May 3, 2013

Seeking, Finding, and Being Found

Filed under: Congregational Development,Leadership,Lectionary,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 9:57 pm

Acts 16: 9-15

I was sitting at the breakfast table on the first Sunday morning of my first trip to South Africa. It was a gorgeous summer day, just between the summer solstice and Christmas. Lots of fresh air and sunlight. Out of nowhere came the most unearthly sound. A high, strong, human sound. I had never heard, or even imagined, such a sound before.

It was a modern-day Lydia, making her way up the street toward the park where she would meet with the women who gathered there to sing, to pray, and to worship God. As she walked, her ululating came not from the back of her throat, but from the depth of her soul.

Ululating is a deep tradition among African women. Physiologically, men can ululate, but culturally it belongs to the women. It is brought forth in times of deep emotion—joy and sorrow, grief and celebration, despair and fulfillment. In his memoir[i], Nelson Mandela talks at length about the Rivonia Trial and the 1964 court ruling that ultimately sent him to Robbin Island. At the moment when he was led from the courtroom following the verdict, he writes simply, “and in the gallery, the women ululated.” It was that sound beyond words that he carried with him into the unknown.

On this particular Sunday, however, my Lydia ululated for joy and in fellowship.

In those days it was still common for household workers to live on-site, a carry-over from their apartheid days when restricted travel made it impractical to go home at the end of a day. And so as she made her way up the street, women would come out from the various houses to join her. My in-laws happen to live almost at the top of the street, very close to the park. By the time I heard them, it was a party…and they were just getting started.

We meet a very different Lydia in the gathering by the river, just outside the gates of Philippi. This Lydia is not merely a businesswoman, but a dealer in purple cloth. Her trade is with the wealthy and the ruling classes. She has connections. She is the head of her own household, accustomed to being in charge and to getting her way.

Yet for all her success, she can’t quite shake that inner sense that something is missing. She can’t put her finger on it exactly; the only thing she can name is the yearning. Even though she has an established worship life, she remains a Seeker.

Like most Seekers, Lydia didn’t actually know what she was looking for. She could not have described it, but she knew it when she heard it. Her response was one of faith—in worship and in the baptism of her entire household—as well as one of radical stewardship. The Seeker was found by her Lord, and on hearing the Word she went all in…in all that she did…with all that she had.

But there’s another story of radical response to the word of the Lord in this reading: Paul took a pretty bold step outside his comfort zone, don’t you think?

Working from little more than a vision, and a sketchy one at that, Paul pulled up stakes, made some fairly complicated travel arrangements into a completely unknown part of the world, and pretty much trusted that things would make sense when he got there. And even when he got there, he still wasn’t “there”! No—he had to leave the safety of the city gates and go to a place where he suspected their might be a gathering place for prayer and worship.

But he went. He kept going until he found that place where he was called to be.

All of this begs some pretty uncomfortable questions for us, the 118th generation to live into the covenant of Holy Baptism in a time when the media would have us believe that faith is fading, that churches are in decline, that we may as well cut our losses.

Yet, as we all know, there’s always another way to look at statistics.

In this case, if half of our neighbors consider themselves to be spiritual, but only 18% name their faith as important to them and a slightly smaller15% value the time they spend in worship…it’s safe to say that we know a lot of Lydias.

So the question becomes, how will we engage our own radical stewardship of the Gospel?

How will we open our hearts to listen…and to say yes to transformation and renewal?

How will we step outside our comfort zones? How far are we willing to go to reach the Seekers in our midst?

How will our congregations, with their deep heritage of living into the Gospel in the daily life and work of their members, move from the defensive posture of scarcity to the invitational attitude of discernment and faith, creating a vision of vitality as a faith community?

These are not easy questions. They don’t have easy answers. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that when we get there, God’s people will be glad…and sing for joy…joy beyond words.

Let us pray:

Gracious God,
through a vision you sent forth Paul to preach the gospel
and called the women to the place of prayer on the Sabbath.
Grant that we may be like Paul
and be found like Lydia,
our hearts responsive to your word
and open to go where you lead us. Amen.[ii]

[i] Mandela, Nelson. A Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Abacus Publishing, 1995.


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