Author Archives: Joanna

About Joanna

Mennonite pastor, mom, writer

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

Practices for the Second Week of Lent

cross collageCreative Prayer Experience

You will need a piece of brown paper; pen, colored pencils or markers; collage materials if desired

Cut or tear a cross shape from the piece of brown card stock. On one side of the cross, write, draw, or collage the burdens that you feel you are carrying.  On the other side of the cross, write, draw, or collage the promises of God that will support you as you bear those burdens.  As you create, offer your burdens to God; receive God’s promises with joy.

Creative Writing Exercise

Write a scene parallel to the one found in the reading from Genesis 17, placing yourself in the place of Abram: “When ___(name) ____ was ___ years old, the Lord appeared to __(name) ___, and said to her/him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you. . . . Then __(name)___  fell on her/his face; and God said to her/him: _____________”

What would God say to you today?  What new name would God give to you?

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

On Doing Faith Together

*This reflection is excerpted from a sermon on Mark 1:14-20. You can also listen to the audio.]

This is one of those overly-familiar texts. One of those Bible stories we’ve heard over and over again since we were kids. I looked up the scripture, saw the heading–”Jesus calls the disciples”–and I knew what the text said even before I read it. It’s really a pretty straight forward story as far as Bible stories go. Jesus calls the disciples; he says “follow” and they follow.

Not only did I know what the story was, but I knew what it meant: like the disciples, we are supposed to follow Jesus when he calls to us. There is surprising agreement among preachers of all persuasions about what this story means for us today.

This week, though, I started wondering why we always read this story to say, “You should follow Jesus like these guys did.”

When we read the story of Jesus blessing the children we don’t say, “See how the disciples turned the children away? That’s what we should do.” We don’t read about James and John asking to be seated next to Jesus in heaven and say, “We should be vying for the best heavenly chairs.”

As Christians—and especially as Anabaptist Christians—our focus when we read scripture is on Jesus. What is Jesus doing? What is Jesus teaching? How can we better follow the example set by Jesus?

So, yes, it’s great that James and John and Andrew and Peter all leave their nets and follow Jesus. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do the same—If ever God incarnate should ask you to lay down your fishing net, or turn off your computer, or leave your classroom, or send in your letter of resignation . . . I would suggest you do that.

But why are we so hyper-focused on the disciples in this story? What about Jesus? What is it Jesus is doing here that we are called to imitate?

If a charismatic healer invites you to leave behind the drudgery of being a fisherman in a backwater town like Galilee—Why wouldn’t you say yes? The perplexing part of the story is why Jesus asked them to follow him in the first place.

I’ve always taken it for granted that Jesus had disciples, but really, their very existence is pretty amazing. It’s a deep sign of God’s grace that Jesus—God incarnate, the savior of the world—walked around the countryside with a group of people. That he invited people to be part of the work he was doing—work he surely could have done without their “help.”

We’ve all experienced unhelpful help. The kind of help that makes a task take three times as long as it should: kids helping to wash the dishes; me helping Ryan iron his shirts; a committee full of people helping to edit a document. And the more capable you are at something, the more of a problem “help” can be. I’d say Jesus was pretty capable in the savior department. The disciples must have driven him crazy.

So why does he do it? Why does Jesus call James and John and Andrew and Peter away from their boats and nets? Why does he invite these uncomprehending fishermen to follow him around and get in the way?

It makes no sense.

And yet here is Jesus, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, recruiting fishermen to follow him.

What if the point of this story is that we should invite other people to be part of our lives? People we don’t think we really need. People whose help might be less than helpful. People who will not always understand us or agree with us. People that will drive us crazy.

Really, this whole disciples thing makes no sense.

Unless the point isn’t to do life efficiently, but to do it together.

Unless salvation is as much about how we relate to each other as it is about how we relate to God.

Unless somehow, by God’s mysterious and confounding grace, the good news of the Kingdom of God comes to fullness only when we work to live it and proclaim it with each other.

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

Reflections for the Second Week of Lent

Crucifix at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona.

Crucifix at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona.

As spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah and as followers of Jesus, we live within the holy space of covenant–of God’s promises to us and our promises to God. It might seem on the surface that this holy space of covenant is restrictive. We cannot step outside the boundary of the covenant. We must be careful of what we say, what we do.

But Paul argues in Romans that the covenant is actually spacious, freeing. When we live within the covenant, we live according to faith and not according to law. We live within the comfort of grace and not the fear of punishment. It is by our faith and through the grace of God that we claim our identity within the holy space of covenant.

Ours is a culture more accustomed to contracts than covenants. The covenant agreement most familiar to us is probably marriage. In the marriage covenant, both partners promise to be sexually faithful to each other, to care for each other, to love each other, to live life together. As anyone who has been through divorce knows, there is certainly a legal, contractual, aspect to marriage. But the heart of the marriage is in the promises that we make.

Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we receive the cross as the ultimate symbol of our covenant relationship with God. The cross marks the center of the holy space where we dwell within the promises God has made to us; where we are called to make promises in return. In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection. This suffering and death are manifestations of God’s deep and abiding love for us; God’s passion for being in intimate relationship with us. The resurrection confirms God’s promise of eternal life.

Yes, taking up the cross does place some limits on what we will do. The cross does not fit through the threshold of selfish pursuits, hateful attitudes, destructive actions. If we want to go through certain doorways, we will have to lay the cross down.

Yet in picking up the cross, we follow the way of Jesus. We take life seriously and hold it loosely. We focus on other people, not just ourselves. We commit ourselves to truth, however inconvenient.

In taking up the cross, we make a deep promise to God, and in taking up the cross, we receive the promises of God: abiding love, divine relationship, abundant and eternal life. We stand, with our crosses, in a truly holy space of Divine covenant.

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

Creative Writing Practice for the First Week of Lent

Read Mark 1:9-15

Choose six words related to baptism and use these words as a basis for a poem.

You can write a free form poem, or perhaps use the words to inspire a few haikus. (A haiku is a 3-line poem where the first line has five syllables, the second line has 7 syllables, and the third line has 5 syllables.)

If you love a poetic challenge, try writing a sestina. A sestina consists of six stanzas with six lines each and one final stanza of three lines.  The same six words serve as the final words in each line for every stanza–with the exception of the last stanza where each of the three lines contains two of the “end words.” The order of the end words in each six-line stanza is as follows: ABCDEF; FAEBDC; CFDABE; ECBFAD; DEACFB; BDFECA.This poetic form is challenging and will push you to consider your end words in fresh ways.

You can read an example of a sestina here. And my baptism sestina is here.

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

Top Ten Things Not Allowed in Productions at Mennonite Schools

For Lent this year I am engaging in the spiritual practice of humor. When something makes me incredibly frustrated and/or angry, I am trying to open myself up to the absurdity and humor in the situation. I realized recently that this practice of humor has been a deep grace in my life and I want to engage it more intentionally during Lent.

Turns out my denomination is supporting me in this practice by providing me with adequate anger to fuel a significant amount of humor this week. (At least I’m amusing myself and feeling a little less stressed.) The latest: Eastern Mennonite University cancelled all public performances of Christian Park’s senior presentation of the play Corpus Christi—in which Jesus and the disciples are gay.

I understand now that this is not a case of simple censorship. There are many people involved in this situation who are facing a lot of fear, heartache, and difficult decisions right now. I encourage us all to hold the entire EMU community in prayer.

There are, though, at the core of this situation, people who believe it is not OK to for EMU to present a play that portrays Jesus as gay. When this situation was discussed in one of my Facebook Groups, several people commented on things that had not been allowed in productions when they were in college. And I think it is interesting to consider where we draw our lines when it comes to artistic expression.

– – – – – – – – –

Top 10 Things not Allowed in Productions at Mennonite Schools:

  1. Shakespeare1
  2. Being Funny about the Bible (or God, or Jesus, or Menno Simons or the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective)
  3. Swearing (as in cuss words, not oaths—but no oath-swearing either, come to think of it)
  4. Instruments (rumor is this policy began with a bagpipe concert gone bad)
  5. Real Cigarettes (The candy ones are OK, except they keep getting eaten before the end of the production so the actors end up having to hold their fingers in a sophisticated “V” around thin air and move the “V” toward and then away from their lips in a casual manner as they exhale slowly.)
  6. Gay people
  7. Heterosexual people
  8. Really any people who have or think about having sex (because we all know sex can lead to dancing)
  9. Vaginas (And can someone tell me why spell check does not recognize the plural form of “vagina”?)
  10. Gay Jesus (Jesus is supposed to be very very serious at all times—see #2)

– – – – – – – – – –

1. Many of these are things that have actually been banned from the Mennonite schools at some point–many of them back in the olden days (as my daughter would say). The rest I just made up because I needed 10.

Categories: Humor, Mennonites | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Reflection for the First Week of Lent

*This reflection is inspired by the Lectionary readings for this week: Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 1:9-15. The reflection comes from the Lenten Retreat I wrote a few years ago.

– – – – – – –

IMG_0301The first time I went water skiing–when I was in college–I was a little worried.  I’m not particularly athletic, and the prospect of moving across water on basically two oversized shoes was daunting. But somehow I seemed to have a knack for staying up on the skis. And I loved it. I loved sitting in the water behind the boat, leaning back onto my life jacket, legs out, skis sticking up from the water.  I loved the tug on the rope as the boat took off. I loved skimming and bumping along the surface of the water.

I loved it until I lost my balance and hit the water. This water that I thought was soft and fluid had somehow turned solid, hard. My neck ached for a week and I never again looked at water quite the same way.

We all know, of course, that water can be destructive and life-giving. We’ve seen floods and droughts. We’ve, unfortunately, heard of waterboarding, and we know people can die of thirst. This ambiguity is part of what makes the water imagery in the Bible so powerful. Images of floods and wells; water from the rock and storms at sea. I think it’s no coincidence that this ambiguous, powerful, image of water is at the heart of baptism. While baptism is a symbol of forgiveness and new life, we also know that questions surrounding baptism have divided the church through the ages.

As a Mennonite, I hear stories of my ancestors in the faith being executed for refusing to allow their children to be baptized.  And I hear stories of arguments within my own tradition about how to baptize.  I nearly created a scandal when I brought in a large tub and baptized two people by immersion.  Distinct lines are drawn between those who sprinkle, those who dunk, and those who pour. (At least those traditions that practice infant baptism generally agree that sprinkling is the appropriate method of baptizing babies.) How is it that this symbol of Christian commitment and unity has been so divisive?

The ambiguity extends to the personal level as well. Through baptism we find freedom in Christ, yet it is a freedom that confines.  In her book The Soul Tells a Story, Vinita Hampton Wright notes that as baptized believers we commit to living within certain parameters.  For writers and visual artists and actors and musicians, our baptismal commitments mean that we will not write or paint or act or sing just anything.  The limits for artists aren’t as clear and harsh as some Christians suggest, but they are there.  Our commitments to follow Christ push us to create in ways that nurture rather than degrade life; in ways that lift up rather than tear down other people.

The paradoxes within baptism (or confirmation) are many. We are at once freed and bound. We make a deeply personal decision that connects us–often in uncomfortable ways–to a whole bunch of people around the world. We humble ourselves and accept our identity as a beloved of the Holy One. We promise to walk a life path that we can barely begin to understand.

The space of baptism is indeed a holy space. And it is not a comfortable space. This is an important realization for me.  IMG_0212Sometimes I imagine that a holy space will be calm and beautiful–like Monet’s garden or a mountaintop monastery.  When I find myself–as I often do–in places of ambiguity and discomfort, I often do not even consider that maybe these spaces, too, are holy.  Maybe my life is pushed most abruptly up against the Divine in these places of tension and uncertainty.

It is the tension, of course, that allows the rope to pull us along behind the boat.  It is the uncertainty of our balance that focuses our attention.

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

Alternate Survey for MC USA Delegates

With all due respect to the probably good-hearted and most certainly earnest people who have created the various and sundry surveys that have gone out into various portions of the Mennonite Church USA world–ahhhrrrgggghhh! Yet another survey is out today–this one for those who will serve as delegates in Kansas City this summer. It is so carefully worded you can hardly tell what it’s asking. And, as always, people who are not necessarily straight and cisgendered are put forth as an issue to be discussed and resolved–rather than as an important and life-giving part of the church to be embraced.

I do not want to belittle what are, I believe, faithful efforts to discern the future of the church. But I’m going to anyway. Because, frankly, I’ve reached that point where if I don’t laugh I’m going to start crying. So I present to you a revised version of the delegate survey. (With many questions taken from the actual survey–so I hope I don’t get sued for copyright infringement.)

– – – –

I am:

  • male
  • female
  • all of the above
  • some of the above
  • none of the above
  • other

I am sexually attracted to:

  • men
  • women
  • all of the above
  • some of the above
  • some subset of all or some of the above
  • none of the above
  • Why? Do you want to have sex with me?

My sexual ethic is based on (check all that apply)

  • Church tradition
  • Modern scientific understandings of physiology, psychology and biology
  • The overall teachings of scripture
  • A few obscure and difficult-to-translate biblical passages
  • How horny I feel at the time
  • The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective

I know people in my community, church, and/or family who are lesbian and/or gay and/or bisexual and/or transgender and/or queer:

  • yes

Under what conditions, if any, do you believe that people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer (LGBTQ) should have opportunities for membership and pastoral leadership within Mennonite Church USA congregations?

  • On the condition that they love Jesus.
  • On the condition that they vote Republican.
  • On the condition that they are willing to do the Hokey Pokey at church meetings.
  • On the condition that I get to start my own denomination because I don’t like gay people.
  • On the condition that they can put up with all of these annoying surveys.

Under what conditions, if any, do you believe that pastors in Mennonite Church USA should be able to officiate at same-sex weddings without censure or review of their ministerial credentials?

  • On the condition that they provide adequate pre-marital counseling for the couple and remain available for spiritual encouragement and nurture as the couple strives to live out the difficult calling of marriage.
  • On the condition that their congregation is willing to keep paying their salary after the wedding.
  • On the condition that they are able and willing to articulate the biblical case for love, justice and fidelity to random Mennonites they have never met who feel like calling and/or emailing them to “discuss” their theology of sexuality and marriage.
  • On the condition that they are willing to go to hell.
  • Mennonite pastors should not officiate weddings. It is a violation of the separation of church and state.

Which of the following best characterizes your personal convictions in regard to the organizational decisions being faced by Mennonite Church USA?

  • I want to be part of a church fellowship that fully includes LGBTQ persons as a matter of faithfulness to God, and the haters shouldn’t let the door hit them on their way out. (Though if they want to stay, I’m cool with that, too.)
  • I want to be part of a church fellowship that upholds the vision of marriage expressed in our Mennonite Church USA Membership Guidelines; attached is my list of people, congregations, and conferences who should be kicked out immediately.
  • I value the success of this denominational experiment that is MC USA so much that I am willing to throw queer people under the bus in order to not seem too “aggressive” or “harsh.”

Which of the following best captures your sense of a preferred future for the organization of Mennonite Church USA?

  • You put your right foot in.
  • You put your right foot out.
  • You put your right foot in.
  • And you shake it all about.

As you think about the future of Mennonite Church USA and opportunities for delegates to be involved in denominational decision-making, which of the following would you prefer?

  • You do the hokey pokey.
  • And you turn yourself around.
  • That’s what it’s all about.

Which of the following choices best represents your opinion on the future status of the Membership Guidelines, particularly Part III, as they relate to issues of sexuality?

  • They should be canonized as scripture.
  • They should be moved to a more suitable document—such as a textbook on the history of Christian thought.
  • They should be translated into as many languages as possible and widely distributed so that people of all nationalities can experience the thrill of ripping them into tiny pieces and possibly also burning them.

What should be the consequences (sanctions), if any, when an area conference does not abide by the decisions made by the delegate assembly?

  • It should receive a sternly worded letter from a deeply disappointed, finger-wagging Executive Board.
  • It should have to go to its room and think about what it has done.
  • It should have to spend all its time explaining and justifying its actions at the expense of doing actual ministry in the world.
  • It should have to do the Hokey-Pokey at every annual convention and post a recording on YouTube. (Because I want to see my friends from Mountain States doing the Hokey Pokey.)
  • Nothing. Just nothing. Really. Get over it.

What should the next denominational survey be about?

  • More sex stuff. We can’t get enough of talking about sex.
  • How we can better follow the way of peace and justice taught by Jesus.
  • Rainbows and unicorns—pro or con?
  • The appropriateness of including the verse about putting your “backside in” when you do the Hokey Pokey during congregational meetings.
Categories: GLBT Concerns, Mennonites | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

Family-Friendly Ash Wednesday Service 2015

This EveningSeveral people have contacted me asking for more details about the family-friendly Ash Wednesday service we did a few years back. This year I revised the service to go along with the wonderful “Lenten Practices Calendar for Families” that Traci Marie Smith has made available.

Ash Wednesday Family Worship

Station 1: Introduction

Open with prayer.

Discuss Lent in general. Have children help prepare front table and take down colorful decorations in sanctuary.

Scripture: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Talk about spiritual practices in general and about the Lenten Practices Calendar and the “3 Pillars” of Lent: Alms-giving, prayer, and fasting.

Imposition of ashes.

Station 2: Service

Scriptures: Isaiah 58:6-8; Matthew 25:34-40

According to these scriptures, what kinds of things does God want us to do?

Decorate box for congregational food collection. Write an announcement/skit for Sunday asking people to bring food.

Station 3: Prayer

Scriptures: Psalm 51: 1-2, 10-12; Luke 11:1-4

Talk about prayer: When do you pray? How do you pray? What do you pray about?

Make Lord’s Prayer bookmarks; pray Lord’s prayer together.

Station 4: Fasting

Scriptures: Joel 2:12-13; Luke 4:1-2

Talk about fasting.

Hand out Lenten Practices Calendar. Highlight all of the “fasting” days and talk about what it might be like to do that fast. Are there other things you might want to give up for a day or longer during Lent?



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

Creative Prayer Experience: Ash Wednesday

collage materialsYou will need:

  • a piece of paper
  • glue or Modge Podge
  • foam brush
  • collage materials (magazines, pictures, patterned paper, etc.)
  • scissors
  • colored pencils

The Hebrew Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday have a lot of “heart” language. Joel tells us to rend our hearts and not our clothing. The psalmist writes: “teach me wisdom in my secret heart;” “create in me a clean heart, O God;” “the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” If the imagery of the heart seems a bit trite right on the heels of Valentine’s Day, it is good to remember that the Hebrew term used for heart literally translates as “gut.” We’re talking here about the deepest place inside you.

In a sketch book or on a sheet of plain paper or card stock, create a collage that represents what is inside your heart–or your gut–right now.  In creating the collage, you can use pictures, words, and shapes. You can create your own images and/or use images from the collage materials you have. ModgePodge works well for creating collages, but you can also use regular glue.

On this Lenten journey, we seek to be in a holy space; a space where we are aware of our connection to God. Use a dark colored pencil to circle, shade, or otherwise indicate that stuff in your heart that keeps you from inhabiting holy space.  Use a light colored pencil or pastel to highlight the stuff that helps draw you into holy space.
Response suggestion: Choose one dark part of your heart to try to diminish this week and/or choose a light part of your heart to nurture.

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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