“To the Powers women!” My aunts and I had gathered in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, almost immediately upon their arrival, as was our custom. My two eldest aunts – their age separated by little more than the duration of a pregnancy – stood in a circle with my mother and I as we celebrated our solidarity as Powers women. At first glance, it does not make much sense. My name is Bonner. My mother’s Bonner and her sisters are Nagorney and Lapp; all three of them have the maiden name Lamb. There is not a Powers amongst us – but we are Powers women all the same. Just like my grandmother before us and hers before her.
Within this circle of women we honor all the women who have come before us and gone before us into eternity. Within our number we count Rebecca Nurse who lost her life in the Salem Witch Trials as a result of the courage that she possessed and her neighbors lacked. We count Hannah Powers who watched faithfully at the port in New London, Connecticut, for the sails of her husband Hazard Powers’ ship The Hope returning to port from patrolling the Caribbean. We count all the women who followed after Hannah, working hard on Pennsylvania farms after Hazard Powers moved the family away from the sea and the wandering life of a sailor. We count Louise Lamb, who gave birth to seven children, and watched six of them grow to adulthood and recapture the Powers wanderlust; finally taking the family story back out of the Pennsylvania mountains, hundreds of years after Hazard brought them there. We count, most recently, Amy K. Lamb, a pioneer for women in the film industry who changed the landscape of movie production in Pittsburgh, and as my youngest aunt by nearly twenty years was the first to pass on into the sacred sisterhood of those who have gone before.
The experience of being among the Powers women makes my heart beat faster and my chest swell with pride at being counted by my aunts in the same circle as all these women whose stories we tell. It is a comfort and encouragement to know that I am somehow connected to women who have lived boldly and loved boldly; taken risks and sacrificed for the good of others; used their minds and their hearts and their hands for good.
Now I find myself on the road to join my own sisters in the gathering of our circle – the Bonner women. We have our own traditions and our own stories to tell as we celebrate what binds us together. While with a Willert, a Herrada, and a Sowder among us, I am the last to bear the Bonner name, its not the name that makes the circle. What makes the circle is the knowledge that we are on this adventure called life together, always have been and always will be.
For our circle, that is as much of a choice as it is a natural occurrence. My older sisters were already teenagers in my earliest memories, off to college before I was finished learning my multiplication tables. But every holiday – Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas – there was a care package – not from me to them, but amazingly care packages from college sent back to me. I wore those Gettysburg College sweatshirts, several sizes too large for me, with a pride bordering on what Joseph must have felt in his coat of many colors. I knew exactly how rare and precious my sisters’ choice to love me and to know me was.
There are so many interlinking circles of women that make up our lives, knit together like the overlapping sections of a quilt. Some of those circles you are born into and some circles you are called into. These days I think a lot of the circle of clergywomen that I entered when the circle was still shaken by the defrocking of one of our own who had entered the circle not long before me, Beth Stroud. There is something powerfully compelling about that group of women and the journey they have traveled together. No matter where I go, I don’t seem to ever feel very far away in spirit. One moves to South Carolina, while another becomes a District Superintendent, and I wander who knows where – and still the circle remains one of my greatest sources of strength.
Mavis Staples’ recording of the turn of the 20th century hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, always sends a thrill down my spine when it begins to play from my speakers. According to the song, the circle never need be broken; come distance, turmoil or even death, we will all be sitting together again someday.
Before leaving the circle of Powers women in Pennsylvania today to join the circle of Bonner women in North Carolina, I took a long walk in the snowy woods. I wondered to God where all this circle of sisterhood thinking was coming from and what was the purpose.
What do all these circles of women have to teach me about a God that became a man? Well, first of all, God is not a man. God is God.
Yes, God is certainly not a man in the “sitting on a white cloud with a big white beard” kind of way; and God in God’s internal and eternal identity is either no gender or all genders, and in the end simply beyond genders. But we are, at this time of year, celebrating the fact that God did take on flesh and came in the form of a man to dwell among us.
Which made the next realization even more surprising. Whether you view God abstractly, spiritually, or physically as the Christ – God actually has everything to do with circles of women. God is the silent weaver behind the tapestry.
At the beginning of the life of Jesus, God led a woman named Mary out of her town, in order to give birth outside of her circle, her family her home. Mary did not have her circle, she was all alone. She had been called out and forced to rely upon God to be both her circle and her midwife. Elizabeth was not there, nor was her mother or sisters or friends. The poor woman was surrounded by a bunch of men, no offense, by Joseph, by shepherds, by sheep – not a woman in the bunch. At that birth, God started God’s circle from scratch.
Then throughout his ministry, Jesus added to his circle. He was found by Anna in the Temple, and she became the first person to proclaim the good news of who he was. He sat down at a well and made friends with a Samaritan woman who would go on to tell her whole village about the good news he brought. He hung out with Mary and Martha as they bickered; and came late to their brother’s deathbed only to have Martha proclaim her faith, quite ironically, with the accusation that if Jesus had been there Lazarus would not have died. He shared an intimate moment in the midst of a crowd as another Mary came and honored him as she washed his feet with her hair.
When he hung on the cross, it would be his circle of women that would surround the cross – unwilling for the circle to be broken. When he was buried, it would be these women who prepared his body. That man, whose inception had first been announced to a woman, whose birth had brought him into the arms of a woman, and whose death had been witnessed by his circle of women, lived a life through which he formed a circle that refused to be broken.
When the time came, for that savior, now risen from the dead, to make his presence known to someone, he chose his circle of women. He appeared to Mary and told her to go and proclaim for the first time that he had risen from the dead. Mary his mother had begun the circle when she proclaimed the good news of the meaning of his birth; and now another Mary would complete the circle as she proclaimed for the first his triumph over death.
We often point out the way that Jesus crossed social boundaries by allowing Mary, of Mary and Martha fame, to sit in the place of a student and enter into the male domain. Yet, perhaps another truth is that Jesus was always crossing boundaries with his own two feet as well. Walking right into the territory of women, entering right into the circle, even forming a circle of women who would go on to tell the story of Jesus and his love. Jesus was not simply honoring women by allowing them the privilege of entering male spaces; Jesus was honoring the spaces women inhabit by entering them himself.
The circle of women preachers began at the manger, developed at the well, went public at the tomb and continues in you and I. We women, we who are called to circle and encircle; we who are called to claim and to proclaim; to break bread and heal the broken; to serve and to preserve; to give birth and receive rebirth; we have got a good many stories to tell. Stories of the women who have come before us and of the God who called us together, into ever rippling, interlocking and overlapping circles of story, love and support.
We have got some stories to tell. Thankfully, that is something we are pretty good at doing.