A couple weeks ago I sent out a Musing about the first half of this summer looking something like a series of concentric circles with all these gatherings that are taking place. It started with the annual meeting of our area conference, Central District Conference meeting up in Sugar Creek Ohio around the theme of how to live faithfully in the context of empire.
Right after this followed the national Convention in Columbus with the theme of “Breathe and Be Filled” with Mennonites of all ages from around the country coming together for worship, workshops, delegate work, and all of the late night entertainment that is planned at those events. There were over 8000 in attendance and a number of people probably had the same experience that Matthew Brenneman had when he walked into Nationwide Arena for a worship service and looked around. He said: “I didn’t know this many Mennonites existed.” It’s a rare experience, but every once in a while we get a taste of what it means to be the majority culture. By my count there were over 50 people from this congregation who were at some part of the Convention, with most of those being there the whole week, which is really quite phenomenal.
And then the final, largest circle that is soon to occur is the Mennonite World Conference, which meets in Asuncion, Paraguay this week, with Anabaptist related groups from around the world. Ed Diller flew out yesterday and I think is still in route as we speak, and I’ll be flying out this afternoon and be there for a week and a half. This is a gathering that happens every six years and allows for Anabaptist groups to hear each other’s stories and build relationships that span the temporary borders of our nation-states through this multinational, multi-lingual, global family that is the church.
So this block of time from the end of June to the end of July is a perfect storm of gatherings. These circles are perhaps in some small way a picture of the concentric circles the angel spoke about at the beginning of the book of Acts, telling those first disciples that they would be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, the local area, in all Judea and Samaria, the national territories, and to the ends of the earth.
Part of the nature of these gatherings, and this is just sort of inevitable, is that they are extremely intense while they are happening, quite dense in their content and activity, and then they’re over and people return home to wherever home is. And there’s this odd combination of things being different, because of this experience, and things being very much the same as they were when one left. And, if there’s not a chance to process through some of the event or to tell stories or to hear other people’s stories, there can be a sense of a disconnect between these two worlds.
So I’d like to do a couple things in the next bit. The first is to position this experience, intensity followed by a return to normal, in a story in the gospels in which some similar things are going on, which happens to be right at the lectionary reading for the week. It’s always nice when lectionary and life and so closely aligned. This is the time when Jesus has sent the 12 disciples out on their own for the first time to preach in the villages, and they do all this great stuff like traveling the countryside and staying in host homes and preaching good news and casting out demons and healing the sick, and then they return back to Jesus to tell him all about it. And Jesus’ response it to initiate a debriefing session in which they are to get away and process this experience.
The second thing is to actually give some time and space here for processing some of the stories from the Columbus Convention. For those who were able to be there we’ll have some time to share briefly a thought or an insight or a challenge that you received while at Convention. So as we’re looking through this scripture you may want to be thinking about some piece you’d like to share when that time comes up. I recognize that not everyone was able to attend, so this is a chance to start to be brought in on this. My hope is that through starting to share about this that this will become a congregational experience that gets integrated into how we keep learning and growing together.
The lectionary has us in Mark chapter six right now. Leading up to this, the disciples have been called out of their professions – fishermen, tax collectors, whatever else – and have been following Jesus around the region of Galilee – mainly observing and listening. Seeing the unclean be treated as if they are already clean and then becoming clean, seeing healings, hearing parables, witnessing Jesus get confronted by angry leaders, and witnessing him get a cold reception when he returns to his hometown of Nazareth. And then, at some point, these followers are asked to pair up and to go out themselves, just like Jesus has been doing, only without Jesus with them this time, and do the same kinds of things they’ve been observing. This is the next step of their apprenticeship program. There’s no way they’re completely prepared for all they’re going to face, but they go out for this learn-as-you go unsupervised internship in the kingdom of God. And they’re actually quite successful. They preach boldly, they cast out evil spirits, and they anoint sick people with oil who actually get healed. So this is an intense, immersion experience for them, and when it’s done they have a lot to tell each other and Jesus.
So we get to verses 30-32 which is the part I’d like to focus on. The disciples have gone out and done their thing in all the villages of the area, and then these verses read: “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.” Whether Jesus is impressed with their success or not it doesn’t say, but his response is – Hey, come away a while. Let’s pause and consider all this together. Jesus had begun his ministry in the deserted place of the wilderness and he invites them back to such a place for some debriefing.
In doing this, Jesus establishes a pattern that can help to define the Christian vocation. The disciples are sent out, and then they gather together and reflect. This pattern can be identified as one of action/reflection. The way that we learn, the way that we grow, and are formed as human beings, as spiritual beings, is through this pattern of action/reflection.
Liberation theologians have picked up on this pattern and speak of it as one complete whole, each piece completed by the other. They also emphasize the order in which these happen. Concerned especially for the poor and the oppressed, liberation theologians like Juan Sobrino and James Cone have taught that the Christian vocation of seeking the liberation of all peoples must begin with action. If we are too oriented toward thinking our way into action, rationalizing what we should do before doing it, we can get stuck in certain mindsets and blindness that make us miss out on the calling. But if we begin with action – if we are willing to place ourselves alongside the poor, or, as the disciples did, to travel around to these different villages with just enough instruction to know how to make it through and what to be looking for, then we begin to see the world from this completely different perspective. Our thoughts become shaped by this action. We act our way into thinking and not just think our way into action.
Jesus is careful not to sit the disciples down for too long in a classroom and teach them about the kingdom of God. He sends them out to do the work, and then he pulls them aside for a time of reflection and learning. This is his pedagogy. Action/Reflection. With all action there would be no opportunity to actually learn what one is learning — to step back, to ponder, to reevaluate and consider ways that one is being converted. With all reflection there would be no engagement. Just good ideas and interesting thoughts that actually start to become rather stale and boring after a while.
Now in this case, the disciples and Jesus end up having an interrupted retreat. They try and go away to this deserted place and all these people follow them and we have the leading into the story of the feeding of the 5000. The disciples want to have their time of debriefing and tell Jesus to send the people away, but Jesus has compassion on the people and makes another pedagogical move in teaching about the abundance of God’s providence. It’s only after that event that the disciples get to have some time to themselves in a boat, and Jesus does his own reflection that he does throughout all the gospels as it says in verse 46. “After saying farewell to them, (Jesus) went up on the mountain to pray.” Action, reflection. The Christian vocation involves this pattern which itself becomes a form of prayer. When we are reflecting on our actions and acting on our reflections, then all of it is becoming a form of prayer, a channel through which we are opening ourselves up to the movement of the Spirit. And Jesus is always making this explicit by getting away and spending this time in focused prayer.
So I’m suggesting that the Convention experience has some similarities to an intense action. Not exactly the kind of action of going out on mission like the disciples, but still a time of encountering new things, ideas, challenges, sort of drinking from the fire hydrant of collective Mennonite wisdom that is out there through all these talks and workshops and sessions. My hope is that this has stirred new thoughts, or affirmed previous ideas that needed some more affirmation. And it can be worthwhile and beneficial for us to move into some reflection, even as other demands come pressing in.
One of the experiences at Convention that actually highlighted the call for this action/reflection pattern came on the last full day, Saturday, which ended up being one of the most intense days for me emotionally. I wasn’t able to listen in on many of the delegate sessions, but I had time Saturday afternoon and most of that time was focused on discussion around a resolution on human sexuality. The resolution itself was a combination of two different resolutions presented by groups with quite different perspectives. One group wanted the church to affirm previous statements upholding the definition of traditional marriage and the other group wanted the church to take a step back from disciplining congregations who are deciding to openly welcome and affirm the gays and gay couples. The single resolution took pieces from each one and tried to hold them into one statement. So you can imagine that the conversation around this during the open mic time was fairly intense.
As the evening worship approached I was still feeling the intensity of the afternoon and didn’t quite know how this would play out during worship. Jim Wallis of Sojourners was the speaker for the evening and we all had a chance to talk some before the worship service and we mentioned that it had been an intense day and that he might want to just be aware of that context that he was speaking into. And so, when it was time for him to speak, he adlibbed the first five minutes or so and spoke pretty directly to us in a pastoral way. He basically said – I know it’s been a high energy day for you all, a day with some conflict, but since you have this theme of “Breathe and be Filled” I’m going to give you some friendly advice. Just breathe. It’s OK to feel differently about these things, just don’t forget to breathe and leave some room for the Spirit. I don’t know how others heard this, but I took it to be a call for this kind of pattern that Jesus modeled to his disciples. After the action, enter reflection. Act, then breathe. Speak, then step back. Learn. Pray. Trust that God is at work.
This is one of the things that happened at Convention and the next couple weeks will offer some more opportunities for reflection. Next week Keith will be preaching and I believe he’ll be giving some thoughts on the week. The week after that the youth will have a time of sharing about some of their experiences. And Violet is compiling the next newsletter to include some stories from Convention. But for now I’d like to open up for a time of people sharing brief remarks about something about the week that has continued to linger with you. How did the Spirit speak to you at Convention? Is there a line or phrase from a speech that you found to be particularly pointed? Or, in what ways were you challenged or do you feel our congregation could be challenged through something you learned? Let’s take a little time now to hear a few reflections just as a way to get this conversation started among us.