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One beautiful mess

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It’s quite different from the soaring cathedrals of Europe.

It’s different too from the austere churches of our Anabaptist forebears. Though they eschewed ostentation in their architecture, they took care to construct a worthy place of worship.

There are several churches around the world whose builders have chosen junk as their basic construction material.

A sacrilegious eco-crazed stunt? Perhaps.

But these unusual temples may say something more profound about God’s intention for the church than our traditional buildings, says Mennonite Bible scholar Thomas Yoder Neufeld.

“God has a peculiar aesthetic,” Yoder Neufeld told delegates from Anabaptist Mennonite churches around the world at the General Council meetings of Mennonite World Conference in Kenya in April. “God thinks it’s beautiful to put pieces of garbage together.”

The point of this image isn’t to tear down our self-worth, but to encourage us to a new vision of what unity looks like.

As Canadian Mennonite Brethren gather in Saskatoon this summer, we will have before us a plan to restructure our denomination to work more closely with each other. In this process, we are encouraged to be on “one mission.”

Ephesians 4:1–6 is the theme passage, driving home the message of unity through the repetition of one: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

But it should not be a surprise to trinitarian people – who follow one God who is simultaneously three – that unity is not a singular concept in the Kingdom. Unity in the Holy Spirit is not uniformity.

It is not a ripple-free sameness we are striving to achieve, but a colourful struggle we are called to live within.

“The unity of the Spirit is the reason we walk together, not the result of walking well together,” says Yoder Neufeld.

Unity in the church is not the result of our striving to be one, the prize we achieve when we are all agree on the same things.

It is a gift of the Holy Spirit: all these different parts are one despite not inconsiderable differences. Our work is not to achieve unity, but to maintain it.

Like the cathedrals of junk, the Mennonite four-part hymn-singing tradition tangibly expresses a great truth about the church: that beauty is woven together through difference.

Disagreement need not ruin our unity song. Discordance, dissonance – words that mean “bad sounds” – are not out of bounds in even the greatest compositions. Too much of these acoustic disagreements makes for painful listening, but scattered instances enhance a piece.

Problems in the church, says Yoder Neufeld, aren’t necessarily a sign of failure but may be indications that the Spirit is at work, bringing together broken parts (us), binding together different pieces into something new with a job to do.

“The temple of God is a permanent construction site,” says Yoder Neufeld.

But there are procedures to follow to make a good building – even one built out of junk. Yoder Neufeld offers the church a few guidelines for how to walk in unity despite diversity.

Humility

Remembering our own ongoing liberation from sin, we offer grace to others on their journey of shedding the shackles of selfishness and power-seeking.

Patience

“Patience is the way we hold the future open to each other,” says Yoder Neufeld. God extends his forgiveness to us with great patience for our slow learning. Can we extend long timelines to each other – learning to see each other in the way we also wish to be understood?

Suffering each other (forbearance)

Within a family, we not only suffer with but sometimes also suffer because of one another. Forbearance means that when we find ourselves receiving pain instead of comfort from the church, we respond with grace rather than reacting out of our hurt.

Forgiveness

Jesus was not a fan of putting limits on forgiveness. Forgiveness is not about letting an offender off the hook but about freeing yourself from the bondage of resentment and allowing the other the possibility of change. “When we practise grace, we participate in the creation of the new human,” says Yoder Neufeld.

Seeing the face of God in each other

“To love another person is to see the face of God,” Jean Valjean sings in the epic musical Les Misérables. When your brother or sister in Christ hurts you, “remember they also are the body of Christ,” says Yoder Neufeld.

These practices are not meant to prevent us from being frank with one another. They should not reduce agreement to the lowest common denominator. Instead, they encourage us, as we seek One Mission, to do so together without seeing eye-to-eye as the necessary result. To recognize the miraculous unity of the Spirit – of one hope, one faith, one God and father of all – in the midst of what looks like difference. To call beautiful the mess God is creating as he gathers us together in disparate work through different ways and with diverse people on his one mission.

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Jake Janzen August 8, 2018 - 18:10

Good comments on a very insightful address about unity not dependent on sameness. It is aimed at individuals but should it also apply to religious or denominational institutions. Could they also find inclusive and recognized unity within God’s kingdom? It would alleviate much strife.

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Karla Braun August 8, 2018 - 18:32

Thank you for your comment, Jake. I think it applies equally to institutions like denominations. In fact, Thomas Yoder Neufeld gave this teaching at Mennonite World Conference General Council meetings where the audience was leaders of MWC member churches from around the world.

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