Sitting in Bolivia, with MC USA on my mind

Feb 9, 2015 by

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I’m in the middle of a sojourn in Bolivia and a long way from the current action percolating around Mennonite Church USA. Our family is scattered over three continents so we’ve been blessed to travel afar. Every time, this lesson is relearned with some new twist: This world is big. The things that matter most to me can seem critically important, yet they are small in comparison. Surely we can trust in each other, love each other, believe in the heart of each other enough, in this big world, to get along.

I wonder about the common threads stitching together a series of Mennonite gatherings.

First, in the stately Hartville Mennonite Church in rural Ohio, under a cloud of chandeliers, a part of our family gathered in January. From what I read the mood was somber, meditative, prayerful and thoughtful. A sense of holy conviction emerged. I imagine it like this: We long for the Spirit’s leading. We will not doubt the faith of others. But here, in this room, how we delight in the sense of oneness, of unity, of common spiritual persuasion that we know right now with each other. We long for more of this and we dare to believe this is God’s best for us in this time. And so we want to carve out a new fellowship somewhere on the fuzzy boundary line of being within, yet outside of MC USA.

The next weekend a diverse group of Mennonites traveled to Arc de Salvacion church in Fort Myers, Fla. If I read the tea leaves right, this body not only represented MC USA’s ethnic diversity, but also our theological diversity. And they talked about important stuff. Power, privilege, who’s in, who’s out, what’s Jesus got to do with it, can we all find a place to call this home? Judging from the smiles in the pictures, people rocked out, danced. It must have been quite intense — and quite the party.

Then it was pastors week at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. I read the preaching was good and conversation rich. Surely the worship was creative, colorful adjectives adorned sermons and sonorous sounds filled the sacred chapel. Yet there were clouds. What will happen in Kansas City? John Howard Yoder, who once walked these very halls, his memory lingers here too. Still, what rewarding days those must have been full of song and word, late night conversations, wisdom and saucy wit, some tears, laughter.

Then, Jan. 29-31, Executive Board met. I think of Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, Patty Shelly and Ervin Stutzman, and the joys and the burdens they carry as leaders. Soto Albrecht and Shelly have plenty to do already, yet they have accepted the moderator mantle, and go forward with what seems great grace, courage and mellow hearts. And Stutzman seems tireless in his gift for listening and choosing his words with care and compassion.

I want to believe there is something sticky, something deeply of God gluing together these groups and far beyond. That Godly je ne sais quoi that can allow the peace minded and the intellectuals, the charismatics and the pink-shirted, the undocumented and the Bible memorizers, the soft-hearted and the hard headed, the combine drivers and the coffee connoisseurs, all to say, “Sure, it’s a big tent but these are my people, this is my home.”

My roots go back to the former Soviet Union. I imagine my family in a village called Ebenfeld. I like to think we were poor and modest, but actually, I don’t know. We were Mennonites. We spoke German in a Russian landscape.

In the middle of the 19th century, a revival movement broke out. A German pietist preacher was influential. The church had grown lax. Some, perhaps, had become far too comfortable with material things. Deep conviction about the things of God was lacking. A group of men got together and soberly determined, we must form this new spiritual home. In 1860 they did, and the Mennonite Brethren were born. At some point, my family became a part of this movement.

Years later, at a Mennonite Brethren college, I learned that studious MBs in Russia came to look on the whole MB movement with a bit of a wry smile. They said the lines weren’t all that clear. Yes, if we can dare to read into the hearts of others, there was some dead wood. But truthfully, there was plenty of life, vitality and spirituality in the good Mennonite folks who did not embrace the MB movement. Later, when Mennonite Central Committee carried me out of my MB world and into the broader Anabaptist family, I found out how true this was.

I believe it was a Goshen area Mennonite pastor who put his finger on what I think is a critical dynamic in our church today. His church decided to leave the Indiana-Michigan conference in hopes of finding a new home somewhere else within MC USA. He said something like this: Our church is primarily interested in thinking about, exploring and proclaiming the transforming power of Jesus to change people’s lives. But in other parts of our Mennonite church family, there is far more interest in thinking about and exploring the outer edges of Christian faith.

Finding myself more in the latter camp, I think this fellow pastor has opined correctly. And I know I like to hang out, talk and think with people who are sort of like me.

It doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn from and be encouraged by dear sisters and brothers around the world who have experienced more vividly than I the transforming power of Jesus. And I believe, I deeply believe, that this Spirit-guided Jesus transforming stuff is happening among those who are out there roaming the outer edges. The lines are blurry. The waters are being stirred. The water is getting pretty muddy.

Maybe we all need to wade in the water and plunge our heads beneath the surface, down in the murky liquid mess. When we emerge, what might we see? I’m an eternal optimist, for sure, but I believe when gritty, dirty water is dripping down all our faces, some things will seem, in God’s grand design, actually quite small.

Stephen Penner is a pastor of First Mennonite Church of Reedley, Calif. This first appeared on his blog,

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