Mission and Ministry Commission Gathers to Retreat: Rest and Reflection Lead to Listening and Seeing a Deeper Community.

by The Rev. Terri Ofori
Ministry and Mission Commission Chaplain

"It is because one antelope will blow the dust from the other's eye that the two antelopes walk together"- African Proverb.

This is one of my favorite African proverbs because it describes the critical role of community in fostering insight, awareness and unity.   When we come together as members of the body of Christ, the Holy Spirit lovingly blows the dust from our eyes as we learn to live and love together.

I have been to the Sahara Desert and experienced a desert sand storm. Sand dust hurts. It hurt so much that I wanted to take my eye out! That is how the process of transformation feels at times, especially when it involves diverse groups of people. Learning to listen, love and live together is no small task when we are doing this with people who think, see and hear differently. It hurts sometimes. However, when we get past the tears, and look and listen with spiritual ears and eyes, we are ultimately transformed into the new creation that Christ promised.   The spiritual dust is removed from our eyes when we have our individual “aha” moments. When you say the word “aha” it sounds as if you are breathing.   We open ourselves up to having “aha” moments or serendipitous clarity when we allow ourselves the stillness to breathe. The dust is blown from our eyes. We can perceive and see the familiar with fresh eyes.

During this time of heightened anxiety in the PC(USA), as we move together through shifting sands, many of us have dust in our eyes. We are stumbling over each other trying to find our way through a sandstorm of ambiguity and re-formation. We are, after all, Reformed and called to always reform.

Since this is our tradition, why are we afraid of being re-formed? Is it possible that the things we see as roadblocks and detours may in fact be redirection to a new way forward? Change is all around us, in the church and the world. The good news is that so much change is bound to produce transformation. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a long way to go to keep up with the rapid pace of societal change but we are still re-forming and moving forward.

While our denomination is examining the function and viability of mid-councils, I am most grateful for the sense of community and the sacred space that the Synod of the Northeast has provided me and its community. Although a critical eye toward hierarchy and bureaucracy in the church is much needed, there is a call for us to remind ourselves that we are a priesthood of all believers. However, as it relates to our synods, an over-simplified move to reduce their ministry to a game of numbers may be the result of years in the blowing sands of change. If the Synod of the Northeast were to be removed or flattened, we would risk erasing both the historical legacy and contemporary opportunities for ministry and mission that the Synod provides. One of these opportunities I have found is for racial ethnic leadership development that is often not available in our presbyteries or congregations.

Last week, members of the Synod Mission and Ministry Commission came together in a retreat to rest and reflect. The purpose of the retreat was to build deeper community with an awareness and appreciation for the variety of ways we gather as gospel communities.   We reflected on our journey on the New Way Forward thus far and where we are headed. We came together to listen, to be quiet, to be ourselves, to be healed and to just be. We shared our stories and intentions and held them in our hearts as if they were seeds waiting for water to germinate. We meditated on the scripture found in Isaiah 43: 19

For I am about to do something new.     See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness.     I will create rivers in the dry wasteland. (NLT)

We practiced prayerful listening with each other, learning how to voice our concerns through the process of mutual invitation. We created sacred space and took the time to process what was heard. This posture of prayerful listening is vital to a healthy community where God’s beloved children dwell. It is not merely hearing the words that are coming from each others mouths but listening with the ears of our hearts.

Connection to the Larger Church

As the dust clears, can we begin to think creatively about real, meaningful transformation of our structure? Instead of simply flattening hierarchies, could we find ways to round out our structures to become more holistic? Could we find ways to build bridges for the marginalized to walk across? In this way, instead of retracting our vision, we could reframe it. Rather than viewing resources from a perspective of scarcity, could we look for the existing abundance among us and reevaluate what God is calling us to do? We are far richer than we often think, and not just financially. We are gifted with people, communities, and the Holy Spirit who fills people with the prospect to be renewed, regenerated and refreshed. Indeed we can make more room at the table knowing that there is enough for everyone to eat.

My experience in ministry teaches me that the answers to life are not discovered by simply examining the doctrines of our faith tradition, but by listening to and understanding the contextual narrative, or the life stories, of those in our community. Ironically, in order to see clearly, we must first learn to listen.   We can hear most clearly when we pray and meditate, especially in community.   Prayer and meditation generates the hallowed environment to receive insight and instruction and to perceive what is taking place in our lives and community.

When we listen, not only do we find that we have more than we think, we find that we have what we need in each other. The reciprocity of sharing our stories and listening is a way of giving and receiving grace that allows us to glean wisdom from the parables of our lives. Inherent within congregations and communities are narratives that, when collected and examined, can be used as models for appropriating a “hermeneutic of listening” that can lead to transformation.

The New Way Forward

In the opening statement of the New Way Forward you will find the phrases like these:

  • listen to the hopes and concerns of group and individuals
  • learning in community
  • from governance and administration to mission
  • authentic access
  • pray, reflect and discern together

The Synod of the Northeast has committed to be a learning community. However, listening precedes learning. This is a powerful intention for a community of privileged proclaimers of the gospel, many of whom are accustomed to telling people what to do and how to be. The willingness for those in power and privilege to initiate a conversation where they don’t dominate the discussion is radical hospitality, especially for those who are marginalized and sometimes invisible. I am certain that if we learn from this example and maintain the posture of prayerful listening and learning, our congregations and communities will be able to think again and to perceive and see what God is already doing among us.

We are new re–creations in Christ and we can best discover this during recreation (re-creation). The recent Synod retreat provided a sacred space for reflection and unencumbered re-formation. It is vitally important for leaders to spend time re-creating the space to hear God, themselves, and each other.

So, what is the New Way Forward? It is us. With the dust gently blown from our eyes by the Spirit, we must be the change that we want to see in our churches and denominations. As Christians we are called to examine old veracities through a new lens, to wipe the sand from each others eyes, and to change as we live into this proverb. We are called to view each other from a new perspective, from the perspective of Christ. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view, even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.” 2 Corinthians 5:16. We are not to allow ourselves to be thrown off by race, gender, class, age, sexual orientation or any of the cloaks and labels that hide our sacred humanity.   We are to look at each other with renewed eyesight as new creations in Christ. When we change our perceptions, we are able to truly listen to the voices of others. Then we are able to change the way we think and finally we are able to change ourselves.  It is only when we see each other in this way that we can work together in new ways and move forward with the process of becoming the beloved community.

For I am about to do something new.     See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness.     I will create rivers in the dry wasteland. Isiah 43:19 (NLT)