Skip to content

On the Slow Side

July 29, 2014

If we are to retreat in daily life, we also need to slow down.

-April Yamasaki [1]

CalmPerkiomen

I had an opportunity to slow down today. A walk turned into a moment of reflection by the creek. I noticed elements of nature that I miss when I’m riding my bike here or when I’m just too busy to even stop by.

Within this creek, the central feature of our region and the subject of a Hall and Oates song, stand a few small islands. This particular one stood out to me today. For the first time I noticed that the presence of the island creates two different streams for a short stretch. Though it doesn’t look like it from the angle I took the picture (above) the right side is the larger stream, which features a faster-moving current. On the narrower left side, the water flows gently at a slow and steady pace.

On the slow side I notice signs of life: tiny fish swimming underneath, even tinier insects dancing on top. Probably a snake somewhere down there too, but I didn’t want to find out. The peacefulness invites thoughts of wading in and enjoying the cool water.

The larger, faster side reminds me of the pace of life I too often overcommit to. Keep moving. Keep going. Keep up with most of the other people around me. The fact that so many are moving so quickly in the busyness of life doesn’t make it feel any better, though.

I decided to stay on the slow side for a while.

Slowing down allows for thinking, praying, and reflecting. Slowing down I’m reminded of last evening’s conversation with a neighbor, at the playground as our kids were playing together. We talked of taking our boys down to swim in the creek. Slowing down lets us enjoy God’s creation, our conversations, and the company of one another. Slowing down allows for remembering that there is so much to notice in God’s good creation.

And here I re-learn the truth that it’s refreshing to slow down in God’s presence.

[1] April Yamasaki. Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal. Herald Press, 2013. 25.

Weeds and Seeds

July 28, 2014

From my sermon preached on July 27, 2014 at Spring Mount Mennonite Church.

Scripture text: Matthew 13:24-32

photo

24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (NRSV)

A parable is a type of short story that is intended to teach a lesson, or sometimes a number of lessons. At first glance a parable might appear quite simple. But with parables there is always more than meets the eye. Even when there’s an explanation given, parables like these rarely feel like simplistic answers. They are an opportunity to reflect, to think deeply about life, and perhaps even be challenged in our understanding.

I think this is what Jesus was trying to accomplish as he used parables to teach. He was trying to help his audience—at least those who were willing—to move forward in wisdom, in mission, and in relationship with God. There’s a short little beatitude in the story at verse 16, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” Jesus seeks to open eyes, open ears, and heal those who turn and change their hearts and minds.

So as we reflect on these parables, may we come with eyes open, with ears willing to listen for the Spirit, and a willingness to turn and follow Jesus. AMEN.

The first parable: Weeds among the Wheat

This first story presents a land owner who sowed wheat seeds in a field. During the night “an enemy” came and sowed weeds in the same field. Since the word “enemy” is used in this story, and since Jesus is the one telling this story, it might make us think about how Jesus talked about enemies.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; (Mt 5:43-45 NRSV)

27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. (Lk 6:27-28 CEB)

If we turn back in the pages of the Bible to Psalm 23, we find a description of a “shepherd,” one who is a representation of God leading and caring for the people. This description includes the image of a table, a place where God provides space for people to be present with their enemies:

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies; (Ps 23:5 NRSV)

According to these scriptures, when enemies are near God doesn’t give his followers weeding instructions. Instead of a call to immediate separation or eradication, God offers space within the presence of enemies. Maybe this space is an opportunity for God’s kingdom to break in—for more people to grow in wisdom and for more people to get in sync with God’s mission. That space would include actively subverting systems and powers which produce destructive results. But to do so in the way Jesus advocates requires his followers to be present in that space—just like Jesus was—living as peacemakers who offer life-giving alternatives. Of course, this kind of work is very difficult. That’s probably why simple, easy answers are often preferred-especially here in our suburban context.

Let’s get back to the story. When the plants grew, the result was not a pure field with one kind of crop, but instead a field with multiple kinds of plants—wheat and weeds. This troubles the workers of the household, and they immediately want to hunt down and root out the weeds in the name of purity. They want weeding instructions from the boss and they seem really motivated to act. There’s an impatience to the workers response. I wonder…is this about a need for control?

But the owner responds by saying “No…Let both of them grow together (13:29-30). He cancels the weeding out mission before it can start. Because a mission focused on weeding out has a high probability to cause damage.

At times in its history the Church has listened to the voice of impatience rather than the voice of the Spirit, and tried to take control of the situation. And in the process horrendous damage has occurred. The Crusades and the Inquisition represent active forms of weeding missions. And the uncountable Protestant divisions over whatever-hot-issue-of-the-day could represent passive-aggressive forms of weeding (“so-and-so gave us no choice so we had to split”). Damage results, even when we think we’re righteous. 

The owner in the parable seems to indicate that there’s a bigger picture to this whole project—a view that the owner has but that the workers lack. And the owner takes the responsibility for the final results, for making all things right at harvest time. The owner will be the judge. In the explanation of the parable Jesus indicates that he is the owner. Perhaps the patience of Jesus in this story is intended to open us up to new possibilities. Is it possible that some of the “wheat” would actually act like weeds? And that some of the “weeds” would actually act like wheat? This harvest time could be quite surprising.

Dandelions are considered by many people to be one of the worst weeds. They invade lawns with those stunningly bright yellow flowers. And soon they go to seed they reproduce like crazy. I grew up with a different view of dandelions than maybe most people did. Our family consumed dandelions in various ways. The greens were used for salads at spring and summer gatherings (with some kind of bacon dressing, because everything tastes good with bacon). And my grandfather would make wine from dandelions: when I was pretty young I used to spend hours collecting dandelions for him for this purpose.

This readily available “weed” has value as a food. Last April Goshen College held a “Dandelion Day on campus to help people understand the value of this unappreciated plant and to think about sustainability and stewardship. The campus chef took these green & yellow weeds and created dishes like salads, omelets,and even cupcakes.

Perhaps we should be careful what we call a “weed”?

The second parable: Mustard

The mustard plant was a shrub that grew in the wild. Jesus’ audience would have been very familiar with it. The mustard plant would grow continuously, and if one got into your garden it would have no problem taking over the whole space.

Jewish law actually had some specific directions[1] about what was proper to plant in a garden, and mustard was not allowed around other crops. I don’t think it was that mustard was a bad thing—the prohibition seems to have been more concerned with keeping mustard under control. The way mustard plants grew seemed to go against established order and patterns. Does this parable also hint at our desires to control?

when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. (Mt 13:32 NRSV)

There is hospitality pictured here. In the bible, “birds” are sometimes used as an image for people or nations.

On Israel’s mountainous highlands I will plant it, and it will send out branches and bear fruit. It will grow into a mighty cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it and find shelter in the shade of its boughs. (Ezekiel 17:23 CEB)

The parable pictures different people coming to join in God’s kingdom and receiving a welcome and hospitality that sustains life.

What might we learn from these parables? The workers in the story learn that God’s mission requires patience and trust, and that God is in control, not them. As we see in many places in the NT, patient endurance is involved in the coming of God’s kingdom. God knows that things are not right in the world. But God promises to hear our cries and be present within the mess. Aaron Klinefelter recently wrote,

We want a God who divides in this life, but what we get is a God who abides and lives within the ambiguity of all things.[2]

Rather than bringing quick judgment, God’s compassion includes patience and space for more people to know the abundant life of God’s kingdom. In this time we abide with Christ and seek to produce fruit that is a blessing (Jn 15:4). 

Tom Wright wrote this about today’s parables,

Somehow Jesus wanted his followers to live with the tension of believing that the kingdom was indeed arriving in and through his own work, and that this kingdom would come, would fully arrive, not all in a bang but through a process like the slow growth of a plant… [3]

The slow, patient approach might seem like God isn’t doing anything or that God doesn’t care. But Jesus used this approach as he was teaching, preaching, and healing. People were valued and transformed. When we look at Jesus we can see God and God’s compassion and care.

When we’re really motivated to weed, maybe we should stop and think: Do we know everything that God does? Do we have all the answers? Do we completely understand how or what God is transforming?

Rather than pulling weeds, perhaps our job is to plant seeds.

[1] Claiborne, Shane and Chris Haw. Jesus For President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008. 103. See also http://halakhah.com/pdf/zeraim/Kilayim.pdf

[2] http://aaronklinefelter.net/2014/07/20/weeds-and-wheat/

[3] Wright, Tom. Matthew for Everyone: Part One. Westminster John Knox Press. 170.

Book Review: Slow Church

June 12, 2014

SlowChurch

 

A few weeks ago I came across a product that highlighted for me the instant, need-for-speed reality of our consumeristic culture in the United States. The sole purpose of this product was to cook ramen noodles faster and easier. It was designed specifically to cut down all the waiting: for the water to boil, the noodles to cook, etc. According to the ad, having to wait fifteen minutes for a meal to be ready is just too long for busy people to endure.

Apparently, we have reached the point where cooking ramen noodles takes too long.

“Slow” is a challenge. “Slow” probably qualifies as a four-letter word in the suburban context that I inhabit. We like convenient, pre-packaged, easier, bigger, and especially faster!  Churches and ministries often talk about gaining “momentum,” and it is usually in the context of gaining speed. However, over time this need for speed can create tension in both personal and congregational life. For this reason I have been looking forward to Chris Smith’s and John Pattison’s new book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.

Smith and Pattison present the case for a slower, more patient, more intentional life in community as followers of Jesus.

At the heart of our vision of Slow Church is a theology deeply rooted in the importance of the people of God to God’s mission in the world and in the rich joy of shalom that comes to all creation as we grow and flourish in the places to which we have been called. (33)

This vision is an incarnational one which invites us into the practice of “cultivating together the resurrection life of Christ, by deeply and selflessly loving our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and even our enemies” (32). This kind of life is messy, it is not easy and it is not  fast. But it can help us move more in sync with God’s mission in the world.

The authors highlight a number of values and practices that are a part of the Slow Church vision, such as place, stability, patience, wholeness, work, sabbath, abundance, gratitude, hospitality, conversation, and meals. Speed can cause us to neglect or be deficient in these practices, so Slow Church invites us to slow down and engage (or reengage) with these important practices and elements of life and faith.

As a pastor of a small local congregation I found the book to be a great encouragement and source of theological reflection. Smith and Pattison included a chapter on “Dinner Table Conversation as a Way of Being Church,” which I really appreciated as I’ve written about similar topics and regularly experiment with this kind of practice with our congregation. Slow Church is an enjoyable read and also includes discussion questions at the end of the chapters. The questions enhance each chapter making the book a great resource for reflection in congregations and church leadership teams. I’m excited to use this book as a tool for equipping us as a congregation in these rhythms.

In a fast-paced culture, “slow” can be a challenge. But it is a challenge we would do well to accept. And Slow Church is certainly a valuable contribution for the spiritual formation of the church today.

My 6 Word Story About Jesus

May 13, 2014

From time to time in my congregation we will participate in a “communal sermon” in place of a regular sermon preached by an individual. I have found this practice to be a way for us to be both spiritually formed and to grow as a community valuing multi-voiced approaches to worship. We most recently did this during the Easter season and the text was from Luke 24:13-24 (NRSV):

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

There appears to be a kind of simple creed or faith statement included in this narrative, beginning with “The things about Jesus of Nazareth.” The statement describes Jesus as prophet, condemned, crucified, and alive. Of course, later in this story Jesus is revealed to his hosts in the act of breaking bread together at the table. But the short, ancient form of talking about Jesus, found here in the first half of the story, stood out and offered a chance to explore the idea through some modern day lenses.

I’d heard of the “six word story” technique for creating a complete yet extremely short story. Ernest Hemingway is thought to have dabbled in this kind of writing, after some friends challenged him to write a complete story with only 6 words.[1] In our day this kind of storytelling can work well on social media forms like Twitter, and I’ve participated in this type of writing there before.

We used the hashtag #My6WordStoryAboutJesus. This would be our topic and also a means to share our stories. Telling our stories about Jesus felt like a good way to help us journey through the Easter season as witnesses to Jesus. Our instructions were simple: if you could only use 6 words, what would you say about Jesus?

After a time of reflection we shared our stories aloud with one another. We ended up creating a long list of short stories about Jesus, which were later tweeted from our Twitter account (@SpringMountMC). The exercise created space to engage with the Jesus of the scriptures, to reflect on our personal views and experiences with him, and to listen to each other as we told our stories.

I noticed some consistent themes among those who participated in this storytelling, including ideas like “Jesus is my hope,” and “There is so much I wanted to say.” As a result, the final story written on the list was an appropriate one to close with:

“Tombs and words cannot contain him.”[2]

May we continue to center our lives on the risen, transforming, and uncontainable Christ.

6WordStoryAboutJesus

 

 

 

[1] See http://www.sixwordstories.net/about/

[2] Written by Gay Brunt Miller.

 

A Living Alternative

March 13, 2014

ala_final_flatcover

Me and my MennoNerds pals are writing a book! It’s titled, A Living Alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom World. It is being published by Ettelloc Publishing and will be available this fall. Here’s an introduction to the project:

What does faith look like in a world where Christianity no longer dominates economy, policy, and morality? Why are mainline Christian structures so intimidated by this inevitability? And how can the church learn from those radical-reformers of the past as we venture into this unforeseen post-Christendom world? (read the full announcement here)

My chapter is titled, “The Table as a Model for Anabaptist Spiritual Formation.” It has been exciting to collaborate in this project with a gifted group of writers, editors, and practitioners. If you are interested in Anabaptist faith and practice I encourage you to check it out!

Dogma > Faith?

February 10, 2014

StoryOfXianityGonzalez

What happens to creativity and to the ongoing work of the Spirit when dogma is elevated over faith? Justo González describes the theological climate of 17th and 18th century Europe and makes some pointed observations that are worth reflecting on:

there were others whose zeal for true doctrine was no less than Luther’s, Calvin’s, or Loyola’s. But this was no longer the time of great theological discoveries, leading up unknown paths. Theologians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries zealously defended the teachings of the great figures of the sixteen, but without the fresh creativity of that earlier generation. Their style became increasingly rigid, cold, and academic. Their goal was no longer to be entirely open to the Word of God but rather to uphold and clarify what others had said before them. Dogma was often substituted for faith, and orthodoxy for love. Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic alike developed orthodoxies to which one had to either adhere strictly or be counted out of the fold of the faithful. [1]

If we compared the climate of the church in the 17th/18th centuries with that of today, I wonder what similarities we might notice? Is it possible that some church history could teach us (Anabaptists/Mennonites too) something beneficial for this moment of time we occupy right now?

Dogma is probably the simpler and easier path. But what do we lose if dogma > faith?

[1] González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Vol. II: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperOne, 2010. 174.

Looking Through the MLK Lens

January 20, 2014

CommemoratingKing

I recently had the opportunity to meet Ewuare Osayande following a message he presented to a group of local Mennonite pastors about investing in racial justice. One of the steps I wanted to take following that time was to read his book, Commemorating King: Speeches Honoring the Civil Rights Movement, and allow space for his and Dr. King’s words to sink inI’m grateful for Osayande’s work, and gladly encourage everyone to visit the above link to purchase a copy of this book. In this short collection of speeches, Osayande highlights a number of Dr. King’s messages and highlights the prophetic wisdom and challenge contained within. He also makes clear connections to our current context in the United States, demonstrating how King’s prophetic message of peace, justice, and reconciliation still needs to be heard and embodied today.

Three major systemic forces which King repeatedly confronted in his life included 1) Racism, 2) Militarism, and 3) Materialism/Poverty. If we are to truly live as followers of Christ, we must develop that prophetic willingness to identify and oppose these oppressive systems and name them for what they are…anti-Christ. We may also need to look inward and see how we might be contributing to these systems which pollute the shalom God desires. And if you’re like me (a privileged, white, male, suburbanite) we might also need some help to understand-or see more clearly-how these systems are at work around us.

We Anabaptists are fond of saying that we interpret scripture by looking through the “lens” of Jesus. Lenses are a tool for correcting vision. They help make our sight clearer. Jesus and his life and teachings are a lens through which the Spirit helps clear our vision that we might demonstrate Good News. We strive to be shaped by Jesus because this faith is not simply something spiritual or for the future but rather something that’s real and for now (Luke 4:16-21). In his message titled, “The Fierce Urgency of Now: The Struggle for Racial Justice Forty Years After King,” Osayande points out another lens which can increase our vision for peace and justice:

Do we have the courage to view our world through the lens King provides? This is the challenge of our time. This is the choice we all must make. Social change does not require a particular gender identification, racial classification or sexual orientation. What it does require is an undying commitment to embody the revolutionary idea of justice for all. (34)

Dr. King was powerfully formed by the way of Jesus. Clearly he looked at everything through the lens of Jesus, and he was able to bring to bear the teachings of Jesus within a context where those three systems of oppression are still deeply rooted. His faithful witness offers a vital lens through which to both expand our vision for justice and understand Jesus’ life and teachings more clearly.

On the news today I learned that a local historian just discovered a recording of a speech King delivered at St. Joe’s, shortly before he was killed. I’m looking forward to listening to this message when it’s available to the public. So one way I will try to apply this “lens” of Dr. King to my life is through more regular reflection on Dr. King’s theology and teachings, in order that I may continue to learn and to live as a witness to Christ. 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 50 other followers