In 1995, LuraMedia published a collection of twenty-two essays by “remarkable women of faith. Each writes in response to the same set of questions; each approaches her subject from her own perspective; each tells her unique story.”
Here are the questions that shaped the essays:
* How did you get where you are without losing heart?
* What holds you in the church?
* Who calls you to continue?
* What hope do you hold out for yourself and the church and other women in it?
* What words can you offer thoughtful Christian women who find the struggle continuing – and exhausting?
Chapter 9 is “The Rhythm of Renewal” by Marjory Zoet Bankson. It offers reflections on losing heart and finding it again as part of the spiritual path, a path shared by many at Seekers Church.
THE RHYTHM OF RENEWAL
Rattling Those Dry Bones: Women Changing the Church
Marjory Zoet Bankson
Losing heart and finding it again has been my path to the presidency of Faith at Work, a national renewal ministry that I’ve directed for the past nine years. Even here, the heartbeat of hope and despair seems natural to me. We depend heavily on volunteer help and individual contributions that fluctuate continually. Nothing is perfect or permanent. Maybe trusting this rhythm of renewal is a mark of being slightly more than middle-aged because I know that new life comes again – often in a different form than before. This is my resurrection faith.
Language of Prayer
But the doctrines of the church are a different matter. As a woman, I have felt boxed and labeled, my leadership limited by a male hierarchy. Still, the church has been a place where I looked for kindred souls – people who wanted something more from life than power or entertainment. Church music has given me language for my prayers, and biblical stories have stretched my thoughts beyond the here and now. In church it has been all right to talk of God. To listen, too. I grew up loving a place to savor a Presence I could not catch or count.
As an adolescent, I found quiet in an unexpected places, at the mortuary where I practiced the pipe organ because the church was unheated during the week. I was drawn to the mystery of life by being in the presence of. dead people every morning before going to my high school classes. They were different from people who were simply sleeping. "The difference must be soul," I thought. " And soul comes from God and goes back to God, like breathing out and breathing in."
Language of the Soul
When I went off to college, I left the church, sure I would learn enough that I would not need the quaint and pious ways my parents seemed so dedicated to. About two months into my freshman year, however, I sneaked back into a mid-week chapel service because I was feeling terribly lonely for a space and quiet to simply sit, to let my anxious thoughts find rest. Not long afterward, I was asked to join the chapel choir, and I gladly helped to fill the sacred space with song, not quite aware how tempting it would always be to fill my yearnings with activity. The church often cooperated with that cultural habit rather than calling me to silence and contemplation.
When my husband went to Vietnam, I went into depression and found God there, in a pottery studio. In the evenings, after teaching school all day, I began to work with clay in the empty studio of a family friend. He invited me to use his "therapy wheel" when he was finished for the day. I had the time and space to begin over and over again without anyone watching or judging. A place of silence and contemplation was simply given. As I worked with clay, the message of resurrection began to come clearly – nothing is wasted, everything can be remade, life is about learning and letting go.
In church I had learned the language and the stories of Jesus. In the pottery studio those words became grounded in experience: healing, teaching, community, crucifixion, and resurrection. Working with clay, my hands learned to trust the earth and the creativity deep within, to make clear choices and to let go of what I didn’t need to save. In a small, contained way, I was learning to live with life and death, to trust the possibility of renewal after something flopped or failed in the firing.
Clay became the language of my soul, a place where body and spirit could meet and meld. Because I didn’t fill the silent studio with sound, my mind had space to wonder and observe, to expand beyond the fear that my husband would be killed or taken prisoner, to trust the tradition of handwork I was participating in by making useful pots. I began to believe my own life had meaning beyond being Mrs. B. Now, I would name that experience "God’s call." Then, I had no language for what was beginning to emerge – except to watch and take pleasure in the forms my hands were shaping.
Language of Hope
When we moved to Washington, D.C., in 1976, we became part of Church of the Saviour, an ecumenical church with a tradition of conscious commitment to the inward and outward journey. Just one month before we arrived, the original church had divided into six little churches, each with a particular mission focus. We were drawn to Seekers because of its intentional focus on inclusive language, shared leadership, and equipping people to understand their ministry in daily life.
One thing that makes Church of the Saviour different from other churches is that we do not speak of "empowering the laity" but of making all members into ministers. The membership process takes at least two years and involves attending classes, identifying a mission and joining a mission group, becoming accountable to a spiritual director for daily disciplines, attending weekly worship, giving proportionally of time and money, and making regular silent retreats. Membership is an ordination process, of being called by God and confirmed by the community.
By the time I became a member in 1978, I was not only teaching classes but preaching regularly and serving Communion with a male liturgist since we wanted both male and female presence at the altar to embody the whole image of God. In Seekers, efficiency is not the measure of success, nor is bigness a goal. We currently have twenty two members, and on a typical Sunday we have about seventy-five adults and forty children at worship. The service is II made by hand." Many people participate, coordinated by Celebration Circle, the mission group in charge of worship. Sometimes we cannot contain the variety, and people disagree about the liturgy or the sermon, but we are not afraid to fail. The rhythm of renewal is always there.
Being in this kind of a church gives me hope for the future. At Seekers, I have found a place to grow, to offer my gifts, and to be received as I am. It’s the intentional family I believe Jesus collected around the table, doing “the will of God" by being together, breaking social barriers and cultural taboos as he revealed a body-connection his followers had not known before. At Seekers we do the same thing, pushing against the addictive individualism our society holds up as autonomy.
Language of Relationship
During the sixties and seventies, Faith at Work magazine introduced me to another group of articulate Christians who were at work in the world. Not clergy or systematic theologians, these people spoke my language – of relational ministry in daily life. In the magazine and at Faith at Work conferences, women and men were free to make connections between the teachings of Jesus and their own work. Since women were not yet visible in church leadership, I found new models for my own sense of call in the Faith at Work network of people and ideas.
My first invitation to lead a church retreat came through a Faith at Work connection in 1976. By then, I had been teaching adults in a local church for three years, using Faith at Work methods and adding art exercises to encourage holistic learning and awareness of relational community. The church was a place where I could offer classes, and the people who attended became my "intentional community" within the larger congregation. I found real joy in leading others to their own discoveries, but my own spiritual growth took place beyond the church, through books, conferences, and reflection on daily life.
In 1980 I was asked by women on the Board of Directors to help design the first Faith at Work event for women only. We decided to balance verbal and nonverbal input, to work with one biblical story instead of many, expect the leadership team to function as an organic whole instead of skillful separates, and provide an extended period for each woman to tell her story in her own way to three other people. "Hearing each other into speech," as Nelle Morton describes in her book, The Journey Is Home, has become the centerpoint of these Faith at Work Women’s Events. Such a simple format could go far to help the church reclaim its power of healing and communion.
For two years I worked as the volunteer coordinator for the women’s ministry of Faith at Work; then I asked to be paid for doing the same thing while I attended Virginia (Episcopal) Seminary. Opportunities for writing and speaking continued to come from different churches and denominations even beyond the Faith at Work network, so I had a chance to verbalize the images and metaphors emerging from my search for God’s wholeness and to practice working with different groups as I had once worked with clay.
In 1985 the board of Faith at Work asked me to run the office while they sought a new president. Begun by Sam Shoemaker more than fifty years before, Faith at Work had always been headed by a man, so I wasn’t sure they would take my candidacy for the presidency seriously. Knowing also that churches and related ministries do not usually hire the interim person, I hesitated and decided to go on a silent retreat, where I screamed and yelled at God about the injustice of being a woman in the church. Then I listened for God’s response. What I heard was "Say Yes, but put a time limit on it. Let your work speak. Ask to be considered as a regular candidate."
So I did and was selected. The time was right for a woman’s energy and style. By 1985 what we had learned in the women’s ministry could be shared more broadly with a new generation of men and women who were searching for models of partnership. Since then, my focus has been to reclaim and work with the stories of biblical women as a framework for looking at contemporary life. … It’s clear to me that God is at work in the world – in, through, and beyond churches. The Bible is full of stories about ordinary women and men who paid attention to their inner knowing and let the Spirit guide their outward actions on behalf of God’s larger purpose. We are no different. Perhaps God’s antidote to perfection is our finite lifespan, for each of us must traverse the stages of faith and learn to live with the uneven heartbeat of hope and despair until we die.
From where I stand, this looks like the most exciting time since Jesus walked the earth and welcomed women as full human beings. Although the church closed down those options as it organized and took on the cloak of culture, individual women have courageously spoken their truth and borne witness to God’s call for two millennia. Now a critical mass has formed, and women are claiming the place I in public leadership that Jesus called us to.
I believe that we may be at a point when renewal of old structures is no longer possible without breakage and re-formation, I but God’s biblical story is surely a record of death and resurrection of institutions and communities, as well as of individuals. We can trust the rhythm of renewal. For women today, the time is right to claim the larger vision for humanity that Jesus lived in full view of the earliest disciples. It means reshaping the image of God at every level of being, beginning with ourselves and our closest relationships and extending as far as our gifts and vision can take us.
Marjory Zoet Bankson
June Steffennsen Hagen, ed., “Rattling Those Dry Bones: Women Changing the Church,” (San Diego: LuraMedia, 1995) Chapter 9 (pp 96 – 102)