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On the one hand

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It wasn’t long after arriving at Celebration 2010 that I felt like one of the blind men in the famous Indian parable inserted into my childhood brain by a 19th-century poem.

It was six men of Hindustan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the elephant,
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

I went to C2010 with a mind that wanted satisfying. I grew up deep in one corner of the MB world, but the church I pastor has very few of the linkages I grew up with. So what, I wondered, does C2010 mean to a church both literally and figuratively on an island? What makes us one with that larger body?

My first exposure to C2010 did not answer the question, but provided the realization that, for all the insight I thought I had about the MB church, like the blind man holding the elephant’s knee, I was knowledgeable about only part of something very large and complex.

  • It is geographically vast. Present were major representations from every continent and sub-continent except Australia and Antarctica. I already knew that the India conference (with more than 100,000 members) and the Congo conference (with at least 100,000) dwarf the Canadian conference’s 37,000 members. But there was something about hearing the reports and speakers from those regions that drove what had been a mere fact into my being.
  • It is culturally diverse. I grew up with the cultural divide between Russian/German immigrants and the English Canadian. This was a chasm that sometimes seemed insurmountable in my MB story. I left with a sense that this divide was a mere crack in the sidewalk compared to the differences between the cultures represented at C2010.
  • It is financially unequal. We – the richest people who have ever lived – are brothers and sisters with people for whom subsistence is a fact of life. The reality of the financial divide reminded me that, even at a gathering of MBs from all around the world, a large segment was represented in only the most superficial fashion.
  • It is educationally fragmented. In the workshops, social scientists, historians, philosophers, and theologians explained nuances and intricacies with great skill to wise men and women who patiently listened to this great learning, though they knew the limits of their own expertise had been surpassed.

It was the mutual kindness I witnessed between a scholar and layperson that brought the Indian poem to mind. Without saying so, both indicated by their respectfulness that the other saw things they didn’t. They saw their own blindness. This incident repeated itself, again and again. I found it remarkable, and extremely heartening.

But my question remained unanswered: is this diverse entity a single body or simply a happenstance confederation of astonishing parts? After all, there is no logical necessity that the six blind men are exploring one elephant, instead of several objects.

My answer came in two stages.

First, I was surprised how quickly it appeared self-evident to me that we are a single body. Self-evidence, like beauty, is hard to pin down, but I saw a unity of spirit and language I didn’t expect. I live outside the daily reach of the larger MB world. I expect to feel a particular bond when I meet old friends – and I don’t with pleasant strangers. Hearing speakers from Canada, Paraguay, India, and DR Congo tell the same story of the Kingdom of God advancing took me aback, for I was one with them.

Second, it came as I read the blog post (http://www.mycelebration2010.ca/?p=404#more-404) of an MB pastor from South Dakota. He grew up Lutheran and became nondenominational before landing in the MB world. He too had gone to C2010 with a mind that needed satisfying, and in spite of beginning his journey from a very different place, came to the same conclusion I did. His eloquent story concludes: “We are part of something bigger.”

As I read the post, I could only add, “He’s right! We are a body.”

We are bonded by a history that looks back 150 years, then 500 years, then 2,000 years, then to creation itself.

We are bonded in a mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God in word and deed.

It would be nice to be able to capture the essence of the “elephant” in a neat phrase or short essay, but maybe that isn’t the first assignment. Maybe we first need to be satisfied that there is an elephant.

Next month: On the other hand.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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