Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Blog

Called to practice reconciliation

September 02, 2014

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Loavesofbread

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Loavesofbread

“Go…. So that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-3).
“Go.” Leave what is known… for some place that is not yet known.

The call of Abraham is an ancient story. Some 4000 years ancient. What it preserves for us is a glimpse of one man’s encounter with God; an encounter that dramatically changed human history.

The call of Abraham is one of those classic texts that brings everything into sharp focus.

God calls persons. It’s that simple. God called Abraham, and God called many others whose stories are told in Scripture and throughout church history.

God calls each of us—in some fashion. Perhaps in ways we’ve only partially named and are still discovering.

A call is a mysterious thing, laden with wonderment, doubt, many testings over time.

There are calls that set a trajectory—and deeply form a way of life. There are calls that come in the moment—to which we can respond because of a baptismal calling that has shaped us over time.

Three recent stories come quickly to mind:

Journalist James Foley's brutal execution by the Islamic State stunned the world. At a mass in his home Catholic parish, Rev. Paul Gausse offered a prayer for the perpetrators of James’ killing. “We are not just praying for us and the Foley family, but praying for those who have perpetrated this kind of evil,” he said. “James felt compelled to be a witness to people in conflict. This was his mission.” And James’ mother Diane Foley added. “[James] died for that compassion and that love, and I pray that he can be remembered that way and that he [will] not have died in vain.” And to Rev. Gausse she added: “Father, pray for me that I don’t become bitter. I don’t want to hate.”

Protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer. Rev. Willis Johnson, a local Ferguson pastor, felt called into the fray. A photo in the Washington Post showed the pastor in a powerful embrace with protester 18 year-old Joshua Wilson. In an NPR interview later about what was happening in that photo, Pastor Johnson said that as police were ordering protesters to move aside, he was trying to keep Wilson out of harm's way. "If anything” he said, “[my embrace of Wilson] was to affirm him — and to affirm both of us — because in that moment, we were being disaffirmed. We were being told ... that what we were doing was wrong, and it was not wrong."

The New York Times carried the story last week of Josephine Finda Sellu, a deputy nurse matron in Sierra Leone. After 15 of her nurses died from Ebola, she thought about quitting herself. “It has been a nightmare,” she said. “Since the whole thing started, I have cried a lot…. I am a senior nurse. All the junior nurses look up to me. If I left,” she said, “the whole thing would collapse…. There are times when I say, Oh my God, I should have chosen secretarial.” But her job as a healer, she said “is the calling of God.”

However a call of God comes, those testified to by God’s people, by followers of Jesus throughout the generations, often include some resemblance to Abram’s call:

There is an initiative by God; an invitation—or even a command.

  • Go to a land I will show you.
  • Leave your nets.
  • Witness to people in conflict.
  • Take a stand for justice.
  • Be a healer.
  • Come, follow me.

The call is personal. Abram. Moses. Esther. James. Willis. Josephine. But in a profound and ultimate way, it isn’t about any one of us.

  • “So that you will be a blessing”….
  • “So that all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

This is where a call keeps shifting in and out of focus. It’s about me—each of us. But it isn’t about any one of us. It’s about aligning our lives with the magnificent reconciling mission of God in the world.

Tags: leaders , practicing reconciliation

"Pastoral letter" from friends in the UK

October 11, 2013

In this post I share a “pastoral letter” from Anabaptists in the United Kingdom who are praying for us. Alan Kreider notes this in introductory comments to the letter:

The influence of John Howard Yoder’s writing is global. So the discernment that is current in North America about his writing and abusive behaviour will have an impact in many places globally. As someone who for many years was involved with the Anabaptist Network in the UK, I wanted the leaders there to be informed about the matter, so that they could discern with us and pray for us. In late August I wrote to Stuart Murray, a leading English Anabaptist thinker, providing him with a brief resume of what has happened here. Stuart then sent my letter to key participants in the Anabaptist Network, including conveners of the thirteen Anabaptist Study Groups scattered around the UK. Several weeks thereafter, the group that meets in the northern city of Manchester at its monthly meeting discussed the Yoder situation. After their meeting, their convener, theologian Brian Haymes, summarized their discussion and sent us the letter that is attached here with his and the Group’s consent. I am grateful for this Group, for their fidelity to Christ as English Christians learning from the Anabaptist tradition, and for their solidarity with us in prayer at this time of difficulty and hope. Alan Kreider

Dear Friends,

Following the request for prayer from Stuart Murray Williams to all Anabaptist groups concerning the situation that has arisen around John Howard Yoder we gave over much of our monthly meeting on Monday 16 September to this matter. Our knowledge of the situation is very limited although some members had discovered websites which told some of the story. All of the group admitted to being taken aback at the scale of the abuse.

JHY’s family and especially his widow were often mentioned. We realize they have carried and are still carrying a heavy load. They are not often mentioned in the written material available to us. We felt for them.

Much debate went on around the role of the seminary. Several of the group members had taught or presently teach in Colleges [which in North America are called seminaries] and were aware of the difficulty such a high profile case posed for the integrity of the institution. We thought the initial prompt action by the seminary was right and there was much support for the seminary’s present actions in refusing to bury the past in unhealed forgetfulness. We acknowledged that the leadership is responding in more creative public ways than some British institutions have done in such matters.

We knew we were in no position to judge JHY’s sincerity. Did he earnestly seek to share the discipline process? That, we thought, was a crucial question. There are issues here that are very important but that we were in no position to judge.

One of our members spoke quietly and tentatively about the possibility of JHY being troubled by Asperger’s Syndrome. He raised this question because he himself suffers with this syndrome and thought he sensed things in the story which he recognized. He told us that such is the nature of the problem that any sufferer has to have the reality of what they are doing pushed right square before their eyes before they will recognize the morality of their actions. Intelligent people with this syndrome have amazing abilities for self-deception. We had no way, of course, of judging all this but it added a possible level of sensitivity without in any way excusing what was done. We were moved by our member’s self-disclosure.

Another person in the group said that JHY was said to be working on some papers on sexual ethics, as yet unpublished. We thought these might reveal something important but would need reading with a very high level of critical insight as to their arguments.

A virtually unanimous response from the members was that it sounded as though the victims of abuse had not had the attention and care they should have had, especially in contrast to the help and counsel given to JHY. From our experience we knew that institutions could be more concerned for the offender and the good name of the institution than those who received the deepest pain. We knew of situations where this meant that wounds were left untreated and people suffered a serious loss of care by the community. We recognized we had a lot to learn ourselves in this respect. A high profile offender can claim too much attention by an institution wanting to keep its good name.

There was a clear distinction in the group as to JHY’s standing as a teacher. Most recognized that like all teachers he was a flawed man and that his work, especially in human relationships, should be read with much critical care. But we also acknowledged that the writings of JHY had meant a great deal to many of us and had been a blessing from God. A minority among us felt that he was too seriously damaged and that all his work was now in question. There was, however, strong support for the seminary’s actions in (a) maintaining courses in JHY’s work while (b) engaging in a public examination of the case and the consequences for all involved. This openness, while vulnerable to criticism and misunderstanding, was thought by the group to be a courageous and proper way forward.

Part of what makes this such a difficult issue is precisely the great Anabaptist insight into the fundamental relationship in Christian discipleship between belief and practice, that the Gospel truth we know shows in the way we live. JHY taught this so helpfully but apparently lived it so disappointingly. But let those of us without sin ….

We tried to imagine what all this must mean to the local congregation and seminary who had to bear and judge so much. Part of the Body of Christ is wounded from within and we felt for the pastors and members.

All this turned us to prayer and that prayer will continue in the personal devotions of group members. Please be assured that Anabaptists in the UK are standing with you as best we can, asking for healing, renewal and peace for all, longing for God to bring from this situation new beginnings we can hardly imagine. We greet you in Christ who is our peace.



Tags: john howard yoder , practicing reconciliation

A (potentially transformative) Teachable Moment

September 12, 2013

Credit: Peter Ringenberg

Credit: Peter Ringenberg

The pulse of our church-wide network of connection is racing in recent weeks. Anxiety has spiked for some persons with the reemergence of deliberations around John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse along with the church’s prolonged failure to act decisively to prevent further victimizations and to seek healing. On the other hand, many persons are relieved that we’re talking about it; animated by and even hopeful about this opportunity to learn and grow as a people.

In what I read in the press and blogosphere or receive personally in emails and conversations, what intrigues me is who or what we choose to fault—whether JHY; or the “angry women”; or former church leaders; or current church leaders; or systemic forces like patriarchy, sexism, white male power; or a younger generation that doesn’t understand the historical context; or malevolent demonic powers…. You get the picture. Most of us tend to name the problem quite narrowly.

I think it’s absolutely essential to do the truth-telling work required to assess responsibility where it appropriately lies. Healing and reconciliation will not happen until that work is undertaken (and there will soon be reports from the discernment group convened by Ervin Stutzman about that).

But if we focus too narrowly on who or what is at fault, we may miss out on the generative conversations we must have in order to grow in maturity as a people of faith. As an educator, I recognize this as a profoundly teachable moment in our church—and for that I am hopeful!

I’ve listed below some of the additional conversations we should be having throughout the church—and are having at places like AMBS. This Practicing Reconciliation blog will become a platform for speaking to some of them by our AMBS faculty. 

  • “How do we have a richer conversation about power—abuse of power, yes, but also nurturing power, power for justice, power for good? How can men and women each acknowledge the power they wield and commit to work collaboratively for the well-being of our communities?”
  • "How can the church better create space for worship and transformative change both for those whose immediate, salient experience is having been sinned against and those whose immediate, salient experience is that of having sinned against others?"
  • "What are the proactive steps that some congregations and church organizations have already taken to help guard against physical and sexual abuse in our homes and churches and where have we fallen short?  How can we be helpful to each other in making our churches and communities safer places?"
  • "How many of our families and congregations are able to talk thoughtfully about our sexual selves in relation to our lives of faith?  What needs to happen so we can speak honestly and relevantly about Christian sexual ethics in ways that permit personal growth, healing, forgiveness, and joy?"
  • “What would a positive theology of friendship between women and men entail? How do we make space for friendships between persons who deeply respect each other and communities where we so genuinely love each other as beloved children of God that we wouldn't think of crossing boundaries?”
  •  “We must have an in-depth discussion about the face of Grace and the shape of forgiveness, especially in the absence of a perpetrator's public confession. How can we explore the deeper issues of evil and grace theologically and jointly along with the psychological dynamics that tend to dominate the conversation thus far? Can we prayerfully visualize the kind of healing and wholeness longed for in light of God’s desire to reconcile all things?”
  •  “What can we learn by revisiting Yoder’s theology in light of his abusive behavior to ask how patriarchal tendencies in the 1940s and 50s helped shape Yoder in damaging ways, asking questions such as are his "politics of Jesus" overly masculine? Does his vision of ecclesial process insufficiently account for power imbalances? etc.”
  • “How do we do theology with real, broken people as our guides? Many of the people whose work shapes our ethics, worship and life together were broken in their personal and academic lives. How do we hold the tension of exclusion and embrace: excluding the things that are oppressive, embracing the things that are helpful? How do we consciously read and assess their work in ways that critically examine what they call us to and boldly name the places where their thinking falls short?”
  •  “How do we create an ethos in which persons of great intellectual power are in close relationships of spiritual (including behavioral) accountability? Biblical understandings of the interdependence of gifts and psychological insights into multiple intelligences offer us tools for overcoming the ‘intimidation factor’ that hides abusive behaviors and deforms community. Great intellectual power which does not submit itself to Christ's Lordship is another rebellious and fallen power—and should be so named.”
  • “What are the resources of the Scriptures that tell it like it is—the raw and redemptive truth—whether the rape of Tamar, or Jesus’ clear word that ‘Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart?’”

These are a few of the conversational topics that grow out of this teachable moment in the life of our church. What are topics that you’re engaged in or wish would happen as we practice reconciliation in our diverse communities?

I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s exhortation: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

Tags: john howard yoder , practicing reconciliation

Hyped up sexuality—a Christianized perversion

May 06, 2013

Credit -- Florian Vincent, Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Tags: practicing reconciliation , smokin hot wives

“Sometimes I feel like a starver”

April 15, 2013

Bread and cup on the table in the Chapel of the Sermon on the Mount.

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.”

Tags: practicing reconciliation

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.