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Is voting a Christian obligation?

By on Feb 21, 2018 in The World Together | 1 comment

At the age of 18, with the upcoming 2000 U.S. presidential election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, I did not register to vote. To this day, I still haven’t registered, even with the “issues” becoming more heated and the political divide widening. In recent years, I’ve heard from more Christians considering what their role is in the political process, and for them I suggest another alternative. This alternative does not choose right or left, but a completely different view, one outside the system altogether. At first this may sound very peculiar, even un-American, but hear me out.

As I see it, political involvement holds the promise of accomplishing something, but I’m not sure that it delivers. It makes us feel good, like we’re doing something to make the world a better place. It feels like we’re doing our part to keep life liberty and the pursuit of happiness alive. It may seem like our American — and even Christian — obligation. I just wonder if God’s real expectation for our action and involvement is not so political, but in the hidden, mundane and thankless things like loving the unlovable, forgiving the unforgivable, and giving to the undeserving. In essence, doing to others what he has done more perfectly for us.

Sometimes I wonder if we would feel such strong loyalties to our country if we were born somewhere else? Like how good Russians feel passionate about Russia, or how good Chinese feel passionate about China, and so on. The men in Jesus’ time certainly felt that way about their own country of Israel. In fact, some of his own disciples were willing to fight and die for their country, or as we say, “make the ultimate sacrifice.” But in the end, most of the original apostles died not for their country, but for Jesus.

One of the things that is striking to me about Jesus’ ministry is that his disciples always have to unlearn their patriotic Israeli mindset. Of course they had the right to take pride in their nation; after all, they were God’s chosen people. But when Jesus steps onto the scene, he is troubling to them as the Messiah because he is so miraculous in all he says and does and yet so very un-King-like at the same time. In fact, he was a real political failure. Jesus made no attempt to create a political movement, or even to side with the current political entities of his time and place. He didn’t even side with the revolutionaries who were rebelling against the Romans who had forcefully taken over and were oppressing God’s chosen people. Instead, Jesus’ deliberate work on earth was love and compassion for individuals. His work was for the poor and for the broken and for the admittedly messed-up ragamuffins, so that each would be eternally healed and enter his eternal kingdom.

In the last chapter of the book of Matthew, Jesus gives the apostles, and us, a specific job to do. It is to make disciples from all the people groups of the world and to teach them the very things that Jesus taught. It’s the great commission, and it is the real objective to our being here — the true Christian obligation.

Ryan McKelvey lies in Salisbury, Md., and attends a Biblical Mennonite Alliance congregation. He blogs at They Were Strangers, where this post first appeared.

After prayers, let’s talk about change

By on Feb 20, 2018 in The World Together | 1 comment

Waking up Feb. 15 to news of yet another school shooting — 17 dead, with more than 50 injured — I could only groan. After all, massacres have become so commonplace in the United States (it’s the eighth school shooting this year, and we’re not even through the first quarter) that they could hardly be called shocking any more.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t find the news jarring and deeply disturbing. I do. But what makes me really boil are the by now well-rehearsed and predictable reactions to each new bloodbath: public expressions of faith in God, followed by heated arguments over gun control, followed by massive spikes in gun sales across the country, followed by a winding-down of the news cycle until — would you believe it? — there’s been another school shooting.

Did you know that according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, there are now more registered firearms in the USA than there are people? True, it’s “only” an estimate, based on manufacturers’ sales, since in many states, privacy laws prohibit the release of ownership data. So knock it down if you like. But please keep reading.

Totals aside, it’s incontrovertible that after mass shootings, gun sales spike. They did after Sandy Hook (the elementary school) and Fort Lauderdale (the night club) and Las Vegas (the open-air concert). And they will this time, too. In fact, they are growing all the time, with NPR recently reporting that twice as many guns were produced in the USA in 2013 (11 million) as were in 2010. In other words, it’s a safe bet that more than a few of the politicians offering up thoughts and prayers after each new shooting are also profiting handsomely from them — if not directly, from a booming firearms industry, then at least indirectly, via the lobbyists representing it.

I’m not against thoughts and prayers. Having raised children in a New York City neighborhood where gunshots were a daily occurrence, and gangs abounded, I know what it means to pray that your child will make it safely home from school — or from the basketball courts, or the subway. And having reported on the Columbine shooting in 1999, I still pray for the still-traumatized families of victims that I got to know at that time.

Despite these personal connections, I find it hard to really imagine the agony of the dying, to fully comprehend the grief of their loved ones, the flashbacks awaiting the first responders, and the nightmares that will haunt the survivors for the rest of their lives. If there was ever a time to come together and pray, it’s now. But prayer alone does not suffice.

In fact, as the New Testament suggests, prayer without works is hypocrisy. Jesus implied the same when he warned his followers against saying, “Peace, peace,” where there is no peace; or “Lord, Lord,” without lifting a finger to alleviate the need around them. So when we’ve said our prayers, let’s start talking about how to change this craziness, and let’s stop being afraid to ask questions. I’ve got a few.

At a time when everyone is (rightly) talking about the opioid crisis that’s sending Americans to emergency rooms and graves by the tens of thousands, what’s so hard about admitting that we’re also hooked on guns?

Why are people so eager to engage in arcane discussions about the ramifications of the Second Amendment, but so unready to acknowledge the rights of those snatched by the cold hand of death in an unexpected hailstorm of bullets?

And why is it that when you ask such questions after a shooting, people will accuse you of “politicizing the issue” or advise you that it’s not the right time to talk about gun control? When is the right time? No one was accused of “politicizing the issue” after terrorists began sneaking onto airplanes a few years back, and the rest of us had to start going through scanners every time we entered an airport.

Clearly, there are other factors involved beside guns. There’s the breakdown of the family; there’s loneliness, isolation, anger, and a dozen other social ills. Some people claim, after each new shooting, that the “real issue” is mental illness. In the case of the lonely, motherless 19-year-old behind this latest massacre, that may have played a role. (Having posted Facebook pictures of animals he killed, and having boasted about becoming a “professional school shooter,” he was widely known to be disturbed. And after selling knives out of his lunchbox and bringing bullets to class, he was barred from carrying his backpack at school and eventually expelled.) But lonely, angry people can’t kill other people with guns unless they have guns. Why did no one take away this young man’s assault rifle?

In some Christian circles, “secular liberalism” — that tired old scapegoat that has supposedly produced all that is wrong in the world — is held up as the chief cause of this. People claim that if America weren’t so “politically correct,” there wouldn’t be school shootings, and that the “only answer” is to “bring God back” into schools. But Columbine High was full of young believers, and several of its victims were active members of the neighborhood’s most vibrant church, West Bowles Community Church. In the case of last week’s shooting, Broward County Schools Supervisor Robert Runcie has stated that he prays every morning that something like this won’t ever happen. He’s surely not alone. Europe is decidedly more secular than the United States (there’s nothing about trusting in God on their coins and bills), and yet it doesn’t see a fraction of the shootings that plague the USA. Why? It’s got nothing to do with God. Very simply, it’s infinitely more difficult to gain access to a gun there.

Why, after a massacre like the one that happened last week, do people claim, with perfectly straight faces, that it’s “not about guns?” If a drunk driver crashes a car, do we say, “It’s not about the alcohol?” Or to return to that other looming social crisis — America’s opioid epidemic — how many people can you find out there arguing that it’s “not about opioids?” Does no one else find this absurd?

Society is so polarized these days that no matter what your stance — whether on guns or marriage or abortion or the death penalty or anything else — it may be dismissed as “political.” But if it’s “political” to proclaim that part of the gospel that calls for turning swords into plowshares and warns those who wield the sword that they will die by it, then count me in. I’m with those politics.

More than a hundred years ago, Mother Jones, a tireless activist who rallied Colorado’s miners to stand up against ruthless coal barons and strike breakers, urged them to “pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living.” It’s sound advice for this struggle. By all means, let’s keep praying for an end to the madness. But let’s not settle for condolences or allow ourselves to be lulled to sleep with platitudes about standing together in unity, or stories about heroism and compassion in the aftermath of the bloodshed. America’s corpses are piling up. Seventeen new bodies, most in their prime, demand a more decisive response.

Christopher Zimmerman studied at Goshen College and lives near Berlin, Germany.

Generous love amid war in Democratic Republic of Congo

By on Feb 19, 2018 in Latest Issue, News | 0 comments

KIKWIT, Democratic Republic of Congo — Loving the generous people of the Democratic Republic of Congo is not difficult, but evil happening in the rural Kasaï region of that lush country is hard to comprehend.

In December, survivors of civil war there told a delegation from Mennonite World Conference’s Deacons Commission of surprise attacks on their villages from marauding militia. With guns or knives, such groups slaughter men and boys and those associated in any way with the government.

In Kikwit, survivors of violence talked with, from left, MWC West Africa regional representative Francisca Ibanda of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Deacon Commission chair Siaka Traoré of Ivory Coast and Daniel Geiser of Switzerland. — J. Nelson Kraybill/MWC

In Kikwit, survivors of violence talked with, from left, MWC West Africa regional representative Francisca Ibanda of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Deacon Commission chair Siaka Traoré of Ivory Coast and Daniel Geiser of Switzerland. — J. Nelson Kraybill/MWC

Victims die in front of their own families — in front of women and children who themselves might be assaulted or killed. Villages lie in ruins; thousands have fled on foot. Traumatized survivors have lost everything — property, family, community. Some bear scars of torture. Most will never go back to their birthplace.

Delegates returned home with gratitude for Mennonites in the DRC, who received the group with generosity and love, despite their suffering.

In a country with overwhelming economic and political challenges, Mennonites fill houses of worship with exuberant song and a hopeful message of reconciliation. In a nation where it is common to care only for your own kin, Mennonites in Kikwit and Kinshasa care for displaced people from any tribe.

One group of traumatized survivors met the delegation at Église Frères Mennonites Nouvelle Jerusalem in Kikwit. The stories they told caused some delegates to long for fulfillment of John’s vision: “God himself will be with them, he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more” (Revelation 21).

Causes of the mayhem in parts of DRC include a struggle to control diamond or gold mines, tribal rivalry, political rebellion, foreign intervention and criminal activity. People fleeing the upheaval frequently endure weeks or months of danger traveling hundreds of miles to Kikwit or other cities. Women give birth during the dangerous trek to safety.

“During our visit, I often thought of Michael J. Sharp, a Mennonite young adult from my home community in the United States, who was assassinated in the Kasaï region last year while on a peace mission with United Nations,” said MWC President J. Nelson Kraybill. “Michael’s death touched me and many in MWC deeply. What are sisters and brothers in the DRC enduring with countless losses of their own?”

Mennonite Central Committee and other Anabaptist organizations are responding to the crisis in DRC. MWC helped coordinate conversation between the various agencies. In a project called Operation Good Samaritan, Mennonites of Kikwit who have little money to provide relief have opened their homes to take in survivors whom they often do not even know.

The group met an exhausted Congolese Mennonite medical doctor caring for displaced people in Kikwit, who told how difficult or impossible it is to acquire essential medical supplies.

There are more than 400 tribes in DRC, and this creates tension even for some Anabaptists. But the inclusive love seen at Kikwit is a model for the global church.

“It’s not a problem to have tribes, because in Christ, tribes can work together,” said Francisca Ibanda of Kinshasa, MWC regional representative for West Africa. “We can love even those from tribes who are supposed to be our enemies.”

Mennonite Men build faith bonds

By and on Feb 19, 2018 in Featured, Latest Issue, News | 2 comments

The binational organization Mennonite Men has been long known for building churches through its grant fundraising. Now it’s making more intentional efforts to build spiritual bonds of masculinity.

Over the past year, Mennonite Men has begun facilitating retreats structured around Anabaptist masculinity. A revamped website seeks to collect resources on the topic, and a book is coming this fall.

A group gathers to conclude a Nov. 3-5 Mennonite Men retreat on healthy masculinity at Camp Deerpark in Westbrookville, N.Y. — Mennonite Men

A group gathers to conclude a Nov. 3-5 Mennonite Men retreat on healthy masculinity at Camp Deerpark in Westbrookville, N.Y. — Mennonite Men

“We’re trying to share from our inner lives and what it means to follow Jesus and build God’s peace,” said Mennonite Men U.S. coordinator Steve Thomas.

Now an organization that serves Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada constituencies, Mennonite Men has its roots in the former General Conference Mennonite Church. Men raised funds for various initiatives at home and abroad and helped start several camps.

The first organization of this sort took place a century ago in 1918 at Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, Pa., when Maxwell H. Kratz challenged men in Eastern District Conference to greater activity, ultimately raising money for Mennonites in Russia to emigrate to Canada. JoinHands, the emphasis on grants for church building projects, picked up steam in the 1980s and continues today.

“Frankly, Mennonite Men hasn’t been relevant to some men who may not care about extending grants to churches for their first buildings,” Thomas said. “So we’ve added JoinMen to JoinHands.”

The refocused “JoinMen” direction overhauls retreats, shifting from males simply getting together to connecting with a deeper focus. Thomas leads some of the events and is looking to network with other men who can be resources.

“We’re gathering 20 or 30 men sitting in a circle to engage in deeper ways instead of 200 men sitting in rows listening to a keynote speaker,” Thomas said. “It’s a different way of gathering.”

Mennonitemen.org now lists a variety of themes, such as:

  • Healthy Masculinity: Becoming Strong, Loving and Wise;
  • Wounded Lovers: Embracing our Sexuality;
  • Doing Business: Integrating Work and Faith;
  • Making Peace with Conflict.

Don Neufeld of Virgil, Ont., has been a board member for about five years. As a social worker and therapist who works with men, he has interests in justice and gender issues.

When he joined the board, he discovered Mennonite Men had done some work exploring men and spirituality with the book Under Construction, triggering his interest in doing more.

“I think there have been a smattering of people doing men’s work and retreats over the years, but my sense is over the years it hasn’t been coordinated,” he said. “. . . I think it’s been very isolated and I would say the work women have been doing has been much more directed and coordinated.”

Conscious conversation

A wider societal movement to acknowledge the prevalence of sexual harassment and misconduct gave the group increased call to think about complicity in patriarchal exploitation, even in subtle or unintentional forms.

“We as Mennonite men are wanting to make it a conscious conversation about who we are,” Neufeld said.

Part of that conversation is a vulnerable look at masculinity built on Anabaptist principles like discipleship, community and peacemaking.

Thomas noted many materials that look at masculinity from a Christian perspective, especially an evangelical angle, aren’t the right fit.

“You’ll often find a strong nationalism or patriotic note of exercising strength in ways that don’t embrace the Anabaptist way of nonviolence,” he said. “Masculinity can embrace peace and nonviolence and also community.

“Dominant masculinity focuses on man as an individual. We focus on having interdependent relationships in community. Vulnerability as opposed to invulnerability.”

The revamped website is home to a growing collection of resources dedicated to this approach, making such materials more accessible.

Neufeld is co-editing a book promoting the same Anabaptist perspective. Men write to men in Peaceful at Heart: Embracing Healthy Masculinity, which will be published by the Institute of Mennonite Studies and Wipf and Stock this fall.

“I wasn’t finding these materials, but we do have something rich we can offer,” he said. “We’ve been on an adventure pulling that book together.”

Subscribe to see more about a church of refugees who received a JoinHands grant from Mennonite Men in the Feb. 26, 2018 print edition of Mennonite World Review.

President inaugurated in ‘distinctively Goshen’ event

By on Feb 19, 2018 in Latest Issue, News | 0 comments

GOSHEN, Ind. — In a celebratory ceremony around the theme of “Distinctively Goshen,” Rebecca Stoltzfus was inaugurated as Goshen College’s 18th president Feb. 17 in Sauder Concert Hall.

The event — filled with student participation and a strong global thread — opened with a procession of many international students into the hall lined with flags from all of Goshen’s Study-Service Term locations, as well countries current students are from. It concluded with the Women’s World Music Choir singing while circling the room.

Rebecca Stoltzfus speaks during her inauguration as president of Goshen College on Feb. 17. — Brian Yoder Schlabach/Goshen College

Rebecca Stoltzfus speaks during her inauguration as president of Goshen College on Feb. 17. — Brian Yoder Schlabach/Goshen College

President Stoltzfus offered four “distinctively Goshen” affirmations in her inaugural address.

Education at Goshen “will continue to express and to integrate the transcendent values of beauty, truth and goodness,” she said.

“We offer an education that liberates through engaging the whole person; it awakens and enlarges the capabilities of our students through the integration of the arts, the sciences, the humanities and the application of knowledge to do good.”

Second, Stoltzfus said, a Goshen education “will be one in which the faculty are outstanding scholars engaged in the pursuit of truth.”

“Let us manifest our respect for the intrinsic worth of every member of our campus community, and also our freedom to ask challenging questions and speak opposing views,” she said.

Third, Stoltzfus affirmed a Goshen education “will continue to be experiential and transformative to an unusual and adventuresome degree.”

‘Taproot of love’

Finally — in reference to the inaugural scripture, Eph. 3:16-17 — Stoltzfus affirmed that a Go­shen education is “rooted in an educated conscious love, formed and transformed by the way of Jesus, a love that gives us courage to be vulnerable and to be fierce when called upon to act for goodness.”

She added that this “taproot of love” leads the community to make particular commitments in this time and place.

“At a time in our nation when social inequalities are increasing, we will strive to craft policies and choose actions that expand social opportunity and increase equity,” she said. “At a time when the rhetoric of higher education pits job preparation against holistic human development, our education will be holistic and creative.

“At a time when the arts and humanities are viewed as non-profitable, we will preserve them, because they enable us to make a world that is worth living in. At a time when we are overwhelmed by disconnected information, we will host the eternal conversation about things that matter.”

Celebration of alumni

Music played a central role in the ceremony. Stoltzfus’ address was preceded by singing the Goshen hymn, “Teach Me Thy Truth.” Performing before, during and after the ceremony were a student jazz ensemble, the Goshen College Symphony Orchestra, a student vocal ensemble and the Women’s World Music Choir.

The ceremony included a two-part commissioned dramatic reading, “Goshen Voices.” It was written by 1972 alumnus Don Yost, performed by students and shared the stories of alumni: Lois Gunden (1936), Ramzi Farran (1968) and Arely Perez (2004). The ceremony also featured a commissioned poem, “Song of the Maples,” written by 2016 and 2017 Indiana Poet Laureate Shari Wagner, a 1980 graduate.

People from Stoltzfus’ time at Cornell University and in Ithaca, N.Y., participated in the ceremony. Cornell vice provost Judith Appleton provided an introduction. Stoltzfus’ former pastor, Rebecca Dolch of St. Paul United Meth­odist Church in Ithaca, gave an invocation.

Conrad Clemens, a 1985 graduate and chair of the Goshen board of directors, gave the installation charge. Former President James E. Brenneman presented the presidential medallion, designed and made by associate professor emerita of art Judy Wenig-Horswell. John H. Powell, a member of the college board of directors, provided a prayer of blessing. Joining Stoltzfus on stage were the living former presidents, including her father, Vic Stoltzfus, who served from 1984 to 1996.

Stoltzfus is a 1983 Goshen graduate, where she studied chemistry, before earning master’s and doctoral degrees in human nutrition from Cornell. Before joining the Cornell faculty in 2002, she taught human nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. She was most recently vice provost for undergraduate education at Cornell. She began her duties as president Nov. 1.

Finding my Jerusalem

By on Feb 19, 2018 in The World Together | 0 comments

The conversation over a fellowship lunch at church dealt with the California parents charged with child neglect and abuse of their 13 children, charges to which they pled not guilty. I noticed the men were matter-of-fact and trying to figure out what kind of Virginia Tech graduate (we’re all fans here) would do what this father did. The women? Pity for the children. Not that the men didn’t feel for the kids, mind you. They just leave their emotions at the door quicker than do the women.

A child said, “I wanted to adopt the 3-year-old, but my mama said no.” (There’s more than one reason her mom said No — the beginning one being that moving kids who are wards of the state from California to Virginia would be a mammoth undertaking in itself.)

Anytime, it seems, that a deplorable situation like this comes to light, there are women the world over who offer to take a child or the children. While it’s a noble gesture and could insinuate that no other woman would be willing to step up to the plate, it gives me pause.

What is it about us that makes us want to step up and do the noble thing when the cause is known state- or world-wide?

What about the kids in our own backyards, neighborhoods or our own counties?

What are we doing about them?!

There are myriads of true stories of folks who reached out and made a difference in the life of one or two kids. They did it right on their front porch or backyard simply by rubbing shoulders with lonely, empty people.

What happened in California could likely be happening in any of our communities. Really — have we even looked?

When Jesus talked to his disciples (somewhere near Jerusalem) before he ascended to heaven (Acts 1), he told them to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came. He said they would receive power.

After they received the power of the Holy Ghost, he told them, they would be witnesses for him. You know where he told them to start? Right where they were: Jerusalem.

He said to start at home. Jerusalem was located in Judea, which was part of the larger Samaria. The words He used are: “both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

It seems to me that Jesus wanted them to start at home and then branch out. Jesus said to start right where they were. How many of us are willing to start at home?

It’s a lesson for us as well. (A missionary does not a good missionary make in another country if he hasn’t first learned to be one at home.) Start at home and learn to gather in harvest from there; then start spreading out until the whole world knows about him.

We don’t have to wait until our kids are grown or until we’re debt-free. We don’t have to wait until we’ve truly got it all together because that will never happen, anyhow.

What we need to do is learn how to live out our faith in the Jerusalem of our homes, beginning right with our neighbors. The problem is, sometimes that’s not quite grand enough for us.

What is it about us that makes us want to be part of the grander schemes when we haven’t learned to clean toilets or emptied the trash at home? What is it about us that makes us willing to donate and contribute to causes in prisons in other states when we won’t darken the doors of the jail in our own county? What is it about us that makes us want to adopt a child from another country* when there are kids in our own county who need a home and someone to love them?

God calls us all to be in different places and to do different things. If he calls you to move to the uttermost parts of the world, then you need to pack your bags and go. Just be sure it’s his call and not your own. Just be sure it’s not your escape from who God wants you to be here. Just be certain you’re looking to spend yourself for the cause of Christ and not looking for glamour, significance or personal fulfillment.

The harvest is plentiful, no matter where we live or where we’d like to move. If we’re faithful in Jerusalem, he will guide us over into Judea and then Samaria and on into the “uttermost parts of the world.”

For many of us, I’d say it’s time to learn to feed the hungry at home instead of looking for fulfillment in other places. It’s time we’re faithful in Jerusalem so God can use us in other places as well.

I don’t know about you, but I’m still finding my Jerusalem. There are places in my Jerusalem that I never considered going in the past. It’s not always easy, or pleasant, or fun. Sometimes it’s just plain inconvenient. A few weeks ago we received a phone call asking for our help in a situation.

I told my husband, Dave, “This is not good timing; it’s just so inconvenient.”

Dave reminded me that God’s call on our lives is not about our personal convenience. It’s about being willing to be spent for him. Dave is right (he usually is, this man of mine). Until God calls me to Judea, then being spent in Jerusalem is where I need to be.

*I am not opposed to adopting children from other countries. I have friends who have done this. My question is the reason behind the places we choose to minister. If God calls us to adopt a child from another country, we would be remiss if we did not. Does God sometimes call us to reach out to those in our own communities, and are we as willing to do it there as we are if it’s in a noticeable place?

Gert Slabach is a member of Faith Mennonite Church in South Boston, Va., which is part of Mountain Valley Mennonite Churches. She blogs at My Windowsill, where this post first appeared.

Do we want to get well?

By and on Feb 16, 2018 in The World Together | 7 comments

“As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” — Prov. 26:11

We find ourselves, again, in a place of sadness, anger and pain in the aftermath of a mass shooting. A teacher and 17 students were killed and more injured Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Schools exist to nurture the gifts and talents of our children. They’ve become killing floors. As a nation, we are unwell.

We are right to look to Jesus in this time of tragedy for comfort, wisdom and healing. But we should not be surprised if Jesus asks us a question: “Do you want to get well?”

Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, Texas, countless other episodes of violence that fade quickly from our collective consciousness — these events shock us, bring us to tears, make us angry. They do everything except make us change.

As sick as we are as a nation, it doesn’t appear we want to get better. Violence is a disease that has infected every part of America. It’s in our history, it’s ever-present in our culture. We look to it as a protector and defender, the first and best way to address our problems. In America, the answer is often to be tougher, to hit harder.

We may talk about cures and policy changes that will bring an end to the suffering. These are ways to alleviate some of the worst symptoms. But the biggest obstacle to recovery is us. We do not want to get well.

Mennonites historically have resisted the call and lure of violence. But we are complicit in the tragedies that plague us, as are all Americans. When we allow these tragedies to become commonplace, when we allow systems and corporations to profit from producing and distributing the tools of death, when we accept as inevitable that no solution can be found — we are complicit.

We mourn today the loss of life and the terrible road of grief 18 families now have to walk. We mourn those who were injured and the trying recovery to physical, emotional and spiritual wholeness that awaits them.

And after we mourn, let us search our own hearts and inquire — do we want to get well?

Ervin Stutzman is Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA.

Sister Care offers healing touch in Cuba

By on Feb 14, 2018 in Latest Issue, News | 0 comments

Two years after Sister Care seminars were first presented in Cuba, two American women returned Jan. 25-Feb. 1 to find the program’s impact has multiplied.

Carolyn Heggen, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma healing, and Rhoda Keener, Sister Care director for Mennonite Women USA, visited Havana to bring advanced materials and training for women who had attended a previous seminar.

Ruth Mariet Trueba Castro and Indira Herrera Gutierrez of Havana anoint one another in a closing blessing ritual. — Carolyn Heggen/Mennonite Women USA

Ruth Mariet Trueba Castro and Indira Herrera Gutierrez of Havana anoint one another in a closing blessing ritual. — Carolyn Heggen/Mennonite Women USA

They were inspired to hear that since 2015, these 28 women had taught more than 600 others.

“I learn much from Cuban women about courage, tenacity, and faithfulness,” Heggen said. “They give me an increased appreciation for our global family of faith.”

Sister Care seminars provide women with tools for personal healing and for responding more effectively to the needs of others.

Keener and Heggen traveled in a 1958 Volkswagen van to Palmira in central Cuba to teach Sister Care’s basic level to an Anabaptist group of 36 Brethren in Christ women who had not participated in 2015.

This connection was facilitated by Jack and Irene Suderman of Ontario and Bonnie Klassen, Mennonite Central Committee area director for South America, Cuba and Mexico.

One of the participants in Palmira, Deyli Milían Pérez, a pastor from Caibarien Villa Clara, was touched by Heggen’s teaching about healing from sexual abuse.

“It was very helpful when Carolyn reminded us that when God heals us we can see ourselves as much more than just victims of sexual abuse and we can use our own painful experience to help others heal,” said Perez, who was sexually abused by her stepfather as a child.

“I appreciated that we were taught a new way of praying without words to imagine an inner sanctuary where I can feel that Jesus is right there with me and I am safe and loved.”

Many women commented at the two seminars that they rarely have the time and encouragement to think about their own life story. They were glad to learn God can use both their sad and happy experiences to deepen their ability to care compassionately for others.

The challenges in Cuba have not lessened since 2015. Women spoke about the problem of families being separated as many have migrated to the United States. This creates lifelong challenges and grief.

People continue to struggle to obtain basic necessities. The Cuban government’s monthly food allocation for each person is not sufficient, and wages are low. Even when there are funds, the U.S. embargo has blocked availability for many needed imports.

One woman said she often has to go to two or three stores to find one that has toilet paper, and sometimes there is none.

A pastor who attended the Havana workshop saved portions of the food she was served at the retreat center to take home for her children. She said that unless people have relatives in the United States to send them money, it is difficult to survive.

Women celebrated at the end of the seminars with spontaneous dance and music.

The Havana event was sponsored by the Cuban Council of Churches with leadership from Midiam Lobaina. The Sudermans and Klassen organized the Palmira BIC event. The Schowalter Foundation, MCC and individual donors funded MW USA’s expenses and the lodging, food and travel costs for participants in both Havana and Palmira.

‘Remember that you are dust’

By on Feb 13, 2018 in The World Together | 0 comments

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Growing up in a Mennonite church, I knew nothing about Lent. But when I was in seminary, I worked as an assistant minister in a United Methodist church. In 1982 I participated in my first Ash Wednesday service, and it was one of the most meaningful services I had ever attended.

The lighting in the building and sanctuary was dim; the organ played softly. We read Scripture litanies calling for repentance, and long prayers of confession. An elderly, distinguished retired pastor gave a fiery sermon, confronting our failure to do justice, followed by a call to examine ourselves, deny ourselves, and prepare ourselves during the season of Lent. Then we came forward to the altar, silently, to receive a smudge of dark gray ashes on our foreheads, in the shape of the cross, as the pastor solemnly told us, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I was so moved by that service that as soon as I became a pastor, in 1984, I instituted an Ash Wednesday observance in my Mennonite congregation.

But why does the pastor, at the height of the service, tell people, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”? Isn’t that morbid? Isn’t that a denial of our hope in eternal life? But before we can enter eternal life, first we must accept death. I think that is perhaps the central message of Ash Wednesday and of Lent.

We all rationally know we are going to die, but we mostly live in denial of it because it scares us too much. Because of our fear and denial of death, we try to make ourselves at least seem immortal. We spend exorbitant amounts of money on diets and pills and vitamins and treatments and chemicals in order to squeeze as many minutes into our own lives as possible. We pursue every pleasure, always looking for something new and exciting, to distract us from death and to try to make life meaningful. We try to create monuments of metal, stone, paper, digital memory or flesh that will outlast us and somehow keep us alive. These are the selfish pursuits of an ego in dread.

But as Jesus said, those who try to gain their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for his sake will gain them. It is only when we live our lives for that which is greater than ourselves that we truly begin to live. It is only when we lay down our lives for the sake of God’s righteousness that we enter Life. The Prayer of St. Francis concludes by saying, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

So first we must face our mortality, not deny it or evade it. We are not immortal. We came from the dust and we will return to the dust. We should not try to become immortal or seem immortal. Instead, we must let go of the selfish ego and turn our lives over to love. Love — care for others and their well-being — is what is immortal. But even here we must be careful that we do not love others so that we become immortal; that is simply hidden selfishness. We must accept our own death. We must accept our finitude. We must place our finite lives entirely in God’s hands. Only by dying to ourselves may we hope in life.

This is what Jesus did. After much anguish in Gethsemane, he accepted suffering, torture and death. He accepted that God’s hope must come through letting go of life, doing God’s will alone, and trusting in God. There is no empty tomb without acceptance of death and living for God.

I am no spiritual hero. I fear death. But each day I breathe in the love of Jesus and the power of his Spirit. In little ways I keep practicing self-giving love. And in the end I trust God to do whatever God will do. No matter what happens, I will be guided by love.

Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor of First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Va. He previously served for 19 years as pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis and 11 years at Peoria-North Mennonite Church in Illinois. He blogs at fmcbiblestudy.wordpress.com, where this post first appeared.

Bible: Get up, we need you

By on Feb 12, 2018 in Bible, Columns, Latest Issue | 0 comments

Tabitha’s story is life-giving in more ways than one. Honestly, simply reading, “There was a disciple whose name was Tabitha” quickens my heartbeat, so seldom have I been shown the lives and told the stories of women who led the early church.

Meghan Florian

Florian

While there are many who still today condemn or at least distrust women’s leadership on a biblical basis, Acts documents a woman, a disciple, whose works and life meant so much to her community that when she died her friends immediately sent for Peter, who dropped everything to come.

When he arrives in Joppa, he is met by a group of widows, who in their sorrow show Peter Tabitha’s handiwork. Much as I see women do today, these women gather around one another, holding one another in their sorrow and grief, lifting one another up for their faithful works.

Peter joins them, to honor her life and remember her in death. Did he have a plan when he arrived, I wonder? Did he come to bring her back to life? Or was he moved by the women’s displays, seeing this woman’s faith and its effect on them, imagining how much further her good works might spread if her life were not cut short?

Like many women, there have been times in my life when the good works I try to do, the ways I seek to serve, have been thwarted. We die many metaphorical deaths before our physical breath ceases.

Yet I know the church needs us, as it needed Tabitha, whether it knows it or not. When women gather, we give life to each other in such dark moments, mourning losses and honoring the good work our sisters do. I listen, daily, for this call, like Peter’s: “Tabitha, get up,” though I rarely hear it.

When hope for change, for the good we work for, dies, how do we learn to believe that God can bring us back to life? I learn it from the lives of other women. I get up, because they do, day after day.

Paul’s first letter to Timothy is both an encouragement and a challenge, girded by theological concerns. The passage begins with this charge: “But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.”

The verses before condemn those who want to be rich. Paul says their desires will plunge them into ruin: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and their love has led them away from the faith.

Paul reminds Timothy that they brought nothing into the world and will take nothing out of it. Godliness is not a means of gain.

In contrast to those who have fallen into the trap of material wealth, Timothy has made “the good confession” in the presence of many witnesses, and Paul reminds him of this, charging him to make good on that confession, to continue to shape his life around the giver of abundant life. Part of that means speaking truth to those who’ve turned away, those who have grown haughty or placed their hope on an unstable marketplace.

Paul entrusts Timothy with this task: Tell them to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, sharing what they have. It’s not enough for Timothy to shun riches himself. He is called to bring these others back to faith.

Nor is it enough for the rich to merely acknowledge the futility of their wealth. They in turn are called to generosity, to sharing. This life of sharing to which they are called is “the life that is really life.”

Meghan Florian, of Durham, N.C., teaches writing at William Peace University. She is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.