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Heather Parkinson-Webb is a chaplain and director of spiritual care for skilled nursing in Greenwich, Connecticut. She holds an MDiv from Princeton Seminary, an MA in counseling from Colorado Christian University, and a DMin from San Francisco Theological Seminary. Webb is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America.
Counseling has taught me, again and again, the truth that our stories reveal our soul's substance or character. How we live, the choices we make, and the events that happen to us shape and mold who we are becoming.
What I call our substance is the weight of who we are, being aware of our God-given value. Whether we feel substantial as women is connected to believing we have words to speak that will matter to others. We have a voice worth hearing. Unfortunately, many women do not believe in the force and weight of their own words; they have felt silenced or stifled.
As well, we are women of healing as we come to appreciate God's gift of a soul. We find an increasing sense of purpose and meaning in God's call, not only as we listen to the stories our lives are telling but also as we offer what God has given to us for he sake of others.
The secular world describes substance as self-esteem, self-awareness, or even self-actualization. Perhaps a word that is more comfortable for people of faith is self-worth. If you believe that you are created by a loving God who fashioned you in God's own image, then you must have worth. No matter who you are. Self-worth is a way of sayingyour life matters. Your existence is significant on a larger plane than what you see. There is some reason that you have been asked to show up on earth today, and there is some part for you to play. Your part has eternal consequences.
Every so often, we get glimpses of the transcendent story, but only enough to sustain us. We don't get the full story yet. This can be frustrating or it can be freeing. It can free us when we realize that our hope and desire for more is itself a sign that there is more, perhaps not more that we will see or know next week, month, or year, but there is something beyond the seen and the tangible.
This drama invites us to look more deeply at who we are and what we have to contribute. Actors spend years training to access deeper parts of themselves to be credible and powerful when playing different roles: They take a journey within to offer something outside themselves to others. Each of us is invited to do likewise.
How Our Stories Shape Us
When we take a journey within, we discover many different facets of who we are. We will find aspects that we wish weren't there. We will recognize that there are stories we have long buried in an effort to escape them. But we will also discover aspects of who we are that are lovely, good, pure, noble, even beautiful. These have often been buried as well.
Our stories add to he substance of who we are and give us meaning. After all, it is difficult to disappear when you remember all the stories of your past and present. They reconnect us to the characters of our past (and present), as well as to our Creator. The writers of he Old Testament heed he call to remember who God is, who his people are, and how God has intervened on their behalf. The feasts and sacrifices were centered around recalling stories of God's redemptive work for his people. The exodus was a crucial story calling all Jews to remember God's provision, deliverance, and protection. The sacrifices reminded Israel of her impurities and need for purification before a holy and just God. Prophets were forever reminding Israel of her first love, nagging them to recall their forgotten story of being people set apart for a purpose. Those stories and ours are avenues back to God's invitation to a relationship with him that we are called to participate in and enjoy.
Definition of a Soul
What is a soul? A precise definition has evaded theologians and moral philosophers over the centuries. How do we define something so intangible, so ephemeral? A soul is that part of us that connects with God because it is the place God's unique image is made known. Perhaps it is easiest to define it in story. Picture a scene in the Garden, found in a story in Genesis. We come upon the first man and woman. We are told that after God took clay to form man's body, there was something still needed. An element of construction, which had not been added, withheld life from his inanimate form. That missing piece was the breath of God that, when God breathed into Adam's nostrils, made him he first living human being. So our souls might be defined as the breath of God. They are that element of God in each of us. A soul is something we are made with, but it is not made once and then finished. Our future choices and decisions play a part in shaping it. How have you shaped your soul? Have you been good to that part of you that reflects God's image and calls us to more than our earthly, material existence?
Women of Substance
Rachel is a single woman who gets home late every night from work. As she tries to unwind, she finds stress from the day running through her head. Questions torment her: Should I go out or stay in? Will any of my friends call? How long should I wait before giving up? Rachel wonders where she is supposed to be in life. This is not what she expected her life would be when she was thirty-six. Her life has not worked out as planned. She has forgotten how to listen to her heart and allow it to be a place for hope, rest, purpose, and worship.
April is a mother of young children. She takes care of everyone else-cleaning, feeding, bathing, scheduling, carpooling. She responds to her spouse but finds it difficult to have space for him in her overcrowded, demanding life. There is little time to rest, think, or breathe. April remembers days when she had time for dreaming, when there was space for herself, friends, and God. Now when she has free time, she is so used to being busy and caring for others that the time gets filled with busyness as a distraction, maybe even an addiction. She is no longer intentional about nurturing something within her.
We all search for meaning in he mundane, sense in the chaos, rest from unending demands. We need to keep the stories of Rachel and April in mind. We need to remember that our stories, souls, and substance are significant and require time, effort, and patience.
Our stories shape us. Our souls define our connection to our Maker. These two play important parts in figuring out what it means to be a woman of substance. Although it may take a few minutes to remember, I would venture a guess that each woman can recall a time in her life when she knew she had been powerful. I don't mean by this term a false sense of "my manipulation worked" or "I really showed him." I am describing that sense of release when something flows out of us that touches someone else: providing words of comfort or constructive feedback, stating an opinion that shed light on a difficult situation, and calling for justice in an unjust situation are examples of moments that you knew your words mattered and you needed to be present for that person or situation. You were fully there, and you played a part in he life of another that had consequences beyond the moment and perhaps even beyond the relationships that were present.
We feel substantial when we are living, speaking, and loving out of a place that feels strong and good. When we act out of this strength, we are not worried about defending our rights at all times. Rather, acting out of substance and strength means that we are willing to own our weakness and offer forgiveness to those who have wronged us and, at times, to ourselves. It is living out of a sense of aliveness because we realize we are worth being a self. We know that our existence must be for some higher purpose than may be evident in our present circumstances.
A healing woman has tasted moments of allowing her substance to bless others, knowing as she does that she is being faithful to God's call in her life. She regularly remembers these moments because they testify to he woman she is becoming in God.
Story, soul, and substance are the backdrop to the places we will travel together in his book. They open the door to our exploration of the issues of how we live in a broken state and what it means to move toward holy enjoyment. Our story, and the stories of those around us, are impacted by the choices we make, which, in turn, often reflect our sense of self-worth. At times we diminish ourselves and end up hiding the good in us. Perhaps the substance of who we are has all but disappeared to those closest to us. This can grieve them, especially when they have gotten a taste of the soul and substance we offer, and they know what they are missing. This can carry a heavy cost for family members and loved ones. The impact of our choices, story, and self-worth extends beyond those close to us and includes all whom our lives touch.
Felicity-One Woman's Story
She spoke eloquently of her days in he inner city. Felicity had resisted he temptations of her friends in the 'hood. She had tried to find solace from the violence of gunshots at night, her grief over her brother's death, and the absence of a father whom she had never known. The violent stories she told were quite a contrast to her calm, professional demeanor. Her chosen vocation surprised me. I eagerly awaited the story.
Felicity had grown up aware that her experience as a minority meant that she received fewer privileges, weaker protection from he law, and was subject to a prejudiced justice system. She decided to become a public defender to offer much-needed legal aid to the people with whom she had grown up. Because retaining her services came at a nominal fee, nonminority clients sought her out. It was then that Felicity realized the state of her heart toward nonminority persons. Felicity told me, "I realized I had become prejudiced in the ways that I did not want others to treat me. It was a frightening day when I became aware that I had become what I hated."
After much soul searching, Felicity decided to open her practice to everyone and offered to help those whom she had experienced as "enemies" of her people. As she saw their fears, neediness, and dreams, her heart became tender toward them. She decided that opening her practice wasn't enough, that she needed to move from law to love, so she offered to facilitate an interfaith, interracial dialogue in her community. She knew that change needed to begin with each individual heart in order to bring about change on a systematic level. Her ministry of reconciliation brought her peace and hope.
It was in this context that we began the journey through stories of the past that Felicity had tried to forget and erase. She had closed her heart to the pain of remembering. A lost brother, an unknown father-these were heavy losses to finally grieve and put to rest. She was now strong enough to face them and let them go.
What motivates someone like Felicity to become an ambassador of reconciliation? Inspired by the words of 2 Corinthians 5:13-21 about Christ giving us the ministry of reconciliation, she decided not to hold people's sin against them. She worked to remove hostility in her own heart and then to see people with heavenly vision as new creations. Her courage came because she was compelled by Christ's love. When her soul was warmed by faith, and she rediscovered and appreciated her story, her substance was freed. Felicity became a powerful change agent for her community and her God.
Jesus as Master Storyteller
Jesus spoke in story. Stories were his method for teaching his followers and adversaries about his identity, mission, and kingdom. He made it clear that not all would have "eyes to see and ears to hear." Many times his disciples asked-we can imagine with some degree of consternation -"Now what did that mean? Can you tell it to me straight, Master?" Why was Jesus a storyteller?
Jesus knew that stories have a way of getting under our skin and of explaining the mysterious. They can put substance to an emotion, concept, or reality in a way that outweighs a well-crafted apologetic. He established the basis for a new theology out of stories about common aspects of life: grain, mountains, lilies, widows, and fishermen. He spoke so that all who heard could connect, on some level, with the wisdom the stories contained. His stories provoke his readers to action and to faith. This was all part of his plan to reconcile the world to God.
Through Christ, you have the privilege of inviting others to reconcile their hearts to God and others. This is a high calling-to be both a priest and a prophet. Someone's heart may need softening in places of hardness, or they may need ears to hear in places of deafness, sight in places of blindness. Will you offer the varied gifts of words and presence that Jesus perfectly offered each soul he encountered? What needs to be reconciled in you before that is possible: your past, future, parents, church, friends? And ultimately through, in, and despite all the rest, your Maker?
Do you have a heart for the people in Scripture for whom God has deep compassion? God often calls our attention to the orphans, aliens, widows, poor, sick, disabled, and outsiders. Who are our modern Gentiles or lepers? Jesus healed many and provides us with an example of offering specific gifts to others. He knew perfectly what each person he encountered needed: a firm call, a gentle rebuke, a gracious hand of forgiveness, or a knowing conversation.
What does it mean for me personally to remember my story, my life history? What emotions do I feel as I consider doing so?
The elements from the past I wish to forget are ...
Those aspects of my story I love to remember include ...
What are the moments I have felt substantive, when I knew I had something God wanted me to offer to someone else? (Spend some time coming up with a list of several memories.)
What is it like to imagine telling someone else about these experiences?
Have I ever had the opportunity to tell someone my story? What prevents me from sharing more with my friends and family now?
Excerpted from REDEEMING EVE by HEATHER P. WEBB Copyright © 2002 by Heather P. Webb
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1.||Story, Soul, and Substance||17|
|3.||Women to Women||41|
|4.||Stories of Difference||52|
|5.||The Place of Beauty||65|
|6.||The Gift of Sight||76|
|7.||Accepting Our Bodies||92|
|8.||Women Who Inspire Us||104|
|10.||The Blessing of Limitation||128|
|11.||Learning to Dance||136|
|12.||What We Give Is Good||147|
|14.||Being Women of Healing||172|