Shawna Atteberry

Writer, Teacher, Baker

The Feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard_von_BingenToday is the feast day of one of my personal patron saints: St. Hildgard of Bingen. I first met Hildegard in college when I discovered her and a host of other medieval women theologians who were ignored in academia because they were nuns and mystics and not teachers and theologians like the big-named men were. Matthew Fox correctly observed that if Hildegard had been a man she would be famous and everyone would know who she was just as everyone knows who Thomas Aquinas is. I had been hoping to write my own reflection on Hildegard, but between The Novel and classwork, that is not going to happen. But that is OK because the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church (my presiding bishop) Katharine Jefferts Schori has written an incredible sermon on Hildegard:

Hildegard lived from 1098 to 1179, in what is now Germany. When she was a small child, her parents sent her to be educated in the Benedictine convent, and she stayed and joined the order when she was 15. If she had lived a few centuries later, we would call her a Renaissance woman. Matthew Fox noted that if she had been a man, Hildegard would be one of the most famous figures in history. She was a mystic, poet, theologian, prophet, preacher, scientist, physician, composer, dramatist, abbess, ecclesiastical politician, as well as correspondent and advisor to popes, archbishops, and royalty.

Hildegard helped to expand the church’s vision – as a theologian, woman, mystic, scientist and healer. She reminds us that we may see God intimately in the myriad and seemingly mundane works of creation – the heavens, clouds, and the signs of abundant greenness that surround us. She and her spiritual siblings remind us that God is never bound up in traditional images or names, and that God is known as mother as much as father. Perhaps most importantly, Hildegard and other mystics open a window into the blazing fire of creativity at the heart of God. Their experience is never the fuel of private contemplation, but rather it is given for love of all God’s body, for all seekers of the sacred, and for right relationship among the parts of creation – that each might show forth the goodness of its own creation. Those visions propel their seers into the world with creative wonder, joy, and divine possibility.

You can read Expanding Apostolic Imagination here.

Let us pray: “Creator God, your whole creation, in all its varied and related parts, shows forth your verdant and life-giving power: Grant that we your people, illumined by the visions recorded by your servant Hildegard, may know, and make known, the joy and jubilation of being part of this cycle of creation, and may manifest your glory in all virtuous and godly living; through Jesus Christ whom you sent, and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen” (Forward Day by Day).

Sermon: Not Taking No for an Answer (Part 2)

I preached on the story of Jesus and the Canaanite Woman twice this summer. Once for a conference and the second time at my church. With the two different audiences I needed two different applications. Here is how I took the same Scripture passages and interpretations, but came up with two different applications specific to each audience.

This sermon was preached at my home church, Chicago Grace Episcopal Church on August 17, 2014.

Not Taking No for an Answer

Matthew 15:21-28 (Mark 7:24-30)
Year A, Proper 15 (Year B, Proper 18)

Jesus left that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman came out. “Have mercy on me, Lord, son of Bathsheba and David!” she cried. “My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon!”

But he didn’t say a thing.

His disciples came and begged him. “Send her away,” they said, “because she bothers us.”

He answered, “I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of Israel.”

But she approached and bowed to him. “Lord, help me,” she said.

“It is not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs,” he answered.

“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Then Jesus answered, “Woman, your trust is great! What you want will be done for you.” Her daughter Was healed that very hour (Matthew 15:21-28, New Testament: Divine Feminine Version).

4.2.7We read about two women in the Gospels who talked back to Jesus: Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, and the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician Woman in this passage. That these two women stood up to Jesus and talked back to him is usually explained away, if it’s even acknowledged. In one scene, Martha was tired from cooking; in the other, her brother had just died: of course she’s snippy, and Jesus is patient. In this scene, the Gentile woman knows that Jesus is just teasing her, and she plays along. Martha and this woman’s backbones are covered up, their nerve shoved into a corner. Neither of these women thought silence and submission was the way to go.

We have two very different stories about this women in the Gospels. We heard Matthew’s version, now let’s look at Mark’s:

Jesus left that place and went to the region of Tyre. He went into a house and didn’t want anyone to know it, but he couldn’t escape notice. A woman whose little daughter had a corrupting spirit heard about him and immediately came and fell down at his feet. She was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. Jesus said to her, “Let the children eat first, because it’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.”

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

He said, “For saying that, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.”

She went home and found the child lying on the bed. The demon was gone (Mark 7:24-30, NT: DFV).

What is the biggest difference you see between these two accounts? Matthew adds the disciples. They don’t appear in Mark’s account. After seeing the way Jesus comes off in Mark’s account of this story it’s not hard to see why Matthew added the disciples and made them the bad guys. After all when you trying to convince a Gentile audience that Jesus in the Savior of the world, it doesn’t look good for that Savior to ignore a Gentile in such great need.

In Mark’s account Jesus had been healing and teaching. He fed the multitude of 5,000. He had been debating (fighting) with the religious leaders. He came to a totally pagan, Gentile area to get away from everything. He was here for a break. He was not here to teach, to heal, or to fight. No one knew him here. He could sneak in, get some rest, and sneak out again. Or so he thought. Since Jesus was trying to stay incognito, we don’t know how the woman knew he was in the neighborhood. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone else’s business, so my guess is she heard it through the local grapevine. She found out a great healer was in town, and she decided to act. She went to the house where Jesus was keeping a low profile, and there she fell at his feet begging him to heal her daughter, who was demon-possessed.

Based on everything we’ve previously read about Jesus in the Mark, we expect Jesus to act immediately. We expect him to get up and go with this woman to her daughter, like he did with Jairus in the previous chapter. We also know from chapter 5 Jesus had no qualms about healing Gentiles in Gentile territory: he healed the Gentile demoniac in the country of the Gerasenes. His first healing in Mark was healing a man with leprosy by touching him. But what we expect does not happen in this story.

Instead he told the woman, “It’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” At this point (if we are honest with ourselves) our jaws drop, and we wonder “What happened to Jesus?”

A dog. Jesus called her a dog, a term of derision for Gentiles. But this woman is quick-witted, and she’s not going to take no for an answer. She let the insult slide over her with this incisive retort: “Yes, but even the dogs get to lick up the crumbs on the floor.”

Because this woman did not take no for an answer, because this woman did not submit–even to the Son of God–because she stood her ground, Jesus changed his mind. He had not come here to heal. He didn’t want to heal this woman’s daughter. But in the end he did heal the daughter. He did because of the woman’s retort. This woman’s daughter was healed because she talked back to Jesus, and didn’t assume her place was one of quiet submission. She didn’t take no for an answer, not even from the Son of God himself.

In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus is passive, but he’s not the only one who is telling her no. The disciples—the representatives of the church are. And thanks to a man I met a few years ago who grew up in the Middle East, we have a different way to interpret this passage where Jesus uses the woman to help teach his disciples, his church, a few lessons.

Reverend Nadim Nassar, an Anglican priest, grew up in Syria and went to school in Lebanon. He now lives in London. There is a very cultural thing he grew up with that explains perfectly what is going on in Matthew if we know Middle Eastern culture. In the Middle East when the eldest son marries, he still lives at home with his parents, and his wife comes to live with the family. This is because as the main heir, the eldest son is expected to take care of his parents in their old age.

When the mother-in-law doesn’t like something the daughter-in-law is doing, or doesn’t think the daughter-in-law is treating her with enough respect, the mother-in-law does not tell the daughter-in-law. She complains about it to a neighbor in the daughter’s-in-law hearing.

“Miriam, do you know how my daughter-in-law treats me? I tell her every night, dry the dishes with a towel, don’t air dry them! But does she listen to me?”

“Abraham, have I told you how my daughter-in-law doesn’t respect me? I told her to water the garden this morning. Bah! Just look at my poor tomatoes withering away in this harsh sunlight!”

You get the idea. Now take this idea and apply it to the story. Jesus is the mother-in-law. The disciples are the daughters-in-law. The Canaanite woman is the neighbor. So what does that mean Jesus is doing in this story? In Mark’s story Jesus is the one who’s being exclusive, showing the members of Mark’s community that even Jesus was corrected when he thought the gospel was just for the Jews. In Matthew, the disciples want Jesus to send the woman away, and he takes a minute to teach the disciples (Matthew’s community) the gospel was not just for the Jews.

Jesus: “Look at my daughters-in-law thinking God is just for them. You called me ‘Son of Bathsheba and David.’ You know I can’t take the kids’ food and feed it to the dogs who come wandering in.”

Woman: “Oh you poor thing. Such disrespect. But you know even the dogs get the crumbs the children leave behind.”

Even in this context I think the woman surprises Jesus with her retort. Jesus: “Woman you have great faith. Go. Your daughter is healed.”

(Exegesis and interpretation is taken from my book What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up and Sit Down, ch. 3.)

I like this interpretation because it uses women’s roles and experiences to interpret Scripture. How often does that happen? Even about women in the Scripture? I always wondered what Matthew’s female listeners felt when they realized their life experiences were being used to proclaim the gospel.

But in the end two things remain constant in these two stories: Exclusivity is the first. Jesus, the disciples, and people in Matthew and Mark’s communities thought that God’s grace was limited, that it wasn’t for everyone. The other constant in this story is this woman telling Jesus, the disciples, and the Christian community NO—grace is always inclusive, and God’s healing power is for everyone. This woman does not take no for an answer when that no marginalizes her and limits God’s grace. In Mark she doesn’t take no for an answer from Jesus. In Matthew she doesn’t take no for an answer from the church. We have a lot to learn from this woman and her spiritual children.

Sometimes those who see where the church is failing in loving inclusively are those who are outside our doors. Those we fail to love. And my challenge to us is this: that we listen to them. That we listen to the children of this brave Canaanite woman who looked the Son of God in the eye then looked at the church standing behind him and said, “No, you will not exclude me and my daughter from God’s love and grace.”

It’s a hard thing to do. To listen to where we are failing our neighbors, confess, repent, and then do what must be done to love our neighbors—all of our neighbors—as ourselves. But Jesus did it. He realized he was wrong. In the end he listened to this woman, and he healed her daughter. This woman taught Jesus that salvation was not for the Jews alone.

I have a hard challenge for us. The next time we hear someone outside of our faith criticize the church, we listen. We don’t jump to defend our beliefs. We don’t start formulating responses while they are still talking. But we listen. And we ask ourselves: is what they are saying true? Are we failing in this area to show God’s inclusive love just at The Canaanite Woman showed Jesus were he was failing to show God’s inclusive love? Is the person complaining her spiritual child calling us to a deeper understanding of God’s mercy and grace? I don’t know how the conversation will go from there, but it can’t help but go in a better direction when we can honestly tell someone you’re right: we’ve screwed up there. How can we do better? Then listen to the answer.

And if you have one of these conversations, please tell the rest of us about it. Bring it back to the church, so that we, as the body of Christ in the South Loop of Chicago, can learn to be more loving, more grace-filled, more merciful, just like our Mother in heaven.

Sermon: Not Taking No For an Answer (Part 1)

I preached on the story of Jesus and the Canaanite Woman twice this summer. Once for a conference and the second time at my church. With the two different audiences I needed two different applications. Here is how I took the same Scripture passages and interpretations, but came up with two different applications specific to each audience.

This sermon was preached at the Christian Feminism Today’s biannual conference The Gathering 2014 on June 29, 2014.

Not Taking No for an Answer
Matthew 15:21-28 (Mark 7:24-30)
Year A, Proper 15 (Year B, Proper 18)

Jesus left that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman came out. “Have mercy on me, Lord, son of Bathsheba and David!” she cried. “My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon!”

But he didn’t say a thing.

His disciples came and begged him. “Send her away,” they said, “because she bothers us.”

He answered, “I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of Israel.”

But she approached and bowed to him. “Lord, help me,” she said.

“It is not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs,” he answered.

“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Then Jesus answered, “Woman, your trust is great! What you want will be done for you.” Her daughter Was healed that very hour (Matthew 15:21-28, New Testament: Divine Feminine Version).

4.2.7We read about two women in the Gospels who talked back to Jesus: Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, and the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician Woman in this passage. That these two women stood up to Jesus and talked back to him is usually explained away, if it’s even acknowledged. In one scene, Martha was tired from cooking; in the other, her brother had just died: of course she’s snippy, and Jesus is patient. In this scene, the Gentile woman knows that Jesus is just teasing her, and she plays along. Martha and this woman’s backbones are covered up, their nerve shoved into a corner. Neither of these women thought silence and submission was the way to go.

We have two very different stories about this women in the Gospels. We heard Matthew’s version, now let’s look at Mark’s:

Jesus left that place and went to the region of Tyre. He went into a house and didn’t want anyone to know it, but he couldn’t escape notice. A woman whose little daughter had a corrupting spirit heard about him and immediately came and fell down at his feet. She was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. Jesus said to her, “Let the children eat first, because it’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.”

“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

He said, “For saying that, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.”

She went home and found the child lying on the bed. The demon was gone (Mark 7:24-30, NT: DFV).

What is the biggest difference you see between these two accounts? Matthew adds the disciples. They don’t appear in Mark’s account. After seeing the way Jesus comes off in Mark’s account of this story it’s not hard to see why Matthew added the disciples and made them the bad guys. After all when you trying to convince a Gentile audience that Jesus in the Savior of the world, it doesn’t look good for that Savior to ignore a Gentile in such great need.

In Mark’s account Jesus had been healing and teaching. He fed the multitude of 5,000. He had been debating (fighting) with the religious leaders. He came to a totally pagan, Gentile area to get away from everything. He was here for a break. He was not here to teach, to heal, or to fight. No one knew him here. He could sneak in, get some rest, and sneak out again. Or so he thought. Since Jesus was trying to stay incognito, we don’t know how the woman knew he was in the neighborhood. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone else’s business, so my guess is she heard it through the local grapevine. She found out a great healer was in town, and she decided to act. She went to the house where Jesus was keeping a low profile, and there she fell at his feet begging him to heal her daughter, who was demon-possessed.

Based on everything we’ve previously read about Jesus in the Mark, we expect Jesus to act immediately. We expect him to get up and go with this woman to her daughter, like he did with Jairus in the previous chapter. We also know from chapter 5 Jesus had no qualms about healing Gentiles in Gentile territory: he healed the Gentile demoniac in the country of the Gerasenes. His first healing in Mark was healing a man with leprosy by touching him. But what we expect does not happen in this story.

Instead he told the woman, “It’s not right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” At this point (if we are honest with ourselves) our jaws drop, and we wonder “What happened to Jesus?”

A dog. Jesus called her a dog, a term of derision for Gentiles. But this woman is quick-witted, and she’s not going to take no for an answer. She let the insult slide over her with this incisive retort: “Yes, but even the dogs get to lick up the crumbs on the floor.”

Because this woman did not take no for an answer, because this woman did not submit–even to the Son of God–because she stood her ground, Jesus changed his mind. He had not come here to heal. He didn’t want to heal this woman’s daughter. But in the end he did heal the daughter. He did because of the woman’s retort. This woman’s daughter was healed because she talked back to Jesus, and didn’t assume her place was one of quiet submission. She didn’t take no for an answer, not even from the Son of God himself.

In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus is passive, but he’s not the only one who is telling her no. The disciples—the representatives of the church are. And thanks to a man I met a few years ago who grew up in the Middle East, we have a different way to interpret this passage where Jesus uses the woman to help teach his disciples, his church, a few lessons.

Reverend Nadim Nassar, an Anglican priest, grew up in Syria and went to school in Lebanon. He now lives in London. There is a very cultural thing he grew up with that explains perfectly what is going on in Matthew if we know Middle Eastern culture. In the Middle East when the eldest son marries, he still lives at home with his parents, and his wife comes to live with the family. This is because as the main heir, the eldest son is expected to take care of his parents in their old age.

When the mother-in-law doesn’t like something the daughter-in-law is doing, or doesn’t think the daughter-in-law is treating her with enough respect, the mother-in-law does not tell the daughter-in-law. She complains about it to a neighbor in the daughter’s-in-law hearing.

“Miriam, do you know how my daughter-in-law treats me? I tell her every night, dry the dishes with a towel, don’t air dry them! But does she listen to me?”

“Abraham, have I told you how my daughter-in-law doesn’t respect me? I told her to water the garden this morning. Bah! Just look at my poor tomatoes withering away in this harsh sunlight!”

You get the idea. Now take this idea and apply it to the story. Jesus is the mother-in-law. The disciples are the daughters-in-law. The Canaanite woman is the neighbor. So what does that mean Jesus is doing in this story? In Mark’s story Jesus is the one who’s being exclusive, showing the members of Mark’s community that even Jesus was corrected when he thought the gospel was just for the Jews. In Matthew, the disciples want Jesus to send the woman away, and he takes a minute to teach the disciples (Matthew’s community) the gospel was not just for the Jews.

Jesus: “Look at my daughters-in-law thinking God is just for them. You called me ‘Son of Bathsheba and David.’ You know I can’t take the kids’ food and feed it to the dogs who come wandering in.”

Woman: “Oh you poor thing. Such disrespect. But you know even the dogs get the crumbs the children leave behind.”

Even in this context I think the woman surprises Jesus with her retort. Jesus: “Woman you have great faith. Go. Your daughter is healed.”

(Exegesis and interpretation is taken from my book What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up and Sit Down, ch. 3.)

I like this interpretation because it uses women’s roles and experiences to interpret Scripture. How often does that happen? Even about women in the Scripture? I always wondered what Matthew’s female listeners felt when they realized their life experiences were being used to proclaim the gospel.

But in the end two things remain constant in these two stories: Exclusivity is the first. Jesus, the disciples, and people in Matthew and Mark’s communities thought that God’s grace was limited, that it wasn’t for everyone. The other constant in this story is this woman telling Jesus, the disciples, and the Christian community NO—grace is always inclusive, and God’s healing power is for everyone. This woman does not take no for an answer when that no marginalizes her and limits God’s grace. In Mark she doesn’t take no for an answer from Jesus. In Matthew she doesn’t take no for an answer from the church. My sisters in Christ, we have a lot to learn from this woman.

Intelligent daughters of God. Strong daughters of God. Inspired daughters of God. How often do you take no for an answer?

Loving daughters of God? Presevering daughters of God? Gifted daughters of God. How often do you take no for an answer?

Can I make a confession? I take no for an answer far too often. In my ministry. In my writing. In my life. After all we have been brainwashed into believing that’s what, we as women, should do. Basically anything beyond marriage and children: we are told no. And all too often we accept that answer and adjust our lives accordingly.

I’m ashamed to say I do this everyday.

Yes, we have a lot to learn from our Canaanite sister. We have a lot to learn from this incredible spiritual foremother who stood her ground, looked the son of God in the eye, looked at the church standing behind him, and said, “No” back.

“No. I am not a dog.”

“No, I am not worthless because I’m a Gentile.”

“No, you cannot ignore me because I’m a woman.”

“No, you will not walk away. You will heal my daughter.”

No.

There are two things we as women are taught about the word no. The first is we should take it as an answer. The second is that we should never say it. It’s amazing how one little two letter word can rob us of our agency. Our autonomy. Our sovereignty.

My challenge for us as we leave this holy place and journey back to our daily lives is that we will take the Canaanite Woman with us, and we will let her teach us two very important lessons: How not to take no for an answer. And how to say no in response to those who would limit us.

Where do you need to stop taking no for an answer? Where do you need to start saying no to those who would limit your choices? Your career? Who you are?

As we get ready to return to our normal, everyday lives, I challenge us, yes me included—I challenge us to let this incredible woman walk with us and teach us how to stand up for ourselves and stand up to those who would limit us. I pray she will teach every, single one of us how to stop taking no for an answer.

My Guest Appearance on Talk Gnosis

Earlier this month I was a guest on the vlog Talk Gnosis with my good friend Bishop Lainie Petersen (Independent Gnostic Church). We talked about why women are leaving churches and other organized religion for groups like the Gnostics as well as Pagan and Wiccan spirituality.

 

We followed that up in the one hour After Dark Podcast you can find here.

What about you?

Are you still in church? Or have you found another home for your spirituality where you don’t feel like a second-class citizen at best and a glorified slave at worse?

Pentecost: Blowing Where She Wills

Pentecost over Nature by Farid De La Ossa

This sermon was originally published on June 1, 2009.

She has been here from the beginning, stirring, creating, bringing form to chaos, and life to dust. In the beginning she brooded over the watery chaos waiting for God to give the word. In the fire, thunder, and smoke of Sinai she guarded the holiness of God and showed that approaching this god should not be taken lightly. When Elijah looked for God in fire, earthquake, and a storm, she came in sheer silence to show that she didn’t always appear with the flash and panache that human beings expect.

She gave birth to the church and is the One who gives us our unity, giftings, and words. But we don’t talk about her that much. In fact, the Church has never talked about the Holy Spirit much at all. She gets brushed to the side. She’s the runt of the Trinity no one wants to claim. And there’s a reason for this. The Holy Spirit scares us. We can’t control her. We can’t put restraints on her. We have our nice neat boxes for the other two members of the Trinity. God the Father and Mother is categorized with all of the attributes of God and put in the appropriate box. God the Son is neatly categorized by word and deed and placed in his box. For centuries theologians, scholars, teachers, and preachers have tried to do the same thing with the Spirit. But how do you put wind into a box?

(more…)

My response to Pope Francis published at The NotMom Blog

Pope FrancisMy response as a childfree pastor to Pope Francis’ ridiculous claim that Jesus doesn’t like it when couples choose not to have children has been posted at The NotMom website: “Woe to Those Who Are Pregnant”: A Christian, Childfree Pastor’s Response to Pope Francis. Here’s a teaser:

When he was prophesying the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, Jesus warned:

“Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:23-24)

Jesus did not see the time he lived in to be a good time to have children and raise families. He also did not think that the biological family should come before the family of God he created where children came into the family because they do the will of God, not the will of a parent (or the will of a Pope).

What did you think of the Pope’s claim that Jesus doesn’t like couples who choose not to have children?

Come see me at the Printers Row Book Fair this Saturday!

Photo from www.planet99.com

Photo from www.planet99.com

 

I will be selling and signing books at the Printers Row Book Fair this Saturday, January 7, 2:00-6:00 p.m. at the Chicago Writers Association Tent. The CWA tent will be set up in front of the Transportation Building between Polk and Harrison. Stop by and say hi!

"Family Redefined" published in Gather Magazine

My article “Family Redefined” was published in the June edition of Gather, a monthly magazine for women in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. In it I talk about my decision not to have children, my trepidation over coming out of the childfree closet, and why I think the church’s definition of family is too narrow and small. The article is available in the print edition. Please buy the magazine and support your ECLA sisters.

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New article published in Gather Magazine

My article “Family Redefined” has been published in the June edition of Gather, a monthly magazine for ELCA women. In it I talk about my decision not to have children, the trepidation I had about coming out of the childfree closet, and why I think the church’s definition of family is far too narrow and small. The article is only in the print magazine. I hope you don’t have trepidation about buying the magazine. It is a well done and thought out magazine (with excellent Bible studies), and they are very generous with writers, so support your Evangelical Lutheran sisters with a subscription.

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Women's History Month: Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale

Today is the feast day of Florence Nightingale. This was originally posted in March 2012 for Women’s History Month.

I often say that Brigid of Kildare was my first patron saint, and she is because I chose her as my patron saint after I knew what they were as an adult. But as a child I chose another woman. I would have never called her a patron saint: the religious environment I grew up in didn’t have those. But looking back now I realize that Florence Nightingale was my first patron saint. I found a biography of her in the school library when I was in grade school. I’m not sure how old I was. I think third or fourth grade. I fell in love with her. She immediately became a twin spirit. I read everything my public school library had then went to the public library. I was dismayed that most of the biographies there were for adults, and I tried to read them, but they were over my head.

Florence was a fighter. She didn’t settle for the life everyone else wanted her to have. She heard God’s voice, and she knew God had a calling on her life, but she had to wait many years to realize that calling (so did I). I admired the way she made her own decisions and her bravery in going to be a nurse during the Crimean War. I drug out our huge Atlas to find out where Crimea was then I had to find a history book to know why there was a war there. I read in awe of how she invented modern nursing and treated the soldiers as men and human beings and not “the hopeless brutes. You cannot expect anything from them” that one of the officers told her (James Kiefer). Realizing the men spent their pay on alcohol because there was nothing else for them to buy, she set up a writing room for them where they could write their families and send money home. The authorities at the hospital wouldn’t let her do it, so she appealed to Queen Victoria and got her writing room. British soldiers “sent home 71,000 pounds sterling in less than six months” (Kiefer).

Conditions in hospitals at the time were appalling, with sheets not being changed nor bandages being washed and used again. Florence earned the doctor’s trust and instituted new sanitation guidelines with regular changing of sheets, using new bandages, and making sure blanket’s were not rotting away in a storehouse when they were needed in the hospital. She also started sanitizing the equipment needed for operations and procedures.

When I was eight or nine years old, I wanted to be Florence Nightingale. I started checking out books on being a nurse. Not long into that reading spree my mother gently told me, “Shawna, you can’t stand the sight of blood, and nurses see a lot of blood everyday. I’m not sure nursing is right for you.” (She was right: to this day when I have a blood draw, I have to look away. No way I would’ve made it through nursing school). I was devastated. But like the typical eight or nine year old, I quickly found something else I wanted to be.

I hadn’t thought about Florence for years then I picked up Edith Deen’s Great Women of the Christian Faith, and there in its pages, I once again found my childhood heroine. And I found out my path had actually run pretty close to Florence’s. At the time I was in college preparing to be a pastor: a doctor of souls. A lot of the reasons Florence felt called to be a nurse, I felt called to be a pastor. I found out we were both 17 when we were called into Godde’s service, and that neither one of us was sure what that meant. I assumed I’d be a missionary because in the Southern Baptist Church that was the only ministry that was open to me as a woman.

Edith Deen writes:

Like Joan of Arc, she heard a voice outside herself when she was seventeen. She was sure that God had called her to His service, and she was filled with confidence and faith, relates Cecil Woodham-Smith, in her biography entitled Florence Nightingale. Florence felt that God spoke to her directly four times after this, and she gave the exact dates later in her life. By the time she was twenty-four, she knew that her destiny was to serve the sick and dying (p. 214).

Godde also spoke to me after the initial calling and my calling blossomed into pastoring, preaching, writing, and speaking. Florence’s call was to care for and heal bodies. My call is to take care and heal souls. Both our calls grew and changed over the years. Florence started out in hospitals in the poorer districts of London then she went on to Kaiserwerth Germany to study with the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses, who ran a hospital. After that she volunteered to nurse in the Crimean War.

In Crimea Florence’s work did not end with her shift. Her stamina was incredible, and she was known to be on her feet twenty hours a day.

The London Times reported: “When all the medical officers have retired for the night and silence and darkness have settled down upon those miles of of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds” (Deen, 217).

The Lady with the Lamp was her affectionate nickname from the soldiers who watched for her light and some would even kiss her shadow as she passed.

She was forced to return to England after she came down with hospital fever. She served in Crimea for two years. After her return to England she revolutionized the nursing profession with her Notes on Nursing, which became a classic guide. She was given 250,000 pounds, which she used to “found the Nightingale Home for Nurses at St. Thomas’s Hospital” (Deen, 217).

I’ve watched my own call grow and develop over the years taking me places I never thought I’d go either. I will never have the influence of Florence or make any groundbreaking work and revolutionize a vocation the way she did. But my sister still holds her light and beckons me on. And I still follow.

May 18 is Florence Nightingale’s feast day in The Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion. Here is the prayer for that day.

Life-giving God, who alone have power over life and death, over health and sickness: Give power, wisdom, and gentleness to those who follow the example of your servant Florence Nightingale, that they, bearing with them your Presence, may not only heal but pain and fear; through Jesus Christ, the healer of body and of soul, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sources:

Great Women of the Christian Faith by Edith Deen, (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour and Company, Inc. 1959).

“Florence Nightingale: Nurse, Renewer of Society” by James Kiefer.