Walking towards risk

The Mennonite Church Canada annual assembly begins today in Waterloo, Ont. This assembly will continue work on a document on discernment and will also undertake a conversation on human sexuality. The latter will be “a risky and challenging conversation,” in the words of general secretary Willard Metzger in a May 30 Canadian Mennonite article (“Others are watching closely”).

I commend the denomination for taking the risk. The conversation is necessary and important. There was surely pressure to have it, but leaders can often find ways to avoid or postpone potentially divisive discussions. I’m grateful for Metzger’s words:

In MC Canada, our leadership, through deep Scripture study and prayer, has discerned that it is, in fact, the job of the church to walk towards risky and challenging matters with joy and confidence. Assured of God’s Spirit in our midst, discerning difficult topics is the responsibility of the church.

And he is also right when he says  that others will be watching how God’s people respond to the world around them and to one another.

Mainline memoir

A friend of mine stuck this book into my church mailbox recently, because she thought I’d enjoy it. I told her I had a stack of books waiting and it might take a while. But you know how it is… Suddenly you have a quiet Sunday afternoon at your disposal and you pick up the book, just for a look, and before you know it, you’re in, and before you know it again, you’re finished.

Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community (Jossey-Bass, 2002) is an unusual memoir in some ways, for it’s the story of Diana Butler Bass’ personal spiritual journey  but told via the stories of nine Episcopalian (Anglican) churches she’s been part of over the years, in various parts of the U.S.A. Alongside this, Butler Bass provides journalistic analysis of the “old mainline” church story in America, from severe losses since the 1960s or so, through new identity as “culturally marginalized” (whereas formerly the locale of people with prestige in their communities), and about the renewal that’s happening — and possible — at that place of powerlessness.

Butler Bass’ journey takes her from an adolescent faith within evangelicalism that was “filled with fear” into a greater comprehension of, and living into, “the reality of a God who is completely Love.” She changes slowly and sometimes resistantly, often defaulting to a “knee-jerk fundamentalism” that likes to divide the world into camps, orthodox and liberal, for God and against. What is it that leads her to “a new theological place”? Liturgical worship.

I enjoyed this book. The author’s story differs in almost every detail from mine, not to mention that Butler Bass is nearly ten years younger, and yet as I read I felt our paths curiously similar. I think it’s interesting how in the last years I’ve been bumping into “mainline” in all kinds of ways, through people I’ve come to know, through services we’ve attended, through Christian Century, through this book, and in all of these, the assumptions and stereotypes I held or encountered decades earlier simply don’t stand. Well, of course it was inevitable, went the general line of those assumptions, all those losses, because___ (fill in the blank, but probably include the scary word “liberal”!). I don’t mind at all being tugged away from too little knowledge into a more nuanced historical analysis, and most importantly, into a wider awareness of and love for the church.

Feeling the fire

Believe me, I’ve been tempted to jump into the internet heat around Rob Bell’s latest book — apparently on hell — but no, this isn’t about those flames. (And if you haven’t already had enough of that topic, let me tip to two pastors of my denomination who have thoughts on it, here and here, or you may want to follow the links and commentary at Brian McLaren’s blog.)

This is about Tongue Screws and Testimonies: Poems, Stories, and Essays Inspired by the Martyrs Mirror (edited by Kristen Eve Beachy), a book I’ve spent a good number of hours reading the past weeks, more hours in fact than I usually spend on a book, because I’m reviewing it for Rhubarb. So I’ve been reading slowly, and taking notes. It’s been, at times, a surreal experience, reading of burnings and drownings and the other torments of the martyrs, and all the while the house so quiet and the weather so cold these days, the snow still thick , the sun bright, yes, but shining with a serene beneficence rather than heat. How far it all seems from the noise of those long ago public spectacles, and the rising flames and the rising songs (except, of course, when the tongue screws prevented them), though I’ve been stirred just the same, as I often am by words, such a diversity of them, some pulling me close to the fire, to feel it, others pushing me away, to consider what to think of it all.

The book offers a whole variety of responses to the Martyrs Mirror and its effects, ranging between adulation and critical resistance. I’ve got to save the details for the review, which  so far, is just an awful draft. But one fact is clear enough: it was very costly back in the time of the Anabaptist martyrs, to speak or act against the grain of accepted ideologies. So great was the trauma, it spawned a kind of silence. Mennonites became “the quiet in the land.” (“we wrapped our silence/ around a kernel of fear. This fear fed us…” from a poem by Sheri Hostetler.)

Well good thing we don’t burn or drown folks for their new or contrary ideas, not here, not now. Then again, there’s more than one way to turn up the heat. So maybe the words of  “the woman with the screw in her mouth,” in the poem quoted above, will encourage anyone who risks speaking and living their convictions, including Rob Bell. Says she, “The dying / was worth it, every pain. We were chosen to bring something new / into the world….”