A few years ago, a friend of mine returned from one of those National Council of Churches trips to the Soviet Union. Two weeks had made her a Soviet expert. When asked about the churches in there, her reply was, “There’s nobody left in the churches except for a few little old ladies.”
Poor, out-of-it church. Nobody left but a few little old ladies.
In the light of complete collapse of the Soviet Union, and the resurgence of the church in Russian and the former Soviet Republics, we are now better able to assess the relative importance of those few believing women. As it turned out, those women had put down their money on the right horse. While leaders of the World Council of Churches were busy having dialogue with the Communist bosses in Romania and elsewhere (the very same bosses who were making life so miserable for Christians there), the pastor of a little Romania Reformed church, probably assisted by a few “little old ladies,” was busy bringing down an empire. And as usual, no one was more surprised by all this than those of us in the church.
When will we ever learn the truth that God has chosen “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (I Corinthians 1:27-28)? I know that this passage concludes with “so that no one might boast in the presence of God” but is it OK to boast in the presence of our half-hearted church that those believing women, that faithful pastor knew a great deal more about the way the world works than all of the Pentagon strategists, White House-Kremlin planners, World Council of Churches dialoguers and most of the rest of us?
At the World Methodist Conference a few summers ago, the former Dean of Duke Divinity School was talking with a bishop from one of the Baltic republics. “How in the world were you able to keep going with so many years of hostility and persecution?” he asked the bishop.
“Well, though it was tough, we in the church always took the long view,” was his reply.
Three years ago the World Methodist Council gave Mr. Gorbachev its “Peacemaker of the Year” award. A couple of months later, he ordered the tanks into Lithuania. As far as I know, he did not return the award.
Is it possible for us to look behind the encouraging headlines coming out of the East, to take the long view, to read them sub specie aeternatis, to let ourselves be schooled by those wise, so worldly wise, little old ladies who knew something that even the CIA did not?
I quickly learned, in my first parish, that if I really wanted something done, something pushy, a bit risky, something out of the ordinary, I needed to go to the members of the Alice Davis memorial Circle of the United Methodist Women. It wasn’t that they were all over seventy and had time, it was that they were all well formed as Christians and had faith. While Nixon was pondering whether or not to go to China, they were finishing the UMW Fall Mission Study on The People’s Republic. When we all celebrated the end of the Vietnam War, they were sending letters to the people of Vietnam apologizing for our destruction of their country, putting aside a portion of their Social Security checks to contribute to the Church World Service Refugee resettlement program. When I spoke to the church about the need to do something about the plight of the homeless, three of them came forward to tell me that they work as volunteers at the Homeless Shelter so, if I were really serious, they would be happy to take me for a visit.
Sometimes, there is nobody left to be the church “except for a few little old ladies.” Thank God.
William H. Willimon