ordinary… mostly

"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger


Mennonite Church USA

Here we go again…

Yep — here we go again… the royal “we”, in this case, picking up pen and paper (keyboard and screen, if you prefer) and giving the brain some space to process whatever clutter is there.

Continue reading “Here we go again…”


When “bridge building” fails to build bridges

Laurelville’s mission statement begins:

In response to God’s gracious generosity, Laurelville plants, cultivates and nurtures Christ-like hospitality with welcome and safety for all…

I spend a lot of time wondering about that… What does “Christ-like hospitality for all” look like? How does this happen?

In my work, I interact with Christians (and even non-Christians) with diverse beliefs, opinions, and values. It amuses me that people from opposite ends of the spectrum (on any hot-button topic) will share things with me and automatically assume that I agree with them – simply because I work at Laurelville. Little do they know! It just isn’t possible for me to be in agreement with everyone. Nevertheless, I am thankful for these interactions and am always searching for ways to build bridges – a challenge when you only interact with someone for maybe a day or two.

In a recent essay, Gerald Mast describes two directions that difficult conversations may take. Perhaps counter-intuitively, he argues that maintaining complexity in our social interactions is a good thing, while reducing complexity is harmful. To understand this, we must recognize our tendency to define ourselves by saying what we are against. It is easy to create dichotomies – to say this is good, and that is bad. Or to state things more forcefully: I am good, and you are bad. When I speak this way, I have let myself embrace a complexity-reducing position. However, if I refuse to exclude you from my social circle – if I avoid the language of insiders and outsiders – then I am maintaining complexity.

As I am looking for ways to build bridges and extend hospitality to all of Laurelville’s guests, I am impressed by Mast’s analysis. It provides a helpful reminder to me in the midst of the diversity of visitors we receive. But in talking with Ordinary Spouse*, I also realized that I am biased and others might not care to maintain complexity.

* Ordinary Spouse and I have many of our best conversations in our van on the road while we’re travelling. This was one of them.

This embrace of complexity goes against the impulse of holiness.** The desire for holiness is something that may drive us to erect boundaries in order to remain pure. One might even argue that holiness and bridge-building are diametric opposites. And even if that seems a bit strong, it is understandable that someone who prioritizes holiness would not appreciate bridge-building efforts. In fact, I think that simply being willing to build bridges – not even taking sides – might be enough to drive wedges into communities where members have differing priorities.

** Richard Beck discusses the psychology of holiness in his book Unclean, which I’ve mentioned a few times on my blog. Highly recommended reading.

Naturally at this point, my thinking drifts away from Laurelville to the Church generally and to my denomination, Mennonite Church USA, specifically. I wonder: Is it possible that my desire (or anyone else’s, for that matter) to build bridges is actually achieving the opposite result? As Ordinary Spouse put it…

Is my presence at the communion table driving you away?

In fact, I can think of local and denominational examples where I suspect this to be the case.

Well – you can see that I’ve tied myself into a knot. Where do I go from here? I want to build bridges; to avoid the language of us vs. them; to use complexity-maintaining arguments. And doing so is counter-productive.

I don’t have a good answer, except to realize this problem is not solved by me sitting around thinking. I have to be true to myself and earnest in my dealings with others. Anything beyond that is in God’s hands, I suppose.

“When did we see you?”

My congregation, Scottdale Mennonite Church, is participating in The Twelve Scriptures Project, part of an effort by Mennonite Church USA to encourage christian formation within the denomination. Participating congregations are reflecting on biblical stories and scriptures that have been influential, individually or corporately. When our pastor asked me if whether I had a scripture to share, I didn’t even need time to think. I chose Matthew 25.31-46.

This morning, I shared the sermon at our congregation, and my family transferred our membership from Lombard Mennonite Church to our new church home. (Quite the day!) Here are my words from this morning.

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of an invitation she received to preach at a church in Alabama. She asked the priest,

What do you want me to talk about?

“Come tell us what is saving your life now,” he answered. It was as if he had swept his arm across a dusty table and brushed all the formal china to the ground. I did not have to try to say correct things that were true for everyone. I did not have to use theological language that conformed to the historical teachings of the church. All I had to do was figure out what my life depended on. All I had to do was figure out how I stayed as close to that reality as I could, and then find some way to talk about it that helped my listeners figure out those same things for themselves.

I find it somewhat surprising how much I’ve looked forward to sharing this morning. I think I’ve experienced something like what she describes. Our congregation is in the process of reflecting on scriptures that have been formational or meaningful in our lives. When Conrad asked if I had a scripture to share, it was as if he had said, “Come tell us what is saving your life now. What does your life depend on?” Answering that question this morning will be, I hope, like sharing good news. I hope you will be encouraged, and I invite you to also reflect on scriptures that are meaningful in your own life or meaningful to our congregation as a whole.

The other reason I’m glad to share this morning is that Laurie and I are asking to transfer our membership today from Lombard Mennonite Church in Illinois to Scottdale. I figure you should know something about me before that happens…

Let me begin, just briefly, by saying what I won’t be discussing this morning. As you heard, I’ve chosen the story of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. When I was younger, the aspects of this story that deal with judgment concerned me. I worried about heaven and hell, and whether I was a sheep or a goat. And though that isn’t the case now, and though that might be an interesting discussion (why do I not worry anymore), we’ll leave that for another time. Ok – with that out of the way…

For nearly all my life, I anticipated a career in science. Those of you who know my father won’t be surprised by this. He was a biology professor from the time he left school until he retired a few years ago. And I expected that I would follow a similar path. After finishing school in 2002, I began working in X-ray science, doing exactly what I was trained to do. It was work I liked; it was work that I did well.

But a couple of things, related to each other, were haunting me, slowly pushing me in a new direction and eventually leading to our move to Laurelville one year ago.

The first was the sense that my career and my faith just weren’t communicating with each other. Now I’ve been asked whether I felt conflicted working at a U.S. government lab. The answer is ‘no’. Not really. I wasn’t doing weapons research or anything like that. The things I worked on were mostly connected to biology and medicine and had useful, beneficial end results. No – my faith and career weren’t in opposition to each other; they just didn’t interact much at all.

I describe it this way…

Every morning, the “gate” on my home – really the garage door, but we’ll call it a ‘gate’ for the sake of the story – the gate went up, I spent twenty minutes on the interstate, I exited the interstate, and drove through another gate – the gate of the laboratory where I worked. In the evenings, I made the journey in reverse. It was all very clean and sterile, living life in these two “gated” communities. All I ever saw was white, suburban, middle-class America. It was as if nothing else existed. I didn’t think that my life looked much different from the lives of my colleagues; and I couldn’t see that my life reflected a commitment to being a disciple of Jesus.

Throughout that time of searching and longing for something more, some coherence, something that would tie the loose ends together, I compared myself to my father. Why was he comfortable with his career? How was he able to make the connection between science and faith? He spent forty years in science. Why was I having such difficulties? I quote Barbara Brown Taylor again…

No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those [who are] wise about the spiritual life suggests the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it.

I was fully familiar with her thoughts before we left Illinois. Should I have continued my searching there? I think it’s a valid question, but I don’t know that I’ll ever have an answer. I just get to live with the question.

The other thing that has shaped my life in the last number of years is doubt. Perhaps it’s the analytical side of my brain; maybe it’s the post-modern generation I’m a part of; I’m sure it has a little bit to do with the theological question of pain (why does a good God allow bad things) – whatever it is, doubt is an ever-present part of faith for me. This doesn’t bother me – not any more. I’m comfortable with the mixture of the two. But it does form the ways I experience God. I’m drawn to the prophets wrestling with God; I find comfort in the story of Job who asks question after question – and all he gets are questions in return. I’m inspired (and not discouraged) when I hear about the struggles of a person like Mother Teresa, who experienced a “dark night” for more than half her life.

We often think of our relationship with God as a vertical encounter. We meet God in prayer or in worship. And although that is true for me, as well, the connection is fuzzy. Do I hear God? Or do I just hear the blood rushing in my ears? How shall I find God? Where do I seek?

Let’s return to this morning’s scripture. Jesus says to the people on his right, “I was hungry; you gave me food. I was thirsty; you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger; you welcomed me. I was naked; I was sick; I was in prison. You took care of me.” And the people at Jesus’ right hand are saying, “When did we see you?” I can imagine myself in their position. Maybe they’re frustrated. Some of them are thinking that there has been a mistake “When? When did we see you? We looked and looked. We prayed; we never heard you…” “My friends – just as you did these things for my family, you have done them for me.”

The service to Jesus that is described here – these acts of hospitality – this is what I learned at Laurelville when I worked here 20 years ago. In the midst of my faith and doubt, this is how I still most fully experience God – in the midst of these horizontal relationships with others. This is why I chose Matthew 25 as this morning’s scripture, and this is why we moved here last year.

Ok – that’s enough about my story. Let’s talk about hospitality.

Luke records the story of two folks walking along a road one evening, trying to understand the senseless killing of their teacher at the hands of those in power. A stranger walks up, asks what they’re talking about, and they respond with incredulity. “Haven’t you heard about Jesus?”

Well – you probably know the story. Evidently, the stranger had heard about Jesus, because he explains to them how things really are. The two people reach their destination, and the stranger is going to go on. But it’s getting dark, and the roads aren’t safe, and they insist that he come in and stay for the night because that’s the hospitable thing to do. The stranger accepts their offer.

They sit down to the evening meal; they ask their wise guest to say the blessing; and their eyes are opened to Jesus sitting with them. And then he’s gone.

Now tell me – who is the guest in this story? And who is the host? Who is in need? Who provides for those needs? Hospitality creates a safe space where guests may enter and be authentically themselves, and in that space to encounter and be transformed by God. True hospitality allows for this role reversal. When we welcome the stranger among us, do we create the space where this role reversal can happen? Are we willing to yield to the guest, and are we willing to receive, instead of being the one who gives?

Speaking of receiving, instead of giving – our culture privileges independence and self-sufficiency. Disciples of Jesus, however, need to acknowledge our weaknesses and our interdependence on one another. We cannot extend hospitality, we cannot be good hosts, without also being good guests.

Imagine this scene – I’m sure you’ve witnessed it. One person offers something to another person. It could be a gift, some food, some money, some time… And the second person says, “No – it’s too much. Too much of hassle. Too generous. Too… whatever. I couldn’t accept it.”

Yes. Yes you could. And I could. We could receive humbly, graciously, thankfully. You can be the guest – acknowledging that we are all strangers, sojourners in this life, as the writer of Hebrews tells us.

It has been helpful for me to remember this during the past year – to remember that we are all strangers. The question I try to ask each day – some days with more success than others – is, “What will Jesus look like today?” Many days it is obvious to me. Guests are constantly arriving at Laurelville, and it’s usually a joy to extend hospitality to them. Even when it’s not, I find that I’m transformed by the encounter, if I’m open and receptive to the possibility of encountering Jesus in these strangers.

But some days Jesus shows up in the faces of those I work with or live with. And to be honest, those encounters may be more joyful, or they may be more difficult. What does it mean for me to extend hospitality to my co-worker, or my wife, or one of my children? Am I sensitive to their needs? Am I receptive to the gifts they bring?

And what if look in the mirror and find that the person looking back is a stranger? What if I don’t like what I see? Are we hospitable to ourselves? What would that hospitality look like?

Laurie suggested to me that hospitality to ourselves and to those closest to us might come in the form of time. I think this is right. For ourselves, we honor the Sabbath. We rest. For others, we set aside our distractions and invest in their lives.

You know – our time, our lives are limited. In some sense, we are always dying. When we extend hospitality, we die to ourselves. Our life is given away, given as an offering, an offering to Jesus, who comes to us as the stranger.

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, my sisters or brothers, you did it to me.


Belated, late night convention thoughts

(I’m writing from Pittsburgh 2011, MCUSA’s biennial convention. I had planned to do more blogging. Alas, with a variety of unforeseen family stuff, it just hasn’t happened. So I begin here with a reflection on Shane Hipps’ message at the opening worship service. This blog is cross-posted at the Pink Menno website.)

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

II Corinthians 5.16-20

It’s late Wednesday evening at the Mennonite convention in Pittsburgh. I’m typing in my hotel lobby, so as not to wake the sleepers in my room. I had intended to do some reflecting Monday… or Tuesday… or even this morning. But sometimes the days don’t quite go as expected at convention.

On Monday evening, we opened the week with a joint worship service of youth and adults. In his message to us that evening, Shane Hipps considered how we often find two impulses at odds within the Church: the desire for holiness and the desire for justice. However, Shane told us that Paul (in his letter to the Corinthian Church) describes a third, more difficult option. This option is a higher calling. It is the way of reconciliation.

Shane also took some time to describe the cells in a healthy organism: how they grow, divide, and specialize to take on the variety of tasks that need to be done. But when cells grow and divide unchecked, the organism faces something sinister: cancer. Shane expressed concern that the Mennonite Church is approaching this point. Therefore, he implored us to take up the way of reconciliation.

He reminded us that throughout its history, the Church has faced growth-related challenges before. If I recall correctly, two problems for the early Church (the slaughter of meat and the debate surrounding circumcision) were cited. These days, we don’t regard these things as problems at all. The two sides were reconciled long ago.

Shane took some time to describe how it is possible for both sides (holiness and justice) to quote scripture and to enter into a “victim” narrative. “The problem is that the emotions of justice and purity (anger, fear, and hurt) are innate to us. They come naturally. Justice and peace are categories of the world. When you have categories, suddenly you have colors, and when you have colors, you have tribal warfare.” (I’m not sure that the quote is quite right, but that’s what mPress has, so I’ll go with it.)

Wow. I came out of the first worship feeling… what? Hurt? Convicted? Guilty? Here I had come to Pittsburgh ready to wear my pink stuff, but maybe what I’m doing is causing division. That requires some serious reflection on my part. So that’s what I started doing, even as the rain was still falling on the roof during the Monday evening worship service.

And after a couple of days, here are my thoughts:

1) The use of the word “color” was unfortunate. In a public way, it singled out (without actually naming names) those who are on the “justice” side. I am, of course, referring to Pink Menno. One might imagine that such a direct reference would result in some degree of shame. The result of this shame would be a tendency to withdraw; to become colorless, if you will. That would be unhealthy.

(The cancer metaphor was also unfortunate, because of its unintended implications for the nature of Pink Menno.)

2) There are issues of power that weren’t addressed. It is difficult to talk about reconciliation when one group wields power over another. The very real situation is that LGBTQ persons are not welcomed at convention or in positions within MCUSA. Pink Menno, MennoNeighbors, and BMC are not allowed space in the exhibition hall. When they wished to hold a welcoming worship service, it had to occur at a nearby UCC congregation. At some point, issues of power and oppression must be addressed as a precursor to reconciliation.

3) We may wish to consider some more recent examples in the tension between holiness and justice. It is true that we don’t think about ritual slaughter and circumcision much any more. But we are still thinking about gender and race inequalities. To the extent that reconciliation has occurred, it has occurred because injustices were addressed. That work continues.

4) Shane described reconciliation as a higher calling than working for holiness or justice. I don’t necessarily disagree. On the other hand, I wonder if Jesus didn’t see reconciliation as being intimately connected to justice. In the Gospels, we see the tension between holiness and justice when we examine the interaction between the Pharisees and Jesus. And Jesus says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Mercy is the inclination to justice, while sacrifice is the inclination to holiness. Jesus transgressed the walls erected in the interest of holiness to reach those who were “unclean”. In the process, he judged that the walls themselves (and not the persons) were that which was unclean.

Note: The Wipf and Stock booth in the exhibition hall has a wonderful book (“Unclean” by Richard Beck) which specifically addresses these issues.

5) Finally, I am reminded that Pink Menno is a group which is fundamentally about reconciliation: reconciling all God’s children into the Church.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I decided to relax about wearing pink. And I was glad to see a different color metaphor reported in the second edition of mPress this week. The president of Mennonite World Conference said:

For me, Mennonite World Conference is like a flowerbed with many beautiful colors. You walk the streets and reds, yellows, and blues. That’s what Mennonite World conference is all about.

I envision a flowerbed that includes some pink, as well.

I write all of this with some amount of trepidation, realizing that I have a natural tendency to get defensive when challenged. So in humility, I welcome loving discussions from anyone. I am not part of the LGBTQ community. On good days, I’m an ally. But I am a white, educated, middle class, North American, heterosexual male. I have just about any privilege one could imagine. I try to hold that lightly.

If you happen to read this before the end of convention and care to chat, look for the guy with the crocheted pink hat. That’s probably me.

Ideas for worship… Easter to Pentecost visual

If you attend a Mennonite congregation, you may be using the Leader materials for the Easter to Pentecost season. (Ordinary Spouse was a part of the team that planned them!) The theme for the season is “Turn to Jesus; Go with the Spirit”. One of the members of our worship commission designed a three-foot high mobile to evoke the motion in that theme. The rings are painted with gold, orange, and red – reminding us of the connection between the resurrection and the coming of the Paraclete.

A follow-up to yesterday’s letter

I’d like to share a few additional items related to yesterday’s letter:

I emailed my letter to Terry Shue and Ervin Stutzman before I posted it on my blog. Almost immediately, I received a response from Terry, which I deeply appreciate. It was clear that he “heard” my letter. It was also clear that this is not an easy time for him or others in MCUSA leadership (and if I had to guess, I would say that it will get harder before it gets easier). These people are my sisters and brothers. Occasionally I even know them personally. They love the Mennonite Church, just as I do. They are in my prayers. I hope that any MCUSA leader who reads my blog will understand this.

Nevertheless, I think that they have acted inappropriately, so I will try to disagree in love.

A friend reminded me today of another unfortunate statement in the Mennonite recently. In an editorial, Everett Thomas quotes Ervin Stutzman’s report to the MCUSA Executive Board:

The experience of Pink Mennos at Columbus in 2009, introduced a new level of engagement in controversial matters. … The techniques of social advocacy and confrontation that we have taught young adults in our schools has come to haunt our church’s most visible gathering, to the end that convention-goers feel immense pressure to take up sides against one another on [homosexuality].

[For more information about what happened in Columbus, see the July 7, 2009, issue of The Mennonite.]

I sincerely hope that this choice of words was an unfortunate oversight. But it is hurtful. “Haunt” sounds like a word that was intended to bring shame. I tend to think that “beautiful” would be a better description of the glimpses of pink all around Columbus.

I’d like to suggest some additional resources. If you either…

1) Would like to know more about how to make MCUSA a welcoming place for all, or…

2) Disagree with my beliefs, but think that dialogue is important (and believe that authentic dialogue only occurs when you understand the other person)…

… then I would suggest that you visit some of these websites:

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