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Worship in acknowledgment of the “elephant in the room”

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Participants in the 2014 School for Leadership Training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary did not tiptoe for three days around the “elephant in the room” – that is, the anguish felt by many over congregational disagreements in regard to same-sex relationships.

On the contrary, a highlight of the three days appeared to be a worship service where the whole person was engaged. It was titled “Offering the Elephant in the Room to the Holy Spirit.”

Participants were invited to imagine themselves in the presence of Jesus, and then to imagine themselves in the presence of Jesus with someone with whom they disagree. Each person wrote down hopes and fears for themselves and for the person with whom they disagreed and at the end came forward and placed their hopes and fears at the foot of the cross.

“This worship service created time and space for the Spirit to move among us.” said Beth Yoder, associate pastor at Salford Mennonite Church in Harleysville, Pa. “I know without doubt that the full gamut of beliefs about this question was represented.”

And yet, at the end of the service these people with disparate beliefs gathered together, prayed together, and wept together at the foot of the cross.

Brian Miller, pastor at Sunnyside Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., said: “This was a space that is about the prayer of unknowing, a space that is more about yieldedness than control, a space of deep listening, and a space that is about finding a third way.”

As each person in the room remembered their own relationship with God and then remembered that even those who vehemently disagree with them are also beloved children of God, tears flowed and the group sang, “Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger than your fear.”

“There were tears throughout the room, sometimes quiet sobbing, as each of us felt our own vulnerability and need for God’s Spirit – our fears and hopes for the church, for beloved people,” said Yoder.

Participants acknowledged their own hopes and fears, perhaps for the first time giving words to deep emotion. Through the work and the mystery of the Holy Spirit the experience went beyond argument, beyond disagreement.

As a result, in Yoder’s words, “the bars of the iron cage of rationality were loosened a little bit.”

Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, was among the church leaders who spent time praying together at the foot of the cross. “As I humbled myself before the cross, I experienced the power and comfort of a Christian community, grateful that God has redeemed a church, not just individuals.”

Les Horning, MDiv ‘98, worship coordinator for the annual school, explained that the purpose of the service was to “begin the healing process for the ways that people have experienced pain surrounding this issue.”

Yoder summarized it well: “We did not decide or discern anything, but we did create time and space for God’s Spirit to be with us. And that is a very good place to start.”

To see worship resources for this event, held Jan. 20-22, 2014, and all of the worship services for School for Leadership Training visit www.emu.edu/seminary/slt/archive.

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