The Uniqueness of Diversity: Psalm 107:3

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Ouida F. Lee, North Texas Annual Conference

While waiting to board an American Airline flight one day, I noticed the slogan painted near the open door that read, “One World Alliance.” Uncertain of the airline’s interpretation of this sign, it still spoke very openly to me: we are connected. Though American is an individual company with its own values and goals, it is simultaneously connected with all other transporters, sharing the same airspace and being guided by the same air traffic controllers, unique and diverse.

The year 1991 was a very enlightening one for me, I became a member of The United Methodist Church. Leaving the entrapments of a denomination that was unwilling to accept women called by God to be ministers of the gospel, I found my home in Methodism.  I find that I am not alone in coming to a gathering place of people who have literally come “from all over the place” to find home in our midst. It was the beginning of my preparation and authentication as a woman in church leadership.

Transition was easy. Though some of the teachings were different, it was wonderful finding a place of acceptance, inclusivity, and diversity—a place I now call home. Two different experiences are paramount; one was the first Assembly of United Methodist Women gathering in Cincinnati, Ohio. There were more than twelve thousand in attendance. The experience of hearing the diverse languages, the powerful preaching of women challenging theological positions, and the melody we made together in song, as well as watching the dances representing different cultures, [was amazing].

Second to this was my experience at General Conference 2012: observing outside of the circle of action, and hearing the voices of interpretation to facilitate the full participation of all individuals, was awe-inspiring. The diversity reminded me of Revelation 7:9: “a great multitude . . . from every nation, tribe, people and language.” Their stories represent the fabric of a world of God’s people.

We live in a world of diversity—from the curvaceous mountains of Northern California, to isolated deserts of the Sahara; from the thunderous, slippery slopes of Victoria Falls to the calm waters of the Adriatic Seas; from the flowing Iguaçu Falls of Brazil to the deep, blue oceans of the Bahamas—that reminds us of the greatness and passion of a God who is revealed in the tapestry of our universe.

From the rugged terrain of Egypt to the bridges of Prague, we see the awesomeness of our God. We are a people of many languages, a cultural milieu, representing countless expressions of a creative, loving, and all-powerful God. We are unique and diverse, and we have been gathered from many lands, “from . . . east and . . . west, from . . . north and . . . south,” from all over the place (Ps. 107:3).

The Psalmist shares with us one of the liturgical expressions that the Israelites must have created during one of their annual pilgrimages. This was a song of praise to a faithful God who heard and responded to their prayers. Commentators have suggested that this festal praise was written to praise God following the Israelites’ deliverance from Babylonian captivity. With clarity we hear, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 118:1). These are the words of the overcomers; it was out of an experience of desperation that these words have come. We live somewhere between the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God, and life is real. For we live in a world where too few want to dominate and others are to be subservient. Our society would choose to separate the prestigious from those amid struggle in this “One” world. Women’s voices would be silenced as we confront the shrinking economy. Privilege harbors power and is blinded to the needs of others, or simply blames the poor for their plight. Power attempts to control with laws and lawlessness.

Our hope is in the Lord as the world continues to struggle, even within the bounds of the United Methodist Church. Who sits at the “gate of the city,” ensuring that policies made [address] the needs, and assuring diversity? The powerful and prestigious make decisions for the powerless and poor. Do we have the capacity to step beyond our personal agendas to heed the cry of the needy? Is the decision-making table open to hearing, or are preconceived notions of the problems of the world spoken from a very narrow focus of protectionism and limitations? Do we truly have the power to look beyond our idealized cosmos to see and hear the call of a God of justice? The prophet Micah speaks with clarity: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8).

It is imperative that diverse women continue to be represented in the leadership at all levels of the church. Women must not simply collude with the powerful, but engage with open ears and sensitive spirit to extend helping hands to those on the margins. All voices must be heard, though the language may be different; it is difficult for the privileged to understand and speak for those who have been marginalized. There exists the need to have open minds and to think critically of what it means to be a diverse church with diverse leadership with the potential of making appointments, recommendations, and strategic plans that will empower for the future.

Dr. William McElvaney, retired professor of preaching and worship of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, reminds us, “The term ‘justice’ has no magical effect in and of itself.” [1]  Justice comes alive through the worshipping community. Justice is taught, lived out in worship, through the community and moreover, through our personal lives. This is a radical call to live our lives in ways that our God would have us to, and [to be mindful of] the ways in which we treat people who are different from ourselves, ethnically, culturally, and often, theologically.

We are woven into a fabric that has limitation, potential weakness, because we fear giving voice to those on the margin, or placing power in the hands of those who dispute. Yes, it takes longer to hear voices of dissonance, yet that is the strengthening of the fabric. Our fabric is threadbare because we choose voices of conformity, one weave, sheared by its lack of a diverse thread. Strengthening our fabric requires a reweaving, a reexamining of a world of inclusivity, a thickening of the grain. It is the powerful spinning of the yarn that binds us all together.

More than tolerance, it is this diversity that was created by God. The human race is the full expression of who our God is. Though we are different in ethnicity, color, gender, and yes, even our thoughts, our God knew that in our diversity is wholeness. From the unfathomable wisdom of the Creek Indians to the illimitable wisdom of the Koreans, God is. From the remotest region of sub-Saharan Africa to the Greek Isles, God’s wisdom, resources, and creativity are revealed. His is a radical call for sensitivity to do more than translate voices. It is a requisite that we enlarge the table to include, not simply those who were “selected” because of their ability to feign leadership, but powerful women who, with the spirit of inclusivity and a willingness to challenge the “status quo,” regard the full expanse of the created order of God.

We are gathered from all over the place to make the difference in serving our God in innumerable ways and ministering through the sharing of our collective wisdom and delicate resources. It is a shifting in the atmosphere of leadership, a sort of crafting of a new world, with diverse threads being woven. Our world would never have known the possibilities without the dissenting voices of Mahatma Gandhi and his peaceful conscientious objection. And without the challenging words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr., people of color and women might still be seeking civil rights. [I am thankful for] the voice of Hillary Clinton, who dared to speak up when challenged, when she clearly understood her position; for the voice of Bishop Leontine T. C. Kelly, who radically spoke for change in the church; and for superintendents who would dare appoint women to tall-steepled churches. It is imperative that we have courageous women who represent the church as general secretaries who understand the mandate for an inclusive church, even when it is not popular.

In the vision of the progenitors of our faith, we would be a church connectional, worldwide, and would welcome all people, making disciples of all nations, with social justice at the heart of the ministry. We are the people with open doors, open hearts, and open minds. We are called to shape the avenues we tread. It is ours to spin the sacred yarn, bound in the love of Jesus Christ and singing a new song of festal praise.

God has blessed the people of The United Methodist Church in so many powerful ways. Is it possible for us to truly hear and heed the words declared by the prophet Jeremiah in chapter 29 of the book by his name? They were not his words, but were the words of the Lord, who had observed the behavior of the Israelites and forced them into captivity. Yet, with the voice of clarity and hope, Jeremiah wrote, “Thus says the Lord: . . . When Babylon’s seventy years are completed . . . I [will] visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (vv. 10–11).

Our hope is in the Lord; it is also in the uniqueness of our diversity, a people woven together in love and peace, and anointed with the power of the Holy Spirit.

 


[1] Willam K. McElvaney, Becoming a Justice Seeking Congregation: Responding to God’s Justice Initiative (New York/Bloomington: iUniverse, 2009), 40.

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