30 May 2014

Whole and Complete, Not Lacking Anything

Consider it pure joy, 
my brothers and sisters, 
whenever you face trials of many kinds, 
for you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 
Perseverance must finish its work so you may be 
whole and complete, 
not lacking anything.
~James 1:2-4

A few weeks ago, my therapist encouraged me to try and think about some of my past trials while grounded in a place of gratitude. As I was walking home considering this, a verse that I had memorized over a decade ago sprang into my mind. I wish I had a great story for why I have counted James 1:2-4 as one of my favorite verses for so many years. Something about taking an opportunity for growth for granted and then really benefiting from it once I was able to find the joy in it. But I don't have a great story or even just a story. I have no idea why this verse always resonated with me; it just did, so I memorized it. And as I was walking home that day, thinking about gratitude and trials, I began repeating this verse over and over like a mantra. I found myself getting a little louder each time I said "whole and complete, not lacking anything." By the time I got to my door, I was declaring it: Whole and Complete. Not Lacking Anything.

It felt radical. It WAS radical. I, an unmarried, childless, twenty-something woman declaring herself whole and complete, not lacking anything. How many times a day am I bombarded with the message that I am lacking? If I don't find a husband, I will never be secure. If I never have a child, I will never know real love. I'm young, so I am unable to fully understand the world. I'm a woman, and therefore I am not as capable as a man. These are just a few of the messages women like me receive everyday from advertisements, news articles, magazines, blog posts, coworkers, our friends, family and sometimes just random strangers in the street. Yet here I was, not only declaring, but fully believing that I am whole and complete, not lacking anything.

Maya Angelou died the morning I sat down to write this and everyone is posting quotes from her on social media. The one that really struck me is: "You alone are enough." Enough. Too often I do not feel that way. Too often I feel lacking. Like I should be trying harder, doing more. Our culture is built on being incomplete. If we were enough, we wouldn't need to buy anything to make us whole. But it is Truth that I, alone, am enough.

This is not to say that I don't need anyone or that I don't have anything in my life that needs improving. Obviously relationships are vital and there is always room for personal betterment. But, this wholeness seems to me to be like the Kingdom. Here and not yet all at once. I am full and ever being filled. Complete and always getting completer. I declare my wholeness, all the while recognizing that I have much to learn and a ways to go. But if we live in the not yet, we miss out on what is here and now. If I am constantly focused on what I lack, I miss what I already have. I have spent so much of my life focused on the future me that will be complete, I missed out on recognizing my current wholeness.

I have been through trials - my faith has been tested - and I have persevered. Now I declare myself whole and complete. Always continuing to learn and improve, but focused on what I have, not what I lack. There are many things I desire for myself in the future; but for today, I am whole and complete, not lacking anything.

Me: whole and complete, not lacking anything

23 May 2014

Because We Have Church

Author's Note: Two weeks ago I became a member of West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship. What follows is the testimony I gave during the service.

I am very excited about today. I think I'm probably as excited about becoming a member of West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship as I was about being baptised at Beech Mennonite Church nearly fifteen years ago. I'm a person who loves symbolism. This morning as I was getting ready, I found myself gravitating toward symbols from my baptism in what I'm wearing. My bangs were pulled back like this when I was baptised because I didn't want the water to mess up my hair. This pearl ring is my mothers and she used to wear it everyday and probably had it on when she participated in my baptism. This is not the dress I was wearing when I was baptised, but it is the only dress I still own that I would have worn to Beech Mennonite, where I was baptised. I am taking this step on my adult faith journey intentionally rooted in the faith of my childhood.

I was born into a Mennonite family in Ohio and have been heavily involved in the Mennonite church my entire life. When I was five, my father felt a call to the pastorate and we moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia so that both of my parents could attend Eastern Mennonite Seminary. When I was eight, we moved to Harleysville, Pennsylvania and my father pastored at Spring Mount Mennonite Church. At age eleven, we moved back to Ohio where my father pastored Beech Mennonite Church and we lived there for nine years before my parents moved to Colorado while I was attending Goshen College.

I remember church being a place of friendship and support, but also of rules and obligations. Church has never been just Sunday morning for me. My family was always involved in activities during the week and most of the people we socialized with were people from church. Church was our community, it was part of the fabric of my family.

When I went off to Goshen College, I initially attended an on-campus Sunday morning service regularly. However, I didn't find myself connecting to the community there and so it didn't feel worthwhile to me to keep getting up early. Interestingly, my disinterest in church was inverse to my interest in theology. By my junior year at Goshen, I had declared a religion major and was beginning to question everything I had ever been taught about God. If you have never done this, I highly recommend it. Seriously.

As I was finishing up college, I was writing a lot about my theology and what I thought about God after all this questioning I had done. I was confronted with considering my own ideas about church, now that I had largely abandoned it. I spent time thinking very seriously about whether I thought it was important or something I wanted to be a part of my life. I thought about my own family’s history and what being a part of church had meant for us.

When my father was four his father died, leaving his mother with four children under the age of six to raise on her own. A few months later, their house burned down. In the midst of all of this tragedy, the church came together to help. The women made meals, opened their homes and helped with the kids; the men built her a new house and made sure that her children knew how to throw a baseball and ride a bike. When my grandmother was left with nothing, it would all be okay because she had church.

My own story, sadly, is not so different. I was twenty-one when my father died, leaving my mother with two grown daughters. I, being the unmarried one, took on the task of going home to live with my mother for a few months. It was during this time that I found myself living the story I had heard so many times from the perspective I never wanted. The immediate response of the church was to feed us. Every day new people would show up at the house bearing casserole dishes, salads, crocks of meat and whatever else they could think to bring us. And they didn't just bring food; they brought arms to embrace us, ears to hear our sorrows and eyes to cry with us. Those who were far away, prayed for us. Though I cannot explain it, we physically felt those prayers lifting us up. When my family was left shattered, it would all be okay because we had church.

Looking at these stories, I knew church was something that I needed in my life. But I also felt like I had become so liberal theologically that I might never be able to find a church that was on the same page as me (or even the same chapter). I wondered if in my adult life I would ever find a place that felt safe and like home the way church felt when I was young.

I attended Oxford Circle Mennonite Church when I first moved to Philadelphia four years ago, but I never became a member. There was a variety of reasons I did not, but part of it had to do with the fact that I felt my theology and theirs did not align in places that are important to me. I was comfortable simply attending there and had developed a wonderful community around me, but I felt like I was looking for more.

Then, this unfortunate theme in my life reared its head again when my best friend and roommate, Mercy’s father Crispin died. It was during this tragic time that I met many of you from WPMF while you brought food and comfort and sometimes much needed laughter into our home. And I saw something I hadn't seen since my own father died: I saw that it would all be okay because we had church.

I attempted to straddle my desires and attend both Oxford Circle and West Philly, but this was exhausting and complicated. I found myself feeling more fed and connected at WPMF's Sunday service and it quickly became apparent that I aligned theologically with much of the congregation. When I started working at Penn and investing more of my energy in the Cedar Park community, it became obvious that I needed to commit.

This brings us to today. When I was thinking about what this service would look like, I thought about baby dedication Sundays. I always love how Pastor Lorie walks the children around the congregation saying, “These are your people. They will love you and take care of you.” I almost wish she would do that for those of us becoming members today because what I am saying by becoming a member here is that you are my people and I am yours. We will love each other and take care of each other. It will all be okay because we have church. Thank you for creating a space for me that feels safe and like home.

Showing off mommy's ring during my testimony.

16 May 2014

The One Who Dwells Within

As a child, I never understood the Holy Spirit. I could envision God and I could envision Jesus, but this part of the Trinity that "moved among us" was too ethereal for me to grasp. At best, I thought of the Spirit as a sparkling wind; at worst, a scary ghost waiting to jump out and catch me sinning. When I sat down to write my systematic theology in college, I had to figure out who this Spirit was and what they were up to.

I remembered sitting in a huge room with several thousand other Mennonite youths, my mother next to me, listening to John Paul Lederach give a speech at convention in Atlanta. He was telling us a story about a colonel he saw at an airport in South America that he had painted as “the enemy” in his mind. He never spoke to the man, only looked at him through a window, but he became so involved in his disgust for this man that it was visceral. But then, he saw this colonel greet his disabled daughter as she got off of an airplane. He saw the joy in the man's face and his tenderness as he helped her move around. He saw the way in which this man was like himself: they were both fathers, they both loved their daughters. It was in this moment that John Paul saw God in this man that he had had such righteous disdain for only moments earlier. When John Paul finished telling this story, I looked over to my mother and saw that tears were flowing down her cheeks. I then realized that I, too, was weeping. This experience shaped the way I strive to live my life: to see God in every person I meet.

When I thought of this story, suddenly this ethereal Spirit made sense. It wasn't merely moving among us, but in us. I believe that each and every human is imbued with a piece God in them at their creation and that this piece of God finds a way to shine through even the most disdainful person. This is what gives me my unabashed faith in the human race: we are all created in the image of God and we all have the capability to allow that image to shine through us.

This is also the reason I always trust my gut: God's in that gut. When you believe that God is a part of you, it becomes easier to trust your own judgement. Obviously there are times when ego gets the best of us, but if we are discerning, we can hear God's voice inside ourselves.

I like to use the term dwell to describe the Spirit in us. It gives the sense that the Spirit is at home with me, in its dwelling. It also hints that the Spirit will not leave me, but will dwell with me through everything. God is focused on me, dwelling on me. And there is a stillness in dwelling, a sense that we are together and that is enough.

The One who Creates, the One who Incarnates and the One who Dwells Within. This is how I understand God. This is the keystone to my theology. The way I understand God informs the way I understand the world.

We are Created in God's Image, the Creator gave a piece of Godself to Dwell in us and with that piece of God, we can Incarnate and show God to others.

09 May 2014

The One Who Incarnates

“But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?”
~Matthew 16:15

Jesus has always been difficult for me to wrap my head around. I have a lot of trouble understanding this mortal deity sent to save. I remember an atheist friend of mine telling me her trouble with Jesus was that if he wasn't God, then we were all just worshiping a man. This really struck me since Jesus' divinity had never made sense to me and I have spent much of my theological journey attempting to understand this figure so intrinsic to the faith of my tradition.

I must admit that I feared my uncertainty about Jesus. Christianity is, obviously, built around the divinity of Jesus and so if I was doubting that, I was doubting all of religion. I found myself at my most confused in the summer of 2006 while I was interning at Oxford Circle Mennonite Church here in Philadelphia. One Sunday the pastor was preaching on the question Jesus asked "Who do you say I am?" I was excited because I thought perhaps this sermon would offer me some clarity. I paid very close attention and I think I even took notes, searching for anything that would help me put these pieces together. But, as the sermon went on, it kept feeling all too familiar and unhelpful. It ended with the pastor basically saying: "Who is Jesus? Your Lord and Savior, who you should worship and follow." I was deflated. Nothing the pastor had said gave me new insight into Jesus' divinity. Nothing cleared up any of my confusion and doubt. I just sat there feeling so empty and lost and scared. The pastor asked us to sit and reflect on the question of who Jesus is to us and I felt the tears welling up inside of me as I thought "I don't know." But that was when I felt a presence kneeling next to me, saying "That's okay." I knew immediately it was Jesus. "It's okay if you don't know who I am. It's okay if you have doubts. Go ahead and have your crisis of faith, I will be right here next to you. I will go with you wherever you need to go." Since then I haven't feared my doubts. Since then I have been comfortable exploring and testing and coming up with crazy ideas about Jesus because I know He is walking with me. I spent the next several years trying to figure Jesus out and I think that the most important thing that I have come to believe about Jesus is that He was able to Incarnate in a way that we had not seen before or after him.

The way that I understand Incarnation is our ability to communicate God/Gospel/Kingdom/Wisdom/Love to each other. Unfortunately, this definition only breeds more need for defining. When I say God, I’m generally referring to the Trinity as I understand it (which I explained two weeks ago on this blog, in case you missed it). The Gospel is our Good News; it is what drives us to praise God. It is the knowledge that we are Loved and called to Love others. The Kingdom can be seen in quietly falling snow or it can be found at a dinner among friends or we can catch a glimpse of it as we weep for the pain we must bear or it can be felt when we laugh so hard that our stomach hurts. The Kingdom is everywhere; it is just that we do not always recognize it as such. Wisdom is our God-given understanding of the workings of the world around us and our knowledge of how to respond to those workings in a Godly way. Love is the driving force of the universe. It is passion, spirit, zeal, ardor, compassion, forgiveness, honesty, life. When you combine all of these, I think one can start to understand what I mean when I say Incarnation.

I do not believe that Jesus’ Incarnation is exclusive. Perhaps he is the only one to be capable of that full of an Incarnation in history, but we are all capable of some Incarnation. I believe that part of Jesus' purpose on Earth was to show us what we are all truly capable of. He showed us that we have the ability to heal people, both literally and figuratively. Through Jesus we saw that it is possible to live sustainably. Jesus showed us how to have true compassion for others. Most importantly, Jesus showed us what love is capable of. We should strive to live our lives like Jesus with the knowledge that we, too, are capable of Incarnation.

02 May 2014

The One Who Creates

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

Psalm 139:13-14

The aspect of the Godhead that I will discuss today is the One Who Creates or Creator God. I find this image more meaningful than God the Father, but also not anathema to it. Fathers are creators because they have created life, as mothers have. Creator God is a way to talk about a parent God without need to push a gender on that parental love. If you have ever created something (a baby, a painting, a bookshelf, etc.) you might have been able to catch of glimpse of the kind of Love our Creator has for us. God knit us together, taking care to make each part Perfect, as our Heavenly Creator is Perfect. God is invested in us and rejoices in our success. Creation doesn't stop once we are born. We are reshaped and recreated over and over throughout our lives. Our Creator is dynamic and involved in our formation beyond the initial spark of our birth. 

While I think of one part of the Godhead as specifically Creator, it is my understanding that each part of the Trinity plays a role in Divine Creation. It would be helpful to now remember the way I understand the Trinity running parallel to our own personhood (mind, body, spirit). I will employ this analogy to demonstrate how each part of the Trinity is a part of the act of Creation. Say, I’m making some art. I create it in my mind first, shaping and molding it with my mind’s eye. It is Created one way because of the way I think about it. But the way I shape it with my hands changes it because of what my hands do and what the material does. If I combine those two things with loving that piece of art, then it is Created even differently still. When you love something you imbue a part of yourself in it. My mind, my body and my spirit each contribute to the Creation of art, and the contribution of each makes that art more perfect. That is how the Divine has created each thing, imbuing a piece of Godself in each creation.

Creation is a truly joyous exercise. It is good and is meant to be enjoyed and rejoiced in. It is my belief that we can learn Truth by examining the experience of our embodied selves. If we examine sex, arguably one of the purest forms of creation, we can see that the pleasure of it is proof positive that creation is to be enjoyed thoroughly. It is in this way that we can catch a glimpse of the Joy God takes in Creation.

I believe that our Great Creator Created the Universe. Perhaps it was created with a big bang and then slow movement. Perhaps it was created in a single week. That is not the point. The point is that the Great Creator Created. Everything Created was so divinely intricate and perfect that we will never be able to comprehend the magnitude of our Creation. The Great Creator also Created a balance so sacred that to defy it is sin. All things were Created in Grace. I do not understand the idea that God and science cannot be reconciled because science is merely the study of Creation. If the study of Creation tells us that we have evolved from primates, then that is true. If science tells us that Earth is billions of years old, then that is true. We should not reject the Truth that our Creator has placed in the world around us. Through the very act of Creating, God has become a part of the Creation. It is because of this that we are called to live harmoniously with God’s Creation.


This past weekend I attended a retreat with my church, West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship. I was asked to lead worship along with two of my friends, Megan and Mercy. It was such a wonderful experience not only to be planning the service, but to be planning it with my friends. We seemed to thrive on each other's ideas and came up with some really interesting things to do during the service. The piece I was most excited about, though, is that we structured the service to mirror the Trinity. And, as I made known last week, I'm a little obsessed with the Trinity. We titled the three "movements" of the service Creating, Relating and Dwelling. The section I was in charge of was our opening, Creating.

Since it was the opening, I decided to focus on the idea of creating a space for worship. As I thought about it, though, it morphed into creating as worship. I love the idea that the very act of creating something can be worshipful, so I started considering ways I could incorporate this into the service. I had the idea to have an opportunity to create art during the opening singing worship. The congregation would then be invited to bring up their art and place it on the altars as an offering. I decided to have one station with origami paper and some simple instructions, one with paper and markers and crayons and one with clay. While I was excited about the idea, I knew that there was a lot of potential for things to go wrong; as is the case whenever you have moving parts that you've never had before on a Sunday morning. I asked the song leader to pick familiar songs so that people could continue singing while they were working on their art. I told several people about the plan beforehand so that some people would be prepared. I asked people for suggestions on how best to explain it. I did my best to make sure everything would run smoothly, but was mentally prepared for everything to fall apart.

The morning of the service, I set up the altars and decorated them with cloth, leaving space for the creations. I spread out the supplies for each medium on three tables in the back of the worship space. And then I said a prayer that things at least wouldn't totally fall apart. Once the service started, I stood in front of the congregation and explained my idea. I then walked to my seat as the song leader began the first song. I held my breath until the first person got up to go to the back to create. Then a small stampede of children followed. Then more and more people began filtering back. I walked to the back of the room to see how everything was going and the only way I can describe my feeling is overwhelmed. It was perfect. Everything went perfect. I was overwhelmed by the blessing of it.

Creation is a Sacred space. But it's also so incredibly accessible. Every single one of us is capable of creation. Each of us can share in the Joy of our Creator. We can Create corporately or on our own. We can Create with our voices, our hands, our minds. Creation can be found all around us all the time. When we take time to focus on Creation, whether that be observing nature or creating art, we are focusing on God. 

The altars from church on Sunday.