Several months ago I left the Reference Council gathering of Western District Conference feeling all twisted up. I don’t particularly enjoy talking about or stirring up controversy. There are others much more skilled than me in this department. I feel much more at home in smaller gatherings where there can be more dialogue, deeper listening, and give-and-take conversation. So as I stepped to the microphone I felt nervous. More than that, I felt wracked with pain as I thought about the divisions, conflicts, and suffering being experienced today in the Mennonite Church, a historic peace church. A part of me feared that I would be yet another person adding insult to injury. I often think of the following Barbara Brown Taylor quote: “Human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God.” Of course it is much easier to accuse others of behaving badly. What if I’m the arrogant one, zealous in protecting who I believe God to be?
Another reason I felt twisted up after this particular gathering is that I was raised within Western District Conference. And so, as I stepped to the microphone my life sort of flashed before more eyes. I looked out and saw members of my home-town church where I learned about Jesus. I looked and saw former Bethel College professors who showed me how to love the study of Scripture with heart, soul, and mind. I looked and saw friends, my dad, former and current church members, fellow Camp Mennoscah supporters, and parents and grandparents of close friends. Finally, I looked and saw fellow colleagues in ministry who I’m confident know what it is like to feel all twisted up, uncertain and afraid of what conflict over biblical authority and sexuality is doing to our individual bodies, the bodies of those we love, and the body we call the church.
As I stood at the front of the room, I saw faces of those who have always been taught or led to believe that people who are attracted to the same gender are the ones who are twisted up. I saw faces of mothers, fathers, grandparents, and siblings whose faces were twisted in grief because their children have been denied entry into the church or ministry because of their sexual orientation. And then there was the person in the back who sat with his hands over his face the whole time I spoke. What was his story? I wondered.
I thought of the ancient benediction, “May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.” I didn’t see many shining faces at this particular gathering. Instead what I saw were bodies, faces, words, twisted in fear, pain, grief, and anger. How I long for the day when this is not so.
Sometimes it feels as though the entire Mennonite Church USA body is all twisted up. Instead of being this well-functioning, beautiful body of Christ that the Apostle Paul talks about, it’s like we’re all sprawled out on a Twister mat, all vying for our rightful spot on the game mat. Bodies (some bigger than others) are reaching, flailing, and as a result some are getting injured or worse, getting tossed from the game mat entirely. Some see God or the Bible as some Twister Color Dial Controller. The Bible determines where each person stands, whom by, and where we can and cannot place our body parts. End of discussion. Or to stretch this metaphor even further, some study the Bible and sense God giving a green light to those in same-sex relations. Others are more cautious and stick to the yellows and oranges, and still others choose to stand firmly on red, unmovable.
Assuming we don’t end up collapsing into one big pile at the end, I keep wondering how the Spirit of God might be moving in between and among us. How might the reconciling Spirit be indwelling and redeeming all of our twisted up customs, traditions, and theologies, drawing us into new life, perhaps even new colors, new community?
Whatever happens this summer at the Mennonite Church USA convention will happen. Meanwhile, I commit to praying the following prayer every day from now until June 30:
May the Lord bless us and keep us.
May God’s face shine upon us and be gracious to us, and give us peace.
I will say this prayer of blessing with gratitude for the ways I have already felt blessed by the gifts and ministry of people of a variety of sexualities and genders. I will say this prayer of blessing in hopes for a day when queer people will be allowed and encouraged to bless the church more and more with their gifts. Finally, I will continue to hope that the reconciling Spirit will grant us all the grace and humility to remember that God’s blessing is not owned by any one of us. We need not cover our faces in shame or in grief. We need not stay twisted up.