Generative Love and the Character of God: Making Art and a Theology of Failure

April 4th, 2011 – by Bethany Tobin

For the past two years, I have spent a lot of time holed up in my studio staring fearfully at blank pieces of paper. I’ve had my life-long dream of time, studio space, and the vision of expressing the beautiful truths of the universe – the generative love of the Trinity!  Yet making art has been such a struggle.  I have learned that the more I expected instant perfection, the more I was paralyzed. The more I was driven to produce success, the more miserly and contrived my work became. The lesson of this year is that making art is really about practice and unproductivity, working with imperfection, being willing to be vulnerable and open to risk and surprise. In short: Making art is only possible when one is willing to fail. And in an interesting symmetry, I find that the method looks like the beautiful truth it wants to express: Kenosis (self-emptying) is the source of generative love.

Our willingness to be vulnerable and risk it all is what allows us to create something new and make something more. Failure isn’t the end of the world, it is the opportunity to learn and grow. If you don’t have a theology of failure, you’ll end up burning out or devastated when you inevitably wake up to a mistake. We do what we are called to do not because we can do it perfectly, but because even in failure, we believe it is worth doing and that in doing our best God is honored.

What about productivity? A phrase caught my attention months ago and it’s been ruminating in my mind ever since. The phrase was, “You either contemplate or exploit.” (Andy Crouch, In “Andy Crouch: Love and the Risk of Innovation” in Faith and Leadership Newsletter, November 23, 2010). And it struck me that I was exploiting my art for my own sake (my progress, accolades etc) instead of listening to and valuing art for itself and what art inherently can do in the world. When art becomes about success (impressing people or making money) it stops being about the art, and the heart goes out of it. In that sense, art is for its own sake. You’ve got to make art for the love of making art because that’s the only way you’ll want to practice your craft. To practice our crafts, we have to have an attitude of gratuity: to “waste” time on work that will never leave the basement.


The rhythm and rule of Christian life

March 29th, 2011 – by Brian Gumm

Photo by Ferran Jordà (CC lic.)

A bittersweet season of university life is drawing near: Graduation. Last year was the first time I felt this sting at EMU, as I watched my friends in the class of 2010 graduate from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding with their MA’s in Conflict Transformation, a two-year program which we’d started together in 2008. This year, many of my friends in the Seminary are graduating with their Mdiv’s, a three-year program. Meanwhile, I’ll be hanging around for another full year to complete my work for both degrees.

One of my fellow seminarians, Adam, was conducting a short-answer survey for his senior capstone project on the “rhythm and rule” of Christian life, a cute seminary phrase for “spiritual disciplines” or the virtuous, worshipful habits that shape our faith. “Rhythm and rule” always makes me think of drum circles, which seems like a decent metaphor. A drum circle group that’s really keyed into the rhythm is transcendant while an arhythmic circle sounds like a car crash. What do we want our lives to sound like?


Patterns of this world, part 3: Institutions through the Window of Jesus

March 21st, 2011 – by Tim Nafziger

In the first article of this series, I did a broad overview of the bureaucratization trends in the Mennonite Church. In the second article, I looked specifically at the philosophy of institutions put forth by J. Lawrence Burkholder and practiced by James Brenneman and Howard Brenneman as presidents of Goshen (Ind.) College and Mennonite Mutual Aid respectively. In this third part I’ll look at the history of this thought in the Anabaptist tradition as well as Mennonite and feminist critique of Neihbur and Burkholder. I’ll continue to draw heavily from The Limits of Perfection: A Conversation with J. Lawrence Burkholder as well as The Feminist Case against Bureaucracy.

Burkholder and the tradition of Mennonite Niebuhrians

In The Politics of Jesus John Howard Yoder summarizes the position of Neihbur thus:

Love, self-sacrifice and nonviolence provide no basis for taking responsibility in this world … Those who are called to assure the survival and the administration of institutions will accept violence in order, one day, to reduce or eliminate it. They will accept inequality and exploitation with the goal of progressively combating them… While respecting the prophet, the rest of us will choose institutions. (104)


Patterns of this world, part 2: Breakfast with Burkholder

March 7th, 2011 – by Tim Nafziger

When we left the first part in this series, I promised that the second part would look specifically at Mennonite educational organizations and the case of James Brenneman and J. Lawrence Burkholder. However, I’d like to start by giving some background on J. Lawrence Burkholder and his influence with another Mennonite institution: the institution formerly known as Mennonite Mutual Aid (MMA), now Everence.

I first became familiar with this story in Keith Graber Miller’s piece “Mennonite Mutual Aid: A Margin of Difference.” In it he tells the story of MMA adopting the practice of underwriting. The practice meant that healthier people would pay less for their insurance policies and sicker people would pay more or be denied coverage all together. It was seen by some in MMA’s leadership as necessary for the survival of the institution. Underwriting had become the norm among most insurance companies at the time. But in practice, it would have a painful impact on sick or at-risk people who would be denied coverage, and it was difficult for those in MMA who were responsible for denying them aid in their time of need.  In 1988, an MMA task force went so far as to say that strict underwriting was “contrary to the mission of MMA.” The report also said, “We are caught between those conflicting needs of serving the church and being a sound business.”

Graber-Miller tells of the struggles MMA president Howard Brenneman felt in making this difficult decision to begin underwriting MMA insurance policies. Brenneman clearly struggled with his role in the decision to move to underwriting. He told Graber Miller that he “had heard Burkholder talk about ambiguity” and liked what he heard. Brenneman said, “When I really get to stumbling around, I visit with [Burkholder] at breakfast.” (Graber-Miller 287) Through the work of Brenneman and others in the MMA administration, the organization shifted farther along the path to becoming another insurance agency with a Mennonite constituency. He identifies this process of becoming like similar organizations as “institutional isomorphism” as described by sociologists Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell (Graber Miller, 266)


Patterns of this World: Institutions and Bureaucracy among the Mennonites

February 28th, 2011 – by Tim Nafziger

“In the world, but not of it.” It is a concept long embraced by Mennonites in style of dress and rejection of other “worldy” trappings. But in the last 50 years, the stance of mainstream Mennonites has changed  dramatically. Embracing radio, television and lipstick, we’ve come to see our Christian distinctiveness through our dissenting view on war, our commitment to simple living and our Christian service. Unfortunately, in our rush to engage the world on these issues, we have uncritically embraced a piece of this  aion (Gk., spirit of this world) far more dangerous then lipstick and ties. That is: institutional structures and  bureaucracy.

Tim, you might say, aren’t you being a bit over-dramatic? Can institutional structures really hurt anyone? Aren’t they just neutral tools that can be used for good or ill?

In this first part of my series on bureaucracy and  institutionalism, I’ll draw on three writers to make my case. The first is Kathy Ferguson in her book, The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy. In this quote she clearly names the way institutions co-opt our attempts to form an alternative polis grounded in community:

The [bureaucratic] structures that isolate us undermine politics itself in that they undermine our sociality; they harm our capacity to take the perspective of others unto ourselves and our situation, to imagine alternatives that come from shared experience, to project different futures and redefine past experiences on the basis of other possibilities for individual and collective life. There is a “Catch 22” involved in in this dependency/isolation dialectic: to act socially one must share a common world with others and contribute to the field of meaning that constitutes the world. Any originality of thought or action requires that we be rooted in shared existence; but the more firmly rooted one is in bureaucracy, the less likely one is to think differently, to act differently, or in any way to make a new beginning (14).

In other words, bureaucracy draws us in with its promises of community and shared action, but ultimately co-opts this impulse to the overall goal of keeping the institutional machinery running (9).


MC USA: The Immigrant Church

February 1st, 2011 – by Alicia Horst

What if we saw all of the church as an immigrant church?

In September of 2009 I began working with NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center.  NewBridges was started and is partially funded by the Harrisonburg District of Virginia Mennonite Conference and some of its churches.  As an agency of the church, it seeks “to address the spiritual, social and economic needs of immigrants in the Shenandoah Valley, and to connect people and congregations in building a resilient community that values our diverse cultural groups.”

I have learned a lot about Mennonite identity by moving between the nonprofit context and the church context. Specifically I’ve learned some of the ways the church sees and describes itself. We often shift our language when speaking of immigration issues. We use “us” and “them,” sometimes regardless of our cultural or ethnic heritage. Empathy and compassion are not always the first responses for those of us who haven’t had to immigrate because of crisis.

I spent my childhood in Italy, and as a result, I enjoy multicultural contexts. I feel wholeness and a sense of peace when I am surrounded by many languages and people groups. I celebrate that I have been able to find meaningful work. But as I do that, I am becoming very aware of my background of privilege.  I don’t really know what it means to have to move through several countries out of desperation for financial, physical or religious security.  I haven’t experienced that level of vulnerability.  I have never relied on a guide to take me through a desert or been packed in a shipping container and become an indentured servant for the fee of my passage.  I do not understand what it means to be separated indefinitely from family.

Most persons born in the U.S. have no idea what it is like to work with the U.S. immigration system. Our current system is based on a patchwork of legislation from different phases of our country’s development and is often irrelevant to the current needs of our society.  Because of the current political rhetoric, the possibility of creating a logical immigration process sometimes seems like an impossible dream.

Here is an example: I met with a man from Sierra Leone who married a U.S. citizen.  By all rights, he can become a U.S. citizen too.  However, his process with immigration has been stalled for years and no amount of trying to communicate with the “powers that be” has helped.  He is simply told that his file is in order but for no articulated reason he must wait for the next step in the process.  If he were wealthy, he could hire a lawyer who may be able to help advocate on his behalf.  As it is, he must continue to wait indefinitely.

Sometimes I wonder if projects abroad are easier to support because “we” are helping “them” and not having to deal with who “us” is.  If we saw all of the church as an immigrant church then perhaps our sense of calling or urgency would shift.  We are not all recent immigrants, but our identity is to be empathetically connected to the entire body of Christ, so sometimes we might need to imagine that someone else’s experience is our own. Otherwise, we tend toward selfishness, ignorance, or avoiding discomfort.

As the church, in the midst of complex systems and allegiances, how we engage in hospitality and listen to stories deeply matters.  The church is rooted in an identity that transcends nationality.  The realm of God beckons our ultimate allegiance.

Alicia Horst is a 2006 graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary. She spent the first 13 years of her life in Italy as the child of missionary parents. She identifies herself as an Italian-American and a “third-culture kid,” among other things.

When the Enemy is Within

January 11th, 2011 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

In the last 48 hours a number of blog responses to the decision for MC USA to go to Phoenix in 2013 have disturbed me.  First, of all, let me say right up front, I’m extremely disappointed in the decision to continue to hold the convention in a place with such unfriendly immigration laws. I can’t pretend to understand everything that went into the decision but I am disappointed that it appears as though finances won over truly caring about people. If this is not actually what happened, I hope very soon that someone will set the record straight.

However, I am also disappointed in reactions to this decision. I have read two blogs, the one linked above and this one, where the writers suggests that it’s time to abandon the Mennonite church and form something else.  I hope and pray that these writers are speaking out of (justifiable) anger and disappointment and are not ready to act on their expressed anger. Here’s why: Mennonites in particular have a long history of separation and abandonment of those who are “wrong.” Our righteous anger seems to almost exclusively translate into separation, exclusion, shunning, and abandonment.

We have a very spotty history of separating over things that a generation or two later become non-issues. Past examples include Sunday School and instruments in church. These things seem trivial to us. So trivial, in fact, that I even hesitate to compare them to important issues like homosexuality and immigration. However, I think it’s wrong to assume that our ancestors had any less passion about Sunday School than we have about present issues.

I would weep if these minority (or even majority) voices left the denomination. I would weep if the young Mennonites and Anabaptists who are frustrated with the situation just threw up their hands and abandoned the denomination. We need all the voices of the church and we need to learn to talk to those who disagree. We need to learn to how to stay in fellowship with each other, even when we feel like enemies.

I believe this is part of our non-violent calling. What does it say to the world, when we, who claim to have the corner on the peace market, can’t figure out how to talk to each other? Are we called to have less compassion and love when the enemy is within the church? Jesus harshly criticized religious leaders, yet still met with them, talked to them, and stayed in fellowship.

The United States political climate is such that people no longer listen to those who disagree with them. Please let’s not let that reality turn into our reality. A giant institutional government is probably not the future of the church. It certainly seems unwieldy, frustrating, and authoritarian sometimes. I dream of a future church that is a centered set, rather than a bounded set. One who pays more attention to the core vision, mission, and theology than the boundaried edges.  I dream of a denomination that looks more like a network and less like an institution. I dream of a church that can hold in tension more ideas, opinions, and theology, not less.

We will never achieve that dream if those who disagree just abandon us (or are kicked out). Please, stay. Talk. Listen. For only then does the church have a chance at a future.

Spam, Spam, Spam

December 22nd, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

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Surrendering the “War on Christmas”

December 15th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

It’s become a Christmas tradition — each year the cultural warriors spread good cheer and the love of Christ by bitterly complaining about the secularization of the Christmas. Leading the charge in past years have been the elves at Fox News, who argue that the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays” and the removal of traditional seasonal symbols like the Christmas tree represent the liberal onslaught against religion in the public sphere. And while it’s easy to make fun, pundits like Bill O’Reilly or Gretchen Carlson bring voice to the old anxiety that Christianity is losing its prominent cultural place in American society.

American Atheists Anti-Christmas Billboard

American Atheists Anti-Christmas Billboard. Source:


On Being a Young Adult Voice

November 18th, 2010 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

I’m not sure how it happens exactly, but I keep being asked to “represent young adults” or “give the young adult perspective” at church gatherings. This makes me uncomfortable.

First, because I can hardly conceive of the idea that I would speak for all young adults everywhere, or even a tiny percentage of young adults at any one time.  I have a very particular perspective based on my particular upbringing, socialization and personality.

Second because by adding me to a committee as the “young adult representative” church leaders then assume that they have done their duty in ushering young adults into the workings of the church.

Third, because while I am a young adult, not everything I have to offer the church is defined by that label. For example, I could also offer the perspective of seminary employee, or congregational leader working at new models of leadership, or of a woman, or of a seminary graduate.

This representation of the young adult voice is a double-sided coin for me. On the one hand I’m glad there are young adults being asked to participate in important church-wide events. I’m glad there are young adults present and active in these conversations and I’m even glad when those young adults are asked to give the “young adult perspective.” In particular I feel honored and respected when I’m asked my opinion about church matters.

On the other hand, I think it might be wise for churches as a whole to ask themselves, “Why do we need a ‘representative,’ why aren’t young adults involved in our institution naturally? Or even more pertinent, why aren’t our congregational and denominational bodies multi-generational?” We don’t ask for an elderly representative, or a Generation X representative.  As I look around many gatherings of church leaders the dominant perspective is baby-boomers.

Why is this? Is it because the church formed into these particular structures during the boomer era and so the boomers have a vested interest in keeping these structures going? Is it because boomers have not paid attention to mentoring younger generations into leadership? Is it because younger generations don’t care about the church or its structures?

Maybe all of these things are partly true for some people, in some places, at some times. However, I also wonder if part of what is missing is trust. Does the church trust us to lead? If we are labeled “young adult representative” then our opinions only need to be taken seriously as young adult opinions, not as a leader’s opinions. It seems that if you really trusted us you would invite us in for ourselves, and not as a young adult. If you really trusted us our opinions would be sought because we are leaders not because we are young. If you really trusted us, you would not need a “young adult perspective” because we would already be involved, present, and active in your congregations, agencies and organizations, leading them and moving them forward.

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