On Grieving in Public on the Internet

I’ve been thinking about dancing. How much I love it. The places I’ve danced–literally thrown up my arms and been absorbed by the beat–in the middle of something terrible. How dancing is always a desperation, a need to move every limb and moment and be as present in every nerve of my body, as embodied, how the extreme of embodiment is the beginning of the mystical. About dancing as a sacrament, the way I nod–head bob, even–when I read my friends’ posts about dancing as a form of worship, how queer clubs are the closest thing queers have to church.

How I once said to a friend,  “I love dancing.” And he said, “No you don’t, I’ve seen you not dance. You don’t like going out to dance.” And I said, “No, I mean dancing when it’s safe. Like at liberal arts college parties when you know everyone in the room and you know no one is going to hurt you, they just came to dance.” That may be the least Anabaptist thing I’ve ever said. Somehow, in a religious tradition that spent 400 years eschewing dancing, the act of having a body with music still feels sacred to me. Continue reading

After Hearing of Isaac Villegas’ Resignation

I left my unfolded laundry in the hallway. Again.
I don’t say this is the best decision, only that I made it
for my own deliberate and necessary reasons.

I thought this was forbearance, you not throwing
my laundry all over the front yard. You meant you’d
only throw it when you were indignant. I thought

foremost in an argument, we say family. This was
a family meal, we admitted that first. We agreed
to the rules of eating: to not shun. To not make motions 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

An Odd Bunch of Believers: The Sent Conference and Courage Beyond Institution

If I were to describe in one word my New Orleans weekend at Sent: A Mennonite Church Planting Conference, my word would be Rihanna. More specifically, Anti, Rihanna’s newest, experimental, and critically confusing album. Being at Sent was like four consecutive listens through Anti (I’m not sayin, I’m just sayin, maybe I listened to Anti four consecutive times, maybe I didn’t).

From the raspy, just-smoked-a-pack vocals on “Higher,” a bite-size track that clocks in under two minutes, to the lyrical, repetitious to the point of Taize, 6-plus minute “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” that’s the landscape of Mennonite church planting, not to mention the off-album trap-as-hell “B***h Better Have my Money” and whimsically rebellious “FourFive Seconds” with Paul McCartney–that, too, is the landscape of Mennonite church planting. For every church that pushes the boundaries of our definition of “Mennonite,” that same church is shouting canonically Anabaptist truths. Continue reading

Is it Time to Change Ervin Stutzman’s Job Description?

At the end of January, Ervin Stutzman, the Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA was appointed for a third term as Executive Director. This decision was made by the Executive Board, who has a mixed track record on keeping an ear to the ground floor of the church. And at first, I was a little puzzled; most of the progressive pastors I know have strong and personal negative reactions to Ervin. How could he be reappointed so easily?

I don’t object to Ervin’s reappointment. In fact, it seems necessary and unobjectionable. What I am calling for is a thoughtful reflection on what work we want Ervin to be doing.

I have no personal axe to grind against Ervin (and I call him Ervin only because I was raised by Goshen College, where Anabaptist conviction has led to this notion that we ought to address each other not by hierarchical titles, but by first names). I’ve only met him once–and while he was dismissive of my question and the idea that young adults should be (more?) involved in church leadership, he was also encouraging of the church, in general. Ervin is a guy who loves church. That was clear from the first and only time I heard him speak:

But loving church does not a spiritual leader make.  He is not appointed by the church to be a spiritual guide for all our faith anxieties. In his last term, we–the Church–treated him like a spiritual guide, like the spiritual guide, and onto him we cast our spiritual burdens. He became the go-to spokesman on the church’s tense feelings about sexuality and, from my own distant evaluation, he rose to the role as though he felt it were his obligation. But in doing so, he also made his institutional bias so clear that he’s lost the trust of many who are working for inclusion. And that’s not healthy for our dialogue. Continue reading

Executive Board Renders Itself Irrelevant, Again

As usual, the report of Executive Board’s meeting brings up the question: What the — did you actually do? After this weekend’s meeting, today brought another convoluted and dysfunctional report from our most centralized leadership body.

Most Mennonites aren’t terribly interested in Executive Board, and for good reason. In a healthy organization, EB has little to do: their primary job is to manage the finances and administration of MC USA, the organization. CLC (the Constituency Leaders Council) is responsible for keeping a high-concentration of theology in that cocktail of worldly tasks. When we get mired in conflict–like our present debate over GLBTQ inclusion–EB is, in a way, called upon to overextend their original mandate. That’s important–a crisis requires additional leadership, management, and discernment. EB isn’t violating their original mandate; they’re stretching their responsibilities because questions about theological vision necessarily impact administration, finance, and structure of the organization. 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

What is Lancaster Doing Right?

We have a phrase around here: Chicago over Everything.

Chicago over everything

No, you can’t make your own hoodie.

It means we have mad love for the city when they do something right: when Chance the Rapper is on SNL, when people start blowing up about Vic Mensa, when the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2016… and when the city messes up, we keep our pride and stay loyal.

I’m starting to believe Lancaster Mennonite Conference has a similar phrase, because these days the shout rising up seems to be Lancaster over Everything. How odd that when Iglesia Menonita Hispana, the body of Spanish-speaking Mennonite congregations in the U.S., met together in November, the question appeared to be “Can we, as a body, stay affiliated with Mennonite Church USA, given their (ambiguous) stance on homosexuality?” Instead, it became clear that those answering “no” were almost all in Lancaster Conference and already planning to leave the denomination. (Mennonite World Review has an excellent print article about this that I haven’t been able to find online.)

So IMH remains part of the denomination, albeit with 25% of congregations moving on. Most Spanish-speaking churches want to stay in MC USA. But those who are connected to Lancaster conference, when given the choice, have chosen Lancaster over everything. So once again, our church split is confoundingly geographic. Something about Lancaster Conference is the greatest thing since sliced bread, at least for those who are part of it. Continue reading

The Radicalization of Everyone(?)

What’s a pacifist Christian to do,  the world being what it is? The question has rolled around in my mind all week. In the meantime, while I’ve tried to answer it, I’ve mostly done ordinary pastoral things: played soccer with my churchmates; baked zwiebach; prayed.

Baked more zwiebach. I baked a lot of zwiebach this week, in preparation for a complicated and opulent worship service we call Heavenly Banquet. The cooking left me with a lot of time for thinking, and when that got too exhausting, a lot of time for listening to the news. As if the most important thing I could do was know what’s happening. To think about Paris all the time. To know each day in the city. To collect quotes from politicians around the world. To know, to know, to know. As if in the knowing I’d know what to do.

One of the newscasters this week offered this analysis: the mission of terrorism is radicalize everyone. By committing terrible and unrepentant acts of violence in the name of a Muslim God, ISIS pushes everyone to the extreme. Each new explosion drives a deeper wedge between the Christian and Muslim world, so that Christians become more afraid of Muslims; so that moderate Muslims have less ground to stand on; so that moderate Muslims either assimilate or radicalize, until to be Muslim means to be a terrorist. And at the same time Christianity radicalizes, until to be Christian means to be anti-Muslim, by definition. The objective of terrorism is to radicalize everyone. Continue reading

Did we get gay-er?: What the Lancaster and Western District Ideologies Mean for the Rest of Us

It certainly appears that the church’s extremes got more extreme this weekend, as it concerns LGBTQ participation. I don’t think this is the case, though–no one has gotten more extreme, they’ve just finally shaken off the paralysis of conflict and are becoming courageous enough to be who they wish to be. Lancaster Conference is making good on their threat to leave the denomination, while Western District Conference has agreed not to punish credentialed leaders who preside at same-sex ceremonies, as long as they have congregational approval.

Have we really become more polarized since Kansas City? Doubtful. How much do these two decisions change things? Continue reading