Murkiness, Comfort, and Hope

Harader tombstone1 Kings 17:17-24

This is the first resurrection story in the Bible. Amidst all the miracles of the Hebrew scriptures–creation and the flood and the plagues and the red sea parting and the water in the wilderness—here in 1 Kings 17 is the first time we ever read of God making someone who is dead alive again.

It is, you could argue, the ultimate miracle—a precursor to the culmination of the Christian narrative in Jesus’ resurrection; the surest evidence of God’s power: bringing a dead person back to life.

Considering the magnitude of this miracle, I am struck by how private it is. In the next chapter, we read about the big competition between Elijah and the prophets of Baal with the dramatic fire coming down from heaven. But how much more profound, more awe-inspiring, more impressive is this miracle of renewed life? How much more fully does this dead-now-living boy reveal the nature and power of God?

And yet there is no crowd. Only Elijah in his room with the dead boy. No big speech. Only Elijah’s desperate demands of God.

When Elijah prays for the fire, he begs God to do the miracle in order to prove to the people that Yahweh is God. The fire from heaven is a miracle for miracle’s sake. But this restoration of the widow’s son, this is something completely different. It seems to be a response of God to the emotional pain of the widow and Elijah. It seems that the widow’s cries prompt Elijah to action and that, in turn, Elijah’s cries prompt God.

Now this gets us into pretty tricky theological territory. This question of whether God ever changes the divine “mind.” This question about whether our prayers can actually prompt God to action that God would not otherwise take. We could talk circles around these questions, coming up with biblical examples and counter examples and philosophical insights that push us one way and then the other.

The truth is that, despite the fact that I have “mastered” divinity, I don’t know. I don’t know what our prayers can and can’t do. I don’t know what Elijah’s prayers could and couldn’t do. If Elijah had not told God to bring life back to the boy, would the widow’s son have stayed dead? I don’t know.

This story can easily take us into very murky and uncomfortable theological territory–and leave us there confused and even a little bitter. Because there is so much that we simply don’t know. There is so much that doesn’t make sense about why God would grant new life for this one widow’s son while so many other children stay dead.

But for all the murkiness and uncomfortable questions this story raises, I also find some hope and some comfort at the root of this text.

There is an odd sort of comfort because the sadness and pain in this story is tangible and familiar. The gut-churning recognition of the widow’s grief can serve as a reminder that we all experience loss—that while the details differ, the inner desperation resonates across millennia and across borders of all kinds. Just as we recognize the widow’s grief, others recognize our grief—when it comes.

And there is hope because the presence of God in the midst of the pain is indisputable. What exactly God is doing and why—we can have lingering discussions about that. But in this story we have, without a doubt, the fact of God’s presence. And the fact of God’s activity. A presence and activity that is not for show, not to prove a point, but a presence and activity that exist because God is in relationship with the widow and Elijah and the boy.

Even though God has not brought my loved ones back to life, I cannot deny the presence and activity of God in the midst of my most desperate moments.

Finally, there is comfort and hope in the truth—the truth traced throughout scripture from the creation narratives to this story and into the Gospels and the writings of the early church; the truth at the heart of my Christian faith: that our God is a God of life. Always. Even when we barely understand.

In the midst of so much grief and despair and death in this world, we serve a God of life. I hope and pray that you are, more often than not, able to live into and out of that Divine life.

–This post is excerpted from this full sermon.

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My Daughters are not Distracting

I am the one who braided her hair--but not during church.

I am the one who braided her hair–but not during church.

A friend of mine recently posed this question on Facebook: Junior high girls braiding each other’s hair in church: appropriate or not? Considering this friend has never been a Jr. High girl nor parented a Jr. High girl, the question seemed sincere and did not bother me.

What did bother me, however, was the frequency with which one particular word kept popping up in the comments: distracting. (Well, the comments about people getting their butts whipped at home for not behaving properly in church also bothered me, but let’s focus this post on “distracting.”) Many people seem to think that girls braiding hair during church is distracting.

Studies1 have shown that we actually retain information better when our hands are occupied. The study I heard about involved doodling, but I imagine braiding hair would have the same effect. So I doubt that the hair braiding is distracting to the girls themselves.

Apparently, then, it is distracting to other people. People who just can’t possibly concentrate on the spirit of worship and the holy word of God when there are 12-year-old girls getting their hair braided in the vicinity. Because their parents never let them braid hair in church? Because of the injunction in I Timothy against braided hair? Because the sermon is so boring that they’re happy to think about anything else? Because it makes them think about how bad their own hair looks that day?

Who knows why some people find hair-braiding distracting. But the distraction seems to have more to do with the person being distracted than it does with the person who is allegedly being distracting.

I will not argue that hair-braiding is appropriate in all worship contexts. It would be in mine; it might not be in yours.

But as the mother of two daughters, I would ask that we avoid referring to girls as distracting. This is a label that society too often ascribes to girls and women as a way of shifting responsibility onto them. Women can’t breastfeed in public because it is distracting. Women can’t serve in the military because they well be a distraction for the men. Girls’ skirts can’t be too short because that would be distracting.

Again, I am not arguing that all of these actions are appropriate. (Public breastfeeding, yes. Women in the military—well, I wish no one would be in the military. My daughter wearing a skirt that barely covers her butt, not OK.) But when we say that a woman is distracting, we make her responsible for the mental state of the people around her. And this is not fair.

As a woman, it is not my responsibility to not distract you. It is your responsibility to focus on what it is you need to focus on.

The other problem with the term distracting is that it is belittling. It signifies that something is not significant, not worthy of the attention it is drawing to itself. That a girl is not worthy of the attention that she is drawing to herself.

Seldom (if ever?) do I hear boys or men referred to as distracting. Disrespectful, yes. Annoying, yes. Inappropriate, yes. But not distracting.

There is something about the term “distracting” that simultaneously strips away the power of the one who is the distraction, while also burdening that person with responsibility for the thoughts of the people around them.

So this is a long answer to a friend’s simple question: Junior high girls braiding each other’s hair in church: appropriate or not? In my church context, I think it’s perfectly appropriate. You may find it inappropriate, or even disrespectful. But please don’t call it distracting.

1“What studies?” you ask. Studies. That I’m sure I heard about on NPR, because that’s basically all I listen to. Unless it was a TED Talk podcast. Just studies. I promise. Trust me.

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What I Learned from being SICK with a UTI Last Week

  • I am going to die some day. That day is probably not tomorrow.
  • Reading takes more energy than watching Netflix.
  • I can almost forget I am sick if I am talking to someone. (Or: Just in case you were wondering, yes, I am an extrovert.)
  • I know Renee Zellweger has lots of issues. And I don’t want to be her. But maybe if I could have been her just when she filmed Bridget Jones’ Diary. Because Colin Firth and Hugh Grant.
  • My real-life husband who did the kid-driving and grocery shopping and laundry and dishes and cooking for the whole week is sexier than Colin Firth and Hugh Grant put together.
  • I still want my mom when I am sick. (And lucky for me, she still wants to take care of me when I’m sick.)
  • In the throes of illness, I can come up with some great sermon ideas. Putting those ideas into a coherent sermon, however, is another story.
  • The world will not stop without my full participation. Even the church will will not grind to a halt because I’m living on my couch.
  • Missing a meeting (or 5) is not the end of the world.
  • Having a job I can do from home is both a blessing and a curse.
  • Sometimes the first round of antibiotics doesn’t work.
  • When the first round of antibiotics doesn’t work, I barely care that I’ve wasted my life watching HGTV all day.
See. I am totally not making it up about my husband.

See. I am totally not making it up about my husband.

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Jesus as “the Way”

Below is an excerpt from the sermon I preached last Sunday on the “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John. You can read the full text here.

– – – – – –

One of the most popular and–at least for some of us–uncomfortable “I am” sayings is from John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Many Christians use this verse to argue that only Christians—only people who believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah—have access to God. Now, while I personally do believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, I do not believe that those who disagree with me on this particular theological point are necessarily cut off from God for all eternity. And I’m happy to sit down and discuss my personal beliefs on this issue any time. Particularly if there are baked goods involved.

But for now I’m more interested in what John thinks. Or at least, I’m interested in thinking about what John’s intent might have been in including this “I am” saying in his Gospel.

It is important to note that Jesus does not speak these words out of the blue; it is a response to a direct question. Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” To which Jesus responds, “I am the way.”

Just as Christianity has many versions and varieties today, first century Judaism also included many different groups with differing practices and teachings. The followers of Jesus—or “the way”–were simply one of many groups within first century Judaism.

As we know from Jesus’ ministry and teaching, some of the religious groups proposed complicated sets of rules and rituals they claimed were necessary for true faith. For example, when Jesus talked about straining out gnats, he was referring to an extreme practice by some Jews who took following Jewish dietary restrictions very very seriously. The Gospels also reveal strict rules for keeping the Sabbath. And more fringe Jewish sects demanded lifestyles of poverty and/or celibacy for those who sought true faith.

Jesus was not the only religious teacher of the day to teach about the way one could access God. The difference was that, while most teachings revolved around what one had to do and not do to get to God, Jesus’ teaching was simply about relationship: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Jesus is speaking here to his closest friends and followers. He is not telling the heathen masses that they have to accept him as their personal Lord and Savior. He is telling his dear friends that their relationship with him is enough—all of the rules and regulations and deprivations they think they have to endure to get to God, it’s not true. Their relationship with Jesus is enough.

That, my friends, is a message of Good News.

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The Road to Emmaus/The Road to Convention

Photo by Matt Clingan

Photo by Matt Clingan

Our biannual national Mennonite Church USA convention begins on Tuesday, and there are two resolutions coming before the delegates that highlight disagreements about how our denomination should include LGBTQ people. The resolutions are fairly new, but the disagreements themselves are not.

Many Mennonites, myself included, have spent a lot of time hashing out the details of the biblical and theological basis of our beliefs about inclusion. We have quoted scripture and examined the Greek terms and expounded upon our theologies of creation, family, sexuality, and church. I’m pretty sure a 7-mile walk wouldn’t give me enough time to say all I have to say on the subject.

But if Luke were writing up this story he’d be like: “And beginning with Genesis and the Prophets and focusing on the life of Christ and the witness of the early church, Joanna explained to them what was said in scripture concerning full inclusion of all people.”

I don’t mean to imply I’m like Jesus. I mean to imply that the details of the biblical interpretation and theology are not that important. Which is hard for me to hear, let alone say. Because biblical theology is what I do. Writing about it is what I’m good at. And that’s fine. But it just doesn’t matter that much.

If even Jesus’ theology gets squeezed down to a single sentence, I certainly can’t expect mine to merit any more consideration in the grand scheme of things.

Leading up to the Kansas City Convention, there has been a whole lot of attention paid to Bible study and theological discernment and discussion. But what we really need to do is be present together and walk with each other. And I know that is not as easy as it sounds. And I know my heart is just as resistant to being with some people as theirs is resistant to being with me. Frankly, I’m more comfortable expounding the scriptures than walking beside people with whom I disagree.

But Luke’s narrative suggests that, in the end, the walking together is more significant than the details of the dialog. It is the journey that interests Luke.

And at the end of this journey the two travelers reach their destination and invite the stranger to stay with them. They sit down together for a meal—and that is when they finally recognize Jesus.

That is what it’s all about, right? It’s about helping each other recognize Jesus. And about recognizing Jesus in each other.

My deep prayer for convention is that we will all recognize Jesus’ presence—within us and among us.

  • When the delegates talk together at their tables—their eyes will be opened and they will recognize Jesus.
  • When youth and adults join in worship–their eyes will be opened and they will recognize Jesus.
  • When people sit with strangers during meal time–their eyes will be opened and they will recognize Jesus.
  • When Pink Mennos gather to sing hyms–their eyes will be opened and they will recognize Jesus.

We desperately want, to recognize Jesus’ presence among us. And sometimes we do. And that is a deep grace.

But friends, the journey is long. Seven miles, on foot, from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Thirty-Nine miles from Lawrence to Kansas City. Thirteen years since General Conference and Mennonite Church merged to form MC USA. Thirty years that Brethren Mennonite Council has been encouraging Mennonite churches toward full inclusion of LGBTQ people.

The journey is long.

It’s easy for us to read this story and think how silly Cleopas and his companion were to not recognize Jesus as they walked along the road. Weren’t their hearts burning? How did they miss that? They should have known. Those silly disciples.

Really though, we are the silly ones–to talk about when they should have known. They know when they know. They know when God finally opens their eyes. They know Jesus’ presence when divine grace allows them to know it.

The knowing is out of their control. The revelation is up to God.

What Cleopas and his companion should have done is exactly what they did: welcome the stranger to journey with them; share their story; listen to his story; walk and walk and walk together for however long it takes; sit down together at the table.

The travelers did exactly what they should have done. And then God did exactly what God does: opens our eyes to the presence of Jesus in our midst.

May it be so.

[This post is excerpted from the sermon I preached last Sunday.]

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Confession of Faith in a Queer Perspective: Article 22

By Mark Rupp

“[Jesus] has called us to find our blessing in making peace and seeking justice.”

The Mennonite Church’s peace stance is likely the first thing people think of when trying to articulate what makes Mennonite faith distinct from other Christian denominations. In fact, the Mennonite emphasis on peace and justice are what initially drew me to find a home in this denomination. It is not that other Christians do not think peace is a good thing, but Mennonites have claimed peacemaking as central to their understanding of faith and, in our better moments, have worked to understand the complex relationship between peace and justice.

Article 22 provides a good foundation for beginning to think about this complex relationship through the way it declares, “Led by the Holy Spirit, we follow Christ in the way of peace, doing justice, bringing reconciliation, and practicing nonresistance even in the face of violence and warfare.” All of these parts are wrapped up in what it means to be a peacemaker, to live the “way of peace.” Peace is about more than an absence of physical violence. Peace is about more than maintaining the status quo. Peacemaking is about creating, sustaining, and maintaining right relationships between all manifestations of creation.

Yet Article 22 also calls on each of us to witness against all forms of violence, and this is the point at which the Mennonite Church often falls short. Our focus on witnessing against physical violence and perpetual warfare are important, but we must not ignore how violence gets played out in small, subtle, and intimately personal ways. Anything that works to undermine or discredit the full humanity of another (whether intentionally or unintentionally) is a form of violence that leaves scars too deep for human eyes to see.

Part of my own journey has involved recognizing the violence that was being enacted against myself during the many years I spent in the closet. There is an important difference between discipline and violence, and it took many years for me to understand that the repression of my sexuality was, in many ways, coming from a place of emotional, psychological, and spiritual violence. I never reached a point of physically harming myself, but I am left wondering how many more times we will have to hear of another suicide by a young queer person before the Church recognizes its own complicity in this violence.

My decision to finally accept and celebrate my queer identity was (and still is) rooted in the realization that the “life to the fullest” that Jesus came to offer all of us (John 10:10) requires a full and authentic expression of our truest selves formed through right relationships with ourselves, God, each other, and all of creation. As Article 22 asks of us, I have “found my blessing” through the process of making peace with my own sexuality and seeking justice for all those who experience violence in both subtle and overt ways.

– – – – – – –

This post is part of a series in which LGBTQ Mennonites reflect on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. 

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Friendly Progressive Suggestions to Progressives

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

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

Or How to Survive the Kansas City Convention:

  • Attend the “Bound Together, Together Free” worship service: Tuesday, June 30, at 5 p.m. Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral. (Next to the Convention Center.)
  • Offer prayers of thanksgiving that there will (finally) be a (convention-authorized) booth for Brethren Mennonite Council in the main convention hall. Go to that booth. Repeat as needed.
  • Ditto for the Pink Menno room: Room 2504B (right around the corner from the Grand Ballroom on Level 2).
  • When you go to the BMC booth and/or the Pink Menno room, pick up a list of the on-call Inclusive Pastors. Call one of us if we can help. At all. Really. Call.
  • Show up whenever people are singing.
  • Talk to people you don’t know. Learn their names. Find out about their lives. Why do they love the church? How are they trying to follow Jesus? What is their passion? If a conversation is bringing you joy, hang around and learn more. If it is making you crazy, walk away and shake off the dust. Make sure the other person sees you wipe the dust off the bottom of your shoe if that helps you feel better.
  • Wear fancy underwear. Preferably with rainbows. Then, no matter what nonsense is coming out of someone’s mouth, you can think to yourself, “Yeah, but I have rainbows on my butt.”
  • Carry a bag of M&Ms around with you. (You could also use Skittles . . . or for the hopelessly Mennonite, locally-grown organic soy nuts.)
    • When someone says “ho-mo-sex-u-al,” eat one. Eat more if “homosexual” is followed by a term such as “issue,” “lifestyle,” or “agenda.” You can also eat a couple of extra M&Ms if “homosexual” is preceded by “openly,” “practicing,” or, my personal favorite borrowed from the United Methodists, “self-avowed.”
    • Eat an M&M whenever you hear a favorite Executive Board buzzword. These include, but are not limited to: polity, missional, third-way, unity and polarities. If anyone starts to talk about “exacerbating polarities,” just go ahead and pop ten M&Ms in your mouth.
    • Other M&M-worthy phrases include: “the Bible is clear,” “just be patient,” “Sodom and Gomorrah,” “love the sin, hate the sinner,” and “the church has always believed.”
    • When your M&Ms are gone, go to the Pink Menno room for the rest of the day.
  • Pray every day. The psalms are a rich resource in how to pray when we are angry, scared, cocky, heart-broken, devastated . . . It’s OK to start with old-school smiting prayers. God can handle strong emotions. And swear words. If you can manage it, move on from there to more Jesusy prayers. If all else fails, recite the Lord’s Prayer. Until you mean it.
  • Remember that Mennonite Church USA is not The Church. It is a church. It is my church. It is a church I love and cherish. It is a church for which I hope and pray. But in the end it is a human institution. And as Mennonites, we know more than most that our allegiance is to Christ over and above any human institution, be it a government or a denomination. Jesus has built the true church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Not even if MC USA adopts the “Resolution on Membership Guidelines.”
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Confession of Faith in a Queer Perspective: Article 12–Christ Has No Body Now but Ours

8885024392by Lisa Ann Pierce

I may be the only person you know who, as a young adult, snuck out of her parent’s home to go to church. It’s not that my parents had anything against church; I was raised by an inveterate Sunday School teacher, after all. But I wasn’t sneaking out to go to my home church. I was sneaking out to go to the local Metropolitan Community Church—a denomination comprised primarily of LGBTQ people, their families, and allies. I was in the early stages of coming out as a lesbian and the Metropolitan Community Church offered me a place to work through the crisis of faith created in me by predominant “Christian” attitudes and behavior toward LGBTQ people.

I’ll always owe the Metropolitan Community Church a debt of gratitude. Even though I don’t particularly identify with its leading theologies, I recognize how that church helped me keep faith. They set a feast and invited me to eat, drink, pray, and sing.

When they share communion in the Metropolitan Community Church, they gather in family groups (however “family” may be defined by those particular people in that particular moment). In small circles, they receive the bread and cup and pray with one another. I quickly found there was always a place for me in those groups. Even on my first visit, I was gathered in by brothers and sisters who recognized my struggle and welcomed me wholly. They welcomed my tears and terror, my laughter and joy, my body and soul. They embraced me at the table and I found my aching, yearning self made whole in the sharing of bread, wine, and tears.

Now it is strange, as a member of a Mennonite Church USA congregation, to read about The Lord’s Supper (Article 12) in our Confession of Faith. Strange because the very document that teaches me how Mennonites come to the table also suggests my family is not quite welcome at the table (Article 19).

There is so much good about Article 12 in the Confession. As Mennonites, we focus on reconciliation, discipleship, confession, redemption, gratitude, and the proclamation of the Gospel story when we speak of the communion meal. There is a special emphasis on community—on the one body we are invited to nurture when we remember together that we are sustained by the bread of life and the cup of the new covenant. As individuals, we look back on our baptism. As the gathered body, we recognize and name the violence of empire, then peer with wonder into the empty tomb of our brother, Jesus. As Christ’s church, we look forward to God’s coming realm of love and justice.

Article 12 even suggests that all “who have been baptized into the community of faith, are living at peace with God and with their brothers and sisters in the faith, and are willing to be accountable in their congregation” are invited to the table. In my home congregation, the Saint Paul Mennonite Fellowship, I know that to be true. In my congregation’s conference, the Central District Conference, I know that to be true. But is it true everywhere in MCUSA?

Is my family welcome? Does the “peace” of the table include me, or is it established at my expense? When Mennonites break bread together, how do they envision the coming realm of God—does it include the likes of me? Can we, as Mennonites, have a family table if some are left under the table to eat the crumbs? If I showed up at your table, would you gather me in like they did at the Metropolitan Community Church all those years ago, or would we run headlong into a theological debate over the ecclesiastical combat zone that is my body?

Bodies are what this is about. And not just Article 19, but Article 12. Especially Article 12. The Lord’s Supper, as Jesus taught us, is about bodies: bodies gathering, bodies washing and being washed, hungry, tired, fearful, hopeful bodies. It is about bodies touching one another, bodies sharing bread and wine, bodies choosing one another in a time of risk and terror when those very bodies have been judged threatening to the empire. It is about opening our eyes to the violation of bodies by those who hunger for power. It is about tending bodies, wounded, dead, and risen, touching and believing in the power of God to redeem us.

We dare not make the Body of Christ an esoteric notion.

The communion meal is about bodies in all their beauty and wonder—bodies designated as normative and queer bodies, brown bodies, disabled bodies, women’s bodies, the bodies of immigrants and refugees, the bodies of strangers. It is these bodies that form the Body of Christ in love and justice, reforming in reconciliation and reparation, embodying the truth that “Christ has no body now but [ours], no hands, no feet on earth but [ours].”1

It is our Anabaptist proclamation that we meet Christ in our brothers and sisters, so let us not forget that the communion meal is about God incarnate—not remote, not safely removed, but God incarnate in Jesus’ fragile body, living in a world of violence, God incarnate in yearning bodies waiting to be welcomed to the table, God incarnate in the Body of Christ that we are called to make whole by setting a feast for all.


1. “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours, yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.” Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

– – – – – – – – –

This post is part of a series in which LGBTQ Mennonites reflect on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. 

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Call to Worship in the Wake of the Charleston Shootings

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Amidst the violence of this world,
we desire God’s peace.
In the shadow of deep hatred,
we long to live out the love of Christ.
In a society still devastated by racial prejudice and injustice,
we seek a way to live faithfully, bravely.
In this week that has seen such bloodshed, so many tears;
In the wake of a shooting we can barely imagine, let alone comprehend,
we gather to worship.
We will sing.
We will pray.
We will speak truth.
We will live truth.
We will continue on Jesus’ path of peace and justice.

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Sermon Snippet on being “Missional”

The following is an excerpt from my sermon this past Sunday. Just to show that I am on board with some of MC USA’s priorities. You can also read other sermons from our “Enough for All” series: Proverbs 30:7-9; 1 Kings 17:1-16.

– – – –

How do we not worry? Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. 

If you would, permit me just a moment for a vocabulary lesson. The word “missional” is something of a buzzword in our denomination right now. And a lot of progressives hate it. In part because it sounds like “missionary” and we all know horror stories of how Christians have oppressed native peoples in the name of “spreading the gospel.”

In part because “missional” is often thrown out by denominational leaders and conservatives as a sort of counter to those of us working to affirm the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Mennonites in our midst. People write things like: “We’re not going to worry about these ‘side issues.’ We should just all go be missional.”

So “missional” gets a bad wrap. And it’s too bad. Because I think, at its heart, being missional means we do exactly what Jesus says here: seek God’s kingdom first. Being missional means we pay attention to what God is doing in the world and we find ways to join in that effort. Many of us experienced a missional moment this past Thursday night at the Nehemiah Assembly. God is clearly working in this city toward better care for those with mental illness, toward a means of providing more affordable housing. Every single city and county official who was asked to support these efforts said “yes.” God is at work and we get to be part of it! When we are caught up in the God-work going on around us, we have less time and energy to spend worrying about ourselves.

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