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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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

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.

Practice Reconciliation (part 2)

We all have a proclivity for breaking ourselves into teams of us against them. Part of the genius of faith in Jesus is that it breaks down such distinctions and walls of separation. It never comes easily but we know that this is what the kin-dom of God looks like. Christena Cleveland writes, “This is a tall order that requires a real and fierce conversation on the elephant in the church: privilege and power differentials. For some reason, high-status people (in my experience, particularly white men) have a hard time seeing and admitting that they are in fact high-status people who enjoy privileges that aren’t afforded to low-status people” (Disunity in Christ, 166).

This is the situation that Paul tackled head-on in the church in Corinth. People were dividing themselves into groups loyal to either Paul our Apollos. He had planted the church and then Apollos became a prominent leader after Paul left. We don’t know what the division was about but we can assume that both were high-status men. It’s easy to see how such a situation could develop. Many loved Paul and resisted any changes Apollos may have initiated. We can assume that Apollos was a little insecure and perhaps a bit sensitive about his status and role. He was naturally charismatic and others were drawn to him.

We don’t know if there was a concrete issue like same-sex marriage (which is tearing churches apart today) that church members in Corinth were fighting about but we always find such an issue to legitimize our prejudices and ambitions . Paul told them that such party loyalties indicate that we’re spiritual babies who cannot even eat solid food. Furthermore, both he and Apollos are mere workers in the church, which he likens to a field. One planted and another watered and each will receive his wages at the end of the day for the work he has done. Neither can take credit for the growth. That belongs to God.

The huge issue that divided people and created huge fights in the early church was the inclusion of Gentiles. Nobody wanted to exclude Gentiles but some wanted to impose conditions that marked them as second-class. This reflected a deep-seated cultural and religious divide or what sociologists call identity politics. The identity politics in our country today includes struggles surrounding racial, cultural, gender, sexual, and religious differences. This drives the fight over immigration.

It was a long struggle in the early church but Gentiles were eventually fully included as equals. Coming to that place included studying Scripture together, discerning how the Spirit was leading in real-life situations, and being committed to staying in communion with each other even when we see things differently.

We dare not forget that we’re Gentiles. Paul reminds us that we have been grafted in. A way was found to include us as equals. This is not our church; it’s Christ’s church! That should make us especially eager to bend over backward to include others, to always make sure we do not relate to others out of a sense of entitlement or privilege, and to drop everything else in order to seek reconciliation.

Practice Reconciliation

As a young man, I participated in a Paul–Timothy Program designed to develop future church leaders. As part of our training, we read about a racially diverse, fast-growing new church in Chicago called Circle Church. Formed the in the late 60s, the church met in a union hall located between black and white neighborhoods in this racially divided city. At the time, Circle Church was a model for racial diversity, but later ran into difficulties and split along racial lines. Long-standing racial segregation and prejudice in Chicago still shaped the way blacks and whites in their church related to each other. Whites were used to taking charge and were largely unaware of what we today call white privilege. Others felt left out and deeply buried racial frustrations became insurmountable.

Such discrimination goes beyond race. Women friends have told me about participating in meetings where their suggestion was ignored but then taken seriously when a male colleague said the same thing.  It can feel like you’re invisible. Women need to be better and brighter to get the same respect. But it’s tricky because a determined woman is labeled “pushy” when a male counterpart with the same characteristics is assumed to be a natural leader.

Social class and economic status easily lead to yet another kind of discrimination. Some of us are born on third base and go through life thinking we hit a triple. This has been a longstanding problem. The writer of the book of James in the New Testament scolds his congregation for giving undue honor to a rich visitor while ignoring and demeaning a poor person. He pointedly asks them, “Isn’t it the rich people who oppress you?” (2:6).

Lynn Hur, an Asian-American high school student gives us yet another twist on discrimination in America. The school she attends is predominantly Asian-American and she says it’s a privilege to grow up in an environment where she isn’t teased because of her small eyes or praised for her good English. But it can easily blind students to the racism they will face in the real world. She wants people to know three things: “Number one: Racism is not just a black-and-white situation. [It] encompasses the entirety of our colorful and complicated world. Number two: No one is completely innocent. Asians have their own assumptions and stereotypes of others, despite our experiences. Number three: I want us to look racism in the eye, name it and undo it” (The Mennonite, Feb. 2017:29).

Ben Goossen talks about white Mennonite privilege. He’s referring to those of us from European stock who can trace our genealogy back to our Anabaptist ancestors. He calls it white privilege with a twist. We’re very aware of our ethnic family names, foods, and the history of our ancestors as a persecuted religious minority. It makes us feel special but it makes others feel like they can never quite fit into our churches or ever measure up. They will always be outsiders. Such blinders keep us from seeing our white privilege. Ben Goossen says that learning about white privilege taught him to see us and our churches in a different light. He writes, “I see that even when we talk about peace and justice and righteousness, we can still be implicated in systems of oppression” (The Mennonite, Feb. 2017: 23).

Yet another divisive and often incredibly painful matter is how we relate to and include people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. A lesbian friend recently told me that some of her family will not even talk with her (a kind of verbal abuse) or allow her to come to their homes.  Jesus warns us that verbally abusing and demeaning another person is equivalent to murder. Such anger, like murder, opens the cauldron of hell. He tells us that if we are about to offer a sacrifice or gift to God and remember that our brother or sister has something against us, we should immediately drop what we’re doing, first go to be reconciled, and then return and offer our gift (Matthew 5: 21-24).

For Jesus, compassion and relationships always trump ritual and religious purity. He was fond of repeating Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” It’s instructive to consider the many times he went out of his way to build relationships with despised others such as the Samaritan woman. Churches continually face challenges related to the different forms of prejudice and discrimination in our world. We will want prioritize going out of our way to build relationships with despised others and to practice reconciliation.

Celebrating Our Church Renovation

Last Sunday afternoon was a big milestone in the life of our congregation as we gathered along with friends and neighbors to give thanks, to celebrate, and to dedicate ourselves and our renovated church building to serve God and our community. Several years ago we began a long-range planning process. We considered who we are as a people and the property we are stewards of here in the City of Fairfax. We have a 3 ½ acre property with a two acre woods, a stream running through it, and a somewhat cranky building with solid bones.

One of our first efforts was to reshape our church’s vision and we came up with: (1) being a small, diverse church where everyone is welcome, (2) being a peace church rooted in the life and vision of Jesus, (3) embodying a Jesus-centered social concern that includes the poor, those on the margins of society, and our threatened natural environment, and (4) ) being a spiritual home for people no matter where you are on your spiritual journey.

As we were working on this somebody come up with the bright idea of changing our name to express this vision. By that time we had built a nature trail through our woods and by Daniels Run, the stream running through our property. It felt natural to take Daniels Run, as part of our name. And the word “peace” identifies us as a peace church in the Anabaptist peace-church tradition.

As part of our long-range planning we identified affordable housing as a crucial social need in our area and we explored building affordable housing on our property. That remains a future goal but we soon realized that it will not happen quickly so we began to explore how our present building could be more welcoming, handicap accessible, and usable for us and our community.

The renovation took a year longer than expected (trying our patience) but we’re so pleased with the transformation. I still need to pinch myself occasionally to remind myself that I’m not dreaming when I walk into our renovated building. I’m most grateful for the enthusiasm and teamwork of our congregation, as expressed in the new church motto we came up with collaboratively, “Living Love, Growing Justice, and Welcoming Everyone.”

Being Poor in Spirit

Han Christian Anderson’s familiar old children’s story about “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is remarkably contemporary. Two swindlers hoodwinked the vain emperor into buying clothes that were purportedly invisible to people who were unfit for their office or stupid. His trusted old minister and then the emperor himself fell for the ruse for fear of being exposed as unfit for their office.

The emperor then paraded through his capital city stark naked in what he thought were his fine new clothes. None of the people lining the streets dared believe their eyes for fear of being exposed to their neighbors as being stupid. They foolishly praised the invisible fabric with its magnificent design and brilliant colors. Then a child whispered to its mother, “The emperor is naked.” Soon everyone began to murmur the same thing and the buzz grew louder and louder. The emperor at last realized the truth but still preferred to believe that his people were stupid.

All the political turmoil during the past two weeks—including the petty argument about how many people attended the presidential inauguration and the banning of refugees and people from various Muslim countries—reveals an emperor overly concerned about being properly admired and given to fear mongering and conspiracy theories. Heaven help us all!

Yet, focusing exclusively on this national drama is too easy. It diverts our attention from this same predilection in ourselves and in our churches. We’re part of the problem. We’ve all seen the hubris and thin egos of pastors, Christian public speakers, and leaders of faith-based organizations. We tell ourselves that our group is “the greatest” and all “others” are somehow deficient. Such religious divisions infect and reinforce the political divides in our world.

We have Mainline churches, Evangelical churches, black churches, hipster churches, Korean churches, Pentecostal churches, and Anabaptist churches—but we rarely engage in meaningful conversations outside of our church groups. Christena Cleveland writes, “if we interact with other groups at all, we usually do so at a distance and with at least a hint of suspicion” (Disunity in Christ, 26).

Jesus’ proclamation that the “poor in spirit” are blessed (Matthew 5: 3) is an antidote.  In Luke’s Gospel Jesus more unequivocally pronounces “blessed are you who are poor” and then contrasts it with “but woe to you who are rich” (6: 20-24).  Why does Matthew instead say “poor in spirit?” Perhaps his life experience has convinced him that a stark contrast between the pious poor and the arrogant rich is an oversimplification.

Still, biblical scholar Douglas Hare writes, “At the heart of the poverty-piety equation lies a profound insight. The proud self-reliance that is fed by prosperity all too easily prompts forgetfulness of our dependence upon God. The poor, to whom less is given, are more likely to remain aware of the givenness of life than are the well-to-do who so naturally come to regard their blessings as deserved” (Matthew, Interpretation, 36).

Wealth and power feed our sense of self-importance, which in turn keeps us from valuing the experience and insight of others. Thinking that we are important and wise, we instead become arrogant and incompetent. We become naked little emperors parading down the street in our birthday suits.