Friday, November 29, 2013

The "more excellent way" to meet together across our human divisions!

As we begin Advent, let us dream of true Christian community, in which we can meet across the differences of sexual orientation and other issues that may divide us. There is a “more excellent way” than our current sustained fights over doctrinal issues within the church. That way is to listen together with scripture. Deep community will emerge.

In the book, A Quiet Pentecost, Marianne Chalstrom describes the power of sustained work with scripture for an ecumenical group of women who explored scripture story through a variety of imaginative processes:

I developed this class out of years of pastoral experience and frustrated observation that all too often churches succeed at Christianizing people without really moving them toward inward transformation that helps them become more loving and Christlike. Yet it’s the latter task that the Gospels attest is possible; the texts themselves carry that power when opened with the imagination (heart) engaged. That has been true in my own life and throughout my ministry.

I invited nine women to my home, representing three churches and two denominations. We were a diverse group, spanning three generations, some lesbian, some straight. 
This small group had two aims:
1. teach life-transforming ways of reading the Gospel, inviting participants to engage the imagination in various ways;
2. build community as we came together to share our experience with the text during the week.

Some questions we hoped to address in the course of this group experience were:
1. How can reading these familiar texts become new in my experience?
2. How can scripture reading, the Gospel passages in particular, lead me to new levels of personal growth and healing?
3. How can reading the Gospel accounts help me be a better follower of Jesus?

Resources I drew upon in writing this course were Morton Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence; and John Sanford, The Kingdom Within.

I gave participants a list of different ways to read scripture engaging imagination, called “methods of reading the Bible for transformation.” Some of these are basic journaling techniques, such as “Write a letter to one of the story participants,” or “Imagine yourself as one of the persons in the account and write about it.” Some of them are traditional reflection practices such as lectio divina. The process was simple: each week we all read the same Gospel text, then reflected on it using the method of our own choosing. The group process was also simple. After a brief invocation asking the Holy Spirit’s blessing and guidance, we read the text together to bring it before us, then I opened the conversation with something like “Who has something to share about how this text impacted your life this week? What method did you use and how did it work for you?” Then we all listened as one by one individuals offered what they were comfortable sharing with the group. People asked questions for clarification or affirmed something they identified with; but doctrine and opinion as such were not part of the conversation.

    The power of the experience exceeded our expectations: as people got into reading the Gospels for themselves with open mind and open heart, they began to experience God’s presence in new ways. Even more astounding was the sense of community that grew in a short time among previous strangers. As we began sharing life experience on a fairly deep level around these Gospel stories, we learned that what we had in common as women was much deeper and stronger than any differences we had.

This experience has been a great encouragement to me spiritually. My main support has been the other pastor in the group. We would meet and debrief following most of the sessions. In the last session of the group we served Holy Communion together. Her encouragement has been a great support during difficult times.

This study group experimented with different ways of relating to scripture with profound results. The group also experienced what is normative for shared experiences of lectio divina—they created a bond of mutual respect that transcends differences of denomination, theological perspectives, generations, and sexual orientation.

This is “meeting together in Christ.”

This Advent, let us commit to fostering this work of deep respect, as we indeed seek to "meet together in Christ."