Category Archives: human finitude

Body Fading, Essence Soaring, by Miriam Blank

KCGuestPostMiriamBlank300x300x72This morning, kneeling beside my mother on the deck, I was gripped by the fleeting treasure of her fragile resilient life.  The process of dying, I believe, is a holy space, just as is birth.

This morning, like every morning, I went over to ask her how her night was. Dad had her out on the deck surrounded by bird song and five flowering baskets from mother’s day.

She sat quietly, a little queen in her corner. I asked her how she slept and she got a mischievous smile. She had a dream, she said, that she was pregnant. She was a little worried that people might think, “Crazy old lady, what is she doing pregnant?”

But in her dream she was happy to be pregnant.  She said, “It was my baby.”

I thought of the days my mother was young. There is a photo of Mom at about 31, holding my oldest brother Nelson while pregnant with her next child.  No one can doubt how full of new life she is, standing quietly holding it all.

MaryLouBlank
Mary Lou Blank, mother of author Miriam, holding her first child and pregnant with her fourth in this photo taken during the Blank family’s missionary years in Mexico. Mary Lou went on to bear six children over nine years.

I told her, “Maybe it is a sign that even in this season of things breaking down, you are full of new life.”

We talked about how she is experiencing great joy, peace and love each day. She said she liked my interpretation of her dream; that it fit. Mom is more expressive of her love for everyone than she has ever been. She seems at relative peace with her losses in this season of endings. “Everyone has to die,” she has said, with a little smile.  She laughs often.  Her body so frail is spilling over with beauty.

I know others might not see it as I do, and I don’t always see it this way either. But I am bending over her being each day and am taking in each moment with new eyes, knowing more than ever that each day with her is a gift. Like parents who can’t stop talking about their little child, and can’t get over the miracle growing in their arms, I can’t get over her growing beauty.

Mary Lou, Lester, and Miriam Blank
Mary Lou and Lester Blank with author Miriam Blank

Others may see her listing to one side of the wheelchair, stuttering over a word, drooling, or looking distantly across the room and wonder at my delight in this season.  I don’t deny the sadness.  It is there, and I take my turn with tears. Her tiny body seems to be shriveling up and disappearing. She is so small now in her recliner; it seems to fold in and hide her away. She sleeps more, eats less, forgets more, and words are harder to say.

But as her body fades and fails, her essence soars. Her spirit flames. She shakes with the fullness of her life and the rich stories of love layered within.  She can’t get over the flowers and the blue sky. To her they are a new wonder every morning. She is full of new life. She is quietly holding it all.

–Miriam Blank, Gap, Pennsylvania, is a professional counselor, spiritual director, and certified life coach.  In the past Miriam worked 15 years as a registered nurse and certified nurse-midwife.

Perfect Lawns and Dandelion Wine

DandelionsKCPost-MAKTheir very different personalities crossed my path just as the annual divide between dandelions as beauty or bane was in full bloom— and  unbidden came a mental image associating one of them with dandelion wine.

Next day as I walked to work paying particular attention, I noted just how stark are the differences in treatment of dandelions. First came a line of lawns radiating deep emerald green perfection. Then just as the eye got used to this as the norm came a ragged blanket of dandelions gone to seed, the line between barbaric chaos and the treated lawn beside it razor sharp.

After that came an unpredictable jumble. Sometimes back to emerald. Sometimes lawns whose owners clearly tolerated dandelions yet had recently mowed them into submission. Sometimes profusions of untidy stalks, heads gone old and gray and wild, gold mostly missing, mixed with unkempt grass and weeds. I haven’t done the demographic studies yet, but I do suspect they would show correlations between dandelion vistas and socio-economic variables.

Then to the personalities. One is more driven, restlessly surveying the horizon for the next opportunity, focused on achieving results, assessing outcomes, revising methods whenever the feedback loop calls for it. Here Big Data is today’s exciting new tool. The numbers are crunched, they point in promising directions, and in fact there is proof in the pudding: often amazing feats are indeed achieved and call for admiration.

The other is more laid back, not exactly somnolent but not driven, either. There may be hints, in more of a heart-softening than problematic form, of brushes with depression. Here data and numbers aren’t irrelevant but are one or two, maybe even three, levels down. First come people. People in all their beyond-statistics quirks, in their sufferings, their ragged edges, their lives sometimes golden but often in dandelion-esque fashion, beautiful today, gone to seed tomorrow.

Next came the progression toward dandelion wine. After spending time with the first personality, I did feel admiration. I also felt unsettled; does the grass really need to be that flawless? Might it be okay to let a few dandelions sneak into even well-manicured lawns— and personalities—to give us their annual saffron carpets, evanescent yet so lovely during their brief flowering? We’re learning that apples or tomatoes modified for beauty and long shelf-life lose their taste; the ones that bless your tongue are the heirloom varieties, blemished,  spots and lumps and oddities dancing with their tastes. Are people maybe sometimes like that too?

After being with the second personality, I realized life felt slower, gentler, calmer. The frenzy had faded. Outcomes mattered less and the tenderness of each passing minute mattered more.

Later that evening, in the afterglow, arrived the image of dandelion wine, which comes from Ray Bradbury’s 1957 novel of that title set in Green Town, Illinois, and of the summer in which Douglas Spaulding, age 12, experiences through dandelions and all that goes with them the very wine of life.

As Bradbury put it in a 1975 introduction, “Dandelion Wine is nothing if it is not the boy-hid-in-the-man playing on the green grass of other Augusts in the midst of starting to grow up, grow old, and sense darkness waiting under the trees to seed the blood.”

And as part of telling of that boy growing up and old, Bradbury reports in one chapter, “The Lawns of Summer,” on this special grass, which I imagine creating perfect emerald lawns like the ones I walked by except for one more miracle: it grows to just the right height, then stops. Bill, Grandpa’s boarder, excitedly reports that he’ll plant the new grass and soon enough mowing will be done forever.

But Grandpa has this crazed notion that mowing grass and even pulling weeds can nurture the soul, can be, as he puts it, “a way of life.” The sound of lawn mowers and the smell of cut grass are gifts of being alive he wants never to lose. Not to mention that “a mess of dandelion greens is good eating once in a while” and that the bees will vanish as the high-tech grass kills off dandelions and clover.

He gets through to Bill. When Grandpa wakes from that afternoon’s nap, he hears the mower going again even though Bill had just cut the lawn that morning while anticipating the day the magic grass would put an end to all that. When Grandpa questions Bill, wondering if the sun has addled him, Bill just joyfully grins through a spray of green.

Michael A. King is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a vice-president at Eastern Mennonite University; columnist, “Unseen Hands,” for Mennonite World Review;  blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

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 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.