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:


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Editorial- What is Church?

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

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

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

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

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

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Authenticity, Transformed Shadows, and Betty D. King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is MCUSA Doomed? (And Does it Matter?)

September 29th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

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

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

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

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I Surrender

September 16th, 2010 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

Sometimes I take on too much. Okay, more than sometimes, always. I have a very hard time saying no. Partially because so many things sounds like fun, are interesting, or seem like the “right thing to do.” This week has been one of those weeks when all the things I have agreed to do have come together to clobber me.

Last week I was at a consultation for the missional church. The consultation was put together by the executive board of Mennonite Church USA, and the purpose was to talk about the structure of the church. At some point in the future, I hope to write a post about structure in the church. But today I wanted to focus on something else I learned, or was reminded of, at that meeting. It’s something I tend to forget in the midst of the responsibility I feel to do my part in keeping projects, institutions and other good works going.

I was reminded again that the Holy Spirit is supposed to be the prime-mover in the church, not me. Maybe it seems obvious, but it’s something I easily forget in all the running around I do to make sure everything works out just right. I forget that God is in charge.

Lois Barrett, one of the speakers, shared a prayer by Charles de Foucauld that I am working on praying.

Father, I abandon myself
into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do,
I thank you.

I am ready for all,
I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me
and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands
I commend my soul;
I offer it to you,
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself
into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

I wonder what would happen if I would live this prayer and actually believe it? It scares me. What does it mean for my life if I truly surrender? What would it mean for the church if we all prayed this prayer?

Would my feeling of responsibility for the success or failure of the things I do decrease? Would I find myself doing things I didn’t expect? Would I discover more fully my call?

I don’t know, but maybe it’s time to find out.

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Wednesday Link Potluck: Glenn Beck Edition

September 1st, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

A new feature of Work & Hope is the “Wednesday Link Potluck,” a weekly link dump of articles and blog posts of interest from across the Internet. In response to last weekend’s Restoring Honor rally in Washington, DC, the links below focus on commentary about the event and the intersection between faith and politics.

Was Saturday’s rally about faith, politics or both? Contrasting views:

  • Jim Garlow argues that Beck’s rally was about faith and sought to restore virtue and God’s place in American society.
  • Virtue smirtue. Joe Conason believes the rally is really intended to mobilize evangelical conservatives and to assert the power of the Religious Right in the upcoming election.
  • Elizabeth Scalia views the rally as a “sensible tent revival meeting” that avoided as a political event avoided politics, and muses about the eschatological issues inherent in calls for revival and restoration.
  • Russell Moore compares the rally to an evangelical apocalyptic novel as Christian embrace “vacuous talk about about undefined ‘revival’ and ‘turning America back to God'” to accommodate political ideology (or at least Glenn Beck’s ego). Also: Mormons are icky.
  • Nate Richards praises the rally’s message that “individualism must reign in our nation” and that we cannot rely on the government to “bring this nation into an age of liberty and faith.”
  • Mark Silk thinks the rally was a throw-back to the “I Love America” rallies of the 1970’s and seems kinda bored by the entire thing.
  • Agnostic James Wall Kirk is irked by all the God-talk and argues that non-religious Americans are good, moral people too.
  • Graham Hill has some thoughts on engaging politics as a Christian.
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Telling Stories

August 23rd, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

As a parent of a toddler, I’ve been thinking a lot about how stories influence and shape us. Parents are natural storytellers. While most of the stories we’re currently telling our daughter Isabella involve cartoon animals rhyming and counting, as she grows older, we will add more substantial stories to the repertoire. I will tell her about her family history and how I met her mother. As a Christian, I will also tell her the story of God as revealed in Scripture and how that story calls us into discipleship of Jesus Christ. As it has often been observed, stories tell us where we come from, who we are and where we are going.

Along with the stories we tell her, Izzy will also encounter other stories. Many of us who live close to the dominant culture of “the World” often forget that we are surrounded by alternate narratives with their own assumptions about the world and what it means to be human. As Christians, we often compete with these other stories in our homes and churches. While some blame “Hollywood,” these alternate stories also take shape in forms not obviously recognizable as entertainment.  I believe that much of American Christianity is a synthesis between Christianity and the other “stories” of capitalism and Enlightenment philosophy.

In the case of Isabella, this competition may already be starting. I’m amazed at the power that Sesame Street‘s Elmo has over her imagination. My daughter doesn’t sit still for much — including television — but will pay rapt attention whenever the red furry Muppet jabbers away. He’s helped us teach her the alphabet and now he gets her to sit still on the potty for more than five minutes while he sings about potty training. Yet we also live in a world where Tickle-Me-Elmo exists and despite the fact that Sesame Street does an excellent job teaching young children fundamentals in a clever and engaging way, it also exposes them at an early age to branding and marketing.

So how can I tell story of God that captures Izzy’s imagination in the same way Sesame Street does? Do I need to use puppets or vegetables? Do we need better production values in church in order to raise our voice above the noise of today’s media landscape? Or do I need to withdraw Izzy from the influences of these other stories and try to expose her only to the stories I want her exposed to?

I think the answer lies in an example from my own childhood.  When my family lived in West Berlin during the 1980’s, I attended the German-American school on the other side of the city. In order to get to the school bus, I had take two subways (the ubiquitous Berlin U-Bahn) and my father often traveled with me in the mornings. In order to pass time, he read to me from an English children’s bible (with a blond, blue-eyed Jesus) that one of my aunts had sent me for Christmas. Now one of the quirks about my Dad, is that even though he’s an American, he prefers German and so he translated these bible stories as he read them aloud to me. Often other children (and adults) riding the subway listened to Dad as well.

There was something in the way that Dad narrated these stories — perhaps by translating and telling them aloud — that transformed them from being mere “Bible Stories” on the pages of a holy book. For me, they became living, breathing narratives that had the space and power to capture my imagination. While treating the scriptures with reverence is part of living out the story, we also need to make sure that we tell the stories in a compelling way that resonates with the imagination. I don’t believe we need better production values or separation in order to compete with the other narratives out there, but we need to be willing to tell the Christian story —  to offer it to our children and “the World” through both word and deed.

I hope that Izzy grows, I can help her navigate these narrative landscapes. I hope she becomes not just a consumer of these cultural stories, but an active participant with the critical skills to understand how these stories function and the purpose they serve. Most of all, I hope that I can find a way to tell my daughter the story of God in a way that captures her imagination. I don’t want the Bible to be just another story for her — I want it to become her story.

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Why I’m [Still] Mennonite – Hope and Peace

July 19th, 2010 – by Laura Church

Laura ChurchI am still a Mennonite because of the Presbyterians.

On a daily basis, I am surrounded by gun shots, drug deals on my front stoop, and questions from the police over whether my husband and I are lost as we pull up outside of our row home in Baltimore.  The adjustment to life in my neighborhood was difficult for me. Just a few months after moving there, I felt frustrated with my neighbors, sad that anyone had to live in this situation, and tired of seeing people make destructive life choices. I saw little hope for those around me, and wasn’t sure what “peace” was anymore. I wanted to move, and often retreated into my house to avoid my neighbors. However, both my husband and I felt a deep sense of call to live in this neighborhood. We realized that we needed a community with a similar sense of call in order for this to work.

We began looking for this community at church. I was surprised to find myself drawn to a Presbyterian community near where we live. I was raised in the Mennonite Church, and as an adult, I continue to hold to its values and commitments. I felt skeptical that I would find what I looked for in this community. However, on the first Sunday we visited, I knew I had found a place that truly sought and followed the footsteps of Christ. We found a rainbow of people worshiping together. The pastor talked extensively about core values of the church: Reconciliation, Redistribution, and Relocation. He spoke on the importance of living among those you serve, share resources, and bringing together groups of people who would not normally interact. I realized everyone in that service lived in the neighborhood and came from a variety of backgrounds. Some had grown up locally, and some were transplants. Some continued to struggle with their daily needs, while others had never known poverty. However, they all were committed to loving each other and providing for each other’s needs. They knew each other, loved each other, and lived their lives together as one body. I found hope in their commitment to each other and discipleship to Christ. While they would not consider themselves a “peace church,” I saw persons working for peace more clearly than ever before.

I no longer desire to move. I learned that in order to love my neighbors, I must know my neighbors. Instead of watching my neighbors from my house and feeling frustrated, I now spend my time sitting on my front stoop talking to them, helping people apply for social security or unemployment, pumping up balls and tires for the children, or having a family over for dinner. I still have some of the same frustrations that I did before, but I see my neighbors differently. They are now my family, people I love, and the idea of leaving them breaks my heart. I learned that to provide hope and peace for those around me, I must know them, live with them, and share in their daily life struggles. I also learned that not only do I have something to offer them, but they have something to offer me. I am regularly loved, called family, and looked after by my neighbors. I no longer work for hope and peace for my neighbors — we now work together to find hope and peace for the neighborhood. Ω

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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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Why I’m [Still] Brethren – Love

July 19th, 2010 – by Brian Gumm

Brian GummFirst, let me say something rather unremarkable: I’m Brethren because I was born that way. My parents, my congregation and its pastors, and church camp and youth leaders all did a marvelous job of not running me out of the church. In fact, it was at times me that was running out of the church, and everyone else working together to lovingly keep me in. So as I begin to answer the question of “Why I’m Still Brethren,” it starts with that life-long relationship with followers of Jesus Christ who have called themselves “Brethren.” From that faith community, I also heard from a young age that the church needed me and was eventually called by them into the ministry. So formed the first 28 years of my life…

Two years ago, my family made the decision to uproot from our native Iowa and move to Virginia so that I could study in the Seminary and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. Moving here was our first encounter with Mennonites, and little did I know that this would put me through a year of what I’ve called my “Brethren identity crisis.” I quickly developed a deep admiration for the Mennonites around me and their self-awareness of their Mennonite-ness and Anabapist-ness. For Brethren as I experienced them (in myself as well), there was a certain…something that felt…Brethren, but it was rarely articulated or in the collective consciousness. One reason I’m still Brethren comes out of a sense that many Brethren have forgotten, or worse, have never heard, what their story is and why their witness is important. If we’re Brethren we need to know the Brethren story and be imaginative storytellers, folding our own rich history into the infinitely-richer biblical narrative and the gospel that Jesus embodied and offers us still. Put as a question: What makes the Brethren story worth living, much less telling?

Part of what helped me through my Brethren identity crisis was academic study that put words to the Brethren experience, things that I already knew in my bones. This is the paradox of the Brethren: What do you Brethren believe? Answer: Look at how we live. It’s a simultaneously foolish and brilliant approach to the Christian faith and another reason I’m happy to be in the Brethren flock. What I fear is that “how we live” has been subverted by complex societal-cultural forces that we’re ill-equipped to even sense, much less respond to. Further, these forces are shot through with spiritual conflict that we’re equally ill-equipped to deal with.  Mind you this not a conservative v. liberal rant, but rather a modern-postmodern social-theological critique, and an area in which I feel called to minister.

So why am I still Brethren? Because of love.  A love with which God first loved us. That love of God I felt deeply in my Brethren congregation. It’s that love I’m led to express and teach in my fellowship, a calling I’m humbled and thrilled to take up. Ω

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