Video Recorded in Cincinnati Ohio at the BMC Inclusive Worship during COB Annual Conference 2018
Speaking: Elizabeth Ullery Swenson founding pastor of WildWood Gathering Church of the Brethren.
To read more from Elizabeth visit her blog.
I had the opportunity this spring to sit in a large circle of people while several folks shared their version of the story of my call to ministry. They shared about the first time they asked me if I had thought about a call to ministry or thought about attending seminary. The sharing these experiences came out of the Pacific Northwest District conversation with Annual Conference moderator and moderator-elect following the recognition of WildWood Gathering as a fellowship at Annual Conference last summer. It seemed that a new and thriving ministry in the pacific northwest that happened to be led by an openly queer woman was offensive to some and so letters were written, phone calls were made, threats were thrown, statements were issued. And this spring, a gathered body of fifty or so folks from the Pacific Northwest district were asked to share why or how the district came to the decision to disregard the Annual Conference statement on the licensing and ordination of homosexual persons. Many people shared from their personal stories of transformation, they shared of the district’s experience discerning the ordination of an openly gay man in the 80’s. They shared from their congregation’s experience becoming open and affirming. I was proud and humbled to hear the folks from my district speak with such clarity and grounding. But it was hearing pieces of my call story as told through someone else’s perspective, that has stuck with me the most.
What does it mean to be called?
I, like many of us, avoided, ignored, and ran from a call to ministry for a long time. Each time I was approached, I would kindly laugh it off, knowing that as an openly queer woman I wasn’t willing to walk down that path yet. Each time I would recall standing in the back of the convention hall in Louisville, Kentucky in 2002 listening to the delegate body discuss and vote on the statement on the Licensing/Ordination of Homosexual Persons. At 15 years old I already knew that what was taking place on the conference floor was going to be a part of my story too.
We’re all called to do lots of things. Called to join a committee, called to leadership, we can have calls of vocation and a call leading us to pivotal relationships in our lives. And we can be called to do something and we can ignore it, run away from it, to a point. I’ve come to think that being called is only half the story, we have to be compelled too. We have to be compelled act too, compelled to claim our call.
The Cannonite woman was certainly compelled as she disregarded cultural expectations of her time to help her child. A version of this story is also told by the author of Mark, where she is known as the more accurate political designation, Syrophoenician. It is important to know that wether we call her Canaanite or Syrophonecian, the woman was not jewish, and so it would have been culturally forbidden for her to talk to Jesus or for Jesus and the disciples to talk to her. Jesus and the disciples were raised within Jewish culture to see non-jews as inferior and unclean. Not to mention she is also a woman! She certainly would have known this and yet, still she cries out, one translator uses the word squawks, yells, she is distraught and begging for Jesus’s attention. Jesus and the disciples ignore her, until the disciples can’t stand it anymore and they begin to beg Jesus to send her away. Jesus turns to the woman and says, my ministry is not for you, my ministry is only for the “chosen people” the “people of Israel”, my ministry is only for the Jewish people. Ouch. None the less, the Canaanite woman is compelled to persist. She throws herself to the ground, prostrating herself, crying out for Jesus to answer her.
There is no way to sugar coat it, Jesus’s response is cold and unkind. “it isn't right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus just called this women’s sick child a dog, and not the cute fluffy kind either. Dogs were scavengers and they certainly weren’t pets in Jewish households. But those who weren’t Jewish would have been more likely to have dogs as household pets. This cultural difference may help contextualize the women’s response, “but even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table.” The women who was different, both religiously and culturally, an outsider, someone deemed unclean just schooled Jesus, just called our his prejudice.
Jesus responds; “woman you have great faith” and offers a blessing and healing for her daughter. A woman, an outsider, a non-jew, someone cast aside, someone who does not have a seat at the table, is compelled to challenge Jesus’s assumptions, challenges his bias and for it, Jesus calls her faithful. It is through her action, her persistence, that we see Jesus change. We glimpse this rich moment of not only seeing Jesus’s humanity, but also seeing that if Jesus can have his heart and mind challenged and changed then there it is absolutely possible for the rest of us.
These past weeks as we’ve seen renewed news coverage of the immigrants, refugees and those seeking asylum at the US/Mexico boarder, particularly families and young children. I am reminded of a poem written by Warsan Shire, a Somali immigrant, reflecting on the refugees fleeing Syria.
“no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles traveled
means something more than journey.”
I cannot imagine anything more compelling that seeking safety for my child. I cannot imagine what that must feel like. I can’t imagine what it must take to risk everything, and yet, I doubt I would think twice when it comes to the safety and wholeness of my child. It seems to me that to be compelled is to be willing to take a great risk. It forces us, requires us, to change or be changed. We cannot be compelled and remain the same. Anais Nin writes, “the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
I spent a long time running from my call to ministry, until it became more painful to remain the same, remain unchanged, it became more painful to avoid the risk then it took to step into it. I came to realize that to be called is the easy part. The Pacific Northwest District, if I can speak for us all, has been compelled to offer expansive welcome to all God’s people, to recognize the gifts for ministry of all of God’s people, to extend a wide welcome without contingency because we believe that this is want it means to live into the Kin-dom of God. While it may not appear to be life and death in the same way the Syrophoneian woman was compelled or the families who are risking everything for safety, to be compelled to start a church, to support a church, to dream of a denomination that is a sanctuary of spiritual safety is enormously important. Our spiritual health and wholeness is just as important as our physical health and safety.
I have one last story. I volunteer every Tuesday morning to facilitate a support group for LGBTQ teens at a local high school. Pizza Klatch provides pizza and facilitators in all of the high schools in our county offering a safe space for queer youth to find support, encouragement and community. When I started volunteering there was one student whose very conservative parents were threatening to pull them out of school if they continued to attend pizza klatch. During our weekly check-ins they shared that they had been blindfolded and driven to a “repartive therapy” camp, their pastor had tried to “pray the gay” our of them, they were sent to bed without food, horrific things. They continued to come to pizza klatch, even though other students had been instructed to “keep tabs” on them. We did everything we could to support this student. I don’t have to tell you, I was incredibly worried about them. Queer youth are almost five times as likely to attempt suicide then straight youth, and so yes, in a way this work, this call to expansive and abundant welcome and affirmation is life and death. Last spring they took their parents to court seeking emancipation. They were compelled to persevere, compelled to claim their identity and to know their inherent worth. Without support and encouragement from their parents the student graduated high school this spring and are headed to college. I am compelled by their bravery, strength, and tenacity.
So, What does it mean for you to be compelled? When have you been compelled?What are you willing to risk to live into a compelling call? I invite you to turn to someone nearby and reflect briefly.
I invite you to talk more about what compels you. And know that each on of the congregations in this room that have taken the steps to be open and affirming, to join SCN, you are compelled. You have a compelling vision.
After years of avoiding, brushing off and dodging a call to ministry, something shifted and I could no longer remain tight in a bud. As I moved from called to compelled I was blessed to have a district support and encourage me. Who offered me licensing without question, who have spiritually, physically, financially supported my dream for a new faith community in WildWood Gathering. And they have stood grounded in teachings of Jesus compelling them towards inclusion and expansive affirmation. If Jesus can have his heart and mind changed by a women who was compelled, what could be possible if we stepped into and fully claimed what compels us, not as a vision for an institution, but as a compelling call from God.