What to Watch in Orlando: An Unofficial Guide

Ahhh, Orlando. With a biennial convention, it’s easy to lose track of the details. If reading two years of The Mennonite is TL;DR for you, here’s a overview of what will really matter in Orlando. I’m calling it the Gossip Girl Guide because it covers the gap between the institutional view and the ground-level view (also because xoxo, you know you love church polity).

Orlando sunglasses


What to Look for: Who we are Now

What it Is: The denomination has shrunk by about a third since 2015. That means we don’t really know who the average Mennonite is anymore. Anecdotally, they seem to be further west and further north; less conservative (at least on sexuality), and perhaps less ethnically Mennonite. But that’s speculation.
Why it Matters: If we are fundamentally different, then we have the freedom to act fundamentally different–something Orlando already started to do, by automatically registering everyone for servant projects and introducing Future Church Summit. Incidentally, there are also several youth groups coming from congregations that are no longer part of Mennonite Church USA. This convention will shape not just who MC USA becomes, but who Evana and Lancaster Conference become.

Pink Menno Logo

What to Look For: Where are the LGBTQ Mennonites

What it Is: In Kansas City, MC USA was heavy-handed in trying to control where and how queer people appeared. For obvious reasons, it didn’t work.
Why it Matters: MC USA has taken a (somewhat) more accepting approach to moderating how queer people can be present. But does that approach actually welcome people or just shift the method of discrimination? And while MC USA is trying to reinvent itself, so is Pink Menno. Pink Menno is no longer the only or the loudest LGBTQ constituency group in the denomination. The landscape of LGBTQ Mennonites is shifting and widening; the number of employed queer pastors is growing. That doesn’t mean they feel welcome at Orlando–they don’t, especially after EB’s poorly-handled non-appointment of a qualified gay man to a committee everyone agreed he should be on. What queer spaces emerge, and whether the institution spreads the welcome mat a little father, will define the next two years.

Convention Playlist


What to Look For: Who is Having Fun

What it Is: From #overheardwithted to requests for worship glitter to Isaac Villegas’  Anabaptist Convention Playlist, the Internet is laughing–with convention, not at convention. Like the heyday of conventions, people are still coming to Orlando with joy.
Why it Matters: Joy is a sign of resilience from conflict and stress. The ones who having a good time are the likeliest to stay in the church–and the likeliest to set a vision, whether or not the institution listens to it. These are the people you want to sit next to at Future Church Summit. They’re the ones who have the creativity and the energy to vision something other than stagnation. Additionally, if the people who are opposed to same-sex sexuality can’t figure out how to have fun, they’ll lose ground, energy, and credibility.


What to Look For: Does Future Church Summit Work?

What it Is: There’s an argument to be made that the main problem in Kansas City was the structure itself. Delegate sessions are long, tedious, and over-air conditioned. Future Church Summit is, theoretically, a corrective to the perennial problem that the people willing to be delegates are those who have the greatest stamina for bureaucracy. Orlando condenses bureaucracy (and hopefully, long self-congratulatory presentations from administrative groups).
Why it Matters: Delegate sessions are about maintenance, with a bias toward tradition and stability. Future Church Summit should be a problem-posing model of generative, creative thinking that embraces challenge instead of fearing it. If it is as Paulo-Freire-infused as it has been advertised, it’s on the cutting edge of education theory and will channel grassroots fervor into institutional transformation. If it is a dull and bureaucratic letdown, it accelerates the death of the denomination and institution.

MC USA logo banner

What to Look For: The One Remaining Resolution

What it Is: In a move that is either conflict-averse or creative, there are no new resolutions in Orlando. The revised Israel-Palestine Resolution from 2015 is edited with an ear to constituent feedback, contains gentler rhetoric than the previous draft, and should pass easily (but will not, because it contains the words Israel-Palestine; also, because delegate session).
Why it Matters: Resolutions, as they’ve been practiced since the merger, are pretty ineffective tools. For the most part, they’re dry statements that can sidestep hairsplitting and avoid substantive commitment. They do little more than reflect cultural concerns in the intervening two years. Add that they’re being voted on mostly by lead pastors and retirees with enough time to spend a week on church business, and it’s not even a representative body. A step away from resolutions might make us a more effective church, especially if we can create guidelines for a centralized church body (Executive Board) to respond to current events as they happen (*cough cough Pulse debacle cough*). If we can innovate a more effective format than resolutions, it’s to our collective advantage.Christ the Solid Rock

What to Look For: The Adult-Youth Gap

What it Is: Adults delegates at Kansas City were exhausted by the emotional and bureaucratic load. As a youth sponsor, I was only exhausted by lack of sleep and the long walk to the convention center.
Why it Matters: If the narrative about Kansas City is that “it was terrible,” we’ve set the denomination up for failure. Adults forget that convention has never been about them–sure, delegate work is important, but the legacy of convention is not institutional efficacy. It’s that it hooks youth into a meaningful, collective identity in Christ. It makes the case for Mennonite affiliation. If adults think convention is about their finer theological and administrative positions, then the whole church loses.

There’s Always Something Wrong with Your Generation

The older generation always thinks the younger generation is going to pot.

I hear this statement regularly in the church, repeated by the older generation who dedicated their lives to the church. I also hear it from the teenagers I work with, weighing whether or not to stay in the church.

Everyone knows generational conflict is a tired song. All our complaints — about both the older and younger generations — are reruns of those who came before us.

It’s a self-aware statement: I know my views reflect my cultural context. But often it’s used as a resigned statement at the end of an exhausting conversation about sexuality or communion or baptism. Young or old church members express their view, then qualify it with, “but people like me always disagree with people like them.”

It may be broadly true, but it isn’t relevant. Continue reading

Our First 100 Days

There was a blizzard of headlines last week about Donald Trump’s First 100 Days in office. As an ethicist and a pastor, I’m less interested in Trump’s attitudes and actions (which the media is analyzing nonstop, from all angles, as rapidly as they can). I’m more interested in the question: What Did you Do with Your First 100 Days?

Many of us, in the weeks after November 8, tried to vision these First 100 Days. Who we are and who we’d become in the shift of power. Many of us, like the media, are still in reactive mode, treading through headlines to stay afloat.

But time has passed, and we have changed. Who have we become? In my own congregation, the election jolted us to life. When I think of the first 100 days, I think of what we’ve done together. Continue reading

No More Palms, Please

Most Christians never question where the palms on Palm Sunday come from. It never occurred to me, until my first year pastoring, that someone had to get the palms (and order them well in advance).  But as we approach Palm Sunday, we ought to reexamine our theology of palms.

Traditional (read: conventionally harvested) palms are shipped from a handful of countries including Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize. But because palm harvesters are paid by the number of palms, not the quality of them, the most efficient way to get palms is also the most destructive. Cutting as many leaves as possible from each tree damages the trees and the long-term sustainability of palm trees. Not only that, but palm trees grow in the shade of forests, and so sustainably-harvested palms support both the palms and the wider forest preservation efforts. Such noble organizations as the Rainforest Alliance have promoted the eco-palm movement.

Continue reading

‘Get Out’ as Apocalypse Story

Director/writer Jordan Peele calls his film Get Out a “social thriller,” and if you’re like me, your newsfeed has been saturated with tasteful Vaguebooking about the film. But Get Out can be described, with equal accuracy and without spoilers, as a “contemporary apocalypse.” Apocalypse has become Hollywood shorthand for the highest possible stakes of an action sequence–any film that uses the destruction of all human life as a plot device. But in the traditional sense, apocalypse represents an entirely different genre of literature.

Classical apocalypse has less to do with annihilation than regime change. The Greek word apokalypsis means revelation, or uncovering. it’s a genre of literature–much like horror.

Get Out 3

I was terrified at “meet my parents.”

Get Out is a social thriller in the sense that it uses social evil (racism) to heighten an otherwise traditional horror film. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend 15 minutes with my hands over my eyes (but I only see four movies a year and have a low tolerance for visual violence so don’t listen to my definition of scary). A black man accompanies his white girlfriend’s family in the suburbs (a terrifying enough premise on its own), and everything you know (and don’t know) about horror film ensues. I’m not a fan of spoilers, though, so what follows is fairly obtuse on plot details.

Get Out is apocalyptic the same way that Revelation–and other books of the Bible–are social thrillers. The plot hinges on a systemic oppression, laden with specific and symbolic details, reaching a low point and with the hope that a protagonist can interrupt the systemic oppression, regardless of personal cost or total efficacy.

In a sense, apocalypse is a Quentin Tarantino-esque fantasy about future or past envision the triumph of the oppressed over the oppressor, resulting in the total collapse of the oppressor’s social structure. This is where our contemporary view of apocalypse comes from: the collapse of the oppressor’s social structure and all the fear that comes with losing the social order. Continue reading

The Beatitudes are Like Yogurt

[This is adapted from a sermon I preached Jan. 29]

There is an awful lot that needs to be said about Donald Trump, but I don’t want to begin there. I want to approach American politics via Jesus. And yogurt. So I begin with the Beatitudes. Many Christians think of the Beatitudes as “the New Testament Ten Commandments,” but I prefer to think of them more like “yogurt.” The Ten Commandments are, as it happens, commands. What the Beatitudes and yogurt have in common is that they are both not commands. Continue reading

Advent is Not for the Hopeful, it is for the Tenacious

This post is an excerpt from a sermon I preached Dec. 4. Find the full text here.

This Advent, I’ve heard many Christians saying how excited they are for the season of hope and comfort. After the stress of the election and the beating 2016 has given us, they ask to avoid the dark things and focus on the hope.

When I hear this, I wonder if these Christians are really want comfort or if they want stability. If they are asking to hear peace, peace when there is no peace. I wonder if these Christians are searching not for hope, but for the opiate of the masses. When spoken by the privileged, pleas of hope can sound like pleas for ignorant bliss. Let’s speak of hope, they say, because we have the luxury of choosing when we have to confront oppression.

When the people asking for hope live in middle- and upper-class comfort, it sounds like they are asking for permission to bury their heads in the sand. Continue reading