Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 2: “Who Are You?”

BarnFullPaintingOpen200x200x72Does our precious Lord still lead us on through storm and night? I lean toward “yes” as I review our survival of prior tumult.

As introduced in Part 1 of “Blogging Toward Kansas City,”  below are reflections I offered 28 years ago on Purdue 87, a biennial convention of what was then the (Old) Mennonite Church. I’m pleased to note that I managed not to comment only on sexuality—even as toward the end the references inevitably, given how central discernment of these matters was at the time, do arise.

Though it was already fading into the mists of time and memory for many (even as for others the way of life continues to this day) I’m struck by how much closer 1987 was to an era influenced by (Old) Mennonite Church plain living and Swiss-German ethnicity. At the same time, the 1987 Purdue participants have moved far enough into various forms of diversity that their quest for ties that bind amid the differences is strong.

Amid it all, at least in my own fallible take, there was some confusion. Who are we? Where are we going? If anything, the questions seem only more intense as we head toward Kansas City 2015, the biennial convention of Mennonite Church USA, and its processing of new resolutions on sexuality. So I’m comforted to experience that the effort mutually to allow our precious Lord to take our hand still seems a vision worth pursuing.

Who Are You, My Audience?

I am a writer. A writer needs an audience. The audience I care about most deeply is the Mennonite Church. But who are you, my Mennonite audience? I ask that question all the time, trying to refine my understanding of who you are so that what I write can be ever more accurately aimed. I particularly asked it as I stepped into the Amelia Earhart Residence Hall to begin my six days as a delegate at Purdue 87 and collector of observations for this article (which the Gospel Herald editors have agreed may be an “impressionistic” piece).

One idea I have of who you are lingers in me from the days when I was growing up as an eminently ethnic Mennonite, with a lineage traced by one of my aunts all the way back to Berne, Switzerland, and the fifteenth century. This is who you are to me whenever I don’t stop to critically ask who you are, who you have become: you are women in cape dresses, hair up, coverings on; men in plain coats, mainly black or a deep dark blue.

You know who you are, what the Bible says, what God wants from you, or at least you look like you do, each plain line of your clothing quietly stating your clarity. You are my father, who knew, when we youngsters pleaded with him (sometime during the ’60s) to buy a guitar, that God wouldn’t want that (he later changed his mind). And my mother, who once knew when my hair was too long and my sisters’ too short. You are the bishops and the preachers—all men—lined up at the front of the church, who knew what was wrong and exactly how to fix it.

Then I worshiped with who you are today, there in the Elliott Hall of Music. I looked around. A handful of plain coats. A scattering of coverings. The women’s hair cut, and certainly not up. Some men in shorts and sandals. Youth everywhere, youth who remember not what I remember, who certainly show little outward evidence of being Mennonite, gearing up to tell me how outdated I am when I’ve barely gotten done telling my parents the same. And on stage . . . oh, onstage! Big black boxes hooked up to awesome amplifiers. Guitars. Electric basses. Saxophones. And more. Then the music, booming, thumping, dancing out, interspersed with drama and liturgical dance.

Are you my audience, you Mennonites comfortable with the things I never expected, as a boy, to see in my church? And if you are, who are you? What do you need me to write about? Or is that who you are? The coverings and plain coats are vanishing, but I remember them. You remember them, you even wore them, many of you. Who are you, you who remember these things even as the big black boxes shake the floor? Some of you look like all this is a little jarring; your bodies seem to shrink away and your faces seem a little stony and I wonder if you’re trying, as I am, to hold yesterday and today together.

And I listen to some of you who came with me from Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. You are not ethnic Mennonites. You have many feelings. The worship is freer, wilder, more exhilarating than you expected. But you wonder, did you get here too late, after what you might have loved most about being Mennonite has long passed? Then the beat turns slow and deep, the saxophone comes out and mourns, and a musical form alien to our tradition manages, hauntingly and paradoxically, to capture and speak to the heart of our tradition as the notes and words of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” [Thomas Dorsey] weep in our midst.

Over in the Stewart Center you delegates gather many times to ponder many things. On the day you talk about human sexuality (which turns out to mean mainly homosexuality), one wonders if guards will be needed to hold at bay the hordes trying to crowd into the auditorium. You seem to feel that while some old things have been let go, here is a place to hold firm, to remain clear, to keep the boundaries tight. Some of you clap whenever someone suggests the boundaries should be tightened even further. Are you my audience?

I leave that session. The first person I see is you, a woman I know and care about. You are lesbian. I don’t know what, precisely, you are feeling. I do know pain shimmers in your eyes and trembles across your lips. You are a human being, who hurts and fears and yearns to be loved, as do we all. You have just listened to the clapping resounding whenever statements that feel to you like rejection are made. Are you my audience, oh sister I dare not name?

You deal with women in leadership, with whether Mennonite institutions dedicated to peace should be withholding payroll taxes dedicated to war, with what Mennonite Publishing House should be publishing, with so much more. You are not of one mind, not at all, on these things. Who are you, my audience? Maybe I should give up writing to you. I don’t know who I’m targeting. You’re confusing me; I, who am part of you, am confusing me. Especially after I talk with you non-ethnics accompanying me, and you tell me there’s beauty among us, if only we could better value and articulate our heritage.

What I observe in you, what I feel in me, is that we’re a little lost. Oh, we’re striving forward, grasping toward the Goals for ’95, and that’s fine. But still, “who are we? what are we becoming? where are we going?” we keep asking each other. We can be grateful that, according to the story we are living out, the story we came together to celebrate, those that know they are lost are the ones most likely to be found and led home to who they are by their precious Lord.

Michael A. King,  is blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; Dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. These reflections were first published in Gospel Herald, July 1987, p. 548. In 1987 King was pastor of Germantown Mennonite Church and the editor of Gospel Herald was Daniel Hertzler. King is profoundly grateful to Hertzler, who played a central role in helping King develop his writing voice.

2 thoughts on “Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 2: “Who Are You?””

  1. Thanks for this look back. So much of this is still true except the clothing and hair. We are still avoiding many of the important ethical and moral issues while focusing on the sex lives of a minority. And yet there are people who did not grow up Mennonite that see through to the good that is there, want to join Mennonites on the journey and cannot understand why we don’t spread the good word. Despite ourselves, some kind of spirit of the Holy is at work. How do we get out of the way and into the WAY?

    1. Cynthia, many thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ve thrown out enough words so will cease and desist but do want to echo and underscore your take that “Despite ourselves, some kind of spirit of the Holy is at work. How do we get out of the way and into the WAY?”

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