Hope as Church Unravels? Part 4: Grandparents Dreaming, Grandchildren Seeing

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72During his first year, a dream about my grandson suggested to me that key to reweaving those aspects of church that are unraveling is working together across generations and experiences of church. We need both the fresh perspectives of those increasingly giving up on the church and the seasoned wisdoms of those who can articulate anew treasures of the faith going back millennia.

Here then, drawing on a seminary convocation presentation, is part 4 of the six-part series introduced in “Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, The Unraveling” on a.) ways the church, denominations, concepts and patterns of ministry, theological training are unraveling and b.) how we might work at weaving and reweaving.

Grandparents Dreaming, Grandchildren Seeing

I had a dream just before leaving for coastal Maine, where our daughters, sons-in-law, and first grandchild Kadyn, soon to turn one, were to join our first-ever three-generation gathering. In the dream, Kadyn cradled in my right arm, I was walking across a towering ocean dune. The sky was bluer, sand sandier, and sea grander than the waking world provides. I recognized that dreamscape; I’d walked it before; I knew that there the Spirit and transformation hovered near.

As Kadyn and I walked, the dune turned into a mountain. Its snowy slope was almost one Kadyn and I could laughingly slide down. But I was responsible to care for him; I realized it was too steep to risk.

The dream haunted and blessed me. I remembered it as Kadyn and I walked actual beaches, dodged waves, explored breakwaters. I thought of it as Kadyn aimed an index finger at lights, fans, wind, people he wanted to learn more about—and as after learning their names he pointed at them when asked, “Kadyn, where’s the light? Fan? Wind? Grandma?” I thought of it as with fingers pulling in he asked to nap with fan on or signaled feeling the wind outdoors.

Watching Kadyn reminded me how wonderfully the young reach out to life. Yet I’m the graying elder charged to know that when he reaches down from boulders on the Camp Ellis jetty I can’t let him tumble into the cracks where the rats run or beyond the rocks into the Saco River where it joins the Atlantic swells.

Somewhere in such images may lurk insights for seminary and faith-based education communities—or any faith communities—as today so many people bypass the church.

Kadyn might too. He’s being raised within passion for grace and truth yet with church viewed as sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful. To watch Kadyn is to see him grasping the miracle of something like the psalmist’s vision of the earth as the Lord’s and all the fullness thereof in ways my aging self struggles to glimpse anymore. But I can also imagine him experiencing, like I sometimes have, the church as taming all the wilder fullnesses.

So Kadyn may become one of the “Nones.” These are the growing millions who say, as Pew Research reports, “none of the above” if asked which church, denomination, tradition they identify with. Nones are often spiritually energized yet view organized religion as maintaining lifeless structures, majoring in doctrinal minors, elevating leaders who love power and polish more than authentic walking with the torn as wounded healers, caring more about who gets kept out than who finds new life.

Partly because so many experience religion as not offering food to nourish the soul, seminaries are struggling. As introduced in “Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, not so long ago, loyal members, congregations, and denominations built each other up. Resources flowed to denominational schools and institutions. Students would get their degrees then be paid within and feed this virtuous cycle.

But amid None-ish trends, the cycle increasingly breaks down. Students aren’t sure if they believe enough in the church to train themselves to serve it. Or if they do leap, they’re not sure the church will pay enough to live on plus pay down school loans.

If seminaries could easily withstand such headwinds, the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education wouldn’t be reporting that cumulative enrollment at 205 North American seminaries peaked in 2004 and has been declining since. I myself don’t know precisely how those of us passionate about theological education or a flourishing church should address the challenges.

But Kadyn inspires me to offer two guesses.

The first is this: We should plunge into the yearnings and questions giving birth to the Nones.

We should take seriously that Nones include our children or even us. I can’t tell you how often as I roam the church its leaders confess that their own children, longing for more wonder than the church offers, are seeking it elsewhere. We need to listen to such leaders; to our children, siblings, friends; to our own hearts; to the EMS and EMU students asking the hard questions. We need seminaries and faith communities to be a place where it’s safe to say, with Ezekiel, that some of these bones are dead, and to dream of what it would look like for bodies and breath once more to throb with Kadyn-like wonder.

But then a second guess: Courageous exploration of how the church has died should be paired with hope that not all structures, not all traditions, not all sacred scriptures and holy rhythms and rules are ready for the bone heap.

I resonate with the yearnings of the Nones; I feel them. I also was privileged as a young pastor to help a congregation aim toward actually implementing a vision of church as a place to which we could bring our true selves, our dreams of wilder glories, our yearnings to love enemies and those cast out, our doubts and questions, our cravings for assurance that we didn’t have to be perfect to find God waiting at lane’s end to welcome us home. This in turn meant we dared plunge even into that riskiest of adventures, following Jesus.

In hindsight, we were groping toward emerging/emergent before Brian McLaren and others popularized the terms. And the Spirit deeply blessed us. Yet we also learned by trial and at times frighteningly great error that some faith-journey slopes are too dangerous. We needed not only fresh wonders of the Spirit but also the ancient wisdoms that had led the church to form its members in the first place within the boundaries and structures, the rhythms and rituals that had come to seem worn out.

Agree or disagree, Rachel Held Evans believes what millennial-generation Nones want is—

not a change in style but a change in substance.

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

Evans is saying that yes, parts of the church are dead bones. But the answer isn’t to replace all the old stuff with flash and glitz. It’s to connect the old treasures with times like these. Thriving denominations, churches, seminaries, Christian universities, and faith-based communities won’t throw out the ancient wisdoms. They’ll become labs within which so boldly to blend time-tested, Jesus-shaped truths and teachings and practices with today’s longings and realities that the horizons of then and now fuse to yield miraculous life.

By framing my comments in the dream of a grandfather and a grandchild, I don’t mean simplistically to image students as grandchildren and faculty or staff as grandparents. Grandparents can be students, grandchildren can be teachers, and in each of us there are grandchild-like and grandparent-like selves.

But across our life stages and trainings and circumstances, we can bless each other. We can cherish the visions of those in awe as they see some things for the first time. We can treasure the dreams and wisdoms of those who having been around the block have mentoring to offer.

We can help each other discern when the slope is too steep or when after too many times around the block we’re preserving dead bones. We can together invite the Spirit to breathe new life into bodies with which to the walk across the holy landscapes, the high dunes and the sand and the snow and the sea, energies of youth and gray hairs of the elders joined.

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 2013 EMS convocation presentation.

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.”

Hope as Church Unravels? Part 2: A Bible as Big as the Universe

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72So much is unraveling, yet there is also so much potential for reweaving, movingly life-giving, to take place. When we engage it as the living Word of God, the Bible is key to our reweavings.

In “Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, The Unraveling,” I introduce a six-part series on ways the church, denominations, concepts and patterns of ministry, theological training are unraveling. Here in Part 2 indeed I seek a living Bible large enough to provide resources for reweaving what is coming apart.

A Bible as Big as the Universe

I was raised a missionary kid in Cuba and Mexico as steeped in the Bible as I can imagine being. On top of Bible-saturated church activities, our family added biblical devotions. And readings of a verse by every family member before eating while food smelled heavenly nearly killed us, because there were nine children. I read the Bible through by age nine.

By age 12 I was entering an agnosticism that would persist into young adulthood. The gaps between how I experienced life and what my church taught the Bible meant had stirred wrestlings with whether God existed and Jesus was alive.

Around then I encountered The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis, and its wardrobe which behind the coats delivered you into the land of Narnia. I was soon ablaze with love: for Narnia; for main characters Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy; for the great lion Aslan, Lewis’s version of Jesus; for the feeling that it all hung together, meant something, was going someplace wonderful even amid and often because of battles and betrayals and deaths topped off by Aslan’s resurrection after the White Witch slaughtered him.

The Bible didn’t do that for me. Narnia did. However, if fifty years later the Bible hasn’t become Narnia for me it does, as I’ll soon elaborate, send its own shivers up my spine. Within the Bible unfolds the story of God, of Jesus, of the Abrahams and Sarahs called beyond their old lives; of disciples struggling to recognize one walking beside them after dying; of a eunuch and an apostle called Philip drawn strangely and wonderfully together by the Holy Spirit; of Jesus as the vine on which we’re branches; and the story, if we enter it, of every last one of us.

Entering a living Bible as big as the universe is important for many reasons.

First, we all live by a master story, a story within which our values, motivations, goals, and views of what’s real and true are shaped. Currently it’s hard to know what the U.S. master story is, as financial, political, moral, security, environmental, climatological crises, and so many more complicate the American Dream.

The dream is fading quickly amid pleas for the 99% not to be dominated and exploited by the 1%, for recognition that “Black lives matter,” for a transcendence of the political and cultural and church battles that are so often causing us to do so little as injustices mount, infrastructure crumbles, and the planet heats—setting record after record after record as droughts deepen, species go extinct, and the human race itself hovers on the brink,

When human master stories unravel, we need the Bible’s master story. To step as if through a wardrobe into its world is to find a Bible full of the failed master stories that betray us. Then it tells us that if we enter God’s and ultimately Jesus’ story, we’ll grasp that even failure, as human master stories label it, can become success—as in the gospel down becomes up, enemies are loved, justice flows to widows who cry out, the lowly are raised, the least of these are cherished, the earth which is the Lord’s is wrapped in tender care instead of exploited and ravaged nearly to death, the cross as death symbol in the Roman Empire’s master story becomes life symbol in the Christian master story.

Second, the Bible is bigger than our conflicts. Like Narnians, we too are riven by battles, including maybe most frighteningly seeing different understandings across religions and within Christianity as our good battling their evil. And how we view the Bible becomes one more thing to fight about.

But my marriage, of all things, has invited me to grasp that the Bible is big enough to nurture multiple perspectives and needs. Precisely as I was for a time rejecting the Bible, the girl who was to become my wife Joan was finding Bible and faith meaning little.

During her teens, however, Gerry Keener, a Mennonite student at Houghton College, led a Campus Life club at which through life-changing Scripture study Joan grasped the possibility of a more intimate relationship with God through Christ. This new awareness that Scripture could mean something now led to Joan’s passionate involvement in the charismatic movement, within which the Holy Spirit deepened her study of the Bible as God’s living Word.

We met at Eastern Mennonite University at the peak of my agnostic phase and her charismatic one. Two-plus years later we were married. A doomed effort to blend oil and water, thought friends. But through studying at EMU and then Eastern Baptist (now Palmer) Theological Seminary, I learned forms of Bible study that allowed me to ask the hardest questions, trust that the Bible was big enough for them, and try the adventure of following the Jesus the Bible reveals.

Meanwhile Joan continued to cherish charismatic teachings that God and the Bible could so vitally shape daily life. But as crises were met with “Pray harder,” Joan also concluded aspects of charismatic interpretation as she had been taught it made the Bible too small.

Together we came to believe that the Mennonite church I was raised in and to which Gerry had introduced Joan offered resources for our different, shifting, yet mutually enriching journeys with Scripture. We came to cherish the Anabaptist-Mennonite understanding that through our individual lenses we see biblical truth only in part. This is why, as Jesus in Matthew 18 invites us to do,  we discern Scripture together in light of Jesus’ teachings and under guidance of the Holy Spirit.

This emphasis on opening Scripture communally in congregations, faith traditions, and even the church worldwide inspires me as I think, for instance, of all the traditions or absence thereof present at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Each tradition emphasizes different things. Sometimes they reach conflicting conclusions, as when Mennonites at EMS see adult baptism and Methodists infant baptism as what the Bible’s master story invites. So to say the Bible is bigger than our conflicts is not to say it ends them.

But the Bible itself, like the church worldwide today, is full of traditions and teachings jostling. The Bible overflows with anecdotes of biblical characters themselves in conflict over how to understand God’s story. The Bible is bigger than our conflicts because we dare trust that if we take any of our varied and even warring viewpoints into the Bible, we can’t destroy its master story. Even if we battle within and about it, it will drag us ever deeper into its own world, in which God’s tale is told within and through diversities and tensions and varying emphases in all its raw and ragged glory.

This leads naturally to a third reason to enter and read the Bible together: The Bible forms us both through our submission to and our tussling with it. The Bible invites our humility before its truths larger than our understandings. The Bible is also strong enough to give back treasure when we tussle with it. Jacob wrestled with God to become Israel. We can likewise wrest divine blessings from challenging the Bible with our deepest doubts, struggles, questions.

My Old Testament seminary professor at Eastern Baptist, the late Tom McDaniel, taught that yes, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. . .” (2 Tim. 3:14-17 NRSV). But that doesn’t mean the people of the Bible always grasp how God means to speak. So McDaniel taught that the Bible corrects us by showing how people get God wrong as well as how we get God right.

Thus McDaniel would say we have to tussle with the Old Testament book of Joshua’s accounts of slaughters in the name of God of enemy men, women, and babies. Even amid such  cruelties God can speak, as the Israelites sometimes grasp that God is teaching them to be less brutal than surrounding peoples. Yet when we interpret Joshua through such biblical themes as God’s steadfast mercy and love and Jesus’ invitation to love enemies, McDaniel would say Joshua shows us that to fully hear God speak, people need to grow in understanding.

A fourth reason to enter and read the Bible together is that it inexhaustibly feeds our hearts, minds, and souls. Agree or disagree with it, fight or submit to it, be angered or comforted by it, the Bible, in all its poems and psalms, its dialogues and diatribes, its doctrines and dictates, its stories and sermons, never runs out of ways to form us. I don’t mean we should worship the Bible. But the Bible does invite us to worship the one it reveals, the Lord of Hosts, the God who in Jesus set up his tent among us, whom John calls the Word made flesh. The Bible invites us through meeting millennia of God’s people at their finest and frailest to be formed as people of the Bible ourselves.

We’re so tempted to shrink the Bible to our pet ideas, blindnesses, and battles. Yet as we read it both individually and together, it can nurture a Michael, a Joan, or billions of us, whatever our beliefs, doubts, questions, or callings. Nothing we take to it will prove too large for this Bible as big as the universe, a Bible big enough to help us reweave all unravelings.

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 the MC USA “Purposeful Plan” (particularly related to “Christian Community”), presentations and sermons at the Mennonite Church USA Pittsburgh 2011 assembly, at EMS convocation in August 2011, and in multiple congregations. It was first published in The Mennonite.

Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, The Unraveling

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72When I became a seminary dean in 2010, I knew there was a lot I didn’t know and especially, if I dare echo Donald Rumsfeld, a lot that I didn’t know that I didn’t know. But among the more important things I didn’t know was just how dominated my tenure would be by unravelings and ways this would call for constant assessment of what was worn out, what was working, what needed to be thrown out, what needed to be rethought, renewed, or reaffirmed.

In light of such ferment and sometimes chaos, which has been constant yet is also perhaps even intensifying at the moment, I’d like to think “aloud” about what’s happening and what we might do about it through a six-part series of blog posts asking, can we find “Hope as Church Unravels?”

The first and introductory post is this one, on “The Unraveling.” Here let me first say more about what is unraveling then preview the next five  posts.

Indeed denominational structures and loyalties are unraveling. This is true of many denominations, not least my own. As I write, the structures of my denomination, Mennonite Church USA, have been thrown into near-chaos not only by all the larger forces tugging at all denominations’ stability but also specifically by explosive effects of divisions over how LGBTQ relationships should be viewed. Regional conferences are processing whether to secede from MC USA. Congregations are discerning whether to leave conferences. Individual participants debate whether to stay or leave as their congregations sometimes confirm and sometimes repudiate their personal beliefs.

Reflecting on such realities, Paul Schrag, editor of Mennonite World Review, has asked this dramatic question: “What if Mennonite Church USA stopped being a denomination? Or stopped being, period.” He makes the provocative point that if instead of remaining bogged down in managing declining structures amid constant divisions, we could invest our energies in building a looser but much larger tent for a host of Anabaptist-related entities.

Longstanding quid-pro-quo understandings between pastors and congregations are unraveling. It used to be the case that this was the basic pact: Future minister, denominations and congregations would say, you go to seminary for three years, and even if you come out in debt things will be fine; we’ll give you a job and we’ll pay you enough to make at least a modest living and not be swamped forever in debt. We might even help pay for your tuition.

Ministers would say okay then, I’ll invest in getting the scholarly and formational training that will allow me to serve you with passion, wisdom, and integrity.

And together we’ll generate enough mutual commitment to maintain salaries, buildings, programs drawing many congregants in turn willing to provide support when the offering basket comes by. We’ll celebrate a virtuous cycle producing good will, high morale, and long-term sustainability.

In many established congregations and contexts this pact, in fact, remains intact. But under stressors of declining loyalties, shrinking congregational participation and giving, the sometimes welcome but often forced need to make ends meet through bivocational pastoring (not to mention external economic pressures), in many other settings this pact is unraveling.

In tandem, long-standing patterns of theological education are unraveling. This is evident in a simple statistic yet one that has had high impact on my seminary work: for over 10 years, since reaching a peak in 2004, cumulative enrollment at seminaries in North American has declined most years by about half a percent a year.

Many are sounding alarms or analyzing causes, but let me touch on just two.

Take, for instance, the thinking of M. Douglas Meeks, Cal Turner Chancellor Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. As summarized by reporter Heather Hahn in “Does U.S. Theological Education Have a Future?” Meek believes that due to a growing shortage of teachers amid the headwinds denominations and seminaries are facing, “United Methodist theological education in the United States is in a crisis, and a longtime scholar says if trends persist the modern way of training pastors could disappear altogether.”

Or take the bracing view of Kyle Roberts, Associate Professor of Public and Missional Theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. His very blog post title, After the Fall of Professional Ministry, What?, makes a riveting claim. Roberts says that

As much of the American church continues to decline (especially mainline Protestantism and now also conservative (white) evangelicalism) and as the “nones” and “dones” increase by leaps and bounds, particularly among millennials, major questions loom for institutions in these circles. Fewer people means less money, less money means fewer jobs, fewer jobs means declining human resources (and therefore less creativity and energy) to “right the ship.”

Roberts offers a summary of how seminaries are addressing such dynamics which I find painfully familiar, given that we’ve been working at precisely such possibilities at EMS:

Many seminaries are experiencing the implications of the dramatically changing landscape. Some are trying their best to adjust expectations and to creatively and constructively adapt to the change. They can do this by shortening curriculum (and therefore lowering cost to students), by revising marketing strategies, by seeking out creative partnerships, etc. Others are simply doubling-down on what they’ve always done: pushing harder for donations, marketing the same but more intensely, trying to be even better at academic theology, practical ministry skills, traditional pedagogy, and so on.

Roberts’ next statement, however, sends a chill up my spine even as it also makes me want to take up his challenge:

But for these institutions to survive, must less thrive, into the uncertainty of the looming future, I wonder if something deeper and more fundamental is needed. We might need to think again about the nature of ministry itself.

Evident in both Meeks and Roberts, and frequently articulated by others, is the possibility that what we face today in our denominational and  seminary journeys—as well as in the larger cultural dynamics with their own chaotic, fast-changing impacts—is not just the need for incremental adjustments. Rather, much of what we’ve taken for granted, held dear, clung to for generations may need to be rethought and reinvented.

At the same time, persons of faith have always encountered periods of particularly intense change, not least during the first century, or when the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion after centuries of the empire’s persecution of Christians, or during the 1500s Protestant Reformation.

Still, even if sometimes in dramatically changed forms, the gospel has persisted and even flourished. This suggests that rethinkings or reinventions shouldn’t simply start anew but should draw on the wisdom of those who have wrestled things out over millennia.

So how do we move forward with due benefit of what has been combined with requisite openness to what is to be? I don’t claim to know the answers. I’m as bewildered sometimes as any of us by what to do when on the one hand business as usual isn’t working yet on the other hand employees deserve to be paid and the budget needs to be balanced and if we don’t change it may all crumble yet if we do change and don’t get it right it may all crumble.

However, each year at about this time I particularly try to reflect on this or that aspect of such matters in start-of-semester seminary convocations. So in each of the next five posts I’ll draw on materials prepared for an Eastern Mennonite Seminary convocation, culminating in the still-in-preparation presentation I’m due to present on September 1, 2015, and will share as a post soon after. Here is a preview of the posts:

Part 2 will be “A Bible As Big As the Universe.” I see this post as laying a foundation for what is to come. Here I explore how I’ve learned to love the Bible as an endless source of wisdom and guidance for any people in any circumstances over the millennia–yet also to trust that the Bible is strong enough for us to tussle with it, argue with it, challenge it when old verities seem to unravel.

Part 3 will be “From Position Statements to Communities of Discernment.” Here, amid our many divisions regarding what the Bible says or what understandings God is calling us to, I look for ways we might move from win-lose patterns of relating. How might we instead join in communities of discernment focused on the teachings of Jesus under guidance of the Holy Spirit in which even our differences—and sometimes especially our differences—become resources and treasures? I draw on case studies related to slavery, understandings of same-sex relationships, the role of women, or war and peace.

Part 4 will be “Grandparents Dreaming, Grandchildren Seeing.” Here I explore “Christian Formation in an Age of Nones.” I suggest “We should plunge into the yearnings and questions giving birth to the Nones” (those answering “none of the above” when surveyed regarding their commitment to a given faith tradition).  And I offer this guess: “Courageous exploration of how the church has died needs to be paired with hope that not all structures, not all traditions, not all sacred scriptures and holy rhythms and rules are ready for the dead-bones heap.”

Part 5 will be “Recognizing Jesus When Phone Booths Vanish.” Here I draw on the Luke 24 story of the disciples, grief-stricken and bewildered on the Emmaus Road, being joined by a stranger who is precisely the Jesus they’re grieving. How do we, like they, not recognize the Jesus already among us? And how does this connect with the question of whether we’re sometimes structuring church life or seminary training as if the required expertise were to repair phone booths—when in fact in an era of cell phones, phone booths have vanished?

Part 6 will be “Present at the Big Bang.” Here I want more than anything else to testify, starting with observing the process in my own granddaughter, to the miracle of our becoming ourselves. And I want to ask how, in deep and primal ways, seminary training and our lives in community with each other form us as the selves God invites us to be. Much is unraveling; miracles of weaving and reweaving also abound.

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.

Losing Seth, Part 2: In the Heart of God, by Larry Dunn

KinsgviewCoGuestPostSethLarryDunnAs I shared in “Forever,” Part 1 of “Losing Seth,” the death of our son Seth four years ago raised many questions for me. Most remain unanswered. Foremost has been the question of God’s presence in this experience of immeasurable loss and suffering.

In his well-known book, Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff reflects on the death of his own son Eric, noting the connection between suffering and love. I shared some of his thoughts along with those of my own at a memorial service at Bethel College in Kansas, where Seth was set to return for his senior year:

To the why of suffering the Christian gospel gives us no answer. It eludes us. Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it. For some unknown reason love in our world is suffering love. Some do not suffer much though, for they do not love much. Suffering is for the loving. If I hadn’t loved him, there wouldn’t be this agony.

When I called one of my closest friends that day to give him the news, he simply repeated, “No! No! No!” Suffering is the shout of no by one’s whole existence to that over which one suffers—the shout of no by gut and gland and heart to pain, to death.

Thank you for your no. Thank you for your suffering—alongside us, alongside one another, alongside God. And thank you for your love—your love for God, your love for one another, your love for us, and your love for Seth.

In a chapter I wrote for the book A Road Too Short for the Long Journey potentially to be published by a colleague on grief, I tried making sense of the “mysterious presence” of God which I had experienced largely as absence. There I wrote,

Where is God in all of this? My youngest son Isaac said, “God was the first one to cry when Seth died.” Such an idea, if thought about too carefully, might throw many into a crisis of faith. But without another explanation, I need this to be true. How else to understand God’s silence? How else to account for God’s absence?

Sometime later, during Lent, the solidarity I had felt with God was wearing thin. The God I thought I knew had been completely, delinquently, irresponsibly absent. I desperately wanted to give God a chance to break the silence, and decided there was only one thing left: to match God’s silence with my own. To listen. To sit quietly and wait. After some weeks, I spent two days at a Catholic retreat center to continue my vigil. The spiritual director there, a compassionate and wise nun, suggested that I write this Absent God a letter. Through anguish and tears and nearly an entire box of tissues, my soul groaned:

God, I’m tired. I’m tired of the pain and the sorrow. I’m tired of walking down this path alone. Tired of the grieving. Where have you been? You’ve been absent since that day, that day I prayed like I’ve never prayed: “Please God. Please.” And what difference did it make? None. I have a lot of questions and you have a lot of explaining to do.

About a year after Seth’s death a friend and his family were involved in a terrible car accident in which a passenger in another vehicle was killed. Later, as he spoke to some others about this traumatic experience, he referred to God’s provision of safety for his family.

Still unable to find anything of God in my own tragedy, I became sensitive to the inadequacy of talk about God. Knowing he would understand and not take offense, I wrote a long email inviting my friend into a conversation:

I have wondered why—if God can and does act in such ways—he chose not to (or was not able to) in Seth’s case. I have yet to come up with an answer that is satisfactory or even makes much sense. Other than the fact that God allowed it and would no doubt desire good to come from it, I can see no other part for God in what happened to Seth. I have prayed often for my sons’ well-being and can imagine a dozen, a hundred, a thousand good reasons why God might want each of them to live long lives.

But if God desires such good, and indeed acts in the world in the way your comment implied, then why would God not protect Seth (or, for that matter, the person in the other car of your accident whose family was also praying at the side of the road) in the same way as he protected your family?

Not everything happens as God would wish it to. I believe that God was indeed happy that no greater harm came to your family. But certainly God found no joy or purpose in the death of the other person or in Seth’s death as some like to suggest about such tragedies. I’m beginning to think that God is neither all-knowing nor all-powerful as we like to think. Perhaps God experiences and responds to what happens in the world just as we do.

What I had previously accepted as reasonable was becoming problematic in light of Seth’s death, and as a seminary graduate I felt foolish that I had not questioned it sooner; that God’s relationship to the evil and injustice of the world—what theologians like to call the problem of theodicy—had to become personal before I more seriously considered what John Caputo refers to as the weakness of God.

Old, inadequate notions of God were being discarded. New ones would take more time. Faith reconsidered. I was reminded of something that C. S. Lewis had written following the death of his wife:

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not “So there’s no God after all,” but “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”

There is no danger in saying no to the dreadful belief in a magical deity who arbitrarily intervenes on behalf of some and abandons others. That is not a mystery but a misconception about the Divine. There is no reward, no gain, no redemptive outcome, no compensation or justification, no sacrificial exchange for some higher good, no rationale or explanation—theological or otherwise—for an irreparable loss such as ours.

Susan, Eli, Larry, and Isaac Dunn

 My no to that event four years ago is a yes to a future hope, one still unimaginable in Seth’s absence. But God is nothing if not the possibility of the impossible. I do not yet know what the promise of God offers for me, or for Seth. But for now, perhaps Ann Weems, in her book, Psalms of Lament, describes that hope best:

O God, in your mysterious power
you make the oceans roar
and the starfish
wash upon the shore.
And my son lives
in the heart of heaven,
and I live
in the heart of earth,
but we live together
in the heart of God.
(From Psalms of Lament by Ann Weems. © 1999. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press)

—Larry A. Dunn, Fresno, California, is Associate Professor at the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, Fresno Pacific University. He has worked for nearly 30 years as a mediator, trainer, consultant and educator in conflict resolution and is author of Discovering Forgiveness: Pathways Through Injury, Apology, and Healing. He and his spouse Susan are parents of three boys, Seth, Eli, and Isaac. Larry welcomes interactions with this post, whether through the comments section or to his e-mail at larry.dunn@fresno.edu.

Losing Seth, Part 1: Forever, by Larry Dunn


August 1, 2011. The axis of our world shifted that day, our lives forever changed in unimaginable ways. Two months shy of his twenty-first birthday, our oldest son Seth died in a tragic accident while we were together on family vacation.

As an academic, I write. It is one of the things we academics do. How such writing relates to our personal lives, however, particularly in relation to difficult matters, is seldom discussed. Though I have read much about grief, I did not set out to write about it. Yet somewhere along the way I came to realize that I had written a great deal: an obituary and eulogy, some reflections for a memorial gathering, a brief baccalaureate address, emails to colleagues, a devotional, an invited chapter—all related to Seth.

My many years of education have trained me to turn almost anything into an academic exercise, to be philosophical. To the extent that academics has to do with learning, I’d have to say that the experience of losing our son has been a miserable failure. I have learned so much more from Seth’s life than his death. Perhaps that’s because I have experienced grief not primarily as an intellectual process but as an emotional and spiritual one. So I offer here an awkward attempt by the head to make sense of the aching of the heart and soul.

I am struck by how much August 1, 2011, has become the point in time around which everything now revolves. First one week gone by and then another; a memorial service in between that now seems like a distant dream. September 1. October 1. Birthdays and holidays. A year and then two, and now, unbelievably, four years without him. Without hearing his voice. Without feeling his embrace. “Hey Pop!” he used to say, and I would reach up to hug him as he towered above me.

Seth Play photo

This marking of time brings past, present, and future together, each point a painful reminder of life without him. A text message that remains on my cell phone from that morning . . . just hours before. A photo of Seth at work . . . one month before. An event remembered from when our three boys were small, at the time just another moment in our life together . . . now marked as ten years before.

Time before that day becomes a countdown of the time remaining in his life. The innocence of not knowing what could not be known can now be seen in everything we did before that day, seen in our eyes in pictures even before he was born. Innocence no more.

Grief involves not only what was but what might have been and now will never be. Seth was in the prime of his life, on the cusp of his senior college year, ready to launch into the world, full of potential for so much good. Now graduations and weddings and baby showers become reminders of what we and others will miss out on in a future without Seth.

Some recognize the difficulty involved with joining in the celebration of these events and the sadness they can bring on, understanding this aspect of our loss. A few, mostly those who have suffered a loss of their own, gently enter into grief with us. But much of the painful inner reality of our experience goes unrecognized by others, or so it seems. As C. S. Lewis noted following the death of his wife Joy, “Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”

How long will this grieving go on? How much more time will I need? Will there continue to be moments and days that feel like that first moment, that first day? Why does the pain return with such force when weeks or even months go by that seem to reflect some healing? Why does the head keep pressing for progress, the gaining of insight, the making of sense, the redemption of death’s injustice, when my heart mends ever so slowly? When will sorrow be replaced by gratitude? Where is God in all of this?

Perhaps anticipating these questions, playwright Margaret Edson, in whose play “Wit” Seth had performed at Bethel College, put it this way upon learning of his death: “What doesn’t crumble? Our love. Where do we keep it? Safe inside. How long does it last? Forever.” Our good friend Jean Janzen echoed these thoughts in a beautiful poem she wrote for Seth (used by permission):

Original Blessing

Child in the burning,
stopped heart in August,
this valley ripe
with peaches and heat.
What are the words
of original blessing?

Child become ashes,
the heaving and sobbing.
Body from body
into the blaze
of original blessing.

Child in the wind,
its current now lifting
into the arms
of original blessing.
Arms of the Maker,
arms of First Lover,
“Mine” the first word,
and the second, “Forever.”

A space filled with grief and sorrow, suffering and pain, mystery and questions with no answers is not an easy place to dwell. And yet I must enter into to get out of, go through to get past. I don’t seek healing that is free of tears and sorrow since my wound reflects some measure of my love for Seth and his worth to his family and friends and mother and brothers and me.

For now there seems no other way. This is not hopelessness, but the reality of his absence and my grief. It is what makes possible my solidarity with others who endure suffering and loss. Including God.

—Larry A. Dunn, Fresno, California, is Associate Professor at the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, Fresno Pacific University. He has worked for nearly 30 years as a mediator, trainer, consultant and educator in conflict resolution and is author of Discovering Forgiveness: Pathways Through Injury, Apology, and Healing. He and his spouse Susan are parents of three boys, Seth, Eli, and Isaac. Larry welcomes interactions with this post, whether through the comments section or to his e-mail at larry.dunn@fresno.edu.