by Ashley Crowder Stanley
My 87 year old, retired, United Methodist minister father broke his hip two weeks before General Conference 2016 was scheduled to begin in Portland. Over the last few years, our family has been holding our collective breath as we observed his determined yet unsteady gait grow wobblier. We have held on to his elbow as he walked, encouraged the constant use of a cane and prayed for his safety. But, two weeks ago, he lost his balance and all six feet, five inches of him landed on the floor and within 18 hours, he was in surgery, receiving a hip replacement. A long, highly dependent recovery was in front of him.
Ten days later, four days before I was to leave for General Conference, dad contracted pneumonia. I had visited enough octogenarian church members over the years to know that this new diagnosis was a serious one, potentially life-threatening and after hearing it, I found a quiet corner in the hallway rehab center and cried tears of fear, grief and release. I wiped my eyes, went back into his room to kiss him goodnight and went home to write our delegation chairperson to let her know that I could not possibly travel across the country for two weeks when my parents were in this trying, unprecedented time in their lives. I wanted to stay home and be in close proximity to them. “Stay,” my heart told me, “stay and help make things better.”
The next evening, I went to see my father and he told me that he felt weak but that his physical therapy had gone well. He said that he was determined to beat the pneumonia and “get home to mom.” As a former Duke basketball player and an athlete all his life, Dad has always believed that trying harder and remaining focused on the goal would overcome almost anything. I am glad he is wired that way.
As I got ready to leave to go home and get some rest before a busy church day ahead, he delivered his main point of the night: he beckoned me to come close to him, reached out his gnarled, beautiful hand, held mine in his and said: “Ashley, it would break my heart if you don’t go to General Conference. You have to go. The church needs you. Please promise me that you will go.” I could not promise him because I wanted to stay. "I'll pray about it dad, but at the moment, I cannot imagine going to Portland. I believe I need to stay, " I said.
Staying or Going? After a night of wrestling, I boarded the plane the next morning and came to Portland. Once here, I realized that on a deeper level, this internal struggle of “staying or going” had been a part of my life in the United Methodist Church since I was a young seminary student in the late 1970's. As I began seminary, I knew that Jesus was taking up more room in my heart than ever before and that I was being stirred into giving my life over to his service. Yet, I had no language for or experience with what was happening to me: with the exception of hearing an Episcopal woman preach at Duke Chapel during my senior year of undergraduate school, I had never actually known a woman clergy or that a woman could be a clergy. So, being called into ordained ministry was not really in my repertoire of possibility.
Looking back at this time, I know that the Spirit was at work in me to find a way, to stay, to do something hard and hopefully, to make a difference with my “one, wild and precious life.”·
My teachers and CPE supervisors encouraged me and said that the church needed my gifts and my voice. And when theology professor Robert Cushman read this from II Corinthians 5: “…in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us,” I knew my life was to be connected to this purpose. This scripture would become the foundation and the wings of my call; it would help me stay in the church and also go into the places of greatest need, whether they were places of poverty of resources or poverty of spirit. I felt deeply called to stay close to this ministry of reconciliation and to this church that valued connection.
And so, glowing with anticipation, I met with my Bishop who encouraged me to use my gifts elsewhere, perhaps in a part-time children's ministry, but certainly not in ordained ministry. “How, “the Bishop asked me, “could I itinerate if I ever married? What local church would have me as a woman?” In many ways, I felt as if I had being encouraged to "go," and not in an encouraging "go, therefore" kind of way. Just go.
"Stay," my heart told me, "stay." And I did, and I have. Yet, thirty-one years after my ordination as an elder, I can honestly say that the “staying vs. going” dialogue continues. When I encounter racism, sexism and hatred towards other children of God, I want to “go.” When I see beloved children of God left out and spiritually disenfranchised, I want to “go.” When we at General Conference are given opportunities to make a powerful, grace-filled witness to this broken world and instead, we navel gaze and consume our time with the tired and heartless debate on who has a place at the table, I want to “go.” When the Church could use its considerable collective resources to make disciples for the transformation of the world and instead allows itself to be paralyzed by the fear of loss (of members, money, status, identity), I want to “go.” And, I believe, others feel the same way. In fact, I know people at this very General Conference who are wrestling with this dilemma right now: should they stay and keep trying to make a difference within the denomination or should they go to a new church, or no church at all? What should we do?
Jesus’ disciples must have felt that way as he led them out to Bethany on that Ascension Day: what should they do in this next season of their lives? Should they stay together? Or, should they split up and go their own ways? How could they best live out the call Jesus had placed on their lives to “feed my sheep, love my sheep” and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?”
Jesus spoke into their wondering temptation towards spiritual inertia and commissioned them to be radically transformed by His all-encompassing message. To his friends, he said: “You are witnesses of these things… I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high… and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them” (Luke 24: 48-49).
And we know what happened next: Pentecost! Unity! Hope! Great witness from people who would have never, ever been obvious candidates for ministry or for lay leadership. “Stay until the Spirit comes,” Jesus said. And from all I can glean today, the Spirit is here and has always been here, forever speaking a common language of love into our hard, embattled and stubborn hearts if we would only get out of the way and listen.
In every season of my ministry, when I have wanted to go (run), God has called me to stay and wait for the Spirit to comfort, inspire and clarify my heart. Without fail, God has reminded me of the high and holy work of bridge building reconciliation that requires my heart and soul. Even when I want to hide or flee or roll my eyes in frustration at the molasses-pace of church politics, God whispers: “stay with me, help me do a new thing in my church, it is eternally important to get this right. And don’t forget this: I have sent the Spirit to guide you. You are not alone. Whether you are waiting for direction or moving out in trembling faith, I will be with you.”
“Stay and help make things better” my heart tells me. “Stay and work for the transformation of our church to be a place where all are welcomed and loved and so that then
we can ‘therefore go’ together, in the light of the loving, unifying and re-creating Spirit.” And so, for another day, another hour, I will stay and pray and hope and build that reconciliation bridge between who I am and who God called me to be, between who we are as a church and who God longs for us to be.
Rev. Ashley Crowder Stanley is the Sr. Pastor at Mills River UMC and clergy delegate to General Conference
· Mary Oliver in poem “The Summer Day”