Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Blog

I fear no evil

April 02, 2014

I preached on Psalm 23 last Sunday--the Lenten psalm of the day. I’m guessing some folks might have thought “Why would a seminary president go out of her way to preach on such a nice, mother’s milk and apple pie psalm?” The worship leader even said as much when she opened the service.

Niceness is hardly what attracted me to Psalm 23. It was the darkest valley--the valley of the shadow of death that pulled me in. Not because I have a macabre imagination. Not because I’m prone toward depression. Nor because we’ve had an interminably long winter.

I was drawn there because of the astonishing lack of fear the psalmist experiences in that threatening place. The psalmist sits at table (in the presence of enemies mind you), exhilarated by overflowing goodness and mercy! And no fear of evil!

As we all know too well, it’s not only in some metaphorical dark valley where evil bedevils. Evil lurks in the most unsuspected places. It can even masquerade as a righteous cause--dressed up to appear noble and pure.

When I woke mid-dream this morning, I realized I was angry. I prayerfully scanned my spirit for the focus of my anger. The best I could do was to name it EVIL: an insidious, invasive, arrogance that has us so sure of our own rightness that we stop listening, stop wondering if we might be doing more harm than good, stop acknowledging that we might be wrong.

Jesus clearly got angry at those who thought they had a lock on the law, on the Scriptures, on the righteous institutions of the day: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith…. You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

Jesus also wasn’t a marauding libertarian with no regard for the law. He addressed that misguided notion directly: “Do you think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the law].”

"You have heard it was said to those of ancient times…but I say to you….”

Jesus takes the prevailing assumption about the law and reinterprets it. Over and over again, he shows the way to a realignment of interior desire with a desire for God. He shows the way to reinterpret the law so that love of God and neighbor is paramount in interior affections and external actions.

In these roiling days some persons seem highly anxious because, in their view, biblical authority is at risk if we change our views on sexuality—or alternatively, others seem eager to ignore the biblical witness altogether.

I have the amazing opportunity to work in a learning community that has a profound respect for the Scriptures and their authoritative ability to reveal God in Christ to us. We are unafraid of the hard questions. We have no fear in what to many seems like a dark valley of confusion about how to interpret the Scriptures.

Our freedom to discover how it is we’re called in our day to fulfill the law--to fulfill, as Jesus says, “the weightier matters of the law--justice, mercy and faith” is exhilarating!

There is an abundance of goodness and mercy for all—with cups overflowing. The Good Shepherd who said, “I know my own and my own know me” has prepared the table.

Now that will preach!

Tags: pastors and leaders , Scripture

The DNA of Unity and Diversity in God’s Image

February 24, 2014

Credit: Nevit Dilmen. Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Nevit Dilmen. Wikimedia Commons

I’ve long said I wish as a church we could open our hands to receive the irreconcilable dilemma we’re faced with around sexual orientation, as a gift from God. Am I out of my mind to say this? Maybe. But I do not assert this glibly. As a 60 year old, I know the crucible events in my life—as wracked with pain as they are—drive me deeper into the love of God. Break my heart open. Make me more humble. And perhaps a tad wiser.

I believe enough in the good providence of God to ask—why has this conflict—a conflict that tears us down the middle in families, congregations, denominations, nations—why has this conflict shown up with such ferocity? What does God want us to learn as a people? What does God want to teach us? I am energized by the questions and therefore receive the monumental dilemma about how to be faithful Christ-followers with our sexuality as a gift. God is calling us to grow in faith and faithfulness.

How are we being asked to grow? To read our Bibles with new, intense questions. To do the messy, marvelous theological work that is required to understand what the unsettling Spirit is calling us toward in this day. To fulfill the law to love God above all and our neighbor as ourselves.

As the church is wracked with painful conflict (and yes, it is horrible what we’re doing to each other in social media), the educator part of me thinks of this as a developmental stage. Groups have stages, as do individuals. Any one of us who has been a teenager or parent stumbling around to negotiate differences, knows about the difficult work of differentiation. It seems our default setting as Mennonites is to cut off relationships and withdraw into a “pure” enclave of the like minded, heaping vitriol on the other side. This is classic sectarian immaturity. Experience has shown that the differences follow us into the enclaves and only fragment us further.

When received as a gift, as an essential part of healthy development, the wrestling eventuates in an amazing kind of growing up together—where parents and teenagers grow wiser and more able to embrace varying degrees of difference within the family.

The theologian part of me asks again—how might we open our hands and hearts at this moment to discover the gifts of God’s grace within our irreconcilable differences? Rather than threatening, accusing, and demeaning each other—how might we receive this conflict as God’s invitation to meet at the foot of the cross?

AMBS New Testament professor Mary Schertz writes that taking the cross of Jesus seriously means that suffering love is to be played out in the arena of discernment around difficult issues, as in all other areas of our common life. There can be no holier, compassionate work than to engage in the difficult conversations we currently find ourselves within.

Being honestly transparent with each other is humbling, hard work and yet that is when we come to know how gracious is the love of Christ “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Our hearts will be tugged (painfully) wider and wider open as we hold together what seems irreconcilable. Isn’t this after all what is so astonishing, that we serve a Lord in whom “all things hold together” and through whom “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things”?

Jesus taught us that the fulfillment of the law is all about loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. The fulfillment of the law is all about the integrity of life—where internal affections and external actions harmonize. The fulfillment of the law is about putting our desire for God above all other desires and judging all human desire in light of our desire for God.

So yes, we can open our hands and receive the irreconcilable dilemma we’re faced with around sexual orientation as a gift from God. Why? Because we are made in the image of God. Every one of us. The image of God is our most fundamental DNA.

As persons who bear God’s indelible, grace-filled imprint, we can learn to discern together—even grow in wisdom and maturity together. With the illuminating Spirit as guide, we can teach each other about the diverse ways we fulfill the law by putting our desire for God above all other desires; our love for God above all loves.

“God so loved the world ….” Clearly God has hope in humankind and in the church. God hasn’t given up on us. And so, we live in hope.

_ _ _ _ _

Comments that contribute to the focus of this post are welcome. Comments that in our view demean or disrespect persons will not be posted.

Tags: pastors , sexuality

Cross-gender friendships in the example of Jesus

February 04, 2014

Rachel Miller Jacobs, Assistant Professor of Congregational Formation

Rachel Miller Jacobs, Assistant Professor of Congregational Formation

In an earlier blog post, I called this A (potentially transformative) Teachable Moment in the life of our church. A number of AMBS faculty offered ideas about conversations we should be having throughout the church—and are having at places like AMBS. This is a guest post by Rachel Miller Jacobs, assistant professor of congregational formation, in response to her own great questions: “What would a positive theology of friendship between women and men entail? How do we make space for friendships between persons who deeply respect each other and communities where we so genuinely love each other as beloved children of God that we wouldn't think of crossing boundaries?”

In the process of working on this blog post about friendship between men and women, I’ve actually written (and deleted) it about six or seven times. I’m aware I’m venturing into tricky territory: the received truth is that married Christians don’t have cross-gender friendships. I don’t mean that they aren’t friendly with the people whose paths they cross at work or church, or that they don’t do things in mixed-gender groups. But eyebrows rise when we talk about consciously cultivating a friendship with a person of the opposite sex—about being actual friends rather than simply people whom circumstance has thrown together. I know this firsthand because in the couple of cross-gender friendships I’ve had as an adult, I’ve had to wrestle with my own (and others’) discomfort, confusion, jealousy, guilt, and shame.

You’d think from that list of “discomforts” that I was having an affair. I wasn’t. As a young adult, I’d had close guy friends when I was in college, about thirty years ago, and not all of those cross-gender friendships turned into dating relationships. Yet both then and since, I’ve had little experience with, and few examples of, a never-going-to-be-romantic friendship with a man.

The common wisdom is that’s exactly as it should be, because there’s no such thing as a never-romantic friendship between a man and a woman. Right?

Dan Brennan (Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women) writes that both church and culture have two main stories about intimacy between men and women. The first is the “romantic story”: man meets woman, they date, they commit, or they break up and start all over again with another partner. The second is what Brennan calls the “danger story”: man and woman become friends, but don’t have the romantic trajectory open to them because one or both are married, so slide into emotional or physical adultery, triangles, or some other dysfunction.

If that’s true—that there are only two possible stories about intimacy between men and women—why would we become friends with someone of the opposite sex, and actually cultivate that friendship?

One reason is that we’ve exhausted what the “deterrence” approach has to offer us. The “no intimate relationships between men and women who aren’t married to each other” may have prevented some (though not all) sexual misconduct, affairs, or divorces. But it hasn’t helped us do the individual and communal work of genuinely seeing and respecting each other as beloved children of God. It hasn’t helped us take the next steps in dismantling patriarchy. It hasn’t broken down the dividing wall of hostility between men and women. The “deterrence” approach said an important “no” but hasn’t gone on to say an equally important “yes.”

Credit: Fred Bchx, Wikimedia CommonsWe get hints about what this “yes” might look like from the life of Jesus. The Gospels depict him as a man who isn’t afraid of relationships with women (the woman at the well, the woman at Simon’s house, Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, other women disciples). In a social and cultural context that defined women as property, Jesus treated them as human beings worthy of intimacy, respect, and care.

If we pursue cross-gender friendships with colleagues or others in the example of Jesus, we will do many of the same things as we do to cultivate any healthy friendship. But in the overly sexualized context in which we live, a few additional specifics are also worth noting. Here’s my advice, culled from reading, experience, and listening to people as a spiritual director and pastor:

  1. Not every possible cross-gender friendship is a wise one. Especially since this is new territory for many of us, be discerning about the people with whom you pursue cross-gender friendships, paying close attention to issues of power and emotional maturity.
  2. Recognize that attraction is the basis of all friendship: we’re friends with people who are attractive to us, with whom we have things in common! Yet because the romantic and danger stories are such a strong default, it’s wise to explicitly commit yourself to the following with your friend of the opposite gender: this is not now, nor will it ever be, a romantic and/or sexual relationship.
  3. Having settled this, there’s nothing to be gained by continuing to analyze the nature of your relationship with your friend of the opposite gender. That kind of discussion tends to feed the romantic and danger stories.
  4. And yet. . .because most of us have so few categories for thinking about men and women, we need companions on the way, and help in interpreting the feelings cross-gender friendships may surface in us or in others. Having people (spiritual friends, spiritual directors, pastors) with whom to be transparent will help sort out the truth from the lies. These companions can also help you know what needs to be said to your spouse (if you’re married) and what’s your own agenda.
  5. Regardless of what your feelings are, a feeling is information, not an imperative. You don’t have to act on it. See 2, above.
  6. If you’re married, the best gift you can give yourself and your friend of the opposite gender is to cultivate your relationship with your spouse. It is also the job of friends of the opposite gender, like other friends, to champion each other’s commitments, including marital ones.

Cross-gender friendships have much to offer us in broadening and nuancing our understanding of the opposite sex. In addition, since men’s and women’s spiritual journeys differ in some significant ways, a cross-gender friendship can spur us to further growth in ways that same gendered friends who are traveling the same path cannot.

Corporately, public conversation about and practice in cross-gender friendship can help us tell a more hopeful story than the ones that have previously been available to us. While there are never any guarantees in human relationships, much is lost when we don't take the risk to create communities where transparency, self-awareness, and commitment to the well-being of all will safeguard the wholeness of both men and women, whether single or married.

Tags: friends , leaders

Doing Better: Toward a Post-Yoderian Theology

January 21, 2014

Jamie Pitts, Assistant Professor of Anabaptist Studies

Jamie Pitts, Assistant Professor of Anabaptist Studies

In an earlier blog post, I called this A (potentially transformative) Teachable Moment in the life of our church. A number of AMBS faculty offered ideas about conversations we should be having throughout the church—and are having at places like AMBS. This is the first of two guest posts by Assistant Professor of Anabaptist Studies Jamie Pitts. In this first post, Pitts names some of the problems for Yoder’s theology raised by his actions and suggests that revisionary criticism is necessary. A follow-up post will explore positive possibilities for a post-Yoderian theology constructed in dialogue with feminism, theological studies of sexual abuse, and a deeper contextualization of Yoder’s thought.

As Mennonites and others continue to grapple with the complexity of John Howard Yoder’s legacy, the question of what to do with his theology remains. For many around the world, Yoder’s statement of the interconnections among Jesus, nonviolence, and the church is regarded as an essential insight into Christian faith.

Popular Christian movements such as “neo-Anabaptism” in the USA and “radical evangelicalism” in Latin America and the UK have been inspired by Yoder’s theology, and his work is widely discussed in a range of academic settings. Stanley Hauerwas is not the only one who converted into a “Mennonite camp follower” by reading Yoder. Many of us have taken additional steps from the camp into Mennonite churches.

Yoder’s influence is indisputable. The problematic nature of his sexually abusive behavior is likewise indisputable. Although some interpreters continue to insist that Yoder’s writing can be isolated from his deplorable actions, there is growing agreement that such a separation is untenable. Even Yoder’s staunchest defenders finally have to respond to this reality.

Yoder claimed repeatedly that living testimony was inseparably tied to the integrity of one’s verbal proclamation of the gospel. If Yoder is right, then failed performance of the gospel should lead, at the very least, to suspicion about the words used in that performance. Some of Yoder’s actions were very bad news; it would be surprising if all his words were good news, were gospel.

The subtitle of my recent book is Revising John Howard Yoder’s Sociological Theology. Throughout the book I investigate criticisms of Yoder’s work and suggest revisions that could lead us into a post-Yoderian theological space. I talk about revision rather than repudiation, and being post-Yoderian rather than anti-Yoderian, because I think it would be a mistake to simply dismiss or discredit Yoder altogether.

What is valuable about his theology is precisely that it directs our attention to the intimate interconnections between doctrine and politics, faith and power. Yoder is of course not the first or only theologian to make these connections. But he did so powerfully and influentially. Phrases like “the politics of Jesus,” “church as polis,” and “anti-Constantinianism” will long be associated with his name, for better or worse.

In my book I respond to criticisms of Yoder’s work by proposing a post-Yoderian Anabaptist theology that avoids reducing theology to ethics, and ethics to a narrowly conceived ecclesiasticism. Yet it remains a fully sociological theology, a theology attuned to the power-laden structures of embodied faith. Although I take inspiration from Yoder, I also find him to be ambiguous, reductive, and idealistic.

After writing the book I learned of Yoder’s sexually harassing and abusive behavior. It quickly became apparent that my critical analysis of Yoder’s theology was woefully incomplete. Although I had grappled with the empirical and moral complexity of Yoder’s writings on social practice, I had failed to grapple with the complexity of his own social practice. Although I had attempted to articulate a more subtle understanding of theological power, I had failed to integrate into my theology an understanding of Yoder’s egregious abuse of his own power. More work is needed for a genuinely post-Yoderian theology.

Theology cannot be the product of one man, or even a collection of men. The almost total failure of the Yoder guild to publicly engage feminist scholars and scholarship must end. Left, right, and center, the field of Yoder studies has largely been dominated by white men talking amongst ourselves, in spite of significant contributions from Gayle Gerber Koontz, Nancey Murphy, Cynthia Hess, and other women. We have produced a reduced and impoverished theology as a result. We must do better.

Tags: john howard yoder

Bleak Mid-Winter Lament

January 09, 2014

Deutsche Fotothek, Baume in winterlicher Gebirgslandschaft 1847 (Wikimedia Commons)

Deutsche Fotothek, Baume in winterlicher Gebirgslandschaft 1847 (Wikimedia Commons)

Over the recent long days of snow and extreme cold in northern Indiana, Chanticleer’s “In the bleak mid-winter” held me in its grip. Not sure why. I turned to it over and over again for solace as I read through several dark chapters of our church’s history—files that have been off limits because they tell a story we would rather not have to remember.

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long, long ago.

There is much about our history, whether personal, familial, congregational, institutional or denominational, that any one of us wishes would be different. Reading through dark chapters of things we regret about our story is anguishing work, but I did it as a labor of hope. I long for us as a people to learn to be more honestly transparent with each other, to name our fears, confess our failures, and awaken to the gift of grace freely given.

“The truth will set you free…but not before it’s done with you.” That’s what Nadia Bolz-Weber says in Pastrix: The cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner & saint. “Jesus goes on and on about how we really actually like darkness more than light because, let’s face it, the darkness hides our bullshit.” And she continues, “The truth does crush us, but the instant it crushes us, it somehow puts us back together into something honest. It’s death and resurrection every time it happens.”

The stories I was reading tell of seminary and church leaders’ painful, costly effort to work with integrity amid enormous pressures. There is much that witnesses to their faithful commitment and firm resolve. And there is much to lament with deep sorrow for how we as a people failed each other. Why were we blind to the true nature of the evil being perpetrated and deaf to those who knew the Body was being seriously harmed? Why? Why? Why?

The more I’ve read about others from years gone by, the more I am drawn to reflect on our own times. How open to scrutiny am I? What are our blind spots as a learning community? As a church? In what ways will our children and grandchildren look back and wonder why we couldn’t see what will seem so obvious to them in hindsight? The conflicts that threaten to tear us apart now—whether about sexuality, economic disparity, environmental justice, race, biblical interpretation, will no doubt look starkly different when held up in the light of painfully learned historical perspective.

Tears of lament give way amid Chanticleer’s exquisite harmonies to renewed confidence that the truth when spoken may crush us, but will also put us back together.

In the hours before dawn, the prayer of the psalmist became my prayer for all of us: “Let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from our sins, and blot out all our iniquities. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and put a new and right spirit within us. Do not cast us away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from us. Restore to us the joy of your salvation, and sustain in us a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:8-12, adapted).


This blog is hosted by Sara Wenger Shenk. While Sara is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, she writes as a practical theologian trying to make sense of everyday life—in light of God's reconciling mission in the world.

The views Sara shares here are not the voice of AMBS. As a woman, mother, author, educator, lover of God, Sara is a restless scout—searching out ways that lead toward God’s shalom. She doesn’t assert answers so much as pose questions, test assumptions, resist labels, play with possibilities, experiment with integration, practice wholeness. She hopes this blog will provide a spacious forum for thoughtful discernment around sometimes contentious issues.