by Ashley Crowder Stanley, a Clergy Delegate from Western North Carolina Annual Conference
Tears were close all day on Sunday for me. I had preached on the inclusive love of Jesus for those who will follow and serve him. As I prepare to go as a delegate to General Conference next week, the Luke 5 story spoke to me on a deep level, and this is why:
When Jesus borrowed Peter’s boat to go a little way out from the shore, he trusted Peter to steer him well, and Peter trusted Jesus enough to follow his instructions to go out into the deep. Jesus didn’t ask Peter a bunch of questions about his qualifications or orientation or denomination; he just asked him to get in and move away from the shallow shoreline and start rowing out where beautiful life could be found. Jesus wanted them to go together. Fish were not really the mission. There was a community to be formed. A loving, serving community was the mission.
I must admit I was a little nervous about this sermon because my congregation, like most others I know, is diverse across political and theological lines. I knew some would be angry that I had even mentioned the General Conference agenda and that some would be eager to offer prayer and good wishes. What I wasn’t prepared for were the tears, the hugs, the stories of how their own families had wrestled with this, how much they needed the church to help them navigate the waters of change. I heard words of grace from an elderly man who said he was probably the most conservative man at the church and that he had worked this out with God and is now at peace, knowing all people were created by God. Another man told me that he is working on his attitude but that he still rests on the adage “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Another person would not speak to me, and yet another wrapped me up in her arms and wept on my shoulder, so relieved to be able to talk with someone safe about her real feelings. They got to me; they moved me.
I had expected defensiveness and guardedness. Instead, I experienced honest struggle, heartfelt conviction and a boatload of tenderness. And oh, how I cherished the tenderness! I wanted to absorb it, drink it down, splash around in it! Over the last year, I’ve felt like a turtle with a thickening shell, emotionally armored up, on guard in the face of worry, mistrust, anticipation, hope, protectiveness. Tenderness had to work to squeeze in there in me even though, even though, it is what used to be in there in abundance.
With the mercurial nature of life in the world, the church and some relationships, I have gradually brushed my emotions off my sleeves and gotten efficient. There’s been a lot to do: year-end stats to compile, classes to teach, sermons to write, an elderly mother to care for, friends to love, laundry to fold. Doing life has crowded out living tenderly. I’m not made that way. I decided that I wanted to try a little tenderness for my own spirit. Little did I know that I would experience it later that night.
We live beside a longhorn cattle ranch. We know very little about cattle but love our cow neighbors. On Sunday evening, as T. and I drove down our road at dusk, we saw a tiny little speckled calf beside the road, outside the fence. His mama was hyper-watchful and in a bit of a tizzy, moving her head and horns back and forth; she couldn’t get to her baby. Somehow, as he had been born, he had slid under the fence and out onto the road. On wobbly, knobby legs, he stood there frozen in the path of our headlights. He was still wet from birth and his umbilical cord hung below his belly. He was brand new.
T. opened the car door and before I could take a breath to say “be careful,” he approached the calf, wrapped his arms under his sopping body and lifted him over the fence and back into the care of his mama. He didn’t seem to hesitate, so tender were his instincts to protect and unite. I sat in the dark, tears flowing, thankful.
I want to live like that, be like that, vote like that, pastor like that: with tenderness and love, unafraid to wrap my arms and heart around those who are inside and outside the fences and trust God to guide us. Our shells are hard enough. Our world is hard enough. It seems like a good time to try a little tenderness.
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79)