Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
In a week and a half a group of folks from this congregation will be heading to Orlando, Florida for the 2017 Mennonite Church USA [MCUSA] biennial convention. Every two years, delegates and interested persons from across MCUSA gather as a collective body to worship, fellowship, learn from each other, and do the work of the larger church together. The theme of this year’s convention is: Love is a Verb.
For the last year and a half, in preparation for the gathering, MCUSA has been doing a storytelling project on the theme of Love is a Verb and has collected many stories and reflections in the form of blogposts on the MCUSA website [mennoniteusa.org/tag/love-is-a-verb/]. The writers of those posts have reflected on the variety of ways they experience and interact with love as a verb in the context of their individual lives and church communities.
In these stories Love as a verb looks like the following:
Love is a choice
Love is vulnerability and sharing
Love is transformation
Love breaks toxic cycles
Love is embodied
Love is healing/restoration
Love is hard work
Love is connection
Love is presence
Love is accessible
Love is laughter
Love is a burr that hooks in and does its work whether we are intending it to or not
Love is listening
Love is memory
Love continues to ripple long after an initial act of love
Love reminds us that we need each other far more than we need to agree with each other
And that is only a small sampling of what this exploration of Love is a Verb has looked like so far and we haven’t even gotten to convention yet!
When I’m given themes such as this to ponder I usually start by breaking it down into individual words and exploring the variety of meanings and uses of those words so as to get a bigger picture of what might be included in the theme.
So, I looked up the word verb. When you look up the definition of the word verb – you learn that it is an action, a state, or an occurrence. It also refers to the action of using nouns as verbs and it said this: “any English noun can be verbed, but some are more resistant than others.”
I found that both humorous and insightful. The word love is what this theme is trying to verb and by definition, love can already be both a noun and a verb. So there is less resistance in the act of verbing the word love. Yet I find it helpful to name that there is a difference of perceiving love as a noun, a thing, something separate from us, verses what it means to live love as a verb, as an action, as something we are engaged in and giving life to.
There can be big differences in how we live out love in our lives depending on if we engage it as a noun or a verb. Particularly for us as people of faith who define the word love not only by what we find in the dictionary, but also from what we glean of love in the scriptures.
We heard some classic love texts today. Texts that offer insight into the nature of love. From these texts we learn that love is verbed through patience, kindness, generosity, humility, acceptance, hospitality, trust, and hope. And it is love that gives meaning and depth to those actions. Love is the primary task to which we are assigned as children of God. We are to love God with all of our beings and to dwell in the intention of loving God in every moment of our living from morning to night, at home and as we travel around. We are also called to love each other and to diligently teach love to our children so that they too may experience and grow in the knowledge and love of God. The 1 John text even gives us a simple and profound definition of love. 1 John 4:8: God is love.
A definition like that may tempt us to return to an acceptance of love only as a noun – if God is love – it must be a noun – because God is a thing…right? Or maybe this is where we find ourselves running into that resistance that comes with verbing some nouns. Only in this case it isn’t the noun that is resistant to being verbed. It is our own understanding and willingness to break open our understanding of God as something separate from us instead of embracing God as noun and as a verb – an action, a state, an occurrence that we are engaged in life through and with.
Exploring the implications of God being love and love being a verb is at the heart of our everyday living and it is also the work of the church. With all of us experiencing life in our individual contexts and communities and expressing the love of God and loving God in a variety of ways, the work of the church can get complex pretty quickly. Hence the need for the broader church to gather every two years to try to check in with each other and see how all those different paths of living out love are being traveled.
Typically the conventions of the Mennonite Church are a time for workshops, worship and delegate sessions where representatives from individual congregations [this year our delegates are LeAnne Z and Joanne G] and representatives from groups of the executive board, conferences and constituency groups gather together. The delegates are tasked with discussing and voting on resolutions pertaining to the denomination’s vision, mission, and documents.
When the delegate body met last in Kansas City in 2015 resolutions were passed on: faithfulness amid endless war, forbearance in the midst of differences, membership guidelines, a resolution of expression and lament [related to racism in the church], a church wide statement on sexual abuse, and a statement of support for both Palestinian and Israeli partners in peacemaking even though the official Israeli/Palestinian resolution was tabled for future consideration.
It turns out that the last delegate session didn’t really go very well for anyone. Particularly because of two of those resolutions: forbearance in the midst of differences and the membership guidelines. You see the church has been in a season of tension in the past years for many reasons, but particularly because of the range of approaches to biblical interpretation and understandings surrounding the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church. These two resolutions in particular addressed that reality, were both passed, and are contradictory to each other. The membership guidelines is the official church membership document that states that LGBTQ people are not welcome, and the forbearance resolution is also an official document and it states that some of us believe in and practice the welcoming of LGBTQ folks in membership and that that is okay.
Needless to say, this is confusing and even painful for the church. And the Kansas City convention itself was confusing and painful for the church. It was held in the midst of lots of fear about the future of the church and fear was allowed way too much room at the table in Kansas City. Much of the fear was worry that the church would split over these differences and so there were attempts to make everyone happy. Guess what? Not everyone can always be happy. As painful as it is, that is simply not life, or love in action. Jesus’ life and death reinforce that for us. Life lived in connection with God isn’t always happy. And the fear that tried to hold everyone together in an unnatural state of happiness failed to hold us together at all. Post Kansas City many congregations and even full conferences have decided to withdraw completely from MCUSA.
This has the church once again, back to where it was, and where it always lives, pondering the future. Which brings us back to the upcoming convention in Orlando at which the church is trying something new. Instead of the usual delegate session with lots of resolutions, the convention will hold a shortened delegate session to discuss and vote on the revised Israeli/Palestinian resolution [which this congregation has signed on to support]. After that short delegate session, an additional 300ish special delegates will join the official delegates for what is called the Future Church Summit – A gathering to imagine an Anabaptist future for Mennonite Church USA. [Christian Y, Cindy L, Annabeth R, and myself will be going as Future Church delegates and Annabeth has been on the planning committee for the Future Church Summit itself.]
Direct from the website [http://convention.mennoniteusa.org/future-church-summit/] and documents about the summit comes this: The Future Church Summit will be a generative, open space for denomination-wide conversation — to dream together, reset priorities and engage one another in answering the question: How will we follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century?
At the Future Church Summit we will look at the timeline/history of where we, as a church, have come from, look at where we are now and where we hope are going. The summit at Orlando will be the first step in an ongoing process that will continue through the next biennium. Denominational leaders and institutions —including all the church-wide agencies, Executive Board and staff — will use the vision generated at the summit to reshape denominational priorities and restructure their work.
Ervin Stutzman, executive director of MCUSA, wrote about the future church summit in the June print issue of the Mennonite magazine. He says this:
This is a deliberative process of “eliciting a vision” for the future of Mennonite Church USA. That’s different from “casting a vision” or even “detecting a vision.” It’s an effective way to capture the aspirations of all who are invested in Mennonite Church USA.
From what I know of MCUSA and what I can imagine about this gathering, I am guessing it will be a creative, intentional, painful, exciting, and exhausting process. Even with all of the departures of churches and conferences that have happened in the past two years in MCUSA, the landscape has certainly shifted, yet the church is still a wide flung spectrum of beliefs, hopes, and aspirations.
There are guidelines of expectations in place for participants in order to name these differences and to attempt to make safe space for everyone to participate. The guidelines state this:
You are invited to be fully present to that of God in each person and to be open to the Holy Spirit manifesting through this process.
It is my prayer, and I hope you will join me, that each participant will, bring all of themselves, honestly, vulnerably, respectfully, and hopefully, to the table with an openness to what they will hear, learn, and share in this unique time together.
When we bring all of ourselves, and especially our differences, to the table interesting things can happen. Simon and I discovered that this week in an art experiment. [Many of you have seen this on Facebook but for those who are not on Facebook I share it here – or if you are on Facebook and want to connect with me that way you are more than welcome to friend me – Michelle G Burkholder] Anyways – we sat together at a table and glued the same shapes of paper into individual collages, in the same order, at the same time and this is what we came up with.
Even when we are given the exact same items, we are able to construct different things out of them. We can start with the same components and arrive at different outcomes. Not only are our products different, but what we see and what others see in the pieces are also different. Take Simon’s piece, for example, I looked and looked at it, but it wasn’t till someone on Facebook commented that they saw a shepherd holding a staff that I saw it too:
– and now of course I can’t unsee it – but before someone opened my eyes to it, I saw a different composition without a shepherd at all. My eyes looked in a different way on their own than they did when they were influenced by the community.
It is the same for us as people. We are shaped and constructed by our experiences and our contexts over time. And as we are shaped by our experiences, they also shape how we view the world around us, how we see ourselves and how we perceive the composition of others. We see as we grow and teach ourselves to see, and yet we can also see in new ways when we open ourselves to new perspectives. For better or for worse, we are changed and shaped by others, just as we also change and shape others.
Thinking about Simon’s artwork this week reminded me of another piece of art by a child that helped shape Becky and my world. When Becky and I got married [the first time], we were living in Virginia and attending a Mennonite Church there. I removed my official membership from the church the week before our commitment ceremony because I could not in good conscience remain an official member of a church that didn’t accept all of who I was and who I was choosing to partner with in life. However, we continued to go to church regularly and participated in the life of the church. I ran the sound system and sometimes Becky would sit at the sound booth with me.
A year or so later we decided to move to Minnesota for me to go to seminary. One of the weeks before we left, a little girl came up to us with a going away gift from her family. It was this bear and a drawing:
I don’t have the drawing with me but the bear is here – and the picture was a drawing of Becky and me sitting at the sound booth with a giant rainbow hovering over our heads and it said, everyone is welcome at our church! We were deeply moved by this expression of love. Partially because our time in on-going fellowship with the church had not been without pain and discomfort, and even more particularly because the words of love and welcome were coming unabashedly from a young girl whose parents were clearly diligently teaching her how they chose to live out love beyond the limits the community might have suggested and so she too was learning to live out love in her own way and using it to help shape the world around her. We have since that day called this rainbow bear, even though it is not rainbow-y at all – it carries with it the memory of that rainbow of love that the little girl gifted to us when she chose to live love as a verb.
When we live love as a verb, we co-create the world around us in ways that are life-giving, justice-focused, peace-seeking, and world-enhancing for everyone. When we live love as a verb, we choose to love God with all of beings and to let that love shape how we move in our lives. When we live love as a verb there are more and more rainbow bears in the world. When we live love as a verb we make space for a unity that connects us all beyond any of our ideas, beliefs, or practices. When we live love as a verb we are not able to ignore the pain, injustice, and suffering of others. When we live love as a verb there is no other, we are all in love and love is in all.
The invitation issued to the delegates of the future church summit is an invitation for each of us [and not just in church settings but in every circle we move in in the midst of a world that is deeply hurting], to live love as a verb every day: be fully present to that of God in each person and be open to the Holy Spirit manifesting all around.
For when we choose to live in Love and with Love, Love is found all around.