Monthly Archives: February 2014

Getting to the Why

This Sunday is the final one before Lent and is known as Transfiguration Sunday, when the church remembers Jesus’ mystical light-infused encounter with Elijah and Moses on top of the mountain…

Last week I had a lunch conversation with two Episcopal minister friends.  One of them said he’d been thinking about how the church can be pretty good at the What but can sometimes lose focus on the Why of its existence.  We worship, teach, care, and serve – the What.  But what is our Why?  He noted that one of the things he thinks has set Apple apart as a company is that they get the Why.  Rather than emphasize the What of their product, they draw people in through its beauty, sleek simplicity, and the kind of lifestyle it enables its users to have.  He loves Apple, and they speak to the technological Why.

For some Christians and churches, the Why is quite clear – saving souls and getting into heaven.  That’s a simplification, but it’s a powerful reason to exist as a church if that’s what you believe.  If that’s not our Why, then what is?  This can make for good conversation.  When asked what is the Mennonite Why, I said that my first attempt answer is to form disciples of Jesus.  Discipleship – the way we live and relate – has always been a major theme of Anabaptist/Mennonite faith.  It’s a good Why, but one I’m not sure I’m entirely satisfied with by itself.  The other piece, which was suggested by the other friend, feels crucial as well.  Transcendence

Here’s my hunch:  People participate in church life, and attend worship, to connect to and experience transcendence; to participate in the Light – through congregational song, through caring community, through Communion, heck, maybe even through a sermon every now and then.  However grounded and practical minded we are in our faith, some of us also yearn for that light-infused encounter of the Transfiguration.  When the practical and the mystical get working together, it can be a powerful Why.  


Confessing faith

These last couple weeks I’ve been flipping through Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, a booklet written in 1995, composed of 24 brief articles and commentary, including God, Jesus Christ, Scripture, Baptism, The Lord’s Supper, etc.   This Sunday I will start teaching the youth catechism class and plan to use this as a basis of discussion.

I, and probably most people familiar it, have a complex relationship with this document.  There are parts that are beautiful and inspiring.  “Human beings have been made for relationship with God, to live in peace with each other, and to take care of the rest of creation.  We believe human beings were created good, in the image of God.” Article 6: The Creation and Calling of Human Beings.  “The same Spirit that empowered Jesus also empowers us to love enemies, to forgive rather than seek revenge, to practice right relationships, to rely on the community of faith to settle disputes, and to resist evil without violence.” Article 22: Peace, Justice, and Nonresistance.

There are also parts that a number of congregations no longer practice “All are invited to the Lord’s table who have been baptized into the community of faith.” Article 12: The Lord’s Supper (We are one of many congregations who practice an Open Table for all who wish to receive Communion regardless of baptism status).  “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”  Article 19: Family, Singleness, and Marriage (Differences of conviction have focused on both the “one man and one woman” and the “for life” parts of this statement).

The introduction to the Confession of Faith notes that such documents provide guidelines for interpreting Scripture and for church teaching, but also that they should “not replace the lived witness of faith,” and that each confession gives “an updated interpretation of belief and practice in the midst of changing times.” 

Part of what I hope to convey to the youth these next number of weeks is that being a part of the church means that one is part of the ongoing conversation and discernment for what the Spirit is saying to us in our present time – what we carry forward from the wisdom of the past and what we revise because the deeper wisdom of Love has shown us a better way. 

If you do not have the booklet and wish to see the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective it is available online HERE.  Click on the Articles in the right column to see the full text.


The arts, rising

Last Friday and Saturday our family headed down to Cincinnati for the biennial Mennonite Arts Weekend.  It was of course special to see friends from our seven years of living and pastoring in the city.  And it is always special to be a part of that weekend gathering which welcomes Mennonite artists from around the continent to share their work.

The weekend started in the early 90’s as an outgrowth of a conversation in which people lamented the lack of support and space for expression given artists in the Mennonite church.  Music has always been in its own category of acceptance, but our rather iconoclastic tradition hasn’t honored a whole lot of other art forms.  Many creatives have had to leave the church, or live at its fringes, to do their work.  For the last 20 years Mennonite Arts Weekend in Cincinnati has been a venue that brings the margins into the center and celebrate Mennonite artists of all varieties.  A lot has changed – for the better – over that time span and it’s wonderful to see the arts flourishing.

Throughout Saturday I attended workshops which included ceramic artist Eric Kaufmann, poet Jean Janzen, and the delightful mountain music band The Steel Wheels.  The highlight of the day for me was a workshop by Brooklyn painter Randall Stoltzfus.  He talked about his journey from rural upbringing to urban artist and his “slow eye” method of painting, which is really a method of seeing.

Somewhat coincidentally, on Sunday after church at Columbus Mennonite Robin and Greg Walton led an open discussion with people in the congregation interested in elevating the role of the visual arts in our worship.  Our Advent worship experience was a case in point of how multiple forms of artistry put together within a sacred space – visual, vocal and instrumental music, words, etc – speak to a very deep part of our being.

As a person whose primary artistic expression is through the written and spoken word, I deeply value folks who work with the visual and the tangible – as well as others who shape language!  It is our hope that Columbus Mennonite be a place where the arts flourish in all its forms and where we have a culture of creativity which enriches the whole congregational and wider community.


The Wisdom Jesus

This week I’ve started reading The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His Message by Cynthia Bourgeault.  It was a book recommended last week at AMBS Pastor’s Week. 

I’m always a bit skeptical when books claim to have a “new perspective” on Christ given the fact that this is a conversation that’s been going on for two thousand years.  After reading the first third of the book it appears that the author is both working on a recovery of a very old perspective on Jesus, as well as some new insights into the meaning of his life. 

What’s old, even older than Jesus, is the Wisdom traditions of human cultures.  Wisdom is concerned both with how we see and how we live – how we come into a fullness of life.  In this perspective, Jesus’ favorite phrase, “The Kingdom of Heaven” (or “The Kingdom of God”) is not a place but a state of consciousness.  Bourgeault laments that the most common view of Jesus seems to be “Jesus is nice and wants us to be nice too.”  She references the beatitudes and parables to show that Jesus’ intent was not primarily to teach morals, but to break us out of an ego-centered consciousness into a larger mind.  “Into the larger mind” is her translation of the Greek word metanoia (meta = beyond or large; noia = mind), usually translated “repentance” in English Bibles.  Jesus is one of the Wisdom teachers of the world, but is unique in that rather than presenting the path of Wisdom as an ascent upward, he presents it as a descent.  His is a path of self-emptying in the poetic words of Philippians 2:9-16.  Jesus “fell through the bottom” in Bourgeault’s words.  Love pouring itself into the other, only to be replenished by the infinite Source to continue pouring, is the extravagant path of the Christ.  That’s the old way we are invited to recover. 

What’s new comes from a couple different important places.  One is the discovery in the middle of last century of ancient texts which shed new light on the social situation of Jesus and even his own teachings.  The author gives a focuses a brief chapter on the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings many scholars affirm as being authentic – some of them contained in the four biblical gospels, others not.  In that gospel it is especially clear that Jesus is inviting his hearers to a different way of seeing the world.  The second new factor in our understanding of Jesus is the growing awareness of Eastern thought and how that fills out some of the short-sighted perspectives of Western thought that has so defined the church. 

The last chapter that I read ends by saying: “Anyone who is willing to take up the burden of the much more difficult task – not the manageable complexity of rules and regulations, but the unmanageable simplicity of being present to your life in love – that person is walking the path of Jesus.” (p. 88)

Part Two of the book, which I haven’t gotten to yet, brings this perspective to bear on four different aspects of Christian teaching: The Incarnation, The Passion, Crucifixion and Its Aftermath, and The Great Easter Fast. 

Part Three focuses specifically on “Christian Wisdom Practices,” ways of cultivating the mind of Christ: Centering Prayer and Meditation, Lectio Divina, Chanting and Psalmnody, Welcoming, and Eucharist.

The book largely steers away from technical theological jargon (or explains it well when it is used) and is accessible for a wide audience.  You can’t borrow my copy until I’m finished!  Whoops, that doesn’t sound like a very self-emptying attitude….Oh my….