By Becky Gilson
“So, what do we actually do?” I asked the other women, circled up in a quiet, vaguely teenage smelling room in the back corner of ReCAST Church. We were meeting to plan for the future of women’s ministry at ReCAST. Let me tell you what I actually asking, in the raw recesses of my soul: “Will we be putting on events with pink table cloths and women complimenting each others’ scarves that will be fun and even temporarily spiritually encouraging but won’t actually change anything in our lives? Or…are we somehow going to create a safe micro-world where we can actually see each other and love each other? Are we going to find a way to ego-lessly connect with each other? Are women who know more than me going to share their hard earned knowledge? Are we going to draw connective lines between each other until our hearts are all knit and conjoined and powerful together?” I wanted to know if it was going to get deep and rich and real. I wanted to know, selfishly, if I was going to get some sisters.
Of course, I had asked a practical question, so I got a practical answer. We would be doing a book study- Women of the Word (join us!), we had plans for some casual social events and panel discussions, and someone needed to write the women’s ministry blog. There were lots of ideas and excitement and details, all designed to mix and grow us. When we prayed though, I had the answer to my real, unsaid question, the question thrumming its drumbeat under the layers of practicality. As we talked to our God, on equal and united footing, the ribbon of His Spirit running through the circle of us, I understood that He is a God of connectedness. A group of women, yearning toward Him, asking Him to make us into something that pleases Him and to both widen and deepen our circle really could only lead to just the right ingredients to build friendship+.
The plus is not a typo. I meant to put it there. I hope that what this women’s ministry looks like is friendship with rocket boosters. There should be no better place to troll for friends than church. I have heard many people declare church to be the best place to find artificiality and judgment. I have found the opposite to be true. It’s been the place where I have found the people that I can be least varnished around and who have loved me in and with and through the most pathetic and ugly parts of myself. That’s the plus I hope for- the plus where Jesus gives us the ability to see with His own softness and to love with His lack of discrimination.
So, with all that in mind, here is the verse that strikes me foundational to this kind of friendship. It is quite personal because it became essential to me in a time of my life that still feels bruised if I go back and mentally relive it. I can tell you though, that you stand a much better chance of being a decent friend if you can manage it. It is a sentence mixed into a whole list of Paul’s instructions on how to live together.
Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.
It is so clean and lovely. And so, so difficult. It’s an antidote to jealousy and a call to be the opposite of indifferent. If practiced, it is irresistibly attractive. Paul is saying that he expects us to be genuine enough in our relationships that we can feel authentic joy when someone else receives or achieves something- even something that we deeply long for ourselves. He also expects us to get inside each others pain— to bear it together so it can lighten.
I wish that Paul’s supreme empathy were our natural reaction. It’s not. I could blame our lack of co-rejoicing and co-mourning on our culture which tells us to value ourselves above others or on an unhealthy sense of competition between womankind. Maybe those factors play a part, but I think my hesitance to obey was more basic: it seemed emotionally unsafe and exhausting. It’s so much easier to feel relieved it wasn’t your turn for a tragedy than to walk through one with a friend. It feels emotionally unsafe to try to celebrate your friend’s third pregnancy while still waiting for your own womb to put out the no vacancy sign.
Paul is asking for another level, where you love people beyond how they relate to yourself. When we do this, we abandon all the worst parts of our female psyche. When I am concerned about loving and caring for the women I am meeting with, then I can release the ritual of considering where I fall in the lineup of attractiveness or intelligence or even spirituality in that group. Can we give ourselves permission not to project our favorite image of ourselves but rather just to be our real selves? Can we accept each other as whole people and grow from there? I am so ready for women’s ministry to be delightfully different. I am so ready for my heart to bump against yours. I am so ready for God to tumble us all together to we can gently polish each other, not so that we can all become cookie cutter Christians, but so that the unique deposit of Him in each of us can become our most distinguishing feature.
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.