Last week was Pastor’s Week at AMBS. I found myself inspired and convicted in a number of ways. Below is the reflection that I shared with my church this morning. This is something of a follow up to my previous post here.
Reflection on Pastors week 2011
This week I made the trip up to Elkhart, Indiana to Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary for an annual gathering of pastors. The keynote speaker was Dr. Rev. Cleophus LaRue who spoke to us about preaching with imagination. It was inspiring to both learn from his expertise and to listen to him preach.
It was also a great time to get together with some other peers that I haven’t seen for a while. It was refreshing to hear how others were doing and to support each other in our ministry and work.
One of the other significant things that I’ve been involved with this past week is an ongoing discussion about the national convention for our denomination that is scheduled to be held in Phoenix in 2013. Some of you are aware of the ongoing discussion about this convention, but others might not be, so let me try to bring you up to speed. Every two years our denomination gathers together in a different city for both a youth convention and an adult convention. In 2009 the convention planners decided to hold the 2013 convention in Phoenix. Later that year the state of Arizona passed a new immigration law. Many support this law while many others see it as unconstitutional. Many people in the Mennonite church have said that it goes directly against the Biblical mandate to take care of the foreigner and the immigrant. Still others have pointed to our official denominational position as a call to action. This statement was adopted in 2003 and says, “We reject our country’s mistreatment of immigrants, repent of our silence, and commit ourselves to act with and on behalf of our immigrant brothers and sisters, regardless of their legal status.” After the Arizona law was passed there were numerous people throughout the church, led by the Hispanic Mennonite Churches, who called for the convention to be cancelled partly because they do not feel that it is safe for people of color to even go to the state of Arizona in order to attend the convention.
As a result the executive board of the denomination spent the better part of 2010 listening to a wide variety of people throughout the denomination as they seriously weighed the possibility of cancelling the convention, even considering that to do so would mean the loss of the down payment that we had put on the convention facilities. About three weeks ago the board met to make a final decision. They decided to continue with the plans and to have the convention in Phoenix. In addition plans will also be made to have a satellite location so that people who are not able to attend because of safety or conscience can still participate in the work of the church.
At pastors week there was a special time where two of the board members shared about the process and took questions from a variety of concerned people. At this meeting I quickly realized that while the specifics at this time might have to do with Arizona and a particular law, the real issues for our church and our country are much larger and much deeper. In this meeting I realized that what really matters is not some intellectual argument about a law, or an abstract discussion about what might or might not happen. What matters the most are the stories of the people that were in that circle. I found that I was sitting next to people who not only had a variety of views on this issue but who are also personally affected by this issue. I listened to the pastors from Colombia who were on sabbatical at the seminary and spoke of their close friends in the United States who fear for their safety on a daily basis and who simply could not understand why the denomination would possibly consider still going to Phoenix. I also listened to the pastor from Ohio whose congregation couldn’t understand why we would not go to Phoenix because they see that the Biblical call is to go to the places of injustice and to speak the truth of God. I listened to the black woman who is my age who, with tears in her eyes, said that she has always felt like a second class citizen in the Mennonite Church and is just plain tired of fighting for basic rights. I also listened to the pastor who shared that while many in his congregation are committed to working for justice, many still see no problem with the immigration law at all and can’t understand what the fuss is about. And, finally, I listened to the pastor of Shalom Mennonite Church in Tuscon, Arizona who shared that, on one hand, he would love to be a host and have the denomination gather in his state. But on the other hand he said that he has a member of his congregation who recently came to him and said, ‘when I get deported this is where my children are to go’ and that he can’t ask others to voluntarily place themselves in that kind of danger.
As I sat listening to the stories of the people gathered there I began to realize how deeply divided and broken our church really is. I don’t think that this issue has actually created divisions but rather has exposed what has already existed for an incredibly long time. The discussion at pastor’s week really opened my eyes, not only to the divisions and difficulties on a national level, but also the ones closer to home. In our local conference, South Central Conference, while we can say that we have a strong group of Hispanic churches in South Texas the reality is that because of the distance between the Kansas churches and the South Texas churches, we very rarely spend any time together we are quickly loosing our connections with each other. In our town of Harper I think of an entire group of people who are invisible to most of us. I think of the boy in the grade school whose mother told him that if he ever got in trouble he was never to call 911 but to rather to call his uncle instead. I have to think of our own church and the fact that our brothers and sisters from Bolivia cannot come here to Harper to be with us because of my countries immigration policy. I even think of the division within myself. While I think of myself as committed to peace and justice I am painfully aware that I live in such a way that I don’t really ever come into contact with anyone who doesn’t already look or think like me. What’s worse I confess that I have failed to even raise this deeply important issue in our church because I know that we have people who have who have very different views and I am simply afraid of how this church will respond.
As I have thought about this past week and the state of the church I have come to realize that the true issue is not about a particular law, whether we go to Phoenix as a church or the politics that we each hold. The true issue comes down to what it means to be the church. This week I have come back to the book of Ephesians chapter 4 which says, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” This week, as I have thought about how our denomination is dealing with the decision to go to the convention in Phoenix and the overall state of the church I have found myself questioning whether we still believe that this verse is true. Do we really believe that we are one church? Do we really believe in one God who is over all and through all? Do we really believe that being a Christian abolishes the boundaries of race, class, and nationality? Do we really believe that we are called to stand with our fellow Christians who are suffering, whether they are across the street or around the world?
Lest you think that I’ve lost all hope let me assure you that I haven’t. I do see signs that give me hope that with the power of God, we can go through our brokenness to become the people that God wants us to be. I have hope when I see those in our denomination who work tirelessly for justice. I have hope when I see the teacher in Harper stand up for the children who are picked on and rejected. I have hope when I see the hard work and commitment of this church to maintain our relationships with the Bolivian church. I have hope when I see our community come together at Pancake Day to raise thousands of dollars that will go to easing the difficulty in our community. I have hope when I see people break down the walls that separate us simply by making a new friend with someone who is different than they are. We are in a difficult spot as a church. Our brokenness is exposed. But as we learned in our series on Henri Nouwen, it is through our brokenness that the grace of God can truly shine. After a long and intense week, I have now come to lay my hope in the power of God to work through our brokenness, nothing more, nothing less. So may the God who is above all and through all and in all take our lives and now work through us so that the light of God’s healing love may be felt throughout our broken land.