Like many people, I frequently idealize my childhood. It was all long, tangled blond hair and lemonade stands. It was moving to another state, another church, every three years. It was reading books for hours, then immersing myself in the woods and in the meadows. My sisters and I explored whatever terrain we had with gusto: riding the neighbors’ horses bareback, building tree forts, screaming songs into the wind just because we could.
I grew up a shy, but confident girl. I was smart, unforgiving, and desperate to please God. I declared to my parents at age six that I wanted to be a part-time missionary/full-time sarcastic comedienne to Madagascar. When they laughed, I was hurt. I was deadly serious, until I was 12 and found out that Madagascar had been colonized and populated by rich Westerners, at which point I lost interest.
It wasn’t until I went to Bible college that I found out that there was something wrong with me, something subpar. It happened in certain classes where the troubling scriptures began to be pointed out, the ones by Paul and Peter, the ones that talk about women needing to be quiet, to be covered up. I began to hear and see the trickle-down economics of this theology: the lack of women pastors, the suspicion regarding emotions and feelings, the hyper-masculinization of the church (every man was a courageous “warrior,” while every woman a vulnerable “princess”). At first I was bewildered, and then, unhinged.
I had never doubted God’s love for me, not even for a second. And now I had to come to grips with the fact that he thought me a second-class citizen—and that he had created it this way. It made my whole world list to the side like a sinking ship, made my missionary dreams taste like ashes in my mouth. How could I ever speak to others of salvation or liberation when my own church was like a version of Animal Farm, with the men writing on the barn walls that some were created more equal than others?
It took years, but when the fog cleared, I was still me. I still wanted to be a missionary, I still cracked more sarcastic jokes than were strictly necessary. But I broke up with all the mean theologians, the ones I hated but kept running back to for more approval. I even took a break from St. Paul himself, and immersed myself instead in the lifeline that is the Gospels. In those books I drank in Jesus, who hung out with so many women, and children, and the poor. Who loved them, walked among them, promised them that his new world would come through them.
And you know what? The world has, and still is. My mother, who is someone I can only describe as having an unquenchable thirst for God, raised me and my sisters on a steady diet of missionary biographies. The vast majority of them were about women: how they left all that they knew and any hope of a future to go and preach the good news. They were the original abolitionists, whistleblowers, labor representatives, feminists. They went to be Jesus, to the people that Jesus always went to: the ones that the powerful wanted nothing to do with. When I was young I read about strong women, wearing tight buns and buttoned-up clothing, raising hell in India, China, and Russia. I view it now as a rich legacy of service born out of racist and sexist theology: missions were one of the few places a woman could be in a place of leadership. And so the female preachers, teachers, and evangelists left the West, forsaking families and cultures that had no place for their gifts. And they brought liberation with them, wherever they went.
Those stories are bound up inside of me, and they have turned out to be more powerful than the messages of fear, shame, and subservience that I have heard more recently. While the powerful men sit around a table and argue a few Scriptures, the rest of the world moves on. The strong, spectacular heroes of my childhood dismissed them with a wave of their hands and set off on slow boats to glory, responding instead to the thousands of verses, which talk about love and justice and mercy. I am made out of the same, no-nonsense stock as these women. Like my friend Sarah Bessey says, I am done fighting for a seat at the table. There is no space for me. Plus, there is hell to be raised.
This is where I have found liberation. The larger culture would have me shape my life based on my sexuality (too one-note for my taste) or my consumer choices (the dullest story ever told). I reject these contexts in favor of the chance to be the image of the invisible God. To hold babies and stroke their foreheads, to patiently go over short vowels sounds until your jaw hurts, to grip the passenger side door while your neighbor learns to drive. To go where Jesus went when he was here: the poor, the oppressed, the children, the women. To make them my neighbors, friends, and true equals.
Jesus talked about us needing to be like children in order to enter into his new world, a place where power and possessions hold no sway. I think of my childhood, full of small pleasures and blessed assurances and sunburned noses, when I wasn’t tainted by the hierarchy of the world. I think of my own small daughter, blond hair wildly sticking up, chin pointed high in defiance, eyes so sure that the world is mostly wonderful. And this is what propels me, makes me carry my physical self, flawed and unique and female, into the places where the kingdom of God still needs to come. And while the church still argues about who can and can’t bring it, it is already coming. I have seen it with my eyes. I have tried in my own poor way to tell you all this time: it is already here.