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.

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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. 

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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 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!

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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.

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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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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?

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Wednesday Link Potluck: Anabaptist Heresy Edition

September 8th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

We Mennonites and our ilk tend to think we have a good handle on what it means to follow Christ. Not everyone agrees. Until the 20th Century, most Christians considered Anabaptism to be a radical, militant heresy. Today’s Link Potluck is dedicated to the spirit of divisiveness in the Body of Christ.

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Why I’m [Still] Mennonite – Community

July 19th, 2010 – by Sherah-Leigh Gerber

Sherah-Leigh Gerber

Perhaps I’m “still” Mennonite because I’m a bit weird. And I say weird, because I think it’s counter-cultural to think that denominations matter, but I’m in that group that does. I think denominations are important. Yes, it can get messy and hierarchical. Yes, it can be bureaucratic and broken, but ultimately, denominations provide both a historic rootedness and an ongoing accountability that is important for faith.

I grew up as the oldest daughter of Mennonite pastors. Both of my parents grew up in Mennonite homes as well. So one might assume I am Mennonite because of my upbringing. While I am an “ethnic Mennonite,” I’m an Anabaptist Mennonite by conviction. Living out my faith through the theological understandings of Anabaptism is a choice that I continue to make. And that choice is not because I’m unaware of other options.

Through my public high school experience, I made friends who were strong Christians in other denominations (and a dear friend who claimed atheism). This provided a wonderful opportunity to for me to learn and grow in my own faith tradition in ways that I may not have had to otherwise.

I clearly remember when one of my friends came over for dinner. Our family held hands as we sang grace; we enjoyed a leisurely dinner, talking and laughing as a family. As she got ready to leave, my friend asked if my family did this every night, and if so, could she come again? It was the first time I realized that not everyone’s family did things as our family did. What a gift she provided me with that insight! The faith that my parents claimed deeply impacted all areas of their lives. The Anabaptism modeled for me was not a Sunday morning experience or a merely personal salvific moment, but a way of living and loving that impacted everyone in our family sphere.

The theological framework provided by Anabaptism is the way of understanding faith that resonates with me, and so I am “still” Mennonite. I’m sure the opportunity and affirmation I have received within the Mennonite community also has impacted my commitment. I appreciated the opportunity in Seminary to go deeper into these ideas, and I came through, still believing that the Anabaptist lens is most helpful.

In particular, I’m drawn to the centrality of Christ and understanding Jesus as non-violent in his approach and call to discipleship. I appreciate the way Anabaptism holds together peace and justice through the person of Jesus. I’m attracted to the practical, rich and serious way that Mennonite theology takes the teachings of Jesus. I am encouraged and challenged by both the personal and communal elements of living out an Anabaptist way of life, and these dynamics are particularly significant for mission and service activities.

In a recent Sunday School class discussion, we were talking about the value of community, a significant feature of being Mennonite. While reflecting on how challenging working things out “in community” can be, I realized that the accountability and support of my community is a significant part of how I understand faith, process my experiences and make meaning of this journey. Yes, it’s messy and difficult and takes time and energy, but really all things worth having seem to be that way. Ω

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Review: “The Naked Anabaptist”

July 19th, 2010 – by Maegan Yoder

The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith by Stuart Murray starts with the declaration, “the Anabaptists are back!” With this statement, Murray begins an exciting and timely dialogue about the radical vision of Anabaptist faith and tradition. His obvious passion for Anabaptism, which combined with a concise and clear writing style, makes this book a stimulating and easy read. What truly sets The Naked Anabaptist apart, is the book’s bold declaration of core Anabaptist values, imbued with a humility that respects other Christian traditions and acknowledges unflattering moments in Anabaptist history. Murray draws from his experience with the Anabaptist Network in the United Kingdom and Ireland to explore the meaning of Anabaptism stripped of its ethnic traditions. Murray creates a provocative and challenging vision of what Anabaptism offers without portraying it as the theology that will save Christianity.

The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray
The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith
by Stuart Murray
300 pages. Herald Press. $13.99

Murray employs the term post-Christendom to identify the waning influence of Christianity in Europe and the USA. While Murray does not imply that Christianity is ceasing to be a significant cultural influence, he argues that the intimate relationship between state and church is ending. While many Christian denominations encounter this shift with fear and panic, Murray enthusiastically embraces the change. He agrees with the classic Anabaptist belief that the church’s movement to the cultural center after Constantine pushed Jesus to the margins. As a result, the person and message of Jesus was “reappraised, neutered, and domesticated”, and led to a depiction of Jesus that was “worshiped as a remote kingly figure or a romanticized personal savior.” This downplayed Jesus’ radical message and demand for discipleship. As a church on the margins, the Anabaptists provide a roadmap with which Jesus once again can be both followed and worshiped.

Murray introduces the seven core convictions that define Anabaptism today. The convictions are, in short:

  1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord.
  2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation.
  3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian.
  4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness.
  5. Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship.
  6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected.
  7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel.

Murray expounds on each conviction and lays out Biblical support, historic Anabaptist belief, and current examples of application for each point. Murray concludes by offering a brief history of the beginnings of Anabaptism and cites several issues that Anabaptists currently struggle with, such as legalism, divisiveness, separatism, and quietism.

For those who want to explore Anabaptism, this book is an exciting introduction to a religious tradition that offers a radical view of the relationship between Jesus Christ, our faith communities, and the world. As Mennonite Church USA deals with an identity crisis in the face of declining membership and a profound absence of younger people, this book serves as a powerful reminder. It reminds us that the strength of the Mennonite church resides in its experience of being a church on the margins. It is in the margins, not the center, where the church can offer its vision of radical faith, commitment to peace, and wholehearted discipleship to Jesus.

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