As I write, the season of Advent has begun and Isaiah 40 echoes through my thoughts: “Prepare you the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
These stirring words speak to us as individuals and as members of families, congregations and communities. Do they also speak to us as a denomination? Is Mennonite Church USA to “prepare the way” for a powerful witness to Messiah Jesus? In Phoenix, perhaps?
To be sure, church history is sprinkled with gatherings whose witness resonates through the centuries. The foremost creed of the church emerged from a meeting in Nicaea, Turkey in 325. Our most durable Anabaptist statements of faith, such as the Schleitheim and Dordrecht confessions, emerged from national gatherings. Within the recent past, Mennonite made historic commitments at conventions in Bethlehem, Purdue and Nashville.
What word of witness is the Spirit of God calling us to speak in Phoenix?
Based on what I read of convention planning, witness will be front and center in Phoenix. One aspect of that witness will focus on a just pathway for our undocumented brothers and sisters to adjust their legal status within the U.S. Other words of witness may also emerge. We who proclaim Jesus as the way, the truth and the life cannot fail to speak to matters that weigh heavily on the generations to come.
As I see it, climate change is the threat that looms largest in the next 50 years. Due to rising temperatures and rising seas, it will displace many millions of people, separating them from their livelihoods and social supports. Although rarely acknowledged, the powerful already are positioning themselves to escape the wrath these changes will unleash. We see this in the withdrawal of the wealthy from their responsibilities as citizens, the expansion of government surveillance and police powers, the web of military bases Western governments have created all around the world, and the proliferation of new forms of violence such as drones and cyber-attacks to control people and events.
South African Peter Storey, a Methodist pastor and bishop during the struggle to free his country from the injustice of apartheid, offers this insightful comment on our challenge as U.S. Christians.
“American (Christians) have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white and blue myth. You have to expose, and confront, the great disconnections between the kindness, compassion and caring of most American people and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them This is not easy among people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.”
Letting our institutions do our sinning for us? Ouch! We recoil at the thought.
Or maybe our dis-ease is the preparation we need for our task. The powers are counting on us to place our own comfort above the survival of brothers and sisters in far-away places. They are counting on us to remain silent about the drones, the military spending and the plans to exploit every oil and gas field we can find. It’s when we feel the sting of Bishop Storey’s words that the possibility for witness begins to emerge.
Yes, it may be grandiose to suggest the gathering in Phoenix will tackle such huge matters. As individuals, we certainly are not up to the task; can a diverse group do any better? Yet the words of Isaiah remain: “Prepare you the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” As we step forward in faith, the Spirit of God meets us in our weakness and makes of it something strong and good. May God make it so! (670)
Berry Friesen is a Minnesota native transplanted to eastern Pennsylvania, father of two daughters and grandfather of two more. He attended prior conventions in Philadelphia, Wichita and Pittsburgh and is the author of Water from Another Time: Today’s Questions, Yesterday’s Wisdom.