Sister Strength: Grace, Growth, and Wit

                                                                                                      wellsprings_spinningthesacred

Libba Stinson, Alabama–West Florida Annual Conference

Over the centuries Native peoples have planted, eaten, and revered squash, corn, and beans as nature’s life-sustaining gifts. They are known throughout traditional teachings as the “Three Sisters.”  Native American legends tell of the spirits of the Three Sisters safeguarding and blessing the harvests of these three crops. The sisters are said to be inseparable, a blessing to be planted, eaten, and celebrated together.

Corn provides a sturdy stalk and support for the growing beans. Beans contribute richness to the soil with nitrogen, necessary for the corn to thrive. Squash leaves cover the ground around the corn and bean plants, thus keeping the soil moist and limiting the numbers of insects and weeds that may find their way to the single mound of dirt in which the seeds of the Three Sisters have been planted.

The Three Sisters are literally the plants themselves, but they are more. They share a unity of purpose. Nutritionally, when eaten together, they are more beneficial for the human body than if they were eaten alone. Not only is planting a Three Sisters garden an effective gardening technique; symbolically it demonstrates the power of being/growing/living in one another’s presence and the empowering gifts at work in collaborative living.

From this legend and the gardening principle at the heart of it, the Southeastern Jurisdiction Clergywomen crafted the theme for their 2011 Consultation. With emphasis from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry for diversity and inclusiveness in the Design Team, this legend inspired the event that ultimately came to fruition. It was not easy to put together a design team that included clergywomen in various relationships to our fifteen annual conferences, who were also diverse in age and ethnicity.  In doing so, however, we truly found sister strength as we dreamed, planned, implemented, worshipped, and studied during our four days together.

Reflecting on the SEJ Clergywomen’s Consultation for Wellsprings in the light of the question, “What does the Lord require of us?” we would answer that grace, growth, and grit are what God requires of us. To be effective, inclusive, accountable, and supportive, today’s clergywoman must embody the qualities of love, a willingness to stretch beyond oneself, and a tenacity/determination that both requires belief in self and a reliance on a personal relationship with God.

Among the biblical women with whom we spent time were the incredibly effective duo that brought life to the leader Moses, the male Hebrew babies as a whole, and the families whose children were in imminent danger.  Shiphrah and Puah provided sister strength to each other and to Moses’mother, Jochebed, and sister, Miriam, as they defied the edict of Pharaoh to kill all male babies born to the Hebrew women. Not only did they hear God’s call upon their lives to bring babies safely into the world; they also trusted themselves and God enough to disobey the command of an angry, fearful, and overbearing king. In this act of civil disobedience, Shiphrah and Puah embodied grace, growth, and grit (the elements of Sister Strength), as they listened to a higher authority than the earthly one that was demanding accountability, horrific results, and consequences that must have included their own deaths.

Of particular fascination to the gathered worshippers was the reminder that Susanna Wesley embodied the strength of a sister called of God. She was willing to stand in strong opposition to her husband and his associate pastor as she conducted prayer meetings in her home while Samuel was away.

Another biblical woman who displayed great grace, growth, and grit was the woman of Samaria who visited the well in the middle of the day. Her story, found in John 4, is the story of a woman who was excluded, frozen out, and unheard. Yet, through the power of Christ she became a village evangelist, a truth-teller, one who experienced the living water only a relationship with Jesus could inspire. The Scripture tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). Jesus’ enabling of an ostracized soul, surrounding her with true grace even in the hardness of her life, created hope and joy. Even the silenced one can regain her voice to testify and live abundantly. Listening to her story, we reflected upon those times and places where in ministry today we experience isolation and a church that denies  the gifts and graces of talented, caring women clergy. Then we prayed for breakthroughs in our own stories.

Of particular fascination to the gathered worshippers was the reminder that Susanna Wesley embodied the strength of a sister called of God. She was willing to stand in strong opposition to her husband and his associate pastor as she conducted prayer meetings in her home while Samuel was away. Susanna effectively grew the church as she opened her household to receive those seeking the love of Christ and helped them hear of God’s forgiving and immeasurable grace. Accountability for Susanna, like that of Shiphrah and Puah, was to the voice and direction of God. When told by Samuel to stop the meetings she was holding, she challenged him to stand alongside her in the presence of God and accept the guilt himself for building a blockade that would prevent God’s grace from touching the lives of those in attendance.

The contemporary stories of Tia Land, Bishop Leontine T. C. Kelly, and Ms. Lee (a Freedom Rider who dressed in three petticoats) were highlighted by the women bishops of the SEJ to remind us that effective leadership can and often does come as disruptive grace. Whether these women had sought ordination in a former Soviet bloc country, episcopacy in the Southeast, or justice among races, the effective leadership God requires is not always recognized as a good gift in the moment in time in which it is offered. What does the Lord require of us? With what gifts are we to come before the great God on high? The prophet Micah (6:6–8) tells us that we are to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. Doing so not only may, but can and will, allow God’s grace to bring us to moments of challenge and choice.

The three petticoats worn by Ms. Lee, whose story was shared in the opening worship service, proved to be a thread of grace, growth, and grit woven throughout our entire event. Ms. Lee, a woman of Asian descent, dressed in  three petticoats on the day she was to take part in the Freedom Ride to Jackson because she was certain that she would be among those arrested for daring to ride a bus in demonstration against segregation in the South. When indeed she was sent to Parchman Jail, she was well prepared for a night on the stone-cold floor. Petticoat number one became the sheet to place between her body and the floor. Petticoat number two was rolled into a tight bundle to become her pillow. The third petticoat was draped as a blanket over her shoulders for warmth. The image of God covering and comforting her life in the middle of her witness for justice reminded us of God’s presence in our lives as we embody sister strength in our own witness to truth, to inclusiveness, and to injustices of today.

David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and senior political analyst for CNN, has written in his introduction to Enlightened Power: How Women AreTransforming the Practice of Leadership that command-and-control leadership is giving way to a new approach that is called an influence model of leadership.

He wrote,“Instead of picturing a leader at the top of a pyramid, we envision her in the middle of a circle with spokes extending outward. Instead of hurling thunderbolts from atop Mount Olympus, the new leader persuades, empowers, collaborates, and partners. The best leader, we are finding, is one who identifies top talent and nurtures them to become a leader in their own right—a leader of leaders.”1

Mr. Gergen’s insight is as old as the legend of the Three Sisters. Yet, it is as timely as the three hundred women who gathered in Atlanta to question what God is requiring of us in this day and age. In the practice of understanding women of Scripture and church history, looking at the mission field, working on church finances, taking time to journey inward through the walking of the labyrinth, and participating in an event committed to inclusiveness, clergywomen of the SEJ explored very practical ways to grow as sisters and to embody the grace and grit God needs from us as ministers.  Pyramids and thunderbolts did not define our gatherings. Rather, we worshipped around circular tables and experienced great moments of grace as we celebrated God’s moving in our midst.

Truly God does require that we gather in circles with the Holy One in the center. As the seeds of corn, squash, and beans are planted in a single mound of earth in order to enhance their mutual growth, so does the clergywoman, centered in Christ, reach out to her sisters. Together we persuade, empower, collaborate, and engage in growing for the sake of Holy Community, the feeding of souls, and reaching for God’s vision for all. Grace, growth, and grit are each marks of the sisters’ strength. These seeds planted in the clergywoman’s heart call forth effective, inclusive, accountable, and supportive leadership which God needs and requires of the church in every age.

1Linda Coughlin, Ellen Wingard, and Keith Hollihan, eds..Enlightened Power:  How Women Are Transforming the Practice of Leadership(San Francisco: Linkage, Inc., Jossey-Bass Pub., 2005), xix.

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