Changing Church: Rev. Dr. Rebecca L. Kiser, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, West Plains, Missouri

Rev. Dr. Rebecca L. Kiser

“Our Bible contains lots more images and metaphors for God than the official, orthodox Trinitarian formula,” Rev. Dr. Rebecca Kiser proclaims in a powerful sermon on Holy Wisdom. “God is indefinable in human thought and language, so we end up using many names to try and capture the hugeness, the awesome enormity, the variety of experiences that make up our story with God. In the text we read from Proverbs on the figure of Wisdom, you’ll notice in your Bibles that the “W” is capitalized as a name, and Wisdom is pictured as a woman calling out to people to come to her and find Wisdom. We call several books of the Protestant Old Testament the Wisdom books—Job, Psalms, Proverbs. And in the Catholic Bible there is also a book called the Wisdom of Solomon. People who study world religions often talk about the ‘wisdom traditions’ within various religious traditions. The figure of Woman Wisdom, or Lady Wisdom—or in Greek, Sophia—is a part of this. Several folks who have studied Holy Wisdom in both Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon, where there are more chapters about Her, have noticed a great correlation between what is said of Her and what is said of Christ, especially in the book of John. Much of what is said in John’s prologue about the Word was taken from what is said in other places about Holy Wisdom. It’s neat to read about Holy Wisdom on Trinity Sunday, because this name emphasizes that God can’t be captured by any one definition, one experience, one perspective, one interpretation.”

Rev. Dr. Kiser is not only the first woman pastor of First Presbyterian Church in West Plains, Missouri, but the first woman pastor in the city. She has been a trailblazer for many years.

When she was a student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Becky worked on a task force that published an inclusive language worship resource for use in the chapel. “We edited all of our hymnals,” she says. “Inclusive language about people was a given by that time, but inclusive language about God was the cutting edge. At one point I got into a really big discussion with a systematic theology professor about language for God. We were trying to say ‘Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,’ and he just went ballistic. He got really red-faced and said that if you weren’t baptized in the name of the ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,’ those exact words, it was not a Christian baptism and didn’t count. There was some real resistance to the language change. Some people were really invested in the maleness of the language. Words have power.”

When she was healing from the traumatic loss of a child, Becky expanded her divine images to include the feminine. In an article published in Update: Newsletter of the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, Becky tells the story of the transformation that took place in her divine images after Emma’s death. “As I began sorting out and dealing with my anger and grief, two images of God in the feminine arose in my prayer and became agents of healing and restoration. This was surprising to me because, at the time, I was not comfortable using feminine pronouns or imaging God in the feminine.”

One of the Divine Feminine images was “God of the Casserole.” Becky writes: “I had talked of seeing God in the people who came to be with us, bringing dinners and fruit baskets and desserts as well as their love and care. Yet I had difficulty accepting this image or feeling any comfort from it. Suddenly, I remembered that old picture from my Sunday school days, where Jesus is standing at the heart’s door and knocking—only when I pictured it now, Jesus was carrying a covered casserole. The image captured me, so I decided to sculpt it. The form that emerged from under my hands was a woman, like so many of the people who had come to my door. She carried a 9×13 pan of either lasagna or chicken and rice; I couldn’t decide. She became a focal point of all my ambivalent feelings, for I felt gratitude and comfort from her presence at the same time that I experienced a raging anger that she didn’t do more. I raged at her, and still she stayed, her face concerned, her gift in her hand. She was not put off by my anger; she didn’t take her gifts and go home. I came finally to realize that she is who she is, and the anger was mine, the expectations were mine, the desires for protection and security were mine, the disappointment that came from a false image of God was mine. She is who she has always been: compassionate, strong, present, passionate, truth, connected from the womb, unafraid, encompassing, mysterious.”

“Encountering God this way made me reevaluate the notion of God as beyond gender and see God as encompassing both genders—gender-full rather than genderless. I look on the growth of spirit and creativity I have experienced as gifts from my daughter Emma and think it is somehow appropriate that it was she who, through her brief time on earth, introduced me to the Great Mother in God.”

Rev. Kiser attended the first Re-Imagining Conference in Minneapolis and comments on its power: “The language throughout the whole conference was inclusive. We could sing without changing words under our breath, and they called Christ ‘Sophia.’ They used the name ‘Christ-Sophia,’ and they called God ‘She’ for the whole three days. It was delightful!”

Even though she got flak and lost job opportunities for attending this conference, Rev. Kiser celebrates this transforming experience. “For the first time, I heard God addressed in female pronouns for three days straight, in worship and in sermon and by folks on the podium. It was a turning point in my own appreciation of the feminine, as well as a turning point in claiming my own point of view as I returned to a presbytery holding hearings and town meetings about a conference they considered heresy and even blasphemy.”

Rev. Kiser laments that the church does not lead the way on social justice issues. “I hate it that the church is often the last to see something that seems to me so obviously a Christian expression. We’re the last ones to get on the bandwagon. And then people call us ‘politically correct,’ like it’s not really a theological issue. It was hard at first to give my experience of discrimination as a woman the same kind of credence I’d been giving the experience of African Americans in our country. That was an obvious issue to me in the country and the world, but to apply that to women was hard. Once I got past that and began to see the women’s issue as a similar thing, suddenly all these other groups demanded my empathy as well—LGBT persons, other minorities, battered women, disabled people. It opened up a sensitivity to all kinds of minority positions. I’d like the church to be pro-active on some justice issue. I wish we’d taken the lead on the gay and lesbian issue. Our churches are really a part of our culture, and we don’t stand apart and criticize it really well or speak God’s word to it. Learning to talk feminist or womanist theology opens up a lot of doors.”

As the first woman pastor in West Plains, Rev. Kiser believes her very presence invites change. “I think it challenges people’s mindsets just to see a woman up front,” she says. “And I think of it as giving little girls more options. If they’ve only seen male pastors, suddenly they’re seeing a female pastor, and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I could be one of those!’”

To read more of Rev. Dr. Rebecca Kiser’s story, see: https://wipfandstock.com/store/Changing_Church_Stories_of_Liberating_Ministers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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