Category Archives: discernment amid differences

Hope as Church Unravels? Part 3: From Position Statements to Communities of Discernment

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72I don’t know how to reweave an unraveling church if we don’t do it together. Precisely the inability to do it together is a key source of unraveling. Can we do it together?

In “Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, The Unraveling,” I introduced a six-part series on ways the church, denominations, concepts and patterns of ministry, theological training are unraveling. Here in Part 3 I home in on whether we can, in fact, do the reweaving together. I actually don’t know—if anything  our ability to work together seems to be declining. So in this post I proceed with no assurance that we can do this even as I ponder how, particularly through functioning in communities of discernment, we might take steps in that direction if so inclined.

From Position Statements to Communities of Discernment

Battle. Win-lose. If we differ, my position should defeat yours.

What if instead we moved from position statements to communities of discernment? Let me test steps and possible outcomes of such a move:

A first step is to take seriously that we all know only in part, as if through a mirror dimly, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians. Then, face to face with God, we will know fully. But now we get some things right—and some wrong. If our main approach to Christian faithfulness is to determine what’s right, then champion it as the position all should hold, we bypass the getting-things-wrong part.

If we accept that we know only in part, we may consider a second step: recognizing that the fullest knowing we can experience now flows from seeking truth together. This is what Jesus invites in Matthew 18, as he promises that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is with us.

Jesus also empowers us to take a third step. That’s to trust that when we gather in his name we form communities of discernment through which in what we bind or loose on earth we are seeking to implement what is bound or loosed in heaven, in God’s realm. We dare not do this frivolously. Just verses earlier Jesus has warned that better to drown than cause one who believes in him to stumble. Still amid ways we can misuse this amazing power, we are to help each other discern what to bind or loose.

Yet how far from knowing how to do this we are, as increasingly we even accuse each other of wrongly binding or loosing. We take stumbling seriously—except that the cause of stumbling is not I but always you.

Is there a step beyond this impasse? Acts 2 offers a possibility. Long before, humans in their pride had tried as one people speaking one language to build a tower to the heavens—but God had scattered them into many peoples babbling countless dialects. Now God’s Spirit falls as tongues of fire on Jesus’ first disciples, and they speak “in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” This astonishes their audience from many nations, because when these Galileans speak, “we hear, each of us, in our own native language.”

Not through human effort but through the Spirit’s power unleashed in the emerging church, Babel comes undone. Here we glimpse a fourth step, which is to trust that still today the Holy Spirit can empower us to speak and hear across the isolating languages our opposing viewpoints become. We won’t become communities of discernment unless when polarized we invite the Spirit to interpret for us. When faced with your seemingly misguided views I need the Spirit to help me hear your language.

If the Spirit interprets us to each other, then maybe we can begin to understand how to take a fifth step, which is to celebrate that in Christ dividing walls of hostility have been torn down. In Ephesians 2, the Apostle Paul celebrates that Christ is our peace. Drawing perhaps on a hymn that had celebrated Christ as unifier of the fragmented universe itself, Paul celebrates miracle: that primal division, a Berlin Wall between Jews once thought to be God’s people and Gentiles once understood not to be has tumbled.

Might that miracle, the reconciling peace of Christ who invites us to love the viewpoint enemies we turn each other into, destroy our walls today? I’m actually not sure. We battle even over whether walls should be demolished, if so how and in whose favor. In the years since I first began to develop the material in this post, theological warfare rather than peacemaking seems to be intensifying. But let me fallibly ponder what might happen if, when we gather around Scripture in the presence of the Spirit, we wrestled with divisive issues as communities discerning what to bind and loose today.

One key thing I suspect we’d wrestle with is the relationship between specific Bible texts and biblical themes or trajectories.

Take slavery, no longer, I hope, divisive, so maybe permitting calm learnings. How could Christians for most of Christian history support slavery? Because specific texts seemed to. But texts gain meaning within larger paradigms or worldviews that have come to be experienced as the common sense of the day.

For centuries worldviews that treated slavery as just the acceptable way things were coexisted peacefully with texts that seemed likewise to assume slavery as normal. Then abolitionists drawing on broader scriptural themes of justice and equality shattered the slavery-is-acceptable paradigm. That’s why we don’t view biblical admonitions for slaves to obey their masters as validating slavery today. Specific texts do matter—and so do the trajectories that sometimes help us interpret given texts anew.

Cut to that battle-surrounded word homosexuality and such successors as LGBTQ. Among reasons we’re at each other’s throats in this area of discernment is a clash over whether to prioritize specific texts many understand to condemn same-sex relationships or such classic scriptural themes as God’s love for the stranger, alien, slave, outcast of a given era or context. Some believe that unless the specific texts bind us, we evade God’s call to costly righteousness. Or they may point more broadly to the primal order of creation as being union of man and woman.

Others wonder whether Jesus wants to surprise us today by turning those we marginalize into heroes, as he did the Good Samaritan or the woman who wept on his feet, frequently turning upside-down expectations of who belonged among God’s people. This reversal was then extended as some of the early Christians, such as Peter in Acts 10-11, came to see Gentiles as belonging among God’s people. Previously Gentiles had been deemed unclean but now, as Peter is told in a vision, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Whatever our overarching paradigm ends up being, it will guide our giving greater or lesser weight to given scriptures even as careful study of and wrestling with specific texts continues to be essential.

Maybe we should try a cooler topic, though it was once white hot and still is for some: the role of women in the church. When I was growing up, I understood specific texts to make matters clear: women are to be silent in the church. Hence women can’t be pastors.

But by the 1995 Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective, the Mennonite church was teaching that all leadership offices are open to women. After generations of agonizing discernment, many had shifted to a paradigm in which, for example, Jesus’ empowerment of women took priority. Now texts that seemed to forbid women pastors were understood as tied to specific New Testament circumstances. Yet others of us believe that in loosening the ties that bound us to literal application of specific texts we’ve taken a broad path leading not to righteousness but to destruction.

Then let’s ponder peace and war and the implications in such a setting as Eastern Mennonite Seminary, both Mennonite and ecumenical. Roughly half of our students are Mennonite and perhaps mostly believe Christian participation in war goes against Jesus’ teachings and his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) call to love enemies, to do good to those who persecute us. But half are from other denominations and may believe the Bible makes space for some just wars to be fought precisely to free the captives and liberate the oppressed, as Jesus preached in his Luke 4 “inaugural address.”

Across our traditions, we take specific texts with implications for war and peace seriously. But which ones we treat as literal guides to daily decisions or as dreams of what may yet be in the already-but-not-yet of the kingdom of God depends on the broader paradigm within which we approach them.

Does this cover the issues for discernment? Not remotely. We need to discern whether the Bible offers explicit or at least thematic guidance on abortion. The death penalty. Gun control. Care for the earth. Global warming. Whether God is biased toward the poor or if not how we honor biblical warnings that the mighty will be brought low. Whether government is part of the problem or the solution in caring for “the least of these.” Whether to be Christian is to prophetically challenge capitalism, constructively embrace it, or both.

Is the point that any view is as good as another? No. It’s that when we see only in part we need to wrestle things out together. If I’m too quick to focus on specific texts when the debates rage, you need to remind me of classic themes of Scripture that could complexify my engagement with such texts. If I’m too quick to ride on viewpoints above the fray, I need you to call me down into the muck and sometimes God-ordained suffering the specifics call for. To wrestle it out together is to become the communities of discernment Jesus invites us to embody.

At EMS we already teach discernment, which threads its way through our curriculum. Yet at EMS and in many congregational and denominational contexts we can more proactively name the importance and nature of discernment and the need to train each other in the discernment process.

This is ever more crucial in a church and culture addicted to offering position papers even when what will truly bless us is the reconciling peace of Christ. That blessing can come as walls of hostility are replaced by bringing our warring views to Scripture in the presence of the Spirit who empowers us to understand each other’s foreign languages. Then truly we might be within range of learning how redemptively to bind or to loose without causing each other to stumble.

Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post has roots in an August 2012 EMS convocation presentation and provided some of the seeds for the seven-part series of summer 2015 posts overviewed in “Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 1: Introduction.”

Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 6: “Honoring Conscience”

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72As the Supreme Court declares a constitutional right to marriage (with Scalia savaging Kennedy) and Mennonites begin our pilgrimage to next week’s Kansas City convention and a potentially fateful appointment with history : This is the only way forward, I tell you; I can do no other. No, this is the only way forward, you tell me; you can do no other.

Below I share “Honoring Conscience in Plays and Sexuality Wars” as Part 6 of “Blogging Toward Kansas City” for two reasons. First, it’s my most recent published effort (The Mennonite, May 2015) to engage the latest incarnations of those matters I earlier described as being so intensely in play at Purdue 87 and now again before us at a juncture I’ve indeed heard more than one Mennonite Church USA denominational leader name “historic.”

Perhaps what’s about to happen at the Kansas City, Missouri, MC USA biennial convention will surprise us all with its low-stakes outcome. Perhaps we’ll simply muddle on for however many more years of muddling are called for. Yet it seems possible we’ll be parsing and engaging the consequences of Kansas City over the coming generation in ways comparable to the generation we’ve spent unpacking the Purdue 87 assembly.

Second, this represents my final pre-Kansas City effort to testify to why I see space for variance, or what I’d call faithful dissent, as so critical. I simply see no way forward that doesn’t in some way allow sharply opposing voices of conscience to be honored. We don’t disagree so intensely because we want to be cruel, to make trouble, to dishonor Scripture and God. We’re waging what MC USA Executive Director Ervin Stutzman has rightly, I believe, called “civil war” precisely because the very core of what we truly believe is at risk.

A resolution to be processed and voted on at Kansas City calls us to “forebearance.” Meanwhile another resolution calls for reaffirmation of Mennonite Church Membership Guidelines for at least four years. How might these two resolutions work with or against each other? What if one is adopted and the other not?

Time will tell. But I draw some hope from thoughts on the resolutions Stutzman offers in an FAQ. Agree or disagree (and certainly both responses will be offered!)  he provides a rationale for seeking to maintain stability of current denominational teachings on sexuality for at least some years. Then in one comment that strikes me as key to the quest for living together as our voices of conscience offer opposing proclamations, he sees the combination of resolutions as “inviting us to hold the documents more lightly than we hold onto each other as members of the body of Christ.”

I was preparing to post this at noon today, June 26, 2015, to take a breather (and give readers one!) before heading next week to Kansas City and posting Part 7 as a report from there. Then before noon came word of the 5-4 Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex marriage constitutional. I imagine the country and denominations and churches and in many ways the entire globe will be parsing this decision for years to come.

It seems hard to believe it won’t have some sort of context-setting impact in Kansas City. Might some of us see it as underscoring the need for Christians to be counter-cultural? We dissent from a culture of war; do we need to dissent from a culture that undoes what we consider God’s order of creation? Might others conclude sometimes God speaks through culture? Did culture, we might wonder, help a recalcitrant church reach fresh understandings regarding women in leadership? Has something similar happened again here?

Complexity lies ahead for the church and is presaged in the hot contestations within the Supreme Court. Take Kennedy: He will greatly move some and trouble others as he concludes on behalf of those who identify as LGBTQ that “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

He also takes pains to reach out to persons of faith who will disagree:

Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons. In turn, those who believe allowing same-sex marriage is proper or indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate. The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.

 Yet hold on, insists John Roberts (whom I’ll focus on as a more temperate critic that some of the SCOTUS dissenters), it’s not going to be that simple:

Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage. There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.

So there we’ll be in Kansas City, precisely in the middle of these waves. They’ll be crashing from multiple sides against a frail peninsula of discernment jutting out into the ocean of decisions and dynamics that lie ahead for church, culture, and world.

One week in Kansas City can’t clarify for MC USA what next. Yet if anything the Supreme Court decision seems to me to heighten the need for the church to be a zone of peacemaking reconciliation, a gentler and safer harbor than many will experience amid the towering breakers.

I do hope we leave Kansas City with some type of truly mutual forebearance embraced. I hope we provide for all a denominational home that offers foretastes of that Home with its many mansions. I hope we pursue the miracle of providing home, in this world of so much homelessness of body and mind and soul, for consciences entirely at odds with each other to be honored as treasures.

I hope we ask what it would mean for every single one of us to be understood to enrich the body of Christ.  What would we offer ourselves, in a world of beheadings in the name of God, if we built this home not only as isolated individuals but as part of a larger community of discernment and faithfulness and love? Might we then in amazing ways, as a roaring sound comes from heaven like a mighty windstorm and tongues of fire descend, offer clues to the mind of a God whose ways are so much more wonderful, as Job came to understand, than any of us alone can grasp? Might a startled world gasp that oh my, they seem to be drunk?

Honoring Conscience in Plays and Sexuality Wars

Should pastors be forbidden to officiate at same-sex weddings? Or forbidden not to? I draw lessons from a first-grade play.

“But my parents won’t allow me to be in the play because it’s wrong to hold a gun,” I explained, barely pushing out the words against racing heart and tightening throat.

Mrs. Navarro, coiffed white hair not softening stern features she said traced back to Mexico’s most revered president, was not about to budge: “Is there a problem with your brain, young man? What could be wrong with pretending to carry a gun in a play?”

I was in first grade, son of Mennonite missionary parents who had just moved our family to Mexico City. Between culture shock, theological shock, and sheer terror, I had about used up my explanatory resources but tried one last time: “My parents say war is wrong. We’re Mennonites, and that’s what we’re taught. They say because war is wrong even carrying guns in a play is wrong.”

Mrs. Navarro snorted. “I’m not impressed; you are strange people. If you just won’t carry a gun, fine, fine, unhappy boy. But you must be in the play. You’ll get a tiny part and be bored while your classmates have the fun you could be having.”

Half a century later, I can smile at the memory. But I still recall the sting. And it took me decades to shift from blaming my parents for the misery they could have spared me had their consciences been more flexible. It was only a play! Did you have to make me a laughingstock in first grade, not to mention seventh when you made me exercise on a gym floor mat while my classmates learned dancing, another seduction of evil culture? Or college, when I had to confess I’d never been to a movie theater because that too was bad? Yet now that my parents are gone, I’m thankful for their great gift: teaching me that pearl of great price which is obeying conscience.

I’m grateful also for the tradition undergirding my parents’ treasuring of conscience. For centuries Anabaptist-Mennonites have believed with the Peter of Acts 5:29, and the radical reformers inspired by Peter, that when human rules and God’s clash, “We must obey God instead of people!”

This matters today as denominational battles over same-sex understandings rage on. It matters because, I believe, the root cause of the war and our inability to extend ceasefire is conscience. No matter our perspective, most of us are convinced that to believe other than we do is to violate conscience. Any ceasefire must then solve the riddle of how more than one voice of conscience can exist in the same faith community.

In Mennonite Church USA, which I serve as dean at an Eastern Mennonite Seminary confronted with how we form and honor consciences amid voices so at odds, the way forward is unclear. Yet finding a path is critical as divisions roil us.

Some congregations or regional conferences are voting to leave MC USA because same-sex relationships are sinful, they must obey God at any price, and they believe MC USA is not adequately maintaining dikes against sin.

Convinced justice and obedience to God require it, other congregations or conferences are, in effect, engaging in civil disobedience. Even as it goes against current MC USA teachings, they are installing pastors in same-sex relationships or their pastors are officiating at same-sex weddings.

At EMS, students preparing for ministry must wrestle with which theological convictions they may hold without running afoul of one denominational layer or another. How do they navigate when at times theology or practice of one layer—whether congregational, conference, or national—is at odds with another? Dare they candidly express their theologies (on any side of the spectrum) except at high cost? The price can involve external consequences for holding the “wrong” position— or internal soul, conscience, integrity consequences of blending in by sublimating convictions.

There is talk of somehow restructuring MC USA to take us beyond this wilderness. I don’t pretend to be sure how, but it will have to address opposing voices of conscience. Such efforts may then further incite those wanting to exclude or marginalize Mennonite Church USA voices judged to be obeying humans over God.

As tensions mount, my faith in a reconciling outcome is shaken. But I know what I wish for: the non-negotiability of conscience somehow to be named and honored. So for example, MC USA is debating a.) whether our newest polity handbook should forbid officiation at same-sex weddings and b.) whether the handbook offers rules or more flexible guidelines. Meanwhile some—pointing, say, to the Cour D’Alene, Idaho requirement that the for-profit Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel serve all comers including LGBTQ—worry that someday a polity flip-flop could make same-sex wedding officiation a requirement. I yearn for an outcome that doesn’t in effect “criminalize” ministers who make the “wrong” choice—whether conscience calls for refusing or embracing officiation at same-sex weddings.

A complexity of Mennonite—and often broader Christian—history is that commitment conscientiously to obey God has repeatedly foundered on opposing hearings of God. So generation after generation we face a paradox: Mennonites whose tradition sprang from commitment to hear God even if this required dissent to the established church in turn marginalize or sever relationships with those who dare dissent to current Mennonite understandings.

The war over theology and polity of same-sex relationships has brought MC USA and many denominations (including United Methodist, to which the second-largest cohort of EMS students belong) to a watershed. We can do the usual thing. Putting our own consciences first, we can sanction or refuse to honor as faithful Christians those we believe hear God wrongly. Or we can ask whether this time—this time at last, confronted with a historic test—we could try a new thing: structuring ourselves in ways that honor multiple voices of conscience.

In any denomination facing this riddle, many congregations, pastors, members, and denominational entities are convinced they must obey God in ways anathema to the others. A striking MC USA example: one pastor’s officiation at a gay son’s wedding generated widely circulated open letters from family members offering contrasting—yet passionately Christian and scripturally based—expressions of conscience. In other denominational settings, some resonate with Frank Schaefer, United Methodist pastor defrocked for officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son before being re-frocked. He explained his inability to uphold the UM Book of Discipline:

Frankly, my conscience does not allow me to uphold the entire Discipline, because it contains discriminatory provisions and language that is hurtful and harmful to our homosexual brothers and sisters. It denies them their full humanity. I simply cannot uphold those parts of the Discipline.

And some echo Michael Bradley, who in the Witherspoon Institute Public Discourse (“Between Magisterium and Magistrate: Notre Dame’s Choice on Marriage’s Meaning,” Oct. 28, 2014) opposes same-sex marriage and approvingly cites these words from the Roman Catholic 2003 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons”:

In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws. . . . In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.

It may be impossible for such opposing voices of conscience to remain in fellowship. Solving the riddle will take something like the Pentecost inbreaking of the Spirit that enabled understanding across a babble of languages. {Just yesterday—as of the insertion of this update on June 26, 2015—Meghan Good offered in-depth thoughts on how the Tower of Babel and Pentecost might connect with our current circumstances.] Yet I pray that instead of emulating our culture’s fragmentation into an individualistic affiliation only with our own kind, we contribute our individual voices to a divine project larger than any of us alone can build.

To echo Ervin Stutzman (The Mennonite, Nov. 24, 2014), I pray that we learn how to honor “both individual conscience and the value of Gelassenheit (yieldedness) in the face of disagreements.” [Stutzman also elaborates on this in just-published June 23, 2015 comments on the polarities of freedom and mutual accountability.]

I dare imagine that in the reconciling and peacemaking power of Christ there is neither LGBTQ nor straight and even that in Christ there is neither traditionalist nor progressive. I imagine the Spirit descending even on today’s speakers of different and often battling tongues. I imagine Christians, guns holstered not only in plays but when loving LGBTQ-viewpoint enemies, able still to shake hands, to pray together, to break communion bread together. I imagine us able to look into each other’s eyes and to see on the other side this paradox and this treasure: one whose conscience is thoroughly at odds with my own yet who remains a faithful Christian and in some way, however creatively or miraculously this is structured, a member of my faith community.

Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC; and author, Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict over Homosexuality (Pandora Press U.S., 2001), which analyzes the difficulties of understanding opposing voices of conscience. This article was first published in The Mennonite, May 2015.

Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 5: “Double Conversion”

As tears surrKCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72ounded the cross, heaven didn’t fully come down. Some flinched from too much emotion, and I respect that. But I at least had rarely  experienced burdens of alienation  so palpably laid down.

I share this post as part 5 of “Blogging Toward Kansas City” because it does two main things: (1) offers some thoughts on ways to hear the story of Peter and Cornelius potentially pertinent to our current divisions; and (2) reports on an actual effort to implement, through worship, a commitment to meet Jesus at the foot of the cross beyond our divisions.

One additional comment: after this post first appeared in Mennonite World Review, it was criticized for the linkage of elephants with persons who identify as LGBTQ. As I responded then, the intent was by no means to imply a linkage between elephants and people but to label the issue—divisions over LGBTQ-related understandings—as the elephant in the room.

However, I also saw how easily the image could slide from issue to people and apologized. I’m maintaining the imagery here because it’s part of the historical record. But I agree with the critics who pointedly and prophetically reminded me and us that what we’re addressing are not merely dry bones of doctrine but, to echo Ezekiel, real people “with skin on,” as I heard a child once put it, real people with real flesh and blood, with real hearts and souls and minds and feelings.

Double Conversion

At the 2014 School for Leadership Training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, we planned to offer keynotes, case studies, and workshops on discernment. As SLT neared, churchwide rifts between same-sex-attraction theologies were deepening. We didn’t want to make things worse; we didn’t want to claim we knew the right discernment strategies. Yet not to name LGBTQ-discernment links would be to ignore a giant elephant in the room.

So we planned an “Elephant in the Room” worship service (as movingly reported on by Laura Amstutz, photo by Lindsey Kolb). We didn’t provide discernment guidance. We simply sought a context within which to offer LGBTQ-related hopes and fears to God.

The service wasn’t perfect. Some on opposite LGBTQ theology sides thought there was an appeal to emotions when the focus should have been on the hard scriptural and theological wrestling the times cry out for.

Yet what happened seems a story worth telling. First, however, let me link it to the Acts 10 story of Peter and Cornelius. When asked to preach on this just after the “Elephant” service, I found the two stories almost demanding to be joined.

Particularly illuminating seemed the worship planners’ request that I ponder “double conversion.” On two sides, in this riveting narrative from the early church, the Holy Spirit is at work.

Cornelius, though a military officer outside the faith communities Acts highlights, prays constantly and wants to live faithfully. When in a vision an angel tells him to visit this stranger Simon in Joppa, he is both terrified and obedient. He sends two slaves plus one of his devout soldiers to find Simon.

Meanwhile Simon Peter, his quest to follow Jesus often blending confusion, passion, betrayal, and love, has a vision of “something like a large sheet” coming down from heaven with all kinds of creatures on it. A voice tells him to kill and eat the animals.

Shocked and horrified, Peter objects. Not only are the animals unclean (as Lev. 11, Ezek. 22:26 and 44:23, or Daniel 1 insist) but the clean/unclean distinction is key to his people’s counter-cultural witness.

Scarier yet, as we often stress to each other today, Peter knows visions must be tested against God’s word. As both Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and Galatians 1:6-9 underscore, angels, prophets, or any of God’s people swayed by dreams that go against God’s commandments are to be cast out, even killed. No wonder “By no means, Lord” is Peter’s response to the command to eat unclean animals.

Amid his bewilderment the visitors from Cornelius show up. Finally Cornelius himself arrives and falls at Peter’s feet but is told to get up, Peter is just mortal. The two dream-addled mortals sort things out. I had this strange vision, says Cornelius. Oh my, and I had the oddest one myself, reports Peter.

Finally it all falls together for Peter. Each vision interprets the other. He sees what God is meaning to do. He reports to those gathered to ponder the unfolding mysteries, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Cornelius, a Gentile, a man outside the boundaries of the people of God as then defined, has to trust a vision breaking in from beyond. Peter, thoroughly within the boundaries, has to trust a vision insisting age-old walls need no longer keep Cornelius and other Gentiles outside. Together Cornelius and Peter must learn that in Christ both can experience God’s welcome. But what travel adventures, whether physical or in faith understandings, each must undergo to achieve such a dramatic double breakthrough.

This takes me back to the Elephant service. As our LGBTQ-related theological divisions deepen, commitments to faithfulness are only strengthening. The cries of conscience are intensifying. People are dreaming dreams and seeing visions.

Some are convinced a hedonistic culture is driving an emotional contagion seducing the church down precisely the wrong path. They dream of a church faithful, cross-shaped, counter-cultural even if the price is to be called a bigot.

Others are certain the there can be no avoiding confrontation with those hate-filled aspects of culture that have led to suicide, torture, and even killing of some of us deemed today’s unclean. They dream of Christians being faithful even when the price is to be called disobedient to the church.

I don’t know how many people were dreaming which dreams at EMS the morning of January 22. I do know this: Some were having visions in which God said one thing; others were dreaming of a voice from above commanding something different. Scores to hundreds of dreamers dropped into a basket at the foot of a cross (beside which was an elephant) LGBTQ-related fears and hopes written on paper. And I know that tears were falling. And falling. And falling.

Why the tears? I can only guess this: What we’re doing to each other is traumatizing us. We don’t wish to destroy each other. Yet we don’t know how to obey the God whose voice we are hearing and honor the person who hears God saying the opposite. So we continue toward a house divided.

Yet for those precious moments at the foot of the cross, we were united in our anguish. We were like the soldiers singing “Silent Night” across the trenches at Christmas before they picked up their weapons once more.

I don’t know how we build on such evanescent moments of unity. Even the story of Peter and Cornelius, even that SLT worship service and whether it met or hindered its goals, is part of the LGBTQ-related battleground. So I can only testify to my own fallible dream. In my dream, a voice says no one in the LGBTQ-related wars is unclean. God shows no partiality based on our views. Rather, God is inviting each of us not only to weep for a minute together at the foot of a cross in Martin Chapel but also to linger there for days, for months, for years—until we learn what a double conversion even across this divide might look like.

Michael A. King is Dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post was first published in Mennonite World Review, March 3, 2014.

Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 4: “Painholders”

BarnFullPaintingOpen200x200x72At a difficult discernment meeting a participant was wracked by the realization that no matter the decision made, it would hurt persons dearly loved. That took me back: I’ll never forget that evening of listening to the leaders I came to call “painholders.” So often they found themselves seeking to hold the pain of persons who in being true to themselves wounded others even as others likewise wounded them.

“Painholders on Holy Ground” is Part 4 of “Blogging Toward Kansas City” because it foregrounds the riddle of how we proceed  when any path anyone can conceptualize inflicts pain on someone. I wish we could solve the riddle even though clearly I haven’t managed this.

My perspective is shaped by and addresses particularly my denomination, Mennonite Church USA. However,  just as I was preparing to launch this post, I saw word of overlapping developments in a conference of the United Methodist Church,  to which a significant number of students at the seminary I lead belong. UMC faces its own complex and often pain-wracked discernment process. This is an equal-opportunity journey of pain and painholding for many denominations and faith communities.

I know the solution is eluding me because precisely persons I’d wish to have felt heard and honored in this article have told me they disagree with my approach to “painholders.” They want to be released to get on with the journey as they see it. They don’t want to be made to feel that their quest to be faithful in ways with which others disagree is itself somehow problematic.

John Troyer, the current leader of the EVANA Network, one of the entities wishing for space to leave at least some aspects of Mennonite Church USA, has observed that those of us who call for unity are sometimes guilty of character assassination. As I’ve mentioned to Troyer in personal conversation, I don’t wish to contribute to labeling that stings; the opposite was my hope in writing on painholders. Yet as I told Troyer, I do recognize that, paradoxically, even the dream of unity can be experienced as an assault by those who feel coerced into betraying their own consciences if they agree to remain in fellowship.

I also take to heart that some who read the original version of “Painholders” thought I was too hard on Franconia Mennonite Conference when highlighting several FMC excommunications and my personal connections to them. I do find myself wanting to be more gentle in this introduction. These are my people. We often ask too much of our own people, whose connections with our wounds are sometimes particularly easy to trace or confront, whether fairly or not.

I think (still journeying!) what I end up believing is this: a.) I bore appropriate testimony to the trauma excommunication inflicts; and b.) I can wound in the act of naming ways I perceive wounding to have been done.

I remain troubled by excommunication as a way of doing church. I find myself unable to make peace with it, deep though its roots in the Anabaptist-Mennonite commitment to faithfulness do go. The trauma seems so much greater than the justifications.

Yet I also recognize that all of us struggle to find our way through ambiguities and perplexities and actions that can seem so right at one time and so wrong later. So I want not to cast the stone quite as hard now as I did during my 2013 writing of “Painholders.”

The need for gentleness struck me, for example, when after he wrote an article calling us beyond division, former FMC leader James M. Lapp was invited “to practice what he preaches and return to the people of Germantown and apologize for excommunicating them.” This was his moving response, which in turn conveys the healing grace offered by “the pastor at Germantown”:

I appreciate the concern of this letter. I have grieved deeply about my involvement in this action by our conference. I did not believe in 1997, nor do I believe now, that it is necessary to divide over this issue. The article was intended to make that point. I confessed my regrets about my involvement in this action to the pastor at Germantown, and she extended grace to me. I have spoken to conference leaders about my desire to seek healing between the Germantown congregation and our conference. Sometimes leaders need to act on behalf of the people or organization they serve, even if it is contrary to their convictions or preferences. I am now largely retired and freed from such institutional constraints. But I respect those who carry such responsibilities and the challenges they face. They need our prayers, understanding and grace.

I would wish for “painholding” to be an activity that spans the spectrum of theological and biblical understandings rather than becoming one more source of polarization. I see hints in Lapp’s comments and elsewhere that others are dreaming toward overlapping visions, as in the case of pastors in Lancaster Mennonite Conference who say that if they’re “anti-anything, it’s walking away from each other.” So I’ll share the vision one more time—but amid recognition of its imperfections and that the riddle is far from solved.

Painholders on Holy Ground: The Riddle of the Open Closed to the Closed and the Closed Closed to the Open

In our Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition we have followed Jesus—and evicted whoever gets it wrong. A denominational body excommunicated my father’s parents for starting a Sunday school. My aunt tells of that 1930s “chilly morning when the little Bishop with the cold sharp eyes came driving up our lane in his box-like Model-T . . . to tell my parents [they] . . . were going to be put out” (Evelyn King Mumaw, The Merging, DreamSeeker Books, 2000, 184-185).

In the 1990s the same denominational body excommunicated for its stand on homosexuality a congregation I had pastored in the 1980s. My father’s family would have approved.

It seems Mennonites were ahead of the times. Today literal and verbal bombs maim bodies and spirits. Across church, culture, politics, faith traditions, and world, chasms open. We fight about how Scripture is to be interpreted including how literally, sexuality, abortion, evolution, gun rights, climate change, whether government is problem or solution, and so much more. We battle not only over how to bridge differences but even over whether to bridge them.

As one who feels in my bones the wounds centuries of splitting have inflicted, I dream of better. I dream of what might happen if more of us became painholders on holy ground.

But to set the stage for painholders, let me a.) probe the riddle lurking when we try to bridge divisions, b.) introduce communities of discernment as a way forward, and c.) highlight the need for heroes able to hold the pain involved.

The Riddle

I crashed into the riddle when studying discussions of delegates who excommunicated my former congregation. In my dissertation research, I drew on the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer to look for evidence of success or failure in the delegate conversations. Based on the essential ingredient of conversational success I saw in Gadamer’s thought—openness to grow when faced with the other’s understandings—I found mostly failure. And I spied the riddle:

Gadamer’s prejudice toward openness . . . seems to place problematic limits on precisely the unfettered conversations it means to encourage. It leaves inadequate room for conversation partners who believe the essential integrity of their prejudice will be violated by any compromise. . . . They hold the stance precisely because it is the one “right” stance required for them to be true to their community and their understanding of its doctrines; how then can they allow their stance to be enlarged? Meanwhile it seems Gadamer cannot accept their closure without violating the non-negotiable openness on which his conversation depends. (Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict Over Homosexuality, Pandora Press U.S., 2001, 172-173)

With Gadamer, I conclude true conversation requires genuine openness to the other. I’m inspired by the Apostle Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13 conviction that now we know only in part. Hence we’ll want to allow our partial understandings to grow. And growth involves openness to views other than the one we start out holding.

But “the open” find it hard to be open to “the closed.” And “the closed” see it as violating their stand to be open to “the open.” So I can preach till blue in the face (and my face is often blue) that Christians will be open to treasures in perspectives other than our own. Yet the “closed” will hear me as imposing an openness that closes them out, as demanding they play a game rigged against them. Should they in turn insist our divisions can heal only if I yield to their One True Truth, I’ll likewise experience the game as rigged. That’s the riddle.

From Battle to Communities of Discernment

Can we solve the riddle? If we could do it easily, we’d not lob more missiles by the hour. Yet I dream of painholders helping us try.

Their work is rooted in our moving from battling each other to collaborating in discernment. Among Christians, I’d define discernment as involving the community of believers gathered in Jesus’ name around Scripture in the presence of the Holy Spirit to let God show us the way through the urgent, complicated, and often divisive issues of a given time and place.

The Jesus of Matthew 18:18-20 inspires this vision for becoming communities of discernment. When two or three gather in his name, Matthew’s Jesus promises to be present. Jesus also amazingly says that what we bind or loose on earth is bound or loosed in heaven.

What if Jesus is giving us the holy and agonizing mandate properly to discern in our given settings how God is inviting us to think and speak and live?

If so, openness is involved—but it’s an openness to Scripture and Spirit. The call is not simply to be open to each other’s fallible human opinions but also together to tussle with something from Beyond.

Amid such grappling, just maybe “the open” can begin to see some “closed” views as valuable commitments to faithful hearings of Scripture and Spirit. And just maybe “the closed” can see some “open” views as not only misguided efforts to dilute the faith but as likewise flowing from Scripture and Spirit.

 Painholders on Holy Ground

But this is difficult, complicated, agonizing work. That’s why we need the painholders.

I met them one evening over supper at a retreat. Because they help lead congregational groupings geographically near each other, they not only confer regularly but are sometimes drawn into the same dynamics. My fallible impression is that they might themselves tend toward different sides of some divides.

Yet both are passionately committed to something larger than position-imposing/defending. Both love the people in their charge, whatever their views. Both root for a church grander than whatever slivers manage to remain connected if in any disagreement one side must be victorious or both must split so each may go its “faithful” way.

When divisions come, these painholders resist widening them. Instead they walk lovingly into the torment, with a courage that evokes Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego preferring life in the fiery furnace to giving up faithfulness to God. They absorb the pain. They absorb. And absorb still more as they nurture not splitting but discernment.

Ceaselessly they roam among their shouting, suffering people. Relentlessly they invite the open to see in “the closed” not only blind rigidities or legalisms but a faithfulness the open ought also be open to. Endlessly they invite “the closed” to be open to the possibility that in “the open” there may be faithfulness and not only error.

The results are rarely clear-cut; we live in the mess of our times. But what I glimpsed that night at supper, as they told of pain they sought to hold and not heighten, was the hope of the church. I saw that they walk on holy ground. The ground is holy because God, as the lyrics of Arna Czarnikow remind us, “walks the dark hills” even of our peaks and valleys of hate. So the painholders look for God’s spoor even in the desolate deserts of division.

Instead of only imposing their theological biases—though like all of us they have them—they invite worshiping the God of the burning bush. They invite taking off our shoes before the God who is God beyond our human names for and understandings of God. You can see the cost in their faces. Still, Gethsemane in their bones, they hold the pain.

I dream of such painholders as models. I dream of them as offering templates for living the gospel in that far-off land whose outskirts the better angels of my splitting-prone ancestors invite us to enter: God’s country. In this country we love enemies, heap blessings on those who persecute us, send forgiveness seventy times seven down like waters on those who have offended us, at last pluck from our own eye the redwood log so we can see how tiny is the speck in the other’s eye.

As a seminary dean, I dream of seminaries, denominations, and congregations coming to see painholders as the heroes of our time. I dream of teaching our students, congregants, each other that in our day painholding is a calling of callings. And I dream of painholders in turn showing us how at least to take another step toward solving the riddle of the open closed to the closed and the closed closed to the open.

—Michael A. King is Dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, which he is helping shape as a discernment training center; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post was first published in The Mennonite, February 2014.

Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 3: “On Not Knowing”

BarnFullPaintingOpen200x200x72Watching my grandchildren get to know God’s great world is one of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced. I’ll never forget my infant grandson crawling on a dock by the Olympia waterfront tracing and retracing with a tiny index finger a knot he spied in the wood.

Or my granddaughter at a similar age, not yet able to talk but saying so much with her gestures and face, slamming shut my unacceptable book choices (she knows what she wants read and reaches down for another option from the book pile if I choose wrong) before agreeing Richard Scarry’s book on rabbits was worth her time. On one page in the middle of rabbits a yellow bird shines out. I had earlier pointed the bird out to her. Now I asked her, “Where’s the bird? Can you show me the bird?” Tiny index finger headed toward the yellow. Miracle.

These two know so little. And yet as minute by minute they take in more and more, they’re touching so much grandeur. I want to learn from them. I want to learn how to do less seeing the world only through the fog of what I already know. I want with my mental index finger to do more tracing with awe the knots and birds I’ve barely begun to understand.

That’s why I include the column below, “On Not Knowing the Truth Before We Find It,” as Part 3 of “Blogging Toward Kansas City.” Though written in 1995, it touches on several factors still affecting my thinking and connects for me as well with the fresh new lessons my grandchildren are teaching me.

Ohe factor is the focus on finitude, on how much we can’t know and the consequent humility and need for each other this calls us to.

I wrote this column in the latter stages of completing a PhD  in rhetoric and communication at Temple University, where I was exposed to and influenced by the thought of Hans Georg-Gadamer. His project was philosophical hermeneutics or, to put it more simply, the process of how we come to understand something.

Gadamer was convinced that for finite humans there could be no universal, God’s-eye-view, because, as I quoted in Fractured Dance, “One perspective darkens another. A universal perspective comprising everything is a contradiction in itself which at most the metaphysical concept of God could assume” (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 1997, 95-96, in Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict Over Homosexuality, 2001, 270).

Repeatedly I found in Gadamer’s thought echoes of the Apostle Paul, particularly 1 Corinthians 13 in which Paul highlights faith, hope, and love as the greatest of these—and points to the boundaries of human understanding. We see the limits especially in that ageless verse 12 reference to our seeing now as if in a mirror, darkly, because we will only be able to see in full—or, as Gadamer might put it, as if through God’s eyes—then, face to face with God.

If this is so, then how profoundly we need each others’ partial glimpses of truth. How truly we need to journey toward understanding anything together—amid and toward faith and hope and above all love. Otherwise we lock ourselves into that tiny slice of truth which is all any given person can individually grasp.

Researching and reporting the story I tell in Fractured Dance—of what befell Germantown Mennonite Church, the congregation I had pastored eight years before, including when I wrote Part 2 of “Journeying Toward Kansas City”, also affected my thinking. I felt that my own understanding of how to proceed while pastoring at Germantown looked ever more fallible in hindsight.

And I concluded that a great tragedy of the process that culminated in Germantown’s excommunication was how little evidence, as Gadamerian researcher, I could find that participants (including me as delegate in addition to researcher) in the discernment truly understood—or even sought to understand—each other across our differences. Great trauma ensued for many, the wounds still often raw to this day. This intensified my aching for approaches that honor the finitude of all positions taken in relation to a divisive issue, draw us toward affirming commonalities even amid differences, and jointly put our index fingers on the knot whorls and golden birds of God’s universe.

A second reason I include the column is that it seems to me to take us at least a step or two beyond the stereotype (and sometimes reality) that highlighting how little we can fully know of God’s truth in this life is more a progressive than a traditionalist move. The column gives us respite from our apparent current impasse in any quest to understand sexuality together by gnawing at a different riddle: amid various understandings of how the earth and life came to be, might views grounded in evolution or intelligent design generate some common ground for mutual learning?

I realize divisions in this area at times remain as fierce as ever. Yet sometimes instead of declaring war, adherents of various views actually work with each other. My favorite example of this is in a “Statement on Creation and Natural Science” prepared by science professors at my own alma mater and current employer, Eastern Mennonite University. The statement carefully notes various ways of understanding creation. Yet precisely because it does not impose stark either/or choices it leaves me with a sense of the wonders of God’s handiwork far grander than if I were told either affirm God’s creative work in precisely these ways or choose evolution and nary the twain shall meet.

Perhaps some would assess that the statement does favor the progressive over the traditional in acknowledging the factors a theory of evolution foregrounds. Yet on the other hand ardent materialists would likely flinch from the powerful foregrounding, throughout the statement, of God’s creative work. For me, at least, all positions touched on contribute to an outcome far more magnificent than if perspectives were primarily placed in combat.

I see perhaps less rather than more evidence that this type of magnificence emerging from pooling our finite understandings is emerging in relation to sexuality. There we do seem caught more in battle than in a project of thinking and praying and discerning together in which all perspectives contribute to a breadth and depth of understanding grander than any of us alone could achieve. There we do seem to be doing more knowing the truth before we find it than actually seeking it in the whorls and birds. Still I dream toward the type of approach the EMU statement on creation exemplifies. I worked at this in editing the 2007 volume Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality, and I see it in embryonic form in the 1995 remarks below.

On Not Knowing the Truth Before We Find It

The conference speaker’s proposal startled his audience. There at a Temple University rhetoric conference, John Campbell told fellow secular scholars that if they really believed what they claimed to believe, they’d want both creationism and evolutionism taught in public schools.

Many of Campbell’s listeners were academics whose project is to show how scientific thought isn’t based entirely on facts but includes the same forms of argumentation we all use when we try to convince someone our view is right. One way we persuade another, for example, is through choosing appealing words.

This is why the labels in the abortion debate have changed over the years. People are no longer anti-abortion but pro-life, because who wants to be against life? People are no longer pro-abortion but pro-choice, because who doesn’t want freedom to choose? Even if there are unchanging facts hiding under each label, the way we view these facts changes according to which name we use for them.

Campbell’s own project has been to show that Charles Darwin was aware of this power of the right words to make one view of the facts seem more persuasive than another. That’s why Darwin chose the label “natural selection” to describe his theory of evolution.

What Campbell stressed at the conference was that based on the facts he had observed, Darwin could as reasonably have chosen the phrase intelligent design. Natural selection isn’t itself a scientific fact. It’s a name intended to make persuasive Darwin’s view that something is in charge, but it’s nature rather than God. If Darwin had been comfortable including God, he could have been true to what he was seeing by describing it as the result of intelligent design.

The scholars squirmed. Many agreed with Campbell’s understanding of science. They agreed that science is made up as much of subjective interpretations of what humans observe as of provable facts. They agreed that to apply this reasoning to evolution was to conclude evolution was only one of several ways of interpreting the evidence. But they sure didn’t like the notion that this meant creationism should be taught as a legitimate alternate view of the evidence.

At least some of these academics, whose lifework has been to show how you can’t be sure of anything, had no interest in holding lightly to evolution. When push came to shove, they were fundamentalist evolutionists. Evolution was just plain the way it had to have happened, and that was that. Period.

But as discussion of Campbell’s proposal continued, it became clear that one reason the scholars were fundamentalists was fear of other fundamentalists.

Campbell had argued that public schools waste the energy of millions of Christian parents and students by trying to cram evolution down their throats. Such schools convince Christians you just can’t reason with secular humanists, so you have to fight them tooth and nail. Campbell dreamed of the creativity that would be released if schools instead aimed to teach the facts without the labels—then invited students across America to wrestle together with what theory best made sense of the facts.

The scholars liked this vision. But they couldn’t buy it, they said, because Christians wouldn’t genuinely search for the best theory. Instead they’d take over the school boards and the schools. They’d cram six-day creation down everybody’s throats, whether this fit the facts or not. “You just can’t reason with Christians,” the scholars said.

As I listened to the scholars and thought about Christians, I concluded each had a point about the other. Whether fundamentalist evolutionists or creationists, we’re so sure we know our destination before we start the voyage you wonder why we bother to travel at all.

I wished, that day, that with Job we’d all hear God thunder, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? . . . Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:1-4). I wished that with Job we’d realize how often we utter what we do not know (42:3). Then we could begin the adventure of journeying toward truth without knowing it before we find it.

Michael A. King is blogger and editor, Kingsview and Co;  dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This column was first published in Christian Living, September 1995. King is grateful to the late editor David E. Hostetler for being willing to support this type of writing in the original Christian Living Kingsview columns.

Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 1: Introduction

 

BarnFullPaintingOpen200x200x72Recently both Ron Sider and Tony Campolo have been commenting on LGBTQ relationships. They hold opposing views. Nothing unusual about that these days—but their lives have long intertwined and only recently did Campolo announce he no longer shared Sider’s perspectives. Both were professors at Eastern Baptist (now Palmer) Theological Seminary in the 1980s, when I was drawn there partly because of them (and became Ron’s student assistant and later co-author of a book on preaching).

When Campolo announced his change of  views, he said, “Rest assured I have already heard—and in some cases made—every kind of biblical argument against gay marriage, including those of Dr. Ronald Sider, my esteemed friend and colleague at Eastern University.”

Meanwhile Sider has been articulating his understanding that on the one hand a church too often homophobic  needs to be clearer than it has been that welcome is extended to anyone who is “an openly gay, celibate Christian.” On the other hand, Sider underscores this foundational understanding: “the Bible affirms the goodness and beauty of sexual intercourse—and everywhere, without exception, it is sexual intercourse between a man and a woman committed to each other for life.”

I think of these colleagues, leaders, mentors reaching such different conclusions. I think of circles of loved ones, including my own, in which the Campolo/Sider differences are woven into the very fabric of  souls and relationships. God’s gracious arms reach out to welcome those of us who identify as LGBTQ and seek profoundly committed relationships within which to love and be loved, say some members of the circle. Yes, and I join you in extending that embrace, say other members. No, says a different member, sometimes a parent, sometimes a child, sometimes a sibling, sometimes a dear friend. That’s a false grace, an erosion of faithfulness to the Bible; if I support you  in cheap grace, I’ve failed truly to love you.

It’s because I think of these faces and relationships, so dear and yet so torn, that I can find no other approach for myself than to yearn for a community that tries for the miracle of embracing us all, in all our oppositions, in all our alienations. I ache for a community that asks us to live in the pain of holding dear even the other I believe so wrong.

How we address these matters has long been crucial for Mennonite Church USA, the denomination to which I belong, which has in recent decades joined many other denominations and faith communities in struggling to discern, amid deep divisions, how to view same-sex relationships. A number of times, particularly since the early 1980s, MC USA or its predecessor denominations have reached high-voltage junctures.

Now we’re approaching another one: “Kansas City 2015,” a biennual convention of Mennonite Church USA, its opening worship slated for the last night of this month and key discussions of sexuality resolutions scheduled for July 2. At Kansas City the stakes may be historically high as some would wish for full and unambiguous inclusion of persons who identify as LGBTQ, others want MC USA to maintain a traditional position reserving marriage and full expressions of sexuality for men and women, and some speak of a “forebearance” in which we agree to walk patiently with those holding views with which we disagree.

The fact that I’ll be among writers providing Mennonite World Review with a blog post on Kansas City 2015 got me thinking about “Purdue 87″—the last time I reported on a denominational assembly. I wondered what I would learn from reviewing my impressions 28 years ago in preparation for this 2015 reporting. I was struck, to use an unoriginal line, by how much has changed and how much has remained the same—including in relation to LGBTQ relationships.

So I want to draw on the angle of vision shaped in me through being a reporter on and delegate at Purdue 87. I also want to test the perspectives I’ll be taking to Kansas City, because some of them may be wearing out. It’s not clear to me, for instance, that the dream I’ve articulated above, of somehow including all in the MC USA wing of the body of Christ, whether straight or LGBTQ, whether or not we agree, will survive developments that may lie ahead.

To work at such testing, let me first say more about the potential cross-connections between Purdue 87 and Kansas City 2015. Then I’ll overview the seven-part series of “Blogging Toward Kansas City” posts through which I envision working at the testing.

Many of us expect Kansas City 2015 to be a difficult convention. Blogging for The Mennonite, pastor Jessica Schrock Ringenberg has said that “I am dreading convention” and that even though she normally loves conventions, “this year I have a pit in my stomach that makes me feel sick every time I even think about it. ” This, she explains, is because so many of us are confronted with how we answer “The Question” amid awareness that the stakes are high and depending on setting any answer can get us in trouble.

Meanwhile Purdue 87, held at Purdue University in Indiana, has become famous (or infamous) in Mennonite circles for its adoption of what was to become known as the “Purdue statement.” This was when two denominations, the (Old) Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church (GC) were still years from finalizing their merger and reconfiguration into Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Thus the GCs, still holding separate assemblies, had the prior year adopted their own similar statement in Saskatoon. The overlapping statements were thereafter often referred to as “Purdue/Saskatoon” and continue to be referenced in MC USA’s current membership guidelines.

There was plenty to confront at Purdue. The July 28, 1987 issue of the Gospel Herald reported that this is what happened when the delegate sessions turned toward consideration of sexuality: “Ushers had to turn people away at the doors . . . as debate got underway on the final report of the Human Sexuality in the Christian Life Committee.”

The report highlighted that on these matters “Mennonites express considerable diversity and can’t agree on what the Bible teaches. . . .” It explained that by a large majority delegates approved the Purdue statement, which both affirmed that full expressions of sexuality are reserved for heterosexual marriage and articulated a covenant “to study the Bible together on the subject and to dialogue with each other.”

The full text of the Purdue statement actually said much more about dialogue:

 We covenant with each other to mutually bear the burden of remaining in loving dialogue with each other in the body of Christ, recognizing that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and that the Holy Spirit may lead us to further truth and repentance. We promise compassion and prayer for each other that distrustful, broken, and sinful relationships may experience God’s healing.

We covenant with each other to take part in the ongoing search for discernment and for openness to each other. As a part of the nurture of individuals and congregations we will promote congregational study of the complex issues of sexuality, through Bible study and the use of materials such as Human Sexuality in the Christian Life.

The Gospel Herald summary of those paragraphs entirely through the word dialogue points to the possibility that delegates may not have grasped, as was exemplified in To Continue the Dialogue, edited by C. Norman Kraus (Pandora Press U.S., 2001),  just how momentous, complicated, and contentious the covenant to dialogue would prove to be. For long years and through many interpretive permutations the church wrestled with what it had committed itself to. Was it to continue conversing about how to care for each other even as the reserving of marriage for a man and a woman was non-negotiable? Or was there readiness to allow the Holy Spirit to shed further light on how holy sexuality might come to be viewed as extending to same-sex relationships?

The report on sexuality ended with these words, in parentheses: “(Gay and lesbian Mennonites in attendance at Purdue 87, through a statement they issued later, said they felt ‘rejected’ by the action.)”

A number of thoughts emerge as I ponder what happened at Purdue 87 combined with Ringenberg’s dread (along with countless more, I’d guess) of Kansas City.

(1) A first thought is that we might want to be sobered. Again and again Mennonites have sought paths for putting divisions over sexuality to rest. Yet as Ringenberg’s comments highlight, no such destination seems in view. Whatever resolutions are adopted or rejected at Kansas City, it may be instructive to ponder to what extent the Purdue delegates could have forecast developments they wittingly and perhaps mostly unwittingly contributed to.

(2) As one whose own belief in my ability to see the future has been chastened, I want to underscore being much more uncertain than I once was that I grasp which choices will yield which results 28 years from now.

(3) In the aftermath of Purdue it has long seemed to me that there will be no putting behind us divisions over sexuality unless we find some clean, clear, genuine way to live with diversity of understandings. I see no way forward that fails to provide for what I’d call “faithful dissent” or some call “variance”—a term not yet common in 1987 but now pulled to the forefront by the reality that any effort to forestall variance has ultimately only energized it.

In relation to sexuality, Mennonites faithfully seeking to submit to Scripture, God, the teachings of Jesus, and the sanctity of conscience continue to reach different conclusions. And far from shrinking through the passing of time, through efforts to finalize sexuality-related discernment, or through the hope that just one more statement will permit us to move on to other things, the differences have widened year after year. If Kansas City 2015 doesn’t provide in some way for variance, I expect the struggles that led to the Purdue statement and then were fed by decades of conversation over what Purdue (and Saskatoon) really meant will unfold once again.

Simultaneously, I recognize that precisely my conviction that space for faithful dissent is essential for moving beyond the decades of impasse is in the end an ingredient of the impasse. Others believe that a clarity not muddled by the faithful dissenters is key. Thus we find ourselves impaled once more on the horns of the dilemma.

(4) Finally, amid all the pre- and post-merger streams of MC USA have faced during the past generation, here we still are, often saddened if not wiser (that remains to be seen) but still traveling on.

On the one hand, there is plenty to mourn. We’re so at odds that MC USA entities are deciding to leave MC USA and to invest in alternative denominational structures or networks. Total MC USA membership is down by thousands when contrasted with 1987’s comparable statistics.

On the other hand, beyond the dread Ringenberg understandably articulates, I also detect ongoing passion and anticipation. And even dread is a marker of intense investment in the church. Many of my Mennonite colleagues and friends report a sense, which I share, of readiness to trust the Holy Spirit, to let go of dreams that may prove unworkable, to dream new dreams, to contribute to the fresh ways of shaping the body of Christ that may emerge if old ways come undone.

So I believe Purdue 87 is instructive. Looking back may help us understand what we do or don’t want to decide next. Yet precisely because we’ve been at this for decades now, Kansas City and the journey beyond will likely not simply reenact Purdue. Kansas City can take us into new fields and forests and cities and churches of that better country, God’s country of Hebrews 11, awaiting those who by faith leave behind what has been and travel toward “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

As I seek to be a voyager to that better country and to report on it at Kansas City, I want to prepare myself. That takes me back to this “Blogging Toward Kansas City” series, which I conceptualize this way:

Part 1 is this introductory post. Then I envision six more posts, five of them reprints with contemporary introductions of past essays or columns. This one and the last are intended to offer largely new writing.

Part 2 will focus on “Who Are You, My Audience?” my original report on Purdue 87.

Part 3 will reprint “On Not Knowing the Truth Before We Find It.” Here through evolution and “intelligent design” (as framed by lessons from my grandchildren) I explore how, if we truly believe our knowledge is fallible—as I do—we might establish models for pooling our insights to achieve something grander than any of us alone can manage.

Part 4 will feature my article “Painholders on Holy Ground,” in which I ponder the riddle of the “open” being closed to the “closed” and the “closed” being closed to the “open” and wonder if “painholders” offer us hope for a way forward.

Part 5 will reprint “Double Conversion,” in which I draw on the story of Peter and Cornelius and a worship service to yearn for ways we could lay our divisions at the foot of the cross.

Part 6 will offer my recent article on “Honoring Conscience in Plays and Sexuality Wars.” Here, amid rising doubt as to whether we can find reconciliation across such different voices of conscience, I still yearn for the Holy Spirit to offer us a Pentecost miracle.

Part 7 will be my new blog post from Kansas City, “Bending the Curve,” deadline 6:00 p.m., July 1, slated to appear both in Mennonite World Review and here in Kinsgview & Co. I look forward to journeying with you.

Michael A. King is blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC; and author, Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict over Homosexuality (Pandora Press U.S., 2001),

Editor’s note: As was also the case with its prior incarnation, DreamSeeker Magazine, Kingsview & Co is not intended to be mostly about our divisions over same-sex relationships. But for the next few weeks, amid the potential for major developments in my denomination, it often will be.