Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community
by Stephanie Spellers
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
Spellers is a native of Kentucky, an ordained minister, a woman of color, and a high official in The Episcopal Church of America. None of that might be relevant as you read through this book, with it fresh language, vibrant faith, wide learning, and infectious spirit; but it might, and all of it together could inspire in you this thought: “I’d like to meet this woman or at least hear her give voice to the good, gospel word that tumbles out of this marvelous testimony.”
I’m glad to say I’ve done the former and hope to do the latter. She came to Lexington, Kentucky, in the company of her boss, the presiding bishop of her church, Rev. Michael Curry (he who preached the most heard sermon in the history of the Christian movement, at the marriage of Harry and Meghan in 2018). A billion people won’t read this book, and that’s unfortunate; were that to happen it would trigger revival, renewal, reformation, and renaissance all at once—not just of the Christian community but of the whole human race. That’s because there is a wideness to the vision of Rev. Spellers and a winsomeness as well, full of hope and insight and practical direction.
Spellers wrote this book as a meditation on the tragic year of 2020—pandemic, economic disruption, social protests, and complete dislocation in every arena of life: education, employment, religion, even politics. It takes its prevailing image from the Jesus story recounted in all four gospels, of the woman who broke the alabaster jar in order to anoint Jesus just before his death. Spellers likes that image, shard scattered in all directions and aroma filling the space. “I want to sit at the feet of this sister and tell her about today, about decline, pandemic, reckonings, loss, and disruption. I want to confide in her: ‘So much has cracked open….We don’t know how to embrace the disruption, make the sacrifice, stop worshipping the beauty of the jar … so the healing substance inside can work its way into a world that so desperately needs it…. And we’re really terrified we might be the jar, broken open by God, for love of the world….’” (5).
That pretty much sums up the book and its message. We have been cracked open by God, and the last thing God wants is for us to spend our time putting together those scattered pieces. God wants to free us for fresh gospel work in the new world all around us.
I liked this book from the very beginning and like it even more when I came to the close—and it didn’t take me long to get from one place to the other! I read it straight through, fascinated by her frank description of her own tradition, Anglican, and her own denomination, Episcopalian. They are one and the same, of course, and she knows its history well, as chaplain to the empire, as she states repeatedly: the one religious network whose calling, for good and for ill, was to support the British Empire and minister to those working in that direction.
Which meant, of course, supporting colonizers and slavers. And this is where her chosen Christian tradition comes into conflict with her given human condition: a woman, a black woman, an American black woman living in the lingering context of all the violence perpetrated on native peoples in Africa and the Americas by the representatives of the kings and queens of Europe, all of them baptized Christians.
Spellers cracks open this history, finds much to hate but also some to love; and these she names one by one, gospel workers who stood against the empire and invested in the kingdom of God. She takes inspiration from them and offers it to us in a three-fold strategy for following Jesus in our cracked up world: lose your life (kenosis), gain your life (solidarity) and walk in love (discipleship). She even offers a seven-fold way to be a disciple of Jesus: turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, go, and rest. Not a bad summary of the entire Bible!
Every Christian tradition, including my own Baptist, needs a version of this book, one that traces the specific sad trajectory of how we (in our own specific ways) have come short of the kingdom of God, yet one that finds hidden in our own history signs of hope for this year of despair, for this disrupted world, and yes, for the human community in all its cracked-up glory.
Thank you, Stephanie. Come back to Kentucky and preach us this good word!! (and I, for one, noticed the Oxford commas, completely proper for a daughter of the queen!)