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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Reframing Hot Topics: Abortion

The Romans of antiquity aborted pregnancies and exposed infants to the elements with a shocking casualness. Fathers had the authority to terminate pregnancies or have an unwanted baby (more often a girl) tossed in a garbage dump. The early Christians witnessed against such practices and, more important, lived out their faith in contrast to the dominant Roman culture. They did this not only in how they handled their own infants, but in their willingness to take in babies subjected to exposure.

Many Christians who oppose abortion see themselves as the moral descendants of those early Christians, and they see a culture that permits abortion today as a reemergence of the pagan culture of Roman antiquity, albeit in a secular guise. Personally I feel strong affinity with Christians who believe nascent human life, born or unborn, should not be disposable.

As a Christian, I am also part of a tradition that has distinguished between born and unborn. Pastorally, theologically and legally, Christians recognize that birth is a significant moment. Christians have not understood abortion to be equivalent to the murder of an infant. In opposing abortion, Christians stand firmly within a rich spiritual heritage. By failing to nuance that opposition, Christians step outside of that heritage. As such, I believe abortion should be legal but regulated. I also believe society should take appropriate measures using the availability of contraception and support for young families to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. I want a conversation within the church, and in our engagement with society, around the meaning of that regulation and how we might use these and other means to reduce incidents of abortion.

Unfortunately, the political conversation in the church and in society is a contest between two principles. One, a pregnant woman’s control over her own body is sacrosanct, and taking that away is an act of violence. Two, the life of the fetus is sacrosanct, and taking that life away is murder and always wrong, and therefore should be illegal.

I am weary of this contest and others like them. I reject the way the conversation is framed. Such frames have hoodwinked Christians into buying polarized political packages, and compromised our ability to both nuance, and to appreciate the depths of our own tradition.

This is the first in a series of blog posts attempting to reframe hot topics. If you like the conversation, grab some coffee and have a seat.

Monday, July 25, 2016
In Debt to Zwingli
July 21, 2016

Our guide to Anabaptist history in Switzerland, Hanspeter Jecker read for us a speech given by John Ruth in Zurich on the occasion of an historic observance. Hanspeter read this for us as the well-known “Anabaptist cave” in the hinterlands outside the city. Ruth claims Zwingli as an important and instructive figure in Mennonite history. Indeed, Hanspeter also offers nuanced take on the relationship between Swiss Reformed and Anabaptists in the 16th and 17th centuries, than the portrayals often made of Zwingli.

In this view, it is Zwingli who radicalizes the young Conrad Grebel and his friends through powerful teaching. Grebel and his cohort are not original thinkers, they simply want to take what they learn from Zwingli to the fullest and most uncompromising completion. Zwingli on the other hand is trying to balance the challenges of governance, and of caring for a whole parish, with his understanding of the demands of scripture. This, of course, does not justify the violent persecution of Anabaptists. But it does paint a picture of Zwingli that is more complex. He is less a villain in this view, and more a leader struggling to meet the demands of faithfulness balanced with the pragmatic demands of caring for a diverse population.

One of the common threads here is the hunger of Christians, whether 16th century Anabaptists or 17th century Puritans, for a community of believers deeply committed to a rigorous Christian life. This is what we mean, I think, when we refer to “high-bar” discipleship in our priorities. This theme emerges for Roger Williams in his search for a community of believers worthy of the name church of Christ. You might say eventually he gives up.

Where Anabaptists experienced a new influx, a new grafting in, it came from people searching for rigor in the life of faith. What this looks like changes from age to age, but it remains a common theme. Many Swiss Reformed became Mennonites in the 17th century, looking for a more rigorous Christian life than they experienced in their home congregations which included many people who were Christians in name only, and not serious about their faith. One such group in this later grafting is Yoders from Steffisburg in Canton Berne.

Again, these later Swiss Reformed became Anabaptists for similar reasons many of us become Mennonites today, and hopefully the reason many raised by Mennonite parents choose faith themselves.

The End of the World
July 21, 2016

On our third day in England, Jonathan, Marion and I took a long journey to Alford in Lincolnshire, birthplace of my ancestor Anne Hutchinson. We took a train from Liverpool Street Station in London, near our flat, to Cambridge, where we rented a car for the two hour drive to Alford. To be clear, that’s two hours when you don’t get lost.

Driving in the rain, and on the left side of the road, making the occasional wrong turn, made for a grueling journey. Alford is a long way from London in many ways. Whereas London is bustling and filled with energy, Alford feels like something of a ghost town. It wasn’t easy to find a place to eat lunch.

St. Wilfred’s, the local parish, memorializes Hutchinson’s birth and baptism in that community with a framed notice and picture on the wall of the sanctuary. Anne was 14 when her family moved to London (quite near to our flat).

While today Alford seems a small town pro Brexit backwater, in the early 17th century it was a center of Puritan revival in large part because of its location across the North Sea from Holland. Anne moved back to Alford as an adult and found herself in the middle of that energy. John Cotton became the charismatic pastor in Boston (for which the city in Massachusetts was named), twenty miles away from Alford.

Anne herself was gentry on both sides of her family. Her maternal grandparents built Canons Ashby, a manor house in Northhamptonshire. (Princess Diana and her children are included among their descendants). Anne did not marry well in terms of the standards of English aristocracy, but she did marry money. William Hutchinson was a merchant of considerable wealth and able to fund the migration of their large family to Massachusetts, including fifteen surviving children and all the servants required to live comfortably in those days.

Traveling through Lincolnshire one gets a sense of the land. Clearly the sea was the primary means of transportation. Anne and William regularly traveled the twenty miles to Boston to hear Cotton preach. Like Anne, William, and their families in 1631, I am traveling across the North Atlantic, destination Boston. I am going by way of New York, where Anne died.

If you are interested in learning more about Anne’s life, one of her biographies, American Jezebel, is on the sabbatical shelf in the CMC library.
This is London!
July 20, 2016

Again, I’m writing from the North Atlantic with some reflections on time in Europe. For different reasons, the most enjoyable experiences Beth and I had in Europe were in London and in Germany. For me, being in London felt like going home.

We spent our week in London in a quirky and delightful flat in Central London, a few hundred feet from St. Paul’s Cathedral, and at the center of a one mile radius of important family sites. As many people experience on similar journey’s, to be in these locations gave me an extraordinary sense of connectedness to my family and their stories.

Less than one mile north of St. Paul’s is Smithfield, then a small village outside London. My ancestor, Roger Williams, was born in Smithfield, and christened (note that he was later rebaptized) at St. Sepulchre church there. He studied at Charterhouse School, an elite school still in existence in Smithfield.

North of Smithfield is St. Pancras Old Church, now next door to St. Pancras International Train Station, which boasts Christian worship going back 1700 years, and where my ancestor, Francis Marbury, is listed among the vicars. He is Anne Hutchinson’s father. He was also tried at the old St. Paul’s (the current Christopher Wren masterpiece was built following the great fire of London in 1666), and imprisoned at Marshallsea Prison (which is no longer standing), south of the Thames, but still within walking distance from of lodgings.

West of our “home” near St. Paul’s about one mile is Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament, first built by the son of William the Conqueror about one thousand years ago. At the time of Roger Williams, Westminster Hall would have been the judicial center of England, and it is here that Williams spent much time in his apprenticeship to the great jurist Edward Coke. Finally, in the other direction from our lodgings is the Tower of London, which was expanded by Edward I, the closest monarch of England I can identify as an ancestor.

To be sure, all these ancestors are complicated people, but they are mine, and their story is my story, and it was thrilling for me to connect with places that shaped their lives, and mine.
Water, Water, Everywhere
July 20, 2016

I’m writing on the Queen Mary 2, somewhere in the North Atlantic. We’ve been at sea three nights and are approaching the halfway point in our crossing. The captain and crew are quick to point out that this is not a cruise but a crossing, a form of conveyance, and that the ship is an ocean liner and not a cruise ship. In fact, the QM2 boasts being the largest ocean liner in human history, designed to cross the Atlantic in four days, though we are taking seven.

The sabbatical purpose of this crossing has several purposes. One is retracing the journeys of our ancestors who crossed this ocean under somewhat different circumstances. Another is the chance for Beth and me to have some quiet time together after an intense stretch of family travel throughout Europe. The third purpose relates to the sabbatical theme of water and the refreshment it brings to my soul.

Water is plentiful, the nearest land being 1,000 miles away. It is stunning and I find it refreshing, though I am looking forward to seeing land (perhaps it will be clear and we will see Newfoundland tomorrow). It also gives me a sense of what my ancestors endured, traveling on tiny floating islands that could sink and be tossed and turned by the rolling sea for weeks at a time. They were confined in tiny communities on ships that felt like prisons. Beth and I are enjoying time together, but the ship is large enough, and the activities varied enough, that we can spend time apart and meet new friends. (I met a delightful retired couple at breakfast. They are Baptists from Australia, engaged in lay ministry through a church that might have a home among Mennonites.)

The sabbatical schedule has been full and intense these week but will ease up now, and afford time for writing. College Mennonite seems a very long way indeed, and I miss you all. I plan to use this time at sea to do some reflective writing on the experiences of the last couple of months.
Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Church in the City

Retired pastor and writer Eugene H. Peterson reports that when he first went he was sent by the Presbyterian church to plant a congregation in Maryland outside of Baltimore he discovered nothing but corn fields. Those corn fields became houses and streets and stored and schools called suburbia. Inevitably some of the people who moved into those houses went looking for a church, and Peterson’s church grew and became a living faith community.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about this story with the exception of the event of suburbia itself. The post war era was a time of building: roads, cars, sewer systems, towns, utility wiring and pipes. The last half of the 20th century brought a taxpayer subsidized lifestyle revolution, requiring an unprecedented amount of wiring and piping and pavement per capita.

Churches adapted. New churches were planted for these new suburban communities, and others followed their parishioners out of established urban neighborhoods, abandoning old church buildings to newcomers. The suburban megachurch model was born as well.

For many years tropes like affluent suburbs and impoverished inner city had traction and contained some truth. The events in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer reveal that suburbs are quite a complex social reality in and of themselves. And some of the wealthiest, expensive and most sought after zip codes are in what we once would have called inner city.

The geography of our lives, and of the church, is changing. No longer can we look for the next corn field to be turned into a suburban town and plant a church there waiting for people to come. We can no longer afford the taxpayer subsidized infrastructure demanded by suburban development. And the people who might live in those houses can’t afford to heat, cool, and care for that much space. Furthermore, the generation coming into their own today, the 80 million strong millennials, prefers walking, biking and public transportation to cars, has fewer children, and would rather live in smaller housing units than sprawling suburban McMansions with big yards. In short, they prefer the city and the lifestyle of spending time, not at home, but in cafes, bars, restaurants, parks, theaters and concert venues. And perhaps churches.

Whether you find this development hopeful or not, it does have precedent in the church, even in the early church. Christianity was an urban movement in its earliest days. In the ancient cities of the Roman empire people lived in tight quarters, with the exception of the very few wealthy, and spent most of their time in the marketplace and other settings where they rubbed shoulders with other people. Public space was critical to the growth of the early church. This social activity, not the building of new subdivisions, was the infrastructure through which the Holy Spirit worked to grow the church.

Today the most exciting new church developments (which are more likely to be new campuses of existing churches) are in cities and are driven by urban social energy. Many such churches are adept at using social media and technology for bringing people together or telling their story but the energy is tied to an urban sense of place.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Congregations as the Center of Mission, Part 3

I began a five-year tenure working with short-term mission programs at Mennonite Board of Missions in 1994. At the time, MBM was in the middle of a project called Cana Venture, an effort to adapt to the shifting terrain of denominational missions. The behavior of church members was changing relative to their congregations and to church wide agencies.

After doing intensive research and study, MBM concluded that congregations and church members were no long interested in paying experts to do mission on their behalf. They wanted to be involved directly. MBM understood that its value was not in “doing” mission on behalf of the church, but linking congregations with other congregations doing mission around the world. Partnership became the operative word around the office. When the two largest Mennonite bodies merged in 2001, the new combined mission agency called itself Mennonite Mission Network, emphasizing this networking aspect of bringing people together to do mission rather than doing it on their behalf. Properly speaking then, Mennonite Mission Network is not the mission agency for Mennonite Church USA. Congregations are the agents for mission. Mission agency happens at the congregational level.

In 2006, Mennonite Church USA learned that it was over-structured for its size, with too much bureaucracy and an oversized budget. The phrase “congregations are the center for mission” comes from Mennonite Church USA itself. Churchwide leaders recognize that our future health and vitality will rely on congregations engaging directly in mission, rather than looking to conference and denominational institutions to provide the impetus. 

Marty Lehman internalized this value, moving from her position as Associate Executive Director for Churchwide Operations, to Administrative Pastor here at College Mennonite, taking a significant pay cut to do so. For Marty this was a move to the center, where the action and excitement is, and where she could have the biggest impact for the mission of Mennonite Church USA.

Mennonite Disaster Service has excelled in this work of linking congregations in mission. The work of several congregations here in the Goshen area building homes locally, in Minnesota and in New Orleans, partnering with local churches in each case is an exciting way to work, and puts the accent on relationships.

Increasingly, it is congregations that are planting churches or adding sites as they become multi-site congregations, and not conferences or churchwide agencies. In our interconnected world, congregations are using direct personal links to build relationships with others around the world, working together in mission.

College Mennonite Church is one of the largest and most resource rich congregations in Mennonite Church USA. We have both an exciting opportunity and an obligation to grow as a center for mission. If we don’t do it, who will? Here we are Lord, send us!