Author Archives: Joanna

About Joanna

Mennonite pastor, mom, writer

My Aspirational Resolution

IMG_1616Some of you already know how I feel about the label “polarizing.” When Mennonite pastors signed a letter asking for space within the denomination, we were placed on one end of the polarity; those who said they would leave the denomination if inclusive churches were allowed to bless same-sex unions and credential LGBTQ pastors were placed on other end of the polarity. (An “exacerbated polarity”!)

I am hopeful that a resolution that promotes something like what the Rule of Love letter suggests will come before the delegates in Kansas City. And I hope that people realize that asking for space is not a radical, far-left position. It is a compromise position.

Here is the resolution I would like to submit for delegate consideration in Kansas City:

 

Whereas “the Bible is the essential book of the church,”1 the foundational document for Anabaptist/Mennonite Christians

Whereas “Scripture as a whole has its center and fulfillment in [Jesus Christ]“2

Whereas

  • Jesus offers hospitality to the outsider, the unclean, the despised (Luke 19:1-10; Mark 5:25-34; Matthew 15:21-28)

  • Jesus compels us to journey outside our comfort zones, to the land of the other (Mark 4:35ff, 6:45ff)

  • Jesus admonishes us not to judge or condemn (Luke 6:37)

  • Jesus risks the condemnation of religious authorities by associating with those they considered sinners (Luke 15:1-2)

  • Jesus receives the rejected with joy and without judgment (Luke 15:20)

  • Jesus teaches us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-47)

  • Jesus compels us invite and associate with the outcasts (Luke 14:12-14)

  • Jesus breaks rules to bring healing and hope (Luke 13:10-17)

  • Jesus welcomes all who confess him as Lord; even those convicted and dying on an adjacent cross (Luke 23:39-43)3

  • Jesus speaks in favor of overarching principles of peace and love over and against a strict adherence to ancient legal codes (Matthew 5:21-48; Matthew 22:37-40)

Whereas the current policies of MCUSA do violence to the personhood of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer) people by forcing them to choose between full acceptance by their denomination and living into the abundant life to which God calls them

Whereas the current policies of MCUSA communicate demeaning and destructive messages that contribute to many LGBTQ people leaving their beloved denomination and even their faith in Jesus Christ

Whereas the current “teaching position” of MCUSA falsely labels all physically intimate same-sex relationships as “sinful,” thus leading some Christians to question their worth in the eyes of God and, in some cases, to attempt/commit suicide

Whereas the ongoing conversation and discernment around issues of sexuality is being perpetrated at the expense of LGBTQ Christians

Whereas “justice delayed is justice denied”4

Whereas LGBTQ Christians are gifted by the Holy Spirit to contribute to the body of Christ as MCUSA seeks to “grow as communities of grace, joy and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.”

Whereas the exclusion of LGBTQ people and their gifts harms the life and mission of the denomination

Therefore, be it resolved that as members of MCUSA we will

  • Repent of the violence our denominational documents and policies have done to LGBTQ people and those who have sought to support them

  • Amend all church documents as needed to support full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life and ministry of the denomination at all levels of participation and service; such amendments will include but are not limited to: the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, the Membership Guidelines, and a Mennonite Polity for Ministerial Leadership

  • Provide a generous scholarship fund for LGBTQ students who wish to study at AMBS as a means of offering reparations for the many called and gifted people who have been refused pastoral leadership in our denomination

  • Extend grace and forbearance to those individuals, congregations, and conferences that will choose to remain in fellowship with MCUSA despite being at variance with the inclusive position of the denomination

 

1Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, Article 4

2Ibid.

3All of the bullets up to this point are from the brilliant paper Karl Shelly wrote for the Indiana Michigan Conference

4Martin Luther King, Jr.

Categories: GLBT Concerns, Mennonites | 1 Comment

Reflections on Matthew 16:21-28

Pink Menno hymn-sing; Pittsburgh, 2011. Photo credit: pinkmenno.org

Pink Menno hymn-sing; Pittsburgh, 2011. Photo credit: pinkmenno.org

The other day as I was clicking around online, I came across a blog written by a fellow Mennonite pastor. I liked what she had to say in her most recent entry, so clicked on the little button near the top of my screen that said “Follow this Blog.”

I follow several blogs and some Twitter accounts. There are news stories that I follow. Some of you follow specific TV shows or sports teams or the stock market.

It strikes me that we use the verb “follow” in a pretty passive way these days. Maybe it’s the passiveness of “following” in our culture that allows us to talk about “following Jesus” without batting an eye. Without making sure we have good sturdy walking shoes and an updated will. We just click the little “Follow Jesus” button at the top of the screen and plan to check in with Jesus once a week or so–probably on Sunday mornings.

If we think about it, though, we know that following Jesus is nothing like following a blog or a team. Before we are even allowed to sign on as followers, we are called to deny ourselves and take up our cross. The “deny myself” button, the “take up my cross” button–these I do not click so readily.

“Follow me,” says Jesus. Not once a week. Not if I seem to be headed in the same direction you’re going anyway. Stay behind me and follow. Step by step. Every day.

Hard words for those who have already given up so much to be with Jesus. Hard words for us in our hesitations to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses.

Here’s what I’ve realized about myself when it comes to taking up my crosses–I don’t like to do it. I want to be a follower of Jesus. And I’m sometimes even willing to take definitive, dare I say self-denying–steps along the path of Christ. But when the crosses show up, I don’t want to deal with them.

I will follow Christ’s call to be a pastor, but do I really have to deal with theological controversy or talk about land easements or re-schedule that meeting again? I will follow Christ’s call to be a mother, but if I could just sleep through the night, watch a grown-up movie, have a few moments of quiet. I will take a stand for my beliefs about including sexual minorities in the church, but how long will I have to listen and be gracious . . . and be patient?

It is true that there are often consequences to following the path of Christ. And it is true that some of those consequences seem difficult to bear.

Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow.

We tend to hear these words in a minor key. We see them in shadows; dark colors and jagged edges–the dark side of following Jesus. We don’t like it, but we listen. We don’t want to be like Peter–denying the reality of Jesus’ humanity and suffering.

Here’s what I wonder about Peter, though. Did he listen to everything Jesus’ said? Peter surely heard Jesus say that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed. Peter heard this and he said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”

Peter’s response makes me wonder if he also heard Jesus say: “On the third day, be raised.” If Peter had heard that part, why would he have said, “God forbid it!”?

Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow. And on the third day . . .

In 1961, a group of students in Nashville, TN, decided to participate in a Freedom Ride–a racially integrated ride into places of deep segregation and racial violence. These students knew that previous freedom riders had faced bombing and beatings. And so each young person, the night before they left for the ride, signed their last will and testament.

They were willing to deny themselves and take up their crosses in order to follow the way of Jesus.

Bull Connor–a driving, violent force for racial segregation in the city of Birmingham Alabama and beyond–was heard complaining about these students. Regarding these students who were risking their very lives for the cause of justice, Bull Connor was heard to say, “I just couldn’t stand their singing.”

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The above reflection is excerpted from this sermon.

You might also be interested in this call to worship and prayer of confession.

Categories: Bible Study, Preaching | Leave a comment

Reflections on Exodus 3

Moses has a thousand reasons to stay right there with the sheep, not the least of which is the fact that, as far as he knows, Pharaoh still wants him dead. But with or without a warrant hanging over our heads, speaking truth to power is hard. It’s not something most people do readily. It’s particularly not something people generally do when they are comfortable. Comfortable with their job, with their community. Comfortable with the fact that the real horrors are miles away, worlds away. None of our concern.

And so, in an attempt to get out of “going” anywhere, our hero asks, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Now, those of you who teach probably tell your students that there are no wrong questions. And if you’ve been teaching for very long, you’ve probably heard a few questions that made you re-think your position. I definitely think that questions can be wrong. And this one is. “Who am I?”

But we still ask it over and over again. Who am I that I should lead in worship? Who am I that I should help the homeless? Who am I that I should speak out for peace? Who am I that I should speak up against the enslaving powers of our day?

And, truth be told, we probably want to hear what, just maybe, our hero Moses wanted to hear: “Why, you’re Moses. You’re Joanna. You’re Fred. You’re Sally. You are beautiful and talented and–just between you and me–a lot smarter than most of the rest of them down there.”

But alas, what we want to hear and what we do hear are two different things. God says, “I will be with you.” Notice how this doesn’t answer the question. Who is Moses? God will be with him. It is the presence of God that is important. Not the limitations of the person God calls.

“I am with you,” says God. But our hero Moses seems to need a little more convincing. He says to God, “Suppose the Israelites ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ What should I tell them?”

I suppose Moses’ question is a fair one. God knows his name, after all. So God obliges, sort of. God utters the divine name: I am/shall be what/who I am/shall be.

Grueling hours have been spent in the ensuing centuries trying to figure out what this Hebrew term means. But I think Bernard Robinson’s observation is key: that God’s response to Moses “may well have puzzled early readers as much as it does present day ones.” I will give you a name, God says, but not a name by which you can control or even comprehend me.

Moses, you tell the Israelites “I AM has sent me to you.”

Our hero is, after all, part of the equation. He is called by God to participate in the saving work God plans to do among God’s people. And our hero will succeed. Despite his hot-headedness. Despite his reluctance. Despite any public speaking phobia or speech impediment he may have.

Moses will succeed because God–the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah–the God who is who God is and who will be who God will be–that holy, immanent, transcendent, confounding God–will be with him.

Who am I that I should free the oppressed people of our world? Who are you to confront the Pharaohs of our day?

We’re asking the wrong questions. We shouldn’t ask “Who am I?”. We simply need to realize that the One who goes with us is the great I AM.

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The above reflection is excerpted from a sermon on Exodus 3:1-17.

You might also be interested in this benediction.

Categories: Bible Study, Preaching | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

When Conservative Mennonites Accuse Liberal Mennonites of Betrayal

Some of you may find this hard to believe, but I enjoy being in conversation with conservative Mennonites (at least the ones who don’t condemn me to hell as they bludgeon me with Leviticus). When I find the right dialog partners–or they find me–and when I listen well and open myself to the Holy Spirit, sometimes I learn something. Sometimes I come to a better understanding of the thoughts and feelings of others. (Please note that understanding and agreement are not the same thing.)

One recent conversation has helped me better understand why so many conservatives in MCUSA accuse liberals of “betrayal.” It’s an accusation I hear a lot–and one I deeply resent.

My conversation partner explained to me that when conservatives agreed to join the newly-formed MCUSA denomination, they understood themselves to be entering into a covenant. As part of that covenant, churches within the new denomination would not bless same-sex unions or ordain gay pastors. That is what the Confession of Faith and the Membership Guidelines said. That is how they understood it.

So those of us who officiate same-sex weddings and support the ordination of LGBTQ pastors are, indeed, breaking the covenant that conservatives thought they signed on to.

The thing is, that is not the covenant that my church signed on to when it joined MCUSA. Peace Mennonite has been publicly welcoming and affirming since before MCUSA existed. And the denomination invited us in and never once said, “By the way, you’ll have to quit accepting gay people if you want to be in this denomination.” I can guarantee that if we had been presented a covenant that required us to exclude LGBTQ people from the full life and ministry of the church, we never would have signed on.

And this covenant the conservatives signed is not the covenant I signed on to when I accepted ordination in the Mennonite church. I was asked (as are all ministerial candidates, I think) about my points of agreement and disagreement with the Confession of Faith. And I told the ministerial board that I disagreed with the statement in Article 19: Marriage is between one man and one woman. They ordained me anyway. If they had said that I could only be a pastor if I refused to officiate same sex weddings, I would not have signed on to that covenant.

Is it possible that even though we are all in the same denomination we agreed to different covenants? That we have misunderstood the terms of this relationship from the beginning?

We could spend time placing blame here: Is it the denominational leadership’s fault for misrepresenting the covenant to one or both “sides”? Is it the conservatives’ fault for willfully misunderstanding the covenant, for just assuming that their interpretation of the denominational documents (like their interpretation of the Bible) is the only interpretation? Is it the liberals’ fault for glibly going along with the merger and not thinking through what it might mean to be at variance with certain statements in the Membership Guidelines and the Confession of Faith?

At this stage, I don’t think placing blame will help us move forward. (It might make us feel better, but it won’t help us move forward.) We are in the situation we are in regardless.

The conservative churches entered a covenant to be in a denomination that would uphold their view of Christian marriage. The liberal churches entered a covenant to be in a denomination that would allow them to include LGBTQ people in whatever ways they felt called to include them. Yet we have all ended up in a denomination together. So where do we go from here?

Categories: GLBT Concerns | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments

Worship Pieces: Exodus 1-2

For those following the Lectionary, here is a call to worship for this Sunday inspired by the Exodus reading:

In this act of worship
we lay down our fears;
we refuse our oppressors;
we deny the forces of death.
In this act of worship
we know God’s protection;
we receive Divine power;
we are embraced by the Giver of life.
Let us worship God with joy.

*You might also be interested in this reflection on the power of the women in the story, and this one on the connections with this story and current events related to the shooting of Michael Brown.

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Pharoah’s Fear and the Courage of Women

Reflection on Exodus 2:1-10

{This reflection is excerpted from a longer sermon that I preached on June 22, 2014}

{You might also be interested in this reflection I wrote for Practicing Families today–connecting the story of Moses with racial violence and oppression in our own time.}

In Sunday School, this story of the endangered baby in a basket was always presented as a story about Moses. It was part of the Moses-as-hero motif–along with the burning bush and the walking stick-turned-snake and the parting Red Sea.

But Moses, of course, is not actually the hero in this story. Moses is a helpless infant in this story, and it is the women who are the true heroes. In fact, the opening of Exodus is one of the few places in scripture that we see multiple women confront and overcome the destructive force of empire.

The story really begins the fear that leads the Pharaoh to imagine non-existent threats and create inhumane solutions. He insists that Shiphra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, kill every male baby that is born to the Hebrew women. But they won’t do it. So Pharaoh instructs “all his people” to throw every Hebrew boy into the Nile.

Into this nightmare of a scenario, Moses’ mother, Jochebed, gives birth to a baby boy. Somehow she manages to hide him for three months. When she can no longer hide him, Jochebed decides to follow Pharaoh’s orders after all and put her baby in the Nile. Of course she grabs a basket first–interestingly, the Hebrew word for this basket is the same term used in Genesis for Noah’s ark–and covers it with tar and pitch so it will float. I’m not sure how she ever brought herself to let go of the basket once she had set it in the river, except that she had to.

Moses’ older sister, Miriam, takes it from here. She is the one who sees the servant of the princess–the princess!–draw the basket out of the water. That narrative moment when Pharaoh’s daughter opens the basket to discover the baby–that was never a moment of suspense in Sunday School. In my young mind, it seemed obvious that a beautiful princess (and all princesses are beautiful) would love and care for any poor baby she found floating in a basket in the river. I realize now, of course, that the reaction of Pharaoh’s daughter is anything but a given.

Pharaoh’s daughter recognizes this baby as a Hebrew baby right away. And surely she knows of the decree made by her own father that such babies must be thrown into the Nile. But she actually does the opposite of what her father commands. (Perhaps she was a teenager?) Instead of throwing the baby into the river, she takes him out of the river. This is a big deal. It is a huge step of independence and fearlessness–to bring an enemy child into the royal family.

Then Miriam, herself pretty independent and fearless, approaches the princess and offers to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the child. In this way, Jochebed not only gets to nurse her own son, but she, a member of the slave class, gets paid for doing it!

The women in this story thwart Pharaoh’s violent intent at every turn. Where Pharoah is controlled by fear, the women prove courageous. Of all of the ironies in this story, I think the most striking is this: It is Pharaoh, the ruler of the nation, the commander of the army, who lets his life be dictated by fear. And it is these women–foreign women, young women, women at the mercy of men in general and Pharaoh in particular–who are able to move past their fear–or at least despite their fear–and act with love and mercy . . . and courage.

We still live in a fear-steeped world. So I pray that whatever fears threaten to keep you from the path of love and mercy will be overcome by your confidence in God’s leading and protection. I pray that you will be filled with the courage of Shiphra and Puah, of Jochebed and Miriam, of Pharaoh’s daughter. I pray this courage for you so that, over and against all of the world’s decrees of death, you will have the power to carry out the life-giving work of God. Amen.

Categories: Bible Study | Leave a comment

A White Mother’s Neglect

One more brown body
shot
and I think of all the lessons I never
taught
my son like
avoid the police at all costs
dress nice
and don’t wear red or blue or any color that they might think means you’re in a gang
keep your hands at your sides in the store
so they know you’re not stealing
or packing
or preparing to throw a punch
and if they accuse you of stealing
or packing
or preparing to throw a punch
anyway
say “sir” and “m’am”
and keep your head down.
I have not taught these things to my son.
And not once
have I thought to give him the script
that should have saved Michael Brown’s life
but didn’t.
Never have I said,
“Son,
when they take aim at your beautiful body
you must
spread your fingers,
raise your arms
and say
clear as day
‘I do not have a gun.'”

Categories: Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Yes, You Have a Choice

greendoveLast year my teenage son got in trouble for playing Pokemon with a friend before school instead of attending a meeting he was supposed to be at. He informed me that it was my fault he was playing Pokemon because I would not let him be in Pokemon club. So he had to play before school with his friend.

“No,” I told him. “That was not my fault. You made a choice–a poor choice–about what to do that morning. You had the power in that situation. I don’t have a remote control that works on you. (If only I did!) You need to take responsibility for your choices and their consequences.”

I find myself wanting to have this same conversation with our denominational leaders.

The Executive Board report released the end of June does not come right out and say “It’s the delegates’ fault that we have to refuse to recognize Theda Good’s credentials,” but that is the distinct impression I get. The implication of the report seems to be that the board must abide by the foundational documents (approved by delegates) and therefore they must refuse to recognize Theda’s credentials. And gosh gee if the delegates would just do something already because the board’s hands are really tied here.

“No,” I want to say to Ervin and the board, “This is not the delegates’ fault. You are made a series of choices that lead to your decision to refuse to recognize Theda’s licensing.”

First, the “foundational documents” that the board has to abide by are documents that they chose to identify as foundational. Yes, many of them have been approved by a delegate body. As have many other documents that are not listed as “foundational.” The board chose which documents to consider foundational.

Second, the board chose which parts of the documents to emphasize and how to interpret those documents. (Gordon Oyer articulates well some alternative understandings of these documents.) It is not the documents themselves that prevent an acknowledgment of Theda’s credentials, it is the board’s particular interpretation of those documents.

Finally, the board chose to respond to their selection and interpretation of foundational documents by refusing to recognize Theda’s licensing. It was completely within their power to say, “These documents indicate that Theda should not be licensed, but we don’t care. We will recognize her pastoral calling and authority anyway.”  

The board report indicates that the delegate body can present resolutions at our 2015 convention that might allow for a new understanding of credentialing, and indeed several people are currently working on such resolutions. The fact remains, however, that the Executive Board is exercising power in the choices it makes about how resolutions are submitted and processed and which resolutions get to the floor for discussion and vote. The idea that the delegates are all-powerful over the Executive Board is a false one.

Currently the denominational leadership is refusing to send Theda a copy of the survey that is going out to all credentialed MCUSA pastors. She has been told that the Executive Board statement leaves the survey-sending powers that be “no choice” but to not send her a survey. In reality any number of people at the national office could choose to send Theda a survey. It would take a computer connected to the internet and about three minutes. Would that choice have consequences? Of course. But that doesn’t mean there is not a choice.

Obviously I disagree with many of the choices the Executive Board has made and continues to make regarding LGBTQ inclusion in general and Theda’s credentials in particular; but I am most concerned about people with power pretending that they do not have power; about people with choices convincing others–and maybe even themselves–that they are left with no choice.

The denominational leadership does have a choice. A very difficult choice. If they choose to “enforce” their interpretation of the “foundational documents,” many congregations and even conferences will be placed under discipline and possibly choose to leave the denomination. If the board chooses to regard and interpret the church documents in a way that allows space for conferences such as Mountain States to ordain LGBTQ clergy, then many congregations and even conferences will choose to leave the denomination. If they choose to continue on the current path of pretending not to choose and referencing the ever-ellusive “third way,” we may all just collapse from exhaustion.

As we move forward in our conversations and (please, God) actions related to inclusion of LGBTQ people in our denomination, we all need to be honest about the power we have and the choices we are making. We need to make the most loving and faithful choices we can make, and we need to take responsibility for those choices and the consequences that come with them.

Categories: Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Call to Worship: Jonah

With a little bit of John 1 thrown in for good measure:

 

Call to Worship
(Inspired by this lovely reading from Katherine Hawker.)

The word of God came to Jonah
The word of God comes to us:
Go
Despite your fears
Speak
the truth of God
Love
your neighbor and you enemy
Forgive
as you have been forgiven
Receive
grace upon grace
overflowing from the fullness of God.

Categories: Call to Worship, Worship Pieces | Leave a comment

Sharing Gordon Oyer’s Letter

Gordon OyerI commend to you all a letter written by Gordon Oyer to the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board in response to their recent report. Gordon gives a respectful and insightful critique of the board’s refusal to recognize the credentials of Theda Good. The conclusion of his letter states:

MC USA documents do contain space within them to chart alternative courses. New movement of the Spirit rarely originates with majority consensus. Permitting minority “variance” offers windows to test the continued legitimacy, durability, truth of established practice. Deference to delegates is technically correct. Yet in practice, the Executive Board sets agenda for delegate discussions; rarely do delegates autonomously frame and generate decisions. The Board will ultimately chart whatever course delegates follow, whether by intent or default, and help determine whether MC USA permits space within it to test for God working new things in this church.

In closing, I empathize with your dilemma, and can only guess at the anxiety and pressure you must feel. But I also ask you to consider this from our Purposeful Plan: “We believe that God is calling our church to empower leaders in our midst to lead, not simply manage the affairs of the church” [829-830]. I believe MSMC has taken a step of bold leadership in their local context.

Given the scope of horrendous challenges humanity now faces, it appalls me that we as Mennonites remain mired in squabbles over sexuality that impair our freedom to recognize and call upon the gifts of all who confess Jesus as Lord. Sexual orientation should not be used to rob the church of those gifts, especially when an area conference discerns them as valuable and needed in its midst.

As the conversation moves forward during the coming year, I encourage you to lead rather than manage. Name this conversation as one driven more by emotion, fear, anger than by documents, commitments, or polity. Ask all MC USA conferences to honor the only organizational/relational covenants and commitments that can possibly see both denomination and Church through this time of ferment: respect for each other’s local, contextual, Spirit-led and biblical discernment, while remaining in full fellowship despite our fear. Doing otherwise risks the appearance of calculating who among us is most expendable.

 

**This letter is shared with Gordon’s permission. You can read the full letter here.

 

Categories: GLBT Concerns | 3 Comments

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