The Rev. Julie Ryan is a friend of our blog, and in dynamic and lyrical form, she returns to our forum during Woman’s History Month to talk a bit about the history of woman and their resilience and fortitude in the church. This reflection, takes it’s cue not only from her Irish heritage, but also current events – pulling in history, story, and wit to give a reminder to everyone that women are a part of the church, are a part of everything and that has never nor never will change. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
Social Location and Invocation
My husband, Mark, and I live in the western suburbs, near the Morton Arboretum, the former estate of the Morton salt family.
March 1, 2017 is both Ash Wednesday and the start of Women’s History Month. This is the season when the Arboretum conducts controlled burns to consume invasive species and dead wood, making room for new growth. Normally it’s too cold for my taste to walk. But this year, because of the record-breaking warmth, I’ve been encountering new sights and smells: great swaths of charred earth. In the woods, a carpet of shining black leaves. Smoke from smoldering logs perfuming the air. A clearer view of the land’s contours with the underbrush gone.
May our prayers rise as incense, and what’s dead and harmful burn away, that new life may spring forth. May our listening and our talking assist in clearer sight and understanding.
On Epiphany 2016 we went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The last couple of minutes of the movie, Rey was traveling to find Luke’s place of exile. An island came into view. “Hey!” I elbowed Mark, with elated recognition: “that’s Skellig Michael!” It’s a holy place created by my people—my ancestors—a thousand years before the Reformation. More on that, below.
“Nevertheless, She Persisted”: Origin of a Meme
Unless you’ve been on Skellig Michael for the last month, you’ve heard that the Senate Judiciary Committee was debating the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. Back in 1986, when Mr. Sessions had been nominated for a federal judgeship, Coretta Scott King had written a letter in opposition, but the letter had never been entered into the congressional record. On February 7, 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren had begun to read Mrs. King’s letter when Senator Mitch McConnell interrupted and silenced her on the grounds of Senate Rule XIX, which forbids the impugning of the conduct or motive of another senator. When his action was challenged, he said…
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Within minutes—literally, overnight—his patronizing words bounced back at him and all over the Internet as an ironic epigram illustrating women who showed courage across the centuries and across the globe (even, the galaxy): Harriet Tubman. Malala Yousafzai. Princess Leia. Countless others who, in Representative John Lewis’ terms, “got into good trouble” by talking when others didn’t want to listen.
It remains a great outpouring of humor and creativity, of mutual support and heart.
From Shock to a Slow Burn
In 2017, Women’s History Month follows the ugliest presidential campaign of my lifetime. People of good will can belong to different political parties and disagree over policy; democracy is strengthened when we can argue well with each other in good faith. But 2016 brought the utter trashing of norms that many have been working on for generations—of civility, decency, and the most basic respect.
After nearly a decade of race-based threats and unprecedented scorn directed at the Obamas, I dreaded a similar or worse degree of malevolence if a woman should run. Even so, the reality shocked me: guffaws over how “second amendment people” might act against her. Crowds incited to chant “lock her up.”
My best friend from college once said her ambition was to be an old lady who can say to young women, “Oh, honey, you don’t know how bad it was.” Does it “get better”? It’s one thing to acknowledge in the abstract that progress zigs and zags—that that bending arc of history isn’t a straight line, but perhaps a series of waves. It’s another thing to trust, and not give in to cynicism, when you’ve just had the wind knocked out of you. To have faith that there can be progress, and women’s rights recognized as human rights. 
It is a time of purposely instigated fear-inducing chaos. In such circumstances, where do we derive the strength and will to persist? When we’re knocked down, how do we retrieve our breath, our spirit? How do we do a slow burn of lovingly-channeled anger that can purify and make room for new life?
Looking at the Deep Contours of our Life and Faith
Part of the chaos is constant distraction from what is essential and true, and disruption from a sense of time and perspective. Looking back upon our lives and our encounters with the holy we can reclaim our orientation. As religious people, our fundamental strength is spiritual. We rediscover it in relationship: “we talk. We listen.” We discover what we hadn’t noticed before as we trust one another with the stories of our journey. Here is part of mine.
My parents each had the same last name, although she was a Catholic Ryan and he was a Protestant Ryan. Some college classmate thought it would be hilarious to introduce them on a blind date. Eventually they eloped, to the consternation of both families. Though everyone’s roots were Irish, the class differences were dizzying.
My parents had three kids, and then, half a generation later, my mother became pregnant with me and my father became fatally ill. He died before I started school.
Our family didn’t go to church. Books, music, and art were vital consolation. Once I read a children’s history of Rome and became enthralled with the vestal virgins: girls doing ceremonies that kept alive the sacred flame of the city. So I played “vestal virgin,” processing up the street, chanting, and waving a windstorm-scattered palm branch twice as tall as I was.
Occasionally my sister would take me to mass. I was fascinated. It was a different world, a feast for the senses. Around the same time that the liturgy was translated into English I took instruction and was baptized. I started going to church on my own. At home we never grieved, but pretended that everything was fine. Church was the one place that spoke of death and resurrection—reality and hope. The language of Scripture was inviting and compelling. It offered a vision of grace, though I couldn’t have called it that at the time.
I bring all this up because it’s so easy to become preoccupied with internal church worries or arguments that we can forget our most profound experiences, or lose touch with the gift we already possess just by being part of the Body of Christ. So we resist chaos and evil by grounding ourselves again in wonder. How do we respond to the mystery that we’re alive at all? To the mystery—for that matter—that we are capable of responding? That within a complex creation we are able to love? This is the sort of treasure that moths and rust can’t consume. Beyond destruction and death it nevertheless persists.
Back to Sceilg Mhichíl (the Gaelic spelling)
Over the last millennium “my people” certainly played their part in dysfunction, especially as targets of British starvation and contempt. But let’s go back 1,500 years, to the Migration Period (AKA the “Barbarian Invasions”) in Western Europe. Only one area was so remote that nobody really bothered with it. Even the ancient Romans hadn’t reached Ireland and Scotland.
Thomas Cahill tells an engaging story of how Christianity first came to Ireland. St. Patrick, taken captive by Irish raiders as a teenager, was a slave for years until he had a vision and escaped. Eventually he returned with the gospel, and fought against the practice of slavery. Generally there was greater equality between the sexes in Celtic lands and churches than in Roman ones. Shared leadership between women and men was lost when the Celtic churches eventually assimilated into conformity with Rome.
Cahill contrasts Augustine of Hippo, surrounded by all hell breaking loose, with the early Irish Christians, who were discovering their first written vernacular and exulting in literature secular and sacred, creating fabulous colorful texts and images like those in the Book of Kells. As libraries throughout the continent were being looted and burned, Irish nuns and monks were copying everything they could get their hands on. Building staircases and beehive shaped cells out of nothing but rock.
Later, Irish missionaries traveled to the continent and shared their faith and learning across lands where so much had been destroyed. Right now, EPA scientists are rushing to create a secure archive of climate data literally “for future reference”—a cyber equivalent of Skellig Michael.
When what we most need is to live to fight another day, persistence entails searching out places of refuge. Skellig Michael reminds us to spell ourselves and one another in the long term struggle for justice so that we don’t burn out. It reminds us to honor overlooked people and places, for they are of immense value. A remote outpost can be a shelter, a center.
Persistent Women in the Gospels
If we look back still further—2,000 years or more—we find enduring refreshment in the word. Any number of persistent women appear in the gospels, from the woman with the flow of blood to the women at the cross and empty tomb.
But two especially stand out. In Matthew 15:21 – 28, the Canaanite woman (parallel Mk 7:24 – 30) starts shouting at Jesus for the sake of her demon-tormented daughter. Jesus is silent. Then the disciples tell him, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting at us.” (She was warned.) He says he’s only sent to Israelites. But she won’t take “no” for an answer. He compares her and her daughter to dogs. (She was given an explanation.) Without missing a beat she counters his ethnic slur with a clever remark about dogs and crumbs. (Nevertheless, she persisted.) And Jesus himself is astonished at her faith, which calls forth her daughter’s healing. Her persistence is rewarded.
In Luke 18:1 – 8, Jesus tells his friends a parable “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” In a certain city a corrupt judge doesn’t care about anybody, even God. A widow keeps coming back to petition him for justice, but he can’t be bothered. Later he decides he might as well grant her request because her persistence is about to wear him out (literally, give him a black eye. We can all but hear his crocodile tears).
A common interpretation tries to relate the widow to us, and the corrupt judge to God. (If even a corrupt judge can be worn down, how much more can God?) The assumption is that God is male. The problems with seeing the judge as God’s counterpart are that it makes God’s help contingent upon how hard we press, and it isn’t consistent with God’s loving character. LSTC adjunct professor Audrey West suggests that we human beings are more like the indifferent judge; the widow in her vulnerable power is more like the infant Jesus in the manger or the crucified Christ on the cross. All she has is her presence and her voice, but her tenacity and success in bringing about justice is divine. (Nevertheless, she persisted.)
The overlooked, underestimated, persistence of God outlasts empires, chaos, cruelty. We are baptized in both water and the Spirit, who kindles in our hearts the fire of love, and keeps the smallest flame going when all else seems lost.
And We Persist
How can we support one another in this surreal era? (Women in ministry would still enjoy a spa.)
In the fall of 1989, The Persistent Voice was a newsletter on a single piece of legal-size goldenrod paper. It was started at Wartburg Seminary by Rhonda Hanisch, a woman graduate awaiting call, to encourage others. Today it contines as a blog, “Addressing with Compassion and Courage Issues of Equality, Power, and Justice Across the Globe”:
The morning after the silencing of Senator Warren, a New York Times article described how women in the White House during the former administration—still a predominantly male environment—used a technique of “amplifying” to make sure that their ideas and voices were heard:
In an environment of deliberate attempts to divide us from one another, how can we stretch to reach out to others who don’t seem to share our presuppositions, and wouldn’t use that word? How might we expand our community and deepen our communion? Our ancestral stories about Jesus show him appealing to the imagination of people from every walk of life, and even allowing himself—as in the story of the Canaanite woman—to be surprised and changed by them.
In Thinking Points, George Lakoff writes of the importance of communicating our values in metaphors and deep frames that can persuade “biconceptual” (or, let’s say, “multiconceptual”) people. The idea is that the majority isn’t an undifferentiated blob of “moderates,” but people capable of holding various positions on different issues.
In They Used to Call Me Snow White…But I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of Humor, Regina Barreca writes that making someone laugh is an act of power. Things happen—tables turn—when women tell jokes (think crumbs for the “dogs”). Humor can shame others or lift them up. We can tell the difference.
“But she persisted” transformed an act of mansplaining into a joke. It didn’t harm the mansplainer, but of course paid him the sincerest possible flattery by quoting his very words. Creatively. Everywhere, and forever and ever. May we persist likewise—and “nevertheless”!
Julie Eileen Ryan is one of the rare Irish Lutherans. In 2017 she looks forward to celebrating her 30th anniversary of ordination, and working on a Reformation 500th anniversary-related “vocation” oral history project at St. Luke’s on Belmont. She is married to Mark Van Scharrel. She is making friends with her backbone, and waiting to see what comes next.
The next day, male senators read from the same letter without interruption. It’s the double standard that’s galling.
 Just search “nevertheless, she persisted” and scads of images appear.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women’s_rights_are_human_rights First articulated by the abolitionist/suffragist Grimké sisters in the 1830s, then echoed on a worldwide stage in 1995 by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Invention of Wings (Sue Monk Kidd, 2014), is a novel that unfolds over 35 years in the intertwined lives and voices of Sarah and Hetty (“Handful”) Grimké, the enslaved child given as an eleventh birthday present to Sarah.
 It didn’t occur to me to light a fire….
 How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill (Anchor Doubleday, 1995). Mostly true. Thoroughly fun.
 Ibid. See especially pages 109 – 115.
 Ibid. See especially 172 – 179, 200 – 204
 Woman with the flow of blood: Mk 5:25 – 34 and parallels. Women at cross and empty tomb: Mt 27:55 – 61, 28:1 – 10. Mk 15:40 – 16:8. Lk 23:49 – 24:11. Jn 19:25b – 27, 20:1 – 2, 11 – 18.
 Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
 Viking, 1991.