If Love is the Verb (Thoughts from Orlando)

Ric Hudgens Pastor's Corner

Somewhere Wendell Berry says we are not called to live more simply but more complexly: “taking more and more things into account.” The first day of the Orlando Convention certainly got us started. I found it to be a day that began to open up the difficult challenge of being Anabaptists in 21st-century America. I attended three gatherings today including a pre-conference meeting of “inclusive pastors” affiliated with the Supportive Communities Network (see my previous post).

It was good to meet other pastors from “supportive” Menno congregations. It was illuminating to realize this network has been in existence for forty years. It was sobering to review statistics on the percentages of gay and lesbian Christians who feel neglected, alone, and persecuted. It was painful to hear how religious institutions and families contribute to this suffering. It was sad to hear how confused our Mennonite congregations remain about LGBTQ issues. It was challenging to receive a call for Mennonite pastors to be more aware, more engaged, more compassionate, more courageous. There’s something “complex” and not right about a Mennonite conference with the motto “Love is a verb” struggling to grasp the direct object of that verb; collectively wondering “who can we leave out?”

Evening worship was explicit about addressing complexity. I was grateful to worship leader Sarah Bixler for opening with a recognition that Orlando is the ancestral land of the Seminole. “We are meeting in the space of the Seminoles,” she said. “We acknowledge and honor the people on whose land we meet today. We lament how most of these peoples were exterminated and displaced by the United States.” Worship leader Shannon Dycus acknowledged that Orlando is the site of the recent mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse and that Orlando is a “complex city.”

But the evening theme “I am loved by God” sounded dissonant after the pre-conference session I attended. How can we encourage one another to know we are loved by God when our actions often say just the opposite? What does it mean to love in word AND deed?

Seating in the hall was organized with tables probably to facilitate the delegate sessions which will happen in the same room. It created an odd environment for gathered worship.

Coming from five years of ecstatic Black Baptist worship, I am always taken aback by the low energy of Menno worship. There are a few engaged bodies (hands clapping or raised, bodies swaying) but for the most part people have to be commanded to stand and the emotive aim of the contemporary-style worship music is about as effective as a rainstorm on a paved parking lot. There is something going on with the disjunct between what is being offered and how people are responding that deserves deeper scrutiny.

When Nohemy García Soria sang her original song “Despertar (Awakening)” it was clearly intended to bring the hall to its feet. But despite her passionate introductory prayer and delivery everyone remained politely seated until the end. However, maybe the Mennonite disposition towards cognitive worship was not the cause. Rather her sincere but misplaced emphasis upon America, her prayer that God “bless this land” on this “our special day.” It looked like some Mennonites were squirming; which is another form of embodied worship I suppose.

We concluded the evening with the Ted & Company presentation of their new play “Discovery: A Comic Lament” a show about “land, love, and loss.” I saw a preview earlier this year at the Rooted & Grounded Conference on Land and Christian Discipleship at AMBS in Elkhart. Several NSMC members saw the full production last week. It is a brilliant piece of theater art written by Alison Brookins, directed by Phil Weaver-Stoesz, and produced by Ted & Co, created in partnership with the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition. I can’t say enough here about the historical and contemporary relevance of this work or the quality of this presentation. For me personally, having been at Standing Rock last fall and then participating in the Trail of Death Pilgrimage a few weeks ago, I was profoundly moved. I’ll try to write more later. But whatever the play accomplishes, it does not simplify a complex legacy. It recognizes the complexity, highlights it, illumines it, and leaves it there in all of its confusing, burdensome discomfort. What if that is in fact part of what this Convention must be content to accomplish?

“Taking more and more things into account” as Wendell Berry urges us is indeed not a simple life—nor a simple Convention. After Day One, the complexity of what we are doing here in Orlando becomes evident. Every subject attending can affirm that “love is a verb” and still be confused about the direct object of that verb. The future of MCUSA will depend upon making that clear.