Privilege is not Solidarity: Mennonites and the Anthem

As the national anthem began to play and all activity stopped in the stands, I became acutely aware that I was the only one not facing the flag with my hand over my heart. I hadn’t been to a sports game in months, but as I stood, refusing to pay homage to the flag, for the first time, I realized the way conscientious objection can feel like drowning.

Like many Mennonites, as a child, I was applauded when I didn’t stand for the anthem or say the pledge. Even in high school pep assemblies, when my silence drowned out by my peers’ dutiful pledges, I could hear the voice of my church community encouraging this separation between worship and worship of country.

I was slow to “get” the Colin Kaepernick controversy. I was stumped by the idea that the thing I’d done since childhood and been widely ignored for, was noteworthy, much less offensive. I’d spent a lifetime sitting in Kaepernick’s figurative shoes, and couldn’t remember ever being ridiculed by my peers. Then again, I was 21 before I saw my first football game, and it took years after that before I realized the sport was a religion in its own right. Continue reading

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

Who’s Afraid of Denominational Collapse?

This post first appeared in Mennonite World Review.

Early in my teen years, I asked myself if I really wanted to belong to the Mennonite church or if I was doing it out of family habit.

But during my freshman year of high school, as the U.S. charged toward an open-ended war in Iraq, my 14-year-old self arrived at a war protest with my family, weaving through the crowd until we saw the quilted, colorful banner that read “Mennonites for Peace.”

That spring, I walked miles across Seattle’s protest-riddled streets, running between the church’s delegation and my friends from public school, who had no church to march with. Somewhere in that year, in the chaotic, warmongering Christianity of the Bush presidency, I decided that not only could I commit to the Mennonite church but, later, when I finally digested my call to ministry, that there was nowhere else I would rather pastor.

When I was installed as a pastor at Lombard Mennonite Church, I felt the presence of every Mennonite church I had attended and a deep, abiding love for the denomination that raised me. Continue reading

Polaroid Pictures, Pokemon Go, and Failed Recipes

My plan was to run up to each tree and shake it vigorously, as one would a Polaroid picture. Or, as my friend Eden said on Saturday as she passed me a film from her vintage Polaroid camera, “No! You don’t shake your Polaroid picture!”

It wasn’t a very good plan. The alternative was to use a very long stick but (1) the mere thought of it had me humming “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and (2) required walking a mile in 90 degree weather with a very long stick. So I propped my bike against a streetlight, spread my blanket, and shook as vigorously as I could muster. Nothing happened. Continue reading

What the Church can Learn from Bernie Sanders

This article first appeared in Mennonite World Review.

Two months ago at Sent, the Anabaptist church-planting conference, I spoke with some young church plant­ers about what brings millennials to church. “May­be we should be more like Bernie Sanders,” I joked.

“Why not?” one planter responded. “If the church offered free education, millennials would be all over that.”As the Sanders campaign meanders onward, many speculate how the 74-year-old attracted such a rabid millennial following. But the church should ask another question: Has Sanders said something to our young people that the church has failed to say?

As I scroll through my Facebook feed, as I listen to a Goshen College alum explain his tithing to Sanders’ campaign, as I talk with a recent Wheaton College graduate celebrating Sanders’ win in Indiana — the answer is a resounding yes. 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