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”. “(https://www.dictionary.com/e/slang/the-struggle-is-real/)

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.

Ignatian Imagination Prayer: Luke 1:39-55

The Ignatian Imagination Prayer is a sensory, engaging spiritual practice that encourages one’s imagination to run free with the Spirit through scripture. Teresa A. Blythe writes in her book, 50 Ways to Pray, that the intent of this practice is “to imagine that you are physically present” in a particular scripture, “and to allow that scene to become a prayer for you.” (p 100)

Especially for passages that we know (or think we know) well, this spiritual exercise invites us to look, listen, and feel again. To be open to an awareness of words and emotions we hadn’t noticed before. To let the scripture speak to us in our present experience.

This practice can be used by individuals or in a group. To use it on your own, simply read slowly through the passage and the questions, taking the time you want to enter into each portion. Allow about twenty minutes to go through the following scripture. Jot down your experience in a journal, if you like, and any insights that dwelling in the word brought you.

For use in a group, read through the passage and questions, allowing more time than you think might be necessary. (As one who has received guided meditation before, I often feel rushed in my imaginings!) You may want to invite shared reflection at the end. A pdf version of this reflection is available here.

Prayer of preparation

Spirit of New Life, I/we ask for grace:
that all my/our intentions, my/our actions, and my/our imaginings
will be used for the service and praise of the Divine. Amen. 

Ignatian Imagination Prayer

Within a few days [of the angel Gabriel’s visit to her], Mary set out and hurried to the hill country to a town of Judah, where she entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.

  • Take a moment to imagine yourself in this scene, not necessarily taking on the character of Mary or Elizabeth (or Zechariah). Simply be an observer for now. 
  • What do you notice about Mary as she hurries down the roads of Judah? Does her face tell you anything about how she’s feeling? 
  • What time of year is it in in Judah? What do you smell?
  • What does Zechariah and Elizabeth’s house look like? As Mary nears the house, when does she call out to Elizabeth? What does she say? Where is Elizabeth when she hears Mary call her name?

As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 

  • In your mind’s eye, notice how Mary and Elizabeth meet face-to-face.
  • What does it look like as the Holy Spirit settles on Elizabeth? Is there a visible change, or do you feel a shift in your surroundings? 
  • Imagine Mary notices you, and calls out to you, too, to join their delighted embrace. Does anything move in you—does your heart beat quicker or your stomach do little flip flops? Stay there, in the scene, as a full participant in the story.

In a loud voice, Elizabeth exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why am I so favored, that the mother of the Messiah should come to me? The moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who believed that what our God said to her would be accomplished.”

  • What is the energy like in the room as Elizabeth shouts this blessing? After her long journey, how does Mary react to Elizabeth’s words? Does anyone or anything else in the area also join the scene, drawn in by Elizabeth’s excitement?
  • Do you eagerly join in the blessing, or do you hold back? 

Mary said:
“My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.
For you have looked with favor
upon your lowly servant,
and from this day forward
all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me
and holy is your Name.

  • What does Mary’s song sound like? Is it in a major key or minor key; a rapid tempo or meandering pace? Does she start out tentatively or boldly? How is she moving her body? 
  • Do you feel an impulse to sing or sway along? What is Elizabeth doing?

You have shown strength with your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their conceit;
you have deposed the mighty from their thrones
and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
while you have sent the rich away empty.

  • What emotions cross Mary’s face as she describes God’s actions? Are there hints of rage, hope, frustration, or joy? How does the tune and volume of her singing shift in these stanzas?
  • As you hear her revolutionary words, sung there in your presence, do you feel nervous…or comforted?  

You have come to the aid of Israel your servant,
mindful of your mercy—
the promise you made to our ancestors—
to Sarah and Abraham
and their descendants forever.”

  • As Mary’s song ends, survey the scene again. Look all around you. What do you notice? Has anything changed between Mary’s arrival and now? 
  • Notice your body in the scene—emotions, sensations, tension.
  • What do Elizabeth and Mary do following this greeting, blessing, and song?
  • Let your full imagination run free now. Allow the scene to change in any way you feel inspired. Linger and interact with the characters there.  What are you doing? Do you go off to tell someone about your experience? How do you describe what happened?

Either in a journal or in a group discussion, take time to reflect on the experience. What does it mean to make ready for the birth of the Divine within us? Consider how Mary and Elizabeth prepared.

What does this mean to you? What part of the story helps you lean into a welcoming spirit? What part of the story disturbs you most? What insight does this imaginative exercise provide?

Close by offering a prayer of thanksgiving to God or pray a version of the Prayer Jesus Taught.


Scripture from The Inclusive Bible translation.

Image: Everett, Trey. Blessed Is She, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57818 [retrieved December 20, 2021]. Original source: www.treyeverettcreates.com.

Autumn Equinox

In our backyard, a gorgeous, expansive oak hovers with a regal grandeur, providing shade and scurrying space for the squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays, and goldfinches. The last few weeks, the oak has been dropping thousands of acorns, which plummet to the earth with a powerful velocity. (One does not want to be sitting under her branches when there is any wind, lest an acorn drops with forceful precision on an exposed head…) It’s clear that autumn is arriving as the boughs sigh with relief as they lighten with each released acorn.

Tomorrow marks the autumn equinox here in the northern hemisphere of Planet Earth. In Madison, the weather has subtly shifted with the days still (mostly) bright and warm, and the nights cool and breezy. In this threshold between seasons, the earth reminds me to prepare for the winter ahead. The annuals and perennials alike are shifting their focus, nudging me, too, to let go of those things that were wonderful for a season, but now need to be put to rest…perhaps until next spring, or perhaps for good.

O Spirit of Change,
prepare my heart for the winter ahead,
but not before I have celebrated the fruit of summer.
In this Great Transition Time,
as the earth continues in its path,
may I sense, like the Mother Oak,
a lightening in my body,
as the gifts of the long summer days
drop to their earthen womb below.
Amen.

Home

At times I miss the wild spaces:
     the cacophony and chaos
     of bird songs, brambles, and entangled pines.
In the racket of ravens
     and the inquisitive gaze of the fawn,
     I find my spirit’s home–
         home, a quiet heart
         clear vision
         renewed hope–
home is where the heron lands.

Image by Roy Buri from Pixabay

To Read or Not To Read (the Bible)

How do we “teach” the Bible to 8-year-olds when we’re not even sure what we think about it ourselves?

A family member with young children recently shared that their children had asked why they, as a family, don’t read the Bible. A recent experience at a church summer camp seemed to spur the children’s question, and the adult family member wasn’t sure how to respond. The family actively attends a faith community, participating in a wide variety of church activities and weekly worship.  Yet, the children perceived a gap between themselves and others and were curious about it.

One evening a few weeks later, the adults of the family were sitting in our living room and raised this question: How do we “teach” the Bible to 8-year-olds when we’re not even sure what we think about it ourselves?

After talking around this for a while, I turned the question back to the parent. I asked, “Why would you read the Bible?” — asked not in a rhetorical way, but with an intent to draw out a positive Bible-reading ethic, if they felt they could.

In the progressive-leaning faith communities I’ve been a part of, attitudes toward the Bible have been mixed. There’s a desire that our children are exposed to the Bible, but we don’t want to gloss over that scripture is complex. We’re not interested in passing on the old legalism we were raised with, but we also think there’s a fair amount of wisdom in Jesus’ teachings.  We’ve lost our naïveté that God’s a big guy up in the sky, but we’re captivated by a sense that there’s Something More.

And each time we do crack the book to begin reading, we come with an awareness that these texts weren’t written for us 21st-century readers. The Bible was written in many times and places, by many people shaped by their particular cultures. It spans multiple genres, is written in multiple languages (not English!), and includes no extended information on the authors or their motivations.

It’s a lot to hold. 

Teaching the Bible from a place of uncertainty is really hard, especially when we’re trying to teach it to children. So, what is our responsibility, as adults in a faith tradition that values voluntary membership? (Here “adults” includes both a child’s parents and other adults in the faith community.)

I offer three main suggestions:

First, let children direct you. Follow what they’re interested in learning about. Equip them to ask questions and create a safe environment for them to ask. Ask other adults to help. Help other adults when they ask. Exploring the Bible can be playful, imaginative, and mysterious.

And second, following the wisdom of Celtic Christianity, allow the natural world — the “big book of scripture” — to shape your understanding of the Divine, of justice, of compassion. An awareness of the natural world is vital to understanding the written word of scripture, regardless of one’s age.

Meanwhile, within the Anabaptist tradition, rigid indoctrination of the young actually violates our core value of being a believers’ church.* That’s not to say that we should shield our faith from the next generations; rather, it is an invitation to live with integrity. Children (and youth especially) can sense when we find something is important, often through the way our words and actions align

So, how do we “teach” the Bible to 8-year-olds when we’re not even sure what we think about it ourselves? We can allow—or even encourage—our children to explore sacred texts they’re interested in and to provide the tools they need to do so. We can notice and point out the ways that our everyday lives are deeply spiritual, as even some of our most mundane decisions are informed by faith, ethics, and/or our understanding of the Divine. And we can foster a sense of wonder about the good news we encounter in the very world around us.

All of this is centered in trust. Our relationship with a sacred text, like any relationship, is marked by seasons of distance and intimacy, of discernment and questioning…and we trust that the text can handle this. We also find trust in the Anabaptist practice of reading and interpreting the Bible in community, in which there is safety, accountability, and support. And perhaps it’s an opportunity to trust that our children will discover and discern on their own why they might (or might not) want to read the Bible.


*This is why I’m generally wary of things like Sunday School, especially for children.

The Aches and Pains of New Growth

A midsummer Monday morning has dawned. My muscles are a little achy today and my bones feel heavy. My mind and body show signs of hard labor as sweat gathers on my forehead. But I stoop again, to gently lift up the pea bush, eyes scanning for plump pods to snap off the vine.

My thoughts still in the garden, and it’s okay if I move a little more slowly here, listening to my body’s preferences for more comfortable positions. I find amidst the peas and tomatoes and basil a respite. A presence.

As I pinch off the tomato suckers, growing at a 45-degree angle from the main stem, I smile as I realize that now my hands will invariably smell like tomato all day: a pungent fragrance born of the plant’s hard labor.

image courtesy of pixabay.com

An Unpredicatable Office: Pastoring in COVID

Pastoring during COVID has been a mix of joys and sorrows: from the explosion of creativity, learning new skills, finding unique ways to connect, and the deepening of ‘wilderness’ wisdom … to managing disparate expectations and needs, the loss of touch, knowing people are slipping through the cracks.

Yesterday, my spiritual director asked me, “Do you regret being a pastor, or does it feel right?”  I paused for a moment and responded, “Depends on the day.”  She laughed, and my face cracked into a grin.

We were talking about the challenges facing the Christian Church, both nationally and locally. Attendance at communal worship is decreasing. White supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism are fighting to maintain dominance. Distrust within our communities festers and threatens unity.

And then, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s COVID. 

The odds seem ever not in our favor. Yet here I am, strangely called to pastoring.

Pastoring during COVID has been a mix of joys and sorrows: from the explosion of creativity, learning new skills, finding unique ways to connect, and the deepening of ‘wilderness’ wisdom … to managing disparate expectations and needs, the loss of touch, knowing people are slipping through the cracks. I have witnessed incredible courage and paralyzing fear. I have seen the inspirational strengthening of communal ties and the cunning creep of individualism.

In normal times, pastors are invited into the most vulnerable spaces of human life, where we see the beautiful and the horrific. COVID has been no different in this way, only the beauty is often blinding and the edges of the horrific are razor sharp.

Who would want to be a pastor, given all of this?! In fact, many are leaving parish ministry altogether. The cost of staying is often too high.

I’m not at that point, though I empathize with those who are. Rather, the confidence in my call—at least, the confidence I have most days—keeps me tethered to both relief and hope.  There is relief that the church can actually change, and relatively quickly; the past year proves this. There is hope that pastoring will continue to allow me to witness the Divine in the mundane, in the transitions, in the crises. And, there is hope that our sacred texts will guide us toward loving our neighbors, inspiring selfless acts of collective solidarity.

Amidst the fleeting, if somewhat regular blips of questioning my vocation, there are enough moments where pastoring feels right. And if not today, then perhaps tomorrow.


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