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Our responsibility as clergy regarding abuse

By on Aug 15, 2018 in The World Together | 0 comments

In what has to be one of history’s most poignant, trenchant ironies, Tuesday’s report from a grand jury in Pennsylvania about decades of sexual abuse by predatory priests and of cover-ups in high ecclesiastical offices was released on the same day that Roman Catholic Christians were celebrating the memory and ministry of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest and martyr. For having hidden Jews in his monastery and publishing anti-Nazi literature, Kolbe was killed at the Nazi prison camp, Auschwitz, in 1941. He might have survived had he not offered himself in place of another prisoner whom the commandant of the camp had selected for execution. Kolbe did so because, unlike the condemned prisoner, he had no wife and children hoping and praying for his release. All this was foreshadowed in a vision that Kolbe had in his youth, in which Mary appeared to him and offered a choice of one of two crowns — one red, for martyrdom, the other white, for purity. Kolbe chose both.

The recent grand jury report and the story of Maximilian Kolbe’s martyrdom are equally true. They both require our attention, but not because one invalidates nor diminishes the other. They don’t. They highlight both the promise and the peril of Christian leadership and clerical calling, and not only for Roman Catholics. Tragically, no Christian denomination is without the stain of clergy sexual abuse somewhere, sometime, in its ranks and history.

It would be false and facile to blame the predation and pederasty of some Roman Catholic clergy solely on the enforced celibacy of their priests (though I do believe that it is wrong and unbiblical) and the resultant sexual frustrations. Sexual frustrations and predation can and do happen among married persons, too. Still, the rule of celibacy has to deter and disqualify persons otherwise called and gifted for ministry, and to create havens for men with complex psychosexual issues.

But sexual predation is at least as much an issue of power as it is of sex. Power is a two-edged sword. Some power is necessary if the clergy are to have healing and helpful access to people’s homes, hearts and lives. Call it “authority” instead, if you wish. The best kind of authority is that earned over time, by proofs of conduct and character.

Power and authority can also be misused to push people toward dependency and vulnerability to exploitation spiritually, financially, emotionally and, yes, sexually. While the rising tide of revelations about clergy sexual abuse only reinforce the truth that spirituality must guide sexuality (and not vice versa), it also reveals how closely connected sexuality and spirituality are. The spiritual intimacy of the pastoral relationship can so easily be hijacked and exploited for sexual intimacy.

That, however, is only one kind of abuse of power which Tuesday’s grand jury report revealed. The other has to do with the cover-ups, hush money and transfers of predatory clergy to new fields of predation on the part of bishops and cardinals. Such abuse of power is at least as bad as what it covers up. If “love covers a multitude of sins,” the only love I see working here is the love of clerical power, position, prestige and privilege by the so-called “princes of the church.”

Such disordered love of status and reputation is not a uniquely Roman Catholic thing, either. All clergy are tempted to stand on pedestals of their own making, with help from others. Catholic culture and hierarchy are not alone in making clerical reputation, separation and elevation so tempting, so easy, so preferable to transparency and accountability. A hierarchy powerful enough, and far enough removed from the laity, can build its own pedestals from the top down.

When I first worked with a congregation to draw up an abuse response and prevention policy some 15 years ago, we scratched our heads for quite some time trying to draw up a process of investigation and validation for any claims of abuse by clergy or other leaders. Then it struck us: Self-investigation would be part of the problem. It would constitute one more layer of abuse laid atop another. We’re talking about crimes against the vulnerable, not just embarrassments to an institution or a community. Any conceivable risks from full accountability and transparency are nothing compared to the damage already done by abuse. Our task became easier, and our job shorter, with two simple words: “notify police.” Unless we are willing to accept the risks and the reality of such rapid and uncompromising accountability and transparency, we have no place in the clergy. No church should be without a firm, clear policy for the protection of the vulnerable from all kinds of abuse. Once such a policy is in place, it must be reviewed and renewed regularly.

The most recent revelations from the Keystone State will only accelerate a growing social trend of distrust and disgust for church and clergy. Recent surveys put us behind military officers, doctors and nurses, farmers, judges, day care providers, police officers and others, and only a little ahead of used car salespersons and Congressional representatives in levels of public trust. I know and love some very trustworthy doctors, nurses, police officers, farmers and others who deserve their high reputations. But for pastors, that ranking is way down from generations past. Let’s not be too quick to blame the growing secularism of our increasingly post-Christian society. This wound is, in part, self-inflicted. Its healing will require the purification of the church and its clergy not only from sexual sins, but from sins related to the disordered love of power, property, status, security and secrecy.

We have gone through times of such revealing, healing and purification before. The Reformation was as much about abuse by and the reform of clergy and hierarchy as it was about doctrine. The militant atheism of Communist revolutions in Russia, China and elsewhere were reactions, in part, to the sinful cohabitation of church and state. Though at a terrible price, the effect was to purify and liberate the church from Constantinian corruption. Are we now going through some similar cleansing? “It is time now for judgment to begin with God’s household (1 Peter 4:17).”

Let’s not hope nor pray that such purification would restore our privileged status and reputation, so that we again get haircuts and baseball tickets again at clergy discount prices. Let’s leave life and death, honor and dishonor in God’s hands, by seeking God’s honor and pleasure, and the welfare of those whom we serve, above our own. It’s the least we owe to the victims of abuse.

Bear in mind, though, that this could be a recipe for even more disgust and distrust from a fallen world than what we now have from falling off pedestals. But such distrust would be for the right reason: the unavoidable scandal of the cross of Jesus Christ, and our likeness to him in the limitless love of sinners and the loathing of sin. Such was the reward of the Apostle Paul, whose status as “clergy” he described in his letter to his friends in Corinth, because they were overly concerned about their own status in society: “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings (1 Cor. 4:9).” Because the Corinthians didn’t get the point, he reminded them in his next letter: “… through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything (2 Cor. 4:8b-10).”

Let all clergy embrace such possibilities, risks and costs. Otherwise, we are in the wrong “profession.” Just ask Maximilian Kolbe.

Mathew Swora is lead pastor of Zion Mennonite Church in Hubbard, Ore. He blogs at zionmennoniteoregon.org, where this post first appeared.

Non-dualistic thinking and apocalyptic theology

By on Aug 14, 2018 in The World Together | 0 comments

Many progressive Christians talk a lot about a spirituality that prizes non-dualistic thinking. This emphasis on non-dualistic thinking comes from contemplative Christian traditions that have been in conversation with Eastern spiritualities.

Confession time. I struggle with the non-dualistic take on Christianity.

Some of my issues are logical. For example, here’s a joke I made up.

There are two kinds of thinking in the world: Dualistic thinking and Non-dualistic thinking.

(Do you get it? Any mention of “non-dualistic” thinking creates a dualism.)

I also find the talk of the “true self” versus the “false self” in non-dualistic circles to be, well, sort of dualistic.

To be clear, these are superficial critiques, and the best of the contemplative tradition is not so easily criticized. But pop-contemplative theology is often superficial and dualistic in just these ways.

That said, my deepest reservation about non-dualistic theology is that it clashes with the apocalyptic theology of the New Testament.

As scholars will tell you, both Jesus and Paul where apocalyptic thinkers. And an apocalyptic worldview is rooted in dualisms, the “apocalyptic antinomies”: Christ/Adam, Old Creation/New Creation, Light/Dark, Old Age/Age to Come, Death/Life, Christ/Anti-Christ, Spirit/Flesh, Grace/Law.

More, the apocalyptic worldview is rooted in a vision of struggle and warfare between these dualisms, the Christus Victor themes of God liberating us from the dark, enslaving forces of Sin, Death and the Devil.

All that to say, I struggle with non-dualistic theology because my theology has been so shaped by the apocalyptic imagination of the New Testament. I work really hard to see the world the way Jesus saw the world, and Jesus parsed the world with apocalyptic dualisms. Jesus saw himself as casting out Satan, the prince of this world. Jesus preached a message of repentance, not contemplation. Jesus threatened and warned. His vision of the kingdom of God was framed by two apocalyptic destinations, a festive wedding banquet versus the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Broad is the way, Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, that leads to destruction.

This is, by the way, why I’ve become so taken with the work of Flannery O’Connor. As a progressive Christian I’m always tempted to turn Jesus into a non-dualistic contemplative guru of tolerance. Flannery O’Connor helps keep the apocalyptic Jesus of the gospels ever in front of me — the disturbing, strange, unsettling Jesus. The stinking, bleeding, mad shadow of Jesus.

In short, I suspect that a lot of Christians espousing non-dualistic thinking would have a hard time enjoying a conversation with Jesus. To say nothing of Paul, the prophets or John the Baptist.

Richard Beck is professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University. He blogs at Experimental Theology, where this post originally appeared.

Dark side to Amish religious freedom?

By and on Aug 13, 2018 in Featured, Latest Issue, News | 2 comments

Though the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wisconsin v. Yoder decision has traditionally been hailed as a religious freedom victory for the Amish, some Amish people want to challenge the 1972 ruling. That’s one thing the founders of the Amish Heritage Foundation, a new organization with a goal “to reclaim our Amish narrative,” will discuss at their first conference.

“Disrupting History: Reclaiming Our Amish Story” is the theme of the event, scheduled Sept. 28-29 at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

Amish young men bale hay near Quarryville, Pa. The Amish are exempt from compulsory education after eighth grade. — Dale D. Gehman

Amish young men bale hay near Quarryville, Pa. The Amish are exempt from compulsory education after eighth grade. — Dale D. Gehman

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Amish, exempting them from compulsory education past the eighth grade.

“It’s identified as a religious freedom victory,” said Elam Zook, director for the development of Amish literature of AHF. “But for Amish children, it was fundamentally the absolute and complete opposite. . . . It was actually a betrayal of the core tenet of Anabaptism, which was adult baptism, which was about making a decision to become a member of the sacred community.”

Zook identifies as a “noncompliant Amish” person, like someone who identifies as culturally Jewish but does not practice the faith.

“We are not in compliance with church ordnung [rules], but we can’t erase our identity,” he said. “It’s always going to be there no matter what we do or where we go.”

Zook traced the development of the Old Order Amish to the latter 1800s, when the majority of Amish — Zook said 75 percent, while the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online gives a figure of two-thirds — moved toward reuniting with the (Old) Mennonite Church, and the remainder became known as Old Order Amish.

“What I argue is that the majority were simply evolving with the larger progression of humanity. . . . The group who became the Old Order Amish saw that and reacted to it,” Zook said.

Because of this, he said, a pattern developed of Old Order Amish resisting anything they saw their “progressive” counterparts doing — including critical evaluation and adjustment of their own beliefs and practices.

“It became a point of religious fealty to not engage the issues in their lives,” Zook said.

Zook believes that given enough time, the Old Order Amish would have eventually become somewhat more culturally assimilated. But once the Wisconsin v. Yoder ruling limited government oversight of Amish children’s education, he said, the Amish “essentially became completely detached from any engagement [in society].”

In the program for the conference, Zook’s core argument is stated: “[Wisconsin v. Yoder] directly created an embrace of ignorance and a poverty of literature among our Amish people, and in the process, ran rough­shod over our legal rights as Amish children and adults. Wisconsin v. Yoder is responsible for freezing us Old Order Amish in time; we have stopped evolving from this point forward.”

Not allowed to question

The AHF launched this year but was 20 years in the making, said executive director Torah Bontrager.

As a child, she heard the story of Harriet Tubman assisting escaped African-American slaves along the underground railroad.

“I told myself if I escaped and I made it, I would create an Amish underground railroad for those who wanted to transition to the outside world,” she said. “That’s what the Amish Heritage Foundation is.”

A survivor of recurring rape, Bontrager escaped from home at night when she was 15. She says she is the only first-generation Amish graduate of an Ivy League school, with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Columbia University of New York City.

She said the outcome of Wisconsin v. Yoder created a lack of freedom for Amish children.

“Depriving us of our ability to pursue education beyond the eighth grade is analogous to infant baptism,” she said. “The basic principle of Anabaptism is to give an adult a choice.”

She said it’s against the Amish faith to question the rules, analyze the Bible or use critical thinking, though she grew up revering Anabaptist martyrs who did those exact things.

She recalled, as an 8-year-old, seeing the picture of the famous Anabaptist martyr Dirk Willems choosing to rescue his pursuer, who had fallen through the ice on a frozen pond, rather than leaving him behind and escaping.

“[My mother] told me he was sent back to prison and later tortured and died,” she said. “And that’s what we must do; we must never deny our faith, even if we get burned at the stake. That’s set in stone; that’s never to be challenged or questioned or analyzed.”

Bontrager said the Amish are taught that their forebears died for an interpretation of religion that cannot be questioned.

“If I were to question or challenge that, that’s equal to spitting in the face of what our forefathers died for,” she said. “. . . We’re not allowed to look at our forefathers for inspiration before they attained their religious freedom. We’re not allowed to rebel like they did.”

No freedom to harm

The AHF intends to address issues among the Amish of education, female-driven entrepreneurship and healing from trauma. It will also facilitate access to social services for both Amish who have left the church community and who have not.

Bontrager said there is no easy answer to the tension between the rights of children to access education that enables them to make critical decisions later in life and the rights of parents to raise their children according to their religious values. But the foundation’s conference will try to navigate those questions.

“We cannot have [such] extreme religious freedom that it’s legal to harm another person in the name of religious freedom,” she said. “There has to be that balance. . . . It’s not Christian to let these abuses happen in the name of religious freedom.”

Parental concerns

While sympathetic to people who feel trapped, some take a more cautious approach to pushing for government involvement in religious communities.

For Margaret Schwartz, leaving the Amish was mainly a matter of different understandings of salvation. She and her husband, Elmer, grew up among the Old Order Amish in Berne, Ind., but did not describe themselves as “born-again believers” until after they were married. They moved to Holmes County, Ohio, to join the New Order Amish but later left to seek believers baptism.

They now reside in Shipshewana, Ind., and attend a non­denominational church.

Schwartz said lack of education among the Amish was indeed a concern.

“I can see both sides,” she said. “I can see parents having a concern for their children’s education, because there are unbiblical things being taught [in public schools].”

She chose to home-school her children and complied with the relevant laws in her state. But she saw some Amish families pulling their children out of school at sixth grade, saying they would home-school them but then not give them a comparable education at home.

“I always enjoyed learning, and I wanted to go on to school,” she said. “Today, I would have been a doctor. Because I was an Amish girl, that opportunity was denied.”

Schwartz said not every Amish community is the same, and some are becoming more open to education. But she knew of some abuses that gave her concern.

“I wish there would be some way that the government could step in and protect these children,” she said. “The more conservative the area, the more these hidden things [persist]. The ugliness goes on behind closed doors. And it is ugly.”

She said there was no freedom of religion inside the Amish religion.

“They will fight to keep their heritage, but then they will just as strongly fight to keep you in that heritage,” she said. “You had better not leave that heritage, and when you’re on that end of it, it’s pretty rough.”

Book review: ‘Mystics and Misfits’

By on Aug 13, 2018 in Book Review, Columns, Latest Issue | 0 comments

About eight years ago, Christiana Peterson, her husband and daughter moved from urban Washington, D.C., to an intentional Christian community in rural north-central Illinois. Their motives were many: adventure, romantic notions of farm life, the pursuit of healthy local food, “something vague and noble, adventurous and beautiful.”

"Mystics and Misfits"

“Mystics and Misfits”

Mostly, they desired community. They had friends and a loving church family, yet Peterson writes, “I knew there was something there that we’d been longing for, some deeper connection and intimacy.”

In Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints, Peterson recounts her eight years at Plow Creek Fellowship, an intentional community, farm and church affiliated with Mennonite Church USA, where she and her family lived and developed the kind of intimate community life that most of us will never experience.

As a memoir, however, Mystics and Misfits is unique because, interwoven with her personal story, Peterson interacts with a variety of saints from history. In short “interlude” chapters, Peterson gives us brief biographical summaries of the saints’ lives and their ministries. Peterson also includes letters that she writes to the saints. These letters are personal responses to the saints’ teachings and legacies.

The immediate connection between saints like Francis of Assisi and a Mennonite intentional community is the rejection of mainstream, “normal” life. Francis walked away from money and social position to embrace Lady Poverty and life on the fringes of society. Clare of Assisi also rejected family wealth, spending her years secluded with other women, the Poor Ladies, in a convent.

Dorothy Day, “a practical mystic,” also came from a well-to-do family. As an adult, she turned her back on a typical early 20th-century wife/mother existence and instead chose poverty and communal life.

However, Peterson takes us deeper than the obvious or the cliché. She is interested in what makes us more holy, more like Christ. This is something every Christian desires, not only those interested or willing to live in intentional community.

Peterson writes, “My emotional winters were leading me to the mystics . . . pushing me toward the Christ who came to Margery Kempe in her deepest distress.” But Peterson finds drawing closer to God does not always lead to a warm, cuddly lap. This is something the life of the saints and mystics evidence in abundance.

One example comes from Thomas Merton, a 20th-century monk and mystic. Peterson quotes Merton: “The monk confronts his own humanity and that of his world at the deepest and most central point where the void seems to open out into black despair.” The monk is “exposed to existential dread.”

Merton is specifically talking about a monk’s vocation, which is in some ways quite different from a lay Christian’s. But still, who hasn’t come up against existential dread? That moment when you howl into the bitter wind of your pathetic humanity, “What is the point?”

Yet Merton promises that the heart that is humbled and emptied by dread will have the song of Alleluia.

Peterson honestly shares about her own existential dread in the form of anxiety and depression. “Were those anxious thoughts my prayers? Was this the kind of dread that should be my friend?” She concludes: “Maybe. Maybe dread was the only thing that made me desperate enough to ask God for help.”

This isn’t a fun place to be, yet one that every person, entrapped by their humanity, knows.

I like that Peterson identifies Dorothy Day as a “practical mystic,” because mystics tend to be extremely unpractical. They live lives that the vast majority of us would never consider emulating. Few people are going about in scratchy robes or living on the hillside blessing animals. Clearly the attraction to the vow of celibacy is waning in our world. Our enlightened notion of simple living generally means taking unwanted clothes to the thrift shop.

Peterson does a lovely job of making the connections between the “lunacy of God’s love for us” and the actions of the saints. When Francis literally strips off his clothes, he is opening up “a nudity of the heart . . . bared and raw, open to the elements, open to the sacred wounding that Christ endured.”

One practical thing the saints do is literally identify with and take on the suffering of others — the real and present suffering of hunger, physical pain and societal judgment — by living in poverty, hurting their physical bodies via hair shirts or wandering the streets in anguish over visions of demons, as Margery Kempe did.

We aren’t all called to this behavior. But, as Peterson writes in her letter to Clare of Assisi, “Our strength comes when we are barren, naked, suffering and sad . . . when we are willing to look upon and lean into the suffering of others. For when we do that, we are truly seeing Christ on the cross.”

Perhaps most profoundly, Peterson writes, “We cannot love without wounds.”

Mystics and Misfits contains a tale of the eccentricities of life on a communal farm, with all its awkward and amusing realities. But the book is much more than a memoir. It is an inspiring testimony of a quest to fully know the divine — to be Christlike.

In her anxiety, dread, and through her wounds, Peterson faithfully loves her children, husband, community and the earth. She sits through painful community decision-making meetings. Each week she shows up for, even helps to lead, worship services that vacillate between transcendent and quirky to the point of pathetic. She walks with her family through the death of her father and the dissolution of Plow Creek.

Like the mystics and misfits, she lives her life in the lunacy of God’s love. The book doesn’t always read warm and cuddly, but it certainly touches the divine.

Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.

Bible: With love, our divisions fall away

By on Aug 13, 2018 in Bible, Columns, Latest Issue | 0 comments

These texts from Paul provide an excellent coda to our conversations about ethics, justice and the Christian life.

Ted Grimsrud

Grimsrud

Although Romans is rightly considered Paul’s most important theological writing, he most of all pursues an agenda focused on how we live as Christians. Chapter 12 shows that Paul follows closely after Jesus in how he understands faithful living. Living should be shaped by God’s love and mercy, stand in tension with the morality of the cultural status quo, seek to build up communities to support one another in good works and embody Jesus’ call to love enemies.

At the core here we find a double challenge that summarizes the biblical vision: “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (12:9). No ethical relativism for Paul! But also no fighting fire with fire, no self-righteousness, no arrogance.

The “hatred” of evil leads to confrontation, to efforts to transform and heal. But the methods of confrontation, transformation and healing must not simply further the cycle of an eye for an eye until everyone is blind. As Nietzsche, of all people, wrote, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process one does not become a monster oneself.”

Paul calls for genuine transformation. We start with love: Always seek the good, live ardently in the power of God’s healing Spirit, bless even those who oppose you, associate with the vulnerable and marginalized, practice humility.

And finally, do not seek revenge, do not respond to evil with evil, treat even your opponents with kindness. How does “heaping burning coals on their heads” fit here? I’d suggest it’s making it possible, with love, for those who treat you without love to “come to themselves” and turn back to love.

Paul concludes his teaching in chapter 12: “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21). Indeed, confront evil; we could even say, fight against evil. But only with the method of love.

Col. 3:5-17 is an excellent complement to Romans 12. Here, too, Paul challenges his audience to turn away from the systems of injustice and brokenness that are part of our culture. “Put whatever is earthly to death” (3:5).

It is crucial that we recognize that when Paul writes “earthly” here he does not argue for a physical/spiritual dualism where what is bodily is bad simply because it is physical. Paul sees our bodies and spirits as integrated. What he opposes are the dynamics of idolatry, where we trust more in the things of the world than in the presence of Jesus’ Spirit. What Paul lists (impurity, evil desire, greed) are the disordered inclinations of life lived according to values of consumerism, lustfulness and nationalism.

That answer, again, is to follow the path of love. Be “renewed” (3:10) and put on a “new self” that embodies what it means to be “raised with Christ” (3:1). That is, the Jesus whose path of love led to his being killed by the Roman Empire was vindicated, raised from the dead. His way is shown to be God’s way — and, Paul insists, we are also part of that way when we trust in him.

And we notice something powerful and relevant that characterizes the renewed life: The divisions that separate people fall away (3:11)! One way to say this is that in Christ there is no “othering.” Think about how, throughout history down to present-day America, hostility toward “the other” is central in empowering unjust leaders and fueling nationalism and even consumerism.

Verses 12-17 echo Rom. 12:9-21. At the center of faith: “Above all, clothe yourselves in love” (verse 14). “Overcome evil with good” equals “clothe yourselves in love.” Nothing more need be said.

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harris­onburg, Va.

Why ‘church in nature’ isn’t enough

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

There’s this mildly irritating phrase that I have encountered with some frequency over the course of the decade or so that I have been a pastor. I’m sure you’ve encountered something like it in your own circles, particularly in these post-Christian, post-church, post-everything times. Oh, I don’t mind church, but, you know, I encounter God best in creation. That’s where I worship. Nature is my sanctuary. Indeed. When I am on the receiving end of this phrase, I usually smile and nod in as gracious a fashion as I can muster. Inwardly, I am often thinking very un-Christian thoughts. Of course nature is your sanctuary. A rather convenient justification for avoiding this one, I would say.

Perhaps this doesn’t surprise you. You might expect someone in my position — someone whose livelihood depends upon the ongoing existence of the institutional church — to have an opinion or two about people off encountering God in the mountains and rivers and lakes and forests and rarely darkening the door of an actual church. You’d probably be right to wonder about my motives. Perhaps you’d even say something like, Well, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

As it happens, I have tried it. Rather recently, in fact. These past few months of sabbatical and this most recent week of holidays have provided me with the rare opportunity to skip church and encounter God on my own in the idyllic confines of nature. And you know what? It’s been glorious. Last Sunday, in particular, at around the time I would ordinarily be scrambling through the usual last-minute sermon edits, I found myself paddling around a pristine lake on a glorious sun-kissed morning. There was hardly another soul out. The water was clean and clear — you could see almost right to the bottom of the lake. The birds were singing, the fish were darting here and there. The majestic Rocky Mountains impressively stood guard. It was a feast for the senses. A sense of calm and gratitude descended upon me, not to mention wonder at the beauty of all that God has made. As I paddled peacefully around the lake, I found myself thinking, You know, I think I get why people say that nature is their sanctuary. I can think of any number of worship services that were quite a bit less inspiring than this.

There’s a lot to be said for encountering God in creation. You can get a sense of the power and the grandeur of God, of God’s evident love of beautiful things, of God’s creativity and the intricacy of the natural world. It’s not hard to feel a sense of awe, even reverence, when you’re standing at the top of a mountain or strolling along a beach, or enjoying some other glorious scene. I have to confess, as I was paddling around the lake on the Lord’s Day, I wasn’t really itching to get myself to a church to ratify or validate all of my holy and inspiring thoughts. Nature was indeed my sanctuary, and a beautiful one it was.

Having said all this (you knew the turn was coming, right?), I’m not sure these moments, incredible as they are, offer enough to address the totality of human need. Of my need, at any rate. I was made for things like beauty and awe, certainly, but I was also made to be trained in the art of love. My soul was created for transcendent experiences and connection with nature, but it was also created for my fellow human beings. And, regrettably, I keep on blundering my way through life in selfish and stupid ways — ways that no mountain scene is up to the task of healing or forgiving or reorienting. I need to encounter God, yes, but God in the specificity with which God has made himself known, namely, in Jesus Christ. The God of creation can inspire me, but it cannot demand that I die to myself and become ever more alive and attentive to all the things that are ugly and easily ignored in the world — the parts and the people that don’t show up in carefully curated Instagram posts or status updates.

So, yes, I can and do encounter God in creation. Nature is a glorious sanctuary, and one that draws forth my glad and grateful praise. But Jesus keeps on stubbornly dragging me back to church. To confess my sins, to encounter him in my neighbor (including my enemy), to be shown who I really am and who I ought to be, to be forgiven and set free, to worship the God who is revealed as Creator, certainly, but also as Redeemer and Sustainer. Jesus keeps showing me his hands and his feet and his side, reminding me of the cost and the duty of love. Jesus keeps ever before me not a sunset or a mountain peak or waves gently lapping upon the beach, but a cross.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t love beautiful things. I think he does. But Jesus prevents me from loving the things whose beauty naturally attracts me to the exclusion of the many other things that call forth my love. He teaches me to look for beauty in places where I might not be inclined to look, and where I wouldn’t expect to find it.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta., Canada. He writes at Rumblings, where this post first appeared.

Don’t silence the hurting

By on Aug 13, 2018 in Editorial, Latest Issue | 3 comments

Sexual-abuse survivor and victims’ advocate Trudy Harder Metzger preaches an important word when she says we should not expect survivors simply to forgive and move on after abuse has stopped. Survivors need to be able to talk about their experiences and feel recognition and support from their communities. They should receive special attention, the opportunity to communicate their needs and access to pastoral care from their church families as long as needed.

Addressing physical and emotional needs is an essential element of our shared Christian life. Membership in a congregation is both a commitment of faithfulness to God and of support for each other on our journeys toward holiness and wholeness.

Numerous admonitions in the New Testament address our relationships with each other, such as “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2) and “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17, in the context of assisting with fellow believers’ physical needs).

The traditional Anabaptist ideal of yielded submission to the fellowship should never be used to neglect addressing the suffering of a church member. But Metzger believes it has had exactly this negative effect. She has observed that culturally conservative Anabaptist churches need to give special attention to a problem that arises from the high value they place on submission to the community. Disdain for individualism has suppressed survivors’ voices. It has caused a failure to hear individuals’ stories of trauma and to offer care. It has hurt and driven away those who feel uncared for and unable to express their grief. Jesus’ words, “Let [my followers] deny themselves and take up their cross daily” (Luke 9:23), should never be used to silence people or to ignore their suffering.

Whether wounds are from abuse or from the accumulated spiritual soreness of being marginalized, compassion from our church families should be the expectation.

We are instructed to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted” (Eph. 4:32). The church body is arranged so that if one member suffers, all suffer with it (1 Cor. 12:26). Against such kindness there is no law (Gal. 5:22-23).

Mysterious initials

By on Aug 13, 2018 in Editorial, Latest Issue | 0 comments

There’s nothing sacred about the word “Mennonite.” Nor is it anything to be ashamed of. Somewhere between those extremes is a venerable religious identity with a rich history, many positive connotations and few negative ones.

Not everyone loves the name. This year, two denominations have distanced themselves from it. Lancaster Mennonite Conference and Conservative Mennonite Conference have decided they prefer to be known by their initials rather than their full names.

There was more to these decisions than downplaying “Mennonite.” For LMC, geography was an issue. Some thought the name of a county in Pennsylvania wasn’t a good fit anymore for a conference with congregations in nine states and four countries beyond the U.S. For CMC, politics and culture played a role. Some felt political conservatism or plain dress (which is no longer a cultural marker for CMC) tarnished the word “conservative.”

LMC added a tagline, “A Fellowship of Anabaptist Churches,” to its initials. CMC is still looking for the right tagline. Both have kept their full names for legal purposes, so technically they haven’t abandoned their old names. But practically, they have. LMC’s publication, Shalom News, doesn’t say what “LMC” means.

In the business world, there’s nothing wrong with being known exclusively by a set of initials. It doesn’t matter that IBM stands for International Business Machines or AT&T for American Telephone and Telegraph. But for a religious group, it ought to matter. And the part that matters most is “Mennonite.”

If we stop calling ourselves by the name that traditionally has defined us, eventually we will forget who we are. Abandoning the Mennonite name often corresponds with a loss of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology and identity. This has happened in the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches (formerly Evangelical Mennonite Church) and the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches (formerly Evangelical Mennonite Brethren). It is a trend in the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, where three-quarters of the congregations don’t identify as Mennonite in their name.

No, there’s nothing sacred about the nickname (which first appeared as “Mennist” in 1545) derived from a 16th-century Dutch Catholic priest turned Anabaptist preacher. Ironically, the Anabaptists of Menno Simons’ homeland never adopted his name. They simply call their congregations Doopsge­zinde, or baptism-minded. In Ethiopia, the world’s largest Anabaptist conference, the Meserete Kristos Church, chose not to adopt the Mennonite name because it was foreign to their culture. Mennonite World Conference is considering changing its name to Anabaptist World Community to be more inclusive of its non-Mennonite members, particularly the Brethren in Christ.

It is good that LMC is lifting up its Anabaptist identity in its tagline. (CMC is still working on what to call itself, so a full assessment of its name change is premature.) “Anabaptist” has the advantage of being a purely religious term, while “Mennonite” can refer to both a faith and a culture. Some would make the ethnic element of traditional Mennonitism the scapegoat for a lack of success in evangelism. But there’s reason to believe that openly Mennonite churches, if their people are genuinely welcoming, can draw new people just as well as churches that keep their historic identity hidden in a back room somewhere.

It seems evasive to say, in essence, “Our conference goes by three initials, but we prefer not to advertise what it means.” Mennonites have a rich 500-year history as peaceful, believer-baptizing, service-minded Christians. That’s something to be proud of, not to hide behind a mysterious abbreviation.

Kennel-Shank: One word: plastics

By on Aug 13, 2018 in Columns, Kennel-Shank: Living Simply, Latest Issue | 0 comments

When the cafe worker offered me plastic cutlery with my to-go salad, I declined, thinking of the bamboo fork, spoon and knife in my backpack. Ditto for the straw with my iced tea; the travel set came with a glass one. I felt some measure of pride to be able to reduce my waste even while away from home.

Celeste Kennel-Shank

Kennel-Shank

My humility returned when I realized I’d have to trash the plastic container the salad came in. I didn’t have time to clean it in the train station bathroom before departing, and the oily residue could contaminate the whole bin. Remembering all the reports that I’d read about how little material from recycling bins actually gets recycled anyway, I pitched the container with a sigh.

Plastics are everywhere. Recently it seems like depressing news about plastics is everywhere, too.

According to The Christian Science Monitor, in the past few generations we’ve done an enormous amount of damage with plastics: “Since the 1950s, humanity has generated some 6 billion metric tons of plastic waste. Just 9 percent of that waste has been recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and the remaining 79 percent ended up in landfills or as litter.”

That’s damage to the Earth and its waterways — oceans and seas, as well as the Great Lakes closer to home, are being clogged with plastic, I read in the Canadian United Church Observer. That’s also damage to our bodies, as drinking water for the city where I live and others is contaminated with microplastics.

The Observer’s issue on plastics was both disheartening and hopeful: disheartening because of the enormity of the problem and hopeful because it gave readers the information we need to start making different decisions.

An article on the different kinds of plastics detailed which can be safely reused. I read this at the gym, drinking water out of a No. 1 PETE bottle I had refilled a dozen times, thinking myself virtuous for doing so. It turns out that while perhaps I can pat myself on the back for keeping that bottle out of the waste stream, I was potentially allowing plastic threads into my tissues.

The fix was easy — I recycled that bottle and got a glass one to reuse — as are some of the other strategies the Observer offers for reducing plastic use. Some I hadn’t known about, such as avoiding polyester fleece clothes and others made of synthetic fibers. There are also reminders for changing my household’s habits in ways I knew about but frankly haven’t made time for, such as making my own cleaning products rather than buying them in plastic containers.

The more I read, the more I felt both empowered and overwhelmed. And plastics are just one facet of the current environmental crisis.

Roy Scranton, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, writes in a New York Times commentary that we all have to choose “whether we are willing to commit to living ethically in a broken world, a world in which human beings are dependent for collective survival on a kind of ecological grace. . . . Living ethically means understanding that our actions have consequences [and] taking responsibility for how those consequences ripple out across the web of life. . . . Living ethically means limiting our desires, respecting the deep interdependence of all things in nature and honoring the fact that our existence on this planet is a gift.”

Living ethically in a broken world is part of discipleship, a commitment we make in our baptismal vows. We may be overwhelmed and disheartened sometimes in that effort, but thank God we don’t have to do it alone.

Celeste Kennel-Shank, a former MWR assistant editor, is an editor and community gardener in Chicago.

Paradox explained

By on Aug 13, 2018 in Latest Issue, Letters | 0 comments

The vexing paradox that Wil­bur Entz mentions (Letters & Comments, July 16) of people either being conservative and believing the scriptures are without error, or liberal and rejecting war, may not be so hard to explain. Those same conservatives who believe the scriptures are inerrant believe God actually commanded Israel to slay women and children and believe in a final battle led by Jesus himself where the blood of his enemies will flow as deep as a horse’s bridle — all of which tends to water down Jesus’ words to love our enemies. All you have to do to check out this analysis is try to convince any average evangelical that Jesus’ teachings preclude war, and he or she will invariably say the same thing: What about the wars God commands in the Old Testament?

You can always find something to water down the hard sayings of Jesus with something else in the Bible if every word is from the mouth of God. Inerrancy, which is not taught in the Bible, is itself the problem. The New Testament tells us that much about God that was hidden or a mystery in times past is revealed in Jesus alone.

Duane Beachey
Isom, Ky.