Day 8: Weakness is Made Perfect in the Group Stage

But God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for wherever I am weak, I am strong.”

-2 Corinthians 12:9-10

There is a special kind of suffering that only exists in the last game of the group stage. On Wednesday, we witnessed two delicious wins—Tunisia’s convincing 1-0 triumph over a mostly second-string French team, and Mexico’s 2-1 victory of Saudi Arabia—which were not enough for the teams to advance to the Round of 16.

I sat with my newest friend at the bar furiously calculating how many yellow cards Poland would have to receive in the last 6 minutes of their game with Argentina in order for Mexico to advance by fair play rules. There is no math like the math of the group stage, and there is no sorrow like the sorrow of the group stage.

These losing wins capture the spiritual paradox of suffering. A win is both utterly meaningless and profoundly significant. Suffering is incomprehensible and necessary to comprehend in order to keep living.

Paul’s refrain that “whenever I am weak, I am strong,” is one that triggers a gag response for many Christians (and former Christians). It has often been used to justify suffering and encourage the exploited to suffer their exploitation nobly for Christ. What if Paul is not justifying suffering, but contextualizing it? Research shows that people who demonstrate the greatest resilience after trauma are the ones who can make meaning of it. In sufficient grace, there is sufficient resilience.

Mourning is a critical part of the group stage—and maybe that’s why we watch so closely, because we have so few safe ways to practice mourning (especially for men). Sport is a device to allow us to work out emotions in a safe container, so we are better prepared to process hardship in unsafe containers. And so we find the purpose, the victory, in losing wins. There is perfection in Tunisia’s imperfect victory. There is sufficient grace in Mexico’s return home. There has to be.

I search for meaning by reminding myself that for me, the World Cup is an event; for the players, it is a job interview. Tunisia’s early dismissal on a high note opens doors to more competitive leagues, and increases the likelihood that they will be back in 2026 and perform better.

Does that erase the sorrow of the loss? Never. Is it good and right and necessary to let that grief run its course? Absolutely. But what if grace is sufficient for you, for me, and for the people who let us down? What if we are sufficient, worthy, loved even in our most public defeats?

Day #15: Mentorship

So Elijah departed from there and found Elisha, Shaphat’s son. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him. Elisha was with the twelfth yoke. Elijah met up with him and threw his coat on him. Elisha immediately left the oxen and ran after Elijah.
1 Kings 19:19-20

 Resilience is the individual’s skill of bouncing back from trauma in a way that restores and strengthens the whole community. Resilience recognizes that the “me” is caught up in and needs the “we.” For most of his career, Elijah was a solo prophet, him against the powers that be and the world. And he won, mostly. But, just before the events in chapter 19, Elijah finds himself running into the desert escaping a death threat, and begging God to just let him die already. After several rounds of back and forth with God, God finally says: Well, go and anoint Elisha to follow you as a prophet and then we’ll see. Elijah’s call as a prophet is more than standing up for truth and seeking justice—part of his work is also identifying and empowering the truth-tellers and justice-seekers who will come after him. Resilience is remembering that you are not the last person to take up this mantle, and to throw your mantle onto someone else and empower them to continue carrying on this work. The Bible emphasizes how Elijah is in this work alone, but as soon as he invites Elisha, the younger man gives an enthusiastic yes. Elisha doesn’t just abandon his plow and ox in the field, but sets the plow on fire and roasts the slaughtered ox on it, throwing a big feast so that all his neighbors know his life is radically transformed. Elisha’s work won’t look exactly like Elijah’s. But, instead of insisting that Elisha follow in his footsteps, Elijah teaches him the basic steps of the dance and trusts that Elisha’s improvisations and embellishments will continue the legacy.

 Takeaway: It is hard to trust someone else to continue your work. But look around and–who is coming behind you in your work (paid work, volunteer work, church work)? Who is eager and capable of continuing your projects? Identify one of those people and reach out to them with encouragement. Compliment their work or empower them to take leadership. Trust that their approach to this project will not look exactly like yours—but you, also, took the legacy of those before you and added your own embellishments. We are all in this together, not only across space, but across time.



Gathering the Stones is providing 40 days of reflections on resilience during Lent. Check back for new reflections every day (except Sundays).

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

What Changed on Tuesday was my Body

“We have to work harder,” I exhaled, clinging to my friend as I prepared to leave her apartment Tuesday night, the electoral count at 209-238. “Our friends are going to need us.”

“I know,” she said, “I know.”

I have a theological rationalization, a coping strategy, whatever you call it, and at most moments during daylight with friends I can insist we’ll get through four years of Trump with our uteruses in tact. That many people felt this way in 2008, and political reconciliation, and rational optimism. But it’s dishonest to say that’s what occupied my mind. I spent the day home sick (a metaphor of almost Ezekiel proportions), responding and sending a stream of texts to friends in different cities, as if checking their safety after an earthquake or flood. As I moved and tried to move on through Wednesday, I quietly made a list: not policy changes, although there were those, too. The changes my own body would make to compensate for what I know now about the country I live in. The most personal changes. Continue reading

Lady Gaga Might be the Closest We Get to Uniting Rural and Urban America

Among the celebrities with whom I share an irrational sense of intimacy–Russell Wilson, Jonathan Toews, Chance the Rapper, Macklemore (we all have our flaws, okay?)–Lady Gaga comes closest to being a frenemy. She’s like a high school acquaintance who, you find out a decade later, is now dating your high school male BFF (with apologies for the heteronormative analogy). So I was surprised as anyone to find myself fawning over the release of “Joanne” this weekend.

In 2008, my 20-year-old self (always a lyricist at heart) was horrified at Gaga’s single, “Just Dance.” New to the dizziness of alcohol and straight-laced by nature, the thought of losing my phone and keys seemed dire enough to scare me sober from any level of drunkenness. I was astounded by the thought of a woman who could not see straight and still accepted another drink, believing she would get home safe at the end of the night. Continue reading

Our Generation Didn’t Ruin the Institution of Marriage

I considered titling this post “Everything I Know about Marriage I Learned from Beyonce”–but I don’t even have space to explain how true that is.

Last week, I fell into a conversation with several seniors in the church about how the younger generation–my generation–had ruined the institution of marriage: cohabitation, quick divorces, and promiscuity had eroded an important and valuable way of life. With none too much politeness, but perhaps the most politeness you will see in the next 800 words, I cut the conversation: “We didn’t ruin marriage. We have a deep respect for it. And that’s why we’re not doing it as often or as quickly as your generation did.”

It’s easy, in our cultural environment, to stay generationally segregated–in college dorms, retirement communities, day care centers. It’s equally easy to create a generational echo chamber around particular issues. But the idea that my generation–or the one before it–ruined the institution of marriage is shortsighted and destructive. 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

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

The ABCs of Christmas: A Christmas Eve Service

Christmas Eve services can be a beast for pastors and worship leaders. Typically, my does the nativity scene tableau–people love it, but it’s more of a logistical headache than planning Christmas dinner. Even though the Christmas Eve service is always full, it’s difficult to pin down who will attend, and you can only arm-twist so many adults into playing Mary and Joseph.

After two years re-sizing angel costumes and stockpiling bathrobes, this year, we looked for an alternative. I found one service that used the alphabet as a frame for the worship–using each letter of the alphabet to tell the Christmas story. However, the text itself was short and not very compelling. So I took the bare bones of the text and revised it, creating a rhyme scheme, fleshing out the story, and adding a sense of humor at times to keep the story interesting.

We divided the ABC’s of Christmas in six segments, interspersing carols and Scripture. We also had a poster for each letter, hanging them on a frame as we read. And of course, we ended the program with a candle-lit “Silent Night.” The service received generally positive feedback (no one I spoke to missed the nativity scene, at least not enough to volunteer to lead it next year). I’m not sure we’ll do it again (perhaps we will, with a revised text), but I highly recommend the service for overbooked or small congregations with few Christmas Eve volunteers. The text is below–you can adapt as necessary for your congregation.

A is for the angel, Gabriel was his name.
He visited Mary and told her God’s claim:
“Hail, Miss Mary, do not be afraid
by your holy child, the world will be saved.”
This child is Mary’s, but he’s also God.
Is he human or heavenly? That’s very odd. Continue reading