In Focus: Birthing the Word

SARA: Jerusha, I’m so pleased to have the opportunity to sit down and speak with you about your life and your work and your faith. I want to begin by asking you a little about your background. You talked in the conference about being a woman who births the word, that is, a woman who preaches and who writes. Could you tell us about your journey toward becoming a pastor, a woman who preaches?

JERUSHA: I’ve always loved writing. In college I was interested in teaching in a secular university because I thought we needed more Christian folk there — it was a good thing to do. But I wasn’t sure I was ready to dive into the whole PhD thing yet. I decided to go to seminary first, get my languages out of the way, and after a year, apply to a secular religious studies program. That first summer, everyone in seminary had to do a preaching internship, and the very first time that I preached, it was like a match being lit. I knew that was what I was born to do.

And then I had all kinds of difficult decisions to make. I was what they called at seminary, “denominationally challenged.” I didn’t have a long-standing tradition behind me, and I had to figure out how I was going to do this. I ended up in the American Baptist Church, and as my ordination process was proceeding, managed to fall in love with a man who was United Methodist. He was placed by his bishop in southern California which is the one area in the country where it is really hard for American Baptist women to find work in the pulpit. So I found myself in a time of transition, wondering why God had placed this burning desire to preach inside of me and then led me to marry this guy and live in a place where these two callings were in conflict.

It’s been wonderful how God has opened the doors. I’ve just been really thankful. But it took trust and it took me being willing to take risks to believe that God could make this work and that God would be faithful to both of these calls on my life.

About three years ago, I was going through a dry period in my ministry. My husband and I had been co-pastoring at a United Methodist church in San Diego. Through some journaling, I felt God drawing me back to the old love I had had for the theater. In high school, I was very involved in drama and speech, but I was always a little bit wary of it. It seemed like something that wasn’t really a good thing for a good Christian girl to be interested in because it was too much about the spotlight and the stage and the applause. It seemed dangerous. So I steered away from it and become a preacher instead! Ha. Just as dangerous — if not more!

God knew that there were still pieces of my gifts, and parts of myself, that I was marginalizing and cutting off. I was demeaning these gifts in a way that God had never intended. And God said, “Look, you want to be the pastor I called you to be, you want to be the preacher I called you to be, I want you to go back and love that part that I made and reclaim it and let me sanctify it. Let me worry about what needs to be fixed in you, about all that stuff you’re so worried about.”

I can’t tell you how scary this was for me. You wouldn’t think it would be that frightening, but for me as a pastor to admit to my people that I was going to do some little play somewhere felt like this huge betrayal of the calling that I had with them. Yet it was really clear in my heart and in God’s word to me that the two were related. God gave me the words “courage and authenticity” as goals for the next chapter of my life. I needed courage and authenticity in my ministry, and the theater was going to help me get there. And that’s born out over the last three years. It has also born an interest in me in the overlap between the arts and preaching — theater and preaching.

SARA: You just started to touch on this, but can you say a little bit more about what you feel the relationship is between preaching, that is, getting behind the pulpit, and getting on stage and doing drama? I should mention that for this conference you have written three monologues based on Mary.

 

JERUSHA: We have this faith where at the very center is the Word becoming flesh -— this moment in the annunciation where God says to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will overshadow you.” Part of the Holy Spirit’s work, I think, is the embodiment of the Word. And very often people experience this in worship or in the preached moment when they actually put the Word into practice or they feel it in their bodies, when they lift their hands or just do something physically in response to the Word. There is often a door that opens to the Holy Spirit in that moment. I’ve felt this in preaching and I’ve wondered the extent to which it could work with theater.

I think the tension between the two is that good theater intentionally leaves ambiguity and questions. There are things that the audience is left to wrestle with. So often, preachers, because we feel pastorally for our people, want to tie up those loose ends. There are times when we are honest enough in the pulpit to say, “I don’t know,” and sometimes those are our best sermons, but all too often we see these people so hungry for simple food, and we want to give them simple food. So my challenge in writing pieces that work as theatre, but can also be used in a worship context is thinking about the ways in which ambiguity can be used, honed, balanced, with the clarity that comes, and the insight that comes, from truth. And on the other hand, allowing my sermon to allow more space for people to take their questions and their decisions about meaning to God. These kinds of theatrical sermons have required that I let go of a certain amount of control as a preacher. I have needed to surrender to the Spirit more deeply, and trust that God will do the work that God desires. That God can, in fact, do more with these words because of my surrender than God could if I was simply trying to convince the congregation to think as I think. It is a kind of death-to-self, a vulnerability, as a preacher, and for me, it has been a healthy lesson I have taken from my dramatic work.

SARA: I can see from the three plays and listening to the sermon you gave, you really do embody that aspect of Christ in speaking and in bringing the Word to the audience. I wondered if you can talk about one or two of the symbols you used in these plays and how you use symbolism as a tool for reaching an audience.

JERUSHA: The Scripture itself is so layered with symbolism. It’s just everywhere. I think one of the struggles I’ve had as a preacher is the loss of biblical memory in the people I’m preaching to. They can’t always go with me and jump with me and know all of the implications when I talk about water or rocks or oil or any of those wonderful images that come up in the biblical text. So in some ways it’s just re-teaching congregations to listen to sermons and to read Scripture in the same way they know how to experience movies. It’s not that they’ve lost the ability to read metaphor. They just aren’t bringing those skills to the Scripture.

I think these pieces bring that kind of layered symbolism to the audience and ask them to think on several levels at once. The primary themes in these pieces were around the person of Mary. Since this was a conference specifically for women scholars, what I wanted to do was bless women in the professions by re-imagining Mary, understanding Mary’s relationship with words and embodied truth. I wanted them to have a sense of the weight, the import, the beauty of the work they do on a daily basis and that it is a grand calling. One of the things I began with was a recurring image from medieval paintings where Mary is often pictured as reading a book or spinning thread, one or the other. Threads, ribbons and books began showing up in my creative writing. And soon these symbols were interacting. I found myself exploring the interplay between the written word and the spoken word, voice and sound and the vibration of sound and the threads that lie at the heart of matter. All of that began to come into play. The pieces became about Christian vocation: finally finding our voice, birthing the word in a text, in scholarship, but also birthing a word in our conversations and our speech about our identity and calling.

SARA: You mentioned during the Day Ahead that you have a “devotional writing practice.” What does that mean?

JERUSHA: One of the really important devotional tools for me is journaling. For a long time my journaling was simply prayers to God. But I found that those would often get short and dry and not go to the places I needed them to go to. Partly because I was writing them in the way I would write a letter, I would self-censor them and all of that. I decided that instead, I would just do some journaling that was more free-form. Interestingly, it almost always got me back in conversation with God, but I would go lots of other places first. I would try to write a certain number of pages every morning, even if it was gobbledy-gook, I would just write it. What it did was help me get in touch with my feelings so that when I brought it to God, there was something real to talk about. That’s how these pieces began. Often in that kind of brain-storming, pictures and images and moments would come and I would write the moments down and ideas would just sort of ripple out from there. The second piece about the woman in the pulpit -— the moment that came to me first was when she found the pulpit at the yard sale. The second moment that came to me was when she was hit by the bird. And that’s all I had for a really long time.

SARA: Can you explain that? Hit by the bird?

JERUSHA: (laughing) Yes, the bird! So, the second piece is about a woman in the deep south who has had this call to preach, but is from a tradition where this is impossible. It’s not even in the realm of possibility for her. She struggled with this call that sort of burned inside her for a long time. She found an old pulpit, an old podium actually, at a garage sale which she has hidden in the garage, and she sneaks down to it in the night to preach. She tells about the moment of her calling when she was out at the quarry swimming hole with her brothers, and as she was swinging out over the water this bird flew from her left and hit her cheek. She describes what it felt like on her lips and on her chin and, because she knows her Bible, this triggers Isaiah in the temple and Jesus and the dove and she feels, at that moment, God makes her mouth holy. She has been carrying this call ever since and has not had a place, a space in the world, to birth it. And that’s what this second piece is about.

SARA: What do you feel the relationship is between being a woman and creativity? What might you say to other women who might have something to birth?

JERUSHA: I think this connection with creation and creativity is something that is part of the human experience, the character of God imprinted on us. But one thing that I think women “get” because of our bodies, because of our bodily experience, is things like cycles, the bearing, the carrying. Even with women who aren’t mothers, there is the sense of holding something in the body. I think creativity takes that kind of effort to make happen. I think it takes that kind of attention. I can’t speak for every woman’s experience in this, but I know my experience of being pregnant affected everything about me. It affected my hair, it affected my fingernails, it affected everything, and I think there is something about the callings that God gives us that is like that too. Perhaps men have this experience, as well. One of the biblical passages that informed my second monologue is a passage from Jeremiah where Jeremiah talks about experiencing God’s call and the frustrating resistance to that call by the world. He describes what it feels like to carry that call in his body, in his bones, his stomach, his back. All of these visceral images. So men know this as well, but women understand it deeply, and we don’t run from it. We know we have to go through it to move forward. That, I believe, is one of our creative giftings.

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