Editor’s Note: This is a Top 15 CBE Writing Contest winner. Enjoy!
My sister, Becky, was seven years older than me, and trying to prove myself as smart and beautiful as she was would capture my attention well into my twenties. Becky was a wonderful older sister. She invited me to travel Europe with her as a high school graduation gift. We were both musicians and spent my senior year producing a recording we named “Homegrown.” We loaded up our backpacks with the cassette recordings and sang and played our way through Europe, performing in subway stations, town centers, coffee houses, and churches. I grew to admire Becky more as I observed the loving and sincere way she shared her faith; I wanted to be like her. Becky was my teacher, mentor, counselor, and guide.
Becky studied theology at Wheaton College, then went on to study at Regent College in Vancouver for a master’s degree in both religious education and theology. I remember our family visiting her at Regent, having tea with J. I. Packer and meeting Dr. James Houston, her revered thesis advisor. She pointed out one man in the student commons area who seemed rather nerdy from my teenage perspective. She whispered, “Sarah, you see that man over there. He’s writing a paraphrase of the New Testament.” (It was Eugene Peterson!)
Several years after Becky graduated from graduate school, my parents broke the news to me that Becky had left the church and dove headlong into the New Age movement. This revelation started many prayer chains, letters, and phone calls to Becky, trying to help her find her way back to the church. Once almost all interaction with our parents centered on her return to the faith, Becky distanced herself from the family. But I remember that her break from the church was confusing to me. What do you do when the person you most admire and want to be like is suddenly a different person?
I remember being on a family vacation in my twenties and fasting for a whole week, begging God to save my sister. On the fifth day, I heard an audible voice (the only time this has ever happened to me), saying, “Love never fails.” It was then that I began loving my sister in a new way. I intentionally remembered her birthday and sent her a card so that it would arrive just in time for her special day. I called her for no particular reason other than to tell her that I loved her. I saved money to travel to Washington state to visit with her. God had impressed on my heart that all I had to do was love—not judge, convince, nor debate, which would have been futile as she was so much more knowledgeable about Scripture than I was.
Gradually, Becky began sharing her story with me, understanding that I was concerned and confused, wondering how someone who had been a spiritual role model for me was now rejecting all she had stood for. I learned that Becky had been employed as an assistant pastor, along with several other male ministers. Becky shared that she was consistently overlooked when preaching opportunities became available. When her male counterparts struggled to come up with and organize their messages, Becky would help. She shared one instance where she had pretty much written the entire sermon for a colleague. The preaching had gone over well, and he was highly congratulated by staff and congregation. The young man never mentioned that Becky had been the giver of the Lord’s message. She shared with me that she just grew weary. She remembered being given a vision of a tapestry over the exit at the back of the church, which she believed was drawing her to greater light. She left through those doors and never returned.
Over the years that followed, Becky asked that all praying for her cease. She wrote to the family requesting to be removed from church prayer chains and the like. She said it created bad energy when people were trying to pray her back into submission to men. I asked her if I could pray to learn how to love her well, and she agreed.
Twelve years ago, I entered a graduate program in counseling at Houston Graduate School of Theology. It was there that I observed firsthand women highly gifted in preaching and teaching, and I had to come to terms with what complementarian theology had taught me. I could not deny the gifting of these women: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt. 7:16, NIV). I started searching for more information about women in ministry and was led by professors to CBE International. I read all the books the library had to offer on the subject of women in ministry, wrote many papers on the egalitarian marriage model, and began my counseling specialization in family violence and sexual assault, where I was directly dealing with the trickledown effects of patriarchy and spiritual abuse. As I journeyed out of patriarchy into freedom, I shared my journey with my sister. I remember sharing what I was learning about egalitarianism with Becky, and she responded, “You’ve found what I was looking for, the epistemology I was longing for. You’ve found a safe space!” She was so happy for me, and I was so sad for her.
Becky passed away seven years ago from a rare form of uterine cancer that ravaged her body so fiercely I thought I myself would die just from watching her. When she was already weak and short of breath, she told me, “Sarah, you can pray for me . . . I trust you to pray for me.” I don’t think I have ever felt more honored in my life. I felt the meaning behind those words: “I believe there’s a God, I want his help, and I trust you to ask him well for the help I need. You are safe.” This is all she longed for, safety with God’s people.
I wish Becky had found, in this world, a place at the table where her gifts were embraced and nourished. I wish she had found CBE and known the freedom I’m experiencing within my community and in my own home. I can imagine how attending one of our Houston CBE chapter meetings would have impacted Becky. She would have been warmly welcomed and would have entered into a lively theological discussion on one of those passages so often used to oppress women. She would have sat at the large round table where we share a delicious meal and been treasured by men and women who value God’s gifting to men and women alike.
My story is proof that our work is important. Let’s continue to learn to love well and provide those places at the table in the body of Christ!