Michael Danner is the conference executive minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference and a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Northern Seminary. He is married to Melissa and they live in Morton, Illinois, where they attend First Mennonite Church of Morton.
In my position as conference executive minister in Illinois Mennonite Conference (IMC), I work with a wide variety of congregations. Some of our congregations are urban, others are rural. Some are progressive, others are traditional. Some are ethnically homogeneous, others are ethnically diverse. Some are rooted in the Mennonite tradition and have been for long periods of time, others are new or emerging.
We are a diverse conference.
Yet, there is a common thread that runs throughout the conference. I have the privilege and pleasure of seeing that up close and bearing witness to what I see.
That common thread is love, which takes many forms.
IMC congregations love God, known to us as Father, Son and Spirit, and that love shows up in their worship. They love one another as Jesus taught and modeled and it shows up in their mutual care for one another and practices of reconciliation. They love their neighbors as themselves and it shows up in their compassionate service, proclaiming the gospel, inviting people to faith, acts of peacemaking and passionate commitment to justice.
As conference minister, I have a front row seat to the various ways that congregations love God and love their neighbors. That is something I have joy of witnessing. Congregational stories are stories I get the privilege of spreading.
I also want to bear witness to another reality.
Not everyone within every congregation agrees on everything. Likewise, not every congregation within IMC agrees on everything.
Some of the disagreements are small matters that come up in the course of everyday life in any community. Others are more substantive and get to the roots of what we believe and why. I suspect this is true of all congregations and conferences.
The amazing thing is that in the midst of these differences — big and small — congregations are able to be together and minister together. Of course, that is not absolute. Sometimes separations happen. To me, this highlights where unconditional love – as a verb – begins.
Living a life of love — after the way of Jesus — begins with a commitment to be and remain present with others without condition. Those last two words are the hardest.
To paraphrase Jesus: It is easy to love those who are lovable and love you back. It is much harder to love those who are less lovable, those who do not love you, those who see the world in fundamentally different ways.
Certainly, there are times when healthy boundaries demand separation from those who cause harm. The call to love without condition is not a call to give abusive people free reign and access to self and others – especially in the name of Christian love and forgiveness. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about all the times when disagreements and differences of a lesser kind are empowered to serve division.
Jesus did not come to do away with our differences, or those things which make us unique individuals who bear the image of God. Jesus did come to ensure that those differences no longer have to serve division, but can demonstrate the beauty of diversity within God’s family.