Tag Archives: Mennonite

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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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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Filed under 30 Before 30, book project, mennonite, ministry, reflection

Mustard Seed Kingdom

Mark 4:26-34
Preached June 17 at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship

Summer is one of my favorite times of year. Farmer’s markets are filled with berries, tomatoes, and peppers fresh from the garden. When I worked as a journalist in southwest Missouri, local farmers would routinely bring their extra zucchini and tomatoes to the newspaper office. There would be boxes of produce every week, and I found myself learning new recipes for zucchini casseroles and zucchini bread. I appreciated the hard work of the local farmers, tending to the plants, watering and fertilizing and plucking pests from the leaves. I regularly heard discussions on what to do to prevent moles and rabbits from infiltrating the garden, or the best way to get rid plants of slugs that seemed to come from miles to snack on the young plants. Reaping produce from a garden is hard work. It requires dedication.

Our parables today are not pleasant tales for gardeners. The first of these garden tales talks about someone scattering seed, then going about his regular business. He seems surprised when the seed grows into a plant — and he should! He had very little to do with it. The text tells us that the earth produces of itself. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran minister in Northern Illinois, compares these surprise plants to what she describes as volunteer tomatoes in her father’s garden. These volunteer tomatoes are those fruits that he did not plant, but that grow miraculously in strange places from seeds left behind from the previous year’s harvest. They are the plants that come up from the edges of the compost pile or smack dab in the middle of the yard, beautiful in their rebellion. All the while you are pleading with this year’s perfectly cared for tomato plants to produce something, anything edible.

The Kingdom of God is like volunteer tomatoes.

The second of these stories is about mustard. Jesus references the tiny seeds. I brought some today. I was amazed at just how many seeds one packet contained. The estimations I have found suggest that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 seeds in this ziplock bag. I find that incredible. But here’s the thing, Jewish law prohibited the growing of mustard in a garden. Now, scholars debate on what the definition of a garden was in that time. There is a suggestion that it was a plot 6 handwidths long by 6 handwidths wide.

The understanding, however, is that the mustard varieties that grew in the first century were mostly wild. They would take over a garden. Pliny the Elder, who lived from 23-79 in the Common Era, wrote about mustard in his “Natural History.” He said “With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand, when it has once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”

As soon as the sower scatters the mustard seed, the sower looses control. The mustard grows as a weed, taking over the place where it was planted.

When it is full-grown, it becomes a large shrub, 8-10 feet tall. The contrast between tiny seed and large shrub is pretty incredible. But in the Psalms, we are told that “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” Now these are mighty images—Lebanon is known for its cedar trees. They can grow to be over 8 ft in diameter and 130 feet tall.

But Jesus chooses a plant that starts from very small beginnings, grows into a large shrub, and must be replanted every year. A plant that has powerful healing properties, but that no one wanted in their garden in the first century. A plant that grew whether you wanted it to or not.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

Mustard and Mysterious plants. It is no wonder that Jesus had to explain everything in private to his disciples. Parables are riddles. It seems the moment you think you have the correct answer, something new crops up in the story that suggests yet another meaning.

It must have been scary to have been a part of the first century church. The Gospel of Mark – like all of the Gospels – was written after Jesus ascended into Heaven, after the church was established. These new Followers of the Way, as early Christians were called, were struggling with who they were. Some were Jews who believed that Jesus had ushered in a new age – the Kingdom of God. Others were Gentiles who came to believe that this Jesus of Nazareth had a message worth participating in. These groups were struggling to figure out how to navigate their differences and find a way to be united. They faced persecution from the Roman government, and perhaps persecution from religious leaders who felt these new Jesus People were messing with the established order. They were different. And who wants different?

Last week Samuel preached the first sermon from our 12 Verses Project on Romans 12:12 – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

Not conforming got those first century Christ followers in trouble. Followers of the Way were being killed. And they watched as the powers in control of the government worked to protect their own interests instead of working for justice for oppressed people. Their own efforts seemed so small, so useless. I imagine they were often discouraged, thinking that all hope was lost.

I imagine we find ourselves there, too. While those of us in America are able to worship freely, we watch as the world around us doesn’t seem to reflect the vision of the Kingdom. Divisions seem to grow—whether the divide is between people of different political parties or the divide between the rich and the poor or the divide between neighbors who never take the time to know each other, or the divide between the United States and the nations we engage in war. Both within and beyond our borders, we hear stories of those living in slavery, we hear of conflicts that rage, we hear of people who are exterminated for their ethnicity. And in the midst of all the fear and hate, it can be easy to think that our efforts are too small.

What does it mean to make sure my coffee is fairly traded, if everyone else in the neighborhood continues to buy the unfairly traded varieties? What does it matter if I recycle when no one else seems to? What does it mean to champion nonviolence when the nation we live in spends trillions of dollars on a military? What does it matter if we love our enemies, when our enemy doesn’t welcome or acknowledge our love? Our efforts seem small.

And they are. But I think that is the point. The Kingdom is like a person who goes out and plants some seeds. They are small seeds—perhaps even old seeds—but the sower scatters them around. And that is all the sower can do. For days, the sower goes to bed and is awakened without any evidence that anything is happening with those seeds. Perhaps the sower even gives up, believing that nothing can come of the sowing efforts. But all of a sudden, the seeds begin to germinate and grow—without any intervention from the sower. And those seeds become plants that grow into 8-foot shrubs. The leaves of those shrubs are pungent, but they have healing properties. And because the plants have overtaken the field, there are enough leaves to share with neighbors, who desperately need the healing.

Mother Teresa, who is widely known for her work with the sick, poor, orphaned and dying in Calcutta, once said “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

Church, we are small in number, and we are small in works—but we serve a God of great love. Jesus encouraged the first century church, and he encourages us now: our efforts to love the world around us are not in vain. God is at work, germinating and growing the Kingdom in ways that we can’t imagine.

Shane Claiborne, who is part of an intentional Christian community known as The Simple Way, writes in his book “The Irresistible Revolution” that perhaps The Kingdom of God is like a mustard plant instead of a giant tree because it keeps us closer to the ground, closer to real people who have real needs.

What needs exist around you? What is going on in your neighbor’s life that needs your love and care? We might not be able to do great things, but the world desperately needs the small things that you are able to offer. This is what the Kingdom of God is like: volunteer plants, tiny mustard seeds, and small acts done with great love.

(photo credit)

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