Story for all Ages: “She Who Sits Alone,” from One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World, ed. Margaret Silf.
Reading: “The Invitation” by Oriah Mountain Dreamer
It doesn't interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.
Would it surprise you to know that I come from a long line of ministers stretching back many years. There is something in my family that either breeds ministers or raises them, for we seem to be a family that stretches to live in a way that moves beyond the realm of the ordinary, and for many of us, that has meant choosing the difficult path of ministry. I am pretty proud to be able to follow in this tradition. In fact, I would say that it has become one way to carry my family with me. I may have shifted from the Mennonite religion of my family, but I have not left the religious tradition of my family.
It doesn't interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life's betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain. I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it. I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn't interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy. I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, 'Yes.'
It doesn't interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.
It doesn't interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.
It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.
And so I have many role models that I use to help define my ministry. My mother’s Uncle Henry, for instance, is the emotional one. He has never once failed to cry while delivering a sermon. He preaches so earnestly and works himself deeper and deeper into his text, until at the crescendo of his sermon, tears threaten, his voice breaks, and he pulls out his ever-ready cloth handkerchief, lifts his eye glasses slightly and dab his eyes! He undoubtedly left a strong impression on me and my brothers and because we used to imitate him when we played church. In fact, my brother Conrad and I still leave phone messages for each other using his style of preaching. When I decided to enter the ministry, I got handkerchiefs for Christmas. But seriously, there was a prophetic quality to his preaching. In the Mennonite culture of that generation, men were stern and stoic, rarely displaying any of the softer emotions, especially in public. For a man to cry from the pulpit rendered a softer, gentler, and more personal approach.
Then there is my father’s cousin Anne, who was the first woman ordained in a Mennonite Church in the United States. She and her husband met in seminary at Elkhart Indiana, but in those days women weren’t ordained. When Ken and Anne graduated, he was ordained, and she took on the role of minister’s wife. It didn’t satisfy her for long. She and her husband approached the church they served to ordain her as their assistant minister. After much discussion, after all they knew they were breaking new ground, the members agreed. While I never saw my Aunt Anne work in a church setting, our family has been deeply influenced by her compassionate ministry. When my grandmother was struggling with the fact that she had two gay grandchildren, she turned to her niece Anne for support. Anne stood with my grandmother as she struggled with her fears. She asked her to consider this: God is much larger than anyone can comprehend, and when we make judgments, we are actually limiting God, making him small, forcing him into what we need him to be. To honor God is to love unconditionally. That’s what we’re here for, to love, and we serve God by loving our neighbours. Anne encouraged my grandmother to love us and to trust God to take care of us. As a result of my aunt’s loving words and caring ministry, my grandmother was able to find peace and develop loving and trusting relationships with all her grandchildren.
COURAGE & IMPRISONMENT
My mother’s grandfather, Heinrich Winter, was the quiet solid one. He did not speak much, he listened a lot, and yet when he spoke, everyone listened. He was a man of small stature, almost frail, but his small frame belied his strength of character. He served during difficult times. Heinrich was ordained during the 1920s in Ukraine, not the safest thing to do in the emerging Soviet Union. In 1930, with the collectivization of land, he and his family were blacklisted. Their farm was taken and they were forced to depend on the generosity of friends and relatives. Still, he continued to work, holding secret religious services, and providing rites of passage like baptism and marriage to those who stole away to him in the dark of night. And yet it was hard to keep secrets in those days. In 1935 he was arrested and sentenced to five years hard labour. Because he was so frail, no one expected him to survive, but he did. When he completed his sentence, he returned to the Ukraine and went right back to work. When the German army occupied the Ukraine in 1941 and allowed churches to reopen he was ready. He preached to crowds hungry for his message of hope and liberation, and he baptized hundreds of people. When the German army retreated, the Mennonites and many others fled before the army to Eastern Europe, desperately seeking to escape the Soviet Union. He and his family joined them, and he continued to minister along the journey. When the war ended, he carried his message into refugee camps throughout war-torn Europe, and when he and his family came to Canada, he traveled across the country ministering to the new immigrants as they built their lives in a new world.
I remember a story my grandmother told me about him. It happened during the 1930s, at the height of the terror. By that time, the Russian Orthodox priests had all been arrested. An Orthodox couple came to him out of desperation, clutching their newborn baby. There was no Orthodox priest to baptize it, and they asked if he would. This was a quandary for him because Mennonites do not baptize infants. Mennonites believe in adult baptism. You must be baptized upon confession of faith. When he saw the couple’s fear and their deep need, he knew that this was no place for a theological splitting of hairs. Without hesitation, he baptized their child.
My great grandfather never lost sight of the people he served. He never used creed or doctrine as a weapon or a way to judge. Not that he didn’t have firm beliefs. He never let go of his belief in the scriptural soundness of adult baptism. But he had an expansive theology that allowed him to move beyond his particular beliefs and step into the reality of someone else’s life.
In theological language, he had what is called a praxis theology. Now I’m not sure if he would have used that term. It did not exist in his day. The term “praxis theology” comes from liberation theology, a movement that emerged in Latin America in the late 20th century. One key theologian in that movement was Gustavo Gutierrez. Gutierrez defines theology as "critical reflection on historical praxis." Now that’s pretty intellectual so let’s try to unpack it a bit. He believed that doing theology well means that we immerse ourselves in [our] own time and place and be open to the larger truths that reveal themselves.
Theology is not a system of timeless unchangeable truths. It is a dynamic, ongoing process that draws Scripture and religious tradition into conversation with contemporary experience. Gutierrez and other liberation theologians developed praxis theology as a way to walk into the realities of oppression in Latin American countries. They demanded that theology evolve in response to systemic racism, economic oppression and political corruption in those countries. If theology did not respond to this reality, it wasn’t worth its weight in gold. Liberation theologians are decidedly Christian and rooted in Christian doctrine, so they looked for the face and the message of Jesus in the struggle against oppression. They said that for far too long Christian doctrine had been corrupted into a tool for the wealthy and the powerful. They proclaimed that the true calling of Christianity was to struggle with and for the poor. To free the oppressed, they demanded that the truth of their lives be opened and that doctrine and theology evolve in the face of their realities and their needs. (Click here to find out more about liberation theology.)
THEOLOGY EMERGING FROM TIME & PLACE
Now why do I think my great grandfather was doing praxis theology? If he had said to that couple, “Infant baptism is not the will of God. Come back to me when your child has grown, and we’ll talk about it,” he would have been taking his theological truth and imposing it on the situation. Instead, he allowed his theological truth to evolve in the face of the situation in front of him. His theology emerged out of his time and his place. It developed as a response to his experience of living under the thumb of Stalinist Communism. It emerged in the context of political oppression, economic chaos, starvation, poverty, imprisonment, and loss. His ministry responded to those realities. He was not overtly political as many liberation theologians are. However, those who had him arrested certainly saw him as an ideological and political threat. In his quiet manner, he witnessed to another way. His refusal to recant his beliefs witnessed to another way. His perseverance to bring the presence of the spirit to those he served witnessed to another way, a way that was based on love rather than fear.
Is this not what ministry is? -- Witnessing to another way? When my Uncle Henry weeps from the pulpit, he is witnessing to another way. When Aunt Anne sat with my grandmother, she witnessed to another way, a way based on love rather than judgment.
One of the things that both Unitarian Universalism and the Mennonite Church have in common is that they are both grounded in the belief of the priesthood of all believers. That means that we do not believe you need a priest or minister to mediate between you and whatever it is you hold to be larger than yourself. We are all priests. We are all ministers. And that means that each one of us is called to witness, somehow, to another way, a way based on love rather than judgment and fear.
What is our witness? Given our time and our place, given the pressures and stresses of this day, given our lived experience, what is our witness?
In some ways, this is an easy question to answer. In a religious climate that is increasingly conservative, we witness for a religion that is progressive. Surrounded by denominations that profess rigidity, tradition and a strict morality, we profess openness and of creativity and change. Where some offer eternal salvation and a clear destination, we offer the journey. In the midst of a political culture that threatens our civil liberties, we witness to freedom and trust and responsibility. In a state that amended the constitution to ban same- sex marriage, we stand for marriage equality. In a country that has a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, we stand for the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and for justice, equity and compassion in human relations. And in a society that seeks to divide and conquer through fear of difference, we proclaim the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are all a part.
This is an important way that Unitarian Universalism witnesses to this place and this time. It is the way we are dialoguing with the stresses and pressures of our day.
But is that enough? Is it enough? This kind of witnessing is an easy witness, because we are witnessing to what we already believe. It’s a feel-good witness. So let’s try and push the envelop a little further. If we were to really provide a prophetic witness, one that strikes to the core of what stands between humanity and wholeness, what would it be? I’m talking about a witness that stretches us, generates twinges of discomfort, perhaps even demands of us that we sacrifice something. If truly witnessing meant taking what is most precious to you and casting it into the fire, could you do it? Would you do it? With no guarantee that your sacrifice would get you what you wanted?
Listen to the prophetic words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer:
I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy….
I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine,
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon, 'Yes.'…..
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair,
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done to feed the children…..
I want to know if you will stand
in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back….
What will it take for you to stand in the center of the fire? It burns before each of us and it asks something of each of us, and it is asking something of this church.
May we have the strength and resolve to be bearers of love, not fear. May we cultivate the humility to walk into and with the reality of another. And may we never be afraid of witnessing to that which burns in our hearts, for we are all ministers of the spirit, called to serve in the ways of love.