Tag Archives: Michael A. King

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.

Wishing for a Treaty

In distress, my daughter who loves the music of Leonard Cohen phoned us parents just after the November U.S. elections. Cohen, she said, was dead. I was reminded of the prior Sunday when Cohen’s just-released “Treaty” came on the radio and we heard it, rapt, for the first time.

Now Cohen is dead at 82. An election has been held. A presidential transition has been completed. Shock and awe is underway. We yearn for safe passage across unmapped terrain. I wonder if in “Treaty” Cohen gives clues. In lyrics that, as so often with Cohen, echo the Bible, he evokes turning water into wine, Jubilee, the snake baffled by sin. Wishing “there was a treaty we could sign,” Cohen sings of being angry and tired and not caring “who takes this bloody hill.” He wishes for a treaty “Between your love and mine.”

“Treaty” also reminds me of Will Campbell’s journey during dynamics so different yet so connected with today’s. A Baptist minister who sharply challenged his own denomination’s racism, Campbell was a fiery civil rights fighter in the 1960s. In Brother to a Dragonfly (Continuum, 1977, pp. 245-247), a heartrending memoir of brokenness and justice and grace, Campbell tells of putting his life on the line for civil rights—while gradually realizing that even the “enemy,” the KKK, deserved some understanding.

Campbell tells of President Johnson’s nationally televised warning to the Klan, in which Johnson says, “Get out of the Klan, and back into decent society while there is still time.” Then he says this:

The closing five words must certainly have been heard by those in the Klan as a threat from an impending police state. And the President did not tell them just how they could get into the decent society of which he spoke, how they could break out of the cycle of milltown squalor, generations of poverty, a racist society presided over, not by a pitiful and powerless few people marching around a burning cross in a Carolina cow pasture, not by a Georgia farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right, but by those in the “decent society” to which the President referred, the mammas and the daddies of the young radicals who would soon go home to run the mills, the factories, the courthouses and legislative halls, the universities and churches and prisons they were then threatening to burn to the ground.

Campbell is not interested in justifying the Klan. But he is realizing that the Klan is not only a fount of evil, though it is that, but also a product of the “same social forces” that have produced national structures of violence and violation, including the then-raging Vietnam War.

As he grapples with tragedies of race and class and cruelty shredding 1960s America, Campbell remains a fierce prophet. Listening to leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Campbell also concludes that “to do something in race relations maybe we should go work with our own people“ and that in relation to the Klan he was “learner more than I was teacher.”

Offering a striking echo in The New York Times, Trevor Noah insists that “We can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve oppressed us.”

Presidents, governors, politicians scorn opponents. Executive edicts are issued and political “nuclear options” are launched. The wheel of power turns; the flamethrowers rotate; the prior regime’s goals burst into flame. The next regime, somehow always sure its era will forever endure, happily starts piling the tinder for its (and maybe our) own demise.

There are stunningly problematic trends strengthening in the U.S. as brothers and sisters belonging to vulnerable populations are reviled or barred, scriptural commands to take special care of the strangers and sojourners are violated,  money talks louder than ever, a fragile earth is trampled. Prophetic naming of travesties is called for. Yet if we can do no better than vilify, will the turning of the wheel ever stop?

Writing of her quest to participate in a women’s march in a spirit of “Solidarity Without Enmity,” Lindsey Paris-Lopez says that

the spirit of solidarity that infused Saturday’s marches worldwide was hopeful and invigorating. But solidarity can be channeled over and against enemies, or it can be channeled toward a vision of ever-widening inclusivity that rejects the concept of enmity altogether. Such a vision is fueled by fierce love that doesn’t let injustice stand, but honors the truth that even perpetrators of injustice can be redeemed. It acknowledges that we have come and are coming together through reconciliation and mercy, and it offers to extend the same mercy and reconciliation to the people behind the oppressive systems that must be torn down. May such a fierce love guide the movement birthed in these women’s marches around the nation and around the world.

“I wish . . .” sings Leonard Cohen, as his life fades toward its end while a country divides, “I wish there was a treaty / Between your love and mine.”

—Michael A. King is dean of Eastern Mennonite University’s seminary and graduate programs. The Campbell section is indebted to King’s book Fractured Dance (Pandora Press U.S., 2001, pp. 174-176). He writes the column “Unseen Hands” for Mennonite World Review, which published an earlier version of this post.

Apocalypse and the Stuffed Giraffe

During a long, often frightening 2016 whose results only intensify the dynamics, a nation argues over whether to name its presidential candidates crooks, fascists, or worse.

At a lunch with a denomination’s representatives, talk turns to ways the polities of two denominations to which many seminary students belong are shifting. Just in pondering almost idly the effects, we find the conversation eddying across the many seminaries we personally know to be in crisis.

Terror strikes. Walls are breached or threatened. Police shoot away lives that matter and sometimes are shot. Temperatures hit constant global records while floods ravage Louisiana, fires burn across California’s Interstate 15, and Zillow.com projects nearly a trillion dollars worth of real estate possibly under coastal waters in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

Fear stalks the land. Will we survive? I believe yes; here we are after millennia of catastrophes. But will our lives, communities, institutions, structures, countries, planet be recognizable?

Amid such questions my mother-in-law Mildred died of surgery complications after breaking a femur. The intensities, sorrows, and sometimes grace-filled moments of her final days unfolded as four family units scattered across the country had been scheduled to arrive for vacation in Maine by plane and car. Instead we kept vigil as she died. Now to get from her funeral in western New York to our remaining time in Maine we added a rented SUV to family cars.

After lunch that three-car, three-generational caravan of lacerated souls headed across 600 miles through hauntingly pastoral New York and New England landscapes as the sun faded hour by hour into the west and into late-afternoon sweet light. At a chaotic, crowded truck stop a rumpled man pestered us. So many disrupted days and nights and feelings had left us all shot. We didn’t want to talk. He wouldn’t stop.

Finally out of no sense of mission but hoping he’d then shut up, I engaged him. He launched into his story. He was a trucker from Las Vegas—where his wife with stage-4 cancer might, he’d just learned, be in her final hours. From the truck stop he’d try to drive straight to Vegas without pausing except for catnaps. Soon he left.

Then, enroute to his truck, he was back: with gifts of stuffed animals and candy for the children in our caravan. Weeks later came a photo of one reading books with her new giraffe snuggled beside her.

Across the under-maintained infrastructure of interstates, across an America at risk of apocalypse if we define it as the unraveling of stabilities and communal compassions as we’ve known them, an ordinary man, even a wearisomely intrusive man, races to say good-bye to his dying wife.

But in that liminal space between earth and Beyond, souls reach for each other. And amid all the anguishes of the era, as 2016 turns toward 2017, the images leap from the photo: A girl sitting on a rocker has swaddled a stuffed giraffe then tucked it in beside her. She sits with her picture books. The pages she’s focused on include an apple, a sippy cup, sneakers, a tractor, a boy on a toy car, an orange, a teddy bear, and much more. Her gaze shows that she is learning—even in these times—about the magic of the world she has been both cursed and blessed to be born into.

—Michael A. King is dean of Eastern Mennonite University seminary (where he drew on some of the materials in this column in a presentation) and graduate programs. He writes the column “Unseen Hands” for Mennonite World Review which first published this post.

Madison, Max, and Angels Unaware

MadisonKCPost-MAK300x300x72dpiThis is the story of how Cockatiel Max and Shih Tzu Madison enhanced the well-being of the church. My oversight caused it, but I later wondered if a larger Oversight was also in play.

For months Manuel, as I’ll call him, and I had been trying to coordinate  our schedules. Finally calendars said hallelujah, try this. When I told my wife Joan she thought great, but what about the animals?

Oh my goodness, I’d forgotten. The animals and I live an interesting life. For various reasons, including where Joan’s mother is and because Joan travels constantly providing behavioral health consulting wherever she’s called to, we actually live in two states. Also in the mix are Max and Madison. Six years ago we decided to test whether they’d flourish as commuter animals.

They did. So now they know the routines and are eager to hit the road whenever it’s time to shift states. I’d scheduled the meeting with Manuel. But I’d forgotten Commuter Cockatiel and Shih Tzu. At first all looked fine–weather supposed to be cloudy and cool during the key period; they’d be okay in the car. Then the forecast shifted–sunny and 80s; death trap.

What to do? I wouldn’t return for weeks; trying for a petsitter made no sense. I e-mailed Manuel. Any picnic areas nearby? Could he stand a picnic with my animals if I brought food? He was flexible and understanding and gracious indeed. Absolutely!

At the appointed hour, Manuel told me where to park. There it was, a welcoming picnic table. I placed Max’s cage by the edge of the picnic area and tied Madison’s leash to a table leg.

Manuel broke into a wide grin. “I believe this is historic!”

Our broader context was also historic amid daily shifts in how individuals, congregations, conferences, and organizations linked to it are relating to our denomination.

Our agenda was simple: What might we learn from each other’s journeys? It was a good meeting. Sometimes heartrending as we learned of so much pain in so many places. Sometimes inspiring, as we pondered initiatives for hearing the Spirit within or beyond what is unraveling.

But this isn’t finally about that. It’s about how different it felt to sit in the sun and breezes with Max busily eating food in his cage and Madison exploring or dozing beside us. It didn’t feel like one more heavy meeting, heavy though the topics often were. It felt like a skylight had appeared in the ceiling of the sky and let in the universe. It felt like extra light and sweetness were shining on our picnic.

Time to go. Manuel networked a bit with Max and Madison before returning to his office and whatever cares awaited there. I put Max in his back seat spot and Madison in her dog bed beside me. We headed out this route and that one and finally on to the interstate with sunroof open, light streaming, wind ruffling.

Max and Alphonsa
Commuter Max back in the days he was joined by Alphonsa. Commuting beside them as they mostly ignored each other also used to be our cat Lily. Sadly, not only have Alphonsa and Lily been gone for years, but Max joined them in the great Beyond a few weeks ago.

Max preened before sticking his head under a wing and blissfully napping. Madison turned around and around to smooth out her bed for the six-thousandth time then with nose on paws fell into what seemed an unusually relaxed sleep. This thought arose: Max and Madison must have liked their picnic with Manuel and maybe being angels we entertained unaware.

Perfect Lawns and Dandelion Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shot Through with Holiness

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

What happened? Three factors stand out:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sycamore Creek Park
Beaver Creek, Arizona

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

Branch Creek, Pennsylvania
Branch Creek, Pennsylvania

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

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

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

 

PawPaw, Rockets Whoosh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apollo11LiftoffCloseUp

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

Apollo11ClearingTowerCropped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telling It Slant as the Raging Rolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disbelieving in Wonder

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

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

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

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

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

BalloonatSunset

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

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

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

BalloonLanding

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

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

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

BalloonTakesOff

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

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

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

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

New Scarves from Unraveled Yarn: The Centered Church Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bounded

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

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

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

Fuzzy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Centered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. Portions of this material have been tested in such settings as Germantown Mennonite Church, Spring Mount Mennonite Church, Franconia Mennonite Conference, and Salford Mennonite Church.