Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Deeper (and Broader) Than I Expected: Reflections on a Faith Formation Conference

Because of the subtitle of this conference, “Deep Faith: Faith Formation for All Ages” I went with a pretty narrow expectation.  It’s one I was looking forward to, but narrow nonetheless.  I hoped to engage the question of how to work at education and formation intergenerationally.  How does one shape a Sunday school class or worship service such that it appeals and genuinely connects with people from toddler to senior and allows folk of all ages to learn with and from each other?  I did come away with a few ideas.  Ideas I hope to work at and explore more in the future, including an understanding that building bridges of learning and connection intended to meet the particular challenges of, for example, a four-year-old in worship, may might also be wide enough to include others with different demographics but similar needs.  Wide enough to welcome many into an experience of God.

What I came to experience in this conference was not wholly what I expected but was still pretty exciting. Two workshops in particular had me excited to come home and think about how we implement elements in my context.  The first, led by Carrie Martens, was a workshop about marking faith and milestone moments across the life span.  Like most congregations we offer some ritual life-marking moments in worship, like infant dedication and baptism.  We also offer young adults hand-made comforters when they are ready to move on after high school.  But I was challenged to think about the many other ways to mark life-moments as sacred through adulthood and at points throughout childhood: the beginning of school for a child, consecration of singleness for adults who remain unmarried, blessing on retirement when adults complete work marking a ‘fruitful past and fruitful future.’* Since there is no beginning or ending to the formation of our identity in Christ, ritual markers along the journey give us a vocabulary to name that identity.  Being able to name our identity allows us to further deepen and claim it.

One of the areas we Mennonites have claimed as central to our identity is that of peace-makers.  Yet it seems to me that it’s rare for a congregation to actively engage in educating and forming members (young and old) in practices of engaging conflict in healthy and transformative ways.  I have certainly heard many stories of unhealthy and passive aggressive ways that churches have dealt (or not) with conflict. That’s why Rachel Miller Jacobs’ concept of ‘Ordinary Time Forgiveness’ seems both so simple and so radical. 

Rachel introduced those who participated in her workshop to some tools of non-violent communication and in particular we had fun with her deck of ‘Feelings and Needs’ cards.**  These cards, as the name suggests, each name either a feeling or a need.  When confronted with a conflict or situation in which discernment or transformation is necessary, one may use these cards, either alone or with another, to identify the two or three feelings that are primarily evoked.  This allows a listener to use empathetic responding when choosing cards for the story-teller to test if the feeling is right and for teller to respond.  Once primary emotions are identified, the needs cards come into play.  It is the met or unmet needs that evoke those feelings and when identified, we can so much more easily communicate – the first step in moving toward resolution and forgiveness. 

It's more complex than that, of course.  And conflicts, like people, may be much more multi-layered, but because this is about the every-day, ‘ordinary time’ conflict, each of us being formed with the useful tools of engagement is so important to confronting the really fraught and complicated stuff.  It makes so much sense to begin engaging the notion of conflict as normal and forgiveness as central in childhood, then to continue to deepen our understanding of self and other as we mature, growing in faith and experience.  I am looking forward to trying testing these and many of the ideas I encountered at Deep Faith and I’m very grateful to have been able to participate.
* Carrie Martens, “Faith Markers at Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church (in worship),” table.
** Rachel received her cards from Malinda Berry, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  They were developed based on the Non-Violent Communication practices and principles of Marshall Rosenberg and much more can be found at Malinda’s website here.

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