Perfect Lawns and Dandelion Wine

DandelionsKCPost-MAKTheir very different personalities crossed my path just as the annual divide between dandelions as beauty or bane was in full bloom— and  unbidden came a mental image associating one of them with dandelion wine.

Next day as I walked to work paying particular attention, I noted just how stark are the differences in treatment of dandelions. First came a line of lawns radiating deep emerald green perfection. Then just as the eye got used to this as the norm came a ragged blanket of dandelions gone to seed, the line between barbaric chaos and the treated lawn beside it razor sharp.

After that came an unpredictable jumble. Sometimes back to emerald. Sometimes lawns whose owners clearly tolerated dandelions yet had recently mowed them into submission. Sometimes profusions of untidy stalks, heads gone old and gray and wild, gold mostly missing, mixed with unkempt grass and weeds. I haven’t done the demographic studies yet, but I do suspect they would show correlations between dandelion vistas and socio-economic variables.

Then to the personalities. One is more driven, restlessly surveying the horizon for the next opportunity, focused on achieving results, assessing outcomes, revising methods whenever the feedback loop calls for it. Here Big Data is today’s exciting new tool. The numbers are crunched, they point in promising directions, and in fact there is proof in the pudding: often amazing feats are indeed achieved and call for admiration.

The other is more laid back, not exactly somnolent but not driven, either. There may be hints, in more of a heart-softening than problematic form, of brushes with depression. Here data and numbers aren’t irrelevant but are one or two, maybe even three, levels down. First come people. People in all their beyond-statistics quirks, in their sufferings, their ragged edges, their lives sometimes golden but often in dandelion-esque fashion, beautiful today, gone to seed tomorrow.

Next came the progression toward dandelion wine. After spending time with the first personality, I did feel admiration. I also felt unsettled; does the grass really need to be that flawless? Might it be okay to let a few dandelions sneak into even well-manicured lawns— and personalities—to give us their annual saffron carpets, evanescent yet so lovely during their brief flowering? We’re learning that apples or tomatoes modified for beauty and long shelf-life lose their taste; the ones that bless your tongue are the heirloom varieties, blemished,  spots and lumps and oddities dancing with their tastes. Are people maybe sometimes like that too?

After being with the second personality, I realized life felt slower, gentler, calmer. The frenzy had faded. Outcomes mattered less and the tenderness of each passing minute mattered more.

Later that evening, in the afterglow, arrived the image of dandelion wine, which comes from Ray Bradbury’s 1957 novel of that title set in Green Town, Illinois, and of the summer in which Douglas Spaulding, age 12, experiences through dandelions and all that goes with them the very wine of life.

As Bradbury put it in a 1975 introduction, “Dandelion Wine is nothing if it is not the boy-hid-in-the-man playing on the green grass of other Augusts in the midst of starting to grow up, grow old, and sense darkness waiting under the trees to seed the blood.”

And as part of telling of that boy growing up and old, Bradbury reports in one chapter, “The Lawns of Summer,” on this special grass, which I imagine creating perfect emerald lawns like the ones I walked by except for one more miracle: it grows to just the right height, then stops. Bill, Grandpa’s boarder, excitedly reports that he’ll plant the new grass and soon enough mowing will be done forever.

But Grandpa has this crazed notion that mowing grass and even pulling weeds can nurture the soul, can be, as he puts it, “a way of life.” The sound of lawn mowers and the smell of cut grass are gifts of being alive he wants never to lose. Not to mention that “a mess of dandelion greens is good eating once in a while” and that the bees will vanish as the high-tech grass kills off dandelions and clover.

He gets through to Bill. When Grandpa wakes from that afternoon’s nap, he hears the mower going again even though Bill had just cut the lawn that morning while anticipating the day the magic grass would put an end to all that. When Grandpa questions Bill, wondering if the sun has addled him, Bill just joyfully grins through a spray of green.

Michael A. King is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a vice-president at Eastern Mennonite University; columnist, “Unseen Hands,” for Mennonite World Review;  blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

Shot Through with Holiness

HolinessKCPost-MAKAs I headed for retreat in Arizona’s Verde Valley, words of Eastern Mennonite Seminary colleague Linda Alley, insights honed as spiritual director, still rang: “I imagine it as a pilgrimage—the journey itself will teach you and not necessarily the destination. And . . . as every pilgrim comes back changed and brings gifts . . . , you will also. . . . I wish for you many holy moments.”

What happened? Three factors stand out:

First, during retreat, around when the Washington Post (Paul Schwartzman, March 6, 2016) said psychologists and massage therapists report client panic over apocalyptic election scenarios, a loved one called to process such anxiety. What, we pondered, is our hope if this really happens?

Montezuma Well provided one complex response. A spring has long fed this near-lake. Its waters probably originally fell on the Mogollon Ridge far above and miles away 10,000 years ago. Eventually the Well drew people, their cliff houses dating back a thousand years still visible in the rim. The water exits into a channel built perhaps by the Hohokam, who irrigated 60 acres of crops. The National Forest Service says that “For many cultures, Montezuma Well is . . . sacred. . . . a place of power, not to be visited lightly. . . .”

Almost forever, as known human history goes, that spring has fed that well. Now there I was, drawing hope from being alive in this moment, grateful to learn from prior journeyers. Complicating hope was that the cliff houses are empty. The Europeans who eventually arrived didn’t totally destroy the beauty and bounty, but local mesquite trees adapted to almost no rain are threatened as humans lower the water table.

Any hope for our own future will need to thread through the possibility that our culture is already shaping the ruins future civilizations will visit.

From Arizona I traveled into a second factor, politics juxtaposed with the convention of the National Council for Behavioral Health, Joan’s employer. I attended awards evening just as primary election results arrived. Often winning: being biggest, baddest, boldest; urging torture, war crimes, racism, xenophobia.

Although Christian language wasn’t explicit, awards in contrast celebrated serving, in effect, “the least of these,” those facing mental and behavioral challenges.

The climactic award went to a sheriff who talked down from suicide persons preparing to leap from the bridge he monitored. Though that was heroic enough, a standing ovation supported his naming his own depression and his walk with a suicide-tempted son.

Then in a few final Verde Valley hours, I showed Joan my places of pilgrimage. At Sycamore Community Park, she reacted as I had. Through a sometimes worn and dusty town (near tourist-ridden Sedona but entirely different) runs Beaver Creek, lined by ordinary houses, running under an ordinary bridge. Yet it carries the outflow of Montezuma Well. So in its ordinariness Beaver Creek bears millennia of hopes dashed and raised, cultures vanishing and rising.

Sycamore Creek Park
Beaver Creek, Arizona

“But it’s like the Branch,” Joan said.

Branch Creek, Pennsylvania
Branch Creek, Pennsylvania

Precisely. Creeks transposed and viewed from certain angles, only details would have told us which was which. Two-fold holiness: first, this site offered our souls a path into the holy. Second, it reminded that in our own ordinary lives there is, a quick walk from home, holiness as well.

The world does seem to teeter near apocalypse. We don’t know how much will die before resurrection. But I’m grateful for what Linda helped me see along the way.

Michael A. King is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a vice-president at Eastern Mennonite University; columnist, “Unseen Hands,” for Mennonite World Review which first published this post blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

 

Fog, Mystery, Journey, and Truth, by Kevin A. Clark

KingsviewCoGuestPostBarnGreenThe heavy fog this morning reminded me that discernment as a way of seeking and seeing truth is an integration of both mystery and journey. Mystery in that we can not expect to really see clearly because truth is multifaceted, complex, and diverse and is seen through journey:

This morning as I was leaving home, I knew the truth that the bank of the river behind my house is lined with willow trees. The hints of verdant life to come had begun to emerge as the sounds of spring peepers, the warming of the air, the early spring flowers blooming, the lengthening of day and the texture of awareness gave it shape.

So, drawn to the sound of Shoemaker River, I focused on the trees, their familiar shape through the thick fog. As in the multiple senses of the word I “journeyed” nearer, I noted that the whiteness of fog gave way to the wonder of mystery, not clarified until I was more fully present to the trees.

Then I noticed the white caterpillar-like blossoms, as thick as the fog now shimmering on the branches, a truth given by creation whose timing is complex and could only be experienced in a multifaceted, multi-sensory way.

It  is then, in the journey we are invited to explore (“seek, knock, ask”) that the movement of our being to engage in life around us unfolds. We are drawn to or given to “see” mystery before us and in us. In other words, mystery and movement of life in season (“for everything the is a season”) must be journeyed toward and through as we discern truth.

—Kevin A. Clark is Campus Pastor and Assistant Professor of Spiritual Formation and Direction, Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Ordained by the Virginia Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA in 1996, he was pastor of Big Spring Mennonite Church, Luray, Virginia, 1996-2004. Clark is a spiritual director, retreat leader, and board member of Blue Ridge Ministries, Inc., an interdenominational retreat ministry located in the Shenandoah Valley.

Mysteriously Upheld

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72Experiencing the known world as falling apart is no new thing. That’s what reading Dead Wake, in which Erik Larson tells of the German sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania and how this drew the U.S into World War I, reminded me. To be suddenly plunged into World War I or II would stun us.

Still we live amid our own sense that normalcy is not holding. That’s why stories about the end of civilization are popular. Of many apocalyptic novels I’ve read, a favorite is Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s elegiac account of disease striking all Earth, grounding the planes, leaving her main characters living in an airport before finally they must see what’s left beyond.

Her vision sears my heart. This is because she shows in fast-forward what we fear is already unfolding in slow motion. It’s also because, even post-apocalypse, she spies hope. Her final pages gleam.

Mandel inspires me to keep pursuing hope. Even now. Especially now. That’s what I’m pointing toward with “Unseen Hands,” the title of my new quarterly column for Mennonite World Review (which will also appear as Kingsview & Co blog posts). I want to pursue the unseen hands in personal experiences; larger church, cultural, and global dynamics; biblical resources.

The image itself, which comes from a dream I later heard echoed in Marty Stuart’s “The Unseen Hand” gospel song, launches me on the journey. Unseen hands are for me first of all personal. They came to me in that years-ago dream when the mountains seemed too many and high. I was climbing what in waking moments is the steepest grade I regularly encounter. Suddenly unseen hands, giant invisible hands, supported my back. Same hill. Same life. But newly walkable.

Years later an invitation to an assignment that scared me came by cell phone just as I was climbing that same hill. I remembered the dream. I felt the hands. I said the yes that might otherwise have been no.

Meanwhile in the larger culture I glimpse unseen hands in, of all places, those richly layered, streaming TV shows suitable for binge watching. Two examples: The Killing and River. Both touch on painful issues of the day, whether racism, immigration, tensions across cultures and religions as diversity soars. They address sin, shadows, sickness of soul. Yet also, quite strikingly, they ask about atonement, forgiveness, healing. Main characters in both are broken people, grappling with addictions, abuse experienced and inflicted, abandonment. Both show tussles with mental illness that simultaneously scar and strengthen sufferers.

And both, so sparingly yet so movingly that when the moment comes it outshines most sermons, point toward unseen hands. Each offers scenes in which golden light breaks through not only metaphorically but literally. Yet what could be cliché makes the soul shiver—maybe because earned by the unsparing (if perhaps over the top in latter episodes of The Killing) portrayals of streets and characters drenched in rain, violence, wrong turns, and sorrow.

I sometimes wonder how the Jews survive their own apocalypse. As exiles by the rivers of Babylon they weep, hanging up their harps rather than, as Psalm 137 indicates, singing God’s song “in a foreign land.”

Walter Brueggemann (The Message of the Psalms, 75-76) says they do it in ways I recognize from The Killing and River: honestly naming their bitter realities, including their raging thirst for vengeance, while maintaining a “resilient . . . . hope against enormous odds.” They stay true to a vision of the Lord’s unseen hands through which “There will be a homecoming to peace, justice, and freedom.”

They have much to teach us.

Michael A. King is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a vice-president at Eastern Mennonite University; columnist, “Unseen Hands,” for Mennonite World Review which first published this post; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

PawPaw, Rockets Whoosh

Apollo11KCPost-MAK“PawPaw,” he excitedly reported, “rockets go up in the air, whoosh!”

The image took me back, instantly, to when I was 14 and for six months lived for almost nothing but waiting for Apollo 11 to take off and turn the type of whooshing-rockets science fiction I loved into reality. If Apollo 11 managed to make it to the moon, who knew, maybe someday we’d arrive on Mars and learn that the haunting stories Ray Bradbury told in The Martian Chronicles were more history than fiction.

“Did you know, Kadyn,” I asked, “that a long long time ago rockets took off and landed on the moon?”

His eyes widened. “They went up, whoosh, to the MOON?”

“Yes, can you believe it? You know what? There are videos of it. Do you want to see one? We could Google it.”

“Yes, yes! Mom, Mom, PawPaw and I are going to watch videos of rockets going to the moon.”

So we Googled Apollo 11 blast-off videos. Of course there they were, link after link. We clicked. YouTube came up. A rocket was sitting there on the screen in the blue day, wisps of smoke puffing out every now and then.

Kadyn was transfixed. “Is it going to go up?”

He had just been singing a nursery song the day before that included “5-4-3-2-1 blastoff.”

“Yes,” I reported, “see those numbers on the screen? They’re counting down to blastoff, and when you hear them get to 5-4-3-2-1, up it will go.”

5-4-3-2-1 goes the count. A great cloud of fire, burning yellow and white and orange and who knows how many colors, surges around the rocket. For a while it just sits there, fire raging and raging.

Apollo11LiftoffCloseUp

Then slowly slowly, startlingly slowly given the fury of the flames, story upon story of that Saturn V rocket crawl up past the holding arms.

Apollo11ClearingTowerCropped

We watch  until the rocket is too far up to see except for the faint contrail.

Then the YouTube screen switches. We’re circling the moon. “Is that the moon, PawPaw? Did the rocket go all the way to the moon?”

We watch and watch. We see the moon lander detach from the moon orbiter. We see Neal Armstrong’s eyes, startlingly steady as they gaze at his flight instruments. We watch the moon’s surface grow closer and closer as Mission Control, down on Earth, monitors the countdown. We watch as the camera steadies. The Eagle has landed.

I found it hard not to shed tears, which I didn’t want to do, given that it would trigger “PawPaw, why are you crying?” and what in the world would I say to that?

I’m still not fully sure why the urge. Maybe because just like that I felt 14 again, before all that was to come, wonders and terrors, had befallen me and the planet. Maybe because it still stuns me that when I was a boy science fiction always primed us to expect more and then yet more. In 1969 we could only imagine what unbelievable things would be happening by 2016. Maybe not spaceships to the stars yet, but surely a colony on the moon? Some people on Mars at least long enough to lay a copy of The Martian Chronicles on the red sand like Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left earth equipment on the moon as Michael Collins waited above for them?

But no. When Kadyn and I watched the Eagle pop back up from the moon to return to Collins, it felt almost more like science fiction than when it first happened. So did it as the cameras panned over people of all races and nations and colors, all over the planet, gazing spellbound at TV screens. How did we do that? How did we manage to be unable now to do it again?

So maybe the tears were about the fading of some dreams. But maybe also about a few more things.

For one, even as Apollo 11 blasted off, people understandably wondered if this was the right way to spend the countless dollars and energies it had taken in a world so awash with deprivation and misery for so many. Barely more than months before, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had been killed. Race riots blazed across U.S. cities and napalm burned the flesh off those we considered our enemies in Vietnam.

Maybe the tears were partly awe that, so many decades later, the world could still produce grandchildren.

Above all, I suspect they were caused by the gift of being able to witness the fresh wonder of a child gazing at images that thrilled his budding mind and spirit. As so much unravels today, his face fixed spellbound on the screen made me pray that, though I’ll be long gone, half a century from now he’ll be in my role. He too, I dream, will share with a grandchild what happened, oh so amazingly, back when he was a boy and the world was in such trouble yet look, yes, here we still are—and can you believe it, this really did happen. Let’s watch!

Michael A. King is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a vice-president at Eastern Mennonite University; Mennonite World Review “Unseen Hands” columnist; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

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.

BalloonatSunset

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

BalloonNearsLanding

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.

BalloonTakesOff

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.

BoyGirlWatchBalloonLeaveIMG_20151206_161042

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.”

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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.

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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.

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