Under the sky

Jul 20, 2016 by

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I spent 13 or so hours this past week driving under the summer prairie sky. Saskatoon was the location of our Mennonite national church’s biennial gathering, which I combined with a visit with my brother and his family. It’s a long drive and very flat. It’s the kind of drive that is easy to dread, particularly in winter months when the roads are bad and the landscape is bleak. It’s a drive I’ve done often enough, but it’s not one that I’ve ever particularly relished.

This time, however, the sky almost literally took my breath away. Golden yellow canola beside wavy green barley fields stretched out under this vast canopy of pillowy cloud and brilliant blue. Or, when the weather turned, spectacular scenes of dark, brooding masses of cloud. The sky seemed alive. Even when it looked threatening and portended fierce rain, it was a kind of strange comfort. It was the kind of sky that puts you in your place. There was a vast unchangeableness about it. It seemed the kind of sky that nothing could go wrong under.

Alas, all is not well under this beautiful sky. Obviously. While we were meeting in Saskatoon the news was trickling out about the latest round of shootings in Baton Rouge and St. Paul and Dallas. The racial tension south of the border seems to be reaching a breaking point, and it’s hard to know what to do beyond watch in mute horror.

But we know that racial issues are present in Canada, as well. We spent an afternoon in and around Fort Carlton, where Treaty 6 was signed between the Canadian monarch and the Plain and Wood Cree, Assiniboine, and other band governments of First Nations back in 1876. We heard stories of hope, of relationships forming between Mennonites and Lutherans and the Young Chipewyan Nation. But we also learned the familiar history of broken promises to Canada’s indigenous people. We drove through the Beardy’s First Nation and listened to stories about indigenous people continuing to struggle mightily with the toxic trickle-down effect of years of colonial practices and assumptions that persist right down to the present. Our Cree tour guide openly wondered if American-style violence might soon make its way north if things don’t improve for indigenous people.

Or, perhaps the Brexit vote still looms in many of our minds. Many of us fear a world where tribalistic loyalties are so easily inflamed, where scapegoats are so readily identified, where public opinion seems to be yanked around by a maelstrom of anger and ignorance that so often defines our popular discourse. Many of us have deep anxieties about a world where it is increasingly possible for people to make enormously important decisions while seeming to barely understand what is at stake. And many of us, if we’re honest, are apprehensive about the cultural realities that this vote seems to be at least in part a reaction against. We don’t know how immigration patterns will affect the cultures of Europe and North America. There are stories and trends that make us afraid. We are rightly suspicious that all of our rosy rhetoric and high-minded ideals about diversity and tolerance will not be a sturdy enough basis for the just and peaceful multi-ethnic societies that we envision.

And then there was our national conference itself, where one of two major decisions we had to make as a body dealt with our approach to human sexuality. Delegates approved a motion that left our Mennonite Confession of Faith unchanged but formally “created space” for alternate understandings to be tested by individuals and congregations when it comes to same-sex marriage. But even as I think we probably made the best decision under the circumstances, it seemed little more than a ratification of what is already happening, an attempted compromise to deal with the endless recycling of the polarizing divisions that have plagued us for decades.

As I placed my vote in the basket, it seemed to me that we are skating across the tip of an iceberg. There’s so much going on underneath questions of human sexuality that dominate our discourse. Any of us who work in the “helping” professions see regular evidence of the social costs borne by the young and the vulnerable of the almost complete transference of sexual identity and expression from the realm of things like family or procreation or covenant to that of identity politics and individual desire. I regularly wonder if the rights-hungry individual will prove capable of bearing the weight that we seem resolutely determined to place upon them. We often hear of the importance of “exegeting” the cultural context that exerted formative pressure on the biblical writers’ understandings of human sexuality, and this is vital and instructive in countless ways. I’m not convinced we’re as good at (or interested in) exegeting our own cultural context and the ways in which it forms us and our assumptions and responses when it comes this issue.

As I pointed the wheels back toward Alberta, I was feeling uneasy about all of these things and many others, too. But with each passing kilometer under that expansive sky, I was put back in my small and proper place. As long as human beings have lived under this sky, they have scurried about making decisions about important matters, getting things gloriously right and catastrophically wrong and everything in between. As always, time will tell the story. We tend to imagine that our own moment and the realities it contains is uniquely important, but it probably isn’t. There is a cumulative quality to cultural progress (and regress) and each one of us will only ever play a very tiny part in either. It’s probably worth remembering this, particularly those of us who are increasingly enamored with the adoring gaze of our inflated selves with their constellation of virtues being constantly reflected back to us online.

The teacher in Ecclesiastes famously said that there is nothing new under the sun. Driving under the prairie sky, it’s easy to be convinced that there really isn’t. Human beings have always been everything from a breath away from divinity to the most resourcefully selfish creatures the planet has ever seen. This is who we are and this is where we live. We stumble along, sometimes making enormous strides forward, sometimes lurching backward in confusion, all under a wide, if sometimes groaning mercy that stretches out like the Saskatchewan sky. Thank God.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta., Canada. He writes at Rumblings, where this post first appeared.


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