2 Kings 2: 17: But when they urged him until he was ashamed, he said, “Send them.” So they sent fifty men who searched for three days but did not find him.
I can’t hear the story of Elijah and Elisha without thinking about this reflection that Melissa Wiginton wrote – ten years ago – about my mentor, Mary Jo Flory Steury.
Mary Jo’s calling is not only to interpret. It is a certain kind of leadership that requires holding on and letting go, leading and following, being provocative and also humble, open and receptive. What do we call the people who are being with younger pastors? With a proper name, the church could bless them in its prayers — and could call us together so we could help each other with the practice of hanging in there. We might find a clue about who these being with people are in the story of Elijah and Elisha. Take a look at 2 Kings or listen to Walter Brueggemann talk about the story. Elijah laid his mantle on Elisha as a transfer of authority, with all of its gifts and burdens, and then he stayed with Elisha for TEN YEARS. The two of them did all kinds of amazing things for God during that decade of transitional leadership. They stayed in a power-sharing relationship with each other for the sake of the community, toward a future that they both knew Elijah would not see.– Melissa Wiginton, Faith & Leadership, February 2010
Mary Jo died in 2016. I met her in 2003, so I guess – technically – I got the ten years with her that Elisha got with Elijah, though I still feel cheated. We did do amazing things together. Mary Jo liked being in charge but she also knew how to collaborate and share power. She understood – in a bone-deep way – that what she was working for was a future that she would not get to enjoy. She told me that she knew her work for the church wasn’t the fulfillment of all her hopes and dreams for what it could be – much less all the dreams that God had for us – but that she understood her call to be about building bridges for us so that we could get from the present reality to whatever God was preparing for us, next.
On my most pessimistic days, I wonder if we have managed to stomp out all that transitional potential that Mary Jo and many others so carefully planned and proclaimed. I see our stumbles and messes and the ways we have demolished so much of what is promising and life-giving among us, the ways that the church stubbornly persists in harming the people we are called most forcefully to care for, the ways that we are so adamantly and hatefully refusing to repent and be transformed of our hard-heartedness. I work in church circles, which means I see this hatefulness literally every. day. And every day, it breaks my heart.
And every day, I see the glimmers of hope that convince me to persist. My tiny congregation exceeds every expectation. In the last two weeks, we out-pledged our budget in the first ever stewardship campaign, filled every leadership role for 2021 in a single, voluntary survey and TRIPLED our goal for supporting the neighborhood food hub’s Christmas distribution. And numbers don’t even begin to capture the commitment to prayer, ongoing conviction toward justice, investment, connection and attitude.
Last week, I got to be part of a meeting of Spanish-speaking pastors across the denomination. I took Spanish in high school and college, so I can kind of follow the gist of a conversation but I’m pretty useless when it comes to speaking, myself. So I was focusing intently on understanding, word by word and sentence by sentence when I realized that my fantastic colleague, Aida, was in the middle of a smooth and elegant explanation of a particularly prickly part of polity that Mary Jo and I wrote together eight years ago…in Spanish.
We spent YEARS interpreting this particular point of polity. I’m not exaggerating. The number of tense meetings, skeptical responses, angry retorts and outraged emails we had about this single shift were surely in the hundreds. Committee meetings, district conferences, focus groups, board meetings, Standing Committee discernment, Annual Conference debates…and all of that was AFTER Mary Jo and I sat for hours, over months, hashing out the idea and the language to make it clear. Even after she died, I was still explaining and interpreting this specificity of circles of ordination.
So when Aida encapsulated the entire idea and its implications in a SINGLE, crystal clear sentence in such simple Spanish that even I, a non-native stumbler-alonger, could easily understand; when everyone in the Zoom room simply nodded their understanding and moved right on to her next point, I sat back, astonished.
Church polity doesn’t change the world. It doesn’t feed the hungry or free the prisoners. But it does have an impact. I know Mary Jo was smiling in that moment, just like I was. It is helpful, in these brutal days, to understand all that we do as preparation for what is to come – clearing out the attics of our hearts and the basements of our organizations so that there is space and room and capacity for what God is about to do.
Because while we can draw closer to God and welcome the invitation to position ourselves in the posture of receiving unending grace and witnessing world-upending justice and becoming vehicles for those divine actions, we’re still human. We don’t know what the future holds. But we know who holds the future. Thanks be to God.