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Playground Theologians

Playground Theologians
On November 13, 2019

Editor's Note: This is one of the Top 15 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!

The sun was high, burning and taunting its victims below. The air was so hot it suffocated each hopeful breath. I grew up in the central California heat and knew this was our way of life. Despite the unsavory conditions, my chance for freedom, for play, for a brief break in a long day in the life of a fourth grader would not be stolen by the relentless sun. As soon as our teacher, Ms. Roberts, dismissed us, one of my best friends, Jamie, and I ran out of the frigid, air-conditioned classroom and into the warm, melting light. We bounded towards a promising patch of grass—a patch with dandelions just waiting for us to turn these weeds into stunning jewelry.

As we worked on making beautiful things for ourselves and our classmates, we chatted about our weekend. We both attended churches from Pentecostal traditions, though with significant differences. Jamie had to wear skirts, and her mom couldn’t wear makeup. At nine years old, I wasn’t sure what makeup had to do with Jesus, but I knew Jamie took the restriction very seriously, so I assumed it must be important (but only to her—I had every intention to wear makeup as soon as my parents allowed it). As I linked the final flower for my bracelet, Jamie’s voice came thundering into my thoughts, “. . . and then the pastor said that women couldn’t be pastors!”

I could feel my throat begin to swell and tighten. As though ripped from a beautiful dream, I looked up from my work, and I was . . . angry. I was angry, but I wasn’t quite sure why. “But . . . but . . . but what about Deborah?” I stuttered out in confused defiance. Jamie wasn’t the only one who paid attention in church. A few weeks prior, in Sunday school, I learned about a courageous judge and leader of the Israelites, Deborah, who charged the army leader, Barak, to put a stop to Israel’s enemies. He agreed to take on the job but requested Deborah go with him into battle. What could be clearer? If women can be used by God, if they can go into battle, if they can be leaders, then of course they could be pastors too, my fourth-grade-self reasoned.

“Who’s Deborah?” she asked and then, without waiting for an answer, replied, “Well, if my pastor said it, it must be true. Women can’t be pastors.”

Hot tears filled my eyes, but I choked them back. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know how to respond. At the time, I didn’t understand my anger or what it meant. More than that, Jamie’s nonchalant resolve baffled me. How could she just accept her pastor’s words and not be worried about what the restriction could mean for her? Why did I worry what it could mean for me? I hadn’t found my voice to advocate for myself yet, but even more important than that, I hadn’t quite heard the one voice that did matter, the one voice that would call me to be a pastor. Even—or especially—at a young age, lies and doubts were being planted. What mattered now was what would be nurtured: lies or truth.

In that moment, and in many others that marked me, both lies and truth were fostered. I devoured stories about women in the Bible, always searching for myself in them. Their strength and diverse roles would embolden me. Discouragement would come, too. I would become utterly heartbroken by a male relative’s declaration that women couldn’t be leaders or pastors because we’re too emotional. Truth and lies fought for a place in my heart and mind.

On the playground, among the unassuming dandelions, I engaged in my first theological inquiry that had deeply personal implications. The journey was not without detours, but eventually, I listened to the One who beckoned me, and I found myself sitting in a classroom at a well-respected seminary. This time, when I heard that women couldn’t be pastors, I was ready. And when I stood up to preach in my first pastoral position as a student ministries pastor, my presence spoke as much as my words. God alone determines who we are and who we are called to become. We just have to respond and move towards what God has for us. Like Deborah, we must take our place on the field.

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