Responding to the church’s call for vision

[The following is a sermon preached at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg on Sunday August 14.]

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’  So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’
– Genesis 32:24-28

“We are looking for vision.”

This or a similar sentiment was expressed from the delegate floor several times in the course Mennonite Church Canada’s 2016 Assembly in Saskatoon. The people, the constituency, the faithful gathered and many asked for a vision.

What does this mean?

For many of us it is, initially, easy to resonate with such a call. The notion of a ‘vision’ in contemporary culture indicates and outlines a way forward, something into which we can direct our energy and resources; something we can all believe in. We want something to inspire, energize, unify and direct us. But when I stopped to actually consider what the call for a vision meant in that context I became less sure what was being asked for.

After all this call was made in the midst of so many other visionary accounts of what is already happening in Mennonite Church Canada. Congregations are increasingly engaged in the work of Indigenous relations and as a national body this summer we publically renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, a legal and symbolic expression of colonial supremacy.

We also heard about the innovative work of our church related schools, the diverse stories of Witness workers from around the world, and were reminded of creative leaders curating our past and present resources in archives and galleries.

We received a report from a working group regarding issues of creation care and fossil fuel divestment and we agreed to place further pressure on those committing injustices in Israel and Palestine. All of these accounts were in the midst of thoughtful and stimulating times of worship.

I was inspired by much of this work and lament that so often good reports and initiatives just end up getting shelved. Many visions were shared. We have enough work to do. We already need more organizing and energy around these expressions.

But these expressions didn’t seem to reflect what was being called for.

Perhaps people are wondering specifically what will come next now that the Being a Faithful Church and Future Directions task forces have ended their work. We have decided to create space for congregations to test or continue to test their affirmations of same sex committed relationships. We have decided to restructure our denomination along the lines of more area church involvement and leadership.

So does a vision reflect a call to trust and unity that will encourage us in this new and unknown church structure proposal? Will a vision emerge from the Being a Faithful Church process that will support healthy relationships for all those who gather as the Mennonite church in Canada?  Such visions would be worthy of our commitment.

So what then is missing? Visions are already being offered and engaged.

Around the time of Assembly I finished reading Black Elk Speaks, an account of vision given to a Sioux First Nations holy man which he received when he was nine years old in what is now the Black Hills area of South Dakota around the year 1879. The vision did not come to Black Elk clearly. It did not come as an instruction manual for easy application. The vision was sensual and symbolic. The vision came to him as visual poetry much like we experience reading Ezekiel or Revelation.

In the vision there were thunderclouds speaking to him, men with flaming spears, women carrying herbs, multi-colored horses marching in procession. There were sacred objects of war and healing. All these things moved in elaborate choreography. But the vision itself makes up only a small part of the book. What is significant is how the reminder of the book tells of how he wrestled with and engaged his vision over the course of his youth and young adulthood.

When he received his vision Black Elk did not really understand it or know what to do with it. He wanted to tell his family but was afraid because he thought he would be dismissed. When he did try to put it into words to express its meaning he says “it would be like fog and get away from me.” Despite not being able to interpret it Black Elk knows that it has changed him.  He says, “I was then too young to understand it all, and that I only felt it.”

In her book Cruel Optimism cultural critic Lauren Berlant describes this sort of change when she calls it “an impact lived on the body before anything is understood, and as such is simultaneously meaningful and ineloquent, [creating] an atmosphere that [we] spend the rest of . . . [our] lives catching up to.” An event impacts and creates not only a change in us but creates a different environment or atmosphere which we must then learn to live into.

And so at different times in his youth Black Elk experiences small events triggering associations with his vision. One day he heard thunder in the distance and saw clouds of split-tail swallows flying above him. In response to these things he says, “It was like a part of my vision, and it made me feel queer.” His lived experience and the atmosphere of his vision were typically kept separate but there were moments of brief alignment that startled him. When he was still a young man Black Elk recalls the confusion around the conflict that was intensifying with the increased presence of white soldiers. He says, “I thought maybe my vision would come back and tell me how I could save that country for my people, but I could not see anything clear.”

These reflections tell us something about visions. The power of the vision seems related not only to its undeniable impression or impact but also in its resistance to easy or immediate interpretation. A vision is not an instruction manual, or least not one we are used to using.

This really should not surprise us as our faith traces the presence of God in relation to thick darkness at creation, the dense cloud on Mt. Sinai, the impenetrable vision of Isaiah 6 or the bewildering logics of Ezekiel or Revelation. Visions form and change us but it is not or is rarely something immediately comprehended or understood.

This impact of the vision took its toll on Black Elk as he did not know how to align his vision with his lived experience. He knew there was power and significance in that event but it remained locked up only making him feel queer or misaligned when something reminded him of it. It is similar to the prophet Jeremiah who considered his vision something like fire shut up in his bones; something that flares up in particular circumstances.

Years after the vision but still a young man Black Elk seeks out a medicine man recalling that “By [then] I was so afraid of being afraid of everything that I told him about my vision.” Knowing about visions the medicine man told Black Elk that what he must do is perform the vision and that is in fact what they do.

Several chapters in Black Elk Speaks recount the literal restaging of parts of his vision gathering the symbols and movements of the vision which included various coloured horses and they gathered some of the objects and painted representations of others. He organized individuals and taught them songs and how to move in the choreographed arrangements. It was a theatrical production with some members of the community participating while others watched. At the end of the performance Black Elk recalls that “the fear that was on me so long was gone, and when thunder clouds appeared (which were central images in his vision that made him feel uneasy) I was always glad to see them, for they came as relatives now to visit me.”

Over time through struggling with and performing his vision there becomes an alignment of his life and vision. Later in his account he puts it succinctly saying that a person “who has a vision is not able to use the power of it until after he has performed the vision on earth for the people to see.” Once Black Elk learned to perform aspects of his vision he found greater alignment with its power and his lived experience. This alignment helped to bring healing and joy to many people around him.

So how might we understand the call for a vision in light of Black Elk’s own experience? I found the notion of performing the vision intriguing and initially a little strange but it dawned on me that this is in fact what we do when we gather to worship. We retell and re-enact past visions that have impacted us.

We perform visions that have yielded insights and healing, but visions that also remain active and elusive in any final understanding. And these are not simply biblical visions. These are visions that come in the form of songs and hymns and in our practices of prayer, communion and baptism. For the Mennonite church we have wrestled with a vision for peace. Every time we think we understand what peace is we find out that we have neglected some aspect of it and need to re-engage the vision.

This notion of vision also requires us to be more attentive to things we don’t understand; things that seem unintelligible. In our culture, vision and mission are supposed to provide clarity and usefulness but our faith offers us the idea that visions should cause us to pause, to wrestle with the unknown.

It is like Jacob wrestling with the unknown angel of God. Jacob struggles with this stranger, is even injured in the process but does not end the struggle until he has been blessed by it. And it is in this struggle that Jacob is given the name that becomes clearest designation of God’s people, that is, he was named Israel, the one who struggles with God.

This of course is not a license to embrace everything that is strange or unintelligible but it does call for a willingness to acknowledge and wrestle with the unintelligible that is within and among us if we are to discern the presence of God. In this way I do take some hope from our decision this summer to create space for churches to test alternative understandings to the traditional view of marriage. There have been many among us who feel like their vision has been shut out, that their faithfulness has only made them feel queer and misaligned as was the case with Black Elk.

So what vision is First Mennonite Church called to perform? What were the events or visions that shaped this worshipping community? I am not asking for a nostalgic or sentimental recounting of past achievements. We already do enough of that. I find that many people here know our history quite well but history and vision are not the same, even if they can be related. Rather, what are some of the experiences or events that were ignored or neglected because they were unintelligible at the time? Or in what way are well known images of the church that might be speaking in new ways to us?

I recently visited somehow who helped draft the letter asking that First Mennonite Church be received back into the Manitoba Conference after our church’s minister offered a sort of theological vision to his colleagues which was not only rejected but led to our church leaving the larger fellowship in Manitoba for many years.

The person I visited with remembers clearly in the letter stating that the church would return to the conference if we could be accepted as we are. This letter written 50 years ago still made a clear impression on this person and made me wonder how that notion of acceptance now speaks to us; how we might perform the vision that swirled around these events.

Or perhaps I should ask the question more personally, did you have an experience, a dream, or an event that occurred at some point in your life that impacted you; something that has stayed with you and has come to mind from time to time. After reading Black Elk Speaks I was reminded of three dreams I had almost twenty years. These were simple dreams but somehow they left a deep impression on me. This summer I took some time to revisit those dreams and was amazed at what they still offered regarding insight into my own journey in life.

So if we desire a vision we must be willing to encounter and wrestle with what might seem foreign or unintelligible. We must be willing to make a long term commitment of engagement and openness. And we must also pray for the courage and wisdom to discern which accounts offer strength and healing. May we learn to recognize those experiences as they occur in our lives and honour them as they are shared by others. May our worship continue to be shaped by these visions leading us to places of healing and peace.

Amen.

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