Luke 24: 25 “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
This is part of the Bible story on which our convention theme was based, “On the Way.” On that first Easter Sunday, the Risen Jesus and two followers of his are walking together, and those followers don’t understand that their travel companion is Jesus. What a picture of the human condition: broken people, in bondage to despair and blind to the grace and the blessing of the Risen Jesus in their very presence. How much trouble we get into whenever we major just in the blessing and grace part, while ignoring the brokenness of life, or whenever we major only in brokenness, blindness and bondage, while ignoring grace.
My experience of our most recent biennial convention was an immersion in both blessedness and brokenness, of both grace and struggle, just like in this resurrection story. That’s true for any moment of life, really. I experienced blessing and grace connecting with old friends, as well as around our delegate tables for prayer and discussion. That wasn’t because we saw eye to eye with each other on everything. We did not. The grace and blessing came as we shared ourselves and got to know each other, with our questions and uncertainties as well with as our commitments and confessions, for the focus was on God, ourselves and each other.
The brokenness, bondage and blindness crept in the more we focused on causes, issues and ideologies, whenever the focus of our resolutions and discussions was outward, toward others and their brokenness and bondage, rather than inward, toward our own. We discussed and made declarations about the sins of soldiers and drone pilots, Israelis versus Palestinians, sexual abusers and those who protect them, all of which are true and terrible. And we did discuss our own action steps and responsibilities in these matters. But underneath it all I detected much “us and them” mentality.
That “us and them” mentality also fed into our discussions and discernment around sexuality, and what that means for church membership and leadership. Talking in terms of gay or straight, progressive or traditionalist, affirming or rejecting, inclusive or excluding, all these labels were represented by their own teams, focused on why they’re right and others are wrong.
That implies the assumption that, “I’m perfectly capable of figuring out right from wrong, on any issue, and doing the right thing, on my own, so why can’t you see and act the way I do?” That leads to an attitude that says, “Those who disagree with me are not only wrong, they must be wrongly motivated; worse, they are impediments to our righteousness and purity,” whether it’s a traditional, excluding kind of purity that we want, or a progressive, inclusive kind. Then we end up stuck, facing off as teams with competing and partial pieces of the truth, while other needs get neglected, and other dangers overwhelm us.
But I think I began to experience and see some vague glimmers of light toward a breakthrough to something beyond this impasse. One came during a worship service, when I was deeply struck anew by the song, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” especially the words, “Behold the man upon a cross, My sin upon His shoulders,” and then the words that really got me: “It was my sin that held Him there…” That brought me back to an altar call I answered, 42 years ago, where I wept tears of old-fashioned remorse for my sin, not just my sins, which are many, but for sin, that is, the brokenness, blindness and bondage of the human condition. In my blindness I had convinced myself that I was so much more virtuous and right than other people, even while I was increasingly trapped and entangled in some pretty wicked stuff. I didn’t hear a voice, but a sentence formulated itself in my mind: “I am exchanging your hard heart of stone for a soft heart of flesh.” So I also wept tears of relief. Is hardness of heart anything like Jesus’ charge to Cleopas and his friend, that they are “slow of heart?”
Would more possible breakthroughs come with seeing all of us as in the same leaky, sinking boat of brokenness, bondage and blindness, whatever form they take for us? Instead of dividing ourselves into teams of the righteous and unjust? The Executive Board of MCUSA took a powerful step in this direction when they issued a confession and an apology for what they described as their naïve and over-confident reliance upon their own education, technique, organization, virtue, wisdom and administrative skills in trying to deal with our differences over sexuality, and that such naïve and over-confident self-reliance had only brought us deeper into impasse and even distrust of each other.
There was also a statement by the Hispanic Mennonite Conference. While urging us to hold to the Confession of Faith in all matters spiritual and sexual, they also issued a confession and a request for forgiveness for, among other things, being slow to name and denounce sins among them like domestic and sexual violence, a culture of machismo, pornography, and male dominance of women.
Wisely, some delegate moved that we accept the Executive Board’s confession and apology, which we did. If I had been more on the ball, I might have proposed a resolution of confession and apology for all the rest of us, something to the effect of, “Me too!” After all, did not the great councils of the ancient church over 1600 (in the Pelagian Controversy) years ago, reject the idea that God’s grace had only brought us Jesus, so that we could then decide and follow Jesus all on our own power and wisdom, insisting instead that the Christian life is grace and gift every step of the way?
I thought we had revisited and re-settled that point again during the Reformation, when Martin Luther said, in the very first of his 95 Theses, that “the whole life of believers should be repentance.” Wasn’t that what taught Menno Simons’ heart to fear, and which his fears relieved, when he understood that following Jesus in wisdom, obedience, faithfulness and virtue are not our gifts to God, but God’s gift to us, which we must seek, to which we must surrender in repentance and trust anew, every day?
Many of us Mennonites experienced a stifling kind of reliance on our wisdom and will around things like dress, hair length and other signs of non-conformity to the world. Are our controversies, like the one over sexuality today, at heart sometimes conflicts between two different but mirror-image kinds of naïve, over-optimistic faith in human wisdom and will? And are these naïve and over-optimistic faiths operating in reference to the world, or in reaction to the world, so that we might distinguish ourselves from the world? Yet a reaction against the world is still a worldly reaction. Either way, whether from the left or the right, conservative or progressive, we risk living and acting out of a false faith in our own wisdom, power and virtue, than in reference to God first. And so we risk taking our eyes off Jesus, the sinless friend of sinners, not living first in reference to Him.
My greatest fear, then, for Mennonite Church USA is not that we will have homosexuals or homophobes (if you want to use those labels, I don’t). My greatest fear is that we will have no more sinners. If we become convinced that only they are sinners (and take your pick, fill in the blank as to who “they” are), then we should take our scissors and cut out from our Bibles I Timothy 1: 15, that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am the chief.” That’s not a safe thing to say if we are afraid of recognizing ourselves as sinners, or of there being sinners among us, or if we are afraid of anything being sin.
Another possible step toward a breakthrough, for me at least, came on the day after the vote to extend the current membership guidelines was announced. As we filed out of the delegate hall, we delegates had to make our way through lines of people in the hallway, making their pain about it known, all in silence, some in tears. Caught off guard, feeling like I was running a gauntlet of shame, I walked through the lines as quickly as I could.
Later that night, I sensed that I had really blown it. Why, I wasn’t sure, until the next morning, when it occurred to me that every human action is a cry for love, for the divine love from which we came, and the divine love toward which we are going. In our brokenness, bondage and blindness, our cries and actions for love are so often counter-productive and self-defeating, sometimes even self-destructive. For that same brokenness, blindness and bondage, our responses to each other’s cries for love are only temporary and imperfect, for not even marriage and sex will fully satisfy all of our loneliness and longing for this perfect love. But our responses still matter. So, the next morning, I went around looking for people who looked like they needed a hug, and gave out a few.
The Bible tells me to “owe no one anything but love.” I’m still struggling with whether or not that means that I owe everyone a marriage ceremony or ordination or the affirmation of everything they want or do with their bodies. But love for people is non-negotiable, and that means that I owe you my life if ever it comes down to a choice between mine and yours. Hopefully, the question is not, “Do we love anyone or not,” but only “What does love require?” and “Who defines that?”
I don’t know what will happen next in the journey that we’re on, but I believe that the way forward includes asking the right questions. Not: “Are they sinners?” but “What are my sins?” and “Are we safe people for everyone, who will neither condemn sinners nor condone sin?” Not “How can I convert you to my position?” but “What is the next stage in my own conversion?” Not, “Who’s right?” but “What’s right in each person’s position and experience that I need to hear?” The convention clarified at least those questions for me. Those are the questions which I hope will guide us in the future.
And if we cannot avoid controversy or offense, then let it be because we dared to love too much, rather than too little, but on God’s infinitely gracious terms, not on the world’s conditional, political terms, of the left and the right. Let it be for the love we show and share with those with whom we disagree on any matter, and the humility with which we hold our beliefs. Dale Schrag, in a stirring message on humility and uncertainty, called us to do just that: to hold our beliefs with humility and not too much faith in our own certainty.
But don’t do this in reference nor reaction to the world. The North Star to which we orient is Jesus Christ, and following him is not our gift to God but God’s gift to us. It is grace and blessing every step of the way.
My prayer in all this is that God will lead us beyond our dilemmas, our stalemates and our entrenched either/or positions to deeper truth about God and ourselves, to a fuller understanding and obeying of truth that better respects and reveals both the Bible and our experience (check out Dr. Patty Shelly’s call to get back to serious Bible study: ), truth to which our mortal minds alone would not bring us, and which our fallen natures cannot obey, not without repentance and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, through the Scriptures and the church, the church here, around the world and through all time, costly truth that challenges, convicts and disciplines all of us equally, as well as liberating truth which restores our unity and dignity, truth that is ancient and forgotten, but also new in its application, and which, finally, further fits every chief of sinners for our eternal union with God. Individuals and congregations in face-to-face relationships need to lead the way on that, before conferences and denominations can follow.