Our Future Church Summit

Last week I served as a delegate from our congregation at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, Florida. A highlight was the Future Church Summit where we worked together in table groups crafting a vision for the future of our churches and our denominational body. We put in long hours for several days and were all exhausted by the time we were finished.  Still, I found it immensely satisfying. It was good, important work that can guide us in our uncertain world. What I especially appreciate is the list of themes that we identified that inform our radical Anabaptist version of Christian faith. (I made a few small editorial deletions and changes to make it read better).

  • Strong sense of community, caring and mutual connection
  • Centrality of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ
  • Being a peace church: living out faith through service and justice
  • We experience God’s Spirit in community
  • Sense of welcome and belonging, which comes from being received as family
  • Active participation in discernment and mutually sharing our gifts
  • Singing our theology by making music together [worship]
  • Interpreting Scripture through the lens of Jesus, together
  • Mutual aid economics – sharing our lives and resources with one another
  • Radical orientation to Christ and nonconformity to the world
  • Faith as a voluntary choice — Anabaptist values rather than “ethnic heritage”
  • Awareness of and connection to the broader world
  • God is in the margins

Each of these themes elicits a deep inner resonance within me. Yes, this is my church! I’m so glad I went to Orlando. Yet, I’m keenly aware of the tensions within our church body that are currently centered on the inclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. As a result, many of us (myself included) carry deep wounds from past painful encounters. Our tendency as wounded people is to allow our sharp edges to, in turn, wound others. My prayer is that I can instead become a wounded healer. That’s why I’m drawn to Joann Lee’s reflection on this week’s lectionary reading on Jesus’ parable of the sower and the good soil (Matthew 13: 18-23):

To be good soil, we must also have the imagination and creativity to dream, to be able to see beyond what is already happening toward what might be possible. This part is best done with other people. The best ideas and possibilities often come when a diversity of voices and perspectives are present—especially if they involve dreams of systemic, cultural change in the world. Even if the changes we seek to make are strictly personal, however, having others walk with us in our journey of faith can help us affirm and change course as necessary.[i]

[i] newsletter@christiancentury.org via mail139.atl221.rsgsv.net 

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The Song of Creation

creationI was in my office answering correspondence, planning various things in the life of our church, and studying for my weekly sermon. Then the noon bell rang at nearby St. Leo’s Catholic Church reminding me that it was lunch time. I went to the kitchen, prepared my food, put it on a tray, and carried it to the picnic table in our woods.

It was a perfect day. The sky was bright and the trees formed a canopy overhead, shading me from the sun. I could hear the stream tumbling slowly across the rocks down below. Most enjoyable was the spirited and joyful song of a mockingbird perched up in the tree above me. As in Wendell Berry’s short poem:

Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.

Part of the quiet he’s talking about is quiet within. We need to stop our work and our plans to contemplate and listen. It’s hard to hear bird song when we’re busy, anxious, or distracted. I desire to bring this quiet attentiveness to our meditation on the biblical story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis.

The first chapter of Genesis is poetry, most likely created for liturgical purposes.  Its dramatic sweep begins with God confronting chaos and creating a cosmos. At the end of each day, this creation poem concludes with the statement, “and God saw that it was good.” The poem ends with God’s serene and joyous rule over the whole universe in peaceful sabbath rest.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that the relationship between creation and Creator is a relationship of free, gracious commitment and invitation. It involves full trust rather than requirement and obligation. Furthermore, we tend to confine God’s grace to individual, guilt-related issues of morality. But in this creation song, God’s grace is portrayed as the Creator’s transforming disposition toward the whole world. Creation faith is our confession that all of life is characterized by graciousness.[i]

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation (John Knox Press, 1982), 27.

A Spirit Endowed Fellowship

Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, is a classic reminder that we’re a Spirit-endowed fellowship. We long to live into the creative power of this reality yet it raises some uncomfortable questions. Do we participate in the life of our church with the expectation that our sureties and lifestyles would be seamlessly confirmed? Or do we participate with the expectation that the Spirit’s wind and fire will release us from the tyranny of our settled certainties and comfort zones?

God’s Spirit is never predictable. We may want to install seat belts on the chairs in our church sanctuary as we negotiate this rush of creative wind. But it’s not always dramatic. Sometimes the Spirit comes as a beckoning ray of light inviting us to explore places we’ve never before ventured into. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr explains: “

When the Spirit is alive in people, they wake up from their mechanical thinking and enter the realm of co-creative power. . . Like Pinocchio, we move from wooden to real. We transform from hurt people hurting other people to wounded healers healing others. Not just individually, but history itself keeps moving forward in this mighty move of Spirit unleashed. The indwelling Spirit is this constant ability of humanity to keep going, to keep recovering from its wounds, to keep hoping and trying again.[i]

This may be hard to recognize in our present political climate where religious equality, justice for the poor, and caring for the earth are continually under assault. Living love, growing justice, and welcoming everyone can feel like a huge stretch. Where is the mighty movement of God’s unleashed Spirit in the midst of all this?

We’ll most likely miss it if we become too fixated on the controversies swirling around the White House. Sure, such things are important and we should be engaged and concerned. Still, politics is about so much more. Some of us here at Daniels Run Peace Church are working at affordable ways to put solar panels on our church roof and a plugin station for electric cars in our parking lot. Others of us are installing a rain garden on our church property. Such things are also politics in the best sense of caring for the wellbeing of our community. The coming of the Spirit is about empowering God’s people for the task of creating and living into God’s purposes for us and our world.

[i] Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance (London: SPCK, 2016), 146-147

Fairfax Interfaith Friendship Walk

Interfaith Walk

We had a very successful Fairfax Interfaith Friendship Walk yesterday, connecting eight houses of worship, including Daniels Run Peace Church. Between 200-300 people participated in the 3.5 mile walk. We had 200 tee shirts for participants and ran out. The photo on this blog is of the City of Fairfax mayor David Meyer thanking the participants at the end of the walk. The city police very graciously escorted us through the city streets.

Part of the motivation for the walk was to respond to recent hate speech and hate crimes in the greater Washington DC area. We, however, also wanted to learn to know our neighbors better as a way to work at some of the social challenges in our city. That happened as we stopped at each house of worship along our route and heard a brief presentation about who we are and our different ministries. Some of us have already been collaborating in addressing things such as the challenges of homelessness and affordable housing in our area.

We were encouraged to mingle and talk our neighbors from other churches and faith communities. That really happened and I consider it to be one of the greatest successes of the walk. For example, I walked beside the Father David Whitestone, the parish priest of nearby St. Leo’s Catholic Church for part of the walk and enjoyed connecting with him. I also enjoyed reconnecting with Imam Ankaya Bilal, from the Ezher Mosque, easily within walking distance of our church.

Beyond that, I met and talked with so many other people, including a man who was so interested in our church garden, the edible landscaping we’re putting in, and the fact that our new name Daniels Run Peace Church emphasizes both our commitment to our local ecosystem and our religious tradition as a peace church.

Remembering a Committed Peacemaker

I was dismayed when I read a New York Times news report last week that the bodies of two UN researchers were found in a shallow grave in the eastern Congo. I remember one of them, Michael Sharp, as a passionate, fun-loving, and gifted student in a class on Global Peace and Justice that I had taught at Eastern Mennonite University. He loved studying and debating various peace and justice topics.

Michael first worked in eastern Congo with Mennonite Central Committee and then began to serve with the UN peacekeeping mission there. Those who worked with him said that “he was a very hard-nosed truth seeker and would go the extra mile to nail down the evidence.” They also said that “he had tremendous empathy, even for some of the nastiest people he worked with.”

Colleagues described Michael as a professional with extensive experience in tough places. He had worked in the Congo for five years and had developed an extensive relational network with rebel commanders and local leaders, most of whom he had met in church. One colleague said that he had told her: “Rebels go to church. You build a relationship with them there.”

His father John says that Michael’s work had been rooted in his faith. “From early on he caught a passion for peacemaking and peace-building in the world.” He believed that peacebuilders should be willing to take the same risks as military people take.  Now we mourn the deaths of Michael, his UN colleague, and their translator, three gifted peacemakers. Three other Congolese nationals who were traveling with them are still missing. We remember and pray for the friends and family of all these people.

This is incredibly sad. The lives of two young peacebuilders were cruelly snuffed out. Even sadder is the sheer magnitude of the pain and suffering in eastern Congo. The UN estimates that currently there are at least 2.7 million internally displaced people in the Congo and approximately 450,000 refugees in other nations. Estimates vary widely but the death toll may have reached more than four million people since the conflict began following the genocide in neighboring Rwanda in 1994.

The hopeful part is remembering Michael Sharp, such a remarkable young man with a passion for creating a more peaceful world in a region that has known so much death and suffering. He knew the risks he was taking and recently told his mother that he wasn’t afraid to die. His life was so full of purpose, joy, and compassion. He lived more in his thirty-four years than most of us do in a much longer lifetime. That’s why I placed the picture of him having fun with children in the Congo on our communion table last Sunday.

Being a Hospitable Tribe

No matter where we live, one of the challenges for us as followers of Jesus, is to liberate ourselves from the prejudice in our society and even in ourselves. It’s never easy. We often think of it as racism but according to theologian and activist Drew Hart:

The language of race obscures rather than clarifies human similarity and difference. It is smoke and mirrors. Instead of being a biological fact, race is a social construct. . . We should never separate race from its ideological and political work. The global practices of European domination, colonization, and conquest in the Americas and Africa in the sixteenth century required ideological justification.[1]

The social construct of race served as that justification. Deconstructing race is therefore hard, important work. Thinking we’re colorblind or pretending that racism doesn’t exist is actually harmful. Religion scholar and writer Diana Butler Bass has instructive insights on human difference that can help us. She writes:

Unless one is a hermit, most of us naturally sort into groups of likeness. We hang out with those we like around shared concerns and similar tastes. That is the basis of friendship, the secret ingredient of neighborliness and community. That’s the rub: human beings are tribal people. We always have been and always will be.[2]

And that’s a good thing. We all feel more comfortable around people who are like us. Still such tribes can become restrictive and we then begin to long for the freedom to live fuller, more meaningful lives. To be honest, the tight, restrictive community I grew up in sometimes made me feel like I was suffocating. It’s why I loved living in Asia for many years and it’s why I treasure the rich diversity of Northern Virginia.

Diana Butler Bass says that “a fine line is crossed . . . when tribes become clans and neighborhoods become enclaves. Clans almost always have the compulsion to fight other clans; enclaves typically feed on paranoia about the outside world.”[3] Her answer to this dilemma is the spiritual practice of hospitality and what she calls “hospitable tribes.” I like to think of our church as a hospitable tribe that welcomes and celebrates the rich diversity in our midst and is not afraid to grapple with prejudice in our midst, whatever form it may take.

[1] Drew Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016), 48-49.

[2] Diana Butler Bass, Grounded (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 213.

[3] Ibid., 214.