Remembering Our Baptism: A Ritual of Water

For my Doctor of Ministry class this week, we were assigned the task of creating a ritual related to the course’s themes: Worship, Ecology, and Social Change. We brought the rituals into the class to trial. Below is the ritual I designed and wrote (with the exception of the opening prayer), and it is intended, in this form, to be used with a fully online group. It could easily be adapted for in-person groups or hybrid groups. Words for the ritual facilitator are in italics.

Welcome and Gathering Prayer

[Participants are invited to gather a glass of water or other drink derived from the water of their location, e.g., tea or coffee.]

This morning, we celebrate the gift of water. A gift that has channeled the love of the Divine since the beginning of time. God’s gift flowing out of a big bang, of mysteries within mysteries. A blessing born and reborn in the cycles of life that flowed before us, into us, and we pray will flow beyond us. At three points in this ritual, we’ll pause together to receive the gift of water (or tea/coffee). 

As a way of centering into this space, we will begin with “A Prayer of Blessing Water” by Roberta Egli.

Gathering Prayer*

I will read the “One” and invite you to unmute, joining in after I say “Together…” with the response, “God’s love flows through the water.”

One: In the beginning water cradled us in the womb
Holding us in suspension until we burst forth in the waters of Birth
Many: God’s love flows through the water

One: In the desert a small drop of water causes life to bloom
A tiny drop of water can quench our burning thirst for justice
Many: God’s love flows through the water

One: In the roots of our being water provides sustenance
Without water our lives would shrivel and wither
Many: God’s love flows through the water

One: In the times when we feel sullied and broken
We long to be reawakened by soaking in forgiving, transforming love
Many: God’s love flows through the water

One: All water is holy.
A sign that we have passed through troubles,
That we have been refreshed by a gift of life
Sustained by a love poured over us.
Many: God’s love flows through the water

One: In the aftermath of water…
Flowing, pouring, falling, dropping, gushing, spilling, surging, tumbling, showering…
is the rainbow sign of God’s continuing love at work within us and through us.
Many: God’s love flows through the water.

The Waters of Our Birth

We have then before us our blessed water, and we move into three opportunities for receiving the gift of water.

We begin by remembering together the waters of our birth, and in doing so, remember our ancestors—biological ancestors, ancestors in faith, transcestors, or others—and the watersheds that nourished the ecosystems in which they lived. I invite you to offer in the chat, or to speak aloud, the names of ancestors whose stories feel close to you this day, and if you know it, you may also name a water source that supported these ancestors.

[allow time for people to offer names and watersheds]

One: Spirit of the Deep,
Remembering these ancestors and our ancestral waters, 
we receive the gift of water before us,
and we drink in gratitude for the waters of the past.



The Waters of Our Baptism

We turn our mind-bodies to the memories of our baptisms. Whether as infants or adults, we imaginatively remember the experience of being welcomed into the universal family and Body of Christ through the gift of water. As it feels comfortable, I invite you to push into that memory, tracing back where the waters for your baptism came from—the water source used to fill the font, to fill the pitcher, or the body of water in which you were immersed. 

Again, as you feel led, I invite you to offer in the chat or to speak aloud the names of the water source in which you were baptized. It’s okay if you don’t know the watershed area/name; a local creek, river, pond, or lake whose name you know is a part of the intersecting threads of the waterways and is also welcome!

[allow time for people to offer water sources]

One: God of all places,
Remembering our baptismal waters,
we receive the gift of water before us,
and we drink in gratitude for the creeks, rivers, ponds, lakes, oceans, and the deep, hidden waters that nourish our spiritual journeys.



The Waters of Our Beloved Community

And finally, surrounded by the memories of our ancestors, of our baptisms, and the waters that have brought us to this point, we bring our attention to the present. We open our hearts to the waters that sustain us and the Beloved Community of our ecosystems. We pause to recognize that since time immemorial, and during white colonization and occupation of this land, each of our watersheds has been stewarded by Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. We likely have different roles in this story, but we share this day a mutual hope for the health of this water. In faith, we envision a future with clean water for generations to come.

I invite you, as you feel led, to share aloud or in the chat the names of the Indigenous peoples who currently or historically stewarded the waters where you live. It’s okay if you do not know the names of the Indigenous peoples at this time. You may also share an intention for your relationship with water or your watershed.

[allow time for people to offer Indigenous people groups & intentions]

Before we pause this final time to give thanks, I wanted to note that we’ll have a few moments to drink our water/tea/coffee together while listening to the song Take Me to the Water, performed by the Blind Boys of Alabama. Feel free to let the music move you and your body, even as you drink, if the Spirit so inspires.  

One: Source and Sustainer,
Remembering the waters that quench our present thirst,
we receive the gift of water before us,
and we drink in gratitude for those who steward it today with a hope for the future.

Friends, take this water and drink. Taste and see that it is good!

Song: Take Me To the Water


Receive this blessing.

One: God’s love flows through the water
and that love now flows through us,
into our communities and into our earth,
refreshing, renewing, and transforming us all.

*Roberta J. Egli, “Prayer of Blessing Water,” for Reconciling Ministries Worship at General Conference, Pittsburgh, 2004.

Sabbatical, Part 1: Transitions

With a pause and breeze out of the west, a sabbatical ends. 

The long Sabbath sighs with a pleasure-filled breath and takes her exit. 

The final weeks of this break have been filled with adventures with our favorite canine companions, moments with family that stretched like taffy, and closets that never looked so good, so scandalously low entropy and fresh. The optimistic to-do list is not fully checked off, but to be fair, it never has been.

True Sabbath sates and leaves us wanting to see her again, like a lover who travels for work or a medium-distance relationship. She leaves us ready for the work of justice, love, and hope that is the every day–and always looking for the next chance to shut the blinds and sneak away for a lingering moment.

Sabbatical: Reading List

I’ve enjoyed the spaciousness of my sabbatical schedule to read often and across a wide range of topics. To date, here are the books I’ve read and a brief review. Links are included for reference; they are not sponsored/I get no financial kickback if you click/buy.


  • Translating Your Past by Michelle Van Loon — I was hopeful that this book would spur continued thought about family history and offer me additional tools for the work of researching family history. It didn’t. Rather, it felt simplistic, overly evangelical, and void of any real depth. One commendable area addressed, however, was the impact of adoption in family stories/histories.
  • More Than A Womb by Lisa Wilson Davison — As one who has chosen to not create biological offspring or to raise human children in a Western, individualistic way, Davison’s theological observations on “childfree” women of the Hebrew Bible were captivating, thought-provoking, and affirming of many different (biblical) expressions of gender identity, primarily, of course, of what constitutes “feminine.”
  • The Green Burial Guidebook by Elizabeth Fournier — An easy, quick read for those who are thinking both long-term about their own final wishes, or for those who are needing to address the ins and outs of green burials for others who are currently dying (or even those who have just died). It is broadly practical and helpfully basic–a good starting point for anyone who doesn’t know where to start on the topic.
  • Being Mortal by Atul Gawande — (You might start to see a theme on death and dying here…) This book came highly recommended from some folx at Madison Mennonite, including a couple who worked for many years in hospice/palliative care. Of the many takeaways from this gem of a book, I appreciated the five questions Gewande introduces the reader to that help clarify wishes for any of us as we face illness and/or death: What is your understanding of where you are and of your illness? Your fears or worries for the future? Your goals and priorities? What outcomes are unacceptable to you? What are you willing to sacrifice and not? And later, what would a good day look like? (Note: This is the only book I’ve read written by a man. :))
  • Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer L. Eberhardt — A required text for my Doctor of Ministry session this summer, Biased includes data and reflections on years of social-psychological research on how our mind-bodies react and engage with those we have been conditioned to see as “other.” A fair amount of the book includes Eberhardt’s work with police forces and how bias awareness training ideally helps police in their response to (perceived) crime. Having read a fair amount on the topic of race-related bias, much of the book was a repeat of other material; it is highly readable, though, and would be a good resource for the average reader still exploring the topic.
  • The Art of Dying Well by Katy Butler — Another practical guide related to death and dying, only this one covers a longer stretch of time, and the chapters progress through later life in stages. I appreciated the “checklist” at the start of each chapter, helping the reader gauge their stage and what the pertinent questions were to help them live fully in that particular time.
  • Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit by Lyanda Lynn Haupt — Beautiful philosophical prose on our relationship with Mother Earth and all her inhabitants. I enjoyed this book for the ongoing invitation to discover what it means to be spiritual beings in a complex web of interdependence.
  • Grieving the Death of a Pet by Betty McCormack — We encounter death in many ways, and the death of beloved pets is both an area of personal tenderness and grief and a significant experience for those in our communities. This book affirms the real experience of grief that humans are often left with at the death of a non-human companion and encourages self-compassion in the aftermath of loss. I only wish I had read this sooner.
  • Sacred Decisions: Consensus in Faith Communities by Marcia Patton and Nora Percival — Another DMin book for this summer’s session. I read it as Congress and the President argued over the debt ceiling, and I was again reminded that the Church has a prophetic role in showing another way to make decisions that are for the good of the many. The book is a good primer for those who want to learn more about consensus decision-making and why it’s what all communities of faith should be practicing.


  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet — An assigned text at the Oregon Extension, this historical fiction raised interesting issues related to race, family, and society. While I read it for pleasure, it makes me glad to know that this is the kind of stuff that (some) university students are reading and wrestling with.
  • Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley — The first of several “young adult” novels I read (wherein the protagonist is a young adult; the topics are relatable for adults as well). Thoughtfully written with a window into Ojibwe culture, describing through the story some of the impacts of imperialism on one Native American tribe of the midwestern U.S., and the beauty of what cannot be conquered.
  • Shutter by Ramona Emerson — This, along with most of my fiction choices, was a random pick while perusing the shelves at George R.R. Martin’s Beastly Books in Santa Fe. Part mystery, part ghost story, Shutter is Emerson’s first novel, and while I read it and enjoyed it, it wouldn’t be at the top of my recommendation list. It feels like too easy a mystery to solve when you have ghosts on your side…
  • Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel — In driving through Albuquerque with an old friend, she suggested, after hearing the kinds of fiction I typically read, that I check out St. John Mandel and recommended I start with Station 11. At a bookstore later that afternoon, Sea of Tranquility was the only book they had from ESJM, and trusting this friend, I snapped it up. Between a global pandemic situation (which seemed awfully familiar) and time travel, this was a page-turner and left me wanting to read more of St. John Mandel. Suffice it to say, I will trust my friend to give me recommendations again.
  • Shadow and Bone + Siege and Storm + Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo — A young adult fantasy trilogy that both Justin and I got into. Very easy reading and the kind that will keep you turning pages well past your typical bedtime (just one more chapter!). It’s entertaining while also not terribly thought-provoking or original. That’s not to say that I could write these books–just that they probably won’t produce much personal growth. 🙂 (The Netflix version of the books, though, is pretty awful in my opinion, mostly due to the writing and cheap CGI work.)

Currently Reading / Up Next

Sabbatical: Week 3

Solvitur Ambulando

In New Mexico, we walked. 

In the hills above the Ojo hot springs, we wove through the ruins of Posi Pueblo. Pottery shards dotted the trail’s edges, the silent remnants of a vanished village. Passersby had gathered the shards every few feet, installations of creativity, craft, and impermanence. These small, biodegrading pieces of clay were the only visible evidence that humans had once lived here; the rest of the landscape appeared timeless. 

A short drive from Alamagordo, we turned into the drive at White Sands National Monument. We stepped out under the blazing, blinding sun, our feet slipping through the grains of grayish-white gypsum. Gorgeous, pristine, and striking, we walked with the knowledge of this land being deemed worthy—ideal—for testing atomic weapons in the 1940s. 

Days later, we descended the equivalent of 60+ stories into the depths of Carlsbad Caverns. (Oh, how my calves were tight the next day!) Swallows swooped and dived at the mouth of the cave. We slowly made our way through the winding paths, breathless with wonder at the gently lit formations. The caverns were discovered in the late 19th century, and within just a few years, the environment of the subterranean space was impacted by human presence due to changes in humidity, temperature, and natural excretions. Though seemingly minor, these new additions shift delicate ecological processes that have been unfolding since time immemorial.

In Albuquerque, we met a friend from my days as a Service Adventure participant, and we drove to the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. Hiking on the quiet, orange-sand paths, we enjoyed the sight of poppies and blooming cacti. Scrambling up a modest jumble of boulders, we perched atop an outcropping to eat our red chili, egg, and potato breakfast burritos. We looked out over the city: planes ascending and descending, a ridge of spent volcanoes in the distance, the modest downtown cityscape…The air was still—and quiet.

Walking back to the hot springs, walking along the boardwalk above the white sand, standing in an elevator speeding 700 feet to the earth’s surface, walking back into the noise and bustle of Albuquerque, our steps told a story of change and evolution, of human impact and hubris, of resilience and subjugation.

We walked; now, we weep for the beauty and destruction in which we keep wandering.

Sabbatical: Week 2

From the LA Metropolitan Lounge: Another Liminal Space

—Graffiti on a Metro underpass, “where attention goes, energy flows.”

—On the back of a T-shirt, “Don’t trip over what’s behind you.”

—On the Santa Monica Pier, a couple pauses in front of us to take a picture, “Sorry to get in the way—it’s his first time to see the ocean. We came all the way from Oklahoma for him to see this.” His smile is ear-to-ear.

—Me, thinking to myself on the beach as we neared the water, “Ha! that guy walking around in the waves in his tennis shoes and socks is so dumb.” Me, in my shoes and socks, a minute later, “Crap. I misjudged the size and speed of that wave.”

—Most expensive fuel prices seen: >$6 per gallon.

—A tour guide outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, “The magnificent cathedral you see before you was made with 151 million pounds of stone…” (…as if this is what makes a church.)

Sabbatical: Week 1

When talking with engaged couples about their wedding day plans, I always say, “Something will go wrong. It always does. But because we know something will go wrong, we’re ready for it when it happens.”

The same can be said for sabbaticals, it seems. 

We’ve been planning this trip for over a year, starting when I got affirmation from the church board to begin a grant writing process to cover sabbatical expenses. In the spring of 2022, when much still seemed uncertain and the pandemic was more than lingering, though seemingly past its ‘worst-by’ date, I sat in my office with a purple legal pad and started to brainstorm ideas for three months off. 

What would make my heart sing? This question served as the basic prompt from the grant-giving organization. Travel, certainly, was an obvious answer. Rest seemed wise, though secondary to travel. I finally settled on a long train journey, a nod to my love of trains, stopping in locations that spoke to what shaped me as a younger person. Plus, we had to include Justin’s formational journey as well, assuming he would be along for the ride.

Leaving Madison, we boarded our first train, the (unfortunately-named) “Empire Builder,” and after a short layover in Portland, we headed south on the “Coast Starlight” to Klamath Falls, Oregon, where we arrived (early!) after 54 hours of travel. Our first destination: the Oregon Extension, where Justin had spent a semester of college, studying philosophy and religion while living in an old logging camp with 20-odd other students from various universities and a handful of live-in professors. We arrived at midday and after unpacking, we took a tour of the grounds and buildings. We sat on the banks of the mill pond, visited the new chapel, and perused the gardens, meeting Cuma, a resident dog who would have played fetch all day, and Seton, one of the professors who joined the staff in the intervening years between Justin’s time and our return. The sun shone warmly in the moments it appeared from behind the clouds, and the occasional stray rain shower fell gently across our path. 

We felt ourselves at home in our wood-fired cabin amongst the pines.

When Justin awoke the next morning, with brain fog and a fever, the magic seemed to pause. Here it was, the first thing to go wrong in our perfectly planned-out trip: a mystery illness. Justin rested on the couch, while I sat in the kitchen, waiting to see if the symptoms persisted. We tossed out some different ideas for what could be plaguing him: elevation sickness? brain-eating amoebas? covid? something else? …I had brought a box of covid tests along, so pulled a test kit out, gave Justin the cotton swab, and set the timer for 15 minutes. Less than 12 minutes later, I looked down at the test to see that damned second line.

Three years. We had avoided this for three years, and now, in the first week of our epic adventure that we’d been planning—dreaming about—for over a year, we stalled. As Justin took to the couch over the next few days, thankfully just nursing a mild case, I was surprisingly delivered into a forced solitude. I had wanted this first chapter to be restful, but this was extreme. To add insult to injury, our dogs (at home) were exhibiting separation anxiety and getting into a multitude of trouble in our absence. Our first time leaving them alone, together, was proving to be a challenge, and my forced solitude was punctuated by embarrassment and sadness at the impact on our dogsitter’s life.

And then I burnt popcorn, polluting the house’s air with one of the worst smells on the planet.

I was ready for something to go wrong at some point on our journey, but this seemed a bit excessive, in my humble opinion.

And, at the same time, it all felt manageable (in most moments; I did lose my shit at one point). Each morning, I woke with optimism, setting out to walk the labyrinth down the hill. I read four books in less than a week, something I haven’t done since who knows when. We ate well (minus some popcorn), enjoyed a cozy abode, took some gentle hikes, and laughed together. We cuddled the resident dogs of the OE and marveled at the migrating geese flying far above. 

Sitting below the pines, our hearts were beginning to sing of the magic and the mayhem that comes with beauty and with life. We knew other things might yet go wrong, and we were here for it.

Advent 4: The Struggle is Real

In the beginning, many moons ago, this hope, this Original Love, was formless and void, mingling with a sacred watery chaos. 

After the beginning, but before labor really kicked in, it took time, perhaps millions of cycles of cosmic heating and cooling, of contractions and deep breathing, until the inevitable need to push arose, and the Word was coaxed and coached into a form you and I would recognize. A form that could be held and swaddled. A form that was called “Word” for a little while, until slowly we began to know them as “Jesus.”

The manuscript my sermon from 12/18/22 at Madison Mennonite was based on. The scripture readings for the day were John 1:1-5 and Psalm 126.

As may be evidenced by now, Justin and I have chosen to make a household without the permanent presence of human children. Perhaps that’s a choice we’ll talk about more fully at some point. But knowing this, and in her own wisdom and desire, my sister invited me to the births of her twin daughters, who are soon to turn 10. Though I’ve been present for other animal births, witnessing the birth of Sylvia and Cora was a singular experience in my life.

There in the hospital delivery room, after being induced and waiting and waiting for contractions to come…there finally came a point, several hours in, when the inevitability of birthing these two set in—when there was no biological choice but to push, guided through the process by Frances, the midwife. 

And eventually, out they came: first Sylvia, or “Baby A” as she was known at the time, then Cora, “Baby B.” My mother, also present, was the first to hold Sylvia. I was the first to hold Cora, as my brother-in-law stayed by my sister, who rested for a bit before pushing out the placenta.

Hearing again the prologue from John 1 this season, and letting the midwife’s perspective filter into the text, I think of that delivery room that cold winter’s night, ten years ago. I think about the long, long wait of bringing an essence, a dream into a warm, pudgy, fleshy form. 

In the beginning, many moons ago, this hope, this Original Love, was formless and void, mingling with a sacred watery chaos. 

After the beginning, but before labor really kicked in, it took time, perhaps millions of cycles of cosmic heating and cooling, of contractions and deep breathing, until the inevitable need to push arose, and the Word was coaxed and coached into a form you and I would recognize. A form that could be held and swaddled. A form that was called “Word” for a little while, until slowly we began to know them as “Jesus.”

It would have required serious preparation, I imagine, this long gestation, punctuated by pain, the cosmos gasping for breath. Layered under John’s words, there is a Divine Struggle to bring an idea to birth, an effort to make real what was hoped for. A struggle willingly made by a mothering God. Without a doubt, there was in the beginning, a struggle, and the struggle was real. The struggle is still real.

Perhaps this phrase is a bit jarring in this moment… “The struggle is real” for many of us conjures up images like those that circulate on social media: one of my favorites — someone with a hair dryer in one hand and an iron with the bottom facing up in the other hand, a piece of pizza being reheated using the two devices… The struggle is real. “The struggle is real” is a phrase that encapsulates the ironic frustration of rather mundane inconveniences.

The struggle is real.

But the history of the sentiment tells another story.

“The struggle is real begins in hip-hop culture, where the struggle refers to the oppression… faced by black Americans… Use of this struggle dates to the” 1980 and 90s, “but it was likely influential rapper 2pac who popularized the phrase the struggle is real on his 2002 posthumous track, “Fame”. “(

We are reminded that “the struggle” has disparate meanings for folx in our communities. 

What Tupac names, and other persons of dominated groups have attested to, is that an imposed struggle can be a form of oppression. Racism, poverty, climate change, homelessness, transphobia—these obstacles that dehumanize or that strip the dignity of humans or of the earth are to, without a doubt, be resisted by all of us.

At the same time, we live in a society where the dominant culture tends to suggest that pain and struggle are unnecessary—problematic even. The ideal life is one without pain—at least pain that “I” don’t have to feel. This can be made possible, in large part, by outsourcing one’s hurt. In the process, though, one’s capacity for growth is stunted. 

My hunch is that we’ve each experienced this in our own lives: times when we have wanted to avoid pain and so passed it onto others; or when others have done that to us. And of course, it is systemic in our society, too, a central tenet of patriarchal white supremacy. 

This is what some call “dirty pain.” Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands, writes, “Dirty pain is the pain of avoidance, blame, and denial. When people respond from their most wounded parts, become cruel or violent, or physically or emotionally run away, they experience dirty pain.” It’s pain that gets stuck in the body and inhibits growth. It’s the kind that is transferred onto others, particularly those who are more vulnerable.

And, there is clean pain. Clean pain is the pain that mends and can build your capacity for growth and resilience. “It is the pain we experience when we don’t know what to do, when we are scared, and when we step forward into the unknown anyway, with honesty and vulnerability.” (Menakem)

Clean pain, though still painful, is natural. It’s grief we feel in transitions. It’s the soul-stretching sensation of being called out by a trusted friend. It’s the disappointment of failure, or the death of a dream. It’s the pain we experienced the minute our bodies left the womb and we felt the physical shock of emerging into bright light and cool air, so unlike our placentas. 

As much as I hate to admit it, it seems like we actually need this kind of struggle in order to grow. This kind of struggle makes us more human, more compassionate, more loving, more just. 

bell hooks, in a dialogue with Cornel West, spoke about the tension that we feel around letting clean pain be a part of our stories, of letting struggle shape us, “We also need to remember that there is a joy in struggle. Recently, I was speaking on a panel at a conference with another black woman from a privileged background. She mocked the notion of struggle. When she expressed, “I’m just tired of hearing about the importance of struggle; it doesn’t interest me,” the audience clapped. She saw struggle solely in negative terms, a perspective which led me to question whether she had ever taken part in any organized resistance movement. For if you have, you know there is joy in struggle…” (Hooks, Yearning, 1990)

hooks names something so vital for our experience of struggle, of pain—whether clean pain, dirty pain, or a mix of the two. And that is: the role of the community is to witness the struggle, to midwife one another through the contractions and labored breathing. The point is not to fix or erase the pain, but to validate the hurt, to offer an alternative perspective, and to help us keep pushing or resting—whatever our bodies are telling us we need.

In this last week before Christmas, as we cross over the solstice, we move through a holy time of transition, where the darkness, if we choose to enter it, can be a fertile, sacred space with potential for joy and growth. The midwife’s stanza for this week reminds us that to allow the Divine to be birthed in us is a sacrifice, as we offer our bodies to be broken open, like the ground receiving a seed. So, too, the psalmist sings of the tension of knowing God’s love and nurture, and yet struggling to make sense of the pain of exile and disorientation. There is a longing in Psalm 126 to make sense of the struggle, and to come out the other side knowing transformation.

These sacrifices—sacred struggle—make possible the birth of justice, of a love most profound, of the possibility of a solidarity that frees us, too. Like the wise MMC women shared two weeks ago, birthing work is messy work, what with the sweat and blood and urine and tears and all other kinds of bodily fluids. 

Preparing the way to bring our dreams, our ideas, justice to life is work and at times it is incredibly painful. It takes time, perhaps millions of cycles of our souls heating and cooling, our bodies pushing and sweating, for the Word to be coaxed and coached into existence.

As we go this week,
may we find safe places to be broken open
may we be safe places for others who are in pain
may we find courage to enter into the struggles that we face:
in our bodies, in our relationships, in our grief, in our struggle to care
may we know that we are struggling together, 
in solidarity and in hope that the Child of Peace— 
the Infant of Justice—
is being born in us once more.

I pray it be so.

Life Art: “Mortality”

Thoughts of mortality come up at the most interesting of times, like today, when as a very serious part of my pastoral duties, I sat down for a moment to sort through the marker bin we use in our Children’s Nook.

Thoughts of mortality come up at the most interesting of times, like today, when as a very serious part of my pastoral duties, I sat down for a moment to sort through the marker bin we use in our Children’s Nook.

So, here it is: a simple piece of art I’m calling, “Mortality.”

A few weeks ago, in the hour prior to our All Saints’ & Souls’ service, we enjoyed an intergenerational faith formation gathering with a focus on our ancestors. The group was small, but thoughtfully engaged as we tossed around questions about the end of life, death, and the afterlife. We read together a beautiful book for the occasion: All Around Us by Xelena González, which I highly recommend for anyone aged about 7 and older. 

About ten of us, aged 4 to 60+, sat around, crafting circular timelines of our lives and chatting. What makes a funeral or memorial service memorable? How do we want to be remembered? If we knew we were eating our last meal, what would we want to eat?

A few of us agreed that vareniki would absolutely make the menu. We disagreed, however, on what they should be filled with–potatoes and onions, or cottage cheese?

At a gathering a few months ago with my family, my mom and I tentatively introduced the potato and onion variety to everyone, having grown up solely–and definitively–on the cottage cheese kind. We were appalled when at least one of my siblings declared their preference for the potato/onion ones.

I could hear my ancestors rolling over in their graves; and I wondered: how did they understand mortality? Were they afraid of death or welcome it with humility? What might they teach me still as I sit in my office, uncapping markers, making tick marks at a meditative pace, and waiting to see what shows up?

Tending the Trends of the Post-Pandemic Church

In the winter edition of the Leader Magazine, an article titled “10 Trends for the Post-Pandemic Church” observed that the U.S. church—alongside society at large—is experiencing significant change.

The article, though it does not explicitly say so, seems to reflect trends of the mainstream church, and perhaps primarily white U.S. Christianity.

At the lived level, the church where I pastor, having reflected together on the article in a Christian Education session, agreed that some of the shifts resonate with what we are noticing in our local context. Meanwhile, other “new” trends appear similar to how we already operate. This mix was unsurprising; as an urban, mainstream-adjacent, highly educated, and predominantly white congregation, we regularly encounter the “edge” of the Church, while also being deeply committed to historic Anabaptist philosophies.

From a birds’ eye view of the trends, where their specificities begin to blur, broader trends emerge. The first is simply the trend of post-modernity, in which the church is finally and officially being asked—or forced—to address its real and present context in which the Church, broadly speaking, does not claim the central societal role of yesteryear. 

One outgrowth of this is diminishing predictability with which a person or household offers their unwavering loyalty to a particular institution, which was a lingering vestige of modernity (and pre-modernity). We have noticed a diluting, if you will, of attention, commitment, and financial support across many aspects of our society as the make-up of personal and social identities complexifies and expands. The church is not immune to this trend, though the church, being fundamentally based on relationships, has up until the pandemic largely been protected from it.

Three of the article’s trends fall easily into this category. They are, with my paraphrase of their definitions:

  • “Attendance —> Engagement” — Broadening the understanding of membership beyond those who attend communal worship to include those who are involved in myriad ways across church life
  • “Adoption —> Fostering” — From a monogamous approach to membership to a more open relationship, where individual participation ebbs and flows, based on the individual’s needs and preferences
  • “Duty-driven giving —> Mission-driven giving” — Younger generations, especially, want to give out of a sense of connection and meaning, rather than an expectation or tradition

As attendance at communal worship gatherings diminishes (which research has shown is for a variety of reasons), the metrics and definitions of “who is a member” may also need to change. This is shown in the trends toward ‘Engagement’ and ‘Fostering’. In my role as Pastor, I can see the benefits of understanding who “we” are by taking a broader, more holistic, and flexible view of church membership. During the pandemic, in particular, this approach has been necessary for our congregation. Over the last two years, I have consistently seen that while many still attend our Sunday evening worship gatherings, others don’t…but do remain connected in other aspects of community life. 

For example, in an effort to meet many needs brought about by the pandemic, we developed a worship routine where small, set groups gathered for worship (during our normal worship time) twice a month either in-person or online, based on households’ risk tolerances. The other two to three Sundays, we had “whole church” worship, where all were invited to gather (mostly via Zoom). Some members only attended the “whole church” gatherings; others only attended the small groups. (Many, it must be said, attended both.) But it begged the question: who are we? Ultimately, our response is: we are those who call Madison Mennonite home, in whatever form or fashion that takes.

There is also, I think, a distinct challenge to this trend: the ambiguity about the status of relationships. A certain percentage of congregants simply prefer the periphery, and again, for a variety of reasons. For those who flourish in stable, committed relationships, it is hard to feel connected to persons whose allegiance to the group feels non-committal. For those at the “center,” this can feel both personally and institutionally disappointing, at a minimum–or worse. 

Meanwhile, several of the trends lean helpfully away from paternalistic, colonial, and patriarchal aspects of modernity and into trends brought about through feminism, womanism, and collectivism. Again, these are listed below with my paraphrases.*

  • “Competition—> Collaboration” — The benefit to multiple faith communities when resources are shared across organizations. 
  • “Church Administrator —> Ministers of Communication” — (Finally) recognizing the incredible value of the often overlooked, behind-the-scenes efforts of those who keep us connected through communication.
  • “Traditional sermons —> Community testimony” — Noting the prevalence and availability of “better traditional sermons” via the web/podcasts (presumably, “better” than the average local pastor/preacher a church has called) and the communal benefit of hearing testimonies and stories from those in the local church.
  • “Pastor as leader, shepherd, and sage —> Pastor as spiritual friend, coach, cheerleader” — The pastoral role is perhaps trending more toward one who “accompanies and journeys with the congregation in self-discovery and spiritual discovery.”
  • “Stratified age-based ministry —> Intergenerational ministry” — A trend brought about by decreasing Sunday attendance.

In most of these trends, there is a visible attempt to reduce the historic “power of the elite” — power attained through education or financial resources—and to balance it with the “power of the people.” This perhaps is most blatant in the shift in a pastor’s role** and sermon shifts.

The trends toward (1) collaboration and (2) the public (e.g., worship) and invisible (e.g., administration) ministry of lay members and non-clergy staff together emphasize the “one Body, many members” metaphor of the Apostle Paul, as well as the “priesthood of all believers” in 1 Peter. In a church like mine, these do not feel like new trends; rather, as Anabaptists, there has long been the theological conviction that all have spiritual gifts, and all have access to the Spirit’s wisdom.

The thing I think we have yet to grapple with—and here, “we” is your average Mennonite Church USA community—is the paternalistic and colonial nature of our age-based ministries, specifically those ministries geared toward children. Where some churches are turning to “intergenerational ministry” out of necessity, I have been suspicious of Sunday School and the like for some time. It does not reflect our theology of being a church of voluntary believers, nor does it account for the connection with God/Sacred Mystery/Divine that–I believe–we are naturally born with. Age-specific ministries for children, much like the mission schools for Indigenous peoples of the last centuries, reflect a well-intentioned (usually) but colonizing approach to our children’s spirits. 

Is there a role for religious education in the church?

Is there a role for religious education in the church? Possibly, but I don’t think it looks like Sunday School. Living life intergenerationally, on the other hand, reflects how societies have evolved for millennia; children are a part of a community’s traditions, rituals, and ceremonies and often learn from observation or feeling safe to ask questions out of their curiosity. There is more to be said on this. For now, it simply falls in the post-modern sub-category of “rejecting patriarchy.”

Regardless, the church is being drawn into change and transformation. As a member of my church put it after our discussion on the article, “Perhaps the Spirit is rubbing his/her/its hands in glee, recognizing an opening for renewed and re-imagined life as Jesus followers in our time and place.”

I pray it be so. 

*The two additional trends from the article that I do not mention are “Program-focused ministry—>Relationship-focused ministry” and “Listening to the voice from on high—>Listening to the still, small voice.” Both could easily fall within the second broad trend listed above, but were eliminated from discussion due to space.

**I find this trend to be strongly influenced by the rise of individualization, a subtrend of post-modernity. A pastor as “leader, shepherd, sage” is a pastor for a community; a pastor as a “spiritual friend, coach, cheerleader” is much more individualistic and seems more attentive to a parishioner’s personal journey of “self-discovery.” My personal approach to pastoring is that both are necessary and both require a high self-awareness of pastoral power.

Christmas Eve 2021

And so it goes: The pup and I ended up leaving a half-day early for our Christmas sojourn to the east. In a journey mirroring the Wise Ones’ trip from the East, Maggie and I found the inn under garishly bright blue lights, its sign advertising a low rate surely impossible to sustain life.

The halls reek of cigarette and pot smoke. Maggie is so anxious she paces our room, alert to every door opening and shutting and every footfall outside our door. The door to my room barely closes; each time I go in and out, I have to lift up, using my whole body weight to get the heavy door to open on its hinges. The floor is littered with an assortment of debris, and there is a used bath towel hanging on the back of the bathroom door. Atop the bed is a blanket so threadbare that I will later sleep under my coat. Just outside, vehicles on the interstate race by, pilgrims seeking a different inn for this night.

And yet it is Christmas Eve.

Settling into my room, I take a homemade muffin made for this journey and bite into it: this is the body of Life.  And I open my water bottle, pour some of the fresh coolness into Maggie’s dish and then some into my mouth: this is the cup of Love. 

It could not be more real than this—the strange alone-ness of this night, in a place far from home, with smells and sounds that are foreign to my body. 

I retrieve a little candle and matches from my bag, ready to welcome the Christ-child into this holy night.