Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Blog

What does faithfulness look like?

April 29, 2014

A.D.Wenger and Annie Lehman Wenger

A.D.Wenger and Annie Lehman Wenger

I just completed reading a new, beautiful book written by two cousins about my grandparents, called A.D. & Annie: Stories, letters and memories of A.D.Wenger and Annie Lehman Wenger. There are some 10 endorsements on the front flyleaf, including praise from John Sharp, Don Kraybill, Shirley Showalter and John Ruth who called it a “rare cornucopia of Mennonite family lore.”

I never knew A.D. and Annie—so the book surprised me with the gift of my grandfather and grandmother. I’d had glimpses of them through my father’s stories—but now I see them more fully through their own words and relationships. An overwhelming gift!

Their story revolves around intense, often heated negotiations about how to be faithful followers of Jesus. My grandparents’ generation “knew” what faithfulness looked like. Plain dress said in an instant who all was complying with the community norm of expected behavior. Faithfulness was expressed in frugality, nonresistance, Bible study, foot washing and the fruit of the Spirit. But the plain suit, covering strings and conformity (or nonconformity) on a host of matters was a coded language that made faithfulness immediately recognizable.

Both A.D. and Annie had a commitment to education which was unusual in their communities. A.D. became the second president of what is now Eastern Mennonite University. Along with other visionary Mennonites, they organized schools to form young people in faithfulness—in biblical knowledge, core commitments and lifestyle choices—that was intended to make them distinctive as they engaged with literature, science, mathematics, history, music and more.

Over and over again, as a church community, we renegotiate what the markers of faithfulness look like. We are in the midst of it again—with a fierce intensity that indicates many of us still want to be faithful disciples of Jesus.

Is our intensity an encouraging sign? Perhaps! If the heatedness of our renegotiation about how to be faithful disciples genuinely grows out of love—then I would venture a confident “Yes.” But I wonder if the depth and breadth of our love is up to the challenge.

Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize-winning physicist is reported to have said: “The opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth.”

Is there a way to hold seemingly opposite truths together, asks Parker Palmer, and in that holding, to allow the tension to pull our hearts open to a larger and larger love?

The suffering brought on by holding together a profound truth that appears to oppose another profound truth is neither to be avoided nor merely survived but must be actively embraced, says Palmer. The embrace of the tension expands our hearts, inviting us to see God at work in everything, in everyone.

Over and over again, Jesus showed us how he allowed seemingly opposite truths to pull his heart wider open in the midst of great suffering. Paul saw what most of us miss: that in Jesus “all things hold together.”

In this season of Easter—in the power of the resurrection—I long for us as a people, to be distinctive in immediately recognizable ways. I want us to stay intensely engaged in negotiation about how to be faithful disciples of Jesus—and to love each other enough to stay in warm, family-like relationship. How can we be a church where all are genuinely welcomed (with our differences) into Jesus’ family and be a church that honors God with our ethnicity, our sexuality, our education?

I’m guessing “the world” wouldn’t be surprised at all to see us divide yet again over our differences. Polarizing along the lines drawn by political categories would be to choose an easy “worldly” option, in my view.

Conversely, I can’t imagine any more distinctive witness to faithfulness than what Jesus instructed his disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Tags: faithfulness

I fear no evil

April 02, 2014

I preached on Psalm 23 last Sunday--the Lenten psalm of the day. I’m guessing some folks might have thought “Why would a seminary president go out of her way to preach on such a nice, mother’s milk and apple pie psalm?” The worship leader even said as much when she opened the service.

Niceness is hardly what attracted me to Psalm 23. It was the darkest valley--the valley of the shadow of death that pulled me in. Not because I have a macabre imagination. Not because I’m prone toward depression. Nor because we’ve had an interminably long winter.

I was drawn there because of the astonishing lack of fear the psalmist experiences in that threatening place. The psalmist sits at table (in the presence of enemies mind you), exhilarated by overflowing goodness and mercy! And no fear of evil!

As we all know too well, it’s not only in some metaphorical dark valley where evil bedevils. Evil lurks in the most unsuspected places. It can even masquerade as a righteous cause--dressed up to appear noble and pure.

When I woke mid-dream this morning, I realized I was angry. I prayerfully scanned my spirit for the focus of my anger. The best I could do was to name it EVIL: an insidious, invasive, arrogance that has us so sure of our own rightness that we stop listening, stop wondering if we might be doing more harm than good, stop acknowledging that we might be wrong.

Jesus clearly got angry at those who thought they had a lock on the law, on the Scriptures, on the righteous institutions of the day: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith…. You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

Jesus also wasn’t a marauding libertarian with no regard for the law. He addressed that misguided notion directly: “Do you think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the law].”

"You have heard it was said to those of ancient times…but I say to you….”

Jesus takes the prevailing assumption about the law and reinterprets it. Over and over again, he shows the way to a realignment of interior desire with a desire for God. He shows the way to reinterpret the law so that love of God and neighbor is paramount in interior affections and external actions.

In these roiling days some persons seem highly anxious because, in their view, biblical authority is at risk if we change our views on sexuality—or alternatively, others seem eager to ignore the biblical witness altogether.

I have the amazing opportunity to work in a learning community that has a profound respect for the Scriptures and their authoritative ability to reveal God in Christ to us. We are unafraid of the hard questions. We have no fear in what to many seems like a dark valley of confusion about how to interpret the Scriptures.

Our freedom to discover how it is we’re called in our day to fulfill the law--to fulfill, as Jesus says, “the weightier matters of the law--justice, mercy and faith” is exhilarating!

There is an abundance of goodness and mercy for all—with cups overflowing. The Good Shepherd who said, “I know my own and my own know me” has prepared the table.

Now that will preach!

Tags: pastors and leaders , Scripture

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.