Moments of Grace on the Mountain by Pam Durso

Earlier this summer I decided that I would get more exercise. If I am honest, I must confess that I have limited athletic ability and that commitments to exercise for me generally have a short shelf life. Walking on a treadmill–going nowhere–is painfully dull to me. Exercise classes are a little too much shared time with sweaty strangers for me. And while I love yoga, I have a short attention span, and I find my mind wandering during different poses and sometimes I forget to move into next pose.

As I was trying to think of what I could do that would be challenging yet fun, I decided that I would start climbing Stone Mountain a couple times a week. I live about a twenty-five minute drive from Stone Mountain Park, and inside the park is a “granite” mountain that is at its peak an elevation of almost 1,700 feet. You can climb the west side of the mountain. The 1.3 mile trail is made up of rocks and gravel, and at points you step from rock to rock. But right near the top is a section in which a handrail was installed because of the steepness of the climb. Once you reach the top, the view is spectacular. You can even see downtown Atlanta. And the cool breeze at the top of the mountain is amazing.

The best part for me about climbing Stone Mountain this summer has been that most times I haven’t had to do it alone! I have “talked” friends and family into going with me. My daughter, Alex, has agreed to get up really early and go (and she is NOT a morning person). My friend, Devita, has climbed a few times with me, and my friend, Gwen, and her daughter, Robin, have been climbing partners.

I have become pretty good at climbing the mountain. I can now make it to the top and only have to stop once–after the handrail section–to catch my breath. Coming down the mountain, however, is still tricky for me. The walk down really is much easier than the climb up and takes half the time, but I have always had this unexplainable fear of walking down steep steps. Standing at the top of a high staircase makes me nervous. I always, always hold on to handrails while walking down any stairs that have more than three steps.

Last summer I climbed up Diamond Head in Honolulu, Hawaii, not knowing that there are several sections of stairs, including one that has 99 steep steps. I made it up to the top of Diamond Head just fine, but once I was at the top, I begin to worry about walking down all those steps. I had a moment of panic, thinking about how embarrassed I would be if we had to call for a helicopter rescue.  And I kind of forgot to tell my friend, Suzanah, about my going-down-steep-stairs fear until we were at the top–luckily she is the forgiving type, and she patiently walked slowly down with me–as I clung to the handrail and took really deep breaths. And I made it down!

So climbing Stone Mountain–the going up part is really enjoyable for me, but walking down that steep incline near the top of the mountain causes me some uncomfortable moments. Alex knows me well–and she walks patiently with me on those steep parts and sometimes holds my hand. The first time I climbed the mountain with Gwen I confessed to her my fear, and we joked about her having to hold my hand on the walk down. But I made it that on that first trip down the mountain with her without hesitation.

But last week when we climbed, I did have a moment of hesitation, and Gwen reached over and without a word took my hand. And she held my hand through the steepest part of the walk down. After a few minutes, she smiled at me and let go of my hand. We kept walking side-by-side. Her care for me . . . her holding my hand–I had no words to describe how loved I felt in that moment. I still don’t have words, but I am so, so grateful for my friend, Gwen.

Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry and lives not too far away from Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary in History and Legend by Regina D. Sullivan

“It is a small thing to be judged of a man’s judgement.  It is good to know that we are judged by God.”

As I began my graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I stumbled across the quotation above and, when I did, it gave me pause.  The open defiance of authority expressed was notable in the writing of a female missionary, certainly.  But this was not any missionary.  This was Lottie Moon, the Southern Baptist icon and namesake of the annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, promoted vigorously each year to supply funds for the denomination’s mission efforts.  The woman I remembered from a childhood spent in Southern Baptist churches seemed at odds with this intriguing quotation so I began to focus my research on Moon.  Who was this woman who supposedly starved herself to death out of devotion to the Chinese and mission cause?  As I delved into the sources I discovered that the one-dimensional character I was familiar with from my youth deserved a more complex and comprehensive treatment of her life and work than had been created by denominational publications.

In my recently published study of Moon, I have stripped away the layers of misinformation that had built up since her death in 1912.  As I looked closely at the primary sources, I found a woman whose life and work offers a view of nineteenth-century womanhood that corrects an understanding of them as passive and resigned to a domestic fate.  Moon’s decision to go abroad as a pioneering single woman missionary was notable, to be sure.  But her decision to advocate for the formation of the Woman’s Missionary Union and to argue for equal treatment of male and female missionaries moves her into the realm of activist and advocate.  Only by removing the artifice of legend was I able to reveal the story of Moon’s unusual upbringing in Albemarle County, Virginia, her willingness to challenge gender norms and to support female organization.

Yet to consider Moon’s biography alone would provide only part of her powerful story.  The legend of Moon’s death from starvation on the mission field has played a central role in how she has been remembered, especially since the myth of her Christ-like sacrifice is essential to Southern Baptist mission fundraising.  Through painstaking research I was able to locate the origins of this mythology and explain how it formed and bloomed into legend.  Moon did not starve herself to death nor did she give all of her money away to famine relief, as has been popularized in denominational publications since the early twentieth century.  It is, indeed, ironic that Moon’s active life, her call for female equality and her support for female organization have been overlooked in favor of the starvation myth.  Instead of being remembered for her forceful public call for female equality in mission work, Moon is made a self-sacrificing martyr each Christmas as the story of her death is retold to publicize the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.  I invite you to a new consideration of the missionary in Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary in History and Legend.

Regina D. Sullivan holds advanced degrees in religion and history from Yale Divinity School and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She teaches U.S. and global history in New York City. Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary in History and Legend is 264 pages and is available from Louisiana State University Press.

Knit One . . . Preach Too by Nikki Finkelstein-Blair

Through all the seminary lectures I soaked in, all the feminist-language celebrations of worship I’ve planned and participated in, all the arguments (I mean, respectful discussions) I’ve undertaken about the role of women in the church . . . through all those things, I’ve been sitting on a messy little secret.

I like crafts.

I consider myself a feminist; I’m an ordained woman, a writer, a preacher, a communion celebrant… and I’m a knitter, a quilter, and a scrapbooker. I feel called to put words to paper, to stand at a pulpit, to offer blessing and service, and I feel called to have busy hands, paint-y hands, ink-and-glue-y hands.

In seminary I clung to the image of God as Create-or, and turned again and again to Exodus 31:1-3, in which God calls Bezalel of the tribe of Judah specifically to do handiwork for the building and outfitting of the temple: “I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in every kind of craft. . . ” But was there room in that calling for scraps of paper and ribbon, for the hum of a sewing machine, for rows of evenly knitted stitches?

Then recently I had an epiphany, thanks not to a volume of heady theology but to a knitting book. Author and designer Debbie Stoller wrote about her own grappling with being a feminist knitter, taking to task the typical feminist standpoint that tends to laud the participation of women in traditionally male activities while denigrating the traditionally female. She writes, “All those people who looked down on knitting—and housework and housewives—were not being feminist at all. In fact, they were being anti-feminist, since they seemed to think that only those things that men did, or had done, were worthwhile. Why couldn’t we all—women and men alike—take the same kind of pride in the work our mothers had always done as we did in the work of our fathers?”

When I read Stoller’s words, I realized I’d been doing it myself: feeling accomplishment and pride in the roles women have increasingly taken in Baptist life and in the church, while at the same time harboring a sense of embarrassment that I just plain like to sew, knit, scrap, paint . . . craft. I’ve even heard myself do it when I meet someone new; I speak with passion and pride about ministry, about preaching and writing, and then I lower my voice and confide with a bit of “aw shucks” self-mockery about my enjoyment of yarn and fabric and pretty papers.

Debbie Stoller’s thoughts also reminded me of my experience at the Baptist Women in Ministry retreat in Nashville about ten years ago, at which the current mission statement was built. We spent a long time discussing how that statement should and could incorporate two realities: one, that BWIM specifically supported women called to vocational, ordained ministries, and two, that BWIM also wanted to stand for women in all their roles within the church—from cookie-baking to baby-rocking to Sunday-School-teaching to preaching. We felt the same tension that Stoller discusses between a feminism that says “women can do the jobs men have always done” and a feminism that says “the jobs women have always done are valued just as highly as those of men.”

We are called to “partnership with God” as creative beings, to reach our hands out to all the earth even as God does—shaping it like clay, painting it with color, blessing it with benedictions, offering it holy nourishment. And we bring all our “gifts and graces” to the divine workshop—whether we are at the table breaking bread, or in the kitchen baking it; whether we are placing liturgical stoles around our necks for worship, or painstakingly stitching bright thread into cloth; whether we are knitting together the lives of people into a congregation, or strands of wool into warmth for winter. We are called, heart and head and even paint-y, glue-y hands, to serve.

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is an ordained Baptist minister, at-home mom, and military spouse living in San Antonio, Texas. She blogs at www.onefaithfulstep.blogspot.com, and enjoys crafting with her two sons, who are anxious to learn to knit.

No Obstacles by Roger Paynter

One morning last week I had coffee with a young Ph.D. student in our congregation. She is brilliant, an honors graduate from UMass. I have known her for years because she was a member of Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, when I was pastor there. I baptized her. She is now a member at my church, First Baptist, Austin, Texas.

This young woman has seen Barbara Oliver serve as our associate pastor. She has heard me and then Chuck Poole speak for women’s clergy roles. She has watched as Courtney Allen went off to attend Wake Forest University Divinity School. She has been influenced by the current women clergy at Northminster.

During our conversation, she told me that she will be applying to Duke and Wake Forest in order to go to seminary. And then she said something that jumped out at me. In an off-handed way, she said, “I’ve never known any obstacles to pursuing ministry as a woman.”

I said, “Say that again.” “Why?” “Because I’m not sure you understand what a beautiful statement you just made, and I want you to own this deep in your spirit.” She repeated it and said, “I’m not sure I understand.” “That’s okay, ”  I replied, “but the power for me is that we have reached a new level when the next generation finds the pathway much more open.”

We are part of something that is alive, something moving that will not be stopped.

Roger Paynter is pastor of First Baptist Church, Austin, Texas.

Laughing with Friends by Pam Durso

Working for Baptist Women in Ministry has opened doors for me to wonderful new friendships, including a friendship with Susan Sparks. Susan is the pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York. I have “known” Susan now for a couple years, but I met her “live and in person” for the first time in Tampa at our BWIM gathering. She was the speaker for our lunch.

Susan is not only a pastor, she is a standup comedian. So we invited her to share some of her story–and to make us laugh. But if I am really honest with you, I must confess that I kind of dreaded meeting her . . . I was a bit worried that after waiting so long to actually meet her that I might not like her as much as I was thinking I would. Well, let me assure you that I was NOT disappointed. Susan “in person” is even more amazing than Susan “via email” or  Susan “on facebook.” She is warm and friendly, kind and gracious–as well as brilliant and funny. Our lunch crowd fell in love with her, and I did too.

And lots of folks at the lunch went home with a signed copy of Susan’s book, Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor. If you haven’t read it, the theme that runs through the book is that humor and healing are connected. Susan’s writes, ” Humor offers a revolutionary, yet simple, spiritual paradigm: If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. And if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others.” And she is so right!

If you want to know more about Susan, visit her website–it has lots of photos of cool cowboy boots! Or read the ABP article written about her by Norm Jameson. Or go to New York, visit her church, hear her preach. I bet she would greet you with a big hug and a smile . . . because that is indeed, who she is!

Pam Durso is the executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Emily Holladay, Baptist superstar and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship photographer).

At the Table by Pam Durso

I will always remember the look on her face. She was holding a loaf of bread, smiling at her grandfather, and I heard her softly say, “This is the body of Christ, broken for you.”

That memory is one I will always carry with me from our 2011 Baptist Women in Ministry worship service. The young teenager was Steve Graham’s granddaughter, and she had come with him to our worship service. Little did they know that our communion that day would involve receiving and serving with each person participating as both the recipient and as the server. Steve’s granddaughter stepped out into the aisle ahead of him, and she moved into the line, receiving the bread from the person in front of her and then dipping her bread into the cup. She then took the loaf of bread and offered it to her grandfather, and I sat on the front row, watching her face.

I wish I had a picture of her sweet smile and of that moving moment, but even without a picture, I will not forget. That image is one I will keep with me.

Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia. (Photos courtesy of Norman Jameson of Associated Baptist Press and Emily Holladay with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship).

Wholeness is Difficult by Pam Durso

Nearly two weeks I sat at the Baptist Women in Ministry annual worship service on June 22 at Bayshore Baptist Church in Tampa, Florida, and heard Veronice Miles preach.  Her words have stayed with me . . . her words were ones of challenge and a call to those present to experience reconciliation and find wholeness. Those words of challenge flowed out of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.

I wish you all could have been there and heard Veronice speak these words:

Wholeness is difficult . . .

when we hold secrets too dangerous to tell . . .

life stories too painful to remember . . .

Scars etched so deeply upon our hearts

that it seems they will never heal.

Wholeness is difficult

when devaluation shrouds our existence:

be a woman, they tell us . . . but not too womanish . . .

be intelligent . . . but hide your competence . . .

be spiritual . . . but not prophetic . . .

be strong . . . but not the leader . . .

stand in the midst . . . but do not speak.

But Veronice did not leave us with just these difficult truths, she pointed us to the Living Water that only Jesus brings. Her sermon gave us these words of hope:

Living Water which source is God . . .

potent enough to mends our brokenness

and sustain us in our times of loss and grief,

So that our lives might flourish

and testify to God’s presence in our world today.

I am thankful for the encouragement and the challenge from Veronice, and I am thankful that she gives her life to teaching students at Wake Forest University Divinity School.

Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Emily Holladay and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship).