Shared Thoughts on a Worldwide Church

Tracy Smith Malone, Northern Illinois Annual Conference, and
Barbara Dick, Wisconsin Annual Conference

wellsprings_theologicalreflect

We just love the fact that the theme verse WellSprings Journal has chosen in our General Conference year is John 16:21 (NRSV): “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.”

As women in leadership—clergy and laity, African American and Caucasian—we came to our hour-long Skype call as strangers. Our conversation was, at times, a call-and response of ideas and feelings, with many “Amens” and lots of laughter. We shared our stories and forged a bond of friendship as we “prophetically named” the racism and other isms that exist in the church and society and boldly proclaimed a revolution of love and reconciliation that tears down walls and holds us all in the womb of God’s love.

Tracy defined “prophetically naming” as more than pointing to brokenness. It is naming existing opportunities and efforts to create environments or opportunities for vital conversations. Through vital conversations and relationship building we can have authentic conversations to name fears and anxieties and begin to work through some of the preconceived notions and myths about who people are, to really hear and learn people’s stories. Through storytelling, we learn that we have so much in common, so many of the same desires. That makes my heart have a desire to know your heart. And that’s what builds true sisterhood and brotherhood.

And so, here are our shared thoughts on birthing a worldwide church:

The Beloved Part

We pondered where clergywomen and laywomen can come together to share the stories that cross all those boundaries. As women in leadership, it really doesn’t matter if we’re clergy or lay. We have stories to share and important work to do together.

Tracy shared that even as clergywomen attend national and international gatherings, they are often more like spectators than full participants. We agreed that we can begin to lead the way to break down those barriers between clergy and lay as women of faith.

The idea of birthing a worldwide church evokes the whole realm of laity leadership in areas where clergy are not available. That’s an issue across the globe in ways that it’s not in the U.S., although it is also a concern in some urban areas and some deeply rural areas of the U.S. What if clergywomen led this movement of removing the line, blurring it?

There is great value in a trained, educated clergy to bring a level of scholarly expertise, a watching of the integrity of how we move through living out the gospel; but we have so professionalized clergy that the laity have in some ways been disempowered. And so, when we talk about empowering the laity, it’s a remedial step. It’s re-empowering the laity, waking them up to the power they already have.

We sometimes confuse the role of the priestly function. We misunderstand that the holiness and the sacredness comes through the movement and the power of the Holy Spirit at work through the elements. Barbara Brown Taylor says it so well, that it’s the broken bread and the poured out wine for the world. And so, as we break the bread and as we serve it, those who receive it—all of us, lay and clergy—become the broken bread and the poured out wine for the world. Again it’s the Holy Spirit’s work, and that’s the sacredness, the holiness in the mystery of it all.

We, as women, have more potential to find a different approach to this—culturally, if not physically. If it’s not innate in us, it’s bred into us. How nice if we could inspire that, which exists in men as well, to grow, because that’s part of what’s missing in our sense of beloved community. . . the beloved part.

Empowering is the language of the church now. So a better approach might be to embolden or to nurture. The Spirit of God is already in you, so we are stirring up the gift, bringing it to birth. We’re midwifing.

The nurturing—that’s the birthing, the coming forth, the newness that comes through when we are open, nurturing, and allowing for creativity—not a threat but a divine opportunity.

As women, we know about it. That’s our experience. If Jesus were a woman today, he might tell more parables about birth than about farming.

We Know Birthing

Consider the whole birthing process, cycles that the body has to go through; you have to incubate. There’s nurturing and feeding, listening and rubbing and touching. There’s a level of intimacy that goes back to the relationships. Studies have shown that a baby born with no touch within a certain amount of time after birth has a higher risk of death.

And then, of course, there’s pain involved. We sometimes want to shield ourselves. There is risk in being vulnerable, open to listening to your story, able to hear your pain; to take that on, and maybe even see my role in that, whether knowingly or unknowingly. That is the key when we talk about isms, the notion that somehow my story is a threat to your story. That’s absurd. My story is just my story. And it’s not for me to right it to wrong it or even to validate it, because I don’t have to. I don’t need your validation and you don’t need mine.

Part of birthing is also the deep emotion that comes, and with that the tears and laughter. It’s all part of the experience. You don’t want to just be stagnant and going through the motions. Giving birth is something new, thinking out of the box and being willing to explore. If there’s going to be any creativity, if there’s going to be any change, if we are going to live in a new possibility, we have to be willing to explore, even the places that have not yet been trod.

The Isms

It’s so hard when we’re talking about race and sexuality, and in some places, about threatening people’s jobs because we’re empowering other people to lead. It’s so scary for some people.

The isms lead to violence because of suppression, and then people just violently act or violently speak. They say something that’s hurtful or harmful, any act of violence. Some of that is due to unaddressed, unresolved, fear and anxiety, lack of clarity—separation.

We’ve got extremes of violence—violence in the news that we can’t deny or ignore—but even in the church, violence stems from and leads to denial, the inability or unwillingness to know. That alone is an act of violence.

When we are willing to be vulnerable and transparent, that breaks down some of the barriers and the walls and more readily prevents me from saying or doing something that causes harm because I’m more in touch, more aware. Even if one person says something that may feel offensive or off-putting for another—if we have heard one another’s stories, we have the option of navigating that in a different way.

If I don’t know who you are, and I don’t care about who you are, I care about my position—not my story—but my position, and I have no space to hear.

In the Womb Together

So, our call is to intentionally create space. Then the space becomes the common place for us to talk through, work through—whether we agree or disagree—to still do it in love.

In terms of the birthing metaphor, that’s the womb. If we’re going to birth a worldwide church, we have to spend some time in the womb together, being nurtured and fed and allowing God to fill us up with good things, so we can survive to develop our organs.

The womb—that holy space. And the paradox of the womb is that even though it goes through such turmoil to bring forth life, the womb is also a holy place, a safe place where life is being shaped.

And when we’re in the womb, we’re vulnerable, we’re not in charge—it’s the place where the Holy Spirit does its work.

It’s the same place that’s life giving, where the body is taking shape and form, as life is springing forth. There may be some tears, there may be some bruises, but that’s all part of the process. We are crushed but not broken. We are perplexed but not confused. It’s a wonderful paradox.

It’s why Jesus spoke in parables. It’s so hard to grab on to this stuff and hold it in your hand. You really can’t. You have to let it kind of sift through and form on its own.

We also love the image of the womb because, when we’re talking about nurturing life, we’re talking about cell differentiation. Each cell has a unique purpose, but cell walls are membranes, they’re not hard. They depend on each other. Cell walls are permeable, and cells are interdependent. And that’s the beloved community. Our opportunity is to bring that to life in community.

It may be that the only way to do that is through this kind of conversation, to have the conversation and plant it and let it germinate.

Intentional relationship building and listening and sharing is a mutual sharing. As you share a part of who you are, and I share part of who I am, there are more spaces and places to be intentional—showing a genuine interest in one another’s stories. With that comes the desire, not just to know more about you, but to discover more about who God is in you, that I might connect with you and connect with the God in you.

We are who we are the way God made us, but we are always in the process of becoming. We’re all flawed, and the more we are in relationship with others, the more we help to shape each other into the persons we are becoming.

We talk about isms. We’re human; we make judgments; we stereotype. But if we’re going to truly be the beloved community, we need to acknowledge that there’s more to the story, more than what you hear and what you see. The question is, do you desire to know more, or do you even care to know more, beyond the surface, superficial relationships that sometimes exist? This doesn’t just happen.

No, it has to be intentional.

Intentional Community and General Conference

Right, intentional community.

I (Barbara) have that “desire to know more” when I’m one-on-one with somebody. But if WellSprings hadn’t set this up, Tracy and Barbara wouldn’t know each other. We would meet at General Conference next year, and Barbara wouldn’t know more than that Tracy is African American clergywoman from Northern Illinois. So the opportunity is to provide spaces where the desire to know more can be nurtured. Because once that desire is awakened it’ll happen. People will find ways for it to happen.

And what if there was a part of General Conference where this was built in before we move into our committees. Where is real, genuine space—except for the listening sessions to help us know how to be in conversation with each other and not harm each other?

We get to talk to each other, but to know one’s story and culture and tradition? There really is no space for that. Now that would be a wonderful new vision or creative approach to how we do the—talk about some holy conferencing, Christian conferencing—that’s Christian conferencing.

It will be interesting to see how even this perfunctory new approach to coming to consensus rather than simply going directly to the vote, how even that tiny change makes a difference.

It’s like the whole birthing process. Everything matters, even if it’s a baby step. Everything matters. Just like when you’re carrying a child. When you’re giving birth, the doctor cannot skip anything . . . every step matters. You have to have the urge, you have to dilate, you have to push; all of those steps of giving birth, as painful—and unique—as they are from one woman to another, matter.

Story Matters

Relationships matter, story matters.

We can talk all the facts and figures about how the population of the church is moving to the southern hemisphere; belief systems in Africa are very different from the belief systems we’ve gotten very comfortable with here in the U.S. There are folks who are educated and incredibly smart who have beliefs we don’t share. That’s part of their culture; it’s just part of who people are. We are never going to say that God can’t do what God’s going to do. If a belief brings you closer to God and closer to other people, what can we learn from that? That’s the key to a worldwide church that our institution is not supporting. We can make the space for people to share their desire to know about one another and create a womb in which we can grow together and develop our new organs as the church is changing. The church has to change. It’s what we’re called to.

To truly embrace the worldwide nature of the church is to be able to learn from each other and inspire each one for a greater faith—a greater service in the world. Traditions and cultures and customs are contextual. At what point does it become a violent act for us—whether it’s the U.S. or not—to determine what is the “right” approach for someone else? That’s one of the efforts that we’re striving toward now. What do we hold together in common, and what is more contextual, where we need to share freedom? We will still challenge and push each other toward God’s greater goodness.

Is it our task to change each other, or is it our task to help each other grow and experience the change that the Holy Spirit is working in us? It is the biggest challenge. Do I show you that I love you and care for you by changing you? Or do I get to know you, and pray for you that God’s work and God’s Spirit will be at work in you for God’s greater good—for you and for the world.

How do we offer that kind of space in an institution that is so locked in place? We appreciate that the Connectional Table is offering this new process. Baby steps are still steps. But that doesn’t feel organic enough. It’s still safe, and almost to an extreme of fireproof—safe.

What will it take and how long will it take? Years.

A long time . . .

It takes nine months to birth a baby.

We didn’t get here yesterday. Consider the whole LGBTQ movement and the frustration—and we totally get the frustration—waiting for so long. When Tracy thinks about us as African Americans, waiting for so long, and we’re regressing, almost like history is repeating. But we’re always in a state of making new history.

So it will take continually working at it, pushing and prodding and challenging. Be emboldened and name it, saying, “This is not enough.” Don’t be OK with it, because then you end up resigning, settling for the status quo and becoming complacent.

But there’s always more to it. If we believe that God’s Spirit is always at work in moving and changing that; that’s where hope comes from. We have to believe that God is not finished with the church, with us, and it ain’t gonna be over ’til God says its over. And that baby’s not gonna come until that baby comes.

We know the cycle is nine months. Or is it really ten months? You can go three weeks past due; you can have a preemie. But God will birth something new.

What if what we’re birthing is the kingdom of God, and it’s going to take until Jesus comes back for that to happen? We are going to be in the womb together for a long time. Are we going to be Jacob and Esau, fighting in the womb all the time?

The Now and the Not Yet

Let’s take it just a step further. Yes, we are in the womb, but there are some births springing forth. Staying in the womb could become a little scary. We know we’re birthing the kingdom, and we’re in God’s hands, and we’re all in there together. But some life is coming out. It’s ongoing and it’s a cycle: you get pregnant, you deliver; you get pregnant, you deliver. So we can talk about the pregnancy of God—that there’s always new birth springing forth—but do we have eyes to see it? Do we have the desire to stay in the womb so that more new life can spring forth?

The whole concept of staying in the womb—the womb being the holy place, the mystery, the kingdom—it’s the now and the not yet. The not yetness is staying in there; the now is new life always springing forth, if we will have eyes to recognize it as new birth. Take JFON (Justice for Our Neighbors), for example. We’re not where we want to be with immigration, but a birth—JFON. We’re not where we want to be with the world in global peace, but a birth—the Connectional Table. You know it’s not the end all and be all, but it’s moving us in the right direction. We had the whole Plan UMC at the last GC; whether or not we agreed on it, the point is we recognize that something needs to be different.

Something was birthed. If that was never birthed, we wouldn’t be having the greater conversations. New life by the power of God’s Spirit is always being birthed because God is the giver of life.

Yes, the activity around Plan UMC has given birth to new conversation about where we need to go. The concern is that the conversation is still about the shape of the womb. It’s not about who’s going to be mama and papa; it’s about the shape of the womb.

And that goes back to God being in charge. That’s what keeps us hopeful, because if we ever lose sight of that, it’s all over. What are we striving for?

Going back to Holy Communion, we must not lose sight that it’s the Holy Spirit’s work, where the sacred is the mystery and the holiness. We don’t want to lose our church history and tradition of the priestly role, but when we professionalize or institutionalize it too much, we do violence—we forget who is the head of this table.

When we talked earlier about people from different cultural perspectives deciding for each other what’s essential and not essential, we used the term violate. And we do violate each other when we assume that we have the answer for anybody, even ourselves.

The beauty of The UMC is that we’re not a creedal church in a sense where one tells another what to think and what to believe. That’s a gift.

At our best, when it comes to respect for the role and position of women, lay and clergywomen alike, we serve in capacities, you know, where in some other institutions a woman would not even hold a place.

We are not perfect, but if we are not sitting at the table, having the conversation, nothing changes. The glory and gift of the UM system is that everybody gets to sit at the table.

We have a responsibility, a social responsibility, for what goes on in Korea or Africa or Europe. Yes, we are our brothers’ keeper. That’s what we love too about The UMC, and it’s also one of our gifts. While we have all the isms and schisms, the gift of the church is that we have, at least, an intended strategy for how we—not fix it, because only God can fix—but address and name it, work toward wholeness. But it’s God who does the fixing.

 

 

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