A Plea for Religious Freedom in Kansas

18 Missouri- St. Louis via Kansas  to SpringfieldThere is so much crazy going on in Topeka right now, it’s hard to settle down and pick one thing to be be righteously indignant about.

I’m absolutely concerned about the proposed bill that would basically put Sam Brownback in charge of the K-12 budget. The possibility of a complete collapse of public education in Kansas seems more real every day. And as the wife of a public school teacher with two children in the public schools, I’m wondering how long we’ll even be able to stay in Kansas.

But as a pastor, I feel like I especially need to address a current bill, being voted on in the Kansas House this morning, that deeply threatens the religious liberty of all people of faith in this state.

Both the Kansas House of Representatives and Governor Brownback have shown great support for religious freedom in the past. The House passed the “Religious Freedom Act” in 2014 (which thankfully died in the Senate). And just last year Brownback issued an executive order to make sure religious institutions and clergy did not have to violate their “deeply held beliefs.”

So if your religious beliefs prevent you from joyfully participating in a union of one man and another man in holy matrimony, Kansas has your back. And I suppose that’s OK. I know the broader church would be much better off if we would re-evaluate our traditional attitudes toward sexuality and universally affirm love. But I wouldn’t wish a grumpy conservative preacher on any gay couple. (The implications of Brownback’s executive order for adoptions, homeless shelters, and other areas, are much more problematic. This is a terribly oppressive order that is much for about legalizing discrimination than it is about protecting religious freedom.)

I’m hoping that the House and the Governor will extend their support of religious freedom by rejecting today’s proposed “Refugee Absorptive Capacity Act” (HB 2612). This bill would allow Kansas communities to refuse to allow refugees to settle there if the community does not have the capacity to adequately provide services to them.

Let’s be honest, this hot mess of a state doesn’t have the capacity to adequately provide services for anyone. So the reality is that the bill would allow any community to exercise racial and ethnic prejudice under the guise of having reached “absorptive capacity.” (Plus people who have no idea what “absorptive capacity” even means would be trying to use it in complete sentences. Things could get ugly.)

The bill would also place extensive documentation requirements on communities that decide they do have the capacity to let in a few desperate people fleeing civil war. Which means that many resources that could actually go to helping settle families will instead go to reporting back to Topeka about how and how many refugees have been resettled and what the impact has been on the community. Reports which will in turn be used to justify Brownback’s potential—but already written into this bill—executive order “declaring that the state, through any entity or designee, will not, until revocation of the executive order, participate in the resettlement of refugees.”

I promise I am not making this up.

This bill is an immense threat to the religious freedom of most Kansans of faith. While there is a sharp division of opinion in religious communities regarding same-sex marriage, people of faith are, for the most part, united in our support of refugees. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sacred texts all give extensive support for welcoming the stranger and caring for the downtrodden. People of faith are called—we are commanded—to help foreigners who are fleeing life-threatening circumstances. We are commanded to take in strangers who find themselves in a foreign land.

And we cannot live out this central tenet of our faith if our state government refuses to allow refugees into our communities.

So, yes, defeating the “Refugee Absorption Capacity Act” is about human rights and racial/ethnic tolerance and general human decency. It is also about protecting the religious freedom of many many people of faith who believe God commands us to care for the stranger.

On Being Notorious

A couple of years ago at a conference, a mutual friend introduced me to an editor of a denominational magazine. The editor promptly said, “Oh. You’re the notorious pastor.”

I did feel like a minor (very minor) celebrity at that conference in the wake of news stories about “the wedding” and “the review.”  That would be the wedding I officiated for two women who love each other and wanted to commit themselves to each other in the presence of God and their family and friends. That would be the review of my ministerial credentials to determine if I was still fit to be a pastor after said wedding.

Many people were deeply upset–not to mention scared and hurt–by the review board’s decision to allow me to remain a pastor in good standing. Some people (you may have heard this viewpoint before) believe that same-sex intimate relationships are explicitly condemned in the Bible. I have had–and will continue to have–this biblical/theological discussion. I’m not intimidated by this conversation because I know I’m right.

That probably sounds arrogant. Especially since I am a woman and am supposed to preface everything with “I think” and “It seems to me that.” But really, I deeply, passionately, unapologetically believe that God cares about the quality of our love, not the gender of the lovers. If I thought the Bible condemned same-sex intimate relationships, I would never have officiated “the wedding” in the first place.

Some people consider my willingness to disagree with the accepted theological position of the Mennonite church to be a sign that I am self-differentiated. Honestly, though, it’s just that I’m stubborn and opinionated. Plus, while I might disagree with the “party line,” I am in agreement with the majority of my closest colleagues, friends, and family members.

So in this situation, I don’t think my biblical interpretation is where self-differentiation comes into play.  I’ve never struggled with or questioned whether gay marriage is O.K. with God.

The struggle has been with my role and responsibility as a pastor ordained by a denomination that–officially at least–disagrees with me on this one particular issue.

Many people, I know, were upset not just because they disagreed with my theology. They were upset because I broke a rule. And got away with it.

I get that.

I am, at heart, a rule-follower. Ask anyone who was ever a classmate of mine in school. If I had ever gotten my name on the board, I’m sure I would have cried. The mere thought of getting in trouble ties my stomach in knots.

So while the biblical conversations about gay marriage won’t sway me, the accusations of rule-breaking and disrespect give me pause. In part because I know that people create rules for a reason. In part because I understand the need for accountability within communities.

Yes, my denomination has rules against pastors officiating weddings for same-sex couples. (Sort of. It’s complicated.) We also have rules against pastors engaging in public drunkenness and extramarital affairs.

Accountability is a good thing. That is the piece I had to struggle with as I made the decision to go ahead with the wedding in the face of pressure from conference leadership. In breaking an implicit rule of my ordaining body, was I being self-differentiated, or merely refusing to be accountable?

During the most difficult part of a conversation I had with conference leadership, I received what I consider to be a sign from God. Now I’m not one of those people who sees Jesus in my burnt toast. I don’t throw around the phrase “sign from God” lightly. My sign was a bird fluttering just outside the window I was facing. As the powers that be were telling me about my responsibility to uphold my ordination agreement all I could focus on was the bird bathed in light. Almost hovering right outside the window.

It was a holy moment that allowed me to shed my need to follow all the rules; my need to be acceptable and accepting and–most importantly–not in trouble.

Now that I am already in trouble–or, more technically speaking, “at variance” –my temptation runs in the opposite direction. I am no longer tempted to comply with authority. I am now tempted to ignore it altogether. To make light of my rebellion and dismiss any kind of accountability as oppressive.

To rebel for the sake of rebelling is just as unhealthy–possibly even more unhealthy–than to follow the rules just for the sake of following the rules.

And so we are on this journey together. And I thank God for my Christian brothers and sisters who pray with me and for me, who counsel me and comfort me, who hold me accountable to the true way of Jesus Christ.


–This post was written for my friend Marty Troyer’s blog series on self-differentiation and Christian community. I commend to you the other posts in this series as well.

Loving the Season . . . and a New Adventure

I recently saw an article about artist Brent Christensen and the amazing ice sculptures that he creates. Sparkling walls of ice, up to twenty-five feet tall–the sculptures are beautiful.

But it wasn’t the sculptures themselves that most impressed me. It was this little bit of information from the beginning of the article: “The hobby first started in 2000, when Christensen’s family moved from sunny California to chilly Utah, and were looking for fun outdoor activities to do during the winter.”

Living in Kansas, I get the best of the hot AND cold seasons. But I imagine that–hypothetically speaking–if I were to move from sunny California to chilly Utah, my fun winter activities would include reading books by the fire and waiting for it to warm up outside.

I love the fact that the Christensens didn’t sit around pining for the time they lived in California or waiting for winter to be over. They decided to do new things in this new place–things they could never have done in California.

This is a principle I want to apply more to my spiritual life. Because I’ll tell you, trying to do spiritual practices with kids around doesn’t feel much like sunny California.

Those awesome week-long silent retreats? That spiritual directors’ program that involves a weekend retreat every month? A pilgrimage to Iona and Taize? Long stretches of morning silence when I can sip my tea and contemplate God?

These practices are not possible in my life right now. Not if I am also being faithful to my marriage and my children. I don’t get to run away from home (or lock the children in soundproof rooms every morning).

And if I am honest, I sometimes resent these limitations. I spend a lot of energy wishing I lived in sunny California. But what if I took a cue from Brent Christensen and simply asked myself what new thing I might be able to do in the place where I am–this parenting place of crowded bathrooms and homework and viola lessons.

Certainly there are spiritual practices that I cannot do right now because of my role as a mother. But there are also practices that I could not–or would not–do without children.

Reading stories out loud? Collecting interesting sticks and rocks? Listening to my daughter play viola for our church family? Sitting and listening to my children’s joys and concerns for the day?

These practices–and so many others–are possible in my life right now. I want to live more fully into this reality. I want to explore and better appreciate what it means to live a spiritual life in the context of family. I want to learn to build ice castles while I’m living this particular season of my life.

practicing families 4

And so I am heading up a new blog project. (Yes. Because I need something to do with my free time.) It’s called Practicing Families. It’s a collaborative effort and I hope it will develop into a community of people passionate about living the life of faith every day–particularly through the season of parenting.

Our official launch date is February 11. But you can go ahead and check out the blog and like the Facebook page. You can even follow us on Twitter. (Even though I still don’t quite get Twitter.)

And, if you would like to contribute writing, photos, or other efforts to the project, just let me know. Prayers are also appreciated.

(BTW, the logo was designed by the fabulous Kristin Neufeld Epp. Her blog is lovely.)

Wednesday Worship Piece: Being Disciples

This Sunday will be our final Sunday in a series on Jesus’ disciples. I will preach on Luke 24:36-53–Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples. Plus we will share communion together this week.

Call to Worship

Leader: We come this morning to spend time on the path with other disciples.
Side 1: Others who are wondering.
Side 2: Others who are waiting.
Side 1: Others who are growing.
Side 2: Others who are giving.
Side 1: Others who are messing up.
Side 2: Others who are speaking up.
Side 1: Others who are stepping out.
Side 2: Others who are standing down.
Side 1: Others who are hungry
Side 2: Even as they reach out to feed others.
Leader: May our journey this morning be worship.
All: May the One we follow be praised!

Prayer of Confession & Assurance of Pardon

God, You have told us to trust in you with all of our hearts.
You have told us not to lean on our own understanding.
And so we try to trust,
but we get very nervous when we don’t understand.
We don’t understand what you mean by
“This bread is my body.”
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”

We don’t understand who will betray you
or why
or what that will mean for us.

We don’t understand how death is victory.
We don’t understand post-resurrection life–yours or ours.
We don’t understand why you ask us to stay here,
And we’re afraid we will somehow miss the power when it comes down from on high.


Assurance of Pardon

Jesus is gentle with our doubts. The Spirit offers us peace in the midst of our lack of understanding. The One who created us leads us step by step into deeper trust. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Call to Worship for Mark 4:35-41

Here is a call to worship based on this week’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary:

We gather together in this place of peace . . .
Why are we afraid?
As storms buffet
Why are we afraid?
As nations rage
Why are we afraid?
As relationships crumble
Why are we afraid?
As illness exhausts us
Why are we afraid?
As finances fail
Why are we afraid?
As violence threatens
Why are we afraid?
Have we no faith?
We do have faith.
We do believe.
Lord, help our unbelief.
Jesus says, “Peace! Be Still!”
So let us worship God.

Worship Pieces for Lent 2

Call to Worship (from Romans 4:13-25)

 The promise to Abraham and Sarah and to their descendants came through faith.
The inheritance is based on God’s grace
and is for all of us who are connected through the centuries,
connected to Abraham and Sarah and all their descendants through faith–
Faith in the God who opened Sarah’s womb,
Faith in the God who protected from flood and fire,
Faith in the God who led the people out of Egypt,
Faith in the God who sent angels and prophets,
Faith in the God who became flesh in Jesus.
We claim the inheritance of those who live by faith–
Faith in the God who gives life to the dead
Faith in the God who calls things that don’t exist into existence.
Let us worship with joy.

Offertory Prayer

God of the Cross, in losing our lives, we find them in you. In sharing our resources, we enter more fully into your kingdom. May these small sacrifices we have made be multiplied and used for your glory to enact your Good News. Amen.

How shall this be?

The following reflection on Luke’s story of the annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) is adapted from a sermon I preached on December 13, 2009.

You might have noticed by now that the writer of Luke gives us a lot of detail here in the first chapter. We know who was king. We know what priestly division Zechariah was in. We know that Elizabeth is six months pregnant when Mary hears from Gabriel. We know the name of Mary’s village and the name of her fiancée.

Scholars cannot say exactly who wrote the Gospel of Luke—and it’s sequel known as the book of Acts. But we can deduce that the writer of these books was articulate, well-educated, rational.

Sound like anyone you know?

Actually, tradition claims that Luke was a physician. Which, I think, makes this conversation he records between Gabriel and Mary that much more fascinating.

This scene is one of my favorite scenes in the Bible. And it has been a favorite of artists for centuries. Many of the medieval paintings of this scene show a mature woman with a beatific smile on her face gazing at a handsome winged creature.

“The Annunciation” by Henry O. Tanner, 1898

But my favorite painting of the annunciation is by Henry O. Tanner. The entire scene is bathed in an eerie yellow glow. A young Mary sits on a bed in a dingy room, considering the ambiguous presence of light that has invaded her space. The best way to describe the look on her face is skeptical.

One thing I love about this story is that–despite her youth, despite the shock of having an angel show up in her room and announce this terrible prospect of her pregnancy–Mary looks the angel Gabriel in the eye and asks, How will this be since I am a virgin?

Can you imagine discussing your sexual status with the angel Gabriel?

Which makes me wonder if this is at least as much Luke’s question as Mary’s. If Luke was indeed a physician, this part of the story must have bothered him. Even though medical technology wasn’t very advanced back then, they did know certain things about human reproduction. Perhaps Luke had a sincere physician’s curiosity about this virginal conception. He wanted details. “How will this be?”

Unfortunately, this is one part of the story for which Luke does not have details. Maybe you noticed: Gabriel doesn’t answer Mary’s question in any helpful way.

“How will this be?” Mary (with Luke) asks.

“Ummm,” says Gabriel. “How . . . let’s see . . . how will this be? A virgin you say . . . well . . . umm . . . The Holy Spirit, yeah, that’s it, the Holy Spirit will come upon you and . . . and . . . the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Luke doesn’t record the fumbling pauses, but I can certainly imagine them. The truth is that the answer Gabrielle gives is not really an answer. Certainly not a medically satisfying one.

But it is the only answer Mary gets. The only answer that Luke has. And, therefore, the only answer that we have to a question that all educated, rational people must want to ask about this story.

A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.

How shall this be?

Your child will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and his Kingdom will never end.

How shall this be?

Rulers will be brought down from their thrones and the humble will be lifted up.The hungry will be filled with good things and the rich will be sent away empty.

How shall this be?

The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light will dawn.

How shall this be?

Nation will not rage against nation. Neither will they learn war any more.

How shall this be?

The promises of God are beyond what reasonable, intelligent people can expect. Yet still, these promises come.

They came to Mary through an angel. They come to us, usually, in more subtle ways. Through the words of scripture. Through dreams. Through the beauty of God’s creation. Through the words of friends and strangers. Through glimpses of God’s love, justice, and peace breaking out in our world.

We read of Jesus’ healings and his promise of abundant life, and we see in this God’s promise of health care for all people.

How shall this be?

The faithful will pray. Groups will lobby politicians. Medical staff will volunteer at clinics. Mennonite Church USA will practice mutual aid so that all pastors can have health care.

This is not really an answer. At least not a logically satisfying one. But it is the answer we have for now.

We follow the Prince of Peace; we read God’s promises of peace over and over again in the scriptures. We know these promises include peace in the Middle East. Peace between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

How shall this be?

People will pray for peace. The Christian Peacemaker Teams will work with the Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. We will join with our Muslim and Jewish neighbors to work for the good of our communities.

This is not really an answer. Not an intellectually satisfying one. But it is the answer we have for now.

We know God’s amazing promises are not just for the world at large, but the promises are also for each of us. That we will have life abundant. Work that allows us to meet our physical needs and that sustains our spirits. Rich, deep, loving relationships. Health and happiness for those we love. Time and energy for the things that enliven us and for the things that bring life to others. These also are part of the promises of God.

How shall this be?

We don’t know, exactly. All we know is that it involves the Holy Spirit acting in our lives. All we know is that it involves the presence of God coming close.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

I’m afraid that is the only answer I have for you this morning.

For Mary, it was enough.

Thanks be to God.