So sad and beautiful

Speeding toward the ground
Through the air without a sound
So gracefully

Each one in awe, for they’d never seen a girl so sad and beautiful

– Pedro the Lion ‘June 18, 1976’

My neighbourhood shifts noticeably in spring. Through fall and winter everyone has the same destinations and schedules but we are all hurried moving from warmth to warmth in a cold world. In spring it seems that the neighbourhood grows. Children in particular appear to multiply through the slower commutes to and from school. Now they talk and laugh and tease meandering the sidewalks and lingering at bus stops. My walk to work takes me through the paths of numerous school children. In the past few days I have found myself feeling almost unbearably sad walking through these scenes. I have witnessed nothing to be sad about. They are beautiful. There is a boy who is probably around 12. He is large, not quite obese, just large framed and slow moving. There is nothing that commends him by the world’s standards but neither is he dirty or in worn out clothing just poorly styled in nearly every respect. Wide straight jeans, large t-shirt, short uniform hair, fuzzy hair on his upper lip. In the past two days my timing has been such that I watch him walk out his door on his way to school. By the gate to the sidewalk he turns and looks back to his mother or grandmother and offers a huge smile and vigorous wave.

This morning there was a car accident at the corner of my street. I took a little longer slowly walking by and then when I turned to go up Toronto St and little girl quickly left her house and caught her stride alongside me and asked what happened. We had never met. I felt awkward and unsure what protocol was for such an occasion. We fell into conversation and walked for a block as she was going to meet a friend who she walks to school with. She was in grade four, curious, good-natured and a good conversationalist (did I mention I was a stranger). She liked recess and gym, school was going well for her. As quickly as came alongside of me she crossed over the street to meet her friend. I wished her a good day and as she faded away she said, ‘Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.’

After walking on for a while I started to cry, just for a bit. I treasured these images. But where did the sadness come from? It was my speculation. I speculated about their place and future in this world. I considered how the world might value and use them. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe this was all just my own arrogance. But these images have added to many, many others that lead me to believe that beauty is something plus vulnerability. I don’t know what the something is but I know the vulnerability. If we value beauty we must also at some point reject the world.

This led me to think of the church. I have been highly critical of the church. Increasingly my only real concern is whether the church can be a place of rest, refuge, and resistance to the evaluation of the world. That is all that really matters. I find I have much more grace for the church but this only comes with an increased sense of complete intolerance for vipers who may reside within. The only course of action there is strike at the neck or crush with the heel.

White weddings, farm boys, and drag queens: Adorning and adoring the church

Ryan Jantzi’s column, ‘Honouring the bride of Christ’ struck a chord with me. In the short article Jantzi conjures the well known image of a group gazing at the adorned bride coming down the aisle of at a wedding. Jantzi observes, this is how we adore brides, but this is not how we adore the bride of Christ, the church. I admit that I was put off with Janzti connecting the church to imagery that remains deeply embedded in the history of brides as prize and property. It is easy to offload all of our ideals of purity, beauty, and faithfulness onto women who already face endless demands by our culture while excluding those who do not conform to these traditions.

However, as I sat with my discomfort this image did bring to mind a memory growing up on the farm. I was probably around 8 years old when my two older sisters dressed me up as girl by putting me in a skirt and makeup. I remember twirling around to make the skirt rise and fall, much to the joy of my sisters. My sisters then brought me out to the field where my fathers and uncles were working. I remember going in anticipation, carrying my experience of being adorned and adored, hoping to bring them this joy as well. I don’t remember exactly what happened when I got to the field but I was left with a feeling of wrong doing; that such adornment was not to be repeated and was certainly not adored.

I agree with Jantzi this is indeed is how the bride of Christ is often left to feel. Adornment is not a traditional value for Mennonites. But thinking of myself as part of the church, thinking of myself as the bride of Christ I was encouraged to wonder about how men (in particular) can embrace being adorned and adored. In May a number of drag queens are offering public readings for children at two libraries in Winnipeg. I confess that I had mixed feelings hearing about this event. I still have my own gender stigmas and preconceptions. However, thinking of my own experience I was reminded of how easy it is to internalize shame and criticism then projecting it onto others; the cycle is easy to reproduce. I really did find joy dressing up as a girl, I enjoyed the beauty that this performance offered my sisters. Why would I want to take that from others?

I am as active as any in criticizing the church. I am never sure if or when I cross the line from being insightful and creative to being boring and cynical. While I will continue to strive for healthy criticism I also want those in and around the church to be renewed with a sense of how to adorn and adore themselves and each other.

The patriarchy . . . still: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 3)

In my last post I made clear that my theological outline is not based in an ‘liberal’ understanding of theology or society. If you are still following at this point I am guessing you know I won’t draw on many traditionally conservative resources. This is true. This does not mean it is not worth clarifying the ways in which patriarchy continues to exert itself forcefully within the church and its theology.

Continue reading “The patriarchy . . . still: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 3)”

Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 2)

The first part of this series was an attempt to situate the current theological state of Mennonite Church Canada. The commitment I would like to nurture is a moral commitment to remain attentive to those suffering and struggling in the midst of our churches and cultures. I hope that this commitment will also help us to open up some of our broader theological commitments.

In the next two parts I will look at the two dominant theological forms at work in Mennonite Church Canada. My accounts are neither complete nor exclusive to other influences at work. However, the terms liberal and conservative get thrown around so much that is worth paying attention to them and clarifying their insufficiency in relation to a gospel drawing our unity and attention to the realities of suffering and injustice. After these next two critical sections I will try and offer some more constructive pieces in moving forward (Hint: It’s not a ‘third-way’!).

Since it will come as no surprise to those who know me I am critical of conservative/patriarchal theology instead I thought I would begin with my still developing understanding and critique of liberalism.

Continue reading “Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 2)”

Beyond BFC – Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 1)

I have spent ten years in full time ministry in Mennonite Church Canada. My professionals career has run parallel to the Being a Faithful Church process. As the ‘process’ has now concluded I wanted to reflect on the next ten years of my ministry and the life of my denomination.

Continue reading “Beyond BFC – Outline of a constructive theology for the next decade of Mennonite Church Canada (Part 1)”

Weathering a violent world; Or, Law is what pleases the king

[The following was preached at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg Sunday, January 22, 2017.]

Esther 1:1-12

The Book of Esther is a story of weathering a violent world. In the coming weeks we will be focusing on various women in the Bible. We did not have a clear agenda for this series and I wasn’t particularly intentional about beginning with the book of Esther but it is as good as any to begin to think about women in the Bible as well as the experience of women in history and the present. As too many have experienced and as many of us learn too late the experience of women can indeed be that of weathering a violent world.

Continue reading “Weathering a violent world; Or, Law is what pleases the king”

Just let him finish; Or, you cannot serve both process and advocacy

“No man who does not actively choose to work to change and challenge patriarchy escapes its impact.” – bell hooks

“I’ve come to the conclusion that process is how Mennonites justify and inflict violence. As long as we have a process, we have been fair, good, and kind people.” – Carol Wise, Executive Director, Brethren Mennonite Council on LGBT Interests [1]

“Just let him finish.” – Patriarchy

“Institutional process is not advocacy.” – Me, thinking about church

Last week I interrupted two men speaking from the floor at a meeting of Mennonite Church Manitoba. The meeting was meant to understand what it means for congregations with differing understandings of marriage and human sexuality to continue to be in fellowship with each other as an area church. It was explicitly stated that this was NOT a meeting to debate any particular issue within that diversity but to imagine what life as a larger denomination can look like going forward.

Most of the meeting, I think, was on topic. Towards the end of the meeting things began taking a turn. One man got up and spoke about the recent edition of National Geographic that explored our changing understanding of gender and how we needed science to help us in the church. This may be true but it was already outside the parameters of the conversations. I wish some comment of clarification would have already been made at that point. What happened after that was that I interrupted two speakers in the middle of their comments. The first speaker equated this change, the intentional creation of space for differences on marriage, with changing the Word of God. To create space for same sex marriages was to deviate from the eternal Word of God. I interrupted by calling on the speaker to try and maintain the parameters of the conversation I was told, ‘Just let him finish’. He did.

Then another man got up and began to speculate on behalf of queer Mennonites wondering if perhaps gays and lesbians are leaving the church because they are convicted by the Holy Spirit. Then he asked us to consider this from a ‘spiritual warfare perspective’ that perhaps all the trouble going on in Mennonite Church Canada can be attributed to Satan using gays and lesbians . . . I interrupted again. I don’t even know what I said. The man did not finish. He left the building immediately. The meeting ended shortly afterwards. I have been reflecting on my actions and the events since. I just wanted to offer a few thoughts.

I realize now that my actions last week are directly related to my experience in Saskatoon this past summer during the national gathering of Mennonite Church Canada. During the floor discussion in Saskatoon there was a point when a man got up and over several minutes went over the biblical and theological laundry lists of why homosexuals will be damned to hell. Here again, our moderator and our delegate body were content to ‘just let him finish’.

Later that evening I was one of the General Board representatives that met with a group simply called ‘Family and Friends’. This is a support group for LGBTQ Mennonites as well as family and friends. That this group has such an ambiguous existence among the formal gatherings of MC Canada already speaks volumes. During that time people shared their hurt and anger over the leadership’s inability to recognize the inappropriate and harmful actions from the man speaking from the floor. They looked at me as a General Board member to be accountable for such an action. That experience led me to understand that unless ‘church process’ is directly accountable to the experience of and advocacy for the most vulnerable then one will need to choose. There are times when you cannot serve both process and advocacy.

Trying to understand my experience during summer I found a short entry in my notebook from summer in which I confessed that I felt I needed “to let him say his piece.” And I apologized for not having “the immediate presence of mind to name such language as both hateful and heretical. . . . [And] that whatever diversity we express going forward it cannot tolerate expressions of faith that expose LGBTQ believers as condemned.” Even though I forgot these exact words I can see how my actions last week grew out of them.

If we can accept that patriarchy continues to be a negative influence for our church then we need to learn how to NOT ‘let him finish’. This is hard. We, men, are used to getting to finish even if after the fact we might acknowledge that it was not the best thing. I am not putting this on the moderator of the meeting, this has been the practice of the church myself included.

With regards to regional or national leadership I don’t think there needs to be a choice between process and advocacy. In summer in Saskatoon I spoke with two church leaders about this, one from MC Canada the other MC USA. Both acknowledged that there is a difference between the role of prophet and priest but one said that he viewed his role as trying to protect the prophet so that places and opportunities can be given for her voice even though he recognizes that he cannot occupy that place. The other leader said that we need to be careful over interest groups and that good process keeps the ‘lynch mob’ at bay. There is a marked difference here (even though the former is still problematic). And that one leader can equate advocacy for LGBTQ Mennonites as a potential ‘lynch mob’ is unnerving to say the least.

With regards to individual actions that interrupt, protest, or resist larger church processes we need to be prepared to be criticized. This should go without saying but I was surprised by the type of criticism I received after my actions at the meeting. Two criticisms came from older ‘tolerant’ men accusing me of arrogance and narcissism for acting in the way I did. This reminded me of Stephanie Krehbiel’s research on LGBTQ advocacy in the Mennonite church where she states that, “Because Mennonites are theologically wedded to the notion of ‘community’ as the vehicle through which God’s will is mediated, charges of individualism bear a particular sting.” To interrupt, to not let him finish is to assert individualism and therefore to be wrong by default in the Mennonite world. I am well aware that I talk a lot (and write), more than I need to at times but I don’t think this should be confused with our fear of or indifference towards interrupting him.

This also reminded that we need to be clear about what becoming an ‘affirming’ congregation means. I heard several voices that night coming from formally ‘affirming’ congregations that continued to also affirm anti-queer positions in the larger Mennonite body. That including homophobic voices in gatherings was an acceptable form of unity in diversity. This does not make sense to me. We can certainly acknowledge that such diversity exists; we can acknowledge our own ambivalence and uncertainties on some of these matters; we can create parameters around when and if such conversations are helpful when we gather as a larger body. However, is there really value in affirming a theological position and practice that a congregation has discerned as harmful and inappropriate? The second man whom I interrupted literally attempted to create fear in us by suggesting that Satan might be working through gays and lesbians to destroy the church. And this is what we are now wrestling with. What does it look like to gather as a larger body after formally affirming the space for those congregations who have departed from traditional views on marriage? As someone mentioned to me after the meeting, LGBTQ Mennonites know that not all ‘affirming’ congregations are the same. Affirmation is a commitment to work at stopping violence towards the vulnerable and excluded not an achievement to boast or even rest in.

What will I do? I hope to connect with LGBTQ Mennonites as well as any family and friends to learn how to best be supportive. If my actions at the meeting (or in general) simply reinforce the arena of dudes-talking-to-each-other-about-important-things then I want to change and learn what actions are best. I want to keep learning to be accountable.

I hope that Stephanie Krehbiel’s dissertation, Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA, will eventually gain popular publication. It is a tremendous resource in these matters. In Chapter One she recounts an interview with Carol Wise who Krehbiel says could be described as a ‘senior member’ of the queer Anabaptist movement. To conclude (not letting myself finish!) I will quote a portion of their interaction,

 As we sat down over breakfast, Wise told me immediately that she found our email exchange reassuring. Upon hearing that there was a straight, Mennonite ethnographer interested in this subject, she told me that her initial response was to worry that I would try to argue that Mennonites were exceptional in their treatment of queer people—that is, exceptionally good. That she would worry about this gulf of difference between her perception and mine, I think, speaks to the continued presence of the tensions I described in the previous section. Years of experience with church process had taught many LGBTQ Mennonites that even ostensible allies were likely to read the state of queer justice in the church much differently than they did. In our emails, Wise was notably encouraged when I responded to her counsel that my work might make me unpopular with church leaders with evidence that I was already becoming unpopular with them. “My observation is many leaders feel betrayed by allies because allies are finally, finally speaking up, asking questions, and not automatically assuming the good will of church leaders,” she wrote.

The question of what to do with assumptions of the “good will” of process brokers was a recurring theme throughout our conversation that morning. “At some point, the church can say, we didn’t know. We didn’t know,” Wise said. “But once you know, if you continue to act in that way, now you’re doing violence willfully… the danger to the church itself is increasing exponentially, the longer it willfully enforces and maintains those structures of racism and sexism and heterosexism. Because there’s no innocence left in it.”

[1] Recorded by interview in Stephanie Krehbiel’s doctoral dissertation, Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA (University of Kansas, 2015).