A Heritage of Holiness

We all stood in a lopsided circle-of-sorts and belted out “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow”, also known as the Mennonite anthem, or by it’s number in the old hymnbook, #606.  It’s the sort of hymn that soars and climbs and doesn’t trace back upon itself.  It’s the sort where the parts shine, the deep bases rumble the floor and the sopranos caress the rafters, and the altos and the tenors fill and expand the space between with silken harmonies.  And this family knows how to sing.

It was the bi-annual Weaver family get-together weekend, my husband’s mother’s side of the family.  And here’s just where the peculiar begins…they are all ardent followers of Christ.  All of them.  Not just nominal Christmas and Easter Christians, not Christian-because-my-parents-baptized-me Christians, but people who love, serve, and have a day-to-day relationship with the living God.  A whole family of them.

What a rarity.

When the roaring hymn ended, someone spoke into that trembling goose-bumpish silence, “Thank you Lester and Helen.”  They would be Dustin’s grandparents, singularly beautiful people who birthed the seven children who birthed the rest of those standing shoulder-to-shoulder in that lodge’s great room.

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I am no family historian, but I do know some things about Lester and Helen.  Lester was one of the first Mennonite pastors to minister in a black congregation.  Many tried to dissuade him.  It just wasn’t done.  Pastors weren’t paid in those days, so he worked full-time and ministered in the evenings and weekends, and it’s said that Helen never complained or begrudged the workload.  They were humble, devoted, and lived sacrificially.  Clearly their children saw that faith wasn’t an outward form to act, but an inward reality to nurture.

These were people who cared about the right things.  I remember feeling sorry for them when I’d see pictures of their home later in life, a single-wide trailer.  For some reason I had this deep, ugly prejudice that people who lived in trailers had somehow failed at life.  I don’t like to admit that, but there it is.  But who could but smile when they looked not at the trailer, but at the gorgeous flowers Lester had planted all around it, and him there in the photo smiling proudly?

When they died, there wasn’t much to give to their children, because they’d given themselves away all their lives.  They lived open-handedly and gratefully.  They were rich in love and generous with it.

We stood in that circle, the descendants and the married-ins, and acknowledged the weight of lives lived well.  How far the ripples go out from holy lives lived in our presence or our memories.

It begs the question:  what will be the heritage we leave for our children, and our children’s children?  What will they see that we valued most?  What will they glean about God by our relationships with Him and others?  Do we live sacrificially?  Do we live humbly?  Are we getting the right things right?

Have our hearts been captured by other loves; work, financial gain, busyness, entertainment, comfort, food?  What do we hold tightly to, what is in our hands clenched tight, the things we won’t give up in order to live open-handedly towards God and our neighbors?  If God invited us to serve him in a third world country, what would we be afraid of losing?  Our home?  Our independence?  Our savings?  Our safety?  Our comfortable couch, familiar snacks, and cable tv?

These are weak loves.

And strong idols.

If we at all desire to leave for our children a heritage of faith, we would do well to consider how those who’ve impacted our lives most lived.  Sacrificially, humbly, and holy.

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EMM’s Sexual Abuse Prevention In Southern Chile

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It is a delight for my husband and I to see so many workers in, and headed to, Chile reaching out to abused and at-risk children. Eliana, the clown featured in the video, has truly stepped into her spiritual gifts in the past five years. I remember helping her sew her first clown pants out of an old tablecloth! Please remember this ministry in prayer, and if able, designate some funds to keep it running! You can give here: http://www.emm.org/donateform/projects-k2/item/765-children-at-risk-in-chile

Tomatoes, Church, and Sorrow

I tucked the tomato plants into the earth.  They were soggy messes after all this rain, and I bid them enjoy drier feet and all the manure I dug into the soil weeks ago.  The potato plants are peeking up above the leaf mulch.  The large chestnut tree we had felled last week lies forlorn across the yard, the leaves slowly curling and dying.  The bees have settled nicely, no longer sounding testy so I’m guessing that they’ve got their queen and all is well.

There’s a lot of good here.  Friendly neighbors, clean air, huge towering trees, birds, squirrels, flowers, life.  It seems flagrantly inappropriate to be sad, to behold all the beauty and feel heartsick.

See, church isn’t merely a social club, nor a solace, nor a support or crutch.  It’s not just getting together with like-minded people.  It’s standing together with God’s people, worshipping Him, and in the sacraments, standing at the place where heaven and earth mingle, where eternal touches temporal, Creator touches created, and the veil between the two is lifted just a bit.  Where Heaven becomes a bit immediate and less obscure.

We don’t belong to a church yet, though we’e visited quite a few.  I can’t remember the last time I had communion.  My son wants to be baptized.  We don’t know what to tell him.  My heart wants to run with him down to the stream and simply do it.  But our understanding is that this is something you do within a context of your church family, not solo.  I ask him to be patient; to give Daddy and I time to figure this out.

But this is wearing on me; we aren’t meant to live the Christian life alone.  How I long for Heaven, where we will worship together without the painful disunity of denominational differences, without our haranguing sins tainting every joy.  No more suffering and no more tears.

He who does not choose to suffer for the sake of truth will be chastened more painfully by suffering he has not chosen.

-St Mark the Ascetic

We in no way regret our decision to leave our home church, though we deeply miss our friends there, our community there, our family there.  The suffering we’re undergoing now is hard, but continuing on in that place would have been harder yet in a soul-numbing way.

So beauty is all around me and my eyes swim with tears.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  -Psalm 34:18

Lord have mercy.

Beautiful Are The Feet

She brought in a loaf of homemade bread, two quarts of tapioca pudding, a slab of cornbread, a jar of peanut butter, and a basin with a towel resting inside.

A visit from Great Aunt Mary.  She was bringing snacks and a sacrament.

You’ve got to let her take her time.  “Would you like a cup of tea?”  “No, no, no,” she waved it away like a invisible fly.  “A glass of water then?”  “Maybe, but after…”, and here she bustled away from the kitchen where we’d been laying out the goodies she brought.

In a trembling voice she announced that she’d come to wash my feet.

This may beg some explaining.

feetIt was the servant’s job, back in the dusty old days of dusty old streets in Jesus’ time, to wash the feet and rinse them clean of travel’s filth.  To get low to the ground, the very definition of humble, and serve.  It’s something we do in the Mennonite Church, even though our feet aren’t dust-covered usually and we’d all probably showered that morning.  It is a sacrament, a visible act that has a sacred meaning; more is going on than meets the eye.  We learned it from Jesus.

“…It was just before the Passover Feast.  Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father.  Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love…”

Great Aunt Mary called me a few days ago.  You can tell when she’s on a mission, there’s a certain dogged quality in her voice that is not to be put-off.  Because most of the time she’s delivering a blessing, and once a heart makes up it’s mind to bless, it’s likely be in earnest.  “I’d like to come over and bring a treat and visit with you.  I’ll come at 2:00.”

“…Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist…”

Mary hastened to the basin with intent leaning her forward, almost as if she were walking uphill rather than across a room.  She lay the basin on the wood floor like an invitation and I pulled two chairs up.  I left and filled a pitcher with warm water at the kitchen sink, thinking while it filled that you just never knew when the holiest moments of your life were going to surprise you by showing up on an overcast Thursday.

“….after that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him…”

Mary felt our homelessness with a keen pain.  Mary has been washing feet since her earliest days; eighty-some years of performing the sacred, humbling, simple act of washing the feet of another.

She called my feet beautiful.  She said verses as she cupped my feet, one at a time, scooping the warm water over them tenderly.  “Fearfully and wonderfully made”, she would say, and in the next moment would tell me some bit of news about a friend’s health.  I love the convergence of holy and ordinary and wonder how often we mistake one for the other.

Mary’s a real foot-washer.  She gets the towel in between all the piggies and up the ankle. Some ladies scoop one swoosh of water over your foot, quick pat you dry, and done.  Not Mary.  She figures that anything done for Christ must be done well.  I love Mary.

My turn.  My heart is painfully wide as I take her feet.  I do a good washing, following her example.  As I bathe those old, beautiful feet, I think how I’ll always remember this moment, remember this saint who brought me a sacrament and how she loved on purpose.

“…When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.  Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  -John 13

A tight hug, standing there barefoot together, the afternoon light slanting over the floor.

…How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'”  -Isaiah 52:7

How beautiful her aged feet, her aged hands, her earnest love that comes out in tapioca pudding and tall loaves of bread and water forming rivulets over my feet.

Broken

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We stood in the remnants of Juan’s home in Concepcion, Chile.  The walls tilted in wildly.  Tears ran down his cheeks; he had built this home with his own two hands.  Raised his children here.  The earthquake took all that away within minutes.  Unlike his neighbors who were crushed by debris, his family survived; they would live another day and make a new home elsewhere.  But, for now, there was just a lot of loss, a lot of grieving to be done.  How do you gather up the fragments, leave your beloved neighborhood, where people know your name and whose children played with yours, where the banter at day’s end was familiar and comforting as old slippers, broken-in just right?  How do you start over?  “Are you afraid to be in here?”, I asked Juan, because I certainly was afraid; the walls and ceilings bulged and sagged threateningly.  “Yes, I am afraid.  This could collapse at any second”.  Staying wasn’t an option.

It was Sunday, a day I had dreaded.  For the last time as a member, we slid into our pew and opened the hymnal.  Words stuck in my throat and I just found my eyes wandering to faces, to backs of heads.  I counted our losses, person by person.

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We left our church yesterday.  We didn’t sneak out the back door (though it was tempting).  We didn’t storm out either.  We got up front with our pastor and we shared a short letter:

Dearest Friends and Family,

We have a hard thing to share this morning.  We are leaving Landisville.  This has not been an easy nor a light decision to make.  You have been our community for many years.  You have nurtured us, you have sent us.  When I think of all that God did in Chile during our time there, I just thank Him for you; without you we could not have gone and made disciples.  We thank you so much for your generosity and support.  

There are issues being debated here and in the broader Mennonite Church that we do not believe are debatable.  Melodie Smith, now Melodie Dum, said recently that within the church there is room for diversity of belief on homosexuality.  There certainly may be room; the church may be like a large bus with a seat available for everyone, but if the bus is headed to New York and God has called you to Miami, it doesn’t matter if there’s a seat for you, it is not going the way you must go.  

Getting off the bus has all the pain and sting of a separation.  Please forgive us if we have offended or hurt you in our journeys together.  Our sincerest aim was to be a part of you, not to part from you.  We love you and will miss you.

Our assignment in Honduras has been postponed indefinitely as EMM does not send “homeless” missionaries.  If we find another church family who, after we have been rooted-in with them and knit together, agrees to send us, then we will have that hope of going.  If not, the monies you’ve invested into this vision will go toward sending others, but it will not be wasted, that we can be sure of.  Please pray for a family to be sent to fulfill the role in Honduras, one that could bring such blessing to so many.

In closing, I ask for your prayers; our family weeps at the loss of you.  Please pray for God’s Spirit to direct and guide us.  Please pray for our children, for whom transition has been the default of their young lives, that God would be their firm place which never shifts nor changes.  Please pray that God would give us hope in this time of trial. 

I was too afraid to look up as Dustin read.  My eyes blurred and I examined the wood grain of the podium.  I didn’t want to see the hurt, confusion, or ambivalence on those beloved faces.  Some would be glad to see us go.  Some would be offended, as if our leaving were a judgment on their staying.  Some would be quite sad.

We were outspoken, see, on both our love for people with homosexual dispositions AND our love of God’s Word.  We didn’t believe that stepping towards anyone in love involved a stepping away from the Bible and it’s teachings.  We believe that practicing homosexuality is a sin, just as adultery is, just as lying is.  We don’t vilify it as the worst, nor ignore it as unimportant.  We don’t want our own sins to be accepted, neither do we do anyone else that injury.

Maybe we weren’t in the minority, but we were quite alone in speaking openly.  It is odd to feel like a radical when you’re simply agreeing with orthodox Christian beliefs, which have been held true for millennia.  It is strange for the Bible to be treated as so pliable a thing and for human sympathy to be heralded over love.

We tried for three years.  We met with leaders, we prayed, we shared.  We waited semi-patiently.  Then it seems, our decision was drastically hurried up by several important turning points in the Mennonite church.  Eastern Mennonite University announced a listening/discerning time to see whether they would allow practicing homosexual professors.  One of the conferences ordained a practicing lesbian.  Our own church hosted a play about a man and his son who has just come out as gay, inviting viewers to laugh, to cry, to be confused.  Sure, it was a story, but it was clearly a platform; to continue this “dialogue” which so often has felt like a dogged monologue.

Our pastor helped us through the leaving process and we so valued his wisdom.  In emails back and forth, he asked if this was the only reason we were leaving.  I responded:

About cause for leaving; the debate about homosexuality is the surface manifestation (and to us a particularly disturbing one) of a deeper issue; sort of like the blue coloring of a bruise, the injury being actually under the skin.  How pliable we think scripture is is under there.  How we interpret scripture and whether we take into account two millennia of the church’s conclusions on sexuality, immorality, gender, and suffering.  Sometimes I imagine pre-schism unity as a thick trunk, then branching off into Rome, then branching again smaller yet post-Reformation, and then splintering yet more into denominations and then tiny twigs where we keep extending out our particular interpretations ad nauseum, are we not near to breaking in this persistent, growing, uniqueness?  Are our beliefs to be so very shifting and transient, like the culture’s?  I feel the strength of the tree so very much less under my feet each year it seems, the farther out on the twig we go.  But these are harder things yet to share on a Sunday morning with a shocked congregation taking it in that we are leaving them.  Roots are more tangled than the plants above them.  So, yes, it is too simplistic to say that disagreement over homosexuality is the reason we’re leaving, but it is the most tangible present reason; it’s the coloring over the injury that marks the spot of distress.  If the knot of contention were switched to questioning whether the miracles of the Bible actually happened, I dare say the bruise would be much the same; it questions the same thing, the veracity of scripture and whether we are compelled to take it plainly.

Juan and my teammate Bekii Kisamore and I bowed our heads in prayer.  Tears made wet trails down Juan’s face and hit the rubble-strewn floor.  “This, this is what people need”.  He then led us to his yard and showed us his “hope”.  A beautiful copihue vine with full, generous blooms, snaking up the crumbling wall of his neighbor’s home, where the couple died clutching their small child in their arms.  It was a “sign of life” for him, and he brought it water from the countryside to keep it going while all else was in ruin.  He shared cuttings with us, he shared his hope with us.

broken3We nurtured our little copihue cuttings, kept them in water and planted them in our yards in southern Chile, a constant reminder that God invites us to hope in the midst of ruin.

Our decision to leave our church meant that we had lost not only our community, but our vocation as well.  To be sent, you need a sending body.  Our beautiful dream came crashing down and I am still reeling from that.  I don’t know how to live without a dream.  I feel like I’m flailing, like the floor has given way beneath me.  If not for the peace that God has given us that we are obeying His voice, I do not know how I would go on.

There is just enough light to know that a path is before us.  I cling to this verse from Isaiah 30:20,21:

Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

broken4Please pray for us as we grieve.

It Can All Rage And Yet…

It can all rage ugly and hurt and rending,

And yet,

Here and there, pockets of deep peace,

And glory,

And joy.

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Dipping candles yesterday.  What a peaceful, contemplative craft.  Talk about slowing down.  The barely susceptible progress made with each deliberate dip made me think of spiritual progress; that I should not despair when it looks as though I am not growing spiritually.  If God has promised to complete His work within me, He will do it, He is doing it, though I see the changes only through the lens of years.ImageImage

A morning spent drawing with my son.  Gregorian chants and the fifteenth century choral music wrapping us in beauty as we deliberately sketched and colored, slowly.  A thousand thoughts pinged through my mind, on heresies currently rending the patchwork quilt of our church family, leaving my eyes reddened and my stomach hurting, on Ukraine, the tumult and the suffering and my prayers seeming so small against all that.  But for all that inner noise and clang, I had to apply pencil to paper, and eye the lay of the feathers, and the attention brought a borrowed peace.Image

Playmobile ships, stuffed animals dressed as soccer players, presidents, and babies, riding “the train” (a.k.a. the couch).  All his little conversations and sound effects and stories.  I feel the joy of childhood filling up the room and my grown-up worries have to retreat for a while.Image

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It can all rage and yet the seeds still germinate and the nasturtiums still reach for the sun.  And my God is sovereign and good.  And I’ll praise Him in the pockets of peace and in the turbulent places too.  For Christ is our peace, and Christ is portable.

 

One Molecule Away

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I am a great fan of butter.  And lard.  I have some unnecessary zeal about these.  That is a fault line running through me, that I cannot care about anything mildly; only passionately and fervently and deeply.  If I ever seem balanced about an issue, it is only because I am stuffing half my soul into a filing cabinet and turning the music on so no one hears it banging about and hollering.

Butter and lard.  Heavy whipping cream in my morning coffee.  I affectionately call it “butter coffee”, though perhaps I should call it “frosting coffee” because I’ve got the butterfat and two ample spoonfuls of evaporated cane juice sugar in there (notice that I couldn’t just leave it at “sugar”, it had to be “healthy sugar”, shameful zealousness).

Not surprisingly, I identify with Peter; that vitriolic fisherman that Jesus called a friend and disciple.  Impulsive, rash, zealous, and so very full of errors and false bravado.  I bet he’d appreciate certain verses that I do, like:  “So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”, Revelation 3:16, because we figure that we’re at least safe on that one.  We’re so extreme that mildness would be nigh painful.

I read it one day, that margarine was one molecule away from plastic.  It looks like butter, behaves pretty much like butter, tastes similar to butter.  It’s certainly easier to spread on bread for making grilled cheese sandwiches; no balled-up wads of torn bread there.  But if you leave it out for the bugs and bacteria to eat, nothing happens to it.  It doesn’t have life in it.  It’s like those eternal french fries you find when vacuuming out your car, eerily unchanged by the usual culprits of mold and decay.

Worst of all, the body doesn’t know what to do with it; it isn’t living food.  On top of that, for decades well-meaning dietitians and nutritionists have been promoting it as the healthy alternative to good old animal fats.  We thought we were making a good choice for our dear bodies.

Where did I hear it, when did it stick to my soul that a truth combined with a lie is more powerful than a lie by itself?

I am a Mennonite Christian; we’re a lot like the baptists, but take Jesus literally when he says all that “love your enemy” stuff, so we don’t engage in wars and have historically eschewed political involvement, believing in changing the world in a more grassroots way, rather than by reaching for power and clout.

I love our church; I love sliding into the pew on a Sunday morning and singing acapella hymns.  I love it when we are told that we’re learning a “new song” today and I realize it was written in the mid 1700’s.  There are beautiful stories in our history of martyrs paying the ultimate price to love their neighbor more than themselves.  I liked best the one about a family whose thatch roof was being lit on fire by a mob.  They walked out of their home and offered refreshments to the mob, who they saw to be working so hard.  The mob felt ashamed by the love poured out to them and saved the home from burning.

Tears pour from my eyes, you see, my church, the Mennonite faith, is neck-deep in danger.  Orthodox beliefs are tottering.  The Gospel, which is full of life and soul-nourishing like butter to the body, is being replaced with soul-deadening dissipation, margarine, plastic, lifeless heresies.  Those that believe these things are not malicious, they truly think that this margarine is the new cure, the new thing that God is doing, that it will make us better.  New and improved.  Never mind that it has nothing to do with clear Biblical exegesis.

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Most of the older generation, in their plain suits and delicate floral homemade dresses, with their long hair bundled up under lace head coverings, they don’t know what is happening.  They don’t know that their daily bread is being spread with false butter.

Only God gives life, only His Word is living and active; only by drawing ever closer to Him can we minister in any meaningful way to the hurting and lost among us.  When your denomination ceases to honor that Word, do you stand like a despised prophet, calling it away from the pull of cultural gravity?  Do you leave it for another denomination which more clearly stands under the authority of God’s Word?  What do we do?

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