Maybe it was the downright gorgeous summer weather before the heat wave swept into central and southeastern Canada. Maybe it was the powerfully inspired music led by Paul Dueck and his gifted musicians in University of Waterloo’s Humanities Theatre.
Or the 20-minute walk from the dining hall to Assembly sessions that helped digest the food and clear the mind. Or Nelson Kraybill’s quip about having to move north if Sarah Palin is elected the next US president. Or, maybe the glee and relief of parents having their teenagers disappear for a whole week because the kids were having such a good time at Youth Assembly.
Whatever these peripheral delights, the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly in Waterloo, Ontario the first week of July goes down in history as one of the most moving, unifying and inspired events of this annual gathering of church delegates.
Yes, there were glitches (parking for locals a huge problem, for example), as there are in the execution of any large gathering for five days running, but they pale in comparison to what happened in the university Humanities auditorium, the hallways and lunch lines, the well-attended workshops, the Waterloo Park, the Peace walk through the streets of Waterloo and the service projects of the young people.
At a deeper spiritual level, keynote speaker Nelson Kraybill, Bible study leader Loren Johns and general secretary Willard Metzger, plumbed the depths of the Assembly’s theme “It’s Epic Remembering God’s Future,” giving us new vision and descriptive images of the New Jerusalem, new handles of hope in a world growing increasingly fatalistic about the future.
Kraybill, insisting that Mennonites in our religious provincialism are “control freaks,” asked us to see the “grand river” described by the prophet Ezekiel and by John, the Revelator, as a gift from God for “the healing of the nations,” as a source of life “not manufactured by the saints.” We need an “apocalypse,” he urged, an unveiling to see where God is at work, to see “where the river is flowing.”
Loren Johns, in his measured and scholarly yet pastoral way, dispelled the popular Left Behind images and symbols, by saying the narrative of Revelation has to be viewed like an “impressionist painting.” “You get more out of it by standing way back.” It was written as an apocalypse, an unveiling of how the churches were to act in their difficult time under the Roman Emperor Domitian.
Sounding the same theme in Waterloo Park with hands outstretched in front of the band shell, Willard Metzger bellowed out several times that “this is not the end. The end belongs to God. It is God who will determine the end.” The message of Revelation is not an easy one, he emphasized. John was not telling the church to relax and everything would be fine. Being the church is a hard task. He said the youth, as the church now, “will speak the unthinkable and risk doing the unimaginable.”
Within this context, hard issues were not dodged, such as human sexuality. Not only was this sometimes divisive issue handled wisely with the cooperation of the Harmony Group calling for more “loving dialogue” on the subject, but a workshop on Sex and the Sanctuary called for an open and frank discussion of sex, in all its dimensions (not just sexual orientation) in church where young people are yearning to be “whole persons.” The silence in our churches gives way, by default, to the popular culture using sex as power, manipulation and gratification without relationship.
The presentation by Rudy Baergen of a “Plan to Discern Faithfulness on Matters of Sexuality” under the rubric of Being a Faithful Church was measured and thoughtful, serving as a model for delegates in processing this issue back in their congregations. The discussions that followed were animated and frank, but respectful, as they should be.
But now comes the hard part. Coming off this mountaintop experience filled with inspiration and new vision, delegates will now have to dig in and be creative in developing strategies and processes that make all of this work in the pew. Given handles at Assembly, they are now better equipped to address these same issues at the local level.
There will be challenges. Delegates change for every Assembly, diminishing the sustainability of these strategies and vision. Congregations will need to address that, especially now that Assembly is moving to biennial sessions.