King: Weaving the new

Jun 5, 2017 by

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When our commencement speaker falls ill, we two deans at Eastern Mennonite Seminary become co-presenters. I prepare based on what I notice en route to commencement:

Michael A. King

King

Prisoners in Israel-Palestine go on hunger strike to protest prison conditions. Opponents hold a barbecue outside to blow in aromas of meat. So minor. Yet so cruel an example of ways we’re slicing each other’s souls.

After historic drought come record rainy-season California downpours. Sacramento rivers tear out tents and underbrush, ripping even that home from the homeless while mansion dwellers pursue trillion-dollar tax cuts.

Celebrating her husband, Jason, in The New York Times, Anne Krause Rosenthal concludes: “I want more time with Jason . . . with my children . . . at the Green Mill Jazz Club. . . . But . . . I probably have only . . . days left. . . . So why I am doing this?

“I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine, non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.”

Days later, Anne dies.

Barbecuing as torture. Climate change, wars, oppressions razing homes of millions, including the flying and swimming and crawling creatures God pronounced good. Death stalking as it always has, the Annes forced to release loved ones, the Jasons required to rebuild.

As sometimes it seemed all things must be made new, I remembered years ago teasingly comparing a seminary student to a biblical character whose name she shares. That stung, she courageously reported: She faced a void which, in the biblical story, is miraculously filled.

Recently, as she gave permission to share, Sarah Payne completed an EMS capstone on that very void. I told her of being sensitized to it when she confronted my teasing and of now being touched because a loved one feared the same void. She gave me prayer beads to pass on. Without meeting, student and loved one prayed, with tears, for each other.

Another student. A painter. Linking seminary studies and art, gospel and today’s realities. Meanwhile, I spend over a year discerning: continue at EMS or try new adventures? After choosing the new, I receive a gift during my final EMS chapel: a painting by that student, Rebekah Nolt. The blacks and grays, whites and purples remind me of hair-rising thunderstorm and beautiful day merging.

The artist’s note says the painting is from a series reacting to “the many tragedies or injustices of 2016,” each “just that, a reaction of emotional energy, without purpose, without vision.”

As Rebekah hurled paint, she “realized how glad I was it was just paint . . . and not angry words or stones, because I was really not happy how this was turning out.”

The paint wasn’t fully dry, so she “got to work, not certain . . . I could even make something out of the mess.” Yet what she made is a cherished memento.

Teasing linking to a void to prayer beads to a Holy Spirit throbbing through all. Anger yielding a mess transformed.

Or this: My father dies. A student tells me of having been in jail. My dad, a prison chaplain, had inspired him to enroll at EMS.

As so much unravels, many turn to novels of dystopia more for guidance than escape. And so many, collaborating with unseen hands, weave the new.

Michael A. King is dean of seminary and graduate programs at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.


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