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Today I read a beautiful and sensitive article from an American blogger called Julie Clawson about her experience of worship and diversity at her seminary and the hurt that we experience if we believe ourselves to be outsiders – I can relate for both similar and different reasons.

It’s no secret that I am at a culturally diverse seminary. It’s no secret that I am part of the minority at said seminary. But what makes this such a weirdly rich experience is that even though I am in the minority, I am also free to associate with all people here – I have largely been embraced by everyone because I fit no particular box or category. To be more specific I am the only white female which places me uniquely on my own and yet squarely able to move between groups with relative ease.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of a rather dark and trying time I wrote a plaintive little piece about my experience of a worship service here – truth be told it was a bit whiny and ego-centred, but it was also honest – the fact is that worship sometimes unravels me rather than connects me at the seminary. John Van der Laar very graciously wrote back reminding me that worship is a transformative experience which should connect us to God and to the people around us if we embrace it intentionally. In hindsight I see that my post focused on the music, the ‘packaging’ as John called it rather than the whole experience of connecting to God and he was right of course, the packaging is secondary to what we are trying to achieve when we worship. I was suitably chastised and have attempted to throw myself whole heartedly into worshipping in a gazillion different languages and with ‘packaging’ which sometimes makes my ears bleed (John you would be proud).

And I think it may be working – in so much as I do feel a resonance with the people I am worshipping with, but again in the spirit of honesty I wonder if it’s the worship which is doing that, or just the gracious Spirit of God moving amongst us (you can decide).

But, this is what I have observed in the weeks since I wrote that post and which resonated with Julie’s post. Worship IS about God and about being with Gods people in an open and transformed way – give that girl a medal, I hear you cry! I have come to understand that it’s about letting go of the ‘little me’ in order to experience the ‘bigger me’ which is IN God. In some respects using the word ‘me’ is incongruent with worshipping God (although readers of Richard Rohr’s work will understand what I mean). But herein lies the paradox…

Communities are made up of little ‘me’s’ who collectively come together to share in a worship experience which they feel connects them culturally and spiritually to one another and to the Spirit of God which flows through us all and when it’s with music or in a language which is felt deep in our bones then it is all the more meaningful and connecting rather than disconnecting. So what I struggle with and what I guess Julie seems to be struggling with is how do we hold the tension between those who feel their expression of ‘Godliness’ is being minimised by the need to embrace other people’s expression of ‘Godliness’? How do we love each other’s diversity if our own diversity is not being appreciated? And how realistic is it for us to fully embrace all without hurting at least some?

I’ll give you an example. I have been placed in a semi-rural African church as part of my practical ministry experience. Language is an issue – so is gender truth be told – welcoming a white female minister is not easy for everyone in that context. For Easter this year I asked the minister in charge what was expected of me at the church during the Vigil and Holy Week services. African churches fully embrace the high and liturgical aspects of Easter and their services run for days (and even nights). He told me to just be available on Saturday day to do some training with the children and maybe some bible study with them, effectively excluding me from the adult ‘worship’ elements of Easter. I was equal parts relieved and confused. How do I interpret that? Did he not want me because I don’t have much to offer that context? Was he being sensitive to my identity as an outsider? I am not sure.

But I have chosen to look at it this way – perhaps my minister realised that if he invited another seminarian who at least spoke the language of the people, then his congregation would have a richer experience over Easter then if they had used me – I would have needed an interpreter and I may not have been able to fully appreciate and thus speak into their context. I was invited by another church to co-lead the Easter services and of course found my experience with them to be very rich and very rewarding – so all good yes?

There is no doubt that this is a complex issue – transformation amongst us in Africa (and within the wider church) when it comes to matters of race, ethnicity and gender is long overdue and highly contentious, and worshipping together will aid the cause, but is bringing in a white woman to lead a patriarchal society in a language unfamiliar to them likely to bring about change in that moment? And is that the right moment to try and facilitate inclusion? Like I said, I don’t know. What I do know is that I could lament the fact that I may have been side-lined due to race and/or gender – sure, but is it worth it? I will continue to slowly try and gain the trust of this community and will continue to offer my services, but I am not going to let it upset me or derail me if I am not fully embraced or utilised. That’s an ego issue and one which really has no place within the service of God (in my humble opinion).

A defining moment for me at the seminary so far and the moment when I found my rhythm here amongst my culturally and ethnically diverse family was when I recognised that it was my ego that stood in the way of unity between me and my brothers and sisters. I could continue to feel alone and marginalised because the context is so unfamiliar to me or I could just embrace it and throw myself into the experience for what it is and not what I want it to be. I firmly believe that our balance and harmony in life comes when we accept life for what it is, not taking issue with what others say about us or how they treat us. When we can learn to let go of what we ‘expect’ from others and learn to embrace ‘what is’, life is far more rewarding. Who cares if people don’t respect/accept me? I respect me. God accepts me. I know what I am called to and who I am in God and someone’s lack of respect is less about me then it is about them.

I do feel Julie’s pain, especially for those who may feel ‘out’, (racism and sexism and all those other ‘isms’ are very real and very ugly) but in her writing I also hear that people laugh – in fun not in cruelty hopefully – and laughter rather than being divisive can also unify us if we can laugh together, humbling ourselves enough to laugh at our differences, at our perceptions of each other. Laughter and humility can bind us together as we learn to navigate the choppy waters of what it means to be unified in the face of our diversity.

And so … getting back to worship, the best way for us to worship God, as Julie says is by learning to live in worshipful ways which honour God – understanding everyone’s worth as children of God and understanding that God is bigger than our perceived or real differences. Perhaps we need to learn to let go of our need to be respected, to be right, or to be important, learning to appreciate our differences theologically, ethnically, culturally, worshipfully, learning to be a community of people the same in our need for love, only different in our understanding of how to express that love.

Perhaps? Who knows?

By the Grace of God …