The Path Not Taken: More Thoughts on “Despairing for MC USA”

Ted Grimsrud—February 26, 2019

As I have reflected on dynamics in my church denomination (Mennonite Church USA) and my own involvements in this community, I have a few further thoughts beyond what I wrote in my February 23, 2019 blog post, “Despairing for Mennonite Church USA.” My focus in that essay was on “conversation”—its difficulties and how it has been repressed.

Imagining a path not taken

I asked myself: What could I imagine might have been done (or would be done)? How might conversation work? And what would be the role of “theology” be in such a conversation? Another kind of question is whether you could easily get caught in a loop of endless conversation, where you are just talking things to death with no resolution.

One response to this last question is to suggest that we are simply too hasty in early 21stcentury North America. We are too outcome oriented, too focused on quick resolutions, on getting over our differences and getting things done. That is, we are too unwilling to invest time and energy at genuine mutual give and take that can be messy and inefficient, but it a necessary part of fruitful human relating.

However, one can’t impose one’s patience and curiosity onto people who don’t share those tendencies. If we all shared a deep-seated sense of patience and curiosity, we likely would not have many of the problems we have. But we don’t…. Still, the starting point of any kind of discernment for how best to work within our denomination, or our conferences, or our congregations, has to be some kind of interest in the wellbeing of that community. And with that comes some kind of willingness to try together to figure out how to move ahead.

There are two other possibilities, of course. One possibility is that people simply are not up for any conversation. Some of these may simply wantto split, and they cannot be stopped. Others may want to stay together and simply avoid the differences. A second possibility is that people would be invested with a strong desire to win an argument against their opponents. Many of us are tempted with this desire and it is impossible to imagine a serious conversation about these issues without that desire surfacing—these are important issues to people. However, such a desire needs to be repressed if there is to be sustained conversations and fruitful outcomes. Continue reading “The Path Not Taken: More Thoughts on “Despairing for MC USA””

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Despairing for Mennonite Church, USA

Ted Grimsrud—February 23, 2019

When Mennonite Church USA was formed in 2000 by the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church (minus the Canadian halves of those two denominations who joined to form a separate denomination, MC Canada), its total membership was well over 100,000. Now, eighteen years later, that number has dropped to about half of what it was. I have no analysis as to why exactly this has happened, but I do think just about everyone involved would agree that these are difficult times for this young denomination.

I also think that many of us feel a bit despairing about this trajectory and the possibilities for the near future. In this blog post, I will reflect on just one element of the situation that has fostered my discouragement—the difficulties we have had for many years in engaging one another in serious conversations about the issues that matter the most to us, often issues that involve tension and conflict.

A rocky beginning

I had a difficult beginning to my pastoral career. In my first permanent pastorate that began in 1987, I immediately faced the challenge of how to process a request for membership from two gay men in a committed relationship. I strongly supported them but was not sure how to process the request in our small congregation. We were quite liberal for a Mennonite congregation at that time, but this was a new question for most of the people.

Not long before I started at the church, it had spent some time discussing biblical and theological issues and people quickly realized they could not hope to find agreement. So, to my disappointment, they weren’t interested in me leading them in an examination of the issues on an academic level (even though when I joined them, I was in the midst of writing a dissertation in Christian ethics and was chomping at the bit to utilize my expertise).

Our leadership team decided the best approach would be to interview members and active participants individually to get a sense of the overall attitude, and then to have a congregational meeting to discern together how to move forward. We insisted that the two prospective members be fully involved and always be informed of what was happening. The interviews indicated that while most people were in favor of affirming the membership request, there was also some significant opposition. Continue reading “Despairing for Mennonite Church, USA”

Charlie Rich sure could sing (Looking West #5)

Ted Grimsrud—February 20, 2019

As I sit here trying to think about what to write about today, I happen to be listening to Charlie Rich’s 16 Greatest Hits. Since I am not sure how well known Rich is today, I thought maybe I could write a brief tribute.

Obscure but talented

I’m pretty sure the first awareness I had of the singer who I now consider to be in the upper echelon not only of country singers but of all popular music singers was in the mid-1960s when I noticed his song “Mohair Sam” on the radio. It wasn’t a big hit (I have learned that it only made it to #21 on the Billboard pop charts), but it was catchy enough that I remembered it as an 11-year-old. But I didn’t remember that Charlie Rich was the singer; I only learned that a few years ago.

Mohair Sam

It turns out that Rich was fairly obscure for much of his career. He began recording with Sun Records shortly after the peak years for that label when they featured incredible talents such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. I think Rich actually was in the same league, talent-wise, but for many years none of the several labels he recorded for could figure out how to get him the attention he deserved. Continue reading “Charlie Rich sure could sing (Looking West #5)”

Socialism and capitalism: Two exhausted labels (Looking West #4)

Ted Grimsrud—February 19, 2016

When I was trying to find some glimmers of hope after the 2016 election, I wrote in a blog post that one of my thoughts was that hopefully we would see the renewed interest in progressive politics stirred by the Bernie Sanders campaign expanded. It does seem that that has happened. We certainly are getting more conversations about “socialism,” a word earlier in my lifetime generally only heard on the public airwaves as a cussword.

A lack of clear meaning

I welcome these conversations. Just yesterday, Kathleen and I listened to a couple of podcasts with interviewees talking about socialism in a positive way—one the renowned Harvard historian Jill Lepore and the other Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Breunig. But I was actually troubled by something. I never truly got a sense of what the word “socialism” means these days—or, for that matter, what “capitalism” means. Lepore even said that “socialism” doesn’t really mean anything, but then proceeded to use the term as if it did mean something.

I believe that something real is being advocated by politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. But I’m not sure it should be called “socialism”—though I get why they might want to use that term to indicate that they are seeking something different than the standard corporate liberalism of mainstream Democrats. Still, the term does not seem to me to be helpful. When Bernie and AOC advocate for “socialism” and Trump uses his State of the Union address to insist that “we will never have socialism” in the US, it seems all we are getting is fuel for our polarizations.

And maybe it is even worse when someone such as Lepore uses the word “capitalism” seemingly as an accurate term for our current economic system that is characterized mainly by unrestrained corporate oligopolies and monopolies. Such use ignores differences between our current system and the actual practice of competitive, free market oriented economics. Continue reading “Socialism and capitalism: Two exhausted labels (Looking West #4)”

The joys and dilemmas of road food (Looking West #3)

Ted Grimsrud—February 18, 2019

For as long as I can remember, I have loved road maps. When I was maybe 13 I found an almost mint condition road map for Oregon from 1950. What was special about that map was that it was of Oregon before the Interstate Highway System. I was fascinated especially by Highway 99 before it was superseded by I-5. Quite a few of the little towns, especially in the southern part of the state, virtually disappeared after the new highway came—Divide, Curtain, Wilbur, Azalea, Wolf Creek….

I spent hours imagining road trips around 1950s Oregon. Then, when I got hold of a road atlas for the entire US, the imaginary trips expanded. Finally, in 1971 when I was 17 I was able to hit the road with my parents and younger sister. We drove all the way out to Virginia. We mostly followed the interstates, and I got to drive about half the time. One highlight, though, was when I drove through pre-I-64 West Virginia in the rain. That was a long but beautiful drive. Since we moved to Virginia in 1996, I learned that the road I drove back in 1971 still exists in much the form it had back then because I-64 traversed a much different path. US Route 60 (the “Midland Trail”) from Charleston to Lewisburg remains a long and beautiful drive.

Happily, when I married Kathleen I found a kindred spirit who also loves road trips. We got started pretty slowly since we didn’t have a car for the first ten years of our marriage (though we did borrow her parents’ car for a memorable trip from Arizona to Indiana to Saskatchewan and back in 1983). But once we got our new Honda in 1991 we took every chance we could get. We’ve driven back and forth across the country at least seven times, with quite a few shorter trips as well. We would have liked to have done more and hope still to take many trips. We’ve learned that we have extra fun when we avoid the interstates as much as possible (at least once we made it all the way from Harrisonburg, VA to Eugene, OR, without a single mile of interstate driving).

Road trips mean road food

I have to admit to having a less than sophisticated palette when it comes to meals while traveling. All too often, I have been content to settle for fast food chains or bags of snack food. Even so, from time to time we have randomly struck gold. Surely the most interstate- and fast food-intensive cross country trip came in 1998 when it was just our son Johan (then 16) and me. But we stumbled upon a terrific breakfast spot in the mountains west of Missoula, MT (it might have been Durango’s in Superior, MT). If the two of us were to repeat that drive, that’s the one place where we ate that we would return to, as Johan would never stand for fast food these days. Continue reading “The joys and dilemmas of road food (Looking West #3)”

Trump and US Democracy (Looking West #2)

Ted Grimsrud—February 16, 2019

For some months I have been reading about the American Civil War. It’s been fascinating for many reasons, and I expect to be writing about what I am learning and thinking for a long time. One thread will be how sobering it is for me to read about the US past in relation to our current national political stormy waters. One of the premises of the Trumpian proclamation is that America used to be “great.” Well, it certainly wasn’t great in the middle part of the 19thcentury. And, painful as it is to realize this, many of the ways it wasn’t great back then are still with us—white supremacy, economic inequality, warism. And, of course, Trump’s agenda to “make America great again” seems only to exacerbate those problems from long ago.

Surreal, but not necessarily utterly exceptional?

It is surreal to have a president like Donald Trump, likely the most repellant person ever to hold that office. I don’t know of any president whose policies and philosophies I disagree with as much as Trump’s. I know of no other president who was as dishonest, as self-centered, as oblivious to other people’s feelings, as closely linked with the most corrupt elements of the broader American society. But at the same time, I realize that just about every other American president has also had disagreeable policies and philosophies, has been dishonest, self-centered, oblivious, and linked with corruption.

I think it is a mistake to view Trump as utterly exceptional. I get the sense, among people I talk with and read, that Trump is this foreign element in our political system and all we need to do is get rid of him or, at worst, wait him out for two more years, and then things will be ever so much better. I’m not so sanguine about our political system and about the state of democracy here. I wonder if the Trump presidency might be most useful not as a contrast to how things normally are but as a vulgar, veneer-stripped-away exposure of how broken the system has become (and maybe always has been). Continue reading “Trump and US Democracy (Looking West #2)”

Looking West – Introducing a Blog Series

Ted Grimsrud—February 15, 2019

I was born in Eugene, Oregon, back in the mid-1950s and lived my first eighteen years in the tiny town of Elkton, Oregon, about an hour’s drive southwest of Eugene. After a couple of years going to college in Monmouth, Oregon, I ended up back in Eugene at the University of Oregon and except for a couple of excursions for graduate school spent the next twenty years there.

It’s now been almost twenty-five years since our family moved away from the West Coast, the last twenty-two being in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Part of my soul remains in Oregon, though. When I raise my eyes from my computer right now, I look west. I do that a lot, often for minutes at a time. Sometimes, I’m just taking a break. But often my mind moves to the years gone by and to the sensibilities of the world in which I grew up. I’m still that person in so many ways.

The lure of writing

For as long as I remember, I wanted to be a writer. I decided in middle school to major in journalism, thinking at the time of being a sportswriter. I got the degree but decided against the career path. My writing energies turned in a more, I guess I could call it, ecclesial and academic direction. As a pastor and college professor, I did write a lot, some of which was published. I imagined when I retired from teaching a couple of years ago that the writing would come easier and my productivity would ratchet up. So much for the best laid plans. It’s been kind of interesting for me in that the ideas have continued to bubble up as much as ever, but the actual effort to turn the ideas into something concrete has not been as easy to generate as I had hoped.

Continue reading “Looking West – Introducing a Blog Series”