“ …to work amongst…”


“Try not to think in terms of superimposing our own tastes and objectives on the lives of others but rather to make our energies and talents available to those who would want us to work amongst them.”

— Judith Tokel, meeting notes from the American Addition Neighborhood Council, December 9, 1968


I’ve been doing some poking around in the CMC archives.  They’re in the back of the Upper Room, the last stop of the elevator.  The celebration of CMC’s 55 year anniversary this August, combined with the more casual pace of summer, makes it a good time to poke.

The very first file in the first drawer is labeled “American Addition.”  It was, and still is, a small predominantly African American neighborhood on the near east side.  In the late sixties and early seventies, this congregation, then called Neil Avenue Mennonite Church, became heavily involved in working alongside that community to form the Amercrest Improvement Corporation to make substantive improvements to the neighborhood.  This included volunteer labor on houses, and petitioning City Council to remove dilapidated housing and extend bus, gas, and sewer services to the neighborhood (sewer lines had been previously installed, but many of the houses hadn’t been hooked up).

It was a major work, one of the key ways this congregation engaged African American neighbors during the Civil Rights era.

Which is why I find those words from Judith Tokel so compelling, recorded in the meeting notes, preserved in our archives.  They appear hidden in the middle of a paragraph, but serve as a fine definition of mission, conscious of power dynamics: “To make our energies and talents available to those who would want us to work amongst them.”

Mission work of churches can so frequently perpetuate uneven power dynamics rather than transform them.  The attitude of which Judith Tokel writes is a good foundation for the important work of being in active solidarity with others.

And the work continues.







2016 was a big year for news, dominated by the US Presidential campaign.  So guess what the top read New York Times article was for the whole year?  It was an essay by Alain de Botton titled “Why you will marry the wrong person.

The title, and article, is meant as an insight that frees us, rather than dooms us, in marriage.  I’m presently doing pre-marriage counseling for two couples, and this article is a newer part of their homework.  De Botton writes:

“For most of recorded history, people married for logical sorts of reasons: because her parcel of land adjoined yours, his family had a flourishing business, her father was the magistrate in town, there was a castle to keep up, or both sets of parents subscribed to the same interpretation of a holy text. And from such reasonable marriages, there flowed loneliness, infidelity, abuse, hardness of heart and screams heard through the nursery doors. The marriage of reason was not, in hindsight, reasonable at all; it was often expedient, narrow-minded, snobbish and exploitative. That is why what has replaced it — the marriage of feeling — has largely been spared the need to account for itself.”

So de Botton gives some suggestions for how that accounting might happen:

We seem normal only to those who don’t know us very well. In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on any early dinner date would be: ‘And how are you crazy?’

He continues:

The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”

As I look over the CMC June birthdays and anniversaries, this is one of those months dominated by anniversaries.  Abbie I will celebrate 16 years on the 16th.  It’s sweet.  We’re more aware than ever how we each of us are crazy, and we’re in it together.

The points of this article ring true for me.  It’s a small consolation to know America got a larger dose of this wisdom than that of any other Times article last year.

Alain de Botton was also interviewed in February by Krista Tippet for the On Being podcast: “The true hard work of love and relationships.”







3 films


In the last week and a half our family has enjoyed three excellent and thought provoking films, all based on real life events.

Hidden Figures

Perhaps the most remarkable and scandalous aspect of this story is that it hasn’t been widely told until now.  Who knew that the US space program was dependent on a black woman figuring out the math so Alan Shepard and John Glenn could make their famous launches, and return safely back to earth?  Our favorite line was when Dorothy Vaughan and her white supervisor meet up in one of NASA’s newly integrated women’s restrooms.  The supervisor says, “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against ya’ll.”  Vaughan replies, “I know.  I know you probably believe that.”

The Queen of Katwe

This is the story of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan girl living in the slum of Katwe, who has become one of her nation’s leading chess players.  One of the most refreshing parts of the film is that it avoids the individual hero motif.  Phiona’s mother, siblings, and her mentor all share the spotlight in the tangle of poverty, the possibilities of education, and the temptations of success.  We streamed the film through Netflix.

The Bridgemaster’s Daughter    

What a thrill to be with many of you at last evening’s premier of this film that CMCers Elisa Stone and Matthew Leahy have poured their lives into over the last number of years.  What was initially a project about the preservation of a culture in the Peruvian Andes – through an annual bridge building event – became an exploration of the many layers of tradition and loss in the family of the bridge master, Victoriano.  A father-to-son lineage of bridge building expertise is increasingly revealed to be intertwined with patriarchy and generational domestic violence against females, including Victoriano’s daughter.

One of the key moments for me occurred late in the film when Victoriano and several men from his village are in Washington DC doing a bridge building demonstration.  They are surrounded by American tourists observing and applauding their work.  We as viewers get to watch the tourists watch the bridge-building.  But the film has already given us the vantage point that the tourists can’t see — the complexity of a traditional culture in a globalized world, Victoriano’s sorrow about his daughter’s running away from home, and the struggle of these various characters to both preserve the good of their ancestors, and escape the sins of their fathers.

It would be fun to have a viewing at CMC sometime.


Busy signals


A week and a half ago I went on a weekend retreat with three pastor friends.  We met up in Sylva, North Carolina at the second home of a member of the Atlanta Mennonite congregation.  We got in a couple long hikes, sampled some excellent and just OK craft beer, and had lots of conversation.  In regards to the latter, it was about the opposite of a silent retreat.

One of the things we talked about was busyness.  I’ve never quite bought into the language of “work/life balance” since it implies that work and life are two different things.  But being too busy I get.  Specifically, we had some fun talking about what signals tell us that we’re too busy.  For the last number of years, I’ve thought about four main personal indicators for this stage of my life.  1) First and foremost, Am I keeping a weekly (usually Monday) Sabbath day clear of work (church) responsibilities? 2) Am I going for a run three days a week? 3)  Do I have time to read Christian Century magazine?  4) When was the last time I sat down outside and watched the chickens peck and scratch?

These are by no means the most important things in my life – being with family, play, sharing household duties, silent meditation, and getting enough sleep all rank very high.  But if those other four things are happening, everything else is usually working out well.  When one or more of the four start to fall away, other important things tend to follow.

I also recognize these indicators are laced with economic and educational status privilege.  Although I recommend chicken therapy to anyone with a patch to keep them.

I appreciated the weekend in the woods with friends.  We may make it an annual thing.  It helped remind me to pay attention to these busy signals and made me wonder what others claim as their own signals.


Membership Commitment(s)

“We believe Christians are called to a committed fellowship of believers.”

This is the first of five “We believe…” statements from the CMC Membership Commitment.  This coming Sunday we’ll read that statement collectively as we welcome 19 new members into the congregation.  The new members will participate in leading the service and will receive and serve Communion.  They’ll also share briefly from their faith journey and why they’re choosing to join up with the journey of this congregation.  It’s hard to do all that in one service with 19 folks, so about half will be sharing this Sunday and the other half on the 21st.

The new members group met together for lunch after church back in April.  Although it’s hard to speak for the whole group, three major themes that emerged were the values of community, openness to questions, and peace and justice.  It fits with what I have sensed from so many of you, that we long to be a part of a community that cares for each other, seeks deeper understanding, and is engaged with the world.

Another thing that caught my attention was the questions that the Membership Commitment raised.  Phrases like “to care for the spiritual and physical needs of each other,” “We believe all our material things belong to God,” and “to seek justice for the poor and oppressed” resonated with folks.  But much of the conversation focused on other phrases folks found problematic.  If we don’t have a regular household worship time, can we say with integrity “we pledge ourselves to regular private and family worship?”  What does it mean to “actively lead people to Christ?”  Is the church doing as much Bible study as commits to in this statement?

It was a lively discussion.  Noting that the statement was written in the mid 90’s, we wondered together how much the congregation has changed since then and whether it would be worthwhile to revisit the language and…commitments…of our Membership Commitment.  Either to be more intentional about fulfilling certain commitments, or to acknowledge shifting priorities.  My personal sense is that this would indeed be a lively discussion.

These next two Sundays you are invited to consider what it means for you to be a part of this congregation.  What does it mean for us to participate in this particular and local manifestation of the risen body of Christ in such a way that draws us deeper into fellowship, into peacemaking and justice doing with one another and creation, into the Way Jesus has opened up?



Message construction


Today CMC hosted a training for how Columbus faith communities can be in solidarity with immigrants.  The event was put on by Faith in Public Life, Central Ohio Worker Center, Church World Service, and Columbus People’s Partnership.  There were 40-50 people present, four of us from CMC.

One of the presenters, Dan Nejfelt, talked about messaging and the media.  One of his topics has broad application for how we might talk to others about any topic of concern.

Dan noted there has been lots of research done about what makes for a compelling message.  He proposed a message construction with these elements, in this order:

Values -> Problem -> Solution -> Action

Starting with values is a way of naming the Why of our concern and can establish common ground.  After naming the problem that conflicts with these values, a solution describes the outcome we want.  Dan encouraged us to keep in mind that policies are means to a solution, but not the solution itself.  Actions are ways people can concretely act to help achieve the solution to the problem and uphold values.

As a way of practicing, here’s an attempt to follow this message construction regarding the current  BREAD campaign and upcoming Nehemiah Action gathering.

I want to live in the kind of community that provides all children with a supportive environment for healthy relationships and personal flourishing. (Values)

We have a cultural mentality of punishing bad behavior rather than restoring relationships.  During the 2015-16 school year Columbus City Schools issued over 26,000 suspensions to a student body of less than 50,000 (as reported to the state of Ohio).  Overall, suspensions are ineffective at changing behavior, disproportionately affect people of color, and are a part of the school to prison pipeline. (Problem)

Restorative practices are a proven form of reducing suspensions and improving school learning environments.  Rather than focusing on punishment of the wrong doer, restorative practices address the harm done and involve the community in creating a solution.  Cities such as Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore are already seeing measurable changes through their implementation of restorative practices in their schools.  Columbus City Schools is actively looking for alternatives to suspensions and open to what works.  (Solution)

Join with over 2000 people of faith from around Franklin County at the BREAD Nehemiah Action this coming Monday at the Celeste Center at 6:30!  Columbus City Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Good will be present to make commitments to work with BREAD for establishing restorative practices in our schools.  Your presence will make a difference.  (Action)




The original Inward Outward

Back in 1968 Elizabeth O’Connor wrote a book called Journey Inward Journey Outward.  That language was already an important part of her congregation, Church of the Saviour, in Washington, DC.  The book helped popularize this simple but profound notion of both journeys happening simultaneously.

Living in Washington, DC in 1968 must have been intense.  It was the height of the Civil Rights movement that was transforming into a national Poor People’s Campaign.  Although I believe the book was published before either happened, it was the year both Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were shot dead.

In the preface, O’Connor writes: “We cannot begin to cope with what it means to build a world community unless we understand how difficult it is to be in community even with a small group of people.”  Being the body of Christ, even in the small ways we care for one another, is never separate from the big work we do.

O’Connor speaks about life as a vocation.  Our primary job, in this view, is life itself.  To live it well, and to not be like those who “have an invitation to a banquet, but are too busy to attend.”

The fast of Lent is nearing an end.  The feast of Easter is coming.