Category Archives: reflection

A MennoNerd Conversation

Robert Martin, one of my fellow MennoNerds, and I had a conversation recently on a topic that has divided conferences and congregations across our denomination (Mennonite Church USA). We come from different perspectives and opinions on the topic but felt it was an important conversation to have and to share. Follow along as we try to carefully find our way through this emotionally charged topic.

keyboard_typing_smallRobert: I will have to confess that I feel very intimidated broaching the topic of homosexuality. I realize that, in some ways, my viewpoint is unpopular. And it is one that, at times, seems to draw some sense of attack, at least in my experience and what I’ve witnessed. I know that some people may call me a “hater” or a “homophobe” because of the way my position has been expressed in the past. And I really don’t like the way my position has been expressed. It certainly has not been full of love. And that grieves me, really, that folks that I agree with on a point make me ashamed of my position. So, it’s with a lot of trembling that I want to talk with you about this.

Jennifer: Since we are confessing, I must admit my own fears. It seems many assume that Christians who don’t share the view that homosexuality is a sin have simply thrown out the Bible and want to rewrite the tenants of the Christian faith.

Robert: And those who do have that view sometimes seem to get labeled as if we are going against the God of love and the gospel of grace, mercy and compassion.

Jennifer: So why is it that we aren’t able to come to the table and actually discuss these fears with each other more often?

Robert: I wonder if fear is, overall, the reason behind even that? Both sides seem to feel the need to defend, to stand up for a principle, and to make sure their voice is heard and not suppressed. I fully recognize that there are those who share my view who have contributed to the fear of those who affirm homosexuality. And so, those in my “camp” (and I hate making that reference), add to this fear while they, too, live in a sense of intimidation by opposing voices. And so fear divides us. Does this ring true with you?

Jennifer: You know, Chuck Neufeld, Conference Minister of the Illinois Mennonite Conference wrote a song last year, “I Can’t See What You See From Where I Stand.” Part of the chorus is “I can’t see what you see from where I stand / You can’t see what I see from where you stand / If we just stand together / Might we just brave the weather? / You got to look to see — you and me.”

Robert: Wow.. that’s pretty deep.

Jennifer: I’m glad that we are taking steps to stand together. It seems from our conversations before that we are both troubled by the sense of “issue” here and are more interested in the people that end up in the crosshairs. Is that accurate?

Robert: I think so. Why is homosexuality the “poster-child” sin? Why is it the issue that must be solved? That seems to be the question in my mind, especially since there are so many other sins that we could just as easily talk about. Divorce and remarriage, for example, is one that occupies some congregations. Meanwhile, there are human beings that get lost in the shuffle. It seems, sometimes, that as much as we are a church denomination that aims to be different than the world that we still tend towards the same polarization that characterizes the world around us. Is there a way through this which remains faithful to Jesus’ message of healing and compassion but stands counter to this division? What do you think?

Jennifer: It seems that if we set aside the sin/not-sin debate, we would see a lot of people who have been deeply hurt. Whether by a society that likes to place labels on people or by those in the church who have been yelling loud messages of hate, there are many in the LGBT community who have heard a message that they aren’t wanted. It seems that the message of Jesus is that we are to love one another. Are there ways we can do that with one voice?

Robert: One of the ways I’ve seen proposed, as you said, is to be very careful and cautious about the labels we use, even when it comes to characterizing our communities. Even the terms “affirming” and “not-affirming” have already been co-opted into the debate as representative of the two sides and so end up continuing the polarization. What if, instead of explicitly taking a stance, we simply stood by the Christian witness of hospitality, of being welcoming and allowing people to come as they are and know that there are folks who see them as human beings, worthy of love?

Jennifer: It seems one of the potential disadvantages we have in this conversation is that we are both straight. I think it is important to make sure we are listening to others—for instance, does our hospitality feel hospitable?

Robert: Yes, that is a disadvantage. Listening to the other is important and I think we do far too little of that. David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw in their book “Prodigal Christianity” make this, actually, their 9th signpost. Relationship is important in this conversation (as well as in any others we might have) and we can’t really have relationship if we keep people at arms length. Welcoming has to be more than just opening the doors and let them occupy a pew. An attitude of mutual transformation is how those two authors phrase it. There is a recognition that, even in a “non-affirming” congregation, both sides will be changed and transformed into a closer image of Christ by exercising full hospitality.

Jennifer: I think that is part of the definition of relationship. If we are not changed by our encounters with someone else, are we really in relationship? Or are we just making someone else a project? There has also been a mistaken sense—on all sides—that all LGBT individuals share a common view or fall on a common “side.” Justin Lee, executive director of the Gay Christian Network does a great job of representing the variety of viewpoints held even within the gay Christian community—from those who believe that committed same-sex relationships can be part of God’s plan to those who believe that they must remain celibate in order to follow what God wants for their lives. It becomes important to make sure that we invite all into the conversation.

Robert: I think that before that can happen, we need to take a step back out of our positions and find a common ground. Something that I hear you saying and that I have heard from others is that there is a need within the conversation to have a loving, servant, Christ-like position. We cannot hold people at arms length because we think they are sinners. Even if, somehow, Mennonite Church USA resolves this one issue, there will always come another one. And we will end up polarized then, too. How can we invite all into the conversation when, as we are carrying on our debates, we are creating a wider and wider chasm between us? It feels, sometimes, that there are some of us in the middle of that chasm who get lost as the efforts to be heard continue over our heads. That is where I feel I am at times. Can you relate to this feeling?

Jennifer: Certainly. And I wonder if the trouble is that while the wider conversation takes place, we see the need for ministry in our communities. I can’t help but think of all of the school bullying that ends up in the news. While bullying isn’t limited to those who are gay, gay individuals are certainly targets. It seems that MCUSA, as a peace church, has a responsibility to look at the ways our debates play out in the culture around us. Does the way we discuss certain topics aid—or fail to discourage—a culture of violence?

Robert: I think that the debate has become more about position and less about people. While you and I may disagree on the sin/not-sin position, as a follower of Jesus who asked, “Where are your accusers?” or told the woman washing his feet “Your faith has saved you. Your sins are forgiven” it seems that my first duty would be to show love to others, not hate, and to bring them that grace and mercy that our culture seems to be lacking. Personally, when it comes to the work of the church, I think this is much more important than the debates that rage in our conferences and denomination. What do you think?

Jennifer: I think we may also need to recognize ourselves as the ones who are standing to accuse. We are the ones who are so-often holding the stones, at the ready to throw. In order for us to be more like Jesus, we must not only put down our stones, but seek forgiveness for the sin of holding them. I need forgiveness from you, with whom I have disagreed, and from my LGBT brothers and sisters. I need forgiveness for the times that I have been unwilling to sit with those who are different from me and learn from perspectives that are not my own. I need forgiveness for the times that I have allowed violence—both physical and the deeply-cutting emotional—by not standing against it. Perhaps that is where I must start. Will you forgive me?

Robert: Cliche as it may sound, I don’t think I could call myself a Jesus follower if I didn’t. In return, will you forgive me my judgmentalism and for those times when I’ve put being right ahead of the bond of filial love?

Jennifer: You got it, Captain.

Robert: Ahead warp factor 3, Commander Harris Dault…let’s see what this baby can do…

Jennifer: Dear Lord, help us all!

Robert: Hey, we wouldn’t be MennoNerds without some sort geeky reference… 🙂

Jennifer: Fairy Nuff (*term stolen from Robert)

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Have mercy on me

I’ve seen a lot of cartoons going around facebook today explained Good Friday. There is a B.C. cartoon where one character asks the other why the day is good. The response is “If you were going to be hanged that day and he volunteered to take your place, how would you feel?” The response was “good.” So there you are.

nailsMy gut reaction was to think “I wouldn’t feel good, I’d feel guilty.” I’ve seen the cartoon posted several times, and each time something would just rub wrong. It wasn’t until the middle of our Good Friday service tonight that it finally clicked . . . no one ever wanted to hang me.

Jesus was killed because of the things he taught, because of the life he lived. He was dangerous. He spoke out against the Roman government, and he acted in defiance of the religious leaders. He gave authority to the outcasts and sinners. He listened to women and empowered them to lead. He healed those who had been suffering, gave sight to the blind, and called back those who had been dead. He spoke of a new order where the last shall be first, where the oppressed shall be free, where the poor shall not want. He spent his time with the unclean, but had a voice that compelled the masses. And as the Low song states, “if you were born today, we’d kill you by age 8.” Dangerous people make enemies. And Jesus had many. He was put to death because he needed to be silenced.

I, on the other hand, am far too timid to be dangerous. After all, in his last days, Jesus said “those who love their lives will lose it.” As it turns out, I have loved my life. And because of it, people haven’t needed to kill me. I have died already in my apathy.

Jesus didn’t volunteer to die in my place; rather, he invited all of us to follow him to the cross. We are to stand alongside him and call out the places of injustice. We are to stand with those in pain. We are to hold up and cry with those who weep. We are to lead the sort of dangerous lives that make us targets to the powers that be.

If Good Friday doesn’t make us call out “Lord, have mercy on me,” then we’ve somehow failed to read the story of Jesus’s life and death. Because we are in no means off the hook, merely indebted to a God who would sacrifice God’s own life so that we don’t have to die. No! We are to take up our crosses and march right there to Golgotha. And lest we think ourselves righteous enough to say that we do that, remember that even Jesus was sweating drops of blood in the garden before he was betrayed. This isn’t easy or light. It literally requires our lives. We are to die with Jesus.

And that’s where I have failed.

When I hear of human rights atrocities around the world and walk away, I let Christ die alone.

When I hear of sex trafficking in my own state and think “well that’s too bad,” I let Christ die alone.

When I see hungry people on my street, but have dinner privately in my apartment, I let Christ die alone.

When I hear statistics about the number of people in American prisons and don’t ask questions, I let Christ die alone.

When my gay brothers and sisters are killing themselves to end the bullying and hatred, I let Christ die alone.

When people die of preventable and curable diseases, I let Christ die alone.

Because you know what? I believe in the Kingdom of God. I believe that the way of Jesus is good news. But I live as if I love the Empire that oppresses. Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. 

Good Friday is no good if we walk away thinking ourselves righteous. Good Friday is only good if it motivates us to pick out our nails and get involved in giving our lives to the things Jesus lived for — to the things good enough to die for.

(photo credit)

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So this is Holy

Like most in the church world, I’ve been absorbed by Holy Week. Since my church staff position is as administrator, I have the fortunate position of being busy, but not so busy that I don’t have time to stop and reflect along the way.

holyOur journey to the cross is almost over. Our sights are on it as this is the night that Jesus will be betrayed. As Bob Goff pointed out, this is the night that Jesus chooses to eat his last meal with the person he knows will betray him. This is the night when he will break bread and pour wine and wash feet. It is the night when hope begins to die.

I can’t help but wonder what it means that this is the week in the church calendar we have called holy: a week wrought with grief and pain. Why not start holy week with Easter so it can be a week of rejoicing? Wouldn’t that seem more holy? Or perhaps the week when Jesus was born. Those precious moments when mother and son are bonding, with Mary realizing that she is caring for the very son of God. Surely that is holy. Or what about Pentecost when the Spirit comes down in tongues of fire? Now that is holy AND exciting.

But it is here –here in our despair, in our loneliness — that the church has seen fit to use the term holy. If there is to be comfort in this time of waiting, in this time of sorrow, it is that our hurt is not separate from God. This, too, is holy.

(photo credit)

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Vulnerability

Vulnerable. I feel vulnerable.

vulnerableYesterday Jeff Brumley, assistant editor of Associated Baptist Press, asked if I thought my book will help me find a pastoral position. I responded that it could go either way (see the full story here).

My deepest hope with this book is that it will help open the door a little wider, make the path a little easier for Baptist women who hear God’s call to ministry. I pray this book will help continue a conversation that has been going on long before I entered the scene. I believe stories are important, and I believe that telling our stories has great power. But with that power comes great risk.

I heard about that risk from many women during the process of compiling The Modern Magnificat. For some the risk came in revisiting traumatic experiences. For others the risk was in alienating people they loved — people who did not always play a positive role in their stories. Some incredibly brave women chose not to submit their stories, believing the risk of damage to relationships outweighed the possible good that could come from letting others read their words.

In compiling this book, I recognize that I seal my place as an advocate for women in ministry. Of course, one might say that I accomplished that long ago. Being known as an advocate is risky. Advocacy is sometimes associated with militancy, which can be downright scary!

I live in Missouri, a state that just over a year ago had no female senior pastors in Baptist life. Right now we have four. And while that gives me great hope, I recognize that Baptist churches in this part of the country are trying out female pastors for the first time. It is significant enough to call a woman — but to call one who might be militant?

I’ve taken a risk. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t scare me. But I’ve come to believe some risks are worth it. If my vulnerability, if my risk means that the next generation of women find the road to ministry a little easier to walk, I’ll take it.

(photo credit)

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Dream of a friend

Last night I dreamed that I was sitting in a hospital room beside my friend Barbara. She was small and frail, but full of the love, determination, and mischievous humor that characterized her in health. I held her hand and watched as she triumphed over her illness by leaving us for something better. And I knew even then: this already happened.

It was two weeks ago when I sat in a room with Barbara, visiting with her family. She died minutes after Thursday, Sept. 27 (my birthday) became Friday, Sept. 28.

The dreaming image of me knew that I was in a place where the walls between this world and the next were well-worn, a celtic thin place. And I didn’t want to leave.

I met Barbara and her husband, David, at a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri meeting at Third Baptist Church nearly four years ago. I only have a hazy memory of this, aided by a photo that I took of the two of them talking with my not-yet-boyfriend (now husband) Allyn. From the photo composition, it is obvious that I was sitting at a table with the three of them — something we repeated on a number of occasions.

My first real memory of Barbara is my first Sunday at Third when I was driving back and forth to St. Louis from Jefferson City to help prepare for my sister’s wedding. I was talking to a woman who knew my grandparents, and Barbara turned from her seat in front of me and apologized for eavesdropping. She heard the word “missionary” and had to hear who I was and who my grandparents are.

From then on, I had a regular seat behind the Wiggers. I recall one of those early conversations complimenting her on how she read Scripture that morning. She revealed that she was a college speech and drama major. When I started dating Allyn, they teased me about noticing that he was glancing in our direction and smiling more — and how they were assuming those smiles weren’t intended for David.

Somehow, we connected in a way that went well beyond what is typical for those who sit near each other for an hour on Sunday mornings. Barbara was a natural encourager and easily gathered Allyn and I into her fold of the encouraged. The very first email I received from Barbara came the week after I preached my very first sermon. She wrote:

Jennifer, congrats on your presentation Sunday morning. As I listened to your message I thought, “Your skill and training as a journalist showed in the excellent composition of your material.” You have a gift for written expression; I say “gift” because composition does not come naturally to everyone – as you probably know. . . 

When Allyn and I got married, Barbara was the natural choice for reading Scripture in our wedding.

If I recall right, the Wiggers went from the wedding to the doctor. Barbara had been having health difficulties for awhile. Within weeks, she was diagnosed with a rare form of bile duct cancer. And there was no cure.

And while she did admit to some emotional rollercoaster days, she continued to affirm the goodness of life–the goodness of God in such a way that it was obvious she believed it to her core. She believed it for the rest of us when we really weren’t (or aren’t) sure that such goodness was compatible with evils like cancer.

She continued to encourage me. I’m praying for you. Once when her husband was out of town for a meeting, I had the privilege of driving Barbara to lunch and her weekly chemo appointment. She listened to all the fears and frustrations that I couldn’t voice anywhere else, and became a safe place for me to be in all my messy, broken ways.

Every few months, she would tell me again that I had a gift for writing — something that often bugged me, since I was training for pastoral ministry. It wasn’t until finding that first email that I realized for Barbara, the written word and the spoken word were not mutually exclusive. And, in fact, she edited several of my sermons, making me better at writing, speaking, and caring.

My last conversation with her, she reaffirmed all of those things. She grabbed my hand and said again that she told me my gift was writing. I responded that I was trying to listen. She cried as she answered that God was in this. And as I look back, I realize that this can mean so many things. She asked if I was happy. It struck me as a funny question to answer while someone I loved dearly was in her last days, but she wasn’t asking about the moment. She was asking as the woman who had witnessed my pain, who continued to pray for me, who loved me. Yes, Barbara, I’m happy. She asked again — are you happy? And I am. She continued to hold on to me — or perhaps I continued to hold on to her. We both knew it was our last conversation. Her eyes said it. I told her I’d be back, and she responded that we would speak again — and we will.

I thought I believed in resurrection before. But through her death, Barbara taught me to believe it more fully. David reported that the afternoon before Barbara died, she said that she saw God. David responded, “you do? what does he look like?” God is everywhere. And I believe her.

On days like today, I long for more of the walls between heaven and earth to be worn thin. Since I can’t seem to will that into being, I wrap myself in Barbara’s jacket. When I breathe deeply, I can smell her scent lingering–and I know that Barbara is praying for me still.

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Moving from “B” to “b”

Today I ended my internship with St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship. I stood outside, looking into the faces of dear friends who were sitting on log benches that made a semi-circle around an empty fire pit. I read the Mennonite communion litany and spoke words of institution over ciabatta bread and grape juice while a dog begged at the base of the table. I then proceeded to speak “God bless you” over lots of children while offering them ranch crackers and grapes. Ciabatta and ranch crackers are not exactly the typical makings of communion in the Fellowship, but on church retreat communion supplies can be difficult to separate from the bread at dinner and crackers available for snacking. I felt a little like St. Francis as I offered the leftover communion crumbles to the birds and wildlife of the forest. “May God bless you, too.”

The night before, we had arrived to the camp grounds around 8:30 following class in Kansas City. I was promptly presented with a Snapple to toast the progress of my book. At lunch today, another friend handed me watermelon pickles which she brought for me to add another new food to my “30 before 30” list.

The summer has passed quickly, but with the sort of connection that takes years to build at many places. I’ve quizzed these new Mennonite friends, trying to figure out just who they are, and if this congregation is rare or part of a larger group that looks very similar. In the process, I’ve felt my grip on Baptist life opening.

Before this retreat, I spent time with my ministry mentor. I confessed to her that I had fallen in love with the Mennonites. As I described St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship, she begged me to tell her something bad. She confessed that I may have converted her, as well. We talked about what this might mean for me, for my heritage and life as a Baptist. I said that I feared affiliating with the Mennonites might mean an end–goodbyes that I do not want to make. She asked if I could imagine another way. I offered that my mental image is one of holding hands with both the Baptists and the Mennonites.

As I talked to Mary, a Mennonite missionary to Ukraine, she offered a similar story. She works with many Baptists in Ukraine, and we shared tales of our desire to live in a wider world.

The Baptists came from the Mennonites, after all. A group of separatists stumbled across the Mennonites, came to accept believer’s baptism and worshiped with the Mennonites for a while. Part of them simply joined the church, the others left as the first Baptists.

Today, I’m embracing a new life as a little “b” baptist, a term many have used to refer to a larger tradition that joins the Baptists with the anabaptists. In doing a web search for the term, I realized that my friend Leroy has written a very similiar blog post, called “Baptist with a Small ‘b.’” This summer I learned about another friend with a deep love for Baptists who has joined a Mennonite church.

Madeleine L’Engle and Anne Lamott both talk about being every age you have ever been. The idea that here at 29 I am every bit as much my 3-year-old self, my 17-year-old self, my 24-year-old self. I think the same applies. As I embrace the “small b” title, I don’t give up my Baptist tradition, I expand it. I am always my Baptist self, even as I am my baptist self.

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Above the ceiling

During dark nights of the soul, people often mention that their prayers feel like they are bouncing off the ceiling, unable to slip through the fibers of paint and dry wall — or in my case, concrete. I am not experiencing a dark night of the soul, but I am finding myself pondering my ceiling, wondering if any of my prayers drift up into the apartment above mine.

I did not know the name of my upstairs neighbor until today, many hours after she was found dead on the street below after falling from her 7th story window. The police have called it an apparent suicide, although news reports indicate an autopsy will be conducted.

The woman was young — in her mid 30s. Her next door neighbor says that she was quiet and kept to herself, although she was friendly and liked dogs. Another building resident commented that no one seemed to know her.

For months she slept about 12 feet above my bed, cooked in a kitchen directly above mine, lived life in a place that was designed exactly like mine. And somewhere in the midst of what we call a community — and in many real ways, those in our building are a community — this woman was lost. Unknown. Hidden.

Another neighbor and friend held a prayer service for her this afternoon. We named her, mourned her, prayed for her family. Across hallways and facebook, we voice our responsibility to each other — our common humanity and artistry. We vow to care and be community. I hope we do.

Tonight I’m haunted by the fact that the apartment above mine still looks like a home (or so I imagine). Its rooms await a woman who will not return. I can’t help but wonder what I would have heard had we been in our own home last night instead of housesitting across town. While I don’t wish the sounds or images on anyone, something within me hopes that someone was there to witness her last moments, to be with her in some way in her horrific end.

Dear neighbor, may you find peace. May your name be called in a way more meaningful than you experienced here on earth.

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