United Methodist pastor and author the Rev. Sherry Cothran invites us to take a closer look at the stories of some of the wild and holy women of the Bible. While we may be familiar with Esther, Rahab and others, Cothran teaches that their lives and circumstances hold clues for healing our own pain.
In this conversation, Crystal and Sherry talk about how resurrecting these stories may encourage us to untame certain parts of who we are.
The Rev. Sherry Cothran
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- Explore her book and music: Wild and Holy Women of the Bible.
- Beloved Woman is the non-profit Sherry mentions in the conversation.
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This episode posted on August 27, 2021.
Crystal Caviness, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Crystal Caviness.
You may have heard the Bible stories of the likes of Esther, Deborah and Rahab. Have you ever considered that by taking a deeper look into their lives and circumstances we may find clues for healing our own pain? The Reverend Sherry Cothran has written a book that looks at these wild and holy women of the Bible and invites us to resurrect their ancient stories in an effort to un-tame certain parts of who we are.
Crystal: Reverend Sherry Cothran, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Rev. Sherry Cothran: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Crystal: I have so many questions and things that I want to talk to you about. So let’s jump right in. Your new book, Wild and Holy Women of the Bible, when I first heard that title it just really captured my imagination. How can stories of these wild and holy women, as you call them, lead us to find ways that we can heal ourselves?
Sherry: So, one of the reasons I titled it ‘wild’ is because I feel like so many of the stories that really portray women as leaders, as people who are speaking God’s word, happen in these sort off-grid wilderness regions of the Bible that we really don’t go into very often. And it’s there where women’s stories really come to life. And over the past few decades female Bible scholars have really resurrected these stories by going in and finding that so much of the interpretation that has been done has really either hidden the voices of women who acted as prophets, as warriors, as military leaders, as women who were really important in finding the way in the wilderness of faith… And as their stories are resurrected and as we read these stories something in us awakens, particularly with women, particularly the pieces of our stories that we may have felt we’ve had to hide because we may have been taught that we were supposed to be inferior or we were put on the earth, you know, to serve the purposes of male authority and things like that. And that certainly has been a lot of our traditional Christian doctrine for hundreds and hundreds of years. But interestingly what female Bible scholars are finding is that this isn’t really God, and this isn’t really Bible. So these stories really take us on a healing journey because they help us to see that God has created women as whole people, in the image of God, and that we are equipped and expected to lead. And certainly God’s people in the narrative of the Hebrew Bible, Old Testament, shows that people are really expected to follow women’s voices. And so it just creates a paradigm shift in the way that we see ourselves and others.
Crystal: And seeing that paradigm shift, one of the concepts that you present is thinking of God with these attributes that we would normally consider feminine. When we think of who God is to put those characteristics to God. Can you talk about those for just a minute?
Sherry: Yeah. So, in the Old Testament, of course, we see mostly a male sort of image for God. But certainly throughout the Bible we do see the more feminine aspects of a divine acting in the world. I haven’t fully, fully worked this out. This book is mostly just about women’s stories and women following God’s voice and God’s call into fully lead God’s people. However, there is a really interesting section in Proverbs 8 that is woman wisdom, the presence of God on earth. You know, we often say in the Christian tradition that the Holy Spirit is the presence of God on earth. And certainly there’s a lot of scholarship about that being a feminine presence. But in Proverbs 8 we find woman wisdom who is this partner of God before creation, and she is dancing before God, she says. She is building a house of wisdom on earth. She’s a master carpenter. So I find it interesting that they put the feminine as a master carpenter. And she is constructing a house of wisdom on earth so that the children of humanity can enter in and hear God’s voice and find their way and not get lost. And so she tells us that she is the wisdom of God and all who seek her find life and all who reject her find death. So, you have this feminine voice that is really strong throughout Bible. But most people I talk to have never read Proverbs 8 or heard of women wisdom. And so I call it a wilderness. It’s new frontier of Bible, really looking for the feminine voices that speak so strongly and so uniquely about God’s presence on earth. And we’ve been missing that voice. We have really lost something by losing that voice. We have limited our faith. We’ve limited God. We’ve limited women, of course. But we’ve put limits on humankind by ignoring what’s there in the text, in the Bible. So this book seeks to kind of take people on an adventure into the wilderness portions of the Bible, the wild Bible. I always say, like, a large percentage of the Bible we haven’t even explored. And when we do explore it we find that women’s voices are really front and center.
Crystal: Well, I want to talk about that next because some key words jumped out to me as I was reading the book. One was resurrect—resurrecting these stories. One was the whole healing. And the other was wonder. I loved reading about wonder. But the one I really want to talk to you about is un-tamed because I think when we think about that word we think of something going from un-tamed to tamed. But you’re really turning that idea on its head and suggesting that we work to un-tame certain parts of who we are. I’d love for you to talk more about that. I found that really interesting.
Sherry: Right. Well, of course Walter Brueggemann, the popular Old Testament theologian, he might have been roofing on someone else. I don’t know. But he has this book about going through the Psalms as orientation, dis-orientation and re-orientation. And I think that anytime we walk through a Bible story, this is what’s happening. We are disoriented and then we are oriented when we walk into the story. We think we know everything. We walk into the story. We listen to the characters. We see what God is doing or not doing. We experience the story and we become disoriented. We lose our way because the world is not as we thought it was. And this is the beauty of story, particularly Bible stories. And then we come out the other side with a reorientation and new way of looking at life with new horizons. And we’ve re-interpreted the story. And this is what’s so interesting with women’s stories in particular, is that we come in with one point of view. We walk into the story…you know, we come in with this idea that our feminine spirit has been tamed. Okay. We’ve grown up in a patriarchal culture. We know that there’s been attempts to tame the feminine spirit. This is just common knowledge, right? And then we walk into the story and there’s something really wild and untamed about this story. We walk into the stories where women are guarding the gates of sacred sites. You know, we find this in Exodus and Samuel and also in the Gospel of John. We walk into a story in which a woman is a military leader and a judge, Deborah, and she’s the highest authority in her community. And all of a sudden our views of ourselves being tamed are untamed. But we don’t stay there. We can’t stay in that place. We come out the other side. And that might take years. It might take a lifetime. But we come out the other side with a reorientation and I think as women we move from tame to un-tamed to free, to an idea that we are truly free in God’s design for us. And so I think each one of these characters has a way of unlocking what is sort of frozen inside of us, and getting at that wholeness that God has planted in all of us, and giving us access to it. Once we have access to God’s image, God’s divine image in us, God’s love inside of us, then we can…we can really run with it. You know, the whole problem of taming the feminine spirit is that…is that we lose access to our intuition and our instincts. And we’re told not to trust ourselves, that everything has to be rubber stamped by male authority. And so we don’t even trust our own voices. And so through these stories we learn that not only do these women trust their own voices, God trusts in them. And their communities trusted them. And we just haven’t heard them yet. And so when we do, then holy horizons open up in our faith journey and we are able to give back to our communities in a way in which we’re not just giving our hurt and our confusion. We’re giving our love, our genuine love. And so we’re giving it freely out of our own will instead of just, you know, being, you know, tasked with serving others in a sort of co-dependent way. So, I talk about women being conditioned into co-dependence because we are taught from young girls that we exist for others. And, you know, in a sense that’s true. We do exist for others, but primarily we exist for God. And so these stories give us access to that relationship with God.
Crystal: Sherry, one of the things I found most fascinating about the book and about the stories…some of them I knew and some of them I didn’t…is that they are ancient stories that you did two things: you were digging deeper beneath the story that were just there, you know, the words that we read; and then you’re showing us how they’re relevant today. For example, I never considered what it meant that Esther was an orphan. That was something I never even thought about, in that she actually was still being held captive even though she was heralded for saving her people. So then, you know, I’m thinking about Esther in this way and the victimization of women that so tragically is prevalent throughout the world today. And suddenly Esther’s story just is alive and relevant and shows us these pathways for healing that you…that you’re, you know, talking about, that simply it took a lot of…this digging deep. I’d love to hear maybe a little bit more about the process of that.
Sherry: I read an amazing book, I think while I was in seminary, by Timothy Beal called The Book of Hiding. And it really opened up my thinking on Esther’s story. And he talks a lot about the identity politics that, you know, the games that she had to play. But I also saw behind the curtain of the story. This story we often tell like a fairytale. Esther is a queen. She saves her people. Everything’s happy, you know. But we don’t look behind the fairytale into the layers of what she actually was going through. But she was abandoned. She was abandoned as an orphan. And then she was abandoned by Mordecai because she had to go into this mandatory beauty contest. You know, the story tells us that girls were rounded up by soldiers, by force, to go into this. So they didn’t really have a choice. So you see that throughout the story she has to respond to situations in which she has very little choice or agency. She does use her agency… And I watched this documentary on women in India who are put into these sex trafficking rings and they can’t get out of them. So what they do is they try to organize within them and educate women on how to have as much agency as possible while they are captive. And so this is kind of how I began to see Esther’s story. And that the king held all the cards. You know, he had banished the queen Vashti before her, and if he…at the wave of a hand, you know, he could have banished her as well. And that was always a reality for her. So while she had power and while she had agency I still see her…. (This is just my view of her.) …but I still see her as being very captive, behind the ironclad walls of this kingdom that she can’t escape. So…. So the song that I wrote is called “Too Late to be Free.” And it talks about how…. It’s really through recognizing the ways in which we have been suppressed or held captive or held down or abandoned and kind of going through the grieving process and the loss process of that that we can come out the other side and realize that God really has given us agency in the world. God has not only given us agency, but given us stories to follow and to enact that into the world.
Crystal: I definitely want to talk about your CD. But before we do I want talk about Rahab. Of all the women featured this one felt like maybe…it felt especially personal when I was reading it, from maybe your vantage point. I felt like we saw you…. you let us see some of your story here, too.
Sherry: I put a little bit of my stories into the book. I’m working on that, on sharing more of my stories. But yeah, that is one in particular that made it in.
Crystal: You had written, she stood up for herself. And to be saved she had to believe that her life was worth saving. I felt like that these were maybe mantras that you had perhaps…they had been personal mantras, or maybe you had wished they had been mantras at some time in your life. But I’ll just be very transparent with you. When I read just the line ‘she became her very own hero,’ I teared up. I really connected with the power of that statement. And if I recall my Bible history correctly, which maybe I’m not, but I believe that Rahab through…is actually part of Jesus’s lineage through Joseph. And to me, which really underscores how she became a part of God’s redemption story, even through all that she had gone through. I was just so…I really was encouraged by how you really showed Rahab fighting for herself and claiming that value. It was really beautiful.
Sherry: Thank you. And you mentioned the songs. I wrote the songs…. I’ve been a musician my whole life and I was in the music industry as a singer/songwriter and lead singer of a rock band for 10 years. And so songs always lead the way for me. And in a way I learned how to do the song sermon in seminary. And I kind of work out my theology in song. And then that works its way into the chapters. So this song talks about…Rahab is saying, ‘Are God’s men circling the godless city looking for me?’ You know, she’s kind of like, Really? No. They didn’t come there to save her. They came there to pump her for information. That’s why they were there. You know. They didn’t say, Oh, we need to save you. You know. That’s not what that transaction was about. But she was the one who seized the moment. And she was the one risked and took advantage of the opportunity to rise up out of her situation. And she was, you know, a marginalized character in the City of Jericho. And the story tells us, you know, that she was a prostitute or she ran a brothel or something along those lines. And so we instantly see her as someone who…. You know, prostitution was not illegal in the ancient world, but certainly looking back we put shame on her. We put a label of shame on her instantly. And she’s the one that reaches up and say, No, I’m…I’m…this is not who I am. This is just what I’m doing to survive. And she’s the one that climbs up out of the story, out of the walled world that she’s living in. And of course God is the one who is responsible for the walls of Jericho coming down. And so, she’s able to kind of walk out of those walls and be rescued. But her rescue is really a partnership between her and God and Joshua just happening to, you know, be obedient and follow through with what he was told to do as well. So we see that she had to be…. She had to stand up for herself even in the midst of her own victimization.
Crystal: I do want to talk about the CD, ‘Wild and Holy’ and these songs were written specifically for these women that you featured. And then the lyrics are at the front of each of your sections. I love that you…. You know, it’s kind of written almost like a study guide, too. You read and then there’s questions behind it. So I could definitely see women’s groups doing this study together. You’ve already alluded to the fact that in another life you were in a rock band, ‘The Evenrudes,’ and spent time in the music business before you perceived your call to ministry. And I guess it is an understatement that music is an important part of who you are. And you talked about how music is woven into how you do ministry. I read an article online that says that sometimes you sing…like, you stand when you were in a…you had a congregation, you would start singing to them as a way to…as a way to preach. I found that fascinating. One, that seems really bold. But I…you know, I want to hear more about why you feel like that is an effective way to maybe connect with people.
Sherry: Well, it’s an oral tradition, the singing preacher. That goes way back. That’s…. I didn’t invent that. That’s an old, old preaching tradition, to preach/sing, particularly in the African American church. So that is not something new. However, yeah, I just…. It’s just a natural part of who I am. My husband will tell you I…if your…I walk around, sometimes I sing through the day. Or, sometimes I speak through singing. So…it’s just kind of a natural thing that I’ve always done since I was a kid. I would walk around seeking show tunes from ‘Annie’ when I was a little girl and all my friends would just, That’s Sherry. So, yeah. All my singer friends do the same thing. So, I know I’m not odd.
Crystal: I don’t think it’s odd and it may not be new. But I don’t think it’s happening in churches everywhere around the world. I think it is unique for you.
Sherry: Well now, my bishop, Bishop McAlilly, he would always start our meetings with everyone singing a hymn together acapella. And so I think it’s always a wonderful way to get people to breathe differently and breathe together. And singing is awesome.
Crystal: And the songs are beautiful.
Sherry: Thank you.
Crystal: …songs that you’ve written. I definitely want us to talk about your nonprofit, Beloved Woman. But I say Beloved Woman, but then when I look at the logo it says, ‘Be loved, woman.’ It looks like…it’s more of a kind of a command to take that love on. I saw that you shared some success stories. The one I was looking at particularly was Crowns and Heights, this beautiful woman who has this business of making crowns. And they’re such…these…such stories of empowerment through your nonprofit. Tell us more about that.
Sherry: We work with women who are financially disadvantaged to help them start small businesses. And one of the things I’ve found in my ministry and certainly as a pastor, is that so many women who are single mothers, you know, raising families, they have 2 and 3 jobs to make ends meet because they’re not making a living wage. And often they will have what we call a side hustle going on, some kind of business where they’re making a product and selling it out of their backdoor or at markets or they’re cleaning houses or they’re doing eldercare or some, you know, some kind of business that they have developed where they make extra income. And we call them underdeveloped businesses. And so we basically put them through a 9-week Beloved Woman academy and they learn everything of how to develop their business, everything they need to know basically, including marketing and actually getting a website at the end of it. And from there we stay with them for 1 to 2 years while they get these businesses going because you can’t just do a launch and then, you know, toss them out. It won’t work. So we have support groups. We meet twice a month. And then we also help them work with a one-on-one mentor. And this is usually a woman who’s started her own business. And then we just walk with them as they put more framework and structure around what they’re doing. And then we have markets occasionally so they get to expand their community and network. And it really is a wonderful thing. My vision was that we would have just a Beloved Woman community of women helping women. And that’s what it’s turned into. We’re in our second group. We started during Covid and now we have a larger group of women that are meeting together. And one of the things they tell me is that it’s really the women supporting women that encourages them and gives them that accountability. I guess it’s a hard thing to do, taking a small business and making it work is a very, very hard thing to do. But we can do it together. And so that’s what we’re learning, is that as we spur one another on and encourage one another we make progress. And that’s really exciting to see. So we do a group in the spring semester and a group in the fall semester. And we’re setting up right now for fall semester. And the book, by the way, The Wild and Holy Women of the Bible book actually sponsors Beloved Woman. So if you buy it on the Beloved Woman website 100% of the proceeds from the book go to the nonprofit. So if you’re thinking of doing this as a study, go to the website and purchase it and that way all the proceeds go back into the nonprofit.
Crystal: That is wonderful. What a great group and a great resource and so important. I have just a couple more questions. One is I want to…as we finish up is there something we didn’t talk about that you had wanted to mention or wanted to…or want to elaborate on some part of our conversation today?
Sherry: I think it’s been great. I wouldn’t add a thing, just that I’m really happy that The UMC has this podcast and I’m really grateful to be part of The United Methodist Church. I’ve been ordained since 2013 and served churches since 2008. And it’s taught me so much and just sustained me. And I’ve been so grateful for every congregation that I’ve worked with. And it’s just been a wonderful journey. So I know crazy things are going on in The UMC, but at the same time we have such an amazing legacy and such amazing work still to do together. And so I’m really grateful for the church and grateful for this podcast and for the work that you’re doing. So…thank you.
Crystal: Sure. Well, the last question we ask all of our guests is how do you get your spirit in shape?
Sherry: I have a daily prayer practice that I do. And I do a lot of deep breathing. And I also practice just simply yoga at home each day. And I try to have that communion time each day with God and walk through just a regular meditation practice that I do each evening because it just…it puts things in perspective and helps me to understand what I’m here for and calms my anxiety and all of those things. And I do what’s called centering prayer. I learned it from Thomas Keating. He was a monk that just passed away recently. And he really developed… I think Richard Rohr talks about it. But it really has been developed through, I think, the Franciscan monks and it’s really just about centering yourself on an aspect of God and letting that kind of sink down into your bones and become the main character of your spirit because life is hard and the world is hard. And we need that time of communion and rest with God. And I talk about it in the book. There’s instructions on how to do it because it’s so easy to do. But that’s basically the practice that I do each day. And it keeps me centered which is centering prayer, the name.
Crystal: Well, Sherry, thank you for your ministry. Thank you for writing this book that is so inspiring and so supportive of women. And thank you for being a guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape. It’s truly been a delight.
Sherry: Thank you, Crystal. It’s been a delight for me as well.
Crystal: That was the Reverend Sherry Cothran, author of Wild and Holy Women of the Bible and a United Methodist pastor in the Tennessee Conference appointed to Beloved Woman in extension ministry. I hope you enjoyed the conversation and learned as much as I did from it. To order of copy of Wild and Holy Women of the Bible and learn more about Sherry’s work go to UMC.org/podcast and look for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. You’ll also find helpful links and a transcript of the conversation. My email address is also there. So you can chat with me. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Crystal Caviness.