Category Archives: church

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

Why we welcome sinners (a story)

Author Paulo Coelho created the story of a young woman named Athena. She dropped out of college at age nineteen to get married and have a baby. Then her husband left her when the baby was still young.

One Sunday the local Catholic priest, who was her friend, watched as she walked toward him to receive communion, and his heart was filled with dread. Athena stood in front of the priest with her eyes closed and mouth open. She was hungry for the grace given to her in Christ’s body. But he did not give it.

The young woman opened her eyes, confused. The priest tried to tell her in hushed tones that they would talk about it later, but she would not be turned away. She persisted until she received an answer. “Athena, the Church forbids divorced people from receiving the sacrament. You signed your divorce papers this week. We’ll talk later.”

She stood there, devastated, numb. People began to step around her, an obstacle in their path.

Naomi Zacharias, who retells this story in her book The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken, imagines people saying, “Don’t you know that God hates divorce?” and Athena answering, “I know. So do I. Possibly even more than you.” It had been so hard for her to come to church that day. And now, driving a knife into her already anguished heart, the church says she is no longer worthy to come to Christ.

As the priest finished giving the sacrament, he slowly stepped back to the altar. conversation around Bibles Athena was still standing where he had left her. Then she cried out against those who had not listened to the words of Christ but transformed his message into a stone building: “Christ said, ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ Well, I’m heavy laden, and they won’t let me come to him.” She turned and left the church, tears streaming down her face, her baby crying.

Years later the priest cannot forget her face, the forlorn look in her eyes, and the poignancy of those words of Christ. He now says, “I like to imagine that when she left the church, Athena met Jesus. Weeping and confused, she would have thrown herself into his arms.” And surely Jesus took her broken heart and held it carefully, gently.

It comes to me that this is what we as a church are to do: speak the truth about sin, making clear the direction toward which the wisdom of God nudges us sinners; and welcome with great patience and gracious compassion any sinner who wants to come to Jesus.

Doing both is hard. But we must try with all our heart.

Should Pink Mennos be angry? Or do Bible study?

We Mennonites love to sing, and the singing was especially good in our Kansas City delegate hall. Often there was tension and disagreement in room and then we would start singing and experience the miracle of instant, warm, vibrant unity.

Many delegates witnessed another miracle of unity too. We were seated around tables and, before a vote, would discuss the matter in that circle. My group was highly diverse; but we listened well, thoroughly enjoyed each other, and grew to understand and respect our different viewpoints.

If only unity of values could come as quickly as unity of voices! If only a table group’s understanding and respect for each other could result in automatic agreement with each other as to which of our beliefs and practices are essential in our faith and life!

Instead we ended our assembly with clear disunity over two resolutions on the same-sex matter, especially one affirming (by a 60% vote) our denomination’s Membership Guidelines which uphold traditional marriage and say that pastors “may not perform a same-sex covenant ceremony” and implicitly say that a person in a same-sex marriage cannot be credentialed as a pastor.

Pink Mennos (persons wearing pink to show support for those in same-sex partnerships) dramatically portrayed this division. For instance, after the vote to affirm the Guidelines they filled a main hallway with long rows (parallel to the traffic flow) of persons in pink. To go down the hallway, one needed to walk between them, like walking a gauntlet. All were conveying deep sadness on their faces: we as delegates had caused pain and suffering by continuing to exclude gays and lesbians from full participation in our church. Then later, during the last delegate session, the moderator thought she was giving permission for one woman to use the open mic. Instead, the woman came with many others. All of them described family members who are lesbian or gay and feeling deep pain over the decision we made to affirm the Guidelines: children who are excluded from being a pastor; siblings who are silenced. They were angry with the delegate vote, even saying that the church was doing violence against LGBTQ+ individuals.

I am one who affirmed the Guidelines. Pink Mennos would indeed have reason to be angry with me if I believe that Scripture is vague and allows me to either include or exclude those in same-sex partnerships and I—out of spite and animus—decided to choose exclusion. But I believe that Scripture is not vague about the rightness or wrongness of such partnerships, and so my vote on the Membership Guidelines was not motivated by meanness but by faithfulness to Scripture. Instead of being angry with me, they should do Bible study with me!

Some progressive leaders in MC USA have shown a bit of Bible study on why they support a more open stance on same-sex partnerships (eg. Ted Grimsrud [2014 blog-part 1] [blog-part 2], Vern Rempel [2014 blog re: Theda Good licensing], Megan Ramer [2012 statement for CDC], Karl Shelly [2014 statement for IMMC]). But it’s never enough for us in the church to find biblical arguments for the stance we like and then stop our study—one can find arguments for almost anything. Out of love and trust in Scripture, we must also weigh the arguments that lead others to support a different stance. But so far progressives have not done this. Not that I have seen [“Listening and responding to voices of inclusion”]. We as a church need more than a list of some possible interpretations of Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, etc. We need Bible study that compares interpretations and weighs probabilities and seeks to identify the most natural reading or readings. Until such Bible study is done, persons do not yet have reason to be angry with those of us who uphold the church’s historic stance.

As Ted Grimsrud notes in his above-mentioned blog, a legitimate reason for excluding persons in covenanted same-sex relationships would be “that God declares such relationships to be sinful.” He and the other scholars who support the Pink Mennos must show the church that their revisionist interpretations are simpler and more straight-forward than the traditional ones—or at least as straight-forward as the traditional ones. Until this is done, none of that group should charge us who are conservatives with exclusion or injustice or lack of hospitality when we vote to uphold the church’s teaching position which views “homosexual, extramarital and premarital sexual activity as sin” (Membership Guidelines). Surely the Pink Mennos would applaud us for following the Bible as we see it. Again, they should not be angry with us and protest against us until they can point to Bible study which examines and then neutralizes the arguments that lead us to take our stance.

[See my study showing how the traditional interpretations of 1 Cor. 6 and Rom. 1 are simpler and more straight-forward than the revisionist ones:
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 – A strong understanding
and Romans 1:18-32 – Interpretations I have met ]

Learning patience from the Early Church

Last weekend Karen and I were at Virginia Mennonite Conference’s retreat for pastors and spouses at Williamsburg. It was a refreshing and restorative time — except for missing the usual delight of this retreat: the sights and sounds and smells of early Spring as we walk the retreat center’s many trails. Instead the grounds had 6-8 inches of snow with no noticeable melting while we were there. We did savor lots of good conversation and networking with others there, and also enjoyed moving times of worship (led this year by our congregation’s overseer, Mike Shenk).

Most of all, we benefited from four teaching sessions by Alan Kreider on the Early Church from ca. 150 to ca. 350, looking at many of their texts and practices, seeing what we can glean from them. That church, like all churches since then, had its flaws; their writings are not Scripture! But that church community does have a peculiar authority. They are our mother — all branches of the Christian Church trace back to them. They are early and therefore closer to Jesus and the Apostles than any other church. And they grew at a rate of 40% per decade!

Perhaps this struck me most: there was no topic on which the Early Church wrote more treatises (small books) than patience. As Alan unpacked this for us, I found it a marvelous new window into Christian faith and life:

  • Patience means not needing to make others do what we want. We can love them without having to control or manipulate them.
  • Patience shows hope; we wait because we confidently entrust the future to God. We can take risks (eg. care for the sick in an epidemic; share food with ones who are hungry even when tomorrow’s bread is uncertain) because we await the resurrection.
  • Patience is the power to persevere, to endure to the end.
  • God is the exemplar of patience, gracious to the ungrateful, giving time for sinners to repent, waiting until the fullness of time to present Jesus.
  • The Fall was due to impatience: Adam and Eve tried to grab pleasure and wisdom rather than letting God give those things.
  • Patience is being non-violent; it accepts injury without retaliating in kind. Vengeance is left to God.
  • Patience gives religious freedom; rather than forcing issues, those who are patient teach and show the truth and then give it time to bear fruit.

What might be next for our church – a new network

Around 175 leaders from Mennonite Church USA and other Anabaptist groups met January 16-17 in Hartville, Ohio, for conversation, prayer, and discernment about a yet-unnamed “new network for conferences and congregations” to be launched this Fall. [It’s now named Evana Network, a ministry community of Evangelical Anabaptist pastors and churches.] I left the meeting with a sense that this group will generate much mission for the kingdom.

A working document describing the values and core commitments for the new network mentioned three elements that echo H.S. Bender’s Anabaptist Vision:

• being a community of believers;

• following Jesus in daily discipleship;

• pursuing peace and reconciliation.

But it didn’t stop there. It listed two more elements of the Anabaptist tradition which the network wants to embody:

• proclaiming the good news of salvation in Jesus in local and global mission;

• embracing the Holy Spirit’s power and gifts.

The document also spoke of commitments such as these:

• obedience to Scripture as interpreted in the faith community;

• repentance of personal and structural racism;

• giving and receiving counsel in an environment of high accountability with low control;

• partnering with other Anabaptist groups around common goals and projects (both Mennonite Mission Network and Virginia Mennonite Missions were present at the meeting).

ARC Hartville - Friday afternoon discussionAs table groups responded to the working document, many hopes and dreams were voiced. The most frequent theme centered on mission: persons desire to see evangelism and church planting, lives being transformed, our congregations making disciples who in turn make more disciples.

Another strong hope expressed by many persons was that the new group should not be single-issue oriented; they want the group to be known by what it is for rather than against. Homosexuality was seldom mentioned; but when it was, the message was clear. The working document talked of walking in the compassion and truth of Jesus, of believing that the Bible teaches that “sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage” and that marriage is to be “a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman.” One person observed that the angels around God’s throne are not saying “love, love, love” or “unity, unity, unity” but “holy, holy, holy.”

The worship sessions involved messages by pastors of vigorous MC USA congregations. One was the lead pastor of the largest church in our denomination, Wesley Furlong from Cape Coral, Fla., who began by recounting his discovery of the treasure in the Anabaptist movement. He preached on the story of Joshua and Caleb who, when ready to enter Canaan, did not talk about the many reasons to fear but about the potential blessings and that the Lord was leading them. Wes declared that the church needs courageous, Spirit-filled leaders who are fully invested in the unseen reality of what the Father is doing and are dead to the praises and criticisms of people.

Another who spoke was Bishop Leslie Francisco of Hampton, Va., preaching on Jesus’ parable of the talents, saying that God gives each of us an assignment. We do not have to imitate others; there is an anointing on our life to do what only we can do. He warned us to not be distracted from the primary call of God on our lives — to not be like a driver who wrecks his car because he’s swatting at a mosquito!

I sensed a strong spiritual vitality in the group. Here’s a video clip of us singing the last verse of “Lord, I am fondly, earnestly longing.” And I sensed a humble responsiveness to God. ARC Hartville - Friday evening altar callToward the end of the Friday evening worship service, a young man serving as pastoral staff at a church in California asked to speak. He shared his sense that God wants our hearts to be broken over disunity and talking behind others’ backs. He was a bit unclear as he talked, but nonetheless a sizable group streamed to the front, kneeling around the altar in repentance and humility.

This new network raises hope within me:
1) The group seems thoroughly Anabaptist with a theology that includes peace and justice but that is centered on Christ and mission. Hallelujah! Many in MC USA will find the new group as a place where they “feel life.”
2) The group is in good communication with MC USA leaders. Leaders of the new network have met with the denominational Executive Board. During the discussion times at Hartville, one of the table groups was comprised of denominational leaders and heads of agencies in the denomination. The others there clearly valued the comments given by that table.
3) If the Kansas City delegate assembly this summer makes peace with what Scripture forbids by freeing conferences to fully affirm persons in same-sex partnerships (including credentialing those with pastoral gifts), conservative congregations won’t need to face that change on our own. (Although, as I wrote earlier, we won’t need to act quickly out of fear and anxiety.) Perhaps this new network — since congregations can belong to both it and MC USA — may help the conservative voice be even more organized and clear.

An upwelling of joy and belonging

We at Trissels are a family of brothers and sisters. Together we form one body and “all belong to each other” (Romans 12:5), a community committed to Jesus and to each other.

The last few days I have become aware that this is not just a truth that my head knows, but one that my heart knows as well! Even though I was physically tired on my first day back from my sabbatical, I found myself eager as I was going to the early Friday morning men’s prayer meeting, as I was working with Grace as she put together the bulletin for Sunday, and as I was getting in my car and doing a round of visiting a bunch of my Trissels sisters and brothers. It happened again as I came to church on Sunday — an upwelling of joy and belonging!

As Mennonites, this sense of the church as an extended family was easier to maintain in the days of barn raisings and corn huskings, and all day and evening weddings. In those days we found many natural opportunities to come together for work and play in a common rural farm setting.

How do we build and keep a sense of community and cohesion now that we no longer all live a rural setting together? How do we know and understand one another when specialized occupations and workplaces separate us from one another?

Let me suggest one way: our Trissels Church Campout at Highland Retreat this Friday evening through Sunday (Aug 8-10).

More than ever, in our day and age when life is taking us in so many different directions, congregations need schedule times and places to come together on common ground, to know one another in settings of play and relaxation. Congregational retreats are an ideal place to break down walls and build up friendships, to minimize differences, and discover unity. Simply put: to enjoy each other!

This weekend I’m looking forward to setting up a tent with Karen and Rachel, to the informal fellowship around campfires on Friday evening, to sharing a fire with other campers for Saturday breakfast and lunch, to the savory chicken barbecue and corn hole tournament Saturday evening…

Parents and the church dedicating themselves

On Sunday we as a congregation had the joy of joining with two sets of young parents in dedicating their children to God’s care and to God’s purposes.

We call it a Child Dedication ceremony, but perhaps the most important element is the parental dedication. My parents saw their three sons grow up fully devoted to the Lord—all of us pastors, even. But without their commitment to train their children in God’s ways and to model those ways themselves that wouldn’t have happened. My parents were not perfect; my mother could be too fearful and my father insensitive. But they never (to my knowledge!) chose to ignore a command of Scripture. What they said on Sunday and did on Monday were in complete alignment.

How parents live is so important because values and behaviors are “caught” more than taught. When Karen and I brought our children home for the first time, the hospital sent all kinds of literature. One was entitled “Children Learn What They Live.” Among its lines were these:

If a child lives with criticism, that child learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility, that child learns to fight.
If a child lives with tolerance, that child learns to be patient.
If a child lives with praise, that child learns to appreciate.
If a child lives with fairness, that child learns justice.
If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, that child learns to find love in the world.

The ceremony on Sunday included not just prayers for the children and commitments by the parents, but also a time when we as a congregation pledged to support the parents as they bring their children up to love and serve God. Perhaps we as a church could add these lines to the above piece:

If our church accepts and welcomes all people, our children learn God’s love which has no boundaries.
If our church celebrates God and his goodness regularly, our children learn to be worshippers.
If our church reads and memorizes Scripture, our children learn to value the Bible.
If our church knows God as One who nudges and guides us by the Spirit in daily life, our children grow up open and responsive to God.