Author Archives: joelmiller

Journey Forward

This past decade has been a divisive time within Mennonite Church USA, the denomination of which we are a part.  MC USA was a new thing in 2002, formed as a merger of two historically distinct Mennonite groups.  Differences among congregations and conferences emerged, largely focused on affirmation (or not) of LGBTQ persons.  But these disagreements revealed fundamental differences in understandings of the sacred, interpretation of scripture, and whether authority for spiritual discernment lies primarily in the congregation or at the national level.

We are now quite a bit smaller (less than 70,000 baptized members) than we were when we merged in 2002 (about 120,000 members).  With the loss of many conservative congregations, and under new executive leadership, the denomination is now in the process of articulating a new identity and set of priorities.  This is being called the “Journey Forward” process.

A key document for this is a one page distillation called “Renewed Commitments for MC USA.”  I appreciate this document’s focus on God’s love, confession of our shortcomings, and three areas of commitment – Following Jesus, witness to God’s peace, and experiencing transformation.

A second document is a longer Pathways Study Guide, which includes worship resources.  Our worship calendar is full through Easter, but the study portion could make for good small group discussion.

Denominational leaders are welcoming feedback on any and all parts of this, and on online 16 question survey can be filled out HERE.  The questions about the longer study guide can be skipped if necessary.

Even if you have or feel no relational connection to our denomination, we all benefit from being a part of a healthy church body with a common vision for ministry.  Your voice is welcome in moving us in that direction.

Joel

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Justice is restorative

Congregations and pastors can’t endorse candidates, but we can promote ballot issues.  I’m writing to express my strong support of Issue 1: The Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment.

One of the recent book studies during Adult Christian Education at CMC was Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.  She names mass incarceration as the “new” form of racialized law enforcement, and traces this back to the War on Drugs, begun in the early 70’s.

Currently in Ohio, there are around 50,000 people behind bars, many for minor drug offenses, putting our prisons at 132% capacity, and costing Ohio taxpayers $26,000 per incarcerated person per year.  There has to be another way.

Mennonite ethicists emphasize that true justice is restorative, and not just punitive.  At its heart, Issue 1 seeks to shift public resources toward drug treatment and rehabilitation, and away from incarceration – in order to restore lives.    It will reduce 4th and 5th degree drug possession charges from a felony to a misdemeanor.  Money that would have gone toward keeping nonviolent drug offenders in prison will be reallocated toward recovery, estimated to be up to $100,000,000 just in the first year.  Violent crime and drug trafficking are still subject to imprisonment, so judicial discretion is not threatened in these cases.

This is a justice issue, and it’s also a pastoral care issue.  When people are incarcerated it separates and strains families.  It negatively impacts future possibilities with work and housing.

One downside is that this is a Constitutional Amendment.  Unfortunately, lawmakers have had 40+ years to propose an alternative to the War on Drugs, and they haven’t done it.  This amendment is on the ballot because 730,00 Ohioans signed a petition, (only 305,000 were needed) saying this was important to them.

If you’ve not yet seen it, HERE is the certified ballot language for Issue 1.

I’m hopeful that Ohio can be a model state for having a justice system that is restorative, and not just a legal system that is punitive and disproportionately so to people of color.

With hope,

Joel

Mark’s sermon discussing a theology of disability, “What do you want me to do?” is posted HERE.

From Abbie in Guatemala

Abbie is currently in Guatemala, representing CMC on a 10 day learning tour with other members of Central District Conference congregations.  Below is a reflection from her.  

I’m thankful for the opportunity to return to Guatemala.  Our time here this summer was so fun for our family and I loved attending Spanish classes and taking weekend and day trips.  But I left wanting to know more about the history of Guatemala, more about the indigenous groups, more about what role Mennonites have played in the country, as well as US involvement.

This tour has helped fill in some of those gaps.  We are learning from some of the leaders of the Mennonite church in Guatemala who experienced the atrocities of the civil war and lived out what it means to be Anabaptist.  We talked with the President of the Mennonite church in Guatemala and visited her church where she and her husband offer classes to children and women in a neighborhood plagued by violence and landslides.  We met with seminary students and pastors who are so grateful to have the free seminary classes.  Most of their churches are poor and unable to pay for continuing education.  Some of the pastors have not even completed their high school education.  Tuesday we drove to the cloud forest of Coban and have been visiting with the indigenous Q’eqchi Mennonites.  We will also have a chance to visit Honduras and El Salvador later in the week.

One of my favorite conversations was with Gilberto Flores.  He is one of the founders of SEMILLA, the Anabaptist seminary in Guatemala City which sends professors throughout Central America.  His story is remarkable because it intersects with two Guatemalan presidents during the civil war, Jorge Serrano Elias and Efrain Rios Montt.  Elias was part of a Bible study Gilberto started which became a Mennonite congregation, Casa Horeb.  Rios Montt visited Casa Horeb and even though he was a general in the army, Gilberto allowed him to attend the church and even baptized him.  Gilberto preached regularly what it meant to be Anabaptist and always at the end of the service, Rios Montt would say “Okay, now what?”  Gilberto would answer, “Stop killing the poor, work for peace.”  During one service Rios Montt laid down on the floor and asked for forgiveness.  Everyone in the church surrounded him and prayed for him.

Eventually, though, Rios Montt was unable to part with the military path that would eventually lead him to become President, so he left the Mennonite church and joined a right wing evangelical church.

When he did become President, he called Gilberto to come talk to him about his plans for Guatemala.  Gilberto told him, “If you produce life for the whole community, we will be behind you all the way.  If you continue to do harm, we will be against you, in private and in public.  You will know if you are doing something wrong, because we will oppose you.”  Gilberto said these things at a time when anyone who opposed the President could be assassinated.  It was a great risk.

Rios Montt came one last time to Casa Horeb, but this time he came with all his military personnel.  Gilberto would not allow him to bring the guns into the church.  He asked the soldiers to leave or give up their weapons to the elders.  Rios Montt did as Gilberto asked and said, “I am a servant, I will do what you ask.”  Again Gilberto told him to stop killing the poor.  Then Rios Montt knelt down and the church prayed for him.

A couple days later, Gilberto was called to the President’s office.  Rios Montt was furious with the way he had been treated.  He yelled at Gilberto and said he didn’t know him and he never wanted to see him again.  Gilberto’s response was, “It is you who has changed, not me.  I have always been the same.”  In 2013 Rios Montt was convicted of genocide of the indigenous people in Guatemala.  Under his leadership 250,000 were brutally killed, others who opposed him disappeared – teachers, professors, poets, journalists.

Still today, Gilberto Flores sees peace, love and community as vital for Christians.  He said to us he hopes one day Anabaptists are like an aspen tree.  All sharing the same root, but covering an entire mountainside.

 

Saint Oscar

“Each one of you has to be God’s microphone. Each one of you has to be a messenger, a prophet. The church will always exist as long as there is someone who has been baptized…Where is your baptism? You are baptized in your professions, in the fields of workers, in the market. Wherever there is someone who has been baptized, that is where the church is. There is a prophet there. Let us not hide the talent that God gave us on the day of our baptism and let us truly live the beauty and responsibility of being a prophetic people.”

“I don’t want to be an anti, against anybody. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God, who loves us and who wants to save us.”

“There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”

These are the words of Oscar Romero.  He was a Roman Catholic pastor in El Salvador, promoted to the country’s Archbishop in 1977.  With a reputation as non-political, he was considered a safe choice for keeping the church from entering the fray of growing unrest toward an increasingly violent and repressive military regime.  Less than a month after his appointment, a dear friend of his who worked closely with poor communities was assassinated.  This became a turning point for Romero who began speaking out against violence and torture directed at the poor of his country.  During his Sunday sermons, broadcast nationwide, he would name those who had disappeared or been murdered.  He preached passionately about God’s love for the poor, calling on the state to stop the repression, and the United States to stop supplying the regime with weapons.  A listener survey determined that his radio sermons were regularly heard by 73% of the rural population and 37% of those in urban areas.  On March 23, 1980, he called on Salvadoran soldiers, themselves Christians, to obey God’s law rather than the government’s orders.  Romero was assassinated the day after while leading Mass at a hospital chapel.

Three days ago Pope Francis canonized Romero as a saint.

Romero pic of picOfficial Roman Catholic sainthood might not mean a lot to us Protestants.  We emphasize the priesthood of all believers.  But it is a gift to us to have Oscar Romero named as a leader and companion along this difficult path of the Jesus way.  It elevates a courageous and compassionate voice and spirit we need to hear.  Romero spoke out of deep conviction, in the spirit of Christ, and was met with the same fate as Jesus.  As he once said: “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.”

This icon of Oscar Romero is one of the images I have hanging over my office desk.

Joel

 

One year in: A Sanctuary reflection

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of Edith in Sanctuary in our church building.  The press continues to tell her story sympathetically, like THIS article in The Guardian, and THIS one in The Dispatch.  Edith actually first entered Sanctuary last Labor Day, but was able to briefly return home before entering long term on October 2.

Over this past year I have thought many times about that Wednesday evening last August when we completed our accelerated discernment process to become a Sanctuary church.  It was the second congregational meeting in four days, all the time we had, due to Edith’s impending deportation order.

One of my favorite anecdotes from that evening is that Mateo Leahy was there, sitting near the back with his mom Elisa.  He had insisted on attending, so he could vote for Edith to live in our church and not have to leave her family.  He was entering second grade, and earlier in the month had been diagnosed with a soft tissue cancer in the back of his mouth.  He had already undergone a round of chemo.  But when he heard that Edith might have to leave her family he insisted on attending a mid-week evening church meeting.

After meeting Edith, discussing the legal ramifications, and raising other questions and concerns, all in attendance received slips of paper.  They were asked to write a number, 1 (cannot support) through 5 (fully support).  Later that evening, Leadership Team considered the discussion and tallied the numbers from that and the previous meeting.  Mateo’s 5 was joined by many others, and there were no 1’s.  We knew we didn’t know what all we were signing up for, but we knew enough, and had enough affirmation from the congregation, to say Yes.  Ever since, we’ve been on this journey with Edith and the community of support that has formed around her.

After nearly a year of difficult treatments, this summer Mateo and his family celebrated the beginning of a cancer-free era.  Edith, of course, remains in Sanctuary in our church building.

Although rarely named as such, some voices in our current national immigration debate approach migrants as if they were a cancer or some other kind of disease within our national body.  The solution, the treatment, is to target those here for removal, and put up as many physical and legal barriers for those seeking entrance.  Franklin County is in the top national tier for the percentage of people being deported who have no criminal record.  At the border we have gone so far as using family separation as a deterrent for those considering entry.  Maybe word will get around south of the border that the cruelty with which you’re treated in the US far surpasses the violence or economic desperation you’re trying to flee.  In this way, the US body politic will be protected.  We will be well again.  America will be great again.  Our white blood cells are working overtime these days to battle the infection.  Emphasis on white.

This year of Sanctuary has highlighted for us that there is indeed a great illness we are facing.  But we have a different diagnosis.  The illness is not caused by those who have been living in our country for many years without a secure status.  It’s not caused by migrants crossing the border, or refugees from around the world waiting for a nation that will take them in.

The illness is the dire poverty that causes desperate people to seek a stable life elsewhere.  The illness is the violence of war that causes people to flee for their lives.  The illness is human-induced climate change that creates whole populations of refugees seeking a livable environment.  The illness is our fear of the other, and our belief that higher walls keep us safe from these fears.

The problems are so entrenched there is no cure in sight.

But with a different diagnosis comes a different treatment.  Anything and everything we do to address these root causes of suffering is part of the solution.  As the saying goes, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Sanctuary is part of the work we have been given in this moment.  Edith’s singular story is a window into what ails us, and the ever-widening community of support around her is a doorway into what heals us.  Her legal case remains unresolved, but we have a growing resolve to be counted among those who choose neighborliness over isolation, love over fear, bridges over walls.

In other words, when it comes to addressing our deepest illnesses, I’m with Mateo.  Which means I’m with Edith.  Which means this holy work continues into another year.  Which makes our congregational Sanctuary prayer as pertinent as ever:

God our Sanctuary, grant us and our neighbors, near and far, courage in our hearts, peace in our homes, and justice in our streets.  Amen.

Dios nuestro Santuario, concédenos y nuestros vecinos, cercana y lejana, coraje en nuestros corazones, paz en nuestros hogares, y justicia en nuestras calles. Amen.

Jewish prayers

Our Jewish friends are fasting today.  They are praying for themselves and the world, for us.  They are confessing shortcomings, and remembering the Mercy that holds us all.

Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a high point of the Jewish calendar.  As they have in past years, the Little Minyan congregation, under the leadership of Rabbi Jessica Shimberg, is worshiping in our building.

They are chanting Hebrew in a Mennonite sanctuary.  The Torah scroll, held in the Ark, is elevated in front of the congregation.  Behind it hangs the World banner that has focused our recent summer worship.  The Torah has a white cloth cover.  On the cloth is a tree with the Hebrew words Etz Chayim, The Tree of Life.  In Sunday’s sermon I mentioned that the Tree of Life shows up in Genesis, and doesn’t reappear until Revelation.  But that’s only one angle.  The Tree of Life lives in our time.  Without it we would wither.

Rabbi JessLittle Minyan Torah (2)ica shared with me that her congregation feels that this space is doubly blessed with Edith living here.  They are praying for her and others in similar circumstances.

As I write, a small group from the congregation is preparing the fellowship hall for the meal they will share together this evening as they break the fast at sunset.

Today I’m grateful for Jewish prayers and Jewish neighbors.  May they be for a blessing.

This picture was taken and shared with their permission.

Joel

 

 

 

 

Other languages

 

This past Sunday was Pentecost.  It marks the transition of the liturgical year into Ordinary Time, which lasts all the way up to Advent.

Pentecost marks the birth of the church, with the key story found in Acts 2.  It’s the one where they were all together in one room “and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”  What sounded like wind looked like tongues of fire, with each person getting a piece of the flame.  Then a different sound: they all started to speak in other languages.

From its origins, the church is multi-lingual.  Rather than having an official language, love, justice, and mercy get translated into every imaginable expression.  This is the work of the Spirit.  This is the gift of Pentecost.

What happened “suddenly” at the first Pentecost is regularly pretty slow work.  Two weeks from today our family will fly out to Guatemala.  We’ll be there for three weeks.  On weekdays we’ll each have private tutoring in Spanish.  We’re not going to get fluent, but we’re going to try to learn the basics of another language.

This too is the work of the Spirit.  Putting our minds to work to enter other worlds, bridge cultural barriers, and relate to another person on their terms rather than our own.

I see each of you translating love, justice, and mercy into whatever language the people around you speak each day, whether it be the language of children, the language of academia, the language of business or social work.  This too is the work of the Spirit.

Joel

Sunday’s baptism sermon, “Do you?” “I do.” is posted HERE.