Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Blog

Defaulting defensively. Any alternatives?

March 18, 2013

Defensive Walls of Gdansk (Middle Ages)

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?


In the providence of God—letting go

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.