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.

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.

Rooted and Freed to (Be) Love(d)

This image on my arm has become my symbol of commitment to resisting dehumanization, both my own and others’. She represents our freedom from the lies of systemic oppression that restrain the fullness of life and loving expression.

For me, transitions tend to invite introspection—first at the time of the transition itself, and often again at anniversaries of the original event. These reflections take on multiple forms, such as journaling, personal retreats, or planning rituals with friends. Other times, the reflection is intertwined with embodied expression: cutting off my hair, adding holes to my body, or inking up my skin. 

Recently, I crossed a milestone anniversary of a significant transition – one that was, in fact, marked by fresh ink on my right forearm.  It is this experience, the art and the personal growth, that I reflect on below.

The chaos felt violent, unnecessary, and soul-deadening. When I finally found a shred of Center, something deep had shifted within me, and I began pondering my first steps out of the swirling mess.

Stepping out of any tumultuous experience is a significant transition, a liminal space to be named and honored. And so, I commissioned an artist-friend to draw a tattoo for me.

The instructions were basic: it should be based on a Celtic tree of life (a symbol that connects with my spirituality); with a nod toward a water-loving tree, such as a weeping willow (connecting to my natal watershed); and, I wanted the full spectrum of color represented.

My friend took these instructions and mocked up a couple of options.  I was immediately struck with one where she had intuitively transformed the trunk into a feminine figure, such that the roots became her feet, and her arms and head stretched up to form the bottom branches.  This was it.  This was the one. The image spoke to what had shifted in me and, in turn, marked my stepping out from the shadows.

Part of what shifted within me, you see, was a new unwillingness to be boxed in.
An unwillingness to put my head down, to be veiled in silence, to take up less space.
An unwillingness to be complicit in the unconcealed, deliberate stifling of my very essence.

As I was reminded countless times, I had agreed to this.  I had initially consented to The Box,* diminishing myself in some vague, perverse form of Gelassenheit.  I settled for the self-silencing. I optimistically trusted that this was rooted in something theologically sound and that I would grow to understand it. Instead, I found it was rooted in the tired, old forms of patriarchy and sexism, and every time I mentioned this or stepped out of my box, institutional denial emerged with scapegoating hot on its tail.

At a point, I had enough.  (Part of my reflections now, many moons later, include an incredulity that I stayed as long as I did.)

The tattoo, then, was a way of saying, “no more!” – a visible, physical reminder that life is too short to be boxed in for a “greater cause,”** when in reality, The Greater Cause desperately needs our full, flourishing selves.*** 

Part of my call is not only to believe that I deserve this for myself, but to actively advocate for the flourishing of others. That’s partly where the full spectrum of colors in the tattoo comes in.

This image on my arm has become my symbol of commitment to resisting dehumanization, both my own and others’.  She represents our freedom from the lies of systemic oppression that restrain the fullness of life and loving expression. 

In flinging wide her arms, the Tree Woman is not only freed from her shackles, she is freed to love and to be loved.  Songbirds land in the safety of her weeping branches, and she sings along with them.  The life-rich soil on the banks of her stream, she firmly holds in place with a steadfast resolve. Travelers of all sorts find under her canopy a safe haven for rest, arms stretched wide to hold and be held.  (She loves to be held as much as she holds.)

In a recent worship planning meeting at Madison Mennonite, our chairperson opened the gathering by sharing the following poem of Hildegard of Bingen. As he read, I saw reflected that while this tattoo is on my arm, it represents the experience and blessing we all need in milestone moments and in their anniversaries.  As we find our roots and shake off the shackles that bind us, we are freed to be “encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”

Good people,
Most royal greening verdancy,
Rooted in the sun,
You shine with radiant light,
in this circle of earthly existence
You shine so finely,
it surpasses understanding.
God hugs you.
You are encircled by the arms
of the mystery of God.

*I was told The Box would grow and change its shape, according to the person inhabiting it.

**A scarcity mentality leads us to accommodate the “greater cause.”

***Becoming our “full, flourishing selves,” does not include the “freedom” to trample on the potential growth of others.  It may, in fact, involve the surrendering of certain “privileges or preferences” to enable the thriving of others. In this vision of Freedom, my flourishing is directly tied to your flourishing; if you are chained, then I cannot be free.  (…to adapt the quote generally attributed to Lilla Watson.)