Text: John 16: 4b-15
In preparation for our lay-led service today, Jim and I were asked to share with you our reasons for coming to Pullen. We were asked to think about our faith journeys and to discuss what these journeys have meant to us, and what they might mean for Pullen.
My faith journey began in rural, northeastern North Carolina about 43 years ago. I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church in what seemed like a very Southern Baptist community. God was “father” and people were “men or brothers,” yet I heard messages preached that the gospel message was for all. The church behaved in ways that confused me.
For example, the church in which I grew up had serious concerns if a person of color attended worship or a funeral there. Women worked very hard, but not as deacons or pastors-not in leadership or policy making roles. And we didn’t even have conversations about homosexuals-assuming none lived in our community.
This is the historical and cultural context in which I grew up. Like Phyllis Trible, who was with us a few Sundays ago, I began a lifelong wrestling match with inequity and bias. I experienced and observed discrimination in overt and covert ways. I felt frustrated. I felt suffocated. I began to understand the meaning of hypocrisy and cynicism.
After high school graduation, I came to NC State and began working on my undergraduate degree in psychology. I welcomed the diversity of people and thought that my college experiences brought with them. I became a peripheral church-goer for the next 10-12 years, focusing more on graduate school, Ph.D. completion, and a career as a psychologist. At the time, this path and these choices seemed to have more equitable opportunities and less of a glass ceiling.
My career goals were going along fairly well, and then I felt a profound “wooing” from God. I was on maternity leave with my son Charlie and working on my dissertation writing often late at night. I felt God’s presence in clear ways, nudging me to come back to church. So I decided to do some bargaining with God. My bargain was for God to give me the strength for dissertation and Ph.D. completion, and then-and only then-would I return to church.
Well as fate would have it, God kept His/Her word. My Ph.D. was completed in 2000, and I knew my church shopping would have to begin. So over the next five years, I began church shopping and church hopping in the Triangle area. My husband and son were very patient and supportive because they knew this was important to me.
In the spring of 2005, a friend of mine invited me to an event sponsored by the North Carolina Council of Churches. Jack McKinney provided the opening remarks and shared a story about the recent death of Pope John Paul II. While the world was showering the Pope with accolades and talking about his legacy, Jack expressed a concern. He wished the Pope had been a voice for improving the conditions of women and the GLBT population. I raised my eyebrows and a big smile came across my face. I had just been given my invitation to Pullen.
My first visit to Pullen was soon thereafter on Mother’s Day in May 2005. When I opened the worship guide, I was incredibly surprised to see the service was devoted to the celebration and honor of women and our spiritual mothers. “Rediscovering Mary” was the sermon preached by our own Nancy Petty. I sat back in the pew and bathed in the spiritual and healing essence of this service. I heard women honored as: “mother of all the living,” “prophetic leader of the Exodus,” and “great judge of Israel,” I was now beginning to understand the meaning of “Balm in Gilead.”
I want you to know that Pullen Church has been a place of healing for me, a place I often refer to as my “oasis in the dessert of faith communities.” I have been coming here for approximately four years. In this time, I have attended many classes, worship services, and meetings. I have had the privilege of learning and growing with many of you.
I am constantly amazed at the energy and passion in this place for so many worthy mission and social justice causes. I so appreciate the intentional efforts of inclusive language in the spoken word and in song. Interestingly, a few Pullenites emailed me a poem in preparation for today that outlined these very issues. The poem is about seeing Jesus and his teachings in the way we live our lives: in caring for one another, in respecting and including one another, and in ministering to the outcasts and those in need.
In my time here at Pullen, I have had the opportunity to work with our acolytes, work in our job readiness program, serve on Worship Council, and co-chair the Visual Imagery Study Group. The Visual Imagery Study Group work has been especially exciting over this past year.
This group of 16 Pullenites has worked diligently-often behind the scenes-and you have not heard much from our work recently. We will be sharing our recommendations report with you over the coming weeks. We were commissioned to study and make recommendations about how the visual imagery in our sacred spaces could be more inclusive and more reflective of who we say we are and what we value as a faith community.
I have had conversations with some of you about our sanctuary images, and have found a variety of perspectives. I have learned that some people have strong positive feelings about the images and our stained glass windows, particularly those members who were present in the 1950s when the sanctuary was completed and the windows were later gifted and installed.
Others I have talked with are a bit more indifferent about the sanctuary imagery and tend to be drawn in by other aspects of worship. Examples include the Sunday sermons, our music program, the intentional use of inclusive language, or the fact that we are a welcoming and affirming congregation to all. Still, there are others who are very passionate about having more inclusive imagery in our sanctuary space-images that represent the values we say we affirm, such as the care of creation and the natural world, the stories of women, the ethnically and culturally diverse, and God imagery.
We will be having conversations on this topic over the coming weeks and months. I am looking forward to sharing the study group recommendations, hearing your perspectives, and engaging you in the “Pullen Process.” This church has a long history of tolerance for diverse views, and a willingness to engage in conversations and projects that stretch and grow us-especially when such projects demonstrate our commitment to justice, equality, full inclusion, and welcome and affirmation to all.
Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church. This year is Pullen’s 125th anniversary year. We have much to celebrate and to be thankful for. In the coming days and months in our work together, let us make room for God at the discussion table. Let’s also make sure the Spirit of Truth is an invited guest. Let’s also have the courage to ask “What would Jesus Do?” and use his teachings as examples to guide us.
I am glad I came here four years ago. Thanks be to God for each of you, this faith community, the work we have done, and the work we are about to do! Amen.