On ascensions and chaos

thespiritThis is the text of a sermon I gave at Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City on Sunday June 28, two days before the Mennonite Church USA convention. I continue to look for ways that the Spirit is at work across the church, sowing life and new hope even amidst what can sometimes feel like chaos. 

Luke 24 is the theme text for the convention, which means that—for those of you attending convention—we’ll spend all week unpacking this rich text. So given this reality, it may seem strange that here we are, before convention has even begun, starting at the end of the story. In my experience, Mennonites aren’t much for the ascension. Although this chapter of Luke 24 is a familiar one, full of a resurrection narrative and the story of two disciples meeting Jesus on the Road to Emmaus, it ends with a short story, told in the span of three verses:

Then he led them out as far as Bethany and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Truth be told, it all sounds a little too campy for such hearty, stoic people as the Anabaptists. I can picture a scene like this—Jesus hovering above the stage with his hands outstretched—making its way into some Broadway rendition like Jesus Christ Superstar Part 2 or some such thing. Indeed, throughout our history, Mennonites have been a people of the middle. When we lived in California, my husband Justin and I attended a Mennonite house church and one of the members of our congregation adapted the Nicene creed to include what he called the “Anabaptist comma,” which added stories and examples from Jesus’ life and witness in between the focus on Jesus’ birth and death. We focus on the flesh and blood Jesus, whose life was an affront to real leaders and real institutions and real systems of oppression. The Jesus who stands at the center of our faith tradition is often fully human but divine in his modeling of the ways we can and should live. Our focus has not been as much on the beginning or the end of Jesus’ journey.

But it’s worth noting that Jesus’ departing is from the disciples in the flesh-and-blood sense is in fact the impetus for the formation of the church, the community whose job it is to carry on the work that Jesus began and be the very real, flesh-and-blood hands and feet who continue God’s work on earth.

When I was young, my parents spent many days trying to teach me to ride a bike. Even from a very young age, I was very interested in having control over my surroundings and not attempting things that I wasn’t sure I could succeed at. I’ll chalk this up to being a third generation oldest daughter who loved being in charge and also inherited a deep-seated fear of failure. But whatever the reason, I was deathly afraid of my being on a bike without training wheels and without a parent holding on securely to my bike seat. During this time, my dad patiently walked beside me, offering repeated reassurances that I was fine, helping me to build up a steady pedaling rhythm, telling me stories about how he learned to ride a bike and just generally accompanying me on the way. And, because I was not one of those children who wouldn’t  notice if you just sneakily let go, I remember the time when my dad squatted down in front of my bike, looked me in the eyes and told me, in his own short and to the point fashion, that it was time for him to let me go. That if I really wanted to be a biker, I needed to continue on without him. And it worked. I took off and was free to ride at whatever speed or direction that I preferred.

Just as I needed my dad to let go of the bike so that I could really grow into my own as a biker, so the disciples needed Jesus to depart so that they could live into the next phase of their life together as the church. In a blog post reflecting on the Ascension, Carrie Smith, a Lutheran pastor currently living and working Jerusalem, writes, “But it turns out that what we celebrate on Ascension Day is not the absence of Jesus from the earth, but the presence of Jesus in us… because everything has changed, because Jesus is not here, the Church can be here. Because the body of Jesus has been carried up on a cloud, we can be the Body of Christ in every place… After all, if we are always looking up into the sky, we aren’t seeing the rest of God’s creation. If we’re always trying to see Jesus where he was last, we aren’t seeing him in our neighbor.” Or, as the 90’s pop rock group Semisonic says, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

After Jesus blesses them and departs, the Bible tells us that the disciples return home and begin to worship with great fervor and joy. Rather than mourn the loss of what was, they begin to celebrate what can be. In a recent chapel I attended with other staff of the Mennonite Church USA offices, someone remarked that perhaps this simple action of beginning this new form of life together with worship was the best thing that the disciples could have done. Their worship was a witness that invited others into a life of celebration and discipleship.

It’s also worth noting that the disciples believed that Jesus’ departure was only for a short time. They shared an apocalyptic belief that Christ would come again to once-and-for-all conquer the powers of this world, and they believed that this second return was imminent. They believed that this leaving was not for good and not for long. They didn’t have the perspective that we now have, a perspective shaped by thousands of years of human history giving witness to the physically-absent-yet-ever-present Christ.

In the longer account of Jesus’ ascension that appears in Acts 1, this connection to a physical second-coming of Christ is made explicit.

[Jesus] replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

In addition, in this account, Jesus commends the disciples to be witnesses to his presence throughout the world in preparation for his return. So while the disciples understood the call to be a new kind of community, giving witness to Christ’s presence and ministry, they also didn’t understand this as a long-term calling. And also, given the realities of persecution and the death that Jesus faced at the hands of the Roman government, we could assume that these were people who were making short-term plans.

Sixteenth century Anabaptists, who also experienced persecution from the state because of their beliefs, also shared this same short-term apocalyptic philosophy. Although there were and still are a variety of Anabaptist movements, many of them believed in a two-kingdom theology or a theology that made a distinction between the not-yet-coming-soon Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World. The Schleitheim Confession, one of the first systematic faith statements written by Anabaptists in 1527, states, “From all this we should learn that everything which has not been united with our God in Christ is nothing but an abomination which we should shun. By this are meant all popish and repopish works and idolatry, gatherings, church attendance, winehouses, guarantees and commitments of unbelief, and other things of the kind, which the world regards highly, and yet which are carnal or flatly counter to the command of God, after the pattern of all the iniquity which is in the world. From all this we shall be separated and have no part with such…”

The unintended consequences of this short-term thinking might not be obvious, but often have included a disregard for the “trappings of this world,” like the environment, our relationships with each other and more. And although we find ourselves now at a different point in time, it seems hard not to notice that Christians, even if they’ve abandoned hope in Jesus literally descending from the heavens someday, seem to still be clinging to short term philosophies. We make choices all the time that lead to rapid climate change and environmental destruction. We move through life at a rapid pace, valuing convenience and efficiency above all. We tweet and Instagram our thoughts and opinions almost as soon as they arise, sometimes without stopping to parse out potential consequences for those who are receiving these messages.

Sometimes I wonder if the Protestant—and frankly, Anabaptist—proclivity for splitting is born out of this short term mindset. We can prize faithfulness and justice as ends above all without needing to sink down deep roots and do the challenging work of long-term relationship building. Fourteen years ago, the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church merged to form what is now Mennonite Church USA. One could go back over the history with a fine-tooth comb (and in fact, your church member Alyssa Bennett-Smith has; go see her if you have questions). We could read back over that history and see that the two different groups came with different expectations. We could talk about the fact that maybe these two very different churches never agreed on one unified culture. And we could note that the intrachurch conflict we’re experiencing today about where authority lies in our denomination has its roots in this merger.

Maybe some of us today are feeling like the disciples as they walk the road to Emmaus. Disheartened. Confused. Saying “but we had hoped.” We had hoped we’d be further along. We had hoped we’d be saved. We thought this was the Messiah who would fix things for us NOW.

We Western humans especially have so many expectations about the way things ought to be. We prefer presence to absence. We prefer immediate satisfaction over a long wait. We press clean, clear cut systems over chaotic, messy entanglements. And why not? With the ascension and in all of these situations, we feel a sense of loss. The loss of Jesus’ physical presence with us. The loss of the dream of a kingdom of God that will come with horns blowing and will do away with evil in one fell swoop. The loss of the dream of what we thought would be.

But the truth is, when Jesus ascended, the blessing or promise that he offered was not for simplicity or clear cut processes. What he did promise was the Holy Spirit. God’s spirit who would come to dwell within us and among us. And let’s be honest, the Holy Spirit is a bringer of chaos. Soon after Jesus ascends, we read the story of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples with the rush of a “violent wind,” something those of us who live in the flatlands of Kansas and Missouri should be familiar with. And as the disciples are filled with the Spirit, they begin speaking in a multiplicity of languages. As I imagine this, I envision a cacophony of voices and sounds, all spilling over each other in a chaotic, adrenaline-driven rush. All those who were there praying and keeping watch are amazed and confused. “What is going on? Are these people drunk? How could they be? It’s too early?” And slowly but surely they each begin to realize that they are able to hear and understand, no matter what their native language is. Somehow each person is able to hear what they need to hear, even in the midst of great chaos.

In her book, The Face of the Deep, process theologian Catherine Keller spends a great deal of time trying to redeem the concept of chaos, which she suggests has been used to negatively describe the essence and nature of people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, the earth and other forces that humans have feared and systematically sought to tame or suppress. Keller traces the erasure of chaos all the way back to theology about the creation, especially the idea of creation ex nihilo, which is the idea that God created the world order out of nothing.

Instead, Keller proposes that we revisit Genesis 1, which says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The Hebrew word to describe these waters is tehom, a word that implies depth and diversity. Keller suggests that even before the world came into being, God’s presence was deep and wide and full of infinite, complex chaos at its best. Keller suggests that indeed, to “love is to bear with the chaos” and that chaos is in fact a divine symptom of our diversity and multiplicity, which is all of God.

So while we crave order, flesh-and-blood presence and immediate results, in the post-ascension world, God is calling us into a complex way of being that embraces what is uncertain. For indeed, as Brazilian liberation theologian Ivone Gebara suggests, to be human is to be a mix of “…heaven and earth, happiness and unhappiness, good and evil, joy and sadness, almost all at the same time.” And we can know for certain that the Spirit is with us, even and especially in the very essence of this chaos, luring us into a new future and a new way of being and becoming.

It’s very possible that this week at convention will feel chaotic. I can assure you that there will be a multiplicity of music styles, languages, beliefs, ages, movements, etc. present under the convention center roof and within even our small denomination. Our denomination will need to take on the hard but oh-so-necessary work of making space for each other. But we know also that Jesus promised us the assistance of the Holy Spirit, to join us in our worship, to guide our difficult conversations, and to remind us of the divine sparkle of Christ that is at home within each person we encounter. I trust that the Spirit will remind us again that they are doing something new that is bigger than anything we could ask for or imagine.

 

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Meetup at the Mennonite Church USA Convention

YJWill you be at the Mennonite Church USA convention? If so, I hope you’ll join me and others for a meetup to talk gender justice, anti-oppression, the happenings at convention and to just say hello and gather with new and old friends alike. Of course, at an event like convention with programming from 7-Midnight, it’s impossible to not schedule over anything, so I know that this event conflicts with other gatherings.

If you can’t make it, look me up and say hi as I run around the convention center! This is a hectic week for people who are part of Mennonite Church USA’s staff.

Check out the event on Facebook and/or note the details below.

Date: Saturday July 4

Time: 12:30 p.m.

Location: YJ’s Snack Bar, 128 W 18th St, Kansas City, Missouri 6410 (an easy 0.4 mile walk from the convention center)

There are also so many good workshops and breakout sessions around sexual abuse prevention, anti-oppression work, intersectionality and more planned for convention.

Hope to see you soon in KC!

 

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On the loss of a friend

Becca: Does it [grief/loss] ever go away?

Nat: No, I don’t think it does. Not for me, it hasn’t – has gone on for 11 years. But it changes though.

Becca: How?

Nat: I don’t know… the weight of it, I guess. At some point, it becomes bearable. It turns into something that you can crawl out from under and carry around like a brick in your pocket. And you… you even forget it, for a while. But then you reach in for whatever reason and – there it is. Oh right, that. There it is.

Excerpt from the movie Rabbit Hole

There are moments and turning points in our life that shape who we are. That weather and change us in unmistakable, irrevocable ways. If I were to tell the story of me, which I guess could be called a memoir, the tenor of the narrative would change at age 16.

I still remember the day like it was yesterday. I can still feel the sound of my heart throbbing in my ears and the confused thoughts swirling through my mind. What does this mean? What happens next? Will she be ok? I was hundreds of miles away from home, pressing a phone to my ear and listening to my mom tell me, as gently as she could, that my dear friend was experiencing debilitating headaches. It was clear that, although they didn’t know exactly what was happening yet, this was serious. This was a moment that would change Joyce’s story forever.

Of course, no one could understand what the next two years would hold. Radiation. Steroids. Hospital visits. Missed school days. Remission. A tumor. A slow decline. And finally, death.

As a 16-year-old, I mourned the loss of my friend from the beginning. Joyce’s story changed from the day of her diagnosis. While my day-to-day reality consisted of tests and sports and school day stress, she was engaged in a fight for survival. There was so much guilt. I didn’t know what to say or do or how to be present. If I could tell my 16-year-old self anything, it would be to just be there. To be present. To walk with my friend even if and when there were no words.

As an 18-year-old, I sat by Joyce’s bedside, when she was no longer responsive and struggled to breathe, a day before she died, and the reality that she would not be with me for the next 50 years finally sunk in. The weight of all the potential joy and promise fading away was crushing…I had and still have no words.

And still today at age 30, the grief is there, although it’s different. It is like the brick you carry around in your pocket, always there although sometimes feeling less heavy than others. It comes upon me at unexpected times, like an ocean wave that looks small when it’s far away but slams you to the ground once it hits. It’s times when I sit down with my toddler and wonder what it would have been like to swap parenting stories. When I’m flipping through old photographs and see the “sister pictures” that Joyce gave me as a birthday present. When I find an old note passed during class, or when I acknowledge my irrational fear of headaches or cancer in general. Or when May 26 – her birthday – comes each year and I wonder what could have and ought to have been.

And each year, on May 26, I sit and remember. I remember the joy that my friend brought. I remember her infectious laughter, which was so easy to get caught up in and which overflowed to others. I remember her support — the ways she always keenly knew when something was off or when I wasn’t feeling well. I remember the bake sale we put on to raise money to go see the U.S. gymnastics team perform live (we were BIG Kerri Strug fans). We never raised enough money to get there, but the project itself was hilarious. I remember finding ways to tease and torment our younger siblings, as only oldest sisters can truly do! I remember the duet we sang together as sophomores in high school, Joyce a confident soprano and me a wavering alto. I remember her words of encouragement to “sing louder” and “be confident!” And I remember the countless ways that my life is different and better because Joyce was a part of it.

And the older I get, the more I realize that loss never really leaves us. It always cuts deeply and it fundamentally reorients our world in unexpected ways. The best I can do is to carry the hearts of those who I’ve lost with me, and to remember all the ways that knowing them was a gift, plain and simple.

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On Somedays

These days, I have a litany of “somedays” running through my head. I usually don’t say them out loud, but they’re there, pounding in my ears just the same.

Someday my children will want to go to sleep and will sleep in past 6:15 a.m. And maybe, on that day, they’ll even sleep in their own beds.

Someday my postpartum “abs” will mold themselves back into a “pack” again.

Someday I’ll get to take a shower that lasts longer than three minutes and I won’t have to be worrying while washing about whether we’ve seen too much of Daniel Tiger (little E’s favorite cartoon) already in one day. And someday I might even have time to blow dry my hair.

Someday the laundry will be done, dishes will all be clean and toys will all be in their baskets at the same time.

Someday I will open up my e-mail inbox at work and see a perfectly organized database of well-responded-to notes, not the current chaos of half-written drafts, urgent entreaties and unread messages.

Someday we will take a trip to the grocery store without a meltdown about what types of bacon we like or the fact that we are not, in fact, buying Kool-Aid.

Someday I will not have to worry about being around a bed every day at 2 p.m. lest we skip a nap and have to deal with a toddler apocalypse in the evening.

Someday I’ll show up at work and not look down to realize that I’ve got a row of syrup fingerprints dotting my chest and my shoulder is coated in spit up residue.

Someday my 20-pound chunk of a baby will be able to walk, and I won’t have to break my back carrying him up and down stairs and around the house.

Someday we’ll go on a road trip and no one will cry or demand to be “OUT OF THIS CAR NOW! NOW NOW NOW!”

Someday ____________ (fill-in-the-blank) will just be better.

Someday my brain will not feel like it’s shrouded in a fog. I’ll be able to complete a crossword puzzle or read a book without worrying about why I’m not being interrupted and why the house is so quiet.

Someday my spouse and I will have conversations that revolve around topics beyond chicken coop layouts, minivan brands and potty training.

Someday I’ll be an awesome speaker and writer again. The words will just flow instead of feeling all jumbled up and tumbling over themselves as they spill out.

You get the picture. The list could go on. When things feel tough, I wish them away or remind myself that someday it will not, in fact, be like this.

On the one hand, you could say this is a pretty good coping strategy for dealing with life as the parent of two children under age three. But lately I’ve been feeling sad about the readiness with which these “someday statements” come to mind for me.

Just this week, the husband of one of my colleagues and friends passed away suddenly. He was only 64 and his injury and death was completely unexpected. Although it sounds so trite, moments like these remind me that life is so, so short.

I’m not going to go all hallmark on you and tell you to “live like you were dying” or “to make the best of every moment since it might be your last.” Frankly, there are some moments and some things we go through that just suck and I think it’s ok to wish them away. I VDayreally will never miss dealing with as much poop (literally) as we’re dealing with now. I can be honest about that. That’s ok.

But I’m coming to understand that now—whenever now is—is the best time I have to work with. In all of its chaos and complexity, it just is what it is. And I know that someday (there’s that pesky word again) I’ll be old enough to look back and the litany will be different. I’ll think:

Remember how little E would yell and run excitedly into my arms when I got home from work or squish my face between her two chubby toddler hands and declare, “Mommy, I just love you sooooo much.”

Remember how baby C used to snuggle sleepily into my arms at night and smell all sweet and milky.

Remember how young and beautiful I looked at age 30, hair uncombed and all!

Remember how efficient I was and how many things I could juggle at once. Remember how fun the team I worked with was, and how creative and smart we were.

Remember how sweet my little family looked all snuggled up on the couch for bedtime story time. Remember how little E always wanted to read just one more book.

Nostalgia for the ways that things were seems as imminent as the next diaper change or the first gray hair that will surely make itself known on my head sometime soon.

This habit of longing for someday shapes how I understand the now. Just like Facebook’s algorithm, which shows you more of what you want to see based on your clicks and comments, I’m training myself to see what I want to see in my life. And perhaps I need a little retraining or reprogramming. Someday will be grand, when it gets here, but now is pretty ok, too.

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Femonite Bites (4/18/15)

Five things I love this week:

This new album by fab feminist rocker Lowell. (Thanks to Isaac V. for the referral)

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This article on teaching your toddler emotional intelligence (and an excuse to show them Daniel Tiger).

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Chatbooks: the do-it-for-you photo album that takes your Instagram photos and turns them into books. Shameless plug: If you use my code (7ARC3W43) your first book is free and I get credit, too!

ellie

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Kristen Bell for fair wages. (Thanks, Laurie!)

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This mother’s photos of her fearless and active daughters

Anything you would add? Happy Saturday!

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On busyness

busynessThere are a myriad of ways someone can answer the simple question: How are you? Often this question is sort of asked as part of a basic exchange of pleasantries or as an aside while two aquaintances pass in the hall. Sometimes I even find myself asking the question without even really listening and/or waiting to hear the answer, which is perhaps part of the problem in and of itself.

Over the course of the past year though, I’ve read a number of reflections that highlight a default answer that many Americans have started to pick up. And in my own life (and even for myself!), this trend seems to hold true. Ask someone how they are and 95% of the time (I’m not being scientific here, but you get the point) they’ll reply with some variation on the theme of, “I’m good! Busy, but good,” or “Crazy busy! But it’s all good stuff.”

Somehow busyness has become a middle class marker of a good life. It means that your time is put to good use, you are in demand and you are by no means underworked. If it’s your boss asking, it makes it clear that you are working hard for the money. Or perhaps it shores up our sense of self and helps us to feel popular and in the know.

This may seem like a benign enough response – not too interesting and perhaps harmeless – but busyness as a constant state of being is far from neutral.

Writer and mystic, Thomas Merton, wrote, “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist…destroys his [or her] own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of their own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

During a recent children’s story at our church on a Sunday morning, Kristin, a local preschool teacher and all-around wise person, shared a story with the children about the special core that God instills in each one of us. In front of the kids, she sliced an apple horizontally and showed them the resulting star pattern found at the apple’s core. This special core is there, placed and nurtured by God – within every apple and within every human. Simple, but profound.

But what happens when we are busy, even with good things, and we lose our sense of connectedness to this very core of our being? What happens when we simply become what we do and our whole sense of self-worth is wrapped up in those things rather than the core of who we are? What happens then when there is nothing left to do? Or maybe the very idea of there being nothing left to do is far-fetched enough that it’s not even worth considering.

This sense of righteous busyness takes on an added layer for Anabaptist-Mennonites, who have prioritized a theology that is all about ethics and about being the active hands and feet of Christ in the world. We can easily sanctify our busyness.

We’ve founded organizations and faith communities centered on cleaning up after disasters (literally), advocating for justice, serving in communities around the world and the list could go on. And it’s all good stuff. Part of why I’m proud to be a Mennonite is that our faith bleeds out into our daily lives all the time. We don’t just sit back and let the world go to hell in a handbasket and wait for Jesus to come back someday, but we commit ourselves to working to help the kindom of God to be manifest in the world and our communities right now.

But –as there is with anything-there’s can be a shadow side to all this constant “doing.”

For whatever reason, my spiritual director felt like it was time to talk with me about busyness this week. Maybe it was the glazed look in my eyes or just the fact that we had to reschedule our appointment three times before I made it to her house, but whatever the reason, she was right. She gently reminded me that sometimes there can be a temptation to “…do love without ever realizing that we have to simply be love in order to be effective.”

An oft-quoted saying by Hans Denck goes, “No one can know Christ unless one follows him in life…” But the second part of this quote, which seems to often get chucked or left behind, says, “…and no one may follow him unless one has first known him.”

It takes time and space to get to know someone. When I think about what has taken me to the “next level” with many of my dear friends, it has not often been big events or doing lots of things together, but rather time spent in conversation or just walking through humdrum daily life together. It took space and time and energy to invest in knowing and being known. As my spiritual director pointed out, how often do our efforts to “save the world” end up actually getting in the way of being loving towards those we encounter throughout the day? How often are we so busy that we are unable to notice the needs and desires of those closest to us? I feel this tension all the time when I struggle with whether to get more work done or to spend time being really present with these sweet little humans who inhabit my house and long for my attention.

I realize that writing a blog post bemoaning busyness is not that unique and perhaps not even that helpful. But sometimes naming something out loud is the first step in undoing its power over you.

So I commit myself to two things:

  • No longer asking “How are you?” as a throw away question. When I ask, I want to be have the time and energy to invest in listening to and fleshing out the answer that comes.
  • No longer answering that question with “busy” as my default answer. I want to stop making busyness a mark of prestige, popularity and/or personhood.

Sounds simple, right?

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A new Anabaptist reading list

The Mennonite churches that I have been a part of (and the theology and ethics they espouse) have been among the most formative theological influences in my life. But lately, I’ve been realizing that most of the theological texts that I’ve read and consider formative actually haven’t come from Anabaptist-Mennonite sources (with a few exceptions). A few months ago, I published a list of what I considered the most influential books I’ve read. With the exception of The Body and the Book by Julia Kasdorf and The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver, none of these texts grew out of an Anabaptist context. Thinkers who have shaped my theology and understandings of the world the most are writers like Rita Nakashima Brock, Patrick Cheng, bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Christena Cleveland, Alfred North Whitehead, Catherine Keller, and the list could go on…

In recent years, as I’ve wanted to dig more intentionally back into Anabaptist-Mennonite texts, I have been frustrated by how difficult it is to find pieces that are written by individuals who are not straight white men. Now, let’s be clear: many straight white Anabaptist men have said really interesting and important things that have shaped the ways I think, but in seminary I would have scoffed at, scorned and critiqued up and down any syllabus that didn’t include a more diverse canon of authors. So how is it that – after 11 years of Mennonite education (yes, 11!) – I still have to dig and hunt to find diverse voices exploring theology, religion and cultural studies from within Anabaptist-Mennonite contexts?

Last week I decided to crowd-source this question on Facebook, and I was pleasantly surprised at the response, which included many texts I had never heard of. One of the suggestions was that I create a list of all these resources on the blog, so here you have it. I hope to keep adding to this list. What authors and texts would you add?

Nonfiction

the apple speaksPoetry

Fiction

 

Now I’ve got some reading to do! And there has to be more out there. What would you add?!

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On Racism and Having a Son

BlackLivesMatterFour hours before a grand jury would decide not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., my water broke. This was a surprise. My due date was still a solid two weeks away, and it just so happened that – at the time my water broke – my husband was sitting in Phoenix, Ariz., waiting on a plane to bring him back to the Midwest. Given this reality, I was in no hurry to jump start contractions, so I agreed with my midwife that I would rest easy until the hubs made it home, and we’d talk about next steps then.

This meant that – when Robert McCulloch began giving his speech – which signaled from its opening lines that what many had feared would, in fact, come true – I was sitting on my couch, staring at Twitter, and knowing that the birth of my own son was imminent. As I read words from Michael Brown’s parents, mourning the loss of their son and urging people to peacefully protest for change, I was preparing to meet my own son face-to-face for the first time.

For some reason, this collusion of events – a juxtaposition of new beginnings and painful endings that felt undone, unjust and profoundly unfair – made the tragedy of this news sit even heavier.

It also made me profoundly aware of the difference in the world that my son would enter and inhabit from the “get go”, as a young white male, and the world that Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Kimani Gray and other black men and boys experience on a day-to-day basis. In a recent editorial, Tim Wise, a long-time worker for anti-racism in both the United States and South Africa, wrote:

Can we [white people] just put aside all we think we know about black communities (most of which could fit in a thimble, truth be told) and imagine what it must feel like to walk through life as the embodiment of other people’s fear… To go through life, every day, having to think about how to behave so as not to scare white people, or so as not to trigger our contempt—thinking about how to dress, and how to walk and how to talk and how to respond to a cop (not because you’re wanting to be polite, but because you’d like to see your mother again)—is work; and it’s harder than any job that any white person has ever had in this country… It is in these moments—moments like those provided by events in Ferguson—that the limits of our commitment to that aspirational America are laid bare. It is in moments like these when the chasm between our respective understandings of the world—itself opened up by the equally cavernous differences in the way we’ve experienced it—seems almost impossible to bridge. But bridge them we must, before the strain of our repetitive motion disorder does permanent and untreatable damage to our collective national body.

There will be things that I will never have to teach my son; like how to speak respectfully to police officers, how to dress to avoid suspicion; how to be not just good enough, but better than expected in order to avoid fitting into someone’s narrow-minded stereotype.

There are assumptions I can make with my son. I can assume that the police are “on his side,” and that their role will to be protect, not bait and trap him. I can assume that people will think he is smart and nice and good, unless he proves them otherwise.

Truth be told, I am grateful for these things. But it breaks my heart to realize that – for other parents –the reality of what knowledge they must impart to their children in order for them to survive is much, much different.

Soon after the Ferguson decision, Glen Guyton, wrote,

When I see the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, I ponder, ‘Really?’ Yeah this is big news on Twitter, but ironically enough, before the nine-hour-long press conference to tell us what many in the black community already suspected (Surprise! The officer was going to get off scot-free), my 13-year-old son and I were having a very frank discussion about his behavior. He is a great kid, but I had to explain to him that as a black teenager he could not afford to make mistakes at school.  He could not afford to be average, but he had to be better just to be looked upon as equal. I told him that the system would look for any opportunity to bring him down. Why? Because race still matters in this country. Why? Because the black male is still seen as a threat. So my message to my son was, even though things have gotten better in this country, you can never, ever give the system an excuse to bring you down.

As the high profile decisions in the Michael Brown and Evan Garner cases have illustrated to us over the course of the past weeks, we cannot certainly claim to be living in a “post-racial society.” As comedian Jon Stewart mused yesterday, “Some people might even be wondering if we are living in a society at all.” For white people to claim “colorblindness” or to suggest that either of these two decisions (and the slew of other decisions  and situations like them that haven’t garnered national press attention) had nothing to do with racism, is a travesty. For those of us who are white to deny and ignore the presence of white privilege is not only false, but it’s deadly.

This is not just something “outside the church,” but is a worldview that has woven itself actively into Christian theology for hundreds of years. And racism’s insidiousness harms not only people of color, but those of us who appear to reap benefits from it as well.

In a blog written last April, Drew Hart wrote,

Given the longevity of western Christianity’s tradition of exalting the ‘White Male Figure’ as the standard of perfection and the model for citizenship and discipleship, it becomes the norm to see the White Male Figure at the center. Once people are accustomed to that norm, it is no longer seen as a violent practice…It is the irony of people becoming mal-adjusted to injustice and white supremacy. In fact, to even call out white supremacy in relation to mythic ‘White Male Figure’ is in itself seen as heretical and anti-Christian. However, what must be understood is that as long as the ‘White Male Figure,’ in its mythic and legendary glory, stands at the center, then that inevitably means that the Jewish Messiah and Lord over all creation, Jesus the Victorious One, does not stand in the center. The Jesus that has been manipulated to look like, think like, and bolster the agenda of “the White Male Figure” is not the Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but is an impostor and enemy of Jesus. The Living and Resurrected One does not take the mode or disposition of the oppressor, but rather his disposition is found in his being crucified by earthly authorities that found him to be a threat to the status quo…

So given all of this, how does one go about raising young white children who are both aware of their privilege and not stymied by guilt? Children who are not just nice or friendly, but who are actively engaged in creating just communities from early on? How does our whole family unpack our own baggage, so that we can avoid continuing to offload it onto others? I wish I had easy answers to these questions. I’ve been reading and pondering a lot.

Glen’s suggestion is to begin where you are. He writes, “My son matters every single day. The kids he interacts with matter each and every day. Don’t acknowledge the need for reform because some event is trending on Twitter. Let’s put programs in place that teach and groom young African-American men each and every day. Heck, just mentor one or two kids who just need someone to love them. The Ferguson decision did not make me sad, it just confirmed that I, Glen Guyton, am the best chance of keeping young black men alive, starting with my son.”

White parents have a responsibility to educate their children, too. So I’ll start with my son, and, for that matter, my daughter, too. A new birth always brings with it a myriad of new possibilities. We rejoiced when our son arrived after what felt like hours and hours of labor! He, like all babies, is beloved child of God, knit together in my womb over the course of the past nine months. As I hold him in these first tender days, I am highly aware of both the gift and the responsibility that lies in my arms.

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My Top 10 Influential Books

Usually I try to cultivate indifferent resistance to Facebook challenges or listmaking just because it feels a little too bandwagon-y (sorry, ALS ice bucket challenge), but after being tagged by several people and asked to identify the top 10 book that have stuck with me over time, I had to oblige. There’s been something really fascinating about watching the books that people list. Also, just one quick disclaimer. I thought about adding the Bible to this list, but decided not to. It certainly is a book and text that has been influential and has shaped so much of the narrative of my life. But it also seems not quite fair to have it compete with so many other books which have both less content and less historical significance overall…

So here, in no particular order, and many of them for reasons I can’t articulate in any rational fashion, is my list:

1. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd – Strong women. The Black Madonna. Theology. A good story. What’s not to love?

PRoverbsofashes2. Proverbs of Ashes : Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker – The book that introduced me to feminist theology and completely changed the way I understood communion and the cross.

3. The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver – Important partly because of the person who wrote it and his role in introducing me to theological studies, but also important because it suggests a way of making sense of Jesus’ death that fits with an Anabaptist peace ethic.

4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – Don’t know why. Just classic.

5. Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart by Christena Cleveland – The newest book to rock my world. Well worth a read.

6. The Phaedrus by Plato – Maybe just because it was my first taste of philosophy.

7. Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldua – The first book that helped me to really borderlandsunderstand intersectionality and the space of possibility that is the margins.

8. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks – Really, bell hooks could have made this list again and again, but this book in particular seems chock full of words that are challenging and worth reminding myself of over and over again. Helpful for teaching, pastoring, and just being in community in general.

9. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling – I feel like this is a) really stereotypical for someone my age and b) maybe cheating since this is a series, but I can’t pick just one book. It’s good because it goes together.

BodyandBook10. The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life by Julia Kasdorf – The book that first proved to me that theopoetics must be the future of Anabaptist theology. A brilliant read.

Honorable mentions have to go to the His Dark Materials series (especially The Golden Compass), The Sexual Politics of Meat (trust me, you will never watch a Carl’s Jr. commercial the same way again), The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Eichmann in Jerusalem and many more that I just can’t think of right now…

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Pam Nath: When There is No Peace, Where are the Saints?

Nath-PamGuest post from…Pam Nath has been living and working in New Orleans, LA for the past seven years.  She works for Mennonite Central Committee Central States and is a Roots of Justice trainer. This post originally appeared on the Roots of Justice blog.  

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has annointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19

“…the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.” W.E.B. DuBois

I traveled to Ferguson, Missouri from August 21-24 along with two other community organizers from New Orleans, La. We visited the Canfield Green apartments where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer and where beautiful memorials had been created. One sign referenced the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4: 8-10 – “And the Lord says: ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out.” And indeed, roses lined the street where traces of Michael’s blood were still evident, crying out for those with ears to hear. Photo1

We talked with Ferguson residents, including a group camped out in a parking lot across from the police station and some youth camped in the “approved assembly area” in the parking lot of an old car dealership. Both of these groups said they planned to stay until Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown was indicted, and we brought them water and ice and fruit as a way of expressing our support and appreciation for their persistent call for justice.

That evening, we saw how West Florissant Avenue was closed to all through traffic, beginning at its intersection with Chambers Road, a full mile away from the “approved assembly area.” Anyone who wanted to join the protest had to walk a mile just to get to the protest site and then march in a spot cut off from the rest of the public, where police imposed a “5-second rule” which required protestors to keep moving, breaking up any conversations among groups of protestors who began to gather together.

This was only the most recent attempt to contain and squash people’s cries for justice. Others who had been in Ferguson earlier reported even more intense police repression. Police shot tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed people who were in places they had every right to be including their own backyards, driveways and doorways. Purvi Shah of the Center for Constitutional Rights was part of a multigenerational crowd –including a number of children– into which police fired tear gas, with no warning and a full three hours before the midnight curfew that had recently been established. Many first person stories of encounters with police oppression are available if you look for them. What we saw in Ferguson was a community under occupation by police. No one felt safer. The constant threat of violence by police toward protestors was palpable.

Photo2The power of the state arrayed against the people of Ferguson reminds me of Desmond Tutu’s quote about an elephant with its foot on the tail of a mouse. Reverend Tutu advised us: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

What is extraordinary about Ferguson is not the killing of an unarmed black youth or the ways that institutions like the police, city government, etc. act in racist ways. That happens in New Orleans and it happens across the country. What is special and inspiring about Ferguson is that people’s thirst for justice is so strong there that they persist in protests despite the ways they are persecuted and threatened by the powerful militarized forces arrayed against them. Like Jesus, they are guided not by what is, but by their vision of what can and should be, and because of this, they, like Jesus, have found the courage to speak out in defiance of the powers of Empire, even to the point of risking their lives. They have done this now for two weeks.

Photo by Abdul Aziz, Used with permission.

Photo by Abdul Aziz, Used with permission.

The evening of Friday, August 22, the 13th day after Michael was shot, we joined protestors who had left the approved assembly area and marched three miles to the Ferguson Police Department, to drums and chants of “We want justice,” “No Justice, No Peace!” and “Indict that cop.” Despite the fact that they were met at the police department by a line of armed police who stood in formation, blocking their access to the building, people gathered across the street and continued to cry out for justice through song, drumming and conversation. One young man said on the mic, “We are not going to go over there tonight. Let’s be clear that we have a right to go over there, but we are not going to exercise that right tonight.”

I am reminded of a powerful sermon response that Vincent Harding delivered at the Eighth Mennonite World Conference in Amsterdam in the summer of 1967:

The beggars are rising – they refuse to lie on the ground, crippled, crushed, begging. They are rising in Detroit and in Harlem…. and among them is Christ, the beggar of Nazareth. Do you see him? Do you hear him in the noise of all the voices? Do you realize how his spirit blasts all bastions of security, affluence, and greed? He is there. We can hide but he is there. We can continue paying our taxes for armies and bombs, and continue to cry: ‘What can we do?’ We can call on the police and the army. Fearfully we can hide behind law and order or behind the walls of our churches. Nevertheless, there is a spirit walking freely upon the earth. There is a spirit in search of freedom. This spirit will not perish…. We should know one thing – the insurrectionist beggars are not waiting any longer. Christ has promised to help all beggars and he keeps his promise. Let us not misunderstand. He is on the side of the beggars. On which side are we as Mennonites, Christians, and humans who love humanity? ….Are we surrounded by the barricades of a status quo where we pray that the storm may pass on so that we can continue living without disturbance? …. In this case, we must admit that we are…. missionaries of law and order, defenders of a status quo, and seekers for peace without a cross.

Photo by Aziz Abdul, Used with permission.

Photo by Aziz Abdul, Used with permission.

I saw good news in Ferguson. I encountered the Spirit of Truth and Love and Hope there. As someone who has committed my life to working against racism, sometimes I despair. The systems that we fight against are huge and trap us all, including white people, and it can be hard to believe that things can change. I have often clung to words like Arundhati Roy’s: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” In Ferguson, I heard the whispers of a new world, stirrings of the promise of Hebrews 12:27, that things will be shaken up so that “what cannot be shaken may remain.”

The message of the Gospel is that there is a Force more powerful than Empire, more powerful than White Supremacy, and these protesters are preaching the Gospel! I saw in their faces not only righteous anger and determination, but also joy, because they have discovered that they are free because, like Jesus, they no longer are walking in the fear of death. In the face of that sort of Soul-Force, the power of empire fades into the background, like the police line in the beautiful pictures my friend Aziz took of the protesters while we were in Ferguson.

As people who believe in the gospel of peace, now is a time that presents an amazing opportunity for Mennonites to give flesh to our beliefs. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past when way too few Mennonites responded to Vincent Harding’s call to join in the civil rights movement. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the Christians to whom Martin Luther King Jr wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom….Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In order to respond to the Gospel call for Justice coming out of Ferguson, we need to get clarity about what true peacemaking looks like. Peace is not refusing to be in open conflict or refusing to take sides in conflicts which exist. The situation in Ferguson doesn’t call for neutral mediators, bridge-builders between two sides who are in conflict, with us in the role of “peacemakers.” The “two sides” don’t have equal power, and they aren’t both right.

Like Desmond Tutu, historian and social justice worker Howard Zinn warned against neutrality in the face of oppressive power. In Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology (a helpful read for those who wish not to conform to the world but instead to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” Romans 12:2), Zinn writes:
Why should we cherish “objectivity”, as if ideas were innocent, as if they don’t serve one interest or another? Surely, we want to be objective if that means telling the truth as we see it, not concealing information that may be embarrassing to our point of view. But we don’t want to be objective if it means pretending that ideas don’t play a part in the social struggles of our time, that we don’t take sides in those struggles. Indeed, it is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts.

When we choose neutrality and are unwilling to engage conflict, we are clinging to the false peace that Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Old Testament prophets warned against.“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,” Jeremiah warned, “saying ‘Peace, peace.’ when there is no peace (6:14).” We need to face the cracks in the very structure of our society, rather than just trying to cover up cracks in the walls, as Ezekiel warned: “…they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and … when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it (Ezekiel 13:10).”

What would working toward a positive peace in Ferguson look like? Chris Crass, a white antiracist organizer, gives us one vision:
So I’m seeing all these pictures from last night of adults trying to convince young Black people to leave the streets and only protest during the day in Ferguson, and this is being heralded by the police and mainstream media as “helping bring peace to Ferguson.” Where are the pictures of the white community leaders, the Federal government and the United Nations standing before the police in Ferguson telling them to put their guns down, go back to their homes, to take their frustrations out in constructive ways and to stop making us (the white community and the U.S. government) look like vicious, armed to the teeth, defenders of a white supremacist society without an ounce of regard for Black lives? 

“Peace”, as defined by the state and mainstream media, in Ferguson, means a return to the, below the national radar, war against the Black community that is “normal life” in this town that the Mayor repeatedly affirms “has no racial conflict”. Conflict, we are to understand, only exists when oppressed people fight back, but when oppressors rule through racist laws, policies, culture, and violence, it’s “peace”. That is why ever since the Rodney King rebellion in Los Angeles in 1992, the slogan is “No Justice, No Peace”. The Black young people in Ferguson, bringing discipline, non-violence, and determination in the face of continued violence and media smearing, are heroes!

The positive peace that Jesus calls us to work toward requires the presence of justice. Here are just a few of my ideas about some ways to work for justice that holds the promise of real peace. I am excited to hear others’ ideas as well.

• We can support the demands of groups organizing on the ground in Ferguson through letters to the editor, letters to your governmental representatives, conversations with friends, family, church and community members
• Send money to support the organizing in Ferguson
• Join or organize a solidarity march
• Find out what is happening in your city/town to address racial inequities and support the work, particularly groups led by organizers of color
• Sign this Color of Change petition calling on GoFundMe to cancel the fundraising site for Darrin Wilson. Wilson is on paid leave and since he has not yet been charged, has no legal fees, yet donations to support him have exceeded donations to the Brown family.
• Check out other suggestions for action in this toolkit put out by Showing Up for Racial Justice, a network of white antiracist organizers

Let us not repeat the mistakes of our past. Let us join in this movement for change, this movement for justice, this movement for real peace, this movement where we will experience Jesus walking next to us and the Truth shall set us Free.

Additional Recommended Readings

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