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If conservatives feel silenced, we need to speak

By on Jul 26, 2017 in The World Together | 6 comments

I was not able to attend the Mennonite Church USA Future Church Summit in Orlando, Fla., but I followed with interest from a distance. I have since been putting together a composite picture of the event — a bricolage of stories and impressions from friends who did attend, seasoned with perspectives shared in the Mennonite media.

In her commentary on FCS, Joanna Harader makes two claims that I would like to explore in greater detail. First, she grants that the feelings of disenfranchisement expressed by conservatives are sincere, but claims that these feelings aren’t grounded in reality. To illustrate, she likens conservatives to her son, who, in her words, has “mental health and developmental struggles.” Second, she claims that conservatives have no one to blame but themselves for the current state of affairs in MC USA. Conservatives have not been “silenced” or barred from participation. Rather, they freely choose not to participate, based on their bad feelings.

Harader treads a well-worn path in the service of her first claim. Old, straight, white people are accustomed to having their voices unfairly amplified. As a result, conservatives (who, on her reckoning, are old straight white people) wield a disproportionately large share of influence. FCS is taking steps to correct this injustice by including a broader spectrum of voices. This means that conservatives are left in possession of a relatively smaller share of influence. While conservatives might feel as though they are being “silenced,” they are really just being treated fairly for the first time.

This is a powerful narrative: a rendering of FCS through the familiar lens of conflict between oppressor and oppressed. It’s a paradigm used by many in MC USA to analyze a wide range of issues. But is this story accountable to the facts? Sadly, we don’t have access to much contemporary sociological work on MC USA. But accounting for both for the liberalizing influence of higher education upon pastors, as well as for the departure of conservative groups like Lancaster Mennonite Conference, Conrad Kanagy’s 2014 survey of credentialed leaders suggests that MC USA is probably still home to significant ideological diversity. Do the themes generated by FCS reflect a body that is ideologically diverse?

Before moving on to Harader’s second claim, I would like to attend to her comparison between the conservative voices at FCS and her son. I admire Harader for adopting a child with special needs. But she does neither young people nor the mentally ill any great service when she compares these groups to a bunch of pouting conservatives! Jokes aside, we should question whether it would be OK for conservatives to infantilize progressives in a similar way.

If I’ve highlighted some modest reasons to consider that progressives actually did wield disproportionate influence at FCS, then the importance of Harader’s second claim becomes apparent, because it shifts accountability for this state of affairs back to conservatives. Disproportionate progressive influence at FCS isn’t MC USA’s fault, let alone the result of some vast progressive conspiracy. Conservatives are free to participate, and they simply choose not to do so. If conservatives would rather wallow in their feelings of disenfranchisement than share in the good work of the denomination, boo-hoo!

I am greatly in sympathy with Harader on this point, for three reasons:

First of all, I find the theatrics of “silencing” and “unsafeness” observed by Harader to be both manipulative and cloying. As a true-blue conservative, I pine for the days when theater was punished with swift and decisive excommunication. We should not resort to such histrionics, most especially when ISIS and Boko Haram are chopping off Christian heads and burning Christian bodies. Such posturing is even more absurd at a convention of avowed pacifists. If conservatives believe that denominational procedures are unfair, then they should invest their energy in articulating why.

Secondly, as someone with a generally conservative outlook (relative to the increasingly narrow spectrum of MC USA), I wish that the people responsible for championing my perspective would speak up. Their timidity is worthy of blame. If a delegate cannot summon the courage to vocalize an unpopular opinion, then he or she should think twice about accepting the responsibility of being a delegate.

Finally, MC USA is weaker (not just in some hokey spiritual sense, but institutionally) without the vigorous participation of conservative stakeholders. If conservatives are unrepresented (or, nearly as important, if conservatives believe themselves to be unrepresented), then MC USA can reasonably anticipate an even greater lack of buy-in from these constituencies, and greater splintering down the road. To the extent that I genuinely lament a lack of conservative participation at FCS, I must part with Harader’s presumptive “boo-hoo” while nevertheless endorsing her general point.

A narrow partisan of the progressive cause might judge that a lack of conservative participation, and so too a relatively weaker challenge to the progressive agenda, is a blessing for MC USA. I urge readers to think in broader terms. I believe that MC USA has a real interest in soliciting the participation of conservatives. How should MC USA do this? I have some hunches. But for the good of the denomination, I hope that progressive and conservative minds alike will apply themselves to this question.

Matthew Cordella-Bontrager is a third-year M.Div student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., and attends Yellow Creek Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.

Did the Future Church Summit silence conservatives? No

By on Jul 25, 2017 in The World Together | 22 comments

As I try to process my experience at the Mennonite Church USA Future Church Summit in Orlando, Fla. — and especially as I think about the events of the delegate session — scenes from my son’s teen years keep coming to mind. Our son, who has multiple mental health and developmental struggles, often expressed feelings that made no sense to me.

If I asked him to do something he didn’t want to do, I was bullying him. And considering he really didn’t want to do anything besides play video games and listen to his music, he felt bullied a lot.

If I told him what the consequences would be if he made certain choices, I was threatening him.

“If you don’t do your homework, you will fail the class.”

“You can’t have dessert until your room is clean.”

“If you continue to yell at me, I will put your Gameboy away for the rest of the night.”

All threats.

And the anger would boil up in him at the slightest provocation. Especially if he got caught in a lie or if we found something in his room that didn’t belong to him. Simply pointing out a bad choice he had made would throw him into a rage.

I got good at using a calm voice. I often picked up a book to read while he yelled at me. And I eventually came to realize that my son really did feel bullied and threatened and angry. He was not faking these emotions in order to make my life more difficult. They were sincere feelings.

But these sincere feelings, while directed at me, were not really about me. I was not bullying him. I was not threatening him. I was not treating him in a cruel or unfair manner that would warrant the anger he expressed. These feelings were all about him.

So I learned (more or less) to respect his feelings as sincere while also not allowing his feelings to influence my parenting choices:

  • “I’m sorry you feel bullied, but you still need to do your homework.”
  • “You call it a threat, I call it a consequence. Either way, I will take away the Gameboy if you keep yelling.”
  • “This might make you angry, but I know that you lied to me, and that is not OK.”

This was my life for about 13 years. (We adopted our son at age 5, and he moved out at age 18; he’s now doing well in a group home.) So it’s probably no surprise that I’m falling back on familiar responses as I process the recent MC USA conversations.

I know for a fact that people were safe in the Future Church Summit space. (I’m defining safety here as a lack of danger to physical bodies and livelihood.) Not everyone agreed with the “conservative” viewpoint on a variety of issues. But there was never a threat of physical harm. And, to my knowledge, no one has been denied a denominational position because of holding a traditional view of marriage — so no conservative livelihoods were at stake.

If anyone was truly not safe, it was the LGBTQ people who openly spoke of their sexual identity in a context where people can still be removed from staff positions and committee appointments for identifying as LGBTQ.

Still, some self-identified conservatives say they did not feel safe. And I believe them — that they sincerely felt unsafe. Their feelings are real. But these feelings are not really about LGBTQ folks or their allies or the Theme Team or even MC USA. These feelings are connected to discomfort that people have with shifting power dynamics and emerging voices within the church.

So this is what I would say to people who did not feel safe at the Future Church Summit: Making you feel safe is not my job. It is not MC USA’s job. And it is certainly not the job of the people who are marginalized by your views. No one is responsible for making you feel safe. If you are scared, you are scared. We can’t help how you feel. Our responsibility to each other is to make sure that everyone actually is safe. And I truly believe you were safe.

I also know for a fact that conservative voices were not silenced in this process. The Future Church Summit was the most inclusive broad conversation MC USA has ever had, and I commend Glen Guyton and the planning team for their efforts to bring a range of voices to the table. I also know that, despite all of the efforts to welcome the voices of young people, queer people and people of color, the delegate body was still overwhelmingly old and white and straight. The voices of the FCS were a bit more diverse, but still pretty old, pretty white and pretty straight.

When we were surveyed at the end of the Summit about how well we thought the Theme Team’s report reflected our table discussions, it was clear that the vast majority of participants felt that everyone was heard.

Still, some people said they did not feel heard. And I believe they really did feel silenced. But this feeling was not because they actually were silenced; it was because their voices were not amplified in the ways they have come to expect in Mennonite spaces. Their voices were just their lone voices in a sea of other voices saying things that made them uncomfortable.

So this is what I would say people who did not feel heard at the Future Church Summit: Making you feel heard is not my job either — or anyone else’s. It is our job to invite you; we can’t make you come. And it is our job to hear you; we can’t control whether or not you speak or whether you feel like we heard you.

Also — another lesson from raising my son — just because I continue to disagree with you does not mean I didn’t hear you. Explaining your interpretation of Romans 1 to me again will not change my mind. And that doesn’t mean I’m not listening. I truly believe that if you chose to attend the Future Church Summit and if you chose to speak, you were heard.

As we continue our denominational discussions, it is important that we recognize and honor people’s feelings without automatically taking responsibility for those feelings and without being manipulated by them.

Sometimes people feel bullied and threatened and angry and scared and silenced. We should believe that they really feel those feelings. And we should examine our actions to make sure that we are not, in fact, being bullies or making threats, that we are not antagonizing people or creating unsafe spaces or silencing sincere voices. If we are doing any of those things, we should change our behavior.

If we aren’t doing any of those things and people continue to feel the bad feelings . . . I guess we take a deep breath, say a deep prayer, use our calm voices, and carry on.

Joanna Harader is pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, Kan. She blogs at spaciousfaith.com, where this first appeared.

Two pairs of conferences eye closer relationships

By and on Jul 24, 2017 in Latest Issue, News | 0 comments

As current and former Mennonite Church USA conferences deal with shifting congregational alignment, two pairs of conferences are looking at closer relationships.

Franklin Mennonite Conference is considering a possible merger with Lancaster Mennonite Conference, and Allegheny Mennonite Conference is exploring a relationship with Central District Conference.

Franklin conference minister Allen Lehman said a committee discussing affiliation presented a recommendation to the conference board to become a district of Lancaster Conference.

“We are still in conversation with our people about that possibility,” Lehman said.

Committee member Allen Eshleman said the proposed Franklin District “would continue to have its own distinct flavor and identity.”

Lehman said the feedback he has heard so far has been mostly positive.

A group of 14 congregations with about 1,000 members in Pennsylvania and Maryland, Franklin voted to leave MC USA in April 2016, following Lancaster’s November 2015 decision to withdraw. Leh­man said there is currently no geographical overlap between the two conferences, but geography is a primary reason Franklin is interested in Lancaster.

“We’re close, and we have historically worked together,” he said. “People intuitively know being small isn’t an enviable position.”

Lehman said there had been some initial consideration of connecting with the Evana Network, an evangelical Anabaptist group largely made up of congregations formerly affiliated with MC USA. But “the Lancaster connection just gained traction,” he said. “Our people are very, very familiar with Lancaster. To push for another conference or another entity would have been a harder position to take.”

Lancaster Conference moderator Keith Weaver could not be reached for comment.

Freedom and diversity

Allegheny Conference, with 12 congregations from Delaware to West Virginia, had looked at five potential conference relationships but decided to pursue a connection with Central District, said interim conference minister Dave Mishler.

A network group of people from both conferences has been assembled to explore the idea.

“Their posture on diversity on a variety of levels, including what we are calling place-based ministry in Allegheny Conference, allowing more congregational autonomy in decision-making — those were two of the factors that leaned us toward Central District,” Mishler said.

Place-based ministry, he said, refers to the interaction between a congregation and the community around it.

“We believe that rural and urban context will by necessity generate different styles and even different types of ministries,” he said. “We would expect and encourage that, and not mandate that any one congregation be pushed into a mold that doesn’t fit their local context.”

Mishler said the people in the networking group from Allegheny hope to have a clearer idea of their direction by November.

“I could say, ‘We just started dating; in November we might decide to go steady and to explore what an engagement might look like,’ ” he said.

Central District conference minister Doug Luginbill said four people from Allegheny visited Central District’s annual meeting June 22-24, and three from Central District would attend Allegheny’s Celebration of Congregations and Conference Aug. 4-6.

“We’re willing to explore various options,” Luginbill said. “We haven’t really gone down that road very far.”
Mishler said the step was driven by questions about Allegheny’s viability as a conference. Allegheny lost about half its congregations in 2015 after a decision to view the Confession of Faith as a guiding document rather than a disciplinary document, he said. Since then, other congregations have left the conference or are close to leaving.

“With our remaining congregations, there is a new energy to look to the future,” Mishler said. “We believe the withdrawals are at or very close to an end. . . . We’re very committed to Mennonite Church USA.”

He said those remaining in the conference resonated with Central District’s openness to diversity, particularly related to opinions about same-sex marriage.

“In our conference, there is still a wide range of theological diversity,” he said. “We think that is healthy.”

2,000 books distributed at Islamic convention

By and on Jul 24, 2017 in Featured, Latest Issue, News | 1 comment

CHICAGO — Last year, an Eastern Mennonite Missions team that works in Christian-Muslim relations was invited to have the only booth representing a Jesus-following witness at America’s largest yearly gathering of Muslims.

This year, EMM’s Christian/ Muslim Relations Team was invited back to the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention, with a special request.

Angelica Prins, left, and Christian/Muslim Relations Team member Grace Shenk, right, speak with an attendee at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention. — Andres Prins/EMM

Angelica Prins, left, and Christian/Muslim Relations Team member Grace Shenk, right, speak with an attendee at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention. — Andres Prins/EMM

Sayyid Syeed, who recently retired as national director of the society’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances, suggested the team return with 3,000 to 4,000 free copies of A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue, a book co-authored in 1980 by team founder David W. Shenk and his Muslim colleague Badru D. Kateregga.

Syeed hoped the book could be given to a significant number of the projected 20,000 people who would attend the convention.

“As Muslims, we believe what the Quran (3:113) teaches us about believing Christians and requires us to look for those Christians whose lives are true representatives of those values,” he said. “I have known and respected Shenk and his team, who are wholeheartedly dedicated in building bridges of understanding between Muslims and Christians.”

The book’s publisher, Herald Press, offered a bulk order at one-third of the original price.

“It’s great to work on a project like this where there is direct ministry impact,” said Joe Questel, director of sales and marketing at Herald Press. “The challenge for us was to be able to supply [the books] at a price that would allow [the team] to afford that many, and to do it in a very tight time frame.

“We had done this once before on a smaller buy, so we had a great working relationship in place to be able to scale up for this opportunity.”

Community members gave toward the bulk purchase through an online EMM fundraiser.

Tool for understanding

The team was able to arrive at the June 30-July 3 convention with 2,500 books in tow.

“It was really a step of faith to carry all those books in,” Shenk said.

His teammate Andres Prins agreed.

“We were in a sea of booths, and I had little faith that the 2,500 books would all be taken by people who happened to pass by our booth,” he said of more than 400 stands representing Muslim-oriented organizations.

To the Christian/Muslim Relations Team members’ delight, the book was promoted throughout the convention.

The team distributed all but 300 copies of the book, each containing a welcoming and explanatory letter from authors Kateregga and Shenk.

Syeed said the book was a valued gift at the convention.

“Our people appreciated this kind gesture and cherished [Shenk’s] book as a powerful tool for advancing better understanding and partnership between the two faith communities,” he said. “We will continue to build solidarity against destructive hate and mutual demonization.”

Jonathan Bornman, a team member who attended the convention last year, said it seemed clear to him that the Islamic Society of North America sees itself “as a modernizing movement in Islam, so that North American Muslims can lead the way for the rest of the world in nurturing civil society.”

One of Shenk’s favorite moments at the convention occurred when an attendee said his 12-year-old son had picked up a copy of the book the day before and read it for hours late into the night.

Medium, message and Jesus: Future Church Summit observations

By on Jul 24, 2017 in The World Together | 5 comments

Think of a memorable scene from a favorite film. Conjure it in your imagination: characters speaking and acting, musical score playing. Now imagine it without music or with different music — it becomes a different scene. Adding music doesn’t add just audible background — it adds meaning to what the characters say and do. The music shapes your perception of the scene as happy or sad, pleasant or frightening, triumphant or tragic.

This illustrates the phenomenon observed by media theorist Marshall McLuhan. How what we view, hear, or read is packaged and presented — the medium — shapes what we perceive to be the meaning of it — the message. McLuhan summed this up in a dictum: “the medium is the message.”

This dictum came to my mind several times during the Future Church Summit at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, in which I participated as a delegate.

Planned by a “design team,” the FCS was a highly structured, closely managed, professionally facilitated process. Through a series of interconnected sessions, each focused on preset questions, the FCS process transformed inputs into outputs: out of thousands of responses submitted electronically from table groups, a “theme team” synthesized a long list of “themes.” The FCS report was then adopted by the delegate assembly as a “guide” for further discernment by the church.

The FCS was a methodically designed medium. If the FCS is the medium, I wondered, what is the message?

I thought about this especially regarding the pair of questions at the mid-point of the FCS: “What does it mean to be a peace church in the 21st century? What is our evangelism in the 21st century?” Peace and evangelism — these would seem core matters for Anabaptists. What is the message of the medium concerning evangelism and peace? Wanting to do my own analysis, I took notes as an observer-participant.

These questions were addressed in a plenary session with an open-mic format. The facilitator invited self-selected speakers to come up on stage. The center of the stage was set with a semi-circle of chairs. The facilitator instructed the speakers: those wishing to speak on evangelism, ascend the stage from the left and sit in the chairs left of center; those wishing to speak on peace, ascend the stage from the right and sit in the chairs right of center.

The facilitator acknowledged that some speakers might see these as connected questions and want to speak to both. But she instructed speakers to restrict themselves to one or the other — and then alternated groups of evangelism-comments and peace-comments.

The medium sent a message: evangelism and peace are distinct matters that concern distinct groups, who enter the church through opposite doors, sit in separate pews, and do not engage in dialogue.

Thankfully, one speaker bridged the divide and voiced a unified question: “How do we bear witness to the gospel of peace made possible through Jesus Christ?”

Jesus — that stood out to me. I had noticed that the preset questions on evangelism and peace didn’t refer to Jesus. So I was keen to see whether speakers, unprompted by the process, would connect peace and evangelism to Jesus. Although several speakers made reference to Jesus, only a few — five of 20-plus — made Jesus the substance of evangelism and peace.

Dorothy Jean Weaver, bible professor at Eastern Mennonite University, stated that evangelism is essentially proclaiming “Jesus is Lord.” Elizabeth Soto, former moderator of MC USA, said evangelism was about “producing disciples of Jesus.” Another speaker said, similarly, that evangelism was about “following Jesus’ example.”

One speaker said, “Peace without Jesus makes no sense — peace comes from who Jesus is.” Another speaker said, likewise, that peace is based on the conviction that “what Jesus said and who Jesus is” are true.

While all solid statements, I still noticed an absence: none named Jesus as Savior or said the gospel is about salvation; none connected peace to salvation. The process thus exposed a degree of disconnection from salvation in what we think and how we speak about evangelism and peace.

Anyway, the FCS report did not capture these comments. The previous plenary session with open-mic format, which addressed diversity and differences, was followed by discussion in table groups and inputs to the theme team. A similar process did not follow the plenary on evangelism and peace, however. Consequently, there is no section of peace and evangelism themes in the FCS report.

The medium sent another message: peace and evangelism are lesser themes for guiding our church.

Thankfully, the FCS report includes this entry, synthesized from inputs in a subsequent session: “The church witness should be the full shalom of God — salvation, justice, and peace together.”

The FCS medium sent a two-fold message: division between evangelism and peace, and lesser emphasis on evangelism and peace. Further, the FCS process exposed a Jesus-deficit and salvation-disconnect in our thinking and speaking about evangelism and peace.

As we continue discerning future direction for MC USA, I pray that we will be intentional about keeping the gospel of salvation and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior at the center of our church.

Darrin W. Snyder Belousek is a member of Salem Mennonite Church, Elida, Ohio. He is the author of Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans Publishing 2012), Good News: The Advent of Salvation in the Gospel of Luke (Liturgical Press 2014), and The Road That I Must Walk: A Disciple’s Journey (Cascade Books 2014).

What is a call to ministry?

By on Jul 21, 2017 in The World Together | 1 comment

A long time ago in the big city, I was a graduate student studying the New Testament. My wife and I had another student and his wife over for supper, and we were talking shop: Bible and theology, church and history. Our friends were these passionate Presbyterians, and I was saying something judicious about finding the idea of ministry attractive, when he said to me, “So why don’t you go into ministry?”

“Because I’m not called,” I demurred.

“So get called!” he said.

I did, eventually, get called, though maybe not in the way he — or I — imagined. At that point in my life, I thought a calling to ministry would involve a vision or a voice, some sort of unmistakable and stern word from God: Go into ministry! Now! (The application deadline for seminary is May 15.) I figured a calling should be something prophetic — if not a Damascus Road or a burning bush, then at least a fire in the bones. I wanted something eerie and other. And I have had a couple of those take-off-your-sandals-you’re-on-holy-ground moments, times when a fire flared in my bones and in my belly. I’ve heard the strong word, the resonant word, the deep word that rumbles dreams. But my calling to pastoral ministry has mostly unfolded out of my Christian faith. For me, being called to ministry has felt like living out my faith, an extension of being called to Christ. I heard my ministerial calling by hearing my baptismal calling.

More than a feeling: internal and external calling

I suspect many of us are carrying around a flawed understanding of what it means to be called. We go heavy on the subjective experience of feeling called, feeling led, feeling like we’ve found our niche. Sometimes we label this feeling an “internal call.” It’s an attractive notion: God has laid something on our hearts, something special, and only we can feel it or know it.

Yet emphasis on an internal calling can go wickedly awry. While an internal sense of calling can sometimes serve as a powerful compass through ministerial storms, it can also be a way to arm-twist individuals and congregations. It goes something like this: I’m called. Listen to me, or get out of my way. Never mind that there was only one person of whom God said, “This is my Beloved, my Chosen, listen to him” (Luke 9:35-36).

I’ve bumped into people who claim a profound internal sense of calling. The humblest among them inspire the most trust in me. They’re circumspect in describing their calling. They labor away in obscurity. They face despair. They wonder if they’re doing anything that matters. Their sense of calling is sprinkled with a dash of doubt. These folks draw me in to their stories, like the wise pastor I recently met who described how God kept showing up beside him in the church pew, nudging him and asking, Can you imagine yourself up there behind the pulpit? To which, over the course of several years, he consistently responded, No, I can’t.

But I’ve also encountered people who are so sure of themselves and their internal calling that they reject any advice or oversight by the larger church. They’re eager to claim the prophet’s shaggy mantle and hit the streets. These people make me nervous. I ran into a man not long ago who claimed a pastoral call. He didn’t need training or discernment or recognition. He had his call. So he carved a chunk of people off from the congregation he belonged to at the time and set up shop across town, leaving his former congregation and pastor bewildered and hurt.

I wonder if in many churches, we’ve placed too much weight on the subjective, internal call. It strikes me that the concept of the internal call stands in tension with much of the biblical vision of ministry.

In the Old Testament, the sons of Aaron were chosen to be priests (see Numbers 18). The priestly ministry flowed from God’s original choosing of the Levites. The priest’s service was not dependent on how he felt about it. The work of the priesthood was a gift that came from God (Num. 18:7). When some Israelites, led by Korah, felt that they too should be able to serve as priests, despite not belonging to the Levitical line, the earth swallowed them whole (Num. 16:3, 32). Afterward, God again established that it was he who had called Aaron by making Aaron’s rod bud forth in almonds (Num. 17:1-7). God did the calling, and it was rather objective and external.

In the New Testament, we see something similar in Timothy’s calling. Paul speaks of Timothy’s capacity for ministry as a “gift” that he received from the church elders through the “laying on of hands” (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6). Paul says Timothy was “called” to faith (1 Tim. 6:20) and “called” to the Christian life (2 Tim. 1:9), but as far as I can tell, Paul doesn’t speak of Timothy as “called” to ministry.

Paul himself, who was famously called into the apostolic ministry on that road to Damascus, spent three years in the deserts of Arabia testing the meaning of his call (Gal. 1:15-18) before going up to Jerusalem to compare notes with the already established apostles. His calling was reaffirmed by the church in Antioch, when in a time of fasting and worship, the Holy Spirit told them to set apart Saul and Barnabas for the Lord’s work (Acts 13:2).

So if we need to rethink what it means to be called, what does this look like in the contemporary church? Here are three possibilities:

1.) I wonder if we need to move away from our reliance on a felt sense of God’s calling. Those with tender consciences are rarely called in this scenario. They’re often sidelined by those more confident of their own ability to hear God. Instead, I suspect we need to rely more deeply on the church’s discernment. Put less weight on the individual’s inner calling and more emphasis on the church’s outer calling out. Perhaps the preeminent characteristic we should look for in ministers is not a felt sense of calling, but a willingness to respond to the church’s need and submit to the church’s wisdom.

2.) We need to back away from a sense that the calling to ministry is something eerie and other. Ministry isn’t eerie and other; why would the calling to ministry be? How many people are waiting to be plucked from their mundane lives and sent out on the Lord’s errand? They want to be struck from above when what they really need is to look for ways to serve God and God’s people right in front of them, in the church.

3.) Above all, we need to remember that God’s calling of some to ministry is an extension of God’s calling of all his people in baptism (Eph. 4:1). Pastoral ministry is a subset of our overall baptismal calling, not something removed from or beyond our baptisms.

Ultimately, the true pastor-priest is Christ (Hebrews 8). Ministry is service to God’s eternal call to him.

Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kan. He blogs at The Doxology Project, where this post first appeared. His book: God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church will be released Sept. 19 by Herald Press.

Grieving with those who grieve

By on Jul 20, 2017 in The World Together | 0 comments

Have you ever felt unsure of what to do as you watched a friend grieve a loved one? My wife recently lost a cousin in a tragic car accident. As I watched the family grieve, I found myself wondering what to do.

It felt a bit ironic because almost five years ago, four days before my wedding, my mom was also killed in tragic accident. This was the second funeral I attended since Mom’s, and each time I found myself at a loss for what to do. You would think it would come easy for me, since I know what grief is like. But it’s almost as if because I know what it’s like, I find myself more hesitant to say anything, slower to give any kind of expression, and less able to know how to best comfort.

There really is nothing one can do at a time like that to alleviate pain. And the pain is so deep and excruciating that it’s almost mockery to pretend we can identify. As we drove the 13 hours to where the funeral would be held, and as I watched the family and their loved ones grieve, unsure of my role in a time like that, I kept asking myself, “What do people do for me that feel good to me as I grieve?”

Grief is intensely personal

What a person lost when he or she lost a loved one is unique to him or her. Mom meant different things to each of us in the family, so what each of us grieves now that she is no longer here is different, and that’s OK. Furthermore, people grieve differently. Some cry a lot. Others go into an immediate sense of shock. As we process grief, the journey is deeply personal. Don’t expect things to go a certain way. Just let it flow.

Grief is simultaneously relational

Just because grief is personal doesn’t mean we don’t need others in the journey. In fact, for us to make it through life processing grief in a healthy way, it is imperative for us to have others around who can help us carry the load. Walking through grief together is not comfortable for anyone, but important for everyone.

Grieving doesn’t mean you are weak or messed up

No, it means you’re healthy. Feeling pain when someone you loved and needed is taken away is precisely how we are designed to function.

Grief does not leave by ignoring it

In fact, unaddressed grief piles up and begins poking its head out in seemingly unrelated areas of life. It may be anger whose source you’re unsure of, depression you can’t overcome, a constant sense of anxiety, feeling emotionally drained, or a strong drive to keep busy. Facing pain takes a lot of energy, but ignoring it actually takes more.

Grief never goes away

Time does not heal grief. We grieve because we lost something and will never get it back on this earth. The intensity in which we grieve fluctuates and, with time, can diminish. But grief will remain as long as what we loved is gone. That’s OK. We live in a broken world — things are not as they should be.

Grieving doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll cry all the time

There are different emotions we feel in the grieving journey, and different ways of expressing those emotions. Crying is one of them. Just because one doesn’t cry doesn’t mean he is not hurting deeply.

Grief is something God identifies with and cares about

The message of Jesus Christ is in itself a message of grief. It’s a message that offers hope for grief — the only message in this world offering hope in the face of catastrophic loss. God the Father gave his only Son, a Son who become obedient to the point of death. Our maker knows what it feels like to have lost someone he deeply loved.

Grief can be comforted

It never goes away, but it can be comforted. And I don’t mean by God; I mean by those close to the ones grieving.

That’s where you and I come in. When our friends or extended family are grieving the loss of loved ones, they need us. Here are 15 simple yet powerful ways we can grieve with them.

1. Put yourself in their shoes

Be careful not to just do what you think would feel nice; work hard at becoming tuned in to what they’re feeling and what they might want.

2. Don’t quote Romans 8:28

This passage is not talking about having lost a loved one; it’s talking about suffering against the flesh. When we are facing a fleshly weakness, but resist it and submit to the Spirit of God out of love for him, God always works it together for good so that we are conformed to his image. That’s what Paul is talking about. The world is broken. It has been since Eden. There are things in this life that fall apart and will not have a good outcome this side of heaven. Losing a loved one is one of those.

3. Be slow to quote any verse

People who are grieving don’t need a brushing-up on their theology. And quoting verses about God’s goodness doesn’t make him feel any more good. God is at work, period. He doesn’t need you and me to speak into a grieving person’s heart. The act of losing someone close is in itself God speaking. We need to make sure we don’t do anything to alienate them from listening. There’s a time for bringing God’s Word into the grieving process, but be slow and sensitive in doing it.

4. Don’t try fixing what can’t be fixed

Mom is gone. Your brother isn’t coming back. Their baby won’t ever be in the womb again. And nothing anyone does or says can change it. It’s okay to grieve what is broken.

5. Be slow to say anything; just be

In the middle of grief, words are like salt. They can be profoundly soothing and bring healing. But too much becomes repulsive. Simply being with the grieving persons is meaningful enough. And then listen to the Spirit and to the ones grieving to know if anything should be said.

6. Hug. Tell them “I am so sorry.”

What do you do when you see them for the first time after hearing of the loss? Hug them. Tell them you’re so sorry. If you feel like crying, cry with them.

7. Face your own pain

Allow yourself to feel your own grief and brokenness. We all have grief at some level. Even if we feel no grief, we at least have brokenness. Let your brokenness grieve you. Let yourself feel deeply the reality that this world is falling apart.

8. Stay near

If you are a close friend, stay physically and emotionally near them. They need you.

9. Know your place

If you are not a close friend, recognize that your presence at the viewing or funeral feels loving and is appreciated, but you are not whom they need most right now. Keep your interactions brief and remain quiet and respectful as long as you are near.

10. Don’t ask how they’re doing or feeling

It should be obvious how they’re doing. But if it’s not, and you ask, they won’t know how to answer. Just stay away from that question.

11. Anticipate their needs

Don’t say, “If you need anything, call me.” Instead, jump in and fill needs you already know they have. Help them with practical needs, even those needs you feel they should be able to do on their own, and be willing to that for years to come. If there is a time limit in your mind, you will inevitably one day hurt them.

12. Tell stories

Stories about the person they lost are probably the most comforting thing anyone can do for a grieving friend. If you knew their loved one, reminisce with them. Tell them, especially, about things they may not have known about their family member. Stories stir up memories, and memories keep the person near.

13. Give them space to process

If you notice, I’ve used the language of “journey” and “process” a lot. You never “get over” the loss. Our friends don’t need us to help them “get over it.” They need us to create safe spaces of time to feel, remember and even question. The journey of grief includes shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. People may go through it in that order, but more often than not, it’s back and forth. That’s OK.

In the process of grief, people invariably question God. Don’t be alarmed by that. Don’t be afraid to go down trails that concern you without correcting them. Wrestling with God, with the brokenness of this world, with whether or not he is actually good, is a sign they are traveling well on the journey of grief. They don’t need you to keep them on the road. They just need you to be with them, giving them space.

14. Let them talk

Because they won’t always feel like talking (and that’s just fine), when they do, let them talk. Don’t take over the conversation, but also don’t be indifferent to what they’re saying. Ask questions. Keep them talking. Then, when they’re finished, let them stop.

15. Show them Jesus

What did Jesus do when he met with friends who had recently lost a loved one? He wept. He stood with them in their pain. He let them question and accuse him, and never once do we have record of him rebuking them for it. We as humans tend to feel more insecure for Jesus than he himself does. When Jesus came to Martha and Mary after Lazarus had died, he felt with them. He lingered. He even felt anger over what happened. He didn’t try fixing their pain. He simply grieved with them.

Jesus reminds Martha that if she believes Him she will see the glory of the Lord (John 11:40). That glory may be seen in the form of miracles or in the form of the resurrection at the last day. It’s really beside the point. He simply reminded them that the glory of the Lord will be seen — if they believe.

God is not indifferent to our pain. He feels with us.

In the middle of grief, it is easy to question God’s goodness. It’s part of the process. But one of the most healing things for me has been discovering that God himself feels with us in our pain.

He himself bore our sicknesses, and he carried our pains. (Is. 53:4)

 

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin. (Heb. 4:15)

God is redeeming broken things.

I recently visited the accident site, again, where Mom was killed. I still don’t understand why she had to be taken that early in life and in that way. But as I stood where I last saw her alive, feeling again the grief, I remembered what Paul said about the afflictions we face in this life.

For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. (2 Cor. 4:17)

Pain we experience on this earth is working for us glory in heaven. That doesn’t mean pain on this earth necessarily turns out good, but that heaven is totally worth suffering for. Standing in the field, replaying the scene of Mom laid out on a stretcher, I was grateful for God who is alive, personally interacting with me, redeeming the broken things in my life.

Losing a loved one hurts like crazy! It completely reshapes the landscape of one’s family life. Having friends who know how to grieve well is what a grieving person needs most. As I reflect on my experience in losing Mom, this is what those kinds of friends do for me.

Asher Witmer is a husband, father and writer living with his family in Los Angeles and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies at Eternity Bible College in Simi, Calif. He blogs at asherwitmer.com, where this post first appeared.

My denomination continues to swing left

By on Jul 19, 2017 in The World Together | 22 comments

We delegates at the 2017 Mennonite Church USA Convention in Orlando met for an initial four-hour session and then a concluding one-hour session. In between those sessions, a number of non-delegates joined us for an intensive Future Church Summit. For 14 hours, 97 tables of six to eight persons sought to imagine our denomination’s future.

Each table used a tablet computer to submit responses on topics such as:

• What draws us to this faith?
• What do we want to affirm and take forward [from our past]?
• What do we need to lament, transform and/or let go?
• What can we take action on in response to the world’s needs?
• What does it mean for us to follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century?
• What do we gain with MC USA?
• How do we relate within a shared denomination?
• What are important things we do together?

A “Theme Team” received all the responses, working to summarize the common themes they heard. Only minutes after the tables stopped submitting responses, the team could present a PowerPoint listing the themes that we gave them.

As one looks at the responses as summarized by the Theme Team, it is evident that progressives were the majority and spoke freely and that conservative viewpoints were largely left unspoken. For instance, the Future Church Summit’s laments over our past were:

white identity; boundaries that exclude; colonialistic approach to mission; patterns of splitting; not all stories being honored; assimilation to dominate culture; passive-aggressive avoidance of issues; abuse of power; marginalization of people of color, women, LGBTQ people; we haven’t totally merged as MC USA; silence about process, systems and structures that cause harm; declining focus on spiritual vitality and formation.

Note how many of the items on that list are distinctively progressive and how few are distinctively conservative. Persons who are theologically conservative can (or at least should!) find much to affirm in virtually all those items — we as a church have much that we can learn from the progressive mindset. But, by and large, the conservative voice was overshadowed by progressive ones. Again this is to the church’s loss — we can also learn much from the conservative mindset!

When the Future Church Summit finished its work, the delegates reconvened to act on a resolution on what MC USA will do with the summary material. Initial drafts of the resolution had us calling the church to implement the FCS Theme Team’s report or to use it as the direction of our national body.

However, there was a strong call to change the wording.

Many delegates expressed a need to discuss the report with their sending body (their congregation or conference) before affirming it as the general direction of our church.

Other delegates were unsure that the report was representative of the church. Sandra Montes Martinez, moderator for Iglesia Menonita Hispana, spoke for many conservatives when she said, “We [IMH] are concerned about the word ‘direction.’ We need to qualify the word ‘diversity’: Ethnic and theological diversity are different.”

The FCS was not a body discerning a direction. Even at our tables we did little discerning together but were instructed to simply register our individual preferences on the various topics. We were essentially a brain-storming group producing raw material to be used by some other discerning body. Surely a collation of individual preferences does not give us a direction.

So the resolution was revised to speak of the FCS report as a “document that is offered to the church to guide further discernment.” That version passed overwhelmingly.

A few concluding reflections:

● In the revision of the resolution at the end, some conservatives found their voice, much to the dismay of persons on Pink Menno social media. Melissa Florer-Bixler, pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church, hoped the FCS report would “be directive” to the MC USA Executive Board: “We needed to give them a mandate and hold them accountable. Once traditionalists heard the results overwhelmingly affirming the voices that were not their voice, they cried foul. … So they needed ‘more time,’ required ‘more conversation.’” Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, wrote that the revision was “the desperation of white heteronormative power” as such persons fear “the end of their control over their institution.” (Both Raleigh and Chapel Hill are in the process of leaving Virginia Mennonite Conference and becoming members of Central District Conference.)

● Nonetheless, it was clear to all present at the FCS that a stance of fully welcoming LGBTQ persons (i.e., affirming same-sex covenants and affirming persons in such covenants as pastoral leaders) has become a strongly held value in our denomination — so strong that those who do not share that value were not tending to speak out during the summit. In an open mic time during the ending delegate session, a pastor of a large congregation shared that “as a person who holds the traditional view of sexuality, I have not felt safe to express that.”

● The sentiments of the FCS (seen in the comments during open mic times as well as in the Theme Team’s summary report) were much more progressive than the denomination actually is. (Conservatives tend to not attend our churchwide assemblies. And my sense is that the non-delegate participants of the summit tended to be even more progressive than the delegates.) Nonetheless, there is nothing that will stop our denomination from moving in the direction suggested by the FCS report. The revision of the resolution only slowed the movement.

● Recognizing that many of our congregations and some of our conferences are conservative, half of the summary of our responses to the topic “How do we relate within a shared denomination?” are about us moving toward a “federation of conferences.” If conservatives no longer feel at home and safe in their denomination, perhaps they can look to their conference for that. I personally feel good about my conference and its leadership and about the stance we have taken as Virginia Mennonite Conference. However, many in VMC (according to the 2015 survey by Conrad Kanagy) want to be part of a church that fully includes LGBTQ individuals even if losses occur. The struggle we see in the denomination is strongly present in the conference.

● Why can’t we who are conservatives, in humility, rejoice that new voices are being heard? Most of us are able to tolerate diversity on issues like women in leadership; why, when it comes to same-sex marriage (two persons committing to love each other!), do we have a hard time tolerating voices of diversity?

My answer is that, for us, trust in Scripture (seeing its broad themes and trajectories as a primary source of discernment) is an essential — part of our center. We worry that those making inclusivist arguments are mainly echoing our culture. We who are conservatives don’t see them carefully grappling with the strongest biblical arguments that support the church’s historic stance against same-sex relations (for instance, the fact that Jesus and the early church chose not to lessen the Old Testament prohibitions on various forms of what they understood to be sexual immorality but rather to tighten those prohibitions).

We want our church to love and welcome LGBTQ folks with open arms and hearts full of love. But loving people doesn’t mean blessing all their choices. It means gently nudging them toward our Creator’s design for life. For those of us who see the Bible showing male-female covenantal relationships as central to God’s purposes in creation, something huge is at stake. Will we be a church who follows our culture? Or be those our Confession of Faith describes: people who let culture and other sources of discernment “be tested and corrected by the light of Holy Scripture,” ones who delight in the wisdom of God?

Harold N. Miller is pastor of Trissels Mennonite Church, Broadway, Va. He blogs at Interacting With Jesus, where this post first appeared.

Judge rules in favor of MC USA in Hopi land dispute

By and on Jul 18, 2017 in Latest Issue, News | 0 comments

Mennonite Education Agency is planning to start a new chapter at Hopi Mission School in Ky­kotsmovi, Ariz., after Navajo County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Higgins ruled in favor of Mennonite Church USA.

Responding to concerns about finances and transparency at the school, MC USA filed a complaint on Sept. 14, 2015, asking that the HMS board be evicted from the property so that MEA could review documents.

Hopi Mission School students go on a celebratory run for a drug- free life during Red Ribbon Week activities on the school grounds Oct. 30, 2016. — Hopi Mission School

Hopi Mission School students go on a celebratory run for a drug- free life during Red Ribbon Week activities on the school grounds Oct. 30, 2016. — Hopi Mission School

The July 3 ruling says MC USA “may immediately take sole possession of the land.” It orders the HMS board to vacate the premises and arrange an orderly transition to allow the school to function in the 2017-18 academic year.

MEA executive director Carlos Romero said July 14 he hopes to be able to start the school year in August or September, depending on when MC USA gains possession of the property.

“It’s been a long process. It’s been an expensive process, but we’re feeling pretty good right now because the court has accepted all of our claims,” he said.

The kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school, a Mennonite Schools Council member, sits on land deeded to the General Conference Mennonite Church, a predecessor of MC USA that operated the school from 1951 until the 1990s.

The HMS board argued that the General Conference, and later MC USA, abandoned its ties to the school by reducing funding and creating a separate board and foundation to accept donations. Mennonite Voluntary Service supported multiple workers until the unit there was closed in 2014, roughly the same time MEA was hearing concerns about how funds were being used.

Kykotsmovi resident Marvin Yoyokie said July 20 that people were moving furniture and other items that week out of the school and housing area and into trucks.

Yoyokie hopes MC USA staff will visit the community soon to hold meetings with Kykotsmovi residents interested in the school’s future.

“My children went there, and my grandchildren went there,” he said. “After all these things, the mother didn’t have a choice but to pull them out, but they would like to return back.”

Making a new start

Romero and several other MC USA representatives plan to visit the school in the first half of August. Over the next few months, MEA must coordinate workers for the school and collect funds to pay for it.

In the two years since the lawsuit was filed, a number of people have expressed openness to helping MEA take over operations. Romero said Mennonite Voluntary Service is also on board.

“They are willing to work with us and go back there when we need to work on recruitment for the school,” he said. “There’s a lot of good will and a lot of people who are willing to start on behalf of Mennonite Church USA to get the school moving again.”

Romero and others will be on the lookout for financial documents when they visit HMS, but expectations are low that any will be found.

Federal investigators carted off paperwork last year that led to federal indictments naming superintendent Thane Epefanio, principals Rebecca Yoder and Anne Lowry and HMS board treasurer Matthew Schnei­der, alleging almost $1 million in fraudulent activity at HMS. A federal investigator testified in a Sept. 30 court hearing that Epefanio passed $1.6 million through the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas in the previous two years.

“When all of this happened we asked [individuals and congregations] to put their giving on hold until we had a clear direction and until we could guarantee the money would be used for the purpose it was being given,” Romero said, noting MEA has not budgeted funds for restarting HMS. “We are starting to go back to the people in the congregations and say, ‘We won, we have to get this going again. Will you be willing to support again?’ ”

In addition to discussions with MC USA agencies and supporting congregations, MEA has been in communication with Hopi tribal leadership throughout the last few years. Romero said Hopi leaders have been supportive and affirming of MC USA’s goals.

“We will need to do some relationship-building at the local level there with people to make sure that we get the support of the majority of the people,” he said.

Phone numbers associated with HMS are either out of service or give only a busy signal.

On May 22, a Hopi woman named Mary Honwytewa registered “Hopi Christian Academy” with the state of Arizona as a nonprofit corporation using the HMS address. Other principals on the filing are HMS board members Camille Quotskuyva and Garyth Poocha of Kykots­movi.

The voicemail message for Hopi Christian Academy’s telephone number states it is closed until further notice.

Reflections from Orlando: Change is happening

By on Jul 18, 2017 in The World Together | 2 comments

I spent most of the first week of July in Orlando, Fla., being a delegate at the Mennonite Church USA convention.

Confession: I don’t like conventions. There’s the dungeon-esque nature of the whole place — arctic air conditioning, high ceilings, no windows and dim lighting, miles of mottled carpeting, the food (when finally located) so wrapped in plastic that it’s positively mummified, and so on.

Then there’s the emotional and social paradox: surrounded by thousands of people but alone. Convention might be paradise for pastors and academics who get to reconnect with friends from different colleges, seminaries and churches, but since I’m neither a pastor nor an academic, I had a noticeable dearth of connections to make. Which was fine, truly, but also terribly boring.

The extent I’ll go to care for my mental health: running in the Florida summer heat.

I hated floating, wafting from one air-conditioned room to another, not doing anything. But then on day three — finally! — meetings started, and from then on, I was fine.

This year’s convention was polar opposite from the previous one in 2015. Aside from one four-hour delegate meeting in which we voted on an Israeli-Palestinian resolution (it passed with 97 percent affirmation, wheeee!), the rest of the time was devoted to the Future Church Summit, a church-wide brainstorming session. Along with the delegates, dozens of other people had been invited, including a fair number of youth through the Step Up program. For example, at my table, along with pastors (and the executive director himself), we had a high-school student and two college students. Thanks to all the young people, the room had a different vibe, new voices, fresh voices, young people who cared. It was wonderful.

In the opening worship service, speaker Phil Kniss of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va., set the tone for the whole convention. There are three stages to ministry, he said: presence, advocacy and direction. Until we have been fully present, until we are willing to advocate for other people (even our enemies), only then can we provide direction. And if we can’t do those first two things, then we have no business even opening our mouths.

And that, in a nutshell, was the thrust of the Future Church Summit. We were there to be present, to listen. Church leadership wasn’t going to tell us what to do or how to be. Through listening to each other, we got to collectively say how we wanted to be church together. How stunningly simple. How radical.

All the ideas and issues we discussed — and there were a lot: prison reform, power redistribution, diversity, LGBTQ inclusion, climate change, voluntary service, doctrine of discovery, etc. — were great, but it was the process, a process that allowed all voices to participate, even the ones that have been repeatedly silenced, that I found most inspiring.

The Summit went like so:

A Question
The leader, Catherine Barnes of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, would throw out a question and give directions for how we’d proceed.

Silent Reflection
We’d spend several minutes in silence, jotting down our thoughts on index cards.

Table Group Discussion
For 30-40 minutes, we’d discuss what we wrote down and then work together to find common themes.

Idea Submission
Each table had a tablet computer, and as we landed on ideas, the table-designated recorder (we also had table-designated leaders and time-keepers) would type it up and hit send. A few words, or a sentence, and then send. Idea, send. Idea, send.

Theme Team
Up at the front, about 12 people clustered around a big table, busily reading and compiling the submissions. They’d often get well over a thousand submissions per question.

Group Response
While the theme team continued to work, our leader led the entire group in about 30 minutes of either a spiral process (described in this book) or a Samoan circle, by inviting anyone who wanted to share to come to the front of the room while the rest of us watched on the big screens. Each person had 2 minutes (and a clock on the floor ticking down the seconds to help the speaker stay focused), and then the next person would speak.

Theme Team Response
A member from the team would present the findings from the last question.

We repeated this process over and over, the questions growing ever outward, from the internal and personal toward the broader community and church, and finally culminating in the big what-direction-do-we-take-as-a-church questions. The listening, the generation of ideas and the open stance all combined to create a mood of creativity and care. After the anguish of the previous convention, this one was a breath of fresh air.

Is it too good to be true? Maybe. Our group left early, so we missed the final gathering. Word on the street is that a number of people stood up and said the conservative voice hadn’t been heard — they didn’t feel that it was a safe place to share; perhaps, I wonder, because they were openly sharing space with the very people they wanted to exclude and didn’t feel at liberty to voice their opinions? — so at the last minute the brakes were applied, momentum arrested, and the convention ended on a sour note.

But even wind of a last-minute scramble to rein in things doesn’t much dampen my mood. I mean, I am skeptical and wary — there are no rose-tinted glasses perched on this nose of mine. But for the first time, people in the margins were being given a voice. Listening was at the heart of our time together. So even though it’s going to be messy — has church ever not been messy? — change is happening. It’s going to happen. Hallelujah.

Jennifer Murch lives outside Harrisonburg, Va., with her husband and their four children. She blogs at jennifermurch.com, where this post first appeared.