worship

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. 

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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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The Space Age

September 2nd, 2010 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

A few weeks ago a former professor posted this article from the New York Times on his Facebook page “Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime” Here’s the synopsis: If we’re constantly “plugged in” to our digital devices we don’t learn as well as we would if we had space to process those things we’re learning. If we fill every spare minute with entertainment or news or work we aren’t really processing what we are experiencing.

The real irony for me was that I read this article off my phone while I was eating breakfast.

We are moving into a time where we aren’t limited anymore by the technology. We can’t say that we won’t check our email because there isn’t a computer nearby, the computer is in our pocket. Because the technology doesn’t limit us anymore it’s up to our own discipline.

Unplugging and creating space is a spiritual discipline and sometimes I wonder  if it’s one the church fosters. I recently heard of a pastor who uses Twitter during his sermon to get feedback as he’s preaching. Part of me is impressed by the ability to multi-task. And part of me is not sure this is the spirit the church ought to be fostering in this age.

If our brains need space to process and learn, how are we creating that space in our worship communities? Would we do better to create more silent space and reflective time during worship, rather than adding more video clips, technology, and powerpoints? Are we really an age in need of space?

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