By Don Meyer
WASHINGTON, D.C. (July 22, 2010) – An air of excitement and anticipation filled the large ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel Thursday evening as hundreds of women joined in the opening worship service of Triennial XIII, “Reflecting God’s Glory.”
Triennial XIII is presented by the Department of Women Ministries of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Executive Minister Ruth Hill opened the service, asking participants to stand and represent their respective conference as conference and region names were read. Also recognized were a number of women who have attended all 13 triennial events over the years.
Special greetings were brought by ECC President Gary Walter and East Coast Conference Superintendent Howard Burgoyne, who observed that “when hundreds of Covenant women gather to pray, something happens,” much to the delight of the audience.
One of the evening’s highlights was the traditional procession of world mission flags, each carried by one of the women ministry leaders in each of the countries represented. The evening service was broadcast live through the Covenant website and a copy of that service will be available online for later viewing. Remaining services this week also will be broadcast live through the website. Visit the Covenant website for instructions on logging into the broadcast.
But, without question, the sparkplug of the evening was Brenda Salter McNeil who electrified the audience with her high-energy delivery and clear, compelling message, offering an unusual perspective of the well-known passage in the Gospel of Luke that tells the story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha.
Describing Mary and Martha as just ordinary women, Salter McNeil contrasted the responses of the two women when Jesus arrived at their home. Mary preferred to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen intently to what he had to say. Martha busied herself with meal preparations instead. Salter McNeil suggested that the two women were not all that different from women today – especially Martha.
The speaker described the familiar daily routine of many women who are trying to work and raise a family – working, grocery shopping, running children to school events, cleaning, cooking. She recalled her own earlier years, especially a time when she served as an assistant chaplain on a college campus near Los Angeles. “Campus ministry is a 24/7 job,” she explained. “Students stay up late, events don’t even start until later in the evening. I was feeling burned out, and my relationship with God began to suffer.”
She decided to get away alone with God, to spend an uninterrupted day with her Bible in prayer and seek to enter the presence of God. A professor had encouraged her as a student to project herself into biblical stories as she read scripture to create a special opportunity for God to speak to her – and she chose that particular day to read the Luke passage about Mary and Martha.
“Be careful when you invite God in as he will take something ordinary and make it extraordinary,” she cautioned, explaining that her experience confronted her with an uncomfortable truth as she saw in Martha’s actions an image of her own mother – and felt “an anger that I didn’t know I had within me.”
She recalled her own childhood and her mother’s demanding style – a wonderful mother who wanted perfect children and a perfect house and a perfect family. The family would spend hours preparing for someone to visit, cleaning, scrubbing, so that the visitors would have the perfect experience.
“The problem is that people like Martha – and like me – don’t understand why people come to our homes in the first place,” she continued. “People come not just to eat our food, but to be with us in a private place, to get to know us intimately as people,” Salter McNeil believes. “People would call to my mother, Dorothy, come over and sit down. But, mom stayed busy in the kitchen, commenting she would come soon.
“I wanted to be like Mary and sit at Jesus’ feet,” she observed. “But, I realized I was more like Martha” with a life that was so full and so busy that there was no time to just be in God’s presence.
Salter McNeil described the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus as a place where Jesus could be at ease, where he was not on public view. “That’s why Jesus liked this particular house – a place where he is known for who he is and not what he gives. He came for fellowship, not just food.”
But, she adds, Jesus is interested in a place of intimate encounter with us, suggesting that our reluctance to be that transparent and honest may be the real reason we busy ourselves, as did Martha. “Jesus sees behind the busy stuff and sees the hunger and the need. Maybe our trying so hard to please and be busy really reflects a fear of intimacy.”
And that begs an important question, Salter McNeil said. Drawing on the conference theme “Reflecting God’s Glory,” she asked: How do ordinary women who are like Martha reflect the glory of God? The answer she suggests can be found in a passage in the third chapter of Revelation where Jesus stands at the door and knocks.
“I always thought that passage was referring to Jesus standing at the door of the unbeliever and knocking,” Salter McNeil said. “But, then I read the passage from the beginning – it was addressed to the church, not unbelievers. So, why is Jesus knocking at the door of the church? Why would one knock at the door of your own home? If you have already received Jesus Christ, why is he knocking at your door?
“We let him in and we get nervous, because he starts looking around. He starts to help us unpack those intimate places and long-repressed feelings. On some level, I wonder if like Martha, that kind of intimacy drives us to our kitchens so we don’t have to go there with him.
“We go like Martha to do stuff for Jesus and get distracted. And I think Jesus goes back to our door and starts knocking.
“We become the glory of God by being in the presence of God,” she declared. “And to be in the presence of God means we must be transparent, to be transformed. We need to welcome him, to be with him, to hang on his every word. Ordinary women who must take the risk of stopping to spend time with him and be a reflection of who he says we are.
“Maybe, just maybe, people will see our good works and glorify our God in heaven. How about that!”
Editor’s note: Brenda Salter McNeil is president and founder of Salter McNeil & Associates, a Chritian company that partners with organizations to transform them into reconciling communities. The top photo shows the Omni Shoreham ballrooms that were transformed into worship space for Triennial XIII that concludes on Sunday. Additional photos show Brenda Salter McNeil at upper left, Ruth Hill, and a portion of the flag procession. See additional photos from this evening’s opening service here.