Your Body is Mural: A Christian Case for Body Modification

For a single moment, in the waiting room of the tattoo parlor, I thought: “you can un-do this. There’s still time to take it all back.” And then it passed. I lay down. A whooping crane began to emerge somewhere on the back of my calf, still invisible to me at the angle I lay, and I thought: “Paul was wrong. The body isn’t a temple after all. It’s a mural.”

When Christians say bodies are temples, usually it’s a warning. It’s shorthand for all the negatives that will lead to destruction. We’re told it until it becomes a shock collar, and any time we treat our bodies as anything less than a static empty building, we’re filled with fear of our own destruction. When grown ups told us “your body is a temple,” usually what they meant was “your body is a house that’s been on the market for three months.” They mean: Don’t leave crumbs in the kitchen; keep the floors swept; erase the fingerprints and furniture marks; make it look like no one lives here so that when Jesus returns he can have his run of the place because he needs a vacation home.

We mean, “return your body to God the way it arrived to you. Don’t mess it up; don’t spend too much time in the sun; don’t run so fast you fall and get scarred.” When they say, “your body is a temple,” they mean “your body is a library book, don’t get fined when you return it.” But the body is not a temple, not literally; the body is mobile, it’s a vehicle, it puts on the miles. It’s built to carry a load, set it down, pick up another one.It’s not Paul who was wrong, it’s us who misinterpreted him. Continue reading

Global Economics, Part 1: Amazon Prime as Devil

“Amazon Prime is the devil,” I said to a friend this week. The poor friend, the son of a preacher, was confused by my vehement rebuke, since Amazon Prime was only tangential to the story he was telling.

As a pastor, I try not to go around calling things the devil just because I dislike them. But if Amazon Prime isn’t the devil, it’s certainly something close to it. It amazes me how quickly Christians latched on to Amazon Prime as if their freshly arrived toilet paper is heaven-sent. How quickly we’ve let Amazon be our source not only for products, but invited Amazon to take over the whole supply chain, edging out competitors and creating functional monopolies on more and more products. How quickly we’ve bought into the idea that faster is better.

I waited three days for Jesus to resurrect; surely I can wait three days for my toilet paper (or at least, use my roommate’s bathroom until it arrives; although I should apologize to my roommate that I went through almost a whole roll of her toilet paper before I found the time to get my own; sorry, Stacy). Continue reading

Against all Rationality

I don’t like most sermons. (Note: this post is adapted from a sermon I gave this week. Not at my church, though.) As a preacher, I’m skeptical of the sacred regard we give to the sermon. Most Sundays I can’t justify a lecture-based all-ages banking-model of religious education, but it’s expected of me—so I do it, and I try to make it enjoyable (for me, if not everyone else).

I couldn’t locate the source of my distaste until recently, over at the Restoring Pangea blog, when Nathaniel Grimes offered an explanation. Grimes (who happens to attend my church), describes a church where “sermons present principles which everyone is expected to be familiar with, but which the congregation inexplicably does not exemplify. The underlying assumption is that, in order to become more [insert noble ethic here], people mostly need a combination of information and motivation.” The sermon is a persuasive essay designed to change your behavior or bore you out of the pews.

The underlying assumption of this preaching style, though, is that it begins with “the expectation… that all people are rational, moral, individual actors who only need to summon the will or learn the proper techniques to do what is right.”

This was a lightbulb for me. I don’t really believe humans are rational, moral, individual actors.

If I am being completely honest, I will say three years of pastoring has not strengthened my faith in humanity—it has made me more misanthropic, more skeptical, and more irritated by the very nature of humanity. Continue reading

The Case for Suspending Credentials: Lindale, Virginia Conference, and Definitions of Accountability

(Trigger warning: sexual abuse, mishandling of sexual abuse cases.)

“We talk a lot about accountability, but it’s the conference’s job to figure out what that means. We want to ask you, pastors, how do you expect us to hold you accountable?” Last Thursday, Michael Danner, Executive Conference Minister of Illinois Mennonite Conference, asked us this question. Sitting with a dozen Chicagoland credentialed leaders, we discussed the mechanisms we appreciated and the mechanisms we needed to handle concerns about financial management and sexual abuse, among other issues.

As the conversation closed, I raised a tentative hand and said: “Michael, whatever else comes of this accountability conversation, please don’t let a Lindale happen in Illinois Conference. Please, feel empowered to step into any congregation dealing with allegations of sexual abuse. Please, feel empowered to be proactive.”

I don’t mean to call out or condemn Lindale. They are in a difficult position of responding to Lauren Shifflett’s report of abuse. And if you aren’t familiar with Lindale and the fallout from Luke Hartman’s solictiation-of-prostitution arrest, there are plenty of articles in the public record so you can make up your own mind.

As a Mennonite pastor, I cannot help but look at Lindale with an eye toward, “What would I do?” We pastors know our professional risks. We know that the very nature of our profession–peacekeeping, relationship-building, hours of potluck and Dutch Blitz–will tempt us to handle concerns in-house with a minimum of fuss. We are mindful that when pastors exercise church discipline, we are sometimes put in the uncomfortable position of disciplining our friends–as Duane Yoder was at Lindale. As a pastor, I look at my own congregation and think, “Dear God, if that happened here, my professional and spiritual role mean that I am one bad decision away from defending and justifying a sexual predator.” Continue reading

Why Coffeeshop Ministries Should Fail

The logic goes like this: Christians like coffee (and tea). Non-Christians like coffee (and tea). Pastors really like coffee (and tea). Why don’t we unite around the things we like and use coffee to grow our community? And thus, a whole generation of missiologists and pastors came up with a really, really good theory–in theory.

Coffeeshop ministries are trendy. Especially in the Methodist church, where church plants seem to go hand-in-hand with brand management, but it’s true in many corners of American Christianity. In February, I was at the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference in Dallas where–surprise–an evening event was held at Union, a charming Methodist-funded dual-purpose storefront with the tagline “coffee. community.cause.” and a Tuesday evening worship service that means “kiss” in ancient Greek. Continue reading

An Anabaptist Survival Guide to the 2016 Elections

(This post is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on March 13. The traditional Anabaptist view is that Christians should not vote and thereby support a fallen system, but I–and many other contemporary Anabaptists–am of the school that voting is an extension of our creative nonviolence. This post is designed to speak to both those who vote and those who are conscientious objectors to voting. All of us must survive the election season.)

The 2016 election is brutal. Not just because it started in 2015. The whole narrative of the election hinges on an existential proposition–that we’re not voting for a person, we’re voting on the very nature of our lifestyles. It’s a terrifying proposition to put to a democracy, but it’s probably not too far off base.

So how do we deal with fourteen months of news reels asking us if the world as we know it is about to end? I tried to design a few practices for my own congregation.

DO Less. Be more. Ask yourself, “Am I seeking the things that love me back? What matters? Where matters?” Seek the places and people who matter.

DO Rest. You by yourself won’t change the election; you will not with a Five Hour Energy or a longer Facebook comment sway the outcome of the state. Be kind to yourself. Rest. Do the things that strengthen you. Live outside of the news cycle. Continue reading

Jesus Calls us to Heal–and Crowdfund

Every three or four months, one of my friends gets sick. Well. Many of my friends get sick, but one of my sick friends gets swamped with astronomical, life-defining medical bills. I usually hear about it through Facebook, which is a shitty way to hear that your friend is sick, but it’s even shittier when the news comes with a link to a crowdfunded webpage. Every few months, I have a friend whose medical bills are so unaffordably high that he or she has to ask for help, and the only place they can turn is to the Internet.

Medical bills are the biggest cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. There are a billion and a half reasons why medical expenses are so high–unnecessary testing, bloated administration, overpriced prescription drugs, overtaxed system, bad insurance balances, capitalism itself. Whatever. Continue reading