Welcome Guest Blogger: Dr. Phillis Isabella Sheppard
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Rom. 12: 1-2)
I do not remember ever using or hearing the word sexuality until I was in college. Oh, I heard about sex, and not having sex and not getting pregnant and how my life would be stalled if I did get pregnant. I might not even be able to do the things that were important to: college, graduate school, etc. I would be bitter. You get the picture: Do not have sex.
When I was fifteen years old a neighbor girl and I were discovered kissing by her mother who, though probably a little confused and a lot worried, “said, girls it’s almost dinner time so come on and set the table.” Later, when our summer of not actually dating, surely, but being-together ended because, in my view, she wanted to “go to the prom,” I sobbingly told my mother “Abigail” wants to go the prom . . . she’s all made up . . .” I saw and heard that she grasped my pain. She said, “Phillis, you do not have to conform to these people.” No other memory of her can surpass the appreciation I experienced in that brief exchange.
I did not know exactly what Abigail and I were. We could not claim to be girlfriends. We did not identify as lesbians, and in fact, probably had not heard the term in our small town. Regardless of label, we spent a summer of togetherness unfettered by the normativity that said that girls who like girls couldn’t go to the prom. Abigail’s transformation from a care-free spirited sixteen year-old girl to the girl sitting very properly on the bus preparing to be asked, by a boy, to go to the prom has stayed with me these many years. Not because my heart was broken beyond repair but because in the separate moments that our mothers became more fully aware of us and our desires, neither ran from the truth—nor did they embrace it, but, they offered responses that that made me experience “us” as regular teenagers in the throes of an adolescent crush.
My mother’s response in many ways undergirds my faith: I am convinced that being faithful to who God calls me to be is to not be conformed to this world that wants to regulate, censure and reject sexuality except when it is locked behind doors fear.
Embracing my sexuality, the loving and embodied expression of it, and prayerfully integrating it into my spiritual and public life is part of living a life of worship and offering thanks back to the God who created me. Living gratefully for my sexuality is to be in the of process of resisting the “pattern of this world.” Living gratefully as a black woman; Living gratefully as a black lesbian; Living gratefully as a black lesbian woman of faith is a daily spiritual practice. This spiritual practice is a counter-practice to the demands that I mimic conforming to the world that limits the face or label of sexuality.
Not being transformed to the patterns of this world means that I have to notice that I am not the poster child for the models of sexuality, womanhood, or race most often are mirrored in the broader society. Being not conformed to the patterns of this world means that I have to make it plain that God’s patterns are many, varied, beautiful and acceptable in all their forms, and that, I too am of one the patterns. The pattern of this world is to resist the powers that make sexuality, sex, and spirituality split off from the transformation of our minds and our lives. If I am to offer my body as a “living sacrifice”–created as acceptable by God, then I cannot reject parts of myself.
I am convinced that God wants us to embody all of who we are not only for the good of our own lives but also for the good of world. Such a radical embrace of our selves—in the service of God’s mission to transform the world into a community of love—is in the service of all God’s people.
Dr. Sheppard teaches religion, psychology, and culture at Vanderbilt University. She is a leading womanist scholar and author of Self, Culture and Others in Womanist Practical Theology. Her next book Tilling the Sacred Ground: Explorations in a Womanist Cultural Psychology of Religion builds on her first. Most importantly, Phillis is a dear friend and source of support in the intersecting work we share in academia and church life. Theoloqui is grateful to have her contribution this week. Thank you Phillis! Michelle