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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan, Eli, Larry, and Isaac Dunn

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

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

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

Losing Seth, Part 1: Forever, by Larry Dunn


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

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

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

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

Seth Play photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Blessing

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tenderly Inviting All to Christ’s Banquet

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72For long decades now I’ve dreamed of a setting in which we could learn how—offering each other the tenderness for which every human so longs—to pull out chairs for every single one of us who wish to do so to sit at Christ’s banquet table. I’ve dreamed of Jesus our host and we as his body,  with the courtesy such a momentous moment so deserves, together pulling out each other’s chairs and helping each one of us be seated.

In my circle of innermost loved ones, including family and dear friends, are those who as soon as same-sex marriage became legal in their respective states married long-time partners. Others in that same circle are against this and have been troubled that, for instance, my employer Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) opened a hiring policy review and listening process to discern whether to hire persons in same-sex relationships. I wish for all of these dear ones to be at the banquet table. I wish for the table to groan with such amazingly nurturing and varied foods that all can eat with joy.

I speak of this dream now because I’m deeply moved to see confirmed a context for extending such tenderness and for continuing to test and learn how it’s done in ways that honor all at the table. Last Thursday, July 16, 2015, the EMU Board of Trustees voted to pass this action:

Eastern Mennonite University does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or any legally protected status. As a religious institution, Eastern Mennonite University expressly reserves its rights, its understandings of, and its commitments to the historic Anabaptist identity and the teachings of Mennonite Church USA, and reserves the legal right to hire and employ individuals who support the values of the college.

In speaking to the EMU community, Board Chair Kay Nussbaum and President Loren Swartzendruber indicated that

Therefore—as we affirm the goodness of singleness, celibacy, and sexual intimacy within the context of a covenanted relationship (marriage)—our hiring practices and benefits will now expand to include employees in same-sex marriages. The Board of Trustees and EMU leadership believe this is the right decision for Eastern Mennonite University as an institution at this time.

I’m moved because through such action I do hear EMU (along with Goshen College, whose board made the same decision) inviting persons and entities like these to that wobbly version of Christ’s table  which is the best we know how to offer each other on earth: my own divided loved ones, students who wrestle with each other’s differing understandings, those holding multiple perspectives within EMU, those pained by fractures within Mennonite Church USA and the range of denominations  an ecumenical EMU serves, persons forming EVANA as a network of Mennonite congregations both intersecting with but also sometimes providing alternatives to MC USA perspectives, and so many more.

I recognize that it’s right about at this point that things get complicated: Some brothers and sisters in Christ have already had a table setting.  A question they’re wrestling with is whether, if they view it as violating faithfulness to Scripture, they can still experience nurture at the table if others fully join them.

This is a riddle I don’t entirely  know how to solve. That’s why I addressed it in various ways in my seven-part “Blogging Toward Kansas City” series. That’s why I’ve basically said God, I don’t know how this can be done or if it can be done, give us a Pentecost miracle.

I think Nussbaum and Swartzendruber address the riddle when they say that

We are keenly aware of the deep divide within our denomination—as well as the broader Christian Church—regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals. We mourn the broken relationships and pain for people with differing understandings of Scripture and what it means to live as Christ called us to live. We remain deeply committed to Mennonite Church USA and Anabaptist values as an institution.

They don’t offer a magic wand. But I draw hope from their recognition of the riddle and from their closing invitation calling

for respect and care in our community as people from a variety of perspectives hear about this decision. Thank you for extending grace and compassion as we move forward living and learning in community together.

As dean of the seminary division of an EMU now operating within our new hiring policy, I know there is much journeying to be done.  We’ll need at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and EMU to learn more of what it means to experience our new banquet table. We’ll need to discern how to share what we learn in a wider church still wrestling with who belongs at the table and how.

We’ll need to continue to benefit from insights of those who, whether internally or externally, disagree with our new non-discrimination commitments. In fact, I believe we’ll have succeeded in honoring the spirit of our new policy precisely to the extent we’re able to invite persons who disagree to be among those who experience themselves as part of an “us” tenderly pulling out for them their banquet chair.

And so I am daring to dream toward learning more about Pentecost through this EMU/EMS laboratory within which I’m privileged to serve. During that first wild Pentecost, winds gusting and flames falling, those gathered so trembled in the Holy Spirit that they were thought drunk with wine as a miracle unfolded: tribes from countless nations understood each other across so many divisions in culture and thought and language. Might the winds and flames similarly fall on us as we invite all to Christ’s table?

I don’t want to claim we at EMU and EMS already fully know how to embody Pentecost. Even as, starting in 1917, the shapers of EMU have fervently sought the guidance of the Spirit all along, as frail humans we’ve still only begun to grasp how large the Spirit’s work among us might be. But I do view us as committed to seeking, together, to invite the Spirit to use us as a laboratory for testing how we all take chairs at the table. Through the EMU Board decision, I see us as making two critical, historic moves:

First, we’re saying not, as we so often have, that all must hold the same LGBTQ-related theology to be at the table; rather, we’re saying that we’ll start with all at the table. Then we’ll continue to wrestle carefully and discerningly—attending to Jesus, Scripture, the core Anabaptist-Mennonite values of MC USA, and insights of the church universal—with how God is speaking amid our varying and sometimes opposing perspectives.

Second, we’re saying that from now on at EMU those who identify as LGBTQ will not be persons the rest of us talk about and whose presence or absence at the table others make decisions about. From now on those of us who identify as LGBTQ will be part of the new EMU “us” we can all now jointly and gently and tenderly form. Even as disagreements in our community will continue and indeed—as befits an institution of higher learning—be treasured, we’ll find our way together into the future of EMU and of EMS within EMU.

I pray that we’ll experience a few more chapters of a Story in which, as Jesus puts it in Luke 14, those who feel most welcome at the table take the lowest place, and those who feel least welcome at the table are in fact invited first.

Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS and EMU, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, a division of Eastern Mennonite University; vice-president, EMU; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

Thy Will Be Done on Earth, by Duane Beachey

KingsviewCoGuestPostDuaneBeachey“I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” [Religion] ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.”  —Jeb Bush in response to Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” —Psalm 24:1

“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” —Jesus

Some Christians are dismayed that Pope Francis is offering his views on finance and the environment. They suggest the Pope should stick to spiritual concerns and leave economics to people who understand finance—in other words, the people with the money. But if the people with the money can be trusted to shape good economic policies, shouldn’t we be able to critique the results of those policies?

As the Pope has noted, the results are abysmal. The world is seeing huge disparity between the very wealthy and the other 90% or 99%.  Even if you accept that a capitalist, free market system should provide equal opportunities not equal results, don’t the numbers tell us whether our economy is structured to benefit everyone or primarily the top 1%?

When God looks at all the inequity in the world, with some having great wealth while some live in abject poverty, does that express God’s will on earth? Does anyone think it will be that way in heaven?  So while we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, clearly that is not what is happening.

The Christian family includes widely differing beliefs and doctrines, but we all pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” How many of us ask what that looks like? Jesus declares that the kingdom is here—among us or within us (Luke 17:21). So wherever God’s will is being done on earth, isn’t that a sign of God’s reign? Isn’t God present wherever the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the sick healed, and wars end?

The economic system we have created is purposely stacked in favor of those with the money. Capital is purposely favored over labor as demonstrated by the fact that income from labor is taxed at twice the rate of income from capital. Warren Buffet says repeatedly he is taxed at a lower rate than his secretaries. Some of the largest corporations pay no income tax because of loopholes they have lobbied for.  Corporations are structured to have greater power than labor. All of this is deliberately designed to tilt the field.

Although a growing number of Christians across the political and theological spectrum are taking seriously the scriptural concern for the poor, I am baffled at how many Christians, often leaning conservative, have come to embrace a political party with the economic philosophy of the “robber barons.” Lower taxes on the wealthy, no regulations, “right to work” laws, a desire to cut spending for the poor and for children. These policies primarily benefit those with the power and wealth. This is the philosophy of Ayn Rand, an avowed atheist who despised the poor and honored the rich—pretty much the mirror opposite of Jesus—but who has been a hero of Paul Ryan, the Republican budget writer.

The real irony of how U.S. politics and religion have intersected is that to a large degree those who take the name of Christ most insistently, and those who claim to take the Bible most seriously are the very ones championing a politics with little concern for the “least of these.” Theirs is not a political agenda that is good news to the poor, that aims to feed the hungry, release the prisoner, heal the sick, and proclaim a message of peace to the world.

Indeed most liberal secularists and atheists embrace a politics and an economic philosophy more geared to the vision of the Lord’s Prayer: “ Thy will be done on earth.”  Jesus said, “Truly the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the reign of God ahead of you.” (Matt 21:31)

If we begin with a belief that the earth is the Lord’s, that  all we have belongs to God and we are his stewards, then this is the main question we as God’s people need to ask: How does God want his resources used? If we pray that God’s will be done on earth, how can we dedicate ourselves to that vision for the earth? Specifically how can we structure an economic system that advances the common good?

Why is economic disparity not a significant moral issue across the whole church? The economic world we have created hardly looks like God’s will being done on earth. Through the Law and the Prophets and on through the teachings of Jesus, God is clearly concerned about how we, individuals and nations,  take care of the poor, the widows, the fatherless, the sick, and the aliens.

And beyond the weakest members, God is concerned about workers and the wages they are paid. The Bible addresses those who hold back on workers’ wages or as Malachi 3:5 lists, “those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, (emph. added) along with oppressing widows, orphans, and aliens. (See also Lev. 19:13, Deut. 24:14, Jer. 22:13, and James 5:4.)

Jesus condemns those who carefully tithe everything, but forget the more important matters of justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). He condemns those who offer long pious prayers and then swallow up or foreclose on the houses of widows (Mark 12:40). I’m sure this was all legal. Laws are usually made by those with money. But legal or not, Jesus is clear that it wasn’t and isn’t right.

During the recent financial crisis billions were spent to bail out banks, but most of the homeowners who lost their homes weren’t bailed out. If people losing their homes doesn’t look like God’s will being done on earth, God’s people should be pleading their case in the courts and in the congress. Amos 5: 12 (NIV) says, “There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”  Verse 15 adds, “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.” Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

Do you know what the very next verse is—verse 18? It’s a verse well-known to anyone who has sat through a revival meeting. You probably know it by heart: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” This great call for repentance is a call to repent of not doing right, not seeking justice, not defending the oppressed, or taking up the case of the fatherless, or pleading the case of the widow in court.  And you probably thought it was a call to repent from drinking and sex.

To those who say the Pope should stick to spiritual matters, both Isaiah 1 and Amos 5 and Jesus and 1 John 4, tell us God despises all our religious observances and worship songs and offerings while we are ignoring the needs of the poor. The prophet Amos tells us, “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.” And on the end of that same verse—verse 23 he paints a wonderful picture of what God’s will being done on earth looks like. “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Justice for the poor is a far greater priority to God than all our worship.

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. (Isaiah 58:6, New Living Translation)

Duane Beachey, Isom, Kentucky, is a Mennonite pastor pastoring two small Presbyterian churches in Appalachia. He and his wife, Gloria spent over eight years with Mennonite Central Committee in Appalachia and stayed to pastor. Duane is the author of Reading the Bible as if Jesus Mattered (Cascadia Publishing House, 2014). Duane has spent most of his life working in low income housing ministries.

Author’s note: I’m interested in starting a conversation to develop a theology that challenges Christians including Christian business people to making just economic structures central to how they live out their faith. Also to envision economic ideas and models that benefit everyone and not just those at the top. I welcome input for this vision.


ShMHKC2015poste was spellbound. As I watched her, the spell stretched over to bind and bless me too.

We were flying away from a week that had included hurt and sorrow for many. Our denominational convention in seeking to strengthen the ties that bind us in Christian love had sometimes achieved this but also sometimes torn the threads.

Soon enough she’ll need to be finding her own path through all the ways we wound each other. In fact, because she was born into this flow of pain going back to the very beginning, back to the angel with the flaming sword barring the return to Eden, she too is already wounded. All of us who care for her are already in ways known and unknown shaping her not only through our love but also through the frailties our own births into the brokenness have formed in us.

But right then she was spellbound. I imagine she couldn’t even grasp the concept of flight; I doubt she understood that she was in a vast airborne bus and that what she was seeing was thousands of feet below her. Yet as the plane descended, quickly now, toward the runway, the houses and trees and cars were turned golden by the setting sun and at the same time the lights of approaching night began to flick on all across the landscape. She can’t talk yet so I don’t know precisely how her brain was relaying the magic to her. Yet the wonder of it did seem to have caught her attention.

In turn, she caught my attention, this dear granddaughter reminding me that there are more primal ways to experience the world than my grizzled, aging self, too caught up in life’s complexities to see much more than the burdens, often manages. And witnessing her spell then opening myself to it did envelop me in grace.

My granddaughter’s spell took me back to those first days of creation, when God hovered over the face of the chaos, over all that was formless and void, and spoke into being light and dark, mountains and valleys, dry land and heaving seas, trees and flowers, amazing animals, cool bugs and irritating but needed critters, birds singing and getting their early worms (or hopping around Amtrak’s 30th Street Station gobbling noodles, as happened on Sunday), women and men and children in all their endless varieties. I remembered that God looked upon all this and marveled at how good it was.

I saw that my granddaughter, though lacking the words or concepts to explain it, was present to it. In her wordless way, she was treasuring it. Even amid the grief and pain that was still much with me and will long be with us, gratefully I joined her in the worship.

—Michael A. King is blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; and owner, Cascadia Publishing House LLC

Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 7: Bending the Curve

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72It’s hard to tell how much and what type of history Mennonite Church USA made yesterday as intertwined resolutions on sexuality were passed. What will it mean to live a.) within the parameters of one resolution that called us to “forebearance,” to living patiently and respectfully with each others’ different views; and at the same time b.) within the implications of another resolution that reaffirms current membership guidelines related to persons who identify as LGBTQ?

I think it’s too early fully to understand what was decided, so I’ll defer detailed comment to another day or wiser analysts. (Meanwhile see news reporting on the wrestling with and voting on the sexuality resolutions from The Mennonite and Mennonite World Review.) Here I’ll mostly underscore my sense that we lived through a day of pain and sorrow.

I’d guess this was true for persons across the spectrum of beliefs, given that divergent beliefs were one cause of the pain. This meant that any combination of decisions was likely to be experienced as gain by some and pain by others.

The pain must have been palpable for any of us who felt that our very ability to honor conscience was in play.  Along with anger as its frequent companion, pain must have been particularly intense for any of us who felt that our personal inclusion or exclusion, or that of our loved ones, was at stake. Some have been giving eloquent voice to this suffering on Facebook and elsewhere.

As earlier promised, I did write Part 7, the last in my “Blogging Toward Kansas City” series, on Wednesday for publication in Mennonite Weekly Review yesterday morning, July 2, 2015. This was before we knew the results of the sexuality resolutions discernment. My impression is that today we’re continuing to find our way through some of the dynamics I reported on in yesterday morning’s MWR post but that we won’t fully understand what has happened or what could happen next, for good or ill, until we have a chance to absorb the hurt and grief.

I actually don’t know what comes after this for my own blogging. I need to do some of my own living into what has happened and what if anything to comment on or what other topics to move onto. In the meantime, I’m working with several authors of guest posts and look forward to sharing their writing when ready. Many thanks to those of you who have supported the launch of Kingsview & Co through your interest, comments, provision of guest posts, or shares through Facebook, Twitter, and more.

Now I’ll continue to pray, as I do below, that amid anxiety, chaos, and sorrow the evidence of things we don’t yet see and the substance of things we hope for (to echo Hebrews 11) will become clearer as God continues to bend the curve toward love and life.

Bending the Curve Toward Love and Life

In the middle of Tuesday night, I fell into a sequence of dreams. In one I dreamed that I was at the Mennonite Church USA convention, Kansas City 2015 (as I actually was). In a seminar I attended only in the dream, we were each to remember an experience of God’s grace. My dreaming mind went to this true story:

When I was seven, I ate bananas intended for something else. We lived on a four-lane Mexico City street with a tree-lined median. Racing to the median, I dumped the evidence then ran back—forgetting cars. With screaming brakes and horn, a Jeep hit me.

A nearby stop light had turned red; traffic was slowing; I was more bruised in ego than body. I scrambled up, pretended getting hit by cars was standard fare for me, and ran home as the driver stared.

I won’t claim detailed metaphorical connections while offering impressions from KC2015, but herewith some broad linkages:

First is being launched by a minor decision into near-catastrophe. Small moves can have large consequences. Many of us are feeling this at KC2015. As hymns are chosen, worship leaders decide what to highlight, speakers connect our circumstances with the Luke 24 disciples mourning dead Jesus, we’re attending to the smallest nuances.

We hear of gun-rights exercisers in tension with the local Moslem mosque. We learn of tiny gestures of reconciliation growing between two alienated communities. Are we really who we say we are? Or is ours “an idle tale”? we’re asked. We also engage endless war, drone warfare, abuse, justice amid racism, a remembrance of the Native Americans others of us displaced, and more. But over it all swirl LGBTQ-related dynamics as we wait to learn whether sexuality discernment becomes a Jeep hitting MC USA.

I asked KC2015 participants whose journeys with God catch my attention to offer impressions, hopes, fears. L. Keith Weaver, moderator, Lancaster Mennonite Conference, touches on our mix of feelings amid not knowing what the small or larger gestures of coming hours will produce:

I am feeling an awkward mix of joy and grief as I greet and worship with friends and colleagues in MC USA. It is a joy to experience God’s presence in his gathered people, celebrating God’s redeeming grace and sustaining love. There is also grief in knowing that conflicting values will make it difficult to experience the organizational unity we had hoped could emerge. God grant us mercy and grace as we seek to follow Jesus on the way.

A second broad linkage is loss of control amid chaos. I had some ability to make choices before and after being struck. Yet when I failed to anticipate traffic, chaos took control.

At KC2015, wise folks are paying attention to traffic amid prayerful awareness that a Jeep could wreck our discernment. Still, so much we don’t control. The discernment is unfolding not only across many layers of MC USA but also entities some may join instead of MC USA. Decisions across any layer can cause unpredictable ripples and counter-moves.

Among many naming the consequent anxiety is Theda Good, pastor, First Mennonite Church of Denver. Good anticipates renewing and building relationships at KC2015 but is also “aware of the anxiety in the family system. I feel it.”

Lois Johns Kauffmann, conference minister, Central District Conference, confesses to

anxiety as I think about the weight of our work together and the range of expectations we brought with us. This feels like a pivotal moment in the life of our church. It is a crucial time, not because the way will be crystal clear by the end of the week, but because this is not a business-as-usual convention. Maybe it’s pivotal because we’re aware of our need. Maybe it’s pivotal because we’re forced to face our power and privilege.

Many are experiencing heavy hearts. Echoing Weaver on grief, they doubt any discerners can control an outcome that holds us institutionally together. There is sorrow that this may be their last MC USA convention.

The third broad link with my story—the care of a gracious God—places me on shaky ground. If God’s care spares me, why do countless others, equally deserving, appear not to receive it? Still I believe that in ways we can’t reduce to formula, God bends the curve of Creation toward life and love.

Maybe God didn’t bend the curve toward life after a boy hid banana peels. Yet I’ll trust there was a divine nudge in my dream of telling KC2015 seminar participants that being spared death by Jeep was an experience of God’s care. I’ll trust this amid the longing many feel for God to bend this moment’s curve toward love and life.

Good’s hope is “that we will find ways to love, honor and cherish each and every family member while acknowledging we do not and will not agree on so many different topics.” She believes “The sexuality conversation will not be the last in which we will hold strong divergent views.” Good trusts that as the curve bends “we will find our way and continue to be known as a church of love and peacemakers.”

Harold N. Miller, pastor, Trissels Mennonite Church, thinks the week may “be good for the church. Perhaps it’s trust that our leaders have good instincts for what will hold the church together.”

Perhaps it’s a deep hope that our delegates are committed to “listen to the Scriptures for guidance” (in the delegates’ Table Group Covenant Litany), that we won’t abandon one teaching stance without deliberate, church-wide Bible study to discern whether we should embrace a new stance or affirm the Membership Guidelines resolution.

“The only explanation that is certain,” Miller stresses, “is that my peace was a gift from the Spirit of God.”

Kauffmann concludes,

More than anxiety, I feel grateful to be part of this church I love, participating in the hard and holy work of being in community. A wise person once said that every relationship is an opportunity for spiritual growth, because every relationship forces us to let go of illusions. I wonder what illusions God is asking me and us to release.

Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; owner, Cascadia Publishing House LLC; and blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co. He is grateful to Kelli Yoder, assistant editor and web editor, Mennonite World Review to MWR for the opportunity to collaboratively develop and circulate this blog post.

What the Body Knows, by Jean Janzen


What the Body Knows

Maybe it’s the ocean’s rhythmic tug
that helps me sleep, my body’s own
surge remembering its deepest pulse.

Think of those Celtic monks who
scaled the slippery rocks carrying
vellum and inks while the sea broke

and battered beneath them. High
in a crevice, a hidden stone hut
with cot and candle. The scribe

dips and swirls his quill to preserve
the story—Luke’s genealogy,
name after name, letters shaped

like birds in every color, a flight
of messengers released into history.
Each word unfurls the promise,

like Gabriel kneeling. The body
knows that wings, like waves,
can break through walls and enter,

that the secret of the story
is love, that even as we sleep,
its tides carry us in a wild safety.

—Jean Janzen, a poet living in Fresno, California, is the author of six previous collections of poetry who has received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and other awards. A graduate of Fresno Pacific University and California State University of Fresno, she has taught at Fresno Pacific and Eastern Mennonite University. Janzen is author of What the Body Knows, from which this poem is excerpted (DreamSeeker Books/Cascadia, 2015, used by permission of publisher and author).

Editor’s note: Kingsview & Co guest posts will often not be intended to integrate directly with the flow of prior and future posts, and certainly this haunting poem can stand alone in its telling of the story’s secret. However, it’s also offered here in awareness that it joins the flow of “Blogging Toward Kansas City 2015” and the yearnings of so many of us, amid tumult in church and culture, to experience “that the secret of the story / is love, that even as we sleep, / its tides carry us in a wild safety.”

Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 6: “Honoring Conscience”

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72As the Supreme Court declares a constitutional right to marriage (with Scalia savaging Kennedy) and Mennonites begin our pilgrimage to next week’s Kansas City convention and a potentially fateful appointment with history : This is the only way forward, I tell you; I can do no other. No, this is the only way forward, you tell me; you can do no other.

Below I share “Honoring Conscience in Plays and Sexuality Wars” as Part 6 of “Blogging Toward Kansas City” for two reasons. First, it’s my most recent published effort (The Mennonite, May 2015) to engage the latest incarnations of those matters I earlier described as being so intensely in play at Purdue 87 and now again before us at a juncture I’ve indeed heard more than one Mennonite Church USA denominational leader name “historic.”

Perhaps what’s about to happen at the Kansas City, Missouri, MC USA biennial convention will surprise us all with its low-stakes outcome. Perhaps we’ll simply muddle on for however many more years of muddling are called for. Yet it seems possible we’ll be parsing and engaging the consequences of Kansas City over the coming generation in ways comparable to the generation we’ve spent unpacking the Purdue 87 assembly.

Second, this represents my final pre-Kansas City effort to testify to why I see space for variance, or what I’d call faithful dissent, as so critical. I simply see no way forward that doesn’t in some way allow sharply opposing voices of conscience to be honored. We don’t disagree so intensely because we want to be cruel, to make trouble, to dishonor Scripture and God. We’re waging what MC USA Executive Director Ervin Stutzman has rightly, I believe, called “civil war” precisely because the very core of what we truly believe is at risk.

A resolution to be processed and voted on at Kansas City calls us to “forebearance.” Meanwhile another resolution calls for reaffirmation of Mennonite Church Membership Guidelines for at least four years. How might these two resolutions work with or against each other? What if one is adopted and the other not?

Time will tell. But I draw some hope from thoughts on the resolutions Stutzman offers in an FAQ. Agree or disagree (and certainly both responses will be offered!)  he provides a rationale for seeking to maintain stability of current denominational teachings on sexuality for at least some years. Then in one comment that strikes me as key to the quest for living together as our voices of conscience offer opposing proclamations, he sees the combination of resolutions as “inviting us to hold the documents more lightly than we hold onto each other as members of the body of Christ.”

I was preparing to post this at noon today, June 26, 2015, to take a breather (and give readers one!) before heading next week to Kansas City and posting Part 7 as a report from there. Then before noon came word of the 5-4 Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex marriage constitutional. I imagine the country and denominations and churches and in many ways the entire globe will be parsing this decision for years to come.

It seems hard to believe it won’t have some sort of context-setting impact in Kansas City. Might some of us see it as underscoring the need for Christians to be counter-cultural? We dissent from a culture of war; do we need to dissent from a culture that undoes what we consider God’s order of creation? Might others conclude sometimes God speaks through culture? Did culture, we might wonder, help a recalcitrant church reach fresh understandings regarding women in leadership? Has something similar happened again here?

Complexity lies ahead for the church and is presaged in the hot contestations within the Supreme Court. Take Kennedy: He will greatly move some and trouble others as he concludes on behalf of those who identify as LGBTQ that “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

He also takes pains to reach out to persons of faith who will disagree:

Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons. In turn, those who believe allowing same-sex marriage is proper or indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate. The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex.

 Yet hold on, insists John Roberts (whom I’ll focus on as a more temperate critic that some of the SCOTUS dissenters), it’s not going to be that simple:

Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage. There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.

So there we’ll be in Kansas City, precisely in the middle of these waves. They’ll be crashing from multiple sides against a frail peninsula of discernment jutting out into the ocean of decisions and dynamics that lie ahead for church, culture, and world.

One week in Kansas City can’t clarify for MC USA what next. Yet if anything the Supreme Court decision seems to me to heighten the need for the church to be a zone of peacemaking reconciliation, a gentler and safer harbor than many will experience amid the towering breakers.

I do hope we leave Kansas City with some type of truly mutual forebearance embraced. I hope we provide for all a denominational home that offers foretastes of that Home with its many mansions. I hope we pursue the miracle of providing home, in this world of so much homelessness of body and mind and soul, for consciences entirely at odds with each other to be honored as treasures.

I hope we ask what it would mean for every single one of us to be understood to enrich the body of Christ.  What would we offer ourselves, in a world of beheadings in the name of God, if we built this home not only as isolated individuals but as part of a larger community of discernment and faithfulness and love? Might we then in amazing ways, as a roaring sound comes from heaven like a mighty windstorm and tongues of fire descend, offer clues to the mind of a God whose ways are so much more wonderful, as Job came to understand, than any of us alone can grasp? Might a startled world gasp that oh my, they seem to be drunk?

Honoring Conscience in Plays and Sexuality Wars

Should pastors be forbidden to officiate at same-sex weddings? Or forbidden not to? I draw lessons from a first-grade play.

“But my parents won’t allow me to be in the play because it’s wrong to hold a gun,” I explained, barely pushing out the words against racing heart and tightening throat.

Mrs. Navarro, coiffed white hair not softening stern features she said traced back to Mexico’s most revered president, was not about to budge: “Is there a problem with your brain, young man? What could be wrong with pretending to carry a gun in a play?”

I was in first grade, son of Mennonite missionary parents who had just moved our family to Mexico City. Between culture shock, theological shock, and sheer terror, I had about used up my explanatory resources but tried one last time: “My parents say war is wrong. We’re Mennonites, and that’s what we’re taught. They say because war is wrong even carrying guns in a play is wrong.”

Mrs. Navarro snorted. “I’m not impressed; you are strange people. If you just won’t carry a gun, fine, fine, unhappy boy. But you must be in the play. You’ll get a tiny part and be bored while your classmates have the fun you could be having.”

Half a century later, I can smile at the memory. But I still recall the sting. And it took me decades to shift from blaming my parents for the misery they could have spared me had their consciences been more flexible. It was only a play! Did you have to make me a laughingstock in first grade, not to mention seventh when you made me exercise on a gym floor mat while my classmates learned dancing, another seduction of evil culture? Or college, when I had to confess I’d never been to a movie theater because that too was bad? Yet now that my parents are gone, I’m thankful for their great gift: teaching me that pearl of great price which is obeying conscience.

I’m grateful also for the tradition undergirding my parents’ treasuring of conscience. For centuries Anabaptist-Mennonites have believed with the Peter of Acts 5:29, and the radical reformers inspired by Peter, that when human rules and God’s clash, “We must obey God instead of people!”

This matters today as denominational battles over same-sex understandings rage on. It matters because, I believe, the root cause of the war and our inability to extend ceasefire is conscience. No matter our perspective, most of us are convinced that to believe other than we do is to violate conscience. Any ceasefire must then solve the riddle of how more than one voice of conscience can exist in the same faith community.

In Mennonite Church USA, which I serve as dean at an Eastern Mennonite Seminary confronted with how we form and honor consciences amid voices so at odds, the way forward is unclear. Yet finding a path is critical as divisions roil us.

Some congregations or regional conferences are voting to leave MC USA because same-sex relationships are sinful, they must obey God at any price, and they believe MC USA is not adequately maintaining dikes against sin.

Convinced justice and obedience to God require it, other congregations or conferences are, in effect, engaging in civil disobedience. Even as it goes against current MC USA teachings, they are installing pastors in same-sex relationships or their pastors are officiating at same-sex weddings.

At EMS, students preparing for ministry must wrestle with which theological convictions they may hold without running afoul of one denominational layer or another. How do they navigate when at times theology or practice of one layer—whether congregational, conference, or national—is at odds with another? Dare they candidly express their theologies (on any side of the spectrum) except at high cost? The price can involve external consequences for holding the “wrong” position— or internal soul, conscience, integrity consequences of blending in by sublimating convictions.

There is talk of somehow restructuring MC USA to take us beyond this wilderness. I don’t pretend to be sure how, but it will have to address opposing voices of conscience. Such efforts may then further incite those wanting to exclude or marginalize Mennonite Church USA voices judged to be obeying humans over God.

As tensions mount, my faith in a reconciling outcome is shaken. But I know what I wish for: the non-negotiability of conscience somehow to be named and honored. So for example, MC USA is debating a.) whether our newest polity handbook should forbid officiation at same-sex weddings and b.) whether the handbook offers rules or more flexible guidelines. Meanwhile some—pointing, say, to the Cour D’Alene, Idaho requirement that the for-profit Hitching Post Lakeside Chapel serve all comers including LGBTQ—worry that someday a polity flip-flop could make same-sex wedding officiation a requirement. I yearn for an outcome that doesn’t in effect “criminalize” ministers who make the “wrong” choice—whether conscience calls for refusing or embracing officiation at same-sex weddings.

A complexity of Mennonite—and often broader Christian—history is that commitment conscientiously to obey God has repeatedly foundered on opposing hearings of God. So generation after generation we face a paradox: Mennonites whose tradition sprang from commitment to hear God even if this required dissent to the established church in turn marginalize or sever relationships with those who dare dissent to current Mennonite understandings.

The war over theology and polity of same-sex relationships has brought MC USA and many denominations (including United Methodist, to which the second-largest cohort of EMS students belong) to a watershed. We can do the usual thing. Putting our own consciences first, we can sanction or refuse to honor as faithful Christians those we believe hear God wrongly. Or we can ask whether this time—this time at last, confronted with a historic test—we could try a new thing: structuring ourselves in ways that honor multiple voices of conscience.

In any denomination facing this riddle, many congregations, pastors, members, and denominational entities are convinced they must obey God in ways anathema to the others. A striking MC USA example: one pastor’s officiation at a gay son’s wedding generated widely circulated open letters from family members offering contrasting—yet passionately Christian and scripturally based—expressions of conscience. In other denominational settings, some resonate with Frank Schaefer, United Methodist pastor defrocked for officiating at the same-sex wedding of his son before being re-frocked. He explained his inability to uphold the UM Book of Discipline:

Frankly, my conscience does not allow me to uphold the entire Discipline, because it contains discriminatory provisions and language that is hurtful and harmful to our homosexual brothers and sisters. It denies them their full humanity. I simply cannot uphold those parts of the Discipline.

And some echo Michael Bradley, who in the Witherspoon Institute Public Discourse (“Between Magisterium and Magistrate: Notre Dame’s Choice on Marriage’s Meaning,” Oct. 28, 2014) opposes same-sex marriage and approvingly cites these words from the Roman Catholic 2003 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons”:

In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws. . . . In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.

It may be impossible for such opposing voices of conscience to remain in fellowship. Solving the riddle will take something like the Pentecost inbreaking of the Spirit that enabled understanding across a babble of languages. {Just yesterday—as of the insertion of this update on June 26, 2015—Meghan Good offered in-depth thoughts on how the Tower of Babel and Pentecost might connect with our current circumstances.] Yet I pray that instead of emulating our culture’s fragmentation into an individualistic affiliation only with our own kind, we contribute our individual voices to a divine project larger than any of us alone can build.

To echo Ervin Stutzman (The Mennonite, Nov. 24, 2014), I pray that we learn how to honor “both individual conscience and the value of Gelassenheit (yieldedness) in the face of disagreements.” [Stutzman also elaborates on this in just-published June 23, 2015 comments on the polarities of freedom and mutual accountability.]

I dare imagine that in the reconciling and peacemaking power of Christ there is neither LGBTQ nor straight and even that in Christ there is neither traditionalist nor progressive. I imagine the Spirit descending even on today’s speakers of different and often battling tongues. I imagine Christians, guns holstered not only in plays but when loving LGBTQ-viewpoint enemies, able still to shake hands, to pray together, to break communion bread together. I imagine us able to look into each other’s eyes and to see on the other side this paradox and this treasure: one whose conscience is thoroughly at odds with my own yet who remains a faithful Christian and in some way, however creatively or miraculously this is structured, a member of my faith community.

Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC; and author, Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict over Homosexuality (Pandora Press U.S., 2001), which analyzes the difficulties of understanding opposing voices of conscience. This article was first published in The Mennonite, May 2015.

Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 5: “Double Conversion”

As tears surrKCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72ounded the cross, heaven didn’t fully come down. Some flinched from too much emotion, and I respect that. But I at least had rarely  experienced burdens of alienation  so palpably laid down.

I share this post as part 5 of “Blogging Toward Kansas City” because it does two main things: (1) offers some thoughts on ways to hear the story of Peter and Cornelius potentially pertinent to our current divisions; and (2) reports on an actual effort to implement, through worship, a commitment to meet Jesus at the foot of the cross beyond our divisions.

One additional comment: after this post first appeared in Mennonite World Review, it was criticized for the linkage of elephants with persons who identify as LGBTQ. As I responded then, the intent was by no means to imply a linkage between elephants and people but to label the issue—divisions over LGBTQ-related understandings—as the elephant in the room.

However, I also saw how easily the image could slide from issue to people and apologized. I’m maintaining the imagery here because it’s part of the historical record. But I agree with the critics who pointedly and prophetically reminded me and us that what we’re addressing are not merely dry bones of doctrine but, to echo Ezekiel, real people “with skin on,” as I heard a child once put it, real people with real flesh and blood, with real hearts and souls and minds and feelings.

Double Conversion

At the 2014 School for Leadership Training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, we planned to offer keynotes, case studies, and workshops on discernment. As SLT neared, churchwide rifts between same-sex-attraction theologies were deepening. We didn’t want to make things worse; we didn’t want to claim we knew the right discernment strategies. Yet not to name LGBTQ-discernment links would be to ignore a giant elephant in the room.

So we planned an “Elephant in the Room” worship service (as movingly reported on by Laura Amstutz, photo by Lindsey Kolb). We didn’t provide discernment guidance. We simply sought a context within which to offer LGBTQ-related hopes and fears to God.

The service wasn’t perfect. Some on opposite LGBTQ theology sides thought there was an appeal to emotions when the focus should have been on the hard scriptural and theological wrestling the times cry out for.

Yet what happened seems a story worth telling. First, however, let me link it to the Acts 10 story of Peter and Cornelius. When asked to preach on this just after the “Elephant” service, I found the two stories almost demanding to be joined.

Particularly illuminating seemed the worship planners’ request that I ponder “double conversion.” On two sides, in this riveting narrative from the early church, the Holy Spirit is at work.

Cornelius, though a military officer outside the faith communities Acts highlights, prays constantly and wants to live faithfully. When in a vision an angel tells him to visit this stranger Simon in Joppa, he is both terrified and obedient. He sends two slaves plus one of his devout soldiers to find Simon.

Meanwhile Simon Peter, his quest to follow Jesus often blending confusion, passion, betrayal, and love, has a vision of “something like a large sheet” coming down from heaven with all kinds of creatures on it. A voice tells him to kill and eat the animals.

Shocked and horrified, Peter objects. Not only are the animals unclean (as Lev. 11, Ezek. 22:26 and 44:23, or Daniel 1 insist) but the clean/unclean distinction is key to his people’s counter-cultural witness.

Scarier yet, as we often stress to each other today, Peter knows visions must be tested against God’s word. As both Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and Galatians 1:6-9 underscore, angels, prophets, or any of God’s people swayed by dreams that go against God’s commandments are to be cast out, even killed. No wonder “By no means, Lord” is Peter’s response to the command to eat unclean animals.

Amid his bewilderment the visitors from Cornelius show up. Finally Cornelius himself arrives and falls at Peter’s feet but is told to get up, Peter is just mortal. The two dream-addled mortals sort things out. I had this strange vision, says Cornelius. Oh my, and I had the oddest one myself, reports Peter.

Finally it all falls together for Peter. Each vision interprets the other. He sees what God is meaning to do. He reports to those gathered to ponder the unfolding mysteries, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Cornelius, a Gentile, a man outside the boundaries of the people of God as then defined, has to trust a vision breaking in from beyond. Peter, thoroughly within the boundaries, has to trust a vision insisting age-old walls need no longer keep Cornelius and other Gentiles outside. Together Cornelius and Peter must learn that in Christ both can experience God’s welcome. But what travel adventures, whether physical or in faith understandings, each must undergo to achieve such a dramatic double breakthrough.

This takes me back to the Elephant service. As our LGBTQ-related theological divisions deepen, commitments to faithfulness are only strengthening. The cries of conscience are intensifying. People are dreaming dreams and seeing visions.

Some are convinced a hedonistic culture is driving an emotional contagion seducing the church down precisely the wrong path. They dream of a church faithful, cross-shaped, counter-cultural even if the price is to be called a bigot.

Others are certain the there can be no avoiding confrontation with those hate-filled aspects of culture that have led to suicide, torture, and even killing of some of us deemed today’s unclean. They dream of Christians being faithful even when the price is to be called disobedient to the church.

I don’t know how many people were dreaming which dreams at EMS the morning of January 22. I do know this: Some were having visions in which God said one thing; others were dreaming of a voice from above commanding something different. Scores to hundreds of dreamers dropped into a basket at the foot of a cross (beside which was an elephant) LGBTQ-related fears and hopes written on paper. And I know that tears were falling. And falling. And falling.

Why the tears? I can only guess this: What we’re doing to each other is traumatizing us. We don’t wish to destroy each other. Yet we don’t know how to obey the God whose voice we are hearing and honor the person who hears God saying the opposite. So we continue toward a house divided.

Yet for those precious moments at the foot of the cross, we were united in our anguish. We were like the soldiers singing “Silent Night” across the trenches at Christmas before they picked up their weapons once more.

I don’t know how we build on such evanescent moments of unity. Even the story of Peter and Cornelius, even that SLT worship service and whether it met or hindered its goals, is part of the LGBTQ-related battleground. So I can only testify to my own fallible dream. In my dream, a voice says no one in the LGBTQ-related wars is unclean. God shows no partiality based on our views. Rather, God is inviting each of us not only to weep for a minute together at the foot of a cross in Martin Chapel but also to linger there for days, for months, for years—until we learn what a double conversion even across this divide might look like.

Michael A. King is Dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post was first published in Mennonite World Review, March 3, 2014.

Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 4: “Painholders”

BarnFullPaintingOpen200x200x72At a difficult discernment meeting a participant was wracked by the realization that no matter the decision made, it would hurt persons dearly loved. That took me back: I’ll never forget that evening of listening to the leaders I came to call “painholders.” So often they found themselves seeking to hold the pain of persons who in being true to themselves wounded others even as others likewise wounded them.

“Painholders on Holy Ground” is Part 4 of “Blogging Toward Kansas City” because it foregrounds the riddle of how we proceed  when any path anyone can conceptualize inflicts pain on someone. I wish we could solve the riddle even though clearly I haven’t managed this.

My perspective is shaped by and addresses particularly my denomination, Mennonite Church USA. However,  just as I was preparing to launch this post, I saw word of overlapping developments in a conference of the United Methodist Church,  to which a significant number of students at the seminary I lead belong. UMC faces its own complex and often pain-wracked discernment process. This is an equal-opportunity journey of pain and painholding for many denominations and faith communities.

I know the solution is eluding me because precisely persons I’d wish to have felt heard and honored in this article have told me they disagree with my approach to “painholders.” They want to be released to get on with the journey as they see it. They don’t want to be made to feel that their quest to be faithful in ways with which others disagree is itself somehow problematic.

John Troyer, the current leader of the EVANA Network, one of the entities wishing for space to leave at least some aspects of Mennonite Church USA, has observed that those of us who call for unity are sometimes guilty of character assassination. As I’ve mentioned to Troyer in personal conversation, I don’t wish to contribute to labeling that stings; the opposite was my hope in writing on painholders. Yet as I told Troyer, I do recognize that, paradoxically, even the dream of unity can be experienced as an assault by those who feel coerced into betraying their own consciences if they agree to remain in fellowship.

I also take to heart that some who read the original version of “Painholders” thought I was too hard on Franconia Mennonite Conference when highlighting several FMC excommunications and my personal connections to them. I do find myself wanting to be more gentle in this introduction. These are my people. We often ask too much of our own people, whose connections with our wounds are sometimes particularly easy to trace or confront, whether fairly or not.

I think (still journeying!) what I end up believing is this: a.) I bore appropriate testimony to the trauma excommunication inflicts; and b.) I can wound in the act of naming ways I perceive wounding to have been done.

I remain troubled by excommunication as a way of doing church. I find myself unable to make peace with it, deep though its roots in the Anabaptist-Mennonite commitment to faithfulness do go. The trauma seems so much greater than the justifications.

Yet I also recognize that all of us struggle to find our way through ambiguities and perplexities and actions that can seem so right at one time and so wrong later. So I want not to cast the stone quite as hard now as I did during my 2013 writing of “Painholders.”

The need for gentleness struck me, for example, when after he wrote an article calling us beyond division, former FMC leader James M. Lapp was invited “to practice what he preaches and return to the people of Germantown and apologize for excommunicating them.” This was his moving response, which in turn conveys the healing grace offered by “the pastor at Germantown”:

I appreciate the concern of this letter. I have grieved deeply about my involvement in this action by our conference. I did not believe in 1997, nor do I believe now, that it is necessary to divide over this issue. The article was intended to make that point. I confessed my regrets about my involvement in this action to the pastor at Germantown, and she extended grace to me. I have spoken to conference leaders about my desire to seek healing between the Germantown congregation and our conference. Sometimes leaders need to act on behalf of the people or organization they serve, even if it is contrary to their convictions or preferences. I am now largely retired and freed from such institutional constraints. But I respect those who carry such responsibilities and the challenges they face. They need our prayers, understanding and grace.

I would wish for “painholding” to be an activity that spans the spectrum of theological and biblical understandings rather than becoming one more source of polarization. I see hints in Lapp’s comments and elsewhere that others are dreaming toward overlapping visions, as in the case of pastors in Lancaster Mennonite Conference who say that if they’re “anti-anything, it’s walking away from each other.” So I’ll share the vision one more time—but amid recognition of its imperfections and that the riddle is far from solved.

Painholders on Holy Ground: The Riddle of the Open Closed to the Closed and the Closed Closed to the Open

In our Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition we have followed Jesus—and evicted whoever gets it wrong. A denominational body excommunicated my father’s parents for starting a Sunday school. My aunt tells of that 1930s “chilly morning when the little Bishop with the cold sharp eyes came driving up our lane in his box-like Model-T . . . to tell my parents [they] . . . were going to be put out” (Evelyn King Mumaw, The Merging, DreamSeeker Books, 2000, 184-185).

In the 1990s the same denominational body excommunicated for its stand on homosexuality a congregation I had pastored in the 1980s. My father’s family would have approved.

It seems Mennonites were ahead of the times. Today literal and verbal bombs maim bodies and spirits. Across church, culture, politics, faith traditions, and world, chasms open. We fight about how Scripture is to be interpreted including how literally, sexuality, abortion, evolution, gun rights, climate change, whether government is problem or solution, and so much more. We battle not only over how to bridge differences but even over whether to bridge them.

As one who feels in my bones the wounds centuries of splitting have inflicted, I dream of better. I dream of what might happen if more of us became painholders on holy ground.

But to set the stage for painholders, let me a.) probe the riddle lurking when we try to bridge divisions, b.) introduce communities of discernment as a way forward, and c.) highlight the need for heroes able to hold the pain involved.

The Riddle

I crashed into the riddle when studying discussions of delegates who excommunicated my former congregation. In my dissertation research, I drew on the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer to look for evidence of success or failure in the delegate conversations. Based on the essential ingredient of conversational success I saw in Gadamer’s thought—openness to grow when faced with the other’s understandings—I found mostly failure. And I spied the riddle:

Gadamer’s prejudice toward openness . . . seems to place problematic limits on precisely the unfettered conversations it means to encourage. It leaves inadequate room for conversation partners who believe the essential integrity of their prejudice will be violated by any compromise. . . . They hold the stance precisely because it is the one “right” stance required for them to be true to their community and their understanding of its doctrines; how then can they allow their stance to be enlarged? Meanwhile it seems Gadamer cannot accept their closure without violating the non-negotiable openness on which his conversation depends. (Fractured Dance: Gadamer and a Mennonite Conflict Over Homosexuality, Pandora Press U.S., 2001, 172-173)

With Gadamer, I conclude true conversation requires genuine openness to the other. I’m inspired by the Apostle Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13 conviction that now we know only in part. Hence we’ll want to allow our partial understandings to grow. And growth involves openness to views other than the one we start out holding.

But “the open” find it hard to be open to “the closed.” And “the closed” see it as violating their stand to be open to “the open.” So I can preach till blue in the face (and my face is often blue) that Christians will be open to treasures in perspectives other than our own. Yet the “closed” will hear me as imposing an openness that closes them out, as demanding they play a game rigged against them. Should they in turn insist our divisions can heal only if I yield to their One True Truth, I’ll likewise experience the game as rigged. That’s the riddle.

From Battle to Communities of Discernment

Can we solve the riddle? If we could do it easily, we’d not lob more missiles by the hour. Yet I dream of painholders helping us try.

Their work is rooted in our moving from battling each other to collaborating in discernment. Among Christians, I’d define discernment as involving the community of believers gathered in Jesus’ name around Scripture in the presence of the Holy Spirit to let God show us the way through the urgent, complicated, and often divisive issues of a given time and place.

The Jesus of Matthew 18:18-20 inspires this vision for becoming communities of discernment. When two or three gather in his name, Matthew’s Jesus promises to be present. Jesus also amazingly says that what we bind or loose on earth is bound or loosed in heaven.

What if Jesus is giving us the holy and agonizing mandate properly to discern in our given settings how God is inviting us to think and speak and live?

If so, openness is involved—but it’s an openness to Scripture and Spirit. The call is not simply to be open to each other’s fallible human opinions but also together to tussle with something from Beyond.

Amid such grappling, just maybe “the open” can begin to see some “closed” views as valuable commitments to faithful hearings of Scripture and Spirit. And just maybe “the closed” can see some “open” views as not only misguided efforts to dilute the faith but as likewise flowing from Scripture and Spirit.

 Painholders on Holy Ground

But this is difficult, complicated, agonizing work. That’s why we need the painholders.

I met them one evening over supper at a retreat. Because they help lead congregational groupings geographically near each other, they not only confer regularly but are sometimes drawn into the same dynamics. My fallible impression is that they might themselves tend toward different sides of some divides.

Yet both are passionately committed to something larger than position-imposing/defending. Both love the people in their charge, whatever their views. Both root for a church grander than whatever slivers manage to remain connected if in any disagreement one side must be victorious or both must split so each may go its “faithful” way.

When divisions come, these painholders resist widening them. Instead they walk lovingly into the torment, with a courage that evokes Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego preferring life in the fiery furnace to giving up faithfulness to God. They absorb the pain. They absorb. And absorb still more as they nurture not splitting but discernment.

Ceaselessly they roam among their shouting, suffering people. Relentlessly they invite the open to see in “the closed” not only blind rigidities or legalisms but a faithfulness the open ought also be open to. Endlessly they invite “the closed” to be open to the possibility that in “the open” there may be faithfulness and not only error.

The results are rarely clear-cut; we live in the mess of our times. But what I glimpsed that night at supper, as they told of pain they sought to hold and not heighten, was the hope of the church. I saw that they walk on holy ground. The ground is holy because God, as the lyrics of Arna Czarnikow remind us, “walks the dark hills” even of our peaks and valleys of hate. So the painholders look for God’s spoor even in the desolate deserts of division.

Instead of only imposing their theological biases—though like all of us they have them—they invite worshiping the God of the burning bush. They invite taking off our shoes before the God who is God beyond our human names for and understandings of God. You can see the cost in their faces. Still, Gethsemane in their bones, they hold the pain.

I dream of such painholders as models. I dream of them as offering templates for living the gospel in that far-off land whose outskirts the better angels of my splitting-prone ancestors invite us to enter: God’s country. In this country we love enemies, heap blessings on those who persecute us, send forgiveness seventy times seven down like waters on those who have offended us, at last pluck from our own eye the redwood log so we can see how tiny is the speck in the other’s eye.

As a seminary dean, I dream of seminaries, denominations, and congregations coming to see painholders as the heroes of our time. I dream of teaching our students, congregants, each other that in our day painholding is a calling of callings. And I dream of painholders in turn showing us how at least to take another step toward solving the riddle of the open closed to the closed and the closed closed to the open.

—Michael A. King is Dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, which he is helping shape as a discernment training center; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post was first published in The Mennonite, February 2014.

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