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It’s been a while

Hey everyone.  I just wanted add a post to let you all know that, for the record, I have not abandoned this blog.  My brainpower and energy have just been consumed to an abnormally high degree for a while.  I’ll be back around.

alan

Guarderia Samuelito

Our church has been involved in a partnership with Iglesia Evangelica Menonita Bolivana (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Bolivia).  One of the projects that they have started, and that we have helped support, is a daycare outreach project in Santa Cruz.  The daycare is called La Guarderia Samuelito (The Little Samuel Daycare).

Currently one of our young adults is doing some voluntary service work at the daycare.  Among other things, he’s been working on some videos to help people get to know the kids, as well as a blog highlighting several kids each week.

The videos are below and the blog is www.caresupportandlove.blogspot.com

If you’ve got interest in making a donation or sponsoring a kid, you can get in contact with our church office 620-896-2004.

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Sometimes I feel like a paradox, especially when it comes to food. On one hand I’ve grown to love fresh exotic food like sushi. On the other hand, I find a certain joy in licking the orange powder from my fingers after a bag of Cheetos. I deeply question the use of pesticides and genetic modification in our food production system, yet as my watermelon vines were eaten alive by bugs, the thought of chemical warfare crossed my mind. For that matter, I’m fully aware of the issues of energy inefficiency and mistreatment of animals in meat production in our country, yet I’m also a Certified BBQ Judge.

I’ve become more aware of the opposing tensions that exist in our food system between ecology and economic justice. Over the last year I’ve made a number of lifestyle changes, one of which is a significant change in my diet. As I have become more intentional about the kinds of things that go into my body, I’ve become especially aware that good nutrition is directly related to income and educational levels.

Author Michael Pollan notes that the things our grandparents would have recognized as food are all around the outside of a grocery store. All of the stuff in the middle is just pretending to be food. These two areas of the grocery store also carry a cost difference. All of the things in a grocery store that are the healthiest are far and away more expensive than the pre-packaged, shelf-stable food in the middle. On top of the cost, the knowledge of what to do with a raw beef roast or green peppers and onions is something that has gradually become exclusive to the middle and upper classes.

Case in point, our local food bank gives away boxes of food during the holidays. A couple of years ago they stopped giving away whole turkeys in their food boxes because too few people had ovens. Even fewer knew how to cook the turkeys, so they were all winding up in the trash.

The moral ambiguity of food was really pointed out to me when I had a conversation with my wife about relatives who are trying a “100-mile diet.” This means they are only eating food grown within 100 miles of where they live. My wife pointed out, however, that this works fine when you live in Kansas. It doesn’t work so well for those in most major cities, especially the most economically depressed parts of most cities. She then told me about a summer spent in Washington, D.C., and how a neighborhood of 20,000 to 30,000 people had no grocery stores. Finding any food at all, let alone healthy food, meant very long trips across town. Suddenly, in comparison to this situation, voluntarily choosing to be a locavore seems like an embarrassing luxury of the super wealthy.

When it comes to the ethics of food, I find myself being pulled in a number of different directions. Perhaps I occupy a middle ground that others resonate with as well. The trick with occupying this middle ground is to not become mired in the ambiguity but rather work to change the things that we can and should. In the end, it seems as though the tag line from my favorite BBQ show sums up my feelings: Buy local, think global, stay sustainable and for goodness sake, always hug your momma.

This also appears on the Mennonite Weekly Review Website.

10 years in Afghanistan

Two things that seemed worthy of sharing.  First is the MCC Penny game about the National Budget, and the second is a video from Sojourners.

http://mcc.fhdlabs.com/

Old Testament Christians

Anyone who has known me for a while has probably heard me say some version of this sentiment:

“Anabaptists center their faith on Jesus and the Gospels and read the rest of the Bible through Jesus”

But this sentiment has some interesting implications.   The biggest of which is; to say that Anabaptists focus on Jesus is to imply that other Christians don’t focus on Jesus.  And that feels like a rediculous thing to say because wouldn’t all Christians say that they center their faith on Jesus?  Isn’t that what it means to be a Christian after all?  Am I really saying that other Christians don’t really have Jesus at the center of their faith?

Well…….actually……….yeah, I am.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean by this with a look at current events.

This last week Michelle Bachmann got herself a couple of headlines for making a joke about how God is trying to get the attention of Americans by sending an earthquake, hurricane to the east coast.  While many people were up in arms about this being in rather poor taste (and generally not really being a joke), the thing that stuck out to me was the theology behind the joke.

While Bachmann might claim to have been joking, she’s still drawing on a particular theological understanding of how God works.  Namely, the assumption is that God  punishes and rewards behavior in this life in very real and concrete ways.  The other side of this belief is that when good or bad things happen to people, either individuals or entire groups of people like whole country, that is taken to be evidence that they have done something deserving of either reward or punishment.  In short, external events of either natural or cosmic origin are taken as punishment or reward by God.

In Bachmann’s case, this logic took the form of a “joke” implying that God was sending a message to the U.S. in the form of natural disasters.  While Bachmann was joking, there have been many people who understand God in this way who are most certainly not joking.  This understanding of divine punishment in reward could be seen right after the September 11 attacks when two leading Evangelical Christians (Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell) said that the ones who were really responsible were liberals/ gays/ abortionists/ the ACLU and the like because they made God mad and brought God’s punishment upon us.

Fallwell and Robertson are in good company along with Fred Phelps and the Westboro baptist church who are known for things like maintaining the website godhatesfags.com, maintaining a virtual memorial dedicated to the number of days Matthew Shepherd (a high school student beaten and killed for being gay) has been in hell, and (most visibly) keeping up a rather incredible schedule of picketing various public events especially the funerals of armed service members who have  been killed in the line of duty.  For Phelps, the logic is that God hates the U.S. and is punishing the U.S. by allowing our soldiers to die in war because of a whole slew of things that Phelps deems as sin.

And lest you think this theology only shows up in horrible post-tragedy statements and crazy picketers, this is the core theological principle behind most televangelists who preach the prosperity Gospel.  In the last 10 years this was seen in the rise of the Prayer of Jabez book/ movement/ study/ merchandising line/ anything-else-you-could-sell.  It also shows up in many wealthier churches because the logic is, “God rewards good Christians, therefore if I’m wealthy then I must be a good Christian”.  My favorite was the luxury SUV with the bumper sticker that said “Thanks God!”

Now the problem here is that this understanding of God is very Biblical.  It is most certainly in the scriptural texts.  The Prayer of Jabez comes from I Chronicles.  In Deuteronomy in the Ten Commandments God says that he will punish and reward to 3rd/4th and 1000th generations (respectively), not that God will punish and reward in an afterlife.  In many places in the Bible, the reward and punishment for faithfulness and right behavior comes from God in this life in real and concrete ways.

The problem is that this is a particularly Old Testament way of understanding God.  More specifically, it’s an early Old Testament way of understanding of God.

Granted, the book of Job does some damage to this theology.  Job’s friends are the ones who firmly believed that the horrible things that were happening to Job were God’s punishment and that Job must have done something truly horrendous to deserve it.  (They turn out to be wrong, by the way)  However, in the Old Testament, Job is kind of on his own.

Jesus, on the other hand, is a whole other ball game.

When you look at Jesus, and how he understands how God works, the idea that good or bad things happening in this life are absolute proof of God’s reward or punishment just doesn’t hold water.  This can really be seen in the story from John 9 about Jesus healing a man who was born blind.  The story opens with the disciples asking Jesus the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”.  To this Jesus responds, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  The core assumption that the disciples start with is that God rewards and punishes directly and thus either this man or his parents surely had sinned and that his blindness was evidence of this.  Jesus soundly rejects this idea offering the possibility that he was born that way to show the glory of God.  This is a fundamentally different way of understanding how God works than what we see in the Old Testament.

So, back to the politicians, TV preachers and Anabaptists.

My original claim was that Anabaptists center their faith on Jesus and that other Christians….well…..don’t.  What I mean by this is that there are many Christians who fully claim Jesus as the Son of God and publicly profess a faith in Jesus, yet when it comes to things like which parts of the Bible are elevated, the understanding of the basic character of God,  the center of ethics, the basis for justice, the understanding the importance of taking care of the most vulnerable in society, basically everything that actually affects how you follow God these Christians look to other places in the Bible long before the look to Jesus.  In many cases, when Jesus conflicts with other parts of the Bible, certain Christians will go to rather extensive lengths to disprove either the validity or sincerity of Jesus and his teachings.

So, have a grand ol’ time claiming that God is punishing or rewarding people the next time a hurricane or earthquake hits, just make sure to leave Jesus out of it.

I find that government, that is the idea of government as well as specific local to national governments, have taken a beating in the last few years.  The rhetoric that government can do no good and that it should just get out of the way has been around for about 30 years, but it has intensified recent years across all political lines.

While I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind in the grand scheme of things, let me offer one example of government doing something right, at least ethically and morally.

Our local hospital is designated a “Critical Access” hospital.  This is a medicare designation and program that is to meant to help rural under served populations have access to some amount of health care.  One of the things that this means is that we are a partially government funded hospital which means that we have access to the same health care plans that the other State of Kansas employees have access to.  Now, we can cuss and moan all we want about the finer points of health care these days, but there was one thing about this plan that has really stuck out to me.

The premiums are on a sliding scale in relation to your income.

Translation: the lowest income employees at the hospital are able to afford health insurance.  This means that my wife and I pay higher premiums but it also means that when the hospital went onto this plan a few years ago, for some people it was the first time that they’ve ever been able to get health insurance.

The reason that this is on my mind today is because last night the hospital board met to decide whether or not to stick with the state plan or to switch to a private insurance company plan that was similar, but not the same.  They decided that, for now, they’ll continue with the state plan.

For this I simply want to say thank you.  From a Biblical and Christian perspective, it is imperative that we take care of the most vulnerable around us.  And, for the record, when it comes to health insurance, available but not affordable doesn’t count.

To my local hospital board members, thanks and keep up the good work.

I have a variety of reflections from the Mennonite Church USA national convention that was held in Pittsburgh, PA this last week.  This is just one, hopefully there will be more coming yet.

I went to this convention not knowing for sure if MCUSA would survive past the convention.  The reason was because it felt like there is currently an abnormally large amount of tension in the denomination right now.  There are a lot of issues that are causing tension but the big one is homosexuality, mainly because of one particular situation.

In the spring of this year a Mennonite pastor in Western District Conference performed a same sex union ceremony.  This has been done before, but every other time the pastor was disciplined in some form by their local conference.  This time, however, the area conference credentialing committee reviewed her credentials and found them to be in good order.  That’s a first.

The conference that I’m in (South Central Conference) overlaps with WDC and they have been at odds with each other for their whole history.  There are a lot of reasons for this that I won’t go into, but the short of it that they’re not exactly thrilled with each other to begin with.  At the SCC annual gathering in June, the tension in the air was palpable.  From a variety of conversations I had the sense that I got was that this tension, and even outright anger, at WDC was not limited to the neighborhood and that it was shared by other conferences throughout the denomination.  Perhaps it is simply because of where I live, but the tensions over this seemed so great that I fully expected a full on, knock down drag out fight on the delegate floor at convention, possibly even resulting in entire conferences leaving the denomination.

This didn’t happen.  I think there are three reasons why.

1) Shane Hipps opening message.  Shane brought the most pointed and most gutsy sermon I’ve heard in a very long time.  I knew that he was right on because half of the time I found myself cheering what he was saying and half of the time I was ticked off because he hit me where it hurt.  Most importantly, though, he named the theological tension in the air (i.e. purity or righteousness) and re-framed them both in light of reconciliation as the higher value.  That sermon called out two groups who came to the convention ready for battle and set a tone of reconciliation and common ground rather than trying to defeat an adversary.

2) The conversation rooms.  A new feature of the convention was the conversation rooms.  It was a space set up to discuss the most contentious issues in the church with trained mediators to help focus and direct the conversation in a positive and helpful way.  Ultimately, they weren’t perfect and there is room for improvement.  However, the effect they had on the delegate sessions was significant.  People want to talk about these issues and they want to be heard.  The open mic time at the delegate sessions is an exceedingly bad place and way to do that, but at previous conventions it was the only place to attempt to be heard.  To be sure, there were some pointed, direct and personal comments made during the main open mic time, but the level of hostility and divisiveness that I was expecting just never showed up.  I suspect that this is due in large part to the fact that people had a place to actually have the conversations and arguments on a large scale in a place where they could be heard, thus reducing the need for people to try and hijack the open mic time.

3) Ervin Stutzman.  I’ll be the first to admit that I had serious questions about Ervin when he started as Executive Director of MCUSA.  As I’ve come to have more time and experience with him, my respect for him has increased by leaps and bounds.  This is mainly for a couple of reasons.  a) his has the ability to speak to people of all points on the Mennonite spectrum in a way that is deeply respectful and takes each one seriously as a part of the body of Christ and members of the church.  b) in the midst of some very tense situation he has a non-anxious presence that reduces everyones anxiety level.  c) he (and the exec. board) has worked very hard to paint a picture of a vision for MCUSA that does not deny the existence of difficult issues, but that does not let them dominate our work and mission as a church.  All of this came out at the convention from top to bottom.  Am I going to agree with him all the time?  Nope, not by a long shot.  But I do respect him and trust him.

I genuinely don’t know the future of the denomination.  There is much that I’m very hopeful for, but there is not guarantee that we’ll be celebrating 20 years as a denomination.  Even 6 months or a year from now the denomination could look very different.  But for the moment, we’ve taken a step in the right direction as a denomination.