This week, July 4-8, Mennonites from across the U.S. will gather in Orlando, Fla., for the Mennonite Church USA biennial convention. I have spent my whole life going to these conventions, so it feels weird not to be going this year.
There are many things to celebrate in regards to MC USA, but as you will see by this email exchange with a friend, knowing how to relate to all the denominational policies and procedures can sometimes be painful. Here is just one example of a very recent denominational decision that has many in the church feeling angry and disappointed.
The same week this news broke, I received the following email from a friend/fellow Mennonite pastor. What follows is my response.
hi ruth –
am i remembering right that you are not going to be at orlando?
would you be up for a pep talk/real hope? by that i mean, i’m headed to orlando with a heavy heart, tears come to my eyes at the thought of being there.
if you have time to have a talk about how to even engage the state of the church experience, i’d welcome talking with you, one of my grounding, long term people!
You are correct about me not going to Orlando. As for a pep talk, I just returned from a trip to Alaska with my family, so my heart is still with the mountains, moose, rivers and bears.
Did you know that of all the tourists who come to Alaska each year, specifically to get a view of Mount Denali, only 30 percent are successful? This is because the weather is often cloudy and rainy — by often I mean 70 percent of the time. It must be incredibly disappointing, especially since going to Alaska isn’t cheap! The Harder family was extremely fortunate in that we had three beautiful and sunny days. And Mount Denali doesn’t disappoint in its splendor and size.
So what does that have to do with the “state of the church experience?” I want to believe there is still beauty, splendor, mysticism and majesty to be found and experienced within the confines of the church — yes, even MC USA — but unfortunately there is a whole lot of “cloud cover” blocking our view of the larger horizon that Jesus calls us to. We walk away disappointed and brokenhearted and just plain broke by the church (trips from Kansas to Florida aren’t cheap, either!), some of us a lot more than 70 percent of the time.
I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what it would be like to lay my own eyes on Mount Denali. It was more beautiful, larger and more mystical-looking than what I could have imagined. So I guess one of my prayers for MC USA right now is that people will gather knowing that God is so much bigger than what we already know right now. For people to go to Orlando believing that what they know of God or discipleship is good enough would be tragic.
My 10-year-old nieces squealed with delight when seeing bears and moose in the wild. We adults did, too. With binoculars in hand, we scanned the landscape for any sign of movement. Dare I dream of a church where children and adults are once again regularly amazed and delighted, actively looking for God’s fresh movement (maybe not with binoculars in hand, but you know what I mean)? Again, I only dare to dream this an average of 30 percent of the time; sometimes more, sometimes less.
We learned that the first person who claimed to reach the summit of Mount Denali had miscalculated and hadn’t actually reached the highest point. How embarrassing. He planted his flag believing himself to have conquered the tallest mountain in North America. I fear Mennonites sometimes do this with peacemaking. We make these claims, congratulate ourselves, only to realize that sometimes violence is done in our very own homes and churches and over and over we miscalculate the damage done in Jesus’ name, or in the name of peacemaking — damage that can never be undone.
Eventually someone reached the true summit, and still to this day climbers from all over the world try to do the inconceivable. But very few make it, probably way fewer than 30 percent. That should keep us humble, hopefully with sights still set high.
I guess one final thought is that we couldn’t have survived Alaska without dramamine, Advil, mosquito repellent and wine (for the responsible adults in my family).
So there you have it. That’s my pep talk. I will be praying for you and the wider church, at least 30 percent of the time next week. Oh, and bring Advil!
Ruth Harder is the pastor of Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kan. She blogs at Over and Around the Rainbow, where this first appeared.