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Sacred Differences blog: Finishing Reflections pt 2

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Guest written by Laura Taylor from the The Oh Nine.

SAFE, BUT NOT COMFORTABLE PART 2: EXTRAVAGANTLY LOVING

“The gospel doesn't need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors and shouting - welcome! There's bread and wine come eat with us and talk. This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy, it’s a kingdom for the hungry.”
- Rachel Held Evans

 

If you’re just jumping in here, this has been a wee thread of reflections around the theme of diverse, uncomfortable, table of our community. We have discussed the somewhat aspirational vision of a space with no social constructs or divisions, the reality and painful experience of the barriers and pitfalls, the desire to be a space of safety but perhaps not comfort, and  for this final post I want to look at something slightly different, being a reckless loving community. 

We recently had some members from Celebrate Recovery (our 12-step recovery programme) get up and share some of their journey with us. And I sat there bawling my eyes out (surprising both myself and the people beside me). In front of me was such a raw, real manifestation of what it looked like to feel totally safe, in a recklessly loving community. Where there was no fear (ok maybe a tiny bit) of failing, no stature to lose or rungs to fall from, but absolutely everything to gain. Here were six people, choosing to open up to their community that they had been broken in some way by addiction, and are bent on using it to help anyone else brave enough to hope for recovery. Because who better to offer solace in the journey, than those who know the joy of recovery? Teju Cole, an incredible journalist, writes “hope has nothing to do with mood or objective facts, but is rather a form of hospitality offered by those who are tired to those who are exhausted”. 

I remember before I came to Central Vineyard, I had heard it tossed around it was a place being gravitated to by people who were ‘burnt-out’. We are a community full of tired people, who have been exhausted. Exhausted by religiosity, bureaucracy, legalism, sexism, racism. And as a once exhausted people, we have now found ourselves sitting around the table, and being asked to open it on up. Better yet - to burst through the doors and sing welcome! Oh you too have been exhausted by these things? You too have been heartbroken? You too have been crushed? Come and sit, you have a place here. We are called to be recklessly loving, recklessly hospitable and to do that we need to be a community totally unafraid of filling our room with the wrong people.

Because the thing is, exhausted people, broken people, people whose shiny exterior has been ruthlessly diminished  see things that the whole ones can’t see. It’s when we are crushed, uprooted and thrown into liminal, trying spaces that we shift our value to, as Nouwen says, “the gift of life that has revealed itself in the midst of all the losses”. The bible is full of it, blessed are those who flat-on-their-face mourn. I have been reading an incredible journal, The Theology of the Disabled, which shares a myriad of lived experiences from the disabled community and what the concept of healing looks like within a christian framework - and this quote stayed with me “through grace, weakness becomes strength, as a gift to a community. The christological paradox of strength being revealed in weakness to deliver a wholeness which otherwise would not be, challenges and transcends human notions of weakness and wholeness as God works all things together for good.”

I recently wrote this piece, in it sharing some of my own learnings from a time of loss; “Sometimes during those two years in hospital when I needed a break, I’d go to the big floor-to-ceiling windows on Level Eight and watch the traffic below on Park Road. The cars would build up around 7pm, and I would watch people sitting bumper to bumper, little gold and red lights nudging each other.  It would ground me to think the world was still flickering out there, people on their way home, planning things for their weekend, for Easter, heck, being able to have plans in general. But the strange thing was, I both envied and empathised with them. I longed for the normalcy of their lives, but felt they were also somehow missing out on the intangible rawness that seemed to present only in the face of heart-wrenching pain. Now I know, as C.S. Lewis superbly describes, ‘it is often in places of discomfort our little happinesses start to resemble broken toys’, that the veil is lifted. Getting uprooted popped my head above the water, and I knew that something had cracked in me. That I wouldn’t be able to just float anymore.”

I could no longer float because I had been broken. I peered behind the curtain. Or to be honest, the curtain had been ripped from its railing and lay in bitter shreds on the floor. And while I would not revisit that suffocatingly bleak period in a hurry, through it and through the overwhelming love made apparent to me in that time - I was gifted sight. And I want to be part of a community of people who see. Who have seen. Who are not defined by or dwell in their broken, sinful, painful moments but are willing to be loved and used in spite of them. Because of them. We all win when, as Nouwen says, hostility is converted into hospitality “for then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them”. 

I didn’t know it when I moved in, but my flat falls in the centre of an area focused on by an intentional community - and I freaking love it. They operate by generously loving their neighbours and meeting needs, physical, emotional and spiritual. One of my good friends is an active member of the community - and I asked her what it looks like, practically, to live in this recklessly loving way; “The thing is, safety isn't created by laws and rules (like a lot of us christians love to impose on each other). It is created by listening and time and generosity. It is loving, but in new ways. Not being nice - but truly loving. I think learning how to have conversations about things in a loving manner, with no agenda but to hear each other and just listen is super important. Conversations are possibly the most important part of doing church. Through them, you start to understand that you are loved beyond difference, and in fact that your differences are SUPER important and valuable and beautiful”.

Let us be a place to have the conversations. To go out on a limb, as we are compelled to in 1 Corinthians, and extravagantly love. I mentioned above the journal I had been reading, and this quote in particular is from a reflection on God’s use of the disabled to usher in his kingdom and it absolutely gives me the shivers so I think it’s a good place to land this baby. “God does not heal people in order to bring them into His service, God does not try to overcome diversity by homogenizing human beings, the people whom God calls are blessed and used precisely as they are”. 


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Sacred Differences blog: Finishing Reflections pt 1

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Guest written by Laura Taylor from the The Oh Nine.

SAFE, BUT NOT COMFORTABLE PART 1: FLAT-LADDER LIVING


“Imagine if church became a place where everyone is safe, but nobody is comfortable”
- Rachel Held Evans

 

If you haven't caught on already - this series was all about who is welcome at the table (spoiler, its everyone). In the opening post, we discussed this idea of uncomfortable, diverse community, and continuing in theme, this instalment is around the concept of  ‘flat-ladder living’. This idea that we are called to be a community that does not operate within social constructs and divisions, but instead an even-keeled playing field, with no boundaries to entry or rungs to climb. I think it is summed up beautifully in this quote from Searching for Sunday our differences matter, but ultimately, the boundaries we build between one another are but accidental fences in the endless continuum of God’s grace”.

Despite best intentions - the church is a loaded space for many. We would be ignorant to brush over the hurts that historically and presently push people away, and more painfully that have been used globally by the church to keep people out.  As much as we would like to think the ladder is flattened - there are rungs, barriers and assumptions that really nothing but the lived experience, and being open to listening to that, can teach us.

Take, for example, the role of women in the church.  Amanda Pilbrow is a member of the Central Vineyard community, who for years served in church ministry. I asked her to share candidly some of her experience in leadership;  “To be completely honest, the only people who know how difficult is to be a woman in ministry are the women themselves – they are the ones in the ring fighting to be there and yet getting the abuse from the spectators…. when the issue is raised, many are taken aback - disbelieving that ‘women in ministry’ is still an issue, assuming that those in the ring (so to speak) are being over sensitive or forgetful of just ‘how far’ the church has progressed. But the proof sadly is in the pudding. Just last week I heard of another young lady, theologically trained, presenting her very first, and apparently brilliant sermon. Afterwards, when the coast was clear, a man handed her a folded piece of paper and left. It read: “A woman’s place is not to teach – God will not bless you or this church if you continue.” 

If you are reading this contemplating whether or not this is still an issue faced by women, it only takes watching this video to see how deeply ingrained sexism and prejudice is within the church system  - despite the fact that methodist churches have been endorsing females in leadership for five decades. And it sits across a spectrum. In my own life there are the less-harmful and now kind of funny stories, like when I was called up by a well-meaning older lady on how I dressed when I sung on the worship team. I was told that jeans weren’t appropriate...but neither was anything on or above my knee. I went to Glassons searching for what I could only describe as an Gloriavale-esque skirt and came up short, ironically. And then there are the slightly more sinister ones, like when I was 14 and IM’d on MSN  - the OG messenger - by an older male member of the worship team two decades my senior, who told me he had a thing for blondes.  No matter where they sit on the spectrum, every block, barrier and uphill battle desecrates a space that should be safe, but at times can resemble a warzone.

And there are other rungs or perceived barriers of other natures too. I was chatting recently to a friend about the concept of ‘visible sin’ - the kind that is public knowledge and the visceral reaction that comes with ‘wearing’ it.  She shared with me her experience as a young adult going through a divorce, within her own church community. “I don’t know If I ever felt unsafe in church, just lonely. There were some kind people who came and talked to me, but most seemed to feel too uncomfortable around me. I had a few close friends that did an amazing job of walking alongside me in this difficult journey. However some did the exact opposite. Everyone in the church community was so for my marriage to work, that they forgot to be there for me. It’s almost as if people felt if they sat with me, listened, prayed and showed love towards what I was experiencing, that it meant they agreed with my decision to divorce, and therefore they were tied to my sin.  Unfortunately in my experience, some people can pass a lot of judgement and more importantly - don’t know how to journey with you.”

Journeying in the depths with and alongside the ‘other’ is not an original idea. In Corinthians - Paul instructs that “there is to be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another”. He was calling the early church into a way of living where all members were one body, when one suffered they all suffered and they could no longer show preference or selectivity for who they cared for. What would it look like if we were a community to live without division as Paul suggests? How do we champion, encourage and enable flat-ladder living? I’ll go out on a limb and say that the first baby step is being unafraid of doing a Jesus and meeting at the well, at the lake, at the dinner party. Entering in and holding space with our community. 

I  mentioned in the last post our multi-generational home group, and I will never forget when one of our members came along and hesitantly shared something they hadn’t been able to anywhere else, fearful of judgment. And for a brief second, I looked around the room hesitant to see the reaction. But all I saw were tears in everyone’s eyes of pride and compassion as we sat on the floor next to them, hugging and gathering around to pray. That kind of deep, unconditional love doesn’t just happen. We put effort into building and creating a space that was safe, in all senses of the word. Safe to share, safe to step up, safe to fail.  It takes travelling together, and nurturing a deep love for the other - and in moments like that, when you are part of a journey, it is unbelievably worth it.

In the video mentioned above, a group of male pastors are left in a state of shock over the comments that have been said to their female colleagues. Some are despondent, some are fired up, some are speechless.  I am hoping, (team relentlessly positive over here) that none of them went home from filming that day and walked back into their lives passively. As we have seen recently with the Me-Too movement, silence is a much an oppressor as any. Silence creates divides, it negates the need for challenge, it provides a breeding ground for self-doubt and loneliness.  So for the conflict averse (guilty) I’m sorry to say it but we are also challenged to speak up when we see a barrier go up. After all - Paul calls us not only to love, but to challenge the powers and structures that cause suffering and dissention. 

And finally, we need to become a community that is unafraid to hold the tension of differing ideas and opinions. As  Alice Miller describes in one of her studies: “It’s not only the ‘beautiful’ and ‘good’ feelings that make us really alive, deepen our existence and give us crucial insight, but often precisely the ones from which we would prefer to escape. Helplessness, shame, envy, rage, grief, confusion - when these feelings are understood they open the door for our inner world that is much richer than ‘beautiful countenance’.

After all, none of us are wholly one thing. I love in the Ragamuffin Gospel when Brendon Manning discusses being a bundle of paradoxes, a fully human being who all at one time has the capacity to hope, doubt, hate, love, feel bad about feeling good. So If you are reading this, and you were brought up being told every Sunday that women can’t speak in church and you are struggling to see where this article coming from - that is ok. Please, don’t grapple alone in silence. We tautoko you to reach out and graciously say  - “I just don’t understand, but I’m open to talking”. We need to commit to creating a table where these ideas can be discussed, debated and held, and where shame isn’t a factor, where everyone is safe, but not comfortable. 

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Sacred Differences blog: Uncomfortable Community

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Guest written by Laura Taylor from the The Oh Nine.

Over Queens Birthday, I held an ‘orphans’ dinner for anyone stranded here for the long weekend. When putting the word out I completely relinquished control of the guest list, and we ended up with 30 people crammed into my flat. It got meeeessy - cousins, flatmates and neighbours all bumping knees and glasses - but something magic happened. I watched as people arrived and did a double take as it dawned on them this was a mostly unfamiliar room of...others.

Imagine if church became a place where everyone is safe, but nobody is comfortable” - Rachel Held Evans

The concept of being uncomfortable is something I have been becoming familiar with, at least over the past five years. I started my first job as the only pākehā in my team at an indigenous broadcaster. I then walked in as an ill-informed and equally sheltered church girl to manage the marketing for arguably the world's most liberal media company. I grappled with the immense imbalance between the able-bodied and disabled societal experience when my boyfriend at the time became a wheelchair user. I kept getting uprooted and then placed into communities and scenarios that in all honesty I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen for myself. And while they sure as hell didn’t keep me comfortable, each time I found myself leaving with a new layer of empathy and understanding.

It is often in places of discomfort when, as C.S. Lewis superbly describes “our little happinesses start to resemble broken toys” that the veil is lifted. On his years spent at a disabled facility, Daybreak, Henri Nouwen wrote “when I think of my own pain, inner unrest and turmoil, I think not of how God brought me to sheltered place isolated from pain. On the contrary, nowhere can I better see hardship than among people who have suffered. I have been surrounded by people in great and inevitable need. And still, nowhere have I celebrated so much or so richly. When we celebrate together, we do not marshal degrees, prizes or promotions but rather that the gift of life has revealed itself in the midst of all the losses”.

Divinity meets humanity

I grew up with a pretty warped idea of love, it was always just quite out of my grasp (anxious/avoidant attachers you feel me). I longed to fall in love and finally ‘feel home’, but when the opportunity presented itself, it felt like a show-home; one I couldn’t quite believe I deserved. So I would hold it lightly, scared that if I clung to it, if I wanted it too much, it would shatter, all broken glass and splintered door frames. And when ultimately the walls that had housed me and the warmth that had healed me splattered and burst before my eyes, combusting quickly in the flash-fire of two people clumsily trying to work out whether or not they could share this space, it would confirm that message - you aren’t good enough.

Which was the narrative I told myself for most of my adolescent life, and the more I talk to people, seems to be the shared experience of many young people in the church. Which really is just nuts considering the bible is littered with stories of Prodigal love, of divinity meeting humanity. God seems to constantly show up in the broken/uncomfortable/insert-dissonant-adjective-here to be with the very people who have a definitive lack. Everyone’s favourite German, Jürgen Moltmann writes on this “in a civilisation that glorifies success and happiness and is blind to the sufferings of others, people’s eyes can be opened to the truth if they remember that at the centre of the christian faith stands an unsuccessful, tormented Christ, dying in forsakenness.”

Amongst the difference, amidst the brokenness, when we long to deeply, truly know the other, that is when we start to discern just how deeply and truly we too are known. I couldn’t know His grace until I fell from it, I couldn’t realise His strength until I was floored by my own inability, I hadn’t experienced the freedom of forgiveness until I was deeply hurt.

As Rachel Held Evans puts perfectly - “He shows us how to enter into a way of life in which the broken and sick pieces are held together in a way of love, in which strangers literally touch each other and in doing so make a community spacious enough for everyone”. It’s time to grow the heck up and start listening to our other. Let go of the accommodating narratives that keep us comfortable, flag the ‘my-perfect-wife-in-the-front-row-and-two-kids’ daydream and instead be honest that if we haven't experienced brokenness yet, we probably will soon, so let’s just wrap our arms around each other and really try this love thing.

And it’s not easy, opening yourself up to love another really hurts. That’s the risk of asking to be known. It’s admitting that you care, and that it would cost you something to lose this person. It is fighting through awkward, uncomfortable and sometimes outright humiliating conversations when letting go would honestly just be easier. Again Henri writes “loving someone means allowing the other person to respond in ways you have no control over. For the great mystery of love is that while it can be received it can also be rejected, every time you love you enter into the risk of love”.

It is a self-giving, sacrificial, deeply vulnerable gift. But I’m convinced it is at the same time a work of art and the most natural thing we could ever do. It is the calling and desire of our heart and to mourn the loss of it, does not mean it was never there, or won’t be again. We don’t float in and out of love as much as God doesn’t float in and out of the sky to dabble here and there. Love is always here, love is in our blood and our bones cry out to give it.

Loving the other

I go to a homegroup and I often think about how on paper, it’s completely nuts. Amongst others, we have the husband who makes hilariously inappropriate comments, the beautiful mum who is full of wisdom, the dearly-loved dad who a few weeks ago asked what ‘lol’ means (wait not lots of love?!)  thrown in with a couple of students and burnt-out millenials who gather biweekly around a coffee table and a plate of Mint Slices joined together by one common purpose - to truly love one another. It’s not smooth, there are mismatched beliefs and uncomfortable moments but over the past four years we have carried one another through real crap. At some point, and I couldn’t tell you when, we stopped seeing age and stage and became a family. And it is the most pure and beautiful thing I have ever been a part of.

What if the next step, for all of us, is both as simple and mind-bendingly complex as loving the other. In whatever space, romantic, familial, friend, we all just commit to being out here, walking each other home with grit and willingness and most of all propelled by grace. That’s the kind of church we all could get on board with.

“We created something precious, together, in the midst of very dark times. Is that not what love is all about? - Jared Noel

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