We Come in Peace: A Response to Mark Tooley

November 18th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

What if Mennonites ran the world? According to Mark Tooley, we are about to. In October, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) ominously warned on the website of the American Spectator that the rise of neo-Anabaptism among academics and hipster Christians threatened to become a politically dominant force for the ‘Great Satan’ that is American liberalism. For Tooley, the popularity of Stanley Hauerwas and Greg Boyd signals the rise of a militant pacifism that undermines historic Mennonite sectarianism and seeks to force pacifism onto the world by expanding the power of government. In other words, the great sin of the neo-Anabaptists is that they are liberals.

It’s difficult to take Tooley’s critique seriously. The IRD has long had a history of attacks against perceived liberalism within the church and has often been a provocateur in the current battles over sexuality among the mainline denominations. While IRD’s mission statement claims that it seeks to “reaffirm the church’s biblical and historical teachings” the positions the think tank considers to be “historic” often seem to have more to do with the so-called culture war and a particular type of Christian conservatism that conflates the worship of God with nationalism. For example, in a 2007 IRD press release, Tooley called a Washington, D.C. anti-war march a “pacifist and an anti-U.S. rally” since the promotional literature advocated “the principles of pacifism upon which Jesus based his life and ministry.” As atheist commentator Austin Cline noted, Tooley pretty much condemned a pacifism “that is based on teachings attributed to what he regards as his Lord and Savior.”

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Editorial- What is Church?

November 4th, 2010 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz and Jeremy Yoder

What is church? It’s a simple question with a complicated answer. In English,  the word “church” connotes the building, the people, or some set of beliefs and practices. While we are certain that church is more than any one of these things, it’s difficult to find the language that really names the essence of what church is. The Bible, after all, uses a number of metaphors to describe this emerging community of faith. Jesus Christ referred to the church as a “Kingdom.” Paul referred to the church as a “body” – a living organism made up of believers, each an essential and distinct part of the body. Whatever the image, the Bible depicts the church as a unified whole – a communal expression of God’s restorative relationship with humanity.

In this issue of Work and Hope, four young writers address the meaning and function of the church. Tim Baer shares the pain of not finding a church home,  Patrick Nafziger tells us how church makes meaning in his life, Maggie Page shares how people have enacted church for her, and Keith Wilson explores the importance of obedience. There are probably as many stories of what church means as there are people who read this page. Somewhere in this kaleidoscope of experiences and definitions, a picture emerges of people gathered together to worship, to make meaning, to care for each other. Church is a community with a special purpose and a distinctive mission in the world, driven by God.

Brian Gumm reviews Beyond the Rat Race by the late Art Gish, a 1972 critique of the engagement of church with culture. Art was a prophet and provocateur, who sought to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ is everyday ways. His tragic death in July means that the next generation will have to pick up his legacy and move forward.

We hope you enjoy this issue of Work and Hope. If you’re interested in contributing, either to an upcoming issue, or as a guest blogger please email workandhope@emu.edu Ω

What is Church?- Home

November 4th, 2010 – by Tim Baer

My first church home, twenty miles north-west of Baltimore, was a large evangelical congregation that met in a public school auditorium. It was there that I met Jesus, His followers, and His call to prayer. I was nineteen, played drums in the socially conscious indie-punk band “The Soma Solution”, wore an orange Mohawk, and smoked a pack of Camel Lights every day. Even with my left-of-center roots, the idea of God had never seemed absurd to me, but Jesus had been different matter and the Church was something I wanted nothing to do with.

It only took a few months for me to understand why. After I started attending church, people stopped taking my phone calls. The youth group that had seemed so inviting, barred me. The morning Bible study for teenagers asked me not to come back. It was my age – too old for teenagers, too young for adults. The church had a void and offered me nothing. I was accountable to no one and felt abandoned in my immature faith. I felt abandoned not just by the church, but by the people I had come to depend on.

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What is Church?- A place to make meaning

November 4th, 2010 – by Patrick Nafziger

I have a shoebox in a closet.

It’s full of cards and notes I’ve received since leaving home.

I don’t keep everything–just the ones that really mean something. But by now that box is getting full. When I go to add a new card to the box, I notice it won’t close right anymore.

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What is Church?-Where they have to love you

November 4th, 2010 – by Maggie Page

I want to be honest with you, so you should know that I’m not a “real” Anabaptist, meaning I was not raised in nor am I technically a member of an Anabaptist congregation. On the other hand, I am in one way technically more Anabaptist than many of you, in that I am, in fact, “twice baptized”, the literal meaning of the word. I was first baptized as an infant in a small Methodist church in Virginia, which didn’t take too well. Nineteen years later I was baptized again by my best friend in a river in the woods in the small Minnesota town where we attended college. There were maybe 10 of us, mostly college freshmen, standing on the banks and in the waters of the Cannon River in between final exam sessions. Someone brought a guitar, someone snapped some photos, and those of us in the river risked frostbite to form a makeshift but beautiful family.

In the six months leading up to my baptism I had attempted suicide, been hospitalized for a drug overdose, ended a two year romantic relationship and nearly failed out of school. Those kids- because that’s what we were- who were with me in the river that May were literally the only reason I survived my first year at college. I honestly didn’t much care for these friends at first. They were Christian, they went to Bible studies nearly every night of the week, and talked about things like abstinence and transubstantiation at the dinner table. When the shit hit the fan, however, they were there. They put everything on hold when they saw someone in need. They cared about me and cared for me, not because I loved them, or because it was easy, or because it gave them any reward. They loved me because they were, and are, Christians, and that’s what Christians do.

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What is Church?- Community of Obedience

November 4th, 2010 – by Keith Wilson

Human beings – created in the image of God – are not isolated, but commingled organisms. Whether we like it or not, we are deeply bound together. For “church” or the kingdom of God to exist, there must be an acceptance of this binding as a spiritual fact; a spiritual reality made possible by the Holy Spirit and our common pursuit of obedience to the truth found in Jesus Christ. I find the truth, the way, and the life to be in Jesus and what he taught (and continues to teach through the Spirit), and hope that many of us can agree on this. If so, we can agree that obedience to this truth, to these precepts is not only a good idea, but the only idea that will result in peace and that elusive sense of purpose we all yearn for.

Obedience is a tricky word in my experience, and can carry a mountain of godless baggage. I see it like this: there is a path toward wholeness, a path that leads me home to the “perfection” or maturity of spirit that my Creator envisioned and called forth long before my biological life began. To find and stay on this path is what my deepest heart – the heart beneath the scars and shame of sin and a broken world – longs for and strains toward. Obedience requires me to trust that the teachings of Jesus and the moving of the Spirit know better how to articulate what is best for me than my own broken will.

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The Theological Legacy of Art Gish (old books need love too!)

November 4th, 2010 – by Brian Gumm

On that day this past July when Art Gish was tragically killed on his farm in Ohio, I was on another farm a few states away in Iowa, reclining on a porch swing at my in-law’s, reading his 1972 book, Beyond the Rat Race (Herald Press; sub. page numbers are from this ed.).  It was my first substantive engagement with Gish’s writing, and that it was being done on the day he died was both humbling and sad.

The lives of Art and his wife, Peggy, are a contextual recapitulation of traditional Brethren nonconformity, and Beyond the Rat Race offers us practical and striking insights into living out our faith in Christ amidst a coercive and fallen world. For being published nearly 40 years ago in the late days of the Vietnam war and following in the wake of hippie culture and broader social upheaval, the book remains startlingly relevant. Indeed, the corrupting cultural currents that Gish identifies and critiques have in some ways become more deeply entrenched in American life and are therefore harder to discern and resist in rigorously Christian ways.

Especially eerie this side of the Internet is Gish’s passing remark about then-contemporary media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, who Gish saw as “(advocating) deeper devotion to electronic fragmentation for those disorganized by society,” then adding, “But we will not find reality by turning ourselves into an electronic package” (p. 117). What is Facebook and other social media on the Internet but a contemporary venture into just that? To say nothing about the foundational role of advertising on these networks!

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Authenticity, Transformed Shadows, and Betty D. King

October 21st, 2010 – by Michael A. King, vice president and dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary

I’ve reached that stage each generation finally reaches of beginning to lose the preceding generation. Increasingly I attend funerals of my friends’ loved ones. Last month the service was for my own mother. After several funerals of  my friends’ loved ones I learned how traumatized my friends had been by the gap between the glowing eulogies and the real-life shadows of the departed ones. This has me wrestling again with a reality that has troubled me since boyhood: The way we talk about the Christian walk is often fiction.

Maybe my family and I are just messier than the norm. Maybe everyone else is bewilderedly whispering, “Say what?” to my strange take on public affirmations of how wonderfully the Lord guides and blesses. Maybe your family doesn’t have hidden shadows. I do suspect there are those for whom the rift is narrower, and I don’t want to minimize or undercut for them their blessings.

But when my mother died I felt again the importance of this issue. How would we celebrate my mom without crafting a fantasy instead of telling the truth about her?

My mother was in her way a giant. She gave me many of my life’s resources and gifts. I can’t imagine having become writer, pastor, dean, ever fascinated with God, theology, and the meaning of life had it not been for the endless hours I spent as a teenager hanging as over the counter while she cooked.

I was always full of questions about everything, including whether there was really a God and whether the Bible was really true. So on and on I’d go, pushing my skeptic’s agenda while she defended (often amazingly well) the faith. And sometimes hinted that she found my questions a tad intriguing herself. To her final days, when introducing me to people she’d report one of her favorite things about us: We were really good arguers! When she was dying I told her I couldn’t have been a dean without her sharpening my mind. She couldn’t talk any more. But she smiled.

In her final months, precisely the wild spirit that made her a wonderful intellectual sparring partner turned things difficult for her and many, including the staff at her retirement community. Parkinson’s stole her peace of mind and mobility. After she died I looked for ways to thank staff for hanging in—and was blessed by Valda Weider Garber, head nurse overseeing the staff. She phoned to offer words of healing. She told me those final weeks had reminded her of “Better than a Hallelujah?” a song by Sara Hart and Chapin Hartford recently made popular by Amy Grant’s cover. Particularly she was reminded of the line, “Beautiful the mess we are.” The line went straight into my bruised heart. When I e-mailed Valda to thank her, she sent me back this paragraph:

I sang that song in church. . . . Faces were somber, some relieved. I mentioned prior to singing the song that we, as Brethren by denomination and Christian by belief, have long suffered in silence when life happens, not wanting to question God’s almighty will or ability to know what is best for us. Questioning “why” somehow is equated with non-belief, or at minimum, questioning the will of God. However, in my own life experience, I have learned that God wants me to question, to cry, to ask why, and through that process, receive his grace and ultimately his blessing. The Bible is full of individuals who were messes (David, Saul who became Paul, the woman at the well); individuals whom God used in spite of their messy lives. We are all messes in some way. We fail miserably. But God still sees us as beautiful.

In the midst of that interchange, I was getting ready to give a committee meeting devotional and a summary of my vision as new dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary. One thing I’d been doing as dean was developing a few areas of emphasis for me to keep in view for EMS. It hit me that there was an area I hadn’t thought to add to my EMS themes but have long been passionate about; I’ve called it “transforming the shadows” and describe it as—

fostering through the content of studies, and the spirit within which seminary life unfolds, a fierce love for the church that is able to celebrate that the church is the real body of Christ and also is ever shadowed by failures and fallibilities; shadows named rather than suppressed can become, through the saving grace of God in Christ, sources of transformation grounded in authenticity rather than unacknowledged subversion of stated values and commitments (Luke 7:36-50).

When at the end of the week we held the memorial service for my mother, this guided my thinking about what to say in my tribute to her. And though I hadn’t shared it with other family members, they too seemed to be operating from their version of it. Together we found ways to tell the truth about my mom, about how her wild self could be both a challenge and a wonder, about how she helped us grasp that though none of us are saints, through the grace of God in Christ the messes we are can be made beautiful.

So I dedicate my “transforming the shadows” theme to my mother, Betty Detweiler King, who helped me both to see the shadows and to trust that God can transform them into gifts of beauty.

Could We?

October 7th, 2010 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

Could we, as Anabaptist, Mennonite, MC USA (insert your denomination here) churches relate to each other as family?

Could we take the risky and difficult stance that we don’t all have to agree on everything, but that we will continue to talk about it, forever, if necessary?

Could we decide that we love each other, even if one of us feels like the taken-for-granted older sister who never gets the glory, and another feels like the youngest brother everyone is always picking on?

Could we accept those who come and go in our family of churches with love, grace and dignity?

Could we be that open to one another?

Our culture is becoming increasingly dichotomized. With us or against us. Right or left. Inside or outside. The cultural climate in the United States is threatening to pull the church apart. Television shows, political rallies and news programs are teaching us that the only way to relate is to shout loudly at those who believe differently. And if they persist in believing something different, then you should defame and vilify them.

Could we have a radical, truly Anabaptist peace witness in the world by doing one simple, but difficult thing, learning to listen and agreeing to love each other despite differences?

Well, could we?

Is MCUSA Doomed? (And Does it Matter?)

September 29th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

This post emerged out of a number of on-line and off-line conversations I’ve been having over the past several weeks about the status quo and future of the church. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Christianity in the West is ‘in trouble’ as the center of the church shifts from North America and Western Europe to the Global South due to growing secularization. For Anabaptists, the end of Christendom should be a moment of opportunity due to our own historical place at the margins. Yet MCUSA is experiencing some of the same challenges and problems as the rest of North American mainline Protestantism.

As a result of these conversations, I started to ask myself whether MCUSA is ‘doomed’ to shrivel up and disappear. I’m not exactly an optimistic person, so as I mulled over these questions, I realized that doom might not be the right word to describe the current situation. However as I mused, I did come up with a list of what I think the biggest challenges that MCUSA faces during the post-Christendom shift.

Note: this is my list based on what I’ve observed and experienced as the current state of the Mennonite Church. It’s not an exclusive or exhaustive list. Feel free to disagree with me and please let us know what you think are the main challenges the denomination faces in the comments section below. (more…)