In the memoir book Life Work, author Don Hall tells a story about a New England man who every year heads to the market with an ox-drawn cart filled with all of the extra things his family has produced during the year—maple sugar, wool, potatoes, and the like. When he gets there, he sells not only all the products but also the cart. And the ox.
He goes home with the money he’s made, buys a new ox, builds a new cart, and starts all over again. Hall calls it “human life compared to a perennial plant that dies to rise again.”
Hall says some people love the story because it exemplifies sinking your whole self into what you do and illustrates the cycle of life. You do something well, and then you start over with a clean slate. Other people, he says, think the story is rather discouraging. Why on earth does the man go back and do everything over again? It’s a circle. He never gets ahead.
Then Hall says: “Temperament, temperament. Each human division reads the same story; each responds from an opposite place.”
That passage resonated with me as I thought about recent events—a bitter election with sharply drawn lines, worldwide concerns about whom to believe and whom to trust, and a church that seems to be deeply divided even as people on all sides try to authentically live out their faith.
We’re seeing the same stories play out. We’re responding very differently. Age, race, gender, economics, geography, education, religion, experience, and any number of other things are all potential fault lines.
It has always been so, to varying degrees. Recently I visited a Brethren congregation celebrating its 150th anniversary year, and they read some minutes from a late 19th-century congregational meeting. At issue was whether the then young congregation should get a piano. It seems innocuous enough now, and some members were very much in favor of it. Others, however, did not want the church “going the way of the honky-tonk devil,” according to the minutes.
In something of a paradox, our globe has grown increasingly interconnected and woven together, yet we have more and more difficulty finding a common narrative. The multiplicity of news outlets (and “news” outlets) allows us to very narrowly tailor our world while excluding any other viewpoints.
One friend, in the week after the election, posted on Facebook this cultural observation that stuck with me: “We just snapped a high-res, HD, no-filter selfie.” Many of us may look around at the surrounding landscape and not like what we see. And certainly the background in one person’s “snapshot” can look very different from another’s. But we are all part of the story.
Back in October I had the chance to be part of The Gathering, an annual event that Western Plains District has been holding for a dozen years as part of its district transformation initiative. People from across the district come together in beautiful Salina, Kansas, for a weekend at a conference center just off I-70. It’s like a district conference without the business sessions. They come together simply to worship, to learn, to eat (of course), to sing, to enjoy each other’s company, and to share stories.
I’ve been to the event three times now, and I always come away impressed—and refreshed. I’m sure that Western Plains still has its issues, but a good spirit permeates that event from start to finish, year to year. They have found a different way of relating to one another as Christians, as Brethren, as neighbors. It seems at least some of the transformation they seek has come to pass.
“For me,” says Ken Frantz, chair of the district’s Transformation Vision Team, “it is always a place to touch base given our broad geography and the distances between churches. I think most would agree that it allows us to be family in the way that our camps also allow—a sanctuary of sorts and a time of renewal for many.”
This year’s Gathering focused on the theme “You Are Loved.” The brochure said, “Gather with us for a transforming experience for you personally and for your congregation. How shall we ‘Pass on’ the Love of God today?”
Perhaps there are ways we can do more of that type of connecting around our denomination. It brings to life Jesus’ perennial command to love God and love our neighbors. It creates and deepens relationships. And who couldn’t use a bit more transformation?
We will never see eye to eye on everything. Perhaps, though, we can do less “eye for an eye.” And maybe take a breath, start fresh, and begin writing a new story—together.
Walt Wiltschek is news editor for Mennonite Church USA Executive Board, and is a former editor of Messenger.