Avoiding the idol of unity…

I hear the world UNITY a lot in Mennonite Church USA these days. I suspect it is because the possibility of division rooted in disagreements looms large. In order to hedge against that reality, there are many calls to unity.

It’s not that I don’t believe unity is God’s plan and purpose. I believe it is. I believe that the trajectory of God’s work is towards unity as all things are gathered under the lordship of Jesus.

With all wisdom and understanding, he[d] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.  (Ephesians 1:9b-10)

Rather, it’s that I believe that unity – as it’s often talked about – has become an idol. By idol I mean something that is placed above God or higher than God. To go further, I mean that unity becomes a principle that is above God to which even God has to submit. In my view, this is a serious theological error.

In Ephesians 4:3 Paul writes,

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

The way that unity becomes an idol is through a simple turn in the order of Paul’s words. Paul says that we are to maintain the unity of the Spirit. Too often, I hear people say that we are to maintain the spirit of Unity. These are very different things.

In Paul’s original teaching, he is saying that as followers of Jesus we are stewards of the unity of the Spirit, which he explains by saying…

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4:4-5)

There is unity in the Spirit.  There is only one body. There is only one Spirit. There is only one hope. There is only one Lord. There is only one faith.  There is only one baptism. There is only one God and Father of all. We don’t create a unity that doesn’t exist without our effort. It isn’t up to us to submit to a spirit of unity as if this spirit of unity is our Lord. No. We are simply stewards of a unity that is real and present and a part of who God is (Father, Son and Spirit) and what God is up to – gathering all things under the Lordship of Jesus.

Our real work, then, is being good stewards of the unity of the Spirit. That requires working against the forces of fragmentation and division which are contrary to God’s nature, will and work in the world.

The spirit of Unity is a fine idea that many people can get behind. It would be better if all humanity was on the same page.  But that is different than the unity of the Spirit. The unity of the Spirit is essential to God’s nature, will and work. To monkey with that – either actively or passively, positively or negatively – is serious business. The kind of business that can find one fighting against God.

MC USA: What’s at Stake for You in This?

What’s at stake for you in this?

The first time someone asked me that question, I did the avoidance two-step. I didn’t know how to answer the question. I had never been asked that question before. I wasn’t sure I even understood the question. The more I thought about it – and the clearer the question became – the more I was really sure I didn’t want to do the kind of personal exploration that might produce an answer.

I was afraid.

What’s at stake for you in this?

It’s an unnerving question. It’s a revealing question. It pushes you to go deeper. It asks you to see what you might not want to see. It forces you to articulate your personal bottom-line.

It is also a question that opens up new possibilities. These are possibilities that are rooted in truth-telling.

It’s a question I like to ask people – especially when there is a conflict.

What’s at stake for you in this? 

Recently, I’ve been asking this question in the context of an ongoing conflict within the church denomination I call home: Mennonite Church USA.

The conflict is over how to be a church together amidst differences in how folks understand Jesus’ call to the church regarding gay people in our midst. (even the formulation of the issue is problematic, but that’s the best I can do right now)

In a public meeting yesterday, one participant said, “We’ve been dealing with this for forty years. I’m discouraged that we have made no progress.”

I have friends, and Christian brothers and sisters on both sides of the conflict. A question that keeps coming to me – which I haven’t had an opportunity to ask – is: What’s at stake for you in this?

I desperately want to know.

What will you lose if the conflict is resolved in a way that is not what you wish?

The answer to that question would be fascinating! Worth ruminating over! Potentially healing! Full of reconciling potential!

It’s a question the Holy Spirit is asking me!  So I’m asking you.

For those of you within MC USA – who are passionate and engaged and, perhaps, entrenched in this conflict – what’s at stake for you in this?

The answer, from both sides of the divide, might reveal a way forward.

You Are Loved!

You are Loved!

The simplest expression of the gospel — and perhaps the starting point for any discussion about God – is this: You are loved. This is one thing I believe Bill Bright got right when he penned a booklet entitled “Have you Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws.” The first three words of what Bright calls law one are, “God loves you…” He doesn’t start with sin and separation. He starts with love. Why? Because that is where God starts too.

There would be no good news without there first being love. “For God so loved the world…” That’s why love has to be front and center for the Christian. Erwin McManus, in his book The Artisan Soul, writes, “Make love the unifying principle of your life; let love inform all your motives, decisions and actions.” (The Artisan Soul, 191.) Sounds a lot like Jesus who said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength and a second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself.

Do you love others by what you say… why you say it…how you say it?

Do you love others by what you do… why you do it… how you do it?

Do you love others by what you think… why you think it… and how you think?

They Will Be Loved

I’m a pastor of a Mennonite Church. It is no secret that the question of whether or not to include or exclude gay people from church life is a big one in our denomination (Mennonite Church USA) and culture. I get asked about this — in relation to the congregation I pastor — a lot. Here’s my answer. If we were to have a theological or sociological discussion on questions related to gay people and our church, I’m not sure which voices would win the day, but I’m sure all the different options would be represented. However, if — and when — gay people enter MMC, I am 100% sure they (are) will be loved.

That is the best we can hope for, because that is the best thing we can do.

Plutarch Gets it Right

No matter what we articulate theologically, what really matters is whether or not we love the people before us — no matter what shape they are in. In a poignant moment in the movie The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay, part 1, Plutarch Heavensbee, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, says, “People don’t always come to you the way you want them to.” That rings true to me. It is a profound insight for God’s people.

Truth Matters

People don’t always come to us the way we want them to. The truth is, we don’t always come to God the way God wants us to, either. Thanks be to God, that God loves us. May we receive God’s love for us and, in turn, extend it to all those who come to us in less than ideal condition.

Truth matters, and the truth is that Jesus called us to love God and love our neighbor – no limits or exclusions.

Striped Carpeting

We had a problem at church.  The carpeting in our basement meeting space was old. The carpet wasn’t just old, it was unraveling at the seams. The estimate to replace the carpet was approximately 15% of our budget – and that’s IF the loose tiles underneath weren’t asbestos. If the tiles were asbestos, the cost would rise.

What to do?

We have another problem at church, too. It seems unrelated, but it’s not. There are fewer people in our church than there were ten, twenty, thirty years ago.  Fewer people means fewer resources. In the past our church could meet budget and above budget projects –  like carpet replacement.  Now we cannot. We can meet budget. Or we can replace the carpet. But we can’t do both.

That adds another strategic wrinkle. Our carpet is old and unraveling in a physical space that is used infrequently by fewer persons that cannot afford to replace the carpeting. However, we do use it enough that the unraveling carpet is both an eyesore and a hazard – both of which impact church morale.

Striped Carpeting

That’s how we ended up with striped carpeting. The decision was made to fix the seams without replacing the entire carpet.  Our carpet guys cut an eight inch strip where the unraveling seams were. They then put down a strip of carpeting in a color that complements the original. It looks better than before, but it’s pretty obvious that it wasn’t designed that way.

Analysis

The presenting symptom is unravelling carpet. The underlying illness is a failure to thrive in a key aspect of church health – growth/stability. It’s fair to say that we would not have put stripes in the carpet if we had the resources to do otherwise.

In my view, the solution of striped carpet was…

  • Creative – Leaders were able to look beyond the obvious option of replacing the whole carpet in order to imagine new solutions when resources didn’t allow for the best option.
  • Resourceful – While not the preferred solution, Leaders were able to resolve the carpet issue with the resources available in a way that works.
  • Potentially distracting – What remains to be seen if whether or not leaders will engage the underlying illness now that the presenting symptom has been dealt with in some fashion.
  • Potentially discouraging – The obvious stripes in the carpet CAN represent a creative, resourceful, solution. It also serves as a visible reminder that the church does not have the resources it once did. It’s better than unraveled carpet seams, but it sends the same basic message – we aren’t what we once were. This is another leadership challenge.

What would you do?

Many churches face this kind of situation. While it might not involve carpeting, the basic pattern of declining resources – people and finance – creates problems that require the best from leaders.

On one hand, the creativity and resourcefulness is to be applauded. It’s not healthy to face challenges like this with a sense of defeatism born in the inability to do what one wants to do. It’s far better to face challenges like this responsibly, using what resources are available, to resolve the issue in the best possible way.

At the same time, the key for leaders is not to let what is urgent draw all the time and attention away from what is truly important. Missional engagement is critical for each church. If we spend all our time on striped carpet, such that we barely talk substantively and practically about missional engagement, there will be many more striped carpets in the church’s future.

So, by all means, lets have striped carpet this time. But if all a church is doing is the equivalent of striped carpet, there may be some deeper issues at the leadership level that require attention.

Riot in a padded cell…

There were (are) riots in Baltimore.

In an press conference on April 28, the Mayor of Baltimore – Stephanie Rawlings-Blake – said,

It’s a very delicate balancing act because while we tried to make sure that [the police] were protected from the cars and other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. We worked very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate

Her statement about giving those who wished to destroy “space to do that as well” raised many eyebrows.

In my view, her statement was important – but not for the reason many think. Many were shocked by the notion that a containment strategy might actually include letting people destroy things. That, I actually get.What shocked me was that she admitted it.

Here’s the point: A riot that is sanctioned by the powers isn’t a riot. It is an impotent expression of social outrage, anger, and so on. It may be cathartic, but it will not change anything. It gives the appearance of substantive resistance, but in reality, the powers are just waiting near-by until the people tire of it all. Then they go right back to the way it was before.

What people know, that they don’t want to admit that they know, is that if riots really did start to change things substantially, the people would be crushed.

Put differently, a riot that is allowed to happen by the powers that be is like the violence that police allow inmates to exercise within a padded cell. Beat yourself up. Have at it. When you are good and tired, they will escort you to your regular cell.

Insurrection only happens when the measures used by those subjugated are actually able to challenge the powers that be. You will know it when that happens…

Choose who you listen to…

In my experience as a pastor for over two decades, I’ve learned many lessons. Here’s the one on my mind today.

A strong, strong, strong, majority of people are people of good will. They will receive you and your story – both the negative and positive aspects – and respond in honest, truthful, loving, supportive and helpful ways. It is important to listen to these people. They can help you understand how the story of your life is being heard by others.

Some people simply don’t give a rip about you. After all, you’re not the center of the world. It’s ok. It’s a gift, really. You do your thing. They will do their thing. It is all good.

Other people are not people of good will. They will receive you and your story – both the negative and positive aspects – and respond in ways that conform to their agenda. They will do this without a second thought.  Even if that agenda is hurtful to you. It is important not to listen to these people. You can bend over backwards to correct the false version of your story they are telling. It won’t matter. Why? Because it isn’t about you. You’re story is about them. It’s always about them.

The best you can do is live the story God has called you to live. Live it with integrity. Live it with honesty and transparency.  Live it humbly — with a sense that it is God who has called you to live it.

As you live it, however, beware of three equally disruptive mistakes.  One is ignoring the people you should be listening to. The second is listening to the people you should be ignoring. The third is chasing after the people that just don’t care. Jesus didn’t even do that….

 

 

Does it matter if we’re Mennonite? (a serious, in-house, question)

Does it matter?

I’m knee deep in transcribing interviews, coding survey data and writing (Dmin thesis). It’s a bit like herding cats, only the cats are ideas and insights that have to be captured, and written down, and put into a coherent form.

In the midst of all that, a question popped into my mind. It’s one that I will explore further, but today, I want to ask you the question:

Does it matter if we are Mennonite or not?

The question comes out of a series of observations.

  • A very strong majority of people, in both surveys and interviews, say being Mennonite is important as a distinct, or different, way of following Jesus.
  • That same, very strong majority, think Mennonite theology and practice plays an important role in the world.
  • That very same strong majority says it is important to welcome and include new people in the life of the church.
  • Yet, that very same strong majority says it isn’t important if new people, coming into the church, are or become Mennonite (either theologically or communally).

This is curious to me.

On one hand, we acknowledge that the Mennonite name is often misunderstood outside of our congregation. We also recognize that, to some degree, this misunderstanding hinders our outreach in the community.

On the other hand, we acknowledge that Mennonite faith – properly understood and practiced – is distinct and needs to continue. That involves successfully reaching out to our non-Mennonite, non-Christian, neighbors.

On the other “other hand” (if that were possible), we are not intentional about leading others into the Mennonite way of faith and practice. For example, it’s common to hear Mennonites say that we are not trying to make Mennonites out of others. What matters is that we are Christian.

Two questions

If being Mennonite is important, both theologically and institutionally, then why don’t we intentionally make Mennonite disciples of Jesus?
If being Mennonite isn’t important, either theologically or institutionally, then why in the world would we keep the name – which we believe hinders outreach?
Either it does or it doesn’t matter if we’re Mennonite. Which is it?

Feel free to talk among yourselves about these questions, or give me a call. We can sit over a cup of coffee and talk. I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can also email me or comment below.