The Ongoing ministry of Reconciliation
The Ongoing ministry of Reconciliation
Langley Mennonite Fellowship, May 21, 2017
As many of you know, I have been intimately involved in two deeply entrenched, and some might think irreconcilable conflicts in our world and church today. With Christian Peacemaker Teams, I lived and worked in occupied Palestine and the State of Israel from 1999 – 2002, where I sought to live out central commitments of my faith – an unswerving commitment to peace & reconciliation, nonviolence and sacrificial love.
And In the Mennonite church, I have worshiped and walked with communities occupied with the question of whether or how I should be welcome to do so as a lesbian Christian. Here, too, I have sought to live out my commitment to peace & reconciliation, nonviolence and sacrificial love.
In both places, and both stories, I began my journey imagining that reconciliation was my goal and might, by the grace of God, emerge as the result of my hard work. What I’ve discovered was that reconciliation was my starting point, and my work the more difficult and vulnerable journey of living as one already reconciled with the people appearing as enemy. I think this is why, when Paul spoke about God giving us the ministry of reconciliation in his letter to the Ephesians, it is in the context of his proclamation that all things having been made new in Christ. Reconciliation isn’t a 12-step program, but a new creation. It isn’t a future goal, but a new way of seeing the present.
Reconciliation isn’t our work, it is God’s, and it has been accomplished. The dividing wall of hostility already HAS been broken down. This made a huge difference for me when I really let it sink in that my work was not to reconcile deeply divided people, but rather to witness to God’s reconciliation by embracing ‘all my relations’ and inviting others to do the same.
When Reconciliation was no longer a work to be done but a gift to be received, my posture could change.
I found that I could both be more vulnerable and more discerning in my willingness to act and put myself out there. Gone was the pressure to do more, be stronger, see concrete results of changed systems and reformed structures (as much as I still longed to see them!). Instead I could just stay present to the love of God, self, and neighbour, which sometimes simply meant staying. In Palestine that often meant walking Palestinian school children to school past Israeli soliders and settlers who frightened them. Or sharing in the sacred month of Ramadan with my friend Nisreen, sleeping alongside her family in her home as bullets and rockets from Israeli gunships reigned down and we all huddled together on the floor.
In the Mennonite Church that sometimes that meant meeting MCBC leaders for coffee and sharing a little of myself. Often it simply meant coming to church. Sometimes it meant staying at home.
And I found that I could have the courage to be patient, attentive to small movements and unpredictable and unexpected openings, instead of living in the frustration of hopes unfulfilled. In Palestine that meant releasing attachment to a specific political goal as a marker of success. It allowed me to speak to the humanity in Israeli soldiers carrying out inhumane orders, and catch glimpses of their fumbling attempts to live up to my respect for them. In the Mennonite Church that has meant dreaming not in terms of days, but decades. It has allowed me the grace of experiencing smiles, handshakes, and spoken words of care and support from people who were originally uncertain or even opposed to my leadership in the church.
When we receive the gift of God’s reconciliation, our ministry becomes that of refusing to be enemies. There is no otherness that need keep us apart, no injustice or harm that has made the chasm too wide to stretch an arm across; no difference too extreme that we can’t see a neighbour in the face of the Other.
My hope for Langley Mennonite Fellowship is that together we will continue to find ways to live as reconciled peoples, refusing to be enemies across any and all lines. Indeed, today’s world seems ever more ready to build walls, blame the Other, polarize and demonize. In this time and place a number of divisions present themselves for discerning care and courageous action, and LMF is already walking in many of them – building new and respectful relationships with Indigenous communities; being an oasis of welcome and hope for LGBT Christians in a desert of fear and rejection; opening hearts and minds to Muslims in a climate of Islamophobia.
My dream is that together we will continue to develop a capacity to envision and act on the basis that we live in and form a web of interdependent relationships with all human and non-human beings; that we will accept vulnerability and risk stepping into the unknown and unpredictable, seeking constructive engagement with those people and things we least understand and most fear.
One of my favourite images of the activity we are invited into as we embark on our ministry of reconciliation is one described by Miroslav Volf in his book, “Exclusion and Embrace: A theological exploration of identity, otherness, and reconciliation”.
Volf, writing out of the horrors of the Balkan warfare, gives us the model of the embrace as a way of thinking about the vulnerable, patient, and courageous ministry of reconciliation. I leave you with this image today:
The first movement of the embrace is the act of opening the arms. First we must signal to the other that we are open and no longer desire to be closed in on ourselves. We want to know something of the other’s life, their hopes and their hurts. Open arms indicate that we have created space in ourselves for the other to come in. If we can get to this place, we have gone most of the distance already. For to arrive at a place where we are able to open our arms to offer a true embrace of the other means that we are willing to let go and detach ourselves from whatever we have created the other to be – in turn freeing them and us to enter into a new union chosen in freedom and love.
Act two of the movement of the embrace is waiting. Open arms wait for the other to approach and willingly join the embrace. An embrace is not an embrace if it is grasped at or forced. It can never reach its goal without reciprocity. This part of the act of embrace may take a long time. There is no guarantee, having made the difficult and crucial transition into a willingness to embrace the other, that the other will respond in kind. Here we must have patience. Here is the test of whether our willingness to embrace is authentic or not. For it is isn’t – if it is really only a self-serving attempt to manipulate the other by empty expressions of love and acceptance, then our arms will tire and we will once again close off, bitter that the other can’t see what a great thing we are offering. Only if we have truly let go of our control of the relationship can we successfully engage in act two of the embrace – the patient act of waiting.
Act three: closing the arms. This is the goal of the embrace, the embrace itself, which is unthinkable without reciprocity and mutuality. The embrace is a free and mutual giving and receiving. The other is not consumed into oneself, nor is the self consumed into the other, but the two encounter one another as a question – curious as to who the other is, what their perspective might be, and offering the vulnerability of one’s own self. Anything less is domination, served up as a supposed dialogue. Yet, there can be no real dialogue with those with whom we do not agree unless we can imagine that we have as much to learn from our partners as we have to teach them. If the first two movements have been authentic, the actual embrace is the act that fully transforms the relationship from one of possession, fear, or otherness, into one of freedom, love, and unity.
And finally, act four: opening the arms again. The embrace does not create unity by dissolving difference and making one body in the place of two. If the embrace is not to cancel itself out and finally result in the violence of assimilation, the arms must open again. The other must be let go once again so that the movement can continue on with the arms newly opened. The end of the embrace is already the possible beginning of another embrace, for the movement of the self to the other and back has no end.
And so it is with reconciliation – the gift and ground from which our ministry unfolds. Thanks be to God.