dad was in it. He did the outside work: mowing the lawn, keeping a small rotation of small farm animals. Planting the garden. Paying bills. Building things. Fixing things. Always keeping the outside of the house looking tidy. I was not allowed to mow the lawn or pump gas until I put up a big fight because it wasn’t ladylike.  

Speaking of ladylike, it was at church that I learned how a lady should sit. From a young man in a suit in junior church. Miss Julianne was the teacher and I guess he was the helper, and I was six years old. He showed us from the front how boys should sit and how girls should sit in our folding chairs. I also learned that I must wear pants under my dresses at gym class. Because you can’t play hard in a dress and be modest. And modesty was very important ... for five years olds. Modesty meant I had to wear pantyhose to the park one day when I was seven and I was staying with my pastor and his wife while my parents took the youth group on a trip. I thought pantyhose were very grown up and I was excited at first, but it turned out they were just hot and I couldn’t put my feet in the fountain at the zoo. But I was a girl and so my legs needed to be covered. 

I got used to covering up. Collar bones to kneecaps, always in slips, camisoles and other extra layers not for warmth or protection, but rather, for making invisible. Do not be seen. Also, don’t be heard. When I speak up, I am called a spitfire. A tomboy. Hillary Clinton. (That was not a compliment about being a strong, smart, accomplished woman.) I could be cute. I could be spunky. I could occasionally dare to be sassy if it was funny. But there was a line somewhere that could not be crossed. Officially, it was never ok to hit a girl. But, you shouldn’t make a man angry. If you did and he hit you, it was your own dumb fault. They all seemed to be saying so, not in so many words, but dad, pastor, both grandpas, brother, boy cousins all seemed to be in agreement from what I could see … I remember watching an uncle take a small wailing cousin by one arm, lifting his tiny person off the ground in exasperated power to some corner where my cousin would be spanked … for crying instead of obeying. That’s the way it worked. Big people had power. Littler people did not. Men were big. Boys were big. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t keep up. 

No one ever said I couldn’t be a pastor. Thirteen years of private Christian school. And as many years in deeply committed church life at the same church from the time I was five until I graduated from high school and went off to Bible college. I can’t recall a single time I heard that women couldn’t be pastors. But I never heard that pigs couldn’t fly either. It was just an obvious fact. Pastors were men. Everywhere. Always. Women barely had careers. I only knew one woman who had a job just because she wanted to work. It was my aunt. I remembered her offering it as her thing that she was thankful for at the huge circle of family at Grandma’s house. Not just her husband or children, but “a job that fulfills me.” I had no idea what a fulfilling job was, but I knew my aunt and her family didn’t attend church with us, so her fulfilling job was probably not ok. My pastor said from the pulpit that women were not supposed to work outside the home. My mother didn’t. I took that to mean that’s the way things were. When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was obvious. Just a mom. What else was there? 

By the time high school came to an end, I had enhanced my plan slightly. I was going to be the first person in my family to graduate from college and I was going to marry a youth pastor and be "in ministry." I loved my youth group and my youth pastor and his wife. I loved being part of church. I loved how much approval I received for singing in the choir, playing the piano, going on missions trips, giving testimonies, serving in the nursery, being a leader in the youth group. Not the president of the youth group, of course. But a leader for sure.  

In Bible college, I had so much fun. With 700 students on that beautiful campus, I was suddenly part of the largest community of people I’d ever been in. Right away, I was cast in a play, elected to class treasurer, met a nice boy, got a good job with the most revered professor on campus. I had a little hiccup in my sophomore year when I really wanted to switch my minor (we all majored in Bible) to counseling instead of English education, but I ultimately decided it wasn’t practical. I wasn’t going to be working my whole life. I just needed to be able to teach at a Christian school until I had some babies and started my real life at home where I belonged. Of course I was still “spunky” in Bible college. Didn’t I complain loudly about the female English professor who told our class “Girls, you need to accept the fact that if boys decide to, they will always be better than you at anything they attempt.” And didn’t I think Kris B was something for wanting to be the only girl to ever take Greek? But I was also relieved to not have to take the comprehensive oral exam defending the entire gamut of systematic theology with prooftexts because only the boys had to take it. Girls wouldn’t be defending their faith. They would be leading Bible studies and the answers would always be available in the books or from their husbands. They didn’t need to know much. Still, I didn’t want to be just a dumb girl, so I worked hard at my Bible classes and really tried to impress my boyfriend so he would know he had a real partner in his ministry who wouldn’t embarrass him.  

When we got married, we deeply committed to “our ministry.” Our mentors had taught us that we would have to be a team if we were going to make it in this life. I learned all about how to keep a pantry stocked to be able to serve a meal at a moment’s notice, how to host parties, lead Bible studies, and always support my husband. I distinctly remember the part where I was taught that if our children were sick, it was ok to stay home from church with them. But otherwise, obviously, I would be there for everything.  

The hierarchy grew to mean that God and by that, obviously, the church was the most important thing. Then daddy, mommy, babies. The years before Matt was born when I worked so that Robb could attend seminary were hard for me. I wasn’t very good at going to a job on time every day, especially when I felt like I belonged at home, cleaning and cooking. I managed to fix up the parsonage, have church people in every week, and teach Sunday school and play the piano, but I didn’t feel very fulfilled by my job teaching fourth grade at the local Christian school. I felt stupid. And overwhelmed by the cultural differences of New York City compared to life in rural mid America. My fellow teacher asked me to not refer to her as "oriental." I didn't know that was insulting. I was embarrassed. I looked around at the Staten Island mall and was the only “plain white” person there. I suddenly felt like an alien on another planet.  It didn’t feel much better in our second church outside Boston, in a corporate-minded congregation where Robb was the youth pastor. Robb was always at work those two years, meetings almost every night of the week, and yet we were dirt poor and had to live far away from the church because rent was so expensive. I was told that serving the church on their various boards and committees was a conflict of interest, but they also weren’t expecting a two for one deal, so basically, I wasn’t allowed to do anything in that church. But I served the youth group with my husband two nights a week, with baby in tow, or else we would never have seen him.  

The next church was more of the same, at least, I was the same. I was allowed to serve as much and as long as I wanted, in any capacity, as long as I wasn’t compensated or given any title. I was simply, “the pastors wife.” Try to imagine “the insurance salesman’s wife” or “the plumbers wife” or any other partner being expected to show up to work with him, fix up his work place, invite all his clients to dinner, or share holidays with them.  But it was what we had been taught. What we knew. The roles we knew how to play. The lines we had memorized.  

Then we started this church. A heady rush of new possibilities. We started off breaking every rule we could. Rule-breaking was an ethos. “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission” we said. It’s going to be a different kind of church, Robb told me, “So you can be a different kind of pastor’s wife.” I didn’t know what that would mean, but I was certainly open to it. At least I could wear what I wanted to wear. No more keeping 3 small kids quiet during a Sunday evening service. No more uncomfortable Wednesday evening prayer meeting. For a long time, the relief of those burdens was good enough. In my mind, I had all the freedom I needed. I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. The trouble was, I didn’t know how to want anything. 

We attracted people like us. That’s how I know my story resonates. We are a community of people who have given each other space to ask questions. To have doubts. To experiment. To be loved as we are without agenda. To be angry at times and lament the bullshit we were taught that wounded us. We are good guys who believe in equality for women and we are women who know we are free. But, we are also busy people who act out of habit and familiarity as much as we do from purposeful self-awareness. And the amount of time we spent steeped in traditional patriarchal roles and limitations deepens the intensity of the stains on our souls. I have been deconstructing in various ways for more than a decade, but only the last five years have felt like the questions and doubts I was invested in, not just trying to keep pace with Robb. And, I am embarrassed to say that it was only a few months ago, while preaching through the book of Isaiah, that I had a truly transformative realization about hierarchies of gender. I was speaking from the oracle to Tyre and Sidon, the shipping centers of the ancient world, which had become centers of trade. The prophet wails in frustration over the evolution of the people’s values to place money making over all else. He wrote that they had become so consumed with monetary success and security that they had become renown on the earth, but that God was going to humble them because they did not value human life. I went back to listen to this sermon series to refresh my memory because it was while I was preaching - literally while I talking - I realized that God doesn’t need or want, and is not honored by or reflected in hierarchies. It wasn't money-making that made people valuable, but the people were using one another for security and self-absorption. The chapter ends with a jarring song lyric about a forgotten whore, looking for anyone who might have experienced her as memorable in some way. We use one another and forget one another, trying to figure out ways to measure ourselves, prove our worth, our achievements. How else should can we know we deserve love? And all the while, God just loves us.

All my life, until that moment, just a few months ago, I was invested in the idea that God is a god of order and that to have order, we have to have hierarchies … people have to be over other people. It was during that talk, that the whole story of the Bible changed before my very eyes and instead of a story about a God who is arranging people into little roles to play, it was us that came up with hierarchies. It was us that started sorting ourselves into valuable and less valuable, strong and not strong, sissies and heroes, logical and emotional, life-giving and prone to violence. That was never God’s dream for us. We took the curse and made it a prescription.  

And that is why all day, every day we “should” on ourselves, we rank ourselves against who is better than us by whatever we value at that time. I procrastinated on this sermon as long as I could, loathing myself for not knowing more, reading more, being more studious, listening to more podcasts, becoming more expert. Lying awake in the middle of the night more and more I think I shouldn’t be a pastor. It’s a joke to think of myself as someone with anything to offer. You only ordained me to be nice. I am not as good as a man. I don’t have real leadership skills or organization ability. I wish I had fought back. I wish I had taken Greek. I wish I had gone to seminary. I wish I knew what a female pastor looked like. I wish I was an academic, a scholar. I wish I had something else to offer. I want to run away. I want to quit.  

But. I am holding up half the sky with the women of the world. 

I and the other women who have fallen into what my friend Monica calls, “The trance of unworthiness.” We may be asleep to how our voices should be heard by the whole church. But we know suffering. We know service. We know love. We know sacrifice. We know perseverance. We know silence. We know injustice. And … therefore … we know God. We know the God who sees. 

God is not male or female. These gender roles are no good for us. Not for men, not for women, not for non-binary people, who may just be able to show us the way out of this nonsense, and finally, not good for children. And so, as we move forward, we get to decide what to do with the patriarchy. Smash the Patriarchy. Flatten the Patriarchy. Ignore the Patriarchy. Unmask the Patriarchy. Whatever it looks like for you. You fill in the blank. 

To close, on this day of Mothers, I want to quote Mother Theresa, “And so, my prayer for you is that truth will bring prayer in our homes, and from the foot of prayer will be that we believe that in the poor it is Christ. And we will really believe, we will begin to love. And we will love naturally, we will try to do something. First in our own home, next door neighbor in the country we live, in the whole world.”

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