The Darkness Rises

July 31st, 2012 – by Jeremy Yoder

Went out last night to take a look around
Met little Sadie and I blowed her down
Went right home, went to bed
Forty-four smokeless under my head

“Little Sadie,” Traditional American folksong

On the early morning of July 20 in the Denver suburb of Aurora, twenty-four year old James Holmes fired hundreds of rounds in a crowded movie theater during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. The details sound like an action movie, except this time, the victims weren’t stunt people who got up as soon as the camera stopped rolling. Soon after the film started, Holmes entered into the theater through an emergency exit door armed with an assault rifle, a shot gun and a handgun. He dropped a canister of tear gas and fired into the crowd. These acts of evil left twelve dead and fifty-nine wounded.

The Dark Knight massacre is a moment where art and life intersect. The three Christopher Nolan Batman movies are grim mediations on the darkness of the human heart in which violence and chaos threaten to destroy the veneer of civilization. During his arrest, Holmes reportedly referred to himself as “the Joker” – the homicidal, nihilistic character played by the late Heath Ledger in the last movie. While I don’t believe that cultural artifacts like movies cause individuals to commit mass murder, I do believe that beneath the veneer of our shopping malls and cul de sacs, beats the dark heart of a violent, broken and desperate society. After all, the Century Cinema 16 is only a twenty mile drive from Columbine High School.

How do we live faithfully in a world like this? It’s been a tough summer for Colorado. It’s emotionally exhausting and difficult to find hope when faced with oppressive heat, devastating wildfires and the continual economic decline of the rural town I pastor in. It’s easy to throw up our hands and to cry out to God, “Why are you doing this?” “Why aren’t you protecting us?” “Why aren’t you keeping us safe?” As a minister, I struggle when people ask me these impossible questions because I don’t know how to answer them in a way that does not sound trite or dismissive of the suffering that people experience.

Perhaps these questions are not the right questions. One of the lies that we tell ourselves is that we receive what we deserve. If we work hard enough and make the right choices, we will receive material success. If we have enough faith, then God will bless us with health and wealth. We believe that we are in control of our lives and that we direct our destinies. Most of us believe at our core that we are entitled to comfort and happiness.

The massacre in Aurora exposes this lie. None of the victims deserved to die. Nobody deserved Holmes’ violation of their sense of safety. And yet it happened anyway. This violence was senseless. These murders didn’t happen because God had some greater plan. I don’t believe that God only gives us as much suffering as we can handle – I believe that bad things happen in this broken world that are outside the will of God. As Matthew 5:45 puts it, God makes the “sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

The heart of Christianity is suffering. Each Sunday, we gather together in our congregations to worship and remember the God that suffered. While we believe the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is not the end of the story, we also symbolically dwell at the foot of the cross. Communion expresses the unity and communality of the church through elements that recall Christ’s sacrifice – “body” and “blood” that we consume together not only remembrance of what Jesus has done, but also to anticipate what Jesus will do. Suffering and hope are intimately tied together.

We often move too quickly from the suffering of the cross to the victory of the resurrection. We don’t want to linger in the unsettling presence of death and remember that life – and our lives in particular – are fragile and easily snuffed out by forces we cannot control. Tragedies like the Aurora shootings bring these anxieties out into the forefront and our temptation is to stuff our  fears back in so that we don’t have to confront these realities. Perhaps when the darkness rises in this broken world, we should resist the temptation to look away. After all, our faith only looks to the hope and promise of New Jerusalem after first confronting the suffering and death of the cross.

Jeremy Yoder is the pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church in La Junta, Colorado. He is a 2010 graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary and was a founding editors of Work and Hope. 

Why Do We Hunger for Beauty?

October 5th, 2011 – by Brian Gumm

Brian GummMy seminary professor recently played the folk song “Why Do We Hunger For Beauty?” by James Croegaert. To answer such a question we have to understand what constitutes “beauty” and then come to grips with why humans seem to desire it. The broad, biblical answer is that God created human beings with a desire to worship and glorify God and enjoy presence with God forever. But because of sin, that desire to worship doesn’t get erased but is rather disordered. Humans are easily distracted and often end up worshiping things that are not God (idolatry). So our innate longing for beauty is a right, God-given impulse.

Just saying “God” and “beauty” seems too abstract. The trouble with abstractions is that they don’t exist. God does not exist in the abstract and neither does beauty exist in the abstract. So what keeps Christians grounded? The incarnation of Jesus, the Christ, that offensive fact that God became flesh, dwelt among us and thus changed everything.

It’s not that Jesus is like God, but rather that God is like Jesus. In The Original Revolution, John Howard Yoder said: “We do not, ultimately, love our neighbor because Jesus told us to. We love our neighbor [and enemies] because God is like that.” And how do we know God is like that? Because we see Jesus! The gritty, divine particularity of the incarnation goes a long way toward protecting us from speaking of matters in the abstract, protecting us from crafting something in our own image or that of the surrounding culture(s).

Is Christ beautiful?

Hungering for beauty can be seen as a desire for satisfaction, completion or unification into something greater than ourselves. Theologically, it is the desire to return to God. But what does that look like? Biblically, it probably looks like Jesus’ prayer to his heavenly father in John 17:

“I pray…for those who will believe in me through (the disciple’s) message, *that all of them may be one*, Father, just as *you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us* so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Emphasis mine.)

In this prayer for unity, there is a call to embodied faithfulness and missional witness to the world, being pulled toward true beauty: God’s reconciling work in all of creation, seen to completion. New heavens, new earth, new Jerusalem.

“Let’s talk about sex”

Just as beauty doesn’t exist in the abstract, neither does sex. Matthew Lee Anderson, in his recent book Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith, says that sex is an experience of “mutual self-giving in freedom,” an act of unification — two becoming one — and an experience that should be practiced with a deep sense of attentiveness and care.

Sex, therefore, is inherently relational. However, American culture tries to make sex non-relational. In popular media, sex is mostly about consumption. Consider porn on the Internet, where the relationality of sex is lost. But even that’s not entirely true. The person consuming porn is affected by the habitual practice, just as the person being watched in the porn is being affected by the vocation and the industry which makes it possible. So the non-relationality of sex in the consumerist, technological society is itself a lie.

Sex, understood Christianly, should be beautiful and therefore Christ-like. It should be a sign of God’s in-breaking kingdom. U.S. Christians need significant re-framing when it comes to sex. A good place to start might be to see our bodily goodness and hunger for beauty in the particular light of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It would shift the assumptions away from individualistic, consumeristic and technological understandings and practices of both embodied life in general and sex in particular.

Brian R. Gumm is a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren and a Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and Eastern Mennonite Seminary student. He writes at Restorative Theology, where this blog post originally appeared. It also appeared in The World Together blog at Mennonite Weekly Review.

Thoughts from a Hike on the Appalachian Trail

September 20th, 2011 – by Randy Keener

In March 2010, Hugo, a close friend from Goshen College, and I attempted a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail.  Roughly 5 months and 2,179 miles later, we finished that long walk in the woods. We were immensely tired, amazed, and pondering.  There were a number of reasons for embarking on this journey from Georgia to Maine. For us, two important ones were the sense of adventure it held and the escape from the busyness of life and all of its demands.  Neither of us expected the great hospitality, kindness, and care that we each experienced among the trail community.  We found ourselves in awe of that slice of people who exist in a very counter-cultural way.  We were honored to be a part of that community.

Even a year later, I am still reflecting on that time and in many ways I deeply miss it. I think about the wonderful people that we hiked with, the strong sense of community and shared experience of trying to get to Maine.  And yet an irony remains in all this.  Much of the Appalachian Trail community really wants little to do with God, much less the church.  Many of them operated out of some form of secular humanism or vague spirituality.  For them, it simply made sense to treat people and the earth with kindness, justice, and love, because those are basic human rights. Every person deserves to experience those things and should practice them.   Hugo and I realized that we cared about many of the same things that the trail community did, but where these things were rooted was very different.  When fellow hikers heard how our particular beliefs and practices, rooted in the Christian-Anabaptist story, emphasized the same things as their own stories, we no longer talked past each other.

So what did mission, in this context, look like for us?  It looked like two friends choosing to hike the entire trail together, in the good times and the very hard times. Most friends that start together on the trail end up splitting after the first month or so for a number of different reasons.  It meant that when we enjoyed the cool breeze, the picturesque mountain top views, or the delicacies of creation’s wonders, we gave thanks to God, the creator of all good things.  When we shared food mutually among the trail community- we remembered what Christ has done for us in the cross and resurrection, and that we are invited to participate in that same resurrection hope.  It meant getting to know a fellow hiker, not much older than us, who had lost his wife just 6 months earlier to cancer. For him the trail was a place of healing as he escaped the busyness and materialism of society.  And yet in our relationship and trust with him, we were able to share the hope and healing that we knew and had experienced. We shared that for us this was greater than any walking footpath could offer.  Mission happened in relationships, and in conversations.  It happened in stereotypes being shattered, and mutual trust and care being nurtured.  It happened when our stories connected with theirs, and in those Spirit engagements, we saw something of a larger reality. 

Sometimes I think I see glimpses of the Kingdom of God when I reflect on that small slice of culture called the trail community.  And sometimes I become frustrated with the church because I wonder if I see the Kingdom more on the trail than I do in mainstream Christianity.  I am thankful to the trail community for a lot of things.  No doubt, it has changed my life and the way I think about certain people groups.  I may always live in the uneasy tension of how a secular community could embody the Kingdom more faithfully than much of the church has.  Maybe it is a reminder that the Kingdom of God shows up in places that we didn’t think to look. Yet I am also reminded that as followers of Jesus we live with a greater hope and calling than many on the trail have ever known.  The church does not live in ways that are sustainable, righteous, loving and justice minded simply because it makes sense, or is the right thing to do. Rather, the church, rooted in a larger story, is to embody these things because they are our very act of worship to God and is our witness to the power of the resurrection in the world.  For this reminder, I thank the trail community.

Randy Keener lives, works and studies in Harrisonburg, VA.  He is a residence director at Eastern Mennonite University, and a 2nd year graduate student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in the Masters of Divinity program.   In his spare time he enjoys running, hiking in the Shenandoah Valley, and watching baseball. 

Deconstruction and Rebuilding in Community: Mission in the 21st Century

September 12th, 2011 – by Hannah Heinzekehr

This post is part of a series on mission/evangelism. Email the editors at workandhope @emu.edu if you would like to contribute to the series.

Since moving to Southern California, my husband Justin and I have had a problem: we can’t keep plants alive. Our outdoor porch plants slowly withered and died –from overwatering, or conversely dehydration or for reasons unknown. Our first attempt at community gardening failed when our small plot was eaten alive by California critters that we didn’t know existed. Now, as we’ve started to grow some small potted herbs on our porch, we are watching with fear and trepidation, like worried parents, hoping that somehow, against all odds, these new plants will grow into fruition. We’ve had to deconstruct the ideas about gardening we learned in Indiana. We’ve had adapt and re-learn gardening here: what plants to grow, fertilizers to use, where pots should be placed, how to keep lizards off our “crops” and how much water to use.

Similarly, our ideas about mission have been deconstructed in Los Angeles. When we moved to California, I had already been working for Mennonite Mission Network for two years. I spent a lot of time talking with people about mission, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it meant. But moving to an area as cosmopolitan and diverse as Los Angeles County meant that my ideas about what mission meant had to change. I couldn’t make the same assumptions about what church looked like, how theology impacted mission, what language we worship in etc. This is a gift! But it also meant that some of the assumptions that I brought with me, as a European, middle-class, English-speaking, Mennonite from Indiana , were called into question simply by virtue of the place I was living.

Just like we had to reshape our models for gardening, our models for mission needed to be re-shaped. Some of the needs were the same. Just like our plants still needed water, fertilizer and soil (just different types and amounts), there is still a hunger here for church planting, church revitalization, and peace and conflict training, theological education and community outreach, but the ways that these needs are expressed and responses to them needed to change. Sometimes, it was little things that made me aware of these assumptions. The Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale here features Nigerian puff-puff (delicious) and kimchee instead of apple fritters and funnel cakes. “International mission” doesn’t feel very far away. In fact, many church leaders are actively involved in mission in their home towns in Nigeria, Belize and Indonesia.  Four-part harmony was not as familiar, and worship services are often conducted in two or three languages. Building space, which is highly expensive and limited in crowded Los Angeles County, was hard to come by, and many congregations share space and/or meet in homes or parks. And the list could go on…

I realized that I would need to sit at the feet of new teachers and people who had been involved in mission in Los Angeles for many years. I would need to be willing to stay still, listen and learn, instead of being in the middle of the action.  Mission Network has been working for a long time to cultivate radical and “post-colonial” ways of thinking about mission. But it took actually moving to a new and different space before my own structures about mission and church could be re-formed. So, when I think about mission in the 21st century, I think our first challenge is to examine our own assumptions about mission and expand our ideas.

The second piece of this process is to re-build a concept of mission in collaboration with the communities and people where we live, work and minister.  If we believe that mission involves finding the places and spaces where God is already at work in the world, and finding ways to join in that work, then what better way to discern this than in community? As Anabaptists, we are wrapped in a lineage and historical theology that emphasizes the role of the community: in interpreting the Bible, in prayer together, in hospitality and in a myriad of other ways.

As the Mennonite Church continues to receive the gift of increasing levels of diversity, it will be our challenge to find ways to sit down at the table together: to discuss, to argue, to pray, to discern and to laugh together. I believe that this act of coming together is an act of mission.

Hannah Heinzekehr lives, works and studies in Claremont, California. She is a Church Relations associate for Mennonite Mission Network, and a graduate student at Claremont Lincoln University, studying the intersections between community development and theology. In her spare time, she enjoys visiting the beaches in southern California, hiking in the San Gabriel mountains, and reading something that hasn’t been assigned for class!

Rethinking Church and its Mission in the 21st Century

September 2nd, 2011 – by Nelson Okanya

This post is the first in a series on mission/evangelism. Email the editors at workandhope @emu.edu if you would like to contribute to the series.

On Thursday July 21, NASA ended the shuttle program after more than 30 years. That Thursday morning I drove 2 hours away to meet with a committee to explore the possibility of serving as the next president of Eastern Mennonite Missions.  That same weekend a new nation was to be born in Southern Sudan.  I could not help but see the emerging theme.

As a person born and raised in Africa, once considered the mission field for Europe and North America, I could not help but think about the new reality I was living in.  The fact that I was being considered to lead a mission agency in the United States was a new frontier for the mission agency and for me.  Southern Sudanese for the very first time had their own brand new country and the shuttle had served its purpose and something new was being envisioned.  These stories convinced me that a new era has dawned and with it new ways of living and being the church in the world.

I was moved by one reporter’s description of the space shuttle.  He said,

“The shuttle is an amazing machine. It takes off like a rocket, but lands like a plane, so it’s re-usable. It’s had some spectacular successes. It carried the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. And the shuttle built the International Space Station. It launched the first American female astronaut into space, and the first black astronauts. But the space shuttle has also developed a reputation for technical problems. Originally, it was supposed to fly dozens of times a year, and cheaply.”

This reporter’s next statement has parallels to mission agencies and the church.  “But NASA’s William Gerstenmaier says the shuttle isn’t ending because we’ve lost our mojo. It’s because the next missions require different designs to go into deeper space ….We need a smaller, more compact vehicle than the winged vehicle we have today.”

I believe this story is relevant for the church as it engages God’s mission in the 21st century.  We are living in exciting, as well as scary, times.  These times are characterized by great opportunities to innovate and think outside the box.  As NASA continues to research and envision the new frontier of space exploration, the church must likewise envision the new mission frontier.

I envision a new generation of missionaries being raised as the church once again rediscovers God’s mission in a fresh and new way.  We cannot live as if everyone understands what it means to be a Christian, even those who have been part of the church family for years.  The Christendom era where we assumed that everybody knew the Bible is long gone. And I think we should celebrate that reality!  Even though the era of Christendom has ended, as we look back we must acknowledge the successes, as well as the failures, of that era. Like NASA, we must do some self reflection and dream about new ways to be relevant, go to places where the witness of the Gospel has not yet reached, and discover fresh ways to embody faithful Christian discipleship in our own communities.

Missiologist Craig Van Gelda of Luther Seminary, in his book, The Ministry of the Missional Church argues that the church must reflect and self define in order to understand its relevance.  He writes,

“The key premise is that understanding the nature of the church is foundational for being able to clarify the purpose of the church, and for developing any strategies related to that purpose.  And understanding the nature of the church is also seen as being foundational for discerning how to address changing cultural contexts.” (p 13).

Taking Van Gelda seriously, I looked at Acts chapter 2. In this chapter, I see the church growing exponentially as the Holy Spirit descended in a fresh way.  Numerically, it grew from 120 people to 3,120.  As the Holy Spirit took charge, it was transformed and empowered to become an authentic Christian community that ministered to others. It became a community that continually experienced the Lord’s hand at work, God’s Spirit continued to shape and act in powerful ways. It is no wonder that the author reports, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47). This Christian community experienced phenomenal growth as the Holy Spirit descended and the community took seriously their new identity and mission.

Is the Acts 2 experience possible again? I believe the answer is a resounding “Yes”! What would the church look like if we were to live as Holy Spirit filled communities of Jesus? What kind of impact would we have in our immediate neighborhoods and around the world, as we become authentic communities of disciples? We must actively engage our changing cultural realities with the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In order to do this, as Christians we must once again cultivate the virtues that continue to form us and helps us to embody the Christian narrative, for in the same way Jesus was sent, Jesus has sent us (John 20:21).

Nelson Okanya was appointed as president of Eastern Mennonite Missions in July 2011. He will begin his term of service in October.  He has served as associate pastor and lead pastor of Capital Christian Fellowship since 2006. He is a 2003 Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate.

Harry Potter and the Anabaptist Vision

July 19th, 2011 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

[Note: This post contains spoilers of the final Harry Potter book and film.]

The release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2 on Friday, July 15, marked the end of an era. These seven books and eight movies have held children, teens and adults spellbound for the past thirteen years as author J.K. Rowling and an army of actors, directors, producers and film crews cast their literary and cinematic magic.

As with most fantasy, Christians have not always known what to do with Potter’s magical world. The popularity of this young adult series about a boy wizard raised unsubstantiated accusations that Rowling promoted witchcraft. Critics believed that the portrayal of magic functioned as a kind of gateway for children to get involved with “real magic” by packaging wicca in an attractive and appealing package. I am thankful that evangelical Christians seem to have stopped criticizing the series.  This week, Christianity Today praised Rowling for her use of traditional literary devices and her portrayal of Harry as the ultimate hero and Christ-figure. Much has been made of Harry as the sacrificial Christ-figure and the role that love plays to protect and guide him. I love that aspect of the story – but I also believe that Anabaptists have even more to celebrate in Harry’s story.

At his core, Harry is a non-violent hero. While the films depict Harry battling evil with shooting lights and primal screams, they ignore Harry’s preference to disarm his enemies rather than harm them. Harry’s signature spell is the expelliarmus, a disarming spell and in the final novel, it both exposes him and later saves him. In the first scene, the pursuing bad guys identify Harry among a group of look-a-likes, for his refusal to stun an enemy flying through the air on a broomstick. Harry instead disarms his pursuer, since the stunning spell would cause him to plummet to his death. In the novel’s climax, Voldemort is defeated when his own killing spell rebounds off of Harry’s disarming spell.

Rowling depicts the effect that killing has on the perpetrators. In books six and seven, she suggests that killing another person is no less than splitting your soul in pieces. Deep, serious and painful remorse is the only way to put the soul back together again.

Sometimes I wonder if those of us who really believe that killing is wrong and against the way of Christ are able to tell stories this compelling. I am sometimes embarrassed by the Bible’s blatant descriptions of what happens – not only to those who murder – but also to those who are angry.

“ ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Matthew 5:21-22.

Rowling is not far off from Matthew here, for what is hell, if not a soul or spirit maimed by anger and hatred? Rowling contends that the more Voldemort murdered and killed, the less and less human he became. Is this not what our own scriptures tell us about how hatred and anger – killing and murder – damage us?

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:44, 48

Is not the perfection of God a soul intact, unharmed by hatred, undamaged by murder? Harry knows this. Rowling knows this. We know this. When the world hands us a hero who acts as Christ, not just in his ability to love, not only in his willingness to sacrifice himself, but also in his conscious choice to disarm rather than kill, we need to celebrate it. In a world where war heroes are venerated in movies and novels, Anabaptists have something special to appreciate in Harry Potter, the boy who lived, not because he killed others, but because he chose a different path.

This is the Way The World Ends

May 26th, 2011 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

Probably most of us weren’t surprised when the world didn’t end on May 21 at 6 p.m. I watched the Rapture chatter prior to Saturday with bemusement. Facebook featured everything from jokes about people whose spouses hadn’t been seen in a while, to the “post-Rapture looting” event scheduled for an hour later, to the slightly more serious post from one friend who said, “I’m amazed at all the people who are making fun of the May 21 rapture who believe the Rapture actually will happen someday.”

I have to admit, I have my own doubts about the Rapture ever happening. I am tired of it being used as a plot device for salvation narratives. Films and books like “Left Behind” and “Thief in the Night” are overused. Fear as a basis for salvation is just not appealing.

One the other hand, maybe it’s the idea of judgment that really gives me pause. I am significantly less cynical about world-wide apocalyptic destruction than I am about the Rapture. Eschatology deals specifically with divine judgment and the destruction of evil. An apocalyptic scenario, however, does not assume God-driven action, but sees it caused by humanity or the natural world. Earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, wars, greed for oil and environmental crises seem close at hand. Most of us don’t equate any of these things with the judgment of God. As my friend Amy (who wrote her dissertation on the rhetoric of dystopias and post-apocalyptic literature) says, we can rationalize the end of the world much easier than we can rationalize God’s judgment of the world. Our technological culture does not like things we can’t rationalize.

But it does make me wonder – how do we recognize God’s judgment? Perhaps the Rapture is an obvious sign of God’s action, which may be why people like Harold Camping hold on to it so tightly. But is that any worse than what I do, which is to deny God’s judgment of the world? Is my own ambiguity about God’s ability and willingness to judge humanity any less limiting than the conviction that the Rapture will happen?

My tendency to imagine a human or environmental apocalypse and yet deny divine judgment means that my image of God is limited to those “nice” qualities I like about God– love, peace, etc. And yet, that is not the entire biblical witness of God’s existence. Belief in the Rapture and in God’s ultimate power to judge humanity, stretches my image of God beyond my rational box. Perhaps that is the real test of my faith and understanding of salvation. Why should not an all-encompassing God include the ability to destroy evil in the world?

Searching for the God I wish I knew

May 17th, 2011 – by Emily Hedrick

Lately I’ve been thinking about the God I wish I knew.

Growing up in the church, I’ve been told about the God who saved me, the God who washes me clean, the God who completes me, the God who has plans for my life, the God who wants me to live for him. But none of these are the God I wish I knew.

Is it blasphemous for me to say that I don’t want God to save me? What if I don’t want to be washed clean? What if I want to celebrate my humanness? Am I a horrible person if I admit that I have no interest in being “used by God” even if it is in “a mighty way?” What if I want to live my life with God instead of for God?

Maybe it seems a bit self-centered for me to think about a God I wish I knew. Shouldn’t I, after all, be searching for the God who is Truth? Perhaps. Though, it seems dangerous to look for the God who is Truth because that God is virtually impossible to find. I have seen people searching for this God. It is an exhausting endeavor. Many give up and end up creating their own god who is Truth. They cling to their man-made god regardless of the consequences, just so they don’t have to begin the search again.  Often they cling so tightly that they accuse people of being unacceptable to God when they don’t fit the mold or live in some predetermined way.

I have had my own experiences with man-made gods. The temptation in my childhood was to ignore the parts of myself that didn’t match up with what I was told. The urgent certainty of it all caused me to forget myself. Sometimes it still does, but every time I think about the God I wish I knew, I am reminded that I am simply me. I am the way I am for some profoundly good, though often unknown reasons. Those reasons are why the God I wish I knew is often so different from the gods I am presented with.

As I ponder the God I wish I knew, I need to silence all that I have been told about God. As I listen to the deepest longings within my soul, I can hear myself pleading ever so quietly, “Please exist. You don’t need to save me, or make me feel loved, or tell me what to do. Just exist. Just be with me as I am in this moment.”

Truly, this is what I want most: to know that I am not alone, to have a God who will be with me as I experience what is – not what is supposed to be. As I look back at my life, searching for the God I wish I knew, I can acknowledge that I have not received salvation through being magically made pure and learning how to live just right. For me salvation is being able to say, “This is how I am at the moment, and it is okay.”

That is not to say that we should not hold ourselves accountable. Paying attention to our actions and our lifestyle is vitally important. However, if we devote ourselves to seeing and accepting what is, we will discover an underlying current deep within our world and ourselves that drives us toward wholeness and health. I believe we need to accept ourselves in order to find that current. By choosing to see what is, we allow ourselves to be swept up in the current instead of fighting it to try to fit what is supposed to be.

That is why I’ve been thinking about the God I wish I knew. I am searching for a way to acknowledge the validity of where I am right now, and to acknowledge that where I am is okay. It keeps me from clinging to a god that isn’t real, even though the temptation to hold on to certainty, and ignore my own experiences, is real.

Who is the God you wish you knew?

Emily Hedrick is a junior Music and Bible and Religion major at Goshen College. She’s been fascinated with practical theology ever since she started making post-rapture survival plans at the age of nine. Seeing as she hasn’t needed to pull those out yet, she’s been spending most of her time pondering how the church can be a healthier, more life-giving place. She also enjoys thought-provoking questions and good stories.

Bizarro Easter

May 10th, 2011 – by Mark Schloneger

Two weeks ago, we celebrated Easter.
In the name of Jesus,
we gave greetings of life.
In the name of Jesus,
we decorated the cross with life.
In the name of Jesus,
we sang anthems of life,
we preached about life,
we prayed for life,
we marched outside with life,
we praised the God of life,
we proclaimed life:

Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!

The one who was dead is now alive,
that was our message on Easter Sunday
and that is our message every Sunday.
In a world captivated with death,
we proclaim the gospel of life.

Jesus shared in our humanity,
in order to destroy the one who holds the power of death,
that is, the devil – and to free those
who are held in slavery by their fear of death.  (Hebrews 2:14-15)

I couldn’t help but think of our Easter Sunday celebration two weeks ago,
when I witnessed the celebration that began last Sunday evening.
This celebration continued throughout the week and goes on today.
It’s the opposite of Easter — it’s Bizarro Easter.
It’s a celebration of death, not life,
and it carries it’s own message:

Our enemy is dead!
He is dead indeed!

This was the “good news” that President Obama proclaimed last Sunday evening,
and this is how it’s celebrated:
we spontaneously cheer at a baseball game at the news of his death;
we dance in the streets outside the White House happy about his death;
we sing anthems and deliver speeches giving meaning to his death,
we hail the nation and its heroes who delivered us his death;
we declare that justice has been served with death;
we tell our friends the news, we contact our family with the news,
we post on Facebook the news –
the news of our enemy’s death;
we search out articles to read about the details of his death.
And like bizarro Doubting Thomases,
we clamor to view our enemy’s wounds
just to make sure that he’s really dead.
Can’t we see the video, or at least some bloody photos,
to prove that the one who once was alive is now dead?

Because he died, we can face tomorrow.
Because he died, our fear is gone.
Because we know he threatened our future,
life is safe for living just because he died.

Does this disturb you?  I hope so.
I understand that the death that sparked these Bizarro Easter celebrations
was of a person who sowed hatred and suffering and death
to many, many people during his life.
I am glad that he will not be able to continue to work towards those evil ends.
But as followers of a Messiah who died for his enemies,
there is no nuance that depends upon the evil actions of our enemies.

The answer to evil is found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
For followers of Jesus, death is not a cause for celebration;
it’s a reminder to seek out the God who created us for life,
redeemed us for life, and sustains us for life.
Rejoicing in death is the opposite of Easter.
It’s anti-Christ.

Thankfully, the world has not been left with a succession of Bizarro Easters,
celebrating the deaths of evil people until the next one takes his place.
Jesus reigns victorious over the death-dealing forces of evil.
His kingdom has come, is coming, and will come.
Through the Holy Spirit,
God has called us to life for life,
celebrating and proclaiming and living the good news of Easter.

May God’s kingdom come,
God’s will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Mark Schloneger is a 2005 graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary and the pastor at Springdale Mennonite Church, Waynesboro, Va. This post was originally published on his blog drip, drip, drip on May 9, 2011.

Reflections on the Triumphal Entry

April 20th, 2011 – by Dustin Miller

I read of Christ crucified,
the only begotten Son
sacrificed to flesh and time
and all our woe. He died
and rose, but who does not tremble
for his pain, his loneliness,
and the darkness of the sixth hour?
Unless we grieve like Mary
at His grave, giving Him up
as lost, no Easter morning comes.

From “The Way of Pain” by Wendell Berry

While the rest of the world continues their lives on a normal schedule, Christians remember the story that takes us through a whole host of emotions. The week of the Passion of Jesus Christ is central to who we are. A story we have been adopted into. A story that says that only through death can we have life.

For us this Holy Week is about waiting.  We wait with fear and trembling. We wait knowing that the salvation shouts of “Hosanna” by the people lining the streets and the sidewalks, and the steps and pews of our churches on Palm Sunday quickly turn to tears of suffering. We wait in the knowledge that those who cry, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” will too soon change their chants to “Crucify him”.

We wait because we know we must remember. We wait because we need to know the story. We wait because, as Wendell Berry stated in the poem,  “Unless we grieve like Mary at His grave, giving him up as lost, no Easter morning comes.” We must resist the impulse to turn away, and quicken the resurrection. We must stay with the hard parts to get to the hope.

But the paradox is that this season is also about movement. This week spans two liturgical seasons, crossing over a bridge from Lent to Easter.  We move from Bethpage to Jerusalem, walking and riding along with our coming to reign King. We move from a city in turmoil to an upper room. We move from a meal of bread and wine to Christ’s body and blood.  We move from Jesus’ act of humility in foot washing to Christ’s humiliation on the cross.

This story in Matthew is also about how we get to where we are going. Jesus was all over the place during his teachings and journeys. To the north out of Galilee, to Nazareth where he was rejected, to Tyre and Sidon, to the west and finally down into Judea, where he turns towards Jerusalem.

Jesus changed our old ways into new ones throughout the narratives found in this gospel; transforming our old thoughts and habits into a new cycle of life.

To me, the joy of the streets that we associate with Palm Sunday, sounds more like a protest crowd asking a leader to save them. Today we think of Hosanna as a shout of praise, but the cry translates into a plea. Hosanna literally means help me, save me, I pray. With the current upheaval in the world today, the shouts of the streets in Jerusalem, in Egypt, and in Libya ring loudly on this Palm Sunday, as the innocent cry for an end to oppressive regimes all over the world. The triumphal entry is the culminating expression of the mistaken belief that Jesus was going to set up an earthly kingdom, restore Israel to the good old days, and overthrow the oppressive Roman empire. But following Jesus means following in death, not overthrowing the powerful through violence and power.

Followers of Jesus routinely got a bit mixed up between what they thought their messiah was going to look like and what Jesus actually did and taught. This might be one reason that responses to Jesus turned from positive to negative throughout the book of Matthew.

And who can blame them?

The triumphalism found in this narrative would have felt familiar to the people in Jerusalem. Often, the ruling Roman occupiers would have extraordinary displays of military power down the streets of Jerusalem. When Jerusalem was brimming with travelers and pilgrims during the high holy days of Passover the Romans would do this to keep the people in check.

Jesus does not come with the war chariots, or the white stallion. Jesus chooses a donkey for his ride. The world that expected a king to save them must have started asking questions. Jesus refuses to be controlled by the hopes of a nation, refuses to be persuaded by the demands and fears of a people who wanted things to go back to a better time.

As he trots into Jerusalem, Jesus exposes what is behind the idea of earthly power for what it really was. The vicious cycle of death and violence did not need another round. It needed to be transformed. Instead Jesus offers a new way of seeing God’s kingdom. Jesus forever redefines what it means to be king, Lord, and messiah. Jesus submits. But in the end that doesn’t quite live up to our expectations. We want change now.  Jesus transforms the life-taking violence that the people wanted and offered them a new way. A way that leads to the cross.

As we walk with Jesus in our lives, we will go to places where we would have never dreamed of going. Walking with Christ to Tyre and Sidon could mean going to the places where our culture says we’re not supposed to be. Walking with Jesus means that we are going to be misunderstood, means that we are going to have some cuts and bruises along the way. But ultimately we do not walk with Jesus down the streets of Jerusalem because we want to change the world. We walk because Jesus is Lord.

I urge us to live in the paradox that is our story. This great drama that is unfolding is the path to the cross, but is also a path where we meet our savior over and over. Through the bread and cup, through the washing of feet, through the darkness and into the light. The story that we are re-living is our story, the story of the unexpected, the story of Jesus bursting into our world, re-shaping it, transforming it to make all things new.

We must live in this paradox; that our movement is really just an exercise in waiting. We wait because this time is not our time, but that we are made participants in God’s time. We wait for the unexpected, for the blind to see, for the dead to rise. We wait because that’s what followers do. “Unless we grieve like Mary at His grave, giving him up as lost, no Easter morning comes.”

This blog post is adapted from a sermon preached at Cincinnati Mennonite Church, 4-17-11. Dustin Miller is a ’09 Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate.