Learning how to pray

Amidst the many losses of the Covid era, I keep coming back to something spiritual writer Richard Rohr wrote years back and reiterated this past spring as it was becoming clear the pandemic would alter church life for the foreseeable future. 

What wrote however many years ago was that he wished congregations could cancel all programming for a year and simply learn how to pray.  At the end of the year they could decide which programs served as extensions of their prayers and which were superfluous.

Richard Rohr’s prayers/wishes are apparently quite powerful because that year has arrived (I am aware that is horrible theology, but….that year has arrived nonetheless).

In my better moments, rather than being ever-aware of what we can’t now do, I ponder whether this is a year for all of us to learn how to pray. 

Joel

Over my head…

Last evening Ila had a softball game at Whetstone.  Not long into the game the sky darkened, the wind picked up, and it looked like it might pour.  Instead there was some distant thunder, a light rain, and a brilliant rainbow appearing across the eastern sky.  And the game went on.  The picture below was taken by Tom Blosser at his home, a few miles up the road.

A parable:

The kingdom of God is like this:

Children gathered to play a game in the park, surrounded by their parents.  During the game, a great storm began to brew.  But it soon transformed into a beautiful rainbow, spanning the sky over the field.  The children pointed with delight at the rainbow, announcing its presence to their friends and parents.  Some of the parents welcomed the diversion from the slow moving game and shifted their attention to the rainbow.  Other parents glanced up at the rainbow and instructed their child to stay focused on the game.  Soon, the children and the parents all found a way to resume the game and enjoy the persistent rainbow: dust and grass of the field, voices and effort of child and adult, mingling with light and arc of color of the heavens.     

Photo by Tom Blosser

Joel

“Mennonite peacemaking”

This morning I was asked to share with an interfaith group on “A Mennonite Perspective on Peacemaking.”  The broader context was thinking together about divesting from the current police/incarceration system and investing in other forms of community well-being.  So, open question, What does Mennonite peacemaking have to contribute to the conversation? 

The task reminded me of one of the official Open Questions our CMC Leadership Team named for our year back in March, which went like this: As an Anabaptist community, how do we live faithfully within a contentious political environment?

One thing Mennonites have going for us is that we have 500 years of history of trying to be a peaceful people.  We have not always done this well, but centering the peaceableness of Jesus is not something many other traditions have done.   

Mennonites were born out of the political and religious turmoil of 16th century Europe, the proliferation of ideas wrought by the new printing press (a technology whose present equivalent in impact would be social media), and an attempt to recover a lived gospel.  A key part of the founding of the Anabaptist stream that became Mennonitism was rejecting participation in state (and religious) violence. 

To use uniquely Christian language: If Christ is Lord, then Caesar is not.  If Christ is the highest authority for the church rather than the state, and Jesus was a man of peace, (violently executed by the state) then those who make up the church are to be people of peace.   

Over these 500 years this path has looked like many things: secret meetings, public arguments, martyrdom, fleeing violence, isolation and sectarianism, cultural conservatism, cultural assimilation, refusing military service, alternative service in times of war, helping pioneer fair trade (a peaceful marketplace). 

Rather than the search for a pure pacifism we might focus on elevating the “swords into ploughshares” vision of the prophets Isaiah and Micah – a heritage shared by Jews and all Christians alike.  How might technologies, systems, habits, inclinations that have caused harm and violence be transformed into technologies, systems, habits, inclinations that heal and enable life to flourish?

It’s the right kind of question to live with.

This conversation cannot be had truthfully in the United States without addressing race and the dominant power of Whiteness.  

Having peaceful instincts and established patterns of resisting violence is a blessed foundation for Mennonites of all races and nationalities to have.        

Joel

The joy of rereading

I’m usually not one to re-watch a movie or reread a book.  Maybe it’s the combination of limited time with seemingly unlimited viewing and reading options that makes repetition feel like a missed opportunity.  But I’ve noticed that’s been changing.

It coincides with Eve and Lily now at an age when they can…ahem…better appreciate the…ahem…high art that graced my earlier years.  Princess Bride.  Groundhog Day.  Seeing through my and their eyes at the same time makes for a new experience.  For example, about 20 minutes into the first Lord of the Rings, Eve said, “Wait a minute, is this just about a bunch of white guys.”  Oh, well, I suppose it kind of is. 

This has been the summer of the girls rereading Harry Potter and me getting refreshed on the increasingly intricate details of that story.

With Abbie and the girls in Kansas this week, during my meals and evenings I’ve been listening to the audio book of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass.  I nearly completed reading it last year, then got going on something else, and now started back at the beginning.  Hearing her gentle steady voice adds another layer to her stories and wise counsel.  The repetition feels like anything but a missed opportunity – savoring goodness that I previously skimmed or had faded from memory.

Last night I watched Hamilton, now several years after having seen it live.  Although still thrilling, it took on a different tone for me than the Obama-era liberal optimism out of which it was born.      

A friend once told me that a professor of his said that if you only read things once you’re illiterate.  I remember him laughing when he told me this – an audacious claim.

And then there’s the Bible…

As we get into this Parables series this summer we’ll be encountering what is likely familiar material.  But re-reading and reconsidering familiar material holds all kinds of revelations, and joys.  Because we are different, our relationship with that material is different.  We see through different eyes – our own and those now around us. 

Is this how we become literate?  Able to better understand what we had previously simply read or watched? Given the insights Robin Wall Kimmerer recounts from “illiterate” ancestors, perhaps literacy is overrated, wisdom underrated.  

I’m coming to embrace the joy of a re-watch and reread.

Joel

A Zoomy day

It’s been a very Zoomy day.  4x so far, with one more to go.  Put another way, despite physical distancing, it’s been a day of meeting with others to listen, discuss, pray, and plan.

1) This morning was the monthly gathering for faith leaders through the Interfaith Justice Table, organized by Faith in Public Life.  I counted 33 participants – more than one 5×5 screen could hold.  The bulk of our time was spent discussing “defund the police” efforts.  Those who have been working a long time on police reform remarked how much things have shifted in the last several weeks, an open door rather than banging on a closed door.  Several pastors commented that they feel our current police chief has no substantive commitment to antiracism, calling for his resignation.  Another noted that the FOP, police union, is the major barrier to change.  There were impassioned pleases from black participants to not let this opportunity fade.

2) Mid-morning I joined our CMC Covid Response Team which Leadership Team has tasked with doing research and giving recommendations for how to safely open our building during the pandemic.  Much of our discussion focused on Sunday morning worship, informed by a 36 page ecumenically-produced document titled “Resuming Care-Filled Worship and Sacramental Life During a Pandemic” (attached).  Upon reading this, and hearing some analysis about our own building, it appears that in order to follow current social distancing guidelines we would max out at about 50 people in our sanctuary at a time.  After beginning to consider all the logistics to do this well it became more and more clear that investing time and efforts into doing in-person worship under these circumstances will not yield proportional benefits for some time to come.  Sighhhhh.     

3) Noon was the weekly small group I’ve been helping facilitate based on Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations emails.  This week Rohr is writing about cosmology – a convergence of science and faith that sees the pattern of birth, death, and resurrection in all things (including stars, life-systems, Jesus, and ourselves), and invites participation in this unfolding of Christ among us.  The material was a bit headier than usual, but we shared how important this perspective can be for us.  Our smallness in the grand scheme can serve to lower our fears and anxieties in the moment, someone commented.  The wonder of all this starting from a singular point billions of years ago deepens our sense of awe in the mystery of all this, another commented.  We ended, as we always do, with prayer for our world and those dear to us.

4) Early afternoon was a discussion with Adult Christian Ed leaders about how to go about this work.  We sense a convergence between the purpose of adult ed and small groups, and a rising importance for how these groups can keep us in meaningful relationship while physically distanced.  Although this small leadership group didn’t initially sign up to help form something that might be so central to congregational life, we started naming some of the possibilities of weekly virtual groups gathering around themes that could range from personality inventory to Bible study to storytelling to antiracist parenting to sermon discussion.  For starters we look forward to tracking the worship theme of Parables in July and early August, offering multiple groups on Sunday mornings for discussing the parable of the day and sermon content.

With good hopes and appreciation for our common life,

Joel

Colonizer Mennonite Church

Lots of Mennonite churches are named after the city in which they’re located.  Our city happens to have chosen the name Columbus. 

The headline of the Metro section of Sunday’s Dispatch read, “Columbus statues still stand in city.” It noted: “Statues of (Christopher) Columbus have been beheaded, toppled or plunged into bodies of water in Boston; St Paul, Minnesota; Camden, New Jersey; and Richmond, Virginia, in a rebuke of his history as a colonizer and slaver and his ‘discovery’ of America.”

It’s a rapid development given the slow moving efforts in past years to draw attention to the abusive history.  In our city, the largest Columbus in the US, there are three prominent statues of the man – by City Hall, the Statehouse, and Columbus State Community College.  They are still standing, although, in another rapid development, Columbus State has now pledged to remove theirs.

The headline article of today’s online New York Times adds another wrinkle noting that elevating the Italian Christopher Columbus was one way for Italian Americans to battle widespread discrimination in the 1800’s.  The article also highlights differing convictions within the Black Lives Matter movement, some claiming statue removal as too easy an appeasement for necessary systemic changes.        

Katie Graber tells the story of traveling to a Cheyenne Mennonite church, a congregation that embraces both its Native American and Mennonite identity, for her work in gathering material for the Voices Together hymnal.  The delegation was discussing a gift they could bring – something from one of their local settings.  One of them commented that it probably shouldn’t be from Columbus. 

Right.

Earlier this year Leadership Team discerned that one of our congregational Open Questions for the year would be: “As an Anabaptist community, how do we live faithfully within a politically contentious environment.”  It’s perhaps easy, given our pacifism, to view ‘contentious’ merely as a negative word.  Our commitment to being anti-racist, however, compels us into the long-term work of contention against the “principalities and powers” (the Apostle Paul’s language), the myth-making narratives and systems that prop up racism. 

I confess that before this year I was never bothered by the fact that our congregation bears the name of someone whose letters back home included the promise of “slaves as many as they shall order to be shipped.”  As people of nonviolence, what is our part in the work of de-colonizing our own minds, embodying the values we profess, and taking guidance from those most affected by persistent racism?     

The congregational SURVEY sent out yesterday begins with a question about how urgent you feel is the discussion around our congregation’s name which would take place in a broader context of our anti-racist efforts.  It includes space for comments.  Your input on this (and the other questions) is greatly appreciated.

Joel

Counteracting anti-Semitism

Last Thursday I attended a webinar organized by Faith in Public Life Ohio called “Counteracting Anti-Semitism and Dangerous Narratives in the Time of COVID-19.” The call included several rabbi friends from the Columbus area with whom we partner in BREAD.  After the call I had an email exchange with Rabbi Rick Kellner.  His congregation, Beth Tikvah, is just up the road from where we live.  I asked him how rising antisemitism has impacted the congregation.  With his permission, I share what he wrote:

We have been trying to figure out what we can do to support Dr. Acton. She has worn her Judaism on her sleeve (see press conference around Passover) and then a week or so later the attacks started rising including that awful image of the Israeli flag with a Jew depicted as a rat being the source of the virus was incredibly upsetting and horrifying. To paint us in that way raises our own fears about how to function. 

Moving beyond COVID, we have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Jewish community locally (more beyond) to hire security. We have had police officers (off-duty uniformed) every week for services since November 2018. We have them for Religious school and the preschool has them all hours we are in session.  There is incredible fear of being attacked again. We have had a number of incidents where “questionable” individuals have shown up and caused trouble. One in particular who likely, meant no harm but his behavior caused us to send him a no trespass letter.

We have taken all service times and program times off of our public access to our website. We have a private log in page so our members can see that. 

I think the worst is actually what happens in our schools. When I talk to our teens, they are victims of antisemitism all the time. It is more subtle comments, for example in 2016 when Bernie Sanders was running, one of our kids overheard another saying that Bernie should just go to the gas chamber. 

Rabbi Kellner also shared with me a Rosh Hashanah sermon he gave last year which included a statement that it was important to be more than anti-anti-Semitism.  “We have to fight an affirmative battle for who we are,” he said.  “We fight for our values, our ancestors, our families and for the Jewish future.”

These are our neighbors and friends and co-laborers for the common good.  In our own always-ongoing antiracism work, and our quest to be more than anti-racist, may we join with this affirmative work wherever it presents itself. 

The good news is there are so many opportunities, and that anyone can challenge an anti-Semitic statement, write a note to a friend living in fear, or show up to various events that represent the “affirmative battle” Rabbi Kellner calls us to.

Joel   

Grief

The theme of this Sunday’s service will be grief

A few years ago someone passed along the adage: “People aren’t afraid of change.  They’re afraid of loss.” I’m wary of blanket statements about “people,” but that one sounds more true than not.  We naturally protect what we love, which means we regularly push back against change out of fear of what or who we love being lost. 

Pandemic aside, modern living is essentially one change after another – culture, technology, habitat.  We’re adaptable creatures, but, Wow.  With change comes loss, and loss can produce anxiety and fear.  And acting out of fear produces all kinds of evils from racism to nationalism to militarism.  Some things don’t change.      

Fear, which so readily leads to harm and violence against oneself or others is one response to loss. 

Which makes me wonder if another response to loss – grief and lament – can be seen as the nonviolent alternative.  Grief is a way of dealing with loss in a manner that is ultimately life giving rather than death dealing.  Fear matures into hatred, while grief matures into gratitude, even joy.  The internal work of grief has intra-personal and even political implications. 

May we learn to grieve well, and may gratitude and joy be near at hand.

Joel

Exile & Exodus, Commitment Statement

Two things:

1) At the end of last week I was invited by the mayor’s office to contribute toward a collection of faith leader messages addressed to city residents.  The intention was to offer words of encouragement during the anxieties of this pandemic.  In the message I suggested this time has similarities to two of the major storylines in the Bible – Exile and Exodus.  The 4 ½ minute video can be viewed HERE and you may recognize some of the other clergy in the playlist.    

2) Despite our inability to be together in person, we are going forward with Membership Sunday this weekend.  In our recorded worship service we’ll hear brief faith journeys from each of our nine new members, who will also lead other parts of the service.  Our preparation time via Zoom included reading through and discussing our Membership Commitment statement, newly written last year, a fresh expression of what we hold dear as a congregation.  In a disorienting time I found these words a welcome reminder of the center that holds.  I appreciate this congregation’s practice of reading the statement together annually, a renewal of our own commitments to one another and God.  On Sunday we’ll have another live gathering at 11 via Zoom to welcome our new members and share communion.  May we continue to live these words:

CMC Membership Commitment 

The Spirit calls us from where we are
       to walk with Jesus
       toward a more just, peaceful, and merciful embodiment
       of God’s love in this world.

Ours is a story
       of those who journeyed by faith,
       whose questions opened fresh possibilities.

Ours is a story
       grounded in scripture, centered on Jesus,
       re-envisioned by Anabaptists, ever-expanding in our time.

Ours is a story
       of death and resurrection and all things made new.

To live more fully into this story,
as individuals and as a congregation, we commit to:

        Gather for worship and around the table
        where everyone is welcome;

        Learn from one another,
        allowing the wisdom of all ages to teach us;

        Honor all seasons of life,
        caring for one another through joys and hardships;

        Share our time and resources,
        discerning our call to both work and rest;

       Love our neighbors and enemies,
       pursuing wholistic peace with justice;

       Care for the gift of creation
       out of gratitude and responsibility;

        Seek transformation through prayerful listening,
        growing toward the fullness of our humanity.

Because we often fall short of this high calling,
we will extend compassion and forgiveness as we journey together.

By God’s grace, may we be a sanctuary,
where we welcome, protect, and challenge one another.

Ready, not ready

Yesterday I went into the church building to work.  This has been my pattern on Tuesdays.  All other days I’ve been working from home.  This one day a week has helped bring some structure to an otherwise suddenly structure-lite existence.

It was, as you might imagine, quiet.  The North Broadway UMC playground across Broadway Place and right outside my office window, usually teaming with preschoolers, was empty.  Office staff had our weekly meeting via Zoom, with all others at home.  In the afternoon I went into the sanctuary and lit the peace candle, taking a few pictures with different backgrounds for a new image in our worship postings.  I extinguished the candle and left it there, uncertain of when it would be lit again.  At the end of the work day I gathered up a few extra books that will be more useful at home, and headed out. 

On my way home, up High Street, I was unexpectedly surrounded by dense traffic.  Throughout the day I had had various points of sadness for the losses of this period, and then, all of a sudden, in the midst of what used to be a normal amount of cars on a heavily traveled road, I found myself having a bodily reaction that went something like, “Wait, I’m not ready for this to be over yet.” 

Throughout the last month and a half I’ve been surprised multiple times by reactions counter to what I thought I was feeling.  This clearly isn’t over yet – far from it (and “normal” as we once thought of it might never return).  And part of me is feeling the accumulating personal and collective losses of social distancing, longing to recover some social nearing.  But apparently another part of me senses there’s more to learn, more to cherish, more necessary changes to undergo before “this” morphs into something else.

Joel