If You Try to Stick Your Hand Up My Skirt, I’m Going to Get Baptized
I’ve been thinking a lot about power lately.
Actually, I’ve been thinking about power for years, because I think it’s so central to our spiritual path.
Power is the number one addiction of our unredeemed egos, and as such it has enormous potential for danger and abuse.
But lately I’ve been starting to wonder if it has a good side as well.
As I look back over just the last two weeks in my own life, I see a lot of instances of men, women, and power, and how the three forces interact for better or for worse. And as I make these observations, I’ve started to question some of my beliefs about power.
I have long believed that Jesus teaches downward mobility.
“Blessed are the poor,” Jesus says. “Blessed are the meek, those who mourn, the peacemakers…he who would be greatest among you must be the servant of all.”
I still believe that.
Many of the most formative theologians in my life have also taught about giving up control and power—St. Francis, John of the Cross, Gerald May, Richard Rohr. I find their teachings incredibly important.
There is still a lot I can learn about giving up power, because I know that my basest desires and fears can and will drive me to exert it destructively if I don’t submit myself humbly to the work of God in my soul.
But here’s what else I’ve finally noticed: all of these theologians who teach about giving up power are men.
And many of Jesus’ teachings in the gospel—while certainly applying to men and women alike—were originally directed, in the moment, to men.
Presumably the crowds he preached to had both men and women, but many of his most pithy and pointed teachings about giving up power were directed to the disciples and the scribes and Pharisees, all men.
Almost all of Jesus’ most intimate, one-on-one interactions with women were either 1. healings, or 2. telling them to take up power.
Think of the woman at the well—he named her sexual agency and empowered her to become an evangelist.
Consider the hemorrhaging woman or the widow of Nain or Mary Magdalene—he brought them healing and resurrection.
The woman who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair—he defended her actions and said her story would be forever remembered and told, imbuing this unnamed woman with the power to change lives and perspectives.
He defended Mary of Bethany’s power to make her own choices about how to spend her time.
And of course, the women were the first to witness the Risen Christ on Easter Day, and they were told to speak the truth to the men, to the world.
I’m wondering if it’s possible that Jesus has different messages about power for men and women, in the gospels, and today.
I met with my spiritual direction partner, Jan, on Friday, and we talked about power. I told her my fears of it are at war with a sense of call to step into new territory in ministry.
And she said something that stopped me in my tracks.
She said, “Whitney, if we don’t take up the power God has placed within us, we are spurning a gift. And if we don’t take up good power, we will be all the more tempted to take up bad power, to dominate and destroy.”
I’m thinking back over the exercise of power in my life and the lives of women around me over the past few weeks and realizing how it is present in almost every interaction.
What I didn’t realize in my fear is how often it is present for good, and how if I listen, there is a deep and abiding call to join the Holy Spirit in the power of joy and love, transformation and gratitude.
I was blessed to lead a clergy retreat in the Diocese of Michigan last week, and this was very new territory for me.
I had to get up in front of my peers and claim the fact that I had something to offer them. This was terrifying.
But the Thursday before in my swing dancing class, the teachers were offering us feedback on our dancing as individuals—what we’re known for as dancers. It was designed to help us build on the positive and also know what we need to work on.
And one of the pieces of feedback I received was that I need to take up more space on the dance floor. That resonated deeply within me, and I vowed to go to Michigan and teach and take up space on the floor.
And I did. And it gave me such joy. I knew I was in the center of my call, doing what God had asked of me and bringing value to the people placed in my care.
It was brilliant. I took up power, and it did not hurt people—it helped them.
But positive power is always mingled with negative power.
This week at our own clergy conference, I sat with two women who sought me out to talk about our common experience of another colleague.
I had worked with him some years back and they wanted to know if I experienced him as they did—sabotaging, preaching self-care and then punishing anyone who practiced it, taking credit for their work, making impossible demands, leaving them to cover for him, then cancelling and ruining everything they had done in his absence.
They wanted to know they weren’t crazy—that it really was as bad as they thought. I told them it was. We needed each other to validate our experience—we didn’t trust ourselves alone.
Then I sat with three other clergy women and we talked about salary negotiations and how to own our authority in leadership.
We also talked trash and drank bourbon and laughed until we cried until 1:30 a.m. (Well, they drank bourbon, I had a dixie cup with a bit of wine because I can’t hold my liquor to save my life.)
It was a beautiful circle of women strengthening each other to stand up bravely and use their voices in ministry—taking up power.
I had women come through my office this week telling me how empowered they felt hearing me preach last week on “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, She maketh me to lie down in green pastures, She leadeth me beside the still waters.”
And I had two different women this week tell me how their marriages were falling apart because they’d found out their husbands were cheating them out of money, and they felt trapped and betrayed and had no escape financially or emotionally.
I had one male colleague tell me I didn’t know the power I had and encouraging me to take it up, and another male colleague joke in front of others that I must be leaving church early to go home and watch soaps.
And as I ruminated on all of these observations about power, a line from our story in Acts pierced me to the heart: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
I realized that for most women, the answer to that question is: a lot.
Almost everything, it sometimes seems.
Women are constantly stifling their own voices and desires and calls, or having them disparaged and dismissed by men.
While there are many wonderful men dedicated to partnering with women in the living of life and the work of God, unfortunately there are many more who see us as tools as best and obstacles at worst, as threats to their power or bodies to be used for their gratification.
The “Incel” movement (misogynists who identify as “involuntary celibates” because women will not give them sex) that has recently been in the news is all too sad proof of that.
This all came to head for me on Friday night, when I went to a swing dance at Fountain Square in Indianapolis.
This is the regular bi-monthly dance that usually has a crowd of 300-400 people.
And one of the things I love about swing dancing is that it’s not like going to a bar, where men are always up in your business. In the lindy hop community, 99% of the men are lovely people—respectful dance partners who are there to have a good time and make friends.
But on Friday night, I got one of the bad apples.
A man asked me to dance, and then asked me my name. I told him it was Whitney, and he said, “Well, I’m just going to call you sweetheart.”
It went downhill from there. He stared at my chest, told me he was leaving at 11:30 and would sure love to take me with him. He gave himself compliments in a way designed to force me to agree with him.
I got an extremely creepy vibe from him and left the floor feeling completely unsettled.
This would have been bad enough, but several songs later, he took me out on the floor again.
He didn’t ask for a dance, he just dragged me onto the floor.
And what I can’t believe is that I didn’t say no.
I could have politely said, “Thank you, but I’m going to sit this one out.”
But I didn’t. And I paid the price.
Halfway through the dance he stuck his hand up my skirt.
I feel like I can still feel his fingers crawling up my thigh, two days later.
He said that maybe next time he should wear a skirt so his legs and ass would be as free to the breeze as mine were.
And still I didn’t walk away.
My body kept moving through the steps but I felt frozen inside. I finished the godforsaken dance and then stumbled off the floor.
I didn’t say anything to anyone but my body language must have been screaming my distress because three friends immediately converged on me and asked what was wrong.
I told them what had happened and then, after sharing that I was not the first woman to make complaints about him, one of the leaders of our club threw him out of the dance.
He told me afterward that the perpetrator had said as he was being asked to leave, “What is wrong with all these women?” And that tells you all you need to know about his attitude.
I felt powerless to say no to what was happening to me on that dance floor, and that terrifies me.
I am so conditioned to acquiesce to a man’s desires and his use of my body, so conditioned to believe that making waves and making a fuss is an unforgivable sin, that I not only accepted a second dance with a man who made me deeply uncomfortable, but I finished a dance with a man who assaulted me.
That is insane.
And that tells me at the most visceral level that my friend Jan’s statement is true: Unless I, we, take up holy and life-giving power, exploitative and unholy power will rule the day.
I noticed one more thing about all the experiences of positive power in the last few weeks: they were all communal.
When I went to Michigan, I had friends at home upholding me in prayer, and new friends I was meeting in this clergy cohort willing to join me in a scriptural journey of discovery.
The clergywomen I sat with at our own conference were able to name both our grief and anger and our joy and possibility by coming together and calling out each other’s voices.
And when I felt at my lowest and most isolated, shamed and frightened, my dance friends surrounded me with solidarity and support, and together we expelled a predator from our midst, preventing him from victimizing anyone else.
Good and godly power is never wielded in a self-contained vacuum of ego-driven lust and satisfaction.
Power in the service of Spirit always comes through the gathered Body of Christ, discerning, living, and acting together in love.
So the question from Acts remains: What is to prevent me from being baptized?
Only my own hesitation and fears. I am clearly being asked to step into new space and new life in a lot of different ways right now.
I need to die to my old self and be raised up to be a new creation in Christ Jesus—and that is baptism.
I need to take up power to defend the innocent, to call out exploitation, to raise up others’ voices, to speak my own truth, to serve the people of God in new and brave ways.
That’s how Jesus wielded power.
And I can only do that in partnership and trust with others.
Baptism is always and only a communal event.
So as you think about power, about abuse and joy, about domination and transformation, ask yourself: what is to prevent me from being baptized?
“Look, here is water!” the Ethiopian says in our text.
“Look, here is power!” he might as well have said. “Look, here is love! Look, here is faith! Look, here is community!”
Jesus gave us the power to bind and to loose, and said not even the gates of Hades could stand against Spirit-guided community.
I think I’m finally starting to believe him.
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