**The website host has removed the option to upload audio...I'm very annoyed. So while I' try to find a work around here is the text of my reflection.**
Two weeks ago, Lucy and I traveled along with my parents and over 2,000 of our denominational church family to Grand Rapids Michigan, for what some lovingly call the Family Reunion. Its also called the “Big Meeting”, or Annual Conference. This was the 231st recoded annual conference of the Church of the Brethren. It is the annual gathering of representatives from churches around the county and around the world to do the business of being church. It’s the nitty-gritty bureaucratic, political, business of an institution. Its not always pretty or fun. Currently, the denomination polity is not inclusive of LGBTQ+ people which is a divisive issue as I’m sure you can imagine, we also struggle with issues of social justice for women and people of color, we are divided on many things really, but there are things on which we do agree and there are moments that make it worth attending and remind me of why I have chosen to stick with this denomination.
Our time there is comprised of long-long days, sometimes 18 hours, that are punctuated with hugs from long-time friends, the wonder of hymns sung in perfect 4-part harmony, frantic negotiations and political maneuvers, confusion of Robert’s Rules of Order, a renewed pride and thankfulness for rainbow stickers and true allies, challenging conversations, ice cream sundaes, and well deserved drinks at the end of the day before crashing landing in bed to do it all over again. Every year I look forward to it and dread it, in equal proportions. Because these gatherings tend to the nitty-gritty they are sometimes quite unpleasant as we struggle with how to live life together when we each bring our own understanding and interpretation of how we live life as faithful people. I had painful and challenging conversations that left me feeling like a wrung out old towel, conversations that took more of me than I had to give and offered nothing in return, at least not immediately. I show up to these conversations because I hope that my (and our) story will have a lasting impact, that it will, eventually, be heard and hearts and lives may be changed.
I have attended this conference for most of my life, first as a child with my parents, then on the board of a progressive organization, then coming full circle, this year my parents attending with me to help support and celebrate WildWood Gathering as a new fellowship.
There are three levels of new churches as far as the denominational institution is concerned. Level one is a project, basically its the soft-opening or developmental level of starting a new church. Its where the proposal is written, the leadership identified and solidified, maybe the best way to describe it is like a tech start-up, but less hip. Some communities just stay there. Others, like WildWood, level up to level 2. Here is where things get more serious, we get to form a team of folks who help with leadership, a “board” of sorts, we also get the opportunity to have a vote on the denominate nitty-gritty stuff, we have the opportunity to do more stewardship and fundraising so that we can hire more staff to do things like music and hang out with kids if we want, we have many of the rights and privileges of being an institutional congregation but it is an in-between time to continue to grow with help, support and guidance from the denomination. Finally, once we have a few more years behind us, are financially self-sufficient we can level up again to be a formal congregation. For those of us gathered here and now, all of these levels don’t really mean a whole lot. In the coming months I will ask you to consider being a part of a leadership team and we will all continue to help figure out who we are and what we want to be. The New Church handbook, which is the official document that describes these three levels in detail, does outlines that we should plan a “celebrative event” to recognize the new organizational status. The handbook stipulates that, “Such an even should be scheduled for afternoon or evening time in order to allow for greatest participation and should include a meal, if possible.” So, we can start working on planning that, but by in large, becoming a fellowship doesn’t mean a whole lot for our day-to-day and week-to-week gatherings. But it is an important part of our story and it was an important story to share with the larger denomination. I’d like to share it with you, a recording of the few moments of fame for Wild Wood Gathering.
Just before we went up, I asked that Lucy be introduced as my spouse. I was specific and direct about that language. It was profound and important for us to stand, holding hands, and be named as Pastor Elizabeth Ullery Swenson and her spouse Lucy Swenson. It became even more important once I realized that the paragraph about WildWood that I had been asked to submit for them to use to introduce us had been edited. What I sent them, and what they read, were not the same. The basic information was the same, but a sentence or two was left out. It was a sentence that felt really important to me. It was a sentence that named specifically the diversity that we honor and celebrate, diversity that is quite often, and once again ignored and silenced by the church. I was standing on the stage in front of a thousand people, realizing that it wasn’t going to be said, that it was edited out and we were once again silenced and invisible.
“We believe that life is better in community, especially when it is diverse and inclusive and so we celebrate diversity; queer, straight, gay, bi, trans, gender-queer, black and brown lives, toddlers and grandparents, doubting and believing. Together we reflect the brilliant image of God who created us.”
I smiled though it, heart breaking as once again our identities, who we are, was silenced and ignored. Once we where off the stage I started writing an irate email in my head. I consulted allies and friends. All the while I was stewing about the sentence, people I knew and complete strangers were coming up to Lucy and I and thanking us for being up there, giving us big loving hugs, thanking us for our bravery and for the gift that is WildWood. They were celebrating, but I wasn't able to celebrate with them because I was refining the email in my head. I sat down to actually type out the email, but something caused me wait to sending it. My mother, when I was telling her what happened, reminded me that actions speak louder than words and sometimes the stories we want to tell aren’t the stories that need to be heard. I wanted words to tell the story, but maybe visible actions were the sort of story that could be seen and heard and change hearts.
In the sacred story we read from Matthew, the first part, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who sows seed. This story has been interpreted to mean many things in different context, but I find it particularly interesting as we talk about WildWood. New churches are often called church plants, as in planting a new church from seed. We were gifted a trowel to recognize the tending and growing we will do as a fellowship as a new church plant. How will we choose to grow as a community, will we be like the seed exposed and eaten by the birds, will we grow quickly and then wither under the sun, will we struggle against thorns and weeds, or will we thrive in fertile soil that nourishes our community? Just as Jesus uses parables and stories to help people hear and understand in a new way, I think WildWood has the possibility to use our story to help people hear and understand in a new way.
What we do here each week as we support each other and foster a rich community it important to each one of us, but what we are doing here is important to the larger community and the larger church world to because we are planting and fostering a new way of doing and being church. We will have a “celebrative event” (celebtative isn’t even a word!), but we will have one in the afternoon or evening not because it is the most advantageous time for denominational folks to attend, but because its when we already meet and we will celebrate not because the handbook told us to, but because we love any reason for a party and time together.
In a casual hallway conversation after conference formally ended, I had the opperuntiy to ask why the sentence was edited, I was told that it was edited it for time…and they paused, and said that they wanted to “lessen the backlash”. I thanked them for being honest and actually telling me the real reasoning, and I told them that it felt like they were silencing who we are as a community, silencing the very purpose for our being. My instinct is to say, Jesus never edited his message to “lessen the backlash”, but I wonder if his parables were a way of “lessening the backlash”? “This is why I speak … in parables: although they see, they don’t really see; and although they hear, they don’t really hear or understand.” Parables allow us to understand in a new way, it side steps our expectations and uses metaphors and images to bring new understanding. Parables are subtle, I wanted a direct story. But, what seeds were sown, what story is told and what image begins to be normalized by the holding of hands, and the introduction of pastor and spouse?
WildWood is a piece of a very large, very long struggle for LGBTQ inclusion, we alone will not solve it, but I hope that our Wild story and our Wild seeds can be a part of the arch that brings change. I share this story and experience because, while what happens in the national and denominational front really has very little impact on what happens here, I do think it’s important that you know the story and the context of what we do here. You are a part of this story, this movement for change, this brave new way of doing and being church and I think its important for you to know how many people are rooting for us, cheering us on, supporting us around the county even when our stories continues to be edited. So, thank you for your bravery, in showing up in being a part of this community and for hearing and seeing in new ways and believe along with me in what community and church can.