Concern and influence

While I was picking blackberries on my way home from Tsawwassen Commons, a man on a bicycle passed me on the path and exclaimed, “You’re stealing from the birds!” He sounded quite serious, though he must have been joking because there are thousands and thousands of blackberries on those bushes. I called back cheerfully, “I don’t think so!” He was too far down the path for me to say, instead, “The birds get the best ones — the ones out of reach!” or “These crazy thorn-covered branches protect their own!” As happens frequently, afterwards I think of better things I might have said.

I ambled along the trail and filled up the yogurt container I carry in my little backpack since there are blackberry bushes bursting with berries in many of the places I happen to walk, but after I’d mulled a more clever answer to the bicycle man, I was thinking about whether to respond further to certain situations of which I’m aware — situations of harm done and subsequent pain — and if I did, how? I was thinking of a pastor friend’s blog post about his awful experience with denominational authorities, and authorities in the same denomination recently censoring an anthology of women’s stories I edited, and the collapse of a beloved congregation with grief in its wake, and it seemed something further must be done about these situations, though not regarding the beliefs involved as much as the behaviour contained within them. In a panic to control belief, I thought, all manner of bad actions had been done, had been justified, and were sliding into the past now without accountability.

…thinking about whether to respond further… and if I did, how?

Many years ago, when it was the wisdom-book of the day, I read Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. One of his insights, which continues to help me, was the relationship of concern and influence. Covey pictured our concerns as a circle. Inside that circle is a smaller circle labelled influence. In other words, my concerns are often much bigger than my influence upon those concerns. What I take from this insight/diagram is to look at my concerns and, in my inevitable desire to effect some change, consider carefully what influence I can possibly, realistically, bring to them.

So as I was filling up my container, trying not to get snagged by out-reaching branches, which I swear leap forward if one is anywhere in close proximity, I wondered how much influence I had left, if any. I’d spoken up in several ways in the above scenarios and also worked on a small committee that organized a petition for redress for the pastor friend, which unfortunately yielded little besides pieties and excuses. Was there any point, I wondered, in telling a story much on my mind these days — the story of the time when I worked at the denominational magazine in 2004 and all the staff were women and a leader friend told us of a recent Board of Faith and Life meeting in which a board member unleashed a rant about us, using the worst labels he could think of, it seemed, without quite calling us Beelzebub? We laughed it off and went back to work but what hurt was the stunned silence he told us had followed, no one speaking up in our defence, the chair then carrying on with the meeting.

The story had a happy ending, however, because some weeks later our friend, perhaps bothered in retrospect by his own silence, told us he’d rallied his fellow board members and they’d given the ranter an ultimatum: withdraw the remarks or resign. Apparently said ranter did the former, and while it’s possible he didn’t change his mind about us, a line about charitable behaviour had been established and our friend and his colleagues had used their influence to establish it.

…a line about charitable behaviour had been established, and our friend and his colleagues had used their influence to establish it. 

Would there be any point indeed, I wondered, to tell such a story? The story, in essence, seems a model and a plea to those who have influence where I have none, folks like pastors and seminary professors and colleagues of the denomination’s pinnacle leaders, who, as far as I know, though I don’t know for certain, have been mostly silent on these matters. Was there any hope of persuading them to prioritize behaviour, of persuading them that the health of their denomination is surely their concern, of pleading that they rally and declare that these harming actions must be withdrawn or somehow addressed or we no longer have confidence in the leaders responsible?

I reached home, and still had no answer about whether I had a wee edge of influence left to touch my concerns or rouse the influence of others or whether a simple story and plea would be like shouting after a bicycle man already out of earshot. I saw the half-finished jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table and thought of the enjoyable slow rhythm required for its completion; the patience of many pieces and a steady process of finding the one by one. Maybe, I thought, it’s a puzzle piece I’ll place when I find the spot it fits.

Or maybe I’ve already placed it.

Church in a Barn

Yesterday I went to church in a barn — a big old empty red barn. Light came in through the open door, the windows at one end, and cracks in the walls and ceiling. We sat in circles of lawn chairs. The weather was chilly and rainy, but there were lap blankets to share. It was all quite wonderful — the singing, kids’ story, homily, prayers — and the joy of being together was palpable. Some 90 or so people of the faith community Helmut and I became a part of when we moved to B.C. six years ago, and here we were, meeting in a barn, and I couldn’t help thinking of the early Anabaptists who also met to worship in houses, caves, and barns.

This wasn’t some gimmick to take us back to the sixteenth century, however, because we’re actually kind of homeless at the moment. It’s been a rough couple of months; our former congregation has had a calamitous collapse and the majority of us have left. I don’t want to recount the whole sad story here, except to say that it happened, and since my weblog concerns my life, I need to mention it. (For those interested, journalist John Longhurst documented it at Anabaptist World as well as at his blog. And let me be clear, I stand with our pastors and for LGBTQ inclusion.) There’s plenty of hurt, anger, grief, but community means everything in situations like this, and as I said, yesterday morning the joy lifted into the rafters. The barn belongs to a couple in the group and may be our “cathedral” for a few months, as we continue to process the circumstances and journey into something new, into clarity and forgiveness. 

One thing I did last week to “process” for myself was to sit in my car at the former place and do a quick loose sketch of that beloved building. I’m a person who’s strongly affected by places and spaces. What I mean is, I often have as vivid a memory of the location as the details of what occurred in it. The surround of the environment becomes inseparable from, or even stands in for, what it hosts and contains. Following the lines of the building with my eye and hand, though only approximately for sure, felt like a caress I had to give it in gratitude and farewell. The right side ended up squished into the coils of the sketchbook, but never mind that, it was just a little exercise to help myself on the way!IMG_0860

Speaking of women…

In a kind of offshoot from my previous post, I find myself checking in at my 2006 journals, to see whether my memory of the awe, even euphoria, I felt when the Mennonite Brethren conference I was part of passed a resolution freeing women for ministry leadership (this after a long process of debate and study over many years) is accurate or if it has been imagined into stronger color over time.

I find it’s accurate enough. I was trembling through the final discussions of that particular convention, I noted, because it mattered that much, and then came the surprise, even shock, of the resolution passing, solidly enough (the news report here), a sense of “wow” as it began to sink in. “I feel that something has been loosed on earth, as we prayed…” my private pages said, bursting with gratitude.

Nearly six years later, I confess I’m disappointed in the “since then.” My impression — anecdotal, I realize, since I’m no longer involved in the conference — is that while women’s participation goes on a-pace in some congregations, the ethos of the Mennonite Brethren denomination as such has not changed to reflect that decision — or “the spirit, the direction” it represented, as one of the men who worked hard on that process put it to me recently. Perhaps it’s even regressed. Continue reading