Author Archives: hnmiller

About hnmiller

Grew up on a dairy farm, loving animals. My six years of formal education after high school included two at Elim Bible Institute (charismatic), two at Eastern Mennonite University (Mennonite), and two at Westminster Theological Seminary (Reformed). I learned to listen to and value and sort through the various streams! Since then I've pastored Mennonite congregations, served on denominational boards, taught at various schools including in Ukraine (Rivne) and Ethiopia (Meserete Kristos College).

We who are blind can be told Truth

Many in our society are skeptical when someone or some group makes a claim to know Truth. And rightly so. Even scientific observation is never fully objective. Science again and again needs to adjust its conclusions (is salt or cream or eggs bad for us—or good?!) because researchers’ blind spots and biases can skewer their results.

Some persons go much farther and deny even the possibility of us knowing Truth. They say that each of us can only know our own “lived experience” but never be sure of objective or universal values.

An old poem by John Godfrey Saxe seems to have anticipated our postmodern skepticism. It describes the

…six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind).

empty tombDepending on which part of the elephant they touch, they conclude the elephant is like a wall, a spear, a rope, or other things. So they

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right

And all were in the wrong.

Yes, our experience and knowledge is limited, like those blind men. We can never take in the whole picture.

So it seems inescapable that Truth is forever beyond our reach. Except for one thing. In the poem, who saw the incident? How can the story be told unless there’s someone who saw it happen—saw the elephant and each blind man touching a part of it?

Indeed, in the first version of the story, told by Buddha, the raja or king looks on empty tombas one man thinks the elephant is like a wall, one like a rope, and so on. That’s how we have the story: the king saw what went on. His understanding was not limited like the blind men.

Is it possible that some King sees all of reality and life, sees this group grabbing onto this aspect of life and that group latching onto that? And can tell the full story of what’s happening? Such a One would be able to fit the various parts of understanding into a complete whole, would know how life fits together. Such a One could—and does—give us Truth.

Why would Jesus talk about hell?

Jesus talked about hell more than all the other Bible authors combined. Hell is mentioned explicitly 23 times in the New Testament and in 16 of those times, Jesus is the one who utters the words.

He pronounces “eternal fire and punishment” as the final destiny of persons who see the hungry in helland give them nothing to eat or see the sick and don’t care for them (Matt. 25:41-46). He warns that those who give into sin are in danger of “hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:42-48). Normally when all the flesh is consumed, any maggots die; but the decomposition in hell never ends—their worm does not die. Normally something on fire gets burned up and the fire goes out; but in hell the burning never ends.

Why would Jesus—the Lord of Love, the Author of Grace—talk about a fate that horrible?

Our minds tend to go toward worst case answers:
●  Jesus was not as compassionate and wise as us.
●  He allowed the brutality and barbarism of his day to rub off on him.
●  Or maybe he himself never spoke threats of hell but over-zealous followers put them in his mouth.

But there are also best case answers available:
●  If we choose evil we cannot enter the heavenly City.

Out of respect for human dignity, Jesus does not force his values on us—does not force us to behave as residents of heaven behave, to love God with all our being and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. So if we reject the values of heaven, we must go to the “other place.”

C.S. Lewis wrote: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it” (The Great Divorce). Henri Nouwen wrote: “God is love and only love. In God there is no hatred, desire for revenge, or pleasure in seeing us punished. God wants to forgive, heal, restore, show us endless mercy, and see us come home. But just as the father of the prodigal son let his son make his own decision, God gives us the freedom to refuse God’s love, even at the risk of destroying ourselves. Hell is not God’s choice. It is ours” (Bread for the Journey).

●  Misery is the out-working of a choice against God and for self.

The agony of hell-fire may be a metaphor for something infinitely worse than fire. We see that self-centeredness brings misery in the long run. The more self-absorbed and self-focused a person is, the more they tend to grumble, complain, and blame others. Relationships break down. Even physical well-being lessens. If we see that amount of misery in this short life, imagine these souls in a billion years. As we start out, we are distinct from our grumbling mood. We may even criticize it in ourselves and wish we could stop it. “But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine” (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce).

Jesus’ images of horror and agony may simply be a description of a chosen path of sinful selfishness going on forever, on a trajectory toward abject misery. Jesus, more perceptive and wiser than any other prophet or teacher, was more aware of this danger than any other. And so he in compassion warned us of it more than any other.

My midnight journal entry while backpacking

Potter County in northern Pennsylvania is where I grew up. It’s beautiful terrain, mainly farmland and woods. Every main road coming into the country has a large rustic wooden sign: “Welcome to Potter County, God’s Country.”Potter Country-God's Country And it’s sparsely populated. As I remember it, the human population was 20,000 and the estimated whitetail deer population was the same.

The summer I was 20, in between my junior and senior years at college, a local Christian camp organized a trail camp. I helped lead a group of 14 of us hiking the Susquehannock Trail System, 85 miles winding through the wilder parts of the county in a huge, irregular circle.

Here’s an anecdote from my journal of the hike. On Day 3 (Wed, Aug 13, 1975) at 5pm we arrived at Cross Fork. We built a fire, cooked some supper, strung some ropes between trees to make a shelter with big black tarp—in case it rained. My entry is dated that night at midnight.

What is so interesting about a night? Well, what is?

This night was pitch black. I could vaguely remember what woke me up. I had picked up a furry object with long coarse hair and it had given me a protesting nip with its teeth. A furry thing! The cobwebs of sleep vanished in a second. What was I petting? An opossum? Skunk? Raccoon? My hand gingerly explored and decided for the latter, especially when it started purring as I continued petting him. Soon he, too, wanted to explore, so I lifted the edge of my sleeping bag and in it went.

I wasn’t really sure if the others would believe me in the morning. And joy shared is joy doubled. So I woke my cousin who had a flashlight. It was a raccoon and the little fellow was cuddled next to me washing himself.

Soon everyone was back to sleep except him and me. Then suddenly he seemed to want out. I soon saw why. There, not five feet from my sleeping bag were five pairs of eyes glowing in the night. Soon there were six. Evidently Mama and the youngsters were out hunting supper and one little fellow got tired. So he picked out a soft spot to wait until Mama returned, and that soft spot happened to be me.

Don’t know why I was given the privilege. Maybe he knew I was writing the journal.

Did the other campers believe me and my cousin in the morning? Yes. I had some corroborating evidence. Some little dark droppings. In my sleeping bag.

Bothered about slavery in the Bible

If you know someone who doesn’t trust the Bible because it seems to accept slavery (Paul told slaves to obey their masters and didn’t tell masters to free their slaves), here are thoughts that might help them.

● When we evaluate something, we look at the direction it is moving—toward or away from the ideal. The movement is what matters. And clearly Paul and the early church were moving away from slavery. roman slavesWe see Paul urging Philemon to treat the runaway slave Onesimus as a brother (Philem. 1:15-17). And Paul viewing slave and free as having equal worth: all are one in Christ (1 Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11); masters are not higher in God’s eyes and should not threaten their slaves (Eph. 6:9). And this change Paul asked Philemon and the others to make was sufficient to, in the end, change everything. As F.F. Bruce said, in moving persons toward a master-slave relationship where the master does not threaten slaves and sees them as sisters and brothers, Paul was creating “an atmosphere in which the institution of slavery could only wilt and die.”

● This analogy has helped me. Suppose a good friend moved into a rough neighborhood to befriend the people there. When I stop in to visit, I see ashtrays in the house. I wouldn’t conclude that my friend views smoking as good. Rather, I would assume that the ashtrays are part of a commitment to relate to neighbor, that my friend knew that some would stay away if they couldn’t smoke. In the same way, Paul did not advocate slavery’s elimination because then he would have become so far ahead of his culture that persons like Philemon might no longer relate to him and hear him. Highly regarded historians (such as Kyle Harper) say that not even the “enlightened observers” in that day “could imagine a world without slavery.” The friend was willing to sully his reputation with the ashtrays; Paul (the Spirit of God within Paul) was also willing to stoop to meet people where they were at, in hopes of moving them further. Wise coaches and mentors know that it’s not wise to confront everything that needs changing all at once, for that would overwhelm and alienate those they’re trying to help.

● From my (limited!) understanding of history, Paul had 2 options:

– Insist that Philemon and other Christian slave-owners measure up to the highest ideal (“free all your slaves immediately”), almost certainly straining his relationship with them beyond what it could bear, losing opportunity to continue to influence them; or

– Aim for the highest response he could realistically hope for (“treat your slaves as brothers and sisters”) so he can continue to relate to Philemon and the others, shaping how they relate to their slaves.

Historians give data that suggests that scenario as accurate. If so, it would have been wrong for Paul to choose to be the idealist who insisted on all or nothing and ended up with nothing. If Philemon had perceived Paul as too impractical, too radical, he would have rejected Paul’s letter with its revolutionary counsel about his runaway slave. Interestingly, Onesimus may have gone on to become bishop; at least one by that name followed Timothy as bishop at Ephesus.

My denomination continues to swing left

We delegates at the 2017 Mennonite Church USA Convention in Orlando met for an initial 4-hour session and then a concluding 1-hour session. In between those sessions, a number of non-delegates joined us for an intensive Future Church Summit. my great FCS table group! For 14 hours, 97 tables of 6-8 persons sought to imagine our denomination’s future.

Each table used an iPad to submit responses on topics such as the following:

• What draws us to this faith?

• What do we want to affirm and take forward [from our past]?

• What do we need to lament, transform and/or let go?

• What can we take action on in response to the World’s needs?

• What does it mean for us to follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st Century?

• What do we gain with MCUSA?

• How do we relate within a shared denomination?

• What are important things we do together?

A “Theme Team” received all the responses, working to summarize the common themes they heard. Only minutes (!) after the tables stopped submitting responses, the team could present a PowerPoint listing the themes that we gave them.

As one looks at the responses as summarized by the Theme Team, it is evident that progressives were the majority and spoke freely and that conservative viewpoints were largely left unspoken. For instance, the Future Church Summit’s laments over our past were:

white identity; boundaries that exclude; colonialistic approach to mission; patterns of splitting; not all stories being honored; assimilation to dominate culture; passive-aggressive avoidance of issues; abuse of power; marginalization of people of color, women, LGBTQ people; we haven’t totally merged as MCUSA; silence about process, systems and structures that cause harm; declining focus on spiritual vitality and formation.

Note how many of the items on that list are distinctively progressive and how few are distinctively conservative. Persons who are theologically-conservative can (or at least should!) find much to affirm in virtually all those items—we as a church have much that we can learn from the progressive mindset. But, by and large, the conservative voice was overshadowed by progressive ones. Again this is to the church’s loss—we can also learn much from the conservative mindset!

When the Future Church Summit finished its work, the delegates reconvened to act on a resolution on what MC USA will do with the summary material. Initial drafts of the resolution had us calling the church to implement the FCS Theme Team’s report or to use it as the direction of our national body.

However, there was a strong call to change the wording. 1) Many delegates expressed a need to discuss the report with their sending-body (their congregation or conference) before affirming it as the general direction of our church. 2) Other delegates were unsure that the report was representative of the church. Sandra Montes Martinez, moderator for Iglesia Menonita Hispana, spoke for many conservatives when she said, “We [IMH] are concerned about the word ‘direction.’ We need to qualify the word ‘diversity’: Ethnic and theological diversity are different.” 3) At our tables during the FCS we were instructed to simply register our individual preferences on the various topics. We were essentially a brain-storming group producing raw material to be used by some other discerning body. Surely a collation of individual preferences does not give us a direction.

So the resolution was revised to speak of the FCS report as a “document that is offered to the church to guide further discernment.” That version passed overwhelmingly.

A few concluding reflections:

● In the revision of the resolution at the end, some conservatives found their voice, much to the dismay of persons on Pink Menno social media. Melissa Florer-Bixler, pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church, hoped the FCS report would “be directive” to the MC USA Executive Board: “We needed to give them a mandate and hold them accountable. Once traditionalists heard the results overwhelmingly affirming the voices that were not their voice, they cried foul. … So they needed ‘more time,’ required ‘more conversation.’” Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, wrote that the revision was “the desperation of white heteronormative power” as such persons fear “the end of their control over their institution.” (Both Raleigh and Chapel Hill are in the process of leaving Virginia Mennonite Conference and becoming members of Central District Conference.)

● Nonetheless, it was clear to all present at the FCS that a stance of fully welcoming LGBTQ persons (i.e., affirming same-sex covenants and affirming persons in such covenants as pastoral leaders) has become a strongly held value in our denomination—so strong that those who do not share that value were not tending to speak out during the summit. In an open mic time during the ending delegate session, a pastor of a large congregation shared that, “as a person who holds the traditional view of sexuality, I have not felt safe to express that.”

● The sentiments of the FCS (seen in the comments during open mic times as well as in the Theme Team’s summary report) were much more progressive than the denomination actually is. (Conservatives tend to not attend our churchwide assemblies. And my sense is that the non-delegate participants of the summit tended to be even more progressive than the delegates.) Nonetheless, there is nothing that will stop our denomination from moving in the direction suggested by the FCS report. The revision of the resolution only slowed the movement.

● Recognizing that many of our congregations and some of our conferences are conservative, half of the summary of our responses to the topic “How do we relate within a shared denomination?” are about us moving toward a “federation of conferences.” If conservatives no longer feel at home and safe in their denomination, perhaps they can look to their conference for that. I personally feel good about my conference and its leadership and about the stance we have taken as Virginia Mennonite Conference. However, many in VMC (according to the 2015 survey by Conrad Kanagy) want to be part of a church that fully includes LGBTQ individuals even if losses occur. The struggle we see in the denomination is strongly present in the conference.

● Why can’t we who are conservatives, in humility, rejoice that new voices are being heard? Most of us are able to tolerate diversity on issues like women in leadership; why when it comes to same-sex marriage (two persons committing to love each other!) do we have a hard time tolerating voices of diversity?

My answer is that, for us, trust in Scripture (seeing its broad themes and trajectories as a primary source of discernment) is an essential, part of our center. We worry that those making inclusivist arguments are mainly echoing our culture. We who are conservatives don’t see them carefully grappling with the strongest biblical arguments that support the church’s historic stance against same-sex relations (for instance, the fact that Jesus and the early church chose not to lessen the OT prohibitions on various forms of what they understood to be sexual immorality but rather to tighten those prohibitions).

We want our church to love and welcome LGBT folks with open arms and hearts full of love. But loving someone doesn’t mean blessing all their choices. It means gently nudging them toward our Creator’s design for life. For those of us who see the Bible showing male-female covenantal relationships as central to God’s purposes in creation, something huge is at stake. Will we be a church who follows our culture? Or be those our confession of faith describes: people who let culture and other sources of discernment “be tested and corrected by the light of Holy Scripture,” ones who delight in the wisdom of God?

The full summary from the Theme Team on the topic I summarized above:

What do we need to lament, transform and/or let go?
• Racism in church — Centrality of white identity
• Boundaries of church that exclude — insider/outsider mentality
• Complicity in colonialism/colonialistic approach to mission
• Painful patterns of splitting/division
• Not all stories being honored — Difficulty in recognizing the various expressions of “being Mennonite”
• Assimilation to dominate culture and using assimilation to white Mennonite culture to deal with differences
• Passive aggressive avoidance of issues in the name of respectful dialogue
• Misuse/abuse of power — sexual abuse, institutional, violence towards POC and LGBTQ people
• Marginalization of people of color, women, LGBTQ people
• We haven’t totally merged as MCUSA; there were and are painful parts of the merger.
• Complicity and silence about process, systems and structures that cause harm
• Declining focus on spiritual vitality and formation

An author I love to share

For many of us reading a good book is one of life’s joys. When we find a good author, we gain additional joy in telling others. So here I sit, with a smile on my face, about to mention my favorite author on this blog again.

George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a young pastor whose view of God was too warm-hearted for his stern deacons. George MacDonaldThey couldn’t vote him out, for he was too well-loved. But they could starve him out, lowering his salary by two-thirds. The congregation’s misfortune became our good fortune, for MacDonald turned to writing for a livelihood, reaching many generations! He wrote over 50 books, ranging from children’s fantasy to realistic fiction.

These books have touched many persons, including C.S. Lewis whose conversion from atheism to faith began while reading one of MacDonald’s works. Lewis later wrote: “I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.” G.K. Chesterton said that one of MacDonald’s books “made a difference to my whole existence.” Oswald Chambers said, “…how I love that man!” and wrote that “it is a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that George MacDonald’s books have been so neglected.”

Because MacDonald wrote so many years ago, his books are now public domain. So I not only have the joy of telling persons about them, but also can create electronic versions and then give them (free!) to those with a smartphone or tablet. I also make them a bit more readable (e.g., adding definitions to dialogue in broad Scots), and have fun creating the covers.

Here are three of his books that I recently added to my web page of George MacDonald eBooks:

Robert Falconer by George MacDonaldRobert Falconer – Story of a good-hearted, perceptive Scottish boy searching for his father and for a God of love amid the stern religion of his grandmother. Largely autobiographical, the book gives a vivid description of Scotland and London in MacDonald’s day and is full of much spiritual and practical insight as we follow Robert’s discoveries and friendships.

Castle Warlock (or Warlock o' Glenwarlock) by George MacDonaldCastle Warlock: A Homely Romance – Story of young Cosmo, heir of the once proud and mighty but now impoverished Warlock family in the harsh Scottish Highlands. We see true goodness embodied as the boy becomes a man, full of love for his ancestral land, the homely castle and, most of all, his noble father. Plot builds on an unfolding tale of a murdered sea captain in the family and an unexpected visit of a lovely young lady.

The Elect Lady by George MacDonaldThe Elect Lady – Story of Alexa, whose father has inherited a large, ancient Scottish estate. We watch love triangles build and resolve, wonder if ones consumed with riches can choose redemption. MacDonald’s God-breathed, practical wisdom shines through it all, particularly in the words and actions of a poor poet-tenant farmer and a valued servant girl.

God helps us be decent persons

What do you think of these tips found on the internet?

View a picky person as one who “loves quality.”

See one who is boring as “consistent and stable.”

Instead of calling a person gullible, call them “trusting.”

Not weird but “unique.”

See a setback or failure as a “learning experience.”

It’s not a crisis but a “challenge.”

Not criticism but back-handed “advice or guidance.”

You’re not overwhelmed but “in demand”!

As you settle back in your favorite chair after a busy day, don’t see yourself as exhausted but as “recharging.”

We can find many suggestions for how to make our lives a bit better. I’m glad there are articles like “9 Easy Steps to Becoming a Decent Human Being.” a decent person(Step #1 – Realize when you’re being a jerk to someone and stop being a jerk. Maybe someone offers an idea in a meeting that you disagree with and you immediately, without intending to, shut them down. Maybe it really was a terrible idea, but a bit of common courtesy is required in everyday life.) And glad for “10 Tips For Raising Decent Human Beings” (Tip #1 – I do not sugarcoat my words if my child loses. Of course, I try to be as kind as possible but the hard truth is, most times, there is a winner and loser in almost all sports/competitions, and my kid needs to accept that.) We welcome any wisdom that helps improve our lives.

I believe, however, that we need the resources of our Christian faith in any project seeking to form persons who are decent and good. We humans have difficulty being good without God. Here are a few of the reasons:

  • We need someone smarter than us to determine which behaviors lead to human flourishing. For example, Jesus was the first to call us to love our enemies and forgive those who wrong us, a call that yields such marvelous fruit in human relations. Yet that stance seems foolish—surely we should instead treat people according to what they deserve! We would never come up with wisdom like that on our own.
  • The secular world believes in a sense of mutual human dignity. This is a very good thing and has fueled humanitarian efforts like hospitals, disaster relief, initiatives against racism, etc. However, how much does that sense of shared human dignity build on (and borrow from) Christian teachings? Followers of Jesus helped supply the critical mass for beginning all those benevolent efforts.
  • If self is our ultimate concern, we end up selfish. If our family’s good is our highest concern, we will care less for other families. If our ultimate goal is the good of our nation, we will end up with nationalism. If we focus on the good of our race, we end up racists. Only Christianity gives an ultimate concern that encompasses the whole world in selfless love: a God who looks like Jesus, willing to love even those acting in rebellion.
  • Awareness of being loved by God energizes us. The love we discover from God fills us with love that then spills over to others (1 John 4:19).

We should learn from those in our culture who have wisdom to share. But let’s never stop drinking deeply from our faith!