Unity

We had been in Pretoria for a few months. One of my best friends was visiting and we threw a party to introduce her to our small social circle. To reach our house, you needed to drive through a gated community guarded by armed men at a checkpoint on the main road below. The road climbed, opening out into landscaped grounds maintained by a small army of staff who also looked after the family that owned and lived in the six other houses on this mini estate.

It was more than the usual awkward start. As the locals arrived, some were visibly surprised to meet us as a couple for the first time.  This was 1998, after all. Apartheid was still firmly embedded in the culture. So we were a shock, as our fellow expats had to explain to us. Interracial marriage was still a crime for South Africans. The shock was mutual. My friend and I watched in amazement as the locals naturally segregated themselves, forming clusters by race around the lounge room and around the pool. We had a few stilted conversations while people tried to work out how to talk to us as a couple and I realised that this policy of separation had done its work well. Only the expats moved freely.

So we said our awkward welcomes, offered drinks, made introductions and watched people collect with their own kind. Then we had a power cut. The lights went out, the music died and there we all were – black, white, mixed-race, locals, foreigners. Indistinguishable in the dark.  All stuck there in this fancy hilltop house on a hot summer night, trying to find our way to the food and drink, seeing the funny side. Our guests gathered around the candles and torches we quickly found and began sharing blackout stories. There was a splash outside, followed by shouting and laughter. Someone had walked into the pool.

After a while the power came back on. Once we had lights and music the party was on.

I think of this often. It’s one of my favourite memories from that time. And the conversations that followed for months afterwards. People meeting and connecting with others they had never socialised with. Finding common ground, friendship.

I am working in an organisation now that prizes unity in the church. In those awkward conversations I have with those who distrust or dislike seeing different expressions of church honouring each other, I think I see the same pattern as at this party.  Stick to your own kind. Play safe. Those people over there are not like us.

What’s true is that we are like them and they are like us, if we believe and trust Jesus. And we are also different. We are, I dare to say, meant to be different. To take slightly different roles. See things slightly differently, even. The eyes in our heads don’t see from the same angle. We need them both to see correctly. The church is the body of Christ, a complex organism, not all ear or eye or hand – let alone the systems that sustain it. We all need each part of it to function healthily.

Paul writes to the Philippians that the focus should be on progress, ‘pressing ahead to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me,’ at the same time acknowledging that others may see things differently and trusting God to make things clear to them.

It seems a difficult thing to do, but where it happens, the largeness and the mystery of God becomes both more obvious and less ominous. I can more easily believe that Jesus really does have a place for me when I see the place of others who are not like me or each other. As I learn to work and worship with believers from different parts of the church, I am challenged and enriched by new language, approaches, and practices.  My prejudices are exposed as unloving and parochial. I am growing.

 

 

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Yikes! I just preached!

Yes way. This last Sunday. I stood up and preached from Romans 12 1 – 2. And the sky did not fall in. Nobody got up and left. Or threw anything, or shouted heretic.

They were all quite nice about it actually.

And despite the sleepless nights and the 8 or 9 versions that I wrote before it was delivered, I really REALLY enjoyed it. Even writing that down seems like a big deal. I have learned to censor myself too much. I sound like a Jane Austen character. One of the demure, boring sisters. Maybe because sometimes that’s what I still think I’m meant to be. It’s hard to shake the idea that that’s what Godly looks like. Like a Victorian child, seen and not heard.

I said in a previous post this was my year of saying Yes. And no. No doubt I’ve got it mixed up a bit along the way but it was with a sense of daring bordering on recklessness that I said yes when asked if I would preach while one of our ministers was on paternity leave. It was like an out-of-body experience. I watched myself say yes quickly without agonising and then, having said yes, I watched myself not agonise about having said yes to such a stand-up-the-front-and-make-everyone-listen-to-you-for-twenty-minutes thing. I just went on with my life until it was time to prepare. Who was this strange relaxed woman who had invaded my body?

I figured she’d taken the night before the service off because I was very much back in charge then. I spent a while letting all kinds of weird scenarios process through my head like some kind of carnival parade. My insecurities were jumping up in my face like our overexcited dog. Then this question cut through the noise: how did you get here and how do you really feel? Deep down, out of sight of the pointing fingers and turned backs in your imagination. That was God. I have no doubt. As I pondered the question, I realised that deep down, I felt neither stress nor anxiety, but excitement. I was buzzing, but feeling somehow wrong about it. A blog I’ve found recently by Jory Micah may have helped me knock the last few nails in the coffin of why girls can’t preach, but it was still hard to shake the feeling that I was having altogether too much fun even thinking about doing it.

When I was a child our vicar, a lovely man called Graham Hayles, would describe how God would give him bits and pieces to add to his sermon as the week went on, in events and unexpected conversations with people as he went about his pastoral work, or shopping or gardening or whatever. He would talk about insights that came as he observed things around him. I remember that I loved hearing about that, thinking how cool it must be. Just to think about and observe the world and see what God is saying today to reinforce and explain the ancient texts of scripture for us today. Strange thing for a young girl to enjoy, but there you are.

Now fast forward exty-ex years to last Saturday. Here I was about to do just that. To preach God’s word, illustrated by my own insights, coincidences and random events, which had been accumulating for weeks like the dustbunnies under my bed. My fears and anxieties melted away as I realised that God had orchestrated this whole event. I did not ask to speak but was asked. I only had to do my part and leave the rest up to him. It went well. I felt calm. Very, very calm. They even laughed at my jokes.

It was only after I sat down that I began to shake.