Author Archives: Joanna

About Joanna

Mennonite pastor, mom, writer

Reflection on Psalm 131

[This is an excerpt from my sermon for March 22, 2015. You can read the full sermon text here.]

I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

“I have calmed and quieted my soul.” This calm, this stillness, that the psalmist speaks of is a longing I have—probably a longing many of you share as well. Not just a chance to be physically still, but a chance for our souls to be calm within us. It is so hard to just be.

I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

The vision is lovely. The question is: How? How do we calm and quiet our souls, even in the best, most calm circumstances? Let alone in the chaos that often is our lives.

I wonder if the psalmist’s metaphor can be helpful here: “Like a weaned child with its mother.”

For one thing, a weaned child has reached a certain level of maturity; in the psalmist’s day, a weaned child was most likely a toddler—able to talk, walk, eat on her own. A weaned child still needs his mother, to be sure, but it is a different kind of neediness than that of a nursing infant. You may have experienced yourself—or seen—a nursing infant in her mother’s arms; you think she is resting peacefully, and then the nuzzling starts; the baby was content, but suddenly she wants the milk she knows is nearby, and she becomes restless. That doesn’t happen with a weaned child.

I’ve been thinking: If God is the mother and we are the children, what does it mean for us to be weaned?

Maybe that we can rest comfortably in the presence of God, without a sense of restless neediness.

Maybe that our prayers are not always cries for milk, for sustenance. We choose to be with God simply because we want to be in our Mother’s presence, not because we need some particular from her.

Maybe that our bond with God is deep and sometimes invisible; it doesn’t depend on external, surface connection.

Maybe being weaned means that we can sit down in that chair across from God and stay within the Divine gaze for more than two minutes.

I don’t know exactly what this metaphor means. And I certainly don’t know how to reach this state of being “like a weaned child with its mother.”

But one thing certainly seems clear: the stillness that we desire–this calm and quiet soul—is not the product of a perfectly ordered environment. It is not even the result of a fully evolved or actualized sense of self.

The psalmist’s metaphor suggests that the calm and quiet soul is dependent upon having a right relationship with our Divine mother.

The calm and quiet soul comes from being able to rest in God’s presence; to sit in the Divine gaze and know that we are being seen as beloved children. Amen.

Categories: Bible Study, Lent/Easter | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Lenten Reflection for Palm Sunday

palm leafI think it is natural to imagine that our holy spaces will be quiet, private. Places where we can be still and alone.  Or maybe with a few intimate friends.

Yet if we define a holy space as a space inhabited by God, then the Gospels affirm crowded places as distinctly holy.  Jesus was often with crowds–more often than he would have liked. He was with friendly crowds, pleading crowds, confused crowds, hopeful crowds, hostile crowds.  And each crowd was made holy by his presence.

It is interesting to think about this crowd of people gathered just outside Jerusalem as Jesus comes riding up on a donkey.  It must have been an incredibly diverse group.  The twelve were there of course, and other committed followers like Joanna and Susanna. In addition, there were probably fans–people who Jesus had healed, people who had found wisdom in his teachings. Some of these fans might have even been Pharisees and Sadducees, skulking around, trying not to be seen. Many in the crowd were simply pilgrims coming into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration; people who didn’t know who Jesus was and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

This motley collection of people, this crowd, is holy.  Because there sits Jesus in the midst of it, riding along on a loping donkey.

This crowd is holy, because it is not just any crowd. This is a crowd under the sway of Jesus. And this procession, this celebration, is also a protest. A satirical protest that pits the Kingdom of God against the kingdom of Caesar; the donkey of Jewish prophecy against the warhorses ridden by the Roman officials; the rag-tag disciples of Jesus against the stately entourage of Empire.This display of religious fervor must have seemed ridiculous to the Roman citizens. Yet it struck a chord of fear as well.

In explaining the process of nonviolent protest, Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

This rejoicing, protesting crowd outside the city of Jerusalem is a bit hard to ignore. And so there was likely some derisive laughter going on. The fighting is yet to come.  And also the victory.

[Here is a sermon on Mark 11:1-11; also a prayer of confession and an offertory prayer for Palm Sunday.]

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Prayer Practices for the 5th Week of Lent

Creative Prayer Experience based on John 12:20-33
Create a drawing or collage of a growing plant–possibly a wheat stalk. Show the “dead” seed within the earth and the living plant above. If you would like, you can add words to your collage. Within the earth, write words that represent “deaths” you have experienced–deep disappointments, things you have given up, parts of the Jesus-path that are most difficult for you.  Above the ground, write words that express the life you have in Christ–the joy and grace you have found along the way.

Creative Writing Exercise
Consider Jesus’ statement in John 12:27: “Now my soul is troubled.” Jesus speaks these words after his entry into Jerusalem in anticipation of his arrest and crucifixion. If Jesus were talking with his closest friends or praying to God, what might he say about his troubled soul? Why is his soul troubled?  What does he most desire at that moment? How does he grasp for peace in the midst of his anguish?

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Psalm 131 Call to Worship

Our scripture readings this Sunday are Luke 13:34-35 and Psalm 131. Here is the call to worship I wrote:

Our Creator longs
to gather us under her wings.
We long
to rest near the Divine heartbeat.
In this sacred space of worship,
God’s longing and our longing meet.
Like sheltered chicks,
Like weaned children,
We rest here and are renewed.

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

Reflections for the Fifth Week of Lent

john 12While we can inhabit holy spaces, scripture reveals that the holy inhabits us as well. God puts the holy law within us. God writes on our hearts. God cleans us from the inside out.

As we consider holy spaces along this Lenten journey, we must recognize that our very bodies are holy spaces because God promises to be within them. Paul acknowledges this truth when he writes to the church in Corinth that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you. Don’t you know that you have the Holy Spirit from God, and you don’t belong to yourselves?”. Leave it to Paul to point out the flip side of God dwelling within us–it means that we do not belong to ourselves. Or, as Jesus put it: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

To claim something as holy is to assert that it is set apart, that it is wholly other. To acknowledge the holy is to admit that, as the saying goes, there is a God, and I’m not her. When we are in a holy space, we are in the presence of something beyond us. Something more than us. Something that calls for sacrifice, for service. We carry our covenant with God, our commitment to follow Christ, within us. Every day. Every step.

It is, perhaps, not particularly surprising or offensive to claim that the holy calls for service and sacrifice on the part of us mere mortals. But we see in this week’s readings that the cross is the culmination, the transformation, of God’s covenant with the people. And this shocking cross stands as witness that the Holy One is also willing to sacrifice and serve. God does not ask of us anything that God was not willing to do in Christ.

The One who is wholly other is also one of us. It is the divine mystery of the incarnation. A mystery that is deepened and darkened as we move closer and closer to the crucifixion. A mystery that holds us warm and secure in the darkness, like a seed hidden in the soil, dying, dying, in anticipation of spring.

Prayer:

Holy One,
Dwell within me;
Whisper in my ear;
Glimmer in my vision;
Write upon my heart.
I wait
with ears, eyes, heart open.
Amen

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: | 1 Comment

Micah 6:6-8 Call to Worship

So we’re not exactly using the Lectionary right now. This Sunday’s theme is “sacrifice,” and here is our call to worship based on Micah 6:6-8.

With what shall we come before our God?
How shall we approach the Almighty?
Should we write large checks?
Should we empty our wallets?
Should we promise to fast and pray every day?
Should we sign up for more committees?
Would that make God happy?
How shall we approach the Almighty?
With what shall we come before our God?
With humble hearts.
Hearts bent toward justice.
Hearts open in loving-kindness.
Hearts earnestly seeking God.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Blessing of Wilderness–Reflections for Lent 4

Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

I am notoriously bad with directions. My ability to get lost has amazed and astounded my friends throughout the years. Some of them have found out the hard way that just because I’ve been somewhere before does not mean I know how to get there again. For that matter, just because I’ve gotten somewhere does not mean I know how to get back to where I started.

Once, as a high school student, I went to some sort of nature trail with my youth group. Somehow a friend and I managed to get lost on the nature trail. We knew that the other group members could not be far away. We knew that we were close, oh so close, to a marked trail. And yet there we stood in the middle of a Kansas prairie, unable to see anything but tall grass and distant tree lines. Even though we knew we couldn’t really be that lost, even though there was no real danger of harm, panic began to set in.

That’s the thing about wilderness. It is a frightening space–whether it’s actually dangerous or not. Wilderness is a sort of anti-space where we can’t figure out where we are in relationship to anything that we know. As the ancient Israelites could attest, even a miserable place can seem preferable to this no-place, this unknowing space. In the midst of the physical wilderness, this lack of direction for forty years, the Israelites also experienced a spiritual wilderness. They could not figure out who they were in relationship to those things that they knew most intimately–particularly, they couldn’t figure out their relationship to God.

They praised God and then cursed God. They asked Moses to receive a message from God on their behalf and then they proceeded to make their own god out of melted jewelry. Where was God? What was God like? How were they supposed to be in relationship with God? And what did their covenant with Yahweh mean for their relationships with each other? In this week’s brief story from Numbers, we see God portrayed as provider and denier; as murderer and savior. The ancient Israelites did not know where they stood–literally or figuratively.

Centuries later, we have another Jewish wanderer named Nicodemus. He is a Pharisee who comes to Jesus by night. Since this story is in John’s Gospel, we can be pretty sure that “night” here does not refer merely to the time of day–there is spiritual darkness in his life. Nicodemus is looking for a path, a sign, anything to show him where he stands in relation to God. And apparently he thinks that Jesus can help him get his bearings.

In the song “Hard to Get,” Rich Mullins cries out to God: “I can’t see where you’re leading me unless you’ve led me here, where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.”

That is the holiness of the wilderness spaces in which we find ourselves. When all we can see is sand or prairie grass; when there is nothing familiar, nothing comfortable; when no directions seem right but none seem necessarily wrong either; when we are utterly and absolutely lost, we might wander for awhile. We might walk in circles for days, or years, or decades.

Eventually, though, by God’s grace, and out of sheer exhaustion, we will let ourselves be led. Eventually we will rest in God’s steadfast love.

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

On Sacrifice and Suffering

4085417983Lent was a fairly new concept for me when I was in college, and one year I decided to make the ultimate sacrifice—chocolate. I still remember standing in the ice cream parlor, looking at the luscious rocky road and chocolate swirl and brownie chunk ice cream–and choosing butter pecan. Butter pecan. Such is the suffering I was willing to endure for Jesus.

I think now that the whole endeavor was a bit melodramatic. (I gobbled up a candy bar at 12:01 on Easter Sunday morning—when I should have been asleep.) It’s not that giving up chocolate is a bad discipline in and of itself. I just think that sometimes we act like the point of our lenten fasts or sacrifices is to make us suffer—and it’s not.

As Christians, we can be far too quick to equate sacrifice with suffering.

Sacrifice is something that Jesus asks of us: lay down your nets, leave your father and mother, give all you have to the poor, deny yourself. Jesus does not hesitate to ask his followers to make sacrifices.

But, in asking us to make sacrifices, Jesus is not calling us to deprive ourselves; rather, he is calling us to lay aside certain activities, attachments, attitudes, so that we are more free to follow him, more free to live out the abundant life he offers. Christ-directed sacrifice is a means to abundant life.

Jesus’ call to sacrifice is not a call to suffering. Yes, he calls us to take up the cross; he also says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Yes, he says to lose our lives; he also says that in losing our lives we gain our lives.

And yes, sometimes the sacrifices we make as followers of Christ lead to suffering. But the suffering itself is not a part of Christ’s call or God’s desire for our lives. The suffering happens because this world is tragically out of line with the Good News of the Kingdom.

It is vitally important that the Church gets this right. Asking people to give things up for the sake of their faith can be life-giving. Telling people that God calls them to suffer is death-dealing. This pro-suffering theology supports domestic abuse in the home, facilitates sexual abuse cover-ups in the church, and contributes to unwarranted apathy about economic and racial injustices in our nation.

It is vitally important that the Church gets this right. Jesus does not call us to suffer. We suffer anyway, of course. And the Good News of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is that God’s own self is intimately present with us in our suffering.

So during this Lenten season, whether you have given up TV or Facebook or alcohol or chocolate, remember that this sacrifice is not a meant to make you suffer, but rather is a way for you to move toward abundant life in Christ.

*This post is part of a MennoNerds synchro-blog on the topic of suffering.

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

The Resolution has been Submitted!

Over the past several months I have been working with others to craft a resolution. I am happy to announce that the “Becoming a Just Church Resolution” has now been submitted to the Mennonite Church USA Resolutions Committee! Those of us supporting this resolution believe it speaks an important word to our denomination as we are in the midst of “intense conflict” and “difficult conversations” about the “issue” of “homosexuality.” (Yes. I do understand appropriate use of quotation marks.)

rainbow doveAs you might imagine, however, not everyone is completely thrilled with this literary and political masterpiece. Apparently there are some Christians who understand Biblical teachings about sexuality differently than I do. These people obviously do not support this resolution.

There are also people who agree with the Biblical perspective presented in the resolution; they agree that current denominational statements and policies related to LGBTQ Christians are unjust and outside the way of Jesus. Yet they do not fully support this particular resolution. Those are the folks I would like to address in this post. (I directly address some common Biblical concerns in a previous post.)

To begin with, there are people who feel that the language of the resolution is too strong. Some have pointed out the statement that “the current policies of MC USA do violence to the personhood of LGBTQ people” as being particularly harsh. Pacifists do not like to be called “violent.” Some think that suggesting a connection between church teachings against homosexuality and the high suicide rate among LGBTQ young people is too extreme. Some people don’t like the word “perpetrated” because, well, it suggests violence (see above).

I want to be fair to people who hold these concerns. Many Mennonites who advocate for LGBTQ inclusion have had harsh language and unfair accusations leveled against us. We do not want to simply repeat the abuse from another perspective. There is also concern that strong language will provoke further conflict within the denomination rather than bringing Mennonites of differing perspectives closer together.

Still, I believe clear and strong language is needed. Those who support exclusionary policies tend to invoke “sin” and “clear Biblical teaching” while advocates of inclusion use phrases like “differing perspectives” and “congregational discernment.” This can give the impression that those who wish to exclude LGBTQ people are passionate and convicted and Biblical, while those of us who seek full inclusion just have a kind of quirky idea about church we’d like to try out if you don’t mind.

No.

We don’t want inclusion because we think it might be a good idea. We want inclusion because we passionately believe it is what Jesus wants for his church. We believe inclusion is supported by the witness of scripture. And we believe that as long as the church—which we love—continues to teach false doctrine regarding sexuality, it sows damage and despair in the world rather than healing and hope. That is what we believe. And we are allowed to say it. And it might hurt some people’s feelings. And that is OK.

There are also some people who are concerned about the conclusion of the resolution, where we call on the denomination to “extend grace and forbearance to those individuals, congregations, and conferences that will choose to remain in fellowship with MC USA despite being at variance with the inclusive position of the denomination.”

If an exclusive policy truly does violence to people, why would we, as a peace church, want to remain in fellowship with the perpetrators of that violence?

It’s a legitimate question.

One response would be that we are seeking the middle way. But frankly, I’ve had about enough of this middle/third way rhetoric.

Another response is that none of us are right about everything and none of us are wrong about everything. If we are willing to stay connected, I believe the Holy Spirit will help us learn from each other and grow in our faith together.

Another response is that being kicked out of a denomination sucks. And we don’t wish that on anyone.

Another response is that there are LGBTQ young people in churches that would be at variance with inclusive policies, and if we kick out those churches we cut off potentially life-giving resources to those young people.

So, while I know it is not perfect, I strongly support this resolution. I know a lot of other people who support this resolution. (You can show your support for the resolution by filling in the form on the resolution web site.)

Even if you do not support this resolution, I hope that it will contribute to positive, respectful conversations about how MC USA can become a more just and faithful denomination.

Categories: GLBT Concerns | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Reflection for the Third Week of Lent

Pictures 2010 339In the Celtic spiritual tradition, people refer to “thin places”–spaces where the veil between the Divine and the earthly is especially thin; places where you can easily have a sense of the holy, a feeling of connection to God.

There are places commonly recognized as thin, as holy. The places where Jesus is said to have been born and to have died. Places where our ancestors in the faith are buried. Magnificent cathedrals. Ancient forests. People seek out such places. They embark on pilgrimages to experience these sacred spaces. Certainly one place noted as holy is Mt. Sinai. In this week’s scripture from Exodus, Moses is on this mountain for the express purpose of talking with God. And in Jesus’ day, the Temple was the place to go if you wanted to connect with God.

Both Sinai and the Temple were places supposed to facilitate Divine-human interaction. So it seems ironic that in the readings from Exodus and John this week, these supposedly holy places are actually sites where the people separate themselves from God and God’s will. As Moses receives the commandments on the mountain, the people waiting below witness “thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking.” God has drawn near, and the people are scared. They say to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Mt. Siani proves so “thin” that people run in the opposite direction.

In Jesus’ day, some people did not take the presence of God in the Temple seriously enough. They had lost the holy fear of encountering the Divine and instead had commodified the sacred space of the Temple. They tried to sell access to God, charging exorbitant rates for sacrificial animals and currency exchanges. Jesus boils over with anger when he sees the sacred space profaned by the merchants who exploit the people’s longing for connection to God.

The Bible affirms the existence of sacred places, the idea of holy ground. Yet is also cautions that it is not the place itself that is holy–it is the Divine presence in the place. The scriptures affirm the omnipresence of God, the potential for us to experience anywhere, everywhere, as a thin place.

Psalm 19 proclaims that the heavens and the firmament declare the glory of God; “their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” The poet of Psalm 139 asks the beautiful, rhetorical question: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” In the words of one of my favorite benedictions: We cannot go where God is not.

Beyond thinking about holy places, the ten commandments also suggest to us the concept of holy time. “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy.” There is one day a week set aside for honoring God through rest and worship. In my life, it often feels like holy spaces in time are more difficult to come by than holy spaces in place .

Whether we are considering holy place or holy time, we hold in balance the truths of scripture and the truths we experience in life. There are certain places, certain times, when God seems particularly close, where the veil between heaven and earth appears especially thin. We must honor and protect these spaces, making sure they are not defiled. And yet it is also true that God is present everywhere, at all times. We do not need to wait until Sunday or travel to a different place in order to connect with our Creator. God can and does speak in a myriad of places, and our ears and hearts must be always open.

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com. The Adventure Journal Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,237 other followers