by Cynthia Wallace
Earlier this month I had the privilege of addressing the gathered body of the 2016 Mennonite Church Canada Assembly. In a nutshell, I said: our Assembly’s theme passage from Jeremiah 31 arrives in the middle of a story of unexpected loss. Its lesson (and in this I learned a great deal from Walter Brueggemann) is that in looking honestly at the past and present—lamenting losses and confessing failings—we find freedom to cultivate hopeful imaginations about the future. Looking back also showcases God’s faithfulness and God’s tendency to surprise us, both of which we see in the incarnation and resurrection of Christ.
At the root of all of this is a hope that is tenacious and open-eyed, a kind of hope writer Rebecca Solnit describes as “an embrace of the unknown.” Hope, she writes, “locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”
My prayer for those gathered in Saskatoon was that we would claim such hope, believing that despite our disagreements and uncertainties about the future—or maybe even because of these tensions and uncertainties—we could trust that God was, is, and will continue to be working redemption in the world and inviting us to join in the process.
To be honest, though, I spent most of my time at Assembly nursing a one-month-old and chasing a toddler. Even after hearing updates from those who were more present, my mind is foggy: the mundane realities of my life as a parent of very small children stand in the way of any crystalline analysis. As I’ve struggled even to find the time to write this over the last weeks, I’ve felt that I am probably the least qualified of commentators.
But a small possibility nudged me the other night as I rocked a fussy baby: our best hope may be in the mundane realities.
Here’s what I mean. The delegates passed this year’s major resolutions by a large majority, but the BFC and FDTF decisions were hardly unanimous, and they were far from offering blueprints for what comes next. The discussions in workshops and on the floor were (necessarily) limited and expressed significant differences of opinion. I witnessed moments of brave speech and brave listening, but the major work of imagining the church to come is still ahead of us.
Our hopeful imaginations and practices of brave listening and brave speech must take root beyond the Saskatoon Assembly: they must be like seedlings sent out from this prairie riverbank. Some of this work is energizing, but much of it will be difficult or tedious or without obvious short-term gains—in other words, mundane. I believe that we are called to the joyful, risky, creative work of prayerfully imagining, scheming, dreaming about where we go from here and how we get there. But with whom will we do this creative work?
I hope that we will do this work together, across dividing walls of age and gender and culture and opinion. That means listening when we are more comfortable speaking, and speaking when we are more comfortable listening. It means patient and at times painful conversations between local churches headed on different paths. It means speaking and thinking well of those with whom we disagree. It means inviting folks of differing convictions into our dining rooms and kitchens (or accepting others’ invitations!), and breaking bread and sharing drinks and accidentally touching each others’ hands in the sink as we wash the dishes afterwards.
I don’t wish to paint too glowy a picture. Daily faithfulness can be exhausting. Yesterday I swept the kitchen three times before lunch and changed a dozen diapers. In the last six weeks I’ve never slept more than three hours at a stretch. But sometimes I catch glimpses of the people my children are becoming, and the radiance of those possibilities leaves me breathless. My mundane care allows two new humans to flourish. Behold! I want to crow sometimes. New creation!
God is likewise at work on a new creation, forming and reforming a covenanted people, reconciling all things. Others may offer sharp analysis of the 2016 Assembly or grand visions for what comes next—and I hope they do. But what I have to offer just now, from where I am, is this: I hope for faithfulness in the small things. I hope that we will have eyes to see the radiance shining through the fractures in our institutions and in our daily lives. I hope, most of all, that we will let ourselves see what a messy, beautiful people the church already is—and let ourselves dream together, freely and joyfully and with tenacious hope, of what a messy, beautiful people we might become.
Cynthia Wallace is Assistant Professor of English at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan, and a member of Warman Mennonite Church. You can find her sermon at Assembly 2016 opening worship here. Photos used were provided by the author.