Friday, July 20, 2012

When we all get together . . .

Khortitza Mennonite Church ca. 1895

When we all get together - MC Canada Assembly 2012

It was 6:00 pm. We'd just concluded a lengthy session of debate on three resolutions, a process elongated by a move to change some wording and considerable back and forth before the proposed change was rejected. It was probably a good suggestion but clearly, the 250 or so delegates in the room had had enough talk on the matter. Subject fatigue had set in. It happens.
    I fled to my room, practically trampling a number of good friends with whom I should have taken the opportunity for a greeting at least, if not conversation. I turned on the TV to a Hamilton/Toronto football game, a contest in whose outcome I had no interest whatsoever, put my feet up and promptly fell asleep. After three days of meetings, conference-floor interaction, taking minutes, listening to material I already had in my head, I was suffering from acute verbiage fatigue. I found myself nodding like a bobble head, not so much in agreement as in the faint hope that it would hasten speakers' inclinations to stop talking.
    I woke up late for the evening worship, but fortunately, it began late. I realized as I sat down in the auditorium that I should probably have had a meal before coming. Prayers were said (one involving the batting about of balloons; the purpose eluded me), a worship band led us in songs I'd never heard before with no notes to guide where on the scale we were to sing and inspirational Bible passages and other words were spoken. I wasn't “into it,” apparently and I realized that—is this really possible—I might be suffering from worship fatigue. Can there be too much lofty dialogue, too much invoking of the Spirit, too much robust praise singing for the human mind to endure?
    More people came in—behinder than I was apparently. Seats filled up around me. The world was closing in—my exits were cut off. I began to feel claustrophobic and as the moderator of the service worked valiantly to set a worship mood, I contemplated ways to escape gracefully. None presented themselves. By now a tingling, near-numbness was beginning to assert itself in my gluteus maximus. I was definitely suffering from chair fatigue.
    Next morning, a fellow delegate and I met in the hallway. I asked her, “So how's it been for you?” and she gave back the standard "It's been OK, but very busy" answer.
     “I'm ready to go home,” I said.
    “Oh, so am I!” she said. “So am I!”
    I know that if we're going to bring a lot of people together at great expense in order to be democratic and even-handed, the effort to cram in as much input as time will allow in hopes of harvesting a vast amount of product seems logical. What we may not consider adequately is that it's not  just time that is limited, it's also energy. When we ask people to take on a task, the relevant question should not be j
ust, “Do you have time for this?”
    Our energies sometimes run out long before the clock ticks down.
    Conference fatigue: a phenomenon that is the sum of chair fatigue, worship fatigue, verbiage fatigue, subject fatigue and—possibly—face fatigue (we seem always to be SO MANY!). It probably affects us to different degrees, but I suspect we're all prone to it.

But on the other hand . . .
    Mennonite Church Canada brings together up to 450 people to its national assemblies, many of whom know each other personally and all of whom share a common faith and vision. Well, let me qualify that last statement: although we range from a traditional to a post modern worldview, though some are what could be called “agnostic Christians,” others clearly Biblicists and many of us somewhere between, we feel with considerable certainty that we are swimming in the same pool. We call this the Holy Spirit, a common warming at the fire ignited by Jesus Christ so long ago. A spirit that unites despite differences.
    It's most evident in the singing; the Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel may have to re-shingle,. Song after song extolling the majesty of the universe and the God who made it. And it's evident in its themes, in the eloquence of our great speakers throwing life-giving light on the assembly: Tom Yoder Neufeld, Gerald Gerbrandt, Sheila Klassen-Wiebe.
    A disinterested observer would probably draw attention, though, to our similarity to a corporation. We have a board and commissions that carry out the business of the conference and we are obliged to hold “shareholder” meetings so the actions of the boards and commissions can be vetted. Debates and decisions are regulated by a relaxed version of Robert's Rules of Order. What's not similar is the brevity of the business meeting, the preponderance of social activity, communal worship and sermons. This afternoon at our post-assembly board meeting, a staff member noted the glaring difference between the two “states of being,” the communal worship and the business, and we all knew what he meant; someone said, “we're still so European.” It was an interesting observation considering that much of the worship was led by congregations of the Asian Mennonite churches in Vancouver and we'd been welcomed to Vancouver by a representative of the First Nations of the Vancouver area. 

    The signs that we're shedding some of our Germanic anal retentiveness, though, are promising.
    Conferences require travel; we finished our last afternoon meeting early so I was in the Vancouver Airport fully five hours before my flight to Saskatoon. At about the time we were scheduled to board, they told us that the flight would be delayed for three hours and issued us dinner vouchers for $10.00.
    Unfortunately, I had eaten and paid for a big dinner three hours earlier. 

    Agnes would have to meet me in Saskatoon at 3:00 am; I phoned her with this unwelcome news.
    I'm a nervous air passenger in the first place and the excessive turbulence of the flight had me declaring “never again,” . . . again.
    This is a personal reflection and shouldn't be assumed to be the general experience of people who attend assemblies and conferences; I know people who can't get enough of travel, debate, visiting and taking notes on lofty subjects. It boils down—in the end—to how intentional communities survive in a changing world. Video conferencing and similar technologies may end up being cheaper and less intrusive in terms of cost and time spent, but I doubt that there will ever be a satisfactory substitute for the handshake, the embrace, the singing together in harmony, the absorbed listening to subject, nuance, body language, tone that makes up a great sermon, and can only be appreciated by those physically present.
    So be it. The fatigue, the travel, the inconvenience will all pass.
    Bring on another conference!
    But not before a really substantial break, please.




1 comment:

  1. Great reflections on the conference, George. A big treat for me was spending time with you!