That Awesome Sermon From ACA

You may recall that in my last post, Finding The Gate, I told you about a beyond fantastic and spirit filled message given by Jessica Schrock Ringenberg.  Imagine my delight today when I ran across a link that went to her blog on The Mennonite’s webpage and it had a copy of the actual sermon itself!!

And then the despair as I read through it to experience it again, and realized that my paraphrasing of the sermon didn’t do justice to how incredibly thought-provoking Jessica’s words were.

LGBTQ: The middle’s turn to speak – Jessica Schrock Ringenberg

Above is the link to Jessica’s post.  Take the time today to visit her blog and read her wonderful words.  I pray that you find them as stirring and inspiring as I did.


Finding the Gate

The dust is beginning to settle and another annual conference assembly is in the books.  I started out this weekend with great trepidation and it wasn’t without cause.

We fellowshiped together.

We worshipped together.

We felt frustrated with each other.

We continued to ignore some of the elephants in our midst, but identified other elephants.

We built up fences between us.

And then just when all hope seemed to be lost, when deep and permanent fractures seemed to loom on the horizon for the Ohio Mennonite Conference of MC USA, the Holy Spirit moved among us and helped us find a gate that opened in our dividing fence.

We, as a conference, have found a way to draw a line in the sand, but also leave enough space to allow grace and mercy to intercede when needed.

In the midst of emotional highs and lows, some very gifted pastors helped us to remember that we are all different and come from different places, and that is a good thing! While all six pastors that spoke to us delivered wonderful messages that were incredibly timely for the issues we were working on, two of these pastors in particular stuck out and struck deep chords in me.

Pastor Jess Engle started his time with us with a response time.  He asked us, “Who is the church?”, to which we all responded, “WE are the church!”  He made us look at each other and remember that we are all beloved children of God, not nameless, faceless foes on the other side of the fence.

Another pastor, Jessica Schrock Ringenburg from Zion Mennonite in Archibold, gave an inspired sermon during morning worship that was beyond amazing!  Her incredibly powerful message, paraphrased here, reminded us that:

Paul spent his time writing letters.  Letters to the early churches that were struggling in very similar ways to our churches today.  Each of those letters was about the same thing, addressing the various issues that were arising in those congregations.  The Gentile/Greek Christians who valued freedom and spirit leading that were at odds with the Jewish Christians who valued traditions and laws.  Just like us today, each of those groups thought that they had the market cornered on doing church the right way.  Their way.  Both sides wanted Paul to champion their way, but Paul picks neither as the right way.  He consistently remind them,that the only right way is the way of the cross.  Two thousand years later that hasn’t changed.

Church, and how we do church, is a very personal thing to each of us.  Just as we are all inherently different, no two people have the same exact idea of what it is we need to do in order to be the church together.  But Jesus showed us exactly how to be church together.  It is not the Church of Us.  It is not the Church of Them.  We are the church and the right way to be church together is to go the way of the cross.

Our pastors can rest easy with the blessed assurance that our conference is standing behind them.  Our leadership now has some clear action steps to take.  Only the Holy Spirit working among us could have stemmed the tide of destruction we were heading for as a conference.

Our work has only just begun.

We must now dig in and work diligently with each other as we continue to work through the remaining elephants in the room.  But won’t it be so much easier to extend hospitality to those elephants now that we have a gate which they can walk through?

Because of the gate, we can now move forward together.

Praise God, who is good!

Showing Hospitality to Elephants

As the arctic air subsides and the frozen tundra known as North East Ohio begins to thaw we start to look for the first signs of spring.  For me, one of those signs that spring is upon us takes the shape of the Annual Conference Assembly of the Ohio Mennonite Conference of the Mennonite Church USA.

The past year has taken a toll on our conference and it was with some feelings of trepidation that I set out with our group from Midway this morning to drive to Martins Creek Mennonite located in Millersburg, Ohio.  The somber air of the business sessions that took place today are a testament to all of the issues that are currently circulating, as we all try to ignore the elephant in the room that has become a regular member of our assembly.

There are some spaces at our round tables that are now permanently empty because the unrest and turmoil has led some of our congregations to decide to leave our conference over polity issues.  Their exodus has left a gaping wound that many of us are still trying to understand and seems to be at odds with the scripture theme that was chosen for this assembly, love and hospitality, which is found in Romans 12: 9-13:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (NRSV)

The lighter moods of past assemblies have vanished. In their place is a thick blanket of tension that is hanging in the air, making it hard to articulate intelligent conversations that are open and honest during our table discussions.  The atmosphere of grace and love that characterized the conversations that took place at the special delegate session last August is nowhere to be found.

Further frustrations are being caused by the presence of talking pieces (TP), new to the tables this year, that limit each person to talking for just one minute at a time.  You may only speak when you are physically holding the TP.  Perhaps the intention of including this new circle table format was an effort to ensure everyone had a chance to speak, but the reality of it is that it is hampering the flow of discussion.  It is also shifting our focus each time we have to stop and wait for the TP to be transferred to the next person with something to share, preventing real conversations from taking place.

We are stepping on the sacred toes of group discernment which is a key hallmark of our Anabaptist beliefs, and what sets us apart from our Catholic and Protestant sisters and brothers.

The resolution that has been brought to the table, that is supposed to help calm the tensions caused by the decision by Mountain States Conference to license a pastor in a committed same sex relationship, still lacks the clarity that we as delegates keep seeking.  It is all well and good to say that we affirm Article 19 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, which is one of the governing books that contains the articles of what we as Mennonites believe together.  However, if we don’t draw a clear line in the sand, how can we say that we are affirming it?  The ambiguity created by this lack of a clear stand makes it impossible to determine what the appropriate sanctions should be for pastors and/or congregations that step across the line.

In addition, the lack of clarity makes it hard for our pastors to make decisions within their own congregations.  How can they make a stand on one side of the line or the other if they don’t have feel like they have the full support at the state conference level to back them up?  This current haze is leaving our pastors partially crippled in their duties instead of bolstering them up as they go about their kingdom work.

By the end of the second business session it felt to me as if there was a growing distrust for the leadership in general.  The delegates and their congregations are having a hard time trusting that the leadership of Ohio Conference will lead us in the direction that the majority of our congregations have clearly stated we want to go.

At the same time, the leadership seems to be nervous about losing more congregations.  They are trying in every way possible to find out if any more of the remaining congregations are on the verge of leaving the conference.  This is causing, in my opinion, the leadership to lose focus of the important polity matters at hand during this assembly.  They are focusing instead on the resources they provide for congregations.  What they provide is very important to help each individual congregation achieve the good works they are persuing, but it doesn’t feel like this is the right time and place to be discussing those resources.

One of the things that I have always appreciated about the annual conference assembly is the variety of ways and styles of worship we see as we all gather to worship together.  We embrace and celebrate the various ways we see our sisters and brothers of the Ohio Mennonite Conference preaching, teaching, and worshiping in song.  We give thanks for all of the different Spirit filled ways we see people being led.  I come away from those experiences refreshed and renewed with fresh fuel for the fire that is burning in my soul to do my part to help spread the love of God.

How do we figure out a way to convert that openness and acceptance we have for the different worship styles among us into how we enter into the conversations that need to be going on during the business sessions?   If we can bridge this gap we might finally be able to not only address that elephant that has been with us during our sessions this past year,  but actually start to extend some of that hospitality to the elephant and begin to move forward.  Until we can extend that hospitality to the elephant, we will never be able to come together to dig in and to do the work that is at hand.

We live in a broker world that seems to be getting darker and more evil with each passing day.  It is up to us to come together and to discern a clear path for our denomination which will in turn direct our future.  We are responsible for sowing the seeds of the kingdom.  Let us come together in love and fearlessly let the Holy Spirit move among us to facilitate our conversations and to direct our path as a body of believers.

So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.  So then, whenever we have a opportunity let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (Galatians 6: 9-11, NRSV)