Thursday, September 28, 2017

Communion Will Never be the Same

It’s a big year for Lutherans – the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. So it struck me as significant that I was invited to participate in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada’s National Convention in July. I was privileged to present a sermon, and honoured to serve communion alongside a Synod Bishop.
At the 450th anniversary of the Lutheran’s Augsburg Confession of Faith in 1980, the Lutheran World Federation – representing 95% of Lutherans globally – invited Mennonites to join their celebration. Mennonites responded that it was difficult to celebrate a confession that condemned us for our views on theological matters such as infant baptism, even though the centuries-old memory of Anabaptist persecution had faded. But that invitation led to a 30 year reconciliation process, culminating in 2010.
As I stood before a full sanctuary of Evangelical Lutheran believers, the weight of responsibility descended upon my shoulders. I felt the eyes of a great “cloud of witnesses” observing. There I was; an Anabaptist leader about to help serve the Lord’s supper to Lutheran worshippers; those with whom we were in such harsh disagreement with centuries earlier.
Reconciliation is not an easy task. Though we'd all like to think that it's as simple as "let's kiss and make up," true reconciliation is a lengthy process. It involves truth telling. It includes admissions and confessions. It requires the non-defensive discipline of acceptance. Telling the truth can feel freeing to the one speaking. Hearing the truth can weigh on the one listening. But there is no reconciliation without this exchange.
For nearly 500 years, Anabaptists have borne martyrdom from a variety of persecutors. We have felt the weight of living out our beliefs. We have wrestled with the guilt of living safely and in peace while others risk their lives and take up arms. I wish I could say that in nearly 500 years we have learned how to express conviction without feeling like enemies to others, but long-standing patterns are difficult to break.
In this single act of reconciliation, of inviting me, an Anabaptist, to serve communion, Lutherans accepted our divergent understandings as an equal expression of love for God. Being invited to offer communion was not a statement of agreement. It did not mean that we are all of one mind. But it did acknowledge that we serve one God. We come to the same source of mercy and forgiveness. We go to the same place for redemption and restoration.
This provides Anabaptists with a huge challenge. Can we accept disagreeing viewpoints as equal expressions of love for God? I fear that we have not even been able to do so among ourselves.
"This is the blood of Christ shed for you." These are not words of entitlement. These are words of recognition. They acknowledge a fact – whether we like it or not; whether we agree with it or not.

In offering Eucharist to the Lutheran family, the feeling of being surrounded by a huge cloud of Anabaptist witnesses affected me more profoundly than serving communion has ever done before. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

CBC Drama "Pure": Gift or irritant?

I watched the first episode of CBC's new mini series entitled "Pure."

Understandably the various expressions of Anabaptist/Mennonite faith will feel misrepresented. The depiction lumps them all together like a typical potluck plateful of various foods.

As anticipated there is discomfort when particular shortcomings of the 'quiet in the land' is given national profile. We like to be known for our humble service not our humiliating deviations.

The spotlight is not a comfortable place for Mennonites. But it feels better resisting praise than it does refusing blame.

I don't know of any Mennonite who would feel comfortable being called "pure". But neither do we like faults being publicly flaunted.

However, this time of discomfort might offer a gift of self reflection. I think our discomfort mirrors a common Protestant aversion to facing shortcomings. To acknowledge the need of a Saviour is not problematic. But to describe the areas of personal struggle is.  When the confessional booth was discarded, our admission of sin was driven into private, unnamed remorse. Forgiveness then has also become a private struggle of acceptance.

We feel most comfortable looking like we have it all together and avoid portraying our frayed and frazzled selves.

I wonder how our God of grace views either the hesitation of admitting guilt or the fixation of holding onto guilt. Grace has never been an easy thing to accept.

The attention could provide the watching world with a refreshing display of self comfort. A faith community that is confident in Gods grace is able to smile at its own short comings. A faith community rich in experiencing grace is able to more easily extend grace to members of its own extended family without a nervous need to distinguish itself from bad behaviour. Such a comfort with who we are could be a refreshing contrast to the marketing culture dependent on having individuals feel bad about themselves.

This might be a gift to us as Mennonite communities. And we have the next few weeks to accept and use this gift wisely.

Monday, January 9, 2017

“Does that make sense?”

- guest post by Jonas Cornelsen

As a first-year student, it’s scary to speak up in class. This problem affects both students and professors. I took intro theology in my first year at CMU.

One day, the professor must have realized he’d been talking for over half an hour straight. He finished his point, took a step back from the lectern and asked, “Does that make sense?” Clearly not—the room was full of vacant stares. But class was over, there was no time to explain, and by then nobody remembered exactly what didn’t make sense. We were frustrated. I’m sure he was too.

For this post, Willard asked me to reflect on trust between Mennonite Church Canada leaders and constituents. I think of it in terms of clear, frequent, two-way communication. Misunderstandings hurt both sides. Between the publication of the Future Directions Task Force Final Report (FDTF) and Addendum last December, and the 2016 Assembly in Saskatoon seven months later, many expressed frustration that we, as congregations and individuals, hadn’t been fully informed or consulted about these big changes. I was one of them. But some hadn’t read the Task Force’s interim documents, or given feedback when previously asked. I was one of those too.

I’m not saying the Task Force’s interim communication was perfect. Like my prof’s lecture, it may have been complex, or difficult to follow for non-experts. I suspect this could have been fixed in both cases if something had been said. I recall one Task Force member saying they were pleased with the level of response the Final Report generated; they only wished it had been there all along.

It’s remarkable how similar the frustrations are on both sides. We want better communication from our leaders. They want the same from us.

It takes courage to speak up. We often think everyone around us gets it and our best bet is to catch up, or give up, in silence. My theology class, and the confusion after the FDTF report, suggest differently. If you’re lost, say something. Soon. It’s better to interrupt the lecture than to barely recognize the final exam.

MC Canada has called a special assembly for October, 2017, to vote on the new structure for our national church. This is sooner than I expected, but there’s still time to get into the conversation. Check out the Interim Council's transition site, or page through the Canadian Mennonite when it arrives. Emerging Voices Initiative (which I’m part of) was privileged to host a series of workshops this fall, where young and old have discussed our church’s future together. Events continue in Manitoba and Alberta this January.

We, as constituents, have a right to expect clarity from our leaders, and a plan for the future that reflects the best possible balance of our hopes. We need not wait until voting time to exercise that right. We’re more likely to be satisfied if we ask questions sooner, and show we’re listening.

Does that make sense?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Unintended Message of Worry

Every term of leadership contains challenges. The church is always in a period of discernment - as it should be. Context is always changing. New questions of discernment constantly emerge.

This is why I think one of the greatest gifts a leader can provide is a display of non-anxious presence. A non-anxious presence is rooted in confidence that God will provide what the church needs to faithfully discern and make the necessary changes.

I was reminded of this at a workshop hosted by Emerging Voices Initiative (EVI). This young adult initiative began in November 2015, when Mennonite Church Canada faced a substantial donation revenue shortfall and was forced to reduce staff and program. Their concern for the church resulted in considerable conversation and a commitment to engage in the work of the Future Directions Task Force. Their enthusiastic participation in the issues facing the church is heartening for me as it is for many people.

One of the questions the EVI leaders are asking workshop attendees is: "What do you want to say to the leaders of Mennonite Church Canada?"

This is the gift being offered. For leaders interested in the thoughts of others it is a precious gift whenever people express themselves.

One of the first responses to this question has reinforced my determination to resist fear and panic in these changing times. The young adult voice walked up to the microphone and after glancing in my direction said, "the church will be okay.”

Indeed! What a message for leadership to hear: The church will be okay. It is both a message of hope and chastisement.

What message do we communicate to our youth and young adults when we express panic and fear about the state of the church? The underlying statement of fear and panic is that we do not trust our youth and young adults to carry on the faith.

Confidence in our youth and young adults would echo the statement offered at the EVI workshop. The church will be okay, because God is at work in our youth. The church will be okay because our youth and young adults are dreaming dreams and seeing visions. God is at work, even if as leaders, we don't always perceive it.

A confidence in God expects the Spirit of God to be at work beyond our comprehension. A confidence in God anticipates that our youth and young adults will see things we do not see.

The church of the future is the church informed by the past but embracing the developing expression of the leaders forming in our midst.

I am confident that our faith is finding new expression.

Open yourself up to possibilities not seen before: possibilities articulated and envisioned by our youth and young adults.

Upcoming EVI Workshops and locations in Nov./Dec.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Covenant of Disagreement

In the past, the Church could hardly imagine placing 'covenant' and 'disagreement' into a shared concept. Disagreement represented the opposite of covenant. Covenant necessitated agreement.

But no longer. It is now possible to discuss covenant in the context of disagreement.

Followers of Jesus Christ are beginning to realize that covenant speaks more to relationship than it does to theological agreement. Jesus made it clear that covenant people commit to "turning the other cheek" and "praying for" those considered enemies.

This is no easy task! Indeed an endeavour quite impossible if not empowered by the spirit of Jesus Christ.

It is only reasonable then for followers of Jesus Christ to extend that same grace to fellow members of the body of Christ. If covenant people are instructed to love their enemies, how much more their brothers and sisters with whom they disagree?

In a recent trip to Israel/Palestine an ecumenical organization challenged a group of denominational leaders that unless we are able to speak as a unified voice of diversity, we have no platform to offer anything to the situation in the Middle East. I agree.

A reshaped understanding of covenant is an important challenge to a world becoming increasingly fragmented by ideological, theological, and ethnic conflict. Followers of Jesus Christ must stand ready to embrace disagreement within the covenant of loving your neighbour as yourself. This is not a poetic ideal. It is a covenant responsibility.

The global community has considered it important to remember the devastation of war. Divided church bodies realize destructive outcomes of internal conflict. Loss of life, destruction of families, relationships broken by harsh words are the lamented impacts results of armed violent conflict. Such lament should be expressed. But so should a commitment to peace that displays a new comfort with disagreement. Disagreement is an opportunity for conversation, not a reason for conflict. The Christian faith must learn to embrace disagreement if it hopes to be relevant in a diverse world.

I think God has provided an opportunity for the church of Jesus Christ to shine. This is a chance to display a renewed commitment of love and respect for all people of diverse understandings. It is an opportunity to boldly model how to remain in disagreement without resorting to hateful and hurtful rhetoric. It is an opportunity to portray the compelling love of Jesus Christ.

I pray that we will rise up to this opportunity. I pray that followers of Jesus Christ everywhere will commit themselves to represent the covenant of disagreement.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Retaining the Ability to Break

Our vision of leadership seems most informed by the common urge to win. A good leader is defined as someone who leads to victory and growth. However to limit ourselves to this as the only description of good leadership might be to misunderstand our very character as followers of Jesus Christ. 

The church is God's representation of the sacrificial love displayed in Christ. It is correct to declare the redemptive power of Jesus. Lives can be transformed. But could it be that the transforming power of Jesus is best revealed from a place of brokenness? 

The biblical account of God’s redemptive strategy seems to suggest this. The incarnation initiated the redemptive strategy from a place of vulnerability rather than strength: an infant. The pronouncement is to the politically weak rather to those of influence: shepherds. The birth is in a stable rather than a palace. 

Jesus is raised in Nazareth rather than Jerusalem. His following is secured with common folk fisherman rather than the religious establishment. The triumphant entry is on the back of a common donkey. And as we know the defining moment of secured victory is the cross: death and suffering. 

There is a lesson here in leadership that we must not ignore. For Jesus, death is the new beginning; failure is the victory. 

Yet as followers of Jesus Christ we resist weakness. We despise failure. 

Even in our history the church is strongest when it is weak. The church seems to grow strongest when driven into hiding by persecution. This has been evidenced in many examples: China, Ethiopia, to name just two. 

I don't think that God rejects strength. But I do think the most effective way to relate to a broken world is from a place of brokenness. It is where we most clearly display the passionate and radical love of God. 

Maybe the church is strongest when it is weak because that is when it is easiest for us to break and take on the brokenness of our Saviour. As Mennonite Anabaptists we recognize that the church is the broken body of Christ for the world. As followers of Jesus Christ, we can be comfortable with embracing vulnerability and brokenness. We are most effective when we feel the weakest. 

May we never lose the ability to break so that we never fail to portray the transforming love of our Sacrificial Lord.

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Confession...

I have a confession to make.

I have been raised in a faith community that emphasizes expressions of compassion. I am proud of this heritage. I have been formed by an understanding of Christian discipleship that prioritizes striving for peace and justice. I am deeply thankful for this modelling.

So when I learned of the horrendous massacre of gay patrons at an Orlando night club, I did what I thought was only natural. I expressed mourning. I named the pain I felt for the family and friends of victims thrust into brutal grieving
I thought such discriminatory violence must be mourned. I thought that lament must be confessed. I expected many others to be quick with expressions of solidarity.

But I found an uneasiness growing within me. I felt an urge to calculate my expressions of sorrow. As though expressing support for the suffering LGBTQ community might be suspect. To feel pain for those in sorrow should be an expected reaction - especially for the People of God. But I felt it necessary to waver. I found unholy questions invade my mind: How might this be misunderstood?
I do not want the debate of morality to stifle responses of compassion. I do not want ongoing theological discernment to create a fear in expressing sorrow. 

It is natural to weep with those who weep. It is normal to mourn with those who mourn. It should be a basic human tendency to moan and wail against injustice - especially for the People of God.

When faced with deep, intense sorrow for fellow humans there is no place for fear of being politically incorrect. It is not God who asks us to waver or reconsider.

I am shamed by my own misunderstanding of righteousness. I am humbled by my misdirected yearning "to keep the peace." I confess the desire to temper responses of compassion in favour of my desire to keep the peace. It is a sad commentary on ungodly influences on our expression of faith.

Compassion is a basic human response to suffering. To ask people to deny this basic impulse of humanity because of a need to be politically neutral is to ask people to deny the very image of God.