Tag Archives: Eastern Mennonite Seminary

Weaving the New

When our commencement speaker falls ill, we two deans at Eastern Mennonite Seminary become co-presenters. I prepare based on what I notice enroute to commencement:

Prisoners in Israel-Palestine go on hunger strike to protest prison conditions. Opponents hold a barbecue outside to blow in meat smells. So minor. Yet so cruel an example of ways we’re slicing each other’s souls.

After historic drought come record rainy-season California downpours. Sacramento rivers tear out tents and underbrush, ripping even that home from the homeless while mansion dwellers pursue trillion-dollar tax cuts.

Celebrating her husband Jason in the New York Times, Anne Krause Rosenthal concludes,

I want more time with Jason. . . . with my children. . . . at the Green Mill Jazz Club. . . . But . . . . I probably have only . . . days left. . . . So why I am doing this?

I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine, non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.

Days later, Anne dies.

Barbecuing as torture. Climate change, wars, oppressions razing homes of millions, including the flying and swimming and crawling creatures God pronounced good. Death stalking as it always has, the Annes forced to release loved ones, the Jasons required to rebuild.

As sometimes it seemed all things must be made new, I remembered years ago teasingly comparing a seminary student to a biblical character whose name she shares. That stung, she courageously reported: she faced a void which in the biblical story is miraculously filled.

Recently, as she gave permission to share, Sarah Payne completed an EMS capstone on that very void. I told her of being sensitized to it when she confronted my teasing and of now being touched because a loved one feared the same void. She gave me prayer beads to pass on. Without meeting, student and loved one prayed, with tears, for each other.

Another student. A painter. Linking seminary studies and art, gospel and today’s realities. Meanwhile I spend over a year discerning: continue at EMS or try new adventures? After choosing the new, I receive a gift during my final EMS chapel: a painting by that student, Rebekah Nolt. The blacks and grays, whites and purples remind me of hair-rising thunderstorm and beautiful day merging.

Rebekah Nolt painting, “Spill Paint, Not Blood”

The artist note says the painting is from a series reacting to “the many tragedies or injustices of 2016,” each “just that, a reaction of emotional energy, without purpose, without vision.” As Rebekah hurled paint, she “realized how glad I was it was just paint . . . and not angry words or stones, because I was really not happy how this was turning out.” The paint wasn’t fully dry so she “got to work, not certain . . . I could even make something out of the mess. . . .” Yet what she made is a cherished memento.

Teasing linking to a void to prayer beads to a Holy Spirit throbbing through all. Anger yielding a mess transformed. Or this: My father dies. A student tells me of having been in jail. My dad, prison chaplain, had inspired him to enroll at EMS.

As so much unravels, many turn to novels of dystopia more for guidance than escape. And so many, collaborating with unseen hands, weave the new.

Michael A. King is dean, seminary and graduate programs, Eastern Mennonite University. This is posted on his last day in that role as he transitions to running Cascadia Publishing House LLC and to other activities as writer, speaker, and consultant in communications, administration, and pastoral leadership. King writes the column “Unseen Hands” for Mennonite World Review, which first published this post.

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

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

Here then, drawing on this week’s Eastern Mennonite Seminary convocation presentation, is the sixth and final post in the six-part series introduced in “Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, The Unraveling” on a.) ways the church, denominations, concepts and patterns of ministry, theological training are unraveling and b.) how we might work at weaving and reweaving. Here I want to ask how, in deep and primal ways, our lives in community with each other form us, weave and reweave us, individually and jointly, as the selves God invites us to be.

Present at the Big Bang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post has roots in a September 1, 2015, EMS convocation presentation.

Hope as Church Unravels? Part 5, Recognizing Jesus When Phone Booths Vanish

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72While I was pondering that riveting story of disciples of Jesus telling a stranger whom they don’t recognize as Jesus how troubled they are by his death, I ran across a blog post on whether seminaries are training students to repair phone booths.

The unrecognized Jesus and the danger that we may not recognize ways church practices are unraveling because they are like phone booths in an era of cell phones came together for me as sources for further reflection: Might fresh ability to recognize Jesus also connect with renewed vision for moving beyond phone booths?

Here then, drawing on a seminary convocation presentation, is part 5 of the six-part series introduced in “Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, The Unraveling” on a.) ways the church, denominations, concepts and patterns of ministry, theological training are unraveling and b.) how we might work at weaving and reweaving.

Recognizing Jesus When Phone Booths Vanish

Followers of one who inspired love and loyalty trudge to Emmaus, “faces downcast.” They’re bewildered, even “foolish,” as a stranger who joins them puts it (Luke 24:13-32 NIV).

Two ingredients of their story catch my attention.

One is their difficulty recognizing Jesus. He is the stranger, the person they’re discussing. Jesus was their hope. But he’s dead. Oh, some who investigated rumors of angels saying he was alive found an empty tomb. But they didn’t see Jesus. So on the followers walk, discussing with Jesus the absence of Jesus.

While reflecting on their situation, I saw a PBS video posted by Tony Jones under the title “Seminaries: Training People to Repair Phone Booths.” Because I’m old, I remember booths. If you managed to find coins for the call, you’d scrunch behind glass doors until so many were vandalized you had to shout outside over traffic.

Are seminaries repairing phone booths? Partly yes, as some denominational and congregational structures crumble like booths did once cell phones arrived. Cell-phone-like changes are buffeting most denominations. Sexuality is just one area of change but often a straw that breaks a structure’s back.

In times like these, what does it mean to do more than teach phone booth repairs? Here I see a link with the Emmaus disciples: We too often fail to recognize Jesus when phone booths crumble. As we confront denominational, congregational, higher education, or theological arrangements too constricting for God’s wild and wonderful work among us, we’ll sometimes not recognize this risen Jesus, believed dead, even as he joins us.

I’d apply this to our standpoints regarding those issues of the day which become divisive precisely because we reach different conclusions regarding the path forward. We convince ourselves Jesus is in our understandings. I suspect that’s true; almost by definition if a matter requires discernment this is because how to proceed has become a larger matter than any of us alone can fully grasp. Hence our particular understanding may well represent aspects of Jesus others need and vice-versa. If so, this calls for polities, theologies, biblical interpretations humble enough and gentle enough to allow us to be partly right and wrong. That means being ready to welcome even—maybe especially—those we consider wrong.

Now through proposing peacemaking hospitality even for antagonistic stances, I’m offering my own fallible testimony to seeing Jesus. Maybe a better alternative would be to advocate for the one and only right theology of this or that. But might some either/or approaches be phone booths? Might we more easily recognize Jesus by confessing that when most sure we see Jesus we might be wrong? And when we have no idea Jesus walks with us this may be exactly what he’s doing?

I hope for us at Eastern Mennonite University and Eastern Mennonite Seminary and beyond to minimize imposing favorite views of Jesus and maximize opening ourselves to the Jesus we have yet fully to meet. I don’t know the precise policies or curricula this calls us toward. But we can together ask which are phone booths and which will help us live with cell phones until their day passes too.

Truly it can be hard to recognize Jesus. Who knows what fresh arrangements we’d dream toward if we believed that.

But there is that second Emmaus ingredient catching attention. Jesus is there. Those Emmaus travelers may think they’re living a horror movie or at best a foreign film so strange they’ll never grasp its meaning. Yet what’s actually unfolding is wonderful, though it seems to take forever. Emmaus is hours away; this is not just seconds of chit-chat. They walk and walk, until finally they’ve trudged into “the day . . . almost over,” as they tell the stranger they wish to join them for supper when he seems set to go on.

He accepts. And “he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened. . . .” Now they get it: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Their story’s first ingredient undoes us. It reminds us we know so much less than we think. But its second ingredient rebuilds. Theirs is not a tale to breed cynicism, to encourage doubt in the divine. We face our difficulties recognizing Jesus to see that Jesus is in fact among us. We accept our need for something from Beyond (which in the Emmaus story even prevents recognition of Jesus until the right moment) to open our eyes.

So we need higher education, congregational, denominational, cultural arrangements that nurture hearts burning. In an article on “Deep Trends Affecting Christian Institutions,” Gregory Jones, (EMS 2015 commencement speaker), and Nathan Jones highlight seven trends shaping how we work at this: the digital revolution; a multinodal world (in which we navigate countless cultural, ethnic, religious diversities out there and in here); reconfiguring denominations and emerging forms of congregating; questioning institutions; economic stress on Christian institutions; shifting vocations of laypeople; and the lure of cities.

I’d add such global challenges as ongoing oppression and injustice; rising inequality; structures from which emerge police of one race shooting people of another race; the yearning to cleanse the world of views we hate even to the point of genocide; and countless canaries in the mine signaling environmental upheavals. For example, Google “Lake Mead Nevada water level” to see photos of the bathtub ring warning cities and farming valleys that drought and Colorado River overuse could wither lifestyles.

Our learning, congregational, and denominational communities need to be in the thick of exploring how we experience hearts burning amid such trends and challenges. This is particularly the case since I see these times, chaotic as they are, as resembling the period of the Reformation or the first century when the gospel exploded across the worlds of its day in fresh forms.

We glimpse examples in a news report by Laura Amstutz on the 2014 EMS graduates and their commencement. Laura tells of final-year student capstones:

The topics ranged from “Jesus Deconstructor: Lord of Parable, God of Madness, King of Graffiti” by Brittany Conley, who is now leading a small church plant . . . to “The Medical Model and Its Creation of Unnecessary Suffering: Pastoral Responses for Chaplaincy and Beyond” by Melanie Lewis, a chaplain. . . .

I myself noted that precisely as one capstone highlighted deconstruction gifts, others reclaimed worship practices that form us as Christians when cultural trends unglue us.

Laura observes that

In these projects students have already begun the work that Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, the seminary commencement speaker, encouraged. . . .

“You are asking how to be church differently,” Soto Albrecht said. . . . Sometimes the church becomes a holy bubble that no one can touch. Sometimes we need to burst that bubble.” . . .

“We are not individuals doing our own thing. . . . The church is in the middle of major changes. Lift up your prophetic voices, but always stay within the church, because once you are outside you can’t change it. Be the change you wish to see.”

 We have worked in EMU and EMS settings to provide holy space for those with sharply divergent views to study, teach, learn together.  This can seem problematic when we find ourselves at times united in affirming Jesus yet, as one seasoned church leader puts it,  thinking that at the very center of Jesus’ way and words is welcome—or alternatively that at the very center is purity. We don’t know how to reconcile opposing convictions of which stories Jesus meets us in.

Yet maybe it’s exactly in looking for Jesus within what challenges our understandings that we find him. Because those first disciples didn’t know how to reconcile what they thought had happened to Jesus with what did, they couldn’t identify him. Yet finally they recognized a Jesus bigger than their preconceptions. Maybe we can too, in relation to any of our confusions as phone booths vanish.

On we walk with Jesus, telling him how profoundly his absence bewilders us. Until, at last, our hearts within us burn.

Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post has roots in an August 2014 EMS convocation presentation.

Hope as Church Unravels? Part 4: Grandparents Dreaming, Grandchildren Seeing

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72During his first year, a dream about my grandson suggested to me that key to reweaving those aspects of church that are unraveling is working together across generations and experiences of church. We need both the fresh perspectives of those increasingly giving up on the church and the seasoned wisdoms of those who can articulate anew treasures of the faith going back millennia.

Here then, drawing on a seminary convocation presentation, is part 4 of the six-part series introduced in “Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, The Unraveling” on a.) ways the church, denominations, concepts and patterns of ministry, theological training are unraveling and b.) how we might work at weaving and reweaving.

Grandparents Dreaming, Grandchildren Seeing

I had a dream just before leaving for coastal Maine, where our daughters, sons-in-law, and first grandchild Kadyn, soon to turn one, were to join our first-ever three-generation gathering. In the dream, Kadyn cradled in my right arm, I was walking across a towering ocean dune. The sky was bluer, sand sandier, and sea grander than the waking world provides. I recognized that dreamscape; I’d walked it before; I knew that there the Spirit and transformation hovered near.

As Kadyn and I walked, the dune turned into a mountain. Its snowy slope was almost one Kadyn and I could laughingly slide down. But I was responsible to care for him; I realized it was too steep to risk.

The dream haunted and blessed me. I remembered it as Kadyn and I walked actual beaches, dodged waves, explored breakwaters. I thought of it as Kadyn aimed an index finger at lights, fans, wind, people he wanted to learn more about—and as after learning their names he pointed at them when asked, “Kadyn, where’s the light? Fan? Wind? Grandma?” I thought of it as with fingers pulling in he asked to nap with fan on or signaled feeling the wind outdoors.

Watching Kadyn reminded me how wonderfully the young reach out to life. Yet I’m the graying elder charged to know that when he reaches down from boulders on the Camp Ellis jetty I can’t let him tumble into the cracks where the rats run or beyond the rocks into the Saco River where it joins the Atlantic swells.

Somewhere in such images may lurk insights for seminary and faith-based education communities—or any faith communities—as today so many people bypass the church.

Kadyn might too. He’s being raised within passion for grace and truth yet with church viewed as sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful. To watch Kadyn is to see him grasping the miracle of something like the psalmist’s vision of the earth as the Lord’s and all the fullness thereof in ways my aging self struggles to glimpse anymore. But I can also imagine him experiencing, like I sometimes have, the church as taming all the wilder fullnesses.

So Kadyn may become one of the “Nones.” These are the growing millions who say, as Pew Research reports, “none of the above” if asked which church, denomination, tradition they identify with. Nones are often spiritually energized yet view organized religion as maintaining lifeless structures, majoring in doctrinal minors, elevating leaders who love power and polish more than authentic walking with the torn as wounded healers, caring more about who gets kept out than who finds new life.

Partly because so many experience religion as not offering food to nourish the soul, seminaries are struggling. As introduced in “Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, not so long ago, loyal members, congregations, and denominations built each other up. Resources flowed to denominational schools and institutions. Students would get their degrees then be paid within and feed this virtuous cycle.

But amid None-ish trends, the cycle increasingly breaks down. Students aren’t sure if they believe enough in the church to train themselves to serve it. Or if they do leap, they’re not sure the church will pay enough to live on plus pay down school loans.

If seminaries could easily withstand such headwinds, the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education wouldn’t be reporting that cumulative enrollment at 205 North American seminaries peaked in 2004 and has been declining since. I myself don’t know precisely how those of us passionate about theological education or a flourishing church should address the challenges.

But Kadyn inspires me to offer two guesses.

The first is this: We should plunge into the yearnings and questions giving birth to the Nones.

We should take seriously that Nones include our children or even us. I can’t tell you how often as I roam the church its leaders confess that their own children, longing for more wonder than the church offers, are seeking it elsewhere. We need to listen to such leaders; to our children, siblings, friends; to our own hearts; to the EMS and EMU students asking the hard questions. We need seminaries and faith communities to be a place where it’s safe to say, with Ezekiel, that some of these bones are dead, and to dream of what it would look like for bodies and breath once more to throb with Kadyn-like wonder.

But then a second guess: Courageous exploration of how the church has died should be paired with hope that not all structures, not all traditions, not all sacred scriptures and holy rhythms and rules are ready for the bone heap.

I resonate with the yearnings of the Nones; I feel them. I also was privileged as a young pastor to help a congregation aim toward actually implementing a vision of church as a place to which we could bring our true selves, our dreams of wilder glories, our yearnings to love enemies and those cast out, our doubts and questions, our cravings for assurance that we didn’t have to be perfect to find God waiting at lane’s end to welcome us home. This in turn meant we dared plunge even into that riskiest of adventures, following Jesus.

In hindsight, we were groping toward emerging/emergent before Brian McLaren and others popularized the terms. And the Spirit deeply blessed us. Yet we also learned by trial and at times frighteningly great error that some faith-journey slopes are too dangerous. We needed not only fresh wonders of the Spirit but also the ancient wisdoms that had led the church to form its members in the first place within the boundaries and structures, the rhythms and rituals that had come to seem worn out.

Agree or disagree, Rachel Held Evans believes what millennial-generation Nones want is—

not a change in style but a change in substance.

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

Evans is saying that yes, parts of the church are dead bones. But the answer isn’t to replace all the old stuff with flash and glitz. It’s to connect the old treasures with times like these. Thriving denominations, churches, seminaries, Christian universities, and faith-based communities won’t throw out the ancient wisdoms. They’ll become labs within which so boldly to blend time-tested, Jesus-shaped truths and teachings and practices with today’s longings and realities that the horizons of then and now fuse to yield miraculous life.

By framing my comments in the dream of a grandfather and a grandchild, I don’t mean simplistically to image students as grandchildren and faculty or staff as grandparents. Grandparents can be students, grandchildren can be teachers, and in each of us there are grandchild-like and grandparent-like selves.

But across our life stages and trainings and circumstances, we can bless each other. We can cherish the visions of those in awe as they see some things for the first time. We can treasure the dreams and wisdoms of those who having been around the block have mentoring to offer.

We can help each other discern when the slope is too steep or when after too many times around the block we’re preserving dead bones. We can together invite the Spirit to breathe new life into bodies with which to the walk across the holy landscapes, the high dunes and the sand and the snow and the sea, energies of youth and gray hairs of the elders joined.

Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post has roots in an August 2013 EMS convocation presentation.

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.