June 06, 2013
Jacob and Esau Meet. Paul Gustave Doré, 1832-1883. (Wikimedia Commons)
Practicing reconciliation means facing the hard truth about what is broken. Most often what is broken is a relationship with someone we trusted or who trusted us. No doubt all of us can point to times we’ve been disappointed, betrayed, even violated by persons we trusted. Or we know that others have felt betrayed by us—whether close family members, church friends, professional colleagues, or persons in the broader community.
Core to our Christian faith is praying the prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples. The part of the prayer we always stumble over goes like this: Forgive us our debts (or trespasses or sins) as we forgive our debtors (or those who trespass against us or those who sin against us). Stumbling over these words seems indicative (in a surreal way) of how we stumble around forgiveness. What role does forgiveness play for restoring trust after relationships are broken?
One reader of Practicing Reconciliation emailed me with questions related to forgiveness. Becky asked: Do you think it's possible to forgive when you're still in a lot of pain regarding the wrong that was done to you? Or do you think there needs to be some healing before we're really capable of forgiving fully? Don't we learn how to forgive by being forgiven? Do you think there is a relationship between a person's emotional health and their ability to forgive?
Becky’s questions show the way into the complexity of forgiveness. God forbid that we glibly slap on “forgiveness” like a band-aid used to treat a heart attack. Real life experiences illustrate the diverse ways forgiveness works its healing power. They become grist for theological reflection.
A couple glimpses of activated forgiveness in my life come to mind. Years ago, I felt betrayed by church friends. My husband and I were co-pastoring what had been a dwindling, deeply divided congregation. After our first year, the church was growing by leaps and bounds. A working unity had been forged. We were on the move. Only months into our second year, the unofficial “leader” of the congregation with a band of loyalists kicked into oppositional stonewalling. Overseer intervention proved ineffective. Decision-making paralysis set in. We finally decided resignation was the only healthy recourse to preserve our own mental health. For months afterward, I kept reaching out to those who had opposed our leadership. I so wanted to fix the break and regain a measure of shared understanding. I remember the moment when a dear friend said, “Sara, it’s time to let go. You’ve done all you can to achieve reconciliation. Release it into God’s hands.” As it dawned on me that he was right, I felt immense relief. To release the whole sad affair into God’s hands was to begin the journey into a forgiveness that I needed to extend to myself first, and then to those who, in my perspective, had violated me.
Another glimpse of activated forgiveness comes to mind. This time it involved a colleague whom I admired. His advocacy for women in leadership and his apparent loyalty to his wife all seemed to commend him as trustworthy. What an earthquake shock it was to learn that he had flagrantly violated the trust of his entire congregational and academic communities. No forgiveness seemed possible without holding him publicly accountable by telling the hard truth about his many sexual affairs. There was provision for him to do the personal work necessary to come to terms with his own duplicity but for most of us, given the nature of the wrongs he committed, the journey toward forgiveness couldn’t begin without the public truth telling.
Forgiveness is anything but a one-dimensional sugar coating to cover all ills. I’m grateful for those who voice questions that tease out its textured and tough loveliness. When the hard truths are named and owned within the grace-filled providence of God, we can begin to imagine what Paul spoke of when he said: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
May 06, 2013
Credit -- Florian Vincent, Wikimedia Commons
One of the top reasons I make brief runs through Facebook postings is to see what people are reading. What we post reveals what we care about. It announces which perspectives we deem (at least in part) to be authoritative; to define reality in helpful, provocative, even truthful ways. Or we post what seems so preposterous as to be wholly laughable—its own kind of truth telling. I am sometimes unsettled by the cacophony of perspectives cited by my friends.
There was a story on NPR this morning (I caught only a slice while on the road) about those who envisioned possibilities for the World Wide Web from as far back as the anti-establishment days of the 1960’s. John Perry Barlow of the Grateful Dead was quoted as saying that it would move us away from a vertical authority with God at the top, me at the bottom, and dad, pope and king in-between, to a horizontal authority, with everyone free to weigh in on their own. The internet is bringing unfathomable change to how we determine what an authoritative source is on any given topic. As with most change, there is a liberating upside and a shadowy downside. The age old question put to Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” is as germane now as ever.
Two fb postings by friends this week offered a critique of the hyped up sexuality bandied about by so-called evangelical preachers who go on and on about their wives’ hotness. Apparently (something I was blissfully unaware of) there’s “an obsession among evangelical pastors/leaders with talking/tweeting endlessly about their ‘smokin’ hot wives—an obsession that has spread throughout American Christian culture” according to this blog post, which commends this critique by Mary DeMuth in Christianity Today called her-meneutics.
Truth be told, I’ve not listened to any of these preachers; don’t even recognize them by name. With a multitude of followers in thrall, they presume to speak with authority on all things biblical, godly and sexual. In my view, they are co-opted by our sexually saturated, consumptive culture. I deem their authority null and void.
The Song of Solomon talks in exhilarating ways about sexual intimacy, describing physical features of both the lover and the beloved with poetic rapture. Followers of Christ have a lot to learn about extolling the goodness of holy sexual intimacy that is shared between two lovers. No doubt, the preachers mentioned above are trying to correct for a long Christian history encumbered by uptight attitudes toward sexuality. To do so, however, by referring to one’s wife as if she were one more product to parade for her hotness is nothing less than preacher-endorsed pornography.
Those of us who long for reconciliation between men and women must find another way. How, I wonder, might a man speak of his wife if he truly loved her as a partner in mission rather than as a desirable object? How would lauding his wife’s vocation to serve God as a mother, professional, or neighbor be different from describing her as a play-thing? Any description that objectifies a woman—that focuses in the public arena on her “hotness” rather than on her partnership—demeans not only one’s wife, but all women. It is perverted sexuality—now scantily clad in Christian clothes. It is one more expression of sexualized marketing run amok. With nary a second thought, women’s bodies are being marketed through every venue imaginable; marketed not for their true beauty, winsomeness, talent or character. No. Women are being commodified for their body parts and their appeal as a consumable play-thing, in ways reminiscent of the slave trade.
This is grievous sin—with devastating consequences for women, men, families, and whole communities. When true preacher prophets (as opposed to false) align themselves with God’s purposes in the world, their voices ring with penetrating authority. The words they speak hold together both vertical and horizontal authority. Jeremiah’s prophetic warning rings with clarion authority in our day, as it did in his: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” says the Lord.
Ezekiel also cries out with God’s lament on behalf of men and women: “The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost…. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.”
April 15, 2013
Bread and cup on the table in the Chapel of the Sermon on the Mount.
Chapel last Friday was a retelling of the post-resurrection story of Jesus and Peter on the lake shore in at least six different ways: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” The multiple tellings in drama, story and song created an echoing, resonant space for deep, sustained listening. I was profoundly moved.
Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. Peter is anguished by the repetition. What Peter doesn’t understand, says Robert Schreiter in his book The Ministry of Reconciliation, is that this “threefold asking on Jesus’ part is the power of ritual in healing and reconciliation.” Jesus’ three queries became a ritual way of undoing Peter’s three denials of Jesus. They also became a threefold commissioning.
Ritual, says Schreiter, is an important aspect of reconciliation. Its repetitive nature underscores how difficult it can be to come to terms with the past. By asking Peter not once but three times, Jesus underscores the depth of pain Peter’s denials had caused Jesus. The repetition intensifies the effects of the “gravity of the denial that is being undone.”
Jesus’ threefold ritual-like-query also highlights the need for the story of a violation of trust and the restoration of trust to be told over and over. In each telling, the pain of the denial may gradually lessen its debilitating grip—and in each repetition, the space for grace and forgiveness may widen just a bit.
Ritual also helps us give public, common shape to our experience—creating a space in which a difficult past can find a kind of closure. Ritual can mark a coming to terms with the past—along with releasing the healing power needed to move into renewed hope for a future free of guilt and the captivity of fear.
It is in the ritual of the Lord’s Supper that I experience most vividly Jesus’ question to Peter: “Do you love me?.... Feed my sheep.” Somehow, in the eucharistic commemoration of Jesus’ torture and execution, we travel into disbelief and denial yet again. Why did it have to come to this—the death of all that we had hoped for?
Within the Eucharist, we remember Jesus’ death, but we also remember our own crushed hopes, disabling doubts, very real failures. Isn’t this in part what it means to remember Jesus’ death?
And then we are fed by Jesus: “Take, eat; this is my body….This cup is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Jesus, in his resurrected power, welcomes us to his table where we are invited to freely acknowledge our denial, our doubt, our suffering. He asks us, “Do you love me?” and then, with thanksgiving that we have come again to his table, Jesus feeds us, and commissions us, saying “Feed my sheep.”
To his frightened and astonished disciples he says: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you…. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained…. Peace be with you.”
We leave the table, jubilant with renewed hope!
While we were in Harrisonburg, Va., my husband and I, along with friends and seminary students, started a church with weekly celebration of the Eucharist at its core. We wondered why, if Jesus has given us such a powerful reminder of his forgiving, reconciling presence among us, do we so rarely celebrate the Eucharist? Why do we starve ourselves when Jesus longs to feed us at his table often and in resurrection joy? Why do we celebrate the Eucharist in such assembly line fashion, filing stiffly to the front to receive tiny nibbles of bread and mere drops of juice?
I could write at length about this because I care so passionately about it, but now I will be brief. The stark truth is that I, and I suspect many of us, are often left hungry, even starving in the midst of Mennonite worship. It reminds me of an observation my hungry little son made some years ago: “Sometimes I feel like a starver.”
What would it take to revitalize our Eucharistic worship to become an authentic table of reconciliation between us and God, and with each other? Why wouldn’t we celebrate communion at least on a weekly basis? Why are Mennonites, who pride ourselves on following Jesus in daily discipleship, so reluctant to live into the fullness of death, resurrection, and reconciliation made known at Jesus’ table?
“Simon, son of John. Do you love me?... Feed my sheep.”
March 18, 2013
Defensive Walls of Gdansk (Middle Ages)
There was a lot of talk in my growing up years about being “separate from the world.” At least some of the markers of that separateness were enforced by bishops and school officials. Vigilance of the boundaries between us and the world was a constant preoccupation. I acquired the strong impression from the border guards that if we did everything just right, we could keep the nastiness of the world out. Within our carefully guarded enclave, the purity of the church would be preserved.
I’m not here to assess how that all shook down or to do a reprise of what some might argue were happy or unfortunate outcomes. But I would like to raise several questions that surfaced for me after reading a fascinating op ed about the new pope by New York Times columnist David Brooks called “How Movements Recover.”
About Pope Francis, Brooks said: “It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who says he prefers a church that suffers ‘accidents on the streets’ to a church that is sick because it self-referentially closes in on itself.” Brooks contrasted two rival reform movements to restore the integrity of Catholicism at the beginning of the fourth century. During a time of crisis in the church, the Donatist movement chose a defensive posture—promoting separation from impurity, reestablishing core principles and defending them against what they perceived as hostile forces.
Augustine, on the other hand, considered the Donatists’ approach much too static. In sealing themselves off to “ride out the storm” they ended up “sealing themselves in.” Augustine suggested that the church should be “a dynamic, ever-changing network, propelled onto the streets by its own tensions”; firmly rooted, but eager for discovery.
Brooks’ op ed prompted me to ask several questions about our current North American Mennonite Church. Some might argue that we’re experiencing a crisis—with declining membership and intractable disagreements. How, I wonder, do we restore the integrity of the Anabaptist Mennonite movement? Are we called to provide a holy alternative to an unclean world? What degrees of separation are essential to preserve a faithful community? Is closing ranks against impurity the most promising way to defend core principles from hostile forces?
For some of us a defensive posture may feel like our default impulse. When we feel besieged by an overwhelming invasion of “the world,” we throw up walls of protection. We guard against what threatens to rob us of all we hold dear. We become defenders of the faith.
There is, however, a rare but more successful strategy Brooks suggests, which looks more like what Augustine proposed. It’s counterintuitive in that it requires a lack of defensiveness. Rather than throwing up walls during a time of weakness, it requires making oneself even more vulnerable. Rather than withdrawing, it requires wading into the fray. Rather than sealing oneself off from so-called sinners, it requires embracing them in love.
Such a lack of defensiveness and readiness to be vulnerable can grow only out of steady confidence that one’s identity, one’s faith is secure even amid the crisis.
How do those of us committed to practice reconciliation, I wonder, prepare ourselves to embrace vulnerability? Where do we find the deep formation, the sustaining power that enables us to be secure in our faith? How might a lack of defensiveness open us to discover God in people and places we’d never imagined possible?
March 01, 2013
I remember the panic that welled up as I took the phone call from Germany. We were meeting in Croatia as an MCC “fraternity” of students working in Eastern Europe. Our leaders were suddenly called home to Germany because their young son had been hit by a car while crossing the street. He was in a coma. They were now calling back to the group of us still together in a hotel in Zagreb. We fully expected the word might be that little Alex had died. I was terrified with not knowing how to respond to such devastating pain. Thankfully, Alex survived. But that frozen-in-fear moment remains riveted in my mind.
Many other moments when clutching fear reared up in the face of pain come quickly to mind: when my brother told me he was gay and we both wept in our confused attempt to understand what this would mean for him and our relationship; when mental illness showed up in our immediate family and I knew I was way out of my depth; when my big heartedness wasn’t enough to hold together a fractured congregation; when mediating between a jaded student and ill-tempered professor landed us all in legal woo woo land….and on and on.
Perhaps it’s weathering decades of finding a way through pain-filled disruptions that makes me more sanguine about facing into them. I am more in touch with my own inability to manage all contingencies and apply quick fixes. I wonder less about why this painful event has occurred and more about where God’s reconciling grace might show up within it.
This week I’m in the midst of yet another excruciatingly painful relational upheaval. My problem solving propensity is working in overdrive. Every discerning, prayer-filled, spiritual muscle is being exercised. And yet I often find myself with hands extended outward and upward—letting go.
Whether the painful place is a personal family matter, a church conflict, on the job maliciousness, violent outbursts, or whether it is denomination-wide heart break over seemingly irreconcilable differences—we find ourselves in places of immense suffering. Is it too much to say in faith—this is where we are, in the providence of God?
I wonder if practicing reconciliation means standing in those places where we are stretched apart as if on a cross. I’ve never been one to appreciate macabre cross scenes. But as I reflect on the most acutely painful attempts at reconciliation I’ve been involved in, no other image serves as well.
What does it mean to be stretched to the breaking point in order to hold together in a wide embrace those who hatefully accuse each other? What does it mean to be maligned because you’ve chosen to stand in the middle rather than take sides? What does it mean to hold together within the suffering love of Christ precisely what is threatening to tear us apart?
As persons called to practice reconciliation, we are where we are—in the providence of God. Whether sanguine or not, we move through the fear of pain right into the unbearable fracture—to extend shalom. We embody hope. We don our best negotiating skills. We show compassionate leadership. But we do so with our hands extended outward and upward—letting go. Trusting in the grace-filled providence of God to bring us through.
This blog is hosted by Sara Wenger Shenk. While Sara is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, she writes as a practical theologian trying to make sense of everyday life—in light of God's reconciling mission in the world.
The views Sara shares here are not the voice of AMBS. As a woman, mother, author, educator, lover of God, Sara is a restless scout—searching out ways that lead toward God’s shalom. She doesn’t assert answers so much as pose questions, test assumptions, resist labels, play with possibilities, experiment with integration, practice wholeness. She hopes this blog will provide a spacious forum for thoughtful discernment around sometimes contentious issues.