Dancing Through Thistles in Bare Feet

A personal journey by Gary Harder. Herald Press, paperback, 152 pp.

October 25, 2010 | Web First - Opinion
Jack Dueck | Mennonite storyteller
<p>"Depicting the sojourn of a man--who happens to be a pastor"</p>

This is a jewel of a book: its structure, seamless use of metaphor, the powerful quest motif and the humour make it a captivating and stimulating read. Although the title’s byline adds A Pastoral Journey, it actually is, and reads like, a Pilgrim’s Progress; it depicts the sojourn of a man –who happens to be a pastor – and a congregation earth bound but committed to being church in its commitment to the transcendent paradigms of a biblical Anabaptist teaching. The human, communal faith journey is messy, but, interrupted by the creative Holy Spirit, is grace filled, humorous and serendipitous.

The characters in this pilgrimage are: the Holy Spirit, the human pastor and the church. This memoir book-ends pilgrims’ (plural) progress with contemporary and biblical stories and metaphors. For example, garden and farm metaphors interweave the pastoral (rural) and pastoral (ministerial) in poetic fugue.

The Holy Spirit’s serendipitous surprise enlivens the pilgrimage. Pilgrim discoversthen it happened just when I least expected it.  A pinched behind on a cracked toilet seat opens a scenario for the surprise of the Holy Spirit’s infinitely creative work. Stories and humour abound.

The pilgrim constantly encounters the question: how is the Bible true? Not just a compilation of true sayings but the Bible becomes true among a people being a hermeneutic community. It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit transcends strict forms.Being church is not, as in music, in classical clear form but in an improvisational jazz mode. A surprising constant in the pilgrimage are Jesus’ parables of life requiring imagination, wonder, surprise, intuitive leaps, and non-linear thinking.

The pilgrimage leads also into heart break when the Christian community sinks into seemingly irredeemable chaos: facing an acute crisis, the church people find the pathway too thistly, the Anabaptist hermeneutic community challenging. And so being church is sidelined and replaced by human constructs, politics, and even packing the voting gallery with persons not an integral part of the hermeneutic community. With the discernment process subverted, the Holy Spirit seems locked out. Thorns thrive: desolation, fractured relationships, spiritual fatigue and a diminished faith in being church raises its ugly head. But we, the readers, know that the Spirit’s serendipity and grace, though the doors seem locked, will come bursting through our barred windows, shattering glass.

The dance through thistles goes on. Biblical texts weave into human faith experiences: pilgrims blaming Jesus and the Holy Spirit for a dirty church;  the Spirit enlivening the mundane ordinary; an angel wearing a hijab; a jackass preaching better than the preacher; weeds in the garden, the threat of monoculture diseases of fundamentalism, anemic liberalism and boring, fake perfectibility; the astounding and  improbable covenant community;   the pilgrimage threatened by church crisis and the attending temptation to be a one issue religious community; the pilgrimage, its faith thistle infested, disintegrates – like an old John  Deere farm tractor whose fly-wheel start-up operators neglected to open the pressure release valve – into irredeemable chaos.

The final chapter Threads of Life: Like a Great Peace Fugue celebrates the peace that passes understanding and which meshes all human disparities into a prismatic sparkle. The whole offers a marvelously enriching read for all on the journey of life. This book’s dramatization of a church’s pilgrimage intent on doing advent in being a biblical Anabaptist people daily, makes for grace-filled Christmas gifting.

We’re thankful that the Toronto United Mennonite Church granted Harder a sabbatical to craft this jewel.

"Depicting the sojourn of a man--who happens to be a pastor"

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