Telling It Slant as the Raging Rolls

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72At a ShopRite in New Jersey some men were huddled. When Heba Macksoud passed by, she heard one mention the word Bible, then add, obscenity mixed in, “not like the Quran those Muslims read.”

The man who deliberately taunted Ms. Macksoud deserves to be called out. So do countless ones of us, incited by ever more startlingly anti-anyone-not-like-us and especially anti-Muslim rhetoric, prepared to treat others as less than human.

At the same time, I was struck that Samuel G. Freedman’s New York Times “Parable on Bigotry and Citizenship Plays Out in a Supermarket” was released just a few days after Farhad Manjoo’s article on “The Internet’s Loop of Action and Reaction Is Worsening.” Manjoo observes that “There is little room for indulging nuance, complexity, or flirting with the middle ground. In every issue, you are either with one aggrieved group or the other, and the more stridently you can express your disdain . . . the better reaction you’ll get.”

Manjoo’s insights suggest that social media is adding considerable complexity to our navigating of this historical moment in which we say ever more horrifying things about those we see as not “us.” This makes me wonder to what extent we need to assess not only content but also form of our communications.  Are there ways to speak nonviolently that bypass the up-the-ante battling frontal statements seem to be creating?

That takes me to  Emily Dickinson on “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I’m no expert in Dickinson, and depending on what she means to say, I might not quite embrace her every nuance. Some analysts of her poem wonder if she is urging the telling of white lies; shading the truth to be kind, as when she suggests not quite explaining to children the full meaning of lightning; or possibly pointing poetically to aspects of her own life, including sexuality, she was unwilling to speak of directly, perhaps for good reason given her times and circumstances.

Then there’s the fact that today to think of something as “slanted” is often to view it negatively. Merriam Webster’s range of meanings include “to maliciously or dishonestly distort or falsify.” 

But whether I fully know how to understand or accept what Dickinson meant over a century ago by “tell it slant,” amid today’s raging and counter-raging her poem still seems worth attending to. There is something rich and deep going on in her probing of how we who are “infirm” might navigate the surprise and brightness of truth. Might telling it slant mean that instead of constantly beating each other with the clubs of our convictions we found ways to speak that the other could hear?

This seems congruent with data presented by Evan Soltas and Seth Stephens Davidowitz in “The Rise of Hate Search.” Drawing on Google search analysis, they conclude that

appealing to the better angels of an angry mob will most likely just backfire. Subtly provoking their curiosity, giving them new information, and offering them new images of the group that is stoking their rage: That may direct their thoughts in different, more positive directions.

Maybe it’s too much to hope, but I wonder if  the parable of Heba Macksoud is an example of telling it slant with potential to open us to curiosity instead of rage. Because in her story we do see today’s usual clubbing of the other with words of hate and denigration. Yet what we get next is not more hate hurled back.

Instead we’re privileged to learn about Ms. Macksoud’s pain. We can see the human toll of what has been done to her, the shock, the wounding, the exclusion, the fear she expresses to “the store’s assistant manager, Mark Egan. ‘I’m not done shopping,’ Ms. Macksoud recently recalled telling him, ‘but I don’t feel safe here.’”

By the end of the parable what we have taken in is not simply another position statement but the living, breathing realities of human beings. We’re drawn back toward those primal human qualities, compassion and empathy catalyzing justice, in such short supply as we feed the raging floods of action, reaction, counter-reaction. Although it certainly has a slant, the article doesn’t major in the screaming about how bad and wrong we are that often makes us shut down or scream back. We’re mostly allowed to wrestle for ourselves with what insights to draw from Heba Macksoud’s story.

I dare to hope that Emily Dickinson might view this parable as a form of telling it slant. I hope she might see it as honoring the insight with which she closes her poem:  “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man [sic] be blind—.”

—Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary and vice-president, Eastern Mennonite University; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

Disbelieving in Wonder

BalloonKCPost-MAKThe horrors keep mounting up. Even at a distance they trigger disbelief, “This can’t be happening” exclamations of shock and dread. The trauma for those onsite must splinter hearts and souls and sometimes sanity itself.

On Sunday my wife Joan and I took a walk. We spent much of the time talking about the terrors of recent days, terrors made all the more terrible because for so many months now we have taken so many walks after so many awful things have befallen our human brothers and sisters, whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian or any of the other forms of faith through which we long for God.

We reached few conclusions. We agreed that some of the things some people are saying are so beyond the pale we can’t believe we’re hearing them. We especially can’t believe we’re hearing them so often from Christians that we shudder, time and again, at even being associated any more with our own tradition.

We noted the problem of speaking up for the truth when everyone these days means to be speaking for the truth. How are we called to speak when we all, as we utter the things the others consider blasphemous and obscene and yes, beyond belief, do so in the name of God?

As we thought about this, we saw on the far horizon a hot-air balloon begin to drift in. Wow, cool. Hey, look, it’s coming this way.

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Wouldn’t it be great if it came across those trees and even closer? It did!

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And closer. Closer. Closer. Close enough to make us nervous. What if it got too close to the power lines overhead and to us?

Closer. It drifted past, just feet away. It slowed. It hovered. It landed on the lawn right beside us. The pilot in an orange vest seemed to be training a passenger.

BalloonLanding

Children lived at the property the balloon had landed on. Their parents came out and greeted the balloonists. After some cheerful chatting, lo, the pilot asked the children if they wanted to get in the basket. The parent in me imagined them jumping in and the balloon jumping up and away and who knew what next. But their parents, sturdy sorts, accepted this moment of grace. The children climbed in.

Carefully, so carefully, the pilot let loose a sliver of flame. The balloon rose, just a foot or two above the lawn. Slowly slowly the pilot took it across the lawn. Then ever so gently he set it back down again.

Another few moments of cheerful chit-chat, more flame, and up the balloon soared, headed east in the fading glow of the west-setting sun.

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Joan and I returned to our walk. Excitedly we shared our disbelief. When we came back past the balloon-landing lawn, the children’s mother was working outside. We asked how her children were doing.

She grinned. They were inside, she said, watching and watching and rewatching the video of themselves being taken up in the balloon that came out of nowhere to transport them into a moment of disbelief, of adventure, of joy they would likely remember the rest of their lives.

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The one doesn’t fix the other. A fantasy that descends from the sky to make imaginations dance and spines shiver doesn’t atone for the terrible things that have been descending from above and flaring from guns. But they were haunting moments of grace, those fleeting minutes of disbelieving not in dreadful things but in the unbelievable fact that this wonder—hinting at the sort of treasure for which all God’s suffering, frightened, terrorized children so ache—had descended from on high.

—Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary and vice-president, Eastern Mennonite University; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

New Scarves from Unraveled Yarn: The Centered Church Model

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72As we were working out her Kingsview & Co prose and poetry posts, Barbara Esch Shisler mentioned that “unraveling” as I had used it in a series of posts on the church “seems right. I have a friend who sometimes uses unraveled yarn to make a new scarf.”

As I told Barbara, I loved that image. The unraveled yarn points to all that is coming undone in church and culture and climate. Yet what hope also lurks in the metaphor of making a new sweater or shawl.

This reminded me of a Paul Hiebert image of church as a centered instead of fuzzy or bounded group (“The Category ‘Christian’ in the Mission Task,” International Review of Missions 272, July 1983, pp. 421-427; elaborated on in Michael A. King, Trackless Wastes and Stars to Steer By, Herald Press, 1990, pp. 115-136).  When I first encountered his model in the 1980s as a young pastor, same-sex relationships posed for us a core discernment riddle, as seems perennially the case. Hiebert’s model became a key resource.

But rather than focus yet again on same-sex considerations, let me leap to my most recent pastorate, where Hiebert again proved invaluable. There the riddle involved our views of peace. Although Mennonites belong to the  historic peace church tradition, many of the participants in my congregation were from backgrounds that made them wary of pacifism. What to do? Should they be required to convert, in effect, to Mennonite pacifist views to become congregational members?

Hiebert provided possible responses. We could answer yes. We could insist that membership include full embrace of the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, which in Article 22 states that “As disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war, or participate in war or military service.”

If we went this route, we’d be adopting the bounded model of church. Here, based on clear rules and doctrines, people are in or out. This might be imagined as a clearly drawn circle with dots representing people clearly inside or outside the circle. Persons are in the circle if they agree to the rules and beliefs that say who belongs in the circle. They’re outside if they don’t agree.

Bounded

Yet a stark move toward an either/or bounded model seemed wrong in that congregation. Those not long formed within Article 22 types of understandings had understandable concerns and questions about pacifism.

I still remembered the horror I felt when, during the first weeks I met her at Eastern Mennonite University, my wife Joan, from an American Baptist, non-pacifist background, reported what her classmates were saying to her: Her father, whom she had lost to Hodgkin’s disease when she was ten months old, was in hell.  This was because he had been in the military. The violence of this pacifist rejection seemed to undercut precisely the teachings of Jesus from which it emerges: love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you.

So maybe we needed to move toward Hiebert’s “fuzzy” or unbounded model of church. Here there is little clarity or concern about who’s in/out—or whether there is an in or out. We might imagine dots of loosely clumped people together, perhaps, because some like each other, some share similar interests,  some just happen to be there at the time.

Fuzzy

If we went with this approach, we could live and let live. We could free congregational participants to believe whatever they wished to believe or already believed regarding war and peace. Some of us would remain pacifists; some of us would understand love of enemies as applying, say, only to other Christians or to a future era in which God’s ways triumphed over the inevitable imperfections of our current sinful age.

Interestingly and perhaps predictably, many of us preferred the bounded model when our own core beliefs were what we wanted supported and the unbounded model when we didn’t want to be bound by beliefs with which we disagreed. There were in fact congregational participants who wished to adopt a fuzzy approach to peace understandings.

But we were a Mennonite church. I myself was and remain a committed pacifist. Article 22 seems crucial to me. Was there a way to honor the historic peace church commitments yet not revert to violence such as Joan had experienced? Hiebert’s centered model of church seemed our best option.

In this model, people are flexibly in or out of the group based on whether traveling toward or away from the teachings of Jesus the group sees as core.

We might imagine a central circle labeled Jesus (and his teachings) with people as arrows traveling toward or away from Jesus. Here people aren’t so much in or out as moving deeper into or away from the group. They’re going deeper when headed toward the center. They’re moving away when aimed away from the center.

People may start out close to the center and so for a time seem closes to Jesus even while pointed away from Jesus. Over time they’ll end up far from Jesus. Or people may be far from the center yet traveling toward it; ultimately they’ll end up nearer to Jesus than those close to the center yet aiming away from it.

Centered

If we adopted the centered model in relation to peace as core value, we would in fact maintain the way of peace at the center of our understandings of Jesus. But we wouldn’t set up either/or church membership. We wouldn’t say sorry, you and your household are going to hell if you don’t agree with this, get with the program or get out. Instead we’d say, amid whatever questions, concerns, complexities you see here, are you ready to travel toward peace instead of war?

Now centered-model membership in a peace church still wouldn’t fit for a gung-ho we need-to-go-kill-all-the-bad-guys-in-the-name-of-Christ type of Christian.  There comes a point for saying membership doesn’t make sense for those of us actively intending to travel and fight against the core commitments of a given church.

Yet the centered approach can offer a life-giving blend of clarity and flexibility. It allows a congregation to say, Indeed we’re a peace church. You can be a veteran and become a member here. You can still be struggling with that classic painful question, If my loved one were attacked, what would I do? You can show us that the good-faith wrestlings with whether just-war criteria have something to contribute to Christian understandings of war and peace deserve respectful attention.  You can ask hard questions about whether pacifists ride on the coattails of the soldiers who defend our freedoms—even as I may ask you what makes it okay to kill the enemies Jesus told us to love.

This doesn’t mean anything goes. If you want to give a sermon on why Jesus call us to vaporize that city of “villains” with a nuclear bomb, no, not here. But if you want to be part of a community exploring, amid all the riddles and difficult questions, what it looks like in your life and mine to journey closer toward Jesus as peacemaker, you don’t need to have it all together or be in full agreement to be warmly welcome.

Along with plenty of others, I’ve been exploring resources of the centered model for decades, yet here we still are, amid so much unraveling. The centered model hasn’t and won’t miraculously create a new sweater or shawl. Nevertheless, I hope exploring how it might apply war/peace beliefs suggests the potential for the centered model to use and re-use so many of the threads that might in other approaches primarily weave straitjackets or remain too loose and shapeless to keep us warm.

What if, for instance, across our many divides we were to explore together whether we could conceptualize placing at the center a Jesus large enough to win our allegiance beyond our polarizations? It seems to me we already have something of a template for this: Mennonite World Conference, the global fellowship of Mennonite and Anabaptist-related groups, affirms seven shared convictions. These Jesus-centered convictions in turn become, in effect, the MWC center toward which MWC participants agree to travel.

So when over 7,000 MWC members celebrated a week of worship and fellowship and mutual learning in Harrisburg in 2015, we didn’t replicate the tussling over boundaries so common in other denominational contexts. Instead amid each other’s rich and variegated testimonies and music , we worshiped a God uniting us across countless languages and cultures.

The details of our beliefs still mattered and needed ongoing attention in our local contexts. Yet if we had focused primarily on details, we’d have been back in the bounded model and its tussles. Instead, in what seems to me the MWC centered model, we gathered in love and left refreshed to continue our journeys with Jesus across a world so hungry for more healing and less hate.

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. Portions of this material have been tested in such settings as Germantown Mennonite Church, Spring Mount Mennonite Church, Franconia Mennonite Conference, and Salford Mennonite Church.

The Unmapped Way, by David L. Myers

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The Unmapped Way

An early Tuesday,
Late September morning
And the clouded light
Lines the closed slats
Of the window blinds.
Muted shapes
Of sofa and chairs
And last night’s
Wine glass on the
Coffee table silhouette
The room. Soon enough
There will be fillamented
Incandescence
And humming steel.
But for now
There is only this
Silent habitation
From whence cometh,
Finally,
A turning toward surrender,
A calming in holy defeat,
And gratitude for
Once again being on
The beautiful,
The unmapped way.

—David L. Myers has been a pastor of four Mennonite congregations and worked in a variety of denominational leadership settings. Currently he serves in the Obama administration, having been appointed by the president in May 2009 to direct the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In 2011, he was also named as senior advisor to the FEMA administrator. During autumn 2015 he is Practitioner in Residence at Eastern Mennonite University.

Water Spouts and More, by Renee Gehman Miller

KCGuestPost-ReneeMillerOf all the bedtime Bible stories, Jonas had picked the story of the healing of the lepers, so on a recent, unstable kind of day, I found myself reading:

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten men were very sick. They were so sick, the doctors couldn’t make them better. They were so sick they couldn’t be with their mommies or daddies or boys and girls.”

I didn’t think he noticed a waver in my voice, but after I finished the story and we were lying in the bed, he said, “Tell me the truth, Mommy.”

I panicked a little. He was likely just trying out a new phrase he’d heard me say, but I was nervous about what was to come when I asked, “Tell you the truth about what?”

“Umm. . . .” He took a moment to fish in his mind for something he wanted to know the truth about before saying, “Um, about the water spout.”

Now I was trying not to chuckle. Of course I had no idea of what possibly could’ve brought his thoughts to “the water spout” in this moment (no, it wasn’t in his story of the 10 lepers, nor had it rained that day), but here we were.

“Well,” I said, “The truth about the water spout is that it helps catch the rain that runs down the roof so that it can all flow right down one road to the ground.”

“Oh,” he said, satisfied. “Okay.”

ReneeJonasAnthonyHay

Thus were the pleasantries of bedtime held intact for the night, even as my thoughts lingered on the men who were so sick the doctors couldn’t seem to fix them.

Nine days before, I had received a phone call to come in for an impromptu appointment with the doctor, which is never good.

It was an appointment during which the doctor left at one point because she wanted to give me time to punch the wall if I so desired. Not because I appeared to want to, but because she was concerned about my stoicism in the face of her words and thought maybe I might find some needed cathartic relief if she left for a moment.

It was an appointment during which Anthony and I exchanged words in what ought to be considered a foreign tongue for 31-year-old people who are not certifiably insane. (Or are we?)

And just like that I was scheduled for a return to chemo, something I never thought I’d do. Lung surgery been planned for the prior Thursday was canceled, apparently not because anything changed about my lung nodules but more because of the general up-in-the-air-ness of my case.

There will be two new (to me) chemo drugs, a loathsome ten weekdays on, five weekdays off per cycle, four cycles (until right before Christmas, I think), then scans, then determine if more chemo is the way to go or not.

I have a sort of post-traumatic-stress type association with chemo. It takes up a lot of time that is precious, it destroys what’s healthy while maybe getting rid of the bad.  While I am very skeptical of its ability to do much (any) good for me, I will proceed simply because this is the door we are in a position to access at the moment. I’m not quite sure, though, how I will return to the third floor, sign in, sit in that chair, and say “yes” when they hold up that bag of poison and ask me to verify that I am the person whose name is printed on the label.

Right now if you looked at me, you’d probably have no idea anything is wrong with me. Starting chemo again feels like unveiling truths that may start to become as plain as with the water spout. The truth you can see when Mommy has to rest so much, and her hair is falling out (again), and she goes to the doctor’s almost every day, and she can’t be out in public, and her leg that hurts seems to be having such a big effect on the rest of her, too.

And I wish he could face the transition to a big-boy bed or to school before learning about cancer. I want to create a masterful façade out of it all like the father in the Italian movie, Life is Beautiful, who convinces his son that the concentration camp is all one big game for which they must wear uniforms and strive to win the most points by following the rules.

If we are going to talk about the truth, let’s please just talk water spouts.

ReneeJonasAnthonyFence

We have disciplined ourselves to live one day at a time these past couple of years and will continue on in this way, one uncertain step at a time in an ever-changing plan. We continue to look into options for treatment, and flew halfway across the country recently to begin that process. We learned of a possibility to pursue that comes with a bigger price tag and no guarantees or refunds, but it sure sounded better than our alternatives. We still have a couple places we’d like to check out, but in the meantime, we go to chemo.

In a time when all the doors seem either closed or opened to the wrong way, we knock on Jesus’ door and say, “Tell me the truth,” and that is the happy ending to this otherwise Eeyore-esque journal entry.

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.

If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

The reality, for me, in light of these truths, is that even though we have had some really bad days recently, we are still finding that in our days there is joy, and hope, and faith, and a good deal of love.

—Renee Gehman Miller, writer and editor, was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, in 2013. Kingsview & Co readers who once subscribed to the blog’s prior incarnation, DreamSeeker Magazine, will remember Miller’s lively and creative contributions to DSM as former assistant editor and columnist. Her “Ink Aria” columns can still be searched for and read at DreamSeeker Magazine online. “Water Spouts” is adapted from one of the many eloquent CaringBridge posts through which she has shared her journey since 2013.

Mindfulness, Death, and the Bald Eagle

EagleKCPost-MAKThe grandmother’s response seemed almost the last straw to these grandparents. The van pulled into the gas island behind where I was pumping gas. The woman jumped out of the driver’s seat and ran her credit card through the pump. The little boy sat in his car seat. “Grandma,” he called out cheerfully. She whirled on him. “Would you be quiet! Let me pump this gas! Why can’t you ever wait for anything!”

We had spent much of the weekend mourning death, angry at a country and a world that seems unable and unwilling to band together to choose life.  Angry that the very systems that energize and organize our world seem to be destroying us. Angry that consumerist frenzies leave some addicted to making and taking millions of times more wealth than they can ever enjoy while millions to billions of others barely have any. Angry that across the globe mounts the evidence that we could destroy the very viability of Mother Earth and of our grandchildren, if not even ourselves, if we don’t change course. Angry that some believe the solution is to just free ourselves up to do more of what has gotten us to this point.

And then also angry because of course we’re not perfect and we don’t have all the answers but now all of us together, whatever our perspectives, have  brought ourselves to such an impasse that even to speak of our dreams for a better way forward is to unleash more death, whether spiritual or literal. What is to be done when what I think will heal, you think will foment hell? What is to be done when as death stalks schools and nations and cultures and religions we seem only to know how to double down on the views that have brought us to this point?

I don’t know. I’ll just report this: After the grandmother yelled at her grandson to shut up, I got back into the car and in, yes, anger reported what I’d heard to my wife Joan. I said how can she do that to him? How can she take the treasure he is and be so unmindful of it? How can she be so ready to add yet more ugliness to the world by not seeing the beauty sitting right there in that van waiting to be cherished?

We had just come from church. We had been asked to be open to a different way. We had sought to open ourselves to each other through communion and through footwashing and handwashing as symbols of our readiness to be servants to each other as Jesus is servant to us.

We fumed. We drove toward home. Beside a field several cars were stopped, right in the middle of the road. I prepared a heartfelt homily on this latest evidence that we’re all idiots on the path to perdition. Then Joan said, “Pull over, pull over!”

I did. The cars were stopped because a majestic bald eagle was sitting just a few car lengths off the road, pulling flesh off a large rack of bloody ribs, likely a deer. We walked partway back. A driver of a pickup pulled up and said if we kept walking we’d probably scare it off but it seemed not to mind if people watched from their cars.

So we started to turn around. By this time there was an incipient traffic jam into the middle of which suddenly drove a township police car. But the officer, apparently as startled  as the rest of us, didn’t arrest anybody or even urge resolution of the jam. He simply slowed down and finally drove off. Soon we were parked near the bald eagle. He knew we were watching; he kept watching us. Then he’d pull again at the meat.

Even though it was ultimately the most earthly of activities, it was to us humans increasingly so cut off from our environment an unearthly sight. We watched some more. We did what humans do these days: We took photos. We watched.

Just as we started to drive away, the bald eagle took flight. It was breathtaking, the sight of that amazing denizen of God’s creation rising, rising, up from death into a gray sky.

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“Why didn’t you take a picture of the flight?” I asked Joan. “I didn’t think to,” she said, admitting failure. What twenty-first century technophile doesn’t know point phone camera first, think later? Then she caught herself: “Maybe it’s better that way. We were forced to see it directly. We were forced to be mindful. And isn’t that what you were saying that grandmother, and maybe all of us, no longer know how to be?”

—Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary and vice-president, Eastern Mennonite University; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

Being Saved, by Barbara Esch Shisler

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Being Saved

An old man
crouches in a November rain
calling a little dog.

From the dark cage in a puppy mill
to the universe of a fenced yard,
she runs wild, drenched and trembling,
desperate for what she doesn’t know.

His sciatica aches.
He chases, pleads, swears, plots.
He stays with her through
the cold afternoon,

until help comes and she is caught,
carried, wrapped, warmed,
held fast—
home.

Barbara Esch Shisler, author of the Kingsview & Co post “Imagining God’s Imagination,” is a retired Mennonite pastor and spiritual director, active in her Perkasie Mennonite congregation. Her life as wife, mother, and grandmother is filled with friends, gardening, dogs, movies, books and much more. Reading and writing poetry have been a lifelong joy and learning. She is author of the collection of poems Momentary Stay (Cascadia/DreamSeeker Books, 2015) from which “Being Saved” is drawn by permission.

Editor’s note: As Pope Francis electrifies many with his vision of mercy and compassion for all humans and creatures and earth itself, I see Barbara Shisler’s “Being Saved” as naming honestly the chasing, pleading, swearing it can take—even as she opens our hearts to the tenderness of being carried home by God and each other the Pope is inviting.

Imagining God’s Imagination, by Barbara Esch Shisler

KCGuestPost-BarbaraShislerI begin with my own small imagination. I have a blank piece of paper, a pen, and an idea for a poem. I write, cross out, rewrite, edit, and throw it in a folder. I get it out again, read, reread, rewrite, put it in the computer. Eventually I may have created a poem.

But of course, I have created nothing. I already had language, a vocabulary, images, experiences, memories, stories, dreams, and more, to work with. What I did was assemble a poem. God created a universe from nothing.

So who is this incomprehensible Creator God?

Here again, imagination is what we have to look through, a different window than hard facts. The Bible is rich with images of God, each describing some aspect of God. We all have our favorites. When I try to imagine Creator God imagining the cosmos into existence, this is what I come up with:

A force field of energy so enormous and powerful and beyond description, Huge . . . throbbing with pure love and joy and growing, swelling, ballooning, until the energy becomes so volatile it explodes with a whopping Big Bang, and flies into tiny bits of divinity that set off the process of creating a universe saturated with God’s life.

Now, it’s billions of years later and a fabulous universe exists, and a teeny pea of a planet with human animals are somehow miraculously worthy of God’s embodiment in the flesh. . . . Wow.

How can our little minds absorb this? It takes more than mind. It takes body, soul, spirit. Thank God we have five senses to try to take in the evidence of what God imagined into being:

Color astonishing enough to make us cry: name the sunset, rainbow, fall maples, fresh snow on spruce, cardinals, daffodils, monarchs. Name the sounds: music, wind, waves, frog and bird and locust. Name tastes of ripe tomato, sun-warmed peach, mint and basil. Name smells, name the touch of rain, grass, fresh-turned soil, the fur of a kitten, the cheek of a newborn baby. The universe is a marathon of feasts to glut our senses. We might well be saying “Wow” all the time.

When God’s creative energy let loose during the Big Bang it found its way into our human DNA and set off an innate longing to imagine and assemble new things, whether it’s art or machines, medicine or philosophies. The most beguiling and thrilling thing about this for me is that it all came about because of love.

Gregory Boyle, a Franciscan priest who works with gangs in Los Angeles writes in Tattoos on the Heart about God’s gladness and delight in human beings. Boyle’s ability to see God’s pleasure in tough, mean, dirty, drug-addicted gang members, to believe in their preciousness just as they are. This takes some imagination on my part. I get stuck in how God must see the ugliness, cruelty, suffering and sin in our world. How are we then creatures of beauty and goodness? Proverbs 8 says that God’s wisdom rejoices in the inhabited world, delights in the human race. Is God grieving or delighting?

Richard Rohr says that spiritual maturity means being able to hold two opposites as true at the same time. God suffers and God delights. I need to grow into a better balance of God’s joy and gladness even when I get stuck in God’s disappointment and sorrow with all that has gone wrong in creation. (Actually, I’m hoping to fall overboard someday into an ocean of God’s joy and gladness)

Brian Swimme is a specialist in mathematical cosmology, author of a book called The Universe is a Green Dragon. Here’s what he says about allurement and the universe:

Love begins as allurement. Think of the entire cosmos, 100 billion galaxies rushing through space. The dynamics of the universe is the attraction each galaxy has for every other galaxy. Each part of the universe is attracted to every other part. The result is the creation of community. Love is the word that points to this alluring activity in the cosmos.

Swimme acknowledges in his book his indebtedness to science, art, and religion but especially to the Mysterious Source of these realities.

Two poets of the 1700 and 1800s give me words to describe the holy mystery of creation.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a wild flower—
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour.
—William Blake

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here root and all in my hand.
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.”
—Lord Alfred Tennyson

 Mysterious, profound, extravagant words . . . but what it all comes down to is one simple word we all know: Love.

A song we used to sing says, “It’s about love, love, love. Everybody sing and shout ‘cause that’s what it’s all about. It’s about love.”

Barbara Esch Shisler is a retired Mennonite pastor and spiritual director, active in her Perkasie Mennonite congregation. Her life as wife, mother, and grandmother is filled with friends, gardening, dogs, movies, books and much more. Reading and writing poetry have been a lifelong joy and learning. She is author of the collection of poems Momentary Stay (Cascadia/DreamSeeker Books, 2015).

Through the Broken Glass

MAK-withFather-PostRevWhen this summer my denomination faced chaotic developments I was preparing to navigate as seminary dean, the idea came to change my Facebook profile photo. I wanted a reminder that though each generation faces the high calling of discerning how we live the Jesus Way in changing contexts, the wisdom of those who preceded us deserves honor.

A photo of me and my father drew me into a story with unexpected twists and turns and transformations:

A s touched on in “Present at the Big Bang,” I was taken to Cuba as a baby. I remember sitting in my crib listening to my parents talk in the kitchen about their missionary activities. I was so young I can’t confirm the memory’s reliability, yet what lingers is this thought: You are all alone in this crib, and you are going to need to take care of yourself.

At minimum what the memory points to is true: along with siblings and many other children of missionaries and church leaders, I wondered where I fit in my parents’ priorities versus God and their callings.

They did love their children. And I’m grateful that in later years, when my wife Joan and I sought their counsel at several traumatic junctures, they wrapped us in tender wisdom.

Still that image of boy in crib lingered as I turned to the photo. It’s probably 1957, the year I turned three. We’re in an office my father built. He’s conferring with a Cuban acquaintance.

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That was what I remembered of the photo. Then I moved it from my seminary office shelf to my desk to snap a picture with my phone. And the story deepened as details leaped out and surprises unfolded.

First, like never before it occurred to me the photo must have been taken soon after my father Aaron lost his father to depression in 1956. As I wondered if I could glimpse the grief, I saw memories of aloneness in a new light.

My parents had to navigate a new culture. Emerging from plain-dressing 1950s Mennonites, they had to discern in Cuban context faithful expressions of the gospel, such as through the tie my dad back then wore only in Cuba. In April 1957, I watched bodies of Castro’s rebels being dragged down our street. Rebels stopped my father’s jeep at gunpoint as he drove my mom and just-born brother Robbie home.

Throw into all this losing a parent to suicide—then considered such a mortal sin that cause of death was shrouded in secrecy and shame, bodies sometimes disallowed burial in the congregational cemetery. Suddenly my dad looked less a distant father and more a hero who had managed against all odds to care for me.

A memory surged of his inviting me to paint the wooden siding of that office as high up as I could reach. I remembered with fresh appreciation the sheer joy of brushing on the gray paint and learning, in that magical way, to be my father’s son.

I shared glimpses of this on Facebook while updating my profile picture. To my surprise, love rushed across the years from Cuba to Miami and up the Internet to culminate in a Facebook comment shared in Spanish by an older woman. She was who had sometimes played in our sandbox with me while her mother babysat my siblings.

Right there on Facebook she poured out her love for me, my parents, other missionaries. These aren’t simple matters, it seems, these questions of how parents should prioritize and love their children. Because the very activities that had sometimes shifted my parents’ focus from their children had generated this love now flowing as if from beyond the grave to offer back to that boy the embrace of parents who have been dead almost five years.

But there was more. Also commenting was Barbara Shisler, wise, eloquent pastor and poet. Barbara said, “Love your little hand so safely on his leg.” My response: “Thanks, Barbara. A gift of taking a photo of the photo for Facebook was that I don’t recall ever realizing that detail was there before. It tugs at my heart.”

Tug it has. For almost 60 years that photo has been floating around, yet not until June did I truly see where that hand was. Mystery remains. Why am I there while my father works? Is this a great privilege? Am I taking any opportunity I can to connect? Still as I gaze through Barbara’s eyes at that hand on my father’s leg, I feel safe.

Just this yet. The photo had migrated to my seminary office when Joan framed it as a gift. But one day my knocking it to the floor shattered the glass. When I took a phone picture of the photo I picked the shards off—then piled them back. I couldn’t quite let go of the broken glass as symbol of boyhood’s broken parts.

Then before a seminary convocation presentation at which I planned to mention the photo,  a seminary colleague and convocation planner came in to discuss convocation. I turned to show him the photo lying under broken glass. But it was straight up, glass gone. One of my EMU custodian colleagues must have cleaned and straightened it. Whoever it was helped me recognize it was time to see past the shards to the photo and life beyond. I’m grateful.

Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary and vice-president, Eastern Mennonite University; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post has roots in a June 2015 Facebook post and an August 2015 EMU faculty and staff conference storytelling session.

Hope as Church Unravels? Part 6: Present at the Big Bang

MHKC2015postMy granddaughter has been holding me spellbound as she alerts me that even the faintest gusts of love or laughter, of dismissal or devaluation, have amazing power to form or deform. She teaches me that even as so much unravels, any of us open to it are participating in the miracle of becoming ourselves as persons made in the image of God.

Here then, drawing on this week’s Eastern Mennonite Seminary convocation presentation, is the sixth and final post in 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. Here I want to ask how, in deep and primal ways, our lives in community with each other form us, weave and reweave us, individually and jointly, as the selves God invites us to be.

Present at the Big Bang

On November 6, 2013, I dreamed of an impish little girl. I’d been gathering trash in a leaf bag. I knew it wasn’t sanitary, but I thought it wouldn’t kill her when we both seemed drawn to putting her in the bag, closing it around her shoulders, and playfully carrying her around. Although she couldn’t talk yet, in the dream I sensed her interests and thought Well, her parents won’t be too excited but probably won’t catch us. We had a high old time. As I pondered the clues—aging me, baby too little to talk, parents to be outwitted, so much giggling to be done—this, I concluded, was my granddaughter.

I reported the dream to my daughter, who was celebrating that an ultrasound had allowed her to see the heartbeat even of her blueberry-sized embryo, whom she too thought was a girl. My daughter welcomed any more dreams and commented that “This one was magical, even if you were putting my daughter in an unsanitary situation.”

Seven months later the blueberry was born. I had carried her mischievous magic in my heart with both a smile and a sense of kinship with gospel writer Luke’s report (2:19) that after Jesus’ birth, mother Mary pondered these things in her heart. As my granddaughter seemed, eerily and wonderfully, precisely the girl I had already met, I was reminded also of Jeremiah. The Lord says of him (1:5), “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, / and before you were born I consecrated you. . . .”

My grandparental gaze had already been trained by my first grandchild, about whom I had also had a primal dream: Grandson and Grandpa crossing a sand dune above a mystic ocean. I had learned that one grandparenting gift is to cherish grandchildren from above the action.

I dearly loved my own baby daughters. I’ll never forget when the mischievous mother of my mischievous granddaughter played the song “Baby Beluga” 50 times while supposed to be asleep before cheerfully reporting, “I done with nap now, Daddy.” But amid many treasured memories, when I try to remember details I often see a crazed blur of daughters and parents trying to figure out how to get enough sleep or milk or fun but not the too-much fun of keys in outlets or cars dodged in a street crossed at the wrong time.

For a grandparent, the blur slows, like reliving a marvelous baseball play in slow motion. As I’ve experienced this with a granddaughter I felt bonded with from blueberry on, watching her grow has seemed like gazing, spellbound, as God hovers over what is formless and void before with a Big Bang calling forth light and sky and ocean and all living beings.

What I’m awed to glimpse, and it’s awe before the holy, is a person in the very act of being formed, formed through relationships with others, self, and ultimately God. As we laugh and tease each other and read books and put paper bags over our heads and laugh some more, minute by minute I learn her rhythms and loves and dislikes and longings and she mine.

So when I enter the room I know to expect large eyes waiting to see who it is. Then the “It’s Grandpa!” smile appears. Grandpa goes bonkers. A shy head leans into her mom’s shoulder. Patience required. At what she deems just the right moment her arms stretch out to melt my heart.

Theories about what’s happening here are valuable. The stories told, often in their conflicting ways, by Freud, Jung, Mead, Mandell, Piaget, Erickson, Bowen, Bowlby, and more have influenced my grandparent’s gaze. What generates my deepest awe, however, is that sense of observing a human emerge in real time.

Seeing just how powerful even tiny grandparent/grandchild interactions can be also underscores that things will go wrong. Sometimes it’s just an accident, the fingertip graze of a baby’s eye that turns giggles into outraged sobs. Other times the delicate dance of human formation is profoundly violated.

Watching the intricacies shaping my granddaughter second by second, I think of what I know of my own infancy. The story of my missionary parents taking me at three months on a ship from Miami to Havana and my being the only one not throwing up on heaving decks. The photo of my mother hanging laundry on the roof of the first Cuban house we lived in, where she said I cried almost constantly. Sitting in my crib while in the kitchen, on the other side of the thin wooden wall, my parents wrestled with their missionary work—and thinking, though I can’t be sure such an early memory is reliable, You are all alone in this crib; you’ll need to take care of yourself.

Or go back a generation. In her final weeks, my mom, even with a mind strokes and Parkinsons had frayed, still ached to make sense of her relationship with her own mom. She showed me written fragments she had labored over in which she wrestled with loving a mother who, emotionally distant, had largely had another woman raise her.

In his last days, my dad sought to heal wounds going back to those Cuba days. When I was two, his depressed father checked himself out of treatment and ended his life. A photo in my seminary office shows me and my dad in his Cuba office soon after his dad’s death. Am I imagining that his face looks haunted? What’s going on in him? In me?

One day I accidentally brushed the photo to the floor. The frame’s glass shattered. The shards spoke to me of how easily during becoming ourselves we fall and break.

They hint at the Genesis 3 account of Adam and Eve evicted from their primeval garden, their return barred by an angel’s flaming sword. We aren’t shaped only within a flow of innocent love, laughter, play. We’re also born into shattered glass going back to the dawn of time.

Even a dream of mischievous girl holds dangers. How in seeking what I dreamed do I deform as well as form? When am I twisting her into my rather than God’s image? How did my imperfect love for my own daughters help shape both their best and broken selves even as how my parents loved me, in turn shaped by how their parents loved them, both tore and treasured the person I was to become?

We all face such questions, whether grandparents, grandchildren, parents, the children each of us once were, or participants in this seminary community or any formational setting. Here we learn to minister and be ministered to. We invite each other into sacred spaces. This includes not least the core of who we are, how we became who we are, who we’re yet to become. This can mean going down, down, down into the layers of our selves and stories, our laughters and joys, our traumas and tears.

It also means gazing out—out across the large social, environmental, climatological, and global forces shaping our most intimate beings. To see, for example, how sensitive a grandchild is to a minute shift in gaze or voice is to grasp that the merest external breeze can twist our formation.. Even the slightest gusts of violence actual or threatened, of abuse, of racism, of marginalization by poverty, sickness, low-status occupations, having our identity viewed as abomination, can distort your and my ability to embrace that great gift—being formed in the very image of God.

In seminary, university, church, or other communities informed by faith understandings, we’re invited to wrestle with how to understand, confront, and transform the forces that twist us. We’re called to root ourselves in that amazing inaugural dream of Jesus. Grasping matters at levels more profound than we ever will, he launched his ministry with a vision of what it would take to re-form his followers, to gather their shards of glass back into panes through which the holy could shine into their very cores. As Jesus put it in Luke 4:18-19,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Here we are—in shards. Here we also are—able to exchange with each other something like a grandparent’s gaze through which to see and treasure in midstream that Big Bang of creation—our becoming the persons we’re meant to be.

This is why some of the most amazing moments in seminary life are the stories seniors tell in graduates’ brunch of arriving lost and departing found. This is why one of the most awe-inspiring things any of us can do is to participate in the miracle of becoming ourselves.

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 a September 1, 2015, EMS convocation presentation.

Extending DreamSeeker Magazine through posts from Michael A. King and guests