Camping out at the Borderland:
Reflections on Life in a Liminal Time

Message by Stephanie Crumley-Effinger
January 13, 2013

 

 

Once upon a time—it was back in the days when judges led Israel— there was a famine in the land. A man from Bethlehem in Judah left home to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The man’s name was Elimelech; his wife’s name was Naomi; his sons were named Mahlon and Kilion—all Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They all went to the country of Moab and settled there.

Elimelech died and Naomi was left, she and her two sons. The sons took Moabite wives; the name of the first was Orpah, the second Ruth. They lived there in Moab for the next ten years. But then the two brothers, Mahlon and Kilion, died. Now the woman was left without either her young men or her husband.

One day she got herself together, she and her two daughters-in-law, to leave the country of Moab and set out for home; she had heard that God had been pleased to visit his people and give them food. And so she started out from the place she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law with her, on the road back to the land of Judah.

 After a short while on the road, Naomi told her two daughters-in-law, “Go back. Go home and live with your mothers. And may God treat you as graciously as you treated your deceased husbands and me. May God give each of you a new home and a new husband!” She kissed them and they cried openly.

They said, “No, we’re going on with you to your people.”

But Naomi was firm: “Go back, my dear daughters. Why would you come with me? Do you suppose I still have sons in my womb who can become your future husbands? Go back, dear daughters—on your way, please! I’m too old to get a husband. Why, even if I said, ‘There’s still hope!’ and this very night got a man and had sons, can you imagine being satisfied to wait until they were grown? Would you wait that long to get married again? No, dear daughters; this is a bitter pill for me to swallow—more bitter for me than for you. God has dealt me a hard blow.”

Again they cried openly. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye; but Ruth embraced her and held on.

 

Ruth 1: 1-14 (The Message Version)

 

 

I invite you to hold at the back of your mind a picture of Orpah, Naomi, and Ruth standing on the road. Mother-in-law and two daughters-in-law – the turbulent, grief-filled past framing them, the uncertain future ahead of them – weeping as one turned back toward her home, and the other two held each other.


But to continue for a moment longer with the matter of "in-laws": when Michael married me, he also got the whole Crumley family and I got the Effingers. Our extended families do not hold reunions, but people who marry into families that do, probably give limited thought, if any, to the family reunions which also come with the marriage. Some in-laws participate in these with varying levels of enjoyment, and others ignore the whole business.

 

It is the same with becoming part of a Friends Meeting: most people choose the local Meeting for itself and not because of the Quaker version of in-laws holding annual family reunions – the Yearly Meeting of which that local meeting is a member. This brings us to the matter of West Richmond Meeting and Indiana Yearly Meeting, and the invitation of the worship committee to speak today from West Richmond’s current "Twilight Zone" status of being considered out of Indiana Yearly Meeting, but not yet part of a future group-in-process. 

The "we" who constitute West Richmond Meeting vary widely in our connection to and experience of Indiana Yearly Meeting. I speak from one (and only one) particular place in that range of relatedness, and tell a small fraction of a long and complicated story. After becoming part of West Richmond Meeting I got very involved in the family reunion that is Indiana Yearly Meeting. But I hope that my words will also be useful for those for whom Indiana Yearly Meeting has no referent in experience, and everyone in-between.

I first attended annual sessions of Indiana YM in the summer of 1978. Despite my having had almost two years of involvement with West Richmond Meeting, IYM was foreign territory. I had huge theological culture shock being among the conservative majority espousing evangelism and altar calls, holiness and revivals. There were significant differences in language for religious experience, approaches to the Bible, worship style, songs, and expectations.

 

Over the 35 years since, I have attended most sessions of IYM and the annual pastors gatherings, served on committees, been recorded as a minister of the Gospel ,and developed many friendships with Friends from whom I, and the majority of this Meeting, have big differences. This set of relationships has nurtured and developed me in significant ways. I have been loved, cared-about, and prayed-for by IYM folks in deeply meaningful ways, and have loved, cared about and prayed for them. Our kids grew up together at Junior Yearly Meeting and Pastors’ Short Course children’s programs. We have seen each other through good times and difficult ones.

IYM has also been the source of some of the hardest experiences of my life. From 1986-2000 I was responsible for relations between Earlham College and the yearly meeting, and I was frequently a lightning rod for conflict between the two. More recently, an IYM pastor told me that my theology was an abomination and I was not fit to teach in a seminary. At annual sessions in the summer of 2010, I was in tears after awful things were said about West Richmond Meeting by the evening speaker. I realized that my relationship with IYM was the spiritual version of an abused person who keeps being wooed back by loving treatment, only to be beaten-up  yet again. 

And yet -- there was always the sense that in our differences in IYM we made each other stronger by challenging the tendencies of each end of the YM to get off-balance, and helping each other to be more whole and faithful. Looking closely at the Faith and Practice of Indiana YM, one can see an interweaving of our different approaches and viewpoints. For over a hundred years, since the holiness movement and the fundamentalist/modernist controversies that had a powerful impact on IYM, we have found ways to work with these differences, or to put our attention elsewhere, on joint ministries and projects, common needs and concerns.

 

I still believe that this creative tension could have been maintained if the more conservative part of the YM had not felt that it could no longer in good conscience be affiliated with the more progressive part of the body that includes West Richmond.

But many, many of the more conservative majority of IYM Friends hold that West Richmond Meeting stepped over the line with our June 2008 minute welcoming, affirming, and including lesbian and gay people to be members and leaders. In response to the firestorm of conflict that gathered, the separation is in process, through which our Meeting, along with several others, are currently in a Quaker "no-man's-land" with regard to larger affiliation.

In April of 2011, I was one of two people on the progressive end of the YM appointed to a 7-person task force charged to examine the conflict and recommend to the sessions in late July a way to move forward. Early on, several task force members, like the yearly meeting Ministry and Oversight Committee before them, urged that WR change the minute so the problem would go away. Our Meeting did not feel clear to do this, and the discussions got underway in earnest.

 

Surprisingly, serving on that body was one of the most meaningful experiences of my years in IYM. As the seven of us gathered around a table, we spoke directly to one another about issues on which we differed, asked questions back and forth, confronted face to face, and considered IYM’s historical dynamics. Every few weeks we would meet for worship, discussion, analysis, and pondering of possible responses to the conflicts engulfing the body. The differences among us became even clearer as we discussed a range of issues, some closely connected to the WR minute, such as ways of interpreting the Bible, and others less so, such as worship style.

Having considered many and varied possible avenues and the likely consequences of each, we came to focus on the importance of each local Meeting being faithful, and whether the least destructive way would be for the yearly meeting to divide rather than continue in conflict and chaos, with congregations from the majority leaving because they could not conscientiously remain in a body with West Richmond. Some of us had tremendous reluctance, some sad hopefulness, others eagerness toward that idea. This particular meeting was lengthy, and near the end we each were asked to speak. When it came my turn, I named my deep reluctance to join in such a recommendation, a sense that it was the least destructive of the possibilities before us, and my fervent hope that ,when the yearly meeting gathered in July, God would lead us in a different direction that none of us could yet imagine.

 

I went on to say, “I know that most of you are certain that God will someday judge me for being supportive of lesbian and gay people. But I am convinced that God will hold you accountable for the damage being done to untold numbers of families and individuals by your negative attitudes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and same-sex relationships.” As I spoke, in my mind I was seeing ESR students and alumnae/i who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – people gifted in ministry, loving family members, committed spouses, who have to overcome such destructive and deforming messages they receive from the church. It was a profound moment of no longer holding back as I had so often done over the years by saying things gently, or refraining from speaking for fear of the consequences. It was an experience of grace in which God gave me bold faithfulness and courage to "speak truth to power".

There is much more to the story – lots of chaos and conflict, many Friends at this [progressive] end of the YM furious at the task force, (and especially at the two of us from the more progressive meetings for not seeking to stop the proposal for division), turbulent sessions of the yearly meeting in responding to the question of staying together or dividing, the ultimate decision to separate, and the anger and grief that continue. Those stories are for another day.

So I return to the Bible passage from the book of Ruth, which I believe speaks to our condition. Years earlier Naomi and her husband Elimelech, with their two sons Mahlon and Chilion, had left their home in Bethlehem in Judah during a famine, finding in Moab a place where there was food, although usually the Hebrews and Moabites were bitter enemies. We often hear about such a refugee situation, caused by famine or violence or other disaster, in our time also, but most of us here today have not experienced it ourselves.

 

After a number of years of living in Moab, more disaster struck the family – first Elimelech died. Then, after Naomi's two sons had married women of Moab, each of the sons died as well. After some time the bereaved Naomi discovered that Judah no longer had a famine, and decided to return to her homeland.

Her daughters-in-law accompanied Naomi for the first part of her journey. Some commentators note that due to rules of hospitality of their day they would have seen Naomi to the border of Moab. But then their relationship, and perhaps the emotions of what they had been through together after the deaths of their husbands, caused Orpah and Ruth to be reluctant to part from Naomi. She argued with them, pointing out that, as women without the protection of a man, their best interests lay in returning to their parents and seeking new husbands to provide a home and children. Eventually Orpah was persuaded, and with tears and embraces, she turned back toward Moab, while Ruth held onto her mother-in-law there at the border, facing toward the unknown land of Judah.

I deliberately did not include the famous later verses of Ruth's promises to Naomi, often used in weddings. We and the other Friends who are no longer welcome in IYM have not yet made a commitment to one another.

 

I want us to sit with the three women at that very moment of Naomi and Ruth weeping with Orpah and with sad hearts seeing her turn toward Moab. They are our sisters in the Spirit, as we at West Richmond Meeting stand at the borderland of Indiana Yearly Meeting, of which we are no longer a part, and the unknown future of a potential body with Friends who like us are spiritual refugees from IYM. And, those who are the Orpah figures, our brothers and sisters who remain in Indiana YM, also grieve – as much as some of us may doubt it. They grieve that we could not do what they are convinced is "the right thing" and submit to a stricter IYM so that we could all stay together.

Life at this border is chaotic in some ways, and calm in others. When we gather here on a typical Sunday, things do not seem different. But I am very aware that in visiting another Meeting, when during the introductions I would usually say "Stephanie Crumley-Effinger, West Richmond Meeting, Indiana Yearly Meeting", I can't say that final part. It is no longer the case. And there is as of yet no affiliation to name after "West Richmond Meeting".

Friends working to organize a new body are experiencing chaos and lots of differences of approach. They need our prayerful support and participation as they feel their way tentatively through the wilderness. 


We stand in this liminal time, at a threshold and border. Here we are, and it is going to be a while before we know who "our folks" will be, what is our new Quaker surname and extended family. The future of our wider relationship is uncertain, but there is no turning back. I invite us to stand with our foremothers Naomi and Ruth, both to grieve our losses and to trust that God goes before our Meeting into this unknown future, and will accompany and lead us each step of the way.

 


This message was delivered January 13, 2013 at West Richmond Friends Meeting.

copyright (c) 20123 by Stephanie Crumley-Effinger


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