A guest post by Paul Toms
I recently attended a gathering called Surrender. It gathers around a common Christian faith that calls us to seek justice in our world. The host partners put it on each year, and each of them have their own understanding of what this means and how it is done. A range of denominations, theological positions, cultures, and speakers make up this diverse community. I have a number of friends that have been instrumental in pulling together this unlikely coalition of people and know it is at times a challenge holding these differences together. I’m sure it would be tempting, in our economically-rational society, to reign this in and restrict it to a group that was more ‘on message’, particularly if this voice was willing to bankroll the event, but Surrender has worked hard to keep these differing voices in conversation. In doing so this gathering is a rich, diverse, and passionate meeting of people that, for me, is a unique practical expression of the Body of Christ that I have not experienced in many other expressions of Christian community.
One significant aspect of this expression is the way they take the words of St Paul seriously, that ‘the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable’ (1 Cor 12.22). This is embodied in their commitment, ensuring that many of the voices that are ignored or silenced in our society are heard.
Each year the majority of the people leading sessions over the weekend are on the ground practitioners who are part of small local communities. Room is made for people who are struggling with a range of challenges with their physical and mental health to not only be included in what is happening but are also given opportunities to lead. Stories are shared from communities in the developing world that encourage and challenge my western understandings of faith. And, critically, there is also a significant effort to engage indigenous Australians in respectful ways. This is much more than a tokenistic acknowledgement of country but a commitment to sit at the feet of the elders of this country to learn what it means to be a person of faith in our land. This is done through bible studies led by indigenous elders, a welcome to country which includes responses that last for over an hour (and routinely reduce me to tears), and the Saturday night programme dedicated to hearing from Australia’s first people as they lead us in worship and teaching.
What Surrender is able to achieve with a lot of hard work and persistence is something that I deeply value as both a community development worker as well as a Baptist. It is the creation of an inclusive community that is able to hold together a variety of expressions and ideas. This is not in a narrow, politically-correct ideal but a hard fought practical glimpse of the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of. I am convinced that it is only when we struggle with the complexities, and at times the pain, of the holding together of differences within groups like this that we are indeed able to ‘have the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2.16).
My invitation to participate in the Body of Christ calls me to discover and express my own gifts within the community but it also requires me to ensure there is space for the unique offerings of my brothers and sisters. This at times requires the relinquishing of my comfort or control to allow those whose voices are often overlooked to be present and heard.
It is when I commit to working with others in this way that I resonate with the sentiments of Douglas Adams’ character, Dirk Gently, when he says, ‘I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere I needed to be’.