Imagine you awoke to find yourself sitting in a meadow. You have no recollection of how you got there. You have no memory of life before this awakening. You get up and walk about, stretching these odd limbs you discover can support you.
Curious, you try to understand something of this place you have been plunked down in and how you got here. You meet other creatures like yourself, and discover that they too awakened with no memory of how they got there.
There is really no need to imagine this. This is how each of us enters the world. Sometime around the age of two or three we begin to awaken to the world we are in. Coming to life, to be me, is not something any of us remember; it is shrouded in mist. We are told about conception and birth, but that only pushes back the mystery. It does not explain it.
We all wake up in life and find ourselves already living, already loving, already going somewhere. Someday our lives will recede back into the mists from which we came. But in this brief moment of our days we sit blinking in the meadow.
What this fact does is stir in us the gasp of simply being that is basic to being a human. We can offer no account or explanation of how we emerged from nothingness to be these people.Down deep at the bottom of our existence we discover that we receive ourselves rather than make ourselves.
My life is a gift to me I did not even pray for. No one asked me whether I preferred to be or not to be. I was simply plunked into a meadow, and there I woke, staring about in astonishment.
This is the basic question humans can ask: why is there something rather than nothing? The Christian tradition has always seen a great coherence between this un-explainableness of life and the fact that God is the creator who has no need for this creation. God is infinitely transcendent to creation. Creation is not bound to God by some logic other than love. Thus creation on its own terms cannot be explained.
God created the world not because some logic or law forced him, or because creation would fill up something missing in his being. There is no earthly explanation for why God created the world other than to say for the love of it. We exist because God enjoys the fact that people such as us should exist.
Cameron McKenzie has a signature to his emails that says, “When God is forgotten, the creature itself grows unintelligible” (John Paul II). When we no longer believe in a transcendent, personal God who loves the world and creates for the sheer love of it, the wonder of being human is deflated and our fellow humans no longer seem marvellous and fascinating. These objects, once called persons, now become just more matter to be manipulated and dominated at our own will.
Let God be exalted, magnificent, and infinitely perfect in our imaginations and confession.
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:4-5).
Last Spring I had the opportunity to be a table host for our church’s Alpha program. If you haven’t had the chance to watch the new (2016) Alpha videos, take the opportunity to go through them on YouTube. They are great resources for a Faith-Booster-Shot, even for those of us who have been followers of Christ for decades.
During the six-week program I was thrilled to discover that both a young man at my table and a friend of mine declared their commitment to follow Christ during the Alpha program. How exciting to be a part of that!
Personally, one of the influential table discussions was on the topic “How and Why Can I Have Faith?” Question 1 on my leader’s paper read: “Thinking of your friends, family or anything else—Who or what do you have faith in?”
Stumped by this question, the six people sitting at my table didn’t think they had faith in anything or anyone. Golly! This was a revelation to me. As the group continued to deliberate the idea, I began to list the things I had faith in as a new returnee to Canada:
When my boys walk to school I have faith that it will be open, teachers will be present and able to teach, and abuse isn’t tolerated.
If I’m in an accident, the medical system will take care of me to the best of their ability. An ambulance will come with functioning equipment and personnel properly trained to treat me. Competent doctors and nurses will be at the hospital with medication and equipment that is available and functioning. I’ll be treated no matter my financial situation.
Laws and authorities work to uphold a society based on rules that make sense and build community rather than tear it apart.
There is incredible relief that accompanies the release of sole responsibly for the health and well-being of myself and my children. I can experience this because I have faith in Canadian systems. I’ve lived for years outside Canada without faith in the systems that should be able to care for people effectively. It was always with the underlying fear that should I or my children be in an accident, we couldn’t trust what would happen to us. That sort of unrelenting unease is exhausting!
I marvel at the simple luxury of faith in human systems, fallible systems. Humans can fail. They function within worldviews that change over the course of time, that are built on limited and ever-changing understanding of the universe.
Even so, I know the emotional and mental freedom of being able to trust these things. The bigger revelation is that human systems are nothing in comparison to the faith and trust I can have in the One who created the universe and my body and who governs the authorities of the earth!
He tells me I can trust Him. This Word does not change as humankind gains increased knowledge of the universe, nor as our worldviews shift over time.
Editor’s Note With Permission: It will disappoint readers, but after serving since September 2012, Jocelyn has decided, while saddened, to step back for health reasons from serving as a columnist. She has “really enjoyed the opportunity for a writing outlet and for the many, many words of affirmation I have received from readers. I do think, however, that pruning back this work may help other areas to flourish.” She is learning to “embrace my limits” (Jeanne Flemming). Thank you, Jocelyn, for serving us, and may the Lord bless you.
As I travel across our conference I often wonder: what is it that holds these churches together? What ties bind us across the 4,555 kms of our conference’s breadth? The word I keep coming back to is covenant. What fastens us is similar to a marriage covenant between congregations with the challenges and fun of any marriage.
In fact, I would say that a congregation’s ability to stand up for the truth of marriage in our culture is greatly strengthened if it lives out its own covenant with other EMC churches. It’s hard to convince the world that a marriage covenant is a human tasting of God’s long-suffering faithfulness when the congregation itself can’t bear the nuisance of being in binding covenant with other churches that it does not find agreeable, attractive, or handy.
Which brings me to the difference between a covenant and a contract. In a contract I give you money or services in exchange for the services I know I will get from you. If a wife said to her husband, “What has this marriage done for me lately, anyways?” you would know that marriage is in a very bad place.
That husband would be a fool who would say, “Sure, no problem. I can easily draw up a list of 10 things I have done for you lately and then you will see that our marriage is great.” That marriage has become a contract, and will soon dissolve completely if a deeper mystery is not found.
Likewise for a congregation to ask, “What has belonging to the EMC done for us lately?” is also a very sad question. It would be a foolish conference that tried to draw up a list of all the benefits of belonging to a conference as though that was addressing the real problem.
Covenants involve work and mutual service but they are not based on works. If this connection we have as churches is something created by God (and if not, then let’s be rid of it), then it is a covenant of grace and not of works. We are bound together because God found us lost and alone and bound us together for His greater purpose and our training in divine union. We have not negotiated a contract to scratch each other’s itch.
But like a marriage, once we are taken up into the mystery of our divine fastening, we find all kinds of ways to serve each other, work together, grieve with each other and to celebrate and relax together. Sometimes the covenant needs to be renewed and freshened in our wills and wallets. But none of that is done to prove that this marriage is worth it. None of that is done as a membership fee.
Some of our congregations have annual covenanting services where they renew the bond between them. It’s a way to resist the drifting autonomy and alienation that constantly plagues modern life. Perhaps we, the Evangelical Mennonite Covenant, need a similar reminder that “you are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Note: This column reflects some of Layton’s report at the EMC national ministerial meeting on July 6, 2018, in London, Ont.
For the first centuries of the Church’s life, there was much debate about exactly who this Jesus was the Church found itself worshipping and following. One of the simplest and most profound truths it discovered was this: you will never predict who Jesus is by thinking profound and lofty philosophical thoughts, hoping that your rational concepts somehow coincide with Christ.
The mistake that was so hard to overcome for these early Christians was the belief that by thinking philosophical Greek thoughts about natures and essences, eventually they would figure out who this God-man was. That never worked.
So if not by thinking, how else? By looking. By watching to see what he does, how he lives, and the manner of his speech. What kind of choice does he make here? What does he refuse there? How does he act in this situation here? The mystery of Jesus appears in the manner in which he takes the days his Father gave him, and weaves an utterly unique, never-anticipated tapestry from them.
Jesus arrives and lives so freely, with such dashing improv, that no human could ever guess what he would do next. When the Church finally came to this basic discovery in the 7th century (thank you, Maximus the Confessor) they arrived at a beautiful vision of who Jesus was that has never been surpassed. When you watch Jesus acting, the humanity and divinity appear in matchless unity.
Thus, the basic act of the disciple is looking. Staying alert. Watching intently. Noticing the subtle change in his bearing. Disciples do not predict where Jesus will go by trying to be super-smart—they can only follow.
Once we see Jesus, we can think about it. We can try to appreciate with our intellect something of the love we see unfolding. First we look and then we treasure up all these things, pondering them in our heart. For example, after Jesus lived, the disciples saw the Old Testament as full of references to Christ. Before Christ came and lived however, no one could have guessed his life would happen as it did.
But this order of first looking and then thinking is sure hard for us modern people. We have a hard time believing that after all these centuries we still need to keep tracking Christ’s every move. We constantly seek the “key” to Jesus’ life. We try to detect a pattern or principle that we can detach from Jesus and put to use in our lives.
I see this mistake happening often. We say for instance, Jesus showed hospitality; we then go and detach hospitality from Jesus and make it a kind of free-standing principle or idea in our lives and tell ourselves that we are still following Jesus.
It’s a lot easier just being generally hospitable than it is following Jesus. I can get hospitality. But you cannot be a disciple by following general principles like hospitality (or leadership, or counter-cultural resistance, or honesty, or nonviolence, or whatever other detachable principle). Jesus is simply unpredictable and he will always bust open my lousy principles and concepts. In order to be Christ-like I have to track his footsteps through the gospels in daily looking and attentive curious waiting.
What this means is that we must keep going back to the words, the phrases, the sentences in the Bible that tell the story of Jesus. Nothing can ever substitute for contemplation, for sitting with Mary at the feet of Jesus and listening to what he says next.
When we see things happening in the wider Church we strongly disagree with, we are tempted to react rather than suffer. Cutting myself off in disgust from sinful churches gives me a sharp jolt of spiritual Red Bull, but is this how Jesus responds to our sin on the cross?
I hear three major reactions in my church friends right now. First, many are reacting against the evangelical supporters of Donald Trump. “Evangelicals” are those people, the thinking goes, who welcome the most misogynist and xenophobic politicians in order to maybe win a round in the culture wars. And so, in order to prophetically denounce Trumpism, these reactionaries distance themselves from a larger evangelical movement that includes the likes of John Wesley, Billy Graham, and Elizabeth Elliot, not to mention Dr. Archie Penner.
A second reaction going on currently is a reaction against churches (especially Mennonite ones) that have affirmed same-sex marriage. In this reaction these churches are associated with sentimental, liberal drip that exists only to “affirm” the latest contrivance of the sexual revolution.
This is causing serious irritation in relations between Mennonite churches and conferences. People who react in this way suggest we pull out of MCC, MDS, and Mennonite World Conference because this work makes us guilty by association.
A third reaction is coming from people repulsed by the ultra-conservative Mennonites in their communities. These reactionaries want nothing to do with the name “Mennonite” because this associates them with legalism, cultural Mennonitism, and narrow-minded social control.
“We don’t make our men grow beards. We don’t make our women wear bonnets. We don’t harbour drug dealers, nor do our young gather behind Walmart on Sunday evenings to drink and smoke tires. So please don’t call us Mennonite.”
For the record, I disagree with Trumpism, same-sex marriage, and Mennonite drug-runners.
But the old rugged cross looms large over all our reactions. The Sinless One overcomes our sin not by dissociating himself from us, but by embracing us. This dwarfs all our pathetic attempts to maintain purity by distance. It silences all our fearful self-righteousness, all our shrill assumptions that, contrary to the whole Scripture, we were not that hard for Jesus to associate with.
We were a pleasure for him to come and visit. It was not our sins that held him there. God did not need to hold his nose when he came to our house. Not like those other people—God has to be so gracious to them, so long-suffering and merciful. Why does Jesus keep consorting with those people? Has he no standards?
Here is the basic question confronting our reactions: If Jesus still associates with these people, if they are still part of the body of Christ despite their sin, what basis do we have for separating ourselves from them? Unless we know that Jesus has damned them, what theological basis do we have for disassociating ourselves?
The Corinthian Test is relevant here. Paul lays severe accusations (1 Cor. 3:1; 5:1,11; 6:5-6; 6:16). But instead of cleansing himself of association with this poor excuse for a church, Paul writes to them, sends them his best pastors (Timothy and Apollos), and eagerly anticipates spending the winter with them (1 Cor. 16). Paul is willing to endure the suffering this church causes him because everything in life must finally yield only to the gospel of Christ (1 Cor. 9:12). Paul suffers the Corinthians. Who will we suffer?
You may have heard that the author of this column is assuming the work of EMC conference pastor. I hope “assuming” is the right word.
When a pastor is interviewed for a leadership position the question is often asked, “What is your vision for the church?” Depending on how that is taken, that can be good question or a bad question.
Is it important for a pastor to understand Christ’s vision for the church as described in the scriptures, and should a pastor be able to give a winsome summary of that vision during an interview? Absolutely. Should a pastor be asked to clearly describe a leadership style, a way of handling conflict, creating change, and building teamwork that the congregation can expect? Absolutely.
But should a pastor arrive at a church lugging a specific “vision” for that congregation before the work has even started? Before any prayers have been said at deathbeds? Before any sermons have been preached on the gospel of Matthew? Before long and caffeinated conversations with parishioners become friends? Before the pastor finally understands the history, personalities, and conniptions of the deacon board? I doubt it.
So I will try not to bring a “vision” to impose on the conference. However I do “assume” some things about who we are as a conference, and I now tell you what the main one is. I assume that in God’s eyes the EMC is something.
This bond of communion, this camaraderie at the feet of Jesus, this fellowship in mission, is not a merely human construction. I assume that this covenant between the 64 churches, at its deepest level, is a creation of the Holy Spirit.
To assume that in God’s eyes the EMC is something may sound a little understated. But to assume this does serious damage to one of our enemies: secularism. One of the acids secularism throws at the church is the corrosive product called “nothing-buttery.”
“Nothing-buttery” says that prayer is nothing but self-talk. That church unity is nothing but team spirit. That congregations are nothing but special-interest groups. That “conferences” are nothing but bureaucracy, structures we put up to help ourselves do our “mission” (another concept nothing-buttered in our age).
After we nothing-butter the conference, we can take it or leave it. We can force it to do what we want or else. We can tinker with it, gussy it up to look relevant, despise it as a nuisance or ignore it into oblivion. Nothing-buttery is an acid that destroys any sense that God is in our midst; so no need to take off your shoes, for you certainly can’t be standing on holy ground.
No one can prove that the EMC is something in God’s eyes. We assume God did it. As a pastor within this communion I can hopefully tend the garden God has planted. I can hopefully offer encouragement, a listening ear, wisdom or a sermon to those the Spirit has led into the fray. As a pastor my calling is to be a real, live pester of unbiblical thinking and living. I assume God has called me to be a pastor in our midst, a beckon that I confess causes me to tremble.
My prayer is that God would use me to show the EMC that it is something in God’s eyes.
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference