Easter Call to Worship: Matthew 28

Carrying Friday’s stale grief,
we come to see the tomb.
We come to mourn on solid ground,
and instead find the earth shifting beneath our feet.
We expect bloody grave clothes,
and instead see the gleaming white robe of the angel.
The angel who says, “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he is risen.”

And our hearts swell with fear and great joy as we run to share the news:
Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed!

*Other Easter calls to worship are available here.

Categories: Lent/Easter | 1 Comment

The Palm Sunday Crowd

442780252This reflection is excerpted from a sermon on Mark 11:1-11. As you prepare for Palm Sunday, you might also appreciate this prayer of confession and offertory prayer.  For more Lent and Easter worship material, check the “Lent/Easter” category on the right side bar or go to the Index and scroll down to “The Year” section.

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For the Palm Sunday crowd, I think that Jesus was a convenient person on whom to pin their hopes. A learned Jewish teacher, said to have performed miracles, riding into the holy city on a donkey colt. It must be him!

“Him” being . . . whoever they were wanting him to be. And they took his silence as consent. Because he did not tell them otherwise, they clung dearly to their ideas of how and when and why Jesus would save them. In their own minds, the people in the crowd made Jesus into the savior they most desired.

Now, if you know anything about history, then you know that the original Palm Sunday crowd is not the only group of people guilty of taking advantage of Jesus. From Constantine to the Crusaders to Nazis to the Klu Klux Klan to Fred Phelps and his “church.” It is so easy for people to use Jesus as a rallying cry for their own ideals and causes.

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Of course, there are examples less drastic than Hitler. A perusal of the religious bookstore will prove my point. Now, I am sure that some of these books contain good theology. I’m also sure some of them don’t. Still, it is instructive to consider the range of titles available on Amazon:

Jesus CEO; Jesus, Entrepreneur; Jesus, MD; Jesus, Life Coach; Rabbi Jesus; Jesus the Pastor; Jesus . . . A Religious Revolutionary; Jesus, the Greatest Therapist who Ever Lived; The Laughing Jesus; Jesus Mean and Wild; Jesus in Blue Jeans; My Best Friend, Jesus; Jesus Christ, Superstar; The Yoga of Jesus; The Politics of Jesus.

Save us, we beseech you! O please, please, give us success!”

We are desperate for salvation. When a savior comes along, our tendency is to mold that savior, in our own minds, into whatever we think we need from a savior.

It is easy to follow Jesus when we simply make Jesus into the person we want to follow. It is much harder to follow the one who rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey colt in silence, tottering towards death.

I imagine this was a lonely, heartbreaking time for Jesus. As he listened to the praises of the crowd, he must have known that he would not live up to their expectations. That the salvation he offered was not the salvation they wanted.

It is easy to do. To make Jesus into what we want him to be. To latch onto him at just those moments when he seems to fulfill our hopes, our needs, our expectations.

But ultimately, when we only look to Jesus for the salvation we want, we deprive ourselves of the fullness of the salvation Jesus offers.

Categories: Lent/Easter, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Thinking About the Cross

6194423069This is an excerpt of the sermon I preached on John 19:31-37 this past Sunday, April 6, 2014. It is a complex topic and I commend to you the sermon in its entirety.

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I attended a discussion this past week with Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver. He has written The Nonviolent Atonement, and said during the discussion that there are all kinds of problems with a god who would require the torture and death of his child. He would agree with feminist and womanist theologians who term this traditional theory (since Anselm in the 11th Century) “divine child abuse.”

So my friend Joshua Paul Smith asked him, “What about understanding Jesus’ identity not primarily as the Son of God, but as Godself? Then the cross is not divine child abuse, but a willing submission, a sacrifice God makes on our behalf.”

“That,” said Weaver, “is taking divine child abuse and replacing it with divine suicide. I don’t think that is much better.”

The problem, according to Weaver, is the very notion that God requires violence in any form. Weaver rejects the notion that God desires or requires any kind of suffering and death as a means of reconciling humanity to Godself. God is big enough to enact reconciliation without violence.

For a pacifist, his arguments make a lot of sense. If we believe God wills peace and justice, then we cannot understand the crucifixion–that incredibly violent and deeply unjust event–as being in line with the will of God.

So where does that leave us during Lent–or any time, really–living within the Jesus story that has, at its crux (literally), this story of violent death? Does God as Father require the slaughter of this Paschal Lamb to enact liberation for the people? Does Jesus as God provoke his own death because it is necessary for liberation?

It matters deeply whether or not we think violence is necessary for salvation. The idea of violence as redemptive fuels the prison industrial complex and the military industrial complex; it justifies abuse and torture and war. As Christians who follow the Prince of Peace, we should be very concerned about the ways the central story of our faith gets used to affirm this connection between violence and salvation.

I’ve struggled with these questions about the cross for a long time. Now, when I see the cross, I do not see God’s violence. I do not see divine child abuse or divine suicide.

I see human sin–human tendency toward misunderstanding and fear and injustice and violence.

And I see Jesus hanging there, not because he is acting out some preordained divine salvation scheme that requires a blood sacrifice, but because he is committed to loving us fully.

Jesus’ death on the cross is not an enactment of divine violence, it is a sign of divine love. The crucifixion is central to our faith because it reveals God’s commitment to love us even in the face of our most violent and destructive tendencies; the cross shows God’s commitment to love us through our sin . . . all the way to the other side.

Categories: Lent/Easter, Preaching | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

The Holy Undead

Matthew 27: 33-54

[This post is excerpted from a sermon. The full sermon text is available here.]

We began Lent with the story of Jesus in the wilderness. He is fresh off the spiritual high of his baptism where the voice proclaimed from the clouds, “This is my son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.” He is physically exhausted and famished from forty days and nights of desert fasting. And then the tempter shows up.

According to Matthew’s version, for the second temptation Satan says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, / and they will lift you up in their hands, / so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus’ response was, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

There is a struggle here between the divine and human natures of Jesus. Jesus could call down the angels. Yet Jesus has accepted his own humanity in order to reconcile all of humanity to God. There is a tension between the divine and human natures of Jesus throughout the Gospels, and that tension culminates in the Passion Narrative.

The crucifixion, more than any other event of Jesus’ life, highlights his humanity. Death is a universal human experience. We remind ourselves of this at the beginning of Lent each year on Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

In the news stories surrounding the recent death of Fred Phelps, I was interested to read an excerpt from a 2010 interview with Phelps by Joshua Kors. In the interview, Phelps says, “I’m not planning on dying. . . . The Lord himself should descend for me with the angels.”

We know now, of course, that Fred Phelps did die, and he died like so many people. He got old and sick and went on Hospice and finally his body just quit working. The Lord himself did not descend. Not even a puny angel–as far as we know. Just Phelps’ failing body–alive one minute and dead the next.

Like Jesus’ body on the cross. Alive one minute, and the next–”when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit”–dead.

As the story continues, of course, we will learn that Jesus is not dead in the way that all people die. We will hear news of the resurrection; we will hear testimony that confirms the divinity of Jesus over and against and in addition to and all mixed up with the humanity that is so evident here, as his lifeless, bloody body hangs from the cross with the mocking sign above his bowed head: “This is Jesus, King of the Jews.”

Yes, we will know of Jesus’ divinity soon. But not soon enough for Matthew. Matthew in particular, of all the Gospel writers, seeks to reveal Jesus’ divinity right along side his humanity in the death event itself. Mark and Luke include the darkness and the torn curtain in the temple, but only Matthew gives us this dramatic apocalyptic scene, these extraordinary signs and wonders to accompany the otherwise relatively ordinary death of Jesus–an itinerant rabbi from Galilee.

There is darkness and the tearing of the temple curtain, yes. There is also an earthquake–apparently one that registered pretty high on the Richter scale since it split rocks. And, the most bizarre part of all, tombs broke open and “the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” Then Matthew goes ahead and gives us a sneak peek–getting his narrative all out of sequence, he says that after Jesus’ resurrection these undead holy ones went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

As you might imagine, scholars and pseudo-scholars have had a heyday with this stuff: trying to date the eclipse and earthquake; debating about which of the temple curtains was torn and whether or not the centurion and guards could have seen the curtain tearing from their perch on Golgotha; discussing which holy people might have been raised and how they could be raised before Jesus and where they hung out until the resurrection.

In the end, though, I think I have to go along with Raymond Brown’s assessment [in The Death of the Messiah] that “[a]ll such speculation is unnecessary, for this popular, poetic description is deliberately vague–its forte is atmosphere, not details.”

Atmosphere, not details. For Greco-Roman readers, the atmosphere conjured up here matches the atmosphere surrounding the death of Caesar. For Jewish readers, it brings to mind Scriptural portents of God’s divine judgment–both positive and negative.

Atmosphere, not details. For contemporary Christian readers, the atmosphere Matthew creates can lead us to a sense of horror and hope. The darkness and torn curtain, the earthquake and split stones, the broken tombs and holy undead–the atmosphere of this story leaves no question about the frailty of humanity, no question about the power of God. The atmosphere of this story leaves us in awe of the One who somehow held both that frail humanity and powerful divinity fully within himself even as he hung in that horrifying, hopeful space between death and resurrection.


Categories: Lent/Easter, Preaching | Leave a comment

Jesus before the Sanhedrin

Mark 14:53-65; 15:1

[This reflection is excerpted from a sermon. The full sermon text is posted here.]


In his massive two-volume work, The Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown gives an overview of the scholarship on the Passion Narratives in the Gospels. It quickly becomes clear that there is a wide range of opinion regarding the historical details of this trial before the Sanhedrin–for example, scholars don’t even agree on exactly who was part of the Sanhedrin or what rules governed the body.

But beyond all the questions of historical accuracy, there is a deeper question of why. Why would the religious authorities have been so concerned about this 30-year-old rabbi from Nazareth?

As Brown notes, we cannot simply dismiss the religious leaders as evil hypocrites. There might have been a few among them who were simply power-hungry and cruel, but most of them were genuinely concerned for the greater welfare of the Jewish people; they deeply loved the Law and did not want to see it diluted by some fly-by-night miracle worker.

Jesus was a threat to the faith they loved. He hung out with sinners–and even forgave them. He healed and blessed people for no good reason–even women and children and non-Jews. He broke the Sabbath regulations. He implicitly and explicitly criticized the religious authorities. He threatened the Temple–the very heart of Jewish worship.

Jesus gave the Jewish leaders plenty of reason to be upset–even afraid. Brown, who, in addition to being a well-regarded biblical scholar was also a Catholic priest, points out that self-consciously religious people rarely appreciate it when someone comes along and tells them they need to change their minds. He writes, “[Jesus] would be offensive on any religious scene if he told people that God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.”

The early Anabaptists certainly found out how offensive it could be to suggest that religious leaders had it wrong. Infant baptism was a foundational practice for Catholics and protestants in the 15th and 16th centuries. Those religious leaders most certainly did not appreciate a bunch of people telling them that the Bible actually did not condone infant baptism and that their sacrament would have to be done again for adults. This suggestion of religious error was enough to get many Anabaptists banished, and even killed.

And I will admit that I have also been thinking about Brown’s assessment in relation to modern day Anabaptism. His comments seem pertinent to the current conversations–and threats–in our denomination [Mennonite Church USA] related to Mountain States Mennonite Conference licensing Theda Good–a woman married to another woman–for ministry: “[Jesus] would be offensive on any religious scene if he told people that God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.”

In essence, that is what Mountain States is doing, what the Western District Conference did when they upheld my credentials, what our congregation does by being open and affirming of sexual minorities–we communicate to the broader church that, in our understanding of scripture and the way of Jesus and the movement of the Holy Spirit, “God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.” We should not be surprised that people are offended. We should not be surprised that authorities call us up for hearings and trials.

Now, I do not want to foster a persecution complex; and I do not want to equate my arduous journey to Newton, Kansas, for the Leadership Commission review with Jesus’ trials and beatings and crucifixion. They are very different things.

We also must consider that it is dangerous for us–or anyone who is not Jesus–to assume that the beliefs we hold represent the heart of God merely because we hold them. When speaking and acting in opposition to others within our faith family, we may be in the role of Jesus, but it is also possible that we slip into the role of the Sanhedrin from time to time. As people of faith we are called to accountability in community, to prayerful study of scripture, to an openness to the Holy Spirit.

Still, as we walk toward the cross through these days of Lent, it is good for us to consider the whole story of Jesus’ death; to acknowledge that it is not just the secular world that opposes the way of Jesus. Resistance to Jesus can be strong within the religious community as well.

Categories: Bible Study, GLBT Concerns, Lent/Easter, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Lighter Side of Lent

If you’re not a pastor, you may not have considered what goes on before the Ash Wednesday service. Come to think of it, you may not want to know. But if you do, I’ve posted my monthly humor column over at Rev Gal’s this afternoon.

A blessed, holy, humor-filled Lent to each of you.

Categories: Humor, Lent/Easter | Leave a comment

Nicodemus and Being “Born Again”

2379445383–John 13:1-17

Rev. Dr. Alyce McKenzie, professor of preaching and worship at Perkins School of Theology, was sitting in the waiting area of her local discount tire store. She was reading a magazine when a pamphlet appeared in front of her face: “How to be born again.”

“Have you been born again?” The earnest 40-something man wanted to know.

Now, just in case you are planning a similar evangelism mission, I’ll give you a pointer. Do not ask a seminary professor if she has been born again. Unless you have time to listen to the answer.

McKenzie answered: “I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it’s over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that’s done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.”

It is interesting, really, that this phrase “born again” has become Christian-speak for being saved, for accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Interesting that so many people use this phrase to imply a dramatic conversion moment. Because the phrase comes from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, who most certainly did not have a dramatic conversion moment.

To begin with, we should clear up this whole “born again” issue anyway. The Greek term used can mean “born again” or “born from above.” From the context in John, it seems pretty clear that Nicodemus takes it to mean “born again”–”surely a man cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb.” Jesus appears to mean “born from above”–not re-entering your mother’s womb, but being born of water and the Spirit. So if someone approaches you in the waiting room and asks if you’ve been “born from above,” at least you’ll know they’ve studied the Greek.

But born again or born from above, either way this is not a one-time dramatic conversion for Nicodemus. To begin with, we know that he came to Jesus “at night.” Which indicates some hesitation, some sneaking around. Rev. Dr.Margaret Hess calls Nicodemus the “patron saint of the curious.” I like that.

In his first encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus is not buying anything. He is not there to be convinced, to sell all he has and follow, to pray the prayer of salvation. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to ask questions. To see this wonder-worker for himself and form his own opinions.

He comes at night because he does not want his buddies to know what he is doing. He might not even be sure he wants to do what he is doing. But he is curious. He wants to know more. And so he goes.

He says, “You know, Jesus, we’re all pretty impressed with these miracles you’ve been doing.”

At which point Jesus drags him into a bizarre conversation about being born from above, which is probably not the conversation Nicodemus was expecting to have. And suddenly the Pharisee Nicodemus, “Israel’s teacher,” becomes the student. Except he’s not even sure what it is he is supposed to be learning. The last words we hear from Nicodemus in this scene are: “How can this be?”

He is baffled and befuddled. Not what the earnest man in the tire shop had in mind when he asked Alyce McKenzie if she had been born again.

It is interesting to me that Nicodemus’ initial encounter with Jesus becomes the identifying feature of Nicodemus. In John 7, he is presented as “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier.” And in John 19 he is identified as “Nicodemus, the man who had earlier visited Jesus at night.”

Even though we don’t know what Nicodemus believes about Jesus; even though Nicodemus himself might not know what he believes about Jesus; he is, nonetheless, defined by his encounter with Jesus. That initial conversation with Jesus under the cover of night means something to Nicodemus. It changes him–somehow, slowly, it changes him.

I know that some people do have radical conversion stories. I also know that there are also a lot of us Nicodemuses. Those of us who are curious. Who want to ask questions and then need time to wonder about the answers. There are some of us who, after years of knowing Jesus, still aren’t sure exactly what we think about him. We don’t know exactly what we believe.

And yet, he has changed our lives. Slowly. Somehow. We are more and more defined by our encounters with him. More and more motivated by our love for him.

And this, too, is a path of discipleship worth walking. A story worth telling.

[This post is excerpted from a sermon. You can read the entire text here. Also, check the blog index for more worship material related to this week's Lectionary readings.]

Categories: Bible Study | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Lenten Offertory Prayer

In preparing for Ash Wednesday and this weekend’s Lenten retreat I haven’t found a lot of time to blog. Thought I would share the offertory prayer we will be using for Lent this year.

God of the Cross, in losing our lives we find them in you. In sharing our money and time, we receive the blessings of your Kingdom. Use these gifts toward your holy work of peace, justice, and service in the world. Amen.

Categories: Lent/Easter, Offertory Prayer, Worship Pieces | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Missional Prayer

6299495645This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on Missional Spirituality.  With this event, MennoNerds is exploring  Spirituality through an Anabaptist lens and what such spirituality means concerning participation in the mission of God.

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“Missional Prayer.” That’s my topic for today. And it seemed like a good topic weeks and weeks ago when I signed up for it. Plus it was one of the latest topics on the syncroblog schedule. So here we are. “Missional Prayer.” And now that I actually have to write about it, I realize that it is a rather odd phrase.

Some might even consider it an oxymoron. “Missional,” after all, generally makes us think of going out into the world, doing the will of God. “Prayer” makes us think of retreating to a quiet place and simply being with God. How can we go and retreat, do and be?

I think that is exactly the challenge of the faithful Christian life.

During my first round of seminary, I fell in love with the theology and practice of Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C.. They preach the Good News and they enact the Good News. They host Bible studies and soup kitchens, hold worship services and art shows. At the heart of their way of being in the world is a commitment to the Inward/Outward journey.

The longer I try to live as a follower of Jesus in this world, the more important this Inward/Outward journey becomes to me. As Christ-followers, we are called to go and retreat; to do and be. It is a balance, a dance between receiving spiritual sustenance and being the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

The mission and the prayer are both necessary for a life of faith; and they are not two separate actions or two distinct parts of one’s life. The inward and the outward, the prayer and the mission, nurture each other; they intertwine in ways that make the Christian life possible when it would otherwise be impossible. “Missional Prayer” is not an oxymoron. It is the opposite of an oxymoron . . . an oxygenius?

“Missional Prayer” is any way of being with God that allows us to better understand God’s work in the world and that empowers us to participate more deeply in that work.

Such prayer can involve praying for specific people. These prayers can deepen our sensitivities, open our eyes to needs beyond ourselves.

Such prayers can involve praying for God’s will in certain situations. These prayers can keep us watching for God’s presence in our world.

But more than offering up requests for people or for certain situations, missional prayer means receiving God’s word about the people and situations around us. It means receiving the power of the Holy Spirit to join with the work God is already doing.

If we understand prayer as a conversation with the Divine, then in missional prayer, we should be doing less talking and more listening.

There are, of course, all kinds of ways to listen to God. Many of them won’t look like prayer to anyone who happens to be watching. Many of them might not even feel like prayer to us at first–or they might feel like prayer but seem, somehow, like we are cheating.

But it is not cheating to take a walk in the woods–or in your neighborhood. It’s not cheating to linger in an art gallery–or get out your own art supplies. It’s not cheating to read good poetry or enjoy a good meal or watch a good movie or listen to good music. It’s not cheating to have a real conversation with a friend–or an enemy.

And it’s not cheating to read the Bible or to bow your head and close your eyes or to show up at church on Sunday morning.

All of these can be prayer or not prayer. Missional or not missional.

Missional prayer is not about what we do. It’s about what we notice God doing. And how our noticing then inspires what we do, what we say, who we are.

Missional prayer is not about the words, but when we feel like we need some words anyway, we can simply pray with Jesus: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” Amen.

Categories: Prayers | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Defining Some Terms: A Response to the MCUSA Executive Board Statement

IMG_1807On February 17, 2014, the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA released a statement entitled “Moving Forward.” (I’m pretty sure the irony is unintentional.)This statement is a response to the recent licensing of Theda Good by Mountain States Mennonite Conference.

I grieved when I read this statement and realized that once again LGBTQ people are the subject of conversations that they are not invited to be a part of; that once again inclusive churches are being scapegoated for denominational difficulties; that once again the answer from our leadership is a non-answer and therefore a maintenance of the status quo.

I could go on and on and on about all of the problems inherent in this statement; about all of the ways that it disappoints and even disgusts me. And while that blog post would be kind of fun to write, I think it would not be particularly nurturing to the broader church.

What might be helpful, however, is to define a few of the terms and phrases that keep getting thrown around in this denominational conversation–words and phrases that make star appearances in the recent Executive Board statement.

1) Accountability is not the same thing as obedience. Obedience simply means following the rules. Accountability is about relationship. It is about living together in community and encouraging each other toward greater faithfulness–faithfulness to Jesus, not faithfulness to rules.

If you tell me I can’t eat any more chocolate and I comply, that’s obedience. If I tell you I don’t want to eat any more chocolate and you get all the Hershey bars out of my house, that’s accountability. There is a big difference.

2) “Polarities” suggests two groups at equally radical ends of a spectrum. So, to begin with, it is difficult to understand how one could “exacerbate the polarities.” Polarities are, by definition, fully exacerbated already. I am also not convinced that the people who say, “please make space for us in the denomination,” are taking a position that is as radical and hostile (i.e. “polarizing”) as those who say, “make everyone comply with our beliefs or we will leave the denomination.” (More on this here.)

3) At variance. It just means that we disagree with some statement made by some group and approved by another group at some point in relatively-but-not-too recent Mennonite history. Some churches are at variance because they refuse to consider female pastoral candidates. Others are at variance because they practice open communion. Others are at variance because they welcome LGBTQ individuals into church membership and leadership. We need to quit using the term “at variance” as some sort of scarlet letter. Or, as was expressed to me when it was added to my Ministerial Profile, a “slap on the wrist.” It is merely descriptive, and it describes pretty much everyone in Mennonite Church USA.

4) Loving dialog means that we love each other and we are in dialog. It does not mean that we keep our mouths shut for fear of “exacerbating the polarities.” It does not mean that we have conversations about sexual minorities but never with them. (Please read Jennifer Yoder’s testimony regarding her experience as a queer woman among Mennonites.) It does not mean that we accuse anyone who disagrees with us of fraying “the fragile strands of accountability that hold our church together.” It does not mean we threaten to leave if we do not get our way.

If we are loving, then our words are thoughtful and honest. If we are in dialog then we speak and listen and respond and listen and speak . . . for as long as it takes, or at least as long as both conversation partners are committed to the “loving” aspect of the dialog.

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To be honest, when I read that the Executive Board had appointed a(nother) task force, I just wanted to sigh and roll my eyes. But such a response would not have been loving or conducive to dialog. So rather than sigh and roll my eyes–O.K. I said honesty was also part of the deal so I should say in addition to sighing and rolling my eyes–I will pray and hope that we get some definitions right along the way.

I pray that the “task force” will actually be a force for the forward movement implied by the title of the board’s statement. And I pray we will understand that “forward” means discerning what is right for this time, not clinging to denominational rules from nearly a decade ago–or more.

And mostly I pray we get the definition of “Christian” right. That we will be true and faithful followers of Christ Jesus, walking in his way of peace and love and justice.

Categories: GLBT Concerns, Mennonites | Tags: , , | 12 Comments

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