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.

2 thoughts on “Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 4: “Painholders””

  1. Michael, thanks. I believe this profound reflection on our current situation carries in it hints of how we can find our way towards God’s future in spite of the human dynamics endemic to our being. I pray that many will read this and find encouragement to walk toward the possibilities of God that transcend our human limitations.

    1. Many thanks for this encouragement, John. I’ve been following your own contributions hither and yon to these types of conversations and appreciate your own deep commitment “to walk toward the possibilities of God that transcend our human limitations.”

      Plus on a personal note, I find it moving to be in this type of interaction with you when I remember my teenage self being aware of you as one of those mythic missionaries serving somewhere far-off in northwest Mexico while our family was in Mexico City. Blessings as you continue to mentor and minister to so many of us, John.

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