Tenderly Inviting All to Christ’s Banquet

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72For long decades now I’ve dreamed of a setting in which we could learn how—offering each other the tenderness for which every human so longs—to pull out chairs for every single one of us who wish to do so to sit at Christ’s banquet table. I’ve dreamed of Jesus our host and we as his body,  with the courtesy such a momentous moment so deserves, together pulling out each other’s chairs and helping each one of us be seated.

In my circle of innermost loved ones, including family and dear friends, are those who as soon as same-sex marriage became legal in their respective states married long-time partners. Others in that same circle are against this and have been troubled that, for instance, my employer Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) opened a hiring policy review and listening process to discern whether to hire persons in same-sex relationships. I wish for all of these dear ones to be at the banquet table. I wish for the table to groan with such amazingly nurturing and varied foods that all can eat with joy.

I speak of this dream now because I’m deeply moved to see confirmed a context for extending such tenderness and for continuing to test and learn how it’s done in ways that honor all at the table. Last Thursday, July 16, 2015, the EMU Board of Trustees voted to pass this action:

Eastern Mennonite University does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or any legally protected status. As a religious institution, Eastern Mennonite University expressly reserves its rights, its understandings of, and its commitments to the historic Anabaptist identity and the teachings of Mennonite Church USA, and reserves the legal right to hire and employ individuals who support the values of the college.

In speaking to the EMU community, Board Chair Kay Nussbaum and President Loren Swartzendruber indicated that

Therefore—as we affirm the goodness of singleness, celibacy, and sexual intimacy within the context of a covenanted relationship (marriage)—our hiring practices and benefits will now expand to include employees in same-sex marriages. The Board of Trustees and EMU leadership believe this is the right decision for Eastern Mennonite University as an institution at this time.

I’m moved because through such action I do hear EMU (along with Goshen College, whose board made the same decision) inviting persons and entities like these to that wobbly version of Christ’s table  which is the best we know how to offer each other on earth: my own divided loved ones, students who wrestle with each other’s differing understandings, those holding multiple perspectives within EMU, those pained by fractures within Mennonite Church USA and the range of denominations  an ecumenical EMU serves, persons forming EVANA as a network of Mennonite congregations both intersecting with but also sometimes providing alternatives to MC USA perspectives, and so many more.

I recognize that it’s right about at this point that things get complicated: Some brothers and sisters in Christ have already had a table setting.  A question they’re wrestling with is whether, if they view it as violating faithfulness to Scripture, they can still experience nurture at the table if others fully join them.

This is a riddle I don’t entirely  know how to solve. That’s why I addressed it in various ways in my seven-part “Blogging Toward Kansas City” series. That’s why I’ve basically said God, I don’t know how this can be done or if it can be done, give us a Pentecost miracle.

I think Nussbaum and Swartzendruber address the riddle when they say that

We are keenly aware of the deep divide within our denomination—as well as the broader Christian Church—regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals. We mourn the broken relationships and pain for people with differing understandings of Scripture and what it means to live as Christ called us to live. We remain deeply committed to Mennonite Church USA and Anabaptist values as an institution.

They don’t offer a magic wand. But I draw hope from their recognition of the riddle and from their closing invitation calling

for respect and care in our community as people from a variety of perspectives hear about this decision. Thank you for extending grace and compassion as we move forward living and learning in community together.

As dean of the seminary division of an EMU now operating within our new hiring policy, I know there is much journeying to be done.  We’ll need at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and EMU to learn more of what it means to experience our new banquet table. We’ll need to discern how to share what we learn in a wider church still wrestling with who belongs at the table and how.

We’ll need to continue to benefit from insights of those who, whether internally or externally, disagree with our new non-discrimination commitments. In fact, I believe we’ll have succeeded in honoring the spirit of our new policy precisely to the extent we’re able to invite persons who disagree to be among those who experience themselves as part of an “us” tenderly pulling out for them their banquet chair.

And so I am daring to dream toward learning more about Pentecost through this EMU/EMS laboratory within which I’m privileged to serve. During that first wild Pentecost, winds gusting and flames falling, those gathered so trembled in the Holy Spirit that they were thought drunk with wine as a miracle unfolded: tribes from countless nations understood each other across so many divisions in culture and thought and language. Might the winds and flames similarly fall on us as we invite all to Christ’s table?

I don’t want to claim we at EMU and EMS already fully know how to embody Pentecost. Even as, starting in 1917, the shapers of EMU have fervently sought the guidance of the Spirit all along, as frail humans we’ve still only begun to grasp how large the Spirit’s work among us might be. But I do view us as committed to seeking, together, to invite the Spirit to use us as a laboratory for testing how we all take chairs at the table. Through the EMU Board decision, I see us as making two critical, historic moves:

First, we’re saying not, as we so often have, that all must hold the same LGBTQ-related theology to be at the table; rather, we’re saying that we’ll start with all at the table. Then we’ll continue to wrestle carefully and discerningly—attending to Jesus, Scripture, the core Anabaptist-Mennonite values of MC USA, and insights of the church universal—with how God is speaking amid our varying and sometimes opposing perspectives.

Second, we’re saying that from now on at EMU those who identify as LGBTQ will not be persons the rest of us talk about and whose presence or absence at the table others make decisions about. From now on those of us who identify as LGBTQ will be part of the new EMU “us” we can all now jointly and gently and tenderly form. Even as disagreements in our community will continue and indeed—as befits an institution of higher learning—be treasured, we’ll find our way together into the future of EMU and of EMS within EMU.

I pray that we’ll experience a few more chapters of a Story in which, as Jesus puts it in Luke 14, those who feel most welcome at the table take the lowest place, and those who feel least welcome at the table are in fact invited first.

Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS and EMU, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, a division of Eastern Mennonite University; vice-president, EMU; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

Thy Will Be Done on Earth, by Duane Beachey

KingsviewCoGuestPostDuaneBeachey“I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” [Religion] ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.”  —Jeb Bush in response to Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” —Psalm 24:1

“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” —Jesus

Some Christians are dismayed that Pope Francis is offering his views on finance and the environment. They suggest the Pope should stick to spiritual concerns and leave economics to people who understand finance—in other words, the people with the money. But if the people with the money can be trusted to shape good economic policies, shouldn’t we be able to critique the results of those policies?

As the Pope has noted, the results are abysmal. The world is seeing huge disparity between the very wealthy and the other 90% or 99%.  Even if you accept that a capitalist, free market system should provide equal opportunities not equal results, don’t the numbers tell us whether our economy is structured to benefit everyone or primarily the top 1%?

When God looks at all the inequity in the world, with some having great wealth while some live in abject poverty, does that express God’s will on earth? Does anyone think it will be that way in heaven?  So while we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, clearly that is not what is happening.

The Christian family includes widely differing beliefs and doctrines, but we all pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” How many of us ask what that looks like? Jesus declares that the kingdom is here—among us or within us (Luke 17:21). So wherever God’s will is being done on earth, isn’t that a sign of God’s reign? Isn’t God present wherever the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the sick healed, and wars end?

The economic system we have created is purposely stacked in favor of those with the money. Capital is purposely favored over labor as demonstrated by the fact that income from labor is taxed at twice the rate of income from capital. Warren Buffet says repeatedly he is taxed at a lower rate than his secretaries. Some of the largest corporations pay no income tax because of loopholes they have lobbied for.  Corporations are structured to have greater power than labor. All of this is deliberately designed to tilt the field.

Although a growing number of Christians across the political and theological spectrum are taking seriously the scriptural concern for the poor, I am baffled at how many Christians, often leaning conservative, have come to embrace a political party with the economic philosophy of the “robber barons.” Lower taxes on the wealthy, no regulations, “right to work” laws, a desire to cut spending for the poor and for children. These policies primarily benefit those with the power and wealth. This is the philosophy of Ayn Rand, an avowed atheist who despised the poor and honored the rich—pretty much the mirror opposite of Jesus—but who has been a hero of Paul Ryan, the Republican budget writer.

The real irony of how U.S. politics and religion have intersected is that to a large degree those who take the name of Christ most insistently, and those who claim to take the Bible most seriously are the very ones championing a politics with little concern for the “least of these.” Theirs is not a political agenda that is good news to the poor, that aims to feed the hungry, release the prisoner, heal the sick, and proclaim a message of peace to the world.

Indeed most liberal secularists and atheists embrace a politics and an economic philosophy more geared to the vision of the Lord’s Prayer: “ Thy will be done on earth.”  Jesus said, “Truly the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the reign of God ahead of you.” (Matt 21:31)

If we begin with a belief that the earth is the Lord’s, that  all we have belongs to God and we are his stewards, then this is the main question we as God’s people need to ask: How does God want his resources used? If we pray that God’s will be done on earth, how can we dedicate ourselves to that vision for the earth? Specifically how can we structure an economic system that advances the common good?

Why is economic disparity not a significant moral issue across the whole church? The economic world we have created hardly looks like God’s will being done on earth. Through the Law and the Prophets and on through the teachings of Jesus, God is clearly concerned about how we, individuals and nations,  take care of the poor, the widows, the fatherless, the sick, and the aliens.

And beyond the weakest members, God is concerned about workers and the wages they are paid. The Bible addresses those who hold back on workers’ wages or as Malachi 3:5 lists, “those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, (emph. added) along with oppressing widows, orphans, and aliens. (See also Lev. 19:13, Deut. 24:14, Jer. 22:13, and James 5:4.)

Jesus condemns those who carefully tithe everything, but forget the more important matters of justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). He condemns those who offer long pious prayers and then swallow up or foreclose on the houses of widows (Mark 12:40). I’m sure this was all legal. Laws are usually made by those with money. But legal or not, Jesus is clear that it wasn’t and isn’t right.

During the recent financial crisis billions were spent to bail out banks, but most of the homeowners who lost their homes weren’t bailed out. If people losing their homes doesn’t look like God’s will being done on earth, God’s people should be pleading their case in the courts and in the congress. Amos 5: 12 (NIV) says, “There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”  Verse 15 adds, “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.” Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

Do you know what the very next verse is—verse 18? It’s a verse well-known to anyone who has sat through a revival meeting. You probably know it by heart: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” This great call for repentance is a call to repent of not doing right, not seeking justice, not defending the oppressed, or taking up the case of the fatherless, or pleading the case of the widow in court.  And you probably thought it was a call to repent from drinking and sex.

To those who say the Pope should stick to spiritual matters, both Isaiah 1 and Amos 5 and Jesus and 1 John 4, tell us God despises all our religious observances and worship songs and offerings while we are ignoring the needs of the poor. The prophet Amos tells us, “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.” And on the end of that same verse—verse 23 he paints a wonderful picture of what God’s will being done on earth looks like. “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Justice for the poor is a far greater priority to God than all our worship.

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. (Isaiah 58:6, New Living Translation)

Duane Beachey, Isom, Kentucky, is a Mennonite pastor pastoring two small Presbyterian churches in Appalachia. He and his wife, Gloria spent over eight years with Mennonite Central Committee in Appalachia and stayed to pastor. Duane is the author of Reading the Bible as if Jesus Mattered (Cascadia Publishing House, 2014). Duane has spent most of his life working in low income housing ministries.

Author’s note: I’m interested in starting a conversation to develop a theology that challenges Christians including Christian business people to making just economic structures central to how they live out their faith. Also to envision economic ideas and models that benefit everyone and not just those at the top. I welcome input for this vision.


ShMHKC2015poste was spellbound. As I watched her, the spell stretched over to bind and bless me too.

We were flying away from a week that had included hurt and sorrow for many. Our denominational convention in seeking to strengthen the ties that bind us in Christian love had sometimes achieved this but also sometimes torn the threads.

Soon enough she’ll need to be finding her own path through all the ways we wound each other. In fact, because she was born into this flow of pain going back to the very beginning, back to the angel with the flaming sword barring the return to Eden, she too is already wounded. All of us who care for her are already in ways known and unknown shaping her not only through our love but also through the frailties our own births into the brokenness have formed in us.

But right then she was spellbound. I imagine she couldn’t even grasp the concept of flight; I doubt she understood that she was in a vast airborne bus and that what she was seeing was thousands of feet below her. Yet as the plane descended, quickly now, toward the runway, the houses and trees and cars were turned golden by the setting sun and at the same time the lights of approaching night began to flick on all across the landscape. She can’t talk yet so I don’t know precisely how her brain was relaying the magic to her. Yet the wonder of it did seem to have caught her attention.

In turn, she caught my attention, this dear granddaughter reminding me that there are more primal ways to experience the world than my grizzled, aging self, too caught up in life’s complexities to see much more than the burdens, often manages. And witnessing her spell then opening myself to it did envelop me in grace.

My granddaughter’s spell took me back to those first days of creation, when God hovered over the face of the chaos, over all that was formless and void, and spoke into being light and dark, mountains and valleys, dry land and heaving seas, trees and flowers, amazing animals, cool bugs and irritating but needed critters, birds singing and getting their early worms (or hopping around Amtrak’s 30th Street Station gobbling noodles, as happened on Sunday), women and men and children in all their endless varieties. I remembered that God looked upon all this and marveled at how good it was.

I saw that my granddaughter, though lacking the words or concepts to explain it, was present to it. In her wordless way, she was treasuring it. Even amid the grief and pain that was still much with me and will long be with us, gratefully I joined her in the worship.

—Michael A. King is blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; and owner, Cascadia Publishing House LLC

Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 7: Bending the Curve

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72It’s hard to tell how much and what type of history Mennonite Church USA made yesterday as intertwined resolutions on sexuality were passed. What will it mean to live a.) within the parameters of one resolution that called us to “forebearance,” to living patiently and respectfully with each others’ different views; and at the same time b.) within the implications of another resolution that reaffirms current membership guidelines related to persons who identify as LGBTQ?

I think it’s too early fully to understand what was decided, so I’ll defer detailed comment to another day or wiser analysts. (Meanwhile see news reporting on the wrestling with and voting on the sexuality resolutions from The Mennonite and Mennonite World Review.) Here I’ll mostly underscore my sense that we lived through a day of pain and sorrow.

I’d guess this was true for persons across the spectrum of beliefs, given that divergent beliefs were one cause of the pain. This meant that any combination of decisions was likely to be experienced as gain by some and pain by others.

The pain must have been palpable for any of us who felt that our very ability to honor conscience was in play.  Along with anger as its frequent companion, pain must have been particularly intense for any of us who felt that our personal inclusion or exclusion, or that of our loved ones, was at stake. Some have been giving eloquent voice to this suffering on Facebook and elsewhere.

As earlier promised, I did write Part 7, the last in my “Blogging Toward Kansas City” series, on Wednesday for publication in Mennonite Weekly Review yesterday morning, July 2, 2015. This was before we knew the results of the sexuality resolutions discernment. My impression is that today we’re continuing to find our way through some of the dynamics I reported on in yesterday morning’s MWR post but that we won’t fully understand what has happened or what could happen next, for good or ill, until we have a chance to absorb the hurt and grief.

I actually don’t know what comes after this for my own blogging. I need to do some of my own living into what has happened and what if anything to comment on or what other topics to move onto. In the meantime, I’m working with several authors of guest posts and look forward to sharing their writing when ready. Many thanks to those of you who have supported the launch of Kingsview & Co through your interest, comments, provision of guest posts, or shares through Facebook, Twitter, and more.

Now I’ll continue to pray, as I do below, that amid anxiety, chaos, and sorrow the evidence of things we don’t yet see and the substance of things we hope for (to echo Hebrews 11) will become clearer as God continues to bend the curve toward love and life.

Bending the Curve Toward Love and Life

In the middle of Tuesday night, I fell into a sequence of dreams. In one I dreamed that I was at the Mennonite Church USA convention, Kansas City 2015 (as I actually was). In a seminar I attended only in the dream, we were each to remember an experience of God’s grace. My dreaming mind went to this true story:

When I was seven, I ate bananas intended for something else. We lived on a four-lane Mexico City street with a tree-lined median. Racing to the median, I dumped the evidence then ran back—forgetting cars. With screaming brakes and horn, a Jeep hit me.

A nearby stop light had turned red; traffic was slowing; I was more bruised in ego than body. I scrambled up, pretended getting hit by cars was standard fare for me, and ran home as the driver stared.

I won’t claim detailed metaphorical connections while offering impressions from KC2015, but herewith some broad linkages:

First is being launched by a minor decision into near-catastrophe. Small moves can have large consequences. Many of us are feeling this at KC2015. As hymns are chosen, worship leaders decide what to highlight, speakers connect our circumstances with the Luke 24 disciples mourning dead Jesus, we’re attending to the smallest nuances.

We hear of gun-rights exercisers in tension with the local Moslem mosque. We learn of tiny gestures of reconciliation growing between two alienated communities. Are we really who we say we are? Or is ours “an idle tale”? we’re asked. We also engage endless war, drone warfare, abuse, justice amid racism, a remembrance of the Native Americans others of us displaced, and more. But over it all swirl LGBTQ-related dynamics as we wait to learn whether sexuality discernment becomes a Jeep hitting MC USA.

I asked KC2015 participants whose journeys with God catch my attention to offer impressions, hopes, fears. L. Keith Weaver, moderator, Lancaster Mennonite Conference, touches on our mix of feelings amid not knowing what the small or larger gestures of coming hours will produce:

I am feeling an awkward mix of joy and grief as I greet and worship with friends and colleagues in MC USA. It is a joy to experience God’s presence in his gathered people, celebrating God’s redeeming grace and sustaining love. There is also grief in knowing that conflicting values will make it difficult to experience the organizational unity we had hoped could emerge. God grant us mercy and grace as we seek to follow Jesus on the way.

A second broad linkage is loss of control amid chaos. I had some ability to make choices before and after being struck. Yet when I failed to anticipate traffic, chaos took control.

At KC2015, wise folks are paying attention to traffic amid prayerful awareness that a Jeep could wreck our discernment. Still, so much we don’t control. The discernment is unfolding not only across many layers of MC USA but also entities some may join instead of MC USA. Decisions across any layer can cause unpredictable ripples and counter-moves.

Among many naming the consequent anxiety is Theda Good, pastor, First Mennonite Church of Denver. Good anticipates renewing and building relationships at KC2015 but is also “aware of the anxiety in the family system. I feel it.”

Lois Johns Kauffmann, conference minister, Central District Conference, confesses to

anxiety as I think about the weight of our work together and the range of expectations we brought with us. This feels like a pivotal moment in the life of our church. It is a crucial time, not because the way will be crystal clear by the end of the week, but because this is not a business-as-usual convention. Maybe it’s pivotal because we’re aware of our need. Maybe it’s pivotal because we’re forced to face our power and privilege.

Many are experiencing heavy hearts. Echoing Weaver on grief, they doubt any discerners can control an outcome that holds us institutionally together. There is sorrow that this may be their last MC USA convention.

The third broad link with my story—the care of a gracious God—places me on shaky ground. If God’s care spares me, why do countless others, equally deserving, appear not to receive it? Still I believe that in ways we can’t reduce to formula, God bends the curve of Creation toward life and love.

Maybe God didn’t bend the curve toward life after a boy hid banana peels. Yet I’ll trust there was a divine nudge in my dream of telling KC2015 seminar participants that being spared death by Jeep was an experience of God’s care. I’ll trust this amid the longing many feel for God to bend this moment’s curve toward love and life.

Good’s hope is “that we will find ways to love, honor and cherish each and every family member while acknowledging we do not and will not agree on so many different topics.” She believes “The sexuality conversation will not be the last in which we will hold strong divergent views.” Good trusts that as the curve bends “we will find our way and continue to be known as a church of love and peacemakers.”

Harold N. Miller, pastor, Trissels Mennonite Church, thinks the week may “be good for the church. Perhaps it’s trust that our leaders have good instincts for what will hold the church together.”

Perhaps it’s a deep hope that our delegates are committed to “listen to the Scriptures for guidance” (in the delegates’ Table Group Covenant Litany), that we won’t abandon one teaching stance without deliberate, church-wide Bible study to discern whether we should embrace a new stance or affirm the Membership Guidelines resolution.

“The only explanation that is certain,” Miller stresses, “is that my peace was a gift from the Spirit of God.”

Kauffmann concludes,

More than anxiety, I feel grateful to be part of this church I love, participating in the hard and holy work of being in community. A wise person once said that every relationship is an opportunity for spiritual growth, because every relationship forces us to let go of illusions. I wonder what illusions God is asking me and us to release.

Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; owner, Cascadia Publishing House LLC; and blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co. He is grateful to Kelli Yoder, assistant editor and web editor, Mennonite World Review to MWR for the opportunity to collaboratively develop and circulate this blog post.