Small gestures


On Sunday, rather than lighting the peace candle, worship leader Becca Lachman invited us to place our hand over our heart and imagine the peace candle as a light within us.  It’s a prayerful gesture one can access any time.  Later in the service there were many candles burning as we came forward and named dear ones who have died, each flame a life whose love lives on in us.  I can still picture those candles, and still hear the affection in the voices speaking those names.

In looking at the worship calendar for November, it’s a month of small gestures pregnant with meaning.  This coming Sunday will include an opportunity to receive prayers and blessing for healing through anointing with oil.  The oil isn’t magic, but it is real, a felt presence that marks an expressed hope.  On the 19th we’ll take up a collection of canned goods, filling and surrounding our worship table with food for neighbors in need.  The final Sunday of November is also the final week of the liturgical year, known as Reign of Christ Sunday.  We’ll mark this by sharing in Communion.  Then we begin again with Advent.

Rituals and small gestures like these are one of the treasures of the church.  They are dense with meaning.  They can serve as anchors and light posts.

A candle is a life, remembered and still burning.  A touch of oil is a prayer, meeting us at our deepest longing.  A can of food is a meal and a call to open handed generosity.  Bread and cup proclaim that we, even we, are a part of the body of Christ, through whom the Divine makes small gestures to the world that love is lord of heaven and earth.




Happy? Anniversary Protestants


What do Facebook and Twitter have in common with the Protestant Reformation?  Nothing and everything.

Six days from now, October 31, is the 500 year anniversary of the German monk and professor Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.  It was a list of grievances against the Catholic Church, of which Luther and just about all of Europe was a part.  Luther was especially critical of the sale of indulgences.  These had devolved into a fundraising mechanism as the church leveraged people’s fear of eternal punishment to solicit money donations, promising soul benefits.  Cha-ching.

Luther’s post of his theses in 1517 was later seen as Day 1 of the Protestant Reformation.  Along with redrawing the political map of Europe, the Reformation signaled radical shifts we still feel today.  It elevated the role of personal conscience over unquestioned institutional authority.  It is Luther from whom we get the idea of the priesthood of all believers.

Posting arguments publicly wasn’t particularly unique.  What made these theses so influential was a technological invention from the previous century.  The printing press was a new device that, for the first time, enabled documents, pamphlets, and whole Bibles, to be printed and shared on a massive scale.  Essentially, Luther’s 95 Theses went viral, to his own surprise.

Thus the connection with present day Facebook and Twitter.  One could argue that in regards to the free sharing of ideas, the 21st century is the 16th century on steroids.  Or on the internet.

So the free sharing of ideas is a good thing.  The church, and political powers that backed it were corrupt.  The Reformation, which includes Mennonites among its children, sought to offer much needed correctives.

But the Reformation was also a violent splintering, as are some of the currents of the 21st century.  Much has been written recently about how our own perception of reality gets reinforced by the kind of company we keep in the viral world of memes and idea sharing.

Rather than celebrating the Protestant Reformation, and the countless sects it has spawned, it’s perhaps better that we simply observe it.  We can observe this 500 year anniversary with gratitude, and also with caution.  Because we are observing its consequences around us, and they are not all pretty.

We can observe our own tendencies toward sectarianism and tribal thinking, and look for the universal that can get lost in it all.  Catholic, with a little “c”, catholic, means “universal.”  It holds out the firm hope that underneath stark divides, ideological battles, and persistent abuses of power, there is a universal thread connecting us all at the soul level.  I hope it holds.


For a more detailed article comparing the communication technologies of these two eras see this 2011 article in the Economist: “How Luther went viral.

Beauty and grief


In the past few days I’ve had multiple conversations about Ohio in October.  In short, it’s a beautiful time of year.  It’s special.

It’s the trees that do it to us.  I’m fearing the downward line of societal disintegration, and they’re still there, pointing to circularity.  They’ve gathered their energy, stored their supplies for the journey through winter, and are letting go.  Their colorful solar panels disintegrate and become earth and soil beneath them.  What has the outward appearance of death is how they live.

I do grieve the leaves falling every autumn.  I’m never ready for it.  The green didn’t last long enough.  I didn’t appreciate the canopy enough, again.  And it will soon be gone.  I’m never ready for the trees to be bare.  I will likely notice this every day until they aren’t, again.

It’s likely the mix of grief and beauty that makes this such a soulful season.  That combination works miracles, many of them painful and necessary.

I see that mix of grief and beauty also present in our sanctuary work, #metoo, and every other present effort of humanity defining itself in courageous and vulnerable ways.  It is healing work, and we are the ones in need of healing.

I’m grateful for a quarterly Sabbath weekend.  Abbie and I get to spend a couple days in Hocking Hills among the trees.  They are faithful companions and speak a language I need to hear.




Thoughts and prayers


There are a lot of thoughts and prayers happening these days.  Hurricanes, a mass shooting, and the re-awakened demon of nuclear war ought to cause a lot of thinking and praying. “Thoughts and prayers” has become a common phrase, shorthand for I care about this, something to say when you don’t know what else to say.

Whether these words are too cheap and easy is a topic for a different blog.  I, for one, am glad to take them at face value unless there’s reason to be skeptical.

I do wonder how these two actions relate to each other.  Are thoughts and prayers two distinct things?  Can there be prayer without thought?  Is thought a form of prayer?  Are we unsure what we mean by prayer, so we qualify it with what we’re more familiar with, something more down to earth – thinking compassionately about someone or a group of people?

I imagine all of these could be answered in the affirmative, with commentary to follow.

Some people experience prayer as a direct conversation with God on behalf of another person or situation.  Others experience prayer as a particular form of thought – a conscious decision to direct love and goodwill in the direction of another.  There is good precedent in the tradition for both forms.  One of my favorite passages about prayer is in Romans 8 when Paul talks about the Spirit groaning within us with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:23).  Perhaps rather than “thoughts and prayers” we should say “groans and sighs.”

A few weeks ago during a worship service Pete Y passed along a phrase as an encouragement for us to give toward our congregational first fruits pledging process.  He noted that a wealthy couple whose generosity he greatly admires shared with him that “Our money can go places we can’t.”

I’m thinking that this phrase also works for thoughts and prayer.  Our prayers go places we can’t.  Our thoughts go places we can’t.

We can’t always be in the hospital room, on the hurricane-devastated island, at the death bed, with a friend struggling with mental health.  But our thoughts, prayers, groans, and sighs become extensions of ourselves.  They reach out and touch, in unseen ways, the circumstances of our fellow creatures.  And in the process, they form us into more compassionate people.


Going deeper with Sanctuary

This Sunday we’ll begin a fall worship series focused on Sanctuary.  In the last month Sanctuary has become a major theme for our congregation.  We have practiced Sanctuary in our building and been a part of a mobile Sanctuary surrounding Edith at various times after she left our building.  It has been a very public commitment.  With Edith now at her Columbus home discerning next steps after being denied a stay of removal, we continue to be in a position of holding space.  Meanwhile, we are in the middle of a growing movement in the faith community.  Yesterday 30 people representing at least 10 congregations met at our building to discuss how we are all working on the sanctuary discussion in our own settings and how we might work together.  We have received invitations to speak at similar gatherings in northeast and southwest Ohio.
In our worship we’ll continue to ask what it means to be a sanctuary congregation.  Specifically, what is the history of sanctuary in the church and beyond the church?  What scriptures pertain to sanctuary?  What is the role of civil disobedience in the life of faith?  How does sanctuary intersect with the ministry of Jesus?  And, beyond our building, what does it mean for us to be sanctuary people in the broadest sense?  How do we create sanctuary space in our conversations, work places, and homes?  What is the inward journey of sanctuary?
This Sunday is also World Communion Sunday, so we’ll join with churches around the world at the generous and abundant table of bread and cup.

The new year: fear and joy   


This morning I was part of a meeting that included Edith Espinal, her attorneys, and several key advocates.  This coming Monday is an important day for her.  She has a check in with ICE in which there will be one of three outcomes: 1) Her stay of removal will be accepted and she’ll be told the amount of time she can stay in the US, up to one year. 2) Her stay of removal will be rejected, she’ll be released, and given a date in the next three weeks when she’ll need to appear before ICE with a plane ticket back to Mexico that she has purchased.  3) Her stay of removal will be rejected and she’ll be detained on the spot, held in one of the cells in the ICE office on the third floor of the Leveque Tower downtown.  There are some slight variances within each of these options, and it’s difficult to know which is the most likely.

While we were meeting, the attorneys got a call from an ICE officer relaying that Edith’s case was being decided soon in the Detroit offices and that Edith was to bring an itinerary on Monday.  This made it seem like the chances of her being detained are lowered, but so too are the chances for a stay.  An itinerary isn’t a plane ticket, but a plan of when you’ll get one.  Edith is currently scheduled to meet with the third party contractor, the GEO Group Company, that often works on ICE’s behalf, meaning her attorneys would not be able to be in the room with her.

One of the main considerations Edith is dealing with right now is fear for her son Brandow and husband Manuel.  Neither of them have a secure status and are in danger of future deportation.  ICE officers have unfortunately been holding that over Edith and she is fearful that if she does not play by the rules, for example, re-enters sanctuary in our church, that ICE would target her son and husband for an expedited deportation process.  It’s another case of not knowing what the true risks are for decisions she’ll soon be making.

Her advocates are going to work for her today with a few strategies to lobby on her behalf.  We as a congregation continue to hold space for her.  Next Wednesday we’ll also be hosting in our fellowship hall an open conversation with clergy and lay leaders of other Central Ohio faith communities considering the next steps of sanctuary in their own congregations.

When I arrived back at the church I pulled in to a full parking lot.  The Little Minyan Kehila, a Jewish congregation that uses our building for their high holy days, is in our building all day for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.  I slipped in to the back of the sanctuary as a guest in our home, soaking in the words of song of their worship.  Their leader Jessica Shimberg was speaking about joy, and the Divine accompanying us through life.  She invited them to turn in their worship books to Psalm 150, a Psalm of praise.  Soon a guitar led them into a song full of Hallelujahs.

It did not in the least bit feel in tension with what I had just been a part of at the attorney’s office.  It was an entirely appropriate, indeed necessary, indeed imperative response to the sorrows and gifts of living.  It was an affirmation of Divine and human accompaniment, sung in a sanctuary where even I, a Gentile outsider, was welcomed with warmth.


This morning’s Dispatch included an article titled “More religious groups considering offering sanctuary from deportation.

Sanctuary so far…

Two weeks ago today three of us from CMC sat around a table at which Edith Espinal made the decision to go into sanctuary in a local congregation to avoid imminent deportation.  After one location quickly fell through, we found ourselves being asked whether the Mennonites would be able to step forward.  That Saturday morning Leadership Team met to get oriented to the situation and discuss how we might process this as a congregation.  After a congregational meeting the following day and another one that Wednesday evening we felt we had enough information and enough congregational support to offer our building as sanctuary to Edith.

Many CMCers stepped forward right away to donate time, money, ideas, and material resources to prepare space for her.  This included a major bathroom remodel to install a shower, clearing out the crib room and furnishing it as an apartment, installing security cameras, and developing a strategy for a new kind of normal.  All of this after sitting down with Edith to hear about her needs.  Meanwhile other supporting organizations planned for her transition into sanctuary.  A petition was created, as was a fundraising mechanism.  A media strategy was put in place in order to tell her story and gather public support.

On Monday evening of this week we welcomed Edith into our building with hand-made signs and the song “Caminamos en la luz de Dios, We are marching in the light of God.”

On Tuesday the major local media outlets showed up for a well-attended press conference.  Edith and her daughter talked about why she was entering sanctuary, and several other faith leaders and I talked about the moral and spiritual dimensions of offering sanctuary.

That day, Tuesday, was to be Edith’s last check in with ICE.  She had been ordered to appear with a plane ticket to Mexico, deportation at her own expense.  Instead her attorney went in her place.

Tuesday evening we learned that ICE, in conversation with her attorneys, had requested Edith to check in with them on Wednesday, yesterday.  Her attorneys felt this presented the best possibility for Edith to apply for and receive a stay of deportation.  There would be risk in doing this, as Edith could be detained and held until deported.  It also differed from the plan to remain in sanctuary while the application for a stay of deportation was made.

This was ultimately Edith’s decision, and it was unclear until the last minute what it would be.

Yesterday, Wednesday, morning around 11am, a number of us gathered downtown planning to report to ICE that she would be remaining in sanctuary and not be checking in.  While there, we learned she had decided to check in after all, leaving the relative safety of the church.  We accompanied her up to the floor of the ICE offices.  We were immediately asked to leave, although after several requests I was allowed to stay and wait with her, her attorneys, her son Brandow, and her social worker, Maria, from Avanza.

While waiting I learned from Maria that ICE gets around the right of people to have an attorney with them during some of the check ins by contracting with a third party which has in their contract that no attorney can be present for the check in.  After Brandow went in and came out quickly for his regular check in it was eventually Edith’s turn.  It was a good sign when they allowed her attorneys to join her, meaning that an actual ICE agent would be meeting with them rather than the contracted company.  I waited outside with Maria and Brandow in the long, narrow, nondescript hallway lined with chairs.

Over a half hour later Edith came out with a smile.  Her attorneys explained that, while she still has an order for removal (deportation), she had been granted two weeks to file for a stay of deportation and will undergo regular check ins until she hears through the mail whether her stay has been granted.  In total, this could take months.

Because of this arrangement, the need for sanctuary in a church is no longer as urgent.  She can be, and understandably prefers to be, home with her family.  It is my and other’s view that the option of sanctuary and the outpouring of support for Edith made the difference in making this possible.  That is something to be celebrated – a weeping mother was given a smile yesterday.  But it is a rare thing to be granted a stay of removal and this may have simply bought more time until Edith has to decide again whether to accept deportation or go the route most likely to protect her from being separated from her family – take sanctuary in a church building.

So where does this leave us as a congregation?  We made a quick yet informed decision to become a sanctuary congregation.  We have taken tangible and organizational steps toward having sanctuary space and being sanctuary people.  We have escalated love.  And we have begun a relationship with the Espinal family in which their story became connected to ours.

More broadly, other clergy and community members have expressed their solidarity with our move toward sanctuary, advancing a vital conversation in the Columbus faith community that will continue to grow.

What we have now is in at least one way similar to what Edith has.  We’ve been given more time in which the urgency of the moment is less intense.

We have more time to consider how these last two weeks inform how we move ahead, to continue to prepare ourselves and our space.

Edith, and many others like her, are subject to the whims of a cruel system.  Even though we are not currently hosting her in our building, this is by no means the end of the story.  Let’s proceed prayerfully and powerfully.