Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The joys of being a parent

From Toledo, IA
I don't talk much about my family here on the blog, and that's somewhat intentional. But this is one of those "daddy moments" that I can't pass up commenting on here.

Our daughter has a good bit of musical talent that she comes by from both her mother and I, which we've cultivated over the course of her life with music lessons, first on piano and then for the past six years, violin. She also plays flute in school concert band, is learning the electric bass for jazz band, and is quite a good singer and actress. She is, at 14, an accomplished fine arts nerd (which I mean in the endearing sense). As parents we're very proud.

Last week she asked me to get out my recording equipment so she could start messing around with multi-track recording. With very minimal guidance and instruction from me, she quickly picked up the requisite tools and produced this little lo-fi music video, a cover of the song "I'll Think of You" (aka the "Epic Patty Cake Song") by Kurt Schneider & Sam Tsui...

Friday, December 12, 2014

Your scapegoat "pacifism": A response to Matthew Schmitz

"The Fog of War"
Matt Hinsta via Flickr/CC license
Yesterday, a deputy editor of First Things, Matthew Schmitz, posted a rather unusual piece...

Our Partial Pacifism - Which starts out with the bold statement, "I am inclined to blame pacifism for our embrace of torture."

I say it's an unusual piece because it took me numerous readings and conversations with a number of (pacifist) friends to figure out just what Schmitz was trying to get at in his brief post. My initial reaction was confusion. Granted, it was early this morning when I started reading it so my coffee hadn't perhaps kicked in yet. But I was profoundly bewildered as to how one could connect the dots of a claim like that, i.e. blaming pacifism for "our" embrace of torture. (The collective "we" obviously being the entire United States of America, which was my first red flag.)

So here's what my friends and I came up with on Schmitz's reasoning:

  • There is a utilitarian "ends justify the means" frame being used to discuss torture in the post-9/11, GWOT context, especially now in light of the recent senate report on CIA torture released this week.
  • We need a different moral vocabulary to make better judgments about what is and is not just conduct in war. (Implication being that torture is morally wrong, at all times everywhere. Which I of course agree!)
  • The Christian just war tradition is one such vocabulary about making sound moral judgments, including that torture is wrong.
  • Christian pacifism is a form of moral absolutism ("all war is evil—that it is hell, so we must stay the hell out of it") and is therefore unable to make nuanced moral judgments about action in war.
  • While many/most may not embrace pacifism, "we" seem to have generally embraced the "pacifist conclusion" that "all war is we must stay the hell out of it," including in any and all attempts to make moral judgments about conduct in war.
Therefore, pacifism (albeit a partial one) is to blame for our inability to make nuanced moral judgments about conduct in war. Pardon me for being colloquial and crude, but WTF?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

My race/police story

This is a Google Maps snapshot of the north side and east side of Des Moines, separated by I-235. See E University Ave there on the right? If you follow that east you'd hit my hometown of Prairie City in about 20 minutes. My folks worked in downtown Des Moines when I was growing up and I worked at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in high school, so I spent a lot of time on the east side.

Last year at a football game tailgate, I met a Des Moines cop through a mutual friend. I asked him about where he worked and he said the east side. He then proceeded to talk about how he likes the east side because people there seem to be more laid back and easier to work with than people on the other side of I-235. He said he did not like that "genre" of people.

As he walked away to another conversation, my friend leaned over to me and asked, "Did that guy just use the word 'genre' as a way to avoid saying he doesn't like black people?"

Indeed. Check out the census data on race for the same piece of territory...

Source: The Racial Dot Map,

Monday, December 8, 2014

Economics and spiritual calling

(This is a kind of part 2 to my last post...)

As I said in my previous post, we live in an age of stagnant wages and widening economic inequality, and more and more intelligent people are starting to point out that this isn't some kind of technical glitch in the global capitalist system, but it is rather this way by design. The old "rich get richer/poor get poorer" line is what makes this whole thing tick. Or to use Thomas Piketty's recent formula: r > g. Return on revenue (r) will always outpace economic growth (g) in the current system, or at least that's how it's worked in the past few hundred years of the current system.

So the middle class in the US today is getting pinched harder than ever. People have to work harder and harder just to get by. A pretty standard middle class lifestyle is now incredibly difficult to finance. Professional clergy have traditionally been members of the middle class.

We've been hearing in recent years that "bi-vocational ministry" is going to be the wave of the future, and my denomination says they want to plant a crazy high number of churches in coming years, so we've got the church planting bug. Not that that's a bad thing, but...

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Book release: A Living Alternative

From Toledo, IA

Over the past year, a group of Anabaptist-minded folks, mostly culled from the ranks of the MennoNerds, collaborated on a book project. I was honored to be part of that project and now our book is out! Check it out on Amazon...
A Living Alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom World

My chapter will sound familiar to anyone who's read my blog posts over the past two years. It's called "Seeking the Peace of the Farm Town: Anabaptist Mission and Ministry in the Rural Midwest." In fact, the chapter is collected and edited from blog posts and sermons that I wrote over the first year of living back in rural Iowa. As I say at the start of the chapter:
Don't let the subtitle fool you: I am not a seasoned expert on Anabaptist mission and ministry in the rural Midwest. This is not a reflection written after many years of experience, trial and error, and critical assessment. I will not be offering advice, sage-like or otherwise. Rather, this piece is best thought of as being in the genre of theological memoir, and constitutes a kind of “preliminary field notes” document. It is memoir in that it sketches the story of how my family and I ended up in the small farm town of Toledo, Iowa, where we have been taking root for the past year. It is theological in that our mindset and practices, before and throughout our time here, have emerged out of a place of intense and sometimes (often?) painful spiritual discernment.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Which (Brethren) church to come?

The day brings...
(With apologies to Peter Blum for riffing on the title of his book...)

Stan Noffsinger, the top executive of my denomination, the Church of the Brethren, asked an interesting question on Facebook this week, and one that stimulated some interesting responses. He asked: "What is your vision for the Church of the Brethren in 2065?" and invited people to cast their visions.

On the one hand, it's kind of ridiculous to ask people to think that far ahead into the future. No one can do it. On the other hand, though, it's a good exercise at thinking creatively and imagining things as they could be down the road. So here's what I said:
A church that can educate and equip all its members to take more seriously its "priesthood of all believers" commitment. A radical commitment to place. A church that can say "No" to a world hellbent on speed, ease, self-seeking profit and pleasure, and violence - and "Yes" to the Prince of Peace and his way, truth, and life.

An institutional structure and processes that are adaptive, lightweight, networked, creative, nurturing, and representative.

Oh, and a way more global church with global representative governance. A church for the farm town, the city, the barrio, the plains, the savannahs, the deserts, the jungles, and to the ends of the earth in all its multi-splendored beauty.
Here's what was sitting behind some of my remarks...

Friday, November 7, 2014

Opting out of the church+car culture: A cautionary tale

From Toledo, IA
Our neighborhood church
(Not a megachurch)
Adam Graber has a great piece up, called:
How Cars Created the Megachurch

His main point is that over the past century, the technology of the automobile has re-shaped our cultural habits and thinking to that which illustrates a high degree of selfishness. With the automobile - and the whole raft of societal and cultural shifts that have followed in its wake; e.g. shopping malls, Wal-Marts, and yes megachurches - many (not all) Americans have unprecedented levels of choice when it comes to any number of things: places to eat and buy stuff, sights to see, and houses of worship. The world is our parking lot (or landing strip, if necessary). Mass automotive transportation has thrown off the supposed constraints of geography and distance, and we have become a different kind of people as a result. Namely, more selfish ones.

Yes, of course selfishness has always been part of the human condition, but as Graber points out "(c)ars made selfish habits much easier to indulge, and now for many of us, selfishness is simply necessary." At the end of the piece, Graber only briefly mentions the digital age we've only recently entered, whose societal and cultural effects are only now starting to become noticeable, studied, and reflected on. (I just finished reading Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, and whoa...) The cultural logic and habits of the 21st digital age only build upon and amplify the consumeristic, selfish tendencies ushered in by the 20th century's major technology innovations: the automobile and the television.

What this means for churches is that they're all now "subject to forces beyond any one pastor's control," and "even pastors of the smallest churches are subject to the church shopping culture" (not just the megachurches singled out in the title).

Are all these technologies purely negative? By no means! (I'm on a Internet-connected computer typing this blog post, after all, and have been a technology worker my entire professional life.) But neither are they purely good. In an age where technological optimism seems dominant, there needs to be an emphasis on discernment with a critical eye, and coming up with alternatives if necessary.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Building a case for restorative justice in Tama-Toledo

From Toledo, IA
Building bridges in the wild
(Rural east Marshall Co.)
In my ongoing work for Eastern Mennonite University, I've helped coordinate the technology aspects of the "Real World Restorative Justice" webinar series, and this past spring I taught a 3-week course on restorative justice at Grinnell College. These have helped keep alive my passion for restorative justice.

(For a primer on the field of restorative justice, see here.)

Meanwhile, over the past two years of living in Toledo, Iowa, I've been looking for opportunities to plant seeds, spread the word, and maybe even get some small restorative justice project started. But when it comes to institutional settings where restorative justice is often employed - criminal justice and public schools, for instance - I haven't found an opening. That's been frustrating at times, particularly when incidents that come up in the local community could be, in my estimation, better handled with a restorative approach.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The limits of Stan the Man Hauerwas

From Toledo, IA
When I was in seminary, I got drunk on Stanley Hauerwas. His polemic works against Modernity, Christendom, Liberalism, Individualism, etc. - struck a chord with me, and gave me a certain set of diagnostic lenses to see "How stuff works" in our late modern world. For all that I learned from Hauerwas and will no doubt continue to learn, I am in his debt.

Yet even while I was stumbling drunk on his work, there were moments of clarity where I saw something lacking. In his hyperbolic assertion that Christianity hangs or falls on the fidelity of the Church as a concrete social/political body, understood as an alternative to "the world" - this all seemed to at least downplay or, worse, denigrate things like personal piety or spiritual formation. The self was lost in that elusive, fugitive "We/Us" of the capital-C Church.

So for all kinds of good reasons I remain generally positive on Hauerwas, but I'm also grateful for smarter folks than I doing critical engagement on his work, because it might give me better handles on where the limits of his work lie, and where I might mark out points of departure. The most recent, and what looks to be very intelligent, entry in this field is Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction
, by Nicholas M. Healy
, published by Eerdmans. And First Things has a helpful review of the book up from John Webster, tellingly entitled "Ecclesiocentrism." It's short and sweet, so give it a look if you love or hate Stan.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Peace: More or Less

From Toledo, IA

Back in July, I preached a sermon at the three local United Methodist congregations, filling in for Pr. Brian Oliver. He had a sermon series going on the fruits of the Spirit, and gave the Anabaptist guy the one on peace. My outline/notes appear below...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Willa Cather's bishop on miracles, vision, and love

Here is a stunning passage from Willa Cather's novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop:
"Where there is great love there are always miracles," [the bishop] said at length. "One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices of healing power coming suddenly from far off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always."
I was in dire need of a novel this summer and picked up this book at a great independent bookstore in downtown Chicago when my family was vacationing there last month. The book turned out to be worth its weight in gold. I had previously read Cather's My Antonia in my undergrad, and my prof for that class was a Cather scholar; so I knew I was in for goodness going into it.

And that passage above speaks to me on a number of levels...

Friday, August 8, 2014

Sexist Economics 101

From Toledo, IA
Emerging economics scholar, Kate Bahn, points out...
Early (US) census takers at the turn of the twentieth century were instructed not to consider women as employed if they were not earning at least a majority of the family’s income. Men were not subject to the same strict definition of employment. Because a lot of the work women did to earn money was done within their homes, it was not considered actual work unless it brought in money above a certain threshold.
(Source: How Gender Changes Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Nation)

The word "economy" comes from the Greek word oikos, which can be translated as "household." In the ancient world, the household was more than the nuclear family, it was the site of economic production.

This is blatant evidence that modern conceptions of economics/economy are incredibly limited and therefore limiting in any number of ways. In this case, women's work in the home wasn't counted as "real" or "worth it."

I've argued somewhat recently that Wendell Berry's work on economy is far more fruitful and equitable...

(H/T Ric Hudgens - @rdhudgens)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pets and the police: Neighboring in the 21st century

From Toledo, IA
"Hey! Hey! Hey!" (thanks to Gary Larson)
Photo by glenn_e_wilson via Flickr
The dog would not stop barking. It barked morning, noon, and night. Out there in the front yard, seemingly barking at every visible moving object large or small, or every movement of air however slight. It just. Did. Not. Stop. Barking! And its owners, our neighbors whom we didn't and still don't know, were nowhere to be seen. This was a problem.

As a telecommuter that works out of my home office and as a family that tries to have our windows open as much as possible during Iowa's more pleasant seasons (limited as they are), the incessant barking of a neighbor dog has a real impact on the quality of my daily life. I had endured it for a few weeks, but finally I decided something must be done. But what?

One option seemed straightforward enough: Go over to the neighbor's house, knock on the door, and ask with all possible humility and kindness to please, please, do something about the dog's incessant barking. The only problem with this route was that we'd seen these particular neighbors displaying some rather troubling ways of relating to each other while outside their house, for all the neighborhood to see and hear. So I was not thrilled about what kind of reception I'd receive for my complaint, no matter how gently presented.

So I called the cops. But let me back up a bit...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Immigrant or Refugee?

From Toledo, IA
Master and protégé - Gustave and Zero in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

There's a moment in "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which I watched last night, that struck me as particularly poignant social commentary. For the sake of not spoiling any of the plot, I'll speak as generally as I can...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Following and Straying: The paths of my ancestors

From Toledo, IA
"Foggy Morning Frolic" by Mike Gilchrist & his cat, Wink
(used w/ permission)
My grandfather, Dale Mullins, started his adult life as a farmer. This wasn't a "start" so much as it was a continuation of what he was born into on his family's farm outside of Monroe, Iowa. Born in 1915, his father passed away when Dale was only 24 years old, at which point he took over full control and care of the family farm. He was born and died in the same house and lived out and worked most of his 77 years on the same 80-acre piece of earth overlooking and rolling down into the South Skunk River bottom that meanders nearby.

My other grandfather, Max Gumm, started out much the same, having grown up on his family's farm about an hour northwest of Monroe near Jefferson, Iowa. Unlike my maternal grandfather, though, Max altered course a few years into farming. He felt, as us church folk say, "the call"...

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: The New Jim Crow

From Toledo, IA
[Note: The following review appears in Brethren Life and Thought Vol. 59, No. 1 (Spring 2014): 85-86. Reprinted here with permission.]

Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

“Devastating.” It is a word that adorns the back cover of this book, attributed to Forbes Magazine. It is also the word that kept recurring in this white reviewer’s mind while reading through this terribly important book which documents the latest manifestation of societal racism in this country: the mass incarceration of predominantly black men. Its author, Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and professor of law at The Ohio State University, presents a comprehensive and damning account of the complex and interlocking systems of social control that give teeth to this nation’s oldest shame. Her work also reveals that in the age of Obama, we are far from being a “post-racial” society. If anything, she argues, we are regressing.

“Devastating,” then, operates in a range of senses. First, the book leaves the individual reader feeling devastated because of the expansive reach of the systems under scrutiny and their sickening consequences. Next, it devastates those systems in that Alexander’s account pulls back the veil of their alleged purpose (“War on Drugs,” “Get Tough on Crime,” etc.), revealing them to be racist forms of social control. Finally—and this is extrapolating from the text itself to theological and ecclesiological implications—it is devastating to the church in the United States in that we have for the most part stood idly by while this system has been conceived, constructed, and functioning now for over thirty years.

But just what are those systems? Alexander’s central claim is that “something akin to a racial caste system currently exists in the United States” (2). This system flies the banner of the “War on Drugs,” a phrase first uttered by President Nixon in the early 1970s, which became a federally-mandated, institutional reality under the Reagan Administration in 1982. Alexander describes the consequences of this War on Drugs as mass incarceration, a term which explicitly refers to the explosion of the U.S. prison system in the past 30 years, where there are now “more people in prisons and jails today…for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980” (60), and where this nation now has the highest incarceration rate in the world (6). The racial dimensions of this system are what led Alexander to the apt description, “The New Jim Crow,” because of its propensity to lock up a hugely disproportionate number of black and brown people, mostly young men, where now “(t)he United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid” (6). More than simply prison, though, mass incarceration also refers to “the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison” (13). From public housing arrangements, militarized police forces, restrictive employment policies, debt collection, welfare, regressive Supreme Court decisions, to political disenfranchisement—the net result is the creation of an “undercaste” (13), a racially-defined and stigmatized group subject to “permanent social exclusion” (13) through a “closed circuit of perpetual marginality” (95).

This is the New Jim Crow, and Alexander argues that it appears to be more durable than past forms of institutional American racism partly because—as an elitist backlash against the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s—it must claim itself to be colorblind. This has been accomplished by a shift in rhetoric from overtly racist attitudes in publicly stated positions and policies to using “tough on crime” language, which is yet today the lingua franca in Washington when it comes to criminal justice deliberations; no politician—Democrat nor Republican—with a desire to stay in office for long wants to be seen as “soft on crime.” Hence, draconian drug laws have been enacted and functioning for over twenty years, and police have been given carte blanche when it comes to discretion in searches and seizures.

This rhetorical shift to supposed race-neutrality has been accompanied by popular media forms—news reporting and crime shows—that have helped cement the image of “criminal” as that of a young, black male into the American conscious and subconscious social imagination. Now that the War on Drugs and the “criminal blackman” stereotype (107) have become normalized in society, denial has become exceedingly easy. "Many people 'know' and 'not-know' the truth about human suffering at the same time,” Alexander argues, and “(d)enial is facilitated by persistent racial segregation in housing and schools, by political demagoguery, by radicalized media imagery, and by the ease of changing one's perception of reality simply by changing television channels” (182). Or perhaps in the digital age, denial is even easier as we self-select our Facebook and Twitter friends, the blogs we follow, etc. Through the synthesis of social media and the consumer culture of leisure and entertainment, it has never been easier to be blind to systemic injustice.

So where does this leave the church? Sadly, the only place it shows up in Alexander’s book is when families of criminals who are subject to their loved one’s stigma find no place for love and compassion. “Church? I wouldn’t dare tell anyone at church,” Alexander reports one woman saying (166). This should rightly convict those of us in Christ’s body. But Alexander does at times marshal the spiritual fortitude and force of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the final chapter, Alexander calls for a new kind of civil rights movement that takes the new racial realities of The New Jim Crow into account. Her constructive proposals sometimes contain echoes of New Testament teaching, such as love for strange neighbors and enemies, and removing logs from our vision: “We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love” (244).

Would that the body of Christ practice such love in our own fellowships and let that love flow out into work for radical, restorative justice in the age of mass incarceration.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The bi-vocational blues

From Toledo, IA
Yep; we have that much | (c) Jeff Parker/Cagel Cartoons
Student loan debt has been a hot topic of conversation lately, at least in my social media circles. It's always a hot topic for my wife and I because, well, we have a ton of it. Like three-masters-degrees-at-a-private-university-all-subsidized-by-student-loans worth of it.

Six years ago, when we first told my family that we were moving to Virginia for grad school, they were not impressed. My brother kind of angrily told me that I was being irresponsible with my family's financial wellbeing. At the time I thought, "No I'm not!," but there are plenty of days this side of the transaction that I wonder...

Debt certainly has set constraints around my call to the ministry, particularly in my rural context. The number of Church of the Brethren congregations in my district that could afford to employ a pastor full-time are very few. So when we moved back to rural Iowa, it just so happened that my not feeling a particularly strong calling to pastoral ministry worked in my family's economic favor. Even if I'd wanted to be a full-time pastor, I likely couldn't do it around here; so I kept my technology job for Eastern Mennonite University, an arrangement that looks to continue for the foreseeable future.

Friday, May 9, 2014

#BringBackOurGirls: Righteous, compassionate justice

From Toledo, IA
Nate Hosler, with the
Church of the Brethren Office
of Public Witness
The Scripture from Ephesians guiding yesterday's prayers for the abducted girls in Nigeria focused on the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the name above all names, the name to which ultimately every knee on earth and in heaven will bow, and every tongue will confess as "Lord."

I'm alluding there to another Scripture, this from Philippians 2:1-11, which talks about the kenotic/self-emptying nature of Jesus' lordship. It is not a lordship enforced by the power of the sword, but rather it's a power born of suffering and absorbing the world's violence. It is a path that Jesus calls his disciples to talk, individually and collectively in his body, the church. We are to be a crucifom/cross-shaped people.

Today's daily prayer focuses on God's justice, which in this situation we actively and desperately desire. In the face of such horror, even people far separated from it such as myself want to see these innocent girls redeemed and the men responsible brought to face justice. But both our burning desire for justice and concrete expressions of justice must themselves be brought under the Lordship of Christ. We must think carefully about what God's righteous, compassionate justice might look like even in horrific situations such as this.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

#BringBackOurGirls: Jesus, redeeming Lord

From Toledo, IA
Dr. Rebecca Dali, of the Center for
Caring, Empowerment,
and Peace Initiatives.
(Photo by Stan Noffsinger)
The Toledo church plant project received a letter from the denominational offices of the Church of the Brethren today. It contains a list of name, those of the more than 200 girls abducted from a school in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria. Many of these girls have connections to the Ekklesiyar Yan'uwa a Nigheria (EYN), the CoB in Nigeria.

The denomination has also provided a daily prayer guide for this horrifying tragedy. The page shows a photo of my fellow Christian peacemaker, Nate Hosler, demonstrating in D.C. with many others on behalf of the abducted girls. Nate and his wife, Jennifer, spent a number of years in Nigeria teaching Christian peackemaking and my correspondence with them has been edifying. While I don't have any personal experience with the EYN, I have many friends and colleagues here in the U.S. like Nate and Jennifer who do. So the horror I've only barely been able to grasp myself has been brought somewhat closer to me through these connections. I do indeed join my prayers with them and all the saints who are praying for this horrible situation...

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A restorative response to the Veishea riot

From Toledo, IA
Not a new problem, apparently. (ISU student paper, 1940s ed.)
I'll never forget the Sunday afternoon during high school I came back to Iowa from a youth retreat in Kansas, and my dad telling me one of my high school classmates had been murdered at a party during Iowa State University's annual celebration, Veisha. It set off the most intense week of my entire high school experience, where every day felt like living in slow motion. That was 17 years ago.

But for the past 30 years or so, ISU's Veisha celebration has had a bit of an identity problem. What started out as a celebration of education at ISU had turned into an excuse for people to come from across the state, crash in their friends'/siblings' dorm rooms or apartments, and get really, really drunk. Riots have occurred enough times at Veisha for them to no longer be a surprise. - So when I heard this morning that there was yet another riot last night at Veisha (I didn't even know it was going on), I thought "Hmm," and went back to sipping my coffee.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

By the rivers of Babylon?

From Toledo, IA
"By the Waters of Babylon" - Evelyn de Morgan, 1882-1883 (via Wikipedia)
When I was in high school the band Sublime was cool. I graduated the year after their lead singer died of a drug overdose just weeks before their major label album released and became wildly popular. The summer after high school the rock band I was in with my friends, Honnold, played a number of shows with a punk band from southeast Iowa, Blank Skeme, who often played "Rivers of Babylon" by Sublime at their shows. I loved that song (still do).

Little did I know then (despite having grown up in the church), the song was based on another "song," Psalm 137, a lament by the people of Israel who were exiled to Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E. The people are asked by their captors to sing a song of Zion, which only brings to their mind images of Jerusalem burning. The people can only sit down and weep.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Wendell Berry and Mennonite online education

From Toledo, IA

This post is simply to cross-reference a few other posts I've written elsewhere in the past week, both relating to my work in Mennonite higher education, particularly in online programs. Each are at my work blog, Ed-tech at EMU:

Here's an excerpt from the end of the second post:
What I find compelling about the potential for online education within the Mennonite tradition and its various institutions of higher education (including both EMU & Tabor College), is the possibility of a radical online education. One that’s “subversive” in the sense that it uses the tools of the digital age but calls out their contingency, questions their inevitability, highlights their pitfalls and ultimate limits. I’m talking about deconstruction. – But deconstruction on the way to developing attitudes and practices which can help re-construct something more life-giving than what our consumer culture can provide: Affection for self and neighbors – friends and enemies, affection for place, and ultimately (in the Christian context) affection for our creating and sustaining God. And when we do this in collaboration with each other - rather than mimicking the logic of consumer capitalism – the radical potential only increases, deepening roots and establishing routes/linkages that contribute to the common good of Mennonite communities and institutions, and those whom we serve (i.e. “the world.”)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Comin' down the mountain...

From Prairie City, IA
Pastor Tim Peter, signing my home congregation's ordination gift to me
It's been just over a week now since I was ordained as a minister in the Church of the Brethren, an event which took place at my home congregation south of Prairie City, Iowa. It was a joyous day that felt much like the best possible family reunion. There were beloved people - family, friends, pastors, all sisters & brothers in Christ - from all points along my life and ministerial journey. Two of my friends that I used to play music with surprised me during worship with a run-through of "Amazing Grace." Everyone gathered around me to lay their hands on me and petition God's guidance, correction, and provision for my ongoing ministry and that of my family. We ate together and celebrated Communion together... And on and on. It was a lovely day that truly felt like the sublime gift that it was.

A particular gift was my former professor/pastor, Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, preaching the sermon during worship. The sermon text was taken from the lectionary: Matthew 17:1-9, the Transfiguration of Jesus. Sara's title was: "Moments of Clear Shining," and her treatment of the text with respect to the notion of ordination for ministry in the church, and how it impacts me, my family, the faith communities and neighborhoods in which we serve & worship - it all had the ring of Gospel truth. I heartily recommend giving it a listen...

Her main image/theme was the notion of "mountaintop experiences," and how they can become temptations to dwell in the glow, as Peter was keen to do upon seeing Jesus transformed before his eyes into his full glory - but that Jesus models well that we must come down, back into the "valley" of the everyday, the hurly burly of the radical ordinary. God's redemptive mission in the world is to be found there, with only brief and periodic flashes, or "moments of clear shining."

Friday, February 7, 2014

Hope: Whence, whither, and if

From Toledo, IA
Sophia to Rascal: Hoping against hope that friendship is possible.
As I mentioned in the previous post, co-blogger and friend Jon Swartz is in his last semester in EMU's dual degree program between the Seminary and Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, the same program I completed nearly two years ago. It is therefore senior capstone season for him and he's apparently working on a project about hope. I don't know the particulars of his project yet (can't wait to read that paper, Jon!) - but his work includes a survey tool that he sent out and invited me and a number of others to complete.

It was a good exercise for me, and with Jon's permission I'd like to share an edited version of my responses to his survey, because I don't think I've ever written much here about hope and yet it strikes me as central to the Christian faith. So here's what happened in my head as I responded to Jon yesterday...

Monday, February 3, 2014

An already slow read takes a rest

Tajumulco in Guatemala
(Photo src: UNDP)
Last summer when the Jonathans and I set out to book-blog Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary by Romand Coles and Stanley Hauerwas, we set ourselves a pretty ambitious schedule: Each chapter getting a post by each of us. Well, that lasted for two chapters. Then the fall semester started for Jon, and other things were going on for John and I, so we rolled it back to a post per chapter by each of us, rotating. That held up pretty well, but slowed down our pace a bit, which has been fine.

Now we're just going to go ahead and take a break from the project for the whole month of February. John's in Guatemala right now, at an intensive Spanish school (and hiking the volcano pictured to the right), Jon's a month into his final semester at EMU, and I'm starting a 3-week teaching gig this week at Grinnell College, which is just 30 minutes from where we are in Toledo. I was fortunate enough to see both of these guys when I was back on campus at EMU for a work trip two weeks ago, and the sense is that we still think this book is awesome and look forward to finishing it out when we pick it back up, probably in March.

Thanks to all the people who've been tracking along with us on this project, for great comments and encouragement. See you again soon!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Border at the Core: Radical Democracy and Christianity

From Harrisonburg, VA, USA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, and Brian Gumm. This post covers Ch. 9, "Gentled Into Being"

As in earlier chapters, Coles names the profundities in the writings of his friend, Stanley Hauerwas – he clearly appreciates that Hauerwas wants gentleness to be “constitutive of any politics that would be just” (208). Further, Coles sees gentleness as a current sweeping through Hauerwas’ writings (influenced by Vanier of course, but Coles thinks John Howard Yoder is just as important to Hauerwas’ gentleness) even though this gentleness is sometimes obscured by the kinds of impatient and polemic writing that Hauerwas engages as he wrestles against the secular theology emanating from nation-states and markets. This secular theology produces an impatience that “cuts deeply into possibilities for becoming communities through which we might learn better to befriend time and enact a politics of gentleness” (208-9). Hauerwas is impatient with the impatience of secular theology – better, he’s downright pissed. The art of gentleness is thus intertwined with the arts of “critical biting” (Hauerwas’ language in the previous chapter) – Hauerwas “never said gentleness somehow implies that one should not have and identify enemies” (209).

Coles has no difficulty sharing these convictions with the theologian, he also wants to hold together gentleness and struggle with enemies – but he senses at least several differences in how they might approach the entwinement of gentleness and struggle. Coles, revisiting a theme from an earlier chapter, is looking for a vulnerability that he wonders if Hauerwas is willing to admit and adopt; and he probes The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics in search of vulnerable offerings. Coles is NOT worried that the church imagined and practiced in The Blackwell Companion constitutes a sect – he values the passionate commitment to hospitable engagement with the world beyond the church. Coles is more worried that the church imagined is a church that “makes the border secondary to an interior volume that is at the center and that only prepares for rather than is itself partly constituted by the borders themselves” (212). Coles’ seems to want to de-center the assumptions of what constitutes a center. Or he wants to make sure the form includes the boundaries. 

In relation to practices this means that the church becomes the foot-washer (but not also in need of being foot-washed by non-Christians), the host of the Eucharist (but not the one who might sit at the lowest spot), and the server (but not needing to be served by those outside the church). “It is as if there is a people called and gathered prior to encountering others, rather than a people equiprimordially gathered and formed precisely at the borders of the encounter” (212). Coles is concerned that a church so imagined will assume that the form is prior to the edge and fail to see that the edges also constituted the form. A church so imagined can tend to assume that it has all it needs to be what it needs to be in the world. A church so imagined tends to avoid the receiving that is at least as important as the giving – “We must not refuse our feet to Jesus… We must feel the pressure of his touch, the touch of the stranger” (213).

The Pastors Brian on baptism

From Toledo, IA
For the past year my family has been worshiping at Christ United Methodist Church here in Toledo. It's the church my wife and I were married in nearly 15 years ago, and it sits just a block away from our house. It's in our neighborhood and so that's where we've gone to church.

Christ UMC is shepherded by Pastor Brian Oliver. When I first showed up last year I approached him after worship and asked, "Need any help?" What pastor doesn't need help? So Pastor Brian and I have had a great time getting to know each other over the past year and we of course have had a lot of fun playing around with the fact that we're both named "Brian." It's been great to have another seminary-educated friend/colleague right here in town. To me, he's "Pastor-Brother Brian."

I've filled the pulpit a few times for him, but this past Sunday we did something new: We team-preached on the topic of baptism in our respective traditions, Methodist and Brethren (esp. the Anabaptist part). Here's the video...

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

"I owe you..."

From Toledo, IA
(Photo by Nils Geylen via Flickr)
I've had debt on the brain lately. Our only car died last week and we had to rush out and get another, financed by a loan. We just signed papers yesterday for a home loan to finance some renovations on our old house. I look regularly at our outstanding student loans from grad school, which we've been paying on for just over a year, and will be for years and years to come.

Everywhere I look, financial debt constitutes a great bit of what we have to worry about in conducting the "business" of our household. We always attempt to be wise with our use of debt; we've never gotten in over our head, we've always been able to make payments on time, even paying a number of loans off early and aggressively. My wife and I both have jobs that pay, relative to the local economy, pretty well. Lenders in the past year have commented that our credit score is quite good; it is therefore quite easy for us to obtain loans.

That it is so easy is not simply a testament to the fact that we've played by the rules, though we indeed have. But as this provocative essay by Pamela Brown argues, the rules are surreptitiously geared to privilege well-off white folks like me. Lending and tax laws have changed over the past few decades, and combined with other socioeconomic and political shifts, consumer debt (credit card and mortgage, primarily) has disproportionately and negatively affected non-whites, particularly African Americans. Sub-prime mortgages, for instance, have not only affected poor blacks but also those solidly in the middle and upper-middle class. The impact of this racially-defined collective loss of wealth could take, by one estimate cited in the essay, take two generations to recover.

Similar to the New Jim Crow, then, a kind of "debtor's prison" has enclosed a large portion of the African American populace in the U.S., under a system that is purportedly "colorblind." That notion of colorblindness is, however, a smokescreen.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The gentle virtues of Grandpa Bud

From Toledo, IA
Grandpa Bud (center), his son (left), and my family
at the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C., April 2012
On the last day of 2013, we buried my wife's grandfather, Bud Thiessen. He had been "Grandpa" to me since I married into the family nearly 15 years ago, and it was an honor to be asked by the family to officiate his funeral and graveside services.

Bud was a farmer and a truck driver. He was also a WWII veteran and proud of his service, which inspired a number of men in subsequent generations to serve in the military. He's pictured here at the right on an "Honor Flight," a program that transports WWII veterans from all over the country to the memorial on the National Mall in D.C. We were living in Virginia at the time and so were privileged to be there with him and his son, Sam, my wife's uncle. In light of all this, he could be rightly characterized as a "man's man."

So while courage and honor were two of his noble virtues, in my eulogistic reflections I wanted to also lift out what I took to be Grandpa Bud's "gentler" virtues that were crucial to his being a good man, as he indeed was. My intent for doing so was theologically rooted in the fact that virtues which might commonly be called "gentle" are precisely those that Jesus taught and exhibited himself, and the New Testament writers commend to those who would follow Christ. In naming and celebrating them in Grandpa Bud, I also encouraged those who knew him to embody these in their/our own lives. So they are...